But what, we may ask, is the special virtue of Soto Zen, of gazing at the wall to achieve liberation? Prisons have walls and inflict humiliating punishments but don't necessarily turn out Zen masters. Let us go sideways into the intriguing answer.
First, some explanations and a caveat about using drugs or mechanical devices to achieve higher states of consciousness.
Nobody can deny that drugs have traditionally been used in religious ceremonies. Soma, the mysterious drug most closely associated with ancient India, the Ling Chih (Plant of Long Life) tree mushroom and other fungi, peyote, marijuana, alcoholic beverages, and an assortment of other substances have been employed worldwide and throughout history to promote or heighten mystical experience.
If a person is already in an exalted spiritual state and uses a drug ceremonially, his motives, though not necessarily his safety from criminal prosecution, are beyond question. It is quite another matter when beginners seek to tour Nirvana on an LSD trip or when clergymen, whose rosy spirituality has been bleached by worldly glare, try to rouge their faith with a liter or two of port.
Although Buddhists are prohibited by the Precepts from using mind altering substances, in truth, this rule is sometimes broken by adepts, especially those who engage in certain forms of Daoist and Buddhist Yoga. Satori and samadhi constitute a dividing line. Before enlightenment or divine union the rule is no ritual alcohol or drugs. Union with God is seldom or never experienced by anyone who hasn't been reverently humbled by suffering through a long period of ego sacrifice.
Yet, every year or so we hear about some marvelous, scientific research project in which drugs were used to induce higher states of consciousness, including, we are told, Nirvana. Nothing, as far as the readers of the published reports are concerned, ever comes of these studies. The writers, however, seem to put them to good use, offering them as evidence of their academic innocence when they apply for grants and for exemption from the various controlled-substances statutes. Anyone who thinks he can find a chemical shortcut to salvation is dangerously wrong. If chemicals could do the job, pot-heads, acid droppers, cocaine and opium users would all be saints. Drug users invariably become self-absorbed, not selfless.
Psychologists, in recent years, have been experimenting with brainwaves and the control of them using biofeedback techniques, hypnosis and such. Though the research is wonderful, it is science, not religion.
The same difference that exists between ordinary wine drinkers and religious communicants exists between people who practice meditation as a means to realize divine union and people who work merely for some kind of mind control or for an academic purpose. Textbooks, technical manuals and machinery do nothing for a person's spiritual development. Knowledge and power, when not acquired with reverence and humility, enhance the ego - an obviously undesirable result for those who are on the spiritual path.
Experimental psychologists, however, have gained knowledge which does help us not only to understand what is happening inside our head when we sit down to meditate but also to resolve some of the controversy concerning Chan meditation styles.
Categorizing the brain's electrical activity by brainwave frequency, they determined that active, thought-engaged brain states such as might be experienced while reading, conversing or directing the attention outwardly towards people, things, or problems are beta waves (13 or more cycles per second). A brain at restful peace whose attentions are directed internally upon itself in watching or witnessing its own thoughts or in contemplation of its interior spiritual contents registers slower alpha waves (8 to 12 cycles per second). A brain in an even more profound state of rest, a state in which mandalas and strange, little pictures (hypnogogic or hypnopompic images) blink into it with peculiar clarity, registers theta waves (4 to 7 cycles per second). In theta, archetypes may be directly encountered in their symbolic forms. A sleeping brain registers delta waves (0 to 4 cycles per second).
Meditation occurs only in the alpha and theta ranges.
Schools of Chan which favor tantric or yogic methods of engaging the various archetypes as chakra kings, buddhas and taras (their female counterparts) obviously require a mastery of theta frequencies.
In the lower alpha and upper theta ranges we encounter those samadhi states in which the world is seen in pristine loveliness and the body and mind seem to drop away in pure consciousness, and purity, itself, is serenely contemplated. Breathing slows down to near stopping and life seems to be suspended. Sometimes we seem able objectively to see ourselves sitting in the room in which we are meditating and sometimes we find ourselves surrounded by an impenetrable, divinely golden haze. Rapture or bliss, akin to a protracted sexual orgasm, may be experienced. This rapture will survive the meditative state as an afterglow that suffuses subsequent states of consciousness with tenderness, compassion, humility and a paradoxical sense of being both liberated from and connected to the rest of humanity. This state is called kenosis (kensho). If all this sounds crazy, it is because words cannot describe either the rush of samadhi or its wake. Any higher state of consciousness must be experienced in order to be understood.
