279. Not Personal, Relational

What’s distinctive about Zen is that the truth isn’t personal, it’s relational. Although there is a teacher and a student, the true teacher is the clear, open and whole hearted engagement of both of them, together.

My first teacher Nancy Amphoux was dying of cancer in 1992 when she came to Glasgow for the last time to teach.

At that time, the cancer had spread into her bones, particularly her sternum, which was crumbling away. I asked her if she intended to take pain relief and she said that she wouldn’t, because it was more important to be able to teach clearly than to suffer temporary pain.

It took me a long time to realize that the person she was teaching clearly was me.


The Gateless Gate, Case 18: Tozan’s Three Pounds of Flax

A monk asked Tonzan, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan replied, “ three pounds of flax.”

Three pounds of flax is the amount of material required to make a monk’s robe. But Tozan didn’t say the Buddha was a monk’s robe, he said, ‘3lbs of flax’.

Three pounds of flax is limitless in its expression and application; it could be a garment for a monk, but equally a garment for a warrior or for a merchant, a shroud for a dead person, and so on.The fourth of the five skandas is translated – usually badly – as ‘will’ or ‘mental fabrication’ but it’s a very important element of the human being; it’s that aspect of us which takes this experience here and now and makes something out of it. We literally fabricate something.

We do this because what we always want to do is to grasp each aspect of the world as it appears and make it something specific. ‘Buddha’ is prior to this fabrication. We can grasp a monk’s robe, but we can’t grasp the fabric of emptiness.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


Book of Serenity, Case 47

Book of Serenity, Case 47.

The case: Master Joshu is asked, “What is the true meaning of Zen?” And he replies, “The cypress tree in the courtyard.”

This is a variant of a question he was frequently asked: “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu, famously, is often asked questions about Buddha nature. The best known koan of all is probably the question to him: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

And not just a dog. In his recorded sayings (no. 305), a monk asked Joshu, “Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature or not?” 

Joshu said, “It does.” 

The monk said, “When will it become Buddha?” 

Joshu said, “When the sky falls to the ground.” 

The monk said, “When will the sky fall to the ground?” 

The Master said, “When the cypress tree becomes Buddha.”

What are we to take from that?

What do we understand the cypress tree to be? It seems easy enough for us to see how the roots of the cypress tree extend into the deep ground underneath our constructed world. 

But it’s harder for us to see how the branches of the tree vigorously extend into space, into ‘emptiness’. 

Yet when we talk of the empty sky or space falling to the ground, isn’t that the real experience of the cypress tree? 

The cypress tree, in its wholehearted, undivided activity, is both fully engaged with this ground of all being, and equally is fully engaged with emptiness, and makes both intimate within its undivided activity. Likewise the practitioner.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


278. Joshu’s Man of True Practice

A monk asked, “I wonder if a man of true practice can be perceived by gods and demons, or not?” The master said, “They can perceive him.”

The monk said, “Where’s his fault?” The master said, “Faults are wherever they are looked for.”

The monk said, “In that case it is not practice.” The master said, “It is practice.

When we start sitting it may well be from the perspective of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha. In other words, we are drawn to practice in the belief that it  will lessen my suffering, or practice will bring me benefit, ideally enlightenment, but after a while we realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of practice, and that the misunderstanding was necessary.

It is as if, within experience, there are multitudes. Our way of practice is not to skewer these dharmas on the needle of our definition, but to allow them to be, in all their multifacetedness and thus, quiescent, whether they vex us or not.

It may not be Nirvana as we imagine it, but it is.


277. The Mind Verses Competition

One of the founding myths of the Zen School in China is the Mind Verses Competition between Shen-xui and Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. All the subsequent Zen figures–Baso, Sekito, Rinzai, Joshu, everyone–trace their lineage through him.

