The Technology of Awakening: Experiments in Zen Phenomenology

Brentyn J. Ramm


In this paper, I investigate the phenomenology of awakening in Chinese Zen Buddhism.

In this tradition, to awaken is to ‘see your true nature’. In particular, the two aspects of awakening are:

(1) seeing that the nature of one’s self or mind is empty or void and (2) an erasing of the usual (though merely apparent) boundary between subject and object. In the early Zen tradition, there are many references to awakening as chopping off your head, not having eyes, nose and tongue, and seeing your ‘Original Face’. These references bear a remarkable resemblance to an approach to awakening developed by Douglas Harding. I will guide the reader through a series of Harding’s first-person experiments which investigate the gap where you cannot see your own head. I will endeavour to show that these methods, although radically different from traditional meditation techniques, result in an experience with striking similarities to Zen accounts of awakening, in particular, as experiencing oneself as empty or void and yet totally united with the given world. The repeatability and apparent reliability of these first-person methods opens up a class of awakening experience to empirical investigation and has the potential to provide new insights into nondual traditions.

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