In Zen circles, we often hear the teaching that we should suspend judgment — especially in meditation, regarding ourselves as well as others — so often that it has become a cliché. This admonition is also referenced in Soto Zen Precepts received during ceremonies, such as “Do not discuss the faults of others,” and “Do not praise yourself at the expense of others.”
These two are included in the second five of the Ten Grave Precepts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which Matsuoka Roshi reserved for formal stages of priest training (Zaike and Shukke Tokudo), being more socially oriented, i.e. regarding transactions with others, than the first five of Initiation (Jukai), as is to be expected for those wishing to be trained in training others. But I think the more personal and direct application of the act of judging is probably best for understanding the vital functioning of Precepts, especially in zazen; but also in relationships to others.
If we substitute the word interpretation for judging, we can develop a tighter focus on our direct experience of the way the mind typically works, the so-called monkey-mind of discriminating thinking. Discrimination has continued to carry negative connotations in our ostensibly post-racial society, but at heart the ability to discriminate is just that. It is neutral, like any other tool or capability. Whether it is positive or negative in effect is a matter of how we use it; but of course, such a thumbs-up-or-down evaluation is also a judgment call. We cannot escape this aspect of mind. But we do not have to be driven by it.
Moving from the “outer” realm of making judgments about others, and various situations we encounter, to the “inner” realm of those we make about ourselves from time to time — or if we are hyper-critical, constantly — let’s consider how this may manifest during zazen itself.
The Zen model of the mind is based on Buddhism’s teachings of the Five Aggregates (S. skandhas) and Six Sense Realms (S. dhatus) — the former parsing holistic experience into various categories of sensory awareness, built into the subjective mind; the latter those relevant dimensions of the mind’s sense objects — expanding the dynamic of sentience into a complex, and fairily comprehensive, model. Modern science has not substantially contradicted or simplified this model, but further extended it into the microcosmic realm of neural networks and chemical exchanges on the nervous system and the brain; as well as dissecting the sense organs in great detail, and illuminating the operations of the brain through real-time imaging.