Letting Go in Action: the Practice of Zazen
I would like to think that zazen, like the practice of “standing” in Chinese martial arts, puts me in a position to realize activity out of the necessity of breath.
Sitting cross-legged is sitting with a stretch. The ability to relax and allow action generated by the stretch of ligaments or fascia is part of the necessity of breath in the posture, and informs the place of occurrence of consciousness and the ability to feel.
Most people don’t realize that the ligaments and fascia of the body can generate nerve impulses that will contract muscles. Stretch in one of the seated postures of zazen (like the lotus) or in one of the standing postures of Tai-Chi (like the “single-whip” pose) can result in a subtle muscular activity that facilitates the lengthening of ligaments and can gradually include the entire body.
Moshe Feldenkrais described three exercises that he said would facilitate getting up from a chair without holding the breath. These exercises consisted of swaying the upper body forward and back, then side to side, and finally in a circle around the base of the tailbone. Similar exercises are often recommended for settling into the posture of zazen.
These stretches highlight the ongoing activity of an upright posture, namely the action of the obturators that hammock the hips from the pelvis (side to side), the action of the sartorius muscles that shift the wings of the pelvis (toward the diagonals), and the action of the extensor and psoas muscles that balance the weight of the upper body on the sitbones of the pelvis (forward and back). The idea is to stretch ligaments and facilitate activity in all three directions, to allow the movement of breath to remain continuous even as the posture or carriage shifts.
In zazen, the sense of equilibrium associated with the current location of awareness in space brings forward the particulars of stretch necessary to the relaxed movement of breath. In particular, feeling for stretch side-to-side and action in the obturators comes with a sense of roll in the current location of awareness; feeling for stretch on the diagonals and action in the sartorius muscles comes with a sense of yaw; and feeling for stretch forward-and-back and action in the extensor and psoas muscles comes with a sense of pitch.
The sense of pitch, yaw, and roll that an aircraft pilot might utilize is very much at play in zazen; through the sense of equilibrium associated with the location of awareness in space, stretch and activity are initiated that align vertebrae and permit the ability to feel necessary to the current movement of breath.
In juggling, the juggler realizes the momentum and weight of each object as a contribution to the juggler’s own sense of physical location, in order to relax the activity of throwing and catching; in practicing zazan, the sitter experiences the orientation and weight of any body part that crosses the mind as a contribution to the sense of physical location, and the pitch, yaw, and roll inherent in the experience of location informs the stretch and activity necessary to the relaxed movement of breath.
To be clear, the effort is to relax and calm down. Master Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s instructions for the practice of Tai-Chi emphasized a thorough relaxation of the entire body, followed by a relaxation of the chest:
“(The practitioner) should relax. The relaxation should be overall, that is, throughout the entire body. And it should be thorough, that is, without the least strain anywhere. The aim is to throw every bone and muscle of the entire body wide open without hindrance or obstruction anywhere. When (one) has done this, (one) will be in a position to talk about ch’i. To start with, (one) should let (the) ch’i sink right down to the “tan t’ien”. To do this (one) should first relax the chest, for the ch’i can only sink freely when the chest is relaxed. Gradually the ch’i will be felt to accumulate.”
(Cheng Man-ch’ing, T’ai-chi Ch’uan, North Atlantic Books, 1981, pg 7, copyright Juliana T. Cheng- parantheticals paraphrase original)
When Cheng says that the “ch’i” will sink to the tan-t’ien and gradually accumulate as the chest is relaxed, he refers to a tendency for a singularity in the sense of location to develop as feeling for the placement of the parts enters into the location of awareness; such a singularity becomes necessary to the movement of breath, as the chest is relaxed with “every bone and muscle of the entire body wide open”.
Elsewhere in his book “Thirteen Chapters”, Cheng details how to “throw every bone and muscle of the entire body wide open”:
“In the first phase the sinews are relaxed from the shoulder to the wrist. …Finally we are able to relax the sinews all the way to the fingertips. The second phase, from the groin to the heel, proceeds in the same manner. …One must not use strength, but completely relax from the groin to the knees to the heels. …The third phase is from the wei-lu point (base of the tailbone) to the crown of the head… Thus we speak of softening the waist, so that it can bend in any direction, as if there were no bones at all.”
