An Exercise For Loosening The Cold Dead Grip Of Thought

The purpose of this exercise is to provide you with an essential perspective to do awakening work. Once that perspective is integrated, you won't have to think about it.

An Exercise For Loosening The Cold Dead Grip Of Thought
Photo by Juan Rumimpunu /Other primates also look up and to the left when lost in thought!

Before we begin practicing zazen seriously, most of us believe that our thoughts are real. And even after we begin serious practice, a subtle sense of this may continue. To help you shake loose of thoughts and even a subtle belief that these apparitions are real, I'm offering a reflection for seeing thoughts for what they are.

This exercise is inspired by Zhiyi (538–597; aka, Chih-i) from The Great Stopping and Seeing (摩訶止觀; Mohe Zhiguan; Japanese, Maka Shikan; 199-200; all quotes are slightly modified for consistency):

Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho chih-kuan, 3-volume set
The Mo-ho chih-kuan (Great cessation-and-contemplation) by T’ien-t’ai Chih-i (538–597) is among the most influential treatises in the long history of Buddhist scholarship. It is known for its brill…

One of Zhiyi's great contributions was his clear instruction for stopping and seeing from the Great Vehicle perspective of Great Compassion. He also put Nagarjuna's tetralemma to use in actual practice. And Zen masters from Wansong to Hakuin (as well as before, in-between, and afterwards) have used Zhiyi's teaching as preliminary practice for their teaching.

The purpose of what follows is to provide you with an essential perspective to do awakening work. Once that perspective is integrated, you won't have to think about it.

The Vine of Obstacles Zen offers writing like this one, aimed at practitioners who are interested in doing the subtle work of the buddhadharma. We also offer a training group for householders intent on awakening and post-awakening practice with a high degree of integrity within the nitty-gritty details of this life. This would be a good time to explore our approach and see if you find affinity with Tetsugan Sensei and I as teachers, and with the Vine sangha. The first step is to attend some Sunday sessions, 10:00am to 11:15am CDT. The Zoom link for these sessions is shared weekly with paid subscribers. If you are not now a paid subscriber, use the button on the lower right to review your options.

This is not an intellectual exercise

It is best done when a practitioner has some fluency with the breath and has attuned the body through careful attention to the details of posture, so that they sit in a balanced and released pose. See way below for a series of posts and resources on these topics.

Say you're doing koan work. Sooner or later you'll meet with "Who hears?" or "What is the source of mu?" Most of our dharma ancestors who took up these koans were already steeped in a contemplation like the one that I offer below. This perspective certainly greased their awakening wheels. At the same time, an exercise like this can wash away "[...] your former harmful knowledge and harmful feelings [...]," as Wumen says in his Mu commentary, making you ripe for profound, subtle realization.

Rain showers moving across Lake Superior

Who hears?

This is a koan that is often used for initial breakthrough or early in the koan process. It is fully expressed as, "Who is the master hearing that sound?" The background for the koan and the first step of our present exercise is also contained in the "Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra:"

Therefore, given emptiness, there is ... no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight… no realm of mind consciousness.

What's referenced here in an abbreviated manner is more fully known as "the eighteen compositional elements of cognition." The "eighteen" include the six objects (the five senses and mind), the six sense faculties (eyes, ears, nose, etc.), and the six consciousnesses (realm [consciousness] of sight, realm [consciousness] of sound, etc). 

Let's take sound as an example. The sound that's predominant for me right now is a large power shovel that is demolishing a former neighbor's house about fifty yards from where I sit. In this instance, what we usually call "sound" ("Rrrrr ... boom! Rrrrr ... boom!) is the co-arising of the roar of the shovel's engine, the ear organ, and the ear consciousness. And because the arising of this sound and all sounds - as well as all sights, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts - is a mutual co-arising of the sense object, the sense organ, and the sense consciousness, we can say that all such experiences are non-locatable. In other words, we can accurately say that they are "empty."

But just accurately saying something based on an intellectual understanding has limited power for freedom and relief. Instead, we need to see. One opportune way to see it is to be it, as Tetsugan Sensei likes to say, within the subtle breath in the stillness of zazen. Another opportune way is in the midst of daily life off the zazen seat.

