2) When thoughts arise, then do all things arise. When thoughts vanish, then do all things vanish.
This particular quotation comes from Huang-po Hsi-yun, an influential Chan Buddhist purportedly to have died in approximately 850CE. This information is useful because it immediately sets the tone for the work, but to not have this information (such as the before the time of Google), it takes on a more subjective tone.
When I was a teen, this quote puzzled me – ironically bringing me close to a moment of Zen, but still grasping at the straws of definition. I would ask myself what this meant, and mulled it over in my mind, searching for the meaning of the words, and the meaning of what I would have said was a riddle.
At one point, I was so proud of myself when I figured out the answer – Everything is an illusion, and when I don’t think about it, it disappears. Although I did not know the term, I had essentially assigned the meaning of this perplexing riddle to a solipsistic school of thought.
Interestingly I had also learned of Rene Descartes “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) and tried to apply this as an aligned understanding. In the thoughts of a person lay the foundation for everything… and yes, it made sense. If the only proof of my existence is that I think, then everything exists when I think and nothing does when I don’t. Interestingly, this logic can be used to bridge the Western gap in understanding Zen, but this will be discussed at a later date.
I had even used these coupled understandings of the illusionary nature of the world and Cartesian logic to help my friends through trying times, and it did give some form of solace, but I’d later learn more about Buddhism and discover that my moment of revelation – my epiphany – wasn’t what it held. This, by the way, was the way that my newly adult mind had translated these concepts so that I could understand it, and I held this understanding for a very long time.
Not to say my revelation was invalid, nor wholly without merit – it did help others and myself when it was used that way… And can anything that ultimately helps be a ‘bad’ interpretation? (I am sure the ethical considerations of this statement will also be a topic to discuss at a later time).
There are so many layers to this simple riddle that I had yet to learn. This is not the only interpretation, nor is it in any form wholly accurate, but it is the way I understand it now.
In Zen Buddhism (which comes to Japan from India via China) there is a concept of “no-self” and one of “no-mind”. The paradox here in the notion of ‘no-mind’ (Anatman in Sanskrit) is that Buddhists are also expected to be mindful in their actions (as well as one of the tenets of the 8-fold path being “Right Thoughts”). At least this would be an apparent paradox. Putting the two concepts together helps us understand a little better what Huang Po meant.
When thoughts arise, we create a conceptual understanding in our mind based on our previous experience – we make a collage of our senses and experiences, our education, and our emotional states. Nothing exists as we think it does, as our thoughts create overarching generalities and sweet away many of the differences between ideas. The collage that is created is your mind trying to compartmentalize what it is experiencing. It is the thoughts arising that bring everything in to focus our view while missing all of the other things in view.
It is your mind trying to justify its existence… but that goes further down the rabbit hole than need be covered right here. Interestingly, it is the mind that creates it’s own problems – and it was within it’s apparent nature to create justification and ratification of itself to prove it’s own existence… Remember that Zen is one of the belief practices that works with a concept of the moment (Ima, the “Now”), as compared to most Abrahamic strains which focus on the end times, or an apocalyptic revelation of the divine, etc… This is an inherent difference between two strains of thought that truly impedes understanding the other paradigm.
With this notion of the “Now” in mind, that of the moment is the only thing you have and can experience directly so don’t miss it in the mire of the past or the illusion of the future (as just a starting point of understanding), the minds necessity (apparent) to compartmentalization and categorize is actually an impediment to understanding or experiencing the moment as it is…
By trying to find words for something, or find the referential framework for that thing, we miss out on the whole of that thing as it is. We ‘Load’ all of our experiences and previous understandings related to that thing we see so as to apply a label.
If this sounds like lot of dubious verbiage, take it to task: Close your eyes (after reading this through, otherwise it would sabotage the effort I’m going to describe). While your eyes are closed, empty you mind of thoughts by just letting them go. Open your eyes when you’re ready.
How long was it before you thought something, and then explored it? Then something else came up, and you explored it as well? Another concept before I continue: Take in you environment as openly as possible. Feel everything around you without bias. Look around your space, and take it in in its entirety. Do it now, and then continue reading.
The sounds around you – did you try to find their source? Do you name any objects around you? This is “Mind” making things arise… Note that when you named a thing, you probably focused on it, as it would be with seeking the source of the sounds.
Ironically these things likely came after a second, or micro-second or two of what Huang-po is alluding to in this writing – a moment of absolute nothingness where thoughts aren’t permeating, flooding or otherwise obscuring your moment…
To paraphrase 16th century sword master Yagyu Munenori, when we focus on an object our mind is on that object, and thus impeded by it. It is preoccupied by the object that we have put our mind in at the sacrifice of the mindfulness of everything around a person. When our mind seeks out objects, we label and create parameters of understanding what that object is. When the musician thinks about the music, it disturbs the music; when the swordsman thinks about the sword, it disturbs the stroke.
Yet to ultimately understand a ‘moment’ as it is we must step away from putting our thoughts into something, instead not-focusing on a single thing. When thoughts vanish, then all things vanish – as they are no longer thoughts. The action is not interrupted as it flows naturally.
This letting ‘thoughts vanish’ is rather difficult, and even Master Yagyu states this. But it is through this that the action is not impeded – the sword is not slowed when the mind does not slow it down.