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293. Expression

Because of the manifold deficiencies of teachers like myself, many students adhere to the idea that zazen is a kind of waiting. A waiting for something to happen. A waiting for something to change. Awaiting enlightenment.

This is completely mistaken. Zazen is not the practice of the self waiting to acquire something. It is the practice of momentarily dropping off the self. And to the extent that we can drop off the self from moment to moment, expression is possible.

In the Dotoku chapter of the Shobogenzo, Dogen says  that all Buddhas and all Patriarchs are expression. The great 18th century Zen Master Menzan says that expression means the manifesting of the great functioning of the Patriarchs. It is not limited to verbal acts. Sometimes there is expression with blows or with  the snap of a finger.

We’re talking here about duality and non-duality. In duality there is self and world, there are objects, there are forces which act on those objects, there is interaction between objects and so on. In the world of duality, expression in Dogen’s sense is either not seen at all, or is thought of as something peripheral.

However, from the perspective of non-duality, expression is all there is. There is not a pre-existing world comprised of things and forces which interact, and of which expression is an incidental facet. There is simply this dynamic expressive whole, constantly creative and constantly vivid.

‘Dotoku’ has two parts. ‘ Do’ means, among other things, ‘the way’ (of Buddhism) and ‘to say’ or ‘ to express’, and ‘Toku’ means ‘to attain’ or to be capable of’. So the compound has a number of interrelated meanings, which Dogen uses to suggest that true expression is nondual. Which is why he is able to say that buddhist Patriarchs express themselves with total power, because in their expression, the total(ity) is unfractured, and so, can be expressed/express itself, and so he also says that without the Buddhist patriarchs/ nonduality, there would be no expression.

When, in the Heart Sutra we mention the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the suggestion is that when we’re sitting, we’re sitting not in the position of the self but in the position either of the Buddha or of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or both. ‘Buddha’ is plainly a person who recognizes that there is no self subsisting. 

But what of the suggestion is that we practise from the position of the Bodhisattva of Compassion?

The Bodhisattva of Compassion is symbolically depicted as a being with an infinity of eyes and hands. But we can interpret that symbolism as meaning simply an infinity of perspectives and expressions. And a perspective is a kind of expression. So from the perspective of compassion, the world is entirely expression, and our effort whilst we are sitting is a great expression.

It is not a great expression because it is our personal expression, because our personal effort is puny. It is a great expression because it is the activity of all beings, expressed through this person.

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292. The Buddha Field

In the Vimalakirti Sutra the Buddha announces that this world is a Buddha field. Sariputra is astonished and perplexed and takes issue. He says when he looks at the world what he sees isn’t a world of perfection, what he chooses to see is a world full of shit. The Buddha then touches the Earth with his big toe, magically transforming it temporarily into glittering diamonds and precious stones.

The underlying assumption behind Sariputra’s view is that we should be free of emotions because emotions are essentially grasping. To overcome this grasping we require disgust or revulsion.

 The Buddha magically transforming the world into diamonds and precious stones in response to Sariputra  isn’t meant to be taken literally, rather, it is emotionally evocative, inspiring feelings of wonder, delight, gratitude, astonishment and so on.

 I think that is making a fundamental point about our emotions and feelings in Zazen.

Much of apparently fantastical Buddhist language is an attempt to be descriptive about what we actually experience in Zazen. When our mind and body are balanced, and our posture enables us to feel spacious and open, comparable emotions to those evoked by the Buddha arise in our Zazen. Far from feelings of lust, grasping, rejection and hatred, what we feel – and we feel it in an unusual way, in an embodied way –  is openness, gratitude, wonder and so on. There is an entire emotional landscape available to us in Zazen which is largely ignored when we talk about desire and emotion in the usual way, because when we are in that place, we are within our normal calculation of gain and loss, where grabbing onto or throwing away is almost the defining characteristic.
And in turn, this takes us back to the four noble truths, specifically the second noble truth which says that the origin of suffering is desire. But we need to be careful. It says ‘desire’, not ‘feeling’. The first is future focused: there’s something we want to get, or get rid of. The second is present focused, and is nothing to do with grasping or rejecting. And when we say the Buddhist state is the feeling state, that’s what we mean.

