Before I changed my mind about rituals, the 5:00 a.m. chanting at our retreats always felt like a pointless chore—except the final sutra. That “sutra,” though, wasn’t really one at all, but a long poem called the Hsin Hsin Ming, or Inscription on the Mind of Faith, attributed to Chien-chih Seng-ts’an (Jianzhi Sengcan), the third Great Ancestor of Chinese Zen. And in the poem, the author, whoever he might be, describes the way our world appears when we view it through the eyes of awakening:
One thing, all things;
move . . . and intermingle,
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
(Trans. Richard B. Clarke)
Even in winter’s darkest days, these lines would leave me feeling so alive that I never stopped to ask myself how the word “faith” could make it past my lips without triggering the claustrophobia I remembered from my childhood experience with organized religion.
I wasn’t certain, either, what Seng-ts’an meant when he wrote about “nonduality,” but the practice of Zen didn’t seem to require assent to beliefs of any kind. Caught up in the vibe of my West Coast town, I was logging crazy hours on my job, breaking free most Friday nights to catch a band or see an indie film, talking with my friends over wine or beer, and maybe waking up in an unfamiliar bed. At the same time, my Zen teacher, since childhood a monk, shaved his head and almost always wore a robe, daily bowed before a statue of Kannon and slept—by himself—on a tatami mat. Happy as I was with my freewheeling ways, the dharma should have raised a small parade of red flags, but in some sense that I didn’t understand, the Ming gave me permission.
Decades later, my encounter with the Ming has taken on an added resonance because of a cultural shift underway that must have started with people like me long before the pollsters got wind of it. For the first time in a hundred years, Americans identifying as “religious” have dropped to under half the population. Even more surprising is the news about the rest, most of whom, surveys indicate, don’t describe themselves as secular. Instead, they prefer the word “spiritual,” and while I never saw myself that way when I started Zen, I realize that it’s what I had become. No longer religious but still on the path without knowing what “the path” might be, I was spiritually ready for Zen. And thanks to my teacher and Seng-ts’an, Zen was spiritually ready for me.
But “spiritual” comes with baggage of its own. In his version of faith, Seng-ts’an says emphatically, “thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination” have no place. And it’s exactly this refusal to rely on scriptures, institutional authority, and pivotal historical details that makes the category of “spiritual” so annoying to believers who embrace commitment as the centerpiece of their religious life. Nor are these believers the only ones. The secular among us also look uneasily at self-anointed mystics stoked with cannabis or ’shrooms on vigils in Sedona and flights to Rishikesh. I suppose I feel like that myself some days, but after reciting the Hsin Hsin Ming quite possibly for the ten thousandth time, I’m convinced that Seng-ts’an got something right: It’s not what we believe—or what we doubt—that sets us free. It’s going deeper than either one. Between them, they keep us from noticing a completely different mode of being in the world that begins and ends with not-knowing.
Consider the case of the Buddha himself. We often say that when Siddhartha left home, he was searching for enlightenment, and according to tradition, he eventually achieved a perfect knowledge of his past lives and, indeed, the past lives of all humanity. But as he set out, he had no idea that this experience awaited him. Instead, he left because he’d become aware of sickness, old age, and death. Surely he’d encountered them before, but now he saw that no matter what he did, they would destroy the ones he cared most about—his father, the aunt who had raised him lovingly after his mother died giving birth, Yasodhara, his wife, and Rahula, his son. Certain that none of them would be spared, he had no choice except to go, looking for what he couldn’t even describe.
So familiar is the Buddha’s story that this last detail often gets overlooked. A young man of privilege, cultivation, and wealth, he could have summoned a brahmin priest who might have tried to calm his uneasy mind with instruction from the Vedas, and that same brahmin or another would have gladly led him through the rituals devised to ensure his future happiness. But if Siddhartha found the Vedas hard to believe and thought of the priests as dodgy, he might have channeled his energies into making this world a better place by mastering the secular knowledge he would need to replace his father as head of state: law, diplomacy, military science, economics, and the rest. Yet Siddhartha rejected both of these alternatives, refusing not only the householder’s life but also the religion of his day. And so, like many friends at the Zen Center where I started practicing, he was on the path but unsure what it might be. He, too, had become “spiritual.”
Of course, many of us put the dharma in a mental box with the word “Religion” printed on the lid, or we tuck it into the other one labeled “Secular Buddhism.” Either way, we might fail to appreciate that what happened to the Buddha after he left home properly belongs in neither one. Those boxes simply hadn’t been invented yet. Neither a priest nor a householder, Siddhartha joined the ranks of shramanas instead, a movement of seekers who were something like the sadhus still roaming modern India, wandering renunciants famously engaged with nearly impossible austerities. But there’s something else that we might overlook: Those shramanas would have felt at home, as well, five thousand miles to the West in the company of Socrates, a philosopher, or “lover of wisdom,” prepared to overturn every piety in the search for truth.
