Spreading Out the Vision

Hidden Zen

An Excerpt from Hidden Zen

Gazing at Distant Mountains

The first practice we will examine is a bodily method of direct pointing. Specifically, it uses the eyes and vision to change our way of experiencing.

In Zen training, and particularly during zazen, the eyes are used in a specific manner that may be summarized thus: rather than staring at a single point using foveal (focused or central) vision, one activates the peripheral field to encompass one’s surroundings with awareness in a broad, sweeping, and relaxed manner. A traditional way this has been described in Japanese swordsmanship is that one should use the eyes “as if gazing at distant mountains.” Somewhat earlier in history, we have these words from the Fifth Patriarch.

Look to where the horizon disappears beyond the sky and behold the figure one. This is a great help. It is good for those beginning to sit in meditation, when they find their mind distracted, to focus their mind on the figure one.1

The character for the number one in Chinese is a single horizontal line. Advising students to look in this manner at the distant horizon is in fact the same thing as “gazing at distant mountains.” If you imagine how you might view at once a distant range of mountains, spread out from horizon to horizon—or visualize a single horizontal line spread out at the horizon where the earth meets the sky—the meaning of these words will become clear.

What is interesting is that when we use our eyes this way, we experience a marked decrease in gross thought activity: mental chatter stills. Examining more closely, we may observe that when using the eyes with attention in this manner there will seem to be little afflictive or negative emotion arising: our usual habit of giving rise to fear, craving, and other afflictive states lessens dramatically. Furthermore, we may notice that our sense of being an observing “self” separate from the things we see falls somewhat away. The sensation of existing inside one’s skull and watching objects that are outside in the world dissolves. Thus, the way we use our eyes in Zen practice can reveal our capacity for clarity and help us to experience samadhi. It can even lead us to awakening.

Over the years, I have heard my teachers stress again and again how crucial this way of using the eyes is. They have constantly reminded how important it is for correct zazen to integrate this manner of seeing. Reflecting further on the experience one has when seeing this way, I have come to an interesting conclusion: the modern habit of using the eyes almost entirely in a focused manner is an aberration, and not at all in accord with our physical evolution.

The way we use our eyes in Zen practice can reveal our capacity for clarity and help us to experience samadhi.

Most of our time these days seems to be spent with eyes tightly focused on screens. Even when walking outside we find it difficult not to pull out phones to continue indulging this habit. It is little wonder that we feel socially isolated and largely cut off from nature. One need only stroll down a city sidewalk to observe how most people walk with their fields of vision cast downward onto screens or the ground, avoiding the gaze of others and largely occupied with inner thoughts and worries. They will often walk right into you if you do not move to avoid them. Really, people who spend days and years like this cannot be said to be fully in the world at all. In a way, they are more like ghosts than living persons.

But for most of our development as a species I imagine that human beings moved through space and used their senses quite differently. Our distant ancestors lived in a world that required them to be fully present. Moving about on savannahs and plains or in deep forest, one must activate peripheral vision to sense activity and movement in the environment. This was necessary not only to find game but to avoid predators and enemies. Fine vision was also important, of course: to make a tool, to focus on a face when speaking, to examine something found. But I believe that for much of human history, peripheral vision was, in fact, equally important.

Hunters and others who observe wildlife still know this well today. If one wishes to find a deer in the woods or a bird in a tree, one does not search from point to point with focused vision. Instead one spreads out one’s gaze broadly, encompassing the whole scene within the peripheral field. The mind then becomes remarkably still and clear, and one feels immersed in or connected to the surroundings. In that state even a small flicker of movement—the flutter of a wing, the blinking of a deer’s eye, or the movement of its tail—is instantly sensed without effort or thought. Immediately and unconsciously, one then focuses in to determine what was glimpsed. Soldiers, police officers, and martial artists, if they are well trained, certainly also learn to integrate this way of using the eyes.

Many people spend large portions of their days with visual and mental focus strongly fixated upon a series of things but excluding from their attention most of the world around them.

That is all very interesting. But what we should especially understand as Zen practitioners is that overuse of focused vision increases tension, internal chatter, and neuroses. Yet everyone, not just practitioners, can relearn to spread out their vision. When we do so, whole new worlds of living detail and movement open for us. We begin to feel again that we are part of the space surrounding us rather than isolated within ourselves. Truly, we should all regain this original human way of seeing.

Despite the importance of using the eyes this way in Zen training, it oddly seems to be among the orally transmitted details of practice not always received by Western Zen students. I have even heard from some Zen students that their teachers advised them to stare one-pointedly at a fixed spot on the floor or wall, something that not only causes eyestrain and fatigue but also an increase in gross thought activity and tension. For these reasons I have placed this method first among the direct pointing practices.

