377. Gradual and Sudden Practice

The Tendai school say that there are three distinct approaches to spiritual practice: the gradual, the variable, and the sudden.

The gradual, as the name suggests, proceeds through stages.  First, you accept the Buddhist life—the precepts and so on. Second, you cultivate equanimity — calming and steadiness in meditation. Thirdly, having cultivated that steadiness, you practise insight into the way how things are—the way that you are. Having done all of that you cultivate compassion—the bodhisattva path. You proceed in that way in the direction of the Buddha. 

The metaphor – metaphors are very important – used is the ladder. It’s an unusual metaphor because you’d expect the familiar metaphor of the path to be used. 

The path is an obvious conceptualization of practice as the idea that you’re going somewhere. You start from one position and through effort, you get to another position.  Obviously that is the case with the ladder too, but in an oddly vertical way. In one way, you change position. In another, you don’t. 

The metaphor which is used for the sudden approach is another unusual metaphor. It is the metaphor of a magician being able to suspend himself in mid air. That metaphor obviously takes advantage of the very close relationship in Chinese between the words for space, sky and emptiness.

The idea is that entering into somewhere is completely entering that place. Having a slight experience of emptiness is simultaneously having that experience – which can have its own life of growth and development –  but which is also entering into the whole space.

That sudden idea of practice is, for better or worse, one that was taken up by the subsequent Zen tradition. 

It pays to carefully consider the ways in which these two metaphors are a  complement and contrast to each other.  They exemplify the point that it really is impossible to understand Buddhism without taking the metaphors seriously. 

And taking them seriously means taking them on their own terms.


375. As If Light

Shinji Shobogenzo  Book 2   Case 91:

One day Master Tenno Dogo asked Master Sekito  Kisen, ” What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”

Master Sekito said, “It isn’t graspable. It isn’t knowable.”

Master  Dogo said, “Can you say anything else?”

Master Sekito said,  “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

In one way we can take Sekito’s answer as being a statement of the non-obstruction of form and emptiness and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness—their interpenetration.

In another way we can focus on the innovative use of clouds in the answer that Sekito gives. This is helpful because it clarifies the difference between a living language and a dead one,  or in  traditional parlance — living words and dead words.  Clouds are used famously, and in a contrary way, in a metaphor for Buddha Nature.  

Buddha Nature is like the sun.  It’s always there but we can’t always see it  because sometimes it’s obscured by clouds. That’s why we require faith. So clouds,  in this metaphor, are symbolic of mental obstruction— confusion, doubt and so on.

Here’s the danger: because we have such a poor, superficial understanding of symbolic language, we think that the different elements within these various Buddhist metaphors have a fixed meaning.  So there’s clouds, that means mental afflictions; there’s the sun, that means Buddha Nature and so on.

All these pictures then can yield up a particular meaning based on a fixed symbolic vocabulary.

Thinking this way is plainly fatal to any kind of living Buddhism and it’s absolutely not what Buddhism historically has engaged in. Rather than having a fixed meaning, these various pictorial elements:  the wind, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the water, the pearl, and so on, are more like people. They can gather together and separate and express themselves in unusual and new ways. Those people can have within them the Buddha—concealed and then revealing himself in an unusual way. 

In this sense, Buddhism, once we can see it as a history and play of metaphor, is very alive.

It’s as if Light is all the time forming and reforming itself.

375. As if Light

373. Liberating Seeing

The Sanskrit word for ignorance, avidya,  literally means darkness.’Vidya’ is seeing, and the prefix is the direct negative.

Understanding that makes it clear that darkness is a metaphor about seeing. In the darkness, we can’t see anything. Apart from the darkness. So darkness is not a metaphor for seeing nothing, it’s seeing just one thing and assuming it is everything.

We think that to become familiar with Buddhism we’re required to become familiar with the whole edifice of doctrines, ideas and controversies, but that’s not true. What we need to do is to become intimate with the metaphors which are used.  Not metaphors understood as a kind of encrypted meaning but metaphors as liberative ways of seeing. Not seeing them like a text but seeing them as like a person, capable of infinite engagement and expression. 

Because language always fossilises, it is our responsibility as practitioners to attempt, as sincerely as we can, to generate our own ways of expression.

The metaphor of the mirror is a good illustration. We can see that metaphor in doctrinal terms, pointing to the illusoriness of separate phenomena. We can see it as a metaphor for the interpenetration of all things. We can see it as a metaphor for the mind—calm and meditative—able to experience all phenomena as they are, with equanimity.

