When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”
I’ve had the privilege of interpreting some interesting talks on this short exchange. It’s a good example of how translation has limitations — it’s equally befuddling to readers in Japanese or Chinese, but unavoidably, the confusion is a little different depending on the language. “Thinking” here is shiryō (思量). “Not thinking” is fushiryō (不思量). And “non-thinking” is hishiryō (非思量). The fu in “not thinking” is a common negating prefix, similar to “un-” or “non-.” And the hi of “non-thinking” is also a common negating prefix ― really, the difference between fu and hi is negligible, except that hi might tend to be associated with a few more words with negative connotations (as opposed to words that are negative in a purely technical sense). So while “not thinking” and “non-thinking” seem to have caught on in English for the purposes of telling this story, they could have been reversed, with no real loss or gain. That is to say, linguistic analysis will not bring much clarity to this encounter.
Like so many of these types of teachings, the party line is that if you’ve experienced what’s being described, it makes perfect sense, and if you haven’t, well, nothing anyone else says or does will clarify it for you. And like most things in life, that’s basically true.
There is one hint we can gain from language, though, and I bring it up because I have never once heard it discussed in English. It’s this shiryō. Shiryō is not a common word for “thinking.” There are other words for “thinking” that start with the same shi (which itself means “thought”): shii, shikō, shian. But the ryō is very specific. Ryō refers to measurement. Which means that this dialogue, from the start, is not about just any kind of thinking. It’s not, for example, about daydreaming. It’s about the aspect of mind that measures and evaluates, that holds a yardstick up to experiences or to thought-objects. It is a kind of directed thought. That, I think, is important to keep in mind.
If you are the teacher talking about any of this, the audience assumes that you have a direct knowledge of non-thinking, at least. That makes this kind of topic interesting; it also puts the teachers to the test, explaining something that, at least by most assumptions, no one else in the room has any real hope of understanding in the course of the explanation. This kind of story keeps Zen teachers in business. I mean that only half-jokingly. We really do, I think, want someone to speak to these questions, to put a face and an experience on these hard-to-grasp dialogues from centuries ago. I want that. But if someone could really say “It means this,” Zen teachers wouldn’t have much left to talk about.
The most common understanding of this conversation assumes that “non-thinking” is somehow a higher state than either “thinking” or “not thinking.” In that reading, the monk asks, “How are you directing your mind in zazen” (again, as opposed to “What kind of thoughts arise in zazen?”)? And Yaoshan replies, “I direct my thoughts to not directing my thoughts.” The monk asks (reasonably), “How do you do that?” and Yaoshan says, “By not directing my thoughts at all.” That’s one way to read it, anyway. Here, both thinking and not thinking are seen as mistakes ― Yaoshan clarifies that by “not thinking,” he’s really doing something which transcends thinking all together. The word “transcend” comes up a lot in this telling. That’s the version I’ve heard the most, and the only one I heard for years.
Last year, for the first time, I heard a different interpretation. It goes like this: “Non-thinking” is not superior to either thinking or not thinking. Instead, they are all necessary, all simultaneously-functioning aspects of mind in zazen. So zazen includes (misdirected) direction of thought. It includes the decision to try not to pursue that directed thought. And it includes a state of mind that isn’t concerned about whether or not to think in the first place. All are present; none are completely inside of our control, or beyond it. Right or wrong, this version is very kind, very sympathetic to the actual experience of zazen. Looking out at the faces of the monks listening to that talk, I could see that a few were frustrated by the ordinariness of this description of sitting, but most looked as if they were being told for the first time that their experience of zazen really is zazen.
Both versions, I think, are true.
I want to add one more to the mix, just for fun. It occurred to me in the days after interpreting that kind talk, and though it may be too simple, I think it may also be a good starting point, one that puts this dialogue a little closer to our reach. Here it goes:
In our ordinary, waking lives, our brains are lit up with alpha, beta, and theta waves. Alpha waves can feel creative and inspired; beta waves are strongest when performing analysis; and theta waves are associated with more complex, generative thought, as in complicated visualization exercises. All three, in different ways, are part of the process of directed thought. Delta waves, however, tend to be really strong during just a couple activities. The first is deep, dreamless sleep. The second? Zazen. Delta wave activity is not reflective of directed thought ― it is about receptivity, expansiveness, openness. For years, researchers thought that delta waves were the absence of activity, like the brain’s “pause” setting. After all, we have no sense of “I” in deep, dreamless sleep. Nothing in that state resembles ordinary thinking. And we don’t even remember it. It’s just something an outside observer can notice on an EEG.
But zazen changes that. In zazen, we can have the same basic brainwave patterns as in deep, dreamless sleep, except that we are completely awake and aware. We know where we are. We know what we are doing. We even notice if a fly buzzes by. But still, we remain in this expansive, open state. It’s not directed thought. But it’s also not the absence of thinking. Not at all. It’s something else.
So I find myself wondering if perhaps the monk and Yaoshan are just having a very technical discussion about the nature of zazen. It’s not a contemplation. It’s not a visualization. It’s not thinking. On the other hand, it’s not some kind of brain-dead state, a blankness. It’s not not thinking. It’s a lucid, non-grasping, receptive awareness that, while it sounds like a big deal, is actually something we can understand very well. It’s mental activity that is something other than thinking. It’s a place we can always go, even if it’s a place that few people recognize at all.
I don’t mean for this to be reductive. But I do want to pull away, even if just for a moment, the idea that zazen is some rarefied state, or that Yaoshan was doing something special, or that one can only bring authority to this encounter if they’ve plunged to the deepest depths of this practice. When we think what it might mean to not think, or what non-thinking is, it’s too easy to make the experience as complicated as the language around it. It’s not wrong to frame it in larger-than-life mystical terms, but we should know that there’s another way as well.
And no matter how we approach it, in the end, we have to approach it from the inside. No one can do this for us. What it is we’re receptive to when we sit, and what it is that makes up that awareness ― these are things that an EEG cannot measure. And neither can we.