194 – Dolor en la meditación 2: Ajustes a la postura y cuándo tolerar la incomodidad
195 - "Pasea por el centro del círculo del asombro" de Hongzhi

In this episode I explore a teaching from 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi, in which he instructs us to “wander into the center of the circle of wonder.” I propose that the whole of the Dharma can be found by exploring the nature of wonder, and what it is that obstructs wonder.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Chan Master Hongzhi’s Circle of Wonder
Beginner’s Mind Versus Expert’s Mind
The Utility and Limitations of Having a Mental Map of Reality
To Perceive Reality Is to Experience Wonder
Living More in a State of Wonder
What Does It Mean to Wander into the Center of the Circle of Wonder?


Chan Master Hongzhi’s Circle of Wonder

Chan master Hongzhi Zhengjue lived in China from 1091-1157, and he is one of my favorite writers in the Zen tradition. He dares to emphasize and celebrate the positive aspects of realization, of the suchness that is revealed when we awaken. Most Chan and Zen authors emphasize what it is we need to let go of, and see through. This is because Zen is an apophatic religious tradition – one that points toward what is greater by pointing out what it is not, and thereby avoiding the trap of concretizing the Ineffable by associating it with concepts and words. A cataphatic religious tradition, on the other hand, such as Christianity, primarily focuses on celebrating the divine. There are pros and cons to both the apophatic and cataphatic approaches. I think Hongzhi is remarkable in his ability to straddle negation and affirmation, giving us some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages in Zen, but denying us anything to grab hold of with his fluid imagery.

Today I want to share one passage from Hongzhi, and focus my subsequent discussion on part of one sentence, toward the end of the passage, “wander into the center of the circle of wonder.” This translation is by Taigen Dan Leighton, from his book Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi:

“The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly we are told to realize that not a single thing exists. In this field birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally mind and dharmas emerge and harmonize. An Ancient said that non-mind enacts and fulfills the way of non-mind. Enacting and fulfilling the way of non-mind, finally you can rest. Proceeding you are able to guide the assembly. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.”[i]

There is enough in this passage to give us material for a bunch of podcast episodes, but as I said, I want to emphasize “wander into the center of the circle of wonder.” From time to time, I’ll look to other aspects of this passage in order to better understand my chosen phrase.


Beginner’s Mind Versus Expert’s Mind

As my teacher Kyogen Carlson used to say, there are many ways to slice the Dharma tomato. One way, I think, is to slice it into two pieces: Wonder, and the absence of wonder. The whole of the Dharma can be found by exploring the nature of wonder, and what it is that obstructs wonder.

When I think of wonder, I think of the natural orientation of children, or of what in Zen we call “beginner’s mind.” As Suzuki Roshi famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”[ii] Children, and adults who are beginners at something and are eager to learn and not too self-conscious, perceive without preconceived notions or expectations. Everything is encountered with curiosity and amazement.

WonderIf a child hears a robin’s call for the first time, for example, their ears perk up and they stop what they’re doing. What’s that? They ask. If there’s no one around to answer that question, they will probably go looking for the source of the sound, and stand rapt with attention if they manage to get a glimpse of a small, red-breasted bird singing an improbably loud song. The child will be amazed and curious when they try to approach the bird to see it better or touch it, and then watch the bird take to the air. Where did it go? The child might wonder. Will it always do that? Why can’t I fly?

If there’s an expert – that is, an older child or an adult – around when the child hears the robin and asks, “What’s that?” the expert will answer confidently, “That’s a robin.” The child’s curiosity might not be quashed by this answer, but the expert’s is definitely not aroused by the scenario. We have learned there is a category called robin to which all members of the species belong, and that there’s very little difference between individual robins. We know there’s a wealth of information available about the characteristics and habits of robins, whether or not we happen to be familiar with it personally. We know robins are common and unremarkable compared to other bird species. In fact, there’s a good chance our expert’s answer to the child’s inquiry was likely to have been, “It’s just a robin.” No cause for wonder.


