41. Stone Birds

Our metaphors become like stone birds.

A familiar one is the image of serene reflection: the moon reflected in water. The moon [enlightenment] is clearly reflected in the still water [the tranquil mind]. Someone tries to convey a feeling-state through an image, and then the image becomes an aspiration: something to gain, something to lose.

And all of this is to practice, and to judge practice, from the perspective of the self. But that isn’t our practice.

If the water is enlivened, it doesn’t break the moon. If the sky is suddenly aflock with birds, it doesn’t shatter the light


42. The Five Skandhas

We practice from the perspective of the Buddha, not the Self.

At the start of the Heart Sutra, there is an exchange between Śāriputra, one of the buddha’s historical disciples, renowned for his wisdom, and Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Significantly, it is Avalokiteśvara rather than Śāriputra who, whilst sitting in zazen, realises that the five Skandhas are empty, and hence all suffering is relieved. You could say all suffering is relieved because Avalokitesvara, the five Skandhas and Emptiness are all synonymous.

Were Śāriputra, from the position of the self, to perceive the emptiness of the five Skandhas, suffering would not be relieved. The whole world would become suffering.

So, the suggestion is not that in zazen we see Emptiness, but rather that the five Skandhas see the Emptiness of the five Skandhas. And suffering falls away.


43. Rice Cakes

What is the relationship between language and practice?

A picture of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger” was a common expression in the China of Dogen’s time, and was taken to mean that language was an impediment to realisation. Hence the tendency of the koan stories to frustrate the student, to push him towards silence.

Certainly, we can see how language can easily become a shell, covering the great ocean of being, hiding the depth, beauty and precariousness of our lives.

But language can break its shell, and liberate: itself, ourselves.

So for Dogen, the expression [which, mindlessly repeated, is part of the shell] is a statement of the absolute value of everything: the rice cake exists absolutely. It is not there simply to assuage hunger. Further, because of this, ‘picture,’ ‘satisfy,’ and ‘hunger’ are like pillars, holding up the unfathomable present.


44. The Buddha’s Three Bodies

Emptiness isn’t conceptual; it’s descriptive. It is experience unencumbered by you. It is felt, not thought.

If the feeling dimension is missed, practice can become very arid.

It was for this reason that, alongside the articulation of Emptiness, the Mahayana School developed the doctrine of the Three Bodies of the Buddha. Theravadan Buuddhism had two – the actual body of the historical Buddha [Nirmanakaya] and the Dharmakaya, the Truth Body, which is always there and which is identified with Reality. We picture reality sometimes as the myriad things, sometimes as the body of the Buddha.

Mahayana introduced the Bliss Body [Sambogakaya] which, I think, makes explicit the feeling dimension of Emptiness, and the feeling dimension of reality, of all things.

In the same way, the Pure Land sutras give descriptions of the Pure Land which are magical and enchanting – wish fulfilling trees, jewelled birds, and so on. Obviously, we aren’t meant to take this literally, but the descriptions evoke our feelings – delight, gratitude, grace.

This feeling and felt world is itself the body of the Buddha. The world itself has liberative force.


45. Wholeness

My teacher Michael Luetchford said that people imagine that Wholeness is taking two distinct things–mind and body, say, or self and world–and fusing them together by dint of a stupendous spiritual effort.

Which is idiotic. The core insight of Buddhism is dependent origination; in Dogen’s terms, Full Dynamic Functioning. Taken seriously, it is the diamond which cuts through all delusions: self, separateness, grasping and rejecting, time as the container of things and the narrative space of the self; everything.

But it’s no good as an idea. We have to feel it.


46. Prajñā

If we claim to know our experience, how can we avoid falling into dualism?

Prajñā, pre-knowing, is the state prior to knowing and naming. Zazen is the practice of Prajñā. We can also call it intimacy, because there is no separation.

We can also call it illumination; not because each thing is brighter, but because it is no longer smudged by the fog of the self.


47. Dotoku

You are hanging by your teeth from a branch above a void. Someone asks you to express something about Buddhism. What do you do?

Dotoku – expression – consists of two Chinese characters: ‘do’ meaning ‘the way’ or ‘to say’ , and ‘toku’ – ‘to attain’ or ‘to be able’

So for Dogen, everything is expression: the branch is expressing itself, the void is expressing itself, the teeth are expressing themselves, the words are expressing themselves.

Implicit in an ordinary reading of the story is an assumption that the world is just the backdrop to the drama of us, when in fact the world is continually leaping out of itself.

As are you.


48. You and Buddha

We practice from the perspective of Buddha, not from the perspective of the Self. But that doesn’t mean you are Buddha. Buddha is the state when the You has fallen from a central position.

The congealing of experience into a You is the primary grasping. All other grasping follows from it. It is the lodestone of suffering.

An asthmatic thinks he can’t breathe in, when really he can’t breathe out. His lungs are too full to allow any air in. Buddha is like breathing out. Mara is like breathing in.

We affirm the Self. We cast off the Self. This is our life, and this is why practice isn’t an ego project; isn’t a vassal territory of psychological imperialism, where the thought may arise that one more in-breath might do it


49. The Cause of Suffering

Common sense tells us that the cause of suffering is impermanence. We die, nothing lasts. We know this, ergo we suffer.

However, Dogen ascribed the opposite view–ascribed to Senika–that the body and mind/soul are separate, and the latter is permanent, as the root of suffering. The root of suffering.

To make sense of this claim, I think we have to assume that for Dogen, separation–dualism–was the cause of suffering, not impermanence. A belief that we have an eternal essence solidifies dualism. It follows that impermanence has the primary function of waking us up to dependent origination, the dynamic wholeness of everything, waking us up from the dream of suffering.


50. The Self in Zazen

We say, “ I am doing zazen.” But where in our actual experience can we locate the Self?

Can we locate it in the thoughts that arise? No, because these thoughts arise within a broader awareness.

Can we locate it in that awareness? No, because how is that awareness particular to you?

Can we locate it in our experienced world? No, because this would entail each of us having our own world, which is absurd.