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337. The Whirlpool

Once, the Group had a retreat on the Scottish island of Luing. To get to the island you need to cross a passage of water affected by the nearby Corryvreckan whirlpool; the third most powerful whirlpool in the world. The boat can’t go directly across. It needs to go sideways. The effect of the whirlpool is to pull the boat back so it can cross over to the other side.

Sometimes, when we’re sitting alongside familiar distraction, random thoughts and such like, we have a persistent and unpleasant emotional state. Very often it’s anxiety. But it could be boredom, or rage, or fear, or bitterness.

At those times, it’s as if we’re back near the whirlpool. This time we’re alone in our little boat. By making great effort we can stay an apparent safe distance from the whirlpool, but we can never entirely escape it. We’re expending great effort to keep us in the same position. These disagreeable emotions are like that. We feel we require to keep these emotions at a distance, yet what we need to understand is that it’s that which keeps us stuck.

 What can we do?

From the perspective of this little boat of the self, we can’t do anything. 

But that’s not where our Zazen is.

From the perspective of the body of water, we can experience this whirlpool, not as something to keep our distance from, but as surging and constellating energy. From the position of the fish, we can see the whirlpool in a vision of wonder and astonishment. From the perspective of great dragons, we can see the whirlpool as a plaything.

This is the treasure house.

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336. The Fabric of Buddhism

The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.

The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’ 

We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.

Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.

That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.

At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.

Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?

If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not? 

When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.

The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?

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335. Being Held

In Mahayana Buddhism we often talk of the Dharmakaya, the universal body of the Buddha.

The faith that all beings are the body of the Buddha.

At first blush, we’re inclined to explain this away as a convenient metaphor to explain unity and differentiation.

It seems a faith that’s quaintly out of time.

If we touch another person, at first we just simply experience their surface. 

If we continue that touch, a still touch in a spirit of openness, curiosity and love, we gradually get to feel the depth of that person. And feeling the depth of that person, we also feel the depth of ourself.

In this sense when we are practising, we are held by the Body of the Buddha.

We are held, in this moment of practice, whether we are like a fractious baby, or a dreaming child, or a person caught in the fever of the self. We fall backwards into the depth of the self, and fall forwards into the depth of the world. Or rather, the self is like a narrow ledge, and whether forward or backward, we fall into the same space.

Being still is not the absence of movement, it is actualising this depth, this height

this held, this holding.

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334. Skilful Means

The Heart Sutra is a – probably Chinese – attempt to condense and to get to the heart of the prajnaparamita sutras; a vast body of literature that started to be composed in India around the first century BC.

In these sutras, there’s a repetitive emphasis on three elements: prajna ( intuitive wisdom), compassion and skillful means. ‘Prajna’ (wisdom) is the ability to see the emptiness, the boundlessness and the lack of separation of all things. ‘Compassion’ is the feeling with all beings. 

The temptation, when we hear these three terms, is to think that they’re attributes of the person. This ‘person’ acquires the capacity to see emptiness and, seeing emptiness, this ‘person’ then develops compassion in their heart and then this ‘person’ acts towards other beings in the most efficaciously compassionate way using skillful means. 

However, to think of these three qualities as qualities of the individual is to fall into exactly the same kind of spiritual narcissism that plagues meditation today. 

Prajna doesn’t mean me seeing the emptiness of all other things. It means seeing the emptiness of all things, including this ‘person’. The wall of identity which surrounds this person and separates them from other beings is dismantled.

With those walls absent, what is there but fellow feeling? 

And skillful means, because it’s not a personal quality; because it’s a universal quality, can be seen as one facet of this infinitely faceted diamond of all beings; each facet expressing the whole diamond.

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333. The Mahayana Sutras

How do we account for the fantastical and novel structure and content  of many of the Mahayana sutras: the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra?

