401. The other side is dark

In the Genjokoan [the Tanahashi translation], Master Dogen says,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging the body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately unlike things and their reflections in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection In the water. When one side is illuminated the other is dark.

The Nishijima version of that same passage reads

When we use the whole body and mind to look at forms and when we use the whole body and mind to listen to sounds, even though we are sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image and not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side we are blind to the other side.

What you realise looking at these passages is what a nightmare job a translator has, particularly with a Japanese text like this which is fundamentally more dynamic than English and which, at the time, also didn’t have any punctuation.  

There’s three parts to this passage, the first part [again from Tanahashi],

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately. 

What Dogen is talking about here is Enlightenment experiences which people have had, not in zazen but after zazen.

The reference to seeing forms is the famous story about Master Lingyun becoming enlightened upon seeing Peach blossoms. The reference to hearing sounds is an equally famous story where a monk was enlightened on hearing a pebble strike bamboo. 

The way that Tanahashi renders this next part, you intuit Dharma intimately, is a prime example of the translator’s dilemma: necessarily dualistic language is being used to try and convey a non-dualistic experience. The experience of hearing form with the whole body and mind is just very difficult to convey in words. It’s as if a monk sees these Peach blossoms not as an object in the world, not as him seeing these Peach blossoms, but rather that he sees them in their complete aliveness which is also the aliveness of the whole universe of which he’s an alive part.

It’s very dynamic. It’s not subject and object, it’s not dualistic, but it’s not undifferentiated either. It’s not that the particularities of that experience disappear, but rather that they’re experienced differently.

This is a very common theme in the enlightenment stories. People don’t have their Enlightenment experience when they’re doing zazen.They have their Enlightenment experiences when they’re fully immersed in zazen, when they’re soaked through with zazen, and when they come out of the Dojo and back into the world, the world floods them—that’s the enlightenment experience. Implicitly Dogen is saying that that’s the attitude that we should also have when we’re practising zazen. 

The second part of this passage is the contrast. He says in contrast that to fully engage body and mind is unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection in the water.  These are two very well-known images in Buddhism;  the idea that meditation is about calming the mind. If there’s a reflection in a clear bright mirror [ie clear of the dust of thought and emotion], that reflection shows itself exactly. And likewise, if the water of the mind is still, the Moon is reflected undistortedly. 

That’s a very standard idea of what meditation is, but Dogen’s saying that’s not zazen.  It’s not zazen for the reason stated in the last part which says when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.

With the lack of punctuation the translators just chop this up into sentences in a way that makes sense to them but which isn’t unchallengeable.

It’s not clear if this reference to one part being illuminated and the other part being dark is referring to the first part, the fully engaged Body Mind, or the second. 

A lot of people think that it’s to the first, but the [ perhaps too] obvious interpretation is to say that it’s the second. The reason is that it just makes immediate sense. I’m facing the mirror of this computer screen. My face is illuminated and the back of my head is dark. The Moon is reflected in the water. The side of the moon that we see is illuminated and the other side is dark.

But the critical question is this: what does it mean to say that it’s dark?

If it refers to the second part, what I think that means is that the duality which is implicit in the second part isn’t immediately obvious. It’s ‘dark’. If meditation is about calming my mind that’s dualistic. If there is a  second [as it were] person who appears,  like a silent, imperturbable witness, that’s dualistic too. And Dogen is saying that’s not what our practice is about.

So I think it does refer to the second part. But it could also refer to the first.

But if you apply it to the first part, what you tend to get is an idea that when you fully experience something with  the whole body and mind, what is illuminated is the dharmadhatu and what is dark is particularity. It vanishes.

And that’s a very unfortunate interpretation, because it assumes that seeing things with the whole body and mind is a mystical experience. But it’s not a mystical experience, it’s a real experience. It’s the way that we actually are when we’re sitting. So people trying to find that mystical experience miss their lives and miss the miracle of zazen.

Yet there’s another way to understand ‘dark’. Just as in darkness particular things cannot be seen and so, in a sense, everything is whole, when we fully experience with our whole body and mind, it is not that particularity vanishes, that it’s literally ‘dark’, but it’s no longer experienced as separate.


402. Original Face

The Japanese word usually translated as ‘original’ occurs in many distinctive phrases—‘original nature’, ‘original face’, ‘original person’, and so on. 

