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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.

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327. The Pearl of the mind

Amongst his voluminous writings, the Fukanzazengi, Dōgen’s Universal Recommendation of Zazen, is probably his most important.  

Yet, it’s an anomaly because, while Dōgen is celebrated for his originality, his Fukanzazengi is, in large part, a copy of an earlier text by Chinese Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse; ‘A written manual on Zen meditation’. Chang-lu wrote this about 130 or so years before Dōgen. 

(It’s not unique for Dōgen’s to respond to the writings of another. He rewrote the Zazenshin poem of Hongzhi to emphasize dynamism over tranquility. There’s also some parallels between his death poem and Hongzhi’s death poem).

What Dōgen does in the Fukanzazengi is to take the original text, miss out the starting paragraph and put in four introductory paragraphs of his own. And at the end he also adds a number of paragraphs. But the central part of the text strongly resembles Chang-lu’s text.

There’s some instructions which Dogen misses out. For instance, Chang-lu admonishes: “do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced  and unsettled”.  He also tells the practitioner to press their tongue against their hard palate. 

Neither of those passages appear in Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi. 

The most striking difference however  is right in the middle of Chang-lu’s text, where there is the following passage:

“Therefore it is said: to seek a pearl we should still the waves.

If we disturb the water it will be hard to get.

When the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear”.

Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse;

That passage doesn’t appear in Dōgen’s text. 

Chang-lu is using a familiar Buddhist metaphor within which the water represents the mind. The wind is the wind of delusion which makes the water choppy. When the water is choppy it cannot accurately reflect anything. It’s like the personal karmic mind, lost in confusion. The true nature of the mind is obscured.  However when the  water is calm, the true mind can show itself. It can clearly and tranquilly reflect the moon, like a mirror.

With Chang-lu we also get the further subsidiary metaphor of the pearl. When the water is still, when the mind is quiet, the depth of the water/mind is apparent, revealing at the greatest depth the pearl of the mind, which we might take as a reference to Buddha nature.

In his poetry, translated into English by Steven Heine, Dōgen radicalizes this image. For him the wind and the waves are not negative.  The aim of practice is not to eradicate the wind and hence calm the water. 

For example, in one of his poems ( entitled, significantly, ‘Shobogenzo’) he uses the image of a small boat drifting amidst the waves.

In the heart of the night

The moonlight framing

A small boat drifting,

Tossed not by the waves

Nor swayed by the breeze

Master Dogen’s poem, “Shobogenzo”

 The  small boat is presumably the individual practitioner. The boat is undisturbed by the wind and the waves because the boat is empty of a person

The wind and the waves, instead of being equated with delusion, are now equated with a dynamic vision of interdependence. 

We can see his transformation of this metaphor most clearly in another of his poems, ‘A special transmission outside the teaching’:

The dharma, like an oyster

 washed atop a high cliff 

even waves crashing against 

the reefy coast, like words,

may reach but cannot wash it away. 

Master Dogen’s poem, “A special transmission outside the teaching”

We can see here that Dōgen further radicalizes Chang-lu’s image, bringing to the surface very interesting questions regarding the relationship between language and practice—and many other things.

He takes us from a rather clichéd image of tranquility, a metaphor in grave risk of petrification, to a point where the radicalised image breaks free of specific symbolic interpretation, and is restored to its creative expressive potential. 

And that makes it possible for us to make new responses. For example, when I read this poem it seemed to me that the cliff was the practitioner in Zazen. A cliff  is, as it were, part of the universal body of all beings but it lacks a head. Or rather, it’s part of this body because it lacks a (personal) head. Except in this case, it does have a head—the oyster. We don’t practice from the perspective of the self. We, as it were, lose our head. But we don’t become mindless.

That was simply my  perspective at that moment. It might not be yours. And may not remain mine. The point is that once the image is radicalized, then an infinity of perspectives become possible; feeding back into the dynamism, creativity and limitless expression of the revitalized metaphor.

