125. The Karmic Mind

Practice enables us to become aware of the causes of our suffering. When we start sitting we are very aware of thoughts and emotions, and in due course can see this as the manifestation of karmic mind, our personal karmic mind, which has its own way of suffering. It could be anxiety, dissociation, agitation, boredom, fear, it could be many many things.

It is completely understandable that we might want our practice to eradicate this noise, to void the mind. But voiding the mind would be a small practice. It is not our practice; it lacks dignity. It is a miser’s practice.

The ideogram in Chinese for delusion looks like it has little legs. The idea is that delusion is the little legs of our karmic mind. Taking us this way, this way, this way, and this way, ceaselessly.

On top of these little legs is the self. Practice is not to cut off the legs, but to unseat the self.

When seen in this way, the karmic mind is not our possession and is not our burden. It is the expression of the aliveness of everything. We can’t reach that aliveness from a void.

We can’t get to the heart by cutting.


121. Space in Buddhism

Space is both the trope and reality of Buddhism. It makes possible freedom, expression, experience and unfolding.

When we start to practice, we can’t find space anywhere. Our mind feels like a mass of disgruntled demons, packed into a cellar. One part moves, and the rest move, in reaction.

We might imagine space in Newtonian terms, or as an absence, but that’s not what’s meant.

It is both figurative and real. It is not absence. Even though there are many of us in this room, it is full of space: above our head, in front of our heart, behind us. The space holds us.

This space holds all things. But not as something there before being. If there was no space, there would be no life. If there was no life, then there would be no space. If all the fish go, the ocean vanishes. If all the birds go, the sky collapses.


105. Samskara

Delusion and Enlightenment is the usual pairing in Zen, and in Buddhism generally, it’s often Samsara and Nirvana.
Enlightenment/ Nirvana seem distinctly other, and difficult to reach, like trying to jump over a high barrier with your feet stuck in mud.

It’s difficult to relate them to actual practice, and I wonder if a better pairing might be Samskara/ Nirvana.

Samskara appears everywhere, but due, possibly, to accidents of translation, it’s often ignored. It’s one of the five skandas for instance, variously – and unhelpfully – rendered as ‘volition’ ‘willing’ ‘mental formation’, among others.

But it’s fundamental. It is our endless tendency to do something with our raw experience. Constructing desire, memory, a mind, a self, a world, endlessly.

Nirvana is just simply not doing that. Just letting everything be. It’s not a state, or a place, it’s a non doing. It’s here and now, not some place else, some other time.

Our practice is a wobbling between these two, and an illumination of that.


104. The Mind of Practice

When we start sitting, what usually shocks is gaining an unwelcome familiarity with the mind: the inane repetition, the vacuity, the constant chatter. It’s only natural if we think the aim of practice is to change this mind. To think in that way is a trap.

If we just allow all the mental activity to come and go, we realise that what we usually term ‘thought’ isn’t free floating. It’s as if it’s the visible tip of a long thread, which connects to our heart and to our body. And through them, to the heart and to the body of everything. The shimmering aliveness of everything, the isness we are part of.

Our little karmic mind exists within bigger mind, the mind of practice, which is not personal to you or me, the mind shared by all practitioners; the past, now, to come. Which holds everything


99. Great Courage

The three prerequisites for practice are: great faith, great doubt and great courage.

I’ve tried to explain how faith and doubt are two facets of the one thing, but what is great courage? Is it simply the willingness to remain in this place of not knowing?

How do we become disconnected from our basic state of feeling being? It starts by judging our experience. Say that when we are little, we intuit that our mother can’t bear our distress. We learn that our experience isn’t simply a given, it’s something we can manipulate, explain, evade, build thoughts and stories around, appropriate to the self, and so on. A whole ego structure forms on top of the simple state of being feeling.

There’s always a gap–a way back into this simple state–but there’s a catch. The gap is the feeling we judged unacceptable in the first place. We can always find it, but it’s very hard for us to just stay with it, without going into the mechanism–I almost said demon–that we created to escape it.