The Utility and Limitations of Having a Mental Map of Reality

When we name something, like “that’s a robin,” what are we doing? Essentially, we’re categorizing our experience and filing it away with a bunch of previous experiences and the knowledge associated with them. It’s easy to see why natural selection would have caused this to evolve in human beings, and probably most other sentient creatures. Being able to quickly recognize and categorize our experiences allows for much more efficient functioning than wandering around, amazed by every little thing, and forgetting what happened last time we encountered it.

Most of us, from the moment we get up in the morning, are categorizing everything that happens to us and everything we do. We meet almost everything as if it is something we’ve experienced before, maybe hundreds or thousands of times. As we turn off our alarm, get out of bed, put on our slippers, make a cup of coffee, and say hi to family members, we may mildly appreciate these experiences but for the most part we’re thinking, “Been there, done that.” We know what this is about, we know how this is going to go, what it’s like, where it fits in our life, and how we should respond.

We know who we are, what we want, what’s going to happen tomorrow and next week, maybe also next year and more or less for the rest of our lives. Maybe there will be a few surprises, but if we’ve got our lives set pretty much the way we like them to be, we anticipate most surprises will be unpleasant ones. We know everything we need to know. Okay, we know there are lots of facts we don’t know, lots of stuff going on in the world we’re not aware of, but basically anything we’re going to come into contact with, anything we care about, is already have plotted on our mental map of reality.

Our mental map has its utility. Completely losing our mental map would quite literally leave us unable to function. We’d have to learn everything over again and be led around the world like toddler. It makes sense that natural selection caused us to rely so much on our mental maps: Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they couldn’t prioritize paying attention to new situations, which might present novel threats or opportunities. Knowledge can also be enriching in a certain way, such as knowing about the diet composition, breeding habits, and range distribution of robins even though we didn’t observe those things for ourselves. Sharing knowledge within society allows all of us to be aware of and appreciate much more than we can personally learn through our own direct experience. Pretty cool.

Unfortunately, we begin relating to our mental map as if it is reality itself. Because of our map, we figure there’s no need to experience things directly anymore. There’s no need to question, no need to be alert and ready for something new. We miss so much because it takes only a split second for us to name and categorize our experience, and then we stop paying full attention to it and go on autopilot. Unless something is brand new, exciting, entertaining, or demands our full attention because there’s something we have to do, we’re liable to shift most of our attention to something that does.


To Perceive Reality Is to Experience Wonder

The reality is we have never encountered this before – whatever this is. When we see a robin, we have probably never before met this individual bird, amazing and beautiful in its own right, going about its life. As it lands in your yard and yanks a worm out of the ground, for few moments it has entered your life. You will never experience this exact situation again in your entire life. The more attention you pay to the robin and its behavior, to more you will see. You might notice the way the bird cocked its head to the side before plunging its beak into the ground (because it was actually listening for the worm). You might notice the way the bird usually hops instead of walking, or the white rings around its eyes, or the fact that its appearance is overall quite pleasing to a human eye that isn’t biased with the knowledge that robins are “common.”

The behavior of children is usually so dramatically different than that of adults, we adults often enjoy the company of children precisely because we get to experience some wonder vicariously through them. As long as they feel relatively safe, a young child’s default mode is essentially wonder, because everything they encounter is new to them. They watch and listen carefully. They explore further, using all of their senses – smell, touch, and taste. Then they try to interact with whatever they are encountering, and react with amazement when they get a response, or an unexpected result. There might be some tears or fear along the way, but as long as they feel confident, the child probes with curiosity until something comes along that evokes even more wonder. They operate in continuous “don’t-know” mind, assuming they have a great deal to learn, and they’re not (yet) invested in a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable.

As children grow, they operate less and less often with this “don’t-know” mind. Not knowing becomes a sign of weakness, and those who “know” assume more status than those who don’t. By the time we get to be adults, we rarely question the limits of our knowledge – or, perhaps more accurately, once we reach the limits of our knowledge, our curiosity ends.

A more realistic and humble relationship to knowledge is illustrated beautifully in a story related by Richard Feynman, 20th-century American theoretical physicist and winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. In his essay, “The Making of a Scientist,” Feynman talks about his father’s unusual style of teaching and how grateful he was for it. He writes:

“My father taught me to notice things. One day, I was playing with an ‘express wagon,’ a little wagon with a railing around it. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon, I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and said, ‘Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?’

‘That, nobody knows,’ he said. ‘The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia,’ but nobody knows why it’s true.’”[iii]

Feynman’s father goes on to point out other things about the movement of the ball in the wagon that then further pique the boy’s curiosity but think about how remarkable the father’s answer is compared to the way we usually move about the world. Feynman’s father knows Newton’s first law of motion, and frankly, I’d feel pretty satisfied with myself if I was able to deliver that piece of information to child. But then I’d think, “There it is, the answer!” Thereby mistaking my fairly decent mental map of reality for reality itself. If, however, I’m able to look beyond my mental map at what’s really going on, I remember how much I don’t know, and how the laws of physics demonstrated by a ball rolling around in a wagon are still fascinating mysteries to me.

Zen master Dogen’s teachings suggest that awakened mind is characterized by an openness to not-knowing, to curiosity, and to wonder. He writes in Genjokoan:

“When the Dharma has not yet fully penetrated body and mind, one thinks one is already filled with it. When the Dharma fills body and mind, one thinks something is [still] lacking.”

The Dharma is another word for the truth, for reality itself, so I might translate Dogen’s word like this:

“When you have not yet understood your relationship to reality, you think you know everything you need or want to know. When you understand your relationship to reality, you realize nothing can be captured by knowing.”

To summarize, you might say the Zen teaching is that the experience of wonder reflects the truth of our situation, while the experience of certainty is a delusion. The truth of this teaching becomes even more obvious when you explore the word “wonder” and its antonyms. “Wonder” means rapt attention and deep emotion caused by the sight of something extraordinary or surprising. [iv] Synonyms of the noun include admiration, awe, curiosity, fascination, reverence, and surprise, while synonyms of the verb “wonder” include puzzle, question, meditate, and marvel.[v] Antonyms of wonder include certainty, disregard, disinterest, expectation, [vi] apathy, indifference, boredom, listlessness, and restlessness. Which list of words sounds more to you like a description of enlightenment, and which sounds more like a description of a spiritual malaise?


Living More in a State of Wonder

As I mentioned early on, there are many ways to slice the Dharma tomato, but it’s possible to use the presence or absence of wonder in your experience as an indication of the state of your body-mind. How do we live more in a state of wonder?

Cultivating openness to wonder is tricky because, even if we didn’t need our mental map of reality, we can’t actually get rid of it unless we suffer an injury or disorder of the brain. We can’t “un-know” what we know, and we shouldn’t! It’s good to know how to drive a car and have a set of expectations about what’s likely to happen when you’re doing so. It’s good to know how you’re supposed to act around other people.

Through practice, though, we can learn to recognize our mental map for what it is: Just a very useful map.

Zazen invites us to relax and let go of our mental map as we sit. For the time being, we do not need it. At all. We’re sitting perfectly still in a safe and quiet place, having set aside all of our responsibilities and activities. We can open up, at this time, to a different way of being, where we experience life without the overlay of our map. As we sit, there is no need to name or categorize anything. Maybe we’ll do so automatically, but we don’t need to plot this observation on our map (a map on which our self-concern is at the very center). We can let go of any content our mind generates, and just be – free from a name, free from any preconceived notions, free from any narratives that define us or our place in the world.

Of course, setting aside our mental map is challenging because using it for everything is so habitual. For example, many people love hearing birdsong during meditation. For them, it’s like the burbling of a stream or the wind in the trees. For a birder like me, however, the sounds can actually be distracting! At certain times of the year, hearing birdsong is like eavesdropping on a big drama – you can ID the different species, different calls meaning different things. You notice a flock is migrating through, or two males nearby are competing to establish territories. The challenge for the birder is to be able to just hear the sounds. Similarly, there are all kinds of perceptions and thoughts that will happen to you as you sit, and the challenge is to experience them as directly as possible, without referring to your mental map.

In peak moments – whether in meditation or at some other moment in our lives – we can briefly experience reality more or less without our mental map, and result is unequivocal wonder. It’s like you’re a child again, open and able to perceive something unto itself, fresh and new, as something you have never experienced before and to which no amount of knowledge does justice. What we perceive doesn’t even have to be something objectively beautiful or interesting, and usually it’s not! The sunlight on the floor in front of us is amazing, just our breathing is a miracle.

Even if you don’t have many such peak moments, practice is preparing and changing you, making you more likely to be able to access wonder. When we practice mindfulness as we go about our daily lives, we aim to pay attention to everything we do, everything that happens, for its own sake (not just because it’s in our self-interest, or because it’s entertaining or pleasurable). When we practice Nyoho – acting in accord with the Dharma in mundane activities – we enact awe and respect with our bodies, and this influences our whole being.

Dharma study also encourages wonder, because we do it not in order to accumulate more knowledge, but to challenge the ideas we already have. In particular, we investigate for ourselves the nature of our mental map of reality, and whether it’s true what the teachers say, that we mistake the map for reality itself. What does that really mean? You can ask yourself, “What am I not seeing? What obstructs my wonder?”

It helps to ponder teachings like those of Hongzhi: “Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly we are told to realize that not a single thing exists.” What is the original truth? What does it mean to be concerned with external conditions, versus unconcerned, and how does that relate to wonder? What does it mean that not a single thing exists, when we can look around us and see that infinitely many things exist? What aspects of existence have we been overlooking or assuming?

We investigate Dharma teachings by engaging them however we can: Reading, listening, contemplating, reflecting, expressing responses in artistic ways, discussing with Dharma friends, holding them as a backdrop for our lives, and holding questions about what relevance they have to our lives. It’s valuable to let ourselves be moved and inspired by teachings we don’t “understand” – e.g. “The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning.” I have a resonance with this passage based on my own experience, but I would never claim to “understand” it, as if it’s a done deal. Instead, Hongzhi’s words point toward wonder, like a good poem or piece of music.

You might also take notice of where you naturally feel wonder – with children, animals, in nature, listening to or playing music, growing plants, or studying astronomy. Get familiar with the feeling, like we get familiar with the feeling of lovingkindness in metta practice by thinking of beings for whom we already feel metta. Then, as in metta practice, we can try to extend our sense of wonder beyond where we naturally feel it.


What Does It Mean to Wander into the Center of the Circle of Wonder?

What about the fact that Hongzhi instructs us to wander into the center of the circle of wonder? The word “wander” suggests there is no obstacle between us and the circle, and that no great struggle is necessary to break into it or attain it. After all, as Hongzhi says, “The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning.”

And yet we usually don’t end up in the center of the circle of wonder by accident. Instead, Hongzhi says we “must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits.” This sounds quite grueling, and why do we need to do all of this if they’re only apparent habits? If we’re already in the middle of the boundless field, why do we have to practice? We may not understand the “why” of it, but we can ask ourselves, “Do I feel wonder right now?” If our answer is no, we are still clinging to our mental map instead of perceiving directly. It takes work to change our body-minds, to purify, cure, grind down, and brush away – but only so we can see how none of that actually obstructs us.

I like to imagine us toiling away, clearing brush and felling trees, constructing a bridge in order to reach the spiritual peace and reward we long for. Then we take a break and happen to wander into the center of the circle of wonder.

That’s how it happens – despite our efforts. But also because of our efforts… my analogy breaks down in that it doesn’t express how you were extremely unlikely to have found the circle of wonder if you hadn’t been working so diligently on your bridge.

The circle of wonder is about how we meet every moment of our lives. This is nothing other than the great matter of life and death. I hope you will find the concept of wonder a useful tool in your practice.



[i] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000

[ii] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York, NY: Weatherhill 1970.

[iii] Richard Feynman – “The Making of a Scientist” – Originally published in Cricket Magazine, October 1995 (Vol. 23, #2). Online pdf.

[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/wonder

[v] https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/wonder

[vi] https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/wonder


194 – Dolor en la meditación 2: Ajustes a la postura y cuándo tolerar la incomodidad
195 - "Pasea por el centro del círculo del asombro" de Hongzhi