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342. The Magician

In Nagarjuna and other Mahayana writings there’s a strange metaphor: that of a magician conjuring up an imaginary person. That is often used as a way of talking about emptiness: experience is real but at the same time doesn’t have a separate underlying essence.

We can also look at this metaphor in a more personal way. I’m the magician—you’re the magician. From our beauty and pain we have created this phantom of self, this imaginary person. But tragically, we are invisible to ourselves, we have forgotten our true nature.

From this perspective we can understand the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is not someone who sees themselves, but someone who sees all other beings in their falsity and in their truth, the creator as well as the conjured person. Not from a position of pity or superiority but from a position of compassion and love.  

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341. Shikantaza

Our practice of Zazen within the Soto Zen tradition is also called shikantaza, which  is generally rendered in English as ‘just sitting’.

How we tend to interpret the phrase is that we should sit wholeheartedly, without expectation of gain or achievement. It’s a psychological explanation. The contrast is then with other forms of meditation which we say are goal directed.

Within Zen, the classic contrast is with the koan practice of Rinzai Zen.

Soto people will say this is goal directed, because it is concerned with attaining kensho (a visceral experience of sudden awakening). 

The actual Rinzai position is much more nuanced than this simple contrast. They tend to have a similar caricature of Soto.

This understanding of ‘just sitting’ is unfortunately an error, one which is very common when translating technical terms from one language to another.

The primary meaning of ‘just sitting’ is in terms of non-separation. In other words, when I’m sitting there aren’t two things: a self and a world;  there is simply this whole, this ‘one piece zen’ into which, as it were, both  the self and the world have disappeared into. 

Obviously, from that perspective, there is no expectation of gain or achievement, because there is nothing distinct for either to adhere to, but the phrase is experiential and descriptive, not psychological.

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340. Non-duality

A central thread of Mahayana Buddhism is non-duality. But when we hear ‘non-duality’ we are liable to misunderstand it. 

To us, duality is generally thought of in terms of the mind-body split, so we see non-duality as fixing that. 

However, the non-duality which Mahayana talks about is not primarily this. Rather, the duality to be overcome is the split between self and world, interior and exterior.

Anyone can see from that an immediate clarifying point: healing the mind-body split leaves the primary dualism of self and world intact. 

However, healing the mind-body split is a prerequisite for healing the greater split.

That’s why it’s extremely important that we do not regard Zazen as being concerned primarily with consciousness. It isn’t a mental phenomena. It isn’t something that we do with our mind. It isn’t psychology or personal development. 

It is something that we do with our whole being. We give everything we’ve got.

In most schools of Buddhism, meditation training is progressive. The Indians express this as first practicing Samatha,  unscattering and calming the mind, and then Vipassana, insight. You would be expected to learn and master various practices to calm the mind, bring focus and do away with dispersion and distraction. Once you had mastered that you would go on to various insight practices.

Zazen isn’t like that. We have just the one practice. But this being so makes us particularly susceptible to getting stuck in a partial or unbalanced position. 

It is possible to practice zazen in a very concrete way – just sitting there relaxed, with thoughts and feelings just coming and going; tranquil and settled within the familiar constructed world. But that isn’t Zazen, it’s Western Mindfulness, because sitting in that way retains the primary dualism of self and world.

Another difficulty is that we can misunderstand what kind of practitioner our teacher’s instructions are directed towards. If we are quite settled and are given further Samatha type instructions to settle ourselves such as the characteristic instruction of bringing our attention back to our breath or our posture, those instructions are otiose. 

On the other hand if we are quite distracted, instructions to do with insight are likely to be completely opaque to us, or be perceived simply as poetic ornamentation.

Traditionally taught meditation is like somebody going into the house of meditation and requiring to first settle in the room of calming the mind. Then the door is unlocked and the practitioner can go into the next room. Zazen isn’t – for better and worse – like that. We can freely roam from the outset, but in consequence, our practice may remain superficial and our expression cliched.

In the one sitting we are, as it were, moving between all the rooms of this vast world. We need to understand that.

If we see that the primary split is between self and world, we can avoid thinking of calming as a personal, remedial quality. We can avoid thinking of insight in terms of me acquiring insight or me becoming wise, insightful, compassionate or enlightened.

So we can then see that insight is primarily an insight into emptiness, that is, an insight into non-separation, non-duality. It isn’t a personal insight, because that would just be reiterating duality in a different key.

