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343. Vitality

The non-duality that Buddhists talk about is not healing the mind body split. It is healing the self world split. But obviously, healing the mind body split is a necessary prerequisite to that.

When the Tang Dynasty Chinese wrote about meditation they generally talked about two aspects. One was Samatha —calming the mind—and the other was Vipassana—insight. 

If we think of meditation primarily in terms of consciousness, then we’re liable to interpret both of those phrases in terms of our individual psychology. 

We will think that calming is making my mind peaceful and empty. We will think of insight in terms of my seeing. We may think of it in terms of a special kind of seeing that I can have. 

This is wrongheaded.

Calming is the calming of our whole body mind. And Insight isn’t really seeing. It is a direct experiencing of non-separation; not some woo-woo mystical stuff but gradual and progressive and real.

There is a modern tendency to think of meditation in terms of consciousness alone. Often the body is disregarded or minimised. This ignores the other fundamental pole of meditation.

That other  pole is Vitality. Aliveness.

If you ask what distinguishes living beings, you would answer: consciousness of some sort, and aliveness. 

But Vitality has not had a very prominent place in the history of modern western thought. It tends to be largely ignored. 

The problem with ignoring it is if we’re just thinking of meditation in terms of consciousness, what we will give attention to is the ‘contents’ of consciousness, primarily thoughts and emotions.  We think that’s what our experience is. We ignore or misunderstand the aliveness of the body. 

Dōgen didn’t misunderstand, which is why he referred to “ the vital matter of letting the body leap”

We might just pass over that as poetic effervescence  if we don’t understand the centrality of vitality, of aliveness. If so, we’ll misunderstand the purpose of meditation. We’ll essentially see it in terms of emptiness, stillness, vacuity and space. We’ll misunderstand the ‘contents’ of our experience. We will bracket all of these contents as being that which needs to be eradicated or, at least, set to one side. We will overemphasise equanimity and miss joy.

There’s all the difference in the world between, for example, persecuting voices or persistent, unpleasant emotions or habitual banal patterns of thought and the natural aliveness which our body has. This aliveness shows itself at the level of sensation, which goes ‘upwards’, becoming emotions, becoming thoughts. It will also show itself as an energetic patterning underneath our emotions. 

If we’re not aware of that, then what we’ll see is simply the top layers.

It’s as if we have a landscape where the deeper half is missing. To use another metaphor; it’s as if, when we focus on consciousness alone, we’re like a magician. One who can go anywhere, who can see anything, but who’s suspended a short distance above the ground. The magician cannot fall onto the ground of all being. The reason why he can’t is that he can only fall that short distance through the alive body.   

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319. Experiencing Emptiness in Zazen

If we practice Zazen with a purely psychological or consciousness focus, it’s very difficult to overcome the sense that the contents of our mind come in pre-formed thoughts and emotions. Although we might understand intellectually that those are constructions, they can often prove very difficult to either dissolve or to embody (in embodiment, we are aware of the roots, as it were, in our body, in our senses, of what we’re choosing to describe as a thought or an emotion). That being the case, with this psychological focus, our practice is often primarily an exercise in stoicism and resistance. We’re trying to avoid being taken somewhere by the emotion which arises, being taken somewhere by the thought which arises, being drawn into interpretation, being carried away by a network of related thoughts and suchlike. The two pillars of practice are equanimity and joy. With this focus, equanimity is paramount, but joy is nowhere to be found.

Because our bodily feelings – our sensations – are far less seductive than our thoughts and emotions, it is much easier to experience their dissolution. Not though for pain. With pain, it is difficult not to collapse the awareness around that pain. If we practice with a psychological focus, the body is largely invisible until we feel pain. But once we do, it is all too visible, but in a way which is cramped around that experience of pain, and the anxious thoughts that come bounding along with it.

However, if we just give our attention to non-pain sensations that we are experiencing in the body – a slight tightness in the shoulders, heat in the palms of the hands, and so on – which are emotionally neutral and lacking in the significance which thoughts and emotions appear to have for us, we can hold those sensations in our awareness, but not contract around them. Our awareness doesn’t collapse around the sensation, so we’re able to feel it within a wide, spacious awareness. And if we’re able to do that, we’ll notice that what initially  we think of as something fixed and physical  is quite diffuse and indeterminate. Something that starts out by being a some-thing (this tightness in my shoulders) loses its shape and boundaries. And rather than remaining like a thing, it becomes more like an energetic pattern which changes, merges, appears, disappears. 

With body sensation we can have a direct experience of the emptiness of that sensation. And on the back of that, a felt experience of the emptiness of the form of this body.