All these formulations are not wrong but they’re incomplete. They’re incomplete because they do not move our hearts. They stay within a conceptual framework. Like seeing ignorance as a disguised metaphor of sight, we can see the mirror as a metaphor for liberating seeing: the mirror of the Buddha, the mirror of another person, the mirror of a bodhisattva, and the mirror of you, but at some past or future time.  All different ways of seeing, not one displacing the other, but all of them within a liberative kaleidoscope of seeing. 

It’s not as it were, the person that is liberated into correct seeing, but the seeing is liberated. 

It’s that shift, essentially a shift from our conceptual world to an alive experience world, which is the shift that we’re looking for. 

That’s why Buddhist truth is often called ‘the inconceivable’.  Not because it’s very difficult to understand, but because its purpose is to knock us out with that constructed realm.  Until then, it’s as if we’re deaf beings in a world of deaf beings. We cannot hear the voices of the other. And in this world, all movement and vitality has evaporated:  we are seeing all beings, but as objects. We see them in the mirror of our mind and we see them in the mirror of our language.

 Then suddenly, we start to sing. We can’t hear ourselves sing but we know that something is different within our experience. Something is different. When the world sings back at us, even although we cannot hear this with the mind or with language, we know that something has changed.  

Even though we cannot describe it, because we cannot describe it—something has changed.


363. Sky Flowers

The history of Buddhism can, rather than being seen as a history of ideas, more usefully be seen, to a significant extent, as the creative development of metaphors over time. 

Unlike ideas, metaphors are intrinsically part of us. They arise naturally in us all the time. We dream and live within them. We respond to them in a different way than to ideas: in a far more intimate way. ‘Ideas’ are bestowed on us by our opponents.

An example of the development of metaphor in Buddhism is sky flowers. Sky flowers originated as a way of talking about delusion. Just as a person with cataracts would see colors and shapes in the sky which appeared to be flowers, when in fact there was just sky, ignorant people see a self when there is only dependent arising. 

In sky flowers we can understand delusion. Delusion isn’t an actual obstacle that we need to overcome,  it’s more a recognition that we have been seeing incorrectly. The metaphor ties together related tropes in Buddhism: Seeing, Space, Non-Obstruction, Emptiness and Illumination ( the word for ignorance in Sanskrit is avijya, darkness, the absence of light)

This originating metaphor is then taken on by the Yogacara school to illuminate their position that whilst experience is real (so the person with cataracts is actually experiencing sky flowers)  the underlying reality which that experience purports to represent isn’t real. We can never know the world in itself, we can only know our experience. There are obvious similarities with another frequent metaphor: the dream. 

When we later come to The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, sky flowers is used as one of the practices of meditation to get us over a conundrum—if there’s no self, why do we need to practice? Surely we just need to realize that the true nature of things is Emptiness? That’s the sort of naturalistic fallacy which has plagued Zen from the time of The Platform Sutra, in which Hui-neng, directly perceiving reality through hearing a passage from The Diamond Sutra ( and not meditating at all) is deemed far superior to the seasoned meditator Shen-hsui.

The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, to counter this, uses sky flowers as a way of dramatically showing that, in a sense, we need to provisionally affirm the self to start to practice. 

But once we do, our habitual ideas of self are progressively undermined by our actual experience, much as a fictional fraudster would, as it were, undermine himself by progressively revealing his various frauds, culminating in his fraud of self-creation.

Dogen, three centuries or so after The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, takes advantage of the double meaning of sky in sky flowers to talk about the flowers of emptiness

And then in his hands, rather than a specific metaphor to talk about delusion it becomes a generalised way to talk in a wonderfully original way about the interdependent nature of reality. That very creative use of metaphor is characteristic of Dogen’s genius. 

(He does something similar with metaphor of the ocean and the waves which he radicalizes in a brilliant way in his poetry)

Later on from Dogen we have the Korean monk Kihwa who identifies sky flowers with the sense of the individual self, the individual body, and the sky as being the dharma body—the body of all reality. 

This is what is meant by turning the wheel of dharma.  Rather than learning and replicating ideas or metaphors we take them into ourselves, make them our own flesh then creatively respond with our whole being.  To do this is essential, because it ensures the continuation of Buddhism as a dynamic community of practitioners spread over space and time, creating new fabric from the same threads, so the miraculous garment will not fall into nothingness.


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


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.


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.   


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.


300. Faith

Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions.  Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

‘Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars. Thus, one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvellously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.


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.