Some years ago I met a woman in her early sixties who told me she had been doing Zen for over forty years. She told me the number of hours she had meditated throughout those years, a number somewhere in the thousands, and seemed proud for having attained such a great lifetime achievement. We stayed in touch for some years, becoming friends, and over time she began asking me why she hadn’t experienced enlightenment or other experiences described in the books, like Satori or Samadhi. She was dismayed that, having worked so hard for such experiences herself, they still eluded her. She wondered why, in all the years she had devoted to cushion-sitting, she still felt stuck. Trapped.
It’s funny how we go through life making decisions about what job to take, what person to get together with, what foods to eat, what religion to hook up with, thinking that our decisions are the right ones, will make us happy, fulfilled, content. Then one day we wake up and realize we’re trapped inside a glass jar. We look through it and see the sky, the mountains, what appears to be other people having a good life. Not us.
How do we escape? We try pounding at the sides of the jar to break it but it doesn’t break. We try screaming, thinking it may shatter if only we scream loud enough. No go. How did we get in this place? How do we get out? Everything we try fails.
We even try meditation, that practice everyone tells us brings peace and tranquility. We try it really hard too. An hour every day. Then two. Soon we’re doing sesshins, those week-long meditation intensives hosted at our local Japanese zendo. But however hard we practice, we still feel like we’re making no progress. We’re as stuck as when we started. We still can’t escape.
What am I doing wrong? We ask ourselves. Why doesn’t this meditation practice work for me? It seems to work for everyone else, why not me?
This gets to the very heart of Chán. Chán isn’t a practice that one can pick up, like basket weaving, and expect to achieve success with simply by following the rules and procedures and “doing the practice”.
Life conditions us to create a separation between self and other as we journey through it: over time that sense of separation grows, and the more it grows, the more we become isolated, both from the world, and from ourselves. We become proficient at weaving baskets and suddenly we become known as great basket weavers. We unconsciously think to ourselves, “That’s what I am! I am a great basket weaver!” We take pride in our achievement. We enjoy the respect we get from others who come to us to learn the art and skill of basket weaving. A self-identity is established.
The practice of Chán is quite the opposite. To be successful with it, we can’t do it to attain anything, even if what we are trying to attain is peace and tranquility. Seeking to be somewhere we are not, or someone we are not, is antithetical to the purpose of, and all approaches to, Chán. We can spend years on the cushion and remain trapped in the jar unless we approach it with the right mind.
The mind is a coy beast. It latches onto whatever it can, forms identities with them, and in doing so creates a reality from them. It does all this without letting us know that’s what it’s doing. Our essential nature becomes obfuscated by the fabrications the mind creates from our experiences, decisions, judgments, and attachments. So we lose connection with our Self. With our Intrinsic Being.
I use the jar metaphor because it reflects the beginning of seeing into this strange phenomenon. We can see through the jar easily, but we are trapped within it, unable to escape. It’s a prison we create for ourselves and can never escape from. No method will work. In fact, the harder we try to escape, the stronger it becomes. The tighter it constricts.
So what’s the solution? We have to see into the very nature of the jar, into the aspect of our mind that has created it. We have to dissolve it. This means instead of trying to escape from it we have to go into it. We have to understand that the jar is an aspect of our Self, as are all the images we see through it, and all the thoughts we have about it, and all the desires we have to escape from it. There is no separation. When we do this we discover that the jar was simply an illusion, made real both by our desire to escape from it, and from the mental fabrications that created it.
When we seek outward solutions to the challenges of life we end up trapping ourselves, without even knowing it. At some point we become so trapped we scream “Get me out!” The solution is a simple one: if we can’t get out, go in. It’s the only way out. Give up the fight.
Stop trying to attain. Just be.