261. In All Your Imbalance

The quintessential zen form is the koan. Stripped of later literary embellishment, the koan is – or at least purports to be – the recording of an actual exchange between two sincere practitioners. And we imagine that one of the characters in the exchange has more wisdom, and they are correcting the other, who has less.

I don’t believe that. I think it is more like a conversation, where one is illuminating the imbalance of the other. But not from a position of balance, but from a position of imbalance. And both positions are part of the great wholeness, which is dynamic because it is imbalanced. And being imbalanced it, like a person, a great person, can walk through time, and neither freeze nor fall.

We can look at the tradition in the same way. Nagarjuna is correcting the imbalance of codification, but in turn creates an imbalance which can veer into nihilism. Chinese Buddhism in response emphasises the dharmakaya, but this can lead to an imbalanced fixation on devotional practice, so is balanced in turn by the imbalance of Zen’s Iconoclasm, and so on, down to this exchange now.

I don’t want you to be balanced. I want you to be completely yourself, in all your imbalance, because if we aspire to balance, then Buddhism will become a prison, a religion. And there will still be walking, obviously, but in samsara, and samsara only.


262. Clouded Water Eyes

A famous passage in the Nirvana Sutra reads:

The Buddha’s True Dharma Body is just like space
Manifesting form according to circumstances
It is like the moon in water.

Nirvana sutra

I think this is a description of our state in zazen.

“the moon in water” is a metaphor for emptiness. It isn’t that the reflection doesn’t exist, it’s that it isn’t separate. The reflection is the expression of all the different aspects of the whole of reality working together: the moon, the water, the clouds, the clouded water eyes of the person witnessing it into being.

Each line informs the other. The third line is a poetic instance of the general statement of interdependence in the second.

And the purpose of the first line is to convey that “space” and “expression” are not in conflict: our aim is not to nullify whatever arises: thoughts, noises inner and outer, feelings, but not to fixate on them either, and thus to allow vast compassionate space to manifest, a space which can hold all this expression, like a mother holds her baby.


263. The One Dharma Gate

The earliest image we have of dependent origination is Indra’s Net. It’s a beautiful image, yet implausibly tranquil. And it ignores time. Of course, if the inspiration was someone looking up at the star filled night sky which, ironically, is seeing both space and time. But only from our perspective, now.

And for us, we might imagine dependent origination to be external to us, and our seeing of it to be impeded by the aches in this person’s body, the groans and gasps in this person’s mind.

But dependent origination isn’t tranquil or still. It is the exertion of all things. It is a great storm. And as you are sitting here, in the lull after the storm, this body is the debris of the storm. This mind is the echo of the storm. This body and mind is our dharma gate. The only one we will ever have.


264. Actualising Kanzeon

In many of the Mahayana Sutras, there are long lists of bodhisattvas. In Zen, there are really only two: Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Manjusri is generally the figure on the zen altar. He sits on top of a lion and wields a sword, to cut delusion. “Wisdom” is a misleading translation of prajna, which literally means ‘pre-knowledge’: that state of wholeness before we cut the world into pieces, either through language or adherence to a self. For this reason, his sword is unusual. He cuts the world into one.

We can see him as a description of one aspect of zazen, and if we can, we can then see Kanzeon as another, and the two of them as Not-Two.

Kanzeon is normally represented as having a large number of hands and eyes. The symbology is her capacity to see the suffering of living beings, and to assist them, but I think this multitude of hands and eyes is also descriptive of our state in zazen.

Manjusri is a definite figure, but, for Dogen at least, Kanzeon is equated with the whole of existence. In our dualistic way of thinking, the world is divided up into things, which then interact, but if we cast this aside, and de-centre this I/eye, we enter into the vast compassionate space which can hold the experience and perspectives of all beings (eyes) and the expression of those beings (hands). We are not cultivating compassion. It is cultivating us.

On this basis, we can then see why it is Kanzeon (compassion) practicing zazen in The Heart Sutra, which we chant after sitting, and why she is, as it were, practicing Manjusri (prajna), and vice-versa, and we can reconfigure the Heart Sutra as a poetic re-expression of the zazen which we have just experienced. Not just poetic, obviously.


265. Thrown Upwards

There are many visual metaphors in Zen which appear to be about reflection: the moon in water, the moon in a dewdrop, and the mirror. The crucial thing is not to see them dualistically: there isn’t a moon up in the sky; there isn’t a true person whose reflection in the mirror is false.

If we can see in this way, then we can see how the images are illuminating emptiness: it isn’t that a particular feature within the reflection is an illusion. Rather, it’s an illusion to regard that feature as being separate.

It is also helpful to see these metaphors as having a dual function: they both explain and describe zazen.

Sometimes we are like a mountain. Sometimes we are hanging in space. Sometimes we are a small bird, thrown upwards into the bright air.


266. This Dynamic Space

Emptiness isn’t a description of how the world is; it’s a description of a way of seeing and being, paradigmatically when we are meditating.

In the original Pali, it just meant absence. “This place is empty of elephants” just meant that no elephants are here, but the meaning changed with the Mahayana.

In the Heart Sutra, we chant “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, “form” being the first of the five skandhas, but in the earliest of the prajnaparamita sutras, the formulation is different:

Form is not wisdom (prajna) and wisdom is not form.
Just as with feeling, perception, will and consciousness.
They are not wisdom and wisdom is not in them.
Wisdom is like space…

The Heart Sutra

This is probably the origin of the widespread use of space/ the sky as a metaphor for emptiness, the dharmakaya, and lots more besides.

