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.


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.


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.


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.


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?