271. Zazen as Enactment Ritual

What’s the point of Ritual?

Well, to start to answer that,  you have to ask yourself: what is the point of spiritual practice? 

In these strange Coronavirus times my inbox is full, as I’m sure yours is too, with lots of invitations to use this period of quarantine to develop myself, to be all I can be, to break free of all my limitations.

This pitiable and feeble language is indicative of a spiritual materialism which is absolutely  endemic. So endemic we don’t even notice it. So, if the same question is posed to these people – what is the point of the spiritual practice? – their answer surely is obvious: the development to perfection of the individual. 

That is a complete reversal of how the spiritual life has been pursued and seen through almost all of our common history.

The purpose of spiritual life is not to exalt and glorify the individual but to exalt and glorify and flood with gratitude the whole of creation.

If we embark on practice with the idea that through practice we will become a great person we are completely deluded, because we will never be a great person. We don’t need to be a great person because we are already part of the great person of all being. The purpose of our practice is to drop off our individual concerns and vanities so that, at least fleetingly, we can live as part of this great person.

We can see ritual from this perspective.

Ritual takes us out of a thinking position and into a feeling position, takes us out of an individual perspective and moves us into a collective one, where the perspectives of each of us form the whole, like shards of glass making a mirror. 

Primarily, what we are doing when we wholeheartedly enact ritual is enacting this shared, connective and dynamic reality, which is our true life.

I think that this is what the contemporary writer and teacher Taigen Dan Leighton means when he talks of Zazen as ‘enactment ritual’- it’s not a means to something. It’s the expression of everything.


272. Thinking Not- Thinking

A monk asked Master Yaoshan, ‘what are you thinking when sitting in zazen?’ The Master replied, ‘I’m thinking not-thinking.’ The monk, puzzled asked, ‘how do you think, not-thinking?’ And the Master replied, ‘Hishiryo.’

So, this formulation appears in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, and various other texts. The exchange in Japanese is a bit terse, what – thinking – zazen – Thinking not thinking – how think not thinking – then his answer Hishiryo.

Shiryo means thinking and fu as in fushiryo is the direct negative – not thinking. The master’s final answer Hishiryo – What does that mean?

The usual rendering of Hishiryo is -beyond thinking- so Tanahashi renders it in that way. Nishijima renders it as -non thinking- and the contemporary Canadian teacher Anzan Hoshin renders it as – before thinking –

Now I would hope the difficulties with rendering Hishiryo as  – beyond thinking are clear, namely we imagine there is some state we have to reach which is beyond thinking; and that thinking is an obstruction. So, our thinking is, as it were, like a drunk standing in front of us, constantly impeding our way forward.

Non thinking as a translation, perhaps gets around that, but it depends on us understanding a category in Chinese thinking which is to do with spontaneous action. So the idea is we are not intentionally, firing an arrow, or painting or whatever, it’s a spontaneous action. But that is quite difficult for us to understand.

And Hoshin’s rendering of it as – before thinking -has a similar risk but in, as it were the opposite direction.; we think we need to cut of thought before it actually arises.  However, if you actually read what Houshin has to say about all this, what he is clear about is that his translation of – before thinking – doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any thinking but rather that there is a spaciousness to it.

So, as it were, I’m halfway along a tunnel and there’s a light, the light of thinking and I’m suddenly aware of the whole length of the tunnel, before this light. So, I’m not trying to switch the light off. I’m simply trying to actualize the whole space of the tunnel.

Similarly – beyond thinking – doesn’t mean to eradicate thought, its again simply introducing this great spaciousness, with in which thought and everything else occurs. We can term that spaciousness, awareness or original awareness, or something like that. And more than that, it’s not that this spaciousness is not external to us, but rather in our actual experience we are, at least sometimes this lump of spaciousness. 

So sometimes a lump of flesh, sometimes a lump of life, sometimes a lump of energy and sometimes a lump of space. And, as it were this little lump of space, of flesh, or energy, is part of a greater body. So, we are not experiencing something symbolically, or as something as an idea but we are actually experiencing it.

