Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking

Bamboo ForestOne of Dogen’s favorite encounter stories goes like this:

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.

47 comments on “Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking

  1. doshoport says:


    Thanks for this. When Narasaki Roshi the senior visited Hokyoji he brought this encounter up and asked if we understood. Everyone was silent. “That’s not so good,” he said, “because this is most important in Soto Zen.”

    As a shikantaza-koan type, I take note that Dogen teaches shikantaza with koan or perhaps as koan. It’s also interesting to me that the negative in not-thinking and non-thinking is pretty much the same as the negative “mu” so we could say it is mu-thinking, placing the passage in play as a koan – where it is taken up in the Harada-Yasutani koan system.

    Katagiri Roshi, btw, was a proponent of Door #2 in your piece.

    Warm regards,


  2. koun says:


    Thank you. I find myself agreeing with Ikko Narasaki-roshi — Dogen places this issue front and center. But it’s so often discussed as something at a remove from where we actually are. It needs to be addressed. (I suspect that Ikko-roshi was also a proponent of Door #2; the teacher speaking on it last year was his long-time disciple.)

    Interesting about mu. I recently heard the term “mind trap” to describe words/concepts that are so loaded that they distract us from the rest of the conversation — for me (and for many others, I suspect), I think mu has become a kind of mind trap. That is, when I read “mu,” I find that I read it as shorthand for the koan, and by extension for the koan tradition, rather than what it is. It’s tough to get past that — I need to work on it, somehow.

    Take care.

    Nine bows,

  3. Dai-En Bennage says:

    As I leave 30-some students in the hands of Takamine` Doyu Roshi and his translator Rev. Tom Daitsu Wright for this week’s Long Summer Sesshin, I appreciate this your newest blog, as well as the several earlier ones from you that have come in during these past tumultuous months. Freed up of major responsibility in the forefront, I relish such an opportunity for lots of shiryo/fushiryo/hishiryo. daien, 9 hai

  4. harryscraps says:

    Hi Koun,

    Interesting post.

    As you well know, Master Dogen discusses that koan at length in Shobogenzo Zazenshin.

    It strikes me that his approach outlined therein is more characterised by the ‘“Non-thinking” is not superior to either thinking or not thinking. Instead, they are all necessary…” option that you mention above.

    His holistic approach is not at odds with, or remote from, thinking and words: ‘Thinking in the still-still state’ is not of only one kind, but Yakusan’s words are one example of it.” … “In the still-still state’ how could it be impossible for ‘thinking’ to exist?’ … ‘And why do [people] not understand the ascendency of ‘the still-still state. If they were not the stupid people of vulgar recent times, they might possess the power, and might possess the thinking, to ask about ‘the still-still state’.” etc etc [excerpts from Nishijima/Cross trans].

    …bear in mind that I rely on several translations and don’t have a notion of the original language however!

    My own sense of it, as a quite unremarkable practitioner, is that ‘non-thinking’ is very accessible (after 20 mins or so of zazen I seem to stabilize and am not ‘pushed around’ so much by thinking and feeling, but I think there is some element of ‘non-thinking’ clarifying itself from the very beginning of zazen), but the application of it, the appreciation of its vast subtlety and pervasiveness, and all of its far reaching implications, can be explored and clarified for a very long time.

    It seems to me the whole area of the subtlety of it all is often underemphasised… I guess it’s just not very exciting or sexy!



    • koun says:


      The question of the “still-still state” is a really interesting one. I believe it’s Nishijima’s translation of 兀兀 (gotsu gotsu), which the Soto Zen Text Project translates as “sitting fixedly.” I’ve heard it explained that 兀兀 is (1) a synonym for shikantaza, (2) a term for simply sitting properly, with the body in order, (3) “untiringly,” or (4) “solidly, like a stone.” A quick search online shows that it’s a topic of discussion/debate among Japanese speakers as well–there’s no clear agreement about how to understand that term. That said, I think it’s fair to say that Nishijima, in this case (well, and in a number of others), takes some liberties. It seems to me that, by accident, it’s become the word we can use to mean “what I think zazen is.”

      WordPress sometimes shows me the search terms that people use to find this blog — a few months ago, someone came to it by searching “sexy zen.” My first thought was, how? And my second thought was, Wow, they must have been really disappointed. This practice is a lot of things, but sexy it is not. 🙂


      • harryscraps says:

        Hi Koun,

        Yes, I’ve noticed a few ‘takes’ on how that term is translated.