These sutras are dramatically different from the Pali sutras,  which are simple in comparison. Usually, they just record what the Buddha said to a specific person who came to him with a specific problem or enquiry. The sutra is simply a record of what the teacher said. 

In contrast, we read the Lotus Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra and we’re looking around amidst all the imagery and stories, trying to find the teaching.

What’s going on? 

Nagarjuna’s decisive move in the MMK, near the beginnings of Mahayana, was to make the development of a systematic body of doctrine or of a systematic framework impossible. 

That left Mahayana with a number of options.

First  the essential emptiness of everything could just be reiterated. That’s what you see in the Diamond sutra. Over time, this gets rather sterile, which is probably why the schools most directly continuing Nagarjuna’s teachings didn’t prosper in China.

The second is that the teaching can go off in unusual and new directions which changes both the nature of language and the nature of teaching. 

In the Pali sutras, the language is simply faithfully recording what the Buddha said.

In the Mahayana sutras by contrast, the language is expressive and performative, so the teaching isn’t, as it were, set out in the sutra. The sutra is like a teacher who will change you. The language goes from being descriptive to being performative. 

It’s like somebody seizing your head so it’s pointing in a different direction. 

Viewed this way, you can see the direct connection between these sutras and the koan stories.

Mahayana is accordingly not something new, but a return, in a new way, to the Buddha’s original intention, which is not to promulgate a consistent body of doctrine, but to attend to and change the person in front of him, like a doctor would.

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332. A handful of jewels

Our true teacher is not within the boundary of a single person. If we believe that they are, then we will be like an old person, still looking for their perfect parent. 

In the Mahayana, the three core concepts are: prajna, compassion and skillful means.

We might imagine that prajna (intuitive wisdom) is the quality which the perfect teacher has; compassion is his orientation of that towards everyone else, and skillful means is his method of taking that wisdom and compassion to reduce the suffering of living beings. 

If we think in that way, we’re mistaken. What we need to understand is that the purpose of a teacher is to wake us up from the dream of the self. 

It’s as if we are sitting directly opposite someone. This person holds out their hand, revealing various precious jewels. We reach towards this person looking to take the proffered jewels, when suddenly they grab us by the wrist and pull us forward. 

It’s this movement which is the important thing. It’s this movement which enables, as it were, the cloak of the self and all its patterned nonsense of gain and loss to fall off. 

That cloak is a cloak of invisibility. Not obviously for the self and all the desires and strategies of the self – which are all too visible. What that cloak makes invisible is this great miracle of all being.

With the cloak of the self dropping off, what we understand is that our teachers’ incompleteness and our incompleteness and the incompleteness of all things is the hand that opens and reaches out to all things.

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331. Becoming singing

Master Dogen wrote chapter 40 of the Shobogenzo Dotoku (expression) towards the end of 1242; right in the middle of his most productive and expressive period of writing. The chapter begins:

All Buddhas and Ancestors are expressions. Thus, when Buddha ancestors intend to select Buddha ancestors, they always ask, “Do you have your expression?” This question is asked with the mind and with the body. It is asked with a walking stick or a whisk. It is asked with a pillar or a lantern. Those who are not Buddha ancestors do not ask this and do not answer this, since they are not in the position to do so. Such an expression is not obtained by following others or by the power of oneself. Where there is a thorough inquiry of a good ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.

Master Dogen – Shobogenzo Dotoku

The word ‘dotoku’ has two parts to it. The first part ‘do’ means ‘way’, or ‘to say’, and the second part ‘toku’ means ‘to attain’ or ‘to be able to’. 

Dogen makes ample use of the richness of these two kanji to recast buddhist practice. He does this by changing our idea of what practice is. So, rather than an idea that we are, as it were, struggling through this storm, in order to get to the other shore of imagined tranquility, rather we are to see ourselves and all being as ‘expression’.

When we hear the word ‘expression’ we normally think of either making a statement whereby something is asserted or, through a special talent for writing, painting, music or whatever, this person is able to produce something unique to this person. So we think of expression as being an attribute of the self. 

