Monday, July 25, 2011
Changing ourselves is changing the world and changing the world is changing ourselves. That constantly flowing activity, like imagining infinity, is practically impossible for the frontal lobe to frame. I did meet this simple truism again on Sunday though. After a filthy, crushing week of work I'd been hawked-out onto Saturday, indolent and irritable. After a day behind the sofa I dragged the unforgiving carcass into the garden on Sunday and weeded, chopped, pruned, dug and mowed my way to a more balanced me, and hey presto, a more balanced garden. Doing what needs to be done changes us and changes the world.
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Friday, January 08, 2010
Enlightenment is a description of a very ordinary state, the most ordinary state.
It cannot exist separate from time which can only be right now and it is identified with and not separate from every thing in that moment of experience. It can only be enacted at one time so it is not an achievement and has no qualities that can be adequately described. Something real can only ever be described, hinted at. Mistaking our excellent descriptions for something real is an activity we do consistently that leads us to live lives constructed in imagination rather than rooted in what is really happening.
The sense that enlightenment is something you can pursue, get and hold on to is mistaken.
Not stepping away from what is real is enlightened behaviour. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back because our very active human minds are always abstracting real experience. We do things that alter our state so that we cannot act in accord with reality but fight it, meet it at odd angles that produce obstruction and difficulty and that then is our reality. Releasing the constructions of the self we have imprisoned ourselves with, we can return to normal. This accepting and releasing of the self is not merely an intellectual exercise. In activity, it has an effect of accepting and releasing on the whole being and simultaneously all experience - this is a definition of zazen.
We can do something to maintain ourselves in our original state that is identified with what is real and does not abstract and obstruct itself, that doesn't tie itself in knots. One thing we can do to get our constructed, restricted selves out of the way of our real lives is zazen.
Buddhism is real action with real space with real time not what we think about.
Poetry always seems to describe the state called enlightened best:
Past, present, future; unattainable,
clear is the moteless sky.
Late tonight, the stool is cold as iron,
the moonlit window smells of plum.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Enlightenment has become an obstacle for Western Buddhists because it has been misunderstood and thus elevated to a kind of mystical status.
Enlightenment is something that you begin by wanting and you strive for it but you get nothing so you give up but just keep sitting, then it uncovers itself. To describe it tends only to compound the problem however here we go. For me it was a psychophysical experience of the wholeness of being in one instant which sounds almost mystical but not at all. It was instantly recognisable, it was something I already knew from childhood. from walking in the mountains and all sorts of other activities. I just felt as if I'd suddenly 'got it' or rather, 'been got.' In fact I'd simply understood that the past has gone, that the future is not here yet and that the only moment in which to do anything is right now. I was told this by a person who exhibited their practise of it so it was easy for me to understand what they were referring to.
But, as old Choka Dorin said 'A child of 3 can understand this but this old man of eighty still cannot practise it.'
Having been grasped by reality you think you might have got something but as time goes by and you keep sitting you realise you haven't got anything at all and it is not special. You realise it is a matter of just doing something completely, sincerely, in the only time in which it can happen. To practise zazen like this is to express enlightenment. Zazen itself, which is sincerely doing something simple in the only time in which it can happen, is enlightenment itself. A state not separate from the activity, from the moment of experience....a state not separated, one could say undivided, or wholeness or many other inadequate descriptions of something impossible to describe.
Having seen what reality is, this is the beginning of your Buddhist life which then has a series of minor enlightenments tumbling over each other. As we see what our lives really are, we cotton on to simple truths. It strikes me that cottoning on to simple truths is quite a good description of enlightenment in fact. Then we just continue our ordinary lives just as they are and keeping it real with zazen so we don't slip into our old patterns and habits - this more or less successfully. It's a wobbling activity of walking that 'razor's edge.'
When you give up seeking enlightenment, when you give everything you think and feel, everything you are away for nothing, it already fills your hands. 'It' is just the inheritance of your own real life.
In Japanese, they say Satori for enlightenment. When you understand something like a maths problem suddenly after striving to understand it they say 'Satori-Mashta' - 'Ah, I got it!' - You suddenly understand something. We tend not to use the word enlightenment in our sangha but say something like ' they know what reality is...' which seems a better and less mysterious expression for what we're talking about.
(An answer to a question that wouldn't ask itself at Dogen Sangha London 10/03/2008)
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Our lives unfold naturally unless we prevent them from doing so. It unfolds despite our struggling, our endless diversions.
In common, we share a great many habits, activities and preoccupations that make this unfolding seem painful and difficult.
We are complicit in our own suffering. This is quite hard to see when we feel that the world is conspiring against us, that we are the victims of extraordinary circumstance. Something real is always happening now at this instant that is different from thinking, from what we think and how we feel about it.
One person sitting for one moment on a cushion has already left behind every one of these traits.
Then again, as Hongzhi puts it 'When the stains from old habits have finally been extinguished....'
And Master Dogen 'If you practise the matter of the ineffable, you will become ineffable.'
There is only one moment in which to make illumination real and it is this moment. If we look at a life over time as we are conditioned to, then we can see that a person who assiduously practises zazen becomes more balanced, more content and so on. But this second observation is merely an opinion, it has no real substance unlike the real act of practising zazen. Zazen is the very substance of letting go of notions of betterment along with everything else so we can see that maintaining a notion of bettering oneself through zazen is also the act of preventing that very thing from arising.
Maintaining this clear state, we do not confuse our intentions and ambitions, what we imagine we would like or not with actually doing something that changes the world.
Master Dogen says ‘Flowers fall even if we love them, weeds grow even if we hate them.’
Master Sekiso said, "You are at the top of the 100 foot high pole. How will you make a step further?"
Another Great Master said, "One who sits on top of the 100 foot pole has not quite attained true enlightenment. Make another step forward from the top of the pole and throw one's own body into the 100,000 universes."
Zazen teaches us in a way that is beyond words, how to live our lives in balance. It teaches us not only how to sit on top of the pole but how to cast ourselves off without fear, in the certain trust and knowledge that we have already been caught.
Another pole story is that between the Buddha's famous disciples:
Ananda asked Mahakashyapa
"The Buddha transmitted to you the robe but what else was transmitted?"
Mahakashyapa said "Go and take the flag down from the pole."
Both Ananda and Mahakashyapa are exhibiting their realisation here. Ananda points out that Buddhism gives nothing tangible, if anything it removes illusions of things to get.
Mahakashyapa points directly to reality, he affirms Ananda and answers his question at the same time with the imperative to do something ineffable, something real in this instant.
There’s only one thing that is real and here it is.
(A talk at Dogen Sangha London 2/12/08)
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
We have been raised to believe strongly in a rational, ordered universe governed by logic that we can to some extent control by this right activity according to how closely we follow our beliefs, our moral, religious or philosophical system. Whether we can see it or not, this training is immensely pervasive and powerful.
As children we are always told to ‘Think before you speak’ or ‘Look before you leap.’ We learn to form a picture of what we do before we do it in order to practise doing it and therefore ultimately do it better.
Buddhism, however is different from this, it is different from thinking:
Buddhism asserts strongly that activity exists in a different dimension from that of thought.
Action cannot be separate from the moment in which action takes place. It is not separate from the material world of that moment or the psychological world of that moment. All of these descriptions refer to one truth that can arise only in one instant.
How can we think about rightness then apply it? The moment for right action to occur has passed in the moment of thinking. The moment when we apply thinking has already missed the moment for action. We are thinking and analysing rather than acting. This process of consideration is only a process and not to be confused with action itself that exists in a real dimension that alters the entire system of which it is part, what medieval monks might have called 'turning the wheel of the dharma.'
