86. The Scenery of Your Life

Samsara is often described in terms of the six realms. The deluded person falls from one world into the next.

The Chinese called Samsara, the passing between the worlds of experience–Tao, The Way; the same term used by them for Awakening. They didn’t do this because they were short of words.

The practitioner travels between realms, and each realm is the scenery of his life at that moment. He is not caught. He does not fall. Although he travels, he does not choose to go. He does not choose to stay. The deluded person cannot travel. His feet, as it were, are stuck fast to the ground of each realm, and that ground is like a constantly collapsing building.

When we sit, it is as if all the worlds are travelling through us, like clouds through mountains.


85. Spiritual Language

All spiritual language originates in the actual experience of a real person, who then tries to convey that experience in words, using the poetic and allegorical options open to him. That’s why these writings are often prefaced by “It is as if….”

When this language decays over time, religion arises.

It is as if a cascade of tiny birds floods out from the open heart, illuminating the sky

It is as if after a short while these birds turn to stone and fall to the ground.

It is as if people gather up these birds, their shape and colour intact though lifeless and, fascinated, give them names: ‘Buddha nature,’ ‘No Mind.’

It is as if they collect all the birds lying there and put them together, to form structures.

It is as if each structure is a prison.


77. The Body of the World

Sanskrit has distinct and separate words for Enlightenment (bodhi), the path from delusion to enlightenment (marga) and the six realms of Saṃsāra (gate).

The Chinese translated all three as Dao, Way. In Japanese, ‘Dao ‘ is ‘Do’ as in, for example, Dotoku, Expression. Toku means to attain, to be able, to say.

For us, that seems extraordinary, and for us to understand requires a huge shift in perspective, from the personal to the universal.

It was not that the Chinese had a shortage of words, or were careless. For them Way is primary because it is a description of the full dynamic functioning of everything.

In a similar fashion, the original meaning of Dharmakaya, the universal body of the buddha, was his teachings. When his body of flesh had gone, his body of words would remain. The Chinese universalised that to mean The Body Of The World, Everything.

To every thing a voice


70. The Buddha’s True Dharma Body

The Buddha’s True Dharma Body

Is just like space

Manifesting its form

According to circumstances

It is like the moon in water.

Caoshan Benji

‘Manifesting its form’ means that Buddha and human beings arise together; space and the myriad things appear together. It is not that space is pre-existing and the myriad things then take their place. It is not like that.

Similarly, Buddhism is not a house which practitioners can enter, occupy and leave. Practitioners are the house: the roof, the walls, the doors, the windows.

The heart is manifested by what it holds.


67. The Eight Characteristics of a Great Person

The last teaching given by the Buddha was ‘The Eight Characteristics of a Great Person’. Master Dogen’s last teaching was a commentary on this teaching.

1. The first of the eight is ‘have few desires’.

A misunderstanding of what the Buddha meant by desire engenders an entirely false perspective of the whole buddhist endeavour, and so it is crucial that we understand this correctly.

He didn’t mean ‘have few feelings’. He didn’t mean ‘don’t feel’.

Underneath our random mental noise is our momentary feeling state, and as practitioners we become very familiar with this. Our indeterminate vitality and aliveness enables us to understand the vitality and aliveness of the whole Universe, because its the same. It is the ground of being. It is our home and our heart.

However, our delusive tendency as human beings is always to ask ‘What is this?’, re-ordering our momentary feeling state as an emotion, which is a kind of thinking, and around which thoughts cluster, giving an explanation: what we must gain, what we must lose, and this is desire.

2. The second characteristic is variously translated as ‘knowing how much is enough’ or ‘to know satisfaction’.

A first response on hearing this is to hear it as an anodyne buddhist piety. We should be happy and content, whatever the circumstances, even if our life is filled with conflict and lack.

But we should ask: satisfaction with what?

In the Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2 Case 92, Master Chokei Eryo asked Master Hofuku Juten: When we look at matter we are looking directly at mind. Now, can you see that boat?

Master Hofuku said : I see it

Master Chokei said : Forgetting about the boat, where is the mind?

Master Hofuku pointed at the boat again

In this story mind [shin] doesn’t mean our thinking mind, but something more fundamental, which includes our thinking mind. Shin also means heart. So, the story demonstrates that mind, heart and world are not separate.

Taking that to be so, we need to understand the whole circumstances of our life, including emotions thoughts and feelings as the scenery of our life. So, being dissatisfied or in conflict is as it is, and is satisfaction. We don’t need to keep trying to cut off our own arm.

3. The third characteristic is to enjoy serenity.

The Buddha said “..if you want to have the joy of serene nondoing, you should be away from the crowds and stay in a quiet place. If you are attached to crowds, you will receive suffering, just like a tree that attracts a great many birds and gets killed by them. If you are bound by worldly matters, you will drown in troubles, just like an old elephant who is stuck in a swamp and cannot get out of it. This is called ‘to enjoy serenity in seclusion’

We should understand that we do not necessarily leave the crowds behind when we shut the door.But we can separate ourselves from the crowds inside of us. The birds kill the tree; they don’t kill the sky.

4. The fourth characteristic is to practice diligence.

The example the Buddha uses is a constantly flowing trickle of water which gradually wears away rock.

Of course, the water doesn’t intend to wear away the rock, it is just fully expressing its nature. Similarly, if we imagine that we are being diligent, we are simply being dualistic. When we are diligent, there is no observer, and everything is natural.

