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297. Beginningless and Endless

Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment. 

One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.

It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?” 

Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.

Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.

In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?

Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two. 

If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.

Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.

If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?

Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body  is lying there -passive and dough like –  as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.

But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.

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296. Everyday Life

At the end of chapter 16 of the MMK, where Nagarjuna is talking about nirvana, he writes the following:

“People who say that they want to stop grasping and get the state of nirvana are really grasping for something. In the state where nirvana is not something to be attained and everyday life is not something to be abandoned, what is everyday life? How shall we conceive of nirvana?”

The miraculous ordinariness of everyday life is very popular in zen. You tend to get rather formulaic expressions about carrying water and chopping firewood, or eating rice and drinking tea, things like that, even if we no longer do those apparently mundane things.

There’s a danger however that we imagine that what is being said in these statements is that when I am doing something mundane, like washing the dishes for example, I am washing the dishes mindfully. Or when I am washing the dishes I am completely present. Or some unselfconsciously self aggrandising formulation like that.

The point of everyday life in Nagarjuna’s sense is that the self is not something fixed, even something fixed negatively, but rather is radically indeterminate, porous, changeable, interconnected, going in and out of focus and suchlike.

When we are doing something ordinary,  like washing the dishes, sometimes it’s very much as if the self in the normal sense is there. Other times we feel very embodied. We’re very aware of our senses: of the play of water in our hands, the  feel of the air.

Other times we’re very aware of our physicality, our balance, our fleshiness. Sometimes it’s as if everything is just this one piece. Sometimes it’s as if the self is like a ghost, coming in and out of presence. We just stop grasping: for a something, for a nothing.

We just need to pay attention, and just see what we see, without preconception.

When we talk of everyday life in the context of self, what we’re moving away from is an idea of self in the fixed, unreflexive and dualistic that people will often think of it: there’s a little me inside this body, experiencing things and directing this body. That’s the important shift. We emphasise the apparently mundane because the miraculous indeterminacy of this life happens everywhere.

Yet we don’t substitute that unreflexive idea with a ‘Buddhist’ idea of  no self, where somehow the space of this person is rubbed out. So, as it were, there remains a person shaped space moving around the room. Because there’s still something fixed, just nobler, as if the self has become the Holy Ghost. 

That kind of spiritual grasping is still within the dream of the self.

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295. Nirvana

The Buddha talked about Nirvana a great deal. Usually he would talk of it in negative terms, so he might say, for example, that it wasn’t perception and it wasn’t no perception, things like that. 

But among the few positive statements he made about Nirvana, one in particular is very resonant. He said that Nirvana was the ground of the holy life.

From that, I think it’s clear that Nirvana is not an achievement, or a place, or a destination, or a state, but it’s an intrinsic faculty of us as human beings.

But if nirvana isn’t a state, or a place, then what are we to make of its apparent opposite, Samsara?

Samsara is normally explained in terms of the transmigration between the six realms of existence: the hell realm, the realm of hungry ghosts, the animal realm, the fighting demons realm, the heavenly realm, and the human realm.

I say that Nirvana and Samsara both arise within this practice of zazen. The ‘ground’ that the Buddha talks about is this body. The space which is there, which is common to all the realms of existence, is the space of our awareness in zazen, and the space which holds all these different aspects of existence. And it is the one space.

Nirvana and Samsara are both within us, and contain us, and are here, now. And if they’re not here, and now, then where are they?

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294. Unfolding

Before you sit zazen your life exists in time. You get up, you put yourself in order, you come to sit, and you understand that your sitting will be of a particular duration. And when that sitting finishes, then you can resume the form of your life.

So when you’re like that, the ‘I’ that is you is folded up sufficiently small to fit within the space of the self. However, when you practice zazen that ‘I’ unfolds. And it unfolds to include the whole world.

From the perspective of the self you might understand that you are sitting in your room, I’m sitting in mine, and through some act of imaginative empathy we may be able to picture being in the one vast room. But what we realize when the ‘I’ is unfolded within the practice of zazen, is that we are all within this one room of the existence moment of the present, along with all beings. And even though that room is sufficiently vast to include all beings within this present moment, it’s not sealed off.

And so it’s as if, as you’re sitting, the whole entirety of existence – all times – is, as it were, dripping down, dropping on your head, and gradually washing away the dust of the self.

It’s as if you find yourself at this moment on top of a mountain peak. You look out from the peak to see an infinite number of other peaks, some near, some far, some masked in clouds; and it’s as if you see, on the top of each of these peaks, a person. Sometimes a very young person, sometimes an old person, sometimes a person full of joy, sometimes a person suffering, sometimes a person present, sometimes a person absent.

Are all these persons you, or not? It’s hard to say.

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293. Expression

Because of the manifold deficiencies of teachers like myself, many students adhere to the idea that zazen is a kind of waiting. A waiting for something to happen. A waiting for something to change. Awaiting enlightenment.

This is completely mistaken. Zazen is not the practice of the self waiting to acquire something. It is the practice of momentarily dropping off the self. And to the extent that we can drop off the self from moment to moment, expression is possible.

