111. The Particular and the Universal

More On the Heart Sutra:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion….

Buddhists have a persistent difficulty with the Particular and the Universal. When we consider Avalokiteśvara/ dynamic full functioning/ dependent origination, we tend to make a picture of something vast, and lurch between that and our particularity now.

It was for this reason, I suspect, that Okumura said that practice was the five skandas seeing the emptiness of the five skandas.

We start with this experience, this particularity, this now, and it floods out everywhere, because it is unconstrained by the bell jar of the self.


112. Having No Head

The whole Zen literature is a commentary on practice. Actual practice. Your practice.

Before spiritual language degenerates into religion, it is always the effort of a real person, using what is available, to describe their actual experience.

Always the effort of a real person to describe their actual experience. And because we too are that real person, it describes our experience. Not the experience of some far distant moment after decades or lifetimes of practice, but this moment, when we drop the familiar dualities of self and world, mind and body and so on. The language is often shocking and startling because it needs to be, to knock us out of our habitual configuration of experience around a ‘Me’.

For example, the writer Douglas Harding describes Zazen as being like having no head. He doesn’t mean that cognition, sensation and so on disappears. But rather that we lose the sense of this experience as mine. So rather than locating this aliveness within a space called me, there is just this aliveness, which fills everywhere.


113. Suffering Is Not Inevitable

Master Dogen said that Zazen is the dharma gate of ease and joy.

To understand what he meant we need to consider the fundamental Buddhist insight that we suffer because we believe there is a self and that there are things which belong to the self. And because we think that in our ordinary life we constellate our experience around this. Like wrapping a bandage round and round a non-existent head.

Dogen also said that Zazen is casting off body and mind, and one of the things he specifically means is that when we sit, we cast off this sense of me and mine. So experience is unwound, fills everywhere. And we can understand that suffering is not inevitable.


114. Shiho

Zen is transmitted I Shin Den Shin. ‘Shin’ is mind, or heart. So, from one real person to another. But how many is the real person? One, or many, or both?

‘Mind’ doesn’t mean the personal, karmic mind, obviously. And, likewise, heart.

In the Shiho, the document of transmission, the whole lineage is written out, one name after the other. And all the names are connected by a single red thread. A heart thread. So all the names are an expression of that heart.

This heart.


115. Zazen is Activity

Master Dogen describes Zazen as dropping off body and mind. That is, dropping off this sense of a me and things that belong to me. It is his way of describing anatta.

He doesn’t say that dropping off body and mind is a preliminary to the real activity of Zazen, but that Zazen is the continuous dropping off of body and mind. The activity of Zazen is this continuous activity of dropping off. It is an activity, not a state. It is an orientation, not an attribute.

He also says, although he attributes this to his teacher, Nyojo, that when body and mind are dropped off, we are free of the five desires and the five hindrances. The five desires correspond to the desires of the sense organs. The five hindrances are desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness and doubt. If we think that practice is the vehicle for our own aggrandisement, we are full of these hindrances. But if there is no me and nothing belonging to me then where can these hindrances attach?

Hence, Zazen is the dharma gate of ease and joy.


116. Anatta

The foundation of Buddhism is Anatta, no self. Dogen’s way of expressing this in our practice is ‘dropping off body and mind’. Dropping as we would drop off a cloak. But a cloak that we keep finding ourselves wearing again.

We might imagine that this dropping off reveals a purer self, but that would be a mistake. This dropping off, the activity of non fabrication, non talking the self into existence, doesn’t reveal a purer self. Rather, it uncloaks this one piece zen, where everything, including the activity of the karmic mind, is an unbroken whole. Everything is as it is, which is nirvana.


117. The Zen Doctrine of No Self

One of D. T. Suzuki’s most famous books is ‘The Zen Doctrine of No-Self’. It’s a very seductive title. Once we’ve got the theory clear, we can start to practice. Once we’ve got the map, we can make our way to the territory. It’s a completely erroneous perspective.

My first teacher said, “you cannot break the mirror of the self with the head”. Denying the self is also asserting the self because – just like atheism – what is denied remains there in outline. A god shaped space, a self shaped space. We need to understand that Buddhism is the relinquishing of all views. The relinquishing of all views and discovering in the midst of practice that territory in which the karmic mind is not sovereign.

And in this place there are maps. Some are incomprehensible to us, some are like a dream and some are like daybreak.


118. Ordinary Mind is The Way

Master Baso famously said, “Mind is Buddha.” He also said, ” Ordinary mind is the way.”

These remarks have been spectacularly misinterpreted. Otherwise sensible people claim he is saying that the nature of reality is mental, or that the self is Buddha, or similar nonsense.

By ‘ordinary mind’ he didn’t mean the karmic mind, the creator of dualities, the storybook of the self. By ‘ordinary’ he meant what is immediately available to us, if we cease our habitual dualistic behaviour.

This ‘ordinary’ mind is like a fragment of sky, it extends everywhere.

The issue is not whether you are illuminated, or not illuminated.

Everything is illuminated.


119. Before Thinking

While Master Yakusan was practicing zazen, a monk asked him, “What are you thinking?”

The Master said, “I’m thinking (shiryo) not thinking (fu-shiryo).”

The monk asked, “How can you think not thinking?”

The Master replied, “Hi- shiryo.”

Hi-shiryo is really problematic to translate. It is often rendered as ‘non thinking’, but what is that exactly? My teacher Michael Luetchford renders it as, ‘different from thinking’. But in what way different? Tanahashi translates it as, ‘beyond thinking,’ which has the unfortunate connotation of a transcendent state.

The Ven. Anzan Hoshin renders it as, ‘before thinking’. Although not grammatically accurate, this rendering is brilliant.

Just as the world didn’t flash into existence when homo sapien appeared, this world does not suddenly appear when thought appears. When we sit, full attention is given to all experience, uncooked. It is as if we are looking along a long corridor. Some way along is the shuffling presence of thinking. We don’t negate it.

But we see it through the immediate and un-thought life of this, now


120. Full Dynamic Functioning

In traditional Buddhist terminology, there are three aspects to meditation. The first is stilling the mind. The second is samadhi (balance/ concentration), and the third is vipassana (insight); they are often thought of as sequential.

In our practice, they’re not sequential; they arise together.

You can’t still the mind with the mind. You can only still the mind by locating it within the body. This body, the body of awareness. And this body has no boundaries. It is one piece. It is like space.

Yet even so, we need to have actual experience that when we sit, body, mind and all beings are this one piece samadhi. It’s not enough just to believe it. When we sit together, we actually experience this, and this felt experience can gradually seep out to all existence, like a hand moving through water, infinitely.

And this One Piece is Zenki, full dynamic functioning. It isn’t static in any way. It is vibrantly alive, and all its facets are free to express and experience themselves, through this sitting. And this is insight.