322. The Meaning of Gassho

Why do we bow?

The common explanation which is given for bowing, or ‘gassho’, is with bringing together opposites. We take things which are separate and possibly opposed – left and right  – and bring them together in a gesture of integration, with our hands positioned between our head and our heart. 

We can give a slightly more subtle explanation: when our hands are in this position, we’re integrating aspects of ourselves which are often quite scattered. We have an idea of ourselves as subject, somebody acting on the world, yet we also have an idea of ourselves, and certainly our body, as object; something in the world that is either acting upon other objects or being acted upon. 

There’s a smear of self between these various senses, but when we’re holding our hands in gassho, all those various senses are integrated in the simple gesture. Each hand is exerting itself and pushing against the other and each hand is experiencing the push from the other, so in microcosm gassho is a representation and enactment  of this integration and an integration of ourselves with all of existence.

There’s a third explanation which can be made.  In Shohaku Okumura’s excellent book about the Genjokoan, he points out that the characters which Dogen uses for ‘koan’ are different from those normally used. 

‘Koan’ comprises two ideograms – ‘ko’ and ‘an’. In the usual rendition, the ‘ko’ ideogram means something like ‘universal’ or ‘public’ and the ‘an’ ideogram means something like ‘desk’. So, the consequent meaning of ko-an is something like: an order promulgated at an official’s desk, as agent for the emperor, which has universal effect. And that became altered in due course to refer to the verbal teachings of zen masters. Just as the emperor’s proclamation is of universal effect because he’s the emperor, the zen master’s proclamation would have universal validity because it was true.

Dogen uses a different character for the second ideogram. Although the ideogram is different, it sounds the same as the more usual one. This happens in Chinese a lot, and we can get a sense of it when we see equivalents in English: ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, for example. Anyway, this character has as one of its components the signifier for ‘hand’, which changes the meaning of the composite ko-an. The meaning which Dogen places on ‘koan’, by the use of this different ideogram, fundamentally changes. So rather than meaning something like a universal statement of truth, the koan is rather a statement of the reality of this person exerting themselves fully, in this karmic position. There is a pivot, from Truth as Representation to Truth as Expression. 

The meaning which was brought out by Dogen’s successors, was something like, ‘to accept one’s lot’. That doesn’t mean to take a fatalistic position. It’s rather – “In this particular, unique, momentary dharma position my responsibility is to express this position fully”. I do that within a dynamic universe where everything is likewise expressing itself fully. 

In gassho, in openness and gratitude, we do that.  And so, the universe does not collapse into nothingness. 

We can see that the third interpretation of gassho is not, as it were, a bowing to something – a Buddha or a teacher or something else, but rather it is part of the expression of the full momentary dynamic activity of this person. Or as my first teacher Nancy Amphoux would say, “Your life is the koan”.


319. Experiencing Emptiness in Zazen

If we practice Zazen with a purely psychological or consciousness focus, it’s very difficult to overcome the sense that the contents of our mind come in pre-formed thoughts and emotions. Although we might understand intellectually that those are constructions, they can often prove very difficult to either dissolve or to embody (in embodiment, we are aware of the roots, as it were, in our body, in our senses, of what we’re choosing to describe as a thought or an emotion). That being the case, with this psychological focus, our practice is often primarily an exercise in stoicism and resistance. We’re trying to avoid being taken somewhere by the emotion which arises, being taken somewhere by the thought which arises, being drawn into interpretation, being carried away by a network of related thoughts and suchlike. The two pillars of practice are equanimity and joy. With this focus, equanimity is paramount, but joy is nowhere to be found.

Because our bodily feelings – our sensations – are far less seductive than our thoughts and emotions, it is much easier to experience their dissolution. Not though for pain. With pain, it is difficult not to collapse the awareness around that pain. If we practice with a psychological focus, the body is largely invisible until we feel pain. But once we do, it is all too visible, but in a way which is cramped around that experience of pain, and the anxious thoughts that come bounding along with it.

