367. Liberation

Here in Glasgow in November all the leaves have fallen from the trees.

 We might talk about this by saying that autumn leaves fall.  In a slight variation of that, we may say within my life, in my 62nd year, in the autumn, I see the leaves fall.

These apparently innocuous containers of autumn and my life blind us to the evanescence, the aliveness of our actual life; autumn is the leaves falling—it’s nothing else

Your life is each event in it. There is no container of self. There is no container of time to enable self.

There’s two expressions that  we have in zen: one is genjo which means actualisation as in ‘genjokoan’ and the other is todatsu which means liberation.

Liberation means that each moment is complete; in its self-expression it is free from before and after.

And so, at least sometimes, we are not like a tramp impacted with the grime of our karma, trudging from babyhood to death.

 The kanji for Genjokoan signifies something like a person coming out of a house: something that was latent becomes vivid.

When we sit Zazen, and not just then, in other moments of our life, we give expression to something within us which we cannot name. It is like a little bird flying out of a burning house.   


366. These Little Birds

One of the instructions we’re given when we start Zazen is that we should allow our thoughts to come and go freely, like clouds in the sky. That instruction can be quite helpful to people right at the start of their meditation practice to become aware of their mental chatter, and the possibility of not being imprisoned within that. 

But taken as a general instruction, it is both harmful and useless. It’s harmful because it sets up an unnecessary dichotomy between thinking and the absence of thinking; between mental noise, the noise of our thoughts, and silence. The consequence of that is to create, unintentionally, an ideal of meditation which essentially emphasizes silence and an absence of thoughts. That ideal, that perspective on meditation, is both joyless and austere. It’s also frustratingly unattainable. 

The instruction is useless because ‘thinking’ in no way encompasses the range of our experience, either during Zazen or otherwise. Alongside mental chatter we will experience – for example – the various manifestations of our imagination; we’ll experience auditory and visual (and other sensory) hallucinations; we’ll experience  emotions that we can’t name and don’t like. We’ll experience sensations that are very elusive and we’ll experience the movement and aliveness of our body and the world.

The purpose of meditation is not to kill thought: it’s not to kill this rich experience—it’s to liberate it.

When we’re on retreat at Ardfern, at the back of the house there’s a little tree. To it are drawn all these lovely little birds,all different colors. Some blue, some yellow, some green, some red. They’re all drawn to the aliveness and tremulousness of the little tree.

When you’re sitting, your little birds are drawn to your alive tremulousness. Sometimes the birds of thought, sometimes the birds of the imagination, sometimes the birds of movement and aliveness, sometimes the birds of emotion, sometimes the birds of sensation. Do not wish them away; if they come and go freely, everything is as it should be.

When we get carried away with ourselves, we might think of our steadfast sitting as being like a mountain, but we’re more like this little inconspicuous tree which, even though it’s small, its roots extend throughout the earth. because it arises in love, not fear, its branches reach throughout the sky.   


365. Embodiment

In Buddhism two of the ideas most distant from our rational western perspective are the Tathāgatagarbha and the Dharmakaya.

The Tathagatagarbha is the faith that, at our core – not just our core, but at the core of all living beings –  is an embryo or womb of Buddhahood: a Buddha potentiality or actuality, which is covered over by our karma. It’s a very positive way of seeing: our essence is Buddha and our coverings, our karma is accidental. 

The Dharmakaya is the idea that the whole universe, seen correctly, is the body of the Buddha. The Chinese integrated those two ideas by saying that the Dharmakaya was what the Tathāgatagarbha became when those karmic obstructions were removed. 

Those two ideas are a bit of an embarrassment to the no-nonsense, modern idea of Zen. It’s hard to see, at least at first blush, how they’re related to practice at all: but actually they’re intimately related to practice. Specifically, they’re very related to embodiment.

When we think of ‘embodiment’ we often think that we’ll just physically become more vivid, like feeling our blood coursing in our veins, for instance. We’ll still be, as it were, an object in the world, but illuminated, special.

