391. Dogen’s view of delusion and enlightenment

In the Genjokoan, Dogen defines delusion and enlightenment.  

His definition of delusion is surprisingly straightforward. He says that to carry the self forward and to encounter the myriad beings is delusion. That’s it!

He doesn’t say delusion is thinking that Lourdes is the capital of France or that that mirage over there is really palm trees and water. It’s not some kind of misapprehension of the world. It’s a configuring and restricting of experience around the self. That’s it! 

In delusion, we go from being within experience to, as it were, our experience being our experience, being mine, taking place within me. In other words, we’re not within the world, the world is within us.  You can phrase it in various ways but I think that’s fairly easy to understand. Living it is another matter, obviously.

The position of Enlightenment is the reverse of that. He says that for the myriad things to come forward and illuminate the self is Enlightenment. At least, that’s the Tanahashi translation.

It seems those two definitions contradict each other but they don’t. The word which is translated as ‘self’, jiko, has two meanings. The first meaning, which applies when he is talking about delusion, means ‘self’ in the way we normally mean it: the ego. But, confusingly, when he turns to enlightenment, the second meaning applies. In this, ‘jiko’ means ‘universal self’. He doesn’t mean that there’s a big spiritual bicycle pump in me that puffs out the small self to fill the universe. He means the whole universe: the whole of manifestation, creation, expression.

That’s why the translation of the second part varies with different writers. It’s not that somehow all the things of the world come within the Treasure House of the Self, like some transcendent version of the Scottish Exhibition Centre. It’s that each thing in its own nature, ungrasped by the self, illuminates everything.

The appropriation of experience to a self stills the voices of all beings. Letting go of this lets all beings sing.


‘Fatigue’ during Zazen

A very common problem in Zazen, particularly for beginners, is apparent fatigue. You often see people sitting, their heads, which feel heavy, gradually drooping forward, then they notice it and come out of it with a startle. Then they often stick their chest out and lift their head in a rather unrelaxed, mock heroic posture. And then you can see them gradually collapsing again like a slow motion  souffle, then taking up the heroic position again; up and down, like an accordion, often for the length of their sitting.

What’s helpful for fatigue in Zazen is to think of it in a different way. It’s not really about fatigue but about having a spine that’s insufficiently activated. If it were really about fatigue, the practitioner would be exhausted before and after Zazen, and they hardly ever are.

Rather than trying to make yourself do something with your mind, whose imperative is to urgently resume the ‘correct’ posture without anyone noticing,  it’s much better to make sure that your pelvis is in the right position; that your weight is going down through your sit bones. Then, just very, very finely and slowly, rock backwards and forwards on your sit bones.

Going from the back of your sit bones to the middle through the front very slowly, minutely.

As you’re doing that, on the in-breath you’re pushing down with the pelvic floor at the perineum, and on the out- breath you’re allowing the spine to lengthen. You’re not pushing up the top of the head, you’re not stretching the back of the neck,  you’re just allowing the spine to lengthen and be itself, like a young, unencumbered tree.


390. Not picking or choosing

The first lines of the Hsin-Hsin Ming, the Verses of Faith-Mind go as follows: 

“The great way is not difficult, only avoid picking and choosing.

 When Love and Hate do not arise, things cease to exist in the old way.”

It’s fair to say that the general way of looking at that passage is to say that the two parts are the same. In other words, the reference to ‘love and hate’ and the reference to ‘picking and choosing’ is the same thing. And on that assumption we think we primarily require to develop Equanimity,  particularly when we’re practising. From that comes the common instruction that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely and not be attached to them — not try to push them away or dwell on them.

But that common perspective is both banal and a misunderstanding — the two parts are not the same.

The reference to ‘picking and choosing’ doesn’t  mean that our arising  thoughts are already formed and appear within our awareness. What I think it means is that for a thought to exist (in the normal sense), we require to engage in picking and choosing. We require, in other words, to constrict our attention in order that a mental object or a feeling object, like an emotion, is constructed. 

Because to do that we require to disregard all other aspects of that ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’; the somatic aspect of it, the karmic aspect of it, the environmental aspect of it and various other things. If a thought is arising for me, that thought indicates not that there’s something pre-formed that I should have an attitude of neutrality towards. 


