Categories
Kusen

387. The Buddhas and Ancestors of the future

Almost all Zen practitioners are familiar with the legend of Bodhidharma: him arriving in a Southern port in China, having a bracing conversation with the emperor, going to Shaolin Monastery where he sat facing a wall for nine years.

In recent times historians have criticised that Legend as being well, a Legend. Many have doubted the existence of Bodhidharma as an actual person, particularly when so many things are attributed to him such as him being the creator of Kung Fu, Chinese Tantra and so on.

But in fact there was an Indian monk called Bodhidharma who did arrive in China from India in the sixth century. We know that because a researcher, Andy Ferguson, looked through the Chinese immigration records of that time and found him. Of course, that person isn’t really related to the legend at all. We know nothing very much about him. 

So who’s the real Bodhidharma? Is it that historical person about whom we know very little, or is it the Legend?

I say it’s the Legend.

Buddhism has an unusual view of the future. The future Buddha for instance, Maitreya, is existing now, albeit not in the human realm. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha confidently predicts the future Buddhahood of many of the characters in that sutra.

The view that the past, present, and future are all existing now is called Eternalism.

It’s not simply the view of Mystics and religious figures. It was Einstein’s view. When one of Einstein’s friends died, Einstein said to his widow, “Oh, he’s just over that hill there.”

Yet there’s something about that metaphor of the whole of space-time being like a landscape that’s too static. 

More attractive -to me anyway -j is the view that the whole time-being is like a great ocean—dynamic, flowing in all directions. Time flows from the past to the present to the future, from the future to the past. 

It flows in all directions. The dynamic nature of our life flows in all directions and the dynamism of the whole universe is flowing through us.

In this sense, ‘Buddhas and Ancestors’ do not refer to historically located actual people.

They refer to this flow.
In that sense we are the future Buddhas and Ancestors for Bodhidharma. And although we cannot see them, the Buddhas and Ancestors of our future are flowing towards us, the unknown waters meeting the past waters of our karma, creating this miraculous vortex of now.

Categories
Kusen

386. The Great Mystical Power

In classical China there was a widespread belief that prolonged meditation gave one miraculous powers: the ability to read other people’s minds; to see past lives; to do extraordinary things with the body’s energy; and so on.

Now we think that claims like that are ludicrous. Yet we imagine, equally ludicrously, that through Zazen we might cultivate compassion, wisdom, happiness, joy. 

Dogen, in talking about these claims—the ability to read minds and so on, referred to them as the small mystical powers. They were small because they were limited by person, place, circumstance, and time.

In contrast he talked about the great mystical power. By implication he is talking about Zazen.The famous example which he gave was fetching water and carrying firewood. In other words, the most mundane tasks we can imagine. Contemporary zen people often talk about washing the dishes. 

What does Dogen mean when he talks about the great mystical power?

Last week I was with my mother at the seaside in Edinburgh. We were sitting on the promenade. On the low sea wall was a little Indian girl, playing with her mother. The mother had produced two straws and both of them were delightedly waving around these straws like magicians wands. Waving them at the sea, the sky, the birds, the sand and so on.

The little girl was so happy, so new.

And I suddenly saw that that little girl was manifesting the great mystical power

And the reason why Dogen referred to the small mystical powers as small was that they simply involved changing the world.

And that the great mystical power is not changing the world, it is renewing the world.

Renewing the world and in this way, stopping, like the hand of another on a falling person, the collapse into nothingness.  

Categories
Kusen

385. Natural, not intentional

One of the reasons for the peculiar forms Chinese Buddhism took was a recognition that there’s an apparent contradiction at the heart of Buddhism. If we say that life is suffering and what causes suffering is desire, and so we should be free of desire, then isn’t that itself a desire?

Likewise in the Shin Jin Mei where it says “The Great Way is not difficult, only avoid picking and choosing”. Isn’t the intentional avoidance of picking and choosing itself a kind of preference? 

