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.'

Suzuki wrote:

'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

I express my gratitude to Buddhist ancestors,

living and dead, in heaven and hell,

to those I have known and those I have not.

Without you I would not have the means

to find my way.

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.

Dogen said:

"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)