The fact that the thought (in the normal sense) arises at all  is an indicator that I’m engaging in picking and choosing.  I’m constricting my attention, thus an identifiable thought arises.

It arises from my activity of constriction which I’m unaware of.  So when a thought arises what I require to do is not to take a position towards that thought but recognise that I’m engaged in picking and choosing. In Uchiyama’s words, I “Open the Hand of Thought ”; what I’ve put out of my awareness, in terms of my body, my environment, my karma, and so on is brought back into awareness. When it’s brought back into awareness the thought, as it exists in the old way, disappears. 

So the activity of not picking and choosing, in other words, the activity of not constricting my attention, which you could call the practice of non-duality, means that in consequence, love and hate do not arise, because love and hate require that constriction, because they need to have something specific to adhere to.

Things ‘cease to exist in the old way’ not because we have an attitude of neutrality towards them but because our unconstricted awareness is primarily a wholeness out of which, as if in a dream, specific things appear to arise and disappear.


389. Who is at the door


388. Sangha Buddha

In Zen legend, when Master Bodhidharma was approaching death,  he called together his four senior disciples and asked them to explain their understanding. 

The first three gave verbal answers. Bodidharma said to them respectively “you have my skin”, “you have my flesh” and “you have my bones”. The fourth disciple Huike (Eko) said nothing, simply did prostrations then returned to his place. Bodhidharma then gave the transmission to him.

That story was subsequently used in zen to justify an anti-intellectual stance, which continues to this day.

Though not from Dōgen. In Katto, he gave an entirely different interpretation of the story. In his view, it was a completely erroneous understanding to think that skin is superficial and marrow is profound. Or, as he said in another context “If your speech is superficial, why would your silence be profound?”

There’s an aspect to the story which I don’t think has been properly explored. In the translations, Bodhidharma appears to refer to his skin, his flesh, his bones, his marrow, but I don’t think that’s an accurate rendition.  He wasn’t talking about his own body.

Or just his own body. He was talking about the body of the True Teacher.

The True Teacher appears when sincere practitioners gather together.

What could you call that True Teacher?

You could say that we’re not him, that we’ll never be him, but we can be a part of him, this body of sincere practitioners.

I believe Bodhidharma was referring to the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of The True Teacher, not his own puny body and mind.

In Buddhism there is the idea that the Buddha has three bodies; his historical body, the universal body (dharmakaya) ,and a third body, which is sometimes called the body of joy.

I think that the third body is more accurately rendered as the True Teacher; we could call that person Sangha Buddha. 

Thus we have the historical Buddha, the Reality Buddha and the Sangha Buddha.

Those three Buddhas are not three separate jewels But the one Jewel, seen differently.


387. The Buddhas and Ancestors of the future

Almost all Zen practitioners are familiar with the legend of Bodhidharma: him arriving in a Southern port in China, having a bracing conversation with the emperor, going to Shaolin Monastery where he sat facing a wall for nine years.

In recent times historians have criticised that Legend as being well, a Legend. Many have doubted the existence of Bodhidharma as an actual person, particularly when so many things are attributed to him such as him being the creator of Kung Fu, Chinese Tantra and so on.

But in fact there was an Indian monk called Bodhidharma who did arrive in China from India in the sixth century. We know that because a researcher, Andy Ferguson, looked through the Chinese immigration records of that time and found him. Of course, that person isn’t really related to the legend at all. We know nothing very much about him. 

So who’s the real Bodhidharma? Is it that historical person about whom we know very little, or is it the Legend?

I say it’s the Legend.

Buddhism has an unusual view of the future. The future Buddha for instance, Maitreya, is existing now, albeit not in the human realm. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha confidently predicts the future Buddhahood of many of the characters in that sutra.

The view that the past, present, and future are all existing now is called Eternalism.

It’s not simply the view of Mystics and religious figures. It was Einstein’s view. When one of Einstein’s friends died, Einstein said to his widow, “Oh, he’s just over that hill there.”

Yet there’s something about that metaphor of the whole of space-time being like a landscape that’s too static. 

