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346. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was written in Tang Dynasty China, probably in the early 8th century, around the same time as The Platform Sutra, just prior to the formation of Baso’s Hongzhou School of Zen, which proved the most durable, going forward into the later Song Dynasty.

The Sutra was very popular in China and subsequently in Korea, but did not become widely known in Japan. Although, I think, it’s clear that Dogen was familiar with it, not least because the initial and dominant metaphor in the sutra – sky flowers – is one of the chapters of the Shobogenzo, which Dogen re-renders as the flowers of emptiness (Kuge). That chapter substantially repeats what is said in the sutra.

One of the reasons the sutra was so popular was because it gave a lot of practical instruction about meditation.

It essentially says that in meditation there are three ways to practise: Samatha, Samapatti and Dhyana. From those three approaches it generates 25 separate practices, using various combinations of these three.

So what are they?

Samatha we are familiar with. It is the wide range of practices focused on the necessity of undispersing, calming and gathering the mind. It is strongly associated with the idea that meditation cultivates tranquility, quietude, and serenity. The metaphor which the sutra uses for this aspect of meditation is the mirror. Just as a bright mirror will reflect everything truly without being caught up in it, and whose primary characteristic, brightness, is unaffected by the nature of the reflections, then likewise the meditator rests within the brightness of calm spacious awareness, unperturbed by any arising thoughts or emotions.

The second kind of practice, Samapatti, is described tersely as using illusion to overcome illusion. The meaning can be unpacked by reading the early part of the sutra, where the metaphor of sky flowers is explored. Sky flowers represent illusory ideas: self, separation from the world, permanence and so on. The mind of the practitioner which sees no-self, impermanence and non-duality is also a sky flower, because there is no ‘mind’ separate from everything else. That is what the sutra means by using one illusion to overcome another. One of the other metaphors used is two sticks being rubbed together to create a fire, which then consumes both. Another brilliant metaphor is of a person cutting off his own head; prior to the act there is a person intending to do something, but after he succeeds, there isn’t. Samapatti focuses on how we can, in the course of meditation, actively examine our tendency to separate, to continually create a “me”, to construct a familiar world of known objects and qualities, and so on. The metaphor that is used is that of a green and lively shoot bursting up through the earth. The aliveness, the activity of the green shoot bursts through the earth of ignorance, but doesn’t become separated from it, like the Lotus Flower.

The metaphor for Samatha is one of peacefulness and tranquility, that for Samapatti is very different, it is a vigorous and dynamic engagement.

The third – Dhyana – is where the separation between body, mind and world drops off or is forgotten about. In Dhyana we are just sitting, ‘One Piece Zen’, as Isso Fujita would say: body, mind and world all dropped off and gathered up in this One Piece. The metaphor for Dhyana is the ringing bell. The bell can ring because it is hollow, empty at its center. It is self-less. Yet, the ring of the bell of zazen rings out everywhere.

We can look at these three meditations as three different practices. We can also look at them as being three aspects, although not the only aspects, of our own practice. We are experiencing this One Piece Zen. At other times we are aware of the necessity of undispersing our mind. At other times we are aware of our habits of fabrication and construction. All of this can be explained in a way which is inclusive, and which broadens our practice, and stops it falling into easy formulation.

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345. Everything is your Ally

People who know nothing about Buddhism imagine that practice precedes awakening. The person puts in, as it were, the hard yards of practice, then gets the reward. They heroically scale the mountain of enlightenment, acquire a higher consciousness, and similar narcissistic drivel.

In Buddhism one of the fundamental ideas is Bodhicitta; awakening the aspiration for enlightenment.

A related idea, certainly in the Chinese tradition, is that of original enlightenment. The belief all beings, originally and fundamentally, have Buddha Nature but that somehow, this has been covered over, obscured. And to uncover it is not the accumulative work of lifetimes, but momentary. You just don’t know which moment.

We come across the word ‘faith’ in the Classical Chinese texts a lot, such as the Third Patriarch’s Verses of Faith Mind or the Awaking of Faith In The Mahayana. The ‘faith’ that’s talked about is faith in that underlying quality of Buddha Nature.

More prosaically, people don’t just start practice on a whimsical basis; saying, “oh well, maybe this is true, maybe not. I’ll just try it and see how it goes”.

No! People have an insight, however partial, incomplete, transient or outside their conscious awareness, that they’re not in control of their own lives in the way that they’ve thought they were. That their lives are like a dream, like an accident in fog, like a cascade. 

That awakening to the interdependence of life, the impermanence of life, takes them into practice. That awakening is true, because that’s actually how things are. And once they’re in that stream of practice, they – we – stay there. They can’t unlearn their realisation.