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291. The Catarrh of the Self

Master Joshu said to his monks, “If you remain in this monastery, practise zazen assiduously for five years, for ten years – even although you say nothing, nobody can say that you are without expression.”

In Buddhism, what do we mean by ‘expression’? 

The earliest forms of written language, rather depressingly, are not epics or magical stories. They’re lists, usually lists of possessions. Inventories. They’re testament to a tendency which has increased since the invention of writing: to control, to regard ourselves as separate from the world, and the world and all its parts are objects for our manipulation, ownership and control.

That’s not the case for all language. Oral language is very related to singing. And indeed the earliest versions of many of the Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra for example, are in verse form. So people said  or sang it rather than read it.

Singing, obviously, is very different from writing. It’s specific to the person and the moment. In the moment of singing, the person is part of the fabric of Great Being. So, as it were, the Universe is singing that person.

Our zazen is like this. Sometimes the Universe is singing us in the form of a black ocean. Sometimes in the form of an open sky. Sometimes in the form of a great fire. Sometimes in the form of a tree, or a mountain. Sometimes in the form of pain and loss. Sometimes in the form of dignity and love.

Sometimes when we are walking along we hear birdsong. It’s very piercing – it fills the air. We look up and imagine that the tree is full of birds. But in fact there’s only one bird, a little bird, perched high up the tree. 

The little bird is able to sing so clearly because it’s unconstrained by the catarrh of the self.

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290. Kanzeon

Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is usually depicted as having myriad hands and eyes. The symbolism is clear: she sees the suffering of individual beings through her manifold eyes and she relieves that suffering through acting with her manifold hands.

But the name Kanzeon doesn’t mean someone who sees the suffering of the world, it means someone who hears the suffering of the world. 

So what are we to make of her manifold eyes and hands? 

Kanzeon is not the bodhisattva of kindness or good deeds, or pity; she is the bodhisattva of compassion, ‘feeling with.’ If her eyes and hands are manifold -limitless-  then the entire universe is hands and eyes, expressions and perspectives. And nothing else. We can’t simply see those hands and eyes from our limited perspective. If we were an ocean, we might imagine that each wave, each current was our hand and each glint of light was our eye. 

Why do we suffer? We don’t suffer because we feel pain, we suffer because we don’t feel anything. Or, we suffer because our experience of our feeling world is just a frozen and fixed mass of thought and emotion, that we can neither remove or dissolve.

 Kanzeon is identical with the practice of zazen because when we practice zazen we are in this simple feeling state, unconstrained by self, by ownership, by interpretation, by fear, by attachment.

When we are sitting, sitting in a balanced way, our experience of ourselves is not as something fixed or closed, but as something open and spacious, and rather than  experiencing ourselves as something in opposition to the world, it as if all being and all time is flowing into this person and leaping out of this person.

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289. Tathagatagarbha

One of the core ideas of Chinese Buddhism is that all living beings have Buddha-nature. Dogen radicalises this to: all living beings are Buddha-nature. 

The core idea derives from a number of sutras, the most prominent one being the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

Tathagatagarbha is a compound made up of two Sanskrit words. ‘Tathagata’ means ‘Thus Come One’, the Buddha. And ‘garbha’ means either ‘womb’ or ‘embryo’.

Whilst the idea of Buddha nature originates in India, China truly developed it. 

If you read the Tathagatagarbha sutra, the metaphors for Buddha-nature are generally about something being concealed or covered over. There’s nine metaphors for Buddha-nature which include images such as gold concealed under mud. Things like that. 

But it’s interesting if we take the term Tathagatagarbha more literally. On the face of it, it gives us an image in which each of us are, as it were, incubating a little Buddha. 

But the whole point of a Buddha is that they understand that they have no self-nature. So your little incubating Buddha and my incubating Buddha and everybody else’s is effectively the same Buddha. So it’s not really mine. Or your’s. (Which begs the question: who or what is within whom or what?)