However, if we just give our attention to non-pain sensations that we are experiencing in the body – a slight tightness in the shoulders, heat in the palms of the hands, and so on – which are emotionally neutral and lacking in the significance which thoughts and emotions appear to have for us, we can hold those sensations in our awareness, but not contract around them. Our awareness doesn’t collapse around the sensation, so we’re able to feel it within a wide, spacious awareness. And if we’re able to do that, we’ll notice that what initially  we think of as something fixed and physical  is quite diffuse and indeterminate. Something that starts out by being a some-thing (this tightness in my shoulders) loses its shape and boundaries. And rather than remaining like a thing, it becomes more like an energetic pattern which changes, merges, appears, disappears. 

With body sensation we can have a direct experience of the emptiness of that sensation. And on the back of that, a felt experience of the emptiness of the form of this body.

The purpose of Zazen is not to pacify or still the mind, but pacifying the mind is a necessary prerequisite for enlivening the body, and it is that which is required to overcome duality. We need to understand that stilling the mind does not mean eradicating thoughts; it means to make the mind vast, not silent. In order to do that we require to, as it were,  drop the mind both into the enlivened body and thence release both into  the greater alive awareness, which includes this being, and all beings.

When I started practising Zazen, we were given an instruction that if our attention wandered we should bring it back to our breath, and to the various aspects of our posture. And, for me at least, that second instruction induced a kind of picturing of my posture. So I would think, “Am I balanced correctly? Are my shoulders tight?” and so on, almost as if either me, or someone like me, was looking from outside. We can see this strange picturing activity of our body going on all the time. For instance, if you say to someone, “Pick this up with your left hand,” the person will very often look at their hand and then pick it up, so the hand is existing in two ways: in an object way, like a seen object existing as an image, but also existing from the inside, in a felt way. But in our culture, the first sense is very often dominant, with all the attendant splitting and alienation.

One of the fruits of Zazen is that this picturing activity, which we are usually unaware of, and which creates a fundamental dislocation, is gradually reduced. If the instruction that I had been given was, rather than attending to various aspects of my posture, being asked to attend to various sensations which I was experiencing in my body- sensations, for instance, of heat or coldness, of slight tension, of weight – sensations which were emotionally neutral, and which couldn’t easily  be pictured, then those initial years of practice would, I think, have been different. And if I had been instructed to hold an awareness of those sensations, but not to contract the awareness around them, then I think my experience of my body would have changed: less objectified, more energetic, more patterned, more empty.


318. Letting the body leap

When we start Zazen, what is disconcerting and dispiriting is the torrent of thoughts and emotions which we appear to have. We have an idea of what Zazen should be like, yet our experience is very different. And that’s when most people stop practice; they give up.

If we don’t give up, we gradually come to understand that the problem is not the thoughts and feelings. The problem is that when they arise, our awareness contracts around them. When we realize that, we can start to change our attitude, so rather than will these thoughts and feelings away, or distract ourselves with something else, we open out our awareness. For example, if I’m experiencing an imaginary noise – a tune, say, or a remembered conversation, – I’m not attempting to kill or nullify that. What I’m doing instead is throwing my awareness wide open, so I’m hearing everything.

In this way we gradually learn to develop what Charlotte Joko Beck called ‘A Bigger Container’, within which all that disturbs us can simply come and go within a broader awareness.

We can see a similar process going on with physical phenomena. Often when we’re sitting we’ll experience physical discomfort, or what appears to be physical discomfort. We’ll notice perhaps some disagreeable sensation in our hips, or our knees, or our shoulders, and what will tend to happen is that again we will contract  our awareness, collapsing around the sensation. This contraction is usually accompanied by thoughts, such as “Oh, I wonder if this is getting worse… When’s the bell going to go… What does this mean…  Am I ill in some way…”. 

Just as we can change our attitude to the thoughts and emotions which arise, we can also change our attitude to what appears as physical discomfort. We can experience it, but within a greater awareness.

If we’re able to do that, what seems to happen is that the solidity of the discomfort gradually becomes more diffuse, and rather than being a specifically located thing, it seems to become more like an energetic pattern. And what we also notice is that when we can hold that discomfort in this greater space, then the experience of it is often accompanied by images or emotions. So we discover that our mind isn’t just located in our mind; our mind also appears to be located in our body.

