Mindless Musings on Mindfulness (or Mindful Musings on Mindlessness)

I have been re-reading the book Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, a book I first read while still in high school. This was my introduction to Zen and got me interested in meditation. It is a venerable old book and Suzuki, more than any other writer, introduced the West to Zen. There have been a flood of books on the topic sense, but this one is still a good overall introduction. 

Nearly any book that presents the historical background on Zen will sooner or later get around to a discussion of the exchange of gathas by Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng.  These two personalities were to go on to found the two main schools of Zen. For those unfamiliar with these, the gatha by Shen-hsiu can be translated as:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
Our mind a mirror bright,
Carefully we wipe them clean,
And let no dust alight.

The gatha by Hui-neng can be translated as:

There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stands a mirror bright,
Since all from the first is void,
Where can the dust alight?

So what the heck is that all about? And why are these two short verses still being written about 1300 years after they were penned? Well, I’m not going to try to answer that. But this morning I did have a new insight into what Hui-neng has against Shen-hsiu’s “mirror polishing” approach to meditation.

This “mirror polishing” is common to many forms of spiritual morality and it always entails a certain duality. Here the duality is between pure and impure mind. In Christianity it is often a duality between holiness or sinfulness, the way of the devil or the way of the angels. Hui-neng’s gatha, on the contrary, expresses a fundamental nondualism.

Both Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng are concerned with the practice of meditation, which I’ll here call mindfulness. Shen-hsiu implies that to be truly mindful, something must be removed. Hui-neng disagrees. I think that at least part of what Hui-neng is implying is that the practice of mindfulness is about increasing our attentiveness, our focus – nothing needs to be removed, nothing needs to be polished. The deeply attentive mind can find interest and even holiness in the simplest and homeliest of objects. The very “distractions” that Shen-hsiu calls “dust” can be transformed into the pure objects of mindfulness just by giving them our undivided attention. 

The word “holiness,” which I use above, is a subjective term without any real objective counterpart. But it is a deeply meaningful term nonetheless. In deep mindfulness, we experience a wholeness of being, and whatever we bring to mind in that state of wholeness can seem sacred. The person experiencing such wholeness is experiencing holiness and this sense of holiness is as real as anything. Such deep mindfulness is an ideal in any form of spirituality.

The philosopher Augustine once wrote, “love God and do what you will.” As I was thinking about Hui-neng’s gatha, it occurred to me that Augustine’s statement has something in common with Hui-neng’s. Like Hui-neng’s Zen, Augustine’s “love God” focuses only on the positive, there is nothing that needs to be subtracted or negated. What a refreshing difference from all the Christian moralizing and obsession with sin. Unfortunately Augustine didn’t really incorporate this idea into his theology, which remained obsessed with sin.

To love God with your whole heart and soul must necessarily expand to a love of God’s creation and to a love of all the people and things of that creation. Such a love requires all of one’s attentiveness and is also a state of holiness. While mindfulness and love are somewhat different in quality, they both can lead to wholeness and holiness. 

I sometimes wonder what would have become of Christianity if it had really taken seriously the statement by Jesus that the essence of Christianity is to “love God with your whole heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And, in that spirit had disavowed those writing that later became known as The Old Testament, with its often petty and resentful God? I suspect it would have quickly faded into obscurity. Petty and resentful people can easily identify with a petty and resentful God and most people are at least somewhat petty and resentful. A God of pure love is too foreign to human experience to be easily identified with.

The musings that I offer here, have no particular lesson to offer nor any real conclusion.  So I’ll just conclude without one.


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