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.   


Not let it fall

The Gateless Gate—case two,  Pai-chang’s fox.

The Case:

Each day when Master Pai-chang entered the lecture hall to speak to his monks, an old man was there. When the monks left, the old man left. One day the old man remained. 

Pai-chang approached him and asked, “Who are you?” 

The old man said, “I’m not really a human being.  Many, many lifetimes ago I was the abbot here and a monk asked me, “Does a great person fall into cause and effect or not?”

I said,”Does not”. In consequence I fell into the body of a wild fox for 500 lifetimes. Please say something which will release me from this body.” 

The old man then asked Pai-chang, “Does a great person fall into cause and effect or not?”

Pai-chang said “Do not be unclear about cause and effect.”

Satisfied, the old man said, “Now I have been released from the body of the wild fox. Please give me a monk’s burial.”

Pai-chang later called his monks together and they went to the far side of the mountain where they found the body of a fox, which they then buried with full monk’s honours.

That evening Pai-chang related to his students what had  happened.

Obaku, his senior disciple said, “I wonder what would have happened if the master had always given correct answers?”

Pai-chang said, “Come up here and I’ll show you.”

Obaku approached Pai-chang, but before Pai-Chang could do anything, Obaku slapped his face. Pai-chang was delighted and said words to the effect,”I always knew you were a red-bearded barbarian”.

That’s the story.

How many people are in this story?

It is obviously in two parts. In the second part there’s clearly two: Pai-chang and Obaku.

How many are in the first part? Potentially there are quite a lot: there’s the fox spirit; there’s the old man; there’s the earlier and later Pai-chang; there’s the monk that asked the earlier Pai-chang the question; there’s the mountain and potentially there’s others.

But really, I think there’s only one person—Pai-chang.

This story is primarily about Sangha—how we should be together

If a person says “I am a master” he will fall into foxness for 500 lifetimes.

If he says “I am not yet the master” likewise he will fall into foxness for 500 lifetimes.

The fundamental point is that the master and the fox are always both present. It’s not simply the fox who is the shape-shifter—both are.

The monk who asks the earlier Pai-chang the question is not strong enough to stop Pai-chang falling unbalancingly into foxness. By contrast, Obaku is. And the symbiotic arising of the fox and the master is recognized by Pai-chang in his remark. 

The reference to ‘red bearded barbarian’ is a reference to Bodhidharma, but the redness is also a reference to the fox— to fox nature. There’s also other interesting word plays in Chinese which I won’t go into at the moment.

How as practitioners together, visible and invisible, should we be with each other? 


That is the fundamental question.

“One night, a great storm

broke off the highest branch

of the tallest tree in my garden.

It’s still there.

Even though it’s withered now

The living branches

will not let it fall.”  


385. Natural, not intentional

One of the reasons for the peculiar forms Chinese Buddhism took was a recognition that there’s an apparent contradiction at the heart of Buddhism. If we say that life is suffering and what causes suffering is desire, and so we should be free of desire, then isn’t that itself a desire?

Likewise in the Shin Jin Mei where it says “The Great Way is not difficult, only avoid picking and choosing”. Isn’t the intentional avoidance of picking and choosing itself a kind of preference? 

It’s because of this recognition that there was a shift within Chinese Buddhism from an intentional state to a natural state—from an intentional state to a spontaneous state. This, fortuitously, chimed in well with existing Chinese culture.

Yet we can’t will ourselves to be natural; we can’t will ourselves to be spontaneous; any more than we can will ourselves to be surprised. 

But despite that, naturalness and spontaneity plainly arise.

If we have naturalness rather than intentional action as our basic position, then we can start to understand two associated things. 

One is that enlightenment is already here, so we’re not required to drive ourselves forward to attain something that we don’t presently have. Rather, we need to change our perspective, take our blinkers off.

The second is the position of faith. Underlying naturalness is a deep faith that this world and this person is complete and perfect as is. We don’t need to keep flapping the wings of egotistical spiritual self-improvement for fear that we fall into nothingness. Rather, the ground of faith [Buddha Nature, if you want to use that language], is always here, like an invisible sun. 


