Part IV – Chapter 27

Dealing with distractions.

In Judaism, the concept of “impurity” relates to idolatry, bloody hands, improper sexuality, and other such specific misdeeds; and there are degrees of purity or impurity. In Buddhism, the concept of “impurity” is much more radical than that – it refers to (almost) all thought, because thought is considered as stirring the mind up and obscuring its native clarity.

Impure thoughts and actions, according to Judaism, eventually cause suffering – feelings of shame, guilt, regret, remorse, reproach, ugliness, dirtiness, unclarity, confusion, conflict, pain and so on. If, for example, one has a weird sexual dream, one feels soiled by it upon awakening; if one practices similar perversion in real life, one is all the more so hurt. Buddhism goes further, and teaches that all ordinary thoughts and actions are polluting, in that (or insofar as) they “load us with karma” and blind us to the crystal clarity of ultimate reality.

In one of the ‘koans’ of The Gateless Gate[1], two Zen monks argue as to whether a flapping flag is moving or the wind moves it; their teacher (the Sixth Patriarch) intervenes, saying that it is neither, but instead it is their minds that were moving. When years ago I first read this story, I took it as a statement in favor of the mind-only school of Buddhist philosophy; but today I understand it – a bit better supposedly – as a practical instruction.

Events take place all around the meditator (i.e. in his mental as well as material surrounds). Our common tendency is to (to put it graphically) pounce on almost every such passing enticement. But the meditator must exercise self-restrain, for every such pouncing motion prevents him from true stillness of mind. He must not be a slave to events, but remain impassive. To keep the mind still requires a firm commitment of will to stillness. This is achieved most readily by focusing attention at a deeper level.

If we position our mind (i.e. our attention, to be more precise) at the surface of things, it tends to attach to external distractions or passing thoughts. We become absorbed in the wrong way. The above koan teaches us that such mental “attachment” does not only mean that the mind passively sticks to passing phenomena, but that it actively moves out and grabs them or even seeks them out. It is not something static, but dynamic. Attention is rarely at rest for long, but repeatedly shifts over from one object to another.

Thus, the word attachment here refers not only to the fact of gluing attention on some object irrelevant to the meditation, but to the action of transferring such gluing from one random object to the next. This motion occurs again and again, so that the mind is never at rest on some fixed object of meditation. To stop such overly nervous reaction, one must avoid compulsive or obsessive movements of attention. One must cultivate a more impassive outlook, and look further inward.

A Zen teacher[2] long ago reproved me angrily for fidgeting while in meditation, by shouting at me “Don’t move!” This exhortation should be understood not only physically, but of course mentally, and even spiritually. Physical movements proceed from mental movements, which in turn would have no significance were it not for movements of the soul, i.e. the instability of its attentions. If the spirit holds steady, the mind calms down and the body follows suit.

If inner or outer disturbances assail you – whether they appear as sights, sounds, emotions, or in whatever phenomenal modality – consider yourself as transparent to them. They pass through you, unable to affect you in any way. They are just turbulence in the scenery. They are all manifestations of a domain parallel to and apart from the spiritual one you are resting securely in. You can observe it, but it cannot move you.

It is useful in meditation to look upon distracting surrounding things and events as occurring in the domain of ‘samsara’. Samsara is a powerful and pervasive force, attracting our attention. It drags our spirit down, keeping us away from the peace and freedom of meditative absorption.

It is like a swamp, with quicksand at every turn. Our pleasures and successes suck us into this domain, by making us like it and want to stay in it longer. And our pains and failures bind us to it, too, by their negative psychological impact and by getting us frantically involved in trying to find ways to get away from them[3].

But samsara becomes its opposite, nirvana, the moment one regards all positive and negative things and events as opportunities for spiritual progress. They offer the challenging material needed to work on oneself. Thanks to our efforts to transcend their influence through meditation and other works, we can attain true happiness and enduring peace.

Samsara is not essentially an ‘external’ problem. It is not your bad moods, the pains in your legs or the offensive people out there that make up samsara. It is something within you – your personal outlook on such things and events that makes the difference. If they distress you and can shove you off course, you are subject to samsara. If instead you remain internally unaffected and stay your course, you are effectively free of it.

