Wednesday, December 20, 2006
There is a beach called Vallay Strand on North Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It’s about a mile of white sand facing the Sound of Harris and bounded by the thick carpet of wildflowers called ‘machair’. It’s rarely visited except by otters and the odd sea eagle.
We refer to the beach as if it were a discrete entity that exists separate from its environment. The stupid ghost our frontal lobe invents to act for us decides to designate for all eternity this strip of sand, rock and grass. When the tide comes in, that beach is submerged. When the tide goes out the beach is huge and quite different from our mental picture. What we call a ‘beach’ has no distinct existence. In fact it is never the same even for an instant. The action of tides, erosion, current, wind, drift and so on ensure that there is never one distinct beach that we can identify as ‘the beach.’
It is a literal scientific truth that the movement of molecules in this universe ensure that nothing is precisely the same in any two given instants. But also, at a conceptual level we create the world anew in front of us in every moment – ‘this is my environment now, a chair, a table.’ But the real beach facing us is now different, and now different and now different and now different. There is no beach anywhere in fact that actually fits our applied concept. Not only has that pesky ghost done this irritatingly reductive sleight of hand for this insubstantial beach we are facing now but for all beaches everywhere.
This beach may be submerged, in which case we say, the tide has come in but the beach is underneath it. If we examine the way we conceptualise our world in each instant combined with the literal inaccuracy of the concepts we apply, this is nonsense. It’s a kind of superficial constructed reality that we use to communicate with each other, to civilise. But we should notice as we face this submerged beach, any future and any past of this beach is contained within this submerged beach. But the beach is submerged, has always been and will always be submerged. There never was a beach, there will never be a beach and beaches cannot describe beaches.
We can imagine the beach itself as one human sitting in the posture of zazen. Sometimes this person is submerged, drifting in the wide and deep ocean of prajna or reality, Sometimes exposed, just a distinct conceptualised beach, one person, imagining themselves alone, cut off from everything, we can call this the area of conscious thought. And sometimes the beach is part of the mainland, in action, moving with wind and rain. If we examine this analogy in the light of how we have described time and the action of our conscious minds, we can see that these distinctions don’t mean anything at all. Our concepts don’t match reality and the moment to match them to reality has passed anyway. Reality has manifested itself as a submerged beach, an exposed beach and the mainland. All of this ebb and flow are expressions of just one thing at any given moment that we cannot describe. We can’t say they are the same, because they are fundamentally different, they exist in separate dimensions. But each discrete state contains everything that exists of the other two (two for the sake of argument but actually countless numbers.)
Let’s return to our person in zazen. He or she is busy doing, thinking a lot. They move around in the posture, they readjust. They feel calm and without concerns or thoughts. They feel pain and hallucinate coloured lights. Like the beach we have described these are states of being of an entity we cannot describe doing zazen, an activity we have named and given concrete form but, like the beach, has no name, is unknowable and has no concrete form. All of these calm or disturbed states are what we call zazen and each of these states contains everything that exists of all the other states we can encounter that we call zazen.
When we practise zazen, we re-balance ourselves to reveal the same state of all phenomena. We cannot describe ourselves or our environment with any conscious thought. We cannot identify a self separate from environment or an environment separate from self. Environment / phenomena / universe, whatever you want to call it is one thing in real time with what we call ‘self.’