But in truth, what we notice when we become more embodied is, in a way that’s hard to describe, that we become less physical. We become more aware of ourselves as spacious and energetic.

One of the reasons why we place such an emphasis on sitting in a balanced posture is that that posture enables us to feel, at our core, something like the Tathāgatagarbha: a spacious and dynamic emptiness which, in its nature, is not distinct to others. 

It’s not individual to us in its nature—it’s universal. And when we directly see ourselves in terms of presence, energy, spaciousness and dynamic process, the boundaries which we impose between ourselves as conceived and the rest of creation become far more porous.

That’s a gradual process. The metaphor – not just metaphor – for all of this is the breath. When we’re sitting, breathing fully, our breath is one of the correlates to this dynamic spaciousness that we feel inside us. The breath that’s inside us and outside us is really the same breath: the space inside us and the space outside us is the same spaciousness.   


364. What is Stillness?

Zazen is sometimes referred to as the still, still state.

What is meant by stillness?

What we need to understand is that stillness, in this context, does not mean the absence of movement in space—it means the absence of movement in time.

There is ‘stillness’ because what is vividly present to us now has not carried over from the past and will not carry over into the future. It is outside Time, our normal sense of time, because that has a flattening and distancing effect on our experience.  

This experience of stillness – suchness – is familiar, although overlooked. Sometimes we may simply chance upon it. For example, a tree in autumn with dramatic and fiery colors somehow catches us.  We’re not seeing the tree as an object in our consciousness within a structure of past, present and future. The tree is in a kind of communion with us, a charged field of being in presence.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra there’s a mythical representation of this. We’re asked to imagine a realm where, instead of a world of material things, there’s simply a world of fragrances. You can see in that imaginary world how it’s much easier to think of the instantaneous present because the continuity implied by objects – including the self – just isn’t there. Like a clumsy god who accidentally creates a world, once we crystallise experience into objects, Time adheres, like dust falling onto mirrors. 


363. Sky Flowers

The history of Buddhism can, rather than being seen as a history of ideas, more usefully be seen, to a significant extent, as the creative development of metaphors over time. 

Unlike ideas, metaphors are intrinsically part of us. They arise naturally in us all the time. We dream and live within them. We respond to them in a different way than to ideas: in a far more intimate way. ‘Ideas’ are bestowed on us by our opponents.

An example of the development of metaphor in Buddhism is sky flowers. Sky flowers originated as a way of talking about delusion. Just as a person with cataracts would see colors and shapes in the sky which appeared to be flowers, when in fact there was just sky, ignorant people see a self when there is only dependent arising. 

In sky flowers we can understand delusion. Delusion isn’t an actual obstacle that we need to overcome,  it’s more a recognition that we have been seeing incorrectly. The metaphor ties together related tropes in Buddhism: Seeing, Space, Non-Obstruction, Emptiness and Illumination ( the word for ignorance in Sanskrit is avijya, darkness, the absence of light)

This originating metaphor is then taken on by the Yogacara school to illuminate their position that whilst experience is real (so the person with cataracts is actually experiencing sky flowers)  the underlying reality which that experience purports to represent isn’t real. We can never know the world in itself, we can only know our experience. There are obvious similarities with another frequent metaphor: the dream. 

When we later come to The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, sky flowers is used as one of the practices of meditation to get us over a conundrum—if there’s no self, why do we need to practice? Surely we just need to realize that the true nature of things is Emptiness? That’s the sort of naturalistic fallacy which has plagued Zen from the time of The Platform Sutra, in which Hui-neng, directly perceiving reality through hearing a passage from The Diamond Sutra ( and not meditating at all) is deemed far superior to the seasoned meditator Shen-hsui.

The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, to counter this, uses sky flowers as a way of dramatically showing that, in a sense, we need to provisionally affirm the self to start to practice. 

But once we do, our habitual ideas of self are progressively undermined by our actual experience, much as a fictional fraudster would, as it were, undermine himself by progressively revealing his various frauds, culminating in his fraud of self-creation.

