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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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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.

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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.