(“Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan”, by Cheng Man-Ch’ing, translated by Douglas Wile, pgs 53-54)
Noteworthy is that the direction of relaxation is always along the bones toward the extremity, regardless of inhalation or exhalation.
Feldenkrais pointed out that the curve and structure of the lower spine requires support from below the waist to allow the unrestricted movement of breath while getting up out of a chair; his exercises were designed to bring into awareness the stretches involved in the activity of that support. Two sets of ligaments support the structure of the lumbar spine as the spine extends, one pair providing support in inhalation and the other in exhalation: when the spine is relaxed upward from the tailbone in inhalation, the ilio-lumbar ligaments that run vertically between the pelvis and the fourth lumbar vertebrae are engaged; when the spine is relaxed upward from the tailbone in exhalation, the ilio-lumbar ligaments that run horizontally from the pelvis to the fifth lumbar vertebrae are engaged. This is illustrated in the drawing below:
Here is another illustration, this time from a temple in Egypt, depicting the Egyptian god Hapi holding two of four long reeds that originate in the ground and cross through a knot on a pillar (one and the same god on both sides of the pillar):
I would suggest that the reed that the god is holding on either side of the pillar represents the horizontal ilio-lumbar ligaments, that engage as the spine is relaxed upward from the sacrum in the movement of exhalation. The presence of the god is an indication that the tensile support of the ligament is realized not through the direction of any conscious activity, but solely through the experience of the location of awareness and the ability to feel in the necessity of breath.
The toes of the god rest against either side of something shaped like the sacrum of the body; close-ups show that not only is the footrest of the god the shape of the sacrum, but it is also segmented in five parts like the sacrum.
The nerves which exit between vertebrae in the lower back and sacrum allow feeling in the lower legs and along the soles of the feet. As feeling from the legs and feet is absorbed into the sense of location in the occurrence of consciousness, the sense of location can generate stretch and activity to align the lower vertebrae of the spine. Alignment in the lower spine permits feeling for the movement of the sacrum relative to the pelvis, as well as increased sensitivity in the legs and feet.
That the body can be held upright in zazen solely through the interplay between a sense of location, an ability to feel, and relaxation in the movement of breath is illustrated in another graphic from the walls of the temples of Egypt:
The goddesses Isis and Nephthys kneel suspended on what may be a woven material, one knee of each goddess resting against what might be construed to be a representation of the first lumbar transverse processes. This is exactly the vertebrae supported by the horizontal ilio-lumbar ligaments, and here a connection between feeling in the legs around the knees and support for this vertebrae is suggested. The hands of the goddesses frame the lower spine, while the hands of the baboons and the hands of the “ankh” (the cross with an oval) emphasize an upward extension. There are two mounds outside of the benches on which the goddesses kneel, very much in the shape of the pelvic wings, while the dunes the baboons walk on form a space whose interior resembles the cavity of the chest. The large dark border along the top of the image may represent the diaphragm.
The “ankh” or looped cross is thought by some to be the vertebrae of a cow, and in my mind it’s entirely possible that this shape is used to represent the cranial-sacral fluid system as described in modern cranial-sacral osteopathy. At the very least, the symbol represents a minimalist representation of the three motions of pitch, yaw, and roll in the spine.
In the hieroglyphs of Egypt, the orb of the sun represents both the king and the occurrence of consciousness freed of fixture to location, the latter referred to as an “akh”. Here the “akh” is framed by hands extended upward from the ankh, and the “akh” appears to touch on the central cone of the diaphragm-like dark line.
The benches the goddesses kneel on I believe represent the ligaments that connect the sacrum to the pelvis, and the central point of the illustration would be the upward support provided as feeling opens for the placement of the legs at the knees and for the corresponding alignment of vertebrae in the relaxed movement of breath. The tassles hanging from the benches, like the doubled-back tops of the reeds in the hands of the god in the previous illustration, emphasize the role of gravity in the stretch and activity of alignment.
