Awakening from the dream of conceptual thinking follows a certain route and process. The Zen Circle of Enlightenment is a useful way of understanding this. This post does not cover the practices that help this evolve. It simply shows the route and process of what happens for freedom from the conceptual world to be directly experienced and lived. Click here to download this graphic: Zen Circle of Enlightenment
Zero Degrees – The Beginning
We begin in this map at zero degrees. We are completely attached to our thoughts. We see the world and ourself completely through thoughts, concepts and beliefs. We don’t yet realize that these are just abstractions of reality and not reality itself. We believe this conceptual world IS reality. We believe our thoughts ARE reality. In spiritual terms we might say we are living completely in a dream or illusion.
90 Degrees – The First Step Toward Freedom
When we begin a spiritual practice, we move to 90 degrees on this map. We start learning new concepts, spiritual concepts. We leave some of our old concepts and beliefs behind and pick up new ones. If we read and study The Heart Sutra, for instance, we might now say that Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form, where at zero degrees we were believing that Form is Form and Emptiness is Emptiness.
We can get very excited about our new discoveries. They feel very liberating. We find new friends who are also practicing these new ways of thinking and experiencing. We find new teachers who lead us deeper into these new ideas and beliefs. It’s a very exciting time. But it can also be a little frustrating. We’ve got all these new and exciting concepts and beliefs, but somehow we’re still not awake. Somehow we still experience suffering in our lives. We may even tell ourselves that we are free and awake because we’ve had some amazing experiences, but deep inside we know this is not true. Deep inside, we still experience an incompleteness.
That’s because, even though these are new and exciting thoughts and beliefs, they are still only thoughts and beliefs. Reality is completely beyond all thoughts and beliefs, even spiritual ones. Given the powerful conditioning we’ve all undergone, it may be hard to accept this. But eventually, through frustration and continued suffering if nothing else, we break through. We break through the barrier of thought.
180 Degrees – The First Glimpse of Freedom
In Zen koan practice, we call this The First Gate. The purpose of our koan practice is to introduce this impossible impasse, barrier or gate that the mind of thought cannot get through. No matter how hard we try, none of our usual mental strategies work. The only way through is without the mind. Finally, in that great breakthrough, body and mind drop away. Because this is beyond the mind, there is nothing we can say about it. None of our mental labels can describe what this is. In Zen, we call this Emptiness. It is completely beyond all words and thoughts. It is not nothing. It is not everything. It is not inside. It is not outside. It is not duality. It is not nonduality. It is not self. It is not other. It is not existing, nor is it not existing. There is absolutely nothing we can say about this.
Now we have come face to face with reality, but we don’t yet know what this is. All our words, concepts, beliefs, knowledge and previous experiences cannot touch this. All the spiritual knowledge and experiences we accumulated at 90 degrees cannot touch this at all. We are completely emptied out and all there is is reality itself.
Quite often people become a little unsettled and resistant to this complete freedom at first. They may quickly resort to thoughts in an attempt to exert at least a little imagined control. That’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the conditioned mind. The longer we stay in this freedom from thought, the more wonderful we realize it is. Here we are directly experiencing life, reality, without any thoughts getting in the way. The longer we stay here, the more we realize that this is the very source of the peace, love, contentment, freedom, creativity and wisdom we have been seeking. This is it. This is our True Self, even if there is not a thing we can say about it.
Because this freedom from thought is so liberating, we can also become attached to this stage and not move on and embody it in the world for the benefit of all beings. Eventually most of us do want to do this. We realize we are not separate from any being, unconditional love is our very nature, and so we move on.
270 Degrees – Embodying Freedom
At 270 Degrees, we’re free to use language, concepts, and thoughts without any attachment to them. They’re just language, concepts and thoughts. They have no reality or validity beyond that. When they’re useful, beneficial and appropriate, we use them. Otherwise we remain silent. Great creativity flows through some of us in this stage. But we’re not attached to it. It doesn’t even feel like we’re doing anything. It’s simply happening by itself. It’s simply life happening.
Some us find ourselves as spiritual teachers here. We feel called to help others discover this great freedom and liberation from suffering. Although people may become attached to our words, we never are. And we do our best to encourage them to see all our words as merely pointers to something beyond words and thoughts. It is never the words we are pointing towards. It is always the freedom beyond words and thoughts.
Although we’ve learned to use words and concepts again to communicate, the underlying emptiness and freedom remains. In the Zen tradition teachers often say things that sound like nonsense to the conditioned mind in an effort to help serious students break free of the prison of their conditioned thoughts. That’s the purpose of Zen koans. When we’re free of the conceptual dream world, what appeared as nonsense is completely understood as pointing directly at reality. It’s often a time of great hilarity, without any thoughts about why it’s so funny.
Here we’re free to use words, thoughts and actions in any way they are truly beneficial without having the slightest attachment to them. It’s like being a bucket without a bottom. Whatever pours in immediately leaves without a trace. In this way, we live in freedom. In the Christian bible, it’s called living in the world but not of it.
360 Degrees – Returning Home As Freedom
At 360 degrees on this circle, we have returned home. We live fully in the world, but without any attachment or resistance to any of it. We live in complete freedom. Now we can say that “mountains are mountains” without any attachment or belief in these words. The difference between saying “mountains are mountains” at zero degrees with attachment and belief and saying “mountains are mountains” at 360 degrees with complete freedom is profound. From the outside, it may appear that these are the same, but they are not at all. No longer imprisoned by our thoughts, no longer imprisoned by a sense of separation, we are free to be fully in the world and act in the highest benefit for all beings.
That doesn’t mean our journey has ended. In one sense it has just begun. But it’s no longer a personal self with needs and goals taking this journey. The journey is happening by itself. In every moment it is unfolding fresh, new and alive. Whatever arises in each moment is the journey. And each moment is fully complete in and of itself. There is no longer a desire to get something or get somewhere. The fullness of life is revealed in every moment. What more could be asked for? This is returning home.