        A problem, maybe, with the Nishijima/Cross translation of that term is that it reifies sitting as a ‘state’. ‘Sitting fixedly’ as a translation allows for more open-ended dynamism as it is more suggestive of an action, as opposed a fixed ‘state’ which may imply a sort of metaphysical zone.

        Anyway, I think a translator (particularly of a poetic work, which Shobogenzo seems to me to be in a great part) has to take liberties. When a poet sits down to translate another’s work it is generally accepted now that the result will be a new work in its own right, and that it will have to ‘stand on its own two feet’. And in fairness to Nishijima/Cross they explain a lot of the translation choices they make in the footnotes, which is nice.

        It’s always good to contrast and compare various translation, in my experience, as often little insights can be gleaned about where the translator is coming from: The translations may say as much about the translator as they do about the original text!

        I think ‘Sexy Zen’ is the next big thing in Buddhist branding. Please remember me when the money starts rolling in. 😉



      • koun says:


        I didn’t mean to disparage Nishijima’s translation — I quite like it. As a translator myself, I’m very aware of how unavoidably I become a part of what’s being expressed. Nishijima (through Chodo Cross), it would seem, embraces that aspect of it instead of erring on the side of caution. Sometimes that raises some questions, but sometimes the result is kind of wonderful. And as you say, the fun is in having multiple translations, through which multiple translators expose themselves.

        Working on “sexy Zen….”


  5. Well, the solution is to die before we die, since one translation of Shiryo is the spirit of a dead person. This clarifies everything. 🙂

    • koun says:


      Indeed. Or, by extension, to do zazen in a private park, or to document it as best you can. Or: to feed yourself to animals. Japanese, on that level, really is a terrible, terrible language. 🙂


  6. Jodo Clusin says:

    In sitting, I am open to, or available for, non-thinking; which I believe is the ground, or air, that thinking dances on anyhow.

  7. Jundo Cohen says:

    Hi Koun,

    First, thank you again for accepting our invitation to come and speak and lead a sitting online at Treeleaf next week. We are very much looking forward to welcoming you.

    I am not sure if I completely catch all the fine distinctions in the descriptions above. Please let me know where the following fits in.

    I usually tell students about “thinking-not-thinking=non-thinking”, that we usually live in a world of thinking, dividing (me from you, this from that), labeling, judging (the things that please, the things that do not, etc.). That is thinking, “shiryo” … thoughts, separation, labels and measuring.

    In Zazen, one pierces a way free of such division and labeling (me apart from you, this from that) and judging, whereby all is whole, flowing and just as is, no other than us and us just that. Such is “fu-shiryo”, perhaps most profound in a deep state of Samadhi where all divisions drop away.

    Yet in Shikantaza we encounter something wonderful, which can be taken off the cushion into all of life. That is something like divisions yet no division at once, categorizing and no categorizing as one (the things we love and the things we don’t, yet some grand embracing through all aversions and attractions, through life’s catastrophe … at once). This is thinking-non-thinking.

    I would not put one above or below the others except to say that sometimes there is a bit more thinking and division, sometimes a bit less … and if we are only caught in a world of dividing and judging, that is “ignorance”.

    So, often in Shikantaza, thoughts drift in and out of mind, yet one simultaneously encounters that whole flowing illuminated just-isness that shines behind, between, through and even as the thoughts themselves. It shines when free of thoughts, it shines even as the thoughts.

    I am not sure where that fits in your descriptions, or even if it snuggly does (I would be interested in your view on that).

    Gassho, Jundo

    • koun says:


      Thank you. I’m looking forward to sitting with your group next week.

      I’m not sure I’m catching all of your distinctions, either. 🙂 But it sounds to me as if you’re saying something in the same vein as what I presented as the second option (all 3 are happening, all are part of zazen). The difference from the explanation I heard is that that teacher was understanding “thinking not thinking [fushiryo]” to mean that impulse we have to try to shut down thinking (all together, in zazen), or to try to avoid/ignore certain kinds of thoughts (in our ordinary waking lives). So in that model, “thinking” and “thinking not thinking” present a kind of tension. And the teacher’s perspective was that even though that tension comes from a mistaken place, it’s a natural part of the process, part of the tension of zazen itself.

