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)

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