Categories
Kusen

341. Shikantaza

Our practice of Zazen within the Soto Zen tradition is also called shikantaza, which  is generally rendered in English as ‘just sitting’.

How we tend to interpret the phrase is that we should sit wholeheartedly, without expectation of gain or achievement. It’s a psychological explanation. The contrast is then with other forms of meditation which we say are goal directed.

Within Zen, the classic contrast is with the koan practice of Rinzai Zen.

Soto people will say this is goal directed, because it is concerned with attaining kensho (a visceral experience of sudden awakening). 

The actual Rinzai position is much more nuanced than this simple contrast. They tend to have a similar caricature of Soto.

This understanding of ‘just sitting’ is unfortunately an error, one which is very common when translating technical terms from one language to another.

The primary meaning of ‘just sitting’ is in terms of non-separation. In other words, when I’m sitting there aren’t two things: a self and a world;  there is simply this whole, this ‘one piece zen’ into which, as it were, both  the self and the world have disappeared into. 

Obviously, from that perspective, there is no expectation of gain or achievement, because there is nothing distinct for either to adhere to, but the phrase is experiential and descriptive, not psychological.

Categories
Kusen

342. The Magician

In Nagarjuna and other Mahayana writings there’s a strange metaphor: that of a magician conjuring up an imaginary person. That is often used as a way of talking about emptiness: experience is real but at the same time doesn’t have a separate underlying essence.

We can also look at this metaphor in a more personal way. I’m the magician—you’re the magician. From our beauty and pain we have created this phantom of self, this imaginary person. But tragically, we are invisible to ourselves, we have forgotten our true nature.

From this perspective we can understand the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is not someone who sees themselves, but someone who sees all other beings in their falsity and in their truth, the creator as well as the conjured person. Not from a position of pity or superiority but from a position of compassion and love.  

Categories
Kusen

343. Vitality

The non-duality that Buddhists talk about is not healing the mind body split. It is healing the self world split. But obviously, healing the mind body split is a necessary prerequisite to that.

When the Tang Dynasty Chinese wrote about meditation they generally talked about two aspects. One was Samatha —calming the mind—and the other was Vipassana—insight. 

If we think of meditation primarily in terms of consciousness, then we’re liable to interpret both of those phrases in terms of our individual psychology. 

We will think that calming is making my mind peaceful and empty. We will think of insight in terms of my seeing. We may think of it in terms of a special kind of seeing that I can have. 

This is wrongheaded.

Calming is the calming of our whole body mind. And Insight isn’t really seeing. It is a direct experiencing of non-separation; not some woo-woo mystical stuff but gradual and progressive and real.

There is a modern tendency to think of meditation in terms of consciousness alone. Often the body is disregarded or minimised. This ignores the other fundamental pole of meditation.

That other  pole is Vitality. Aliveness.

If you ask what distinguishes living beings, you would answer: consciousness of some sort, and aliveness. 

But Vitality has not had a very prominent place in the history of modern western thought. It tends to be largely ignored. 

The problem with ignoring it is if we’re just thinking of meditation in terms of consciousness, what we will give attention to is the ‘contents’ of consciousness, primarily thoughts and emotions.  We think that’s what our experience is. We ignore or misunderstand the aliveness of the body. 

Dōgen didn’t misunderstand, which is why he referred to “ the vital matter of letting the body leap”

We might just pass over that as poetic effervescence  if we don’t understand the centrality of vitality, of aliveness. If so, we’ll misunderstand the purpose of meditation. We’ll essentially see it in terms of emptiness, stillness, vacuity and space. We’ll misunderstand the ‘contents’ of our experience. We will bracket all of these contents as being that which needs to be eradicated or, at least, set to one side. We will overemphasise equanimity and miss joy.

There’s all the difference in the world between, for example, persecuting voices or persistent, unpleasant emotions or habitual banal patterns of thought and the natural aliveness which our body has. This aliveness shows itself at the level of sensation, which goes ‘upwards’, becoming emotions, becoming thoughts. It will also show itself as an energetic patterning underneath our emotions. 

If we’re not aware of that, then what we’ll see is simply the top layers.

It’s as if we have a landscape where the deeper half is missing. To use another metaphor; it’s as if, when we focus on consciousness alone, we’re like a magician. One who can go anywhere, who can see anything, but who’s suspended a short distance above the ground. The magician cannot fall onto the ground of all being. The reason why he can’t is that he can only fall that short distance through the alive body.   

Categories
Kusen

344. Taking the backward step

We can’t hear the voices of all the myriad beings because we’re behind the glass of the self.

But, we can’t break that glass with our head.

Accordingly, Dōgen says that we must take the backward step ( eko hensho no taiho – turn the light inward, take the backward step)

What does that mean?

We can describe it, for example, in terms of the five skandhas.  

We cease to grasp this consciousness, this awareness as mine.   

We cease to grasp this mental activity as mine.

We cease to grasp these perceptions: this is me; here is the world; here are these feelings which I identify with. We cease to grasp in that way.

We cease to grasp sensation. The sensation is simply something which is arising within a whole lived world; arising and changing, not something that we are required to fixate upon or to specify in terms of feeling, without a fixed location or nature.

We ungrasp the body as an object.  Ungrasping in this way, we fall backwards into the actual body. That body is not separate from the body of all things.

In this way separation is gradually reduced; not in a transformative way; not in a mystical or heroic way, but in a natural way.  

Categories
Kusen

345. Everything is your Ally

People who know nothing about Buddhism imagine that practice precedes awakening. The person puts in, as it were, the hard yards of practice, then gets the reward. They heroically scale the mountain of enlightenment, acquire a higher consciousness, and similar narcissistic drivel.

