What happens if we dismantle all of our human conceptual constructions, all of the explanations and assumptions that structure consciousness and orient us and define us as centers of identity? To do that not in the abstract, but at the level of immediate experience. What would that leave us? What might we discover about ourselves at levels deeper than the contingent histories and thoughts that define us as identity-centers? And what would it mean about the texture of everyday experience?
This dismantling is the adventure of Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism as originally practiced in ancient China, and its primary revelation is the larger self or “original-nature” that remains after the deconstruction. The awakening that Ch’an cultivated was 見性: “seeing original-nature” (chien-hsing, Japanese kensho). And in cultivating this awakening, Ch’an’s sage-masters operated like a wrecking-crew dissasembling every possible story or explanation, idea or assumption or certainty. The Ch’an conceptual world sounds like a constellation of answers, a clear account of consciousness and Cosmos and their interrelation, and it is. But in the end, Ch’an dismantles all of our answers, including its own, to leave a new way of being.
The T’ang Dynasty Ch’an master Yellow-Bitterroot Mountain (Huang Po: died 850) compared this dismantling to “clearing away shit-piles.” It is the cultivation of a remarkably rich and even ecstatic kind of freedom—though the nature of that liberation depends upon the stories and ideas that are deconstructed, hence the need to understand them first. Ch’an is not simply about establishing a mind of tranquillity: that happens, but in unexpected ways. Instead, by emptying consciousness of the isolated identity-center we take for granted in our daily lives, Ch’an intends to liberate us into a larger identity that is woven integrally into landscape, earth, and Cosmos. This is Ch’an awakening: a radical kind of liberation, a freedom that transforms everything from identity and immediate everyday experience to death itself. And it demands a wild and fearless mind.