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.