So, we cannot imagine rightness then execute our imagination to correspond to our thinking. We all know only too well the expression ‘the best laid plans of mice and men…’ our real lives very often do not correspond to what we expect – in fact our real life is always different from our imagined life. This is our primary cause of discontentment or suffering, to coin a phrase. Why do I not lead the life I should be? Why am I not happy? Why have I not met the partner of my dreams?
Having pulled open our moral systems we have been told since birth guide us, are we completely adrift without any moral compass, incapable of doing the right thing? Sounds like some sort of immoral nihilism….
There is a famous story that Master Dogen repeats and comments on in the Shobogenzo:
Lay disciple Haku Kyo-i was governor of the Hangzhou district in China.
He went to study Buddhism under Master Choka Dorin.
Kyo-i asks, "What is the essence of the Buddha-Dharma?"
Master Dorin says, "Not doing wrong, only doing good."
Kyo-i says, "If that were it, even a child of three could understand it!"
Dorin says, "A child of three can understand it, but this old man of eighty cannot do it."
Master Choka Dorin draws attention to the disparity between what we think of as right and wrong and how to behave and the reality of what may be right and wrong which can only happen in this moment now, undivided from the time and space of its occurrence. Even the venerable old master with all his training cannot simply do the right thing in the moment of acting. He must still practise assiduously. I find this story oddly inspiring and the old fellow’s compassion immense. He shows his own vulnerability completely to teach Kyo-I the real situation.
In the moment of doing zazen we are doing something very simple, just sitting on a cushion. In doing so, we become this activity of doing simple sitting, we too become simple and from the muddy soup of the minds we’ve steeped in our delusions, out emerges the very simple reality of our experience.
Zazen and indeed action itself is not an activity analagous with 'rightness' - it has left 'rightness' - rightness never existed other than as a relative concept. It has also left wrongness - wrongness never existed as anything other than a relative concept. In the present moment neither wrong nor right have even the tiniest little gap to insinuate themselves.
So we should not have a self-perfecting idea in Buddhism - a notion of being right. We throw also these concepts away.
'Wrong' and 'Right' are, in the end simply views to relinquish?
Great Master Nagarjuna said and I am relentlessly quoting:
‘I pay homage to Gautama, to he who out of compassion, taught the true dharma as the relinquishing of all views.’
When Master Dogen prizes those 'who learn in practise.' He means those whose zazen like this is the standard for their lives.
Old Master Choka Dorin did not advocate a process of self-improvement or any process at all.
'Not doing wrong, only doing good.'
Focused and aware in this instant, bringing nothing with us and taking nothing away, responding immediately to what is happening now.
Doing something very simple, we notice what is real and immediate.
What we do is different from what we think.
(A talk at Dogen Sangha London 11/11/2008)
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
The urge to know is immensely strong. We believe in what we perceive and we believe that we use perception to guide our actions.
We wish to see ourselves acting, to see ourselves changing, to see ourselves learning; to see the results of our acting, changing and learning. We believe that then we make assessments based on these little plateaus of understanding, assessments that inform our next course of action.
Robert Burns wrote
‘Oh the God would give us,
the gift to see ourselves as others see us.’
He might have gone further, that we wish to know not only how we appear to others but ourselves, the truth of our experience and we believe that our brains can fathom this for us.
However, a problem emerges if our perception and beliefs are based on a faulty set of assumptions – a bit like programming the great computer to give us the secret of existence in 10,000 years but accidentally popping in the wrong formula at the start.
When we realise that the matrix of understanding that we have placed on our experience is a construction, a construction we have come to believe in to such an extent that the truth of our experience has become obscured…when this realisation occurs not just understanding it as I am talking to you but actually in an experiential way and the present asserts itself, then we begin to lead our lives in a real way, rooted in the present, in reality – as opposed to existing entirely within the constructed illusion.
However, we know that we do need to refer to a manufactured construct of our lives, to our notional personalities and those of others, to our pasts, our imagined futures. We need to refer to these in order to live as human beings because as human beings we have created our society and civilisation on these constructions – we have constructed upon construction.
But the knowledge of a formed or constructed world, while interesting and perhaps a relatively accurate description of our situation, cannot actually help us to live – in fact it’s more likely to drive us mad. The only way we can actually live is to do something without trying to know about it – this frees us instantly and completely in the moment of the present. Action – the substance of the Buddha’s law – the heart of zazen. Sometimes we describe zazen as a pure or the purest form of action – with few distractions we focus on doing something immensely simple – just sitting. The illusion vanishes and the real world immediately appears.
We can notice that it is impossible to witness ourselves acting because we are the ones acting not the ones witnessing. If we are trying to witness ourselves acting while acting we can neither act nor witness (this is the issue with the much-used word ‘mindfulness.’)
We catch glimpses of ourselves changing and learning but filtered through our limited and partisan perception, they are unreliable. Sometimes someone tells us something that chimes with us and we are caught off guard by a truth that we suddenly recognise. We look in the mirror and try to synchronise the reversed reflection of our faces with our experience – this is amusingly at odds as I get older I notice. I still have a sense of myself about 40 pounds lighter with the face of a 28 year old. Even though my head has been shaved for 10 years, I still sometimes expect to see the young blade with the directional haircut.
We notice that nothing in the entire universe is outside of our subjective experience of it, our experience permeates the whole of the universe I suppose a medieval monk might say. We can never look at something other than an aspect of our experience in whatever form we take, another person, a flower, a building. Everything that we encounter becomes a part of us instantly in apprehension. I’m not saying “I’m a table” you understand but that this table and I are both contained within the only reality I can ever know, that reality is indivisible, you can’t remove me and you can’t remove the table, so, we are elements of one thing. ‘Things as it is’ as Shunryu Suzuki famously said.
We notice this when we are very sad or very angry, when our state is unbalanced. What an ugly building, a horrible day, a repugnant person! Sometimes we are caught in the midst of our reverie by something that changes our state – an Autumn tree, richly coloured leaves glowing in low afternoon sunlight for instance. It speaks to us of itself and arrests the fantasy, just in that moment before we process the arresting moment and break it up into tree, leaves, sunlight then begin also to qualify those assessments. Just this moment of tree-apprehension is what Master Dogen refers to as preaching the sutras, real phenomena are always preaching the truth of real phenomena if we are paying attention. The more upset we are, the less likely it is that our eyes can see, our lungs can breathe, our ears can hear and our nose can smell the true moment of an Autumn tree filled with light or a rat scurrying across a city street for that matter.
Zazen turns the powerful light of perception inwards. It permits the ‘driving movement of mind, will and consciousness’ to cease. It frees us from the constructed world, allows the voracious monster that converts everything in experience to its own agenda to settle down and balance itself out, no longer exciting the passions and inflaming the body.
The statue in every zendo in Japan is that of a monk, calmly sitting on top of a tiger…….the beast has been tamed.
In the process, Zazen directs our consciousness into the real, into the present rather than fuel a blind and fearful flight from reality.
We notice that it is not a horrible day but just a day as it can only be, now, beyond the concept of a day, things are as they are.
We notice that the repugnant person has only reflected back to us a part of ourselves that we disdain, that we are afraid of, that we recognise fundamentally.
We notice that the unfortunate event is merely an event and that good and bad fortune are judgements we place upon experience, which exists undivided by perception.
Master Dogen's 'One Bright Pearl.'
(A talk given at Dogen Sangha London 28/10/2008)
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
It's quite easy to intellectually establish that the past is a story we tell ourselves and that the future hasn't happened yet and thus all there is of it that actually exists, exists only in this instant.
