Zen Consciousness

Zen Consciousness

Recently, while going over some of Heidegger’s ideas on thinking, it suddenly occurred to me how similar these sound to some notions I studied in a course on Zen Buddhism. In the course, we explored the teachings of a Zen scholar by the name of Katsuki Sekida. Sekida is a lay teacher of Zen who has been associated with Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. In his book, Zen Training, Sekida’s focus is on thought-impulses, or, as they are called in Japanese, nen.

According to Sekida, the mind operates in a particular way. The way the mind operates is only one nen at a time. You cannot really do two things at once because you cannot be conscious of two things at once.

Nen actions make their appearance before we are aware of them. A thought impulse occurs without our being aware of it. If you are going to become aware of a nen action, it takes a separate nen action to become aware of the first nen action.

First-nen occurs, for example, when one has an experience of a beautiful sunset. Before the awareness of “just how beautiful it is” dawns on you, you are momentarily held spellbound in the grasp of the experience. Then, immediately, there follows second-nen, which reflects on first-nen. According to Sekida,

The first and second nen come and go momentarily, and when a serial process of thought is occurring the second nen will frequently arise to illuminate the preceding nen, and the two will intermix as if they were entangled with each other (Sekida 109).

In second nen, one is aware of first nen. Second nen allows us to analyze and evaluate first nen. Although we can think of these as being two separate operations, they appear to us as being intertwined, as Sekida points out. Third-nen is thinking on the thought of “how beautiful the sunset is.” Third-nen bonds with first and second nen to give the illusion of the continuity of the ego. Being deluded, we believe that the ego is some sort of permanent entity. In Buddhism, any kind of permanent sub-strata is rejected as being illusory. There are only discrete nen-actions.

Through zazen, or meditation, an experience known as one-eon nen can occur. One-eon nen is where second nen never emerge. The experience consists of first nen impulses, one right after another. A good example of this can be seen in a story about Ryokan, a famous Japanese Zen Master. Bosai, an eminent scholar, had gone to visit Ryokan to discuss poetry, philosophy, and literature. Ryokan suggested they have some sake‘. He told Bosai that he would have to go borrow some at a farmhouse not far away. After waiting and waiting for Ryokan to return, Bosai set out to look for him. After searching for awhile, He found him sitting under a tree, gazing at the moon. Ryokan had been engaged in one-eon nen while experiencing the sight of the beautiful moon; the first-nen impulse was repeating itself over and over (Stevens 133).

The more primordial kind of thinking which Heidegger discusses seems to be very similar to first-nen. Heidegger’s study of Parmenides illuminates the original connection between thinking and being. Thinking, to Heidegger, belongs to being. In this belonging-together of being and thinking, thinking thinks on being. It does not evaluate and analyze a thing–it experiences it as “that which emerges out of hiding.” In this, it is similar to first-nen. The initial impulse of the essence of a thing, as in the example of the sunset, carries with it no logical analysis of the thing. The thing emerges, and is grasped in its essence. One-eon nen would be a looping of this first-nen impulse, or the logic-free thought of the being of the sunset, being experienced over and over.

I’m not certain that Heidegger’s idea of thinking and Sekida’s first-nen action are the same, but they both seem to be aiming at the same emerging of the thing-to-be-grasped.


Sekida, Katsuki. Zen Training. New York: Weatherhill, 1975.

Stevens, John. Three Zen Masters. New York: Kodansha, 1993.

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