It’s hard to talk about Buddhist meditation without talking about samatha and vipassana, the two most basic approaches to the mind. Different traditions define the two in somewhat different ways; here, I’m defining them in very broad strokes. But—again, in broad terms—we tend to say there are two ways of working with the mind, one being to give it an object, and one being to take objects away. And why do I find myself thinking about this? Because a few days ago, while watching Superman and Lois with my kids, I realized that Superman practices them both.
I think most versions of the Superman story at some point look back to his childhood and the difficulty, for a kid, of acquiring and learning to control superpowers, the most painful being super-hearing. It’s easy to forget that Superman can hear almost everything. He can hear the bugs in the walls, the bird flying outside, the neighbor’s conversation three houses down—in some depictions, he can hear conversations in the next city. All of it, at once. So, from the time he’s very young, he has to learn to concentrate on one sound among the many, to make the breeze or a passing car the primary object of his attention. Without this skill, he might lose his mind from the relentless cacophony; without a way to quiet it down, he can’t do anything. This is an informal version of samatha, “calm abiding.”
Most of us do this automatically, to a degree. After a while, we don’t hear the ticking clock in the room anymore, or the sound of the heater; we just get used to it and block it out, without any effort at all. But the first time we sit down to meditate, we’re young Kal-El, bombarded by the voices and thoughts in our heads. Memories, hopes, plans, a conversation from this morning, song lyrics from the 80s, the why-am-I-doing-this of it all—when we take away the distraction of doing, when we just sit still and breathe, it all comes rushing in at once. So it’s common to be taught, when we start out, to count our breaths, or to visualize a single image, or to stare at something like a flame or even a word. We need that rope to grab onto, so we don’t drown.
I suspect that for Superman, moment-to-moment concentration is a big deal. Just to open a door, he has to be as gentle as intentional I would in holding a butterfly—if he isn’t, then he just crushes the doorknob. It’s how he navigates the world. That constant care is what mindfulness looks like. We may not be in a position to destroy the world, but we can do harm. So we bring some of the concentration to how we pick up our coffee cup, how we wash the vegetables, how we hold the steering wheel. Different stakes, maybe, but same practice.
Still, Superman can’t do this all the time, or else he isn’t Superman. That’s why we see him fly up to the very edge of our atmosphere, pause there in the sky, and let it all in. From that vantage point, he allows in all the sounds below him—the laughter, the screams for help, the screeching tires of that bus full of kids about to go off that bridge (he seems to deal with that scenario a lot). The sobbing. There, on the edge of space, he is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, the one who hears the cries of the world.
This moment, when he lets down his walls and lets things be as they are, in all their complexity and joy and pain—this, in loose terms, is vipassana, or “insight.” It’s the opposite of control, of steering one’s attention toward this or that; instead, it’s being with the fullness of things as they are, regardless of how they are. Without that receptivity, that vulnerability, Superman can’t do what he does, because he doesn’t know others’ suffering. He doesn’t know what needs to be done. We can replace “Superman” with “the bodhisattva”—it’s exactly the same thing.
From within that spacious awareness, Superman chooses one voice, one gunshot, whatever it is—he returns to concentration and flies, like a blur, to save someone. Then he backs up and does it all again.
Meditation is like this, too. We relax and become vulnerable to the vastness of the mind and the moment, and then, when that’s too much or when we start to get lost, we return to this breath and this posture, grounding ourselves in the particulars of where we are. And then we let go again. It’s how we sit, and if we take up this path, it’s how we liberate all beings, how we end all delusion, how we embody the way: we contract, we release, and in all the moments in between, we treat the world with care, with hands that we know could either save it or break it.
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) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.