But we are very busy creating fictions, rationalising the past, aspiring-to or fearful-of the future. We're always either regretting the shadows we've left behind or chasing rainbows of one sort or another.
Then this begs the questions of what we can say with any conviction at all is actually true? All that we can safely say that is actually real and therefore as true as its going to get is our experience right as it happens.
But then we insist on creating a narrative of the instant itself to categorize what appears. And we strongly believe our narratives, the constant flow of this narrative shifting pattern of memory and projection is what we call our lives.
This is a room in which we have gathered to study Buddhism together – your name is Donal and you're Emma and….
But this is just a narrative, a story we are telling ourselves. We can go further to categorize our room, to populate it with the visible and the invisible; chairs and curtains, air, minds and molecules.
But if even these discriminations, these categories are projections, a part of the narrative then what's left?
What can we call this appearing and disappearing of some undiscriminated somethingness of experience that seems to be our real lives.
Its difficult to say, in fact it’s impossible to say because language itself is a part of a discriminating procedure. So you end up with 'undiscriminated somethingness' or 'thusness' or 'one bright pearl' or 'things as it is....' Nagarjuna denies movement, denies process of any kind. The instantaneous nature of existence is a prism through which time is re-framed as without process.
But of course we have to speak, to live, work and converse and share ideas and emotions and tell each other stories because that is an essential part of being human. We have to operate with process, access memory, construct things based on plans - not because it is necessary to do so to live (we'll live whether we do this or not) but because we are human and our civilisation is like this.
Sometimes people hear this assertion of instantaneity and think it is some kind of instruction to wander about in an undivided, unjudgmental zombie-like state but this is not true. To deny the intellect, human thinking and emotion is a bit silly but perhaps there's a way to regard it.
What is human thinking I wonder? I for one do not know. It’s relationship to action which exists in a seperate dimension seems to be remote sometimes and then quite direct at others. I think this directness might be illusory but I’m not clear about this. It seems to be like a skill that we have over-valued to create our marvellous civilisations, over-valued at some expense, at the expense of real and immediate experience. We've developed to a point at which we almost value the filtered fiction of our lives more than the real one happening all the time we're thinking about it. To be abstract myself, it would seem to be a function of fear, a way to create solid ground under our feet and a way to grasp a world that can be dangerous and most feared in its unknowability.
Merely noticing that something else is going on beneath, above, around – permeating the world we’ve constructed changes the way we live. Something real is happening while we think abstractly about our world. This also changes the way we think... just to confuse matters. Our thinking becomes more simple, more rooted in real experience, less abstract.
Noticing that our rationalisations of the past are just stories, that the rainbows we are chasing are just that has some ability to free us from the 'mind-forg'd manacles' we constrain ourselves within.
Noticing that this multi-dimensional real experience only happens as it happens, to state the obvious it can only be real as its real.
Master Dogen says that the study of Buddhism is the study of the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be realised by all things.
This ‘realised by all things’ sounds like a kind of inversion but without a constructed self and constructed narrative of our experience to sit within then where can we find a perspective from which to appreciate, to criticise or appropriate our experience, to build a fiction within. So, in fact, this ‘realised by all things’ is a description of a real state that we know if we practise zazen. A Buddha called people who realise this truth as having 'the bottom of the bucket fallen out.' They have no vessel in which to catch (or be caught by) their circumstances, they move freely without the weight and baggage of attenuated thinking and feeling.
Again this leads to a common misunderstanding, that Buddhism asserts ’no self’ – it doesn’t, it asserts no constructed self but the real self as just right bloody well here.
If we are free of the past and the future, if we are real in the instant of the present then we are free to respond quite stupidly and simply as our real life requires, without complicating matters.
But Mike (Michael Eido Luetchford) was saying at our retreat last weekend that we are absolutely the product of our own actions. Our lives, every little thing we have done has brought us here.
So, we are both bound by the causes we created in the past that have led us to this real moment – not only our causes but the interplay of many other causes as well – of the impossibly complex interweaving of forces in which we play a part – we are both bound by this but free in this instant to act freely, if we are free.
Our conscious experience, here and now, freed from the powerful tethers of the narratives we bind ourselves and everything else with with is profoundly and completely free.
(Given as a talk at Dogen Sangha London Tuesday 16th September '08)
Friday, August 08, 2008
At each moment, the universe expresses itself from absolute emptiness. This moment is not even discrete but in constant motion. Where should experience be caught in this context? Is it not clearly delusion to pick amongst this more general flow for objects of desire, for memories to cling to, ambitions to chase?
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
For those lost or in pain, freedom from loss and pain is not distant but present in this constant emergence.
'Before the rain stops, we can hear a bird.
Even under the heavy snow, we see snowdrops and some new growth.'
The state that is content in the present is the easiest to discard as we try to avoid unpleasantness and pursue delights. But even in delusion, the truth of our lives is always unfolding.
Dogen writes: 'Flowers fall even if we love them; weeds grow even if we hate them.'
'To realise pure mind in delusion is practise. If you try to expel the delusion it will persist the more. Just say 'Oh, this is just delusion and do not be bothered by it.''
Imagining enlightenment as some blissful state is just delusion. There is only one moment in which we can make a decision that changes the world. If half of our thinking brain is already imagining a blissful future or regretting or congratulating ourselves on the past, we cannot be truly responsive to the shifting iridescent mosaic of our experience which is only here.
While we are always truly alive, we are busy preventing ourselves from living our real life. We are so busy doing wrong we cannot begin to see rightness dwelling constantly before us.
But doing this blossoming in each instant and wobbling along in harmony with our world is the best we can do. Sometimes it's plain sailing and sometimes like rounding the horn but always just what it is.
Monday, July 14, 2008
The term 'Buddhist morality' is in a sense a contradiction in terms. This is not to say that Buddhists are immoral but that beyond the obvious guidelines of the precepts, Buddhists have no codified system of beliefs and behaviour that they apply to their daily lives.
It is difficult for us to get to the bottom of this state in the West because our culture is based in the logical rationalism of Greco Christian values and European Philosophy that constructs an imaginary vision of the world in each instant and responds to that vision. We believe in thinking and speaking.
Our thinking tends to go something like this:
'We can manufacture right or rightness waits in the ether, an option we can choose to do. Using our learned conventional wisdom, we can think about what the right thing to do is and then do it. If we continue to think carefully about our lives and how we lead them then act according to our moral code then we will lead good lives filled with good actions.'
As children we are always told to ‘Think before you speak’ or ‘Look before you leap.’
We believe in a rational, ordered universe governed by logic that we can to some extent control by our right activity according to how closely we follow our beliefs, our religious or philosophical system, the accepted cultural norms of behaviour.
While Master Dogen is clear that we should follow the rules and laws of our countries and respect our rulers, Buddhism is ultimately different from this:
Right action is not separate from the moment in which right action can take place.
It is not separate from the material world of that moment or the psychological world of that moment.
These divisive descriptions of material and psychological of action and the moment in which it occurs refer to a truth that arises only in one instant.
So how can we think about rightness then apply it. How can we make a judgment about what is right and what is wrong? The moment for right action to occur will have passed in the judging. The moment when we apply the judgement will be too late. We are thinking and analysing rather than acting.
This process of consideration is only a process and not to be confused with action itself that exists in a real dimension that alters the entire system of which it is part, what medieval monks might have called 'turning the wheel of the dharma.'
We cannot imagine rightness then execute our imagination to correspond to our thinking.
Then are we completely adrift without any moral compass, incapable of doing the right thing?