Taking all this into account, we can start to comprehend the bizarre and fantastical language and imagery in the Mahayana sutras. Specifically, we can start to understand the idea that the world itself is a liberative force, that the world itself and the beings of that world are not standing in opposition to us, but are bodhisattvas. All the things of the world, all the people of the world, in this perspective, are our teachers, are bodhisattvas.

If we think the purpose of sitting is for me to accumulate merit and then to go out and save all beings, I’m not a spiritual warrior, I’m a buffoon. To change our perspective into seeing the liberative capacity of everything, and to receive that in gratitude enables us, in response, to meet all beings from that position of gratitude and love.

 Which changes everything.

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339. The Five Eyes of Practice

In Zazen we practice with our eyes open, but we do not see in the usual way.

The Diamond Sutra says there are five eyes, five ways of seeing.

The first is the physical eye. You can understand that is the eye of our karma. We see a world which has been told to us by our parents, by our society, and by earlier versions of ourselves.

The second eye is the heavenly eye. This is seeing the world conceptually. When I look up at the sky for example, I see it within the context of the world and the universe that’s been taught to me. I can see the world conceptually in many ways: through physics, through economics, through history; any number of ways. 

The third eye is the prajna eye. This the ‘wisdom’ eye that sees the emptiness and the non-separation of all things.

The fourth is the dharma eye which, while seeing the emptiness of all things, uses compassion and skillful means to alleviate suffering—the eye of the Bodhisattva. 

The fifth eye is the Buddha eye. 

When we read about these five eyes, we think that they belong to five different kinds of beings. Or to the one being, in progressive stages of development.

I think we can equally look upon these ‘eyes’ as facets of practice. The Buddha eye is this non-dual awareness, this non-separation which contains the other four. 

Not just those other four eyes of course, but the countless eyes of Avalokiteshvara.  

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338. Seeing Bodhisattvas

When we finish Zazen, after we chant the Heart Sutra, we chant the four Bodhisattva vows.

The first is, “all living beings, I vow to save them”.

From this we might believe that a Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with doing, with saving all beings from suffering. Indeed, in Tibetan, the word for Bodhisattva literally means something like Enlightenment Hero. 

Hidden underneath that idea of compassionate doing is a more subtle idea concerned with seeing

In the normal way of things a person looks at another person and asks, “What is the value of that person to me?” The ordinary  person looks at an object and says, “What use is that object to me?”

In contrast,  the Bodhisattva will look at a person and say, “What is the value of that person?” The Bodhisattva will look at an object and say “What is the dignity and beauty of that object?”

In the literature Bodhisattvas are often occupying a heroic role. In the Vimalakirti Sutra for instance, at the start, in the scene setting, the Buddha is said to be preaching in the presence of 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas, all of  whom are recognized by the monks. 

These Bodhisattvas have heroic names. But if you look at the names closely,  they are names you would associate with the activity of practice. This is a way of seeing differently. Seeing in terms, not of personal utility, but in terms of a reciprocal relationship. Meaning-giving and love fill the world with Bodhisattvas. 

It isn’t that this person is a Bodhisattva who is going out to save all these other people. The change is primarily a change in how we see and hence, how we act. Dōgen for instance, humorously talks about the Broken Ladle Bodhisattva, and things like that. Everything is our teacher.

The Bodhisattva isn’t a being who sees themselves as a Bodhisattva. Rather, they are someone who sees other beings as bodhisattvas.

You yourself should ask whether you can see this or not. You yourself  are full of  Bodhisattvas: Enduring Through Doubt Bodhisattva, Loving Despite Everything Bodhisattva. And 32,000 others. And likewise the world.

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337. The Whirlpool

Once, the Group had a retreat on the Scottish island of Luing. To get to the island you need to cross a passage of water affected by the nearby Corryvreckan whirlpool; the third most powerful whirlpool in the world. The boat can’t go directly across. It needs to go sideways. The effect of the whirlpool is to pull the boat back so it can cross over to the other side.

Sometimes, when we’re sitting alongside familiar distraction, random thoughts and such like, we have a persistent and unpleasant emotional state. Very often it’s anxiety. But it could be boredom, or rage, or fear, or bitterness.

At those times, it’s as if we’re back near the whirlpool. This time we’re alone in our little boat. By making great effort we can stay an apparent safe distance from the whirlpool, but we can never entirely escape it. We’re expending great effort to keep us in the same position. These disagreeable emotions are like that. We feel we require to keep these emotions at a distance, yet what we need to understand is that it’s that which keeps us stuck.

