By Johnathon Pendall
I am writing this column at the request of Daniel Scharpenburg. Yes, I do take requests. “Play Freebird!” Settle down…
There was nothing—no body, no mind, no thoughts or emotions, no concepts, no duality or non-duality and no sensations. There was just a boundless, silent, motionless clarity without beginning or end. This is what I call being dead—like a withered, rotting, hollow log.
Dead Zen: lifeless dharma.
At the other extreme, there’s Trip Zen; one may experience astounding visions, sensations, insights and ecstasy. Blissing out is usually the result of profound boredom, kind of like how the brain reacts when an isolation chamber. Both of these extremes can be addictive, and it’s easy to make them into goals.
“How was your sit?”
“Not great. No breakthroughs, no images of Buddha flying through space in a fireball Ferrari. I was just sitting—what a cop out.” Or, “It was amazing! I plunged so deep into the void that I didn’t even exist anymore! It was awesome! I don’t exist! Haha! I don’t exist! Hahahaha.”
Ikkyu championed what he called, “Red Thread Zen,” which to me is an optimal balance between catatonia and psilocybin. The red thread symbolizes passion. Ikkyu was a passionate man. He was passionate about rice wine, prostitutes, anti-establishmentarianism and poetry. Most of all, he was passionate about the Buddhadharma.
Passion doesn’t need to be dependent on an object, then it becomes craving. Passion can be a dynamic force in one’s mind and body; one can meditate passionately, walk passionately and share passionately.
Ikkyu was like a mad fire that was blazing brightly but never out of control. He was alive. I’m not saying that someone has to ingest copious amounts of alcohol and visit prostitutes to be alive, but it probably helps (I jest, I jest). When Ikkyu felt, he felt deeply. When he thought, he thought deeply. Life was an intimate and, at times overwhelming, experience to him.
This isn’t just speculation, it’s what happens when one lives with passion.
Hongzhi compared the Bodhi Mind to a luminous, boundless empty field. At first glance, it appears he’s advocating Dead Zen. But then he expands on that point and says that it isn’t empty because there’s nothing in it, it’s empty because there’s unlimited space for things to roam. No matter how much is in there, it never gets any fuller—hence it’s empty.
When there’s no passion, then my practice can die. If my passion has expectations, then it can spiral out of control. But when passion is open and allowed to breathe, it can manifest as Bodhicitta. I feel that Mahayana practice is entirely dependent on Bodhicitta. Without it, there’s nothing.
I mentioned Bodhicitta many moons ago in another column.
Bodhi means “awake” and citta is usually translated as “mind.” I think that a hollow log probably made that translation. Citta can also mean “heart” or “heart-mind.” So Bodhicitta can mean “The Awakened Heart.” Or it could be an awakened balance between heart and mind.
When there’s no heart in Zen, we become lotus-posture corpses. When there’s no mind in Zen, we can become gullible and unhinged. The magic happens when heart and mind are synchronized because then the Dharma becomes a living teaching. Dead Zen and Trip Zen both focus on escaping reality. Both even rely on the same conclusion: The Absolute is superior to the relative.
In Dead Zen, there is no lawn, no lawn mower and no one mowing the lawn. In Trip Zen, the lawn is mowing itself and all is a manifestation of undying awareness. In Red Thread Zen one ponders whether we’re harming the grass or not. Because passion without an object is compassion, devotion, loving-kindness, warmth and basic goodness.
The Red Thread doesn’t abide rationalizations. Bodhicitta can be very stubborn when it comes ego-bargaining. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” When passion severs the subject-object duality, then the ends can no longer justify the means. Passionate mindfulness has no past or future, it solely relies on what’s available here and now.
Black robes may unravel if they don’t include a red thread. We humans are greedy, angry, prideful, jealous, lazy, callous, neurotic beings. Dead Zen and Trip Zen deny this reality in an attempt to drop parts of us by the side of the road. This is ultimately disrespectful to the dharma. Instead, the Red Thread compels dharma students to use what they are as the foundation for enlightenment.
Samsara and Nirvana both have the same foundation. The only difference between the two is what we choose to build on it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”