4: Do not labor to quiet your thoughts

不識玄旨     Not knowing the deep meaning of the Way

徒勞念靜     The disciple labors to quiet his thoughts

The concept of meditating by making your mind a blank is an error. You cannot make your mind a blank. – Lester Levenson (Keys to the Ultimate Freedom)

770. Things are differentiated but the Mind is one; they do not perceive this. They seek it in the causeless and non-functioning, which is a mistake.

771. When the Yogin empties his mind, he does not see Mind in his mind. Insight comes forth from the perceived; whence is the rising of the perceived? – Lankavatara Sutra (p. 361)


A man who carries on his practice by shunning the objects of the five senses, no matter how proficient he may be in the doctrine of the emptiness of self and things, and no matter how much insight he may have into the Way, when he leaves quietude and enters into the midst of activity, he is like a fish out of water or a monkey with no tree to climb. Most of his vitality is lost, and he is just like the lotus that withers at once when it is near fire. But if you dauntlessly persevere in the midst of the ordinary objects of the senses, devote yourself to pure undistracted meditation, and make no error whatsoever, you will be like the man who successfully delivered the several hundred ryo of gold despite the turmoil that surrounded him. Dauntlessly and courageously setting forth, and proceeding without a moment’s interruption, you will experience a great joy, as if suddenly you had made clear the basis of your own mind and had trampled and crushed the root of birth and death. It will be as if the empty sky had vanished and the iron mountain had crumbled. You will be like the lotus blooming amidst the flames, whose color and fragrance become more intense the nearer the fire approaches. Why should this be so? It is because the fire is the lotus and the lotus is the fire.

If at all times even when coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, when asleep or awake, the practitioner accomplishes everything he decides to do and attains everything that he attempts to attain and, displaying a great unconquerable determination, he moves forward ceaselessly, then he will transcend the emotions and sentiments of ordinary life. His heart will be filled with an extraordinary purity and clarity, as though he were standing on a sheet of ice stretching for thousands of miles. Even if he were to enter the midst of a battlefield or to attend a place of song, dance and revelry, it would be as though he were where no other person was. His great capacity, like that of Yun-men with his kingly pride, will make its appearance without being sought.

There are some blind, bald idiots who stand in a calm, unperturbed, untouchable place and consider that the state of mind produced in this atmosphere comprises seeing into their own natures. They think that to polish and perfect purity is sufficient, but have never even in a dream achieved the state [of the person described above]. People of this sort spend all day practicing non-action and end up by having practiced action all the while; spend all day practicing non-creating and end up by having practiced creating all the while. Why is this so? It is because their insight into the Way is not clear, because they cannot arrive at the truth of the Dharma-nature.

What a shame it is that they spend in vain this one birth as a human being, a birth so difficult to obtain. They are like blind turtles wandering pointlessly in empty valleys, like demons who guard the wood used for coffins. That they return unreformed in suffering to their old homes in the three evil paths is because their practice was badly guided, and from the outset they had not truly seen their own natures. They have exhausted the strength of their minds in vain and in the end have gained no benefit at all. This is regrettable indeed. (Yampolsky, Orategama)

Zen meditation:

Great masters of meditation from of old have kept their eyes open. Yuan-t’ung, the Zen master of Fa-yun, has also had a strong opinion against the habit of closing the eyes, and called such practisers dwellers of the skeleton cave in the dark valley. There is a deep sense in this, which is well understood by those who know. When the position is steadied and the breathing regular, the practitioner will now assume a somewhat relaxed attitude. Let him not be concerned with ideas of good or bad. When a thought arises let him bring it into awareness; brought into awareness, the thought will vanish. When the exercise is kept up steadily and for a sufficient length of time, disturbing thoughts will naturally cease to arise and there will prevail a state of oneness. This is the technique of practising meditation.

