Po-chang was one of the great Zen masters of the 9th century. His fame was such that many came to his monastery to follow the path of enlightenment, so he was forced to open a second monastery. However, he had to find the right master before, so he devised a seemingly very simple test to find him.
He gathered the monks and placed before them a jug. Then he told them: “Without calling it a jug, tell me what it is.”
The older monk replied: “It cannot be said that it is a piece of wood.”
While the other monks thought about the answer, the monastery cook kicked the jug over and went off to do his chores. Po-chang entrusted him with the management of the monastery.
This story in the form of a koan teaches us to deal with the worries that grip us and end up doing more damage than the event that caused them. When we give them free rein, worries chain and spread, occupying our entire mind. They grow like dark clouds and prevent us from finding the solution, taking away our inner peace.
The more we worry, the further we will stray from the solution
When we read, but we are distracted, we fail to capture the essence. Then we mentally tell ourselves: “I have to concentrate”. At that precise moment we enter a state of hypervigilance. That is, the mind begins to monitor its activity so as not to wander. But in this way we also fail to concentrate on the words because the mind is busy acting as its own guardian.
A similar process occurs with worries. When something negative happens, we start thinking about it. Catastrophic thinking is activated. One concern calls for another. We imagine a disaster and then an even worse one, to the point of becoming almost completely disconnected from reality.
Worrying in a loop blinds us. It generates a deep discomfort and does not usually help us solve the real problem. In fact, that mental chatter only serves to create more confusion, causing us to spin around the same point without getting anywhere. Without solving anything.
In Zen philosophy, there is a method to stop this incessant flow of thoughts and avoid getting trapped by its centripetal force: upaya. The word upaya comes from Sanskrit and literally means “That which allows one to achieve a goal”. Therefore, it could be translated as a “means” that helps us achieve our goals.
The upaya method is very simple since it consists of pointing directly at what we want in order to end the vicious circle of worries and focus our attention on what we should do. Its strength is that it allows us to return to reality immediately.
Therefore, instead of uselessly wasting energy worrying, we redirect our efforts to find the solution. In fact, the monastery cook’s response was not guided by impulsiveness but by that deeper knowledge that comes from intuitive intelligence, but which we often do not hear due to our mental verbiage.
Upaya, a Zen concept to see clearly
They say that once they asked T’ung-shan, another great Zen master, “What is the Buddha?” To which he replied: “Three kilos of flax.”
It may seem like an irrational response to us. And it is. But its objective is to cut off any possibility of speculation. Prevent thought from twisting on itself and getting lost in thought and worry.
That is also the reason why the great Zen masters speak very little and prefer to confront their disciples with reality. This reality is called tathata and designates the “being such”, without verbal labels that can lead to confusion.
The upaya method has the same objective: redirect our attention to what we need to solve. It allows us to get out of the loop of worries to return to reality. It clears the way for intuitive intelligence, which is often silenced but allows us to see more clearly what is happening and the path we must follow.
In fact, when we manage to see things as they are, without the layers of meaning that we add to them – made up of our expectations, fears, beliefs… – we realize that “There is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing intrinsically long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective”, as Alan Watts pointed out.
The upaya method not only brings us back to reality, but it strips events of the negative labels that generate worry. That is why it helps us to open our minds and look for solutions in 360 degrees.
A very simple way to start practicing the upaya method and train the mind is to point to any object on the street when we are absorbed in our daily concerns. We can stop and point to, for example, a tree. But instead of immediately thinking about its attributes by placing it labels like “ash”, “big”, “leafy” or “pretty”, we only have to see the tree, for what it is. Notice its color, the way it reflects light, or the shapes of its branches.
It may seem like an easy exercise, but it is extremely difficult for the mind used to labeling everything. However, the more labels we use, the more wealth we lose. Labels allow us to move fast, but often only in one direction. The upaya method redirects attention to the present, without judgment, moving away from our looping thoughts and, above all, from those reductionist labels.
So the next time something is worrying you a lot, but you notice that those worries are leading you to a dead end, increasing emotional distress, simply redirect your attention to the real problem. Pay attention to the here and now. Let your intuitive intelligence speak. It will probably be much easier for you to find the solution.
Watts, A. (1971) El camino del zen. Barcelona: Edhasa.
Chung-yuan, C. (1979) Teachings of Buddhism selected from the transmission of the lamp. Nueva York: Random House.