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Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions. Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.’

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars.  Thus,one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is  also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us  what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.

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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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261. In All Your Imbalance

The quintessential zen form is the koan. Stripped of later literary embellishment, the koan is – or at least purports to be – the recording of an actual exchange between two sincere practitioners. And we imagine that one of the characters in the exchange has more wisdom, and they are correcting the other, who has less.

I don’t believe that. I think it is more like a conversation, where one is illuminating the imbalance of the other. But not from a position of balance, but from a position of imbalance. And both positions are part of the great wholeness, which is dynamic because it is imbalanced. And being imbalanced it, like a person, a great person, can walk through time, and neither freeze nor fall.

We can look at the tradition in the same way. Nagarjuna is correcting the imbalance of codification, but in turn creates an imbalance which can veer into nihilism. Chinese Buddhism in response emphasises the dharmakaya, but this can lead to an imbalanced fixation on devotional practice, so is balanced in turn by the imbalance of Zen’s Iconoclasm, and so on, down to this exchange now.

I don’t want you to be balanced. I want you to be completely yourself, in all your imbalance, because if we aspire to balance, then Buddhism will become a prison, a religion. And there will still be walking, obviously, but in samsara, and samsara only.

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260. This twelve foot square room

Sometimes, when we are sitting together in this twelve foot square room, it is as if we are halfway between the individual and the universal: we are sitting on the same ground, breathing the same air; there is the same drone of karma for each of us, and the same opening into common vast spaciousness when that noise drops away.

It is as if this small room is a rock in the middle of a torrential stream: no one can jump from bank to bank, but we can land here. And here we can understand that this rock is the whole world. And although it is tiny, all beings may stand.

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251. Faith Mind

We don’t sit facing the wall because zazen is an individual practice; it isn’t.

We are always practicing together. Not practicing, together. Practicing Together.

We sit facing the wall because we are sitting with all beings.

If we were facing each other we will be sitting with these beings, not necessarily all beings.

And when we sit, one more person sits with us. You could call this person Vast Compassion Space.

It is as if the door of the tiny room of the Self is unlocked, and the prisoners there are released into this vast space, to express, to change, to live, to go.

Were this person not to appear, the door would remain closed. Each prisoner would remain locked into their repetitive forms and gestures.

You could also call this person Faith Mind.

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244. A fire engulfing your head

Dogen said that we should practice zazen like a person trying to extinguish a fire engulfing their head.

A lazy or stupid teacher might parrot this at his unfortunate students. I certainly have. The intention is to impart a sense of urgency. But it’s false. We need to pay attention to the actual words, the actual image.

First, why is it engulfing only the head? Because it is the fire of the self. It can’t be extinguished by the puny efforts of the self.

Second, the person is trying. He doesn’t succeed. There isn’t an end point. It is a continual effort. It is dropping off body and mind.

Third, the effort is made by the vigorous activity of the body. But whose body?

Which person? The person of all being. The body of all things.

It is not your effort, because that would be feeble. It is the effort of the whole Universe, like the pouring of a vast and endless river through an infinity of dharma gates.

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236. Practice Enlightenment

Practice is not the suppression of noise. Neither is it the realisation of some pictured state of tranquility.

Rather, it is the actualisation of vast compassionate space. It is “vast” because it contains everything. All the noise and silence; all the pain and beauty.

At each moment of sincere practice we are within that realm of practice enlightenment. And so are all practitioners, in all times, and so this practice is beginningless and endless.

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225. Practicing together

This practice is not your individual practice carried on together with other people. We are practicing together.

That being so, you are not a great person, and never will be, no matter how much effort you expend. But you are part of a great person. And you always were.

Sometimes this person is teacher and student. Sometimes, this person is the whole network of practitioners, in all times. Sometimes the entire universe. Sometimes the tree in the garden.

When we come into the dojo, this person comes in with us. When we leave, this person leaves. Were practice to cease, this great person would fall into nothingness, leaving only bones and fragments.

But it will not.

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214. This extra person

The koan stories recall the words between teachers and students, but a person is missing.

That person is the relational space between the teacher and the student.

We could call this space the true, momentary teacher

It’s not that this third person simply exists in the gap between the teacher and student, but rather that both teacher and student exist within this third person; this relational, alive space

Similarly we are not eleven people each pursuing our personal practice; there is a 12th person here.

The space between us. The space which contains us, which lifts us up into being

When people talk of the Dharmakaya, the Universal Buddha-body, they don’t mean something conceptual, they mean just this –

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212. Faith, in buddhism

The most important thing when we start to practice is to have faith.

Not faith in Buddhism or a set of ideas, but faith in our own sincerity, in our sincere practice.

When we start it’s often as if everything which arises within experience is like a smoke or fog or noise; obscuring reality, choking, deafening or distracting us; and we wish rid of it.

But what we need to understand is that everything is reality, all of it. Give each thing space and see it so.

Our task is not to empty the mind, but to make it vast.