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287. Letting Your Body Leap

When people unfamiliar with our practice talk about zazen, they’ll often refer to it as objectless meditation. And what they mean by that is that there isn’t a mandala, a mantra or an object that we fix our attention on when we’re doing zazen.

But they do tend to find their way to discovering an object of meditation circuitously. They’ll describe it as being something like awareness itself. So they’ll say that in zazen we are aware of our awareness; or they may say that we are aware of emptiness; or of dependent origination. So there’s lots of formulations, not forgetting of course the familiar one of bringing the attention back to the body and the breath, and hence to  assume that that’s the object of meditation.

All these perspectives arise from the same mistake, which is assuming that meditation is something that we do with our minds. And because the mind is inherently dualistic, then that way of looking at things will always be divided into a subject and an object. But that’s not our practice.

Dogen, in the Fukanzazengi recognized something like this when he wrote,

“You could be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization or acquire outstanding wisdom and attain the Way by clarifying the mind. Still, if you are wandering about in your head you may miss the vital path of letting your body leap.”

Dogen, Fukanzazengi

That’s the Tanahashi translation, and both in that translation and the other ones that we presently have in English it’s not so clear what Dogen’s doing in his own language. In it, he’s making a kind of joke. The suggestion is that if we understand zazen intellectually, our head gets stuck. So we can jam our head in the entranceway of zazen, but we can’t get our body in.

Whereas if we can get our body in, our mind will follow. But of course we can’t get our body in intentionally. We have to fall backwards into the space, whole.

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286. The Buddha Vehicle

The Buddhist state has nothing to do with thinking or willing. We’re not spiritual warriors. We’re not on a hero’s journey. But because thinking – attempting to grasp reality with our minds – is so much a part of who we are as human beings, Buddhist teachers use expedient means.

In the Lotus Sutra the most famous story is the parable of the burning house. In that story,  an old, sinister and decrepit house is on fire. The father requires to get his children out but they won’t leave because they’re preoccupied with playing with their toys. Their toys are a little deer cart, a little goat cart and a little ox cart.

The father uses expedient means to get them out of the burning house, promising much better versions of their toys outside, where they’re met by an enormous, magnificent cart for each of them, drawn by an ox.

We’re told this is the one Buddha vehicle. The three toys correspond to: the sravaka – the person who seeks nirvana;  the pratyekabuddha – the person who  seeks personal enlightenment; and the bodhisattva, the person dedicated to saving all beings.

But it’s really noteworthy that although the vehicle waiting for the children outside is drawn by an ox, it’s completely different from the toy cart which one of the children was playing with. And you can see the point of this – a person who says their aim is to save all beings isn’t really a bodhisattva, he’s just a kind of insufferable person.

What’s required in entering into the Buddhist state, which is where this is a clever story, is falling backwards from a state of intellectualism. Back into, you could say, a childlike state of wonder, of gratitude, of astonishment, of aliveness. But we can’t get there with our head. We can’t enter this room, as it were, going in frontwise. We can only fall into it. We can’t enter it with our head. We can only enter it with our whole body.

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285. A Stick of Incense

On the altar there are usually three objects: a statue of manjushri, some flowers and a stick of incense in an incense bowl. The stick of incense is held in place by the ash of previous burnt incense sticks, and their little stumps lie there too.

Manjushri  is on the altar with his sword to cut the delusion of separation, using his sword to cut everything into one. The flowers and the incense are both concerned with impermanence, but in slightly different ways. 

With the flowers, we think of Dogen’s expression ‘the flowers of emptiness’, so it’s obvious that the flowers are beautiful and transient. The flowers on the altar now will just last a few days more. Further, flowers, additional to representing beauty and dignity and transience  are symbolic of karma. Zen teachers talk of flowers and fruit as a poetic way of talking about cause and effect.

The incense is more personal to this person. In our group, the incense stocks are sandalwood. Each one is representative of the practitioner, practicing now. The stick of incense will exhaust itself completely in its practice. The uprightness of the practitioner, the uprightness of the incense, enables the integrity and space of the present moment to be upheld, so that it does not collapse into nothingness. The body of the stick’s effort, its smoke and fragrance, permeates everywhere. Its ashes are the foundation for future uprightness, for the time being of future practitioners, both this being and all beings.

At the end of your life there is not just this stump of memory.

Although you look everywhere to find your true body you cannot find it.

Not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere.

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284. Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 24: An expression never before expounded

‘In the entire universe, in the ten directions there is no dharma at all that has not yet been expounded by all Buddhas in the three times. Therefore all Buddha’s say, “In the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expect the dharma without differentiations”. This great assembly present before me also is practicing the way in the manner of all Buddhas. Each movement, each stillness is not other than the dharma of all Buddhas, so do not act carelessly or casually, Although this is the case I have an expression that has not yet been expounded by any Buddha. Everyone, do you want to discern it?’

After a pause Dogen said, ‘ in the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expound the dharma without differentiations.’

The passage that Dogen cites and then repeats is a direct quote from the Lotus Sutra.

 To understand this dharma discourse it’s helpful that we understand the several uses of the word ‘dharma’. It originally meant teaching, as in the Buddha’s teaching. ‘Dharmas’ are all the individual things within experience: fences, walls, mountains, thoughts, dreams and so on. And because the Buddha’s teaching is about reality, a very creative combining took place of these two senses of the word, on the already fertile soil of chinese culture. It came to be thought that all beings (dharmas)  proclaim the dharma. Or, more precisely that everything (all dharmas) is the dharma. 

