91. The Head and the Body

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Kusen 91 collaboration ‘wholeness dispersed no. 1’ by Blair Thomson

Those who fall to the ground, get up relying on the ground.

Interdependent origination is difficult for us because we have an unexamined idea of time: it is like an arrow, going from past to future, yet past, present and future don’t have equal weight. The past is like an accumulating avalanche, flooding into the empty space of the future. The present is the interface between the two. The ground is invisible.

When we sit, there is the opportunity to experience time in a different way. The head of the present moment is balanced on the body of the ground, and it can go anywhere.


92. Senika

Senika appears in the Nirvana sutra as a kind of fall guy. He’s a Brahmin who believes that the body is the temporary home of the soul, which lives on after the death of the body.

Certainly, his soul has lived on, buried deep in our language. We make statements like ‘I am doing zazen’ or ‘I am living my life’ or ‘I need to be kinder to myself,’ and imagine we are saying something true.

Lying within the buried soul of Senika is the belief that the world is constituted of things, with attributes, acting.

This is the ground of delusion. Unless we can escape from it, buddhist teaching is entirely nonsensical.


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.


94. Genjokoan

In the Genjokoan, Master Dogen gives a famous definition of delusion and enlightenment, saying that delusion is carrying the self forward to experience the myriad things, whereas in enlightenment the myriad things come forward and experience themselves.

I would say that we carry the Self forward primarily through language: “That is a wall”, “That is my confusion”, “There is that familiar unpleasant feeling, bitter in taste”.

And once we use the scalpel of words on part of experience, that detached part can be the object of our love or [more usually] of our hate. And, hard as we try, we can’t kill it again.

Buddhism is, for at least a moment, the restraint of this tendency. It’s not that we become intimate with our experience, because that’s dualistic, but that experience, somehow, is restored to life unfabricated.


95. Hsiang Lin

Master Dogen said that the way to realisation was through the body. But which body?

Blue Cliff Record, Case 17:

A monk asked Hsiang Lin, “What was the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”

The Master said, “Sitting for a long time is hard, isn’t it?”

Bodhidharma famously sat facing the wall at Shaolin Temple for nine years. In answering the monk, the Master is drawing a comparison between his body, practicing, and the body of practice of Bodhidharma.

And given that we always sit with the body of practice, how can we say either that this body is the same, or different?


96. Who’s What?

When I was little, I would point at things and ask my mother, “What’s that?”

And my mother would patiently reply “that’s a tree”, “that’s a car”, and so on.

As I kept asking the question, other voices would say, “That’s how things are.””This is life and this is death.” And so on.

So when I am looking at the world, looking at myself, it is always as if I am looking through the eyes of someone else.

And the mind’s eye, likewise. That’s why, when we practice, it’s very important that we soften our gaze. The world comes to us, not in the familiar way, but an intimate way.   Seeing this way becomes an aspect of a broader felt sense. The breath moving inside us. Our weight. The birdsong touching our ears.

Self or no-self? Isn’t the answer obvious?


97. Avalokiteśvara

The Heart Sutra is the distillation of the vast Prajñāpāramitā sutras.

The version we chant divides into 2: an initial statement, then a long monologue by Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The initial statement is:

The bodhisattva of compassion, practising Zazen actualises the emptiness of the five skandas and thus relieves all suffering.

This is a mythical rendering of our experience as we sit. The critical thing is that it isn’t a person sitting, and that emptiness is something felt, not a statement about the nature of reality Thus, we can say that emptiness, compassion, no-self and suffering relieved are all facets of Zazen.

This is a very different practice from one concerned with gain, or change.


98. Bendowa

In Bendowa, Master Dogen is asked a series of questions.

In answer four, he appears to make a naive statement about the relationship between theory and practice. In effect, he says we shouldn’t concern ourselves about the superiority or inferiority of teachings, but should only concern ourselves with whether practice is authentic or not.

But how is that possible? Don’t we necessarily have to have some idea of what practice is about before we practice?

We can begin to grapple with the statement if we consider two things: the nature of faith in buddhism and the difference between living and dead language.

First, faith. Following Stephen Batchelor, I would say that faith isn’t about making a series of propositions which one believes, but rather that faith is the courage to bracket all our beliefs, put them to one side, and try as best we can to give ourselves to our experience. That’s why words like ‘inconceivable’ are used.

It doesn’t mean that the truths of buddhism are very hard to understand, it means that the spectrum of experience which is being pointed at is outside the jurisdiction of the mind, and its tendency to ceaselessly fabricate. It is pra-jna, pre knowing, prior to conceptualisation. Our sincere effort to language truth is truth, which cannot be caught, only felt.

Second, language. I would say that dead language is the mind trying to grasp the world and itself conceptually, from the standpoint of ‘me’. Because it proceeds from ‘me’, the world is ‘myriad things’; nouns, not verbs. States, not expressions. Imagining Nirvana as a place or state we can reach and remain, rather than an in the moment not-doing.

In living language, the primary dichotomy of self and world is broken, since language – and everything else – is an aspect of dependent origination, which in turn is seen as dynamic expression stepping forward and backward, not a structure of cause and effect. Each expression, each this-now occupies its own dharma position, and at the same time, is the whole of dependent origination, and because of this, the expressive power of each this-now is infinite. One facet of that expressive power is language.

So, in authentic practice in the sense meant by Dogen, although we are drawn to practice by possibly superficial and unexamined notions of what practice is, if we practice from the position of faith, not us but practice, speaks.


99. Great Courage

The three prerequisites for practice are: great faith, great doubt and great courage.

I’ve tried to explain how faith and doubt are two facets of the one thing, but what is great courage? Is it simply the willingness to remain in this place of not knowing?

How do we become disconnected from our basic state of feeling being? It starts by judging our experience. Say that when we are little, we intuit that our mother can’t bear our distress. We learn that our experience isn’t simply a given, it’s something we can manipulate, explain, evade, build thoughts and stories around, appropriate to the self, and so on. A whole ego structure forms on top of the simple state of being feeling.

There’s always a gap–a way back into this simple state–but there’s a catch. The gap is the feeling we judged unacceptable in the first place. We can always find it, but it’s very hard for us to just stay with it, without going into the mechanism–I almost said demon–that we created to escape it.

And this simply staying with is great courage.


100. Mislocating Delusion

Delusion isn’t quite located where we think it is.

We imagine that it’s the apparently ceaseless thoughts and emotions which come up during sitting, but it isn’t. It’s our response. Uchiyama likened it to an ignorant person watching a play, mistaking it for reality, seeing a villain on stage, jumping up on the stage to remonstrate with the villain.

This is the practice. We keep finding ourselves up on the stage, realising what we’re doing, and leaving the stage, to sit with all beings.

That’s why an emphasis on consciousness is harmful, because we’re focused on the wrong thing. Whether we turn the mind from lead to gold, it’s still a headstone, weighing down on the body of the world.