If you’re familiar with Plato’s Dialogues, you probably first learned about Socrates in a college philosophy class. And if you’ve heard anything at all about the shramanas, you’re likely to have come across that term in a course like “Religions of the East,” where you also listened to the lectures on the World Honored One. But this way of packaging what Siddhartha did—as religion, not philosophy—isn’t just anachronistic, imposing on the past the way we think now. It recreates the sparagmos, the dismembering of experience, that the ancient Greeks were determined to correct. When Socrates discovered the new method he taught—the practice of dialogue—it revolutionized philosophy, which we now mistakenly suppose to be a secular development, not a religious one. But Socrates himself saw his dialogue as what any shramana worth his salt would have recognized as a Yoga, a process of spiritual purification that could guide dedicated adepts to a decisive encounter with the nous, or transcendent Mind.
Religion and the secular aren’t really enemies.
And much the same held true in India. Shramanas who deprived themselves food and sleep, or hung upside down suspended from ropes while staring searchingly into the fire, or sat motionless for hours and days in the lotus posture, couldn’t have known about Plato’s dialogue. But they were seekers of wisdom, too, and that meant letting go, not holding on. Travelers in uncharted lands of consciousness, the shramanas meant to liberate themselves from both their knowledge and their ignorance.
Today, religion and secular life have become increasingly polarized, and like millions of Americans, I’ve watched with escalating alarm the assaults on reproductive rights and the gender nonconforming, the banning of books in the libraries, and constraints on instruction in the schools—all tied to the ominous rise of Christian nationalism. It makes sense, then, to push back against this tide by insisting on a public sphere insulated from religious coercion. Pragmatically, you can count me in.
Yet religion and the secular aren’t really enemies. As shramanas and philosophers would both have recognized, those two operate as coconspirators. Religion needs disbelief waiting in the wings, since without the danger of falling into doubt, belief no longer qualifies as belief at all. But in the same way, calling yourself secular actually ensnares you in a codependency with the religion you want to hold at bay. And by disputing this or that article of faith, you’ve only made more binding and more real the established system that divides the seamless fabric of reality into categories like reason or faith, church or state, and the sacred or the profane.
Creation in six days or a cosmic accident, an eternity in heaven or worms after death—either choice preserves the status quo. Separating religion from secular thought seems innocuous enough, but it has led us, one might say, to the crisis we face now, with some believers so unmoored that evidence and argument have floated into space, while at the same time a soulless rationality has turned our entire civilization over to number-crunching specialists. But to be “spiritual” is something else again—not a third option beside the other two but a state of permanent liminality. The “nondual” path that the Ming celebrates refuses the logic of either/or and the sparagmos dividing us now, not only from each other and the natural world, but also from the wisdom in ourselves.
As a Chinese monk thirteen hundred years ago, Seng-ts’an could easily have taken sides with a Buddhist establishment by then respected, connected, and powerful. The dharma’s patrons had lavished enormous sums on monasteries, libraries, public lecture halls, and what we today call research institutes, pouring out translations and scholarship of the highest caliber. Yet the Ming has absolutely nothing to say about the four noble truths, the eightfold path, karma, rebirth, and the rest. So rarely does it intersect with the mainstream Buddhist thinking of its day that some modern critics have described it as a Taoist masterpiece launched subversively into an unsuspecting sangha. But these speculations miss the point, I think.
The “nondual” path that the Ming celebrates refuses the logic of either/or and the sparagmos dividing us now, not only from each other and the natural world, but also from the wisdom in ourselves.
Long before Seng-ts’an composed the Ming, the Middle Kingdom had already produced the religion of the Tao as well as the tradition that begins with Lao-tzu’s great opponent Confucius, who made, as some historians say, a religion out of secular life. And despite efforts at synthesis, the differences were deep and persistent enough to produce lasting conflict. But Seng-ts’an understood that conflict of this kind can’t get resolved by talking things through, because each side needs the other to create and consolidate its identity within a system they both support, even with knives at each other’s throats. Such tensions are constants throughout history, because, as the Ming underscores, words and ideas by their nature depend on oppositional thinking. “Gain” simply can’t exist without “loss,” “right” without “wrong,” or “peace” without “war,” and the same holds true for “secular” and “religious.” But conflict is the rule in human affairs for another reason, too. The consolidation of identity driving the contest of ideas gradually radiates outward to include families, clans, communities, religions, languages, and nation-states, all locked into opposition that starts with the way they think.
