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304. Buddhist Language

Master Mazu (Baso) famously said, “Mind is Buddha”. He also said, “Ordinary mind is the Way”. Yet on other occasions he said, “Neither mind nor Buddha”.

When challenged about this apparent inconsistency his successor Pai-chang said,

“All verbal teachings are just like cures for diseases. Because the disease is not the same, the medicines are also not the same. That is why it is said that there is Buddha and sometimes that there is no Buddha. True words cure sickness. If the cure manages to bring about healing then all are true words. If they cannot cure sickness they are false words. True words are false words insofar as they give rise to views. False words are true words insofar as they cut off delusion. Because the diseases are unreal there are only unreal medicines to cure them.”

There’s a lot buried within that text. The reference to views for example – giving rise to views –  clearly echoes Nagarjuna.

The metaphor of sickness and medicine is a direct reference to the final parable of the Lotus sutra, which describes the Buddha as like a wise physician.

 This idea of the Buddha as someone who cures sickness by expedient means, rather than someone who gives a correct view, is dominant within Chinese Buddhism.

When a person is sick that person is like a sleeping person – they’re entirely caught up in the sickness of the self. When a person is cured they are not released into any particular thing. They’re released into everything. They’re released into the world of all beings.

So language in Buddhism doesn’t have a truth function in the way that we would normally recognise it. Its function is to release us from clinging, grasping and attachment. It is to unclench us, to release us from grasping onto one thing and opening us to everything.

Because our inherent tendency to grasp and cling never goes away, we also require to be mindful about our desire to grasp wisdom. Or to grasp compassion. Or to grasp emptiness.

So the language will change in accordance with the situation of the person.

It’s not that as deluded beings we’re sick and then we come across Buddhism and we get well. No. This sickness and wellness is an intrinsic part of our nature as human beings. It does not change. It does not go away.

And so our language must always remain open.

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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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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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281. The Expression of Water

When we practice we release the self and we release the world from the grip of our certainty.

In the ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra‘, Master Dogen says the following:

In seeing water there are beings who see it as a jewelled necklace, some see water as miraculous flowers. Hungry ghosts see water as raging flames, or as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace, or a tower, or as the seven treasures, or the great jewel. Others see it as woods and walls, or as the dharma nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and mental nature. Humans see these as water. In these different ways of seeing are the conditions under which water is killed or given life.

Although Dogen is a great master, the statement is incomplete.

Even if he had said that each window through which all creatures who have ever lived or who ever will live see the world, if all these uncountable windows were taken and each smashed into a million, billion pieces and a tiny precious fragment was taken from each to form a great window, through which a great light would  illuminate the practitioner completely, the statement would still be deficient.

How so? Because from the perspective of the water, or the mountain, or the tree, or whatever, all the views of these infinite number of beings are not made standing on the passive body of the water, the tree, the mountain, the person, but rather, all these views, all these beings, are the expression of the water the tree, the mountain, the person, and the expression of this moment.

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246. This great miracle

Our practice does not start from a position of lack. We do not need to complete or perfect anything. We are not on a journey. We are not spiritual warriors.

Rather, we are like a child filled with wonder. We are like an old person, on the point of death, grateful to have lived, picturing the deep interweaving of all things, picturing – eyeless – the great miracle.

This great miracle is always present, like a mother. Sometimes she embraces me, and sometimes she lets me be. But whenever I drop the weight of my head, she lifts me up.

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241. The world will not fall into nothingness

The dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham said dance is the fleeting moment of feeling totally alive.

But you feeling totally alive is the small miracle. Experiencing the great fabric of all things as totally alive is the great miracle.

Allowing all this experience to flood through you: like light, undiminished by love, or by hate, or by comparison or by analysis. The great miracle is like a vast clear river which leaves no residue. Great, because although manifested fleetingly, even so the world will not fall into nothingness.

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234. All expression is a miracle

Zazen is the Dharma Gate of ease and joy.

It is not effortful. We entrust our body and mind to zazen and let everything be.

Whether the mind is turbulent or peaceful we hold it like the earth under the ocean holds the weight of the water, maintaining it so it will not seep into nothingness. We hold it like we would hold a sleeping baby’s head, whatever the baby is dreaming.

If you listen carefully when the bell is rung you hear two noises.

The first, very brief, is a dull sound, the striker hitting the bell.

The second is the bell’s full expression.

If we thought the striking required to continue until it matched our idea of perfection, the expression of the bell would never be realised.

We need to understand perfection is a chimera.

Because all expression is a miracle.

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197. Point to your mind

“A teacher and his student were standing by the shore. In the distance was a boat. The teacher said to the student ‘forgetting about your mind for the moment, point to the boat’. The student pointed to the boat. The teacher then said ‘forgetting about the boat for the moment, point to your mind’. The student pointed to the boat again”

In dualism, we imagine the mind comes first, occupying an unspecified space, within which the world then appears. But truly, mind and world are the same illumination. But it is not the great illumination.

Dogen said that when we see water, fish see shimmering palaces. Demons see blood. Gods see strings of pearls. But the eyes seeing ‘water’ are without limit, and so the powers of expression of ‘water’ are without limit. This is the great illumination. Likewise, ‘mountains’. Likewise, ‘thinking’.

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Artwork by Blair Thomson
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191. A special transmission

“A special transmission outside the scriptures
No reliance on words or letters

“Words and letters” means spoken and written language. What does “no reliance” mean? It doesn’t mean that language is anathema to authentic practice.

There is no reliance on language because everything – including language – is ceaseless expression and ceaseless activity; so everything, language as much as birdsong, is proclaiming the Dharma.

The problem arises when we appropriate this expression and activity to the self. If we can keep dropping off the self, then the wholeness of everything, the aliveness of everything, which otherwise is just an ideal, is expressed. Not in some future life, some ideal life, but now.

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165. The hundred foot pole

Dogen said that the path of all buddhas and ancestors is prior to the myriad things. That being so, it cannot be understood or explained by conventional means.

When we hear ‘path’ or ‘way’, we might imagine a path made up of the sutras, the words, the heads, the hearts, the hands of the ancestors.

And because there is such a path, here or somewhere, we can walk it.

Creation myths often take unpicturable chaos, which is then ordered into a pictured world.

It’s as if we can’t see the swirling of time without the picture of a clock. Or the surge of the ocean without a picture of it, first. But isn’t this picture world a loop? Isn’t the picture not a door, but a wall?

This life is not a million pictures. Our practice is not stepping onto this pictured path.

But rather, stepping from the hundred foot pole. Not falling

the words, the heads, the hearts, the hands.