The Three Steps is a new way of looking at and using traditional Zen Buddhist principles. Here are some of the specific teachings that influenced the development of this method.
“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.”
One of the fundamentals of Mahayana Buddhism is the principle of Emptiness, or Sunyata. The central liturgy of Soto Zen, the Mahaprajnaparamita Heart Sutra, deals directly with Emptiness, and this piece is considered so important that it is chanted every day at Zen temples around the world. Emptiness is also at the heart of the Three Steps, where it is called “Presence”. The emphasis on finding Emptiness and making it our home is what makes the Three Steps a Zen style of mindfulness.
While Zen is popularly associated with enigmatic quotes and mystical depths of concentration, it draws from all the basic tenets of Buddhism. Especially important are Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the fourth of which is the Eightfold Path, the way out of our primal condition of suffering. The seventh part of this path is Right Mindfulness. The Three Steps extend the mindfulness-oriented elements of Zen, and are intended to give you a clear approach to moment-by-moment awareness whether you practice Zen or not.
The Three Worlds
In Zen literature, we sometimes find references to “The Three Worlds”, the three domains of human existence. These are Desire, Form and No-form. While these aren’t used the same way we use the realms in the Three-Step method, you can see that the Three Steps realms map closely to them: we are slaves to Desire in Storyland, we explore Form in Orientation, and No-form is what we find in Presence.
The word “karma” literally means “action” or “deed”, even though we often use it to mean the results or retribution we get from our deeds. Bound up in karma is the intention behind our actions – when we act from greed, anger or ignorance we generate karmic seeds that eventually result in negative outcomes. Likewise, “good” karma gives us “good” results. But even these are considered unsatisfactory because all karma contributes to the turning of the wheel of Samsara, the endless cycle of birth-and-death. So, part of the practice of Zen is learning to cut the roots of karma.
In the Three Steps we train ourselves to let our actions coalesce in Resolution rather than Storyland. When this happens, we have no emotional investment in the outcome, so we are free to take action then leave it behind. This is the “traceless” action of Zen, and it is the kind that doesn’t create karmic consequences.
The Three Nens
These are the three moments of the arising of phenomena. The first Nen is the pure perception of something, happening right in this instant, right now. This happens in the realm we’re calling “Presence”. An instant later we assign “something-ness” to the perception, distinguishing it from other objects around it. This is the second Nen, when we enter the objective realm which includes both our realms of Orientation and Discovery. Another instant and we’ve given some positive or negative value to our newly-discovered object. Or, we may give it a neutral value, in which case our awareness of it typically fades very quickly. Here we enter the third Nen, the subjective realm, which in our method includes the realms of Resolution and Storyland. All of these Nens occur within a fraction of a second, and we’re usually only aware of the third one because it continues on as we weave it into our current story.
This discourse from the Majjhima Nikaya, one of the earliest collections of Buddhist teachings, is the Buddha’s presentation of the foundations of mindfulness. It is considered one of the most important sutras because it presents what the Buddha calls the direct path to the realization of Nirvana. This path lies in the exhaustive contemplation of the body, feelings, mind and mind-objects. Within these four categories lie all the aspects of the self, and drawing from them the Buddha gives us an extensive list of specific items to use as our objects of awareness. For each, he says a monk practices mindfulness by understanding or discerning “I am breathing” when breathing, “I am sitting” when sitting, “I feel something pleasant,” etc. This is the source of our labeling practice — in every case the practitioner is stepping backing into Orientation and thereby loosening their attachment to some specific part of themselves, especially the ones we unconsciously cling to but don’t want to consider.
In this sutra, the Buddha specifically emphasizes full awareness in all that we do. This is the ultimate aim of mindfulness practices, and maintaining the Cycle of Mindfulness is a way to cultivate this full awareness.
Zen Peacemaker Tenets
The Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Sangha, founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman and his dharma successors, can be seen as guidelines for working with difficult situations. Originally developed to address conflict on all scales, from global war on down to our internal mental battles, the basic principles are also applicable to making the smallest everyday decisions.
As enumerated by the Zen Peacemaker Sangha, these tenets are “Not-Knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe, Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world, and Loving Actions towards ourselves and others.” Not-Knowing is settling into the clear mind, freeing it from all mental obstructions. Once we’ve done that we can Bear Witness, which is opening up to all sides of the situation without preference, putting ourselves in the shoes of all participants to understand their viewpoints. Once we’ve seen all sides we can move forward into Loving Action, to resolve the situation in a manner that works best for all involved.
Note that each of these Tenets is a verb. They can be seen as the actions we take in each of the realms as we move forward in the Third Step: Not-Knowing is what we do in Presence, Bearing Witness is how we open up to the world in Discovery, and Loving Action is what we naturally do when stepping forward into Resolution.
Buddha's Four Noble Truths
At the root of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are the Four Noble Truths: life is suffering, there is a cause of this suffering, there is an end to this suffering, and the path that takes us to the end of the suffering. How do these relate to our realms?
1) Life is Suffering. The Pali word dukkha, usually translated as “suffering”, has multiple connotations – all negative – such as pain (emotional and physical), unsatisfactoriness, being subject to passing away. This is the fundamental problem of life, and this is the suffering we experience when we’re lost in Storyland.