In a sense, that first glimpse of awakening is identical to complete and perfect awakening, even if temporally and conceptually they may be very far apart. The Flower Garland Sutra says so, unequivocally. 

It’s for that reason that in chapter 37 of the Shobogenzo, Body and Mind Study of the Way (at least in the Nishijima translation), Dōgen starts with a very surprising sentence. He says the Buddha’s truth is such that if we intend not to practice the truth we cannot attain it. If we intend not to open our heart to the truth, it becomes more and more distant.

It’s a complete reversal of what we imagine. We might well think, “I have to fervently and constantly intend to seek the Buddha’s truth”. But Dōgen is saying No! No! Because the Buddha’s truth is reality, we have to set ourselves against it.

To fail to grasp it you have to intend not to. You must, to put it poetically, make yourself into a demon, or a hungry ghost, or an animal. You have to set yourself against that reality of interdependence and impermanence. And keep doing so. It’s an outrageously joyful and life affirming position, quite different from brave little me escaping the dark world.

In your practice, although you imagine you experience endless noise, you also experience great spaciousness. Whether you’re aware of that doesn’t matter. In your life you will experience many, many, many states. Each is a door. You should understand that without you forming and maintaining a clear intention not to pursue the Buddha’s truth then 

everything is your ally

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344. Taking the backward step

We can’t hear the voices of all the myriad beings because we’re behind the glass of the self.

But, we can’t break that glass with our head.

Accordingly, Dōgen says that we must take the backward step ( eko hensho no taiho – turn the light inward, take the backward step)

What does that mean?

We can describe it, for example, in terms of the five skandhas.  

We cease to grasp this consciousness, this awareness as mine.   

We cease to grasp this mental activity as mine.

We cease to grasp these perceptions: this is me; here is the world; here are these feelings which I identify with. We cease to grasp in that way.

We cease to grasp sensation. The sensation is simply something which is arising within a whole lived world; arising and changing, not something that we are required to fixate upon or to specify in terms of feeling, without a fixed location or nature.

We ungrasp the body as an object.  Ungrasping in this way, we fall backwards into the actual body. That body is not separate from the body of all things.

In this way separation is gradually reduced; not in a transformative way; not in a mystical or heroic way, but in a natural way.  

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343. Vitality

The non-duality that Buddhists talk about is not healing the mind body split. It is healing the self world split. But obviously, healing the mind body split is a necessary prerequisite to that.

When the Tang Dynasty Chinese wrote about meditation they generally talked about two aspects. One was Samatha —calming the mind—and the other was Vipassana—insight. 

If we think of meditation primarily in terms of consciousness, then we’re liable to interpret both of those phrases in terms of our individual psychology. 

We will think that calming is making my mind peaceful and empty. We will think of insight in terms of my seeing. We may think of it in terms of a special kind of seeing that I can have. 

This is wrongheaded.

Calming is the calming of our whole body mind. And Insight isn’t really seeing. It is a direct experiencing of non-separation; not some woo-woo mystical stuff but gradual and progressive and real.

There is a modern tendency to think of meditation in terms of consciousness alone. Often the body is disregarded or minimised. This ignores the other fundamental pole of meditation.

That other  pole is Vitality. Aliveness.

If you ask what distinguishes living beings, you would answer: consciousness of some sort, and aliveness. 

But Vitality has not had a very prominent place in the history of modern western thought. It tends to be largely ignored. 

The problem with ignoring it is if we’re just thinking of meditation in terms of consciousness, what we will give attention to is the ‘contents’ of consciousness, primarily thoughts and emotions.  We think that’s what our experience is. We ignore or misunderstand the aliveness of the body. 

Dōgen didn’t misunderstand, which is why he referred to “ the vital matter of letting the body leap”

We might just pass over that as poetic effervescence  if we don’t understand the centrality of vitality, of aliveness. If so, we’ll misunderstand the purpose of meditation. We’ll essentially see it in terms of emptiness, stillness, vacuity and space. We’ll misunderstand the ‘contents’ of our experience. We will bracket all of these contents as being that which needs to be eradicated or, at least, set to one side. We will overemphasise equanimity and miss joy.

There’s all the difference in the world between, for example, persecuting voices or persistent, unpleasant emotions or habitual banal patterns of thought and the natural aliveness which our body has. This aliveness shows itself at the level of sensation, which goes ‘upwards’, becoming emotions, becoming thoughts. It will also show itself as an energetic patterning underneath our emotions. 

If we’re not aware of that, then what we’ll see is simply the top layers.

It’s as if we have a landscape where the deeper half is missing. To use another metaphor; it’s as if, when we focus on consciousness alone, we’re like a magician. One who can go anywhere, who can see anything, but who’s suspended a short distance above the ground. The magician cannot fall onto the ground of all being. The reason why he can’t is that he can only fall that short distance through the alive body.   