When we hear this phrase ‘original nature’ or ‘original person’, we might think that underneath the grime of our karma is something which is our true


The problem, as often occurs in the translation of Japanese terms to English, is the translation’s wrong. The Japanese word which is translated as ‘original’ has two parts. The first part does mean original or true, amongst other meanings.

But what of the second part?

That part means ‘portion’ or ‘part of’. So when you put the two together and add ‘person’, the phrase ‘original person’ doesn’t mean that there’s something inside of you which is originally you. What it is saying is that the ‘original person’ is everything in non-duality, and you are a part of that wholeness. 


403. The whole bodymind

In trying to understand the writings of Dogen and of the Chinese Zen Masters, an often difficult task, it’s useful to bear in mind what they’re trying to do, and the dilemma they’re attempting to resolve. 

They’re aiming to express nonduality yet they’re obliged to do that in language, which is intrinsically dualistic. They’re trying to express a wholeness which is realistic: not a wholeness dependent upon a special or disordered state of consciousness and not just  conceptual either. 

One of the ways that they accomplish this is that they appear to use the same word or the same phrase in two apparently dramatically different ways. For example, Dogen famously [in the Genjokoan] uses the word self [ jiko’] to mean both the “the ego” and also the “body of all being”.  

He does something similar with the expression ”body and mind”. When he describes zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’ he’s plainly talking about this person’s body and mind— the ongoing practice of dropping off that sense of separation.

Then on other occasions, when he talks about seeing things using the whole body and mind he’s not talking about this body and mind, he’s talking about the body and mind of all being, expressed through this body and mind. 

He’s able to do this because the whole of Chinese Zen rests upon the Flower Garland Sutra teachings, which is essentially that each thing in its uniqueness, in its differentiation, is all things. This person is not the same as that person, and precisely because of that, both this person and that person are all being. In this perspective, the two distinct meanings aren’t contradictory, but indicate how things really are.


404. The Missing Body

When you ask people about their experience when they start practising zazen, they’ll generally talk about their internal dialogue. This seemingly endless compulsive chatter.

After a while they might also talk about more enduring negative emotional states which they often find disturbing and which they generally repress in the busyness of everyday life.

If you ask them what they experience somatically you’re not likely to get much of an answer.  The somatic experiencing of the body generally seems fairly invisible to practitioners except when the body is experiencing pain or where there’s some obvious manifestation of an emotional state like the heart racing or the palms  sweating, or something like that.

The problem is that the lack of somatic awareness and the missing language to describe somatic experiencing  are obviously related. If you turn your attention to, for example, what you’re experiencing at this moment at the back of your throat, there isn’t a language to describe that.  And because there’s not a language to describe it, there isn’t a language to retain it. And so the bulk of our lived life passes from present obscurity to past obscurity, like a vast hidden river underneath the debris of our mind.

Why is it difficult for us to have a somatic language? You can say that it’s because we have a quite intellectual culture that privileges thought, but I think there’s another reason:  if you pay careful attention to somatic experience it’s not one thing after another—the experience is fluid, dynamic, changeable and continuous. It’s like a four dimensional kaleidoscope of feeling rather than a selection of objects and events arranged in time.

It’s as if our evolutionary development has privileged  formulating the world – and ourselves – in terms of discrete things, objects or events, with these then interrelating in a particular way. Perhaps it helped us survive. 

But it doesn’t help us now. 

What we would need to properly describe somatic language is basically a language of process—words like surging, or declining, or bursting; all very different from how we habitually language the world and ourselves.

We’ve been experiencing quite strong storms for the past few days which have blasted the eastern coast of Scotland. When we think of storms we’re likely to think of rain, of wind, of cold. In other words, concrete manifestations of underlying, vaster, dynamic weather patterns. So we are aware of the visible in so far as we can formulate it into discrete things but we’re much, much less aware of underlying processes.

This is very relevant to practise for several reasons. Firstly, if we aren’t somatically aware, then really we’re disconnected from our body. Which also means that we’re disconnected from ourselves. And in consequence, our meditation will be a practice of frustrated reachings for  tranquillity.

On the one hand we’ll have all these thoughts and emotions and on the other we’ll have a sense of spacious awareness which is sometimes concretely manifested in the breath and in a momentary stillness. But the body is missing.      

And so, somehow that spacious awareness is always, as it were, being polluted by the thoughts and emotions and the sense of self that we naturally experience, like the serpent farting in the Garden of Eden.

We feel that way because the whole experience isn’t grounded within what’s actually going on in our life and in our body. 