Just as non-attachment to thoughts and emotions changes our idea of what our mind is – our experience of what our mind is – then non-attachment to physical discomfort changes our sense of what our body is. Body is much less a thing, a lump of flesh and bone, and much more a kind of spacious, energetic, interconnectedness.

We don’t just need to apply that to sensations of discomfort, we can apply it generally; to any feelings of, say, tightness in the back of the head, contraction in the belly, tremors in the legs, elation in the chest: any sensations; pleasurable, unpleasurable, neutral. Everything which is going on, which is much more than we had first thought. The body is much more alive than we first thought.

 Practicing in this way gradually changes our sense of our body. I think that’s one of the reasons why some groups – not us, but some groups – insist on very long periods of sitting, almost to cause the crisis which will potentially liberate the practitioner from a habitual way of experiencing body phenomena. 
It’s this which Dogen is referring to when he talks about the body leaping out of itself. It’s not that our heart is leaping out of our chest, but rather our heart is leaping out of our ‘heart’.


317. The Tower and The Ground

When Buddhism arose in 5th century bc India, it – along with Jainism, its contemporary –  retained many of the characteristics of the dominant Brahman religion.

Those which were shared were: samsara, the belief that we’re reborn from one life to the next over a very long period of time; karma, that our actions determine the quality of our rebirths; and liberation, becoming free of those rebirths.

For both Brahmanism and Jainism, what was retained within those various rebirths was the soul, an underlying transcendent self, which was encased within this coating of what we would assume to be the person: body, mind, consciousness and so on. The point of practice, particularly the mortification practices which the pre-enlightenment Buddha’s companions carried out, was to free that immortal soul from that casing and so liberate it from samsara.

Buddhism diverges from Brahmanism and Jainism by denying both the soul and the reality of an unchanging self. But on the face of it,  Buddhism retains those other aspects: karma, samsara and eventual liberation. 

One of the results of that retention, is that there has been a persistently vexing issue for buddhists – ‘How can there be consequences?’ ‘If there’s no ‘self’, then if I do bad things, to what and where do the consequences of that adhere?’

 A lot of Buddhist intellectual effort, around about the time of Nagarjuna in particular, was trying to produce a coherent system which would give answers to questions like that. 

 However, at a fundamental level, it’s wrongheaded.

We assume that we and other entities persist through time. We take it for granted there are distinct phenomena called ‘self’ and ‘things’ which, as it were, unravel their will, their narrative and their destiny through time. But it’s the other way around. Other than as an obvious, convenient and, probably inescapable way of making sense of our world, our idea of linear time – past, present and future – comes about precisely to accommodate this presumption of the self or the soul. So by logical implication, when the self is no longer affirmed, then ‘time’ as commonly understood, is no longer affirmed either. 

We often think of ‘being’ and  ‘time’ as like two planes. We think perhaps of a horizontal plane which is ‘being’ and a vertical plane which is ‘time’. If we wanted to make this more figurative, then we could imagine ‘being’ as being the ground and ‘time’ as being this gradually upwardly growing tower, constantly reaching up towards the future. We might also imagine the self as a person running up the staircase of that tower; both to avoid the imaginary annihilation of the past but also, to elevate.

This tower is inherently unstable: because it is made of the self and all that the self implies, if the self vanishes, the tower collapses, back into the ground of being.


316. A Billion Stars

Nagarjuna said that Buddhism was the relinquishment of all views.

By ‘views’ he meant a comprehensive theory, or picture, of the world. A statement of how things are, worldpictures.

 The Buddha himself conspicuously refused to answer general metaphysical questions put to him about whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens to us when we die, and so on. 

That was unusual at his time, 5th century B.C India, where religious figures were expected to expound a particular position or view. 

The Buddha’s language can be seen as being strategic and situational, directed towards relieving the suffering of whatever particular person was in front of him,  not stating a general theoretical position and working backwards to the concrete situation.