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342. The Magician

In Nagarjuna and other Mahayana writings there’s a strange metaphor: that of a magician conjuring up an imaginary person. That is often used as a way of talking about emptiness: experience is real but at the same time doesn’t have a separate underlying essence.

We can also look at this metaphor in a more personal way. I’m the magician—you’re the magician. From our beauty and pain we have created this phantom of self, this imaginary person. But tragically, we are invisible to ourselves, we have forgotten our true nature.

From this perspective we can understand the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is not someone who sees themselves, but someone who sees all other beings in their falsity and in their truth, the creator as well as the conjured person. Not from a position of pity or superiority but from a position of compassion and love.  

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341. Shikantaza

Our practice of Zazen within the Soto Zen tradition is also called shikantaza, which  is generally rendered in English as ‘just sitting’.

How we tend to interpret the phrase is that we should sit wholeheartedly, without expectation of gain or achievement. It’s a psychological explanation. The contrast is then with other forms of meditation which we say are goal directed.

Within Zen, the classic contrast is with the koan practice of Rinzai Zen.

Soto people will say this is goal directed, because it is concerned with attaining kensho (a visceral experience of sudden awakening). 

The actual Rinzai position is much more nuanced than this simple contrast. They tend to have a similar caricature of Soto.

This understanding of ‘just sitting’ is unfortunately an error, one which is very common when translating technical terms from one language to another.

The primary meaning of ‘just sitting’ is in terms of non-separation. In other words, when I’m sitting there aren’t two things: a self and a world;  there is simply this whole, this ‘one piece zen’ into which, as it were, both  the self and the world have disappeared into. 

Obviously, from that perspective, there is no expectation of gain or achievement, because there is nothing distinct for either to adhere to, but the phrase is experiential and descriptive, not psychological.

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340. Non-duality

A central thread of Mahayana Buddhism is non-duality. But when we hear ‘non-duality’ we are liable to misunderstand it. 

To us, duality is generally thought of in terms of the mind-body split, so we see non-duality as fixing that. 

However, the non-duality which Mahayana talks about is not primarily this. Rather, the duality to be overcome is the split between self and world, interior and exterior.

Anyone can see from that an immediate clarifying point: healing the mind-body split leaves the primary dualism of self and world intact. 

However, healing the mind-body split is a prerequisite for healing the greater split.

That’s why it’s extremely important that we do not regard Zazen as being concerned primarily with consciousness. It isn’t a mental phenomena. It isn’t something that we do with our mind. It isn’t psychology or personal development. 

It is something that we do with our whole being. We give everything we’ve got.

In most schools of Buddhism, meditation training is progressive. The Indians express this as first practicing Samatha,  unscattering and calming the mind, and then Vipassana, insight. You would be expected to learn and master various practices to calm the mind, bring focus and do away with dispersion and distraction. Once you had mastered that you would go on to various insight practices.

Zazen isn’t like that. We have just the one practice. But this being so makes us particularly susceptible to getting stuck in a partial or unbalanced position. 

It is possible to practice zazen in a very concrete way – just sitting there relaxed, with thoughts and feelings just coming and going; tranquil and settled within the familiar constructed world. But that isn’t Zazen, it’s Western Mindfulness, because sitting in that way retains the primary dualism of self and world.

Another difficulty is that we can misunderstand what kind of practitioner our teacher’s instructions are directed towards. If we are quite settled and are given further Samatha type instructions to settle ourselves such as the characteristic instruction of bringing our attention back to our breath or our posture, those instructions are otiose. 

On the other hand if we are quite distracted, instructions to do with insight are likely to be completely opaque to us, or be perceived simply as poetic ornamentation.

Traditionally taught meditation is like somebody going into the house of meditation and requiring to first settle in the room of calming the mind. Then the door is unlocked and the practitioner can go into the next room. Zazen isn’t – for better and worse – like that. We can freely roam from the outset, but in consequence, our practice may remain superficial and our expression cliched.

In the one sitting we are, as it were, moving between all the rooms of this vast world. We need to understand that.

If we see that the primary split is between self and world, we can avoid thinking of calming as a personal, remedial quality. We can avoid thinking of insight in terms of me acquiring insight or me becoming wise, insightful, compassionate or enlightened.

So we can then see that insight is primarily an insight into emptiness, that is, an insight into non-separation, non-duality. It isn’t a personal insight, because that would just be reiterating duality in a different key.

Taking all this into account, we can start to comprehend the bizarre and fantastical language and imagery in the Mahayana sutras. Specifically, we can start to understand the idea that the world itself is a liberative force, that the world itself and the beings of that world are not standing in opposition to us, but are bodhisattvas. All the things of the world, all the people of the world, in this perspective, are our teachers, are bodhisattvas.