There is a famous story that Master Dogen repeats and comments on in the Shobogenzo:
Chinese lay disciple Haku Kyo-i was governor of the Hangzhou district.
He went to study Buddhism under Zen Master Choka Dorin.
Kyo-i asks, "What is the great intention of the Buddha-Dharma?"
Dorin says, "Not doing any wrong, only doing good."
Kyo-i says, "If that were it, even a child of three could understand it!"
Dorin says, "A child of three can understand it, but this old man of eighty cannot practise it."
Master Choka Dorin draws attention to the disparity between what we think of as right and wrong and how to behave and the reality of what may be right and wrong which can only happen in this moment now, undivided from the time and space of its occurrence.
The activity of zazen is a kind of opening, the act of letting all phenomena go, real and imagined.
In the moment of doing zazen we are not doing wrong but permitting the emergence of the reality of our experience which we can call 'right.' Zazen is the purest standard of not doing wrong. Through this profound act of relinquishing, we tame the spectacular display of our minds and are left focused and aware in the present.
When Master Dogen prizes those 'who learn in practise.' He means those whose zazen is the standard for their lives. Those who understand and practise zazen as not doing wrong. Throwing out what we think we know leaves our intuition free to work with what actually is.
This meeting of intuitive wisdom or Prajna with the truth of our lives that remains when we have extinguished the constructed world of our imaginations is the activity of Buddhas.
Focused and aware in this instant, bringing nothing with us and taking nothing away, responding immediately to what is happening now.
'Not doing any wrong, only doing good.'
My daughter of 4 can understand it but her Dad of 38 cannot practise it
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 17/07/08)
Monday, June 02, 2008
Moving into un-knowing without anything is actually the truth of our lives.
This unacceptable truth is what we evade with our brilliant and colourful imaginations. I think that this is the acceptance that the Buddha speaks of – not a resignation to fate as it is often misunderstood but the acceptance of the way things are, or as Suzuki put it "things as it is."
We call a conglomeration of ideas, memories of our pasts, our sense of self, of our perceived relationships to others, of our jobs and status, our likes and dislikes - we call this our personalities and the movement of this entity through space and time we call our lives.
Buddhists notice that this is not in fact our lives, this is only a conglomeration of ideas which are always relative and subject to change, to revolution in fact.
What is not subject to change, not subject to division and always undeniably our lives is the instant in which we experience our lives.
Because we construct this multi-faceted elaborate illusion of our lives, we also secretly can imagine that we are living a false life but our real life can never be false no matter what we think about it. I think this creeping sense of falseness that people often feel is very healthy - it is the truth creeping out that this crooked and teetering edifice of thought may be based on very shallow foundations. It is the deep knowledge that the lives they have constructed are somehow insubstantial and unreal.
It's a bit like vertigo to notice the truth of this initially, that the carefully rationalised and constantly elaborated, safe and knowable planes of our life are just that, constructed. But then, the question remains, there is something happening here and now and only here and now but what is it?
The kesa that we wear as Buddhists is the opposite of the escapism of the constructed life, of the hard carapace of ideation we can cocoon ourselves in. It is the antithesis of a costume. It reveals us as real and true to all and all that is real and true to us.
Simply sitting still the revolutions of will cease - something indescribable remains - something which we do not habitually notice, hidden as we are inside our shells - but which is always present - It is always present.
Both one thing and many, both thought and non-thought, created and uncreated, real and unreal are contained within it. Master Dogen’s ‘One Bright Pearl.’
Some imagine this un-creation to be a dissolution of knowledge, a kind of negation of the driving force that we feel is the engine of life.
Some call Buddhism like this - nihilism - a belief in nothingness.
But this is the voice of the constructed self - it tells us that we must hold on to our opinions, our sense of self, of others, of our place in the universe or there will be only the terrifying vastness, the absence of meaning….Godlessness.
Conversely, when we throw everything away for nothing, we discover that our original lives have already filled our hands. Our true lives were always waiting to be inherited. We discover that the expansive vastness of the eternal present was always our home.
This original state leaves us completely free in the instant of the present.
This instantaneous awareness, this lack of creation is called enlightenment.
Uncreated, we were/are/will be and beyond each of those temporal constraints.
Being without - conscious, only that.
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 29/06/2008)
Friday, May 02, 2008
This robe that I am wearing is called the kesa. The small Rakusus that we wear sometimes refers to the whole object including the neck strap but are also kesas which we can wear when eating and working without damaging them.
The kesa is the Buddha’s robe. The (abridged to say the least) story goes that when he came out of the forest, sick after 7 years of asceticism, living naked, fasting in austerity, he was given a kind of milk pudding to eat. He also sewed together rags to make a covering for his body. Then having eaten enough, warmly clothed in the robe, he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, he experienced contentment. Practising zazen, sitting in balance, he realised the middle way, the way itself of balance. When he saw the morning star, he experienced it as if for the first time, as something incredibly real.
This is why Buddhists revere the ordinary activities of life, of working, sleeping and eating, wearing clothes, cleaning and looking after ourselves enough that we can maintain our health and more our wellbeing so that we can not only practise zazen, the way of the middle but that our real life expresses this middle way.
The kesa is the symbol of the Buddha’s teaching but beyond this, it actually is the Buddha’s teaching. Sewing the kesa is something we cannot do with the mind that strives after the future or worries at the past. It takes a long time, a lot of simple stitching to make a robe, on we go, one careful stitch after another, after another. We can imagine the finished kesa but it doesn’t help us, if it is ever to be realised we must maintain a pure attention on just this next stitch. Eventually, a kesa appears, somehow. This is our life, attending carefully to each instant, our real life emerges.
We make the kesa of no particular colour, not definite but a broken colour, like mud or stones. We don’t choose special material but just use something that will suffice. We are not proud of the kesa or imagine that it has special powers as an object of worship. But we revere it the same way we revere work, food and sleep, lying down, sitting and standing-up again.
It is both the symbol of our Buddhist life and it really is our simple Buddhist life. A chair is both the symbol for a chair, the one we construct in our minds when we think of a chair and something real, something to sit on and beyond that something completely inexpressible. The kesa is both the symbol of the law and the real substance of the law, a real robe that covers us, revealing our wholeness with all of existence.
It is formless because like everything else in our lives undivided by the discriminating mind, it is empty of the form we give it yet has the unnameable form of itself, beyond dimension, beyond conception.
Then again, we can say ‘Here is the kesa!’
‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ as the Heart Sutra so famously states.
The Takkesage is the verse of the robe which we say every morning and sometimes just whenever we put on the robe. One translation is like this:
The great robe of freedom is limitless
The robe without form is the field of happiness
Wrapping ourselves in the Buddha’s teachings
We vow to save all sentient beings
Itinerant monk Kodo Sawaki said that the kesa is the garment of "drizzle and dew, mist and clouds." He means that the kesa encompasses all things, that, as the symbol and substance of the law its’ microcosm contains everything - even past and future like Blake’s infinity in a grain of sand.
"Wearing this robe, one transmits correctly the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of the awakened ones of the past present and future........All the sutras, all the Buddhist teachings, the whole universe, the mountains, seas, trees and flowers, even rocks, all express the merits of the kesa."
There is a famous poem by Daichi Zenji:
I am happy in my kesa,
Calmly I possess the universe.
I stay or leave as it wishes.
The pure breeze drives the white clouds.
(Given as a talk, Bloomsbury Zen Group 1/05/2008)
Friday, April 25, 2008
Our experience is all there is of our lives, and only the instant in which we experience it. We only separate our experience and the time in which it occurs in our minds, time and experience are a unity in Buddhism, not seperate. If this is understood as one person sitting then we can clearly experience the truth that in the moment in which we practise zazen the world practises zazen with us.