In the story, which is sometimes known as the mind verses competition, the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen asks his monks to write a verse to demonstrate their understanding. His senior disciple,Shen-xui is the only one who responds. He composes a verse which reads: 

The body is the Bodhi tree

The mind a bright mirror’s stand

Always polish assiduously 

So that dust does not gather

In the story Hui-neng was resident in the monastery at the time, not as a monk but as a labourer, and he was illiterate. He asked someone to explain the verse to him and then asked someone to write his reply, which went as follows. 

Bodhi originally has no tree

Nor the mirror a stand

The Buddha nature is always clear and bright

Where is there room for dust?

When the Fifth Patriarch heard Hui-neng’s verse, he secretly gave him the transmission, making him the Sixth Patriarch rather than Shen-xui, and Hui-neng then clandestinely left the monastery in the dead of the night.

The problem with the story is that it is completely made up. All those people existed, both would have been at Hung-jen’s monastery at some time,  but they certainly weren’t there together.

Shen-xui was a very prominent meditation teacher at the end of the Seventh century, and had the patronage of Empress Wu.

Hui neng is a manufactured person. There was someone of that name, that much we know, but we also know that everything attributed to him is created later, primarily in ‘The Platform Sutra,’which contains these verses. 

The interpretation given to these two verses over time was that Shen-xui’s perspective was deficient because it allegedly suggested a gradualistic model of practice: if we practice assiduously enough,we get the mirror.The criticism that Hui neng made is that practice serves no purpose unless we have a primary insight into emptiness. If we don’t have that insight we can practice as long and as hard as we like, to no effect

Let’s look at Shen-xui’s poem.

The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. It’s a special type of Fig tree, with heart shaped leaves which lives for a very long time. I’ll talk more about it another time, but for our purposes, that’s not the part of the poem which is criticised, it’s the remainder which is accused of fostering a gradualistic approach. 

However, Shen-xui does not say that the personal mind is the mirror. He says that the mind is the mirror’s stand. 

To understand what that means you need to know that in the China of that period, mirrors were made of metal, so required to be polished consistently to retain their powers of reflection. And they were also round, so if they didn’t have a stand, they were likely to just roll away.

So the metaphor of the mind being the mirror’s  stand is quite a subtle metaphor. It’s clearly not saying that through practice I somehow attain enlightenment, but rather that it is the effort of my whole being, my body and my mind, which enables the mirror, which is not mine to manifest here. The mirror is not my personal possession, it is not something which I ever attain. 

So the criticism that is made of Shen-xui isn’t fair. And we don’t know if he even wrote the poem. But whether he did or not, I’ll comment on it further.


The Gateless Gate, Case 2

The Gateless Gate, Case 2 also appears as Case 8 in the Book of Serenity, which was compiled about 100 years before it. But the interesting thing is that the case in the Book of Serenity is truncated, so it doesn’t have the section about the deceased Monk/Fox being given a Buddhist burial. And it doesn’t, crucially, have this final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku.

But before getting to that, I think it’s helpful to clarify a couple of things that make this story a little bit more comprehensible. Firstly, in East Asian folklore, the Fox is a shapeshifter. So a fox can assume, among other things, the form of a human being and successfully pass himself off as a human being. 

Secondly, the abbot of a monastery will be named after the mountain on which the monastery is. So both the Fox/Monk, who was the abbot in a previous life, and the present Hyakujō, are called Hyakujō. Which obviously leads one to question how many people are appearing in this initial part of the story.

The other funny thing is that the Fox appears to have knowledge of the 500 lifetimes in which he was incarnated in the body of a Fox. But this is curious, as traditionally only the Buddha, or arguably an enlightened person –  a great person – has knowledge of their past lives. And of course the 500 lives that the Fox says that he’s been within a Fox body mirrors the 500 lives which the Buddha is said to have had before attaining Buddhahood.  

It’s also helpful to know that in Zen parlance, somebody falsely claiming enlightenment, falsely claiming to be a great person, or who is enlightened or wise but is unbalanced by that, for reasons that we’ll come to, is referred to as a Wild Fox. 