The three sets of ligaments that connect the sacrum to the pelvis bear weight and cause activity in response to the natural pitch, yaw, and roll of the body in the movement of breath. The ligaments that run diagonally from the sacrum to the left and right front of the pelvis are especially utilized in the relaxed extension of the spine, and the role of the arms and hands in the translation of stretch in these ligaments into activity in support of extension is suggested not only in the illustrations from the temple of Egypt, but also in the use of a staff as an aid to upright posture in so many aspects of human life.
The use of a thin rod in the healing dances of the African bushmen or the use of a short teacher’s stick by a lecturer in the Zen tradition demonstrate that relaxed extension of the spine and a feeling for the placement of the hands relative to the ground are intimately connected. I would suggest that the sense of the placement of the hands relative to the ground serves to facilitate the rhythm of stretch in the ligaments that control yaw in spinal extension, relative to the rhythm of stretch of the ligaments that control pitch and roll.
The bushmen also wear strings of small rattles that completely encircle their legs below the knees, providing sound for the contribution to place of the lower legs. The favored pose for the practice of zazen is usually considered to be the lotus, and the lotus similarly advances the contribution to place of the lower legs as feeling in the legs contributes to a relaxed extension.
Research suggests that the three sets of abdominal muscles serve primarily to align the spine in such a manner as to allow for the engagement of fascial support in the lower back. The external oblique muscles, the internal oblique muscles, and the transverse muscles attach to the rectal sheath along the center of the abdomen, and there is one place where the ligaments of the three abdominal muscles are of equal length in their attachments: that point is approximately two inches below the navel.
Cheng emphasized the accumulation of ch’i at a point approximately two inches below the navel and approximately 3/7ths of the distance from the front of the abdomen to the rear. Gautama the Buddha spoke of a practice of being fully consciousness of “before as behind, behind as before”: the sense of location that opens feeling in the forward abdomen opens feeling below and behind the sacrum and spine, and vice versa, as a matter of course in the relaxed movement of breath.
Cheng also spoke of “softening the waist, so that it can bend in any direction, as if there were no bones at all”. Activity in the abdominals to align the lower spine with fascial support utilizes stretch on the diagonals of the abdomen in the internal and external obliques, and stretch on the horizontal plane of the abdomen in the transverse muscles. The stretch on the horizontal plane in particular can engage the fascia of the lower back in the alignment of the spine, guided by the stretch on the diagonals and the stretch of the same fascia generated by the position of the arms.
A dermatone chart will reveal that feeling along the surface of the abdomen below the navel is connected to nerves that exit the spine between vertebrae at the bottom of the chest, while feeling along the surface of the lower back opposite the area below the navel is dependent on nerves that exit the spine at the top of the lumbar spine. Consciousness of what is before as behind and of what is behind as before at the level of the tan-t’ien would therefore juxtapose the ability to feel connected with the lower chest vertebrae with the ability to feel connected with the upper lumbar vertebrae, in the vicinity of the balance of weight of the body. Similarly, an ability to feel in the skin along the front portion of the lower legs and in the skin along the tops and outside edges of the feet corresponds to nerve exits at the lowest vertebrae of the spine, while an ability to feel along the rear portion of the lower legs and along the soles of the feet corresponds to nerve exits at the uppermost two vertebrae of the sacrum.
“Above as below, below as above” said Gautama; the meaning of the phrase, as he explained it, is to be conscious of each part of the body exactly as it is from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head, and from the crown of the head to the soles of the feet.
In a poem from the fifth century C.E., the Buddhist monk Fuxi elaborated on how relaxed extension stretches the ligaments between the sacrum and the pelvis, and how gravity generates activity in the legs and in the pelvis that frees the experience of location and turns off volitive activity in the movement of breath:
The empty hand grasps the hoe-handle
Walking along I ride the ox
The ox crosses the wooden bridge
The bridge is flowing, the water is still
(“Zen's Chinese Heritage”, Andy Ferguson, pg 2)
“The ox crosses the wooden bridge” describes an effect of the rhythm of stretch and activity as the weight of the entire body rests in the ligaments that connect the sacrum and pelvis: each step of an ox on a wooden bridge reverberates to the headtop and throughout the body of any rider, from the spine to the surface of the skin, and the same is true for the individual whose weight rests in three directions between the sacrum and pelvis.
