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Kusen

181. The sixth ancestor

All the Zen lineages trace their ancestry back to the sixth ancestor Huineng, who, so the story goes, obtained a secret transmission from the fifth anscestor Hongren. In the story, Hongren asks his monks to write a poem about zazen. His chief disciple, Shenxiu, was the only one who responded. Huineng criticised the poem. In response, Hongren recognised Huineng as his true successor, and gave him transmission.

This is the poem, as often translated into English:

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind the bright mirror
At all times we should polish it
And not let dust collect

However, the original Chinese reads something like:

Body is bodhi tree
Mind like clear mirror stand
At all times diligently polish
Do not let dust settle

When we first hear the poem in its normal translation, we imagine that Shenxiu is talking about your body and your mind, and that your mind is like a bright mirror which needs to be kept clear of the dust of thoughts by the effort of Zazen. That ties in with an individualistic, mindful, psychological sense of what zazen is.

Except, the poem doesn’t actually say that.

Let’s consider the actual text.

The body is the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment. So it is associated with that, obviously. But also, it is an unusual tree because it’s hollow. So it’s also a symbol of interdependence.

Is this the personal body, or not? Or both? Or neither?

When we hear that the mind is like a mirror, we form an image of a mirror, on a stand, in a room, that we polish through our effort, and so keep bright. But where in this image is the bodhi tree? Is it in the room, with the mirror, or not? And shouldn’t the (personal) body be the stand of the mirror? And what is the stand anyway, and how does it relate to the mirror/mind?

The original text doesn’t make clear who or what is being polished. The translations do, and it seems clear why. What would we be polishing, if not a mirror? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

But obviousness is the co-conspirator of deception.

If we rephrase it as something like “with vigorous effort, the dust does not settle anywhere”, we may start to get somewhere.

If dust appears in vast space, moved here and there by the vigorous life of the air, both illuminated by light, there’s no problem. The problem arises when the dust settles. Not because it becomes anything different, but because space is eradicated. There’s just dust, and the dust becomes fixed. And what it comes to rest on becomes fixed too, as ‘me’, ‘objective world’, ‘mirror’, and so on.

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Kusen

182. Buddha Nature

At the Winter Retreat we talked about the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. Tathagata means ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’, and refers to the Buddha, and Garbha means womb, or embryo.

The Sutra gives expression to the idea in Chinese Buddhism that everything has Buddha nature; which Dogen later reformulated as everything is Buddha nature.

It uses eight similes to describe Buddha nature, six of which are to do with concealment.

Thus: a precious statue concealed in rags, gold concealed in dirt, hidden treasure underneath a house, and others.

The two anomalies are, first, a seed which grows into a huge tree, and second the simile after which the Sutra is named, a humble person carrying in embryo a great person. But which is great: the embryo or the womb? If we regard practice from an individualistic perspective, we obviously want to say the embryo, because how would it be meaningful to say that what is great is the womb?

Unless we broaden our gaze. We can then see it as a description of our practice together. We are within, and we uphold, this Buddha space. Both.

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Kusen

183. Facing the wall

Why do we sit facing the wall? We could say we’re re-enacting Bodhidharma, but what are we re-enacting?

In the customary telling, after his encounter with the Emperor, Bodhidharma went to Shaolin temple and faced the wall for nine years.

The Chinese phrase is pi kuan, which is usually rendered as ‘wall contemplation’. It doesn’t occur before Bodhidharma.

But given that he was not contemplating the wall, what does this mean, other than‘contemplation like a wall’, or, more radically, ‘the wall contemplates’? Whatever the actual location of Bodhidharma was, the primary meaning of the phrase has always been understood to be metaphorical, not literal.

In contemplation from the perspective of a person, we are likely to have the idea of present insufficiency and future gain. We may imagine that if all the inner and outer noise abated, Emptiness, Suchness might appear.

Contemplation from the perspective of the wall is entirely different. The wall is facing the person and facing the world, and all of it is a vivid, alive whole. Emptiness is immediately there. There is nothing to be eradicated, and nothing to gain. The wall is immovably grounded in great faith. We could equally say he spent nine years facing the ground, or the mountain, or vast space.

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Kusen

184. The Lankavatara sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra says our existence is like a dream. It reprises the end of the Diamond Sutra, where our existence is likened to a dream, a bubble, a flash of lightning, a dawn star, a phantom.

Dream is the most pervasive trope in Buddhism, and for good reason.

It is hard to see the Buddha’s enlightenment story as anything other than a kind of awakening dream.

