ZEN 3: Illusory Visions and Sensations


Reference: Lectures on Zen

These are Yasutani-Roshi’s introductory lectures on Zen training from THE THREE PILLARS OF ZEN by Philip Kapleau.

There is little to comment here. Any comment is to empasize a point. The comments are in color.


Lecture 3—Illusory Visions and Sensations

This is the third lecture. Before I begin I will assign you a new way of concentration. Instead of counting your exhalations, as heretofore, count “one” on the first inhalation, “two” on the next inhalation, and so on, up to ten. This is more difficult than counting on the exhalation, because all mental and physical activity is performed on the exhaled breath. For instance, just before pouncing animals take a breath. This principle is well known in kendo fencing and judo fighting, where one is taught that by carefully observing his opponent’s breathing his attack can be anticipated. While this exercise is difficult, you must try to practice it as another means of concentrating your mind. Until you come before me again you are to concentrate on counting the inhalations of your breath, not audibly but in the mind only.

Note that the counting regimen is modified slightly once again.

Makyo are the phenomena-visions, hallucinations, fantasies, revelations, illusory sensations—which one practicing zazen is apt to experience at a particular stage in his sitting. Ma means “devil” and kyo “the objective world.” Hence makyo are the disturbing or “diabolical” phenomena which appear to one during his zazen. These phenomena are not inherently bad. They become a serious obstacle to practice only if one is ignorant of their true nature and is ensnared by them.

The word makyo is used in both a general and a specific sense. Broadly speaking, the entire life of the ordinary man is nothing but a makyo. Even such Bodhisattvas as Monju and Karman, highly developed though they are, still have about them traces of makyo; otherwise they would be supreme Buddhas, completely free of makyo. One who becomes attached to what he realizes through satori is also still lingering in the world of makyo. So, you see, there are makyo even after enlightenment, but we shall not enter into that aspect of the subject in these lectures.

Make sure you understand the true nature of a makyo.

In the specific sense the number of makyo which can appear are in fact unlimited, varying according to the personality and temperament of the sitter. In the Ryogon [Surangama] sutra the Buddha warns of fifty different kinds, but of course he is referring only to the commonest. If you attend a sesshin of from five to seven days’ duration and apply yourself assiduously, on the third day you are likely to experience makyo of varying degrees of intensity. Besides those which involve the vision there are numerous makyo which relate to the sense of touch, smell, or hearing, or which sometimes cause the body suddenly to move from side to side or forward and backward or to lean to one side or to appear to sink or rise. Not infrequently words burst forth uncontrollably or, more rarely, one imagines he is smelling a particularly fragrant perfume. There are even cases where without conscious awareness one writes down things which tum out to be prophetically true.

Makyos involve all five physical senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

Very common are visual hallucinations. You are doing zazen with your eyes open when suddenly the ridges of the straw matting in front of you seem to be heaving up and down like waves. Or without warning everything may go white before your eyes, or black. A knot in the wood of a door may suddenly appear as a beast or demon or angel. One disciple of mine often used to see visions of masks—demons’ masks or jesters’ masks. I asked him whether he had ever had any particular experience of masks, and it turned out that he had seen them at a festival in Kyushu1 when he was a child. Another man I knew was extremely troubled in his practice by visions of Buddha and his disciples walking around him reciting sutras, and was only able to dispel the hallucination by jumping into a tank of ice-cold water for two or three minutes.

1 The southernmost of Japan’s main islands.

Visual maykos are very common.

Many makyo involve the hearing. One may hear the sound of a piano or loud noises, such as an explosion (which is heard by no one else), and actually jump. One disciple of mine always used to hear the sound of a bamboo flute while doing zazen. He had learned to play the bamboo flute many years before, but had long since given it up; yet always the sound came to him when he was sitting.

Maykos are often related to past experiences.

In the Zazen Yojinki we find the following about makyo: “The body may feel hot or cold or glasslike or hard or heavy or light. This happens because the breath is not well harmonized [with the mind] and needs to be carefully regulated.” It then goes on to say: “One may experience the sensation of sinking or floating, or may alternately feel hazy and sharply alert. The disciple may develop the faculty of seeing through solid objects as though they were transparent, or he may experience his own body as a translucent substance. He may see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Penetrating insights may suddenly come to him, or passages of sutras which were particularly difficult to understand may suddenly become luminously clear to him. All these abnormal visions and sensations are merely the symptoms of an impairment arising from a maladjustment of the mind with the breath.”

Maykos arise from maladjustment of the mind with the breath.

Other religions and sects place great store by experiences which involve visions of God or hearing heavenly voices, performing miracles, receiving divine messages, or becoming purified through various rites. In the Nichiren sect, for example, the devotee loudly and repeatedly invokes the name of the Lotus sutra, to the accompaniment of vigorous body movements, and feels he has thereby purged himself of his defilements. In varying degree these practices induce a feeling of well-being, yet from the Zen point of view all are morbid states devoid of true religious significance and hence only makyo.

Maykos are hindrances even when they induce a feeling of well-being.

What is the essential nature of these disturbing phenomena we call makyo? They are temporary mental states which arise during zazen when our ability to concentrate has developed to a certain point and our practice is beginning to ripen. When the thought-waves which wax and wane on the surface of the sixth class of consciousness are partially calmed, residual elements of past experiences ‘lodged” in the seventh and eighth classes of consciousness bob up sporadically to the surface of the mind, conveying the feeling of a greater or expanded reality. Makyo, accordingly, are a mixture of the real and the unreal, not unlike ordinary dreams. Just as dreams do not appear to a person in deep sleep but only when he is half-asleep and half-awake, so makyo do not come to those in deep concentration or samadhi. Never be tempted into thinking that these phenomena are real or that the visions themselves have any meaning. To see a beautiful vision of a Bodhisattva does not mean that you are any nearer becoming one yourself, any more than a dream of being a millionaire means that you are any richer when you awake. Hence there is no reason to feel elated about such makyo. And similarly, whatever horrible monsters may appear to you, there is no cause whatever for alarm. Above all, do not allow yourself to be enticed by visions of the Buddha or of gods blessing you or communicating a divine message, or by makyo involving prophecies which turn out to be true. This is to squander your energies in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential.

Makyos are temporary mental states that arise when zazen practice is beginning to ripen. They are a mixture of the real and the unreal, not unlike ordinary dreams. They are inconsequential and should not be pursued.

But such visions are certainly a sign that you are at a crucial point in your sitting, and that if you exert yourself to the utmost, you can surely experience kensho. Tradition states that even Shakyamuni Buddha just before his own awakening experienced innumerable makyo, which he termed “obstructing devils.” Whenever makyo appear, simply ignore them and continue sitting with all your might.

Whenever makyo appear, simply ignore them and continue sitting with all your might.


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