The purpose of Zazen is not to pacify or still the mind, but pacifying the mind is a necessary prerequisite for enlivening the body, and it is that which is required to overcome duality. We need to understand that stilling the mind does not mean eradicating thoughts; it means to make the mind vast, not silent. In order to do that we require to, as it were,  drop the mind both into the enlivened body and thence release both into  the greater alive awareness, which includes this being, and all beings.

When I started practising Zazen, we were given an instruction that if our attention wandered we should bring it back to our breath, and to the various aspects of our posture. And, for me at least, that second instruction induced a kind of picturing of my posture. So I would think, “Am I balanced correctly? Are my shoulders tight?” and so on, almost as if either me, or someone like me, was looking from outside. We can see this strange picturing activity of our body going on all the time. For instance, if you say to someone, “Pick this up with your left hand,” the person will very often look at their hand and then pick it up, so the hand is existing in two ways: in an object way, like a seen object existing as an image, but also existing from the inside, in a felt way. But in our culture, the first sense is very often dominant, with all the attendant splitting and alienation.

One of the fruits of Zazen is that this picturing activity, which we are usually unaware of, and which creates a fundamental dislocation, is gradually reduced. If the instruction that I had been given was, rather than attending to various aspects of my posture, being asked to attend to various sensations which I was experiencing in my body- sensations, for instance, of heat or coldness, of slight tension, of weight – sensations which were emotionally neutral, and which couldn’t easily  be pictured, then those initial years of practice would, I think, have been different. And if I had been instructed to hold an awareness of those sensations, but not to contract the awareness around them, then I think my experience of my body would have changed: less objectified, more energetic, more patterned, more empty.

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318. Letting the body leap

When we start Zazen, what is disconcerting and dispiriting is the torrent of thoughts and emotions which we appear to have. We have an idea of what Zazen should be like, yet our experience is very different. And that’s when most people stop practice; they give up.

If we don’t give up, we gradually come to understand that the problem is not the thoughts and feelings. The problem is that when they arise, our awareness contracts around them. When we realize that, we can start to change our attitude, so rather than will these thoughts and feelings away, or distract ourselves with something else, we open out our awareness. For example, if I’m experiencing an imaginary noise – a tune, say, or a remembered conversation, – I’m not attempting to kill or nullify that. What I’m doing instead is throwing my awareness wide open, so I’m hearing everything.

In this way we gradually learn to develop what Charlotte Joko Beck called ‘A Bigger Container’, within which all that disturbs us can simply come and go within a broader awareness.

We can see a similar process going on with physical phenomena. Often when we’re sitting we’ll experience physical discomfort, or what appears to be physical discomfort. We’ll notice perhaps some disagreeable sensation in our hips, or our knees, or our shoulders, and what will tend to happen is that again we will contract  our awareness, collapsing around the sensation. This contraction is usually accompanied by thoughts, such as “Oh, I wonder if this is getting worse… When’s the bell going to go… What does this mean…  Am I ill in some way…”. 

Just as we can change our attitude to the thoughts and emotions which arise, we can also change our attitude to what appears as physical discomfort. We can experience it, but within a greater awareness.

If we’re able to do that, what seems to happen is that the solidity of the discomfort gradually becomes more diffuse, and rather than being a specifically located thing, it seems to become more like an energetic pattern. And what we also notice is that when we can hold that discomfort in this greater space, then the experience of it is often accompanied by images or emotions. So we discover that our mind isn’t just located in our mind; our mind also appears to be located in our body.

Just as non-attachment to thoughts and emotions changes our idea of what our mind is – our experience of what our mind is – then non-attachment to physical discomfort changes our sense of what our body is. Body is much less a thing, a lump of flesh and bone, and much more a kind of spacious, energetic, interconnectedness.

We don’t just need to apply that to sensations of discomfort, we can apply it generally; to any feelings of, say, tightness in the back of the head, contraction in the belly, tremors in the legs, elation in the chest: any sensations; pleasurable, unpleasurable, neutral. Everything which is going on, which is much more than we had first thought. The body is much more alive than we first thought.

 Practicing in this way gradually changes our sense of our body. I think that’s one of the reasons why some groups – not us, but some groups – insist on very long periods of sitting, almost to cause the crisis which will potentially liberate the practitioner from a habitual way of experiencing body phenomena. 
It’s this which Dogen is referring to when he talks about the body leaping out of itself. It’s not that our heart is leaping out of our chest, but rather our heart is leaping out of our ‘heart’.

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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.