      See you soon.

      Nine bows,

    • Gus Gordon says:

      It seems she is speaking in a psychological/dialogical sense.

  8. markfoote says:

    Hi, Koun,

    Thanks for the distinction about the meaning of “shiryo”.

    I’ve finished an essay which might interest you.

    I write for myself, to understand the experience I have on the cushion and off. I think there is power in understanding some of the relationships involved in the human experience, yet the real thing cannot be used in the normal sense of the word.

    Here are two sentences from my essay “Letting Go in Action: the Practice of Zazen” which I think will give you the flavor of the piece, and help you decide whether or not to read it:

    “Without a freedom of mind that allows the location of awareness to shift with contact in the senses, including contact in the senses of equalibrioception and proprioception, there is no induction of a hynogogic state, and likewise no relinquishment of volition in activity connected with the movement of breath.”

    “The controlling faculty of happiness present in the second meditative state ceases with the fourth meditative state, much as the controlling faculty of ease present in the first meditative state ceases with the third meditative state; that is to say, the mental happiness that accompanies the cessation of thought applied and sustained in the second meditative state now is replaced with a purified equanimity, as any boundary in the distinction of the senses is extended in the movement of breath.”

    Of course, that last is my interpretation of hishiryo, in plain English.

    • koun says:


      Thank you. Wow. This is fascinating — and dense. I’ll need to read it again.

      I am interested in the three additional senses (equalibrioception, proprioception, and our sense of gravity) and how they play into awareness in general, and as in many things, zazen seems like a good starting place. Really interesting.

      And I’ll add: At least here in Japan, I would say that the vast majority of teachers (that I’ve encountered, at least) teach moving the body in circles, not leaning over one knee then the other. I think circles are probably the norm. So Feldenkrais would be pleased, maybe.


      • markfoote says:

        Thanks for the speedy reply, koun.

        Yeah, it is dense. For me it’s sort of like a topo map, I guess; I’ve got the compass, just need to line up the landmarks every once in a while to keep from sitting in circles (so to speak).

        I appreciate your reading it, and hearing that they teach swinging in a slight arc in Japan. Makes sense to me. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think more people would give zazen a try if the instruction for the beginner were a little more substantive, and although I’m really just writing so that I can learn more of what the lotus has to offer, I am still hopeful that what helps me might help others.

        I did have one person who was able to use something I wrote to get back to sleep, when he was lying awake at 4am; his success many nights running really inspired me. You might be interested in that piece, it’s very short: Waking Up and Falling Asleep.

        As Harry would say, “cheers!” (hi Harry)

  9. markfoote says:

    Not sure that I can add the link here, I guess you can cut and paste if html gets stripped:

  10. harryscraps says:

    “As a translator myself, I’m very aware of how unavoidably I become a part of what’s being expressed. Nishijima (through Chodo Cross), it would seem, embraces that aspect of it instead of erring on the side of caution. Sometimes that raises some questions, but sometimes the result is kind of wonderful.”

    Hi Koun,

    Yes, I wonder if there has ever been an unquestionable translation of anything… and if there was I wonder would it sort of kill the fun; because it wouldn’t allow for interesting excursions like your exploration of the possibilities of the various ‘shiryō’?

    The tendency in a lot of Zen discussion is to advocate purging ‘The Absolute’ of words; but I enjoy the ‘twistiness’ of words, and old Master Dogen seemed to revel in the ‘twining vines’ (kattô) nature of such things. Maybe that’s why I dig his stuff!

    Anyway, take care, and stay ‘zen-sexy’. :-0



  11. abrc30 says:


    Very nice piece.

    Question: where did you get all the cool info on Zazen and brain waves?


    • koun says:


      Thank you. I don’t remember my sources very well at this point–I used to talk about this stuff in a university class I taught, so through repetition, I managed to get this oversimplified version of alpha/beta/theta/delta waves into a part of my brain where it won’t fall out. I actually just searched through Amazon, thinking I could find some of the books I read long ago, but even the keywords escape me at this point (one was by a woman who believed that the ideal state was one in which all 4 were firing on high simultaneously, which I’m not sure about, but I remember she had really clear explanations of the different brainwaves and exercises for accessing them). That said, there are a few books specifically written to this topic: the most famous is James H. Austin’s Zen and the Brain. I read the first half or so and really liked it, then it got so technical that I put it aside and lost all momentum. But the information is out there, if you’re looking for it.


