A central thread of Mahayana Buddhism is non-duality. But when we hear ‘non-duality’ we are liable to misunderstand it.
To us, duality is generally thought of in terms of the mind-body split, so we see non-duality as fixing that.
However, the non-duality which Mahayana talks about is not primarily this. Rather, the duality to be overcome is the split between self and world, interior and exterior.
Anyone can see from that an immediate clarifying point: healing the mind-body split leaves the primary dualism of self and world intact.
However, healing the mind-body split is a prerequisite for healing the greater split.
That’s why it’s extremely important that we do not regard Zazen as being concerned primarily with consciousness. It isn’t a mental phenomena. It isn’t something that we do with our mind. It isn’t psychology or personal development.
It is something that we do with our whole being. We give everything we’ve got.
In most schools of Buddhism, meditation training is progressive. The Indians express this as first practicing Samatha, unscattering and calming the mind, and then Vipassana, insight. You would be expected to learn and master various practices to calm the mind, bring focus and do away with dispersion and distraction. Once you had mastered that you would go on to various insight practices.
Zazen isn’t like that. We have just the one practice. But this being so makes us particularly susceptible to getting stuck in a partial or unbalanced position.
It is possible to practice zazen in a very concrete way – just sitting there relaxed, with thoughts and feelings just coming and going; tranquil and settled within the familiar constructed world. But that isn’t Zazen, it’s Western Mindfulness, because sitting in that way retains the primary dualism of self and world.
Another difficulty is that we can misunderstand what kind of practitioner our teacher’s instructions are directed towards. If we are quite settled and are given further Samatha type instructions to settle ourselves such as the characteristic instruction of bringing our attention back to our breath or our posture, those instructions are otiose.
On the other hand if we are quite distracted, instructions to do with insight are likely to be completely opaque to us, or be perceived simply as poetic ornamentation.
Traditionally taught meditation is like somebody going into the house of meditation and requiring to first settle in the room of calming the mind. Then the door is unlocked and the practitioner can go into the next room. Zazen isn’t – for better and worse – like that. We can freely roam from the outset, but in consequence, our practice may remain superficial and our expression cliched.
In the one sitting we are, as it were, moving between all the rooms of this vast world. We need to understand that.
If we see that the primary split is between self and world, we can avoid thinking of calming as a personal, remedial quality. We can avoid thinking of insight in terms of me acquiring insight or me becoming wise, insightful, compassionate or enlightened.
So we can then see that insight is primarily an insight into emptiness, that is, an insight into non-separation, non-duality. It isn’t a personal insight, because that would just be reiterating duality in a different key.
Taking all this into account, we can start to comprehend the bizarre and fantastical language and imagery in the Mahayana sutras. Specifically, we can start to understand the idea that the world itself is a liberative force, that the world itself and the beings of that world are not standing in opposition to us, but are bodhisattvas. All the things of the world, all the people of the world, in this perspective, are our teachers, are bodhisattvas.
If we think the purpose of sitting is for me to accumulate merit and then to go out and save all beings, I’m not a spiritual warrior, I’m a buffoon. To change our perspective into seeing the liberative capacity of everything, and to receive that in gratitude enables us, in response, to meet all beings from that position of gratitude and love.
Which changes everything.