My response to this poem:

In Zazen we are a high cliff

white as bone.

The ocean’s push

is a baby’s hand.

The dharma is written everywhere 

like white ink on white paper.   

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326. Bodhidharma’s ‘Wall Contemplation’

In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, had his encounter with the Emperor and then went to Shaolin temple where he sat facing a wall for nine years. There’s pictures of this everywhere, showing Bodhidharma with dramatically bulging eyes.

When we sit facing the wall, we’re evoking that. 

The Chinese phrase which is rendered as, ‘wall contemplation’, is ‘pi-kuan’. Classical Chinese is notoriously terse. The expression means simply something like, ‘wall gazing’. It doesn’t say who’s doing the gazing – if it’s a person gazing at a wall or if it’s the wall gazing, or something else. The phrase is original to Bodhidharma.

Because of the pictorial representation, we think, without inquiring further, that the phrase simply means that Bodhidharma practised zazen facing the wall. Except, that isn’t really an explanation at all.

Given that the wall is plainly not the object of meditation, the phrase, I think, only makes sense when we interpret it as meaning that when we are sitting, we are like a wall gazing onto the world.

What does that suggest? Firstly, that the wall, like a tree, or a mountain, is rooted in the being of all things. It’s non-dual. Secondly, that the wall doesn’t differentiate. So the wall will see all beings, in all states, with the same ‘gaze’. 

In that sense, the wall is like a stone mirror. If we look at it in that way, then we can see a connection between this idea of wall gazing and the Alaya consciousness that we encounter in Yogacara. Bodhidharma was known for bequeathing to his successor the Lankavatara sutra, which is a Yogacara sutra.

The phrase is evocative and open-ended. We should approach it as we should approach all the teachings; not as a ‘puzzle’ to be solved and then never returned to, but like a person. For all the sutras, for all the teachings, it is like we’re encountering a person, who is not exhausted by definition and classification but who, from moment to moment, offers the opportunity of a living exchange about practice, which can change us, and change them.

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325. Trees

I remember visiting a friend who lived at the top of a valley. 

From her garden you could look right across the valley to the other side. On the slope of that ‘other side’, was a line of trees, working their way up the slope. From looking at them, it was clear that the oldest was the one nearest the bottom, and the youngest was the one furthest up. 

It seemed clear that over time, the tree at the bottom had given birth to the tree next up, which in turn had given birth and so on, quite outside the consciousness of each tree, which was simply expressing itself in each moment; expressing itself through the soft earth; expressing itself through the open air; but despite the tree’s focus on its expression in the moment, it was nonetheless walking through time.

It’s hard for us to practice in this way, and to live in this way, because we believe that each moment is enfolded within the skin of memory, judgment, perception, anticipation – the body of an enduring person.

What we need to understand is that we are not smeared across all the moments of our life. Each moment is infinitely faceted and must be fully expressed now. If not now, then when?

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324. Visual Imagery In Mahayana Buddhism

When we read many of the Mahayana sutras, The Lotus Sutra for example, or the extraordinary Flower Garland Sutra, what immediately strikes us is the incredible array of fantastical imagery. We’re quite bemused by it. Often we read through the sutra rather impatiently, trying to get past all this visual stuff and get to the point

We’re a bit like a primitive anatomist, who, when opening up a body, sees all this gunk; all this myofascial goo, and discards it, because he thinks the real business of anatomy is the organs, not this weird connective tissue. 

The sumptuous visual quality is even more striking when compared with the Pali sutras, which are mostly very practical. Somebody comes to the Buddha, asks him a question, the Buddha inquires about his particular circumstances and then gives his response. 

The emphasis on the visual in Mahayana seems to start with the origin of Mahayana itself:  the prajnaparamita sutras. It’s important to note that the start of their composition occurred around the same time as the start of the Abhidharma literature. 

For the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the sutras were just transmitted orally. They have the pattern that you’d expect of an oral transmission: there’s a lot of repetition and formulas to enable the sutra to be remembered more easily.