Instead of imagining Buddhism, then, as a third contender in the ring, fighting claim with claim and fact with fact, Seng-ts’an explored a different possibility. If ideas involve a certain violence even when their users want the opposite result, the solution can’t take the form of compromise, since a compromise would involve ideas, too. Something or somebody will still have to play the role of the enemy, the mistaken one, or the “bad” outsider. But there’s actually another way: freeing ourselves from ideas themselves. If you really pay attention, you can find something that precedes all your thoughts, along with your sensations and memories: a consciousness without any content at all. This consciousness reveals itself, though, only when the content recedes from view and you’re face-to-face with what Seng-ts’an calls the Mind:
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
To be honest, when I first began reciting these words, I had no idea what they meant—except that meditation felt good to me. For a while, I thought that this sense of release had some connection to the tatamis and shoji screens in the little bungalow where we used to practice, yet I also noticed that wherever I sat, I would find myself suddenly “back home”—safe, at ease, and connected. But no matter how carefully I looked, I couldn’t locate Seng-ts’an’s “Mind,” and the books on Zen I read obsessively, densely packed with Sanskrit terms and vivid Chinese poetry, seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with what transpired on the cushion.
All along, though, the Ming kept trying to convey what I wasn’t prepared to grasp.
The first time I really began to see, I wasn’t deep in a seven-day sesshin or listening to one of the dharma talks my teacher delivered twice each month. Instead, it happened on Saturday night, riding to my neighborhood from downtown, when I heard, coming from the back of the bus, a hit single by a British band, The Police. I’d listened to the song maybe twenty times before, but just then it explained everything:
With one breath
With one flow
You will know
A sleep trance
A dream dance
A shared romance
A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
The “connecting principle,” I recognized, must be what the Ming means by the Mind. Invisibly, that Mind connects all the things that words and ideas make us regard as unrelated and often at odds: “A dream dance/A sleep trance/A shared romance” synchronized in a way we overlook when, getting lost in the particulars, we miss the Ming’s “single essence.”
It’s not “true or false” that matters, then, or “right or wrong.” And it’s definitely not “sacred or profane” or “religious or secular.” No, the crucial difference is the one between what artists call the figure and the ground—between the figures and the canvas that contains them all, no matter how they might get arranged. When you look for Mind, then, you can’t find it anywhere, not in the fresh flowers on the altar beside the bronze statue of Manjushri, not in the sunlight falling on the floor, and not in the face of the woman on the tan across from you, deep in concentration. It’s invisible not because it’s somewhere else—in heaven or another dimension—but because you’re looking in too focused a way and missing the forest for the trees.
And once you can un-focus, that changes everything. The figures, you could say, remain exactly as they are, but now they get somehow flattened out. The more often you are able to recognize the distance between the thoughtless background consciousness and the foreground elements, the less real and three-dimensional they appear. You become like a moviegoer now aware that Harrison Ford isn’t leaping from a train just as it approaches the tunnel. Instead, all you’re seeing is the play of light and dark projected on a screen. But something else happens to you after that. Like a single word printed in tiny type at the center of a large blank page, each perception or impression stands alone, stripped of any connection to you. It registers simply as “an idea,” “a sensation,” and so on. And once the “you” has been subtracted from the queue of moving figures, you can calmly watch them come and go, in keeping, as the sutras say, with “causes and conditions.” Each sensation leads to an idea; each idea triggers a response—all merging, colliding, bouncing back and forth, on and on forever. “One thing/All things,” in Seng-ts’an’s words, “move among each another, intermingling.”
Causes and conditions never stay for long, while the Mind remains changeless, chill, and serene, though no sooner do we grasp at it conceptually than it once again recedes, like a clear blue sky veiled by oncoming clouds. It’s not really the case that ideas stop; instead, they keep arising from Mind itself, gathering and dissipating endlessly, but they cease to matter in their former way once you’re aware of the background spaciousness. You stop treating your ideas as either true or false, and you can watch impassively as events unfold. And when this shift of focus is complete, the “you” starts to look like just another cloud while the empty Mind reveals what you’ve always been.
To call this a religious experience seems to me profoundly misleading. But neither could you say that it’s secular because you’ve stepped out of the dichotomy. True, Mind is not the ordinary consciousness that you experience when you’re playing online games, peering through a telescope, doing math, or even reading Socrates. But neither is it certain to manifest itself while you’re sitting in a temple, mosque, or church while a priest/imam/rabbi explicates the Word. Mind won’t reliably arrive to drain Elijah’s seder cup or follow you into the confession booth, where, truth be told, you can find yourself dreaming of your summer vacation.
