Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

Zen Sinking in the Ocean

Zen, and by this I mean,

your practice and your goal,

must sink in the ocean,

must drown in the vast sea

of dark unconsciousness,

from whence you shall emerge

reborn, not in another

body, space, or time,

but into the non-seeing,

non-feeling, non-thinking

that remains after the

dissolution of your mind.


1. In Zen, there’s no interest in extinguishing our desires. Quite the contrary, they’re given their rightful space, along with all thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Zazen [Zen meditation] is about the non-encroachment of mental material upon the Self. In Zazen all mental story-telling comes to an end. Mental material remains, but there’s no effort or interest in creating some kind of identity out of this material. This is the encroachment of the Self upon the mind. Here the mind has its voice, and it may speak very very loudly indeed! Yet at the same time, it’s equally true that the mind has been silenced. That silence is the Self. You are that.

2. In zazen I experience samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth, for I observe the emergence, development, and dissolution of one thought-form after another. And yet, while my essential emptiness is clearly seen, it’s simultaneously clearly seen that I am, and I am more than I could ever imagine myself to be. Therefore, I am utterly beyond all death and birth. We may choose to call this an “awakening” or “enlightenment,” but it’s really nothing special at all. 

3. In zazen one observes the rising and falling of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. One need not practice very long before noticing the gaps between the rising and falling of a particular thought, sensation, or feeling. Eventually one may fall into that gap and then one observes nothing at all, yet awareness persists. You are that awareness, and the gap is your essential emptiness.

4a. Speaking of being on “the outside” of one’s thoughts, feelings, or sensations is just a convenient way of speaking of observing them.  The importance of this is that in the observation process the “I” is distinguished or dissociated from mental material. To be on “the inside” of the thoughts is thus to have identified oneself with them, to simply *be* that thought, feeling, or sensation.  But you are not that, as the unqualified formless I is more fundamental than qualified I, the I qualified or limited by forms of thought, forms of feeling, and forms of sensation.

4b. Now it is a truism of the non-dual traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism, that we must simultaneously acknowledge that the Self both is and is not the body-mind.  When we look closely into experience we see that it is only the fact of awareness that is enduring, but the body-mind is not enduring.  Neither the body nor mental material in the form of thoughts, feelings, or sensations are enduring.  While these objects of awareness are temporary, awareness itself abides.  The Self as pure awareness is thus distinct from body-mind.  Nonetheless, the mental material arises from the Self and may in this sense be identified with it, as so many modes or manifestations of the Self.

4c.  This qualified identification of mental material with the Self is important in order to avoid introducing a separation between what I am essentially and how it is that what I am manifests.  The import of neti-neti (the Upanishadic “not this, not that”) is to free us from an uncritical or naive identification of Self with the mind-body and bring us back to the idea of the Self as the abiding presence of awareness.  But having done this, it is necessary to see that the thoughts, sensations, and feelings that do not exhaust or limit what I am nonetheless arise from and are part of the inexhaustible, unlimited reality that is the I.

5a.  The metaphor of the ocean and waves is therefore most frequently given to communicate the simultaneous identity and non-identity of the Absolute and the Relative, the One and the Many.  The wave is distinct from the ocean, but only as a temporary, limited, modulation or manifestation of a vaster, enduring reality.  But the wave is never without the ocean, and the ocean – inasmuch as it is alive with current, is never without waves.  The waves arise from, ride upon, and dissolve back into the ocean.  So also, all you think, feel, and sense comes out of you, rides upon you, and dissolves back into you.  This movement is at the heart of what we call “love.”

5b. Love therefore seeks no permanence other than Itself.  Personal love cannot endure because persons don’t endure. Indeed, “person” is just the name we give to what is a dynamically evolving dance between elusive “partners.”  One person loving another person is just a shared and often clumsy dance to a common song that plays for a time. Dance, and dance with passion. But know that your dance is born of the eternal Dancer, and your love, which abides only for a moment’s breath in eternity’s play, is born of the eternal Lover.

5c.  “You are not the same as me, but you have come from me, from a movement in the depths of my own being. You are here but for a time, and then you pass away.  But while you are present, you are from me and of me. And I love you with all the vastness of myself, regardless of the form you take. And when you pass away, whether in the light of a hot summer day or the darkness of a cold winter night, you dissolve into my love.” So said the ocean to the wave. So said I to my thoughts. 

6. Give your thoughts, even your most unpleasant thoughts, your deepest love, even as you give your love to a rebellious child.  Seek not to correct his ways, but only to embrace him, for you will thereby calm the otherwise unbearable current of fear that drives him.

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