In the Dotoku chapter of the Shobogenzo, Dogen says  that all Buddhas and all Patriarchs are expression. The great 18th century Zen Master Menzan says that expression means the manifesting of the great functioning of the Patriarchs. It is not limited to verbal acts. Sometimes there is expression with blows or with  the snap of a finger.

We’re talking here about duality and non-duality. In duality there is self and world, there are objects, there are forces which act on those objects, there is interaction between objects and so on. In the world of duality, expression in Dogen’s sense is either not seen at all, or is thought of as something peripheral.

However, from the perspective of non-duality, expression is all there is. There is not a pre-existing world comprised of things and forces which interact, and of which expression is an incidental facet. There is simply this dynamic expressive whole, constantly creative and constantly vivid.

‘Dotoku’ has two parts. ‘ Do’ means, among other things, ‘the way’ (of Buddhism) and ‘to say’ or ‘ to express’, and ‘Toku’ means ‘to attain’ or to be capable of’. So the compound has a number of interrelated meanings, which Dogen uses to suggest that true expression is nondual. Which is why he is able to say that buddhist Patriarchs express themselves with total power, because in their expression, the total(ity) is unfractured, and so, can be expressed/express itself, and so he also says that without the Buddhist patriarchs/ nonduality, there would be no expression.

When, in the Heart Sutra we mention the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the suggestion is that when we’re sitting, we’re sitting not in the position of the self but in the position either of the Buddha or of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or both. ‘Buddha’ is plainly a person who recognizes that there is no self subsisting. 

But what of the suggestion is that we practise from the position of the Bodhisattva of Compassion?

The Bodhisattva of Compassion is symbolically depicted as a being with an infinity of eyes and hands. But we can interpret that symbolism as meaning simply an infinity of perspectives and expressions. And a perspective is a kind of expression. So from the perspective of compassion, the world is entirely expression, and our effort whilst we are sitting is a great expression.

It is not a great expression because it is our personal expression, because our personal effort is puny. It is a great expression because it is the activity of all beings, expressed through this person.

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292. The Buddha Field

In the Vimalakirti Sutra the Buddha announces that this world is a Buddha field. Sariputra is astonished and perplexed and takes issue. He says when he looks at the world what he sees isn’t a world of perfection, what he chooses to see is a world full of shit. The Buddha then touches the Earth with his big toe, magically transforming it temporarily into glittering diamonds and precious stones.

The underlying assumption behind Sariputra’s view is that we should be free of emotions because emotions are essentially grasping. To overcome this grasping we require disgust or revulsion.

 The Buddha magically transforming the world into diamonds and precious stones in response to Sariputra  isn’t meant to be taken literally, rather, it is emotionally evocative, inspiring feelings of wonder, delight, gratitude, astonishment and so on.

 I think that is making a fundamental point about our emotions and feelings in Zazen.

Much of apparently fantastical Buddhist language is an attempt to be descriptive about what we actually experience in Zazen. When our mind and body are balanced, and our posture enables us to feel spacious and open, comparable emotions to those evoked by the Buddha arise in our Zazen. Far from feelings of lust, grasping, rejection and hatred, what we feel – and we feel it in an unusual way, in an embodied way –  is openness, gratitude, wonder and so on. There is an entire emotional landscape available to us in Zazen which is largely ignored when we talk about desire and emotion in the usual way, because when we are in that place, we are within our normal calculation of gain and loss, where grabbing onto or throwing away is almost the defining characteristic.
And in turn, this takes us back to the four noble truths, specifically the second noble truth which says that the origin of suffering is desire. But we need to be careful. It says ‘desire’, not ‘feeling’. The first is future focused: there’s something we want to get, or get rid of. The second is present focused, and is nothing to do with grasping or rejecting. And when we say the Buddhist state is the feeling state, that’s what we mean.

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291. The Catarrh of the Self

Master Joshu said to his monks, “If you remain in this monastery, practise zazen assiduously for five years, for ten years – even although you say nothing, nobody can say that you are without expression.”

In Buddhism, what do we mean by ‘expression’? 

The earliest forms of written language, rather depressingly, are not epics or magical stories. They’re lists, usually lists of possessions. Inventories. They’re testament to a tendency which has increased since the invention of writing: to control, to regard ourselves as separate from the world, and the world and all its parts are objects for our manipulation, ownership and control.

That’s not the case for all language. Oral language is very related to singing. And indeed the earliest versions of many of the Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra for example, are in verse form. So people said  or sang it rather than read it.

Singing, obviously, is very different from writing. It’s specific to the person and the moment. In the moment of singing, the person is part of the fabric of Great Being. So, as it were, the Universe is singing that person.

Our zazen is like this. Sometimes the Universe is singing us in the form of a black ocean. Sometimes in the form of an open sky. Sometimes in the form of a great fire. Sometimes in the form of a tree, or a mountain. Sometimes in the form of pain and loss. Sometimes in the form of dignity and love.

