Yesterday, I wrote about arriving at the mind of voluntarily quieting all narrative thoughts.  I sent it to one of my main teachers, the great Shinzen Young, for his comment.  As usual, he blows my mind with the depth of his wisdom.  In his reply to me (quoted below), he tells me that what I am experiencing is only one of four possible paths towards enlightenment (‘enlightenment’ with a small ‘e’), and goes on to explain the other three.  Fascinating stuff.

As usual, Shinzen gives me blanket permission to make public anything he writes to me.

Dear Meng,

Thanks for the report. Clearly you are making significant progress (but you don’t need me to know that 🙂 ).

In terms of the way I like to formulate things, the insights that you’re having are related to the interplay of inner activity (See In, Hear In, Feel In) and outer activity (See Out, Hear Out, Feel Out).

Attention is in some ways like a pendulum. Sometimes it gets tugged towards inner activity. Sometimes it gets tugged towards outer activity. However the physical pendulum metaphor is incomplete and misleading because for the attention pendulum there are two other possibilities. For one thing, it can be pulled in both directions at once (outer activates and at the same time inner also activates — usually in reaction to outer). A fourth possibility is that both inner and outer activity contract to Rest/Gone simultaneously.

When outer expands but inner contracts, one has that delicious experience that you described. When inner expands and outer contracts, people typically are lost in the default mode network–memory, plan, fantasy, judgment, problem solving, confusion, etc. However, it is possible for outer activity to contract and inner activity to expand without necessarily being caught in our thoughts and emotions. The Focus In technique is designed to allow that to happen. This is one instance of the “divide and conquer” paradigm for enlightenment.

So one way that enlightenment can occur is when outer completely expands and inner collapses to zero, and we notice it. You’re starting to taste that. Another way that enlightenment can arise is that inner expands, outer contracts, but there’s huge concentration, clarity, and equanimity with regards to the arising of inner. Another way that enlightenment can occur is that outer and inner both simultaneously expand into activity but they’re both in a flow state, so they become a single wave of emptiness. Another way that enlightenment can arise is that both outer and inner both simultaneously contract. There’s no self and there’s no world. One abides in the Unborn. Zen Master Línjì (Rinzai臨濟義玄) describes this in his Four-Fold Summary (四料简). (See addendum below.)

In your report, you describe how, when inner activity contracted, outer activity became more salient. But you also described how “giving yourself” to outer activity can cause inner activity to contract. And yes, you’re right on both accounts, these are two sides of the same process.

Couched in my language, your experience of “seeing without seeing”, came about through expansion of conscious See Out and contraction of subconscious See In. By subconscious See In I mean the subliminal spread of visual associations. Hence the phrase “see without seeing” is logically correct. There are analogous experiences of hearing without hearing and feeling without feeling. (Or more generically “outing” without “ining.”)

Also, you got an important insight into the complimentary nature of samatha and vipassana. Actually, one of my pet peeves is that many people inappropriately separate these two aspects of practice. There are circumstances where the distinction between samatha and vipassana can be helpful but there are also circumstances where it makes no sense and can actually be misleading. My personal approach to this issue was called samathavipassana yuganaddha by Ananda (see Yuganaddha sutta) and Zhǐguān Shuāngyùn (止观双运) by the Tiāntái masters.

Another one of my pet peeves is the use of the phrase “direct experiencing.” (Sorry about that 🙂 ).  A more accurate phrase would be “experiencing outer activations without inner reactions.” The reason why I object to the phrase direct experiencing is that it seems to imply that “experiencing outer activations without inner activations” in and of itself is the ultimate goal of the practice. As I see it, the ultimate goal of the practice is to dramatically elevate the base levels of concentration, clarity, and equanimity. A consequence of achieving that is the ability to experience outer activations without inner activations. But another consequence of that is the ability to totally allow inner activations to occur but without any identification or coagulation or unconsciousness around them and experiencing inner activity in such a state also deserves to be called direct experiencing. To eulogize Out and demonize In could cause an imbalance in a person’s practice.

Having said that, I also must acknowledge another fact: by consistently experiencing outer activity without inner reactions, one can, with time, develop the generic skills needed to do exactly the opposite. And that’s precisely the breakthrough that you’re reporting. So good work and thanks.


The Four-Fold Summary* (四料简)
Zen Master Línjì (Rinzai臨濟義玄)


Shinzen’s translation:

After evening practice, the Master addressed the community saying:
“Sometimes I rip away the person but leave the surroundings.
Sometimes I rip away the surroundings but leave the person.
Sometimes I rip away both the person and the surroundings.
Other times I rip away neither the person nor the soundings.”

A monk then asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away the person but leaving the surroundings?”

The Master responded:
“Plants flourish beneath the torrid sun covering the earth with brocade, the lambent hair of the little child glistens as bright as silk.”

The monk asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away the surroundings but leaving the person?”

The Master said:
“The king’s orders are obeyed throughout the kingdom. At the borders, the general has quelled rebellion.”

The monk asked:
“Can you say some more about ripping away both the person and the surroundings?”

The Master said:
“All lines of communication have been severed. Totally alone in One Spot.”

The monk said:
“Can you say some more about ripping away neither the person nor the soundings?”

The Master said:
“The king ascends the jeweled palace. The peasant sings in the field.”

* Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 47, No. 1985 鎮州臨濟慧照禪師語錄