Dogen, three centuries or so after The Sutra Of Perfect Enlightenment, takes advantage of the double meaning of sky in sky flowers to talk about the flowers of emptiness

And then in his hands, rather than a specific metaphor to talk about delusion it becomes a generalised way to talk in a wonderfully original way about the interdependent nature of reality. That very creative use of metaphor is characteristic of Dogen’s genius. 

(He does something similar with metaphor of the ocean and the waves which he radicalizes in a brilliant way in his poetry)

Later on from Dogen we have the Korean monk Kihwa who identifies sky flowers with the sense of the individual self, the individual body, and the sky as being the dharma body—the body of all reality. 

This is what is meant by turning the wheel of dharma.  Rather than learning and replicating ideas or metaphors we take them into ourselves, make them our own flesh then creatively respond with our whole being.  To do this is essential, because it ensures the continuation of Buddhism as a dynamic community of practitioners spread over space and time, creating new fabric from the same threads, so the miraculous garment will not fall into nothingness.


362. Hishiryo

A very familiar story about how we should practice Zazen involves Master Yakusan. It appears at the start of the Zazenshin chapter of the Shobogenzo. 

In Tanahashi’s translation, the exchange reads as follows:

 Yakusan was sitting in Zazen.
A monk asked him, “In steadfast sitting, what do you think?”
Yakusan said, “Think not thinking.”
The monk asked, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yakusan replied. “Beyond thinking.”

The three material words in this exchange are ’thought’ or ‘thinking’ which is ‘shiryo’; ‘not thinking’, the direct negative, which is ‘fushiryo’;  and ‘other than thinking’ or ‘different from thinking’ which is ‘hishiryo.’ 

Tanahashi translates ‘hishiryo’ as ‘beyond thinking’. That isn’t universal. Nishijima, for example, translates hishiryo as ‘non-thinking’, which doesn’t exactly make it clearer what is meant.

This exchange, and how it appears to describe Zazen, has frequently been quite problematic for practitioners. Often there’s a tendency to think that ‘hishiryo’ – particularly when it’s translated as ‘beyond thinking’- is some special state that we need to attain. It also seems to make Zazen peculiarly intentional.

For me, what’s most puzzling is the initial question, because it seems an idiotic question for a monk to ask. The monk presumably has been Yakusan’s student for some time. He would plainly have received instruction about zazen. He’s not a layman, or a simpleton. Why does he ask a question which seems to show complete ignorance of Zazen?

The problem we have as western zen practitioners is twofold. First, what’s being said in texts like these (and in other Asian language texts) is often quite elusive to grasp. That’s made worse by being distantly separated in time and culture. 

The second is that we’re having to rely on translations from languages very different from english. We assume that there is one meaning only, but that’s not so. Classical Chinese is notoriously capable of multiple interpretations, which is exacerbated by a fondness for terseness.

You get very short statements which are capable of a number of different meanings. That creates problems for us.

The contemporary Estonian scholar Rein Raud has written, very interestingly I think, about Dogen. In his 2021 essay ‘Dogen and the Linguistics of Reality’, he retranslates this exchange, and answers my query about the monk’s apparently gormless initial question.

He re-renders the exchange thus:

 As Yakusan was sitting a monk asks “What is motionless thought?” ( That is, the ideogram for stillness isn’t a synonym for Zazen, it relates to the “thought,” making the question intelligent)
Yakusan replies, “It is the thought that occurs during ‘not thinking’. 
The monk asks, “What kind of thoughts do you have during ‘not thinking.’
Yakusan says,”Non thoughts.”

I think that this is a really much more helpful translation, much more understandable. Professor Raud  points out that there’s a problem with the habitual translation of  ‘hishiryo’ as a verb i.e non-thinking/beyond thinking.  He points out that the prefix ‘hi’ is appended to nouns, not verbs. It’s non-thought not non-thinking in the original Chinese text, which is then repeated in the Japanese. It’s only in English that it mysteriously becomes a verb. Similarly, ‘shiryo’ can either be a noun (‘thought(s)’) or a verb (‘thinking’), but in English it is much more frequently rendered as ‘thinking’, which heavily contributes to the overall impression in Tanahashi’s translation of Zazen being primarily intentional. 