It’s important for us because if we understand the aliveness of this body then we can understand the aliveness of the body of everything.

 Because they’re not separate.


405. Wall Gazing

Why do we sit facing the wall?

The familiar explanation is that we’re following the practice of Master Bodhidharma.  

In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived at a southern Chinese port from India  sometime in the middle of the 6th Century, then had a famous encounter with the Emperor. Following this, he went to Shaolin Temple, where he sat facing a wall for 9 years. Zen Legend also says that prior to Bodhidharma arriving in China, Chinese Buddhism had been purely scholastic. 

The legend is completely false.  Buddhism had been practised in China for over 400 years prior to Bodhidharma arriving. There were meditation manuals,  practice instructions, and communities of monks.

However, the expression which is translated as Bodhidharma “facing a wall” originates with him. According to John McRae, the phrase , ‘pi kuan’ literally means ‘wall gazing’, sometimes rendered as ‘ wall contemplation.’

A tragedy for our culture is that our capacity for symbolic and metaphoric thinking and expression has become terribly impoverished. We expect our learning to be explicit. So when we come across cultures where learning works differently, where it’s encoded within apparently simple practices and rituals, it’s quite hard for us to see. We just picture a man facing a wall.

But thinking about ‘wall gazing’ for a moment, the issue of whether or not Bodhidharma did physically meditate facing a wall hardly exhausts what the phrase has to tell us. 

Plainly, Bodhidharma wasn’t taking the wall as being the object of meditation because that would be a dualistic practice, quite different from zazen.

Classical Chinese is very terse. It doesn’t tell us who is doing the gazing, the practitioner or the wall. As the wall plainly isn’t a person, we think it’s obvious that who’s  doing the gazing is the practitioner. But if we leave it open, we can unpack the learning implicit in the phrase. 

If we say that it’s actually the wall that’s ‘gazing’, that opens everything up. The practitioner, in facing the wall, is facing away from the world. But the wall is facing the world. So it’s like a pair. And the wall is facing the world in a particular way: like a mirror, not like a person. With equanimity, accepting everything, not discriminating, rooted in the ground of all being. 

Just as all the apparently separate images in a mirror are part of the one reflective whole, then likewise, to the wall, everything facing it, including the practitioner, is part of this wholeness.

If we see things in that way we can see why Bodhidharma’s practice may have been new. Not because of his physical orientation (towards a wall, or anything else), but because of his meditative orientation. His practice was not simply the practice of the self, nor the cultivation of Consciousness or Wisdom or particular mental states;  it was – and is –  a wholehearted non dualistic engagement with everything, within everything.


406. What is ‘Mind’?

What is ‘Mind’?

Dogen says in various places that Mind is walls, fences, tiles, etc. 

That’s quite typical in Zen literature, where ‘Mind is World’ propositions are common.

At first blush, this looks like a state very different from our ordinary state. They seem to be statements of radical non-duality, primarily between Mind and World, and derivatively, between Mind and Body.

Although these statements seem to give a perspective dramatically different from what we now understand as original Indian Buddhism, I’m not sure that’s so. And though they also appear radically different from ways in which we talk and think about the Mind, again I’m not sure that’s true.

One of the earliest Buddhist texts is the Dhammapada, which is a collection of sayings in verse attributed to the Buddha.  At the very start there’s a statement: Mind precedes all mental states. Not ‘Mind precedes all disturbed mental states’ or ‘Mind precedes all conditional mental states’. All mental states.

I think that immediately gives us pause, because whilst a lot of meditation seems to be about calming the mind, I don’t think we’re necessarily justified in interpreting ‘Mind’ purely psychologically; as being the functionality of the brain, or similar.

Indeed, verse 37 of the Dhammapada says that the home of the mind is in the cave of the heart.  (Indians, like the Greeks, believed the mind is in the heart, not the head; I think it’s naive for us to simply take this literally, as anatomical ignorance)

Verse 37 also says the mind is without specific location. It wanders here and there. It’s using the metaphor of a person whose true home is in the cave of the heart but who wanders hither and thither throughout the world.

So for the Dhammapada, ‘Mind’ has a much broader range of meanings than  the psychological functions of self consciousness, or subjective experience.

If ( as is always useful) in examining the meaning of terms we start with our experience in meditation, it’s clear that  there isn’t the sharp distinction between mind and world that conceptual thinking conjures up. 