It’s because of this recognition that there was a shift within Chinese Buddhism from an intentional state to a natural state—from an intentional state to a spontaneous state. This, fortuitously, chimed in well with existing Chinese culture.

Yet we can’t will ourselves to be natural; we can’t will ourselves to be spontaneous; any more than we can will ourselves to be surprised. 

But despite that, naturalness and spontaneity plainly arise.

If we have naturalness rather than intentional action as our basic position, then we can start to understand two associated things. 

One is that enlightenment is already here, so we’re not required to drive ourselves forward to attain something that we don’t presently have. Rather, we need to change our perspective, take our blinkers off.

The second is the position of faith. Underlying naturalness is a deep faith that this world and this person is complete and perfect as is. We don’t need to keep flapping the wings of egotistical spiritual self-improvement for fear that we fall into nothingness. Rather, the ground of faith [Buddha Nature, if you want to use that language], is always here, like an invisible sun. 

Categories
Kusen

384. Stilling the mind

We often hear the expression “stilling the mind.” 

And many people think that’s the purpose of meditation—to still the mind, to empty the mind of thoughts.

We need to understand that stillness is not the absence of movement. In the mind, or anywhere else. 

Stillness is Suchness. 

To put it another way, if we understand stilling the mind to be simply making the mind quiet, we are perpetuating the self—we are perpetuating dualism, in a slightly disguised way.

Who or what is it, if not the self, that is trying to control experience?

Who is it?

What we must understand about delusion is that it always locates itself in a slightly different position from where we think it is—that’s how it works

Rather than trying to control our experience, what we need to do is to drop off our attempts to control or to limit our experience. Anything else is just a form of spiritual narcissism.

It’s as if, in the dark, there is a great building, but the only part which is lit up is the attic. 

To our eyes that’s the only thing there, suspended in darkness.

 There’s all these familiar noises which we think come from the attic; like familiar people who we can’t quite see; We just wish they would be quiet.

 But our practice is not to make the attic—the mind- quiet. 

Our purpose is to illuminate the whole building.

And not simply the building but the ground and the vast space all around which, in their different ways, hold all being.

If we can do that, we can start to understand that the noise, which we think is up here somewhere, which we think is ours, is just one aspect of the whole vibrancy of the universe, of dependent origination.

That same vibrancy will appear in the mind as thinking, in the heart as emotions, in the body as feeling and energy and in the world as aliveness and intimacy.

That is our purpose.  

Categories
Kusen

383. The banality of reincarnation

Before he became the Buddha, the Buddha is said to have had 500 lives as a Bodhisattva. 

Originally the word ‘bodhisattva’ was only used for these previous lives. 

But here’s the thing: a Buddha is someone who fully understands the nature of interdependence—the fact that there is no fixed, immutable self. 

And that is a clue about how we might think about reincarnation, because to think about it seriously is not to think about it literally.

Ordinarily, reincarnation is thought of as there being a self or a soul that goes from one life to another. That’s obviously un-Buddhist in the sense that Buddhists deny that there is a fixed self. 

But also in a more subtle way. If this life, this existence, is simply one in a series of ongoing linked threads, then the fabric of all beings can never be woven.

So we oppose reincarnation in this sense, not because it’s implausible, but because it is banal, and it separates that which should not be separated.

And it does that by leaving unexamined the idea of this person. Almost the whole point of Buddhism is to claim that when we look seriously at our experience, it is very difficult for us to say there is a single, fixed, indivisible self. Rather, it is as if there is a multitude inside us:  certainly in my case a good number of idiots; some kind and wise people; lots and lots of beings, as it were.

The point of practice is not to elevate some of those beings and to exile others, but to actualize the vast compassionate space which holds all beings. 

Being.

When we practise, we’re practising within this small space—traditionally this 12 foot square space. Within this space everything matters and everything is interconnected. Nothing is background.

