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Commentary on The Method of Sitting Meditation
: : The method of sitting meditation is extremely simple and easy¡¦
4) You should keep the eyes open to help keep drowsiness away. You may try meditating with eyes closed when the energy of the spirit is refreshed and there is no danger of drowsiness.
The first problem that beginners practicing sitting meditation face is how and where to place the eyes. It is explicitly written, ¡°You should keep the eyes open to help keep drowsiness away.¡± It is also said, ¡°You may try meditating with the eyes closed when the energy of the spirit is refreshed and there is no danger of drowsiness.¡±
Problems arise when one does not follow this guidance.
In Zen mediation, what matters are the contents, not the formality. Just being seated is not Zen. Just sitting can indeed raise endurance, perseverance, patience, etc., yet it is far from the real essence of Zen.
Since long ago, many enlightened masters and spiritual mentors have warned about the danger of drowsiness. If one falls into drowsiness, they advise, one is lead to a dead and useless Zen. To avoid this, a smacking stick was prepared, from which we can conjecture how dreadful the problem of drowsiness is.
Drowsiness is generally more harmful than delusive and idle thoughts, which we at least notice; we may hardly notice drowsiness and thus fall into it and sink. Therefore, one who would practice Zen should start meditation with the firm determination to never fall into drowsiness. To accomplish this, opening the eyes is the best way.
Some practitioners, misunderstanding the idea that drowsiness is most harmful, try not to sleep at all, and try to sit up all night in the name of practice. This is in vain. If one tries to remain awake, one may enhance the power of endurance, but this does not mean that the person should not sleep at all. Our body needs sleep and this is a physical condition. If a person does not sleep at all, he or she will have a nervous breakdown, or some other kind of mental disorder. It is known that soldiers who do not have enough sleep doze off in fierce battles; sleeping is such an essential thing. There is a minimum level of sleep that our body requires. If one sits up all night, this may enhance the technique of seated sleeping but this is not Zen, only forced and unnatural foolishness. If one insists on forcing oneself not to sleep, he or she will not reap the desired result but just have a hard time. When trying to practice Zen, we should be rational and wise as to how much we sleep.
Our bodies¡¯ desire for sleep is endless. We should just take the minimum sleep our body requires and practice Zen soberly, driving out slumber. One should take the least sleep necessary, and then decisively and resolutely overcome the temptation of drowsiness.
If one is seated for Zen, all of the dynamic energy and the distracting thoughts will gradually calm down. At this point, the Mara of drowsiness gets its chance; it takes every opportunity and invades our pure spirit. One does not notice the lapsing of time, but only feels comfortable. After spending time in this manner, one may feel his or her spirit refreshed and revived; this may drive one into the delusion that he or she has practiced Zen very well. However, this Zen is of no help.
Thus, one should cultivate a habit of practicing Zen with the eyes open from the start. Otherwise, one will surely affected by drowsiness and one¡¯s meditation will not be fruitful. If one forms a habit of practicing Zen with the eyes closed and dozing off, unlearning that habit is an extremely difficult job. Such a habit cannot be corrected without strong determination and help from others. This cannot be treated lightly, for one cannot be corrected like this all one's life. What a pity that would be!
So one should cultivate the habit of practicing Zen with the eyes open. Some time later one will reach the stage where one can meditate well with closed eyes. When the physical and mental condition and the atmosphere permit, one can then judge whether he or she can meditate well with closed eyes. At that point, one has the opportunity to practice Zen with the eyes closed.
In this passage of the canon, closing the eyes is recommended with extreme carefulness. We should be particularly heedful about this. A person who has attained considerable power from long training in Zen can be absorbed in the authentic realm of Zen directly, not being distracted much even under bad circumstances. But this is the result of long training and cannot be expected easily by anybody. One should take proper measures according to the condition of the mind, body, and the surrounding universal energy at the moment.
So when one can make a judgment that one will not be affected by drowsiness, one may practice Zen without opening the eyes. However, if there appears some indication of falling into drowsiness, one should immediately open the eyes and not be grasped by drowsiness.
Strangely, the beginner who has not yet formed the foundation of Zen will often try to jump over the first stage, closing the eyes during meditation in order to enter the high and profound realm of Zen. One should be aware that this does not yield good results; trying to get the results without following the procedure is just greed. This kind of greed does not bear good fruits but just results in a waste of time.