So rather than me having an idea of my body, which I have, I think if I imagine zazen is returning my attention to my body and my breath, my focus is on my actual experience and that actual experience is Hishiryo.


273. Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

One of Dogen’s best known texts is the Fukanzazengi , his universal recommendation of zazen; his instructions about how to do Zazen.

What many people don’t know is that his text is an almost exact copy of a text which was written about a hundred years before, Chang-Lu Tsung-Tse’s Manual of Zen Meditation. What Dogen does is add a chunky section at the beginning and end. What is interesting and innovative is what he’s added and what he’s omitted. Specifically he doesn’t incorporate a passage in the early work which reads “when the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear of itself”.

The idea of the mind in meditation being comparable to water has got quite a vintage. So in the Surangama Sutra for example we are told that in still water the moon will reflect itself clearly – the moon being a symbol for enlightenment – and we can also see how this still water clearly and accurately reflecting everything without becoming caught up is of a piece with another metaphor which is very popular in Zen, the Mirror.

This image of the pearl that Tsung-Tse is using in his text is similar in function, but instead of the clear  water enabling a perfect reflection of above to be made, the clear water enables us to look down clearly and see the pearl of our practice. 

It’s noteworthy in Dogen’s writings – particularly his poetry –  that he really radicalises and changes fundamentally this image that our mind should be like still water.

So for example in his poem Shobogenzo, he writes, “The Dharma, like an oyster, washed atop a high cliff, even waves crashing against it, like words, may reach but cannot wash it away”.

In that poem, he takes the hackneyed image of water and radicalises it’s turbulence to the extent that it actually throws the pearl clear out of the water and onto a high cliff.

Zazen is often referred to as the mountain still state.  And what is a cliff, other than a sundered mountain. And for the cliff, the surging universal life touches its heart rather than swirls around its form.

Our white cliff of bone, practicing Zazen, is sometimes touched by emptiness and sometimes touched by the whole surging weight of this ocean of everything. 

We can see that the metaphor of the water and the waves has taken on a fundamentally different meaning, so specifically it’s gone from the personal to the universal. The original meaning of the metaphor is – my mind quietens down, the waves abate, so I am able to see the pearl. I can clearly and dispassionately reflect the moon up in the sky.

Because Dogen radicalises the image, the water is no longer seen in those personal terms but rather is seen in as the whole activity of everything. 

And practice is seen to be not my practice but our practice; the activity and expression of all beings.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


274. Sitting Joyfully

Sitting Joyfully

In his Fukanzazengi, his Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen has this to say about Zazen: it is not learning meditation, it’s simply the Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy. 

The Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy

Dogen is a famously difficult writer and this seems a surprisingly straightforward passage. But although it’s straightforward, it’s hard for us to get. At a pinch, I think, we can understand how Zazen connects with Ease, in the sense that we’re putting aside our ideas, our conditioning. 

If we think of Zazen in terms of the Virtues, we’re probably thinking of Equanimity. Compassion too, at a push. But Joy? That seems much more problematic. 

It’s difficult. It’s physically challenging. It’s psychologically very challenging. Surely the point of it is to enduringly go towards some state that we might term Enlightenment. Which might, of course, entail Joy. And I think that would be most people’s understanding of what Zazen is, and indeed what meditation is.

But Dogen doesn’t say that “at some point in the future, Zazen will be joyful”. He says that Joy is one of its principle characteristics, together with Ease. And I think to have any chance of understanding what he’s talking about, we have to go back to basics, and the basics for us mean the basics of the Posture.

It’s one of the peculiarities of Buddhism that the central feature of it is this very physical practice of meditation. But yet we’re not given huge amounts of instruction about how we’re supposed to sit. 

So for example, when I was first introduced to Zazen I was told only two things.

