Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in the Dental Needs aisle of your local supermarket, shopping for floss. Fifty varieties, in bright, colorful packages, tempt you with their charms. Your options include Top Care Reach, Oral-B Glide, Listerine Cool Mint, Oral-B Essential, Listerine Gentle Gum Care Woven, and, not least, Tom’s of Maine Natural Anti-plaque Floss. You don’t have all day; you must choose. How will you do so? And of your many mental faculties, which will you employ?
In Zen teachings, the mental faculty that enables us to compare “this” to “that” is known as “discriminating mind.” Beyond the act of comparison, this faculty also allows us to distinguish between the good and the not-so-good, the beautiful and the ugly, the authentic and the bogus. Like food, medicine, and shelter, critical thinking is essential to our physical survival, our emotional well-being, and our conduct as responsible adults. In the ethical sphere, our powers of discrimination allow us to distinguish between thoughts, speech, and actions that may be harmful to ourselves and others and those that are wholesome and beneficial. In the aesthetic sphere, they permit us to tell a good painting from a bad one and an elegant phrase from a vulgar expression. And in the political sphere, they empower us to differentiate between fact and opinion, honest reporting and partisan propaganda, truthful statements and shameless prevarication. Little wonder that the training and refinement of the critical faculty has been—and, I hope, continues to be—an integral part of traditional education.
Yet, as some of us have found, our powers of criticism and analysis can also take over our daily lives. If conceptual thinking becomes our dominant way of perceiving the world, usurping every other way, it can prevent us from being present and seeing clearly. “Alike in ignorance, his reason such /,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope, “Whether he thinks too little or too much.” By its nature, conceptual thought is dualistic: it divides subject from object, body from mind, and, most crucially, “self” from “other.” Embodied in language, it slashes reality into words and phrases, leaving fragments in its wake. As Zen teacher Genjo Marinello Osho observes, our discriminating consciousness, if left unchecked, can come to resemble a hammer, which we obsessively wield and cannot put down, irrespective of the task at hand. As Marinello puts it, we can spend our waking hours “hammering everything,” leaving little space for intuition, contemplation, and other avenues to understanding.
To counterbalance that destructive tendency, and to help us see the world in a more balanced way, Zen teachings admonish us to cultivate an attitude known as upeksha, or “the mind of non-discrimination.” Often translated as “equanimity,” the word upeksha derives from a root meaning “to look over,” as if from a high elevation. Practicing upeksha, we endeavor, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, to “see life steadily and see it whole.” We no longer divide the world into parts or regard one part as superior to another. Nor do we take sides, rejecting one side’s interests in favor of the other’s. In his public lectures, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often explained the principle of upeksha by holding his two hands in front of him, as though they were hand puppets, their palms facing each other. His right hand, he noted, had written hundreds of songs and poems; his left had no such record of achievement. But his right did not claim superiority over his left, knowing as it did that the two hands were parts of the one body. And if the left hand were to be injured while the right was hammering a nail, the latter would hasten to treat the injury. Such is the nature of upkesha.
As Thich Nhat Hanh’s analogy suggests, the “mind of non-discrimination” should not be confused with mere indifference. Upeksha is better understood as the capacity to remain balanced, present, and compassionate when faced with such reversals as pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. Nor is upeksha synonymous with a culpable neutrality. There are situations when it is necessary to take sides and to act accordingly. But if our ability to discriminate, criticize, and judge can be balanced with our capacity to let go of our critical judgments, step back from our habits of mind, and question our fixed ideas, we can learn to meet our experience with a mind that is at once all-embracing and undeceived. In Buddhist teachings, this synthesis of a critical mind and an open heart is known as “discriminating wisdom.” A powerful antidote to prejudicial thinking, it is also a central aim of Zen practice.
Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man” (1733), Epistle 2, 11-12.
Genjo Marinello, Osho, “The Discriminating Mind is Like a Hammer,”
Photo: “Burlington Buddha,” by Harry Littell.