And if we give birth to that little Buddha, it’s no longer an embryo: once it comes out into the world, it isn’t ours either. That’s one aspect. 

The other aspect is that it’s called Tathagatagarbha, not Buddhagarbha, so there’s a deliberate choice of words to emphasise the thus-ness of this little Buddha, the is-ness of it. So what we can say is that we’re, as it were,  incubating thus-ness and we can give birth to it.

And how would we do that? Well, quintessentially, we do it when we sit. When we’re sitting we’re, as it were, leaping out of ourselves, although we’re sitting still. We’re leaping out of ourselves in the sense that we’re unconstrained by our karma. Our likes, our dislikes, our memories, our dreams, all of that – we just allow to just be in this open, wide, awareness of practice.

And that’s why we can talk about practice-enlightenment. And that’s why we say that we sit from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of the self. 

Zazen in fact makes no sense from the perspective of the self, with its habitual patterns and expectations of gain and loss.Which is one reason why Kodo Sawaki said it was good for nothing.

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288. This Dharma Position

Towards the end of his life Uchiyama Roshi, the teacher of Shohaku Okumura wrote this poem, ‘Samadhi, Treasury of the Radiant Light’:

Though poor, never poor

Though sick,never sick

Though ageing, never ageing

Though dying, never dying

Reality prior to division

Here lies unlimited depth

Using more traditional language, Uchiyama Roshi is talking about our dharma position. That is, seen one way, we are particular limited beings, in our karmic position, with our gender, age, health and so on. In another way, because we are part of this dynamic wholeness, each being is also that whole. It’s like touching a person. You can touch that person on the hand, and simultaneously you are touching their hand, but you are also touching the whole person.

That experience of wholeness cannot be achieved by taking the familiar dualities of mind and body, self and world and by effort fusing them into one. We can only find ourselves there, as it were, by accident. The paradigm way of finding ourselves there by accident is through Zazen, and the gradual erosion of these apparent dualities in our actual experience when we sit. When we sit in a balanced posture, our idea of ourself, of this lump of mind flesh , is intermittently eclipsed by the felt experience of spaciousness. 

The spaciousness inside us, around us and outside us. That space is continuous. In this way we can gradually get to a position which is underneath these dualities, but we can’t -sadly – get there with the head.

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287. Letting Your Body Leap

When people unfamiliar with our practice talk about zazen, they’ll often refer to it as objectless meditation. And what they mean by that is that there isn’t a mandala, a mantra or an object that we fix our attention on when we’re doing zazen.

But they do tend to find their way to discovering an object of meditation circuitously. They’ll describe it as being something like awareness itself. So they’ll say that in zazen we are aware of our awareness; or they may say that we are aware of emptiness; or of dependent origination. So there’s lots of formulations, not forgetting of course the familiar one of bringing the attention back to the body and the breath, and hence to  assume that that’s the object of meditation.

All these perspectives arise from the same mistake, which is assuming that meditation is something that we do with our minds. And because the mind is inherently dualistic, then that way of looking at things will always be divided into a subject and an object. But that’s not our practice.

Dogen, in the Fukanzazengi recognized something like this when he wrote,

“You could be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization or acquire outstanding wisdom and attain the Way by clarifying the mind. Still, if you are wandering about in your head you may miss the vital path of letting your body leap.”

Dogen, Fukanzazengi

That’s the Tanahashi translation, and both in that translation and the other ones that we presently have in English it’s not so clear what Dogen’s doing in his own language. In it, he’s making a kind of joke. The suggestion is that if we understand zazen intellectually, our head gets stuck. So we can jam our head in the entranceway of zazen, but we can’t get our body in.

Whereas if we can get our body in, our mind will follow. But of course we can’t get our body in intentionally. We have to fall backwards into the space, whole.

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286. The Buddha Vehicle

The Buddhist state has nothing to do with thinking or willing. We’re not spiritual warriors. We’re not on a hero’s journey. But because thinking – attempting to grasp reality with our minds – is so much a part of who we are as human beings, Buddhist teachers use expedient means.