      • duncanwork says:

        Koun, thanks very much for this post.

        Re brainwaves and meditation, I spoke to Fred Travis, who has spent many years researching brain wave and other physiological characteristics during meditation and higher states of consciousness

        He said that delta waves are not found during meditation (unless the meditator has fallen asleep). This is based on studies of several different types of meditation, including zazen, vipassana, qigong, Transcendental Meditation, and others.

        Studies of meditators who experience high transcendence (Pure Consciousness) exhibit high levels of frontal alpha coherence, which appears to be the brainwave marker for transcending. Meditation techniques that involve concentration tend to produce more gamma (related to focusing activities) and meditation techniques that involve open monitoring (like Zazen) tend to produce more frontal midline theta.

        Long term meditators who experience Pure Consciousness both during and outside meditation exhibit the marker for transcending (high frontal alpha) and beta when they are in a normal waking state (thinking, working, focusing, etc.). When they’re asleep they exhibit the marker for transcending plus delta waves, the marker of sleep.

        Pure consciousness (witnessing) during sleep is an indicator of higher states of consciousness which has been known for centuries in many meditative traditions – so now it’s amazing to have objective markers for these states.

        Here are two excellent papers co-authored by Fred Travis that give more detailed information about brainwaves during meditation and higher states of consciousness:

        “Patterns of EEG coherence, power, and contingent negative variation characterize the integration of transcendental and waking states,” Biological Psychology 61 (2002) 293-319,

        “Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending:
        Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese
        Traditions,” Consciousness and Cognition 19 (2010) 1110-1118,

        The second paper includes a great chart that summarizes EEG and other characteristics of the three main meditation categories and sub methods.

      • koun says:


        Thank you so much for this — a lot to look at. I’m certainly open to being wrong about the whole thing, though I know I’m not misremembering the gist of what I read. I’ll try to find the sources for the delta-waves-in-shikantaza information, and also take a look at the studies you offer up here. I wonder why similar research would come up with such different results…. I don’t think I always understand all the ramifications of this kind of research, but fascinating stuff, nonetheless. Fun.


      • duncanwork says:

        Thanks, much. If you find out more about brain waves during shikantaza, please let me know, and I’ll share them with researchers I know. In the meantime do check out the 2 articles I referenced. They are short and very interesting. The 2nd article is more recent (2010) and is based on a survey of brainwave and other physiological markers in dozens of studies of many different types of meditations.

      • koun says:


        OK, I remembered on source: the works of Anna Wise. I don’t remember if she’s the one who spoke specifically about shikantaza, and also, her focus/goal is a state in which all the brainwaves are firing more or less equally, which is very different, I think, from zazen. But she does speak to the issue of how to consciously cultivate/awaken delta in a waking state, and the exercises she offers (focused on expansion of self and inclusion of others) jive very nicely with the practice as I understand it. I’ll try to remember more with this tired brain of mine.


  12. On the matter of Translation, and as a Translator of Japanese myself, I always try to read two or three English translation of Dogen (plus follow along with the ancient Japanese original) to see from various angless angles where Dogen was non-coming from. As a student of Nishijima Roshi, I love the Nishijima-Cross books for their detailed and close tracking of the Original, even with the scattered linguistic quirks and some loss of the poetry of the language so important to Dogen. However, for the best poetic expression compromising with faithful expression of the original, I turn to Tanahashi. although he too must often re-interpret the original in the interest of the sound. The Soto Zen Text Project is invaluable for tracking down the origin of the stories and expressions which Dogen was referencing, so important for a “living encyclopedia” of obscure references like Dogen. Individual translations and interpretations by Okumura, Kim, Taigen and the like are also invaluable.

    There are a couple of other things to keep in mind about Dogen too. I often describe Dogen as a Jazzman, bending and re-livening the “standard tunes” of Zen Buddhist philosophy. He is the Coltrane or Miles Davis of the Dharma … Sometimes, with Dogen, it is not the “point” he is trying to make through reasoned words, but “the sound, man, the feeling of the music” . And like any riffing Jazzman, I think there are many passage where even Dogen did not know where the “sound” had carried him. For some reason, we assume that every word has to “mean” something, as opposed to merely expressing a feeling of Truth … bending and reinventing the standards to find new expressions of Timeless Truth.

