It had been a cool morning. Expectedly, there had been a number of phone calls – one from a student who asked if he could make up the meditation class he had missed, one from an older woman who had vague psychological problems, and several from strangers who had seen the television interview on the public television channel a few nights before. (My number was not hard to find in the phone book.) And then my mind, accustomed to a formal meditation period at this time of day, began to drift in the direction of meditation. I glanced at the clock and was surprised to note that it was already 11 a.m.
I slipped out the back door to my car parked in the shade. Opening the car door, I had already put the world and daily events out of my mind. That afternoon and evening would be very active, but at the moment, I was dedicated to entering the “natural” state beyond thought, which is impossible to describe to those who have not experienced it. In truth, of course, there is no one there to enter such a state. And, in another sense, we are always in it. But these are just words. I settled back in the seat, keeping the backbone firm.
Closing my eyes, I slowly moved a warm feeling from the small of my back to the base of my skull and then took it to the top of my head. As I did so, I inhaled and retained the breath as the light reached the apex of the circle. Then, with the breath held in, I mentally repeated a mantra (a sound or sounds that are the name of God) several times. As I gradually exhaled, I brought the light down the front, past the face, neck, and abdomen, until it reached the spot two inches below the navel, a spot that the Chinese call the tan t’ien. With the breath entirely expelled, I rested quietly in the emptiness. I had been careful to breathe out slowly and in sections, as though lowering to different levels, and when I had reached what seemed to be bottom, I breathed out once more. This obviated the need for the reflexive in-breath. Resting in the emptiness of the tan t’ien without breath, there is a feeling that one could stay there all day. In a minute or two, however, I would once again start the great circle as I took the light through the opening between the legs and, once again, slowly up the channel in the back.
The exaggerated in-breathing and out-breathing that accompanied the course of the light were accomplished in what I call the Meditative Breathing way, which is opposite what we normally do. When breathing in, the abdomen and chest expanded, and stayed that way while the mantra was being inserted. As I then brought the light down and exhaled, the abdomen and chest contracted, the anus was pulled in tight, and the stomach was finally plastered tightly against the backbone as the last air was pushed out. The body looked thinnest as I rested in the tan t’ien, and the tightened anus kept the air from escaping down below, as I gradually let out the large amount of oxygen through the nostrils. This type of meditative breathing can, in and of itself, take one into deep meditation.
After three or four of these great circles, with the mental meditation of the mantra while holding in-breath, the mind went completely quiet. Then I resumed normal breathing and began mentally to count the out-breaths, which came very slowly. “One, two, three,” I counted and then seemed to move into a different level of consciousness. The counting stopped, the breathing almost stopped, and there were no thoughts. Neither the world, nor its inhabitants or ideas existed. There was only an awareness that was hard to describe, and there was no object in this awareness. Perhaps the Buddhist word tatbata – which roughly translates as “suchness” – would be the best description. There was a livingness and an awareness. But there was no one doing the living and no one to be aware and nothing to be aware of. Time passed rapidly and imperceptibly in this state.
Occasionally, I would slip back to normal thinking and would immediately begin counting again. Without pause, the thoughtless state of pure consciousness would be reassumed. It was hard to tell how much time was passing – ten minutes or an hour.
Suddenly, almost violently, I was hurled out of this state and back into the world. The first sign of re-emergence was totally disconnected thoughts. And I felt I could actually watch the mind recreating the world around me. Somehow, I knew the meditation was over; the mind had had enough.
Still, I sat there quietly. There was no urge to move or do anything. To be was enough. The mind, having tasted the bliss of one-pointedness reached through introspection, was in no hurry to turn outward again and scatter itself. The one-pointed mind is strong, and the restless one is the cause of untold suffering.
Idly I noted how green the leaves of the trees were, standing tall against the deep blue cloudless sky. The symbolism was not lost on me. It was much like the famous haiku of the Japanese poet, Basho, when the stillness of the pond is rudely pierced by the splash of the frog as he dives in. The swaying motion of the leaves contrasted with the infinite stillness of a deep blue which we call the sky – life moving incomprehensibly against the nothingness of the void. How does this movement come to be? Who has ordained it? But the mind, still and at oneness, has no desire to tackle such problems. To be is the only necessary thing at the moment. Questions have no place in such stillness.
