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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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329. Dropping off ‘Body’

Perhaps Dōgen’s most famous formulation of Zazen is that it’s the continuous dropping off of body and mind. It seems to be an expression unique to him, although he claimed it was derived from his teacher, Nyojō. 

There are two parts to it: dropping off body and dropping off mind. 

Dropping off mind is reasonably easy for us to understand, but what is the dropping off of the body? Much less attention is paid to that, to what it might mean. 

One meaning is the dropping off of a habitual splitness that we experience with our body, the persistent and continual picturing of our body from a vaguely external perspective. This is often dominant over what we’re somatically feeling and experiencing. We’re frequently more aware of what we look like than how we feel. 

Dropping off the body requires, as a prerequisite, the dropping off of this visualization of the body. When we do that, the sense of the body as an object amongst other objects falls away. And although we can still maintain the primary self/world dualism even when we are somatically embodied, the boundaries are much more porous than when we are trapped in the object world, and so, particularly in Zazen, there is much more chance that we experience moments when this separation drops off.

Just as the dropping off of the body has been given inadequate attention, very often the instructions given about our body and Zazen are likewise deficient and brief.

So, I would like to make some suggestions about practice. 

If you ask someone to point to their body, they will generally point to their torso. They won’t point to their head. Yet, if we think about it for a moment, it’s obvious that our body is all of us. So it’s apparent that there’s an unconscious split that’s going on, whereby our head is identified with our self and with our mind. Our bodies are the subservient entity. That’s implicit in our everyday language. So if I asked you to paint my portrait, I would be rather surprised if you painted only my torso or if you painted my foot. I’d expect you to primarily paint my head. 

When we are asked to give attention to our body, what we will often do is try to focus our breath in our lower belly or be aware of our moving rib cage, something like that.

Because of this unconscious dualism, we ignore what is easiest for us to do, which is to bring our attention to the various aspects in our head: to the slight tension our forehead or eyes perhaps; the tightness in our jaw; the sensation of air coming in the nostrils; the sensation of the tongue within the mouth, the textured lips, and so on. All of these sensations are very accessible to us, much more so than feelings in other parts of our body.  

So, giving attention to that is helpful in a number of respects. Apart from being more accessible, it  helps to break the identification which we unconsciously make of our head with our mind—that’s one thing. Also, in a slightly different way, again because of that unconscious identification, it – as it were – embodies the mind. Once the mind is embodied in that way, that embodiment can somatically  flow down from the head to the rest of the body. Although the language is tricky, and certainly my language here doesn’t quite capture it, if you practice this, you will hopefully get a sense of it.

Another suggestion for enlivening the body is that you pay attention to a sensation which is neutral.  

Very often when people practice they’re very aware – too aware –  of their cascade of thoughts and emotions. They only become aware of their body when they experience pain or discomfort. And when they do, there’s often an anxious contraction of awareness around that pain or discomfort. A torrent of anxious thoughts occur which reinforces attention on that pain or discomfort. So it’s a very good idea to just be aware of neutral sensations in the body and develop a kind of muscle of awareness.  Being able to hold within awareness a particular body sensation and hold it within a wider awareness of the rest of the body and the rest of your environment. If you can develop that habit then you can gradually re-frame body sensation not as something physical and specifically located but energetic, changeable, and connected to everything else—changeable, impermanent, interdependent.

A third suggestion is that you make a distinction between your postural muscles and your voluntary muscles. 

Your postural muscles are what hold you up. Your voluntary muscles are those muscles which enable you to do things, reaching for a cup, for instance. If your posture is right, then you won’t be using your voluntary muscles when you’re in Zazen. You’ll simply be using your postural muscles. But if your posture isn’t right then you will be using your voluntary muscles. If, for instance, your pelvis isn’t in the right position your head’s probably going to be in the wrong position too, and you’re going to keep voluntarily moving your head or your torso using your voluntary muscles. You’ll stick your chest out, or try to lengthen the back of your neck.

One of the reasons why the distinction is important is, I think, because of the way the proprioceptive system works. Using your voluntary muscles often comes with a kind of visual sense. Your mind has a kind of picture of what your body is doing, which takes you back to the sense of the body as an object.

The postural muscles, in my experience, don’t come with that visual complement. And so, relying on the postural muscles makes it much easier to drop off the body because the ‘body as object’ isn’t unintentionally  reintroduced.

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313. The Snake of Emptiness

The first Zen book I ever bought was D T Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No Mind. (I bought it for the title.) It’s an unfortunate title because there isn’t actually a Zen doctrine of no mind. The position which Zen, and buddhism in general takes, is that the mind or the self, as all things, is neither existent or non-existent, but empty. 

Nagarjuna described trying to understand emptiness as, ‘like trying to pick up a poisonous snake’ and it’s interesting to speculate why he chose that particular analogy rather than something else; for instance, trying to pick up a partially burning piece of wood.

He possibly chose the snake analogy because his name, or the first part of it, ‘Naga’ refers to the mythical snake beings who were the custodians of the prajnaparamita sutras that the King of the Nagas allegedly gave to Nagarjuna. The prajnaparamita sutras focus on emptiness, compassion and expedient means. Nagarjuna picked up the sutras, not the King.