More attractive -to me anyway -j is the view that the whole time-being is like a great ocean—dynamic, flowing in all directions. Time flows from the past to the present to the future, from the future to the past. 

It flows in all directions. The dynamic nature of our life flows in all directions and the dynamism of the whole universe is flowing through us.

In this sense, ‘Buddhas and Ancestors’ do not refer to historically located actual people.

They refer to this flow.
In that sense we are the future Buddhas and Ancestors for Bodhidharma. And although we cannot see them, the Buddhas and Ancestors of our future are flowing towards us, the unknown waters meeting the past waters of our karma, creating this miraculous vortex of now.


Dogen’s Zazen poem

Dogen wrote many poems directly or indirectly about Zazen, but there’s one in particular which is of considerable interest, because it’s almost an identical  poem to one written very shortly before.

In Steven Heine’s wonderful book, “The Zen Poetry of Dogen”  the earlier poem, which he’s entitled “Zazen Practice” goes as follows:

“The moon mirrored

by a mind free of all distractions 

even the waves, breaking

are reflecting its light.”

The slightly rewritten version is entitled ‘Zazen’


“The moon reflected

in a mind clear as still water 

even the waves, breaking

are reflecting its light.”

Both poems have a similar two-part structure. The second part, “even the waves breaking are reflecting its light,” is identical and the first part is almost identical.

The second part is something we’re familiar with in Dogen’s writings. He’s radicalising the traditional metaphor that ‘successful’ meditation is “like the moon being reflected in still water.”

In other words,  we’re undisturbed, we see reality as it is. He radicalises that by saying that the moon’s light is always there. So whether the moon is fragmented into a million pieces on the breaking waves or is in one piece when, for instance, it’s reflected on a still pond, it’s the same moon. 

By clear implication the purpose of meditation, as it were, is not quietude or tranquillity, but non-duality.  And that is seen in a way that’s not quietistic, but dynamic, inclusive, whole and expressive.

That’s a very important point in Dogen.  But why the slight change? 

I think that the first version of it retains a shred of dualism between ‘moon’ and ‘mind’. 

And, the use of ‘distractions’ comes with the possible implication that we should be free of them. Not distractions in the sense of splitting: the ego interjecting itself into the totality in a dualistic way, but distractions seen as mental activity full stop. Obviously the removal of the word takes away that erroneous implication.

The moon is always reflected, because – thanks to interdependence – everything is relationship. Everything is expression. Everything is experience. There’s not an original moon and then the moon’s reflection is added on later. The moon is always reflected: in the still pond of our eyes, in the tranquil water, in the waves, in our mind, and so on. 

And apart from that, the moon doesn’t exist. Because nothing does.


386. The Great Mystical Power

In classical China there was a widespread belief that prolonged meditation gave one miraculous powers: the ability to read other people’s minds; to see past lives; to do extraordinary things with the body’s energy; and so on.

Now we think that claims like that are ludicrous. Yet we imagine, equally ludicrously, that through Zazen we might cultivate compassion, wisdom, happiness, joy. 

Dogen, in talking about these claims—the ability to read minds and so on, referred to them as the small mystical powers. They were small because they were limited by person, place, circumstance, and time.

In contrast he talked about the great mystical power. By implication he is talking about Zazen.The famous example which he gave was fetching water and carrying firewood. In other words, the most mundane tasks we can imagine. Contemporary zen people often talk about washing the dishes. 

What does Dogen mean when he talks about the great mystical power?

Last week I was with my mother at the seaside in Edinburgh. We were sitting on the promenade. On the low sea wall was a little Indian girl, playing with her mother. The mother had produced two straws and both of them were delightedly waving around these straws like magicians wands. Waving them at the sea, the sky, the birds, the sand and so on.

The little girl was so happy, so new.

And I suddenly saw that that little girl was manifesting the great mystical power

And the reason why Dogen referred to the small mystical powers as small was that they simply involved changing the world.

And that the great mystical power is not changing the world, it is renewing the world.

Renewing the world and in this way, stopping, like the hand of another on a falling person, the collapse into nothingness.  