The Japanese speak of seijaku, the deep stillness within activity. Their ideal is not to isolate themselves, as the Indians do, but to experience this stillness in each moment of activity, to taste the Bliss of Being, even while momentarily experiencing disappointment. As I sat there, I knew the rest of the day would be busy – there would be three classes, sandwiched around a cross-legged Zen meditation sitting (zazen) lasting until 9 p.m., at which time I would drive a few of my carless T’ai Chi students home and then prepare tea for some young friends who wanted to come by and talk. But the current generated by this period of immersion (my watch showed about forty-five minutes had passed) would last all day, later buttressed by an hour of Zen sitting, which is quite different in scope and effect from the deep meditation I had just practiced. Early in the morning, too, I had performed T’ai Chi Ch’uan and T’ai Chi Chih in the backyard and followed it by some Zen sitting and Heart Sutra chanting. These activities were not a compulsion but something I deeply looked forward to. They had become natural to me.
Leaving the car, I again noted how green the trees were. Something was coursing through me, not like the flow of Chi from T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but a thing indescribable. I vaguely remembered that something had been worrying me before meditation, but I could not recall the details. A problem that had been in the back of my mind for weeks now stood forth boldly, and it was plain to see that the answer was encompassed in the problem itself. Most problems now seemed to exist only on an oral level. Living the meditative way had removed the need for soul-searching and self-doubting. Things were as they were, and it was easy to flow with them. And this strange pulsing within reminded me, once more, of the poet’s lines about the flying geese high above the pond at sunset: “There is a meaning to all this, but, when I get to this point, I become lost in no-words.”
It is said, “To the mind that is still, the Universe surrenders.” It is not easy to make the monkey-mind still, and it cannot be forced to be so. Yogis who try forcibly to restrain the mind are on the wrong track. Hold out the bliss of the thoughtless state to the mind and, as it becomes used to it, the mind will go there with no effort, making it possible to once again be yourself. The stillness is always there, and the Universe is always ready to surrender.
Such formal periods of meditation are not always possible. At other times, it is feasible to sit cross-legged within the house (if you remember to turn the phone off). Meditation can be anywhere, but the mind must be trained. The Universe does not surrender to the scattered mind. As Sister Corita is supposed to have written, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” How nice to be ourselves. The trick is to make effort without effort. This is why we meditate.
Re-entering the house, I heard the telephone’s incessant ring. Not wishing to honor its harsh demand, I ignored it. Instead, I chose a Palestrina record from a small pile and played the church music I had been indifferent to before. This time it was different. Subconsciously, deep levels of feeling opened inside and a religious message was conveyed. When it came time for lunch, I played the other side. Irrelevantly, the music reminded me of visiting a temple for pregnant snakes on the Malaysian island of Penang. Perhaps it was remembering the lush green undergrowth there (which was awakened by the overpowering green of the trees after my meditation) that brought back such a memory. There is stillness everywhere. Perhaps we only imagine the noise. There is no confusion among pregnant snakes, and Palestrina only made sense at this time. It was not logical but rather a-logical. I remembered one time, after a long meditation, sitting at a piano and improvising, having the feeling that somebody else was playing and I was only listening. This was like watching the movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan do themselves, with one’s self simply being an observer. Observing whom? Stalagmites and stalactites – which were which? Somehow, all were enclosed in the music, and the music was my meditation, a meditation that had never ended. With no one to talk to, the mind was shut off. There was no need to get lost in “no words.” From such wordless times comes the greatest creativity. Recharging the batteries, we pour forth a current of creative doing, and yet it is not ours.
I remembered how I had once felt, instinctively, that “each is singing the Glory of Creation.” Had there really been a Creation? That question, posed to an Indian wise man, had brought forth the answer, “It’s hard to tell.” When we go deep within ourselves, the answers do not come. Rather, the questions are removed. How much more glorious the trip into inner space – and how much more vast. We have a telescope with which to look outward on the universe. Where is its opposite number that enables us to go within? With such a telescope the scientist could not only look at the outer reaches of space, millions of light years away, but more importantly, would begin to understand who it is that is looking. In this way we climb the Joyous Mountain – and climbing, climbing, finally we hit bottom.
There are, of course, those who argue that no formal meditation is necessary, that there is no need for any discipline whatever. These are often people who drink, smoke pot, and titillate the senses in other ways. With the insatiable mind demanding more and more diversion, they turn to narcotics of various forms (indeed, endless diversion is a narcotic), deadening the mind and dulling the awareness. Naturally, they speak against self-culture. But the great Zen Master Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, flatly stated, “There is no Enlightenment without practice.” So the self-proclaimed independents find no support from me. From them we get books about T’ai Chi by those who have never practiced T’ai Chi, and treatises on Zen and Yoga by those who have never practiced Zen and Yoga. We are in a world that loves ersatz, so it is not hard to interest people in reading about the essence of some discipline by one who has never experienced it.