And this simply staying with is great courage.


94. Genjokoan

In the Genjokoan, Master Dogen gives a famous definition of delusion and enlightenment, saying that delusion is carrying the self forward to experience the myriad things, whereas in enlightenment the myriad things come forward and experience themselves.

I would say that we carry the Self forward primarily through language: “That is a wall”, “That is my confusion”, “There is that familiar unpleasant feeling, bitter in taste”.

And once we use the scalpel of words on part of experience, that detached part can be the object of our love or [more usually] of our hate. And, hard as we try, we can’t kill it again.

Buddhism is, for at least a moment, the restraint of this tendency. It’s not that we become intimate with our experience, because that’s dualistic, but that experience, somehow, is restored to life unfabricated.


81. The Three Treasures

The three treasures are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Dharma is reality, how things are, which includes the teaching how of things, as they are.

Buddha is the person who wobbles in and out of this reality, quintessentially in zazen.

And what’s Sangha? When we sit together, it is indisputable that a ‘something’ arises. We could call it the field of awareness. We could call it the Buddha field. And within that field is our noise. We don’t aim to eradicate our noise, but we are not within it. Because the field has no boundary, all beings are within it.

So we sit with all beings, for all beings.


64. The Bodhisattva Vows

1. The first bodhisattva vow is:

All living beings, I vow to save them

We need to understand the dual meaning of I (Jiko). It means both the personal I, the ego, but it also means the I which is not separate from all of existence.

Taking the ‘I’ in the second sense, the vow is a simple statement. ‘Vow’ and liberation ( ‘save them’) are simply facets of non duality

2. The second bodhisattva vow is:

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

We should not understand this as meaning that by great effort, sometime in the distant future we will have no more delusions forever after. That would be a wrong understanding.

We should understand that liberation and delusion, Buddha and Mara, are the two poles of our nature as human beings. We can get rid of neither.

However, when we practice Zazen, when we allow our delusions to freely arise in vast space; to live, to change, to disappear, then is this not ending them? Not forever, because time is a delusion too, but just for this moment

3. The third bodhisattva vow is:

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

Because dharma gates are boundless, they are innumerable. And so, they are all dharmas.

If our mind makes each thing a word picture, there are two things, and they can never become one. If each dharma is a dharma gate, then we can ‘enter’ it, and dualism falls away. The vow is also a statement, a statement of non duality.

Because dharma gates are boundless, each dharma is vast beyond measure, and cannot be grasped. Each dharma is thusness

Because dharma gates are boundless, there is no boundary, no separation between each dharma. So, to enter one dharma is to enter all dharmas. To fully encounter one thing is to fully encounter all things.

4. The final bodhisattva vow is:

The Buddha Way, unsurpassable, I vow to realise it

What is the Buddha Way? It is dropping off body and mind. That is, it is decentering our sense of separateness, affirming the whole ness, the dynamic wholeness of everything, which we variously call emptiness, dependent origination, impermanence.

But our sense of self, and of the world as something out there, pleasing or obstructing us, is like a coat which, no matter how often we drop off, we still find around our shoulders again. It is our nature as human beings to clench the fist of the self. And so it is our vow as Buddhists ( to use Uchiyama’s phrase) to open the hand of thought, endlessly, for the rest of our lives.

If we think we have surpassed this, that we are enlightened, this is the most dangerous delusion.

5. Master Dogen said:

When human beings see water, fish see palaces, gods see strings of pearls, demons see blood, or pus.

He doesn’t say that the fish are mistaken, or that the gods are mistaken. But we want to.

The dead weight of the self pushes the world flat, into an image. To then fret to what extent the image is true or false is to miss the primary repression


56. Walls

The Buddhist way has both practice and study. Practice is primary, but study is necessary. Otherwise, we are likely to be blown about by our unexamined assumptions.

But theory can be a trap. One wall provides shelter, but four walls can be a prison.