There is no other world that any of us can be aware of. Anything else that we assume exists can only be imagination, the world beyond that wall, what might happen tomorrow, whether or not this talk will end and we will leave the dojo. Nothing in the universe can escape the effect of one person doing zazen for one moment.
This is not an abstract or ‘spiritual’ consideration although it may sound something like that. This is a real, empirical observation like all of Buddhist philosophy.
I was thinking on the way here this evening that our experience is a little like a hall of mirrors. If we are frightened, everything that we encounter seems frightening. If we are tired, everything is a struggle, even the smallest things. If we are angry, everything seems to reflect our anger back to us. Sitting shatters those mirrors. It is as if they were never there. They were there but they were just illusions, reflections and refractions of our state.
Our lives lived completely in the present are unhindered, unadulterated by worlds of fantasy, of psychological and physiological states compounded by our ever active imaginations. This leaves us free, free to feel, to think and communicate, to act without impediment. Here we are, the product of a multiplicity of actions and causes that have led us here but right now, we are completely free to do whatever we choose.
There is a received sense that Zen Buddhism is somehow against thinking, that we are supposed to act like automatons, marching around ‘just doing’ without weighing options or having any moral consideration. This is impossible, unnatural and unrealistic. It is inhuman. We think, we feel, as humans we act in this context but this is liable to aberration, aberration that we, in concert with our environment, cause. Very simply, if we sit at a computer all day, our body will be constricted, we will be cut off from our environment in a virtual world. All of this we are doing to ourselves so how can it be undone?
How can we re-align the spine, re-configure twisted nerves and constricted muscles, how can we stop the surfeit of doing that ties us in knots of all kinds? We permit ourselves to cease from doing. The rub in this is that unlike aberration, release like this is not something we can actually do, it is something we can only allow to be undone. Being undone is a nice way to describe zazen.
We can create the conditions for release. We can build a launch pad on our cushion, crossing our legs, finding a centre of gravity, aligning the spine. But then we must just give away our doing for nothing, without a care, just let it go. We can notice what the mind is doing, repetitive patterns of thought and feeling, where we are holding tension and constricting muscles, we notice the body in space, we can sense the weight and physicality of this body, the processes that make it up.
But the gate of Zazen allows us also to notice that all of these manifestations are views that we are holding. These are not merely attitudes or opinions of the mind but deep-seated views embedded in our physical bodies that cause us to hold our shoulders up at our neck with the powerful muscles of the back or to stretch at the base of the spine.
We have the opportunity on our cushions unlike anywhere else in our lives, to abandon these activities. We can permit ourselves to cease from thinking constructively about subjects, from obsessing, we can permit ourselves to cease from wanting and not wanting, from liking and not liking, we can permit ourselves to cease from pulling up the shoulders, from stretching up the neck, from pulling down into the hips.
Sometimes, in this conscious abandoning, we have the very nice experience of actually being abandoned, unaware of the working of our mind, free of physical doing…light and balanced, content.
We are undone. But what’s left when there is no doing?
Sit with the body
Sit with the mind
Body and mind fallen away, sit.
We mislead ourselves every time we open our mouths to say something about this or when I clatter away at the keyboard to write a talk like this.
All answers are wrong, they are views expressed and as such are completely different from the abandoned state when we have ceased from clutching at straws and allowed ourselves to be buoyed-up. Answers are not in these words I am speaking but perhaps in the speaking itself.
Rightness can only be expressed in the complete instantaneous commitment and sincerity of living, doing, talking, of questioning and answering when perhaps all answers can become right....?
This is our Buddhist life, our Zazen, answering with utmost sincerity, with total commitment the question of existence.
This is the Indian Sage and Father of Zen, Bodhidharma’s ‘Great Doubt’ – the true spirit of un-knowing.
The Buddha said ‘like a mouth, hanging open in space.’
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 24/04/2008)
Friday, March 14, 2008
How can we cease from preventing the natural unfolding of our lives?
Life unfolds despite our struggling, our pain…what we want, what we like and dislike.
We value intention very highly. At work we talk about goal-setting, motivating ourselves and others, about drive and ambition, about being effective people who can realise their goals. We peer into the past to see if we can learn lessons to help our perceived journey into the future.
At home, we try to be good partners, good parents, dividing our time amongst our obligations, measuring ourselves against an invisible standard, the benchmark of whether we can feel good or bad about our selves, about our behaviour. Again we examine our actions in the past, wonder how we might have behaved differently, try to learn for a future in which we’ll endeavour to make our behaviour ‘right.’
From a Buddhist perspective, this kind of thinking is based on a fundamental misapprehension of what our real life is. Of course we must set goals, we must motivate ourselves and others, of course we need to be attentive parents, partners and colleagues but we should also notice what is real. We should not confuse our intentions and ambitions, what we imagine we would like with actually doing something.
When we notice that intentions are not real and that action in the present moment exists in a different dimension to that of intention then all this sound and fury instantly takes on a different cast.
We can never know the outcome of our actions, no matter how careful we are to ensure that we do the right thing. Over and over again, we see with the wonders of hindsight that our intentions were not as pure as we’d imagined or that our seemingly pure intentions were rewarded with disaster.
On the other hand, often, activity which we’ve imagined to be worthless results in a very positive effect. The permutations, the shades of grey in this are endless. Sometimes we have a run of outcomes which might make us feel successful and effective then inevitably, it goes the other way and we’re plunged into despondency at our lack of foresight and skill in navigating our lives.
Master Dogen says ‘Flowers fall even if we love them, weeds grow even if we hate them.’
We hinder ourselves and the world around us with our intentions, trapped into asking ‘What is the right course?’ as if this very activity had some kind of merit. We carefully weigh up all the evidence, the pros and cons then gamble wildly on an unknowable future.
When a Buddha exhorts us to leap off the 100 ft pole, it seems almost insane, it seems as if trusting our futures to the instant of experience is irresponsible, dangerous…. but what is it that we react to?
It is our fear of our lives, our futile attempt to control and arrange events that do not yet exist. But the illusion we have that we should be able to control our lives is very hard to shake.
Our perceived grip on our existence is white-knuckled whether we can see this fact clearly or not. Leaping off the pole doesn’t mean to be stupid, to do the wrong thing out of carelessness. It means to pay attention, to trust Prajna, intuition, the inherent wisdom that knows before the conscious mind has framed the concept, before the moment in which to act has passed.
What would happen if we let go of our grip on our lives? When we understand in our bones that the only moment in which we can do anything is this moment, when we experience the truth that both past and future do not exist, what is this grip then but clutching at straws?
Like a snake swallowing its own tail, we furiously chase an image of the future while simultaneously being consumed by the past…one powerful image of Samsara, the world of delusion.
To be free of delusion is to enter the only truth which exists, to be present, fully awake and aware and acting in accord with the real world.
Master Dogen said:
"The water is clean, right down to the ground,
Fishes are swimming like fishes.
The sky is wide, clear through to the heavens,
And birds are flying like birds.
...children and grandchildren of the Buddhist patriarchs should
unfailingly learn in practice that sitting in Zazen
is the one great matter. This is the authentic seal
which is received and transmitted one-to-one."
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 13/03/2008)
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
My teacher is Michael Eido Luetchford.
It is impossible for me to express how grateful I am to him for showing me very straightforwardly and clearly what my life is.
This truth shutters outwards constantly in concentric circles of influence in real ways.
