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Sitting in no-sense

Éric Rommeluère

Reality does not exist. There is only the reality of words. When we are born, we are born into words not into the world. Words are the supports on which our world rests; the world such as I create by words. In itself the world is neither blue, nor yellow, nor red, nor black, high, low, large, small. Even so, without words we cannot get around in our world. Without words all would be mere chaos and our being without structure. You tell me "This table is blue": I understand what you are saying, but what is it that I really know of this table? Absolutely nothing.

We exist only because there are words. We are not only made up of flesh and blood but of words and yet again words. But these words which are for us the source of life are at the same time the origin of our sufferings. Herein lies the whole paradox of human life.

Words lie at the centre of all our desires; in particular those words about the space between birth and death being sometimes bound, sometimes infinite; yet we all advance inexorably on the path leading from birth to death. What is this road? With birth, words are born. Consciousness is born from words. Existence is born from consciousness. Discrimination arises with existence. Contradiction is born from discrimination and from this arises suffering, the path at every moment channelled by words.

To practice Buddhism, is to walk consciously along the path from birth to death. To study Buddhism is to ask oneself how to live in this world of birth and death; it is to ask how to live with words.

In Zen, we have a marvellous method for interrupting all these mental wanderings. It is called the 'just-sitting' meditation. It consists precisely in forgetting words. What are we doing? Sitting correctly, we practise nothing, we contemplate nothing, we realise nothing. Sitting correctly we do not distinguish anything, we discern nothing and we do not judge anything.

Master Dogen has written in his 'Fukanzazengi': 'Think neither of good nor of evil, make no distinction between the true and the false. Stop the agitation of the mind and cease considering anything.' The meditative consciousness is then no longer in the domain of words. We do nothing other than to become free from words. The words may arise but they no longer form sentences. Who therefore can be set in chains by them?

In abandoning words in this way 'no-sense' makes a brusque irruption into our life. One cannot get hold of anything. One cannot understand anything. Nothing can be caught hold of. Although everything is before one's eyes, there is nothing one can say, there is nothing to say. Consciousness is needle-sharp but words find no place there.

What to make of this opening without meaning. Some, having known it, close it down again. Others enlarge it again and again pleasurably. What to make of this breach? Absolutely nothing. Through it we dance over our illusions. We jump over all our suffering.

The absence of 'Why?' is the essence of our meditation. If we add a 'Why?' to this practice, we give it a sense. And by this sense we sully our meditation.

Those who come to sit are searching for an answer through sitting. Some speak of well-being, of health, of enlightenment. Some feel the effects of it, others wake up, yet all of this remains only construction in words. After all, it is only perpetuating in a happy fashion the comings and goings of the illusory world. Most stay stupefied by not finding a response to their questions. They do not understand that to sit in this way is to stop all questioning. And so they quickly close the gap which they have opened. How could one find an answer there?

Others continue to practise, affirming that they practise without a goal. But behind this goal-less activity hides the meaning which their unconscious conceals. In coming to sit, each one of us has brought our own motivation. We need to know this, to elucidate it, to throw it away, at last to pass the door opening on pure meditation. If our motivation remains unconscious this door is more difficult to pass. We are still taken up with hidden memories or with our buried knots. The practice of meditation is sometimes only a manifestation of our neuroses. All our interior discourse halts us before this door. In attempting to pass through it we must abandon all the 'whys', even the idea of 'goal-lessness' and penetrate deeply into the obscurity of no-sense. There is no meaning to this practice. That is the secret of Zen. In sitting one is as if dumb with nothing to say, as if deaf with nothing to hear, like an idiot understanding nothing. Of what use is a fan in winter?

There are many ways of acting in this world. In Buddhism we distinguish between actions of the body, of the mind and of speech. They are all accomplished through words. All such activity carries meanings that sustain the experience of being. We, who possess consciousness, search for the meaning of being. Such is the nature of humanity, the way we travel the road from birth to death. It is why we search for happiness and self understanding. The practice of Buddhism as a response to such questions is to continue living in the illusory domain of human creativity.

We have this odd activity we call meditation. There are many ways of sitting in meditation and everyone tries them out as they wish. Here is bodily sitting; that is rest. There is the sitting of the mind; that is tranquillity. There is a sitting where the body lets go of the mind; that's torpidity. There is a sitting where the mind abandons the body; that's agitation. Calmness is only agitation at point zero, not its transcendence. All these ways of sitting, even happiness and contentment, are the simple equilibria of antagonistic forces rather than their suppression. All such states succeed one another in meditation just as day follows night.

Even so, in the centre of all such sitting appears the sitting where body and mind let go of themselves, where calm and agitation come to an end and where a consciousness that transcends sitting comes into being; this we call 'just-sitting'. A master once said 'Zazen is not a human creation.' In meditation we eventually stop creating anything. With this body and mind we let go of body and mind. Although body and mind continue their life of body and mind, consciousness itself apprehends the emptiness of body and mind. By this, in an instant, we leap over all our creations stopping in one blow the cycle of our mental transmigrations.

Emperor Wu of Liang asked Great Master Bodhidharma, "What is the supreme principle of the sacred teaching?" Bodhidharma replied, "Emptiness and nothing holy." The Emperor asked, "Who then stands before me?" Bodhidharma replied, "I do not know."

This not-knowing has always been transmitted and preserved as the secret of Zen. Face to the wall, one looks at nothing, one contemplates nothing. Who is there then before us? But the words have fallen away and abandoned us.

This text was written by Éric Rommeluère in 1993 and revised by him in 1995. It was translated from the French for New Ch'an Forum (Issue 17, 1998) by John Crook in March 1998.

Complete or partial reproduction forbidden. French version.

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