Question: When we meditate, who or what is meditating? Is it mind? How is the brain/body involved? If meditation is ultimately about mind seeing its own true nature, how are we to understand the mind that meditates?
Narayan Helen Liebenson: The Buddha answers your question beautifully and succinctly in the Bahiya Sutra. He says, “You should train yourself thus: Whenever you see a form, simply see; whenever you hear a sound, simply hear; whenever you taste a flavor, simply taste; whenever you feel a sensation, simply feel; whenever a thought arises, let it just be a thought. Then ‘you’ will not exist; whenever ‘you’ do not exist, you will not be found in this world, another world, or in between. That is the end of suffering.”
Remember, everything the Buddha taught had to do with suffering and the end of suffering. His teaching was not so much a philosophy as much as a practical path, leading to the end of sorrow and lamentation. From this perspective, the question might be: Is suffering occurring right now? If so, can it be released?
The practice is to investigate the nature of reality in such a way as to bring inner freedom. The key is to let go of attachment, especially attachment to the thought or sense of an inherently existing solid self. We see that what we call the self is empty of intrinsic reality and that identifying with anything as being me, mine, or myself is dukkha. The meditating mind is also empty of inherent existence.
“Mind” is sometimes defined as the activities of mind; thoughts, intentions, perceptions, and mental states. Other times, what is meant by “mind” is consciousness or awareness. In a way, there are many minds, not just one. When we first begin to meditate, the observer appears to be real and we create a sense of self out of the observer. At some point, however, we become curious about the observer and turn our attention to the observer itself. In giving attention to the observer, the observer dissolves into ungraspable spaciousness; one might say this is who we actually are, but claiming this spaciousness as me or mine is not quite true.
There is a Burmese saying: “Meditation is meditating, you are not meditating.” Earnest investigation leads to a nonverbal understanding of the empty nature of all things. The expressions of this realization of emptiness are joy, ease, compassion, and inner freedom. This question of who or what is meditating is a beautiful question that opens up a sense of wonder and mystery. This question is well worth asking; an authentic answer only comes from continuing to silently contemplate.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: According to my Tibetan Bön tradition, of the infinite methods of meditation available, there are two principal categories: generating meditation and abiding meditation.
Generating meditation involves using the conceptual mind in ways to improve our spiritual development and deepen our understanding of the truth. The ways in which it does this range from gross to subtle.
Abiding meditation is nonconceptual or nondual. This is the meditation of Dzogchen, or Great Completion teachings. First one’s conceptual mind is stabilized through practices of calm abiding, known as zhiné or shamatha; then, upon attaining stability, one is introduced to the nature of mind as clear and luminous.
Meditation in this category is selfawareness— awareness of one’s true nature. Self-awareness is awareness with no object, for the self is discovered to be no object. Self is aware of itself—just awakened experience. Who knows this? There is not somebody knowing something, only oneself knowing oneself. Where does this knowing arise? Does it arise outside? Does it arise inside? No, it arises in itself.
The power of nonduality is twofold. First, because it is nondual, without the thinking and grasping mind, there is no ego; there is a complete absence of ego when one abides in the nature of mind. With the absence of ego, there is no distorted self to create defenses and projections. There is no addictive effort. Therefore when one is in that deep state of meditation, one’s body completely relaxes and achieves optimal well-being.
When I began using a smartphone, my battery would frequently lose its charge in a very short period of time. Then I was shown a way to shut down the unnecessary applications, many of which I had no idea were even running on my phone. Thus, the battery life was greatly extended. Likewise, we also constantly run unnecessary applications of hope and fear, many that we are barely aware of, and we are convinced that those we do know about are necessary and important. Nonconceptual meditation exposes these constantly running applications. As we no longer feed them or participate in them through engaging our thinking, moving mind, they release and dissolve into openness. As we rest in openness, we are no longer being drained.
Second, when one becomes increasingly familiar with abiding in the nature of mind, aware of openness itself, gradually a new energy flow arises. In that dynamic flow, the natural qualities of the five elements and five wisdoms arise. One might experience being grounded and connected, which would correspond to the earth element. One might experience ease and calm, a quality of the water element. With fire, one is vital and vividly present, and with air, unblocked and creative. Connecting with that space, one experiences oneself as completely open and free of fear. As these experiences arise and one is conscious of them, they support healing that is both physical and emotional. Deeply rooted fears are overcome.
In this way, meditation practice nourishes one’s life. Even as the formal practice of abiding in the nature of mind is an activity of “nondoing,” meditation itself is not passive. As we abide and rest in openness, we stop draining ourselves, and awareness of openness gives birth to innumerable qualities, as I have described in terms of the five elements. Who is meditating? No one. Yet everything happens in single, nondual awareness.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth-century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, speaks of “Body and Mind Study of the Way.” He said, “The buddha way cannot be attained unless you practice, and without study it remains remote.” So both body and mind are practicing together.
He also said, “Practicing Zen is zazen.” Zazen means just sitting. It is not sitting and doing nothing; it is sitting and doing nothing else. You may have noticed that this is not easy. Endless thoughts, opinions, and daydreams come and go. My teacher, Suzuki Roshi, once said, “You don’t have to invite each thought to sit down and have a cup of tea.” He also said, “Open the front door and open the back door and let them come in and let them go out.” So when we sit, we arrange our body in a balanced posture so that we can remain upright and at ease, take a few deep breaths and then do our best to remain aware of the coming and going of breaths, thoughts, emotions, and sensations without being caught and carried away by them.
As for who or what is meditating, I would like to share an exchange I had with Suzuki Roshi in dokusan (a personal interview with a Zen teacher). Once in a one-day sitting I had been counting my breaths (an early practice to help stay present during zazen) and it seemed to me that I had really mastered it for the first time. I went to see Roshi and said excitedly, “Roshi, I can count my breath now without missing any. What do I do now?” I was expecting some kind of approval, as he had always been kind and encouraging to me, but he became stern and forceful, and said, “Don’t ever imagine that you can sit zazen! Zazen sits zazen!!”
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi says, “The most important things in our practice are our physical posture and our way of breathing. We are not so concerned about a deep understanding of Buddhism. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very deep, wide, and firm system of thought, but Zen is not concerned about philosophical understanding. We emphasize practice. We should understand why our physical posture and breathing exercise are so important. Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says that originally we have buddhanature. Our practice is based on this faith.”
In Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen), Dogen says, “You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.” Later in the same essay he says, “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality.”
The great teacher Nagarjuna said, “The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.” This is bodhicitta, the mind that aspires to wake up in order to benefit beings; the mind that experiences directly its complete interconnectedness with all beings.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet
Narayan Liebenson Grady is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center