The Buddha's teaching is a realisation of the truth with the whole being, with all of experience, it is distinct from magical thinking of all kinds, a plain and simple way that banishes obscurity.
What remains is what remains, direct and immanent.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
The past has gone.
The future is not yet here.
All there is of the past and of the future is contained in this instant of existence.
Consider this, a memory can only be had in this instant, a photograph of a notional past can only be viewed in this instant, a consideration of the future can only be had now, a wish, a hope, a dream can only be had now.
What is truly real? Only this endless flowering and withering.
We relinquish every thing completely. Giving away this body, giving away these precious thoughts, not following them, being bothered by them, they come and go like everything else. Permitting ourselves this period of zazen to allow all this to do as it will, releasing our grip, it is an illusion that we are holding onto.
We, and our activity of sitting are not separated, we, and the world of which we are part are no longer artificially separated by the superficial veneer of a constructed self.
When the dust has settled, when what we imagine to be true has ceased, has subsided, something remains but what is it that no longer has a name?
Only this instant of existence, our true inheritance, shorn of all projection and imagination, of all illusory creations of our active minds, of all definition, separation, classification, opinion. Only what exists before we begin to process it and artificially divide ourselves from it.
This clearly apprehended state of reality is nameless and it appears before us immediately in this moment, in this moment, in this moment…and in this.
‘Eternal existence is momentary’ said a great teacher. How can we argue with this simple truth?
In Zazen, we sit, awake and aware of this fleeting instant, we allow it to be without anything other than itself. We realise being, without.
As Buddhists we uncover this truth each morning and each evening. Like a bell rung in the morning, this simple state stays with us and grows faint as our active brains create universes of meaning to separate us from what is real, manifests as tension in our bodies. We ring the bell again in the evening and sleep soundly, noticing the difference between what is real and what isn’t.
As we continue this practise, this ringing and waning seems more like one continuous note.
As we regularly uncover this original state, this clear-sighted simple and ordinary way, we begin to notice that our lives mirror this state of zazen, clear, simple, straightforward.
Giving everything away on our cushions we open the door to the inheritance of what remains, which is something tangible, something real.
Something which is before us now!
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 31/01/2008)
Monday, January 28, 2008
The word 'Zen' is a Japanese transliteration of the word 'Chan' in Chinese, itself a transliteration of the word 'Dhyana' in Sanskrit. If you look it up in a dictionary, Dhyana is commonly translated as meditation or state of absorption or concentration or stability meditation or many other English descriptions.
Zazen is composed of two characters, Za - sitting and Zen - dhyana, so a reasonable English translation might be 'Sitting-meditation' however for me the English word meditation has become corrupted, it covers a multitude of practises, lots of magical thinking. So some practitioners of meditation think thoughts of loving kindness on their cushions or focus on the breath, some push down their diaphragms and try to attain states of insight.
What dhyana means to the Zen lineage is zazen, just sitting, naturally and comfortably in balance, just that and nothing else. When we are doing nothing but sitting in balance, we are practising sitting-dhyana / Za-zen.
Japanese monk Dogen Zenji transmitted Zazen to Japan from his master Tendo Nyojo in China’s Five Mountains Temple system in the early 13th Century.
Indian monk Bodhidharma had brought Dhyana from the Indian tradition of the Buddha to China, but what did he bring, a meditative state, a level of perfection, a form of meditation, a state of absorption?
These terms are abstract descriptions and can lead to us spending years trying to attain something illusory.
The emphasis in zazen is on ‘not doing’, not doing anything other than sitting. We ask, ‘Well, how can we do that?’ The answer is that we can’t DO it, we can’t do not doing. The skill of Zazen is not one to attain, it is in giving yourself and everything that you think you know away for nothing, with the expectation of nothing. Permitting all that we see or seem to subside is what Master Dogen refers to as ‘Turning around the light and shining.’
In our lives we are constantly expressing, expending our energy to run after things we sometimes don’t even know that we want. Zazen is the opposite to our normal activity of trying to get something, we relinquish profoundly on our zafu.
Remember 6th Century teacher Master Nagarjuna from last week.
‘I pay homage to Gautama, to he who out of compassion, taught the true dharma as the relinquishing of all things.’
And what is left, when what we imagine to be true has subsided?
Only this instant, our true inheritance, shorn of all projection and imagination.
What is this unvarnished and clearly apprehended reality?
It is uncategorised, undivided, it has no name, it appears before us immediately.
The past has gone, the future is not yet here, all there is of the past and of the future is contained in this instant of existence.
A great Buddha once said ‘Eternal existence is momentary.’ We imagine this might be a grand spiritual statement but it is not, it is a simple statement of fact.
Living life as this true fact is the life of a Buddha.
Bodhidharma brought Dhyana to China, the very root of chan and zazen but what he brought wasn't an abstract or magical practise, it was zazen, doing nothing other than sitting, fully awake and aware of each instant.
As Buddhists we return to this simple state each morning and each evening. Wobbling along our path this way, we maintain our balance.
This is the gate to true freedom in our lives.
(Given as a talk at Bloomsbury Zen Group 24/01/2008)
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Don't care too much about sitting Zen.
It's easy to be caught by ideas of how special or important sitting is, of how beneficial it might be to 'all beings.'
All beings are not served by the self-serving sitter with such ideas in mind.
To do this is to believe that one's knowledge of a thing is as valuable as the thing itself.
Apprehending a butterfly, we have created an illusory butterfly of conception, we do not experience a real insect. It's only when pre-conceptions are dropped-off, of butterflies, of seeing, seer and seen that something real can flutter away unimpeded.
Sitting Zen has a beneficial effect throughout the universe, I know this so I will do it, simply do it, without thinking.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Sometimes we say 'I've got nothing to lose.' It seems to free us to make a decision to do something.
If we feel we have something to lose, we often don't do whatever we are considering for fear of being diminished in some way. The more we feel we have to lose the less we do that might put it at risk. We become paralysed by our ideas.
But it's the unknown and unexpected that moves the world forward. Spinning the wheel of chance is in every instant, it's the joy of life, the blossoming in each moment of billions of causes, billions of effects in an unknoweably brilliant pageant.
When we act with nothing to lose we have cast off impeding ideas. We may have our lives to lose but what is it, our life? What is it, losing? This doesn't mean acting stupidly or without sensitivity to what we experience, it means not to be afraid, we only had an illusion of control after all.
Is it possible that in this instant, what I am experiencing may cease? Of course but not now, perhaps in the future but not now.
As life ends, what will happen? It is ceasing, it is ceasing....
Monday, December 10, 2007
Monday, December 03, 2007
Consciousness of a seperate self doesn't really exist, its illusory, like cats, roads and clowns. You can touch something, smell something, watch something but what is it really, beyond our massively limiting conception? Can we free experience from our self-imposed perceptual limitations?
To notice that the 'self' is constructed is just like this. To experience a non-dual state forces the question of what our constructed life is and we discover that 'everything that we see or seem' to coin a phrase is constructed. That what remains is shunyata / emptiness or Dogen's 'One Bright Pearl.'
There is a clear undivided state which we are not really aware of, which excludes too much of the kind of 'thinking' that constructs an imaginary agent of the self and keeps us close to the middle where opposites disappear. This is a state maintained by zazen and the middle way between extremes. But the truth is we wobble between states all the time. Just as in zazen we are dynamic and 'consciousness' shifts between dual and non dual states. We wiggle along and that wiggling maintains the state of balance. But do we maintain it or not?
