222. Supreme being

If we don’t understand the assumptions embedded in our language, it’s very difficult for us to understand buddhism.

One of the assumptions we have is that there shouldn’t be contradiction. Something is either one thing or another. Alive or dead. Active or passive. Good or bad. Fundamental or peripheral. High or low.

This leads us to misunderstand familiar buddhist metaphors like space, or mountains, or the ocean. We think that space is a metaphor for something – tranquillity, say – rather than the container and enabler of everything.

And not just buddhism. When 19th century European sanskrit scholars were translating tantric texts, they rendered ‘Supreme Being’ as ‘The Supreme Being’. It seems innocuous, but it’s not.

‘Supreme Being’ is an expression of being, not an entity. Just like the deepest depth of the ocean is part of the ocean. It’s not separate. Everything is working together in full expression. Like a real person. Not a corpse, tethered to a ghost.


209. To all beings

It is useless to start from a general picture of Buddhism and try to match our experience to that picture. Both will be fakes. We have to start from where we are.

From where we are, in this room, twelve feet square.

So, for example, when we chant the first vow “Beings, numberless, I vow to free them”, we should not create an imaginary multitude of beings, we should start from our actual experience. This Being when the bell first rang. This Being now. This Being a child. This Being at death. This Being seen by each person within time’s scattering, in love, or hate, or indifference. This Being in the heart of those now gone. This Being in the heart of those not yet come. I vow to free them.

And from these Beings, like encroaching daybreak, to all Beings.


172. The sangha body

The three treasures are Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

Towards the end of his life, the Buddha said to his disciples “My true body is my teachings

Out of this arose the idea of the dharmakaya, the Universal Body of the Buddha, and then, later, the Bliss Body. As ‘buddha’ inflated, ‘sangha’ shrunk.

But there’s another way to look at it.

The Buddha’s teachings weren’t written down in his lifetime. They were held in the bodies and minds of the disciples who heard them. They were brought out by those disciples. That’s where the teachings arose. Without a sangha, there would have been no dharma. That’s where the teachings were embodied. And from there, outward, to everywhere.

And it is this body – the Sangha body, both mythical and flesh and blood – which keeps giving birth to new buddhas.


161. The mirror of the self

Our lives do not exist in time. But in our lives, time exists.

Likewise, space. The budding tree births the sky.

Buddhist language is not a description of ‘reality’. It is a provisional language, aimed at liberation.

My first teacher said that we can’t break the mirror of the self with the head.

But if not with the head, then with what?



154. Yogacara

Eko said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is not at peace, please pacify it” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it”.

After a while Eko said, “I have looked everywhere for my mind and I cannot find it”.

Bodhidharma said, “There! I have pacified it”

Bodhidharma was very influenced by the Yogacara school and its eight ‘consciousnesses’.

Yogacara is often – unhelpfully – referred to as mind-only, or consciousness-only. We can’t hear ‘Mind’ or ‘Consciousness’ without thinking of the personal mind, and we can’t hear talk of a progression of consciousnesses without imagining a spiritual capitalism with a progressively greater spending power. For this reason, it is better to translate Yogacara as experience-only.

The first six consciousnesses correspond with our five senses, plus mind. The seventh is self, and the eighth is alaya consciousness, which is said to have two aspects – suchness and delusion.

That delusion comes about because the original wholeness of experience – Suchness – is appropriated to the self.

‘I’ am experiencing.

Once there is a perceiver, a self, there is then a mind and from that, a body, then differentiation into the five senses. Like part of the Antarctic ice cap breaking away, there is first the fundamental split from Suchness. Then all the little agonies.

Eko could not ‘find’ his mind, because his real experience was not sliced up.

If you imagine that Suchness is somewhere other than here, you will never find it.

It is like looking for the ground standing on the ground.


148. Karma

All the different Buddhist forms of expression are sincere attempts by practitioners like ourselves to describe actual experience.

Although the language might be conceptually very different, one does not exclude the other.

So in Tibetan Buddhism for example, there is a strong emphasis on karma, whereas in Zen the emphasis is more on the wholeness and oneness of everything (‘Zenki‘).

It’s easy to see how karma seems very apposite in describing some types of experience we have when sitting. Persistent feelings of shame for instance, seem more readily describable in terms of karma.

And other types of experience, the random mental noise, or the odd sense we have sometimes of thoughts that seem to come from elsewhere, might be more fruitfully described in terms of zenki.

But we need to understand that this karma, although I am experiencing it, is not mine. It is the cascading of life through time. This moment of experience is a drop of water on the tip of an icicle hanging from a glacier of infinite size.

When we imagine the wholeness of everything, zenki, we are inclined to focus on this moment. But if wholeness is simply this moment, there would be an infinite number of wholenesses and that is not so.

So this wholeness must include what we call the past and what we call the future. Pivoted on the drop of water.


146. A real person

Buddhism is not like a temple which, although we enter and leave, the temple remains.

Rather, it is like a real person.

When we come into the dojo to sit, he comes in with us. When we leave, he leaves.

Sometimes he is like an old man. Sometimes, he is like vast space. Sometimes a door. Sometimes a pillar.

Sometimes he is concealed in our heart. Sometimes, he is like dust falling through sunlight.


128. No Ocean

In Buddhism the whole universe is sometimes described as an ocean, and each of us, in this Dharma position, as a wave. So when we hear this we make a picture. We see an ocean, full of waves. But this picture of Buddhism is entirely useless. We are not invited to see the wave, but to be the wave.

It is the surging and crashing of this experience now which is our connection with everything. If we wish to eradicate the continuous wave of this experience, there is no ocean, just a picture.


105. Samskara

Delusion and Enlightenment is the usual pairing in Zen, and in Buddhism generally, it’s often Samsara and Nirvana.
Enlightenment/ Nirvana seem distinctly other, and difficult to reach, like trying to jump over a high barrier with your feet stuck in mud.

It’s difficult to relate them to actual practice, and I wonder if a better pairing might be Samskara/ Nirvana.

Samskara appears everywhere, but due, possibly, to accidents of translation, it’s often ignored. It’s one of the five skandas for instance, variously – and unhelpfully – rendered as ‘volition’ ‘willing’ ‘mental formation’, among others.

But it’s fundamental. It is our endless tendency to do something with our raw experience. Constructing desire, memory, a mind, a self, a world, endlessly.

Nirvana is just simply not doing that. Just letting everything be. It’s not a state, or a place, it’s a non doing. It’s here and now, not some place else, some other time.

Our practice is a wobbling between these two, and an illumination of that.


93. The Reality of Our Lives

All Buddhist language is an attempt to take us out of conceptual thinking, and to point us to the reality of our lives.

Because we are meaning-making-story-telling beings, we are always painting a world. Even if a teacher directs us to the activity of painting, we make a picture of his activity.

The whole lineage is this dialectic of freeing words and trapping words.

It is as if we are within a mountain made up of the bones of our ancestors. Our awakening voices, together, make what is solid empty.