279. Cave of the Whole World

In all his voluminous writings, so far as I’m aware, Master Dogen only makes a statement about Enlightenment once. And significantly he makes that not to his monks but to a lay follower. In the Genjokoan he says:

To carry the self forward to experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is Awakening.

Genjōkōan, Dogen

To understand this we need to understand the word for self, “jiko’’, has two distinct meanings. One is self in the ordinary sense – the ego self. And the other is the big self of everything – of which the little self is a part – the whole universe. So if we paraphrase this statement it would be something like:

To carry my self forward to experience things is delusion. To allow each thing to manifest itself is Enlightenment.

Quintessentially of course, Dogen is always talking about our experience in zazen. And in zazen, this person of practice is the Cave of the whole world, illuminated.


275. Labelling a Thought

Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?

I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.

There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here. 

One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.

But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable. 

As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes. 

This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it. 

It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to. 

Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.

In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.

It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.

And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent. 


274. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


273. Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

One of Dogen’s best known texts is the Fukanzazengi , his universal recommendation of zazen; his instructions about how to do Zazen.

What many people don’t know is that his text is an almost exact copy of a text which was written about a hundred years before, Chang-Lu Tsung-Tse’s Manual of Zen Meditation. What Dogen does is add a chunky section at the beginning and end. What is interesting and innovative is what he’s added and what he’s omitted. Specifically he doesn’t incorporate a passage in the early work which reads “when the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear of itself”.

The idea of the mind in meditation being comparable to water has got quite a vintage. So in the Surangama Sutra for example we are told that in still water the moon will reflect itself clearly – the moon being a symbol for enlightenment – and we can also see how this still water clearly and accurately reflecting everything without becoming caught up is of a piece with another metaphor which is very popular in Zen, the Mirror.

This image of the pearl that Tsung-Tse is using in his text is similar in function, but instead of the clear  water enabling a perfect reflection of above to be made, the clear water enables us to look down clearly and see the pearl of our practice. 

It’s noteworthy in Dogen’s writings – particularly his poetry –  that he really radicalises and changes fundamentally this image that our mind should be like still water.

So for example in his poem Shobogenzo, he writes, “The Dharma, like an oyster, washed atop a high cliff, even waves crashing against it, like words, may reach but cannot wash it away”.

In that poem, he takes the hackneyed image of water and radicalises it’s turbulence to the extent that it actually throws the pearl clear out of the water and onto a high cliff.

Zazen is often referred to as the mountain still state.  And what is a cliff, other than a sundered mountain. And for the cliff, the surging universal life touches its heart rather than swirls around its form.

Our white cliff of bone, practicing Zazen, is sometimes touched by emptiness and sometimes touched by the whole surging weight of this ocean of everything. 

We can see that the metaphor of the water and the waves has taken on a fundamentally different meaning, so specifically it’s gone from the personal to the universal. The original meaning of the metaphor is – my mind quietens down, the waves abate, so I am able to see the pearl. I can clearly and dispassionately reflect the moon up in the sky.

Because Dogen radicalises the image, the water is no longer seen in those personal terms but rather is seen in as the whole activity of everything. 

And practice is seen to be not my practice but our practice; the activity and expression of all beings.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


272. Thinking Not Thinking

A monk asked Master Yaoshan, ‘what are you thinking when sitting in zazen?’ The Master replied, ‘I’m thinking not thinking.’ The monk, puzzled asked, ‘how do you think, not thinking?’ And the Master replied, ‘Hishiryo.’

So, this formulation appears in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, and various other texts. The exchange in Japanese is a bit terse, what – thinking – zazen – Thinking not thinking – how think not thinking – then his answer Hishiryo.

Shiryo means thinking and fu as in fushiryo is the direct negative – not thinking. The master’s final answer Hishiryo – What does that mean?

