Bring Me Your Mind
This week’s koan involves Bodhidharma, the legendary Buddhist sage who came to China from South Asia and is credited with establishing the Zen school there around the year 500.
Bodhidharma criticized early Chinese Buddhist sects for writing commentaries on sutras rather than devoting themselves to meditation. For that reason, the older Chinese sects called the new school “the meditation sect”, since Chan (ch.) and Zen (jap.) mean “meditation”.
Here is a simplified form of our koan: Huike (pron. "Hway-Kuh), a promising Chinese disciple, begged Bodhidharma to help him find peace of mind. The Master replied, “Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest”. Huike said, “I have searched and searched for my mind and cannot find it”. The Master replied, “There, I have pacified it for you!” On hearing these words, Huike suddenly had an insight that liberated him from his mental suffering.
On hearing this story for the first time, Zen students have no idea why Bodhidharma’s concluding words had such a powerful impact on Huike. They cannot fail to notice that hearing those same words has no such liberating effect for them. Negative emotions arise, including feelings of inferiority (“I am not smart enough”), envy of other students who “get” this koan, and frustration (“Damn it, why don’t I get it?!”)
Such frustration is a blessing in disguise; it means that the koan has its hooks in you. As Mumon says about another koan, “A hook is lowered into the water – the greedy will be caught!” The greed here is a delusional craving to “win the contest” they believe the koan poses. Eventually, students who are honest with themselves will realize that the koan has become “existential” for them and that they must persevere until they resolve the distress caused by the koan. This distress is unpleasant, but like labor before childbirth, is necessary for the birth of awakening.
During interviews about pacifying the mind, teachers will ask the student to express the point of this koan. As I cannot say often enough, teachers will manage to make clear that they want you to express this point by showing it rather than explaining it.
Why do teachers insist on this? According to tradition, this guidance comes directly from Bodhidharma himself, in the form of a fourfold definition of Zen:
A special mind-to-mind transmission of enlightenment
Without dependence on the written word,
Directly pointing to the heart-mind,
Realizing one’s own nature and Buddhahood.
Modern scholars believe this terse summary comes from a later Chinese Master, not Bodhidharma. No matter, since this succinct definition of our practice has been cited by teachers ever since. Let’s parse this definition to see where the insistence on showing rather than telling comes from.
The first line refers to a “special mind-to-mind transmission”. This is not some spooky “paranormal” process; it simply means that awakening is an intuitive understanding between Master and disciple. This is an understanding in which both see the truth about our nature.
Despite all their efforts to define “truth” in words or symbolic logic, Western philosophers have failed to capture the "self-evident" nature of truth in which a person surveys a scene and directly sees what is. This instantaneous, wordless process can rightly be called “intuition”.
The second line says this wordless process is not only valid, it is only way to reach enlightenment. Awakening does not come from reading sutras and deducing a truth dependent on those words alone, but by seeing something directly without the mediation of words.
This second line is not to be underestimated; it is the pivot upon which the whole verse depends. (In Part 2, I will explain why – sometimes – words, including Bodhidharma’s final statement here, can trigger enlightenment. Such words are called “turning words” and I hope to clarify how such words operate in an entirely different way from our ordinary use of language, a way that accords with the admonition of the second line.)
But what do I mean by, “seeing something directly”? The third and fourth lines tell us exactly what we must do to directly (i.e. wordlessly) discover our true nature. The third line says we do this by “directly pointing to the heart-mind”.
“Pointing” is the crucial word here. Western philosophy recognizes a class of words called “indexicals”. The terms I, you, here, there, now, then, this, and that, are indexicals. That means that what they refer to is completely dependent on the context or situation – i.e. on the objects or people that are present there and then. The word “index” comes from the Latin verb “to indicate”. “Indicating” is defined as “pointing” or “pointing out”, and is why we call our first finger the index finger.
And what is it that we are to “point out”? It is our heart-mind. I hyphenate this word because Chinese and Japanese use the same character for both “heart” and “mind”. This is supported by the ancient Western use of “heart” to represent the mind as the “seat of judgment”. It is also in keeping with current neuroscience, which is showing that the supposedly “rational” mind is inextricably bound to the irrational emotions that we attribute to the heart.
And how are we to point out this heart-mind? It is not with our index finger. Yet in the realm of the heart-mind, we have something that is the full equivalent of an index finger. It is our attention, which ceaselessly points our minds towards this or that “thing”.
Thus, turning our attention to our heart-mind means watching how our minds work. Buddhism calls this mindfulness or vipassana. And what do we see when we watch our minds like a bird watcher?
1) We see that it is impossible to pin our minds down. This is impermanence.
2) We see that every object of our attention comes with an emotional reaction that teeters between pleasant and unpleasant. This is suffering in the Buddhist sense – i.e. even when the reaction is pleasant, that pleasure is impermanent, and we will suffer its loss.
3) We see that our attention ranges over the entire universe, and that everything that we can ever experience is already potentially “inside” our minds. This means that we cannot distinguish between what is “inside” or “outside” our minds. This in turn means that there is no permanent “self” apart from the universe. This is the absence or emptiness of self.
Thus, watching our heart-minds reveals impermanence, suffering, and the emptiness of self. Buddhists call these “The Three Marks of Existence”.
Now, what has all this to do with our koan about pacifying the mind? Well, it has everything to do with understanding why Bodhidharma’s “There, I have pacified it for you” liberated Huike. You must come to see for yourself why this is so. In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions that will hopefully help you in this regard.
In the meantime, I urge you to verify Buddha’s statements about the threefold nature of heart-mind. Please watch your mind at work for the next week to settle whether you can accept them, even provisionally, for now.
The historical Buddha told his listeners that they should reject his assertions if they could not verify them in their own experience. As the first empiricist, the first pragmatist, and the first psychologist, the Buddha rarely gets the credit he deserves for introducing a prototype of the scientific method for the study of mind!
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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