In Zen training we start with The Search for Ox, the Ox being our true nature.
With diligent practice over time, we move through stages that lead to an enlightened return. Examining the evolution of Zen training is essential when we think about how a commitment to mindfulness meditation can positively influence society and encourage students to keep going.
If you’re interested in a thoughtful overview of the stages of Zen training (with a good portion of the book dedicated to teaching meditation technique) I recommend Katsuki Sekida’s book, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. However, for the purpose of this reflection, I want to call your attention to the final three stages.
- No Ox, No Man (A state of mind called, “nothing” or “the great death.” A thorough purification of consciousness, a vanishing of the ego and attachment to circumstances)
- Returning to the Source (Going back to the start, the stage of the beginner but now with awakened consciousness. Seeing with new eyes and new hearing)
- In Town with Helping Hands (Mingling with the world, caring of nothing other than the joy you bring to others. All antagonism is dissolved. Freedom, playfulness and positivity.)
I have found in my own practice and when listening to others on the path that it is natural to feel lost during periods of training, like when we experience The Great Death, or the Void.
According to Sekida, the stage No Ox, No Man is enlightenment when normal consciousness ceases. However, when there is a break in this state of mind (as it often occurs for most students) we are confronted with gnawing feelings of unease. We may ask ourselves: What do I do with this awareness? How will I ever integrate into normal society? Do I have to engage with society at all? What is the purpose?
When these questions arise, I have found it helpful to learn from teachers, many of whom contribute their experience and wisdom in literature. When a student is in a period of readiness, they are drawn to a teacher or a text… not by chance but as if the mere asking beckons a response.
As we discover truth in literature, in the teachings, we can lean on this knowledge with expectation. We know more that if we keep moving forward, we can anticipate another change of being. This might feel like innocence and inspiration and later, much later— curiosity for being In Town with Helping Hands.
This notion that our practice, our calm, our bliss, a dedication to Self and resting in our true nature is ultimately leading us to a presence that brings joy to others is a very powerful knowing.
So, how do we progress from stage to stage?
Simply, it’s in your dedication to a daily practice, to sitting in meditation, to reading literature on the topic, talking and listening to teachers who demonstrate a commitment to the task, taking care of yourself and your instrument, that which is your body. It’s trusting your capacity to expand beyond what you can possibly imagine.
I realize there’s a certain surrender about this work but there is also foresight. There’s strength in this balance of knowing, learning and mystery. We are sitting at the intersection of life’s greatest koan, of effort and letting go.
As I progress from one stage to the next, I’m observing my life choices and how they are leading me to fulfill my purpose. I want to express courage and freedom, to help us see life’s beyond beyond. I want people to feel at home and loved and rested — especially those adults who have walked the road alone and there’s vulnerability and neediness.
That just feels beautiful and important to me.