Commentary by Gendo
"Delusion has no location; fixation is delusion. Purity has no form; if you define a pure form as meditation, the act of entertaining this view will obstruct your own original nature, and you will be subject to bondage by purity." (Platform Sutra, Chapter 5)
Meditation is making your own effort, not some pure thing to be acquired. Zen teachers over the centuries point out that it is not enough to read about something, to read or hear the beautiful words someone else produces. It is necessary to recognize a truth in terms of one’s own experience in order to make it your truth.
I think Buddhism appeals to an American culture that emphasizes individual effort. We uphold the ideal that anyone who works hard can “get ahead;” and the ideal that it is necessary to question authority, questions blind faith, and know a thing for oneself. “Meditation” has become popular in this country along with other forms of ‘self-help,’ like physical fitness and a healthy diet. Zen practice seems to fit those ideals.
But there is also a difference. Zen points out that to fixate the ‘self’ and its goals is a delusion that “obstructs your own original nature.”
Picture, for a moment, two levels of mind, corresponding, more or less, to Western concepts of consciousness and the sub-conscious mind. The first level is the world of language and culture. It is the world of discriminating awareness, where there are differences of opinion and argument. It is the world of identity: personal, family, religious, political – the many ways we characterize ourselves and world around us.
The second level is a layer that feels older and is non-verbal in nature; a foundation that underlies the self that declares “I am” and expresses its various opinions. This foundation is the realm of ‘raw sensation,’ the sensory awareness that precedes thought; a realm we associate with earliest childhood and deepest experience. Every moment of consciousness is born from a place of raw sensation, quickly interpreted and labeled by the thinking mind.
The discipline of meditation is training to pay attention to that realm of experience preceding thought and word; a layer that becomes hidden beneath the overlay of language and identity and is inaccessible to the intellect. Why bother? Because we ignore this part of our nature at our peril. Because sooner or later intellectual explanations and social expectations are not enough. Because we suffer and wonder why.
Various guard rails and road signs are erected as reminders of this fundamental aspect of our humanity. Ethical norms are such warnings, sometimes experienced as imposed standards, as ‘bondage.’ But, from the standpoint of Zen, the true meaning of such discipline is found in the roots of our own experience, like the hidden roots of a tree that account for the appearance of branches and leaves
If words and social identity are the leaves, meditation is training to experience the roots. By roots, leaves are connected with each other and with the ground that nourishes all that grows and gathers all that dies. Leaf activity is dependent on root activity. On the other hand, roots find expression in leaves. Both roots and leaves make the tree.
The so-called “three treasures” of Buddhism are about touching the roots of ‘self’. As connection it is called Sangha, as shared purpose it is called Dharma; as shared identity it is called Buddha, the awakened self.