    Gassho, Jundo

  13. Patrick says:

    A problem, maybe, with the Nishijima/Cross translation of that term is that it reifies sitting as a ‘state’. ‘Sitting fixedly’ as a translation allows for more open-ended dynamism as it is more suggestive of an action, as opposed a fixed ‘state’ which may imply a sort of metaphysical zone.

    I think this comment hits the nail on the head.

    Within Zen two assumptions seem to be are at work ; that beyond language an unmediated realm of suchness exists; and that we can access that realm; that is to say the preconceptual is reified and made to exist in its own metaphysical ‘space’ a space that we can somehow ‘access’. Once this scenario is questioned problems of coherency arise; for example our knowledge about the existence and nature of this realm, is conditional on the terms used to describe it; pointing this out however is of no help since access to that realm implies the ‘falling away ‘ of conceptualising mind as being just that realm, while the realm we exit just is the realm of conceptualising mind. The solution is to ‘just sit’ until conceptualising mind falls away. and from the vantage point of having seen we can say that there never was any difference in the first place. Surely this is just one example of the circularity of Zen thought, a circularity which Zen, itself presents as the ‘problem of thought’ ?

    If, form and emptiness are in fact identical, and if this ‘identity’ neither annihilates difference or reifies sameness, then speaking is itself just a mode of emptiness.

    My question then is; are the copious amount of words written about Zazen, all of the formalities associated with Zazen, all of the extravagant claims made about Zazen, are these not simply the way xBuddhists fill the void that is self-evidently present, with the paraphernalia of discourse, ritual, scripture, and tradition? And secondly; isn’t the discourse, ritual, scripture, and tradition of Zen a socially and historically conditioned function; a collective discourse functioning as an ideology? And if that is so shouldn’t we be trying to unravel the relationship of that ideological formation to the structures of exploitation that the ideological formation replicates?

  14. markfoote says:

    Hey Patrick,

    My article, which I recommended to Koun above, I think resolves the language paradox. I’ll summarize: 1) the practice in the Pali Canon Suttas concerns the relinquishment of volitive activity; 2) the singularity of mind mentioned in the induction of the states of meditation or the state of concentration (which states or state are mentioned throughout the Canon) is simultaneous with the induction of a state between waking and sleeping in which volition ceases in action of the body related to the movement of breath; 3) everybody experiences such a state at least once a day while falling asleep, but it’s not noticable unless a person is lying in bed at 4am and can’t get back to sleep, in which case attendance on the place of occurrence of consciousness and the relaxed inclusion of feeling throughout the body can work miracles; 4) the induction of a hypnogic state out of an experience of the relationship of the location of awarness, the ability to feel throughout the body, and necessity in the movement of breath allows stretch outside of the comfort zone, and similarly allows the distinction of the senses outside of the normal “happy” zone. The distinction of the senses, including the senses of equalibrioception, proprioception, and the sense of gravity beyond the normal “happy” zone is nonthinking, doesn’t exclude the sense of the mind or thought, and yet is neither thinking nor yet not-thinking.

    The ancestors did the best they could with what they had to work with, in their description of practice. I think there is science in Guatama’s description as related in the Canon, and there is poetry with stunning applicability in the descriptions of Yuanwu and some of the other Chinese teachers. I worked out what I’m describing above to let the lotus show me more of what the lotus has to show me, and unfortunately without that context my description is not likely to win me a McArthur; darn.

    • Patrick says:

      Thank for the reply.

      Find your theory interesting , especially the emphasis on ‘the induction of a hypnogic state’ and its relation to proprioceptive and kinaesthetic levels.

      I wonder, though, why you need to supplement the information available from scientific analysis with the intuitions of a (perhaps) mythical mendicant preacher from ancient India. It seems to me that his insights are a matter of common ( or perhaps uncommon in his case) ability to glean proto-scientific knowing from the observation of natural processes. You point ,for example, to the suttta reference to Forrest fire and the deductions that follows. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask; Is the rise of what are common proto-scientific deductions from observation of the natural world ( or from incisive philosophical analysis) to the level of a meditatively induced ‘insight’ into the nature of reality, the mark of a gradually evolving and mutating religious movement, adding its textual accretions to an ever-expanding corpus of Sacred texts?

      • markfoote says:


        I think the Pali Canon description is unparalleled in the religious and philosophical literature of the world, unparalleled even in the subsequent Buddhist literature claiming to represent that description and teaching. IMHO!

