The Zen master Yaoshan Weiyan was sitting very upright and still and a student asked him, "What are you thinking of, sitting there so steadfastly?" Yaoshan said, "I am thinking of not thinking," or another way of translating it is, "I am thinking of that which does not think."
This student was very good, and so we remember this dialogue. He said, "How do you do that? How do you think of not thinking?" Or maybe, "How is thinking of that which does not think?" Yaoshan responded using a different negative. He said, "Beyond thinking." It has also been translated as "Nonthinking."
This concerns foreground and background. We are used to thinking about the thoughts that are floating around in our sixth consciousness. [Note: briefly, mind consciousness, the thoughts that come and go, that arise and that we let go in Zazen.] We have been trained as human beings to have an ego; this is not only a problem in our culture, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to be able to get through the day, pay the rent, take care of our lives. Buddhist practice is not about getting rid of the ego, it is about not getting caught by it and instead seeing this background that Yaoshan refers to as "beyond thinking."
In terms of foreground and background, we do not exactly shift from the foreground to the background; it is more a kind of access between them, a link created. The background maybe can only be expressed in the foreground, but we begin to find more access to the background, or perhaps it has more access to us. Foreground and background have many layers, but a connection with this deeper awareness becomes available. When we intellectualize about the background and make up stories about it, that only becomes more of the foreground. But this background can emerge in each fresh breath.
Zazen offers this actual experience of a deeper awareness. It cannot exactly be called thinking, but it is a kind of awareness, a kind of consciousness. We could call it "beyond thinking," thinking that goes beyond our usual thinking, thinking of the beyond, or thinking that is beyond any thinking that does not go beyond. It is a kind of thinking, but not thinking that cuts things up into little pieces. This awareness puts things together into wholeness and allows a deeper wholeness to emerge.
A guest shows up from beyond creation, or maybe from deep within creation. We do not know from where. One of the usual ways of minding mind is figuring out mind, and we have difficulty not trying to do that. But the background awareness is about just being with, and allowing something to emerge, from our belly, or from between our shoulders, of from the end of an exhalation, or from somewhere we do not know. We become open to the unknown, and we need not fear that. We start to develop a very intimate and deep relationship with something we all share but with which each of us has our own particular relationship.