The phrase “the bridge is flowing” could be said to describe a moment before sleep when the location of awareness seems to shift in place in the body, while “the water is still” could describe the cessation of volitive activity in the body at that same moment. For most people, the loss of volitive control in the activity of the body is associated with falling, and as a consequence many people experience a “hypnic jerk” or sudden muscular contraction as they begin to fall asleep. Fuxi suggests that an awareness that shifts location freely in the body can come about as a matter of course, as the ability to feel informs the sense of location and the weight of the relaxed body generates stretch and activity in the movement of breath. He depicts a process of gradual stages whereby a muscular contraction is avoided, at the moment when a shift in the location of awareness with a cessation of volitive activity registers in the sub-consciousness.
Although Fuxi outlines the stages of a process, and the process may be said to be gradual, the transition from a waking state to a state between waking and sleeping must be said to be sudden, marked by a sense of location that can shift and a cessation of any voluntary activity in the body.
Gautama the Buddha spoke of four initial meditative states that he said occurred in sequence, the last of which was marked by a cessation of any voluntary activity that might occur in connection with inhalation and exhalation.
Gautama described the method of induction of the first meditative state with an analogy about a bath attendant collecting moistened soap powder into a ball from the inside of a bowl:
“…as a skilled bath-attendant or (bath-attendant) apprentice, having sprinkled bath-powder into a bronze vessel, might knead it while repeatedly sprinkling it with water until the ball of lather had taken up moisture, was drenched with moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out but without any oozing. Even so… does (a person) saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of aloofness; there is no part of (the) whole body that is not suffused with the rapture and joy born of aloofness. While (such a person) is thus diligent, ardent, self-resolute, those memories and aspirations that are worldly are got rid of; by getting rid of them, the mind is inwardly settled, calmed, focused, concentrated.”
(MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)
The description that Gautama gave of a singularity that rolls and collects and leaves no part of the body without feeling is a description of consciousness in a hynogogic state, a state between waking and sleeping, and such a state cannot be made to happen. In one of his lectures, the Gautamid emphasized that a lack of desire even for the attainment of meditative states was primary, declaring that with regard to these states “whatever (those who claim accomplishment) imagine it to be, it is otherwise” (MN III 42-45, PTS pgs 92-94).
Although Gautama described the induction of meditative states in detail, he made it clear that his practice both before and after enlightenment was “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” (which he described as a particular instance of his more general “setting up of mindfulness”). His instruction for the “intent concentration” began as follows:
“Mindful [one] breathes in. Mindful [one] breathes out. Whether [one] is breathing in a long (breath), breathing out a long (breath), breathing in a short (breath), breathing out a short (breath), one comprehends ‘I am breathing in a long (breath), I am breathing out a long (breath), I am breathing in a short (breath), I am breathing out a short (breath).’”
(MN III 89, PTS III pg 130)
Gautama elaborated on the comprehension of the long and short of inhalation and exhalation, saying the practice is “like a clever turner, or clever turner’s apprentice who, making a long (turn), comprehends ‘I am making a long (turn)’; or when making a short (turn) comprehends, ‘I am making a short (turn)’” (MN I 56, Pali Text Society I pg 72). What a “turner” was in ancient India, he did not explain.
Eihei Dogen’s teacher in China, Rujing, had this to say about a comprehension of the long or short of breath:
“Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.”
(Dogen’s “Eihei Koroku”, vol. 5, #390)
The “tanden” is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese “tan-t’ien” that Chen Man-Ch’ing spoke of, yet no such location in the body is mentioned in the teachings of Gautama the Buddha. However, Gautama’s analogy for the first meditative state makes it clear that something shifts and gathers consistency through the exercise of an ability to feel that leaves “no part” of the body out. By his caution that “whatever (one might) imagine it to be, it is otherwise”, he affirms that this accretion of a singularity is a hynogogic phenomena, and not subject to attainment through the exercise of will. In fact, the “no place” that the breath comes from and goes to in Rujing’s teaching is an affirmation that the breath whose long or short is willfully comprehended is not comprehended at all.
