Hastening Awakening

by Dennis Bradford

in spiritual well-being

Awakening is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of becoming enlightened, becoming a sage (a buddha).

While it is true that the experience of breaking through duality to unity has occurred spontaneously, without additional training that experience is doomed to remain just an experience.

The training involved will be some kind of spiritual training, such as koan training in zazen meditation. Such training has many important benefits (such as stress reduction), but its most important goal is the enlightenment characteristic of master meditators such as sages. Since there is no enlightenment without awakening, the initial primary purpose of training is awakening.

Though zazen training is very simple, it is also very difficult. It typically requires years of sustained daily practice of the right kind before an initial breakthrough experience.

A quick breakthrough is not necessarily to be preferred over a delayed awakening.

Nevertheless, since there is typically so much work to be done after awakening and since the ultimate goal is not just breaking through but enlightenment, the question arises whether or not there may be some supplemental practice that can speed up an initial breakthrough.

I do not know. However, I have an idea that there is.

Although I use here zazen meditation as my example, my chief suggestion in this blog post may be applicable to other kinds of spiritual training. After all, the goal is not to take a certain trail to the top of the mountain: it is simply to get to the top of the mountain by some trail or other.

Suppose that you are working on your initial koan designed to stimulate awakening. The most popular breakthrough koan is “Mu.” When the monk asked the master whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature, the master replied, “Mu.”

Here, “Mu” (which means “no” in Chinese) is not contrasted with “U” (which means “yes”). The master is using it merely as a signpost to point past all such dualities.

Since to meditate is not to think (conceptualize, discriminate, separate, sort, divide), no koan can be solved merely with dualistic thinking. Koans are aids to drive us past mere conceptualizing. In his famous commentary on Mu, Master Mumon advises us to make “your whole body one great inquiry.” Zazen meditation is a bodily practice; it is not merely a conceptual exercise.

Seriously working on a koan, I can report from practical experience, puts the practitioner in a very uncomfortable position. You do not want to go back to life as it was before, but you seem unable to go forward either. You feel stuck, trapped, bound. You despair of ever getting free! Furthermore, the more you ingest your koan, the more your despair increases. (It doesn’t help a lot to be told that koans are supposed to drive you deeper and deeper into that Great Doubt!)

Mumon says that “It is like having bolted a red hot iron ball. You try to vomit it but cannot.”

In zazen practice, you breathe from the hara, which is the center of your body in your lower abdomen. Mumon is telling us to expect to feel the koan there. Instead of having your attention a short distance away from your body, it is to have your attention in the pit of your stomach.

Most of us have learned how to live in our heads, to live a short distance away from our bodies. The idea is to lose that learning. This is why it is often said that losing, not gaining, is the purpose of meditating.

Here’s my suggestion: what if you also practiced feeling the life energy in your body and combined that with Mu (or whatever your initial koan is)? Might not that help?

(For the blog post in which I describe how to feel your life energy, simply go to the Spiritual well-being category on the left menu bar and select “Life Energy.”)

Practice the life energy practice until you get good enough to feel the life energy in the center of your body. Think of Mu as being your center. In other words, associate Mu with that life energy you sense in your hara.

It seems to me that doing that might stimulate a faster initial breakthrough.

It is what I am doing. I’ve been working on Mu for eleven years without awakening. At least in zen, there is nothing wrong with experimentation. If some practice is not working well, why not make an adjustment? I am experimenting with the idea of using the life energy practice to assist my koan practice.

I have been able to find nobody else who does this. In that sense, it is an original suggestion. If you find it of value with respect to an initial awakening, I would appreciate learning about your success. Except for attending 7-day sesshins and doing what your teacher suggests, I have no other or better suggestion.

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