The Technology of Awakening: Experiments in Zen Phenomenology
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head. It took me no time at all to realise that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
2. Experimental Phenomenology
3. Awakening in Zen
Our body is the bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright,
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
Hui Neng’s stanza read:And let no dust alight. (Price and Wong 1990, p. 70)
There is no bodhi tree,
Nor stand of mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight? (Ibid., p. 72)
Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically pure! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically self-sufficient! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically free from change! Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the essence of mind!(Ibid., p. 73)
When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, what is at this particular moment, venerable sir, your Original Face?’ As soon as Wei Ming had heard this he at once became enlightened. But he further asked, ‘Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the patriarchs from generation to generation, are there any other esoteric teachings?’ ‘What I can tell you is not esoteric,’ Hui Neng replied. ‘If you turn your light inwardly, you will find what is esoteric within you.(Ibid., pp. 75–76)
You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.
4. What to Look For
The capacity of the mind is as great as that of space. It is infinite, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither green nor yellow, neither red nor white, neither above nor below, neither long nor short, neither angry nor happy, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil. Learned Audience, the illimitable Void of the universe is capable of holding myriads of things of various shape and form, such as the sun, the moon, stars, mountains, rivers, worlds, springs, rivulets… Space takes in all these and so does the voidness of our nature.
5. The Science of the First-Person
Zen is emphatically a matter of personal experience; if anything can be called radically empirical it is Zen. No amount of reading, no amount of teaching, no amount of contemplation will ever make one a Zen master. Life itself must be grasped in the midst of its flow; to stop it for examination and analysis is to kill it, leaving its cold corpse to be embraced.
6. Experiments in Zen Phenomenology
6.1. The Single Eye
6.2. The Pointing Experiment
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to one’s mind
It lets one see [into one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.
6.3. The Mirror Experiment
6.4. The Spinning Experiment
6.5. Closed Eye Experiment
7. The Nonduality of Subject and Object
8. A Distortion of Zen Phenomenology?
Buddha-nature could be seen as a propensity for entering into enlightening forms of conduct and relationship, rather than as a substantial essence. Buddha-nature is not something hidden “in” each of us, but rather something that manifests as a distinctive pattern and quality of interactive conduct.
9. Merely an Illusion?
10. Analysing an Awakening Experience
Conflicts of Interest
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David Chalmers (2005), argues that Neo is not massively deluded after all because the simulation can be considered the real world, while its fundamental reality is computational. This is analogous to tables and chairs still existing for us even though their fundamental quantum reality is radically different. This ‘two levels of reality’ approach is similar to the two levels of truths of Buddhism, i.e., relative and absolute.
Japanese Zen is another matter entirely, especially with Dogen who dispensed with Kensho altogether (Cook 1983). For Dogen, practice and enlightenment are one from the very beginning. One practices to actualise their intrinsic Buddhahood. For an apparent exception to his rejection of Kensho, see Dogen’s Fukanzazengi quoted below.
Both Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta agree that there are no personal souls. The most common interpretation of Buddhism is that the Buddha also rejected the Upanishadic notion of the Self, such that neither is there a fundamental nature that is common to all beings (Pure Consciousness). For an argument against the view that the Buddha rejected the Upanishadic tradition see Albahari (2002).
As they are not relevant to the current arguments, I set aside the Buddhist belief in the Buddha’s achievement of Nirvana which is associated with a permanent eradication of the grasping self, moral perfection and even supernatural abilities such as omniscience and seeing past lives.
The term ‘enlightened’ was first used by Max Müller to describe the Buddha in 1857. It has since become the standard translation of bodhi (literally ‘awakening’). Richard Cohen (2006) points out that ‘enlightened’ is an infelicitous translation because bodhi is more process-oriented, whereas ‘enlightened’ is event-oriented. Enlightenment also suggests an illumination from the outside, a metaphor that is common in the Christian tradition where we can be illuminated/enlightened by God or the holy spirit. Awakening, by contrast is a personal transformation or realisation of one’s true nature from within.
On the two aspects of Kensho, Ama Samy states: ‘Awakening is first and foremost the realization of the core of one’s heart-mind as the unknowing, inexpressible mystery; this is awakening to Emptiness. Awakening is awakening to Emptiness—it is Emptiness awakening to Emptiness, so to say: it is the mystery of No-Self that is nowhere and everywhere. Secondly, it is the realization of this heart-mind as boundless openness to the world: It is the realization of the self as the world and the world as the self.’ (‘Koan, Hua-t’ou, and Kensho’ in Samy 2012). The experience of ‘ego dissolution’ is also commonly reported with the ingestion of psychedelics (Letheby and Gerrans 2017). Sascha Fink (2020) argues that such states might be better conceptualised as ‘ego expansion’ such as, ‘I am everything’, rather than paradoxical states such as, ‘I experienced a dissolution of myself’.
Thank you to Richard Lang for suggesting this way of thinking about the headless experience.