When Zen masters say that realization is “neither samsara nor nirvana”, they mean that it is not necessary to be literally transported out of this world of matter and mind into some other dimension. The illusion of having a certain unpleasant and restrictive mental and physical environment can equally well and more immediately be dissolved by a mere change of attitude towards it. The moment one is detached from its influences, one is already free. One can be in the midst of it, but it cannot have the same effect on us.

Wherever and however you happen to be – with nice or nasty people, in a prison or a luxury setting, in health or in sickness – if you are essentially above it all, if you remain centered and mindful, you are already ‘there’. It is sufficient: there is no need for more. Realization is not a place, like a paradise – it an internal (spiritual) freedom.

Many Zen sayings and stories emphasize this. Like the sayings: “Chop wood, carry water” or “When thirsty, drink, when hungry eat”. Or the story of the Zen master who, when he screamed in pain, disappointed one of his students, who confused equanimity with insensitivity.

It is well to note in this context that many apparently paradoxical statements in Buddhism (like “neither samsara, nor nirvana”) are not intended as logical statements of fact, but as psychological recommendations.

On the surface, such statements seem to appeal to some “tetralemmatic logic”, in crazy disregard of the laws of thought. They seem to affirm the possibility of contradiction (i.e. to say that “both X and not-X” can be true) or to deny the necessity of exhaustiveness (i.e. to say that “neither X nor not-X” need not be false).

Such paradoxical statements cannot be reconciled with normal logic: they are in fact inconceivable and they can only enter into discourse by divorcing the words used from their meanings. Such incoherent statements are usually proposed by or to people ignorant of logic, as deceptive attempts at discursive one-upmanship[4].

But if we look more closely at certain mystical statements, which seem to communicate something valid and wise, we realize that their apparent antinomy is only due to verbal inaccuracy. They do not refer to facts, but to our approach to facts. They do not mean that the objects labeled X and not-X can coexist or both be absent, but refer to our intentions towards those objects can both be adopted or discarded.

Thus, it is perfectly consistent to recommend that, in meditation, we ought not allow ourselves to get entrenched in definite predications like “This is X” or “This is not X”, but we ought rather keep an open mind. This is not a claim that something might be “both X and not-X” or “neither X nor not-X”, but merely advice to withhold judgment on the issue, i.e. to regard it as irrelevant (in the present circumstances, at least). It is simply an injunction to relax one’s rational faculty for a while and be content to only observe things, just as they are, without discursive interference.

In the specific instance of the Zen “neither samsara, nor nirvana” – it seems superficially inconsistent, considering that nirvana is originally the label given to the negation of samsara; but in the present context the intent is that we should not pursue nirvana anymore than samsara, because this attitude of pursuit is as much a hindrance if our attachment is to nirvana as if our attachment is to samsara. This does not deny the value of nirvana, but only reminds us that pursuit of nirvana keeps us locked in samsara, since samsara is the realm of attached existence irrespective of what it is we are attached to.

[1] A collection by the monk Mumon. See Zen Inspirations. Ed. Miriam Levering. London: Duncan Baird, 2004. (p. 114.)

[2] The Japanese monk called Roshi, who had a Zen center in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives for some years. This occurred back in 1979.

[3] The noise you hear, and the yearning for silence or nicer sounds. The ugliness you see, and the yearning for beauty. The evil around you, and the yearning for good. The conflicts, and the yearning for peace. The problems, and the yearning for solutions. The worries, and the yearning for all to be well. The failures, and the yearning for success. The pain you feel, and the yearning for relief from it or for pleasure instead. All these are aspects of samsara.

[4] That is to say: if I say “X” and you say “not-X”, a third comes and says “both X and not-X” and a fourth trumps him by saying “neither X nor not-X”. But if we proceed thus, there is no end to it; for another contestant might say “both [both] and [neither]” and so on ad infinitum. Since the tetralemma denies the laws of identity, of non-contradiction and of the excluded middle, anything goes, and nobody can win any argument. If no one can ever tell reality from fiction, how can the advocates of the tetralemma be dispensed from this rule (of theirs) and claim their paradoxical logic applicable to reality? Such discourse does not make any sense. Only the thesis that the laws of thought are universally applicable makes sense.

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