Then there’s a change: the sutras are written down. Once they are, it’s much easier to compare them; to try and fit them together into a coherent philosophical system. This is what the Abhidharma literature attempts to do, and it’s what Nagarjuna attacks.

But alongside that, in opposition, is the prajnaparamita literature. Instead of a philosophical structure, there is this mass of visual imagery and repetition. 

It’s hard for us to make sense of this because for us, in our culture, with its predominance of writing, we associate ‘vision’ (seeing)  with the mind and we probably associate ‘hearing’ with intuition. To make sense of this emphasis on the visual in Mahayana, we need to understand that the assumptions in classical India were exactly the opposite. 

Because of the initial preservation of the sutras by recitation – by hearing – hearing was associated with the intellect and by extension, when we’re hearing arguments – the Abhidharma scholars  trying to make all these sutras into a coherent system – we’re doing so, as it were, with our ears. By contrast, ‘vision’ (sight) is associated with immediacy, with receptivity, with a kind of wholeness coming all at once without the mediation of the intellect. If we can understand that, then we can see what is going on with the emphasis on the visual in the Mahayana sutras.

What we need to be careful of is not to think of this as making fantastical claims about the nature of reality (reality corresponding with these extraordinary visions) but rather as a poetic description of the ways in which different beings can see; see in that intuitive and complete and arrived sense. 

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323. Resolving the mind/body split

One of the immediate benefits we receive when we start practice is that we cease to identify awareness with thinking. 

From the start, we’re within this space of awareness: our mind, our body, our environment; everything is within this general spacious awareness. We’re like fish in an ocean of awareness. However we don’t think of it as a benefit because we’re keenly aware of how polluted this ocean is with the intrusive, persistent and repetitive nature of our thoughts.

When we’re confronted with the persistence of our thoughts in practice, the temptation is to try one of two strategies.

 The first is to try to defeat those thoughts through mental effort; to change their nature, to extinguish them, or to push them to the periphery of awareness.

The second is to go as far as possible from the apparent location of those thoughts – the imaginary space of the mind within the imagined space of the brain – to something else – our breath, our body, our wider environment – whatever.

Counterintuitively however, what is actually very helpful for us to do is to give specific awareness to what we can feel in our head. It’s no accident that one of the preliminary vipassana practices is to focus on the breath coming in and out of our nostrils. That’s obviously one thing that we can be aware of. We can also be aware of patterns of tension that we’re holding in our forehead. We can be aware of our teeth; the expansive, alive  presence of our tongue and our mouth; the tension or the spaciousness at the back of our head; all these kinds of things. 

What you’ll notice, if you pay careful attention, is that it’s impossible for a thought and an awareness of something sensate to exist at exactly the same time. You have to pay careful attention, because quite often we flip between the two, but you’ll find that they cannot coexist, in the same way that phantoms cannot appear in sunlight. Which is not to say that the thought becomes a vacuity. Rather, it’s experienced as something energetic: embodied noise. 

Practically, it’s much easier to be aware of sensations in our head than in our torso, or legs, but more importantly through this approach we cease to identify the mind with the head, and no longer relegate “the body” to our body below the head. We  embody, as it were, the mind in the head and reconcile the two.

And that reconciliation can then extend throughout the whole.body. In that way we can  resolve the familiar mind-body dualism.  

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322. The Meaning of Gassho

Why do we bow?

The common explanation which is given for bowing, or ‘gassho’, is with bringing together opposites. We take things which are separate and possibly opposed – left and right  – and bring them together in a gesture of integration, with our hands positioned between our head and our heart. 

We can give a slightly more subtle explanation: when our hands are in this position, we’re integrating aspects of ourselves which are often quite scattered. We have an idea of ourselves as subject, somebody acting on the world, yet we also have an idea of ourselves, and certainly our body, as object; something in the world that is either acting upon other objects or being acted upon. 