Exercise #1

Here is an exercise you may try in order to grasp this physical way of using the eyes.

1. Sitting or standing comfortably, look straight ahead and spread out your vision in a broad, relaxed manner so that you are watching the entire room at once (rather than staring with focused vision at whatever point across the room your gaze strikes).

2. Extend your arms behind your head where you cannot see them and raise your index fingers to eye level. Slowly bring the arms forward until the fingers appear in your peripheral field. Stop at the point where you can just see both fingers at the same time on the very edges of your vision. Stretch your vision out to simultaneously encompass both fingers and the entire visual field between them. (Figure 1)

Hidden Zen

3. Now drop your arms but maintain this expansive gaze, stretching your awareness to the limits of the peripheral field and filling the surrounding space. You are not looking at one thing; you are seeing everything at once, softly and effortlessly.

If you wish to understand how this way of using the eyes is integrated within seated meditation, simply allow the angle of your gaze to drop to forty-five degrees while maintaining the expansive vision you cultivated. Though the eyes are gently downcast, your awareness still fills the space around you. The feeling is that even if a fly should land somewhere in the room, you will know it without having to shift your gaze.2 (Figure 2)

Hidden Zen

In daily life we should also use our vision this way whenever possible. As I have said, many people spend large portions of their days with visual and mental focus strongly fixated upon a series of things (screens, the ground, their food during meals, and so on) but excluding from their attention most of the world around them. Our way of using the eyes should more often have a sweeping, expansive quality, filling both horizontal and vertical space with this feeling of seeing the entire view at once.

Exercise #2

If you found the exercise using upraised fingers to be difficult, here is another simple one that uses this book you are holding. Using the diagram below, follow the instructions given. (Figure 3)

Hidden Zen

1. Looking straight ahead, hold this book up at eye level at a comfortable distance from your face such that you can stare intently at the center dot in the diagram. Doing so, restrict your attention solely to that dot: this replicates the experience of focused vision. In that state, now observe your condition of mind. Is it tense or tight in feeling?

2. Continuing to hold the book in that manner, now expand your attention to encompass the four outer dots simultaneously. Your vision is now being used a little more broadly. You are still aware of the center dot, but the other dots are now included in your field of awareness.

3. Expand your attention more broadly now to encompass the entire page. Once again, observe your condition of mind in that state.

4. Finally, without turning away or shifting your gaze, let your attention extend beyond the edges of the book. Keep the book where it is, but simply expand your attention to encompass the room beyond the page that is in front of and around you. You will notice that you are still aware of both the center and outer dots, and the book itself, but your vision does not stick to them and softly takes in the entire surroundings as well. Observe your condition of mind now: it will feel even more free and relaxed.

Direct Pointing

Once you have gained some familiarity with this way of using the eyes, there are many ways to apply it. Here is a practice of direct pointing using this way of broad, expansive seeing.

1. Go to a place in which you have some open space in front of you, for example, facing out toward a distant view, an open field, or a horizon where the waters of a sea or lake meet the sky. Stand or sit comfortably, relaxing the body. Let your chin be level so that you are looking straight ahead. You may raise your chin slightly if it helps to establish such an expansive view.

2. Take a few deep breaths naturally in and out through the nose, letting all tension drop from body and mind.

3. When you are ready, now take a final deep breath and exhale slowly. As you exhale, and especially at the end of your exhalation when the breath has mostly exited but before you feel the need to inhale, immediately and strongly spread out your vision to the very limits of your peripheral field. Do this with full attention for five or ten seconds. (The exact length of time is unimportant.) You may continue to breathe naturally during this time as required.

4. Now relax and recall those few seconds when you spread your vision out, examining your experience:

    • Were there thoughts arising or the usual mental chatter during that time you spread your vision out?
    • Did any negative or afflictive states arise during that time? Were there any habitual feelings of fear, craving, anxiety, sadness, and so on?
    • Was there, in fact, any “I” present within that expansive awareness?

If you are able to catch the intent of this method, you will likely recognize that there is actually little or no gross thought activity during the time you spread out your vision. For those few moments, there are no negative states or feelings arising. And there is little or no solid sense of “I” within it; there is seeing, but the sense of a watcher engaged in the activity of viewing separate “things” is not strongly present at all. Just this reveals your own capacity for clarity and the ultimately boundless nature of your mind, not restricted by habitual dualistic seeing.

Watch a Video of this Practice

Notes

  1. Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, India and China (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), 101.
  2. In Rinzai practice students face toward the center of the room, and so the center of one’s gaze will naturally rest lightly on the floor. In Soto practice, commonly done facing a wall, the gaze will of course rest there. But whichever method one uses, the instructions given here apply: one should not stare at the point upon which the gaze falls but spread out one’s vision to encompass the entire peripheral field.

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