The first is that if you’re sitting in some variant of the cross-legged position, then your knees need to be on the ground. And that’s eminently practical, because if your knees are off the ground, propped up by a cushion, your back’s going to bow out and you’re going to be uncomfortable. And the second instruction, which is more ubiquitous I think, was that we should push up with the top of the head and tuck the chin in. 

And that was it. 

The instruction about the knees obviously makes sense. The instruction about pushing up with the top of the head is a terrible instruction, and it’s terrible because it’s introducing tension – more tension–into the head and neck. And it’s directing our attention to the wrong place. It’s like trying to improve the decor of the attic whilst the basement is collapsing from dry rot. 

So the foundation of our practice requires us to start lower down. What I say to my students, repetitively – but never enough – is that the absolute foundation of sitting is the correct position of your pelvis. That’s absolutely essential. And specifically you require to tilt your pelvis forward in such a way that your bum is sticking out a bit, so there’s a curve in your lower spine. And your weight is going down directly through your sit bones, and specifically the middle and front sections of your set bones.

And if you have that as your foundation, then everything above that stands a chance of being right. If your pelvis is in the right position, you’re not having to make an effort to keep your trunk straight. Your trunk is naturally straight. And you could sit upright for an indefinite period of time.

And likewise, because your pelvis is in the right position, your head can be in the right position as well. It can be nice and balanced, and not heavy on the trunk. And that produces tremendous benefits. Conversely, if we’re following some idiotic instruction like pushing up our head, whilst our pelvis is out of position, then we’re going to be uncomfortable and our attention is going to be disproportionately fixed on our head. 

Which means even more disproportionately on our thoughts, and we’ll state that the purpose of Zazen is to empty the mind. Then fruitlessly try to get rid of those ridiculous repetitive thoughts, and replace them with something wise, or empty. Or both.

However, if the body is in the right position, then our attention isn’t so much on our head and trying to do something with the head and neck. Our attention is much more on our torso. If we’re sitting in the right position, the musculature of our body is right, so those nice postural muscles are doing their proper job. And our breathing is naturally in our lower belly and our pelvis, primarily. It’s obviously not fixed there – because that creates more tension–but it’s primarily located there, naturally.

And here’s the point: if our body is balanced we’re released from the tyranny of the mind. If our body is balanced then our awareness can be embodied. And if awareness is embodied, then we have a lot more attention that we can give to our pelvis, to our belly, to our torso, to our throat. And the effect of all of that is that the stretching that we’re trying to do through our will if we’re trying to consciously push up with the top of our head seems to effortlessly occur, lower down. 

There is a sense of expansion and elongation in the torso but it’s not willed. It’s not something that we’re intentionally doing with our muscles. It’s something that happens naturally. 

Then we’re experiencing the body, the whole body, when we’re sitting. Not as some vehicle of the mind, but as something pleasurable and dynamically alive.

Hence, Joy.


275. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


276. Labelling a Thought

Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?

I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.

There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here. 

One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.

But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable. 

As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes. 

This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it. 

It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to. 

Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.

In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.

It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.

And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent. 


277. The Mind Verses Competition

One of the founding myths of the Zen School in China is the Mind Verses Competition between Shen-xui and Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. All the subsequent Zen figures–Baso, Sekito, Rinzai, Joshu, everyone–trace their lineage through him.

In the story, which is sometimes known as the mind verses competition, the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen asks his monks to write a verse to demonstrate their understanding. His senior disciple,Shen-xui is the only one who responds. He composes a verse which reads: 

The body is the Bodhi tree

The mind a bright mirror’s stand

Always polish assiduously 

So that dust does not gather

In the story Hui-neng was resident in the monastery at the time, not as a monk but as a labourer, and he was illiterate. He asked someone to explain the verse to him and then asked someone to write his reply, which went as follows. 

Bodhi originally has no tree

Nor the mirror a stand

The Buddha nature is always clear and bright

Where is there room for dust?

When the Fifth Patriarch heard Hui-neng’s verse, he secretly gave him the transmission, making him the Sixth Patriarch rather than Shen-xui, and Hui-neng then clandestinely left the monastery in the dead of the night.