384. Stilling the mind

We often hear the expression “stilling the mind.” 

And many people think that’s the purpose of meditation—to still the mind, to empty the mind of thoughts.

We need to understand that stillness is not the absence of movement. In the mind, or anywhere else. 

Stillness is Suchness. 

To put it another way, if we understand stilling the mind to be simply making the mind quiet, we are perpetuating the self—we are perpetuating dualism, in a slightly disguised way.

Who or what is it, if not the self, that is trying to control experience?

Who is it?

What we must understand about delusion is that it always locates itself in a slightly different position from where we think it is—that’s how it works

Rather than trying to control our experience, what we need to do is to drop off our attempts to control or to limit our experience. Anything else is just a form of spiritual narcissism.

It’s as if, in the dark, there is a great building, but the only part which is lit up is the attic. 

To our eyes that’s the only thing there, suspended in darkness.

 There’s all these familiar noises which we think come from the attic; like familiar people who we can’t quite see; We just wish they would be quiet.

 But our practice is not to make the attic—the mind- quiet. 

Our purpose is to illuminate the whole building.

And not simply the building but the ground and the vast space all around which, in their different ways, hold all being.

If we can do that, we can start to understand that the noise, which we think is up here somewhere, which we think is ours, is just one aspect of the whole vibrancy of the universe, of dependent origination.

That same vibrancy will appear in the mind as thinking, in the heart as emotions, in the body as feeling and energy and in the world as aliveness and intimacy.

That is our purpose.  


383. The banality of reincarnation

Before he became the Buddha, the Buddha is said to have had 500 lives as a Bodhisattva. 

Originally the word ‘bodhisattva’ was only used for these previous lives. 

But here’s the thing: a Buddha is someone who fully understands the nature of interdependence—the fact that there is no fixed, immutable self. 

And that is a clue about how we might think about reincarnation, because to think about it seriously is not to think about it literally.

Ordinarily, reincarnation is thought of as there being a self or a soul that goes from one life to another. That’s obviously un-Buddhist in the sense that Buddhists deny that there is a fixed self. 

But also in a more subtle way. If this life, this existence, is simply one in a series of ongoing linked threads, then the fabric of all beings can never be woven.

So we oppose reincarnation in this sense, not because it’s implausible, but because it is banal, and it separates that which should not be separated.

And it does that by leaving unexamined the idea of this person. Almost the whole point of Buddhism is to claim that when we look seriously at our experience, it is very difficult for us to say there is a single, fixed, indivisible self. Rather, it is as if there is a multitude inside us:  certainly in my case a good number of idiots; some kind and wise people; lots and lots of beings, as it were.

The point of practice is not to elevate some of those beings and to exile others, but to actualize the vast compassionate space which holds all beings. 


When we practise, we’re practising within this small space—traditionally this 12 foot square space. Within this space everything matters and everything is interconnected. Nothing is background.

Through this practice, one which is not a practice of the self, those walls can become fluid, pellucid. And so, even although the room remains tiny, no beings are excluded.


382. Verses Of Faith Heart

“The Great Way is not difficult

 just avoid picking and choosing. 

When judgments of good and bad do not arise

things cease to exist in the old way”


That’s the first verse of the Shin jin mei—the Verses of Faith-Mind, usually attributed to the third patriarch.

The word Shin, usually rendered as Mind also means Heart. So you could say ‘The Verses of Faith-Heart’, and that might be more appropriate. 

The Faith that is being talked of in these verses is Faith in Buddha Nature. Not that everyone has Buddha Nature in actuality or potentiality but rather – in Dogen’s words – everything is Buddha Nature. 

A lot of contemporary Zen people are embarrassed to talk about Buddha Nature. It doesn’t fit very well within our culture. It sounds quaint and esoteric.  So rather than talk about that Faith, which is the foundation of Zen, we’d rather have what is often a fatuous language of ‘here and now’, ‘presence’, ‘authenticity’, the pomposity of the language like fraudsters exchanging counterfeit notes with each other.