Book 4. More Meditations

Chapter 7. Behold the mind

Judging by a collection of essays attributed to Bodhidharma[1], the latter’s teaching of Zen meditation was quite introverted. He keeps stressing the futility of physical acts and rituals, and stresses the necessity of “beholding the mind”, to achieve enlightenment/liberation. This message is repeated throughout the volume in various words. For instance:

Responding, perceiving, arching your eyebrows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the buddha… Someone who sees his own nature finds the Way… is a buddha.” (P. 29.)

The implication here is that buddhahood (ultimate realization) is not something far away, like the peak of a high mountain difficult to climb. It is something close by, attainable by a mere change of outlook. That is, the separation between samsara and nirvana is paper-thin: on one side, you are in samsara, and on the other, in nirvana. In his words:

Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away. Realization is now. (p. 113.)

The transition is not to be achieved by elaborate external deeds, but by acute attentiveness. Thus, he states:

People who seek blessings by concentrating on external works instead of internal cultivation are attempting the impossible. (P. 95.)

Even so, in view of the ambiguity of the word “mind” the advice to behold the mind remains somewhat difficult to understand precisely. For “mind” (to my mind) in the largest sense includes every aspect of the psyche:

  1. The real self (or soul or spirit), which stands as Subject of all acts of consciousness (i.e. awareness of any sort) and the Agent of all acts of volition (will) and valuation (valuing or disvaluing anything). This ‘entity’ is without phenomenal characteristics (“empty” in Buddhist parlance), and so intuited (apperceived) rather than perceived, note well.
  2. The faculties or inner acts of that self – viz. consciousness, volition and valuation. These intentional expressions of the real self are also in themselves devoid of any phenomenal aspects, and so intuited rather than perceived. Here, we must carefully distinguish between the fact (or relation) of consciousness and the content (or object) of consciousness[2], as well as distinguish the Subject who is conscious from the particular act of consciousness. And similar distinctions apply to volition and valuation.
  3. The illusory self (or ego), a collection of body and mind phenomena that the real self habitually delusively (at least partly delusively) identifies with itself. This composite ‘entity’ includes a multiplicity of changing mental phenomena (i.e. mental projections, memories, imaginations, concepts, verbal descriptions, emotions) and physical phenomena (sensations, sense-perceptions, physical feelings), and is ordinarily confused with the real self. The ego is constantly crystallizing in our mental outlook, if we do not work hard to oppose this seemingly natural tendency[3].
  4. The physical infrastructure of the psyche and its workings; i.e. the nervous system, including the brain, spine and nerves, the physiological characteristics of humans that are involved in sensory, motor and emotive functions. This is one sense or aspect of the term “mind” as colloquially used; it is sometimes the intent of the more specific term “unconscious mind”. It is appropriate to refer to these physical structures and events as pertaining to the mind, insofar as they apparently constitute the interface between the material and the mental and spiritual domains; the mind is supported and fed by them and acts on the body and the world beyond it through them.

Note the difference between the last two of these factors of the psyche. The third refers to inner phenomena, a private subjective self-perception (which thereafter may have social ramifications), whereas the fourth refers to objective phenomena (knowable only from the outside, even for the body’s owner).[4]

Now, when he recommends our “beholding the mind” Bodhidharma is obviously not referring to the third aspect of the psyche, the perceived (phenomenal) aspect; the ego is (rightly) the bête noire of the Buddhist.

He does sometimes seem to be referring to the fourth aspect of mind, the mystery of the mind’s wordless power over the body; for instance, when he states that no deluded person “understands the movement of his own hands and feet,” or more explicitly put:

…every movement or state is all your mind. At every moment, where language can’t go, that’s your mind[5].

But mostly, Bodhidharma seems to be referring to either the first or to the second of the above-listed factors – i.e. to the intuited (non-phenomenal) aspects of the psyche.

If you can simply concentrate your mind’s inner light and behold its outer illumination, you’ll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort you’ll gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections and doors to the truth. (P. 113.)

Sometimes, his emphasis seems to be on the real self; as when he writes: “No karma can restrain this real body” (p. 21), “Awaken to your original body and mind” (p. 31); “Your real body has no sensation, etc.” (p. 39), or further (emphasizing the non-phenomenal nature of the real self):

The buddha is your real body, your original mind. This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones… But this mind isn’t outside the material body… Without this mind we can’t move. The body has no awareness. (P. 43.)

Sometimes, it seems to be on the acts of consciousness, and the related acts of volition and valuation, of that real self; for example:

Language and behavior, perception and conception are all functions of the moving mind. All motion is the mind’s motion. Motion is its function… Even so, the mind neither moves nor functions, because the essence of its functioning is emptiness and emptiness is essentially motionless. (Pp. 43-44.)

All this gives me the idea of a meditation consisting of ‘awareness of awareness’. In this meditation, one focuses on the one who is aware (oneself) and/or on the fact of awareness (as distinct from its content). Whatever material or mental[6] phenomenal objects come to our attention, we simply ignore them and rather pay attention to our being conscious of them. The objects come and go during the meditation, but the Subject and consciousness endure and are focused on persistently.