The Chinese compound for diligence is Shojin. The first character means purified. That is, not two, non-dual. The second character means to make effort. So our diligence, and the diligence exerted by the whole Universe, which constantly causes it to leap out of nothingness, is the same.

5. The fifth characteristic is not to lose mindfulness.

The Buddha said : If people possess the ability not to lose mindfulness, the robbers of the five senses are unable to invade them. For this reason, you constantly should regulate thoughts and keep them in their place in the mind…even if you go among the robbers of the five senses you will not be harmed by them – it is like entering a battlefield clad in armour and having nothing to fear.

Sekiso said that enlightenment was like a thief breaking into an empty house. The five senses are robbers because there is a ‘you’ separate from them.

The place that thoughts should be kept in the mind is vast space. The regulation which they should be subjected to is their complete expression.

6. The sixth characteristic is to practice meditation.

The Buddha said “…if you gather your mind, it will abide in stability..When you have stability, your mind will not be scattered. It is like a well roofed house or a well built embankment, which will help you maintain the water of understanding and keep you from being drowned…”

There are three elements to the simile: water, structure and the space created by structure. And it’s highly noteworthy that the Buddha identifies water -which is almost universally associated with feeling – not with ignorance, or delusion, or desire, but with understanding, when it is somehow ‘contained’ within space, within emptiness.

7. The seventh characteristic is to cultivate wisdom.

The Buddha said : Monks, if you have wisdom, you will be free from can deepen understanding through the wisdom of listening, contemplation and practice”

Wisdom is Prajna, which isn’t intentional knowing. ‘Pra’ means ‘pre’ and ‘jna’ is knowing, hence pre-knowing, that state of intuitive wisdom and wholeness prior to division into thinker and thought. And each of ‘listening, contemplation and practice’ is an aspect of this wholeness.

8. The eighth and last characteristic is not to be engaged in hollow discussions.

The Buddha said: “Monks, if you get into hollow discussions, your mind will be scattered”

When we sit, it is often as if our head is surrounded by our thoughts, and it is as if we are engaged in discussion with our thoughts. But given that there is no head of the self, what is this if not hollow discussion?


44. The Buddha’s Three Bodies

Emptiness isn’t conceptual; it’s descriptive. It is experience unencumbered by you. It is felt, not thought.

If the feeling dimension is missed, practice can become very arid.

It was for this reason that, alongside the articulation of Emptiness, the Mahayana School developed the doctrine of the Three Bodies of the Buddha. Theravadan Buuddhism had two – the actual body of the historical Buddha [Nirmanakaya] and the Dharmakaya, the Truth Body, which is always there and which is identified with Reality. We picture reality sometimes as the myriad things, sometimes as the body of the Buddha.

Mahayana introduced the Bliss Body [Sambogakaya] which, I think, makes explicit the feeling dimension of Emptiness, and the feeling dimension of reality, of all things.

In the same way, the Pure Land sutras give descriptions of the Pure Land which are magical and enchanting – wish fulfilling trees, jewelled birds, and so on. Obviously, we aren’t meant to take this literally, but the descriptions evoke our feelings – delight, gratitude, grace.

This feeling and felt world is itself the body of the Buddha. The world itself has liberative force.


42. The Five Skandhas

We practice from the perspective of the Buddha, not the Self.

At the start of the Heart Sutra, there is an exchange between Śāriputra, one of the buddha’s historical disciples, renowned for his wisdom, and Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Significantly, it is Avalokiteśvara rather than Śāriputra who, whilst sitting in zazen, realises that the five Skandhas are empty, and hence all suffering is relieved. You could say all suffering is relieved because Avalokitesvara, the five Skandhas and Emptiness are all synonymous.

Were Śāriputra, from the position of the self, to perceive the emptiness of the five Skandhas, suffering would not be relieved. The whole world would become suffering.

So, the suggestion is not that in zazen we see Emptiness, but rather that the five Skandhas see the Emptiness of the five Skandhas. And suffering falls away.


40. The Four Dharma Seals

The Four Dharma Seals are suffering, impermanence, no-self and nirvana.

The second and third are the crucible of our lives. If we think of the self as real, fixed, permanent, then the unavoidable truth of impermanence will cause us to suffer. We are always one step closer to falling.

If we see the insubstantiality of the self, that is the liberation of all beings. Impermanence can then be seen as the dynamic functioning of interconnectedness, and we can live at peace with all sentient beings, undarkening the world by no longer throwing the dust of the self over it.

We have a choice. We either fall down or stand up. And, of course, we do both.


27. Karma

Question: If I do a good act, but with a conscious intention of doing good, does that negate the karma?

Answer: There are two dualistic assumptions buried in your question.

The first is that we can separate ourselves from ‘our’ experience, so there is an ‘I’ acting in ‘The World’. This is counter to our belief that practice is wholehearted action in the present moment, when our ordinary distinctions fall away, vivifying reality.

The second is that our actings take place in linear time, and that good or bad actings in the past have good or bad consequences in the future. But we say that the act and the consequence arise at the same time, the flower and the fruit occur at the same time, and this same time is all of time.


13. The Second Noble Truth

All Buddhist teachings, no matter how apparently esoteric, refer to our actual experience, particularly during zazen. If we cannot find them in our actual experience, then we cannot accept them.

The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering is our attachment to desire, which is defined as greed, ignorance and hatred.

If we examine our actual experience during zazen, where is greed to adhere? Or ignorance? Or hatred? And if they have nowhere to adhere, surely this is the liberation of all things, all beings. Not at some imaginary future time, but this time.