The usual rendering of Hishiryo is -beyond thinking- so Tanahashi renders it in that way. Nishijima renders it as -non thinking- and the contemporary Canadian teacher Anzan Hoshin renders it as – before thinking –

Now I would hope the difficulties with rendering Hishiryo as  – beyond thinking are clear, namely we imagine there is some state we have to reach which is beyond thinking; and that thinking is an obstruction. So, our thinking is, as it were, like a drunk standing in front of us, constantly impeding our way forward.

Non thinking as a translation, perhaps gets around that, but it depends on us understanding a category in Chinese thinking which is to do with spontaneous action. So the idea is we are not intentionally, firing an arrow, or painting or whatever, it’s a spontaneous action. But that is quite difficult for us to understand.

And Houshin’s rendering of it as – before thinking -has a similar risk but in, as it were the opposite direction.; we think we need to cut of thought before it actually arises.  However, if you actually read what Houshin has to say about all this, what he is clear about is that his translation of – before thinking – doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any thinking but rather that there is a spaciousness to it.

So, as it were, I’m halfway along a tunnel and there’s a light, the light of thinking and I’m suddenly aware of the whole length of the tunnel, before this light. So, I’m not trying to switch the light off. I’m simply trying to actualize the whole space of the tunnel.

Similarly – beyond thinking – doesn’t mean to eradicate thought, its again simply introducing this great spaciousness, with in which thought and everything else occurs. We can term that spaciousness, awareness or original awareness, or something like that. And more than that, it’s not that this spaciousness is not external to us, but rather in our actual experience we are, at least sometimes this lump of spaciousness. 

So sometimes a lump of flesh, sometimes a lump of life, sometimes a lump of energy and sometimes a lump of space. And, as it were this little lump of space, of flesh, or energy, is part of a greater body. So, we are not experiencing something symbolically, or as something as an idea but we are actually experiencing it.

So rather than me having an idea of my body, which I have, I think if I imagine zazen is returning my attention to my body and my breath, my focus is on my actual experience and that actual experience is Hishiryo.


271. Zazen as Enactment Ritual

What’s the point of Ritual?

Well, to start to answer that,  you have to ask yourself: what is the point of spiritual practice? 

In these strange Coronavirus times my inbox is full, as I’m sure yours is too, with lots of invitations to use this period of quarantine to develop myself, to be all I can be, to break free of all my limitations.

This pitiable and feeble language is indicative of a spiritual materialism which is absolutely  endemic. So endemic we don’t even notice it. So, if the same question is posed to these people – what is the point of the spiritual practice? – their answer surely is obvious: the development to perfection of the individual. 

That is a complete reversal of how the spiritual life has been pursued and seen through almost all of our common history.

The purpose of spiritual life is not to exalt and glorify the individual but to exalt and glorify and flood with gratitude the whole of creation.

If we embark on practice with the idea that through practice we will become a great person we are completely deluded, because we will never be a great person. We don’t need to be a great person because we are already part of the great person of all being. The purpose of our practice is to drop off our individual concerns and vanities so that, at least fleetingly, we can live as part of this great person.

We can see ritual from this perspective.

Ritual takes us out of a thinking position and into a feeling position, takes us out of an individual perspective and moves us into a collective one, where the perspectives of each of us form the whole, like shards of glass making a mirror. 

Primarily, what we are doing when we wholeheartedly enact ritual is enacting this shared, connective and dynamic reality, which is our true life.

I think that this is what the contemporary writer and teacher Taigen Dan Leighton means when he talks of Zazen as ‘enactment ritual’- it’s not a means to something. It’s the expression of everything.


270. A fragment of momentary being

Our true teacher is not a person in the usual sense, but a fragment of momentary being. And because that is so, our true teacher is everywhere, like specks of gold in the granite mountain. When we bow to the gold, we bow to the mountain. When we bow to the mountain, we bow to all our teachers.

Therefore, when we bow, we do so without regard to time or place. We bow when we are eating. We bow when we are sleeping. We bow within all the activities of our life.

