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302. Practice Realisation

One of the three meanings of satori is ‘practice realisation’. Practice realisation is an abbreviation of a longer phrase which is something like, “I hear the teachings of the Buddha (on matters like interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suffering and so on). I accept those teachings. Accordingly I practise zazen. And through practising zazen I have the realisation that those teachings are true.”

‘Realisation’ here has two meanings. Firstly that from my perspective, practice leads me to accept at a more fundamental level the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Second, ‘realisation’ also means objectively that my practice actualises – makes real –  those teachings.

And that brings into view a wider issue: the relationship between the teachings and Zazen, which can be problematic for some Zen practitioners, who have an unfortunate tendency to be proudly ignorant  through misunderstanding Bodhidharma’s poem that Zen is “A special transmission outside the scriptures, No reliance on words or letters”.

The relationship between the teachings and practice is a symbiotic spiral. It’s not simply that I do zazen, realise that the teachings are true and then put the teachings away and never attend to them again. No. The teachings enable the landscape of zazen to be opened out, illuminated. And vice versa. My experience of zazen enables me to engage with the teachings in a deeper and more personal way.

We can see the teachings throughout buddhist history not as a progression where deficiencies are identified then dealt with by a subsequent development. But rather that all the teachings map on, in some sense, to our experience in zazen. Not like a shadow, but like a partner.

So for instance, we have the original teachings which focus very much on allowing our experience to come and go freely, not getting attached to thoughts and so on. We have the later teachings on emptiness. And then we have teachings, particularly the Chinese tradition from the Tang Dynasty onward, which focus on suchness.

It’s not that these different teachings represent some kind of progression toward perfection,  but rather they’re locations in a gradually elaborated landscape where we can come and go freely, like a little bird. The landscape elaborates itself because of love.

If our life is very stormy then we may want to shelter in the cave of the original teachings, where we’re just simply very attentive to our inchoate experience coming and going freely, like a storm blowing somewhere else.

And other times we might want to be freely flying in this vast space of empty awareness.

And other times we might be within this one-piece compassionate sitting where the heart is everywhere.

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301. The Buddha’s Enlightenment

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, like the Nativity story, developed over time. In the best known version, the Buddha sits down under the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he attains enlightenment.

As he’s sitting through the night  Mara appears, and attempts to unsettle him with apparitions to create fear and sexual desire. Yet whether he is unsettled or not, the Buddha continues to sit.  As dawn approaches, the Buddha touches the ground with his hand, and Mara and his forces disappear. As dawn breaks, he looks up to the sky and sees the morning star, Venus. And at that point he attains awakening.

The earliest versions of the Buddhist enlightenment contain hardly any of these ingredients. We’re simply told that he attained Nirvana. Not that he attained enlightenment. And it’s clear from the context that Nirvana is not a unique quality or faculty which only the Buddha had, but is something readily available to other people, once the nature of our existence is understood.

So when the Buddha starts teaching, others will frequently attain Nirvana too.

Elaborating the  story to make it about the Buddha’s enlightenment carries the risk of removing him from the whole messy mass of humanity. Changing him from being a very unusual person to a unique person.

Yet there’s also a way of looking at the enlightenment story which is a simple description of our experience in zazen. The tree – the Bodhi tree – under which the Buddha is sheltering-  is hollow, empty. It has no self essence, only location and connection. Its branches extend everywhere into space. Its roots extend everywhere in time. It’s a clear symbol of interdependence.

The ground which the Buddha touches is the ground of your practice body. And Mara, I would have thought, is clearly indicative of intruding and habitual patterns of thought and feeling. The space, which is actualised by the Buddha looking up and seeing the morning star through and within this vast space, is the space of awareness in zazen.

What’s the function of the morning star? The word that is rendered as enlightenment,yet ‘Bodhi’ doesn’t have any connotations of light, or of illumination. It simply means ‘awakened’. Yet it’s said (in the story) that at the moment of his enlightenment the Buddha said, “Now I and all other beings are enlightened.”

If you think about light, then the light – space, illuminated –  must permeate everywhere. If it didn’t then he could neither see the morning star, or anything else. But at the same time the morning star is particular. So it is both particular and universal. As are we.  

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions. Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.’

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars.  Thus,one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is  also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us  what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.

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299. The Eyes of Practice

When we see the world through the eyes of the self, we grasp things with our certainty. So we say, “Oh that’s a wall”; “There’s the sky out there”; Time is passing”; “My zazen isn’t very good today.” And so on.

Sometimes it feels as if our experience has a slightly weird, apparitional quality about it. As if in a dream. Neither existence nor non-existence. Ungrounded, because seeing in this way – through the eyes of the self, through the eyes of certainty – the world exists within our mind. And, as it were, we exist within our mind too.

