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310. The direction of practice

One of the most dispiriting things for people starting practice comes from the idea that practice is the gateway to tranquility and peacefulness. Yet when they start it’s as if there’s this crappy person inside their head talking repetitive, bloviating, interpretative nonsense. And always complaining about what’s going on, about not being enlightened, being bored; nonsense really.

As a preliminary, stabilising step it’s important that we get some distance from this crappy person. So we learn equanimity, non-reactivity, mindful awareness and so on. So, as it were, we’re establishing some space around this crappy person.

But the problem is that we’re still within the room of the self. And if we stay with this self centred perspective, we’re likely to see zazen in terms of equanimity or in terms of consciousness. But either way we’re not going to see zazen in terms of connectedness and joy.

So what we require to do is fall out of this room of the self and into the body. And from there we can experience joy, connection, non-duality and so on.

But when we say ‘body’ we don’t mean your picture of the body because then ‘body’ is just another object in your mind. We mean actual alive, vivid embodiment. This vividness can’t be contained within ourselves; it seeps out. So everything (perhaps starting near to us and gradually percolating outwards) loses its picturedness, its conceptuality and acquires vivid embodiment. 

And it’s in this context that we need to see the descriptive language of the Mahayana sutras. They are not describing something fantastical but the actual experience of zazen. But with these familiar constraints of mind and self and consciousness and separation cast off.

Our ways of describing Zazen are limitless and should be understood as being both partial and limitless. Because the point of a community of practitioners is that the expression of the dharma is never closed, never completed.

It’s as if your spine is a cascade of pearls. It’s as if your rib cage is like a weightless basket moving in emptiness. It’s as if your heart inside that basket is a great light, extending everywhere.

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309. Non-attachment, Nonseparation

Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion

Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty

Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.

When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.

Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.

When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.

We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.

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308. The Posture of Zazen

Most contemporary discourse on meditation talks about it in terms of consciousness: what’s going on in our mind; our thoughts; the intrusiveness and nature of those thoughts; all that sort of stuff. And behind that – but not very far behind – is the idea that meditation has a purpose, which is self development. That idea is wrong.

When asked why Buddhism, throughout its history, has insisted on meditation in the cross-legged position they usually say something like, “Well that was just the position that was comfortable for people in classical India.” Except, it would have been equally comfortable for people then to have meditated standing up, or leaning against a tree, or lying down, or sitting in their easy chair, or whatever.

We’ve no reason to think that the cross-legged position was universally comfortable for people. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have meditation instructions by Dogen, for example, which clearly make allowances for people who are incapable of sitting in the full lotus position.

It’s very illuminating to look at the full lotus position as a yoga posture. And if you’ve seen anyone do that, it’s plainly a dynamic posture. The practitioner requires to sit with a tilt on the pelvis, pushing the buttocks out. They’re clearly sitting on their sit bones and they have to get their knees on the ground. And once they manage to do all that, it’s a very dynamic posture: their base chakra (the perineum) is open and in contact with the ground. And there’s a stretch of the whole body between the base chakra and the crown chakra (the fontanelle, at the crown of the head). It feels as if there’s a push coming from the earth, uncompressing the spine, pushing the head upwards.

The only difference between the yoga posture and the customary meditation position is that meditators place a cushion under the pelvis, which makes the posture easier.

It’s also worth noting that in Tantric practices (like the microcosmic orbit in Chinese Tantra) again the cross-legged position is used. The purpose is different: to circulate energy up the back energy channel, then down the front channel. Although it may be of some significance that Bodhidharma, as well as being the founder of Chinese Zen is also (probably apocryphally) the founder of Chinese Tantra, as well as Kung Fu.

The marginalisation of the body in contemporary discourse about meditation is, I think, mistaken. And if that’s so, we’re obliged to look at meditation, not primarily through the lens of consciousness, but as a dynamic interplay between the alive whole body, the dynamic breath and wide and vivid awareness. And within all that, somewhere, is the mind – but it’s no longer of central importance.

And accordingly, whether the mind is busy or quiet, agitated or peaceful, is no longer the most important thing going on in our practice. Put the body in the correct position and it is – we are – naturally activated. The push which rises up, uncompressing our spine, is not something which we’re determining with our will. It’s not something which we’re creating with our voluntary muscles. It’s just something which, as it were, we’re a witness to. 

But not a bystander. 

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307. Dropping off body and mind

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way. 

Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.

So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.

So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.

If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else. 

We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.

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303. Pai-chang’s Three Levels of Zazen

Pai-chang, one of Master Mazu’s principal successors, said that there were three levels of zazen.

The first level, which he equated with Theravadan practice, is non-attachment. At this level, the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky is apposite. So we do not grasp or attach to our thoughts and feelings. And we allow them to come and go freely in this non-attachment.

And in terms of the metaphor, our mind and our awareness is like the broad sky. So this stage would correspond with emptiness. So: emptiness, non-attachment, non-grasping.

The second level, which Pai-chang calls the Trap of Bodhisattvas, is when we are no longer attached to non-attachment. So we, as it were, open our heart and are not separate or detached from all beings. This opens a compassionate space which we can equate with the Bodhisattva.

So in terms of the Lotus sutra, for example, the first stage corresponds with the vehicle of the Sravakas (the voice hearers) or the Pratyekabuddhas (the self-enlightening practitioners). And the second level corresponds with the Bodhisattva vehicle.

The “trap” of the second level is that there is still a self.