For further parallels between Headlessness and Zen, see (Harding  2000).
A vexed question in the literature is whether phenomenology should be (or indeed can be) metaphysically neutral (for a discussion see Zahavi 2003). I do not delve into this topic here.
The current first-person approach has some similarities with Terje Sparby’s ‘contemplative phenomenology’ in that it draws upon traditional sources, but where the focus is the description of experience itself and so is independent of any such traditional frameworks (Sparby 2015, p. 215).
Buddhist scholar John McRae (2003, pp. 64–65) argues that verses attributed to Shen-Hsiu and Hui Neng should be regarded as companion verses that represent two aspects of a single teaching, rather than opposing doctrines: ‘The constant teaching is first posited as the highest possible expression of the Buddhist teaching in formal terms, after which Huineng’s verse(s) apply the rhetoric of emptiness to undercut the substantiality of the terms of that formulation. However, the basic meaning of the first proposition still remains’ (ibid., p. 65).
I previously defended the reliability of introspection against general scepticism and proposed that making phenomenal judgements involves the domain general factors of attention, conceptualisation and working memory (Ramm 2016).
When Zen masters say they ‘don’t know’ we should be careful to not interpret this as we standardly would as implying a state of confusion, otherwise this would be a quite irrational exchange. To ‘know’ something is to set up a divide between knower and known. Hui Hai is pointing to an experience that goes beyond subject-object duality and hence cannot be explained verbally. Similarly, in a famous exchange, Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma “Who stands here before me?” To which Bodhidharma replied “I don’t know”. There is no fixed self that can be pinned down, so ‘knowing’ himself would be like trying to grasp a spinning top, not to mention creating a false divide between ‘himself’ and the emperor. For a discussion of Bodhidharma’s ‘I don’t know’ response see Wick (2005, pp. 13–15).
Note that this is more true for actual glasses than fingers, as there is often a central blur when looking through my ‘finger glasses’. Looking through binoculars is even more effective for making the point.
Thomas Metzinger distinguishes between boundless as an infinite expansion and boundless in terms of “no ‘other side beyond the boundary’ to which attention could shift” (Metzinger 2020, p. 12).
By ‘space’ I do not mean the space of physics, but rather I use it as a descriptive term in the sense of a gap or opening, and also in terms of it seemingly functioning as room or capacity for the scene.
As Bertrand Russell observes in his introduction to the Tractatus: ‘Our world may be bounded for some superior being who can survey it from above, but for us, however finite it may be, it cannot have a boundary, since it has nothing outside it. Wittgenstein uses, as an analogy, the field of vision. Our field of vision does not, for us, have a visual boundary, just because there is nothing outside it, and in like manner our logical world has no logical boundary because our logic knows of nothing outside it’ (Wittgenstein 1922, p. 15).
For more on the stillness of the ‘Single Eye’, see the Spinning Experiment below.
This verse was likely composed more than 500 years after Bodhidharma’s death (Dumoulin 2005, chp. 6). Little is known about the historical figure of Bodhidharma, but the scholarly evidence strongly suggests that his image and exploits were gradually built up over centuries (McRae 2003, chp. 2). This being said, that this verse has had a profound influence on the development of Zen and was taken as expressing its essence is the important point for current purposes.
My gratitude to Hógen Yamahata (Open Way Zen) for sharing this insight with me.
For further discussions of pure consciousness/awareness or ‘witness consciousness’ see: (Albahari 2009; Fasching 2011; Forman 1999; Gupta 1998; Josipovic and Miskovic 2020; Metzinger 2020; Shear and Jevning 1999; Shear 2014; Thompson 2015). We can distinguish here between (1) an objectless pure awareness experience, also referred to as a ‘minimal phenomenal experience’ (Metzinger 2020; Windt 2015) and (2) an object-directed pure awareness experience, where there is an experience of awareness itself with a non-sensory phenomenal character at the same time as objects of experience (Forman 1999, p. 150; Ramm 2019, p. 9).
The original translation is from Hu Shih (1953, p. 15) who translates ‘chih’ as ‘knowledge’. D. T. Suzuki (1953, p. 32) criticises Hu’s translation for being too intellectual and instead uses ‘Prajna-Intuition’. Gregory (1985) points out that Suzuki’s translation of chih though more accurate is not broad enough to adequately fit how Tsung-mi used the term and instead settles on ‘awareness’.
This being said, as the framework/approach I have used is inspired by science, it is obviously incompatible with some frameworks. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that a similar approach couldn’t be used (or hasn’t been used) within a religious/spiritual framework.
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Ramm, B.J. The Technology of Awakening: Experiments in Zen Phenomenology. Religions 2021, 12, 192. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030192
Ramm BJ. The Technology of Awakening: Experiments in Zen Phenomenology. Religions. 2021; 12(3):192. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030192Chicago/Turabian Style
Ramm, Brentyn J. 2021. "The Technology of Awakening: Experiments in Zen Phenomenology" Religions 12, no. 3: 192. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030192