Our experience in meditation is both personal and universal. Obviously, it’s this person practising at this moment. Yet we can’t say that this sense of spacious awareness in meditation  belongs to me, that somehow is internal to me.

The whole phenomenology of meditative awareness is, to a greater or lesser extent, non-dual.

People experience that right from the get-go. It’s not something which only Enlightened people (whoever they may be) experience.

Additionally, common usages of mind which we have in the West are often different from what we imagine. For example Carol Gilligan, in her fieldwork on how patriarchy suppresses the voices of teenage girls observed that often they would make a distinction between ‘my brain’ and ‘my mind’.

And if we look around, we often get distinctions like that operating in the language, in different ways.

My personal favourite is Iain McGilchrist’s distinction between left and right brain hemispheres, but it’s widespread.  People will often make a distinction between ‘my mind’ and ‘my heart’ or ‘my mind’ and ‘my soul’. We don’t need to imprison experience within the categories of an imaginary observer in a white coat.


407. The Frame of The Mirror

We’re often drawn back to the same stories. One of mine is the “Polishing a tile” story, where Nangaku asks Baso what his intention is in practising zazen.  Baso replies, “My intention is to make a Buddha.”  

Nangaku  picks up a tile and starts polishing it with a stone.   

Baso says, “What are you doing?”

Nangaku says “I’m polishing a tile to make a mirror.”

Baso says, “How can you do that?”

( The story goes on. A full version is in the Zazenshin chapter of the Shobogenzo)

It’s a very rich story. A dominant contemporary way of looking at it is that we should be satisfied with our life. Our life with all its imperfections, with all our limitations and Imperfections,  we should accept it completely. We should not want our ‘tile’ to transform into a ‘mirror’, because we’re not wanting to be something else. We’re not wanting to become an enlightened being, because that’s just a more subtle form of craving. 

That’s a very legitimate way of looking at the story. Barry Majid, a very good American  teacher, takes that position.

But it seems to me that there’s another way of looking at this story. Obviously you can’t make a tile into a mirror. And likewise, you can’t make a limited karmic being into a Buddha. 

Nonetheless, a mirror is manifested—a Buddha is manifested. Our initial, and correct, understanding is that practice means that we can’t  change one thing, a tile, into another—a mirror. Alongside the mirror the tile remains. Alongside the Buddha space which is actualized in zazen our karmic self is still there. 

Yet it changes: it’s still there, but it changes. How does it change? 

The practitioner isn’t the mirror. The practitioner is the framework of the mirror. Something is manifested when we sit but we can’t see it, because our seeing is from our limited karmic perspective.  Likewise we can’t understand it. That’s why the Dharma is called wondrous.  But just like the frame of a mirror, although we can’t see the mirror, we can be intimate with it— that’s practice.


408. Dogen’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall discourse number 310:  

Our Buddha Shakyamuni said to his disciples there are four foundations of mindfulness on which people should depend.These four foundations of mindfulness refer to contemplating the body as impure; contemplating sensation as  suffering; contemplating mind as impermanent; and contemplating phenomena as non-substantial.

I also have four foundations of mindfulness: contemplating the body as a skin bag; contemplating sensation as eating bowls; contemplating mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles; and contemplating phenomena as old man Zhang drinking wine, old man Li getting drunk.

Great assembly, are my four foundations of mindfulness the same or different from the ancient Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulness? If you say they are the same your eyebrows will fall out [from lying];  if you say they are different you lose your body and life.

Are they the same or are they different?  If different, what are the differences? 

For starters, there’s a difference in tone.

In the Buddha’s formulation, the four foundations appear to be quite doctrinal. In Dogen’s formulation they  appear colloquial,  everyday and realistic. The Buddha’s formulation mentions the body as  impure. It also mentions suffering. Dogen mentions neither.

It seems to me that in the Buddha’s formulation the ghost of the self is still hovering, whereas in Dogen’s the nonduality of all beings is much more apparent. 

The Buddha’s formulation  in emotional tone is renunciatory. Dogen’s  tone is quite different. It evokes Wonder,  Joy, Acceptance and  Surprise. It’s very human.

Rather than saying  that everything is impermanent and impermanence is the cause of suffering. Dogen’s  formulation really starts from  thenassumption of nonduality, the aliveness and wholeness of everything. So impermanence isn’t the indicator of suffering,  it is a characteristic of  interdependent  wholeness.