After some considerable time had elapsed after the Buddha’s death, some Buddhist schools attempted to craft what the Buddha had said into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy. This seems to have coincided with his teachings being written down and grouped together.

It’s that which Nagarjuna is reacting against when he’s talking about the relinquishing of views. And he’s doing that through a newfound emphasis on emptiness, derived from the prajnaparamita sutras.

He talked about the relinquishment of views because it seems an inescapable part of our nature as human beings to create pictures of the world. It’s as if we’re almost continuously seeing images of the world, of ourselves, and grasping these as reality. 

If we do that, then this world, the only world in which we can experience joy, becomes a ghost cave. It becomes like dead ashes.

If we see a little bird singing its heart out, even if we had a book to translate birdsong, I don’t think that we would ask ourselves, “what is that bird saying, and is it true or not?” Rather, we would see the bird’s ‘truth’ in its full expression of itself. The bird however does not require to grapple with the polarity which we have, between the felt, particular and indeterminate, and the symbolic and abstract. 

In his book, The Master and his emissary, Ian McGilchrist speculated that we had two languages; a left brain language and a right brain language. 

The right brain language is older and is particular.  It is song, poetry, metaphorical language. It’s expressive of a particular person at a particular time and place. It’s ‘true’ because the person is fully expressing themself. The person, in their expression, is true.

Left brain language by contrast is to do with making truth, making pictures of the world. It was given a tremendous boost with the invention of writing. And if you look at the earliest forms of writing, these aren’t magical statements about the nature of experience, they’re lists, they’re inventories:- “That’s my cow.” “That’s my land.” “That’s my slave,” and so on. 

The question for us as human beings is, who we want to be and what we want our life to be. Whether we want our life to be an inventory or programme of gain and loss. Or if we want it to be like a billion stars.


315. The Middle Way

Buddhism is often called The Middle Way. What does that mean? 

The most common way of describing it was as neither remaining within the sensuality and attachment of secular life, which the Buddha had whilst staying in his father’s palace, but neither was it to do the kind of mortification practices that the Buddha with his five ascetic companions practiced, before he broke with them and had his awakening.

The middle way can also be thought of in a related way to that. The five ascetics were not simply people doing tough guy exercises. They were doing gruelling mortification practices from the standpoint that each of us has an unchanging soul or self that is trapped within the body, trapped by the circumstances of individual existence, and that through these practices of mortification, liberation of the soul, the eternal essence, could be attained. 

The apparent contrast is with people – people rather like ourselves – who believe that the self comes into existence when we’re born, continues throughout our life, is the owner and agent of our experience, and at death it’s all over. It’s not eternal, but whilst we’re alive, it exists. 

Buddhism is not a middle way in the sense that it tries to take some middle position between these two apparent extremes. In fact, it takes an even more extreme position by denying that there’s an essence or unchanging self at all. So in what way can we describe it as the middle way?

We can take these positions (the conscious position of the ascetics about the existence of the unchanging soul, and the unconscious assumptions of people in everyday life about a persisting, though mortal, self) and think of them in terms of views, perspectives on the world, dogmas. We can then use the analogy of two pillars forming an arch. In this perspective, the middle way is not a position, it’s the space of expression, freedom and emptiness between those two fixed positions. A bird can land and can make its home on either of these pillars, but it can’t fly through them. To the bird, the contrast isn’t between the two pillars, but between the pillars and the liberating and expressive space.

That same perspective we can apply to zazen, for example, saying, well, there’s one view that would regard zazen as being our physical activity – something we do with the body and breath, like a yoga position – and there’s the opposite view, where we think that zazen is about our consciousness, about our mind, so the activity of the body is incidental, and what’s really important is the development of our consciousness.

You can see that taking either a purely physical or mental view, or some connecting arch of the two, distorts and impoverishes our experience immensely. It conceptualizes the body whilst pretending not to, and it misses an enormous part of our actual experience.

We might take the view that our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t account for the larger part of our actual experience, our energetic sensations, our temporal fluctuations and so on. No view does.