If we think the purpose of sitting is for me to accumulate merit and then to go out and save all beings, I’m not a spiritual warrior, I’m a buffoon. To change our perspective into seeing the liberative capacity of everything, and to receive that in gratitude enables us, in response, to meet all beings from that position of gratitude and love.

 Which changes everything.

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339. The Five Eyes of Practice

In Zazen we practice with our eyes open, but we do not see in the usual way.

The Diamond Sutra says there are five eyes, five ways of seeing.

The first is the physical eye. You can understand that is the eye of our karma. We see a world which has been told to us by our parents, by our society, and by earlier versions of ourselves.

The second eye is the heavenly eye. This is seeing the world conceptually. When I look up at the sky for example, I see it within the context of the world and the universe that’s been taught to me. I can see the world conceptually in many ways: through physics, through economics, through history; any number of ways. 

The third eye is the prajna eye. This the ‘wisdom’ eye that sees the emptiness and the non-separation of all things.

The fourth is the dharma eye which, while seeing the emptiness of all things, uses compassion and skillful means to alleviate suffering—the eye of the Bodhisattva. 

The fifth eye is the Buddha eye. 

When we read about these five eyes, we think that they belong to five different kinds of beings. Or to the one being, in progressive stages of development.

I think we can equally look upon these ‘eyes’ as facets of practice. The Buddha eye is this non-dual awareness, this non-separation which contains the other four. 

Not just those other four eyes of course, but the countless eyes of Avalokiteshvara.  

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338. Seeing Bodhisattvas

When we finish Zazen, after we chant the Heart Sutra, we chant the four Bodhisattva vows.

The first is, “all living beings, I vow to save them”.

From this we might believe that a Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with doing, with saving all beings from suffering. Indeed, in Tibetan, the word for Bodhisattva literally means something like Enlightenment Hero. 

Hidden underneath that idea of compassionate doing is a more subtle idea concerned with seeing

In the normal way of things a person looks at another person and asks, “What is the value of that person to me?” The ordinary  person looks at an object and says, “What use is that object to me?”

In contrast,  the Bodhisattva will look at a person and say, “What is the value of that person?” The Bodhisattva will look at an object and say “What is the dignity and beauty of that object?”

In the literature Bodhisattvas are often occupying a heroic role. In the Vimalakirti Sutra for instance, at the start, in the scene setting, the Buddha is said to be preaching in the presence of 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas, all of  whom are recognized by the monks. 

These Bodhisattvas have heroic names. But if you look at the names closely,  they are names you would associate with the activity of practice. This is a way of seeing differently. Seeing in terms, not of personal utility, but in terms of a reciprocal relationship. Meaning-giving and love fill the world with Bodhisattvas. 

It isn’t that this person is a Bodhisattva who is going out to save all these other people. The change is primarily a change in how we see and hence, how we act. Dōgen for instance, humorously talks about the Broken Ladle Bodhisattva, and things like that. Everything is our teacher.

The Bodhisattva isn’t a being who sees themselves as a Bodhisattva. Rather, they are someone who sees other beings as bodhisattvas.

You yourself should ask whether you can see this or not. You yourself  are full of  Bodhisattvas: Enduring Through Doubt Bodhisattva, Loving Despite Everything Bodhisattva. And 32,000 others. And likewise the world.

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337. The Whirlpool

Once, the Group had a retreat on the Scottish island of Luing. To get to the island you need to cross a passage of water affected by the nearby Corryvreckan whirlpool; the third most powerful whirlpool in the world. The boat can’t go directly across. It needs to go sideways. The effect of the whirlpool is to pull the boat back so it can cross over to the other side.

Sometimes, when we’re sitting alongside familiar distraction, random thoughts and such like, we have a persistent and unpleasant emotional state. Very often it’s anxiety. But it could be boredom, or rage, or fear, or bitterness.

At those times, it’s as if we’re back near the whirlpool. This time we’re alone in our little boat. By making great effort we can stay an apparent safe distance from the whirlpool, but we can never entirely escape it. We’re expending great effort to keep us in the same position. These disagreeable emotions are like that. We feel we require to keep these emotions at a distance, yet what we need to understand is that it’s that which keeps us stuck.

 What can we do?

From the perspective of this little boat of the self, we can’t do anything. 

But that’s not where our Zazen is.

From the perspective of the body of water, we can experience this whirlpool, not as something to keep our distance from, but as surging and constellating energy. From the position of the fish, we can see the whirlpool in a vision of wonder and astonishment. From the perspective of great dragons, we can see the whirlpool as a plaything.

This is the treasure house.