Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gazing at the Ox - Solipsism: Trapped in Tozan’s First Rank

Who would think that just beyond the gateless gate lies a deadly trap?

How could the realization of one’s true nature possibly have a down side?

The fact that I am contained in everything and everything is contained in me, where there is neither separateness nor oneness, would seem to be a state that has nowhere to go, nothing to do.

That’s the trap.

Wikipedia defines Metaphysical Solipsism as

the variety of idealism which is based on the argument that no reality exists other than one's own mind or mental states, and that the individual mind is the whole of reality and the external world has no independent existence. It is expressed by the assertion "I myself only exist", in other words, no reality exists other than one's own mind.

Yamada Koun Roshi (Robert Aitken Roshi’s teacher) called it “pernicious oneness”.

Beware of the intellect manufacturing gems like Everything is perfect just as it is, therefore I don’t need to do anything, or Everything is an illusion, including suffering, so I don’t need to do anything, or I don’t need to practice, because everything is enlightened. These and similar thoughts pave the comfortable road to hell.

Having finally seen the Ox face to face, are you just going to spend the rest of your life lovingly gazing into its eyes?

Hakuin Zenji said this about the First Rank of Tozan:

The rank of "The Apparent within the Real" denotes the rank of the Absolute, the rank in which one experiences the Great Death, shouts "KA!" sees Tao, and enters into the Principle. When the true practitioner, filled with power from his secret study, meritorious achievements, and hidden practices, suddenly bursts through into this rank, "the empty sky vanishes and the iron mountain crumbles." "Above, there is not a tile to cover his head; below, there is not an inch of ground for him to stand on." The delusive passions are non-existent, enlightenment is non-existent, Samsara is non-existent, Nirvana is non-existent. This is the state of total empty solidity, without sound and without odor, like a bottomless clear pool. It is as if every fleck of cloud had been wiped from the vast sky.

Too often the disciple, considering that his attainment of this rank is the end of the Great Matter and his discernment of the Buddha-way complete, clings to it to the death and will not let go of it. Such as this is called "stagnant water" Zen; such a man is called "an evil spirit who keeps watch over the corpse in the coffin." Even though he remains absorbed in this state for thirty or forty years, he will never get out of the cave of the self-complacency and inferior fruits of pratyeka-buddhahood. Therefore it is said: "He whose activity does not leave this rank sinks into the poisonous sea." He is the man whom Buddha called "the fool who gets his realization in the rank of the Real."

There is the small matter described in the delightful title of Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy the Laundry.

How can I escape from the trapless trap?  What direction should I take in a place where there are no directions?  One helpful idea might be to be mindful of compassion.

When everything you experience is a mirror, who is looking back at you through the eyes of a homeless addict or through the eyes of a cow at the slaughterhouse?

Now gazing into the eyes of the ox, be moved to do something.

P.S.  Don’t get stuck there either.  I try to refrain from giving advice, but I’ll make an exception here. If you think you may be stuck, find an experienced teacher without delay.


  1. The Ox is one of my favorite analogies. It is true that one can get "stuck" and the suggestion of a teacher is a good one.



  2. a great post. I'm pleased to say - I dont entirely understand it all. Which means - yes. I'm ready for a teacher. :)

  3. (BB: I posted this on your blog but thought I would post it here too)

    It took me a long time (until I was 56) before I finally decided (got up the nerve?) to leave solo practice and look for a sangha. As my preference was Rinzai Zen, I checked the internet for local Rinzai centres, found one that looked OK, and just went over and knocked on the door.

    That was it. The abbott answered the door and said I really should have had an introductory lecture but come on in anyway and just do what the others are doing. After the sit, we chatted a bit and he asked me about the books I had been reading.

    On the way home, I kept thinking how ordinary he was. I wasn't expecting Bodhidharma or a samurai warrior. Actually I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was very pleasantly surprised. If he had had an "I'm the great Poo-Bah and you're not" attitude, I doubt if I would have gone back.

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I would be inclined to go with the one who expresses ordinary kindness, has a twinkle in his or her eye, and except during rituals, displays a distinct lack of pomp.

    Best wishes in your search!

  4. What you bring up in this post is oh so important.

    I remember last year, I took a drug which had the curious effect of erasing all my memories. (First drug I ever took, and probably ever will, too.) I would start speaking to my friend, and then two seconds later I would just stop and look strangely at him ... I had forgot what I - we - were speaking about.

    This resulted in a deep and intense state of formlessness. Everything lost the meaning we ordinarily impose on things. Say I looked at a chair. It wasn't a chair - it was everything and nothing simultaneously. Yeah, in other words, this was your ordinary nirvikalpa samadhi vegetable experience. And naturally, it was blissful beyond words.

    But the following morning, I remembered strongly one thing about the evening. What I remembered was my complete lack of empathy towards my friend. I had been a real douche bag. Just sitting there with a blank stare, as in my own world, totally not caring about anything. I remember that eventually I stopped speaking to him entirely, because I simply wasn't capable or willing. And if I did speak, it was to offer some pompous statement about "reality".

    In other words, the formless state caused by my complete lack of memories had erased all traces of compassion, empathy, humour, and even simple kindness.

    So yes, David. One can get stuck for sure. Real freedom is not about slipping into and attaching to some kind of coma. It's not natural, and it's not authentic.


  5. Dawid, I really appreciate your sharing your story. Probably not easy to talk about but a strong and valuable lesson. Thank you!

  6. Hi David, thanks for this post - it was a good reminder!


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