        Reason I think that is because the man described the induction of meditative states, he described his personal practice, he described how it related to the practices of his teachers, and he spoke about what matters when suffering exists. On Brad Warner’s blog two days ago, in response to somebody’s question, I came across this article:

        Click to access 2005_Blanke_BRR_obe%20heautoscopy%20and%20autoscopic%20hallucination%20of%20neurological%20origin.pdf

        Here Blanke elaborates on the connection between the sense of self and specific sense processes, specifically proprioception and equalibrioception. Now what’s interesting about that to me is that I have come to the same conclusion, that these senses and the freedom in the sense of location induced through relaxation in the movement of breath are at the heart of Gautama’s teaching. He spoke of a “single-pointedness of mind”, and while the usual interpretation is the mind focused on a single object, I think from my experience that it’s more likely he referred to a singularity in the sense of location, that allows the relinquishment of volition in the activity of the body and finally the mind.

        The real thing, to me, is not something that is useful as a concept, but a physical and mental experience based on self-surrender as the object of thought and the inclusion of proprioception from throughout the body in the sense of location as the relaxed movement of breath induces a singularity of mind.

  15. markfoote says:

    hypnogogic, that is.

    • Patrick says:

      Hello Mark(foote?)

      Firstly, I followed the link to your article and read as much as I could in the time I had. I am very interested in this whole area , especially in Feldenkrais and his work. I would like to make a detailed study and would appreciate any online links you can throw my way( also links to related work by others)

      On a general level I agree with you that the Pali cannon is rich in material of all sorts, as is the subsequent evolution into the Mahayana and Zen , Mahamudra ,Dzogchen etc. I think you are able to prove in your own writing just how rich that material is and how useful it can be. I look forward to reading more and giving it the time it deserves.

      I have thought about investigating the link between certain Buddhist practices of the breath and the body and the work of Feldenkrais and others for a long time.( for instance the connection between breath and body practices and the work of Wilhelm Reich on energetic blockage and its connection with various ‘neurotic ‘symptoms.) Or the current work being done in the embodied field of cognitive science( Damasio, Varela, Thomson)

      My interest, by the way, is mostly a matter of my experience in meditation. From the beginning I experienced pronounced energetic and muscular ‘side affects’ which made conventional one-pointed meditation impossible. As a result I began to experiment with a generalized attention that allowed for a strong proprioceptive and interoceptive awareness. I very quickly found that this sort of practice allowed for access to strong under used or frozen muscular complexes that were directly connected to emotions (repressed?) such as sadness, grief, anger etc. For example, by bringing a sustained open attention to the internal felt-state of muscles around the eyes I could explore feelings of sadness(without being in any way incapacitated or even disturbed by the experience). From this point of view the Pali cannon is, of course , a rich source of insight into our experience as embodied beings and how the proprioceptive sense creates a self-sense.

      Anyway its a complex area I would like to delve into in a more systematic way in the near future and I look forward to reading your work on ‘the Mudra of Zen’

      Having said all of that my question stands; why exactly you (we) would move from an appreciation of the complexity and usefulness of Pali literature to a proto religious identification with a semi mythical figure and an evolving religious movement in South east Asia almost 3000 years ago? After all scholars who share no ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ identification whatsoever share the same appreciation. Isn’t it the case then that your explanation for such a commitment is not explained by your interest in the rich resource you rightly point to in the Pali cannon? Isn’t it more lightly the case that we are incorporated into a contemporary discourse; and that the origin of that discourse has more to do with the forces at work in this society. Isn’t it true that the reformulation of ‘Buddhism ‘ is functioning as an ideological formation that feeds on religious impulses arising out of collective and personal need?

      This is not only a theoretical question, since such ideological formations are connected to political, economic, and cultural structures and processes implicated in massive exploitation and violence, often far from the place of decision and power. And this in a round about way casts light on ‘spiritual’ concerns about compassionate action.

  16. markfoote says:

    Koun, you might be interested in this article:

    Click to access 2005_Blanke_BRR_obe%20heautoscopy%20and%20autoscopic%20hallucination%20of%20neurological%20origin.pdf

    concerns OBE, autoscopic, and heautoscopic experience, and how the sense of self is a function of the senses including proprioception and equlibrioception.