Contemplating the body as a skin bag  is different from contemplating the body as impure. It’s much more realistic. We are this skin bag of blood and shit and bone and pain and beauty and memory and longing and love.  A bag that can tear at any moment, and in that moment we are gone. 


409. Satori

The Japanese word satori is variously translated as realisation, verification, awakening and enlightenment, amongst others. The reason for this breadth is that it encompasses three distinct Chinese Expressions. 

The first is ‘practice realisation/verification: one hears the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, interdependence and so on. One then  practices and the practice verifies the teaching— you realise it’s true.

The second is something like asleep/awakening. We  awaken from the dream of the self or we awaken within the dream of the self. 

The third is delusion/enlightenment. The ideogram for it is quite interesting. The top part is something like ‘mind’ and the bottom part of it has these little legs.  The suggestion is that in a state of delusion these little legs, prompted by thoughts, carry us to this place, that place, and this other place, all without ceasing. By implication Enlightenment is the stopping of this -not  of the thought but being carried hither and thither without cease. And thus, by necessary  implication,  our aim as practitioners is not to void the mind, but it is to understand our egoic latching on to thoughts and those thoughts then taking us everywhere in the kind of habitual distracted agitated way that many of us experience.

What we need to understand is that these little legs of delusion can only take us somewhere when we’re on the ground of the self. Otherwise, the little legs don’t work. When we’re ‘standing’ on emptiness, they don’t work. 

This, all our mental activity, all our thinking doesn’t remain the distraction that (from a self-centred point of view) we think it is,  but rather becomes a manifestation of the interdependence of everything. So we don’t need to go looking for somewhere outside of ourselves to find the truth of what the Buddha was talking about. The very mundane activity of banal thought which, when we start meditation we think we need to get away from, is that very thing which, when seen from other than a self-centred perspective is, in itself, interdependence.  


410. Indra’s Net

We can think of interdependence in terms of time, and we can think of it in terms of being. 

The Zen approach primarily takes the latter position.Very often we talk about zenki, full dynamic functioning.

In other words we are part of this Network of all beings, functioning together, like a body would. The Chinese tradition talks about the Buddha’s Dharma body.  Another frequent metaphor is Indra’s Net— the image of a network of infinitely faceted jewels of infinite number, all reflecting all.

In our experience of meditation it’s often possible for us to see this interconnection. There’s thought, and we can feel the emotion underneath that thought, and the body sensation prior to the emotion (obviously all happening very, very quickly) and the connection between the body and the surrounding world. Sometimes that’s sufficient for us to break the mirror of the self, the belief that we’re separate. 

That focus on interdependence as the interdependence of being is sometimes helpful for us to understand mental phenomena. It’s helpful for us to understand the often constant chatter of the self, like a fictional character constantly trying to talk itself into existence. 

It helps with the kind of everyday noise and nonsense that we seem to get in meditation,  which are like the echoes and shadows of experience. 

But where the emphasis on the interconnectedness of being isn’t so helpful is when practitioners feel oppressed by other things—classically those persistent negative emotions like anxiety, dread, depression, that kind of thing.

For that, an emphasis on the other way of looking at interdependence, focusing on time, is often helpful.  In other Buddhist traditions there’s much more of an emphasis on Karma. What we’re experiencing now is the product of past actions. This is helpful in giving us a broader and more spacious understanding of what we’re experiencing now, but the problem with it  (and you get this problem very frequently in the casual and careless way that non Buddhists talk about karma), is that we are liable to think of karma as being something which happens to a persisting self over time.  The problem with that is that it reimposes the familiar problem which Buddhism tries to overcome — this dichotomy of self and world (or of mind and body, as a subsidiary dichotomy).

But we can get over that if we think of time, not as a medium within which people and objects persist and change, but rather of time in the sense of a series of moments. Each moment contains all of existence and all moments are interconnected—Dogen’s perspective of time. 

If we think then of interdependence as being both interdependence in terms of being and interdependence in terms of moments I think that is a helpful way for us to proceed.  

The origin  – we imagine – of Indra’s Net is people in classical times looking up at the night sky and seeing this extraordinary network of stars. It’s not much of an imaginative leap to think of all these stars as being a network of jewels. What we now know, which people then didn’t, is that when we’re looking at the stars we’re also looking at time. Because light takes so long to travel to us when we’re looking up at the sky we’re sometimes seeing light from stars which no longer exist and we’re not seeing light from stars that do exist but whose light hasn’t yet reached us

All the light we do not see