At his third level  that residual sense of self (compassionate self) is dropped off. And so there’s just simply what can be variously termed: ‘one piece Zen’; ‘suchness’; ‘the Buddha vehicle’ ( in Lotus sutra parlance); ‘one mind’ (to use Mazu’s term); and so on. So just simply this ‘is-ness’. Which includes these other vehicles, as nothing is left out.

And we might imagine that what we require to do as practitioners is to develop the first level as a foundation. And once we’ve done that then we move up the levels. And so we find our way to the third level and we stay there.

But it seems to me, whilst it’s true that we require to develop a foundation, that we experience all three levels freely within our actual sitting.

So it’s not like there are heightening rooms which we can progressively enter and remain in. Rather, it is like spaces within this vast single hall of practice where all beings can stand.

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302. Practice Realisation

One of the three meanings of satori is ‘practice realisation’. Practice realisation is an abbreviation of a longer phrase which is something like, “I hear the teachings of the Buddha (on matters like interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suffering and so on). I accept those teachings. Accordingly I practise zazen. And through practising zazen I have the realisation that those teachings are true.”

‘Realisation’ here has two meanings. Firstly that from my perspective, practice leads me to accept at a more fundamental level the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Second, ‘realisation’ also means objectively that my practice actualises – makes real –  those teachings.

And that brings into view a wider issue: the relationship between the teachings and Zazen, which can be problematic for some Zen practitioners, who have an unfortunate tendency to be proudly ignorant  through misunderstanding Bodhidharma’s poem that Zen is “A special transmission outside the scriptures, No reliance on words or letters”.

The relationship between the teachings and practice is a symbiotic spiral. It’s not simply that I do zazen, realise that the teachings are true and then put the teachings away and never attend to them again. No. The teachings enable the landscape of zazen to be opened out, illuminated. And vice versa. My experience of zazen enables me to engage with the teachings in a deeper and more personal way.

We can see the teachings throughout buddhist history not as a progression where deficiencies are identified then dealt with by a subsequent development. But rather that all the teachings map on, in some sense, to our experience in zazen. Not like a shadow, but like a partner.

So for instance, we have the original teachings which focus very much on allowing our experience to come and go freely, not getting attached to thoughts and so on. We have the later teachings on emptiness. And then we have teachings, particularly the Chinese tradition from the Tang Dynasty onward, which focus on suchness.

It’s not that these different teachings represent some kind of progression toward perfection,  but rather they’re locations in a gradually elaborated landscape where we can come and go freely, like a little bird. The landscape elaborates itself because of love.

If our life is very stormy then we may want to shelter in the cave of the original teachings, where we’re just simply very attentive to our inchoate experience coming and going freely, like a storm blowing somewhere else.

And other times we might want to be freely flying in this vast space of empty awareness.

And other times we might be within this one-piece compassionate sitting where the heart is everywhere.

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299. The Eyes of Practice

When we see the world through the eyes of the self, we grasp things with our certainty. So we say, “Oh that’s a wall”; “There’s the sky out there”; Time is passing”; “My zazen isn’t very good today.” And so on.

Sometimes it feels as if our experience has a slightly weird, apparitional quality about it. As if in a dream. Neither existence nor non-existence. Ungrounded, because seeing in this way – through the eyes of the self, through the eyes of certainty – the world exists within our mind. And, as it were, we exist within our mind too.

Seeing through the eyes of practice is entirely different. We do our best not to grasp our moment-to-moment experience with our certainty, yet sometimes we can’t help ourselves. And when we do, we just learn to release that grip of certainty. And the feeling tone when we see in this way is entirely different. It’s as if we become soft and open and connected. At daybreak, the ghosts vanish.

We can understand conceptually the difference between these ways of seeing. But inside that understanding there’s a trap. Which is that we think that we have to overcome our mind. But we can’t overcome the mind with the mind – it’s not possible.

But what we can do is to have faith. Not in the sense of a belief in something. But we can accept the sincerity of other practitioners who tell us their experience, seeing through the eyes of practice. And we can have faith in believing that that is not an experience simply given to them because they’re special beings. But that it’s an experience which is an intrinsic part of us being human. And is what makes us human beings, not ghosts. Have faith in that.

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298.The Ghost Cave

The Buddha said that our state of perception when we meditate is not ordinary perception, neither is it a special kind of perception, neither is it disordered perception, neither is it no perception.

So what is it?

The suggestion is that it is a state which is always available to us but which somehow we overlook. That state is where we are not attempting to grasp our experience with our certainty. We are not making a picture of the world. It cannot be pictured, because it is inherently whole, alive and changing.

 It’s within this context we need to understand the familiar metaphor of our state in Zazen being like clouds in an empty sky. It’s not that there is a person down on the ground looking upwards, seeing the empty sky and clouds. It’s just simply clouds and empty sky. In the context of that metaphor the clouds are our changeable, dynamic, unconceivable experience and the sky is our breath. Not just our breath, the vast space of our awareness too, but our breath, certainly.

The Greek word for soul, psyche also means to breathe. The Greek word for body is soma. When we allow our breath to be unhindered, then our breath and our awareness, together, can go to  every part of our body, re-embodying this person, and breaking the spell of there being a little person inside this person who is directing everything.

 It is ominously significant for us now that when we think of the word soul – if we think of it at all – we don’t think of it in terms of the dynamic, aware body, we think of it as a kind of ghost. Something both here and not here. But here’s the thing: if we exist within the ghost of the self, then our life now is insubstantial, like a ghost. We don’t need to die to experience living in the ghost cave, because that is where we are. Practice means to get free of this ghost cave, and to live.

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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.

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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.