Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Books of Interest: Stephen Hagen, "Meditation: Now or Never"

Steven Hagen is the author of "Buddhism, Plain and Simple", which I have on my suggested book list. He is a Zen lineage holder who received Dharma transmission from Katagiri Roshi. He teaches in Minnesota. This book is about meditation in the Soto tradition. It is as straightforward as his previous book. Hagen addresses the mechanics of meditation, such as posture and breath, directly. He also talks about what one is seeking, and will find, through meditation. I highly recommend the book.

I find most powerful his last chapters' implicit warning about methodologies that can make meditation practice--the practice of seeking awakening through directly experiencing reality--seem easier to enter by providing structures for meditation, but which prove in the long run to be a hindrance. Hagen received this teaching from his teacher, Katagiri Roshi. Hagen suggests that our inherent desire to reify experience, to make experiences into things, and then to cling to those things, makes meditative practice structures a potential hindrance to our fully awakening. He refers to the self's attraction to these reifications as "stickiness", and argues that once we adopt sticky practices, we have a very hard time letting them go. On this ground, he recommends adopting a meditation practice that relies only on minimally sticky structures. In the Soto tradition, he suggests nothing more than breath focus as the best balance between an attentional device and a hindering structure. Over time, this focus can be released as one moves toward a shikantaza practice of simple awareness.

My own recent experience finds resonance in this discussion. Over the course of my practice, I have tried various aids, various structures to assist in the movement toward awakening. But most recently, I have come to experience them as having been to a greater or lesser degree a hindrance. At times, I have seen koan practice, which I very much appreciate, as having a strong potential for inducing various kinds of "stuckness". Reading texts, which I also love, can produce lots of stuckness; so can the Big Mind Process. Over the years, I have used various structures in my meditation practice which while initially seemingly helpful, have proven to be productive of much ideation.  

My teacher, Genpo Roshi, says that his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, often said that in practice, it is not a question of whether we are stuck, but where. In that spirit, stuckness is an inevitable part of practice, something we all experience. That being said, I still find the warning Hagen conveys so clearly about hindering meditative practice structures to be a very important one. Cultivating meditative mind is the sina qua non of awakening.  Meditative practices create the container within which we engage in that cultivation. We should be cautious that we don't busily create a container that inhibits the growth of our realization.  Hagen's caution is clearly and memorably put.  That alone makes this book worth reading. 

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