By John Lee Pendall
I’ve always thought of my life as a kind of an experiment. My mind and body are laboratories. This might not be healthy, but I’m okay with it.
Some of these experiments have been painful—like when I let myself fall in love with someone who I knew didn’t have feelings for me. I knew it wasn’t going to work out for me, but I did it for the experience. Some of them have been dangerous, like when I meditated outside during a blizzard to see if I could tune out the cold (result: it’s possible). But most of my experiments are harmless.
I like trying out or discovering new meditations. How can I give someone advice if I haven’t practiced what they’re practicing? How can I make recommendations if I haven’t diligently tried out the methods? When I experimented with LSD in my early 20’s, before I took the tabs, I looked at the dealer and said, “You first.” I don’t expect people to try on various views and methods if I haven’t anymore than I expect someone to try acid when they’re uncertain about the quality.
So, in that spirit, here’s a new meditation called moxiang, or Silent Contemplation. I didn’t know that that’s what it was called—I just winged it and did some research after the fact.
I have a firm conviction that the teachings arise from a certain mindset, a certain mood—a Bodhi mood.
Moods alter our thoughts. When we’re in a shitty mood, our thoughts tend to get dark, and vice versa for a good mood. But it also works the other way too. A negative thought can ruin a positive mood, and then that darkened mood snowballs into darkened thoughts. We’ve all been there.
Sitting there, I wondered if the Dharma and Awakening are the same way. These teachings come from peaceful, open, beautiful minds, does that mean thinking about the teachings can bring us to that mindset as well? So I thought about the teachings. I recalled them—that’s mindfulness. Then I let my mind just think about the teachings in a stream-of-thought sorta way. Open thought, not I-me-mine thoughts. I concentrated on thinking, reading my thoughts the same way I’d read a book.
It looked something like, “All beings are fundamentally Buddhas, because all share the same nature. All of this greed, hatred and ignorance is something extra that we can live without. We can bring peace to each other since everything is empty. Like a stream, always flowing, always shimmering in the light of our True Nature,” and what not.
Just thinking about the teachings, it doesn’t matter which ones. Not trying to analyze them or direct the thoughts to some kinda conclusion. Sometimes thoughts start to resemble free verse poetry when we think in this way. It’s pleasant. A lot better than thinking about how messed up and broken we are or how we wish we had some chimichangas.
As I sat there reading my thoughts, it was kinda like how it is when you’re really into the book you’re reading: everything else seems to gradually fade away. The monstrous field equipment toiling nearby even seemed to go silent at times as the mind became more and more absorbed in thought. This is an aspect of the jhanas—meditative absorption.
Then, I was surprised. The mood changed. There were wisps of jhanic joy and pleasure. Equanimity. And there it was, illumination. Brightness. Even the thoughts began to drop away, and in all the vacated spaces—shining silence (mozhao).
Mozhao is Chan (Chinese Zen)’s version of Shikantaza. That’s putting it in grossly simple terms. Mozhao isn’t really a method in itself, it’s a, well I’m just gonna say it’s a state of mind. It’s a mood, an awakened mood. You can access that mood through many different methods like gazing at the mind, focusing on the body, breath, or nothing at all. The discovery here is that we can also uncover that Shining Silence through thought.
This is fantastic news since our thoughts never seem to shut the hell up. It’s also a middle finger to the fundamentalists who piss all over thought and reasoning’s place in practice.
After the sit, I did some Googling and learned that Chinese Catholics do something similar. But for them, it’s a specific Gospel instead of stream of thought Dharma, and they stop after getting a wisp of brightness whereas I kept going. They also use visualizations and I didn’t. So, it’s not the same thing at all really, but it has the same root.
In the Chinese Catholic method of moxiang, the process is: memory (mindfulness), intellect (thinking about a passage of the Gospel) and Will (a sublime, peaceful feeling one takes out into the world). This exercise follows the same pattern in a different way.
We have mindfulness-concentration (the silence in Silent Contemplation. The mo in moxiang). Mindfulness calls up the directive, “Think about the teachings and concentrate on thinking.” The thoughts about the Dharma are contemplation (xiang). What happens after awhile is the really neat part.
That subtle brightness of wisdom, of our True Nature (Zhao) steps on stage and grows brighter as the tranquil silence grows deeper. Now we’re practicing moxiangzhao which is kind of fun to try to say. Then, well, the xiang drops out. The stream-of-thought folds in on itself into bright, experiential insight: Shining Silence.
This works in day-to-day life too. If your inner monologue is in a decrepit place, turn it toward the Dharma and, before you know it, you’ll notice your mood start to change. I practiced it for the first two hours at work last night, and after weeks of muddy, negative thoughts I felt like “myself” again. Laughing, joking, doing weird, eccentric crap.
Dharma contemplation just pushed aside all the junk I’d filled my head with. I highly recommend this method to people like me: over-thinking neurotics who get carried away by their thoughts and who just don’t vibe with the other, time-tested methods.
Of course I recommend everyone try it once or twice since it’s fun and harmless. The trick is to concentrate on thinking, which might seem strange at first since usually when we’re absorbed by thoughts that means our minds are wandering.
But with this, it’s just like focusing on the breath, except you’re free associating Buddhist teachings. You might notice, “Fuck, it seems like I’m thinking a lot more than usual,” but really you’re not—it’s just that you’re aware of thinking. Whenever your mind wanders or your concentration zones out, just gently bring it back to thinking about the Dharma.
It’s a great way to see the latent associations we have in our minds as well. I noticed that whenever I thought of this one friend, I’d start thinking about the girl I fell in love with since the three of us all know each other.
As the night went on, all those associations seemed to fade and my heart showed the first real signs of mending. So, I’m gonna keep practicing with this and see what happens. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally found a method that I can stick with.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".