    My comments on the significance of that with regard to practice are here.

  17. markfoote says:


    Well, I can hear that your questions are largely rhetorical, and I think I’ll have to let you answer them for us all!

    As far as my own interest, I would make an analogy between breathing with a sense of location that is inclusive of all the senses and walking with a compass and a map out in the woods. Out in the woods, even if you have no particular goal in mind, you still might use a compass and a map to avoid walking in circles. To be straightforward with suffering, a relationship between where I am and what I am feeling with the particular movement of breath at the moment is useful.

    I find a description of that relationship in the teaching of Gautama, between where I am and what I am feeling with the particular of breath, although the notion of “where” is only referenced as “single-pointedness of mind” and elaborated on as a quality of the first and third meditative states. Teachers like Yuanwu came right out with “Be aware of where you really are twenty-four hours a day. You must be most attentive.” (Zen Letters, pg 53) Nevetheless, the emphasis on the movement of breath and on what he perceived to be six senses is there in the teachings of Gautama, and you can find references in my article “Letting Go in Action”.

    For me, it helps to recognize that “single-pointedness” of mind is actually a hypnogogic phenomena that is connected with the relaxed movement of breath. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk about.

  18. Patrick says:

    Hi Mark,

    Well, I’m certainly not interested in answering for anyone, but I am very much interested in asking questions. As for rhetoric I think maybe your definition of the rhetorical is narrow; to me the ‘rhetorical’ is a function of language, your own included; I very much recognize, in your use of language an emphasis on the phenomenological, couched in terms that bring together something from the discourses of science and Buddhism in an effort to persuade; or as James Boyd White beautifully put it ‘to call into existence a common shared identity’.

    As for Yuanwu’s “Be aware of where you really are twenty-four hours a day. You must be most attentive.” to me such a statement is useful but limited in scope , arising as it did in a social and cultural context that inevitably excludes from the content of its discourse knowledge available to us by way of modern science, psychology, economics, philosophy, history etc.

    The unthinking use of such quotations from ‘Zen Masters’ is an element is a very modern ‘Zen’ discourse that seeks to call a very particular collective identity into existence. It almost always excludes from its range an attempt to do justice to the socially constructed nature of discourse by trying to see statements by ‘Zen Masters’ as arising from within a set of social relations peculiar to a particular historical period. To exclude such a well established insight from any modern discourse seems to me a form of wilful myopia (no pun intended).

    If that seems too ‘rhetorical’ maybe we should attend to Plato’s distinction between an open and honest attempt to persuade and a discourse that pretends neutrality while using a set of very persuasive rhetorical devises in either a naive way or as an attempt at manipulation

    Its paradoxical. of course, that Yuanwu’s injunction to be attentive to ‘where you really are’ inevitably excludes an awareness that as a social being and a user of language he is situated within a particular set of social relations and a particular language discourse. It would take the much later insights of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Derrida, (to name but a few) to establish this as a recognized condition of human existence.

  19. Andrew Levin says:

    yaoshan was by himself gazing at the distant mountains ! a monk followed him to his possie and asked him what he was doing ! flicking aside his annoyance at being disturbed yaoshan replied that he didn’t know !

    the monk asked what he didn’t know

    yaoshan had no reply :o)

    mark, how is the schizophrenia going :o)

  20. sundaysitting says:

    What a wonderful post! Thank you!

    First, thank you for your paragraph on Zen teachers, and how maintaining the mystery keeps them in business.

    But also thank you so much for the research you’ve done on the translation and on the brain states.

    I chanced upon this blog, and I’m so glad I did. I teach meditation, Zen and hypnosis (hypnotherapy) and have been thinking, writing and talking with others a lot about this ‘thinking’ issue.

    So, by understanding “shiryo” as you translate it, I would equate this with the analytical conscious mind, which seems to occur mostly with beta and even gamma brain states. When teaching people to disengage from stressed out thoughts, we practice diaphragmatic breathing and other techniques to develop the deeply-relaxed, conscious-subconscious connecting ‘brain of Zen, the ‘belly brain,’ ‘second brain,’ that is often experienced in the tanden (hara)… the nexus of nerve cells in the gut. Believe me, it has taken me years of teaching meditation and disregarding any evidence to finally come to the place where I think certain breathing and other techniques, –and my favorite- that I recommend first and foremost every class, and as Harry mentions, is just plain old sitting still for 20+ minutes. That seems to tire out the shiryo-mind (and begs the question why would teachers recommend practicing for less than that? Perhaps because of what your Zen teachers comments alludes to, the ‘carrot out on the stick’ trick.)– can be very helpful to people who are in desperate need to experience that ‘non-thinking’ thinking state. And, yes, I agree, we have all mind-states with us all the time. Luckily we have our Zen practice to learn to appreciate them too.