In the Lotus Sutra the most famous story is the parable of the burning house. In that story,  an old, sinister and decrepit house is on fire. The father requires to get his children out but they won’t leave because they’re preoccupied with playing with their toys. Their toys are a little deer cart, a little goat cart and a little ox cart.

The father uses expedient means to get them out of the burning house, promising much better versions of their toys outside, where they’re met by an enormous, magnificent cart for each of them, drawn by an ox.

We’re told this is the one Buddha vehicle. The three toys correspond to: the sravaka – the person who seeks nirvana;  the pratyekabuddha – the person who  seeks personal enlightenment; and the bodhisattva, the person dedicated to saving all beings.

But it’s really noteworthy that although the vehicle waiting for the children outside is drawn by an ox, it’s completely different from the toy cart which one of the children was playing with. And you can see the point of this – a person who says their aim is to save all beings isn’t really a bodhisattva, he’s just a kind of insufferable person.

What’s required in entering into the Buddhist state, which is where this is a clever story, is falling backwards from a state of intellectualism. Back into, you could say, a childlike state of wonder, of gratitude, of astonishment, of aliveness. But we can’t get there with our head. We can’t enter this room, as it were, going in frontwise. We can only fall into it. We can’t enter it with our head. We can only enter it with our whole body.

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285. A Stick of Incense

On the altar there are usually three objects: a statue of manjushri, some flowers and a stick of incense in an incense bowl. The stick of incense is held in place by the ash of previous burnt incense sticks, and their little stumps lie there too.

Manjushri  is on the altar with his sword to cut the delusion of separation, using his sword to cut everything into one. The flowers and the incense are both concerned with impermanence, but in slightly different ways. 

With the flowers, we think of Dogen’s expression ‘the flowers of emptiness’, so it’s obvious that the flowers are beautiful and transient. The flowers on the altar now will just last a few days more. Further, flowers, additional to representing beauty and dignity and transience  are symbolic of karma. Zen teachers talk of flowers and fruit as a poetic way of talking about cause and effect.

The incense is more personal to this person. In our group, the incense stocks are sandalwood. Each one is representative of the practitioner, practicing now. The stick of incense will exhaust itself completely in its practice. The uprightness of the practitioner, the uprightness of the incense, enables the integrity and space of the present moment to be upheld, so that it does not collapse into nothingness. The body of the stick’s effort, its smoke and fragrance, permeates everywhere. Its ashes are the foundation for future uprightness, for the time being of future practitioners, both this being and all beings.

At the end of your life there is not just this stump of memory.

Although you look everywhere to find your true body you cannot find it.

Not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere.

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284. Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 24: An expression never before expounded

‘In the entire universe, in the ten directions there is no dharma at all that has not yet been expounded by all Buddhas in the three times. Therefore all Buddha’s say, “In the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expect the dharma without differentiations”. This great assembly present before me also is practicing the way in the manner of all Buddhas. Each movement, each stillness is not other than the dharma of all Buddhas, so do not act carelessly or casually, Although this is the case I have an expression that has not yet been expounded by any Buddha. Everyone, do you want to discern it?’

After a pause Dogen said, ‘ in the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expound the dharma without differentiations.’

The passage that Dogen cites and then repeats is a direct quote from the Lotus Sutra.

 To understand this dharma discourse it’s helpful that we understand the several uses of the word ‘dharma’. It originally meant teaching, as in the Buddha’s teaching. ‘Dharmas’ are all the individual things within experience: fences, walls, mountains, thoughts, dreams and so on. And because the Buddha’s teaching is about reality, a very creative combining took place of these two senses of the word, on the already fertile soil of chinese culture. It came to be thought that all beings (dharmas)  proclaim the dharma. Or, more precisely that everything (all dharmas) is the dharma. 

Thus, the movements of Dogen’s monks while they were listening to him, or their stillness were all expressions of the dharma. 

Which leaves the question: in what sense was Dogen’s simple repetition of a phrase from the Lotus Sutra a new expression?

It was new because everything’s new.