So how do you pick up a snake? Well obviously you don’t pick it up from the head. But neither do you pick it up from the tail, as it can still bite you. You’re supposed to pick it up from its centre,  without hesitation. 

You grasp the snake without reaching for it through the blur of the self and you grasp it in its centre.

And why would you pick up a poisonous snake? You don’t pick it up and then carry it about with you for the rest of your life. You pick it up in order to place it where it belongs, so you can forget about it and just live your life. 

Likewise, with practice, we cannot grasp it with the head. We cannot grasp practice with the imagined opposite of the head – the objective world. We can only grasp practice through our center; our heart. Grasp and then ungrasp. 

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297. Beginningless and Endless

Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment. 

One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.

It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?” 

Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.

Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.

In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?

Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two. 

If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.

Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.

If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?

Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body  is lying there -passive and dough like –  as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.

But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.

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196. Everything matters

When we chant form is emptiness, we don’t mean that things are illusory. We mean that everything is both particular and universal, like the waves and the ocean. So everything matters.

When we touch one person, we are touching that person, not someone else. But, at the same time, we are touching all beings. Likewise, when we are touched by one person, we are touched by all beings. EveryThing matters.

So, when the birds of our thinking arise, whether their plumage is radiant or dowdy or as black as pitch, we should not cage them in our love or hate but

give them the sky

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149.When one side is illuminated

When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.

There is a common idea that delusion is multifaceted, and nonduality is one. What if we are precisely mistaken?

Dogen said that being and time are one. He didn’t say that when you see being, you see time too. That is the habitual perspective, imagining that our life takes place in time: the smear between here and elsewhere, here and nowhere.

He meant that when you see being, you just see being. Time disappears. One side is illuminated, the other is dark. When you see time, ‘being’ is just the noise in the huge mirror of this moment.

And likewise with, for example, self and world, expression and exertion, all tangled together to fit within a person.

When one side is illuminated, the others are dark.

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72. Switching

A striking paradox in Mahāyāna is that whilst it is avowedly non-dualistic, it seems full of dualisms.

Saying that Saṃsāra is Nirvana appears to oblige one to explain why they seem different. So for Nāgārjuna there is the absolute and the relative, for Baso there is the phenomenal world and the truth underlying it, and for almost everyone there is the contrast of delusion and enlightenment.

Dogen is different. For him, reality can be approached by switching between perspectives, specifically between the perspective of one dharma dynamically functioning and the whole network of dependent origination functioning.

So Genjo ( manifestation) is the first, Todatsu ( liberation) is the second.

But they can switch.

Being is the first, Time is the second.

But they can switch.

The perspectives swap places.

The particular and the universal swop places.

Jumping in and out of each other.

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69. I Shin Den Shin

The transmission of the teaching is like a widening cascade of light. The brightness is indivisible.

The transmission from one real person to another is called ‘I shin den shin‘. ‘Shin’ means heart/ mind, so it can translate as ‘from my heart to your heart’

We might assume there are two hearts, but my heart is this heart; your heart is this heart. This heart is the heart of this-ness–Indivisible.

Because this is so, transmission is intimate, non-dual, feeling. Each thing is the heart of all things. Each time is this time.

Indivisible.

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65. The Jewel of Experience

1. Master Dogen said that we should not regard our body and mind as our personal possession. There isn’t an ‘I’ to possess. Self, mind and consciousness arise itching experience, not the other way round.

If this is so, we do not need to fret about purifying the mind. This erroneous aim inadvertently strengthens the mind/ world dualism, and all the suffering which flows from it

2. If everything occurs within the jewelled net of Indra ( dependent origination), how can it make any sense to talk of relative and absolute truth? Isn’t it better to describe delusion not as falseness – because nothing is false – but as clinging to or rejecting faces of the jewel? Hence, compassionate activity is liberating the myriad dharmas from my anger, greed and ignorance, and the dream of personal liberation is simply a pernicious and disguised example of delusion.

3. Each morning we wake to the dream of the self. But even so, we are born this day. We are born this day

4. Master Dogen said that we must arouse bodhi mind.

Our primary error as practitioners is to confuse this with our personal mind.

We then imagine that we must make our minds quieter, cleanse from it what we don’t want to be there.

Dogen said that bodhi mind is the mind that sees the impermanence of all things. All things. Not just rocks and trees, but all things, including your personal mind. And for him, as for Nagarjuna, impermanence is a synonym for dependent origination. The pulse of your mind and the pulse of the world is the same pulse.

If we can understand this, then we can understand how bodhi mind, the mind of practice, is the mind which is at one with all things.

If we can understand this, there is nowhere for dualism to cling

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53. The Non-Dual Dharma

Zen teachers frequently talk about ‘the non dual dharma’, and we are all familiar with the standard dualities: mind/body, self/world, and so on.

Less attention is given to a very pervasive dualism: the container and the contained. So, our life occurs in time, the leaves fall from the tree in autumn, experience occurs in consciousness, and so forth.

For master Dogen, our lives do not exist in time, but in our lives, time exists. The container/contained duality is replaced by a sense of each thing being the full dynamic functioning of everything, The Whole Universe pivoting on each thing.