On the other hand, Mind might turn up anywhere. Waiting for a tow truck on the interstate and frantic about the meeting you’ve just missed, your spinning head could simply empty out and suddenly all the things that bothered you now seem to be unfolding like a symphony. Or maybe you’re watching your daughter play, a puppy tugging at her old rag doll, and you realize that this moment will never end even when it’s over and done with.
But you can’t make it happen. The figures in the foreground we often get to choose, but the ground itself we have to stumble on. There’s no fixed or necessary relationship between the way the figures get arranged and their ability to reveal the Mind. Logic, discipline, and experience all have their merits, to be sure, but there’s never any guarantee. That’s why studying a sutra, the Buddha’s very words, can have absolutely no effect while strolling on the beach might set you free from all your tenacious mental loops. Reading “form is emptiness” won’t dependably expose the hidden ground of Mind—if only it could!—but drinking a bowl of green tea might do the trick, though not when you try it a second time. The second time around, your past encounter with Mind will have become just another idea, and then you’ll have to start stumbling again. After Chinese monks had learned this lesson from the Ming, they began extolling the Zen school as the “method of no-method” and the “pathless path,” even though Zen has methods of so many kinds that no one can master all of them. But the monks’ point was simply this: Even the old pros can make two big mistakes. The first is mistaking “the finger for the moon”—imagining that knowledge or some technique is the same as encountering Mind itself. And the second is thinking you can always rely on the same finger to make the Mind appear. In reality, you need to mix it up. To awaken someone, you could try putting your sandals on your head. Or you might have to slap your teacher in the face. Or you might need to spend thirty fruitless years, only to give up on Zen in despair. Then, raking gravel in your crummy little hut, you could hear a pebble ping against a bamboo stalk, and with that, the foreground instantly recedes as the bright surface emerges.
Seng-ts’an might say, then, that our current split—some might even call it “our current war”—between religion and secularity can’t be solved by taking sides or by trying to identify something like a “proper balance,” since neither option has ever been real, and the more we tinker, the deeper we plunge into our old illusions. Instead, we have to live by “faith in Mind,” which isn’t remotely the same as faith in “God,” “the Buddha,” “the rule of law,” “democracy,” or even “mom and apple pie.” Seng-ts’an would say that belief in any thing isn’t faith in Mind at all but the opposite, upadana, clinging. And yet doubt is a form of clinging, too. You’re still holding on, but with a sour look. For Seng-ts’an, faith in Mind means that you embrace everything that happens as a puzzle piece. But in this special puzzle, the pieces won’t stay put, and so you’ll never manage to fill in all the vacant spaces. You’ll keep trying, predictably, until you realize that the emptiness is what holds it all together. And then you can arrange the pieces any way you want. It doesn’t matter what the puzzle-maker meant for you to see: a border collie or Monet’s lotuses. Instead, you can use your pieces to create something new and beautiful that others can enjoy. At one with the world-making activity of the universe itself, you have really understood the Ming’s “unified Mind in accord with the Way.”
But this might sound too good to be true. Worried, perhaps, about propriety, the secular among us, and the religious, too, often want those pieces to stay separate, but the spiritual are the unruly ones, willing to look vulgar or absurd by trying injudiciously to combine, say, physics with the Tao Te Ching or gardening with metta meditation. Arranging the pieces in some unfamiliar way offers the foolhardy among us a chance to get hammered from all sides, and if you wind up on the receiving end, you’ll never out-argue the experts who really have forgotten more than you’ll ever know. For Buddhists, then, “religion” is our safest bet, while the second best option is to call ourselves something like “secular affiliates.” At least that won’t invite ridicule.
Yet, in a certain way, we’re all spiritual. The Ming assures us that all paths we take, both the unruly and the compliant ones, are leading us to awakening. Not only does the Mind make experience cohere when on the surface all we often see are the broken fragments, but that same Mind also keeps drawing us along toward enlightenment without our noticing. And it does so by haunting us with the desire for some unspecified unity, even though we can’t say what or where it is. Whether we’re religious or skeptical, our intimations of unachieved immortality, transcendence, or completeness induce us to loathe the suffering that samsara brings, to seek nirvana’s bliss, and to believe in our secret hearts that we might reach Buddhahood, even if the prospect seems a million lives away. In other words, our serious commitments begin as the vaguest spiritual yearnings. All who take the pathless path, as the Buddha did, have to travel blindly, one foot following the next, long before they’re prepared to grasp what “the dharma” really means. Until we know the truth, we live by faith, since faith is what moves us to look for it. But after that, we need faith even more because not-knowing is truth itself.