Thus, the movements of Dogen’s monks while they were listening to him, or their stillness were all expressions of the dharma. 

Which leaves the question: in what sense was Dogen’s simple repetition of a phrase from the Lotus Sutra a new expression?

It was new because everything’s new.

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283. A Person in the Mountains Should Love the Mountains

In volume 9 of Dogen’s Eihei Kōroku, at paragraph 25, there’s a poem (derived from the poem “Mount Lu” by Su Shi),

A person in the mountains should love the mountains.

 With going and coming, the mountains are his body.

 The mountains are the body but the body is not the self.

 So where can one find any senses or their objects?

Dogen, Eihei Kōroku

Dogen isn’t talking literally about mountains, or not just. In this poem the mountain signifies everything – the whole of dependent origination. And quintessentially for Dogen he’s always in some sense alluding to our experience in Zazen.

When we talk about dependent origination, the exemplar is our thoughts and emotions, which we usually regard as encumbrances, something to get rid of. But we’re mistaken. The instruction is often given that when thoughts arise in Zazen we should neither love them or hate them but just allow them to come and go freely.

I don’t think that’s an entirely helpful instruction. Certainly we shouldn’t try and push thoughts and emotions away and we shouldn’t attach to them. But I think primarily we should not attempt to fix these butterflies on the needle of our certainty. If we do, they are like ghosts caught in the suddenly appearing echo chamber of the self. They cannot manifest, or change, or live. Nor us.

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

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282. The Body Is The Bodhi Tree

The first line of the poem in the Platform Sutra attributed to Shen-xui is, “the body is the bodhi tree.” In other words, the body in zazen is like the bodhi tree. 

What are we to make of that? 

The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

It has several distinctive qualities. It’s very old:  it lasts a very long time, has a very long life. The second, and more fundamental quality is that it’s hollow. It doesn’t have a core.

Like all trees, it is completely rooted in the great earth. It doesn’t require to move. And it’s completely expressive in the great sky. 

The emptiness inside of it isn’t the absence of anything, it’s the presence of everything. 

How does that compare with the emptiness–the space–inside us when we are practising?

The arising of our thoughts, insofar as it’s not an attempt to  interpret our present experience, is surely interdependence in time. The experience now of thoughts and feelings is the tremble and echo of the activity of everything. 

The dynamic space which we experience in our body, in our breath, as we are balanced, breathing in and breathing out cannot be clearly separated from the space around us and in turn, that cannot be clearly separated from the greater space, extending in all directions, everywhere, like floodwater, surging in, surging out.

Outside my window is a great tree. When the wind blows it moves its limbs freely, like a dancer.

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281. The Expression of Water

When we practice we release the self and we release the world from the grip of our certainty.

In the ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra‘, Master Dogen says the following:

In seeing water there are beings who see it as a jewelled necklace, some see water as miraculous flowers. Hungry ghosts see water as raging flames, or as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace, or a tower, or as the seven treasures, or the great jewel. Others see it as woods and walls, or as the dharma nature of immaculate liberation, or as the true human body, or as the physical form and mental nature. Humans see these as water. In these different ways of seeing are the conditions under which water is killed or given life.

Although Dogen is a great master, the statement is incomplete.

Even if he had said that each window through which all creatures who have ever lived or who ever will live see the world, if all these uncountable windows were taken and each smashed into a million, billion pieces and a tiny precious fragment was taken from each to form a great window, through which a great light would  illuminate the practitioner completely, the statement would still be deficient.

How so? Because from the perspective of the water, or the mountain, or the tree, or whatever, all the views of these infinite number of beings are not made standing on the passive body of the water, the tree, the mountain, the person, but rather, all these views, all these beings, are the expression of the water the tree, the mountain, the person, and the expression of this moment.

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280. 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.

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279. Not Personal, Relational

What’s distinctive about Zen is that the truth isn’t personal, it’s relational. Although there is a teacher and a student, the true teacher is the clear, open and whole hearted engagement of both of them, together.

My first teacher Nancy Amphoux was dying of cancer in 1992 when she came to Glasgow for the last time to teach.

At that time, the cancer had spread into her bones, particularly her sternum, which was crumbling away. I asked her if she intended to take pain relief and she said that she wouldn’t, because it was more important to be able to teach clearly than to suffer temporary pain.

It took me a long time to realize that the person she was teaching clearly was me.

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278. Joshu’s Man of True Practice

A monk asked, “I wonder if a man of true practice can be perceived by gods and demons, or not?” The master said, “They can perceive him.”

The monk said, “Where’s his fault?” The master said, “Faults are wherever they are looked for.”

The monk said, “In that case it is not practice.” The master said, “It is practice.

When we start sitting it may well be from the perspective of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha. In other words, we are drawn to practice in the belief that it  will lessen my suffering, or practice will bring me benefit, ideally enlightenment, but after a while we realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of practice, and that the misunderstanding was necessary.

It is as if, within experience, there are multitudes. Our way of practice is not to skewer these dharmas on the needle of our definition, but to allow them to be, in all their multifacetedness and thus, quiescent, whether they vex us or not.

It may not be Nirvana as we imagine it, but it is.