There’s a smear of self between these various senses, but when we’re holding our hands in gassho, all those various senses are integrated in the simple gesture. Each hand is exerting itself and pushing against the other and each hand is experiencing the push from the other, so in microcosm gassho is a representation and enactment  of this integration and an integration of ourselves with all of existence.

There’s a third explanation which can be made.  In Shohaku Okumura’s excellent book about the Genjokoan, he points out that the characters which Dogen uses for ‘koan’ are different from those normally used. 

‘Koan’ comprises two ideograms – ‘ko’ and ‘an’. In the usual rendition, the ‘ko’ ideogram means something like ‘universal’ or ‘public’ and the ‘an’ ideogram means something like ‘desk’. So, the consequent meaning of ko-an is something like: an order promulgated at an official’s desk, as agent for the emperor, which has universal effect. And that became altered in due course to refer to the verbal teachings of zen masters. Just as the emperor’s proclamation is of universal effect because he’s the emperor, the zen master’s proclamation would have universal validity because it was true.

Dogen uses a different character for the second ideogram. Although the ideogram is different, it sounds the same as the more usual one. This happens in Chinese a lot, and we can get a sense of it when we see equivalents in English: ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, for example. Anyway, this character has as one of its components the signifier for ‘hand’, which changes the meaning of the composite ko-an. The meaning which Dogen places on ‘koan’, by the use of this different ideogram, fundamentally changes. So rather than meaning something like a universal statement of truth, the koan is rather a statement of the reality of this person exerting themselves fully, in this karmic position. There is a pivot, from Truth as Representation to Truth as Expression. 

The meaning which was brought out by Dogen’s successors, was something like, ‘to accept one’s lot’. That doesn’t mean to take a fatalistic position. It’s rather – “In this particular, unique, momentary dharma position my responsibility is to express this position fully”. I do that within a dynamic universe where everything is likewise expressing itself fully. 

In gassho, in openness and gratitude, we do that.  And so, the universe does not collapse into nothingness. 

We can see that the third interpretation of gassho is not, as it were, a bowing to something – a Buddha or a teacher or something else, but rather it is part of the expression of the full momentary dynamic activity of this person. Or as my first teacher Nancy Amphoux would say, “Your life is the koan”.

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321. Why are our eyes open in Zazen?

We practice Zazen with our eyes open. Why is that?

When I asked my first teachers about that they would tend to give a humorous answer. Something to do with the propensity of Japanese people to fall asleep if they closed their eyes! But sometimes, humor is a motivation for us to probe further.

And it is a curious issue because, as far as we can tell, at least from the evidence of today, Buddhists in India would tend to meditate with their eyes closed. When you come across Indians today, most just assume that meditation is always done with the eyes closed. So it seems at least a possibility that, in the gradual process of Buddhism travelling from India to China, the practice changed from having the eyes closed to having the eyes open.

 So, why is that?

The most obvious answer is that the Chinese had a different idea of the subject of meditation. With our eyes closed, arguably the subject of meditation is this person. The world is excluded, so by implication meditation is about this person; this person’s consciousness, level of awareness, capacity for focus, and so on.

With the eyes open, the subject is different. The subject is not just this person, but this person in the world; this person in the midst of all beings.

When we do Zazen, although our eyes are open, it’s difficult for us to maintain a sense of our body as an object in the world. Indeed, it’s arguable that that is one of the main changes that happen when we take up practice. A ceasing of the sense of my body as being an object in the world; an object in contact with other objects. 

If we lose a sense of the body – this body – as an object, then that percolates outwards. We gradually lose a sense of everything else as being objects – objects to pick up, objects to throw away, objects to use, objects to discard – and instead we see objects as being more like people. So trees, birds, sutras, feelings, aren’t these –  as it were – passive things waiting to be scrutinised and appropriated by us, but have the beauty and dignity and indeterminacy which we associate with people.
That being so, even if the storm of the self is such that for now we cannot hear the voices of these people, if we make this fundamental shift then we know that a lull in that noise is possible. And hence, us hearing the voices of all beings is possible.