A hypnogogic state occurs naturally as the stretch and activity generated through the sense of location in the occurrence of awareness relaxes in the movement of breath. A sense of weight in the body contributes to the experience and is conducive to a shift in the experience of location to the lower abdomen; an experience of the location of awareness in the lower abdomen may be said to be characteristic of the induction of a hypnogogic state in upright postures.
The Chan teacher Yuanwu appears to have described the induction of a hypnogogic state, when he wrote:
“You must strive with all your might to bite through here and cut off conditioned habits of mind. Be like a person who has died the great death: after your breath is cut off, then you come back to life. Only then do you realize that it is as open as empty space. Only then do you reach the point where your feet are walking on the ground of reality.”
(Zen Letters, translated by J.C. and Thomas Cleary, pg 84)
Yuanwu began by telling the reader to “bite through here”, drawing attention to the placement and movement of the jaw relative to the current sense of location; attention to the placement and movement of the jaw engages the sense of proprioception, or “the awareness of movement derived from muscular, tendon, and articular sources” (credited by Wikipedia to Sherrington’s “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System”, 1906), and by analogy Yuanwu instructs his reader to engage the proprioceptive sense with the sense of location (“bite through here”), just as Gautama did in his description of the first meditative state (the lather ball being the sense of location, and proprioception together with gravity being the drenching of the body with "no part left out").
Yuanwu made a connection between "biting through here" and the ability to “cut off conditioned habits of mind”, where to “cut off conditioned habits of mind” meant to cease any voluntary activity of thought or direction of the body, just as though one were letting go of life itself. Yuanwu stated that as a matter of course, such a cessation of habitual activity results in a feeling that the activity of breath in the body has been cut off, and causes a person to come to their senses as though returned to life from the dead. Returned to one’s senses, the location of awareness shifts in three-dimensional space without restriction, as in empty space; activity in the body is engendered by virtue of the location of awareness and the nerve impulses generated by ligaments and fascia as they stretch in response to the relaxed necessity of breath, without volition.
Although Yuanwu was not explicit that walking on the ground of reality requires an aware state of relaxation like that in which any subject of hypnosis rests, he was quite explicit that walking on the ground of reality is associated with an experience of necessity connected with the movement of breath, and he implied that such an experience is a gateway to an altered state of mind.
Moshe Feldenkrais also pointed to the experience of “cutting off” the breath, a “cutting off” that he said happens for most people as they extend themselves from a seated position to standing. His prescription for a natural movement of breath in the act of standing was to connect stretch in three directions with relaxed activity, so that standing would follow automatically as the weight of the body stretched particular ligaments in the movement of breath.
My own practice in response to any "cutting off" of breath is to look to discern pitch, yaw, and roll wherever my awareness takes place ("bite through here"), as a critical aspect for me of letting go of action in favor of a spontaneous experience of sense.
Gautama the Buddha made no explicit connection between his practice of “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” and the induction of the first four meditative states. He did, however, categorize the first four meditative states as belonging to mindfulness of the body (MN III 92 PTS pg 132), and he declared that the first four instructions in “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” belonged to setting up mindfulness of the body.
Here is the practice of “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” again, this time in full:
“Mindful [one] breathes in. Mindful [one] breathes out. Whether [one] is breathing in a long (breath), breathing out a long (breath), breathing in a short (breath), breathing out a short (breath), one comprehends ‘I am breathing in a long (breath), I am breathing out a long (breath), I am breathing in a short (breath), I am breathing out a short (breath).’ Thus [one] trains [oneself] thinking, ‘I will breathe in experiencing the whole body; I will breathe out experiencing the whole body. [One] trains [oneself], thinking ‘ I will breathe in tranquillizing the activity of body; I will breathe out tranquillizing the activity of body.’
[One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing rapture… experiencing joy… experiencing the activity of thought… tranquillising the activity of thought.’
[One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out experiencing thought… rejoicing in thought… concentrating thought… freeing thought.’
