The opening paragraphs of Roshi O’Hara’s essay articulates the primary place so many meditators get stuck: thinking meditation is merely about the mind! Joko Beck once described zazen as “exquisitely physical,” and Dogen’s emphasis on posture in the Fukanzazengi, the root manual of Soto Zen meditation makes this clear!
Roshi speaks about feeling/thinking of her mind as some kind of balloon floating over the body. Years ago, I used to think that most of the students coming to my classes lived from the neck up. Nowadays, I think it’s more accurate to say that most of us living today live from our eyebrows up!
The phrase, “body and mind dropped away” can be confusing to those new to “Zen speak.” I remember when I first heard the phrase, I interpreted it to be a reference to some trance-out state of numbness with no sensation of the body and no mental activity. This is why I am grateful that Roshi provides a clear example of what she means by “body and mind dropped away” at the bottom of page 32 into the top of page 33: “The dropping away of all concept of body and mind is like a distorting lens falling away and what is left is a realization that I am the snow, the ice, the earth and sky, while I have not stopped being myself.” I offer a similar example of this in my book, Mindfulness Yoga, where I describe the “dropping away of body and mind” in a hatha-class, where I was the sound of the teacher’s instructions, the music she was playing, the audible ujjayi breath of us students, etc. This experience is most certainly not the blocking or suppression of body and mind.
We all use words, concepts, and there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with words and concepts. Our error is in forgetting that we are using them, and so they begin to ‘use’ us. Contemplate any weather related sentence: “It’s raining today,” “It’s really windy,” “It looks like it’ll be a sunny day,” etc. What exactly is the “It” that we are talking about? Is there really a subject separate from the rain, the wind, the sunshine? This is no different from the situation of using words such as “I,” “Me,” and “mine.” All serious practice comes down to “What is this ‘you?’”
The Korean Seon (Zen) Master, Chinul, would often exhort his students to ‘trace the radiance back.’ Illuminate the self to become clear about the nature of this ‘self.’ When you go beyond the labels you use to identify ‘yourself,’ (man or woman, teacher, poet, carpenter, liberal, conservative, white, black, yellow, Buddhist, Christian, atheist etc. etc.) what is left?
At the bottom of page 36, Roshi speaks of jijuyu samadhi, the samadhi of union. Many practitioners seek such a state, and don’t realize that striving for it can keep it from arising. But then, as she writes, “there is often an odd and surprisingly pleasant, joyful, and energetic feeling that arises. It is likely that in several tiny time spaces between effort and distraction there were moments of dropping away. The effort and distraction were never necessary, only the willingness to practice as it is.” These “drops of emptiness,” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls them, are indeed blissful moments of clarity, energy and joy. Over time, “we” find ourselves ‘dropping into’ such a natural state with greater ease and frequency.
Not to seem a killjoy, but the danger here is in becoming attached to this state of bliss; this state where body and mind drop into pure play. There are spiritual traditions that more or less drop us here and leave it at that. Roshi speaks for the Zen tradition in saying that this is not yet full freedom. As Chinul said, “It is not enough to be awakened; we must live an awakening life.” From here, we must step out and manifest the Body of Peace in all ten directions and nine times. The image Zen presents is the yogi who comes down from the mountain peak and enters fully into the market place. And goodness knows, the market place needs those who, having dropped body and mind, have seen through the delusion of separateness, and understand that we are all in this together! There is no way that your practice can be for yourself alone. Thinking that possible is itself based upon thinking you are encapsulated in the fathom-long skin bag.
So, thank you for your practice.
Poep Sa Frank Jude