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Zen: Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

April 21, 2012

Dhyana is a Sanskrit word referring to either meditation or meditative states. Equivalent terms are Chan in modern Chinese and Zen in Japanese. Dhyana can be approximately translated as “absorption”. (Kasulis, Thomas P. (2003), Ch’an Spirituality. In: Buddhist Spirituality. Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World; edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass p.24)

In the early texts, it is taught as a state of collected, full-body awareness in which mind becomes very powerful and still but not frozen, and is thus able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience. (Shankman, Richard The Experience of Samadhi – an in depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation, Shambala publications 2008)

Traditionally the origin of Chán in China is credited to the Indian monk Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is recorded as having come to China during the time of Southern and Northern Dynasties to teach a “special transmission outside scriptures” which “did not stand upon words”.(Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005-A), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China, World Wisdom Books pp. 85-94)

The actual origins of Chán may lie in ascetic practitioners of Buddhism, who found refuge in forests and mountains (Lai, Whalen “Ma-Tsu Tao-I And The Unfolding Of Southern Zen” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12/2-3)(http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/HistoricalZen/MaTsu_and_Unfolding_of_Southern_Zen.html)

Chan is the result of communion with nature, much like Tao.

“Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason”. (Red Pine, ed. (1989), The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma: A Bilingual Edition, New York: North Point Press)(Italics added)

Enlightenment (bodhi) is a state of being in which greed, hatred and delusion (Pali: moha) have been overcome, abandoned and are absent from the mind. Mindfulness, which, among other things, is an attentive awareness of the reality of things (especially of the present moment) is an antidote to delusion and is considered as such a ‘power’ (Pali: bala). This faculty becomes a power in particular when it is coupled with clear comprehension (sampajañña)of whatever is taking place.

“We might say that meditation is really a way of being appropriate to the circumstances one finds oneself in, in any and every moment. If we are caught up in the preoccupations of our own mind, in that moment we cannot be present in an appropriate way or perhaps at all. We will bring an agenda of some kind to whatever we say or do or think, even if we don’t know it. ” (Kabat-Zinn, Jon Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion New York 2005 p. 59)

The Buddha advocated that one should establish mindfulness (Sitapatthana) in one’s day-to-day life maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of one’s body functions, sensations (feelings), objects of consciousness (thoughts and perceptions), and consciousness itself.

“Herein (in this teaching) a monk lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.” – Satipatthana Sutta

Thick Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet, and peace activist. In his book Transformation and Healing : the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, he writes of “clear comprehension” (sampajañña):

“This exercise is the observation and awareness of the actions of the body. This is the fundamental practice of the monk. When I was first ordained as a novice forty-eight years ago, the first book my master gave me to learn by heart was a book of gathas to be practiced while washing your hands, brushing your teeth, washing your face, putting on your clothes, sweeping the courtyard, relieving yourself, having a bath, and so on… 

…  If a novice applies himself to the practice of [this] … exercise, he will see that his everyday actions become harmonious, graceful, and measured. Mindfulness becomes visible in his actions and speech. When any action is placed in the light of mindfulness, the body and mind become relaxed, peaceful, and joyful. [This] … exercise is one to be used day and night throughout one’s entire life. ” (Nhat Hanh, Thich (trans. Annabel Laity) (1990). Transformation and Healing : the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness . Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. pp.50-51)

Perhaps Nhat Hanh’s most famous gatha is:

Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment. (Nhat Hanh, 1990, p. 46.)

Clear comprehension is non-delusion (nothing lasts forever, nothing’s perfect, non-self) combined with integrity and dignified, careful action. This is wisdom, remaining focused while knowing that thoughts, feelings, and situations will pass.

Clear comprehension (sampajañña) develops out of mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati).

Anapanasati produces a lessening of emotionally reactive and automatic responding behavior. (Lutz, Antoine; et al “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation” Trends Cogn. Sci. 2008 April;12(4): 163-169)(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2693206/)

When we practice ‘clear comphrehension’ we cease responding to situations in automatic, emotionally driven, habitual ways.

Clear comprehension introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

First, we have sati (reflective awareness, mindfulness). When a sense object makes contact, sati is there and brings panna (wisdom) to the experience. Once it arrives, panna transforms into sampajanna, wisdom-in-action, ready comprehension, clear comprehension: the specific application of wisdom as required in a given situation.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves. (http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/sampajanna-unraveling-lifelong-habits-with-mindfulness)

Zen is not so much a philosophy as it is the practice of a psychology.

Whatever insight dhyana might bring, its verification was always interpersonal. In effect, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting in the world with other people. (Kasulis, Thomas P. (2003), Ch’an Spirituality. In: Buddhist Spirituality. Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World; edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass p.30)

Seeing one’s true nature means seeing that there is no essential, unchanging  ‘I’ or ‘self’, that our true nature is empty, open and free.

Expression in daily life means that this is not only a contemplative insight, but that our lives are expressions of this selfless existence.

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