To experience Zen-like awakening, try going the headless way | Psyche

Scholar Viewing a Waterfall (late 12th to early 13th century) by Ma Yuan. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York


To experience Zen-like awakening, try going the headless way

Scholar Viewing a Waterfall (late 12th to early 13th century) by Ma Yuan. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

by Brentyn J Ramm + BIO





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Try to point to your true self as you’d point to a brick wall, and other experiments in Zen-like awakening

A prominent theme in Asian religious traditions such as the Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism is that our everyday human experience is like a dream. The dream is that you are merely a person – a thing in the world bounded by your skin, a self that is separate from things and other people. But you are not separate from things and other people. And when you see through the illusion of separation, you become ‘awakened’.

In Chinese Zen Buddhism (Ch’an), a significant form of awakening experience is known as ‘Kensho’. This literally translates as ‘seeing one’s true nature’. In Zen, one’s true nature is often described as ‘empty’ – and at the same time identical with the given world. Kensho isn’t the end point of practice. It isn’t some supreme final state such as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘nirvana’ (if these states are even possible). Rather, it is the beginning, for awakening is in fact a life-long practice, never truly completed. This is the type of awakening experience that I am interested in here.

Hui Hai, an 8th-century Zen Master renowned for establishing a monastery and insisting on the importance of manual work, said that your true nature should not be sought externally. He described your true nature as follows:

Mind has no colour, such as green or yellow, red or white; it is not long or short; it does not vanish or appear; it is free from purity and impurity alike; and its duration is eternal. It is utter stillness. Such then is the form and shape of our original mind, which is also our original body.

Our true nature, then, is like a void. It lacks all objective qualities. It is shapeless, colourless, limitless, motionless. So how exactly does one see one’s own true nature, if it is so shorn of discernible features? The traditional method is to sit for many years in an intense meditation practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Unfortunately, most practitioners never experience ‘the void’. There is however a tradition in Zen of spontaneous awakening even in the absence of any meditation practice. This suggests that there is a far quicker and more direct means of awakening.

Early Chinese Zen masters referred to the need to ‘chop off one’s head’

Let’s look at a method of self-enquiry called ‘the headless way’, which provides a modern method of approaching awakening. These first-person experiments were developed by the English philosopher and mystic Douglas Harding in his influential book On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961). Harding grew up in a fundamentalist Christian sect in which he wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema and the only book he was permitted to read was the Bible. When he left the sect at 21, he was determined to seek the truth for himself and to be his own authority. The approach he developed was unconventional and can be considered a form of radical empiricism.

The key to his method is noticing that you cannot see your own head. Rather than looking out of a head, visually speaking, there is just a gap here. Indeed, early Chinese Zen masters referred to the need to ‘chop off one’s head’. Hui Hai claimed that he could teach nothing as he had no tongue to teach with. The heart sutra, which distils the essence of Zen teaching, states that ‘in emptiness there is no form, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.’ Zen masters also urge practitioners to recognise their ‘original face’ – another name for one’s true nature.

Self-portrait by the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach from his book The Analysis of Sensations (1914). Public domain

How does one see their true nature according to Zen? One of the best places to start is with the mysterious figure Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen, who reputedly brought Buddhism to China from India around the 5th century. A legend about him tells us that he attained enlightenment after sitting for nine years facing a cave wall, and also that he cut off his own eyelids to stop himself from falling asleep. Bodhidharma is attributed with the following verse, which is often thought to express the core of Zen teaching:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to one’s mind
It lets one see into one’s own true nature and thus attain Buddhahood.

How exactly does one directly point to one’s mind or true nature? Harding’s ‘pointing experiment’ assists in turning one’s attention within, starting with the exercise of pointing a finger literally to the spot from which you are looking. Note that if these exercises are not carried out, or if they are merely thought about, this article will make no sense. So please do the following:

Point at a distant thing, such as a wall. Notice its shape and colour. It is a thing that is extended in space. It is also opaque. You cannot see through it. Point to the floor. Again, notice the coloured expanse and its textures. Point to your foot. Again, it is a shaped and coloured thing. Point to your chest and notice its colours and shape and the movement from your breathing. Now point to where you are looking from. In your present experience, is there any colour here? Any shape? Any texture? Any movement? Are there any eyes, mouth or cheeks here? Are there any features of a person? Notice that this spot is totally lacking in any personally identifying characteristics. Is there anything at all here? Or is it just a transparent opening?

When I look within, when I turn my attention 180 degrees from objects over there to where I am, I find that I am not a coloured, limited thing in the world, but rather a colourless, unchanging capacity for the world, exactly as described by Zen. Is this the much sought-after ‘void’ that is referred to by contemplative traditions across times and cultures?

When you were an infant, you did not recognise that face in the mirror as your own. It was just a baby behind some glass

A well-known story in Zen is of Tung-Shan’s awakening, in the 9th century, which also shows intriguing parallels with Harding’s observations. Once, as a child, Tung-Shan was reading the heart sutra with his tutor when he came upon the passage ‘no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind’. He was confused. He used his hands to feel his face and then asked his tutor why the sutra said they didn’t exist. His tutor told Tung-Shan that he could not help him, so Tung-Shan spent many years searching for a worthy master to explain this and other mysteries of the Dharma to him. One day he was crossing a river and saw his face reflected in the water. He saw where his face was in his lived experience, and he instantly had a great awakening.

Zen goes beyond words and letters, so merely thinking about this story would be against the spirit of Zen. To test this out directly in your own experience, please carry out the ‘mirror experiment’:

Look into a mirror. You can now see your human face. Notice where it is. In my experience, it is over there, a couple of feet away, not on my shoulders. Is this true for you? It is also facing the wrong way. It is looking in, rather than outwards. How many faces do you see? Two, or just one? Notice the shapes, textures and colours of that little face trapped behind the glass. By contrast, notice the lack of shapes, textures, colours and indeed boundaries to the spot you are looking from.

That face over there is your acquired face. When you were an infant, you did not recognise it as your own. It was just a baby behind some glass. It took many months to learn to identify with that face. You learnt to marry that visual thing over there with the ‘facial’ sensations you feel here, and hence you became boxed in (at least apparently so). Isn’t how you are for yourself – that is, your ‘original face’ – in total contrast to that little face in the mirror? In fact, as lacking any characteristics of its own, isn’t this ‘gap’ seamlessly united with the world? Couldn’t you equally say that your ‘original face’ is the given world itself?

All this might sound a little esoteric, so let’s look at one potential practical benefit of the ‘headless’ practice in the case of personal relationships. We think that we meet each other face-to-face, thing-to-thing. Of course, this is how it looks to others from the outside. But you relate to others from your first-person perspective, not from over there. The lived experience of being with others isn’t in fact of being face-to-face, but rather face-to-no-face. My face never gets in the way of the faces of others – including those you dislike. The ‘space’ you are looking out of has no preferences. It takes on everyone completely, no matter who they are, without judgement. Noticing this is a rather simple and concrete way to see that you are not, in fact, separate from others. In theory, this could provide a basis for true compassion towards others.

One can meditate for many years without seeing their own true nature. Most never do. The precision and apparent reliability of these experiments open up a form of Zen-like awakening to empirical investigation. Yet these techniques have so far received little attention from philosophers and scientists. (I describe these experiments and discuss their relation to Zen more fully in my recent article ‘The Technology of Awakening’.) The results of the experiments suggest that it doesn’t require a lifetime or many lifetimes to see your true nature. You can do so right now. It is simply to see who or what you are at this very moment – that which is seeing these very words.





2 February 2022