By Johnathon Lee
“If your mind is nothing but mind,
You don’t need to stop desiring.
Instead, leave it all to emptiness,
Let your mind move, float, and change,
And all that’s extra will sink
To the bottom.” – Niutou Farong
Zuochan (Tso-chan) means sitting Chan, and Chan is the Chinese ancestor of Zen.
That’s an important distinction. Chan, Zen, Sean and Thien are all part of the same Buddhist tradition, but they’re not synonymous. Each one has its own plethora of views, ethics, and methods.
Chan was in decline for about a thousand years, and it was almost wiped out by the Communist revolution. Luckily, a few Chan teachers and academics survived and started bringing the teachings to the West.
There are many different meditation methods in Chan, but I tend to gravitate toward old school Chan. I geek out over Bodhidharma, the Xinxinming, and the Platform Sutra. However, my go-to text is the Xinming (Song of Mind) by Niutou Farong. It’s one of the oldest Chan texts, dating back to 500 or 600 something. I don’t know, I suck at numbers. I barely even know how old I am. 30 something.
Here we have a much looser style of meditation than we’re familiar with in the West. Most meditation methods involve focused attention (like concentrating on the breath) or open monitoring (being aware of particular things).
Zuochan doesn’t fit into either of those categories.
Relax your muscles. Chill and stay chilled. Then let your mind do whatever it wants. You’re not trying to anchor it onto something, or trying to watch it to gain insight into its nature.
Let mind be mind. Let thoughts be thoughts. Control is an illusion and insights only bring us further from genuine clarity. Buddhism 101: all conditioned things are impermanent. If we control our minds, then we’re gonna lose control of our minds. If we gain insight, then we’re gonna lose insight.
That’s because, when we have control, we have it because there are dozens and dozens of factors at play that make it possible for us to have it. If even one of those factors change, then our control goes with it.
The same goes for insight. If you’re seeing things clearly, it’s because something in your mental or physical environment is making you see things clearly. That’ll pass, and the understanding will be a memory.
This isn’t a bad thing. It means we can stop being silly gooses. Let mind be mind.
There’s one catch: we have to stop judging our minds and stop preferring one state of mind over another. Tension in the body, and judgments and preferences in the mind, create whirlpools in our mental seas. We start to dwell and ruminate, and the conclusions we reach come to distort everything in our lives.
That’s maybe not so good.
So, how do we stop judging and preferring?
“Using rules and methods to still your mind
Still won’t cure your suffering.
Forget the past, present, and future, and on the spot,
Just this will be your original nature.”
Most of us are familiar with letting go of the past and future, but the present? That’s a new one. Be present is a basic teaching.
Here’s the thing: it’s impossible to be present. The present moment is too quick to wrap our heads around. By the time we contemplate something that’s happening, it’s already happened. That doesn’t mean we should stop contemplating, just that we should be aware that we’re full of shit.
“Coming and going for no reason at all,
To chase it and seek it is to miss it.
When everything is still,
Shining silence presents itself.”
What’s still is our habit of latching onto sights, sounds, ideas, feelings, etc. Shining silence is mozhou, another word for enlightenment or our true nature.
The idea that our original minds shine comes from the Pali Canon. The Luminous Sutta says, “Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it’s defiled by incoming defilements. Luminous, monks, is the mind and it’s free of defilements.”
The mind is Luminous whether it’s afflicted or at peace, clear or confused, yours or mine. This is the foundation of Chan. Zuochan isn’t an effort to make our minds shine. There should be no effort whatsoever.
It’s the practice of letting our minds shine, letting everything shine.
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