I recently read about this psychological experiment in Alison Gopnick's excellent book "The Philosophical Baby". In this attention experiment a number of people are told to watch a video of several people throwing a ball back and forth and count the number of times the ball goes from hand to hand. This takes some effort since the people are all weaving around, and as Gopnick says, it is similar to trying to track the movement of the pea in a shell game. At the end of the exercise the viewers are asked if anything strange occured on the field, and they answer no. The video is then played back and they are told, this time, not to count the ball throws. To their amazement they now realize that someone in a gorilla suit walks slowly right through the middle of the field.
The lesson? When we focus our attention on one set of facts we can overlook something very significant happening right before our eyes. This is the case with many of the truths pointed out by the great Yogic religious movements like Vedanta and Buddhism. The truths these religions point to- truths like interbeing, emptiness, impermanence, not-self, the unborn and undying nature of awareness or the featureless plenitude of Being that all phenomena arise from, are right in front of our eyes. We do not notice them because we are too focused on counting ball throws. Sometimes when trying to explain one of these truths to someone I will get the feeling that they think I am playing a mind game or trying to pull a fast one on them. It's kind of like I'm saying, "You didn't see a gorilla just walk through here but one did and you didn't notice." The person will not be impressed until they themselves have seen the gorilla. Nevermind another person, often my own mind reacts that way. "What do you mean I should attend to emptiness or impermanance, can't you see I'm counting ball throws here? Counting ball throws is very important."
That is why both Vedanta and Buddhism have advocated monasticism, of course. It is not out of a morbid fear of sensuality or an obsession with purity, seclusion, or quietness, nor a hatred of women. Normal life consists of an endless sequence of activities which require you to focus on the ball throws. And this counting of ball throws is not a neutral experiment or afternoon's diversion. We feel that everything depends on our counting, and we are driven to track the movements of the ball by fear, greed, ambition, love, envy, anxiety, and anger. But according to the Buddha or Shankara, everything depends on you seeing the gorilla walk by. Once you see it then you will realize that things are not what they seem. Small details of life which seemed peripheral were actually, all the time, containing the secrets of freedom.
The Buddha taught that there are two levels of seclusion: kayaviveka and cittaviveka. Kayaviveka consists in physically withdrawing from involvement in the world, as in monasticism, sesshin, or a retreat. Cittaviveka consists in withdrawing the mind from such involvement. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta is it described as meditating "having put aside greed and distress with regards to the world".
This activity of putting aside greed and distress is shamatha, calming meditation, known in the Chinese cultural sphere as "stopping" (the "zhi" in zhiguan). This is the stopping which precedes "seeing", and is an essential part of our practice. Before we can see the gorilla of impermanence or selflessness we must stop counting the ball throws.
Although in Zazen practice we do not intentionally cultivate "stopping" we are in fact stoppping when we sit down, assume our posture, and begin letting go of "gaining mind".
In Zazen we do not aim at seeing anything in particular, we simply withdraw from counting the ball throws and cultivate a mind which sees everything. Even should we see a man in a gorilla suit we do not exclaim "a-ha!" but rather are simply aware of the gorilla and keep on watching. The reason for this is that Zazen attempts to sit directly on the feild beyond balls and gorillas, beyond anything in particular. The reason for seeing the gorilla of impermanence is to free our mind from attachment; this is the same reason we want to see not-self or interbeing. Perhaps we should add to this, as Mahayana practitioners, that we also wish to cultivate compassion.
In any case, Zazen, being self-confessedly an embodiment of the teaching which does not rely on teachings (or methods) but points directly to the heart and wakes Buddha, starts by immediately dropping into the non-attachment that is supposed to be the result of the insights that other schools of Buddhism cultivate methodically and gradually.
Reflecting on this I think it is important to realize that although in a sense Zazen is the simplest of all practices, it is also a very advanced one. Truth be told most of us are not ready for it. In my Sangha the teacher, Eihei Peter Levitt, does not in fact teach Shikantaza to beginners, but teaches a kind of shikantaza flavored Anapanasmrti, Mindfulness of Breathing. I think this is pretty common in Zen circles, and was also done by Shunryu Suzuki. This is, of course, a stopping technique.
In my own practice I have found again and again that just sitting Zazen is not enough. I must also cultivate both stopping and seeing, Shen-hui be damned. As well as mindfulness of breathing, mantra, qigong, I must use kayagatasati- mindfulness of the body and its movements throughout the day, mindfulness of eating and drinking, of walking and laying down. I also need to pay attention to and think about my experiences in the light of the Buddha's teachings. I need to attend to dependent origination, to karma and its results, to interbeing, not-self, impermanence, and emptiness.
I need to because withdrawing my attention from my obsessions and their objects, calming my mind and body, and seeing into those obvious aspects of reality that I relentlesly overlook, reduces my siffering and that of those around me. They are Bodhisattva activities, and they actualize the Buddha's compassionate project here and now.
I have to confess that I occasionally find uncompromisingly suddenist teachings like that of the Linji Lu tiresome, no matter how brilliant or intense a manifestation of awakened insight. The reason is that if I cannot be less iriitable with my wife, if I do not view the people around me with the eyes of compassion; if I do not follow the precepts and consume and act mindfully; then of what concrete, visible here and now (ehipassiko) use is the Buddhadharma?
I have met too many non-dualists who let their bodyminds roll on unconfronted, focused on recognizing the immanent presence of the absolute, on being one with their activities, or on developing the mind beyond right and wrong. These seem to me to be legitimate points in our practice, but where is the caring heart of the Bodhisattva? Where are Dogen Zenji's "three minds" of kindness, parental love, and expansiveness? Where is it for real, here and now, visible to all, rolling the wheel of the Dharma? Where is the cool breeze for the sentient beings sweating in the burning house of samsara?
In making the above argument I realize I am also arguing for the importance of the third factor in the traditional Buddhist triad that includes Stopping and Seeing. In the traditional teaching stopping equates to samadhi, seeing equates to prajnya, and the third factor is shila, or good conduct. The Buddha argued that without good conduct the mind would be too much of a mess to be able to stop, and he also argued that good conduct benefitted other beings, increasing both their long term happiness and wellbeing and our own. He also said it was the greatest of worldy gifts: that of abhayadana, the gift of having nothing to fear from you.
All around us people crave for examples of integrity, of non-hypocricy, or some degree of purity and what one might call "rectitude". I am not suggesting that we abandon cultivating the mind beyond gain, or lose our flexibility and non-dogmatism. The Diamond Sutra should always be in the back of our minds. I am suggesting though that we need to take a hard look at whether we are walking our talk as practitioners of Mahayana Dharma in every detail of our daily lives. The fact that we will constantly fail to a greater or lesser degree is not the issue. As Dogen Zenji famously said. "Practice is one continuous mistake." To whatever degree we succeed we will have reduced our own suffering and the suffering of beings everywhere, and we will have repaid our debt to the Buddha by embodying his teaching in the world.