It seems that we get sidetracked in practice in many ways. Buddha said that he was the “awakened one”. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it mindfulness in every moment. Katagiri-roshi explains that enlightenment is subject and object merged in every moment that arises. It is a very rare and concentrated person who is able to say that they meet every moment as it is.
We know only too well about being sidetracked by our personal stories, our circular compulsive thinking and our distractions. The ancestors have called this “living in a dream.” This dream is solidified by our mind of thinking, and then we make our conceptions solid and stand behind our assumptions and stories.
One of our practices is to find the mind that is "non-thinking" (Dogen) and we do this through zazen and concentration. Letting our thoughts go, opening the hand of thought as each thought arises, and resting in open, spacious, sky mind. Here is where subtle sidetracking may begin. We begin to think that enlightenment is the achievement of a certain state of mind like silence or subtle energy raptures or serenity and happiness and then we begin to cling to those states. It is possible to use practice to hold onto states and our “idea” of enlightenment, which is actually in the opposite direction to ever-present awareness or the “awakened one”. These attachments cloud the mind.
The Tibetan practice has identified three special states which I'm learning from the Mahamudra teacher Dan Brown:
1. Bliss - pleasant feeling, rapture and thrills
2. Luminosity – everything is light, perceptual acuity
3. Non-conceptual stillness – profound stillness
It’s odd to think of these amazing states as distractions. They are the passing scenery of concentration but very often meditators get attached to them. We attach to them by first wanting to have these experiences as a future accomplishment. Or if we are lucky to have a subtle experience, then we want to hold onto that experience and we manipulate to try to repeat it. This conceptualizing about the subtle experiences detracts us from the aliveness that is happening right now. These “states” can’t be used as markers of progress. The attachment to them actually clouds our minds. Enlightenment is a moving target of moment after moment. If we do not become attached to the states of mind that we prefer, we can begin to see all phenomena as empty, larger then self, and interconnected with everything. Then there are no clouds.
We can aspire to what is called “automatic emptiness”. Each moment, phenomena, state, emotion or thought arises quickly in the present moment and then dissolves. Our practice is to be right with each moment regardless of its content. We notice the moment’s birthing and notice that it is an expression of emptiness immediately and simultaneously. Even the tendency to conceptualize is already expressed as emptiness. This will leave our minds soft and buoyant, clear and not fixated on anything.
Dogen writes in Bendowa:
“The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of, allows all things to come forth in enlightenment and practice, all-inclusiveness with detachment.
There are those who realize the way on hearing the sound of bamboo being struck, or who understood the mind seeing the color of blossoms. Of those who understand the way upon seeing a form, or who realize the way upon hearing a sound, they do not have any intellectual thinking regarding the endeavor of the way, or have any self besides their original self.
Nevertheless, spreading the way of buddha ancestors does not necessarily depend upon place or circumstances. Just think that today is the beginning.
Translation: Kazuaki Tanahashi