Categories
Kusen

23. Time

My teacher, Nancy Amphoux, asked her teacher how she should practice zazen.

He said “You should practice zazen eternally”. Nancy said that at first she took this to mean that she should practice for the rest of her life.

Eternity means timeless, throwing away linear time. So, Now ceases to be a point and instead becomes vast space, containing everything. We could call it the eternal present. It is not that it is undifferentiated, rather that everything is vivid and whole. Things do not cease to exist, but they do not exist in the usual way, and so we call it Nothing, No-thing.

Time is the cornerstone of the house of delusion. If the stone is removed, the house must fall.

Categories
Kusen

22. Zazen Mountain

Zen is sometimes described as “the mountain still state”, and we are often admonished to sit like a mountain. Monasteries were frequently named after mountains; Teachers too.

At the most obvious level, the mountain can be seen as representative of equanimity, imperturbability. Whatever storm is raging, the mountain is undisturbed.

We can also see the mountain as the expression of something eternal. So, when we enter the mountain still state, we enter the same state as the ancestors and patriarchs.

But fundamentally, the mountain is the ground made visible, unavoidable. Whilst the ground beneath the feet of our thoughts is overlooked, the mountain is the ground thrown upwards. And the ground is being.

Categories
Kusen

21. This Frozen Mass

Menzan talked about “the frozen blockage of thought and emotion”; how it obstructs our practice and our life.

To understand what he meant, we need to distinguish between emotion and feeling. Feeling is our lived, momentary, felt response from moment to moment, fluid. Emotion is frozen feeling.

Something arises in the body. We then say “I am anxious”, then we speculate why we might be anxious, and the whole process of rumination starts. The thought and the emotion aren’t separate.

And we may imagine that this frozen mass obstructs our mind, but in fact it obstructs our heart. It is there like a blockage in the throat, preventing the heart emerging into the world.

If we do not understand this, our Zen will be too cognitive, it will lack feeling: Zen is not our liberation from feeling, but our liberation into it.

Categories
Kusen

20. Nonduality

I

Nonduality is not a mystical state, but a real one. It is abundantly available to us. We fall backwards into it each time the constructed self temporarily falls away. Our practice is a wobbling between the two poles of Self and nondual.

And we should not imagine an unattainable, undifferentiated state. Things continue to exist, but not in the old way. For example, a common metaphor for nonduality in the literature is the mirror. One looks at the mirror and sees apparently separate things, when really they are all part of the whole. But it is not a trick. Differentiation is there also. Differentiation is the face of the world.

Nonduality allows each thing its full expression.

II

Nonduality is not mystical, but real. It is not undifferentiated. On the contrary, each thing is fully expressed. Each thing fully exerts itself.

Similarly, our practice is not the pursuit of nonduality, but its expression. And each aspect of our practice is an expression of a different aspect of nonduality. So when we bow, we are not bowing to someone or something, because that would be separation. When we bow, we are affirming feelings which are nondual: gratitude, compassion, dignity, faith.

We bow down our head, and the head of the World is lifted up.

III

Zazen is not the pursuit of nonduality, but its expression. Because nonduality is the complete expression of each thing, each thing is everything. When we say that your zazen penetrates the entire Universe, don’t create a picture of planets and stars, because the Universe which is meant is not this constructed world, but your real experience.

When the constructed world falls away, there is just being. When we fall backwards from this constructed world, we fall into being.

Categories
Kusen

19. Enlightenment Demons

The desire for enlightenment is the root of delusion. It is a project of the heroic ego, and the ego is part of that frozen mass of thought and feeling we call delusion. Zazen is a melting of that mass.

It is no use calling on our demons to leave us. Even if they wanted to, they can’t. But we can leave them.

Categories
Kusen

18. Compassion

The Heart Sutra begins:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion, practicing the highest wisdom, realises the five skandas are empty, and thereby relieves all suffering.

In other words: 

The Bodhisattva of Compassion, practicing zazen, makes real the emptiness of all experience, and so relieves all suffering

The passage is a mythical way of talking about practice. When we practice, we are practicing not from the position of self, but from the position of Buddha, Kanzeon. We are not cultivating compassionate awareness, we are compassionate awareness. Practice is the palace of Enlightenment, not the door.

Emptiness is the release of all things into their infinite, ungraspable nature.

Categories
Kusen

17. The First Vow

Kusen collaboration artwork by Margaret Kerr

The final chant after sitting is a dedication that any merit we gain from chanting the Heart Sutra is not retained by us, but is for the benefit of all beings. But really, the dedication is wider than that; it embraces our sitting too.

Our sitting is itself a devotional act. The doors of the heart are thrown wide open. And so, zazen is not the cultivation of compassion, it is its expression.

In this context, we can understand the first vow: “All living beings, I vow to save them”. Imagine the opposite: “I vow to save myself”. It’s not possible. You can’t save yourself, you can only postpone the catastrophe.

We are saved by the vow. It shelters us and all beings. All beings are saved.

Categories
Kusen

16. Stillness

Dogen said [in Gyoji]:

Master Bodhidharma sat in stillness facing the wall, but he was not learning Zen concentration.

and also [in Fukanzazengi]:

Zazen is simply the peaceful and joyful Gate of Dharma.

Stillness is suchness. We fall backwards into it from the discriminating mind. It is always present. The trees are still. The wind is still. It is suchness, not the absence of movement.

At great cost, the ego keeps us suspended several inches above the ground. Zazen is not learning concentration. It is learning to fall.

Categories
Kusen

15. In Memoriam: Nancy Amphoux

When I started practice, I was very interested in koans. I asked Nancy about them. She said, brusquely “Don’t concern yourself with koans. Your life is the koan”. At the time, I can’t say I found this an entirely satisfactory answer.

In Rinzai, koans are used as a teaching device to prod the student towards a different experience of reality. “Koan” originally meant something like an official pronouncement by the Emperor, something universal and unchallengeable.

Of the two characters which make up ‘koan’. ‘ko’ means universal and ‘an’ means wood or desk; so, something written down which has universal application.

Dogen uses a different character for ‘an’, which means something like ‘pushing with the hand’ [to heal]; so for him, Koan is both the universal and the personal, emptiness and form, and this is how he sees zazen too. So Nancy was right.

She wasn’t frightened of death, but she was frightened of her heart stopping beating. In her last moments she chanted the Heart Sutra over and over, fainter and fainter.

Her heart has never stopped beating.

Categories
Kusen

14. The Hidden River

Nancy said that when we practice, it is as if we become aware of a huge underground river running through our lives.

The desert does not bloom. The mirrors do not shatter.

Yet something both very deep and very simple manifests itself.