Zen:     The Zen Dimension

E = mc2

In Albert Einstein’s famous formula for mass–energy equivalence, what does the “c” mean?

We’re used to working with questions like this. We research the options and logically progress from one clue to the next until we arrive at the answer. In mathematics the ideal is to have one expression for every meaning and one meaning for every expression. So, in this case it’s a straight–ahead matter of looking up the formula and finding the one meaning expressed by the letter “c”.

“The empty sky vanishes. Mountains are level with the plains. Above, not a tile to cover the head. Below, not an inch of ground upon which to stand.”

In this verse by the modern Zen master and artist Daido Loori Roshi, how can mountains be level with the plains?

This kind of question can’t be resolved with our usual way of thinking. The logical mind gets to work and immediately runs into problems. If mountains are level with the plains, how can you differentiate them by calling them “mountains” and “plains” in the first place?

When looking into Zen expressions like this one, the mind, using ordinary logic, eventually stops – it has nothing left to work with. Spiritual statements, like expressions in art, are meant to open the mind up to new possibilities, with multiple meanings for each expression. So, what other–than–logical meanings can we find in this one? Maybe this is a poetic way of saying that mountains and plains somehow have equal value. But how does that explain “Above, not a tile to cover the head”, or “The empty sky vanishes”? If the sky is empty, what is there to vanish?

We may then try to satisfy ourselves with various philosophical and metaphysical interpretations. But if you presented these to a Zen master they’d be rejected and you’d be told something like “Show me ‘mountains are level with the plains.’” Here the thinking mind finally fails – how do you show something that doesn’t exist?

To resolve this question we need to do something different. Imagine being lost in a hedge maze, like those popular in England. The hedge rows are ten feet high and impenetrably thick. You walk down one promising corridor after another, but keep finding yourself back at the same spot. How can you get out? This is a two-dimensional maze, and there is no solution within those two dimensions. So, the only way out is to flip into the third dimension: go straight up!

We have to do something similar to resolve our question, by moving in a new direction we’ll call the “Zen Dimension”.

Each physical dimension is an extension of the previous ones. We escaped the hedge maze by expanding flat two–dimensional space upward into the third dimension. Time is considered to be the fourth dimension, with all three previous ones extending forward and backward through the past and future. So, at least in science fiction, we can escape three dimensional traps by getting into a time machine and jumping through this fourth dimension.

But our question has us trapped us in all physical dimensions. No matter where you go in space and time it’s still there. So what different direction is left? We can only escape by reversing the process and letting go of all of them, even the 0th dimension. Only after we’ve dropped all points of reference, all modes of thinking and all ways of discriminating this from that will the Zen Dimension open up for us. This isn’t oblivion or blankness – it’s a wide open field that has no boundaries, no distinctions of direction or measurement or meaning, therefore no limit to possibilities. No trap!

The Zen Dimension is the avenue to direct experience. To see what I mean, imagine you are looking at a bucket of ice water. Using the regular dimensions of thought you quickly conclude that the water is very cold. Since the water has had ice floating in it for some time, its temperature must be hovering a few degrees above freezing. Notice that this is not the experience of coldness, just a conclusion that may or may not be correct. At this point someone might be able to persuade you that the water isn’t actually cold, it just appears to be. But if you plunge your hands into the water you’ll be taken out of the realm of conjecture and directly to the Truth – BRRRRR! You fully experience the cold – no doubts about the water’s exact temperature, no more comparisons between imagined degrees of hot and cold, not even any thoughts about buckets or ice, just BRRRRR! Now no one could talk you into believing the water is warm because you know just how cold it is.

Without being aware of it, you went through the Zen Dimension to arrive at concrete knowledge of what is true about the ice water. This avenue to direct experience is the one we have to take to find the spirit of such sayings as “mountains are level with the plains.” Zen words like these are meant to wake us up where we are right now by forcing us to leave the imagination behind and take a leap into intimate contact with our world.

Walk those plains yourself, climb those mountains yourself. While doing so you are immersed in the buzzing of this living moment, 100% tuned in. Fully alive stepping easily across the plain, fully alive straining to reach the mountain peak. Now do you see what’s level? What is it that is the same wherever you go?

What happens when the empty sky vanishes? The morning star is rising brilliantly in the east!

Published: 06/21/2014
Updated: 08/14/2014

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