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.  


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.


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!


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.


377. Gradual and Sudden Practice

The Tendai school say that there are three distinct approaches to spiritual practice: the gradual, the variable, and the sudden.

The gradual, as the name suggests, proceeds through stages.  First, you accept the Buddhist life—the precepts and so on. Second, you cultivate equanimity — calming and steadiness in meditation. Thirdly, having cultivated that steadiness, you practise insight into the way how things are—the way that you are. Having done all of that you cultivate compassion—the bodhisattva path. You proceed in that way in the direction of the Buddha. 

The metaphor – metaphors are very important – used is the ladder. It’s an unusual metaphor because you’d expect the familiar metaphor of the path to be used. 

The path is an obvious conceptualization of practice as the idea that you’re going somewhere. You start from one position and through effort, you get to another position.  Obviously that is the case with the ladder too, but in an oddly vertical way. In one way, you change position. In another, you don’t. 

The metaphor which is used for the sudden approach is another unusual metaphor. It is the metaphor of a magician being able to suspend himself in mid air. That metaphor obviously takes advantage of the very close relationship in Chinese between the words for space, sky and emptiness.

The idea is that entering into somewhere is completely entering that place. Having a slight experience of emptiness is simultaneously having that experience – which can have its own life of growth and development –  but which is also entering into the whole space.

That sudden idea of practice is, for better or worse, one that was taken up by the subsequent Zen tradition. 

It pays to carefully consider the ways in which these two metaphors are a  complement and contrast to each other.  They exemplify the point that it really is impossible to understand Buddhism without taking the metaphors seriously. 

And taking them seriously means taking them on their own terms.


376. Mappo

In traditional Buddhism there’s an idea of the various Ages that the world goes through. 

In the time of  the historical Buddha, we’re in the first Age, which lasts for about 500 years.In that time, it’s easy for people to be liberated.  Following that there’s an Age that’s not quite so good.Liberation is much more difficult. Following that is an age that’s distinctly degenerate. Liberation is impossible. And following that agre, Buddhism disappears.  We simply have to wait for the next Buddha to come along

But I wonder if there’s a different way of regarding these Ages. 

You could say that all the ages are all there, all at the same time.  But one has more prominence than the others.  If you look at China, for instance, Chinese Buddhism doesn’t really acquire any of these distinctive characteristics until about 500 years or so after Buddhism first arrives in China.

At that point there is an incredible flowering of Chinese Buddhist culture, evidenced in, amongst others, the ‘Awakening the Faith in Mahayana’ and the writings the T’ien Tai school,  the Huayan school, the Zen school, and the Pure Land school.

Similarly, in Japan, it takes about 500 years or so between the arrival of Buddhism and the flowering that it had in the 13th century of distinctively Japanese forms of Buddhism; specifically for us the Buddhism of Dogen but also Nichiren, Shinran and others that all appeared much about the same time. 

It seems to me that when Buddhism first goes to a different culture, that’s its degenerate phase. It’s degenerate because the characteristic way that civilizations will deal with something new is that they’ll either imitate it or they’ll attempt to assimilate it to existing ideas.

We can see this very clearly in the West.  In terms of imitation, we’ve all these people dressing themselves up as Asian monks and constructing dojos that purport to replicate medieval Japanese dojos and so on. 

And we have assimilationists.  Much [but not all] of the Mindfulness Movement would be in that category. They say well, this is Buddhism, but we can fit it within our ideas of wellness and individual development. We can  get rid of all the historical  barnacles that disguise that. 

I think that we are not, at least on the surface, in a great stage of Buddhism.  The degenerate stage occurs first and a long time into our future —hundreds of years perhaps, at that point, there’s the potential for us; both to take Buddhism seriously and to understand it; but also to have digested it.

So then what comes out of us is something valuable—something genuinely new. 


375. As If Light

Shinji Shobogenzo  Book 2   Case 91:

One day Master Tenno Dogo asked Master Sekito  Kisen, ” What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”

Master Sekito said, “It isn’t graspable. It isn’t knowable.”

Master  Dogo said, “Can you say anything else?”

Master Sekito said,  “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

In one way we can take Sekito’s answer as being a statement of the non-obstruction of form and emptiness and the mutual dependence of form and emptiness—their interpenetration.

In another way we can focus on the innovative use of clouds in the answer that Sekito gives. This is helpful because it clarifies the difference between a living language and a dead one,  or in  traditional parlance — living words and dead words.  Clouds are used famously, and in a contrary way, in a metaphor for Buddha Nature.  

Buddha Nature is like the sun.  It’s always there but we can’t always see it  because sometimes it’s obscured by clouds. That’s why we require faith. So clouds,  in this metaphor, are symbolic of mental obstruction— confusion, doubt and so on.

Here’s the danger: because we have such a poor, superficial understanding of symbolic language, we think that the different elements within these various Buddhist metaphors have a fixed meaning.  So there’s clouds, that means mental afflictions; there’s the sun, that means Buddha Nature and so on.

All these pictures then can yield up a particular meaning based on a fixed symbolic vocabulary.

Thinking this way is plainly fatal to any kind of living Buddhism and it’s absolutely not what Buddhism historically has engaged in. Rather than having a fixed meaning, these various pictorial elements:  the wind, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the water, the pearl, and so on, are more like people. They can gather together and separate and express themselves in unusual and new ways. Those people can have within them the Buddha—concealed and then revealing himself in an unusual way. 

In this sense, Buddhism, once we can see it as a history and play of metaphor, is very alive.

It’s as if Light is all the time forming and reforming itself.