Exercise develops the muscles. Concentration strengthens the mind. It is useless to talk of devotion and non-attachment unless the mind is capable of one-pointed concentration, which has nothing to do with intellectual attainment. One scholar reads what another scholar has written and then writes a book using the diffused (and confused) information. A much-honored Ph.D. instructor in a university philosophy department found she was the only one in a large class of undergraduates who could not learn or execute T’ai Chi Ch’uan. This was a great blow to the ego, so she dropped it. It is not surprising to hear talk of suicide from such people, in whom the great teachings of the Buddha have not made the slightest dent.
In truth, only an enlightened one can really practice devotion. We do not practice it and then become enlightened. Yet the mind – and the nervous system – must be cultured. There is no doubt the Truth lies within us – we are Truth. But to know it and manifest it is a different matter. If we would live the meditative way, we must meditate. The current of constant meditation will gradually pervade the whole life, and each action will, in itself, be pure. We are all saints in embryo, and we are all Divine. To go within and merge with this divinity, to flow with the current of the Life Force, is not easy until we have fasted in the sense that Zhuang Zhou meant when he spoke of the Fasting Mind. Any blithe talk of “I understand what you mean” (as though listening to a sermon will concentrate the unsteady mind) and any feeling that “I know the essence, so I don’t really have to practice it” is a cop out. Perhaps, after twenty years of repeating the Nembutsu (Hail to the Buddha of Infinite Light – Namu Amida Butsu), the sincere Jodo Shinshu believer finds this mantra constantly echoed in his heart – so it doesn’t matter whether or not he phrases it with the lips. In the meantime, though, there have been twenty years of one-pointed practice. Satori is not a word to be used loosely by those who think it is some sort of momentary satisfaction experienced after a good meal. We plant seeds and eventually reap the fruit. An apple seed brings only an apple tree, and from it we do not derive watermelons.
To know quiescence in the midst of activity is more than tranquilization. Peace is not merely a “blotting-out.” If we are willing to pay the price, we receive the reward. In such a way we can rise to true human status. Otherwise we remain mere animals: eating, sleeping, and suffering. We make the choice.
At the end of the Tenrikyo Church ceremonies, I have heard simple devotees shout “Joyous Life” in what, for them, is a foreign tongue, and I have felt a warmth within. With the constant discipline of their impressive services, I have no doubt many have reached a one-pointed stage. The doctrine itself is of no importance. Such faith and devotion cultures the Heart-Mind-Spirit (kokoro), and what a man believes is not as important as his truly believing it. Religion is full of contradictions. Religiosity may well exist without formal religion. An inner sincerity and a constant practice of what is believed must succeed. Meditation is one way down this road, though not the only way.
Does a flower live a meditative life? I do not know. Under the snow, perhaps, the plum blossom rests in meditation until it is time to send forth shoots and bring the delicious fruit to fulfillment. A solitary plant growing insanely from seemingly barren rock expresses a great and indomitable Life Force. To be aware of such Life Force, to walk serenely beneath the awesome blue sky, and to listen to the spring raindrops on the over-hanging eaves of the old temple building – these are all meditative experiences if we merge into them.
“At first I thought it was frost on the cold wooden floor,” says the poet. “Then I realized it was the full moon shining through the window of my small cabin. Seeing the bright reflected light, I thought of my home far away.” Is this sad? Not really. Reflective perhaps. Retrospective perhaps. Making us more aware of what is within us as a reaction to what is without – and knowing that the outside world around us is a reflection of the inner. To rest in such a moment is, itself, tranquil, although we may never see our home again. We all die in the sense that the body disintegrates. In one sense we are dying from the day we are born. But in the larger sense, expanding awareness makes us more and more alive, until we merge in Pure Consciousness that knows no death, and can think of it as fathomless blue sky. This is neither positive nor negative, and meditation lies between the two poles.
The mirror-mind accurately reflects, and what it reflects is true and unconditioned by sentiment and opinion. The sudden squall is neither good nor bad, and when felt in its absolute value that brooks no duality, it is merely what it is. When the storm is over, the clouds break and the sun shines once more. We know that behind the clouds it has never ceased to shine.
The 108 movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are also a meditation. One day while practicing, we suddenly feel as though no one is doing this ancient Chinese discipline, that the movements are moving by themselves and we are merely observers. It is an ecstatic feeling born of long practice. The involuntary trembling in the fingers, resulting from flowing Chi energy, surprises us at first. It is not of our doing, and we do not control it. This flow of infinite energy is greater than ourselves. Coming from nowhere, going nowhere, it is just there, and we learn to rest in it. Older people in Taiwan and China, swinging back and forth in a relaxed manner in what they call the Dharma Tendon Building movement, feel tensions drop away as the Vital Force flows through the system. “What lovely ikebana,” we exclaim, when we see the unselfconscious flower arrangement the Japanese master has wrought. “Yes,” he acknowledges. “They all grew near here.”