The analogy of the bell with zazen is good. We strike the bell in the morning and the sound is loud then diminishes slowly until the evening when we strike it again then it dimishes again overnight then bong! But taken over a lifetime this striking and diminishing doesn't sound like notes struck then their diminuendo, it sounds like one continuous note.
The only moment in which we can actualise the teaching of Buddhism is in this moment. A lifetime of moments in which Buddhism has been actualised is a Buddhist life.
Not doing wrong, right is allowed to do itself.
Friday, November 30, 2007
Fukan-Zazengi (Rufu-Bon - The Popular Edition - Trans. Mike Chodo Cross)
Now, when we research it, the truth originally is all around: why rely upon practice and experience? The vehicle for the fundamental exists naturally: where is the need to expend effort? Furthermore, the whole body far transcends dust and dirt: who could believe in the means of sweeping and polishing? In general, we never depart from the place where we should be: of what use, then, are the tiptoes of training?
However, if there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, heaven and earth are far apart, and if a trace of disagreement arises, we lose the mind in confusion. Even if, proud of our understanding and richly endowed with enlightenment, we obtain special states of insight, attain the truth, clarify the mind, manifest a zeal that pierces the sky, and ramble through those remote spheres that are entered with the head; we have almost completely lost the vigorous path of getting the body out.
Moreover, remembering the natural sage of Jetavana park, we can [still] see the traces of his six years of upright sitting. We can still hear rumours of the transmitter of the mind-seal at Shaolin, spending nine years facing the wall. The ancient saints were like that already: how could people today fail to practice wholeheartedly?
So cease the intellectual work of studying sayings and chasing words. Learn the backward step of turning and reflecting light. Body and mind naturally drop off, and the original face appears. If we want to attain the matter of the ineffable, we should urgently practice the matter of the ineffable.
In general, a quiet room is good for Zen practice, and food and drink are taken in moderation. Abandon all involvements. Give the myriad things a rest. Do not think of good and bad. Do not care about right and wrong. Stop the driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration through images, thoughts, and reflections. Do not aim to become a buddha. How could it be connected with sitting or lying down?
Usually on the place where we sit we spread a thick mat, on top of which we use a round cushion. Either sit in the full lotus posture or sit in the half lotus posture. To sit in the full lotus posture, first put the right foot on the left thigh, then put the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in the half lotus posture, just press the left foot onto the right thigh. Let clothing hang loosely and make it neat. Then place the right hand over the left foot, and place the left hand on the right palm. The thumbs meet and support each other.
Just sit upright, not leaning to the left, inclining to the right, slouching forward, or arching backward. It is vital that the ears vis-à-vis the shoulders, and the nose vis-à-vis the navel, are caused to oppose each other. Let the tongue spread against the roof of the mouth. Let the lips and teeth come together. The eyes should be kept open. Let the breath pass imperceptibly through the nose.
Having regulated the physical posture, breathe out once, and sway left and right. Sit still, "Thinking that state beyond thinking." "How can the state beyond thinking be thought?" "Non-thinking." This is the vital art of sitting-zen.
What is called sitting-zen, sitting-meditation, is not meditation that is learned. It is the Dharma-gate of effortless ease. It is the practice and experience that gets to the bottom of the Buddha's enlightenment. The laws of the Universe are realized, around which there are no nets or cages. To grasp this meaning is to be like a dragon that has found water, or like a tiger before a mountain stronghold. Remember, true reality spontaneously emerges, and darkness and dissipation vanish at a stroke.
If we rise from sitting, we should move the body slowly. Rise with calm confidence. We should not be hurried or violent.
We see in the past that those who transcended the profane and transcended the sacred, and those who died while sitting or died while standing, relied totally on this power. Moreover, changing of the moment through the action of a finger, a pole, a needle, or a wooden clapper; and exact experience of the state through the manifestation of a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout, can never be understood by thinking and discrimination. How could they be known through mystical powers or practice and experience? They may be dignified behaviour beyond sound and form. How could they be anything other than a criterion that precedes knowing and seeing?
Therefore, we do not discuss intelligence as superior and stupidity as inferior. Let us not choose between clever persons and dimwits. If we make effort devotedly, that is just wholehearted pursuit of the truth. Practice-and-experience is naturally untainted. The direction of effort becomes more balanced and constant.
In general, in this world and in other worlds, in India and in China, all equally maintained the Buddha-seal, and solely indulged in the fundamental custom: they simply devoted themselves to sitting, and were caught by the still state.
Although there are myriad distinctions and thousands of differences, we should devote ourselves solely to Zen practice in pursuit of the truth. Why should we abandon our own sitting platform, to come and go without purpose through the dusty borders of foreign lands?
If we misplace one step we pass over the moment of the present. We have already received the essential pivot which is the human body: let us not pass time in vain. We are maintaining and relying upon the pivotal essence which is the Buddha's truth: who could wish idly to enjoy sparks from flint? What is more, the body is like a dewdrop on a blade of grass. Life passes like a flash of lightning. Suddenly it is gone. In an instant it is lost.
I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not grow used to images and doubt the real dragon. Apply yourself to the path which is directly indicated and straightforward. Revere a person who is beyond study and spontaneous. Accord with the enlightened state of the buddhas. Authentically succeed to the samadhi of the ancestors. If you practice the ineffable for a long time, you will be ineffable. The treasure-house will naturally open, for you to receive and use as you like.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Master Yakusan Igan was asked by a layperson: "Tell me, what is the essence of Buddhism?"
Master Yakusan replied: "Don't do wrong, do right."
The layperson said "That's stupid. A child of two could understand that."
Master Yakusan replied: "A child of two could understand it but this man of 80 years cannot practise it."
When Master Yakusan speaks about right and wrong he doesn't mean anything that we might infer from our Greek Classical/Judaeo-Christian moral notions. There is some element of faith when we begin practising zazen and learning what our life is that if we practise zazen we do not do wrong but very soon we start to realise that it's true. Avoiding the many kinds of wrong we find that right does itself.
Practising zazen, the whole of experience practises zazen, everything manifests the state of zazen. We can chant the sutra, make our vows but they are already true - we are in the real act of making it true, reciting our verse, after practising zazen.
Zazen as the pure lack of trying to gain, practising without an improving idea, whether it be 'to act right' around people or whatever, is a practise of shedding, endlessly shedding, beliefs, words, ideas, loves and hates.
NEGAWAKUWA KONO KUDOKU
O MOTTE AMANEKU ISSAI NI OYOBOSHI,
WARERA TO SHUJO TO MINA TOMO NI
BUTSUDO O JOZEN KOTO O
A zero sum equation cancels itself out. The point of balance on a weighing scale is a point in which opposites, becoming equal, are cancelled. The emptiness from which mathematics springs, the zero point on the abacus is 'shunya' in Sanskrit. Shunyata, emptiness, the state of the middle way, the state of balance.
We don't know something or what to do. We are free to do without knowing.
That state can only be expressed now. The now of a person wanting to get enlightenment is the same now as the now of a Buddha. The state of zazen is the state of Buddha.
Buddhism is a vital tradition of reflecting what is true in all kinds of ways, a whisk, a staff, a road, a car.... These expressions point to the truth of reality which is here, undeniable.
The state expresses a question, an opening that pronounces a wordless, unformed question.
The Buddha said 'like a mouth hanging open in space.'
Theoretical or abstract thinking creates a gap between what we are and what we think we are. What we think we are is not real. What we think is not real, it's thinking. Our life is not what we think it is, it is what it is.
The past has gone, the future has not happened yet, all that we can verify is this moment of consciousness. This is not the kind of moment we can imagine which is static, it is dynamic, kinetic. Like walking next to a river, we're out of step with the flow. Practising sitting-zen, the river buoys us up and carries us along, we don't have to worry.
