294. Unfolding

Before you sit zazen your life exists in time. You get up, you put yourself in order, you come to sit, and you understand that your sitting will be of a particular duration. And when that sitting finishes, then you can resume the form of your life.

So when you’re like that, the ‘I’ that is you is folded up sufficiently small to fit within the space of the self. However, when you practice zazen that ‘I’ unfolds. And it unfolds to include the whole world.

From the perspective of the self you might understand that you are sitting in your room, I’m sitting in mine, and through some act of imaginative empathy we may be able to picture being in the one vast room. But what we realize when the ‘I’ is unfolded within the practice of zazen, is that we are all within this one room of the existence moment of the present, along with all beings. And even though that room is sufficiently vast to include all beings within this present moment, it’s not sealed off.

And so it’s as if, as you’re sitting, the whole entirety of existence – all times – is, as it were, dripping down, dropping on your head, and gradually washing away the dust of the self.

It’s as if you find yourself at this moment on top of a mountain peak. You look out from the peak to see an infinite number of other peaks, some near, some far, some masked in clouds; and it’s as if you see, on the top of each of these peaks, a person. Sometimes a very young person, sometimes an old person, sometimes a person full of joy, sometimes a person suffering, sometimes a person present, sometimes a person absent.

Are all these persons you, or not? It’s hard to say.


272. Thinking Not- Thinking

A monk asked Master Yaoshan, ‘what are you thinking when sitting in zazen?’ The Master replied, ‘I’m thinking not-thinking.’ The monk, puzzled asked, ‘how do you think, not-thinking?’ And the Master replied, ‘Hishiryo.’

So, this formulation appears in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, and various other texts. The exchange in Japanese is a bit terse, what – thinking – zazen – Thinking not thinking – how think not thinking – then his answer Hishiryo.

Shiryo means thinking and fu as in fushiryo is the direct negative – not thinking. The master’s final answer Hishiryo – What does that mean?

The usual rendering of Hishiryo is -beyond thinking- so Tanahashi renders it in that way. Nishijima renders it as -non thinking- and the contemporary Canadian teacher Anzan Hoshin renders it as – before thinking –

Now I would hope the difficulties with rendering Hishiryo as  – beyond thinking are clear, namely we imagine there is some state we have to reach which is beyond thinking; and that thinking is an obstruction. So, our thinking is, as it were, like a drunk standing in front of us, constantly impeding our way forward.

Non thinking as a translation, perhaps gets around that, but it depends on us understanding a category in Chinese thinking which is to do with spontaneous action. So the idea is we are not intentionally, firing an arrow, or painting or whatever, it’s a spontaneous action. But that is quite difficult for us to understand.

And Hoshin’s rendering of it as – before thinking -has a similar risk but in, as it were the opposite direction.; we think we need to cut of thought before it actually arises.  However, if you actually read what Houshin has to say about all this, what he is clear about is that his translation of – before thinking – doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any thinking but rather that there is a spaciousness to it.

So, as it were, I’m halfway along a tunnel and there’s a light, the light of thinking and I’m suddenly aware of the whole length of the tunnel, before this light. So, I’m not trying to switch the light off. I’m simply trying to actualize the whole space of the tunnel.

Similarly – beyond thinking – doesn’t mean to eradicate thought, its again simply introducing this great spaciousness, with in which thought and everything else occurs. We can term that spaciousness, awareness or original awareness, or something like that. And more than that, it’s not that this spaciousness is not external to us, but rather in our actual experience we are, at least sometimes this lump of spaciousness. 

So sometimes a lump of flesh, sometimes a lump of life, sometimes a lump of energy and sometimes a lump of space. And, as it were this little lump of space, of flesh, or energy, is part of a greater body. So, we are not experiencing something symbolically, or as something as an idea but we are actually experiencing it.

So rather than me having an idea of my body, which I have, I think if I imagine zazen is returning my attention to my body and my breath, my focus is on my actual experience and that actual experience is Hishiryo.


269. Like clouds in the sky

A common instruction we are given in Zen is not to become involved with our thoughts, to let them come and go, like clouds in the sky.
However, many of us notice that when the mind calms down, what is then revealed is what appears to be an underlying and persistent emotional state which is disagreeable to us: which could be fear, anxiety, discontentedness, bitterness, or something else. How does the instruction help us then?

And sometimes also what is revealed is a meta emotional state: we are discontent about not being at peace.

The metaphor of clouds and sky was part of a larger metaphor used by the East Mountain school: just as the sun continues to exist whether it is obscured by clouds or not, so our underlying Buddha Nature is always present, even if it is temporarily obscured by thoughts, emotions and false views, and we should practice zazen with the faith that that is so. Possibly not coincidentally, Vairocana, the Universal Buddha, is associated with the sun.

But for our purposes, the clouds in the instruction don’t mean that thoughts are illusory. They are no more illusory than anything else. Neither should we take it as a signifier for interdependence: that doesn’t help us, if we retain the common viewpoint that meditation is primarily about something within our minds called consciousness.

I think we should take the instruction as pointing to spaciousness. Just as the sky is so vast that the presence or absence of clouds is of no consequence, likewise when we sit, the point isn’t to make the sky empty of clouds, the mind empty of thoughts, it is to actualise vast spaciousness.

But here’s the thing: that vast spaciousness isn’t actualised within our minds. That’s just another idea. It’s actualised within our zazen. Within the body (which includes the head, obviously), not the mind.