Taking a view – any view – entails the shadow creation of its apparent opposite, but also a limitation and impoverishment of our actual experience, and the life, expression and possibilities of that experience. It’s for that reason that Nagarjuna says that Buddhism is the relinquishment of all views, and because of this, is The Middle Way.


314. What is ‘Nirvana’?

There’s a common belief that Nirvana is the reward for practice. So, as it were, if we put in the hard yards of meditation, at some point we attain Nirvana. It’s something we attain, like we would attain Enlightenment, on the same kind of thinking: attain and keep. We go from our ordinary, fallen human condition to the state of Nirvana. Nirvana is a noun. Paired with that is often an image of blowing out a candle – Nirvana is like blowing out a candle.

This is an almost complete misunderstanding of what Nirvana originally meant. For that, we need to go back to the Buddha’s first three sermons after his awakening. He gave the first two of these to the five ascetics whom he practiced with, before taking a different path. 

In the first sermon he outlined the truth of suffering. He talked about the four noble truths  and the noble eightfold path. In the second sermon he talked about No Self. Throughout, he talked to this small group of practitioners in a straightforward way.

The third sermon was different. It was given to a much larger group of practitioners, and is known as the Fire Sermon. The reason why it’s called that is because the Buddha used the metaphor of fire to describe our ordinary human condition. So he said that our eyes are burning, the objects of our eyes are burning, our mind is burning, our hearing is burning, and so on. Burning is the common theme, and the fires that he describes are what later became known as the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.

To understand this metaphor you need to understand that the Sanskrit and Pali word for fuel (i.e what keeps the fire going) and the word for attachment are the same. The word is upadana. The suggestion of the metaphor is that the fires of greed, anger and ignorance which consume our lives are generated and sustained by the fuel of attachment –  attachment to a self, and to all the things which your self believes it requires.

The word Nirvana has two parts to it: the prefix NIR means out and VANA means blowing. So at first glance we think, ‘oh, that fits in quite well with the image of the candle being blown out,’ but we need to understand two things. Firstly, the word vana has a much broader meaning than our word ‘to blow’, which we would think of as a person blowing out. We wouldn’t think of it as a person breathing in, and we certainly wouldn’t think of it in terms of a general movement in the air – though figuratively we would understand if someone said ‘the wind is blowing’.

The contemporary Theravada monk and translator, a wonderful and generous man called Thanissaro Bhikkhu, renders ‘Nirvana’ as not-blowing. On his reading of it, Nirvana is not blowing on the flames with a bellows, with the breath, or with something similar, a blowing which will keep the fire going. It’s not doing that. However, this isn’t quite right. ‘Nirvana’ is transitive; there’s nobody doing the blowing, and there’s nobody refraining from blowing. In fact, the reference is to the fire blowing. In other words the fire – of greed, anger and ignorance – which is sustained by our attachment, is ‘blowing’. It is drawing in the air which helps to sustains it. The consequence of us not continuing to give fuel to the fire is that the fire gradually dies down, and when it does so it’s not ‘blowing’- and that’s Nirvana.
But you can see how this original metaphor could gradually change into the metaphor of blowing out the candle, and who else would blow out the candle other than the practitioner? But this is almost a complete reversal of the original meaning, and throws attention onto what the practitioner will get, rather than what they need to stop.


313. The Snake of Emptiness

The first Zen book I ever bought was D T Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No Mind. (I bought it for the title.) It’s an unfortunate title because there isn’t actually a Zen doctrine of no mind. The position which Zen, and buddhism in general takes, is that the mind or the self, as all things, is neither existent or non-existent, but empty. 

Nagarjuna described trying to understand emptiness as, ‘like trying to pick up a poisonous snake’ and it’s interesting to speculate why he chose that particular analogy rather than something else; for instance, trying to pick up a partially burning piece of wood.

He possibly chose the snake analogy because his name, or the first part of it, ‘Naga’ refers to the mythical snake beings who were the custodians of the prajnaparamita sutras that the King of the Nagas allegedly gave to Nagarjuna. The prajnaparamita sutras focus on emptiness, compassion and expedient means. Nagarjuna picked up the sutras, not the King.