374. Compassion

Mahayana  Buddhism,  in all its fantastical  detail  and complexity, is an attempt  to answer  two questions.   

The first: “Isn’t the wish  to be free from  desire  a sort of desire?” 

The second: “If we accept  the radical  interdependence of all being,  isn’t the wish  to be liberated  from that  interdependence a kind of  ignorance?” 

In the  attempt to  answer these questions  we can see the central  place  of compassion. 

But we need to understand what compassion  means.  

Primarily, we need to understand that  compassion is not  a personal  quality.  It’s not something which  you  cultivate  or accumulate.   It’s not  kindness  or pity  or  generosity.

It’s feeling  with, the self, as it were, is unfolded and recorded into this  feeling  with. 

It’s from  that starting point  that we can understand some of the more  fantastical,   or apparently fantastical  aspects of Mahayana. 

We can start to understand  both how practitioners  can be viewed as  bodhisattvas and how the world as a whole and the beings in that world can likewise  be seen  as bodhisattvas—as having a liberative  capacity. Because compassion is a universal quality that transiently locates itself within particular beings, like the air in our lungs, then it is continually being expressed everywhere.


373. Liberating Seeing

The Sanskrit word for ignorance, avidya,  literally means darkness.’Vidya’ is seeing, and the prefix is the direct negative.

Understanding that makes it clear that darkness is a metaphor about seeing. In the darkness, we can’t see anything. Apart from the darkness. So darkness is not a metaphor for seeing nothing, it’s seeing just one thing and assuming it is everything.

We think that to become familiar with Buddhism we’re required to become familiar with the whole edifice of doctrines, ideas and controversies, but that’s not true. What we need to do is to become intimate with the metaphors which are used.  Not metaphors understood as a kind of encrypted meaning but metaphors as liberative ways of seeing. Not seeing them like a text but seeing them as like a person, capable of infinite engagement and expression. 

Because language always fossilises, it is our responsibility as practitioners to attempt, as sincerely as we can, to generate our own ways of expression.

The metaphor of the mirror is a good illustration. We can see that metaphor in doctrinal terms, pointing to the illusoriness of separate phenomena. We can see it as a metaphor for the interpenetration of all things. We can see it as a metaphor for the mind—calm and meditative—able to experience all phenomena as they are, with equanimity.

All these formulations are not wrong but they’re incomplete. They’re incomplete because they do not move our hearts. They stay within a conceptual framework. Like seeing ignorance as a disguised metaphor of sight, we can see the mirror as a metaphor for liberating seeing: the mirror of the Buddha, the mirror of another person, the mirror of a bodhisattva, and the mirror of you, but at some past or future time.  All different ways of seeing, not one displacing the other, but all of them within a liberative kaleidoscope of seeing. 

It’s not as it were, the person that is liberated into correct seeing, but the seeing is liberated. 

It’s that shift, essentially a shift from our conceptual world to an alive experience world, which is the shift that we’re looking for. 

That’s why Buddhist truth is often called ‘the inconceivable’.  Not because it’s very difficult to understand, but because its purpose is to knock us out with that constructed realm.  Until then, it’s as if we’re deaf beings in a world of deaf beings. We cannot hear the voices of the other. And in this world, all movement and vitality has evaporated:  we are seeing all beings, but as objects. We see them in the mirror of our mind and we see them in the mirror of our language.

 Then suddenly, we start to sing. We can’t hear ourselves sing but we know that something is different within our experience. Something is different. When the world sings back at us, even although we cannot hear this with the mind or with language, we know that something has changed.  

Even though we cannot describe it, because we cannot describe it—something has changed.


372. The Three Natures

In the  Yogacara  perspective  there are said to be three natures:  the  conditioned nature, the dependent nature,  and the perfected nature.

The conditioned nature  is the way that the ordinary person  sees the world; as constructed of  familiar  objects, as seen conceptually.

The dependent nature, is seeing  everything as  impermanent, as interdependent. 

The  perfected nature  is seeing everything as  suchness. 

The metaphor  which is used to explain the distinction  between these three  natures is the metaphor of  a person with cataracts seeing  flowers in the sky. Flowers which obviously aren’t  there. In the conditioned nature, a person seeing these  flowers in the sky, unaware he has cataracts,  will think of  the sky flowers as real.

For the dependent nature  the person seeing these sky flowers  realises that he has cataracts and so he understands  that the phenomena of sky flowers,  is simply  generated  by  a matrix of causes and conditions.  The fact that he has cataracts,  the pattern of  light  playing  on his cataracts and so on.

In the perfected nature  the person with cataracts  understands that the sky flowers are  neither  real or  unreal. They’re not  real because they’ve no  self nature  yet they’re not unreal because all experience is real. That position,  where  there is plainly  experience but  where one cannot assert a self  behind that  experience, or behind phenomena, is suchness.

The problem  with  schemas such as this  is  that they can be quite  bloodless. It seems that they’re  inviting us  to  understand the world in a conceptual way. That’s very unfortunate  because what these apparent concepts are  designed to do  is to  take us into  an emotional,  feeling position, because that’s where we change. 

You could say that  in the dependent nature  it’s as if I’m travelling through  the landscape of my life—like in a  train or like a car. I’m seeing my life—but I’m seeing it  in a disconnected  way. It has a  slightly unreal  quality to it  and I’m  not  intimately  part of it. 

For the  dependent nature  it’s as if in a dream. I’m always running towards something, yet just as  I’m  approaching it, it vanishes into nothingness.

In the perfected nature  I understand – at a  visceral  level –  that all  experience  is a miracle.