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Is That a Metaphor Or Is It Real?

May 31, 2012

by Stephen Damon

On Monday night, our sangha discussed the phenomenon that Suzuki Roshi referred to as “mind waves” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  He says that many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind.  He goes on to say that if we are not bothered by these waves, if we sit zazen, gradually they will disappear. 

When I first read this chapter nearly forty years ago, I took “waves” as a metaphor, a literary device by which someone uses a word or phrase to denote something else.  After all, Zen teachers and poets have used many metaphors to transmit the dharma. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha, once said, The snow-capped Himalayas are a metaphor for the great nirvana.

But in preparing for our discussion I found myself questioning the use of metaphors within a teaching that emphasizes over and over again the non duality and interconnectedness of all things. Of course, sometimes a poet may skillfully use a phrase or word to suggest something else, because of what she sees as their intimate connection.  But an experienced meditator sees more than intimate connections between separate things, she sees non duality and interconnectedness.  I began to ask if sometimes what I took as a metaphor was an actual description of what a Zen master experienced in zazen.

I began to wonder if Suzuki Roshi described exactly how he experienced thoughts and images while sitting zazen.  Maybe he was describing exactly what is. Is a thought a wave of the mind?  A study by Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and MIT, seems to indicate just that.  It showed that.  It showed that mindfulness meditation helps modulate the activity of the phases of brain oscillations or waves,and reduces one’s susceptibility to distractions. While scientists had to use sensors, amplifiers, and neuroscans in laboratories, all Suzuki had to do was sit quietly. The Zendo is our laboratory!

Suzuki Roshi says if you look very carefully at what is going inside of you when a thought arises, you will see a wave.  But, if our practice is not yet as deep as his, we may see his literal description as metaphor for something else, beyond our understanding and experience.  What is literally true for an advanced practitioner may be a metaphor for the rest of us.  As an example of this I would consider “sleep.”  Spiritual literature, both east and west, is filled with descriptions of ordinary humanity as being asleep.  In the New Testament Jesus is at times urging his disciples to stay awake and keep vigil with him and at other times he actually wakes them up.  In our tradition, “Buddha” means awakened one. 

When I began my studies in comparative religion I assumed that “sleep” was a metaphor for a state of mind that was less active and alert than it could be.  As my studies continued and I was able to talk to people who had been practicing a spiritual discipline I began to suspect that “sleep” was not a metaphor but an actual fact of life.  And this suspicion was verified for me during a 5-day Zen retreat when I had the experience of feeling that I was literally waking up while doing walking meditation.  I felt exactly the way I do when I first open my eyes in the morning.  Extraordinary!

Consider the well known story of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng.  As you may recall, the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, in order to find a successor, challenged the monks to write a poem about the essence of mind. The head monk, Shen-hsiu, wrote:   

The body is the Bodhi tree
The mind a bright mirror stand
Cleanse it with daily diligence
See to it that no dust adheres.

But Hui Neng went further:

Bodhi originally is no tree
Nor the mirror a stand
Buddha-nature is always pure and clear
Whence can the dust come?

Shen-hsiu’s failure was not in his use of language but in his metaphorical understanding of reality.  His poem is more imagination of what might be than a description of what is.  Hui Neng’s simple and precise description goes to the heart of the matter.  Buddha-nature is always pure and clear—there is really not much more to be said—everything else is just commentary.



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. A thought provoking post. I wonder whether there is no difference- metaphor or reality? If I experience something and I feel it as a wave, then perhaps it as real a “wave” as a wave? Put another way, all experience can be thought of as metaphorical, I think.

    I will keep following and reading the important messages. Thank you.

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