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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.

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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. 

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310. The direction of practice

One of the most dispiriting things for people starting practice comes from the idea that practice is the gateway to tranquility and peacefulness. Yet when they start it’s as if there’s this crappy person inside their head talking repetitive, bloviating, interpretative nonsense. And always complaining about what’s going on, about not being enlightened, being bored; nonsense really.

As a preliminary, stabilising step it’s important that we get some distance from this crappy person. So we learn equanimity, non-reactivity, mindful awareness and so on. So, as it were, we’re establishing some space around this crappy person.

But the problem is that we’re still within the room of the self. And if we stay with this self centred perspective, we’re likely to see zazen in terms of equanimity or in terms of consciousness. But either way we’re not going to see zazen in terms of connectedness and joy.

So what we require to do is fall out of this room of the self and into the body. And from there we can experience joy, connection, non-duality and so on.

But when we say ‘body’ we don’t mean your picture of the body because then ‘body’ is just another object in your mind. We mean actual alive, vivid embodiment. This vividness can’t be contained within ourselves; it seeps out. So everything (perhaps starting near to us and gradually percolating outwards) loses its picturedness, its conceptuality and acquires vivid embodiment. 

And it’s in this context that we need to see the descriptive language of the Mahayana sutras. They are not describing something fantastical but the actual experience of zazen. But with these familiar constraints of mind and self and consciousness and separation cast off.

Our ways of describing Zazen are limitless and should be understood as being both partial and limitless. Because the point of a community of practitioners is that the expression of the dharma is never closed, never completed.

It’s as if your spine is a cascade of pearls. It’s as if your rib cage is like a weightless basket moving in emptiness. It’s as if your heart inside that basket is a great light, extending everywhere.

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309. Non-attachment, Nonseparation

Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion

Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty

Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.

When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.

Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.

When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.

We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.

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308. The Posture of Zazen

Most contemporary discourse on meditation talks about it in terms of consciousness: what’s going on in our mind; our thoughts; the intrusiveness and nature of those thoughts; all that sort of stuff. And behind that – but not very far behind – is the idea that meditation has a purpose, which is self development. That idea is wrong.

When asked why Buddhism, throughout its history, has insisted on meditation in the cross-legged position they usually say something like, “Well that was just the position that was comfortable for people in classical India.” Except, it would have been equally comfortable for people then to have meditated standing up, or leaning against a tree, or lying down, or sitting in their easy chair, or whatever.

We’ve no reason to think that the cross-legged position was universally comfortable for people. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have meditation instructions by Dogen, for example, which clearly make allowances for people who are incapable of sitting in the full lotus position.

It’s very illuminating to look at the full lotus position as a yoga posture. And if you’ve seen anyone do that, it’s plainly a dynamic posture. The practitioner requires to sit with a tilt on the pelvis, pushing the buttocks out. They’re clearly sitting on their sit bones and they have to get their knees on the ground. And once they manage to do all that, it’s a very dynamic posture: their base chakra (the perineum) is open and in contact with the ground. And there’s a stretch of the whole body between the base chakra and the crown chakra (the fontanelle, at the crown of the head). It feels as if there’s a push coming from the earth, uncompressing the spine, pushing the head upwards.

The only difference between the yoga posture and the customary meditation position is that meditators place a cushion under the pelvis, which makes the posture easier.

It’s also worth noting that in Tantric practices (like the microcosmic orbit in Chinese Tantra) again the cross-legged position is used. The purpose is different: to circulate energy up the back energy channel, then down the front channel. Although it may be of some significance that Bodhidharma, as well as being the founder of Chinese Zen is also (probably apocryphally) the founder of Chinese Tantra, as well as Kung Fu.

The marginalisation of the body in contemporary discourse about meditation is, I think, mistaken. And if that’s so, we’re obliged to look at meditation, not primarily through the lens of consciousness, but as a dynamic interplay between the alive whole body, the dynamic breath and wide and vivid awareness. And within all that, somewhere, is the mind – but it’s no longer of central importance.

And accordingly, whether the mind is busy or quiet, agitated or peaceful, is no longer the most important thing going on in our practice. Put the body in the correct position and it is – we are – naturally activated. The push which rises up, uncompressing our spine, is not something which we’re determining with our will. It’s not something which we’re creating with our voluntary muscles. It’s just something which, as it were, we’re a witness to. 

But not a bystander. 

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307. Dropping off body and mind

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way. 

Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.

So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.

So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.

If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else. 

We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.

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306. The Wise Doctor

In Chapter three of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells the story of a foolish king who has a stubborn doctor as his personal physician. This doctor only prescribes milk products as medicine, whatever the illness.

One day, a wise doctor arrives in the kingdom. This doctor has eight different remedies for illness but he hides his knowledge and apprentices himself to the stubborn doctor and thus gains access to the king.

He convinces the king that the stubborn doctor is no good. The king expels the stubborn doctor from the kingdom and makes the wise doctor his physician instead.