When I sit, there are two things going on, one negative, one positive. The negative is that I put to one side my sense of myself, the picturing body and mind of the self. “Just sit”, in the vernacular. But the positive is that I am aware of a joyful spaciousness in my body. For me, I’m first aware of it in my upper torso, then spreading upwards and downwards, inwards, to my breath, outwards, to all beings.

People tend not to talk about the second, but without it, zazen makes no sense: it’s just an exercise in mindfulness, a utilitarian attempt at unconditioning ourselves. Buddhism would not have continued to our time if it’s message was so limited and feeble.

I think the metaphor of the Universal Buddha is a mythical – not just mythical – way of talking about our actual experience in zazen. The whole vast structure of Buddhist thought is a creative, transforming dialogue between Practice and Descriptive Understanding, like a real person walking through time.


226. The frozen mass of thought and emotion

The experience of most practitioners, until they have sat for quite a long time, is that they have very little moment to moment awareness of the body, except when they experience discomfort. Their awareness is primarily on the frozen mass of thought and emotion.

But after a while, we can understand practice, not as the liberation of the mind from thoughts, but as the liberation of the whole body from the mind, the relocation of the mind as an incidental activity within the whole body. Then the thoughts don’t matter.


174. The body in zazen

Master Dogen asked “If the cart is stuck, do we beat the horse, or beat the cart?”

Almost all meditation teachers would say the horse, the mind. Surely that is the point of meditation? To empty and purify the mind.

But Dogen said that we should beat (give attention to) the cart, the body. How so?

Zazen is the way of liberation through the body. Not the body as thought. Not the body as object, but the body as it actually is. Because that body, completely alive, is already part of the body of the universe, completely alive.


152. The category of koans is never closed

The Case: There is a person, A, in complete darkness, in complete silence. This person has no memory, and no sense of the body. However, A is telepathic, but only with two other persons. The first person, B, has a shared language with A. The second person, C, is a mute, with no language. In the silence, when A is aware of B, A is aware of all the mental phenomena of B, expressed through a torrent of language. When A is aware of C, A experiences C’s whole being – how it is to be C – but without language.

The Inquiry:

Is A alive or dead? If alive, where is A?

If A experiences B and C at the same time, does one obstruct the other?

If one does not obstruct the other, how is each experienced? Is B within C, or vice versa, both, or neither?

In zazen, are we telepathic with ourselves?


151. The five hindrances

Nyojo said to Dogen “Zazen is dropping off body and mind”

Dogen asked, “What is dropping off body and mind?”

Nyojo said, “When you just sit, you are free from the five sense desires and the five hindrances

The five desires are the content of our experience: what, either in our mind or in our body, we see, feel, hear, taste or smell.

The five hindrances are our attitudes to that experience: the minds of attachment, aversion, torpor, agitation or doubt.

We are “free”, not because our experience is voided, but because, from moment to moment, there is the possibility of being completely intimate with our experience, with our whole body mind. “Desire” is a partial response. “Mind” is a partial response.

Once you discover that something is just a covering, whether it is there or not, are you not free of it?


150. The body in zazen

When we say ‘body’, there is often an unconscious dualism. The standard dualism is body/mind, but this is supported by ingrained habits within our language.

So, we often talk about ‘head and body’ ; the idea that our body is our torso and limbs. If someone touches our face, we think of it differently to someone touching our back. We think of our ‘head’ resting on our ‘body’, and so on.

This does several things, none of them good. By identifying part of the body as ‘the body’, we create a distance and we objectify. We reinforce a sense that ‘I’ am an indeterminate confection of head, brain and mind, and that the ‘I’ is separate from ‘the body’.

To counter this, and with partcular reference to the body in zazen, it is very helpful to give particular attention to the aliveness of our head and neck: our tongue, the roof of our mouth, the pulsing of our eyes and forehead, the musculature of our jaw and neck, and so on. Attention to this flows into attention to the whole body.

The Whole Body of vast expression. Within which is ‘the mind’.


120. Full Dynamic Functioning

In traditional Buddhist terminology, there are three aspects to meditation. The first is stilling the mind. The second is samadhi (balance/ concentration), and the third is vipassana (insight); they are often thought of as sequential.

In our practice, they’re not sequential; they arise together.

You can’t still the mind with the mind. You can only still the mind by locating it within the body. This body, the body of awareness. And this body has no boundaries. It is one piece. It is like space.

Yet even so, we need to have actual experience that when we sit, body, mind and all beings are this one piece samadhi. It’s not enough just to believe it. When we sit together, we actually experience this, and this felt experience can gradually seep out to all existence, like a hand moving through water, infinitely.

And this One Piece is Zenki, full dynamic functioning. It isn’t static in any way. It is vibrantly alive, and all its facets are free to express and experience themselves, through this sitting. And this is insight.


76. With Our Listening

A pernicious and invisible delusion for practitioners is that there is an inside and an outside to experience: We should cleanse inner experience by eradicating thoughts and noise, and our experience of the world will be transformed.

But of course, there isn’t an inner and an outer, there’s just this experience, within which there is inner and outer, self and world, mind and body, and all the other familiar created dualities.

Our task isn’t to change this experience, but to listen to it. Really listen. Listen with our ears. Listen with our eyes. Listen with our skin. Listen with our breath. Listen with our listening.