403. The whole bodymind

In trying to understand the writings of Dogen and of the Chinese Zen Masters, an often difficult task, it’s useful to bear in mind what they’re trying to do, and the dilemma they’re attempting to resolve. 

They’re aiming to express nonduality yet they’re obliged to do that in language, which is intrinsically dualistic. They’re trying to express a wholeness which is realistic: not a wholeness dependent upon a special or disordered state of consciousness and not just  conceptual either. 

One of the ways that they accomplish this is that they appear to use the same word or the same phrase in two apparently dramatically different ways. For example, Dogen famously [in the Genjokoan] uses the word self [ jiko’] to mean both the “the ego” and also the “body of all being”.  

He does something similar with the expression ”body and mind”. When he describes zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’ he’s plainly talking about this person’s body and mind— the ongoing practice of dropping off that sense of separation.

Then on other occasions, when he talks about seeing things using the whole body and mind he’s not talking about this body and mind, he’s talking about the body and mind of all being, expressed through this body and mind. 

He’s able to do this because the whole of Chinese Zen rests upon the Flower Garland Sutra teachings, which is essentially that each thing in its uniqueness, in its differentiation, is all things. This person is not the same as that person, and precisely because of that, both this person and that person are all being. In this perspective, the two distinct meanings aren’t contradictory, but indicate how things really are.


401. The other side is dark

In the Genjokoan [the Tanahashi translation], Master Dogen says,

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging the body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately unlike things and their reflections in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection In the water. When one side is illuminated the other is dark.

The Nishijima version of that same passage reads

When we use the whole body and mind to look at forms and when we use the whole body and mind to listen to sounds, even though we are sensing them directly, it is not like a mirror’s reflection of an image and not like water and the moon. While we are experiencing one side we are blind to the other side.

What you realise looking at these passages is what a nightmare job a translator has, particularly with a Japanese text like this which is fundamentally more dynamic than English and which, at the time, also didn’t have any punctuation.  

There’s three parts to this passage, the first part [again from Tanahashi],

When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body and mind, you intuit dharma intimately. 

What Dogen is talking about here is Enlightenment experiences which people have had, not in zazen but after zazen.

The reference to seeing forms is the famous story about Master Lingyun becoming enlightened upon seeing Peach blossoms. The reference to hearing sounds is an equally famous story where a monk was enlightened on hearing a pebble strike bamboo. 

The way that Tanahashi renders this next part, you intuit Dharma intimately, is a prime example of the translator’s dilemma: necessarily dualistic language is being used to try and convey a non-dualistic experience. The experience of hearing form with the whole body and mind is just very difficult to convey in words. It’s as if a monk sees these Peach blossoms not as an object in the world, not as him seeing these Peach blossoms, but rather that he sees them in their complete aliveness which is also the aliveness of the whole universe of which he’s an alive part.

It’s very dynamic. It’s not subject and object, it’s not dualistic, but it’s not undifferentiated either. It’s not that the particularities of that experience disappear, but rather that they’re experienced differently.

This is a very common theme in the enlightenment stories. People don’t have their Enlightenment experience when they’re doing zazen.They have their Enlightenment experiences when they’re fully immersed in zazen, when they’re soaked through with zazen, and when they come out of the Dojo and back into the world, the world floods them—that’s the enlightenment experience. Implicitly Dogen is saying that that’s the attitude that we should also have when we’re practising zazen. 

The second part of this passage is the contrast. He says in contrast that to fully engage body and mind is unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and Its reflection in the water.  These are two very well-known images in Buddhism;  the idea that meditation is about calming the mind. If there’s a reflection in a clear bright mirror [ie clear of the dust of thought and emotion], that reflection shows itself exactly. And likewise, if the water of the mind is still, the Moon is reflected undistortedly. 

That’s a very standard idea of what meditation is, but Dogen’s saying that’s not zazen.  It’s not zazen for the reason stated in the last part which says when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.

With the lack of punctuation the translators just chop this up into sentences in a way that makes sense to them but which isn’t unchallengeable.

It’s not clear if this reference to one part being illuminated and the other part being dark is referring to the first part, the fully engaged Body Mind, or the second. 

A lot of people think that it’s to the first, but the [ perhaps too] obvious interpretation is to say that it’s the second. The reason is that it just makes immediate sense. I’m facing the mirror of this computer screen. My face is illuminated and the back of my head is dark. The Moon is reflected in the water. The side of the moon that we see is illuminated and the other side is dark.

But the critical question is this: what does it mean to say that it’s dark?

If it refers to the second part, what I think that means is that the duality which is implicit in the second part isn’t immediately obvious. It’s ‘dark’. If meditation is about calming my mind that’s dualistic. If there is a  second [as it were] person who appears,  like a silent, imperturbable witness, that’s dualistic too. And Dogen is saying that’s not what our practice is about.

So I think it does refer to the second part. But it could also refer to the first.

But if you apply it to the first part, what you tend to get is an idea that when you fully experience something with  the whole body and mind, what is illuminated is the dharmadhatu and what is dark is particularity. It vanishes.

And that’s a very unfortunate interpretation, because it assumes that seeing things with the whole body and mind is a mystical experience. But it’s not a mystical experience, it’s a real experience. It’s the way that we actually are when we’re sitting. So people trying to find that mystical experience miss their lives and miss the miracle of zazen.

Yet there’s another way to understand ‘dark’. Just as in darkness particular things cannot be seen and so, in a sense, everything is whole, when we fully experience with our whole body and mind, it is not that particularity vanishes, that it’s literally ‘dark’, but it’s no longer experienced as separate.


397. The flesh of the world

Of all the ideas in East Asian Buddhism, the hardest for us to take seriously is that the whole of reality is the Buddha’s true Dharma body. Or, in Dogen’s reading, all of reality is the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

But to take an idea seriously is not to take it literally.

What we’re dealing with here isn’t a concept, it’s a way of reconfiguring ourselves with the rest of creation, seen and felt as an alive whole. It’s hard for us, as it’s a right brain perspective in a left brain world.

This idea of all of reality being like a living body, whilst located within Chinese and Japanese culture, keeps recurring unexpectedly. For example, the modern French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty talked about “the flesh of the world”, by which he meant the entanglement we have with all creation.

Which is a very helpful way of looking at things, because it helps us locate the place of suffering.

When we look at Buddhist ideas from the perspective of our individualistic culture, we want to locate suffering as something internal to the person, some unresolved psychological issues, an imbalance which can be rebalanced.

So the contrasting idea derivable from Merleau-Ponty of the “Flesh of the world” being cut by the mirror of the self and that being the location of suffering, is very helpful as an antidote to that unconscious individualism.

And it’s particularly helpful as you can take from it that all the peculiar language of Mahayana Buddhism is an attempt to stitch together and to heal that fundamental wound.

Hence we get odd language; stillness which isn’t still; silence, which isn’t the absence of noise, and space, which isn’t the absence of things.  Again not conceptual language, not something to construct a world, but rather something to revitalize and reimagine ourselves within a world—within a world which is alive and whole and active and differentiated. As a body is.

The language that we use is an expedient means to stitch this wound together.

Whether the wound is stitched together or not, there always remains a scar.

The voices which  speak from the position of the scar are our Ancestors.

397. The flesh of the world

379. The Primary Wound

When we start to sit, and probably for quite a long time afterwards, we think that Zazen is about changing our state: making us wiser, more compassionate, happier.

But after a while, we understand that Zazen is not about changing our state, although it does. It’s about addressing the Primary Wound of separation.

We don’t heal that wound by ornately decorating one side of it. 

If  we imagine that we become something great, like a warrior or a mountain, our practice is immature.

When we are sitting in the balanced position we’re weightless, like a little bird.

Not absent from the world but filled with it. Entirely in it.

The primary task of that little bird is not to ponder the motivations of herons or crows.

It isn’t to ask if the world’s entirely made of branches or not.

It is to sing Everything! Everything!


378. Not Unsmearing

In the teachings, a phrase recurs, something like “to see things as they really are”. 

When we hear it, our temptation is to think of something akin to looking out through a smeared window—the smearing of our karmic conditioning.

And somehow, through practice, we will clear the window, so we can look through it undistorted, and see the tree as it is, the mountains as they are.

But this is just playing a familiar duality in a slightly different key.

A way out is  to consider the other senses.

We wouldn’t say “to hear things as they really are”; “to smell things as they really are”; or “to taste things as they really are”.  We wouldn’t say it because it’s obvious that there is an interweaving. There isn’t the false objectivity inherent in the unexamined act of seeing.

With taste, there is a ‘something’ to be tasted. There’s my capacity to taste and there’s my subjective experience of taste. We can see, obscurely perhaps, that this all forms a wholeness.

And applying that back to “seeing things as they are”, we need to reject the idea that there are specific things ‘out there’, just waiting for our eyes to fall upon them.  Likewise we need to reject the opposite idea that, somehow, everything is just a process in my brain. 

And if we do, the whole world is re-enchanted.   

Seeing the tree through a million, billion smeared windows. And that is one aspect of the full expression and aliveness, the full dynamic functioning of the tree. And of all things, all windows.


374. Compassion

Mahayana  Buddhism,  in all its fantastical  detail  and complexity, is an attempt  to answer  two questions.   

The first: “Isn’t the wish  to be free from  desire  a sort of desire?” 

The second: “If we accept  the radical  interdependence of all being,  isn’t the wish  to be liberated  from that  interdependence a kind of  ignorance?” 

In the  attempt to  answer these questions  we can see the central  place  of compassion. 

But we need to understand what compassion  means.  

Primarily, we need to understand that  compassion is not  a personal  quality.  It’s not something which  you  cultivate  or accumulate.   It’s not  kindness  or pity  or  generosity.

It’s feeling  with, the self, as it were, is unfolded and recorded into this  feeling  with. 

It’s from  that starting point  that we can understand some of the more  fantastical,   or apparently fantastical  aspects of Mahayana. 

We can start to understand  both how practitioners  can be viewed as  bodhisattvas and how the world as a whole and the beings in that world can likewise  be seen  as bodhisattvas—as having a liberative  capacity. Because compassion is a universal quality that transiently locates itself within particular beings, like the air in our lungs, then it is continually being expressed everywhere.


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.  


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.


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.


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.