In Buddhism one of the fundamental ideas is Bodhicitta; awakening the aspiration for enlightenment.

A related idea, certainly in the Chinese tradition, is that of original enlightenment. The belief all beings, originally and fundamentally, have Buddha Nature but that somehow, this has been covered over, obscured. And to uncover it is not the accumulative work of lifetimes, but momentary. You just don’t know which moment.

We come across the word ‘faith’ in the Classical Chinese texts a lot, such as the Third Patriarch’s Verses of Faith Mind or the Awaking of Faith In The Mahayana. The ‘faith’ that’s talked about is faith in that underlying quality of Buddha Nature.

More prosaically, people don’t just start practice on a whimsical basis; saying, “oh well, maybe this is true, maybe not. I’ll just try it and see how it goes”.

No! People have an insight, however partial, incomplete, transient or outside their conscious awareness, that they’re not in control of their own lives in the way that they’ve thought they were. That their lives are like a dream, like an accident in fog, like a cascade. 

That awakening to the interdependence of life, the impermanence of life, takes them into practice. That awakening is true, because that’s actually how things are. And once they’re in that stream of practice, they – we – stay there. They can’t unlearn their realisation.

In a sense, that first glimpse of awakening is identical to complete and perfect awakening, even if temporally and conceptually they may be very far apart. The Flower Garland Sutra says so, unequivocally. 

It’s for that reason that in chapter 37 of the Shobogenzo, Body and Mind Study of the Way (at least in the Nishijima translation), Dōgen starts with a very surprising sentence. He says the Buddha’s truth is such that if we intend not to practice the truth we cannot attain it. If we intend not to open our heart to the truth, it becomes more and more distant.

It’s a complete reversal of what we imagine. We might well think, “I have to fervently and constantly intend to seek the Buddha’s truth”. But Dōgen is saying No! No! Because the Buddha’s truth is reality, we have to set ourselves against it.

To fail to grasp it you have to intend not to. You must, to put it poetically, make yourself into a demon, or a hungry ghost, or an animal. You have to set yourself against that reality of interdependence and impermanence. And keep doing so. It’s an outrageously joyful and life affirming position, quite different from brave little me escaping the dark world.

In your practice, although you imagine you experience endless noise, you also experience great spaciousness. Whether you’re aware of that doesn’t matter. In your life you will experience many, many, many states. Each is a door. You should understand that without you forming and maintaining a clear intention not to pursue the Buddha’s truth then 

everything is your ally

Categories
Kusen

346. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was written in Tang Dynasty China, probably in the early 8th century, around the same time as The Platform Sutra, just prior to the formation of Baso’s Hongzhou School of Zen, which proved the most durable, going forward into the later Song Dynasty.

The Sutra was very popular in China and subsequently in Korea, but did not become widely known in Japan. Although, I think, it’s clear that Dogen was familiar with it, not least because the initial and dominant metaphor in the sutra – sky flowers – is one of the chapters of the Shobogenzo, which Dogen re-renders as the flowers of emptiness (Kuge). That chapter substantially repeats what is said in the sutra.

One of the reasons the sutra was so popular was because it gave a lot of practical instruction about meditation.

It essentially says that in meditation there are three ways to practise: Samatha, Samapatti and Dhyana. From those three approaches it generates 25 separate practices, using various combinations of these three.

So what are they?

Samatha we are familiar with. It is the wide range of practices focused on the necessity of undispersing, calming and gathering the mind. It is strongly associated with the idea that meditation cultivates tranquility, quietude, and serenity. The metaphor which the sutra uses for this aspect of meditation is the mirror. Just as a bright mirror will reflect everything truly without being caught up in it, and whose primary characteristic, brightness, is unaffected by the nature of the reflections, then likewise the meditator rests within the brightness of calm spacious awareness, unperturbed by any arising thoughts or emotions.

The second kind of practice, Samapatti, is described tersely as using illusion to overcome illusion. The meaning can be unpacked by reading the early part of the sutra, where the metaphor of sky flowers is explored. Sky flowers represent illusory ideas: self, separation from the world, permanence and so on. The mind of the practitioner which sees no-self, impermanence and non-duality is also a sky flower, because there is no ‘mind’ separate from everything else. That is what the sutra means by using one illusion to overcome another. One of the other metaphors used is two sticks being rubbed together to create a fire, which then consumes both. Another brilliant metaphor is of a person cutting off his own head; prior to the act there is a person intending to do something, but after he succeeds, there isn’t. Samapatti focuses on how we can, in the course of meditation, actively examine our tendency to separate, to continually create a “me”, to construct a familiar world of known objects and qualities, and so on. The metaphor that is used is that of a green and lively shoot bursting up through the earth. The aliveness, the activity of the green shoot bursts through the earth of ignorance, but doesn’t become separated from it, like the Lotus Flower.

The metaphor for Samatha is one of peacefulness and tranquility, that for Samapatti is very different, it is a vigorous and dynamic engagement.

The third – Dhyana – is where the separation between body, mind and world drops off or is forgotten about. In Dhyana we are just sitting, ‘One Piece Zen’, as Isso Fujita would say: body, mind and world all dropped off and gathered up in this One Piece. The metaphor for Dhyana is the ringing bell. The bell can ring because it is hollow, empty at its center. It is self-less. Yet, the ring of the bell of zazen rings out everywhere.

We can look at these three meditations as three different practices. We can also look at them as being three aspects, although not the only aspects, of our own practice. We are experiencing this One Piece Zen. At other times we are aware of the necessity of undispersing our mind. At other times we are aware of our habits of fabrication and construction. All of this can be explained in a way which is inclusive, and which broadens our practice, and stops it falling into easy formulation.