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342. The Magician

In Nagarjuna and other Mahayana writings there’s a strange metaphor: that of a magician conjuring up an imaginary person. That is often used as a way of talking about emptiness: experience is real but at the same time doesn’t have a separate underlying essence.

We can also look at this metaphor in a more personal way. I’m the magician—you’re the magician. From our beauty and pain we have created this phantom of self, this imaginary person. But tragically, we are invisible to ourselves, we have forgotten our true nature.

From this perspective we can understand the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is not someone who sees themselves, but someone who sees all other beings in their falsity and in their truth, the creator as well as the conjured person. Not from a position of pity or superiority but from a position of compassion and love.  

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337. The Whirlpool

Once, the Group had a retreat on the Scottish island of Luing. To get to the island you need to cross a passage of water affected by the nearby Corryvreckan whirlpool; the third most powerful whirlpool in the world. The boat can’t go directly across. It needs to go sideways. The effect of the whirlpool is to pull the boat back so it can cross over to the other side.

Sometimes, when we’re sitting alongside familiar distraction, random thoughts and such like, we have a persistent and unpleasant emotional state. Very often it’s anxiety. But it could be boredom, or rage, or fear, or bitterness.

At those times, it’s as if we’re back near the whirlpool. This time we’re alone in our little boat. By making great effort we can stay an apparent safe distance from the whirlpool, but we can never entirely escape it. We’re expending great effort to keep us in the same position. These disagreeable emotions are like that. We feel we require to keep these emotions at a distance, yet what we need to understand is that it’s that which keeps us stuck.

 What can we do?

From the perspective of this little boat of the self, we can’t do anything. 

But that’s not where our Zazen is.

From the perspective of the body of water, we can experience this whirlpool, not as something to keep our distance from, but as surging and constellating energy. From the position of the fish, we can see the whirlpool in a vision of wonder and astonishment. From the perspective of great dragons, we can see the whirlpool as a plaything.

This is the treasure house.

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336. The Fabric of Buddhism

The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.

The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’ 

We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.

Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.

That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.

At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.

Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?

If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not? 

When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.

The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?

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321. Why are our eyes open in Zazen?

We practice Zazen with our eyes open. Why is that?

When I asked my first teachers about that they would tend to give a humorous answer. Something to do with the propensity of Japanese people to fall asleep if they closed their eyes! But sometimes, humor is a motivation for us to probe further.

And it is a curious issue because, as far as we can tell, at least from the evidence of today, Buddhists in India would tend to meditate with their eyes closed. When you come across Indians today, most just assume that meditation is always done with the eyes closed. So it seems at least a possibility that, in the gradual process of Buddhism travelling from India to China, the practice changed from having the eyes closed to having the eyes open.

 So, why is that?

The most obvious answer is that the Chinese had a different idea of the subject of meditation. With our eyes closed, arguably the subject of meditation is this person. The world is excluded, so by implication meditation is about this person; this person’s consciousness, level of awareness, capacity for focus, and so on.

With the eyes open, the subject is different. The subject is not just this person, but this person in the world; this person in the midst of all beings.

When we do Zazen, although our eyes are open, it’s difficult for us to maintain a sense of our body as an object in the world. Indeed, it’s arguable that that is one of the main changes that happen when we take up practice. A ceasing of the sense of my body as being an object in the world; an object in contact with other objects. 

If we lose a sense of the body – this body – as an object, then that percolates outwards. We gradually lose a sense of everything else as being objects – objects to pick up, objects to throw away, objects to use, objects to discard – and instead we see objects as being more like people. So trees, birds, sutras, feelings, aren’t these –  as it were – passive things waiting to be scrutinised and appropriated by us, but have the beauty and dignity and indeterminacy which we associate with people.
That being so, even if the storm of the self is such that for now we cannot hear the voices of these people, if we make this fundamental shift then we know that a lull in that noise is possible. And hence, us hearing the voices of all beings is possible.

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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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258. The four merits of meditation

The four merits of meditation are said to be intuitive wisdom, compassion, equanimity and empathetic joy – but these are not personal qualities.

Yet when the restless dust and debris of the self is stilled, it is as if it forms an archway, through and around which the vast living space containing these qualities can be actualized.

Through which all the mute things can be given voice.

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243. Not the wind of ignorance

The Moon In Water

Originated as a description of the mind we should aim for while meditating.

Still water perfectly reflects the moon. A still mind perfectly reflects reality.

But, when the wind of ignorance starts to blow, creating thought waves, the reflection is lost.

But for Dogen, the wind wasn’t the wind of ignorance, it was the wind of interdependence. And that interdependence was fully expressing itself in the dynamic interplay of wind, water, space and moonlight. The moon wasn’t up in the far sky, it was in the water.

It’s hard to overstate how so entirely different this is.

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239. Two swimmers

Buddhism is full of apparent opposites: Form and Emptiness, Language and Silence, Samsara and Nirvana, and the temptation is always to posit one of the pair as fundamental, and the other as inhibiting our access to it. But really, we need to understand these pairings as like the wings of the bird of our radical wholeness and aliveness.

Take the second one, for example. When we sit, it’s very common to think of whatever arises as obscuring silence, and we need to get rid of it. But if our language is superficial, why would our silence be profound?

What we need to understand is that language and silence are completely interwoven. Where one goes, the other follows. The real question is: What language? What silence?

They are like two people swimming across a stormy sea. Neither can reach the shore by their own efforts alone. But when one is exhausted, the other carries them. So neither drowns.

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230. Half a person

We expect to see the Buddha, within us or behind us.

But no matter how hard we look, he is nowhere to be found.

Instead we see a fox of wisdom, a fox of piety, a fox of compassion, a fox of enlightenment and so on, for what seems 500 lifetimes.

We need to understand that this person is not a complete person, and never will be. This person is half a person. The momentary beingtime crashing against this half a person likewise is half a person.

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223. The whole body

Our practice is full of apparent opposites: delusion/enlightenment, true/false, dream/awakening, form/emptiness.

Silly people imagine that you throw away one and get the other. It’s not so.

These are all polarities, delineating the whole body of full dynamic expression. Without firewood, no fire. Without birds, no sky.

Therefore, this day, do not wish all the debris into nothingness. Do not grasp for false tranquillity.

This day, bring a great fire.