Plunge into Free Fall Meditation

Zazen as Freefall

Zen Master Jingqing asked one of his students, "What's that sound outside?" The student replied, "It's the sound of the rain." The master said, "All beings are upside down: they lose themselves in pursuit of things.... I am the sound of the rain!"

Accidentally dropping into a Zen temple, one may perceive those doing shikantaza (whole-hearted sitting) as stillness of body.  One may stumble into a room full of bald-headed monks, sitting on raised platforms wearing robes and facing a wall and think, “why are they sitting so still, and how come nobody is talking, and what the hell are they wearing?”  Or, “How could (or why would) anyone do that for any length of time?”

Anyone looking from the outside in at someone else’s practice is, by definition, caught in a spider’s web of thought.  In other words, they are not in touch with true reality, but trapped in a one-sided view of what they perceive as reality.  They don’t realize that they can’t perceive reality fully with their senses.  Or they are ensnared by the belief that the fullness of reality can be comprehended through acquiring intellectual knowledge or data. 

All of us, whether we know it or not, are tangled up by our particular views, and mistake them as the whole of reality.  We have views of religion, of science, of our friends, of our intimate partners, of our children, of our politicians, and of the Oak tree in the yard, to name but a few.  Forming views is the nature of our mind, and we all do it.  The problem is that we conflate our particular view with the whole of reality.  We say, “My child is like ____X_____.”  Or, “My spouse always does it like ‘this’.”  Or, “My religion sees the world like ‘such and such’.”  Meanwhile, someone else may see a totally different aspect of that same child, that spouse, or that religion that is unknown to us.  It’s not that one view is better than the other, but that they are both form a small piece of the whole picture.

Dogen Zenji poetically illustrates the multifaceted nature of reality in describing water in his, “The Mountains and Waters Sutra”:

In general, then, the way of seeing mountains and waters differs according to the type of being [that sees them].  In seeing water, there are beings who see it as a jeweled necklace….  Some see water as miraculous flowers, though it does not follow that they use flowers as water.  Hungry ghosts see water as raging flames or as pus and blood.  Dragons and fish see it as a palace or a tower….  [Others] see it as woods and walls, or as the Dharma nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and mental nature. 

 (The Mountains and Waters Sutra, p. 29 Okumura Translation)

While we may get thrown by terms such as “hungry ghosts” or “dragons,” we need to keep in mind that, first, these are mythical beings personifying certain qualities found either in humans or in nature, and, second, we need to be careful not to lose the overall point – water is seen differently depending on who or what is looking at it.  Fish see water as humans see air.  Some people see water as drinkable, others see it as swim-able, still others see it as hydro-electric power.  It all depends on the situation.

Our fundamental problem as human beings is, in any situation we find ourselves, we often mistake what we perceive in the present moment as 100% reality.  I was listening to a famous scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, being interviewed by Joe Rogan on his youtube channel  (see about everything from the Big Bang to how we humans are more genetically related to mushrooms than we are to plants.  Joe proceeded to ask Neil if he had ever taken psychedelic mushrooms.  Neil’s response to this question was quite revealing.  He had never eaten magic mushrooms because he didn’t want anything to distort how he was seeing reality.  Neil further stated that there is an “objective” truth that can be verified, and that when we take a mind-altering drug, we miss the objective reality.

Regardless of what one feels about taking mind-altering substances, Neil’s mistake, and ours, is that we, in this age characterized by faith in scientific methods and empirical knowledge, believe an “objective” reality exists, can eventually be known in its fullness, and is slowly being revealed to us. 

I deeply respect Neil’s knowledge and his disillusionment with mushrooms, and my mind is often blown by the discoveries of science – such as learning our genetic relation to mushrooms – because to me these verify what Buddhism has been teaching all along – everything is related.  Science has been able to show this empirically through DNA. 

The mistake of our modern period, however, is this idea of an objective reality.  It has the tendency to dismiss multiple views, and to erase circumstantial wisdom.  There’s a belief that the rational view is far superior to the artist’s view, or other views, for example.  Our glaring blind spot is summed up by Dogen Zenji.


Given that what different types of beings see is different, we should have some doubts about this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistaken various images for one object?

The Mountains and Waters Sutra Tweet


I love that Dogen Zenji has us raise doubt about what we see.  Doubt is essential for deepening our practice.  It allows us to not assume what we know or see, to be absolutely true.  It leaves room for other possibilities.  As Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the expert’s mind there are few possibilities.  In the beginner’s there are many.”  Aoyama Roshi says we need to have “Kindergarten mind.”  When we are stumped by something, or angered by the way someone is living their life, being stumped or angry is an indicator that we don’t have the full picture.  We have to watch ourselves carefully and act with great caution in such circumstances.

Returning to the opening scene of the monks sitting zazen facing a wall, what are they doing?  What are they thinking?  What are they feeling?  From an outsider’s perspective they appear to be doing nothing at all, or “just” sitting there, perhaps bored out of their minds.  But what of the subjective experience of the monks?  How might they be experiencing zazen?  What might happen if someone tries zazen for the first time and sincerely engages with it?  I’ll suggest that there are those beings who see zazen as nothing but free fall.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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