During the golden age of Zen in the T’ang dynasty there were many sublime Zen Masters that glorify the non-conceptual mind. For example Huang Bo, the teacher of Lin Qi (Rinzai in Japanese) states, “This Mind is no mind of conceptual thought and it is completely detached from form.” And further on “If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything.” The question that arises is; what is meant by non-conceptual mind? And why is it considered to be the pinnacle of spiritual awakening? In Zen it is seen to occur in one’s mind in a flash, which doesn’t mean that long time practice is useless. It is just that when it breaks through it is always unexpected and it appears as grace, completely free from any previous practices that have been undertaken. But all the previous years of intense meditation practice can be seen as preparing the soil for the flower to burst out of it, but it is the flower that decides when it bursts open.
Our normal daily mind is a conceptual mind. By that is meant that all our experiences, emotions and thoughts are conceptualized. When our mind focuses on an object or a feeling it is just experienced at first but not yet conscious. The initial experience is free of any label, sign or judgement. It is just the bare unadulterated experience. Before there is a conscience experience there is a process, according to the Abhidharma Buddhist theory, of identifying the experience with a feeling tone. That is this experience is either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral for me! This is the kernel where the concept of ‘I’ is initiated. It triggers the build-up of a concept that represents the experience. So if it is considered as pleasant a pleasing or attractive concept is developed. And when it is unpleasant a negative or aversive concept is developed. When it is neutral usually no concept is developed and the experience is mostly ignored. At this time the pleasant or unpleasant concept becomes conscious to us wrapped in memories of previous conscious experiences that seem similar to this experience. In this way we experience an object which seems a little familiar, we have a feeling of knowing what it is and we can handle the experience with minimal fear. This gives a certain solidity to the experience. But the original direct experience is not available any more to our daily mind. However sometimes we can have this direct experience when we are shocked out of our daily mental routines. If we then can stay aware, it is often experienced as extremely blissful and totally unexpected. There is however no ‘I’ involved in that experience, as the ‘I’ is a fundamental concept. And when the conceptual mind starts its function again this can be experienced as quite alarming. The absence of the concept of ‘I’ can be experienced as death by the returning ego. Therefore preparing the mind for accepting the non-conceptual state, as is done through meditation, is often quite crucial for anybody desiring a spiritual development into a non-dual state of mind. My experience is that this cannot come about through reasoning and thinking as those always are clad in concepts. However some geniuses have done it this way, but they are very scarce. I am thinking of people like Newton and Einstein. For us regular people there is only the path through meditation, where we train ourselves to be with reality without judgements and free from all the conditioning that is either conscious or subconscious or unconscious. When the non-conceptual Mind manifests all conditioning disappears and reality is experienced as one taste. As the third Chinese Zen patriarch Seng Ts’ang puts it in his famous poem:
“The Perfect Way knows no difficulties.
Except that it refuses to make preferences.
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise”
The basic aspect of our consciousness is the self-conscious aspect. We are continuously aware of the fact that “I think” and “I choose” and all the other things I do or experience. Therefor object and subject divide the world. And my consciousness creates the basis for a conceptual experience of reality. In the absence of self-consciousness, we see concepts for what they are, namely concepts and not real things.
When I look at a river my conceptual mind immediately classifies it as a river. But there is no river. There is water flowing between two banks and it is changing from instant to instant. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it so poetically: When I see the river with a signless mind I see the rain, the sun, the clouds, the sea etc. and there is no me seeing it all. It is an extremely intimate experience, and a joyful feeling arises. But as soon as my conceptual mind rears its head again, I claim the experience “I had this wonderful experience and I want it again.” Packaging the experience in concepts again and thereby blocking its occurrence in the future.
Let’s finish with one more statement of Huang Bo: “But whether they transcend conceptual thought by a longer or a shorter way, the result is a state of BEING: there is no pious practising and no action of realizing. That there is nothing which can be attained is not idle talk; it is the truth.”
Olaf van Kooten
This Mind is no mind of conceptual thought and it is completely detached from form. So Buddhas and sentient beings do not differ at all. If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. But if you students of the Way do not rid yourselves of conceptual thought in a flash, even though you strive for aeon after aeon, you will never accomplish it. Enmeshed in the meritorious practices of the Three Vehicles, you will be unable to attain Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the realization of the One Mind may come after a shorter or a longer period. There are those who, upon hearing this teaching, rid themselves of conceptual thought in a flash. There are others who do this after following through the Ten Beliefs, the Ten Stages, the Ten Activities and the Ten Bestowals of Merit. Yet others accomplish it after passing through the Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva’s Progress.1 But whether they transcend conceptual thought by a longer or a shorter way, the result is a state of BEING: there is no pious practising and no action of realizing. That there is nothing which can be attained is not idle talk; it is the truth. Moreover, whether you accomplish your aim in a single flash of thought or after going through the Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva’s Progress, the achievement will be the same; for this state of being admits of no degrees, so the latter method merely entails aeons of unnecessary suffering and toil.
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Po, Huang. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind (pp. 33-34). Grove Atlantic.
 Po, Huang. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind (p. 33). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.