Meditation is the road leading to peace and happiness. The reason why there are so many people who grow ill is because they do not know how to prepare themselves properly for the exercise. If they understand the directions as given above, they will, without straining themselves too much, acquire not only the lightness of the body but the briskness of spirit, which finally brings about the clarification of the consciousness. The understanding of the Dharma will nourish the spirit and make the practitioner enjoy the pure bliss of tranquillity.

If he has already a realization within himself, his practice of meditation will be like a dragon slipping into the water, or a tiger crouching against a hillside. In case he has yet nothing of self-realization, the practice will be like fanning a flame: there should not be too much effort [lest one extinguish it]. (Suzuki, 1953)

Lester Levenson: 

Meditation is basically thinking in the right direction and holding to it so that other thoughts keep dropping away until the mind is concentrated. When the mind is concentrated the answers become obvious to you. The ability to hold one thought concentrates the mind so that it can crack the secrets of itself.

Madame Guyon:

I think the way to enter into it is this: After having brought ourselves into the presence of God by a definite act of faith, we should read something substantial, not so much to reason upon it as to fix the attention, observing that the principal exercise should be the presence of God, and that the purpose of the subject is to fix one’s attention rather than to exercise reason.

This faith in the presence of God within our hearts must lead us to enter within ourselves, collecting our thoughts and preventing their wandering. This is an effective way of getting rid of distracting thoughts and of losing sight of outward things in order to draw near to God, who can only be found in the secret place of our hearts, which is the sancta-sanctorum in which He dwells.

When, then, we are thus buried in ourselves, and deeply penetrated with the presence of God within us—when the senses are all drawn from the circumference to the centre, which, though it is not easily accomplished at first, becomes quite natural afterwards—when the soul is thus gathered up within itself and is sweetly occupied with the truth read, not in reasoning upon it, but in feeding upon it, and exciting the will by affection rather than the understanding by consideration, then the affection thus touched must be allowed to repose sweetly and at peace, swallowing what it has tasted.

As a person who only chewed an excellent meat would not be nourished by it unless he stopped chewing in order to swallow it, so when the affection is stirred, if we seek continually to stir it, we extinguish its fire, and thus deprive the soul of its nourishment. We must swallow by a loving repose (full of respect and confidence) what we have chewed and tasted. This method is very necessary, and would advance the soul in a short time more than any other would do in several years.

But as I said that the direct and principal exercise should be the sense of the presence of God, we must most faithfully recall the senses when they wander.

This is a short and efficacious way of fighting with distractions, because those who endeavour directly to oppose them only irritate and increase them. But by losing ourselves in the thought of a present God and allowing our thoughts to be drawn to Him, we combat them indirectly, and without thinking of them, but in an effectual manner.

And here let me warn beginners not to run from one truth to another, from one subject to another; but to keep themselves to one so long as they feel a taste for it: this is the way to enter deeply into truths, to taste them, and to have them impressed upon us. I say it is difficult at first thus to retire within ourselves because of the habits, which are natural to us, of being taken up with the outside. But when we are a little accustomed to it, it becomes exceedingly easy, both because we have formed the habit of it and because God, who only desires to communicate Himself to us, sends us abundant grace, and an experiential sense of His presence which renders it easy.

Guyon, J. M. B. de la Mot (1875). A Short Method of Prayer. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle.  (Translated by A. W. Marston, who may be Frances Cashel Hoey) (https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/spiritualformation/texts/guyon_shortmethodofprayer.pdf)

Levenson, Lester (1993). Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Phoenix, Arizona: Sedona Institute. ISBN 0-915721-03-1 (download)

Suzuki, D. T. (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company (pp. 327-328). Originally in Regulations of the Meditation Hall, compiled by Pai-chang (720-814) the founder of the Zen monastery in China (from a 1265 text). (Zen meditation instruction)

Yampolsky, Philip B. (1971). The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings. New York: Columbia University Press. https://terebess.hu/zen/Orategama.pdf

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