Does the theta induced vision of the world in its pristine loveliness resemble the visual perceptions of satori? Yes. But it neither constitutes nor substitutes for the satori experience because satori quintessentially consists in witnessing the extinction of the ego. Therefore, although the theta and satori perceptions have similar qualities, the experiences are different since one contains the extinction element and the other doesn't. Satori imparts an intellectual understanding that is irrelevant to samadhi. For example, the old Zen assertion, "Before I experienced satori I felt as though I had lost both parents and after I experienced satori I felt as though I had lost both parents," makes sense only with the satori experience. In the frustrating struggle to attain enlightenment, the monk feels as wretched as an orphan; after enlightenment, the monk realizes that his parents don't exist in the real world, a fact which makes him an orphan. Samadhi's divine union doesn't yield this insight.
Most of our information about historical Chan comes from Daisetz Suzuki who happened to be partial to Rinzai (Sudden School) Zen. Since he is Chan's most authoritative spokesman, his views cannot be easily challenged. But especially as they regard Soto (Gradual School) Zen, they can use a little updating.
Suzuki favored Hui Neng's Sudden School because Suzuki had experienced satori and knew that it was nothing if not sudden. He knew that satori occurred both to those who were skilled in meditation and to those who were not. In searching for a factor common to all of Chan's recorded experiences of satori, he was able, therefore, to eliminate skill in meditation.
But there is more to Chan than satori. Meditation practiced during or following a rigorous program - monastery or swamp - of ego detachment may or may not help to ripen the mind but it does enable the monk to master meditation and then, with luck, to ascend into samadhi.
Leaving aside the issue of satori, we find a serious problem with Suzuki's evaluations of the efficacy of 'wall-gazing' as a technique for inducing the meditative state.
Bodhidharma founded Chan Buddhism. He sat in meditation, staring at Shao Lin's whitewashed monastery walls, every day for years. Although Bodhidharma was an enlightened master whose view was a view from the top, his practice still defines the chan in Chan.
Daisetz Suzuki had difficulty appreciating the value of this 'wall-gazing.' How could mere wall-gazing start a revolutionary movement in the Buddhist world, he wondered.
But wall-gazing, modern psychologists have found, is a great way to induce alpha in both its upper and lower (and even upper theta) frequency ranges; and this is the answer to Soto Zen's special virtue.
Anybody can repeat the experiment which proved their point. Simply take a ping-pong ball, cut it in half along its seam and, using transparent tape, tape each half over an eye. The eye should be able to see nothing but the inside of the ball. Then, with opened eyes, turn to face a light source. In very short order, the field of vision will begin to shimmer, undulate and form itself into gray or iridescent shapes which circle around and continuously retreat and advance. Concentrate upon these shapes. These are the evidence of alpha. Don't let your attention divert itself to anything else. If an outside thought intrudes, dismiss it and return to the shapes. Study them. Let them fascinate.
In this technique, called 'ganzfeld' - a German word which means complete field - alpha waves are generated by staring at a blank, preferably white, bright visual field and holding the eyes steadily upon it. A white-wall fulfills this condition. All that is necessary is that the wall occupy the complete field of vision so that distractions are eliminated. (Training, however, can filter out distractions.) This technique is so powerful a generator of alpha that, contrary to Suzuki's suspicions, it easily could have started a wall-gazing revolution.
Unfortunately, modern zendos often are so crowded that devotees must sit throughout the room staring at the floor. Adepts who can generate alpha easily are honorifically given wall spaces while beginners who really need the blank wall are assigned floor spaces. This makes no sense at all. Worse, we sometimes find walls painted a dark color.
Zazen as Bi Guan Chan
To do wall-gazing Chan in a traditionally correct way you should:
l. Get a cushion and a mat. These can be obtained from most Japanese Zen Centers but any firm cushion and reasonably soft mat will do. The cushion must be firm enough to elevate the base of the spine so that it shares the body's weight with the knees.
2. Sit facing a white or light-colored blank wall as closely as is necessary to have it fill the field of vision.
3. Sit in lotus with the spine propped up on the cushion's edge. If full lotus cannot be managed, then half-lotus will have to do.
4. Place the tongue against the roof of the mouth, the underside of the tongue touching the roof.
5. Place your hands in a comfortable mudra (configuration). The easiest way to arrange your hands is to let the right one lie upon the left, top of the right hand against the palm of the left, with the thumbs gently touching. The hands may either be held high as though cradling the navel - in which case your elbows should extend sideways, or your hands may simply rest in your lap, arms relaxed.