Space is “empty” because we can’t say that it either exists or doesn’t exist, and thus it becomes the exemplar of a new definition of emptiness, one where all the familiar dualities, good/bad, samsara/nirvana, delusion/enlightenment are “empty” because everything is “empty”. That is, everything arises within dependent origination.

The translation choice of “emptiness” for sunyata is unfortunate, as it suggests vacuity, nothingness, and ignores the connotations of the space metaphor: openness, freedom, brightness.

How is this relevant to our practice?

It seems to me that space/emptiness/prajna is a good description of our experience in zazen. When we are sitting, we don’t feel we are something solid, like a block of flesh, we feel spacious. It is as if we are hanging in space. In our breathing, we are, as it were, making this space dynamic: it is moving within us. Except, our actual experience isn’t of an outside and an inside, but an interrelation of the two, our airway the connecting channel between two oceans.


267. The Senses in Zazen

Our five familiar senses stand, as it were, at the border between our body and the world, gathering information about the world. Except, other than when we are in pain, our body, apart from its surface details, is largely unknown. Not in the abstract, obviously. We have a lot of information about our body. We have a body of knowledge. But we don’t, generally, have a body of feeling.

When we do zazen, the situation changes. Our familiar senses are displaced by ones less culturally familiar. The sense of the breath moving dynamically inside us in a dance with our flesh. The sense of the aliveness of the spine uncompressing itself, like a tree expressing how it is to be upward. And the sense of balance between this body and the great earth.

These senses have nothing to do with information, and everything to do with expression and interconnection: it’s a paradox. We constantly go on about non duality, yet zazen awakens the body from the stupor of the self. And this enlivened body of expression is our bridge, both symbolic and real, to the greater body of all beings.


268. What is Zazen?

Master Dogen asked “ If the cart is stuck, do you beat the ox or beat the cart?”

In other words, what is zazen? Is it an effort to purify the mind, or is it the full effort of this body of practice to express itself fully?

And in his greatness, his unique position, he answers “the cart”.

This body of practice is not the pictured lump of flesh, it is our actual experience. Freed from this picture, whether “the mind” is agitated or peaceful is of no consequence; it is like an electron in a cathedral.


269. Like clouds in the sky

A common instruction we are given in Zen is not to become involved with our thoughts, to let them come and go, like clouds in the sky.
However, many of us notice that when the mind calms down, what is then revealed is what appears to be an underlying and persistent emotional state which is disagreeable to us: which could be fear, anxiety, discontentedness, bitterness, or something else. How does the instruction help us then?

And sometimes also what is revealed is a meta emotional state: we are discontent about not being at peace.

The metaphor of clouds and sky was part of a larger metaphor used by the East Mountain school: just as the sun continues to exist whether it is obscured by clouds or not, so our underlying Buddha Nature is always present, even if it is temporarily obscured by thoughts, emotions and false views, and we should practice zazen with the faith that that is so. Possibly not coincidentally, Vairocana, the Universal Buddha, is associated with the sun.

But for our purposes, the clouds in the instruction don’t mean that thoughts are illusory. They are no more illusory than anything else. Neither should we take it as a signifier for interdependence: that doesn’t help us, if we retain the common viewpoint that meditation is primarily about something within our minds called consciousness.

I think we should take the instruction as pointing to spaciousness. Just as the sky is so vast that the presence or absence of clouds is of no consequence, likewise when we sit, the point isn’t to make the sky empty of clouds, the mind empty of thoughts, it is to actualise vast spaciousness.

But here’s the thing: that vast spaciousness isn’t actualised within our minds. That’s just another idea. It’s actualised within our zazen. Within the body (which includes the head, obviously), not the mind.

When I sit, there are two things going on, one negative, one positive. The negative is that I put to one side my sense of myself, the picturing body and mind of the self. “Just sit”, in the vernacular. But the positive is that I am aware of a joyful spaciousness in my body. For me, I’m first aware of it in my upper torso, then spreading upwards and downwards, inwards, to my breath, outwards, to all beings.

People tend not to talk about the second, but without it, zazen makes no sense: it’s just an exercise in mindfulness, a utilitarian attempt at unconditioning ourselves. Buddhism would not have continued to our time if it’s message was so limited and feeble.

I think the metaphor of the Universal Buddha is a mythical – not just mythical – way of talking about our actual experience in zazen. The whole vast structure of Buddhist thought is a creative, transforming dialogue between Practice and Descriptive Understanding, like a real person walking through time.


270. A Fragment of Momentary Being

Our true teacher is not a person in the usual sense, but a fragment of momentary being. And because that is so, our true teacher is everywhere, like specks of gold in the granite mountain. When we bow to the gold, we bow to the mountain. When we bow to the mountain, we bow to all our teachers.

Therefore, when we bow, we do so without regard to time or place. We bow when we are eating. We bow when we are sleeping. We bow within all the activities of our life.

We bow when there are fences and walls between us. We bow when there are mountains and rivers between us. We bow when there are lifetimes between us. We bow when there is suffering between us.

Between us.

By enacting this great mystical power of gratitude and wonder, we calm and protect the entire earth. We calm and manifest all worlds. We calm and protect all moments, so they do not fall into nothingness. We calm and protect this great fabric of all being between us.