The general commentary in this story focuses on the two answers given by the earlier Hyakujō and the later Hyakujō. That commentary doesn’t say that the first answer is wrong, but somehow that it’s incomplete. So the two answers are often referred to as two sides of the one coin.

If we take the first Hyakujō’s answer literally, that a great person doesn’t fall into cause and effect, then an enlightened person could do whatever they liked without consequence. That’s plainly wrong, but that’s not generally the meaning that’s ascribed to the answer. The suggestion is that a great person cannot fall into cause and effect is because  a great person is never separate from cause and effect. There is no illusion of Self separate from cause and effect.

But of course that answer is vulnerable to misinterpretation, because a naive person could think that an enlightened person is capable of acting without consequence. So the second Hyakujō’s balancing answer is necessary because it makes clear, not that cause and effect doesn’t exist for the enlightened person, but rather that for the enlightened person there is no enlightened person.  

With that in mind, here is my take on what I think is the hidden message within the story, which is clarified by the addition of these two sections of the Gateless Gate. And that message, which I think is hiding in plain sight, concerns the difference in the relationship between the first Hyakujō and the Monk who asks the original question, and the relationship between the second Hyakujō, our Hyakujō, and Ōbaku, in the exchange at the end. 

In the earlier exchange between the Monk and first Hyakujō, so far as we can see, the Monk simply respectfully asks a question and accepts the answer. There’s a kind of hierarchical relationship between the Teacher and the Monk. The Teacher is the guy that knows, and he’s giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Monk, the guy that doesn’t know. Teachers are very vulnerable to falling into the body of a Wild Fox if the relationship they have with their students is one of unquestioning acceptance.

Moving on from that, there’s a homonym in Mandarin; the word for “beard” and the word for “fox” have the same sound. And of course, a Fox is red-cloured. So there’s a suggestion in the final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku that both the Great Teacher (Bodhidharma being a red bearded barbarian) and the Wild Fox exist within the one person. And existing within the one person, yet being able to recognise that, stops the emergence of the Wild Fox usurping the Teacher. Your teacher is a fox if they are operating under the illusion that the Teacher is the Great Person, because the Great Person is the whole body of the Sangha, which is carrying the Buddhist teaching forward.

And I think that this is the symbolic function of the funeral, that it’s a collective effort that Hyakujō and the monks are all making, to recognise the body of the Fox. And in accepting  it, giving  it Buddhist funerary rites, is also to cast it out. For now.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


276. Labelling a Thought

Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?

I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.

There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here. 

One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.

But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable. 

As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes. 

This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it. 

It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to. 

Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.

In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.

It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.

And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent. 


275. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


Blue Cliff Record, Case 53 (adapted)

Kusen collaboration by Margaret Kerr

The Case

When Master Baso and Hyakujo were out walking, a flock of ducks flew overhead. Baso said “where have the ducks gone?”. Hyakujo replied “they have flown away”. Baso grabbed Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it, causing him to cry out in pain.


In what way was Hyakujo’s answer deficient, if it was? Well, we could say that his answer was conceptual. It didn’t describe his immediate, momentary experience because it imposed space and time onto it. In a similar vein, we can say it was dualistic. The ducks had only flown away from his perspective. From the perspective of the ducks, Hyakujo had flown away. From the perspective of the sky, neither had.

There is, arguably, a deeper dualism there, which can often be missed: the dualism of container/contained. We are familiar with the dualisms of mind/body and self/world, but this is more insidious. In his answer, the Sky is the container and the birds are the contained, but it works more generally. We can equally say that in his reply Time is the container and the flying birds are the contained. Dogen identifies it in the Genjokoan, when he talks about Spring. And in our own lives, we imagine that there is a container called My Life, within which all the events of this life occur.

The problem with all dualisms is they leave a gap, through which our vitality gradually seeps away.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


274. Sitting Joyfully

Sitting Joyfully

In his Fukanzazengi, his Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen has this to say about Zazen: it is not learning meditation, it’s simply the Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy. 

The Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy

Dogen is a famously difficult writer and this seems a surprisingly straightforward passage. But although it’s straightforward, it’s hard for us to get. At a pinch, I think, we can understand how Zazen connects with Ease, in the sense that we’re putting aside our ideas, our conditioning. 

If we think of Zazen in terms of the Virtues, we’re probably thinking of Equanimity. Compassion too, at a push. But Joy? That seems much more problematic. 

It’s difficult. It’s physically challenging. It’s psychologically very challenging. Surely the point of it is to enduringly go towards some state that we might term Enlightenment. Which might, of course, entail Joy. And I think that would be most people’s understanding of what Zazen is, and indeed what meditation is.

But Dogen doesn’t say that “at some point in the future, Zazen will be joyful”. He says that Joy is one of its principle characteristics, together with Ease. And I think to have any chance of understanding what he’s talking about, we have to go back to basics, and the basics for us mean the basics of the Posture.

It’s one of the peculiarities of Buddhism that the central feature of it is this very physical practice of meditation. But yet we’re not given huge amounts of instruction about how we’re supposed to sit. 

So for example, when I was first introduced to Zazen I was told only two things.

The first is that if you’re sitting in some variant of the cross-legged position, then your knees need to be on the ground. And that’s eminently practical, because if your knees are off the ground, propped up by a cushion, your back’s going to bow out and you’re going to be uncomfortable. And the second instruction, which is more ubiquitous I think, was that we should push up with the top of the head and tuck the chin in. 

And that was it. 

The instruction about the knees obviously makes sense. The instruction about pushing up with the top of the head is a terrible instruction, and it’s terrible because it’s introducing tension – more tension–into the head and neck. And it’s directing our attention to the wrong place. It’s like trying to improve the decor of the attic whilst the basement is collapsing from dry rot. 

So the foundation of our practice requires us to start lower down. What I say to my students, repetitively – but never enough – is that the absolute foundation of sitting is the correct position of your pelvis. That’s absolutely essential. And specifically you require to tilt your pelvis forward in such a way that your bum is sticking out a bit, so there’s a curve in your lower spine. And your weight is going down directly through your sit bones, and specifically the middle and front sections of your set bones.

And if you have that as your foundation, then everything above that stands a chance of being right. If your pelvis is in the right position, you’re not having to make an effort to keep your trunk straight. Your trunk is naturally straight. And you could sit upright for an indefinite period of time.

And likewise, because your pelvis is in the right position, your head can be in the right position as well. It can be nice and balanced, and not heavy on the trunk. And that produces tremendous benefits. Conversely, if we’re following some idiotic instruction like pushing up our head, whilst our pelvis is out of position, then we’re going to be uncomfortable and our attention is going to be disproportionately fixed on our head. 

Which means even more disproportionately on our thoughts, and we’ll state that the purpose of Zazen is to empty the mind. Then fruitlessly try to get rid of those ridiculous repetitive thoughts, and replace them with something wise, or empty. Or both.

However, if the body is in the right position, then our attention isn’t so much on our head and trying to do something with the head and neck. Our attention is much more on our torso. If we’re sitting in the right position, the musculature of our body is right, so those nice postural muscles are doing their proper job. And our breathing is naturally in our lower belly and our pelvis, primarily. It’s obviously not fixed there – because that creates more tension–but it’s primarily located there, naturally.

And here’s the point: if our body is balanced we’re released from the tyranny of the mind. If our body is balanced then our awareness can be embodied. And if awareness is embodied, then we have a lot more attention that we can give to our pelvis, to our belly, to our torso, to our throat. And the effect of all of that is that the stretching that we’re trying to do through our will if we’re trying to consciously push up with the top of our head seems to effortlessly occur, lower down. 

There is a sense of expansion and elongation in the torso but it’s not willed. It’s not something that we’re intentionally doing with our muscles. It’s something that happens naturally. 

Then we’re experiencing the body, the whole body, when we’re sitting. Not as some vehicle of the mind, but as something pleasurable and dynamically alive.

Hence, Joy.