Sometimes when we are walking along we hear birdsong. It’s very piercing – it fills the air. We look up and imagine that the tree is full of birds. But in fact there’s only one bird, a little bird, perched high up the tree. 

The little bird is able to sing so clearly because it’s unconstrained by the catarrh of the self.

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290. Kanzeon

Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is usually depicted as having myriad hands and eyes. The symbolism is clear: she sees the suffering of individual beings through her manifold eyes and she relieves that suffering through acting with her manifold hands.

But the name Kanzeon doesn’t mean someone who sees the suffering of the world, it means someone who hears the suffering of the world. 

So what are we to make of her manifold eyes and hands? 

Kanzeon is not the bodhisattva of kindness or good deeds, or pity; she is the bodhisattva of compassion, ‘feeling with.’ If her eyes and hands are manifold -limitless-  then the entire universe is hands and eyes, expressions and perspectives. And nothing else. We can’t simply see those hands and eyes from our limited perspective. If we were an ocean, we might imagine that each wave, each current was our hand and each glint of light was our eye. 

Why do we suffer? We don’t suffer because we feel pain, we suffer because we don’t feel anything. Or, we suffer because our experience of our feeling world is just a frozen and fixed mass of thought and emotion, that we can neither remove or dissolve.

 Kanzeon is identical with the practice of zazen because when we practice zazen we are in this simple feeling state, unconstrained by self, by ownership, by interpretation, by fear, by attachment.

When we are sitting, sitting in a balanced way, our experience of ourselves is not as something fixed or closed, but as something open and spacious, and rather than  experiencing ourselves as something in opposition to the world, it as if all being and all time is flowing into this person and leaping out of this person.

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289. Tathagatagarbha

One of the core ideas of Chinese Buddhism is that all living beings have Buddha-nature. Dogen radicalises this to: all living beings are Buddha-nature. 

The core idea derives from a number of sutras, the most prominent one being the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

Tathagatagarbha is a compound made up of two Sanskrit words. ‘Tathagata’ means ‘Thus Come One’, the Buddha. And ‘garbha’ means either ‘womb’ or ‘embryo’.

Whilst the idea of Buddha nature originates in India, China truly developed it. 

If you read the Tathagatagarbha sutra, the metaphors for Buddha-nature are generally about something being concealed or covered over. There’s nine metaphors for Buddha-nature which include images such as gold concealed under mud. Things like that. 

But it’s interesting if we take the term Tathagatagarbha more literally. On the face of it, it gives us an image in which each of us are, as it were, incubating a little Buddha. 

But the whole point of a Buddha is that they understand that they have no self-nature. So your little incubating Buddha and my incubating Buddha and everybody else’s is effectively the same Buddha. So it’s not really mine. Or your’s. (Which begs the question: who or what is within whom or what?)

And if we give birth to that little Buddha, it’s no longer an embryo: once it comes out into the world, it isn’t ours either. That’s one aspect. 

The other aspect is that it’s called Tathagatagarbha, not Buddhagarbha, so there’s a deliberate choice of words to emphasise the thus-ness of this little Buddha, the is-ness of it. So what we can say is that we’re, as it were,  incubating thus-ness and we can give birth to it.

And how would we do that? Well, quintessentially, we do it when we sit. When we’re sitting we’re, as it were, leaping out of ourselves, although we’re sitting still. We’re leaping out of ourselves in the sense that we’re unconstrained by our karma. Our likes, our dislikes, our memories, our dreams, all of that – we just allow to just be in this open, wide, awareness of practice.

And that’s why we can talk about practice-enlightenment. And that’s why we say that we sit from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of the self. 

Zazen in fact makes no sense from the perspective of the self, with its habitual patterns and expectations of gain and loss.Which is one reason why Kodo Sawaki said it was good for nothing.

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288. This Dharma Position

Towards the end of his life Uchiyama Roshi, the teacher of Shohaku Okumura wrote this poem, ‘Samadhi, Treasury of the Radiant Light’:

Though poor, never poor

Though sick,never sick

Though ageing, never ageing

Though dying, never dying

Reality prior to division

Here lies unlimited depth

Using more traditional language, Uchiyama Roshi is talking about our dharma position. That is, seen one way, we are particular limited beings, in our karmic position, with our gender, age, health and so on. In another way, because we are part of this dynamic wholeness, each being is also that whole. It’s like touching a person. You can touch that person on the hand, and simultaneously you are touching their hand, but you are also touching the whole person.

That experience of wholeness cannot be achieved by taking the familiar dualities of mind and body, self and world and by effort fusing them into one. We can only find ourselves there, as it were, by accident. The paradigm way of finding ourselves there by accident is through Zazen, and the gradual erosion of these apparent dualities in our actual experience when we sit. When we sit in a balanced posture, our idea of ourself, of this lump of mind flesh , is intermittently eclipsed by the felt experience of spaciousness. 

The spaciousness inside us, around us and outside us. That space is continuous. In this way we can gradually get to a position which is underneath these dualities, but we can’t -sadly – get there with the head.