It may be suggested that the emphasis ought to be on the awareness rather than on the one aware, for there is a danger in the latter case that one may get fixated on an ego representation of self rather than on the real self. Moreover, my experience is that meditative insight seems to hit a peak when the impression of self seems to disappear; one seems to face the surrounding world unburdened by an extraneous presence. Thus, even if the self is not really absent (since it is being conscious), it is best to behave as if it does not exist. For this reason, we should describe this exercise more narrowly as meditation on awareness.

Be mindful of the miracle of your being aware, or of your awareness as such, whether directed outward or inward. Bodhidharma says: “Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware[7]. The sense of wonder when observing consciousness is, he clearly suggests, essential to enlightenment[8]. Cultivate this wonderment. Don’t take consciousness for granted, making it invisible to itself. Realize the marvel that one thing (you) can see another (whatever you look at, including yourself). Wow! How can such a thing be?

At first, such meditation requires effort; but one can eventually reach an effortless level of concentration that may be characterized as contemplation. Note well that the true object of such meditation on awareness itself is not phenomenal – it has no visual or auditory or tactile or gustatory or olfactory qualities. It is truly spiritual and purely immaterial, and is for this reason likened to a transparent empty space.

Of course, it is not much use to take note of one’s awareness just momentarily; one has to persevere in that effort for some time. At the same time, one should beware of making this a “gaining idea”[9], i.e. of letting such effort become a distraction in itself. One cannot grab hold of results in meditation, but must proceed gently, with some detachment.

I have personally tried such meditation on awareness repeatedly lately, and it seems to be an effective way to discard passing perceptions, fancies and thoughts, and attain a more dilated and contemplative state of mind. Although I cannot yet claim to have had the lofty experience of beholding the mind that Bodhidharma recounts, I have found it worthwhile.



[1] The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, consisting of four essays. Like the translator, Red Pine, I assume their author is indeed Bodhidharma; but who the genial author(s) is/are, is ultimately not very important: some human being(s) had this interesting teaching to transmit to us. I notice that D. T. Suzuki, in his First Series of Essays in Zen Buddhism, (pp. 178), mentions six (not just four) Bodhidharma essays as quite well-known and popular in Japan today. While acknowledging the Zen spirit of all those essays, Suzuki considers only two of them as likely to have been written by the first patriarch of Zen.

[2] There is no awareness without content (i.e. object); one is here aware of another act of awareness whose content is in turn something else.

[3] Meditation is precisely the most effective tool for overcoming our built-in tendency to ego formation. Even so, one may at any moment fall back into old ego habits; for example, the other day a young woman looked at me in a certain way, and I found myself flattered and captivated.

[4] In this regard, it is important not to confuse the latter ‘objectivity’ with an exclusive standard of truth, as do certain modern “scientists”. Such Behaviorism, advocated under a pretext of positivism or radical empiricism, is a non-scientific ideological stance that would more accurately be described as narrow or extremely materialist. It is epistemologically fallacious, because its proponents deliberately ignore a major portion of common personal experience (viz. introspective data), and formulate their theories on the basis of an arbitrary selection of experiential data (viz. physical phenomena). Really, what this anti-phenomenological doctrine signifies is that the convenience of certain low-level laboratory technicians is to be elevated to the status of a philosophy of mind! The psychological motive behind this doctrine is an ailment that afflicts more and more people nowadays: it is a deep personal fear of introspection – i.e. of confronting the mental and spiritual aspects of one’s psyche.

[5] P. 23. This makes me think of Tai Chi, which is a meditation on movement, on the relation between the mind and physical movement. Similarly in Yoga.

[6] In the narrower sense of ‘mind’ – referring to phenomenal events (memories, imaginations, dreams, verbal thoughts, etc.) only. Note in passing that the term ‘mind’ colloquially also often refers to the mindspace, the presumed extension in which mental phenomena occur.

[7] Verbatim from the present translation; on p. 29.

[8] It is interesting to note in passing how far this viewpoint is from the view of some Buddhists (more ‘Hinayana’ in outlook, perhaps) that Enlightenment is the actual extinction of consciousness (and volition and all other aspects of selfhood). For Bodhidharma (a ‘Mahayana’ teacher), the purpose of it all is to reach a summit of consciousness, not unconsciousness. The difference is perhaps due to a different reading of the twelve nidanas doctrine (on the chain of causation of samsaric existence). According to that, the first three causes in the chain are ignorance, actions and consciousness; these clearly refer respectively to lack of spiritual understanding, acting in accordance with such incomprehension, and the narrow and delusive consciousness emerging from such action. It is not consciousness per se which is the problem (as some seem to think), but the limited and limiting consciousness of ordinary existence. The solution is therefore not the annihilation of consciousness, but its maximal intensification and expansion. Thus, consciousness as such is not a disvalue, but a value. (In accord with this divergence in interpretation, the Hinayana branch tends to regard Emptiness as nothingness, literally a negative, whereas the Mahayana branch stresses the positive meaning of it, as the “Buddha-nature” underlying all things.)

[9] Advice often given in his books by a modern disciple of Bodhidharma, Shunryu Suzuki.

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