    I got a lot out of the Anna Wise book too. Am looking forward to following the other links and research shared.


    Wading through the comments has been …. profound!

    Yes, I need to go through Mark Foote’s stuff again and digest.
    Haven’t even finished reading all. Meanwhile,

    Mark Foote, I’m looking forward to reading your writing. Am wondering about your experiences, especially … “From the beginning I experienced pronounced energetic and muscular ‘side affects’ which made conventional one-pointed meditation impossible.”

    What are your side affects? What’s going on???

    What a wonderful post! Thank you!
    Looking forward to reading more!

    Anna (Jige) Zumwalt

    • markfoote says:

      Anna, t’wernt me as had “pronounced energetic and muscular ‘side affects'”, but was Patrick- just fyi on that.

      Patrick, if you’re still around, there’s a question to you.

      Also, I’d like to say thanks Patrick for calling the question on my assumption of a common understanding that I can speak to.

      I’m not a scholar; I’m not interested in clarifying context and history, so much as in discovering relationships in the human experience that are important to my own well-being and those of my community. If I’m not making sense to you, I apologize. I think my most cogent writing is my most recent, so you might try Letting Go in Action: the Practice of Zazen.

      Hopefully I’ll wrap up a piece about Fuxi’s poem shortly, and that might be even more to your liking!

      Thanks for checking it out; I’ll drag you (and maybe Anna and even Koun) into the discussion based on the collective unconscious yet!

      All the best, Mark

  21. Mark Foote says:

    I reread this post and the comments in the comment thread today, and I thought I would mention that “freeing thought” or the non-direction of mind is one of the sixteen elements of mindfulness that Gautama spoke of as his own way of living. You can find all sixteen down the page in this essay of mine:

    Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s “Pleasant Way of Living”

    Gautama also provides an explicit description of practice for the “non-direction” of mind:

    “As (one) abides in body contemplating body, either some bodily object arises, or bodily discomfort or drowsiness of mind scatters (one’s) thoughts abroad to externals. Thereupon… (one’s) attention should be directed to some pleasurable object of thought. As (one) thus directs it to some pleasurable object of thought, delight springs up in (one’s being). In (one), thus delighted, arises zest. Full of zest (one’s) body is calmed down. With body so calmed (one) experiences ease. The mind of one at ease is concentrated. (One) thus reflects: The aim on which I set my mind I have attained. Come, let me withdraw my mind [from pleasurable object of thought]. So (one) withdraws (one’s) mind therefrom, and neither starts nor carries on thought-process. Thus (one) is fully conscious: I am without thought initial or sustained. I am inwardly mindful. I am at ease.

    (Gautama repeats the above for “As (one) contemplates feelings in feelings…”, “… mind in mind…”, “… mind-states in mind-states, either some mental object arises, or…”)

    Such is the practice for the direction of mind.

    And what… is the practice for the non-direction of mind? (First,) by not directing (one’s) mind to externals, (one) is fully aware: My mind is not directed to externals. Then (one) is fully aware: My mind is not concentrated either on what is before or on what is behind, but it is set free, it is undirected. Then (one) is fully aware: In body contemplating body I abide, ardent, composed and mindful. I am at ease.

    And (one) does the same with regard to feelings… to mind… and mind-states. Thus (one) is fully aware: In mind-states contemplating mind-states I abide, ardent, composed and mindful. I am at ease.

    This is the practice for the non-direction of mind.”

  22. JohnC says:

    thanks for this

  23. triveni93 says:

    Reblogged this on tetsugaku.

  24. hishiryo says:

    Great article, thank you!

  25. […] Master Yaoshan, ‘what are you thinking when sitting in zazen?’ The Master replied, ‘I’m thinking not-thinking.’ The monk, puzzled asked, ‘how do you think, not-thinking?’ And the Master replied, […]

  26. […] [3] Koun Franz, “Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking,” Nyoho Zen, 6 June, 2018, […]

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