Seeing through the eyes of practice is entirely different. We do our best not to grasp our moment-to-moment experience with our certainty, yet sometimes we can’t help ourselves. And when we do, we just learn to release that grip of certainty. And the feeling tone when we see in this way is entirely different. It’s as if we become soft and open and connected. At daybreak, the ghosts vanish.

We can understand conceptually the difference between these ways of seeing. But inside that understanding there’s a trap. Which is that we think that we have to overcome our mind. But we can’t overcome the mind with the mind – it’s not possible.

But what we can do is to have faith. Not in the sense of a belief in something. But we can accept the sincerity of other practitioners who tell us their experience, seeing through the eyes of practice. And we can have faith in believing that that is not an experience simply given to them because they’re special beings. But that it’s an experience which is an intrinsic part of us being human. And is what makes us human beings, not ghosts. Have faith in that.

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298.The Ghost Cave

The Buddha said that our state of perception when we meditate is not ordinary perception, neither is it a special kind of perception, neither is it disordered perception, neither is it no perception.

So what is it?

The suggestion is that it is a state which is always available to us but which somehow we overlook. That state is where we are not attempting to grasp our experience with our certainty. We are not making a picture of the world. It cannot be pictured, because it is inherently whole, alive and changing.

 It’s within this context we need to understand the familiar metaphor of our state in Zazen being like clouds in an empty sky. It’s not that there is a person down on the ground looking upwards, seeing the empty sky and clouds. It’s just simply clouds and empty sky. In the context of that metaphor the clouds are our changeable, dynamic, unconceivable experience and the sky is our breath. Not just our breath, the vast space of our awareness too, but our breath, certainly.

The Greek word for soul, psyche also means to breathe. The Greek word for body is soma. When we allow our breath to be unhindered, then our breath and our awareness, together, can go to  every part of our body, re-embodying this person, and breaking the spell of there being a little person inside this person who is directing everything.

 It is ominously significant for us now that when we think of the word soul – if we think of it at all – we don’t think of it in terms of the dynamic, aware body, we think of it as a kind of ghost. Something both here and not here. But here’s the thing: if we exist within the ghost of the self, then our life now is insubstantial, like a ghost. We don’t need to die to experience living in the ghost cave, because that is where we are. Practice means to get free of this ghost cave, and to live.

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297. Beginningless and Endless

Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment. 

One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.

It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?” 

Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.

Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.

In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?

Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two. 

If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.

Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.

If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?

Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body  is lying there -passive and dough like –  as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.

But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.

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296. Everyday Life

At the end of chapter 16 of the MMK, where Nagarjuna is talking about nirvana, he writes the following:

“People who say that they want to stop grasping and get the state of nirvana are really grasping for something. In the state where nirvana is not something to be attained and everyday life is not something to be abandoned, what is everyday life? How shall we conceive of nirvana?”

The miraculous ordinariness of everyday life is very popular in zen. You tend to get rather formulaic expressions about carrying water and chopping firewood, or eating rice and drinking tea, things like that, even if we no longer do those apparently mundane things.

There’s a danger however that we imagine that what is being said in these statements is that when I am doing something mundane, like washing the dishes for example, I am washing the dishes mindfully. Or when I am washing the dishes I am completely present. Or some unselfconsciously self aggrandising formulation like that.

The point of everyday life in Nagarjuna’s sense is that the self is not something fixed, even something fixed negatively, but rather is radically indeterminate, porous, changeable, interconnected, going in and out of focus and suchlike.

When we are doing something ordinary,  like washing the dishes, sometimes it’s very much as if the self in the normal sense is there. Other times we feel very embodied. We’re very aware of our senses: of the play of water in our hands, the  feel of the air.

Other times we’re very aware of our physicality, our balance, our fleshiness. Sometimes it’s as if everything is just this one piece. Sometimes it’s as if the self is like a ghost, coming in and out of presence. We just stop grasping: for a something, for a nothing.

We just need to pay attention, and just see what we see, without preconception.

When we talk of everyday life in the context of self, what we’re moving away from is an idea of self in the fixed, unreflexive and dualistic that people will often think of it: there’s a little me inside this body, experiencing things and directing this body. That’s the important shift. We emphasise the apparently mundane because the miraculous indeterminacy of this life happens everywhere.

Yet we don’t substitute that unreflexive idea with a ‘Buddhist’ idea of  no self, where somehow the space of this person is rubbed out. So, as it were, there remains a person shaped space moving around the room. Because there’s still something fixed, just nobler, as if the self has become the Holy Ghost. 

That kind of spiritual grasping is still within the dream of the self.