The king asks the wise doctor what he would like by way of recompense. The wise doctor says that he would like nothing for himself but he would like the king to make an order saying that the remedy of milk products for illness is absolutely prohibited throughout the kingdom. The king makes the order. 

Sometime later the king becomes ill and the wise doctor prescribes milk as the appropriate remedy.

The king is baffled and furious and asks the wise doctor why he is prescribing milk in view of the milk prohibition. The wise doctor says, in effect, “it all depends on the particular circumstances.”

The narrow purpose of this story is to set up an argument later on in the sutra about buddha nature, but the wider purpose is to say something important about teaching.

The wise doctor is obviously the Buddha. The eight different remedies refer to the noble eightfold path and the milk products remedy which the stubborn doctor always prescribes we can take to be the various doctrines of the self. Just as milk products might look different from each other, but all rely on milk, the doctrines of the various non Buddhist schools may look very different, but they all rely on the assumption of an underlying self. The outlawing of the milk remedy we can equate with the buddha’s teachings on no-self, emptiness and impermanence.

The metaphor of the Buddha as a wise doctor is also the last of the  famous parables of the Lotus Sutra and, arguably, the most important.

We normally think of any spiritual tradition as involving the acceptance of our set of beliefs which we then apply to our lives, regardless of whether the effect is good or bad. The beliefs of that tradition form the structure of our lives. But Buddhism is not like this. It isn’t a system of beliefs about the world. It’s a compassionate strategy to attend effectively to human suffering.

When we try to deal with the sickness of suffering of each being, we can’t unthinkingly prescribe the same doctrinal remedy, because what is medicine for one person may be poison for another. Ideas of no self and how that is expressed might be either very helpful or very harmful for someone whom at this moment is borderline psychotic, for example. It all depends. That’s why “skilful means” is emphasised so much. 

If we read the Pali sutras, two things are evident. One is the Buddha’s refusal to answer abstract questions, such as whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens after death, and so forth. The second is that he is attending to the person in front of him, not simply recapitulating what he has already said.

After the Buddha’s death, there were attempts, with the Abidharma literature, to make his teaching into a coherent philosophy. It was in reaction to this that Nagarjuna emphasised Emptiness and said that Buddhism was the relinquishing of views (ie systems).

Aside from the wise doctor, the other metaphor often used for the Buddha is that of the father, which, I think, emphasises the feelingness rather than the thinkingness of Buddhism. The father, like the doctor, is concerned with care, not belief. But each exemplifies different facets of care: compassion, and love.

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305. The Unpictured Body

In zazen we talk a great deal about the body but what do we mean by ‘body’?

If you ask someone in the West to point to their body, they’re very likely to point to their torso. They’re unlikely to point to their head. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you state it, it’s obvious: our head is part of our body.

I find that the easiest way to start to enliven the body is through the sensory awareness that we have here: the feeling of our tongue in our mouth; the tension around our eyes; the weight of our jaw; the awareness of the air in our nostrils.

All of that is readily accessible to us in an immediate way that sensory information elsewhere in the body very often isn’t. So if we have a holistic sense of the body as including the head and all the sensory awareness there, then we can see how that sensory awareness can – as it were – gradually seep downwards. To our throat, our torso; all of us, animating and enlivening the whole body.

There’s an additional benefit. We habitually (in the West at least) identify the head with the mind and with the self, so the mind/body split has a physical counterpart and reinforcement  in the head/body split. Reintegrating the head with the rest of the body starts to undo that primary, unconscious split, relocating the mind within the body, and hence changing our sense of both.

And when we do this, our sense of both ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can change. Our mind is no longer necessarily just located within our head. Our body is no longer an object just located in space. And that starts to undo the self/world split which, in my view at least, is essential.

Turning to the breath, everyone is familiar with the instruction that when we feel distracted, we should give our attention to our breath. 

Why is the breath so fundamental to meditation? Perhaps because it is immediate and difficult to objectify, or straightforwardly conceptualise. We cannot help but notice that when our breath changes, our state changes.

We often talk about being aware of the breath as if the breath and the body are two separate facets of experience. But if we pay careful attention we’ll see that our experience of the breath and our experience of the movement within us (when we take an in-breath, for example) is the one movement. And we can focus on the breath or we can focus on the body which is moving, or alternate. But it’s essentially two aspects of the one experience. It is not like wind blowing through the stiff rock of a cave. It is like two beings dancing.

We are not picturing the body from an imaginary, external vantage point. We place our attention whenever we can immediately feel, and gradually widen and deepen that, from the ‘inside’. 

Additionally, if we can sit in the correct posture, our body is progressively enlivened without conscious effort. If our pelvis is in the right position, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, then we experience an uplift that often feels as if the back of our neck is being stretched and our head is moving upwards. I experience the uplift as originating somewhere in my upper thoracic spine, but you may experience it differently. The key is to experience it, not force it. 

