In my last piece I discussed both focused and bare awareness or objectless meditation practices as potential openings to Big Heart Mind or Buddha nature. These two approaches are complementary. Even after meditating for many years, I sometimes use focused meditation to calm my mind down. It’s hard to experience bare or panoramic awareness if thoughts are so dominant that you cannot tune into your senses in the present moment. But what about subjectless meditation? A core Buddhist teaching is that the so-called subject or “I” is just a conglomeration of thoughts and feeling that is every changing.
This reminds me of an experience I had with my first teacher many years ago. At his suggestion, I established a weekly meditation group in my hometown of Palo Alto, which he led. The group was tiny until I put a short announcement about it in my hometown newspaper. We had 6 or 8 new people show up the next week. After Suzuki explained in careful detail how we should adjust our posture to sit effectively, I asked him to say something about how we should adjust our minds. He replied, “Oh, I can’t do that. Please, just sit.” I was frustrated by his answer and my predication that the new people would not come the following week proved correct. (Later, he did begin talking about ways to focus as well as clarifying that just sitting meant being aware in the present moment, because he realized that many of us needed this.)
More than 45 years after his death, I teach different types of focused meditation as well as bare awareness. But what about subjectless meditation? Here’s a Zen story from the Tang dynasty in China:
Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes?” Daowu said, “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching in search of a pillow.”
Daowu seems to be talking about the radical practice of “don’t know.” What could be more subjectless than that? And here’s Case 20 from the Book of Equanimity around the same time.
Dizang asked his student Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”
“What do you think of wandering?” said the teacher
“I don’t know,” Said Fayan, looking puzzled.
“Not knowing is most intimate,” said the teacher. Fayan was suddenly awakened.
“Wandering aimlessly” seems to be an accurate description of how our own mind moves often haphazardly through varied patterns of thinking and feeling. But as I said in my last blog, this is not bad, since it happens to everyone including experienced meditators.
Can we admit that we don’t know, on the deepest level of our being? If we do this, we can taste what Fayan discovered, the great intimacy of not having to know.
“If you want to tame your sheep or cow, give it a large pasture,” said my root teacher, Suzuki Roshi. When you do this you have no idea what will happen. Subjectless meditation opens directly to Big Heart-Mind. When we do this we wake up from the dream created by thought and also realize that there is no one who has awakened!
Instead of beating ourselves up for all our forgetfulness, can there be a deep appreciation of those moments when there’s no commentator dominating the scene. If we want to fall into subjectless meditation, can we appreciate or even practice “don’t know”?
Instead of trying to sustain a state of mind in which you are practicing focused meditation or panoramic awareness, YOU DON’T KNOW, and you don’t need to know.
I vividly remember two interchanges with my teacher, one of which I will share here. I picked him up at the airport after he had been visiting his student, Trudy (the editor of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) after visiting her parents’ ranch in Montana. I asked him how he spent his time. He exclaimed gleefully “We rode horses!” Puzzled, I said, “But you don’t know to ride horses!” He replied, “I don’t know, but the horse knew.”
In subjectless meditation instead of the finger pointing to the moon through focused meditation or bare awareness, we sink so deeply into don’t know, that we can JUST BE. Then we enjoy the moon even when it is completely invisible. Then instead of worrying about our identity or trying to be someone, we realize that we are continually supported by all life.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher