One night a few weeks ago, I was driving up the coast with my family. The wind was intense, and out the window we could make out, in the darkness, crashing, churning waves, a roiling blackness that seemed to go on forever. We couldn’t look away, but as we talked about it, we had to admit that something about it was frightening, even though we were perfectly safe.
Later that night we looked up “fear of the sea,” and there it was: thalassophobia. What struck me about it is that it isn’t the fear of drowning in the sea, or of the water itself—it’s fear of the vastness of the sea. When I read that, I felt a jolt of recognition. I’ve had the same feeling in Alaska, looking up from the base of a tall mountain. I’ve felt it under the night sky, awestruck and somehow suffocated by it at the same time. It’s a feeling of being thrown off balance, of losing the ground beneath me, like riding on a rollercoaster in the dark.
I’ve asked around about this; I know I’m not the only one. It’s easy to call it a fear. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s connected to what we call hosshin.
Hosshin means “arousal of the mind”—it’s a kind of waking up to the path. We say there are four stages: hosshin, which leads to shugyo (training or practice), which gets us to bodai (the path of the bodhisattva, a stance of generosity), which points to nehan (nirvana). Nirvana is traditionally understood as an endpoint, but in Zen this is laid out as a circle. So we find ourselves back at that basic awakening, the opening of the eyes, over and over again throughout our lives. One of my teachers likened it to the turning of a screw: from one angle, you’re just going in circles, but from another, you’re always going deeper.
So what is hosshin, really? When we look at a kitten or a caterpillar, when we admire a flower, we can feel an easy, warm kind of compassion. That can feel like inspiration to do more, maybe even to do something big like save all beings. But in those cases, we’re big, and the object of our care is small. We can embrace that feeling, that impulse. But we can also recognize that it comes from an idea of hierarchy and capacity: I, as a bodhisattva, will extend compassion to all these beings, because I feel big enough to do that. I’m the container.
When we look out at the ocean or up at the night sky, we may feel more queasy than compassionate. But I want to raise the possibility that they’re really the same thing. That feeling of being small in the face of something inconceivably huge, of drowning in the endlessness of it, of not even knowing where to rest our eyes much less our minds: that is the basis of hosshin. It’s what the bodhisattva needs to see.
It feels like fear, or maybe like vertigo. But that’s just convenient language—the feeling is much bigger, much deeper than anything we can describe with a single word. If we sit in meditation and think pleasant thoughts, again, we are the container for something. If we sit and get lost in thoughts, even more so. But if we sit with our eyes open, letting in the entirety of the moment, the balance shifts and we are faced with the same vastness as the vastness of the sea. We are staring out into space. “Big” and “small” can’t capture it.
The mind is like this. Mortality is like this. Racism is like this. Sexism is like this. We can be paralyzed by the scale; the weight can be too much. We can pretend we’re here and they’re there—we can try, for example, to look at the injustice of the world as if we’re on a cliff overlooking the sea. But the cliff is part of the sea, and we are part of the systems that overwhelm us, that make us question our place or our capacity. I read the other day that “the universe is an ongoing explosion”—we’re part of that right now, in this moment. We can’t conceive of infinity, yet infinity is where we are. The certainty of death, our fears for our country, the changes in the climate—they are too big for us to contain, and yet we cannot put them down.
We try to work around this. I do, anyway. When the ocean is too much, I focus on the waves as they crash; I try to take in the whole sky, but eventually I place my attention on a cloud or a bird. I anchor myself in the particulars. They’re calming; they make the ground seem more steady, me less small. In meditation, it’s the same, this push and pull: attaching to a regret or a hope or a memory, narrowing my focus around that, then letting go into the vastness of the mind. Then back. Then back again.
One isn’t more important than the other; particulars matter. But if your impulse is to make things smaller, to find that grounding, then your project is to confront the other side, the part that’s too big to control. Bodhisattvas work on the scale of infinity—they take vows to save all beings, to end all delusions. That tightening in your stomach when you look at a world that’s too big—it may feel like fear, but within it is the recognition of the scale of your commitment, the limitlessness of your work, the depth of your capacity. In that moment, don’t look for the small thing. Stay where you are. Take it all in. This is the feeling of waking up.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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