That feeling of uplift is the source of a terrible instruction about tucking your chin in and stretching the back of the neck. It’s terrible because there’s an attempted duplication of something which needs to be non-forced and automatic. If you are sitting correctly, your chin will naturally be slightly tucked in, but you can’t will it, anymore than you can create a joke by forced laughter. 

Your sit bone isn’t a single point, it’s three dimensional, like – say – the elbow, and it’s helpful if you can experience that three dimensionality, that front and back, by touch and movement. And that illustrates a more general point about balance: it is an exquisite aliveness, not a forced absence of movement. We are subtly wobbling around the point of balance, like a tightrope walker.

When you’re sitting correctly – correctly for you – you’ll  also experience a relaxing and widening of the back of the head, specifically around the occipital point, what the Chinese call the Jade Pillow. 

Correct posture also manifests a dynamic relationship with the ground.

Your weight is dropping down into the ground and the ground is pushing up, like two hands pushing gently together. There is something similar, although more subtle, happening with the space around and above us.

When we sit, we are in a dynamic and connected relationship with the environment: through the ground; through the air; through the breath. All of this breaks down the self/world dualism for the benefit of both: the body is no longer spatially imprisoned and disconnected from the world, the world is no longer “out there”, waiting to be done-to, but immediate and alive.

Zazen is not the practice of the self. It is the effort of all beings expressed through this person.

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304. Buddhist Language

Master Mazu (Baso) famously said, “Mind is Buddha”. He also said, “Ordinary mind is the Way”. Yet on other occasions he said, “Neither mind nor Buddha”.

When challenged about this apparent inconsistency his successor Pai-chang said,

“All verbal teachings are just like cures for diseases. Because the disease is not the same, the medicines are also not the same. That is why it is said that there is Buddha and sometimes that there is no Buddha. True words cure sickness. If the cure manages to bring about healing then all are true words. If they cannot cure sickness they are false words. True words are false words insofar as they give rise to views. False words are true words insofar as they cut off delusion. Because the diseases are unreal there are only unreal medicines to cure them.”

There’s a lot buried within that text. The reference to views for example – giving rise to views –  clearly echoes Nagarjuna.

The metaphor of sickness and medicine is a direct reference to the final parable of the Lotus sutra, which describes the Buddha as like a wise physician.

 This idea of the Buddha as someone who cures sickness by expedient means, rather than someone who gives a correct view, is dominant within Chinese Buddhism.

When a person is sick that person is like a sleeping person – they’re entirely caught up in the sickness of the self. When a person is cured they are not released into any particular thing. They’re released into everything. They’re released into the world of all beings.

So language in Buddhism doesn’t have a truth function in the way that we would normally recognise it. Its function is to release us from clinging, grasping and attachment. It is to unclench us, to release us from grasping onto one thing and opening us to everything.

Because our inherent tendency to grasp and cling never goes away, we also require to be mindful about our desire to grasp wisdom. Or to grasp compassion. Or to grasp emptiness.

So the language will change in accordance with the situation of the person.

It’s not that as deluded beings we’re sick and then we come across Buddhism and we get well. No. This sickness and wellness is an intrinsic part of our nature as human beings. It does not change. It does not go away.

And so our language must always remain open.

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303. Pai-chang’s Three Levels of Zazen

Pai-chang, one of Master Mazu’s principal successors, said that there were three levels of zazen.

The first level, which he equated with Theravadan practice, is non-attachment. At this level, the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky is apposite. So we do not grasp or attach to our thoughts and feelings. And we allow them to come and go freely in this non-attachment.

And in terms of the metaphor, our mind and our awareness is like the broad sky. So this stage would correspond with emptiness. So: emptiness, non-attachment, non-grasping.

The second level, which Pai-chang calls the Trap of Bodhisattvas, is when we are no longer attached to non-attachment. So we, as it were, open our heart and are not separate or detached from all beings. This opens a compassionate space which we can equate with the Bodhisattva.

So in terms of the Lotus sutra, for example, the first stage corresponds with the vehicle of the Sravakas (the voice hearers) or the Pratyekabuddhas (the self-enlightening practitioners). And the second level corresponds with the Bodhisattva vehicle.

The “trap” of the second level is that there is still a self.

At his third level  that residual sense of self (compassionate self) is dropped off. And so there’s just simply what can be variously termed: ‘one piece Zen’; ‘suchness’; ‘the Buddha vehicle’ ( in Lotus sutra parlance); ‘one mind’ (to use Mazu’s term); and so on. So just simply this ‘is-ness’. Which includes these other vehicles, as nothing is left out.

And we might imagine that what we require to do as practitioners is to develop the first level as a foundation. And once we’ve done that then we move up the levels. And so we find our way to the third level and we stay there.

But it seems to me, whilst it’s true that we require to develop a foundation, that we experience all three levels freely within our actual sitting.

So it’s not like there are heightening rooms which we can progressively enter and remain in. Rather, it is like spaces within this vast single hall of practice where all beings can stand.