The Noble Eightfold Path can be divided into three divisions.
The first division covers the right view and right resolve, which could be how we see the world and ourselves. The second is for the right speech, right action, and right livelihood, which could be our applications for ethical virtues.
And the third is for the right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration in the category of meditation, which could be our mental states.
As an image of Buddhism, it seems this third division is well-known. While Christian monks pray all day long in the monasteries, Buddhist monks meditate in the temples for many hours.
The right effort is a positive mental attitude that we commit ourselves to continuous improvements. The right mindfulness is the state of awareness where we noticed things around with attachments, and yet gently observing them. The right concentration is the mental state that we focus on one thing only as if all boundaries have dissolved and merged.
In psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as a similar mental state around these areas.
In Zen Buddhism, there are various terms to signify our mental states such as a beginner’s mind, no-mind, remaining mind, immovable mind, and so on. In Japanese, these are respectively shoshin (初心), mushin (無心), zanshin (残心), and fudōshin (不動心).
Nowadays, not only Buddhist monks but even martial art practitioners, modern artists, and athletes focus on these mental states.
What is a beginner’s mind?
When we start something for the first time, everything we encounter looks new and fresh. In this initial stage, we are at our beginner’s mind.
We have not put any interpretations on our experiences with any biases and prejudices. We don’t overthink, either. Thus, we can accept anything and resist nothing. Just like children with full of curiosity, the world is shining and signing for the eyes and ears of a beginner’s mind.
This mental state, however, is short-lived. Soon, we will lose it. We would start taking things for granted around us. A variety of our interpretations, biases, and prejudices would cover up the world. As a result, we think we already know a lot. We fall in the trap and cage of the cognitive tautology. What we see is what we see. Without a beginner’s mind, we can never have a chance to see the world as is nor overcoming it.
Once our mind is no longer a beginner’s, it becomes a critical obstacle. With full of biases and prejudices, it can consistently control, disturb, and bother us.
Like our ego, it acts as one of our worst enemies. By overthinking, our mind gets bigger and bigger. It will become too heavy to live our life, saying life is suffering. Why suffering? It’s because our mind says so. Or else, going to the other extreme, it would see our life with full of happiness. It seems our mind becomes a mental drug. We are either too positive or too negative.
Either way, our mind controls us. We are in an illusion or prison of our mental tautology.
What about no-mind?
No-mind could be the state where we are free from such mind-prison. Meister Eckhart called it a free mind.
The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful, praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind?… A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own. There is no work which men and women can perform, however small, which does not draw from this its power and its strength.Meister Eckhart
By its nature, however, the state of no-mind would inevitably lead us to a specific dilemma.
If we seek no-mind, then such effort of finding no-mind becomes the critical obstacle to achieve no-mind. No-mind means not minding anything; however, wanting to attain non-mind means minding no-mind, which is the complete opposite of no-mind.
In this dilemma, to achieve no-mind, we have to forget ourselves. By forgetting and denying oneself, the state of no-mind could emerge. Is that so? No, we will face the same dilemma. Our effort of forgetting and denying ourselves is the clear evidence that we have not forgotten and denied ourselves, either.
How can we overcome this dilemma?
We should be at the state of effortless effort in action. When we conduct a specific activity such as dancing, singing, playing sports and musical instruments, meditating, practicing martial arts, drawing and painting artworks, cooking, writing, even talking with someone, and washing dishes, there could be a moment when we can immerse ourselves to our action alone, where without our conscious efforts, we can effortlessly forget ourselves.
For example, in the act of painting, there could be a moment when you are no longer painting without a sense of an artwork painted. There is purely an act of painter/painted where both could become one. Such a painter/painted merge could embrace everything around, even everything in the universe.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also defines this state or moment as flow. But it seems to me this is beyond flow as embracing the whole universe.
The critical step here is an action. Aligning our action with the rhythm of the universe, the flow of movement would lead us to no-boundary. It would even make us nobody. In the state of flow, we become nobody because we feel like becoming a whole.
What about a remaining mind and immovable mind?
A remaining mind is not a state of no-mind or flow. In it, a mind is remaining and yet not struggling. After experiencing no-mind, there could be a series of subtle awareness that we are back to ourselves as if we know we are here, and yet such awareness is not disturbing us. With a subtle sense of self-recognition, we can be calmly alert, which could be a remaining mind.
An immovable mind is also similar to this state.
We can recall the teaching of Rinzai school Zen monk, Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645). In his work, the Unfettered Mind, he gave his instructions to the sword master, Yagyū Munenori (1571-1646), on how to face many opponents in the critical fight.
Citing the statue of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara (Kannon), Takauan said, the reason why this compassionate Kannon can effortlessly control her (or his) thousand arms is an unfettered mind, which could be an immovable mind as well.
When Kannon uses her one arm, she focuses on this one arm alone. When she uses another, she focuses on another alone. Her mind is continuously moving (never stopping) one arm to another. It’s continuously moving; therefore, immovable and unfettered. Nobody can stop her mind; therefore, nobody can move it, either.
Fudōshin (不動心) or an immovable mind sounds like a mind of stable rock. But the truth is that it is like water; at the same time, like a rock. It is free-flowing without any disturbances; hence, it can be so stable as a huge rock. Flowing like water, our mind becomes like a gigantic immovable rock.
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