‘Non thinking’ seems to be something we have to do. ‘Non thoughts’, on the other hand, seems much more understandable. There is mental activity, but it’s different from mental activity in the normal sense, because:

  • it’s not intentional
  • it’s not part of my internal conversation 
  • it isn’t mine, it’s just something else going on within experience
  • it’s not closed off within an imaginary mental space; it has correlates in the felt sense, in the body, it changes within a matrix of change which encompasses everything. The thought, as it were, remembers its embodiment

Why does this matter? It matters because it’s important for us not to explain away the teachings as ‘mystical’, capable of being understood only by those who are ‘enlightened’. Because that’s no explanation at all. And it contributes to a distorted master-driven version of Zen, where we imagine we have to open our mind. But we don’t need to open our mind, any more than we need to write the biography of a ghost.

We only need to open our heart.


361. What is meant by ‘Mind’?

In Zen, and in Chinese Buddhism generally, there are often statements like “the triple world is mind only.” Often we don’t know what to make of them, other than appreciating that it’s probably not a claim that the external world is magically created from our individual brain, or similar nonsense.

But how do we understand it?

The easiest way for us to start to understand is to appreciate that the world doesn’t come pre-formed. Whilst we might understand a camera, for instance, to be an image capturing device, someone from a different culture could see it as a soul capturing device.

Similarly, we might understand a window to be something which enables us to see the world, but someone else could think it’s a miraculous mirror which only appears when it gets dark and there is light in your room.

So we can understand that, in terms of how we conceive the world, it’s not pre-formed: it’s culturally formed.  We see some things and not others. This varies from culture to culture and more generally it’s species specific—we will be seeing differently from other creatures.

We can use the traditional language and refer to that in terms of karma. 

We can also understand that we respond to particular things or occurrences in the world in terms of our individual karma. The feelings, associations and emotional responses that we’ll have to things that appear to us are specific to us ( at least in combination), and derive from our history, relationships, patterning. and so on. Our particular karma.

With these understandings, we can start to get an understanding of what’s meant by ‘the world is mind only.’ The statement isn’t making some kind of  ontological statement about the world. It’s not philosophical idealism. It’s saying that as Buddhists and meditators, what we’re concerned with is the world as it appears to us.

And as it appears to us, there’s not a division between ‘self’ and this karmic world of concepts, pictures and feelings. 

Thinking phenomenologically is  helpful, because it stops us falling into the familiar error of mistaking Buddhist statements as being statements about the reality or nature of the world. Buddhism as philosophy, rather than Buddhism as experience.

But it still doesn’t really get us to the essence of the statement.

To understand the statement that the triple world is mind only, we need to understand what’s meant by “mind.” 

In the Treatise on Awakening Faith in the Mahayana, ( which is almost certainly Chinese in origin, and probably written around the middle of the 6th century) ‘mind’ is explained as that pre-existing, underlying unity prior to ( in the sense of ‘more fundamental than’) division into mind and body, self and world, self and others, and so on.

The primary metaphor which is used is that of the wind and the ocean. 

The ocean, in its intrinsic nature, is still and peaceful, quiescent. That’s ‘Mind’, in its essential nature.

But when the wind blows, waves are created on the surface of the ocean. We can think of these in terms of thoughts or emotions -‘mind’ in the normal sense, but which in this metaphor are disturbances to the essential nature. We can also imagine each wave thinking that it’s separate, both from the ocean and from the other waves.  

The wind is the wind of ignorance and ‘ignorance’ means the belief in a separate self.

We can then see the importance of faith to practice. If we believe this underlying essence of mind, it opens up a way of practice. 

It is widespread in western approaches to meditation not to challenge our everyday assumptions about separation, which is odd, given that non separation is the essence of the buddhist message. Rather, we are instructed to allow our thoughts and feelings to come and go freely and not to attach to them. The suggestion is that the less intrusive our thoughts are, the better we will be as meditators, and the happier we will be in our life. There is nothing wrong with this, obviously, but it’s ego psychology, not Buddhism. In this way, all around us, Buddhism is killed. Not by tyrants, but by kindness. 