So how do you pick up a snake? Well obviously you don’t pick it up from the head. But neither do you pick it up from the tail, as it can still bite you. You’re supposed to pick it up from its centre,  without hesitation. 

You grasp the snake without reaching for it through the blur of the self and you grasp it in its centre.

And why would you pick up a poisonous snake? You don’t pick it up and then carry it about with you for the rest of your life. You pick it up in order to place it where it belongs, so you can forget about it and just live your life. 

Likewise, with practice, we cannot grasp it with the head. We cannot grasp practice with the imagined opposite of the head – the objective world. We can only grasp practice through our center; our heart. Grasp and then ungrasp. 


312. Emptiness and Fullness

The buddha said that the cause of our suffering is ‘clinging’ and ‘grasping’; attachment and aversion.

In order for clinging to be possible, we require a belief in two things: first, a belief in a persisting self; a ‘grasper’ as it were, and second, a belief that the objects of our perception and imagination are persisting and real; something which can be ‘grasped’.

In order to dislodge both of these beliefs, buddhists say that everything is ‘empty’. 

In a sense we are prisoners of our evolution – we’re still ‘monkeys’ reaching for imaginary fruit from the tree of illusion. But sometimes we can live differently, without this fundamental duality of ‘grasper’ and ‘thing to be grasped’, or of ‘self’ and ‘world’. That is the function of emptiness.

Emptiness is often represented by the metaphor of a mirror – images in a mirror – but more frequently by the metaphor of a dream. That is to say, our experience is not an illusion; there is not just nothingness, but our experience can’t be grasped.

And precisely because it cannot be grasped, it can be fully lived.


311. The Good Physician

About four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the buddhist sangha started writing down the sutras which recorded his teachings. Up to then, they had been memorised and transmitted orally.

Writing them down enabled them to be collected together. This was the start of the Abhidharma (‘about the dharma’) literature.

At the start, each buddhist group which compiled that sutra collection, simply prefaced it with an attempt to state buddhist belief. This gradually grew into a distinct literature which attempted to create a consistent set of buddhist beliefs.

As they did this, they had some difficulties. So, for example, if nothing has a self, how can we explain karma? If nirvana and samsara are opposite, then how do they relate to each other? And if they’re the same, then why do they appear so different? Do past and future exist and if they do, in what sense? And so on. 

In these various attempts to create a consistent philosophy, divergences started to occur.  Some groups would affirm something that seemed quite like ‘a self’. Others would say, “Well there’s not a self, but karma is possible because past, present and future all exist together”, and so on.

And so, various different schools appeared. Traditionally, it is said that there were 18 schools, but there were probably many more.

However, the enterprise to create a consistent philosophy was based on a false premise; namely that the Buddha’s teachings were a set of consistent beliefs waiting to be systematised.

The most persistent way of describing the Buddha is as a physician. People would come to him with particular queries, particular distresses, particular sources of puzzlement. These would be specific, and the Buddha would give an answer specific to that person – like a good physician who would not prescribe the same medicine to all his patients, irrespective of the illnesses they had. 

It’s really in this way that we need to understand buddhist language. The essential insight of the Buddha was that we suffer because we cling. We cling to what we have, to what we want, to what we hate, to what we don’t have but fear will be imposed on us, and so on. That’s why we suffer. 

So his language is a provisional, instrumental language; it’s not a philosophy, it’s a strategy to address this basic wound. That’s why there’s apparently inconsistent or incomplete language. That’s why sometimes buddhists talk of ‘no-self’ and other times they talk of ‘buddha-nature’ and other times they talk of ‘emptiness’, or of ‘suchness’. 

They’re a very wide range of languages. But we need to understand these languages in terms of our sickness and our health rather than in terms of ‘literal truth’. A medicine for the person, not a picture of the world.

In our error, it’s as if when ill, a doctor gives us a prescription for medicine, but instead of taking the medicine we take the prescription, keep taking it whether ill or not, and urge others to do the same.