A common instruction we are given in Zen is not to become involved with our thoughts, to let them come and go, like clouds in the sky.
However, many of us notice that when the mind calms down, what is then revealed is what appears to be an underlying and persistent emotional state which is disagreeable to us: which could be fear, anxiety, discontentedness, bitterness, or something else. How does the instruction help us then?
And sometimes also what is revealed is a meta emotional state: we are discontent about not being at peace.
The metaphor of clouds and sky was part of a larger metaphor used by the East Mountain school: just as the sun continues to exist whether it is obscured by clouds or not, so our underlying Buddha Nature is always present, even if it is temporarily obscured by thoughts, emotions and false views, and we should practice zazen with the faith that that is so. Possibly not coincidentally, Vairocana, the Universal Buddha, is associated with the sun.
But for our purposes, the clouds in the instruction don’t mean that thoughts are illusory. They are no more illusory than anything else. Neither should we take it as a signifier for interdependence: that doesn’t help us, if we retain the common viewpoint that meditation is primarily about something within our minds called consciousness.
I think we should take the instruction as pointing to spaciousness. Just as the sky is so vast that the presence or absence of clouds is of no consequence, likewise when we sit, the point isn’t to make the sky empty of clouds, the mind empty of thoughts, it is to actualise vast spaciousness.
But here’s the thing: that vast spaciousness isn’t actualised within our minds. That’s just another idea. It’s actualised within our zazen. Within the body (which includes the head, obviously), not the mind.
When I sit, there are two things going on, one negative, one positive. The negative is that I put to one side my sense of myself, the picturing body and mind of the self. “Just sit”, in the vernacular. But the positive is that I am aware of a joyful spaciousness in my body. For me, I’m first aware of it in my upper torso, then spreading upwards and downwards, inwards, to my breath, outwards, to all beings.
People tend not to talk about the second, but without it, zazen makes no sense: it’s just an exercise in mindfulness, a utilitarian attempt at unconditioning ourselves. Buddhism would not have continued to our time if it’s message was so limited and feeble.
I think the metaphor of the Universal Buddha is a mythical – not just mythical – way of talking about our actual experience in zazen. The whole vast structure of Buddhist thought is a creative, transforming dialogue between Practice and Descriptive Understanding, like a real person walking through time.