Through this practice, one which is not a practice of the self, those walls can become fluid, pellucid. And so, even although the room remains tiny, no beings are excluded.

Categories
Kusen

382. Verses Of Faith Heart

“The Great Way is not difficult

 just avoid picking and choosing. 

When judgments of good and bad do not arise

things cease to exist in the old way”

.

That’s the first verse of the Shin jin mei—the Verses of Faith-Mind, usually attributed to the third patriarch.

The word Shin, usually rendered as Mind also means Heart. So you could say ‘The Verses of Faith-Heart’, and that might be more appropriate. 

The Faith that is being talked of in these verses is Faith in Buddha Nature. Not that everyone has Buddha Nature in actuality or potentiality but rather – in Dogen’s words – everything is Buddha Nature. 

A lot of contemporary Zen people are embarrassed to talk about Buddha Nature. It doesn’t fit very well within our culture. It sounds quaint and esoteric.  So rather than talk about that Faith, which is the foundation of Zen, we’d rather have what is often a fatuous language of ‘here and now’, ‘presence’, ‘authenticity’, the pomposity of the language like fraudsters exchanging counterfeit notes with each other. 

Categories
Kusen

381. A Bigger Container

We often take ‘the internal dialogue’ that we experience when sitting at face value. And when we do, it can seem to be one of the main obstacles to practice. It is like an idiot, babbling repetitive nonsense. We can easily think, “That’s delusion”  

But there’s a greater idiot—the person who is yearning for the babbling idiot to shut up. That’s delusion. It’s delusion because when we’re caught up in that process, the vitality and dignity of the huge spacious room of practice is unseen. Though the window is opened there, the pain and beauty of the world is unseen.

Charlotte Joko Beck said when we practised, we created a bigger container. It’s a very seductive thing to say. But the problem with that perspective is that it’s still wedded to a model of practice as acceptance, equanimity, and tranquillity. Getting some distance from the idiot.

Yet if we think in those terms, it is impossible for us to understand zazen in terms of aliveness and joy. 

What we need to understand is that the apparent nonsense itself is interdependence. The echoes and tremors of interdependence. We don’t have to go looking for Indra’s net. It was here all the time. 

We think that all our nonsense is like a crumpled up piece of paper which we either need to burn away or smooth out, so the meaning, the writing on the paper is clear. If we can smooth it out, everything will be ordered, as if for the first time. The self, radiant and unburdened, in a tranquil world within time, will appear.

Except it never will, because crumpledness is the original nature. That’s what we need to get clear. The jumbledness, the juxtaposition of everything next to everything. That’s intimacy. That’s interdependence. 

Discard nothing.  

Categories
Kusen

380. Manas Consciousness

One of the most common instructions in meditation is to allow our thoughts to come and go freely, and not be attached to them.

The problem with that instruction, or one of them, is that it perpetuates a completely unexamined assumption of what we mean by thought.

It seems to me that there is a common assumption that our ‘inner world’ is populated simply by thoughts and feelings, ordered and disordered.

But whether it’s inner or not [and I say not], if we examine our actual experience, we find that’s completely untrue. If we examine that, particularly in meditation,  we notice that very little of our experience is thoughts. Rather,  we experience  a mass of phenomena: some auditory; some visual; some somatic; some imaginative. Amongst others.

And what we have on top of that is a fairly ceaseless commentary on this primary  experience. This commentary is an attempt, it seems to me, to appropriate these experiences to the self. That corresponds with the Seventh Consciousness in the Yogacara school—the Manas consciousness.

One can see that an idea of meditation as being a quieting of the mind, a letting go of thoughts, isn’t anything of the kind. It’s simply a hidden form of that Manas Consciousness. So now, along with the familiar commentary, there’s an additional commentary that one should stop having this commentary and should let go of thought. Two spotlights, but neither illuminating anything. Quite the opposite.

