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Spaciousness, Effortless Awareness and Infinite Potentiality: The Unborn Mind

(part 2 of 3 writings)

March, 2012

One great tragedy of Zen, is that its very practical teachings can easily become obscure and seemingly intellectual. I notice that sometimes lofty density is presented as Wisdom. True Zen teachers always sit face to face with real people who experience sorrow, confusion and suffering. The teachings are not a way out but a way through. We can sense that being at home in the moment IS our very nature. For me, the sense of freedom that comes with this at-homeness is experienced as unconditional love. How can we know this?

Great Zen masters of the past often had one phrase, word or image that summarized their realization. This became the center of their teaching. "One bright jewel" was Xuansha's teaching, "this very mind is Buddha" belonged to Mazu. Perhaps the most powerful and resonant for me has been Bankei's "Unborn mind" also called "Unborn Buddha mind". Often I return to this expression as a doorway. I find it an evocative entry into "True Self" or, simply, to "what is".

Let's explore this together.

While the Unborn Mind can not be effectively described in words, we can point toward three qualities or aspects.

1) For any moment to arise, implicitly there must be a space in which it can appear. This can be called the spaciousness of the present moment. Any experience, appears within a context- your chair is in a room, the room in a building, the building on some land and on and on. Thoughts and feelings appear in a space called mind or consciousness.

2) Next, for any moment to be experienced there must be the capacity for noticing. When a sound appears you effortlessly notice it. Without thought you can tell if it is the voice of a man or woman, the sound of a bird or a car. This capacity for noticing is an essential aspect of any well-functioning human nervous system. This can be called effortless awareness. Of course this is not only in relation to sound but in all aspects of our experiencing.

3) Prior to thought, before opinions and any personal reactivity is the infinite potential of the present moment also called inherent capacity. What is inherent capacity? Pause for a moment and listen to the silence that lives behind and within any sounds that are present. Even amidst great noise, we can intuit the silence that makes the sound possible. Listen softly, diffuse in attention, not in a focused way.

We are always in the atmosphere of silence, that great canvas upon which the world of sound paints. The next moment will bring unexpected, unanticipated, uncontrolled sound. This is the infinite potential of the present moment: always fresh, always unique always new.

What is the Unborn mind?

The Unborn mind points us toward the spaciousness of the present moment, the capacity for noticing it and its infinite potential. My most profound moments are the simple awe at being alive and the fact that "I" know it! Bankei would say that the great gift we received from our parents or from Life itself is this Unborn Mind.

Every living moment has these three elements: open space in which something can appear-"spaciousness", the capacity for noticing- "awareness" and the infinite potential of the present moment- "what is".

Perhaps this sounds very lofty or abstract or maybe even too simple, yet all of this is directly connected to our everyday living. How is this so? Just now, I received a letter from a mother, an old student who has been caring for her brain-injured child. After a challenging delivery, many months in the hospital and hearing the dreaded words "brain injury", she has been living in the challenge and deep, deep gratitude for this exquisite Being who has changed her life. Her child is an "unfathomable blessing" to her. She told me that her learning from previous years about saying "YES" to what is and placing Life itself above her preferences, without denying her hopes or her pain, have carried her through this time. I am again awed- this time by the human capacity to bow to Life. My heart experiences another "unfathomable blessing".

Why is the Unborn so important to me?

Why do I know it as a doorway to freedom, clarity and loving-kindness?

How is this related to "unfathomable blessings"?

How does it speak to the paradox of experiencing constant gratitude amidst worldly suffering and destruction?

Please join me in the practice of working intimately with these questions, connecting with the Unborn mind and we will explore it further in the next newsletter. Your questions and comments are welcome.

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