The problem with the story is that it is completely made up. All those people existed, both would have been at Hung-jen’s monastery at some time,  but they certainly weren’t there together.

Shen-xui was a very prominent meditation teacher at the end of the Seventh century, and had the patronage of Empress Wu.

Hui neng is a manufactured person. There was someone of that name, that much we know, but we also know that everything attributed to him is created later, primarily in ‘The Platform Sutra,’which contains these verses. 

The interpretation given to these two verses over time was that Shen-xui’s perspective was deficient because it allegedly suggested a gradualistic model of practice: if we practice assiduously enough,we get the mirror.The criticism that Hui neng made is that practice serves no purpose unless we have a primary insight into emptiness. If we don’t have that insight we can practice as long and as hard as we like, to no effect

Let’s look at Shen-xui’s poem.

The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. It’s a special type of Fig tree, with heart shaped leaves which lives for a very long time. I’ll talk more about it another time, but for our purposes, that’s not the part of the poem which is criticised, it’s the remainder which is accused of fostering a gradualistic approach. 

However, Shen-xui does not say that the personal mind is the mirror. He says that the mind is the mirror’s stand. 

To understand what that means you need to know that in the China of that period, mirrors were made of metal, so required to be polished consistently to retain their powers of reflection. And they were also round, so if they didn’t have a stand, they were likely to just roll away.

So the metaphor of the mind being the mirror’s  stand is quite a subtle metaphor. It’s clearly not saying that through practice I somehow attain enlightenment, but rather that it is the effort of my whole being, my body and my mind, which enables the mirror, which is not mine to manifest here. The mirror is not my personal possession, it is not something which I ever attain. 

So the criticism that is made of Shen-xui isn’t fair. And we don’t know if he even wrote the poem. But whether he did or not, I’ll comment on it further.


278. Joshu’s Man of True Practice

A monk asked, “I wonder if a man of true practice can be perceived by gods and demons, or not?” The master said, “They can perceive him.”

The monk said, “Where’s his fault?” The master said, “Faults are wherever they are looked for.”

The monk said, “In that case it is not practice.” The master said, “It is practice.

When we start sitting it may well be from the perspective of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha. In other words, we are drawn to practice in the belief that it  will lessen my suffering, or practice will bring me benefit, ideally enlightenment, but after a while we realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of practice, and that the misunderstanding was necessary.

It is as if, within experience, there are multitudes. Our way of practice is not to skewer these dharmas on the needle of our definition, but to allow them to be, in all their multifacetedness and thus, quiescent, whether they vex us or not.

It may not be Nirvana as we imagine it, but it is.


279. Not Personal, Relational

What’s distinctive about Zen is that the truth isn’t personal, it’s relational. Although there is a teacher and a student, the true teacher is the clear, open and whole hearted engagement of both of them, together.

My first teacher Nancy Amphoux was dying of cancer in 1992 when she came to Glasgow for the last time to teach.

At that time, the cancer had spread into her bones, particularly her sternum, which was crumbling away. I asked her if she intended to take pain relief and she said that she wouldn’t, because it was more important to be able to teach clearly than to suffer temporary pain.

It took me a long time to realize that the person she was teaching clearly was me.


280. Cave of the Whole World

In all his voluminous writings, so far as I’m aware, Master Dogen only makes a statement about Enlightenment once. And significantly he makes that not to his monks but to a lay follower. In the Genjokoan he says:

To carry the self forward to experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is Awakening.

Genjōkōan, Dogen

To understand this we need to understand the word for self, “jiko’’, has two distinct meanings. One is self in the ordinary sense – the ego self. And the other is the big self of everything – of which the little self is a part – the whole universe. So if we paraphrase this statement it would be something like:

To carry my self forward to experience things is delusion. To allow each thing to manifest itself is Enlightenment.

Quintessentially of course, Dogen is always talking about our experience in zazen. And in zazen, this person of practice is the Cave of the whole world, illuminated.