Quote #223

From Broken Koans and other Zen debris

One afternoon a student said “Roshi, I don’t really understand what’s going on. I mean, we sit in zazen and we gassho to each other and everything, and Felicia got enlightened when the bottom fell out of her water-bucket, and Todd got enlightened when you popped him one with your staff, and people work on koans and get enlightened, but I’ve been doing this for two years now, and the koans don’t make any sense, and I don’t feel enlightened at all! Can you just tell me what’s going on?”

“Well you see,” Roshi replied, “for most people, and especially for most educated people like you and I, what we perceive and experience is heavily mediated, through language and concepts that are deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and feeling. Our objective here is to induce in ourselves and in each other a psychological state that involves the unmediated experience of the world, because we believe that that state has certain desirable properties. It’s impossible in general to reach that state through any particular form or method, since forms and methods are themselves examples of the mediators that we are trying to avoid. So we employ a variety of ad hoc means, some linguistic like koans and some non-linguistic like zazen, in hopes that for any given student one or more of our methods will, in whatever way, engender the condition of non-mediated experience that is our goal. And since even thinking in terms of mediators and goals tends to reinforce our undesirable dependency on concepts, we actively discourage exactly this kind of analytical discourse.”

And the student was enlightened.

2 replies on “Quote #223”

Random thoughts: this notion of unmediated experience – odd. I think people have very different mental prejudices they bring to it. I have a very strong sense that everything I’m experiencing is a model – including the ‘I’ that’s experiencing it. Or rather, that perception is ‘on tap’ to me, if I take a moment to reflect. (I don’t feel that way when e.g. cycling down the hill on the way home – I seem to be much more actually ‘in the world’ then.)

Kant was big on this stuff: what does the mind supply, what does the world supply? And that every perception is only that – a mediated reflection of something, never the thing in itself. The screen I think I’m looking at as I type is a model of a screen; more than that, this is a model of world with ‘screen’ and ‘me looking at screen’ in it – and very convincing it is too. But what the hell would unmediated experience be? Sense experience is always mediated; to suggest there’s something unmediated is to suggest there’s something ‘prior’ to our senses. Surely that’s an illusion, that’s back to front: I’m able to meditate and, maybe, get a moment of concentration – but that’s the epiphenomenon, not the senses or the flow of connected thoughts I’m trying to surf. (I used to think – and it’s a strong intuition – that something underpins consciousness. Dunno these days.)

Eh up, I think I may have had a strong coffee. Which just goes to underline my point. Whatever that was.

Agree that absolute unmediated experience is a nonsense, but perhaps an unmediate-in-terms-of-conventional-concepts experience isn’t, where ‘conventional’ means ‘pre-Zen’. Shame the only way to find out the value of this is to try sitting meditation for 20 years!

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