So Zhiyi recommends that:

By seeing the mutual relationship of the sense-organs and sense-objects arising in the mind in a single thought-moment (nen), [see that] there is no subject or object that is not empty in itself.

Thoughts without a thinker?

As noted above, what's been said about seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, also applies to thinking. However, it is helpful to begin with sound, given the more obvious ephemeral nature of sound. Seeing the emptiness of thinking is a more subtle insight.

In the arising of a thought (like this one), there is only the sense object ("like this one"), the sense organ (in this case, the mind), and the sense consciousness (the awareness of the function of the sense organ identifying the thought). Now all of that has already moved on to this next thought. The "thinker" is just the dynamic activity of these three flowing dependent functions. Therefore, no "thinker" can be found.

The "thought," too, arising as it does in dependence on myriad conditions, is wholly dependent on the sense organ and sense consciousness. Within this thinking process, then, there is no locatable subject or object.

Zhiyi takes the point one step further:

Though we say in a deluded manner that thoughts “arise,” in this “arising” there is actually no self-nature, other-nature, common-nature, nor nature of causelessness.

That there isn't a self that can be located doesn't mean there is other. In truth, the other can't be found either. And if in this process of the arising of thinking, there is no self and no other, then the notion that both self and other are somehow real obviously doesn't accord with what's real. For example, no matter how many non-dogs you have, you cannot accurately say in sober company that you have a pack of dogs.

And yet something is happening and so we cannot accurately say that there is neither self nor other. We might say that there is just the dynamic hopping along of sense object, sense organ, and sense consciousness. This too, though, is just a description. What's the real deal? Where does this dynamic hopping along come from? Where does it go? What is the source of thinking?

Zhiyi continues:

When [a thought] arises, it does not come from itself, nor from something else, nor from both, nor apart from [itself and something else]; and when it goes away, it does not pass away to the east, west, south, or north.

Again, this is not intended to be an intellectual exercise. This reflection can help us profoundly shut up by putting us in a corner where we cannot move an inch. And correct understanding, right view, can be employed in the stillness of zazen that, as Dogen said, "[...] has nothing to do with sitting or lying down."

So see the thoughts that arise in stillness. Where do they come from? They seem to just pop out of nowhere. How could that be? Sometimes we can sense the flow of causation where one thought led to another. But where did it begin? And where did that previous thought just go?

Zhiyi, truly an old joker, notes that they didn't go east, west, south, or north! Of course, it is silly to think that the thought that just passed (i.e., "east, west, south, or north") went east, west, south, or north. But if it didn't go in any of these directions, where did it go? Up or down?


And where is the thought now? Zhiyi tells us:

This thought does not exist inside, outside, in both, or somewhere in between, nor does it abide permanently on its own.

Again, not A (inside), not B (outside), not AB (both), nor not AB (neither). Then what is happening with thinking?

Zhiyi has a secret name for it:

Thinking is merely a verbal designation, and its name is “a thought.” This verbal designation does not abide, nor does it not abide. Since it is incomprehensible, the arising is indivisible from its non-arising, as well as the lack of its non-arising; its existence and non-existence are both tranquil and at ease. 

Incomprehensible. Tranquil. At ease. What a hoot! Thinking and thought are just verbal designations, words for a process that cannot be grasped.

Finally, a powerful, potentially life-transforming insight (again, most likely to arise in stillness):

The self is just a thought that arises in dependence on sense object, sense organ, and sense consciousness. The self neither arises nor passes away; it does not come from itself nor from something else; it doesn't exist inside or outside, and although it doesn't remain, when the thought of self passes, it doesn't go in any of the ten directions. As it is dynamically and vividly hopping along, it doesn't exist inside or outside. The self too is just a verbal designation.

After integrating the perspective above, I recommend sitting quietly and reflecting the arising and passing away of all the six sense gates, and especially thinking. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that you sit and think about thinking! Instead, be the unfolding process; see the process unfold. After all, it is already you.

So relax and let go.

Then, live out the great mystery with vitality and joy, while doing something helpful in the world, passing it on to the next generation.

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I want all of you to be aware that the study of Zen can effect a miraculous transformation that will change you to the very marrow of your bones. - Hakuin Zenji