Direct Experience

The absolute is such a mystery that even though it is total selflessness it is also the ultimate self. What can that mean? The absolute is the divine essence, the inner essence of Being. It is the final nature of everything, including ego and essence. It is the absolute nature of the soul, her deepest ground. To realize it is to recognize in direct experience that there is nothing that is not constituted by it. We feel we are constituted by it, that it forms our very substance and identity. We are it, and it is us. We feel and see it as a luminous crystal presence of black clarity. But at the same time we feel it is I, nothing but me, for there is nothing else that can be me. It is not like there is a cognitive sense or feeling of I, identity, or self. 

There is no conceptual quality of the beingness of the mystery. But there is a perception or apperception that it is none other than I. It is a perception of the luminous night being the beingness of me, without the feeling of me. The I is not the familiar I, whether ego or essence. It is like I know it is I because I am it. There is nothing else that is I. It is the sense of complete subjectivity. It is like recognizing the subject that is I, which turns out to be the absolute.

Zen Insight allows us to rip the metaphorical carpet out from under our mental and emotional feet, and refuses to offer us anything else to stand on, because in reality there is nothing for us to rest on. There is only Nothing, the Absolute. What we call reality is actually just a complex series of overlapping ideas that have arbitrarily frozen Reality with a capital R. 

Admittedly, this practice is not for the faint-hearted, for it insists that we mercilessly abandon all of our conceptual pacifiers, offering ourselves nothing in their stead, nothing for us to hold onto. For as long as we hold onto anything, we are not free. Anything we cling to owns us. In Zen, they call this stepping off of a 100-foot pole into sheer emptiness. But it’s not simply nothingness; it’s Nothingness or the great Void, the infinity of Being. When we’ve negated and transcended everything, and returned to zero, we find what we’ve always had and been from the beginning— the empty, formless, boundless Awareness of Suchness itself. 

As we delve deeper into the process, systematically transcending body, mind, emotions, roles, beliefs, preferences, we must have the courage to abandon everything. That includes our attachment to ourselves, our families, our jobs, opinions, spiritual identities, the Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Mohammad, God. None of these things can help us because they are all simply ideas. God, as most people understand and worship the term, is no different than any other idea we have formed and mistaken for reality. It too must be seen through and relinquished. Like our Santa Claus analogy taught us earlier, we must not be seduced into thinking that our thoughts are real. They are merely mental maps with no more connection to reality than a photo of water has to water itself. I am not dismissing the value of thought. It can be very helpful while balancing your checking account or planning a vacation, as convenient shorthand for reality, but it is simply useless in helping us understand our true nature. In fact, in addition to selfishness and pride, thinking can be the biggest hindrance to realizing who we really are.

So the safest way to understanding the relationship between thinking and reality is to remember that whatever you think cannot be anything more than a thought. See through the provisional nature of thinking and transcend the concepts. Use your mind, rather than the other way around, for most people identify so closely with their thoughts that they completely mis-take them for reality. A co-worker enters the room and we might immediately think, “God, I hate him; he’s so arrogant!” A strong physical response, maybe muscular tension or constrictive breathing, may accompany, thus reinforcing our idea that he really is a jerk. After all, why would we feel this way if he weren’t one? But he’s not. That’s simply a label we have superimposed over the person. For how could he actually be a jerk? Is his hair a jerk? His eyes? How about his toes? Where is this so-called jerk-ness? In between his ears, behind his eyes? 

What we’ve done, and we do it just as automatically as we draw the conclusion that a growl in the dark jungle means danger, is confuse our idea of this person with who he really is, which is actually unknowable. We’ve reduced him to a simple characteristic— and an arbitrary one at that— a caricature, and rather than allow the label to adapt and evolve as he does, we petrify this impression and search for reasons to affirm why he is a jerk. Which is actually the conclusion we have already drawn! Again an example of retro-rationalizing. We’ve accidentally and unwittingly conflated our opinion about someone, reinforced by physical and emotional sensations, with who they actually are— which, as we said earlier about all beings and phenomena (yes, even the jerk in the next cubicle), is actually the unknowable, inconceivable Absolute. It is freezing someone who is actually fluid and ever-changing. 