[One] trains [oneself], thinking: ‘I will breathe in… breathe out beholding impermanence… beholding detachment… beholding stopping… beholding casting away.”
(MN III 82-83, PTS III pg 124)
According to Gautama, the instructions in the first four sentences constituted a practice of setting up mindfulness with regard to the body; the instructions in the second four sentences constituted mindfulness with regard to the feelings; the instructions in the third four sentences, mindfulness of the mind; and the instructions in the fourth four sentences, mindfulness of the states of mind.
Gautama appears to offer a practice conducive to the induction of a hynogogic state, and to regard such practice as a matter of course in daily life. Indeed, Gautama affirmed that at the close of his discourses, he returned to a state of concentration as a matter of course:
“And I… at the close of (instructional discourse), steady, calm, make one-pointed and concentrate my mind subjectively in that first characteristic of concentration in which I ever constantly abide.”
(MN I 249, Pali Text Society I pg 303)
That first characteristic of concentration was likely “making self-surrender the object of thought”. As in falling asleep, the experience of concentration that Gautama referred to follows a giving up of action of the body and mind in favor of the relaxed movement of breath, and as such constitutes a hypnogogic state.
As to the part of “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” that was “beholding impermanence”, Gautama pointed out that the acceptance of impermanence is easier for most people with regard to the body:
“It were better… if the untaught manyfolk approached this body, child of the four great elements, as the self rather than the mind. Why so? Seen is it… how this body, child of the four great elements, persists for a year, persists for two years, persists for three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty years, persists for forty, for fifty years, persists for a hundred years and even longer. But this… that we call thought, that we call mind, that we call consciousness, that arises as one thing, ceases as another, whether by night or by day.”
(SN II 93-94, Pali Text Society II pg 66)
The natural witness of impermanence in thought, in mind and in consciousness, said Gautama, may be expected in “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” after a “freeing of thought” takes place with regard to inhalation and exhalation.
Regarding detachment, he said:
“If (a person) experiences a pleasant feeling… a painful feeling… a feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, (such a person) comprehends that it is impermanent… not to be cleaved to… not an object of enjoyment. If (such a person) experiences a pleasant feeling… painful feeling… a feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, then detached from it (such a person) experiences it.”
(MN III 245, Pali Text Society III pg 291)
"Beholding detachment" is the witness of such a detachment, born of the witness of impermanence.
The “beholding stopping” that followed “beholding detachment” in “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” concerned a cessation of the exercise of volition in action, in particular the cessation of that exercise of volition that is set in motion through the ignorance of things as they are. Gautama saw ignorance as a source of volitive activity, and volitive activity he saw as the source of an experience of consciousness as stationed or unresponsive. From the experience of consciousness as stationed, he said, a chain of cause and effect is set in motion that leads to the thought “this is mine; this I am; this is my self”. This chain, he said, constituted the genesis of suffering; at the same time, the cessation of ignorance was the cessation of all the elements of the causal chain, and therefore constituted a cessation of suffering. “Beholding stopping” concerned the natural witness of a cessation of the exercise of volition born of ignorance; such a cessation follows from the witness of detachment.
“Beholding casting away” concerned a witness of the casting away of identification with “the five groups of grasping”; the groups were composed of graspings after material form, after feeling, after mind, after habitual activity, and after mental state, as here:
“Whatever… is material shape, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, mean or excellent, or whatever is far or near, (a person), thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling… perception… the habitual tendencies… whatever is consciousness, past, future, or present… (that person), thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. (For one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body.”
(MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society III pg 68)
“By means of perfect wisdom” is an affirmation that seeing through the conceit “mine is the doer” depends on a knowledge inherent in human nature, a knowledge that escapes the use of reason.
Gautama spoke of certain “controlling faculties” that are observed to cease or stop with the induction of each of the meditative states. Thus, in the first meditative state:
“… the controlling faculty of discomfort, which has arisen, ceases without remainder.”
(SN V 214, Pali Text Society V pg 188)
Similarly, in the second meditative state:
“… the controlling faculty of unhappiness, which has arisen, comes to cease without remainder.”
