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Roads to Insights

Learning and insight should blend. Learning is had by a stepwise ascent, as shown by Benjamin Bloom et al. [Taxonomy of learning].

Insights tend to be tricky. They might be flights of fancy and wrong inspiration, or true, about true, a bit true and so on towards wholly bluffs. Conclusions derived from a learning process are often like bits of insights with material beneath them, and not hanging in the air. Conclusions that build on fit learning may further be represented as symbols of various sorts. That is about as high as stepwise learning goes.

Insights are tricky, and need to be substantiated. They are likely to need support of various kinds to be palatable, acceptable, and not loose and flimsy, or duping material. They need good evidence to support them, at least a bit.

So learning and insight meet, and good evidence is what makes the difference, a difference that reduces the need for faith, and by that reduces the amount of swindles too.

In deep meditation we often get inspirations. It happens in many dreams too. To work on them, we do well to be careful and "try the spirits", or inspirations. That process is similar to basic research, in that the groundwork is similar: You get an idea, ponder it, refine it and try it out on a small scale where no one gets hurt, and then go on to find out more and better in the quite standardised ways of science, the ways that apply, also ways that apply more or less so.

So learning and insight do meet. It is much up to ourselves to set the processes working.

The science teacher Elliot Moore

You do what you can. There are many other tips to be had, and from many quarters too. In "The Happening", the science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is lecturing to his students when word gets out at school about a possible terrorist attack involving air-borne toxins. As the class is dismissed, the teacher tells:

"Don't forget your science . . . What are the rules of scientific investigation?" As one the students answer:

  • "Identify variables,
  • design of experiment,
  • careful observation
  • and measurement,
  • and interpretation of experimental data."

Does it seem clear-cut? Actually, it may be very hard work one way or another.

Working hard

A student went to his teacher and said earnestly, "I am devoted to studying your system of staring Zen. How long will it take me to master it?"

The teacher's reply was casual, "About ten years."

Stunned, the student answered, "But I want to master it faster than that; I will toil and practice diligently every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to."

The teacher said, "If so - about twenty years, I reckon."

❋> Under such circumstances searching for a better method may be advisable.

The shine

When my late teacher was in the school of Master Baiduan, the master cited an ancient saying, 'It is like a mirror casting images; when an image is formed, where has the shine of the mirror gone?'"

At the time, there were a number of students in the group who offered replies, but the master did not accept any of them. In those days, my teacher was working as a fundraiser; when he came back, Baiduan cited the foregoing saying and asked him about it. My teacher approached, offered greetings, and said, "Still not far off."

Baiduan clapped and laughed.

(From Cleary 1993, 63)


Once there was a disciplinarian monk who had kept the precepts all his life. As he was walking one night, he stepped on something that squished, and imagined it was a frog, a mother frog laden with eggs. Mortified at the thought of having killed a pregnant frog, when the monk went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came to him demanding his life. He was utterly terrified.

When morning came, the monk went to look for the frog he had squashed, and found that it had been an overripe eggplant.

(From Cleary 1993, 25)

Steep words

Beiyuan Tong left Dongshan. Dongshan said, "Where are you going?"

Tong replied, "Into the mountains."

Dongshan said, "Flying Monkey Ridge is steep – a fine sight!"

Tong hesitated.

Dongshan said, "Reverend Tong!"

Tong responded, "Yes?"

Dongshan said, "Why don't you go into the mountains?"

At these words, Tong suddenly got the message.

(From Cleary 1993, 16)

In Zen and tantra alike there are a number of figurative expressions and phrases that need decoding. For example, "What is your original face?" It is a koan that is used in such as Rinzai Zen. In Tibetan Buddhism it is explained: The original face is the mind's essence. Enlightenment is called seeing the original face. The expression is explained by other words too. (Evans-Wentz 1967:xl)

In riddle Zen (koans) the question is sometimes used as a riddle for Zen practitioners to puzzle over, and make "some doubting" too. The practice is to ponder and puzzle till one or more higher states are had thereby. Garma Chang explains a side to "rousing the doubt-sensation" in The Practice of Zen. (1970, 75-79) More on using doubts to one's benefit, including the grounding research way: [The value of skilled doubting]

A History of Mankind

Long ago there lived a king in a country far away. He was very young when he was crowned, and thought that it would be very, very good to let his people be well instructed. Therefore he gathered around him a host of learned people from many countries and asked them to publish a history of man, so that all could learn from it.

The scholars set out on the task and spent no less than twenty years in preparing the work he required. After that they went to the king's palace with five hundred volumes on the backs of twelve camels.

The good king was then over forty years old. "I am already old," he said. "I won't have time to read all this before I'm dead. So, please, make me a summarized edition."

For twenty more years the many scholars worked to do as the king had asked them to. Then one day they came back to the castle with only three loaded camels.

But the king had become over sixty years old and felt weak. Therefore he said, "It is not possible for me to read all those books. Please, make me a still briefer version."

The scholars laboured for ten more years, and finally returned with only an elephant-load of works.

But the old king's eyesight had impaired with age, and now he could not read. He asked, accordingly for a still more condensed version. The scholars had aged, too, but after five more years they returned to the castle with a single volume, only moments before the king's death.

"Alas, I think I am going to die without knowing enough of humankind's history . . . " he gasped.

The senior scholar leaned over to him and said, "I will explain humankind's history in short. It is: Man is born, lives and suffers, and in the end dies."

With a smile on his face the king breathed his last.

❋> Most of the scholar words sum up many autobiographies too, although the suffering parts can be dramatically lessened by careful living, safety first, filtering out what is harmful, the sooner the better, ◦Transcendental Meditation too. Buddha shows how to live, in general, to preserve one's happiness or regain (some of) it.

Dogen instructed

Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up at once. Just focus your mind on one thing, absorb the old examples, study the actions of former Zen Masters, and penetrate deeply into a single form of practice. Do not think of yourself as someone's teacher or as someone's predecessor.

(Masunaga 1971, 8)

We may safely ignore this teaching if we have absorbed the idea in it and given up reading about Zen masters as recent as the medieval Dogen (1200–53), for one thing.

The valley stream

Jingqing asked Xuansha, "I have just entered the school; please point out a way in."

Xuansha said, "Do you hear the sound of the valley stream?"

Jingqing replied, "Yes."

Xuansha said, "Enter from here."

Jingqing got the message from this.

(Cleary 1994, 68)


Learning, insights and tales, processes, Literature  

Chang, Garma Chang Chen-chi. The Practice of Zen. Perennial ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

Cleary, Thomas, tr. Instant Zen: Waking Up in the Present. Berkeley CA: North Atlantic Books, 1994.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. ed. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University, 1967. ⍽▢⍽ A third edition from 2000 contains a new foreword.

Masunaga, Reiho. A Primer of Soto Zen: A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1971.

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