Pai-chang, one of Master Mazu’s principal successors, said that there were three levels of zazen.
The first level, which he equated with Theravadan practice, is non-attachment. At this level, the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky is apposite. So we do not grasp or attach to our thoughts and feelings. And we allow them to come and go freely in this non-attachment.
And in terms of the metaphor, our mind and our awareness is like the broad sky. So this stage would correspond with emptiness. So: emptiness, non-attachment, non-grasping.
The second level, which Pai-chang calls the Trap of Bodhisattvas, is when we are no longer attached to non-attachment. So we, as it were, open our heart and are not separate or detached from all beings. This opens a compassionate space which we can equate with the Bodhisattva.
So in terms of the Lotus sutra, for example, the first stage corresponds with the vehicle of the Sravakas (the voice hearers) or the Pratyekabuddhas (the self-enlightening practitioners). And the second level corresponds with the Bodhisattva vehicle.
The “trap” of the second level is that there is still a self.
At his third level that residual sense of self (compassionate self) is dropped off. And so there’s just simply what can be variously termed: ‘one piece Zen’; ‘suchness’; ‘the Buddha vehicle’ ( in Lotus sutra parlance); ‘one mind’ (to use Mazu’s term); and so on. So just simply this ‘is-ness’. Which includes these other vehicles, as nothing is left out.
And we might imagine that what we require to do as practitioners is to develop the first level as a foundation. And once we’ve done that then we move up the levels. And so we find our way to the third level and we stay there.
But it seems to me, whilst it’s true that we require to develop a foundation, that we experience all three levels freely within our actual sitting.
So it’s not like there are heightening rooms which we can progressively enter and remain in. Rather, it is like spaces within this vast single hall of practice where all beings can stand.