Gautama described the induction and the feeling of the second meditative state as follows:
“… a (person)… enters on and abides in the second meditative state which is devoid of initial thought and discursive thought, is born of concentration and is rapturous and joyful. (Such a person) drenches, saturates, permeates, suffuses this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration; there is no part of (their) whole body that is not suffused with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration. It is like a pool of water with water welling up within it, but which has no inlet for water from the eastern… western… northern… or southern side, and even if the god does not send down showers upon it from time to time, yet the current of cool water having welled up from that pool will drench, saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration.”
(MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)
The sense of a tangible, almost palpable singularity Gautama emphasized in his analogy for the feeling of the first meditative state gives way in the second meditative state to the sense of an upwelling from within that suffuses the entire body.
Gautama stated that “thought applied and sustained” ceased in the second meditative state, yet he noted that the “disturbance” of the senses including the mind existed in all the meditative states. In fact, he lectured that close attendance to the occurrence of consciousness, impact and feeling with respect to each of the senses becomes a modality of the path to the end of suffering:
“(Anyone)…knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye—neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind)
Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.”
(MN III 288-290, Pali Text Society III pg 337-338)
Gautama listed six senses, and yet in the twentieth century science has identified three additional senses that give rise to consciousness: these are equalibrioception, or the sense of equilibrium provided by the vestibular organs; proprioception, or the sense of placement and motion of the parts of the body provided by nerve impulses from the ligaments, joints, and muscles; and an as-yet unnamed sense that provides information about the effect of gravity on the body, coming from the ostolithic organs (located in the inner ear near the vestibular organs).
The impact Gautama associated with consciousness is consistent with the relationship of proprioceptive consciousness to the experience of equalibrioception; that is to say, the experience of awareness generated by muscle, joint, or ligament has an impact on the sense of equalibrium, and because the equalibrium of the body affects the alignment of vertebrae and the ability to feel, what is felt can be said to depend in part on the impact of proprioceptive consciousness. Each organ of sense is a source of the proprioceptive consciousness of place as well as a source of the consciousness of sense, and in this regard each has an impact associated with the experience of sense.
Zen meditation is distinguished from many other forms of meditation in that the eyes remain open. The eyes have the ability to reset the sense of location in space, an ability formed of necessity in order to allow for stability and continuity of vision in a body that constantly shifts and moves. Consciousness derived from proprioception informs the sense of location in three dimensions, yet the sense of location the brain derives from what is seen can override the sense of location derived from equalibrioception and proprioception; a common example occurs when a train next to the train in which an individual is seated begins to move forward, and the individual has a sudden sense of backward movement even though the train in which they are seated is still stationary.
Dogen could have been prescribing a way to avoid such an illusion when he wrote:
“…learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
(“Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen” (Fukan zazengi), translated as part of the Stanford Project)
A person can “learn to take the backward step”: that is to say, a person can shine a light on where awareness is taking place right now through the inclusion of consciousness connected with equalibrioception, consciousness connected with proprioception, and consciousness connected with the sense of gravity.
Although an emphasis on the sense of place and the contribution to the sense of place of proprioception may be appropriate in the setting up of mindfulness, a return to the senses out of necessity in the movement of breath precludes thought directed and sustained. The abandonment of activity in the body that is occasioned by “making self-surrender the object of thought” will at some point touch on the habitual activity connected with the movement of breath, and at the moment the breath is “cut off” in the surrender of activity, relaxation brings a return to the senses without the application of thought applied and sustained. Such is the nature of the second meditative state.
In the third meditative state, Gautama said, “… the controlling faculty of ease, which has arisen, comes to cease without remainder”; he described the experience as follows:
“… (an individual), by the fading out of rapture, dwells with equanimity, attentive and clearly conscious and experiences in (their) person that joy of which the (noble) ones say:
‘Joyful lives (the one) who has equanimity and is mindful.’”
(MN III 93, Pali Text Society III pg 133)
The stretch of ligament or fascia sufficient to cause muscular contraction can be a source of ease as reciprocity between paired ligaments and muscle groups is established, and the body relaxes into the stretch necessary to the movement of breath. As the reciprocity of activity develops, the physiological limits of fascial resilience and muscular endurance are realized along with stretch and activity, yet with relaxation the limits prior to the actual inception of pain extend. As the limits extend, initial ease is replaced by an equanimity, and Gautama’s third meditative state may be said to be present.