When we dream, awake or asleep, and when we then leave the dream, it is not that we are awakened to truth. But rather, that we are awakened to delusion.

And in the morning when we wake from a dream, there is a moment when perhaps we don’t know where we are, or who we are, or what we are. And then, almost instantaneously, we enter the dream of the self, the dream of the everyday world.

Between these dream bubbles, the ocean.

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Kusen

185. The moon in water

A familiar metaphor to describe zazen, and this life generally, is the moon in water.

It is a development of the mirror metaphor. Just like a mirror the water, when still, will reflect everything perfectly. So, as it were, there will be a second moon in the water. But, disturbed by the wind of ignorance, the water is disturbed, and waves form.

The ignorance is the belief that we are separate. But the critical part of the metaphor is deep faith that the wave – our sense of self, what we would call personal thought, feeling and experience – is not different from the ocean.

This faith, not making the ocean and the mind tranquil, is what is critical. Even if the reflected moon is a billion shards of light, because the wind is no longer ignorance, everything is still.

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Kusen

186. Form is emptiness

We chant form is emptiness, emptiness is form, but what is Emptiness?

In English emptiness is quite abstract. In Japanese the ideogram for emptiness is ku, which also means sky. That’s the thing about a pictorial language: the ‘concrete’ and the ‘abstract’ are fused, or, better, one is wearing the face and the other is wearing the mask, and they switch, but they always come together. That’s hard for us to understand. But if we can’t get out of the hidden bias of English and richocet between the concrete and the abstract, it’s impossible for us to understand Buddhism.

Without space, how can the heart open?

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Kusen

187. An illusion

At the end of The Diamond Sutra, 6 metaphors are used to describe this life:

a dream, an illusion, a shadow, a bubble (in a stream), a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.

What are we to make of these? Are they six aspects of something which can’t be named, or are they each different, or all the same?

They don’t seem the same. The last three seem to be real, but instantaneous, and the first three seem to occupy a strange position: experienced, certainly, but not clearly real, neither existing or non existing.

Could we say they are six instances of ungraspability?

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Kusen

188. The Middle Way

[continuing previous kusen]

Dream, illusion and shadow all occupy a curious position. You can’t say they exist, but you can’t say they don’t exist either, as they can be experienced. And because everything can be experienced, we don’t slice up that experience into true and false, right and wrong.

At its inception, Buddhism occupied a middle position in Indian thought. It wasn’t eternalist. It wasn’t nihilist. But it’s not called The Middle Position, it’s called The Middle Way, because it isn’t fixed, like a position, it’s dynamic, like a person.

And this dynamic quality led from the prajnaparamita sutras, of which the Diamond and Heart Sutras form part, into the full flowering of Chinese buddhism: The Lotus Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra, where the world of experience, rather than being taken as a given which requires to be navigated, is completely liberated into its own creative potential, through devotional, expressive, feeling language. As it were, the endlessly reconfiguring world bursts out of the heart.

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Kusen

189. Moon in a dewdrop

This life is described as being like a dewdrop in The Diamond Sutra, and Dogen elaborates on this image in his poem:

To what should I compare this life?
Dewdrops, thrown from a crane’s bill.

Dogen

We imagine dewdrops, thrown into empty space, reflecting the moon, still, in the same vast space.

But what we need to understand is that if there were no dewdrops, there would be no moon. The sky really would be empty. There is no Buddha waiting in Tusita heaven, or anywhere else. There is no preexisting moon, no preexisting world. Both are born together with this dewdrop person. Both exist in this dewdrop eye. When the dewdrop falls, the world falls.

The image of each dewdrop reflecting the moon, reflecting everything, is reminiscent of Indra’s Net, but with two differences. Indra’s net is still, but the dewdrop is thrown; it’s dynamic and temporal. And Indra’s net is in a galaxy unknown to us, but Dogen’s dewdrop is this person in this world, re-created.

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Kusen

190. Ceaseless enquiry

Because zazen is entirely outside the dream of the self, it is ceaseless enquiry. Not from a position of insufficiency or acquisition, but faith.

At the moment of gratitude, doing prostrations, we strike our head three times on the ground, and raise our hands. At the moment of enlightenment, the Buddha touched the ground. Is it the same ground, or not? If the same, how? If different, how?

When we raise our hands, we are symbolically lifting up the Buddha’s feet. Of course, we aren’t really lifting up the Buddha’s feet, nor the self. Rather, we are lifting multitudes

Multitudes