6. Stare at the wall, observing its texture.
7. Mentally bow to the Buddha and begin a brief but ruthless examination of conscience. Consider all of the Five Precepts and determine if you have violated any since your last meditation session. Resolve to make amends or restitution if you have. If you feel anger towards anyone resolve that within 24 hours the anger-causing incident will be settled in favor of the other person. The burden of understanding and forgiving the other fellow is entirely upon you.
8. Perform no more than 10 deep breaths of the 4:16:8 cycle. Concentrate on the actual passage of air in and out of the respiratory tract.
9. Observe the undulating figures forming in the field of vision. Fix all attention upon them. If you don't have a wall and there is sufficient exterior light in the room, closed eyes can function as a ganzfeld.
10. As soon as you are relaxed in the alpha state, empty your mind of all thoughts. Thoughts will continuously pop into your mind but your task is to allow none of them to grab your attention. Most teachers recommend that you treat your mind as you would treat a child you are taking for a walk. Whenever your attention wants to linger on a thought, it must be gently pulled away. Say to it, "Sorry, but we can't dally, now. We'll think about that another time."
Or, better yet,
11. Focus your attention upon the various sounds you hear without thinking about these sounds. Just record the sound-event and allow it to pass through your head... in one ear and out the other.
This is really all there is to wall-gazing Chan. Naturally, it is much more difficult to do than to describe.
There is another story about the Purchased Devil that applies to wall-gazing: A man bought a devil and everything went well until the devil got proficient at all his chores and finished them early. Then, having nothing else to do, he would get into mischief and wreck things. The owner went back to the merchant and complained. The merchant laughed. "All that is necessary," he advised, "is that you tell your devil that when he has finished his chores he must climb up and down the tree in your backyard until you get home." "Climbing up and down" means carefully watching the breath go in or out in normal rhythm. When the mind gets into the mischief of discursive thought, it can be managed by ordering it to watch the breath. Usually, however, the breaths are counted and observed either as inhalations or exhalations, from one to ten. After we reach ten, we begin the count again.
If, after five or ten minutes of intense effort, fatigue sets in and you find yourself getting irritated, try an opposite exercise. In this, the Witness Technique, you sit back and watch the thoughts that enter the mind. This is difficult to do because you must be calm in order to succeed. Therefore, it is best to limit your period of "no thought" or of breath watching so that you conclude it before you become irritated. In witnessing your thoughts it is imperative that you do not emotionally respond to them. You must be an uninvolved spectator.
The biggest mistake you can make in Zazen is forcing yourself to sit on your cushion after fatigue has claimed your attention. Never make meditation drudgery. Meditation is a beautiful experience. Save squirming miserably for when you are in a dentist's chair.
Watching the breath go up and down is the basis for an advanced 'electricity generating' kriya. Dao masters, in particular, when following Qi Gong and other martial arts' techniques, excel in using the breath to generate power or heat. Swami Vivekananda, nearly a hundred years ago, first called the world's attention to the mysterious effects of rhythmic pranayama. "Electric motion makes the molecules of a body move in the same direction. If all the air molecules in a room are made to move in the same direction, it will make a gigantic battery of electricity of the room. Another point from physiology we must remember is that the centre which regulates the respiratory system, the breathing system, has a sort of controlling action over the system of nerve currents. Now we shall see why breathing is practiced. In the first place, from rhythmical breathing comes a tendency of all the molecules in the body to move in the same direction. When mind changes into will, the nerve currents change into a motion similar to electricity, because the nerves have been proved to show polarity under the action of electric currents... When all the motions of the body have become perfectly rhythmical, the body has, as it were, become a gigantic battery of will."**(Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama Pub, Calcutta.)
A potter would describe the rhythmical motions as 'wedging,' a severe kneading of clay in order to make it exceptionally strong for use as a cup or pot handle. Potters claim that the repetitious kneading causes the clay molecules to orient themselves in the same direction - as aligned fibers make a rope while unaligned fibers are so much lint or loose thread.
Healing Breath Variant
There is another variation of the Healing Breath that is particularly effective but a little more advanced. In this variation, after the lungs are completely filled, the diaphragm is lifted high and tight and the chest bowed-out or thrust all the way forward. The breath is held for as long as possible - the duration being the determinant of the proportionate counts. The entire chest must be held in tremendous tension. The exercise proceeds as in the regular Healing Breath.
Prolonged muscular tension results, upon sudden relaxation, in the release of natural body chemicals that really conduce to profound spiritual states.
The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 19, Right Meditation: Eighth Step on The Path: Page 1 of 3
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)