Dogen’s meaning is entirely different. From his perspective, whether we can see through the fog of the self or not, everything is illuminated. From his perspective, whether we can hear through the static of the self or not, everything is singing.

If we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this fog;  if we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this static, then even what we understand to be obstruction, even what we understand to be delusion, is in itself expression. Released from the grip of the self: the calculus of gain and loss;  the static, the fog becomes singing

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330. Not from the perspective of the self

Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, his universal recommendation of Zazen, closely follows an earlier text by the Chinese master Chang-lu Tsung-tse. However, there are several important differences. One difference in particular is that, in the earlier text, there is the following passage:

“Do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced and unsettled.”

Chang-lu Tsung-tse

That passage doesn’t appear in the Fukanzazengi. Obviously, Dogen was aware of that passage, so why isn’t it there? 

Chang-lu’s instruction has some modern-day echoes in terrible instructions that some people give in Zen about tucking in the chin, pushing up with the top of the head, and stretching the back of the neck. They are terrible for two reasons. Firstly, they simply create tension in the back of the neck. They give, perhaps, a feeling of uplift but what they actually create is tension. Although his instruction is in negative terms, it leaves effort (“strain”) there, you just shouldn’t overdo it.

There is a second reason, and a more significant one. When we put ourselves in the Zazen posture, putting ourselves in that posture is an act of will, an act of the self. But once we are in the posture we are no longer practising from the perspective of the self. We say, poetically perhaps, that we are practising from the perspective of the Buddha. In other words, we are sitting with all beings, within all Being.

 This is actually a very important point. We are so within a culture of individualism and self-improvement that we don’t notice it. It surrounds us like the ocean surrounds fish. People will habitually think of meditation as a way to get something for themselves: you get your mind calm, you become a kinder person, you become more compassionate. Sometimes, people with this perspective are more honest – they would say you become enlightened, you become spiritually evolved, your consciousness is enhanced. Drivel, obviously, but honest.

What we are doing in Zazen is simply letting everything be. We are not relying on our voluntary muscles – the muscles that are moving our hands or moving our neck; we are relying on our postural muscles, our deep muscles. It is those muscles and the engagement of those muscles through correct posture which creates a natural feeling of uplift in the body. It is a feeling of uplift that we can certainly feel in our neck and our head but which originates deep in our torso. It is not an uplift which is voluntarily created by us, it is simply something that happens when we put ourselves in the correct position and let the self be -temporarily- displaced.

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329. Dropping off ‘Body’

Perhaps Dōgen’s most famous formulation of Zazen is that it’s the continuous dropping off of body and mind. It seems to be an expression unique to him, although he claimed it was derived from his teacher, Nyojō. 

There are two parts to it: dropping off body and dropping off mind. 

Dropping off mind is reasonably easy for us to understand, but what is the dropping off of the body? Much less attention is paid to that, to what it might mean. 

One meaning is the dropping off of a habitual splitness that we experience with our body, the persistent and continual picturing of our body from a vaguely external perspective. This is often dominant over what we’re somatically feeling and experiencing. We’re frequently more aware of what we look like than how we feel. 

Dropping off the body requires, as a prerequisite, the dropping off of this visualization of the body. When we do that, the sense of the body as an object amongst other objects falls away. And although we can still maintain the primary self/world dualism even when we are somatically embodied, the boundaries are much more porous than when we are trapped in the object world, and so, particularly in Zazen, there is much more chance that we experience moments when this separation drops off.

Just as the dropping off of the body has been given inadequate attention, very often the instructions given about our body and Zazen are likewise deficient and brief.

So, I would like to make some suggestions about practice. 