One can imagine the qualities of a good Buddhist but a Buddhist has no qualities. The moment has no qualities, it is. Fear is like this, we can only be afraid of something we think exists, not of something that really exists. A shark for instance is frightening in imagination, in the real world it is something completely different, a real shark. Paralysed by our imagination, we fail to simply swim away and get consumed by what is real.
Whether we live for a day like a Mayfly or ten thousand years like the eternal Buddha of imagination, reality remains indivisible in this instant - 'One Bright Pearl' as Master Dogen puts it. Both life and death have the capability to frighten us but like the shark of imagination, real life and real death exist in a different dimension to that of thought.
Our true existence is so rich that nihilism has no place in it. Emptiness, the world without qualities is immense, boundless. We have the tools to inherit it but our precious little minds would keep us in fear. In sitting, discard all tethers and allow yourself the freedom that is the natural state of existence.
Thursday, June 07, 2007
Revealing the universe to be originally one piece, separateness has already vanished as nothing more than an idea we've been holding onto.
But what comes with all this light, colour and noise? What shall we call it before it has a name?
The world sitting as one piece expresses itself through the eyes and ears, the nose, the skin, bones and flesh of this monk.
There it is, birds, trees, flowers, roads, myself and others.....
Monday, April 30, 2007
It is a common misconception (derived from practitioner's of zazen's best attempts to explain their practise) that there is a state of perfection attainable through the practise of zazen and the study of Buddhism. Notionally, the Buddha was a perfected being who had awoken to the state of reality and thus transcended the afflictions and suffering of the rest of humanity. It's difficult to shake this very attractive idea as an idea, it's propagated all over the world as 'Buddhism' after all. However the problem here is in the subtle interpretation and understanding in experience of this concept of transcendence.
Afflictions and suffering are an intrinsic part of the real state of humanity thus the Buddha had awoken also to these. His transcendence was not deliverance, much less spiritual and much more real.
Because we are averse to experiences we regard as unpleasant and gravitate towards experiences we regard as pleasant, the fact that the Buddha was not delivered from the painful, dirty and shameful aspects of life seems disappointing.
In the West we want our 'spiritual' icons to be like Christ, that particular icon so firmly welded into our hearts and imagination. The Buddha's deliverance however wasn't hard won through crucifixion and his reward not delivered in heaven but was revealed in meditation, his deliverance an earthly one. This is like catnip to the me generation - no suffering, deliverance and reward on earth! Indeed many newcomers to Buddhism sense a positive change in their mentality, stress levels, relationships and physical wellbeing and some stop there, practising Buddhism as little more than a kind of take-it or leave-it self-help.
But Buddhists believe that the Buddha awoke to the real state of experience, beyond it's names and description, beyond our unreliable feelings and concepts about it. He experienced this unnameable reality, all that we experience as human beings including all the unpleasantness but he was aware-to, intrinsically connected with all that he experienced. Perceiving that the notional world he'd generated was different from reality, fully experiencing that reality and understanding in experience that this clear state could be maintained by the middle way, he practised and taught this. Some choose to call this big consciousness or something like that, a boundless, expansive awareness that includes everything in experience as itself or 'thus-self' if that's not confusing.
With this awareness of real experience he could not but practise for all of experience, it is impossible to practise for the betterment of a self that becomes difficult to identify as seperate in this context. This does not mean that the self 'vanishes' but merely that it is understood that the self as we conceive it, is a collection of concepts and unreliable reactions, instinct and feeling, artificially divided from experience, it's still us though, we still experience it and ourselves through the prism of all that unreliability.
Reality however is us, it is always in motion at macro and microcosmic levels - balance in that activity allows us to wobble along the tightrope of existence as best we can, not with a notion of compassion and wisdom but actually as the substance of such terms itself which is quite simply not what we think it is. Maintaining and practising this state, there is no space for a conceptual self to march around doing 'good' or being 'mindful' but the very actual activity of wobbling along as best we can maintaining that bigger consciousness is what is meant by those words in the real world.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
There are some problems in the apparently simple practise of finding the posture.
The way we do it is using the same ability of proprioception and feeling that we use to walk upright, to swim and run. But if those qualities were reliable, none of us would walk with stoops or hunch over our computers, none of us would be depressed or unnecessarily angry. We'd find ourselves straight and simple in all our activities. So how can we find the posture? How can we find it not merely on the cushion but everywhere in our experience?
Our practise is not a physical one. It is not a mental one. It is a practise based on real activity in the real world. The agent for this is a psychophysical unity which cannot be separated from its environment, from its experience. What that unity actually does, affects everything in it's experience, it fundamentally changes the nature of existence. In this instant, we are completely free to act and if we choose to accept the truth, there is a great responsibility in that action.
Our answer to this, as sitters or Buddhists or whatever you want to call it, is to accept the real nature of our existence as we experience it. In order to do this we have to stop doing things that prevent us from accepting the real nature of existence. We find a point of balance, not aggressive not passive, not overfed not underfed, not optimistic not pessimistic - we find the middle way that corresponds to the real state of our experience. It is a point where all attributes, all opinions vanish and there is only real experience that we can respond to as the circumstances require without bringing something complicated and constructed called our 'selves' to act for us.
But, if we accept zazen as the standard for our experience then our human problems of unreliable proprioception and feeling are crucial. They are the biggest problems in practise. How can we find the posture in experience? Continual practise? Working with a good teacher? Both those things certainly but ultimately, this is the question we are always asking. Perhaps the value is in simply continuing to ask the question that cannot be answered.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Is zazen a process of undoing and to what extent can that process be a conscious one?
We describe our practise as 'just sitting' but how accurate a description is that of a human being on a cushion?
I can't answer these questions entirely here but this is the first salvo.
When I sit in the morning or in the evening, sometimes my head feels as if it is spinning with rationalisation of the day's events, with anticipation of events to come, with dreams of the future, regrets and so on. There is a direct correlation between these states and physical being whether that is a slumped lower spine, tension around the neck and shoulders, hunching. Perhaps all of these physical and mental, or rather psychophysical states are positions of rigidity, habitual positions we take in order to attempt to grasp something of our lives...perhaps.
We are directed in zazen to sit upright, our spines supported by a cushion that also tilts our pelvis forward. We create a stable triangular base with our legs, full or half lotus or the Burmese position. With our hands we form the mudra just below our navel. Personally I then sense the crown of my head as the top of my spine and adjust my posture so that I find balance with spine aligned vertically in space, not pressing or pushing, just gently sensing it this way (this is not always reliable which is why a teacher can help us to lose bad habits and find that ordinary aligned position.)
Then we sit, comfortably, allowing the posture of zazen to educate us physically, mentally and finally to free us of both of those bindings. The key aspect of practising zazen is to notice what it is that is preventing you from practising zazen which sounds like a contradiction but when we sit we notice that we are holding tension in areas of our body, that we are continually returning to a familiar pattern of thought. Noticing these aspects has the effect of freeing us from them. But actively trying to diminish tension or avoid thinking has the opposite effect of compounding these areas of rigidity into an immoveable object. The key is to permit the state of 'just sitting' to manifest itself without interfering.
Sometimes, when we've ceased to hold these perceived mental and physical states captive, we can become completely free in this instant of the present. Edges vanish, the whole being sits calmly in the same state of experience or reality as the entire universe. A very plain, very ordinary state of existence with nothing added to it, nothing preventing it from being.
It is a subtle practise, a lifetime's work but it is also immediately available to anyone who wishes to sit on a cushion and practise it.