But the metaphor opens up the possibility of regarding meditation in a completely different way. 

We can welcome the waves, we can welcome the individual ‘disturbances’ of thought and emotion. We do that because that creates the possibility of the wave, as it were, understanding its own depth; understanding that it’s not separate from the vastness of the ocean; that it’s not separate from the other waves. That it’s only through the wave that the ocean can be activated in our own lives.


360. Entirely bodhisattvas

The four bodhisattva vows are –  in one sense – a response to the four noble truths.

The first two noble truths are that our life is unsatisfactory (‘suffering’, in the traditional language), and the cause of that suffering is ignorance, which creates a belief that there is a permanent self, which in turn causes desire, aversion and attachment, which perpetuates suffering.

The third noble truth is that there’s a way out of this suffering, which the fourth noble truth identifies: the noble eightfold path.

 It is, quintessentially, a solo perspective. Someone living alone on an island or living a solitary existence in the forest could practice these four noble truths.

The bodhisattva vows aren’t like that.  They are a creative and compassionate response to suffering, not primarily through recognizing the unreality of a fixed self, but by recognizing and trying to live within the oneness of everything.

The term ‘bodhisattva’ was originally used for the Buddha alone, describing his 500 lives before he became the Buddha. 

It was only in the Mahayana sutras that bodhisattva became wider in meaning, and eventually ubiquitous. For example, in the Lotus sutra, there is a scene where countless bodhisattvas, who have been concealing themselves for aeons in an empty space within the earth, burst forth.

Mahayana practitioners often refer to fellow practitioners as bodhisattvas.  

Just as the first of the pre-socratic philosophers Thales said,”Everything is full of gods”, from the  Mahayana perspective everything is, as it were, full of bodhisattvas.

So when we talk in terms of the first bodhisattva vow—All living beings, I vow to save them- we’re not talking about a unitary self being compassionate towards other unitary selves and things. We’re talking about an entirely reconfigured world and person, which is entirely 



359. Taken by an idiot

When we start practice, it’s as if we’re taken to a beautiful land manacled to an idiot. We imagine that if the idiot would stop the incessant babble, we could fully appreciate the space and the tranquility.

It takes us a long time to understand that this person, whom we view as an idiot, is dependent origination.

If it were not for the noise, the distress, the interference, of what we regard as our personal thoughts and emotions, we would never have been drawn to practice in the first place.

It’s as if what we regard as our thoughts and our emotions is a beautiful and powerful dragon, constricted within the small room of the self; which in turn is located in some limited imaginary space in our head. 

If that dragon is released from the room of the self,  is released from the head, it can manifest throughout the whole body.  This changes everything:  experience transforms from something like static or echo  to something like bright water, flowing vigorously throughout the body. In turn, this bright water can flow into and from the entire world. Then it is like space, like light.

Practicing in this way is how non-duality is actualized—not by some ego project to weld an imaginary world to an imaginary self, or to lift something fictional upwards.


358. The hands of Avolakitesvara

Just as a doctor palpates the body for what they cannot see directly, in Buddhism, teachers persistently palpate with words that which cannot be directly spoken of, or, to use the traditional language, that which is ‘inconceivable’. And palpating is an appropriate metaphor, because, even although we cannot trap it within language, we are always intimate with it.

The endless activity of expression of teachers is not pointless, it’s essential. Their effort begins to illuminate. It illuminates the teacher. It illuminates the student. It illuminates a tiny part of a vast land. It illuminates the light. It illuminates the darkness. Most importantly, it disrupts the pictures we create.

It is not that one effort supersedes another, but rather, each effort is the effort of all Buddhists, a billion little candles on a dark hill.

In meditation we are palpating the body, this body. Not of course just our body of bones and flesh and pictures, but the whole body of our experience. We are palpating this body, not with our tiny arthritic karmic hands, but with the hands of Avalokitesvara.