291. The Catarrh of the Self

Master Joshu said to his monks, “If you remain in this monastery, practise zazen assiduously for five years, for ten years – even although you say nothing, nobody can say that you are without expression.”

In Buddhism, what do we mean by ‘expression’? 

The earliest forms of written language, rather depressingly, are not epics or magical stories. They’re lists, usually lists of possessions. Inventories. They’re testament to a tendency which has increased since the invention of writing: to control, to regard ourselves as separate from the world, and the world and all its parts are objects for our manipulation, ownership and control.

That’s not the case for all language. Oral language is very related to singing. And indeed the earliest versions of many of the Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra for example, are in verse form. So people said  or sang it rather than read it.

Singing, obviously, is very different from writing. It’s specific to the person and the moment. In the moment of singing, the person is part of the fabric of Great Being. So, as it were, the Universe is singing that person.

Our zazen is like this. Sometimes the Universe is singing us in the form of a black ocean. Sometimes in the form of an open sky. Sometimes in the form of a great fire. Sometimes in the form of a tree, or a mountain. Sometimes in the form of pain and loss. Sometimes in the form of dignity and love.

Sometimes when we are walking along we hear birdsong. It’s very piercing – it fills the air. We look up and imagine that the tree is full of birds. But in fact there’s only one bird, a little bird, perched high up the tree. 

The little bird is able to sing so clearly because it’s unconstrained by the catarrh of the self.