 What can we do?

From the perspective of this little boat of the self, we can’t do anything. 

But that’s not where our Zazen is.

From the perspective of the body of water, we can experience this whirlpool, not as something to keep our distance from, but as surging and constellating energy. From the position of the fish, we can see the whirlpool in a vision of wonder and astonishment. From the perspective of great dragons, we can see the whirlpool as a plaything.

This is the treasure house.

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336. The Fabric of Buddhism

The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.

The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’ 

We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.

Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.

That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.

At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.

Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?

If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not? 

When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.

The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?

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335. Being Held

In Mahayana Buddhism we often talk of the Dharmakaya, the universal body of the Buddha.

The faith that all beings are the body of the Buddha.

At first blush, we’re inclined to explain this away as a convenient metaphor to explain unity and differentiation.

It seems a faith that’s quaintly out of time.

If we touch another person, at first we just simply experience their surface. 

If we continue that touch, a still touch in a spirit of openness, curiosity and love, we gradually get to feel the depth of that person. And feeling the depth of that person, we also feel the depth of ourself.

In this sense when we are practising, we are held by the Body of the Buddha.

We are held, in this moment of practice, whether we are like a fractious baby, or a dreaming child, or a person caught in the fever of the self. We fall backwards into the depth of the self, and fall forwards into the depth of the world. Or rather, the self is like a narrow ledge, and whether forward or backward, we fall into the same space.

Being still is not the absence of movement, it is actualising this depth, this height

this held, this holding.

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334. Skilful Means

The Heart Sutra is a – probably Chinese – attempt to condense and to get to the heart of the prajnaparamita sutras; a vast body of literature that started to be composed in India around the first century BC.

In these sutras, there’s a repetitive emphasis on three elements: prajna ( intuitive wisdom), compassion and skillful means. ‘Prajna’ (wisdom) is the ability to see the emptiness, the boundlessness and the lack of separation of all things. ‘Compassion’ is the feeling with all beings. 

The temptation, when we hear these three terms, is to think that they’re attributes of the person. This ‘person’ acquires the capacity to see emptiness and, seeing emptiness, this ‘person’ then develops compassion in their heart and then this ‘person’ acts towards other beings in the most efficaciously compassionate way using skillful means. 

However, to think of these three qualities as qualities of the individual is to fall into exactly the same kind of spiritual narcissism that plagues meditation today. 

Prajna doesn’t mean me seeing the emptiness of all other things. It means seeing the emptiness of all things, including this ‘person’. The wall of identity which surrounds this person and separates them from other beings is dismantled.

With those walls absent, what is there but fellow feeling? 

And skillful means, because it’s not a personal quality; because it’s a universal quality, can be seen as one facet of this infinitely faceted diamond of all beings; each facet expressing the whole diamond.

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333. The Mahayana Sutras

How do we account for the fantastical and novel structure and content  of many of the Mahayana sutras: the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra?

These sutras are dramatically different from the Pali sutras,  which are simple in comparison. Usually, they just record what the Buddha said to a specific person who came to him with a specific problem or enquiry. The sutra is simply a record of what the teacher said. 

In contrast, we read the Lotus Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra and we’re looking around amidst all the imagery and stories, trying to find the teaching.

What’s going on? 

Nagarjuna’s decisive move in the MMK, near the beginnings of Mahayana, was to make the development of a systematic body of doctrine or of a systematic framework impossible. 

That left Mahayana with a number of options.

First  the essential emptiness of everything could just be reiterated. That’s what you see in the Diamond sutra. Over time, this gets rather sterile, which is probably why the schools most directly continuing Nagarjuna’s teachings didn’t prosper in China.

The second is that the teaching can go off in unusual and new directions which changes both the nature of language and the nature of teaching. 

In the Pali sutras, the language is simply faithfully recording what the Buddha said.

In the Mahayana sutras by contrast, the language is expressive and performative, so the teaching isn’t, as it were, set out in the sutra. The sutra is like a teacher who will change you. The language goes from being descriptive to being performative. 

It’s like somebody seizing your head so it’s pointing in a different direction. 

Viewed this way, you can see the direct connection between these sutras and the koan stories.

Mahayana is accordingly not something new, but a return, in a new way, to the Buddha’s original intention, which is not to promulgate a consistent body of doctrine, but to attend to and change the person in front of him, like a doctor would.