Is zazen actually hypnosis?
My investigation as to what exactly Zazen is about has led me to discover the power of hypnosis and how induced hypnosis works with the human mind.
Now I want to say right up front, that hypnosis can be a tool used to help people relax, to let go of tensions and conflicts with them, as well used in psychotherapy for healing and self-understanding.
Yet, hypnosis used in the wrong hands, or in ignorance, can lead to disastrous results such as depression disorders, false memories, depersonalization disorders, Borderline Personality and Morality Disorders.
So, what exactly is hypnosis?
The best I can come up with is that it is the inducement of the brain to go into a protective hibernation or sleep-dream-like state. This state of mind is chemically induced to produce the REM type of brain activity in which even in waking states, the world and reality to those in this state of mind appear dream-like even as if they are likened to be watching a movie of themselves in a detached state of mind.
Hypnosis can happen anywhere. In wars, fighting combatants fall into a hypnotic state of mind, a primordial state of “kill or be killed”. There is no real cognitive thinking going on here, rather it is pure intuitiveness of survival. This hypnotic state of ‘no-mind’ is a protection of ‘The Self’ of the horrors of combat.
Disaster survivors fall into a hypnotic state, in what we term ‘dazed and confused’ though the truth is that they have entered this protective state of mind to shield ‘the self’ from the horrors of the current situation.
Other means of inducement of hypnotic states of mind are:
- Extreme pain (holding a posture, torture, etc)
- High-stress environments (military Bootcamp, fighting, etc)
- Disasters and calamities (earthquakes, wars, extreme weather)
The brain can also be induced into a hypnotic state intentionally as well. A few methods are:
- Rhythmic beats or flashing of lights, the cadence of someone’s voice
- Breath counting or observation of the breath
- Focusing on a colored disk/spot, or a candle flame
- Narcotic substances
Let’s examine the hypnotist show
The hypnotist show has three phases: Pre-hypnotic, The hypnotic show, and post-hypnotic.
The hypnosis starts with playing rhythmic music, introducing themselves and often stating their authority in hypnotism, and inviting the audience to trust them in this journey of the mind.
The hypnotic show
The hypnotist simply speakers in cadence with the music, then will slow it down. The house lights are often dimmed, imitating an evening or nighttime environment. The hypnotist invites the subjects he invites on stage, mostly young men and women, to follow the sound of his voice, the cadence, and then invites them to trust him with falling into his arms where he will catch them.
The moment that the mind slips into the dream-verse the body starts to collapse, and the hypnotist is there to catch the person who feels that, and instantly the bond of trust is made, in which the subject is fully enveloped in the dream-verse waking state.
At this point, the hypnotist is in direct control of the person and can likely do with them what they want. Often the show has the participants engaging in mundane and innocent stunts, however, the hypnotist can have the subject do things with their body, like being stiff as a board, not feel the flames of a candle, or even ice. In such shows, the participant is aware of the action but is seemingly like a 3rd person observer – not in control.
The hypnotist simply breaks the hypnotic trance of the subject though non-repetition speaking, to engage the ‘SELF’ or the person in the hypnotic trance to come back, often asking questions that takes cognitive reasoning. Further, the hypnotist will impart a positive message, for the subjects and the audience is both in a very suggestive state of mind.
Hypnotism in religion
The Sunday preacher hypnotizes the congregation in the pews where they have an communion with god. The big revival preachers also hypnotize the audience leading them to believe they are having an ‘religious experience’ and that the godhead has visited them.
In Zen, the hypnosis is further relegated to a Religious experience, in which the faithful congregate in where the pre-show is the chanting of religious intentions, the hypnotic show is when they silently sit, instructed to follow the breath, and often looking at the ground or the wall. Sometimes there is a slow rhythmic beating of a drum or hollowed-out gourd. The post-show with Zen students is the veneration of the masters, the teachers and the holy Buddha.
Questions and ponderings
Having studied a multitude of hypnotist stage shows, as a videographer filming them for the client who was the hypnotist, the parallel between what he was doing and what is going on in the religion is striking. I even ventured to ask him about this, and he confirmed that religion in his opinion is just mass hypnosis in which people are invited to have an experience with god.
Zen meditation clearly is hypnosis, though more autohypnosis (done by oneself) however, in some Zen organizations the ministers speak to guide the person through meditation. Clinical hypnotists, who use this technique for therapy, agree that Zazen is hypnosis (autohypnosis).
Hypnosis is defined as:
the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction. Its use in therapy, typically to recover suppressed memories or to allow modification of behavior by suggestion, has been revived but is still controversial.
In order to help understand what is going on, it may help to break-down what exactly is going on with the Zen meditation.
- First, there is the setting of the stage. The low lights in the meditation room, the incense, the reading of affirmations and aspirations before meditation of the pre-show.
- The act of autohypnosis for a period of time that is ‘the show’.
- The waking up and honoring of the teachers as the post-show.
Clearly, the Zen student engaged in a hypnotic show and was hypnotized. They believe that the ‘Zazen’ is religious, or “Buddhas-mind”, communion with the deities, and what they gained in this ‘religious experience’ is enlightenment.
Arguably, variations of this sort of hypnotic methodology in religion play out, from mild versions as seen in the church pews, to the more heavy and deep version of Indian yoga and Buddhist tantras (including Zazen).
The question I have then:
Is this hypnosis even Buddhism? If so, how? And If not, then why?
Now Zazen in my opinion is being used as a tool to teach the student that the mind is not just a product of phenomena, that the dream-verse and the reality-vers are mirrors for the self that is caught between. In this, a tool used to open minds to possibilities of mind and existence, otherwise viewed as absurd.
Hypnotic show participants often comment that they never thought they could be hypnotized, that the experience opened up new levels of understanding ‘the mind’ for them, and that they see the universe being much bigger and more mysterious than they thought before the show.
This is also much of the same experiences spoken by those who are hypnotized at Church Revival events, or even in the Zendo.
Did Buddha teach hypnotism? This is a debated issue with the ‘Breath meditation’ in the Pali suttas. Some translate breath as literal, others more metaphorically in that the breath means The Soul or Existence.
Is the goal of Buddhism then this autohypnotic state? In this, I cannot find any support for this position in the Mahayana canon, more because the teachings instruct the disciples to abandon any state of mind that is called Enlightenment.
Now if Buddhism is not to achieve autohypnotic states of mind and the Sutras instruct us to relinquish, renounce and abandon any state of mind that we cherish or call ‘Buddhahood’ this then is only to conclude that autohypnosis is not a Buddhist teaching whereas the relinquish, renounce and abandon any state of mind is the teaching.
So then what is Zen?
The best I can come up with is a provisional teaching at best, to open the mind, to awaken, to the potential of mind and the nature of phenomenal existence. It is more likely that Zen has become a religion around a tool that was once used to explain and teach the nature of mind as a prerequisite for Buddhist studies.
This corresponds with my own discussions with Zen students in that they see the disconnect between Zazen and Buddhism, and in the position with some Zen students that ‘Zen is not Buddhism’ and Zazen is not religious, because it is autohypnosis as defined in the secular mind sciences.
Clearly, Japanese Zen has created a religion around this religious hypnotic state called ‘zazen’ however, compared to Chinese Ch’an we see the religious hypnotic state viewed more as a tool and means, rather than the Japanese viewing it as the end.