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295. Nirvana

The Buddha talked about Nirvana a great deal. Usually he would talk of it in negative terms, so he might say, for example, that it wasn’t perception and it wasn’t no perception, things like that. 

But among the few positive statements he made about Nirvana, one in particular is very resonant. He said that Nirvana was the ground of the holy life.

From that, I think it’s clear that Nirvana is not an achievement, or a place, or a destination, or a state, but it’s an intrinsic faculty of us as human beings.

But if nirvana isn’t a state, or a place, then what are we to make of its apparent opposite, Samsara?

Samsara is normally explained in terms of the transmigration between the six realms of existence: the hell realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the fighting demons realm, the heavenly realm, and the human realm.

I say that Nirvana and Samsara both arise within this practice of zazen. The ‘ground’ that the Buddha talks about is this body. The space which is there, which is common to all the realms of existence, is the space of our awareness in zazen, and the space which holds all these different aspects of existence. And it is the one space.

Nirvana and Samsara are both within us, and contain us, and are here, now. And if they’re not here, and now, then where are they?

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294. Unfolding

Before you sit zazen your life exists in time. You get up, you put yourself in order, you come to sit, and you understand that your sitting will be of a particular duration. And when that sitting finishes, then you can resume the form of your life.

So when you’re like that, the ‘I’ that is you is folded up sufficiently small to fit within the space of the self. However, when you practice zazen that ‘I’ unfolds. And it unfolds to include the whole world.

From the perspective of the self you might understand that you are sitting in your room, I’m sitting in mine, and through some act of imaginative empathy we may be able to picture being in the one vast room. But what we realize when the ‘I’ is unfolded within the practice of zazen, is that we are all within this one room of the existence moment of the present, along with all beings. And even though that room is sufficiently vast to include all beings within this present moment, it’s not sealed off.

And so it’s as if, as you’re sitting, the whole entirety of existence – all times – is, as it were, dripping down, dropping on your head, and gradually washing away the dust of the self.

It’s as if you find yourself at this moment on top of a mountain peak. You look out from the peak to see an infinite number of other peaks, some near, some far, some masked in clouds; and it’s as if you see, on the top of each of these peaks, a person. Sometimes a very young person, sometimes an old person, sometimes a person full of joy, sometimes a person suffering, sometimes a person present, sometimes a person absent.

Are all these persons you, or not? It’s hard to say.

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293. Expression

Because of the manifold deficiencies of teachers like myself, many students adhere to the idea that zazen is a kind of waiting. A waiting for something to happen. A waiting for something to change. Awaiting enlightenment.

This is completely mistaken. Zazen is not the practice of the self waiting to acquire something. It is the practice of momentarily dropping off the self. And to the extent that we can drop off the self from moment to moment, expression is possible.

In the Dotoku chapter of the Shobogenzo, Dogen says  that all Buddhas and all Patriarchs are expression. The great 18th century Zen Master Menzan says that expression means the manifesting of the great functioning of the Patriarchs. It is not limited to verbal acts. Sometimes there is expression with blows or with  the snap of a finger.

We’re talking here about duality and non-duality. In duality there is self and world, there are objects, there are forces which act on those objects, there is interaction between objects and so on. In the world of duality, expression in Dogen’s sense is either not seen at all, or is thought of as something peripheral.

However, from the perspective of non-duality, expression is all there is. There is not a pre-existing world comprised of things and forces which interact, and of which expression is an incidental facet. There is simply this dynamic expressive whole, constantly creative and constantly vivid.

‘Dotoku’ has two parts. ‘ Do’ means, among other things, ‘the way’ (of Buddhism) and ‘to say’ or ‘ to express’, and ‘Toku’ means ‘to attain’ or to be capable of’. So the compound has a number of interrelated meanings, which Dogen uses to suggest that true expression is nondual. Which is why he is able to say that buddhist Patriarchs express themselves with total power, because in their expression, the total(ity) is unfractured, and so, can be expressed/express itself, and so he also says that without the Buddhist patriarchs/ nonduality, there would be no expression.

When, in the Heart Sutra we mention the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the suggestion is that when we’re sitting, we’re sitting not in the position of the self but in the position either of the Buddha or of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or both. ‘Buddha’ is plainly a person who recognizes that there is no self subsisting. 

But what of the suggestion is that we practise from the position of the Bodhisattva of Compassion?

The Bodhisattva of Compassion is symbolically depicted as a being with an infinity of eyes and hands. But we can interpret that symbolism as meaning simply an infinity of perspectives and expressions. And a perspective is a kind of expression. So from the perspective of compassion, the world is entirely expression, and our effort whilst we are sitting is a great expression.

It is not a great expression because it is our personal expression, because our personal effort is puny. It is a great expression because it is the activity of all beings, expressed through this person.