Sitting Within Zazen

The key to sitting Zazen is a dynamic spine. In turn, the key to that is the correct positioning of the pelvis so our physical weight is dropping down through our sit bones and our energetic weight, as it were, is dropping down through our base chakra.

If we’re sitting in the correct position, certain consequences follow. For example, when we breathe in, there’s a subtle and natural push down on the base chakra. It’s as if the base chakra pushes the earth and the breath floods in through there upwards, up through the body to the top of the head, and slightly beyond.  It’s like a wave coming in, followed by a naturally slower out breath, like a receding wave, falling naturally downwards through the body.

On the outbreath, alongside the downward movement, there’s a subtle and natural downward pressure. And we might think, “well, a little downward pressure is a good thing so more downward pressure must be a better thing”. And so we might consciously push down with our diaphragm, or consciously compress or otherwise act on our stomach muscles.

Similarly if our spine is dynamic, our head is naturally going up, the back of our neck is stretched and our chin is slightly tucked in, naturally. Yet we might think it a good idea to stretch the back of the neck more.  So we tense our muscles and tuck our chin in more.

This is the behaviour of an idiot.

What we require to do once we put our body in the correct posture is just to trust entirely in Zazen. If we do, all the nonsense of our self arises within Zazen. If we attempt these ‘helpful’ interventions, Zazen is arising within the ego, like everything else.

And it’s no good.


Breathing From The Body Of Practice

Master Dogen gives virtually no instructions about the breath, apart from telling us that we should breathe through our nose not our mouth and that we should let our long breaths be long and our short breaths be short. In other words we shouldn’t try to control our breath.

This brevity gives us freedom to consider, from our actual experience of practice, how the breath should be. 

It seems to me that breath and posture are two halves of a whole. If we’re sitting properly, if our pelvis is in the right position, our weight physically is dropping down through our sit bones and energetically is dropping down through our perineum, specifically that part of the perineum which corresponds to the base chakra in the Indian perspective.

If our pelvis is in that position, then there’s a stretch that’s going on, not just at the back of our neck, but a stretch all the way between our base and the top of our head. So it’s as if the spine  energetically is like a kind of very alive tree whose roots go into the earth, whose dynamic expression flows right up our body, right up to the top of our head and beyond.

Now we know anatomically that isn’t accurate, but we’re not interested in the pictured body—the body of knowledge. What we’re interested in is the body of experience. 

The same thing applies to the breath in this analogy. 

The breath is like the leaves of that tree which spread throughout the body.

So again, although we have a knowledge of where our lungs are and the knowledge that our breath comes in through our nose or our mouth, that isn’t what we’re primarily interested in.

We’re interested in the body of practice. 

In that body of practice, if our pelvis is in the correct position, if our weight is dropping down in the way in which I’ve described on an in-breath, there’s a slight push down at the base chakra.

It’s not that our air is coming in through our nostrils and flowing down. Within the body of experience, it’s as if the breath is flooding upwards right up to the top of our head from the base chakra. That’s a relatively speedy movement, like a wave coming in.

As far as the outbreath is concerned, it’s like a wave going out, slightly slower.  The wave going out corresponds with a kind of dropping down through the body.

That’s where I think erroneous instructions arise. Because there’s this natural dropping down you think, well I can give this a helping hand. I can consciously press down in my diaphragm area. I can consciously press out with the muscles in my lower belly. I can just give it a hand—but that isn’t so.

The breath has to stay natural. 

We do not fully express our practice by exaggerating aspects of natural movement with our will. That simply makes it a technical movement.

We do it by gradually becoming aware of a greater subtlety and integration in our whole body.  If we think that breathing in is consciously breathing in through our nose, that’s not actually a natural breath at all. It’s a willed breath, because it’s coming from this knowledge of the breathing structure. Within that body of knowledge, there’s breath coming in through the nose, travelling down into my lungs. 

Whilst it appears to be a natural breath, it’s an idea. If you pay careful attention you’ll notice that if you try to breathe that way particularly in the zazen posture, you’re actually restricting your breath. 

Breathing to be natural must be natural not within some thought of what the breath should naturally be like

but natural within the posture.