The problem doesn’t necessarily lie with thinking per se, but in believing our thoughts as if their content were real. Meaning is a human construction. Reality has no meaning; it precedes and transcends it. A subtle distinction, but one worth noting and remembering. The Koan Process during the Zen Insight retreat loosens the hold of our conceptual mind, especially our instinctive habit of believing the thoughts as if they were real and not just mental maps. It melts the rigid roles we have frozen people into, allowing them return to the natural, indefinable state that non-duality speaks of as inconceivable and imperceptible. 

Through the Koan process, as we investigate our assumptions, our mental hold on the concept— for that’s all that it really is, an idea— begins to dissolve. It’s not some shimmering epiphany, as if the world melts into sunshine and rainbows; it’s simply the relaxing of our mind’s attempt to grasp reality and force it into a conceptual box. At that moment, reality slips back into original state, which is beyond and prior to words and concepts.” We realize that any word or idea is an imposition on reality, a projection from our own minds. This may sound confusing, but there are no jerks or flowers or lions in reality. These are arbitrary imputations that we impose upon what we think is an “external” world. They have absolutely no correlates in the world, for in actuality, there is only Thusness. 

Scientists say that all matter is originally stardust; I say that all forms are mind stuff. Everything is made of consciousness, some forms just denser than others. There are no sticks, just the Absolute Mind manifesting as sticks. No dogs, just the Absolute manifesting as dogs. No water, just… You get the picture. Zen Insight exposes everything we can conceive of to be just ideas, thus negating their reality as ‘things.’ And I mean everything. For instance, if we ask, “What is this emotion I call anger? What does it feel like? Where is its anger-ness?” When we find no selfhood or solid, singular essence to it, the sensation dissolves into pure empty Thusness, just another expression of the Absolute. It returns to its true nature as simply another aspect of our consciousness. It is not an object in the field of our awareness, as we ordinarily consider it, but our Awareness itself.

Now granted, even at this point “anger” may still not feel like how we want or expect the Absolute to feel— like the joy we experience when we are reunited with a loved one or our excitement at receiving a well deserved job promotion— but it loses its definitiveness and its power as a “negative” or “unpleasant” emotion. As does pain, or fear, or depression, or any other emotion, sensation, or thought. This means that we can transcend them, for as they lose their definitions and boundaries, they also lose their power to define us and the world. 

The base object (anything that we can sense, hear, smell, taste, touch, and so on) of our investigation dissipates into non-sense, which I literally mean to lack sense or logic, and all that we are left with is an experience beyond words. For words cannot reach it, not because it is esoteric or mystical, but because all of reality transcends words and concepts; it precedes human logic. This experience of reality is what in Zen is called No or Don’t-know Mind because we are no longer governed by the false identity of thoughts. “What is this, truly what is it? Is it me?” “Not this, not that,” the great sages taught us, what I have reinterpreted to mean, “beyond this, beyond that.” None of these things we identify with (or resist, for that matter) are us or the Absolute, not because they are separate from us or somehow less of an expression of Thusness than we, but because the way we normally understand and experience them is as ideas. 

We live in an illusory world of concepts without even knowing it, trapped inside of a fortress of ideas built upon more ideas. Most of the time we don’t eat food; we eat our ideas of what the food is, or more to the point, what it should be or taste like. For instance, when we eat a slice of pizza, rather than taste it, we might be preoccupied with comparing it to what we think is better or worse pizza. In this sense, we aren't eating this slice of pizza as much as we are eating how we think it should taste, or even how we think other pizzas should taste in relation to this one. Too often, we don’t interact with people; we interact with our ideas of who they are or think they should be. We see them as a jerk or hero or failure, rather than understanding that who and what they are defies conceptual categorization, that they are the infinite Absolute just as much as we are. 

This misidentification leads to confusion and suffering, both for ourselves and others. We don’t live authentically. Self-consciously, we live out the ideas of who we think we are, were, will or should be. Lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau wrote. We worry about succeeding or failing, as if our performance on some exam or evaluation report could ever affect who we truly are as stainless Awareness. But we worry ourselves into knots, doubting and internalizing all of these stories as if they were real, rather than see them for what they are— more thoughts with no actual correlates in reality. In the same way as we mis-take our sense of ‘I-ness’ as being anything more than the conceptual representation that it truly is. 

Zen Insighy is the sword of wisdom that cuts through delusion, revealing the true reality that is never hidden, that is always right in front of us, in us, and is us. The reality that precedes conceptualization. All we need to do is see past our attachment to thinking, to simply trust that we, and Thusness itself, are “beyond this, beyond that” idea.