This unexamined idea of what we mean by thoughts bedevils us in lots of ways. Yogacara is a helpful way for us to get some clarity. The first five consciousnesses [corresponding to the five physical senses] in the Yogacara system, which get remarkably little attention in modern Zen, even though it was one of its main foundations, directly describe our primary meditative experience.

Not just that, but they are a direct manifestation of the trembling and echoes of interdependence. We cannot say that they are either physical or mental. Or both. Or neither.

Those consciousnesses seem also not simply something simply arising in the present moment but rather a direct manifestation of interdependence over time. 

For example, if I hear my father’s voice—my father’s been dead for more than 20 years—that seems to me to be auditory Consciousness just as much as hearing the traffic outside.

My brain does not distinguish between the imaginary and the real,  between the present and the past, and that’s why it’s impossible for me to have an imaginary sound in my head at exactly the same time as a real sound.  It’s impossible for me to have an imaginary picture in my eye and at exactly the same time be seeing the world around me.

So in this system, these first five consciousnesses directly connect us with interdependence, in fact are interdependence.

We fail to see this because of our unexamined idea of what thinking is.

A sixth Consciousness, the so-called ‘mind consciousness’ is not the general activity of the ‘Mind’ [whatever that is].  Rather it is the direct perception of thought in just the same sense that the visual Consciousness is a direct connection with the object seen.

We take these six consciousnesses together, and they describe our primary conscious experience, which is neither just physical or mental.

 Manas Consciousness makes it mental because it says ‘This is mine and this is going on here in my head’. And in that way, Manas Consciousness creates the primary duality of self and world, and the secondary duality of mind and body.

And the instruction to let our thoughts come and go keeps that duality in place, because there’s always an unseen ‘someone’ letting the thoughts come and go. And failing.

This is fundamental. If we believe the universe flooding marvellously through us at each moment is ‘mine’, then we will dramatically constrict what we are able to see to ‘thoughts’, and their close relatives ‘emotions’. We will see the floating debris, but not the river.

Categories
Kusen

379. The Primary Wound

When we start to sit, and probably for quite a long time afterwards, we think that Zazen is about changing our state: making us wiser, more compassionate, happier.

But after a while, we understand that Zazen is not about changing our state, although it does. It’s about addressing the Primary Wound of separation.

We don’t heal that wound by ornately decorating one side of it. 

If  we imagine that we become something great, like a warrior or a mountain, our practice is immature.

When we are sitting in the balanced position we’re weightless, like a little bird.

Not absent from the world but filled with it. Entirely in it.

The primary task of that little bird is not to ponder the motivations of herons or crows.

It isn’t to ask if the world’s entirely made of branches or not.

It is to sing Everything! Everything!

Categories
Kusen

378. Not Unsmearing

In the teachings, a phrase recurs, something like “to see things as they really are”. 

When we hear it, our temptation is to think of something akin to looking out through a smeared window—the smearing of our karmic conditioning.

And somehow, through practice, we will clear the window, so we can look through it undistorted, and see the tree as it is, the mountains as they are.

But this is just playing a familiar duality in a slightly different key.

A way out is  to consider the other senses.

We wouldn’t say “to hear things as they really are”; “to smell things as they really are”; or “to taste things as they really are”.  We wouldn’t say it because it’s obvious that there is an interweaving. There isn’t the false objectivity inherent in the unexamined act of seeing.

With taste, there is a ‘something’ to be tasted. There’s my capacity to taste and there’s my subjective experience of taste. We can see, obscurely perhaps, that this all forms a wholeness.

And applying that back to “seeing things as they are”, we need to reject the idea that there are specific things ‘out there’, just waiting for our eyes to fall upon them.  Likewise we need to reject the opposite idea that, somehow, everything is just a process in my brain. 

And if we do, the whole world is re-enchanted.   

Seeing the tree through a million, billion smeared windows. And that is one aspect of the full expression and aliveness, the full dynamic functioning of the tree. And of all things, all windows.