The analogy Gautama provided for the feeling of the third meditative state emphasized both an inward mass like that of the lather ball of the first meditative state and a fluid extension like that of the well within a pool of the second meditative state:
“As in a pond of white… or red… or blue lotuses, some white… or red… or blue lotuses are born in the water, grow up in the water, never rising above the surface but flourishing beneath it and from their roots to their tips are drenched, saturated, permeated, suffused by cool water; even so… does (one) drench, saturate, permeate, and suffuse this very body with the joy that has no rapture; there is no part of (the) whole body that is not suffused with the joy that has no rapture.”
(MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)
The role of the mind in the third meditative state, and perhaps the significance of the lotuses in Gautama’s analogy, is summarized in a verse of instructions Gautama gave for the cultivation and development of psychic powers:
So he abides fully conscious of what is behind and what is in front.
As (he is conscious of what is) in front, so behind: as behind, so in front;
as below, so above: as above, so below:
as by day, so by night: as by night, so by day.
Thus with wits alert, with wits unhampered, he cultivates his mind to brilliancy.
(Sanyutta-Nikaya, text V 263, Pali Text Society volume 5 pg 235)
The line “as by day, so by night: as by night, so by day” Gautama explained as a reference to attending the sign of the concentration, both by day and by night. Self-surrender as the object of thought becomes attendance to that which makes the relinquishment of volition in the action of the body and mind possible, as the reciprocity of fascial stretch and muscular activity is extended.
At the same time, the advice of the Chan master Nan-yueh was:
“If you’re studying seated Buddha, Buddha is no fixed mark.”
(“Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation” by Carl Bielefeldt, University of California Press 1988 pg 195)
Without a freedom of mind that allows the location of awareness to shift with contact in the senses, including contact in the senses of equalibrioception and proprioception, there is no induction of a hynogogic state, and likewise no relinquishment of volition in activity connected with the movement of breath.
The fourth meditative state sees an end to the controlling faculty of happiness. An equanimity toward mental happiness or unhappiness follows with a clarity and distinctness of the senses, including equalibrioception and proprioception. Gautama’s description of the feeling of the fourth meditative state was as follows:
“(A person), having suffused this very body with a mind that is utterly pure, utterly clean, comes to be sitting down; there is no part of (the person’s) whole body that is not suffused by a mind that is utterly pure, utterly clean. …It is as if a (person) might be sitting down who had clothed (their body) including (their) head with a white cloth; there would be no part of (the person’s) body not covered by the white cloth. Even so… (a person), having suffused this very body with a mind that is utterly pure, utterly clean, comes to be sitting down; there is no part of this whole body that is not suffused by a mind that is utterly pure, utterly clean.”
(MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)
The mind “utterly pure, utterly clean” is also described as a mind of “purified equanimity”. With regard to a person in the fourth meditative state, Gautama said that:
“Such a [one] is called… a [person] who has understood the ceasing of the controlling faculty of happiness, one who has collected [their] mind for attaining such a condition.”
(SN V 215, Pali Text Society V pg 189)
Noteworthy is Gautama’s assertion that the meditative states he described were all characterized by inner happiness, each state with an inner happiness greater than the one before; with regard to how happiness could exist even when the controlling faculty of happiness has ceased, he said:
“(I do) not lay down that it is only a pleasant feeling that belongs to happiness; for, your reverences, (I, the thus-gone one, lay) down that whenever, wherever, whatever happiness is found it belongs to happiness.’”
(MN I 400, Pali Text Society II pg 69)
The controlling faculty of happiness present in the second meditative state ceases with the fourth meditative state, much as the controlling faculty of ease present in the first meditative state ceases with the third meditative state; that is to say, the mental happiness that accompanies the cessation of thought applied and sustained in the second meditative state now is replaced with a purified equanimity, as any boundary in the distinction of the senses is extended in the movement of breath.
copyright 2013 Mark A. Foote