If you ask someone to point to their body, they will generally point to their torso. They won’t point to their head. Yet, if we think about it for a moment, it’s obvious that our body is all of us. So it’s apparent that there’s an unconscious split that’s going on, whereby our head is identified with our self and with our mind. Our bodies are the subservient entity. That’s implicit in our everyday language. So if I asked you to paint my portrait, I would be rather surprised if you painted only my torso or if you painted my foot. I’d expect you to primarily paint my head. 

When we are asked to give attention to our body, what we will often do is try to focus our breath in our lower belly or be aware of our moving rib cage, something like that.

Because of this unconscious dualism, we ignore what is easiest for us to do, which is to bring our attention to the various aspects in our head: to the slight tension our forehead or eyes perhaps; the tightness in our jaw; the sensation of air coming in the nostrils; the sensation of the tongue within the mouth, the textured lips, and so on. All of these sensations are very accessible to us, much more so than feelings in other parts of our body.  

So, giving attention to that is helpful in a number of respects. Apart from being more accessible, it  helps to break the identification which we unconsciously make of our head with our mind—that’s one thing. Also, in a slightly different way, again because of that unconscious identification, it – as it were – embodies the mind. Once the mind is embodied in that way, that embodiment can somatically  flow down from the head to the rest of the body. Although the language is tricky, and certainly my language here doesn’t quite capture it, if you practice this, you will hopefully get a sense of it.

Another suggestion for enlivening the body is that you pay attention to a sensation which is neutral.  

Very often when people practice they’re very aware – too aware –  of their cascade of thoughts and emotions. They only become aware of their body when they experience pain or discomfort. And when they do, there’s often an anxious contraction of awareness around that pain or discomfort. A torrent of anxious thoughts occur which reinforces attention on that pain or discomfort. So it’s a very good idea to just be aware of neutral sensations in the body and develop a kind of muscle of awareness.  Being able to hold within awareness a particular body sensation and hold it within a wider awareness of the rest of the body and the rest of your environment. If you can develop that habit then you can gradually re-frame body sensation not as something physical and specifically located but energetic, changeable, and connected to everything else—changeable, impermanent, interdependent.

A third suggestion is that you make a distinction between your postural muscles and your voluntary muscles. 

Your postural muscles are what hold you up. Your voluntary muscles are those muscles which enable you to do things, reaching for a cup, for instance. If your posture is right, then you won’t be using your voluntary muscles when you’re in Zazen. You’ll simply be using your postural muscles. But if your posture isn’t right then you will be using your voluntary muscles. If, for instance, your pelvis isn’t in the right position your head’s probably going to be in the wrong position too, and you’re going to keep voluntarily moving your head or your torso using your voluntary muscles. You’ll stick your chest out, or try to lengthen the back of your neck.

One of the reasons why the distinction is important is, I think, because of the way the proprioceptive system works. Using your voluntary muscles often comes with a kind of visual sense. Your mind has a kind of picture of what your body is doing, which takes you back to the sense of the body as an object.

The postural muscles, in my experience, don’t come with that visual complement. And so, relying on the postural muscles makes it much easier to drop off the body because the ‘body as object’ isn’t unintentionally  reintroduced.

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328. The nature of faith in Zen

In his practice instructions, Master Hongzhi advises us to practice with the faith that all beings are our ancestors. At least, that’s what we would take his instructions as meaning. 

What’s important to understand, with his instructions and those of all the other masters, is that they are not using representational language. They’re using descriptive language: they are not telling us how the world is or how it should be; or what practice is, or what practice should be, but rather, they’re describing what their world is and what their practice is. How it is for them.

Because all these masters are practising and existing within our common humanity, we can practice with the faith that what Hongzhi is saying is a true experience for him and so, with the faith that it can be a true experience for us. And, in a sense, faith makes it so.

The connection between expression and faith is different from what we might ordinarily imagine. Expression is not stating something universal, something out there which is ‘true’, but it is expressing how it is with this person. And through the expression of this person, we can come to understand that what this person is experiencing, I, too, can experience. Whether the jewel is endarkened or not, I can have faith that it is there.