101. The most wonderful thing

Hyakujo is asked by a monk, “What is the most wonderful thing in the universe?” and responds “Sitting here.”

Nyojo re-writes the response as, “Eating rice here”

Dogen comments “I would answer by raising high my staff here”

Hyakujo doesn’t mean that his temple is the best place to do zazen, or that zazen is the most special activity, which Nyojo underscores in his reformulation.

The important word is ‘here’. Something rather than nothing. Fully alive. The great miracle.

We call buddhism wondrous dharma because it can’t be grasped by the mind. That being so, it is completely immaterial if your mind is empty or full, pregnant with wisdom or stagnant with the familiar idiocy. The East Mountain walking isn’t perturbed by the clouds at all.


102. Illumination

The complete combustion of each moment is the illumination of the universe.


103. Within a dynamic whole

We practice within a deep faith that we exist within a dynamic whole, that we are part of everything. Part of everything.

That being so, it doesn’t matter if our mind is empty or full, quiet or busy. Whatever arises is part of this wholeness too. What we call delusion is asking to be seen, to be understood, to be ungrasped by our attachment and aversion, not eradicated, not cast into nothingness.


104. The Mind of Practice

When we start sitting, what usually shocks is gaining an unwelcome familiarity with the mind: the inane repetition, the vacuity, the constant chatter. It’s only natural if we think the aim of practice is to change this mind. To think in that way is a trap.

If we just allow all the mental activity to come and go, we realise that what we usually term ‘thought’ isn’t free floating. It’s as if it’s the visible tip of a long thread, which connects to our heart and to our body. And through them, to the heart and to the body of everything. The shimmering aliveness of everything, the isness we are part of.

Our little karmic mind exists within bigger mind, the mind of practice, which is not personal to you or me, the mind shared by all practitioners; the past, now, to come. Which holds everything


105. Samskara

Delusion and Enlightenment is the usual pairing in Zen, and in Buddhism generally, it’s often Samsara and Nirvana.
Enlightenment/ Nirvana seem distinctly other, and difficult to reach, like trying to jump over a high barrier with your feet stuck in mud.

It’s difficult to relate them to actual practice, and I wonder if a better pairing might be Samskara/ Nirvana.

Samskara appears everywhere, but due, possibly, to accidents of translation, it’s often ignored. It’s one of the five skandas for instance, variously – and unhelpfully – rendered as ‘volition’ ‘willing’ ‘mental formation’, among others.

But it’s fundamental. It is our endless tendency to do something with our raw experience. Constructing desire, memory, a mind, a self, a world, endlessly.

Nirvana is just simply not doing that. Just letting everything be. It’s not a state, or a place, it’s a non doing. It’s here and now, not some place else, some other time.

Our practice is a wobbling between these two, and an illumination of that.


106. The Gates of our Face

Rinzai said that there is a true person, entering and leaving through the gates of our face.

We often have the experience of our karma as being a kind of mask, stuck to our face, us mute behind it. And with the thoughts experienced when sitting, similarly it’s a kind of mask or screen. It’s as if our craziness and our normality hovers in front of us, like a fog, like a mask. The temptation is to wish it to be something different. To become the face of compassion. The face of Buddha.

If we think in this way we are still entirely within our karma. But if we can drop our aversion, then there is the possibility of illumination. Sometimes the mask, sometimes the face.


107. The Prajñāpāramitā Sutras

The vast Prajñāpāramitā sutras are condensed into the Heart Sutra, and the essence of the Heart Sutra is in the first line, which is a description of our zazen:

“The bodhisattva of compassion, practicing Prajñāpāramitā, sees that the five skandhas are empty and thereby relieves all suffering”

The most important thing is to see that it isn’t a person practicing Prajñāpāramitā (zazen). Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is identified with the whole world. The person is the five skandhas, and for our purposes, the skandhas of mental formation and consciousness are the ones which matter; mental formation our ceaseless tendency to do something with our raw experience, and consciousness the awareness of that. Prajñā, pre-knowing, is the state prior to mental formation.

It isn’t a sequence; when one arises, all arise.

We are storytelling creatures who want to be truth telling creatures. That is another sort of story. But we can be truth experiencers.


108. The Ghost Cave

In Zen, the fixed self is sometimes referred to as the Ghost Cave.

We can see our practice as a kind of dynamic coming and going. From this place out into the illuminated universal and back again into the apparent personal, and so on, endlessly. The metaphor of cave, an opening in the mountain, is worth paying attention to.

The self is not characterized as a prison, something we are trapped within. Or something to be annihilated. Rather, it is to be understood. It is a Ghost Cave because we do not understand it. The ghosts are restless because they do not understand themselves.

This cave is part of the Great Mountain of all things. It is our only way inside this mountain. Dynamic, compassionate awareness pacifies the mind. Pacifies the whole mountain.


109. Prajñāpāramitā

The bodhisattva of compassion practicing Prajñāpāramitā (Zazen) sees the five skandhas as empty and thereby relieves all suffering.

So, the practice is seeing the emptiness of the five skandhas. Not as a preliminary to something else. Not in order to experience emptiness per se, or to experience something else. Not you seeing. The practice is seeing the emptiness of the five skandhas. That’s it.

That’s the practice. The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, fabrication and consciousness. Form, this is my body. Sensation, my body is feeling something. The feeling is mine. Perception, that something I am feeling is sadness. Fabrication, I am feeling sad because…. Consciousness, ah there I go again.

Seen through emptiness, consciousness becomes compassionate vast space awareness. Fabrication is set aside and in that non doing is nirvana. Perception is set aside and the world is released from our mind. Hence Prajñā appears. This sensation, this body is part of an unbroken whole; the body of the whole world.


110. The Sickness of the Self

Buddhism is a medicine for the sickness of the self.

It takes us a long time to realise it. What drives us to start to practice is a sense that something is missing. That we may be caught in the in breath of narcissism, or caught in the outbreath of depression. We may feel like there is dirt on our face which we can’t wash away.

But rather than something missing, something is not yet missing: the deep belief that there is a Me.

The fundamental belief in Buddhism is anatta, no self. In Zen we express this as emptiness. This belief is the foundation of everything else; Interdependence, total dynamic functioning and so on. It is why when we chant the Heart Sutra we chant that the Bodhisattva of Compassion, practicing Zazen, sees the five skandhas as empty and thereby relieves all suffering.

The oscillation, the breath, is not between the inflation and deflation of the self but between the five skandhas and everything, seen as vast compassionate space. We cannot lift ourselves, yet we are lifted up.

The sickness never really leaves us. But nonetheless, everything is illuminated.