2) The Cause of Suffering. This is craving, or desire. The more time we spend observing our trips through Storyland the more we see that our cravings are gut-level phenomena generated by the processing of our stories. These desires create mental and visceral pictures in our imagination, and as long as reality doesn’t match these pictures we feel a dissonance, a disharmony – this is dukkha.
3) The End of Suffering. This is Nirvana, the cessation of the cravings that lead to suffering. How can we reach this? We usually try to relieve ourselves of the dissonance of dukkha by changing reality to match our mental pictures – to satisfy those desires by feeding them what they want. And what happens then? Either we fail, in which case we feel deprived, or we succeed, only to see another desire spring up to replace the old one. This puts us in the endless cycle of birth and death called Samsara. But the Three Steps gives us another option – to step back from the pictures themselves and let them dissolve away in the light of Presence. What happens when we settle in Presence? The stories are left behind so there is nothing generating the craving, thus nothing generating the suffering. Here there is no distinction of suffering, craving, generation, cessation or Nirvana. This is the cessation of everything, including the idea of cessation itself.
4) The Eightfold Path. This is Buddha’s prescription for reaching the end of suffering. Each of these facets – Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration – can be seen as a specific, detailed way of taking the Third Step.
What is the key to ending the suffering that we cause for ourselves and others? We ourselves set the whole process of suffering in motion by weaving the stories and buying into them, so we ourselves can end it.
Ethical Conduct, Concentration and Wisdom
As you pick up the forms of Zen, you notice that they tend to fall into categories. And that these categories tend to coincide with the different aspects of Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The first two form the Prajna (wisdom) division of the path, the next three the Sila (ethical conduct) division, and the last two the Samadhi (concentration) division. These three divisions balance our Zen; if any are missing the practice can’t stand for long. Like a three-legged stool, lose a leg and you fall down.
Yasutani Roshi's Three Aims of Zazen
Zen Master Yasutani Hakuun Roshi detailed three aims of zen meditation, which is called "zazen": development of joriki (the power of concentration), seeing clearly into our true nature, and living our life in accord with this realization.
The more time we spend in meditation the more we develop joriki. This is like a muscle – the more you work it out, the stronger it gets. In zazen we are spending our time settling in Presence - this concentrates the mental energy that we otherwise dissipate when chasing our stories. This power of joriki gives us the presence of mind necessary for cutting through the deepest, most unconscious stories we’re carrying and reveal our own enlightened nature.
The second aim is directly experiencing our true nature. This is kensho, the sudden enlightenment experience, when we see for ourselves that there are no inherent separations between us and our world, just the ones we have made in our own minds.
Yasutani Roshi’s 3rd aim of zazen is to live our lives in accord with our Zen realization - not to stop at the mystical experience, but to function in the world with natural wisdom actively informing our actions. One way of doing this is by practicing the third of the Three Steps to Mindfulness – continuous cycling through the realms in active harmony with our current situation.
Harada Roshi's Four Criteria
Zen Master Harada Sogaku Roshi, the teacher of Yasutani Roshi, had four criteria for making decisions: the person, place, time and amount. By carefully gauging these we can evaluate our current situation based on reality as it is right now, not the way it looks in Storyland. These are wonderful pointers for clarifying the relative importance of the individual ingredients when stepping into Discovery and deciding how to work with a particular situation.
The Three Treasures
The Three Treasures of Buddhism – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – are appreciated in several ways in Zen studies. While the most-known way is to see them as the historical Buddha, his teachings and his congregation, we can also see them as archetypes or basic principles underpinning our life right now. Buddha represents the basic unity of all things, Dharma represents the diversity of phenomena, and Sangha represents the harmony, the interactions between all phenomena. It is at this level that the Three Treasures can be seen as embodiments or the contents of the Three Realms. Buddha/Unity maps to Presence, the foundation of all. Dharma/Diversity embodies the objectivity of Discovery, and Sangha/Harmony refers to the interplay that we find in Resolution.
Buddhist meditation practices bring us into states that we can identify among the Three Steps realms. The first of the three steps is the most critical to master, since it breaks the hold of our stories and lets the mind settle, so most meditation styles include techniques for taking this step. Practices like thought labeling, the Vipassana style of reporting experiences and the Zen practice of counting the breath do exactly that. Once the student has learned to quiet the mind doing these practices they move on to others that are designed to bring them into Presence, such as the Zen practice of Shikan–taza, or “just sitting”.
Eihei Dogen Zenji, the towering Zen figure from thirteenth century Japan, spoke of “Practice-Enlightenment”. His emphasis was on applying ourselves in this moment rather than on individual experiences of enlightenment; for him, the practicing itself is enlightenment. This is the spirit of the Third Step – continuously moving forward, continuously engaging with That-Which-Is.
In Dogen Zenji’s manual for Zen meditation called "Fukanzazengi", as translated by Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, he wrote: “You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.”
Dogen’s backward step includes the first two in our method, boldly dropping off both Storyland and Orientation and landing in the boundless illumination of Presence. “Body and mind” – these are our own projections, found in the objective and subjective realms, but absent in Presence, the essential realm. We call this “Home”, the great masters of ancient times called it our “original face” or “suchness”. In our method we practice suchness by consciously progressing through the mindfulness cycle and returning to this Home over and over and over.