We bow when there are fences and walls between us. We bow when there are mountains and rivers between us. We bow when there are lifetimes between us. We bow when there is suffering between us.

Between us.

By enacting this great mystical power of gratitude and wonder, we calm and protect the entire earth. We calm and mainifest all worlds. We calm and protect all moments, so they do not fall into nothingness. We calm and protect this great fabric of all being

between us


269. Like clouds in the sky

A common instruction we are given in Zen is not to become involved with our thoughts, to let them come and go, like clouds in the sky.
However, many of us notice that when the mind calms down, what is then revealed is what appears to be an underlying and persistent emotional state which is disagreeable to us: which could be fear, anxiety, discontentedness, bitterness, or something else. How does the instruction help us then?

And sometimes also what is revealed is a meta emotional state: we are discontent about not being at peace.

The metaphor of clouds and sky was part of a larger metaphor used by the East Mountain school: just as the sun continues to exist whether it is obscured by clouds or not, so our underlying Buddha Nature is always present, even if it is temporarily obscured by thoughts, emotions and false views, and we should practice zazen with the faith that that is so. Possibly not coincidentally, Vairocana, the Universal Buddha, is associated with the sun.

But for our purposes, the clouds in the instruction don’t mean that thoughts are illusory. They are no more illusory than anything else. Neither should we take it as a signifier for interdependence: that doesn’t help us, if we retain the common viewpoint that meditation is primarily about something within our minds called consciousness.

I think we should take the instruction as pointing to spaciousness. Just as the sky is so vast that the presence or absence of clouds is of no consequence, likewise when we sit, the point isn’t to make the sky empty of clouds, the mind empty of thoughts, it is to actualise vast spaciousness.

But here’s the thing: that vast spaciousness isn’t actualised within our minds. That’s just another idea. It’s actualised within our zazen. Within the body (which includes the head, obviously), not the mind.

When I sit, there are two things going on, one negative, one positive. The negative is that I put to one side my sense of myself, the picturing body and mind of the self. “Just sit”, in the vernacular. But the positive is that I am aware of a joyful spaciousness in my body. For me, I’m first aware of it in my upper torso, then spreading upwards and downwards, inwards, to my breath, outwards, to all beings.

People tend not to talk about the second, but without it, zazen makes no sense: it’s just an exercise in mindfulness, a utilitarian attempt at unconditioning ourselves. Buddhism would not have continued to our time if it’s message was so limited and feeble.

I think the metaphor of the Universal Buddha is a mythical – not just mythical – way of talking about our actual experience in zazen. The whole vast structure of Buddhist thought is a creative, transforming dialogue between Practice and Descriptive Understanding, like a real person walking through time.


268. Like an electron

Master Dogen asked “ If the cart is stuck, do you beat the ox or beat the cart?”

In other words, what is zazen? Is it an effort to purify the mind, or is it the full effort of this body of practice to express itself fully?

And in his greatness, his unique position, he answers “the cart”.

This body of practice is not the pictured lump of flesh, it is our actual experience. Freed from this picture, whether “the mind” is agitated or peaceful is of no consequence; it is like an electron in a cathedral.


267. The Senses in Zazen

Our five familiar senses stand, as it were, at the border between our body and the world, gathering information about the world. Except, other than when we are in pain, our body, apart from its surface details, is largely unknown. Not in the abstract, obviously. We have a lot of information about our body. We have a body of knowledge. But we don’t, generally, have a body of feeling.

When we do zazen, the situation changes. Our familiar senses are displaced by ones less culturally familiar. The sense of the breath moving dynamically inside us in a dance with our flesh. The sense of the aliveness of the spine uncompressing itself, like a tree expressing how it is to be upward. And the sense of balance between this body and the great earth.

These senses have nothing to do with information, and everything to do with expression and interconnection: it’s a paradox. We constantly go on about non duality, yet zazen awakens the body from the stupor of the self. And this enlivened body of expression is our bridge, both symbolic and real, to the greater body of all beings.