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285. A Stick of Incense

On the altar there are usually three objects: a statue of manjushri, some flowers and a stick of incense in an incense bowl. The stick of incense is held in place by the ash of previous burnt incense sticks, and their little stumps lie there too.

Manjushri  is on the altar with his sword to cut the delusion of separation, using his sword to cut everything into one. The flowers and the incense are both concerned with impermanence, but in slightly different ways. 

With the flowers, we think of Dogen’s expression ‘the flowers of emptiness’, so it’s obvious that the flowers are beautiful and transient. The flowers on the altar now will just last a few days more. Further, flowers, additional to representing beauty and dignity and transience  are symbolic of karma. Zen teachers talk of flowers and fruit as a poetic way of talking about cause and effect.

The incense is more personal to this person. In our group, the incense stocks are sandalwood. Each one is representative of the practitioner, practicing now. The stick of incense will exhaust itself completely in its practice. The uprightness of the practitioner, the uprightness of the incense, enables the integrity and space of the present moment to be upheld, so that it does not collapse into nothingness. The body of the stick’s effort, its smoke and fragrance, permeates everywhere. Its ashes are the foundation for future uprightness, for the time being of future practitioners, both this being and all beings.

At the end of your life there is not just this stump of memory.

Although you look everywhere to find your true body you cannot find it.

Not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere.

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275. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.

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271. Zazen as Enactment Ritual

What’s the point of Ritual?

Well, to start to answer that,  you have to ask yourself: what is the point of spiritual practice? 

In these strange Coronavirus times my inbox is full, as I’m sure yours is too, with lots of invitations to use this period of quarantine to develop myself, to be all I can be, to break free of all my limitations.

This pitiable and feeble language is indicative of a spiritual materialism which is absolutely  endemic. So endemic we don’t even notice it. So, if the same question is posed to these people – what is the point of the spiritual practice? – their answer surely is obvious: the development to perfection of the individual. 

That is a complete reversal of how the spiritual life has been pursued and seen through almost all of our common history.

The purpose of spiritual life is not to exalt and glorify the individual but to exalt and glorify and flood with gratitude the whole of creation.

If we embark on practice with the idea that through practice we will become a great person we are completely deluded, because we will never be a great person. We don’t need to be a great person because we are already part of the great person of all being. The purpose of our practice is to drop off our individual concerns and vanities so that, at least fleetingly, we can live as part of this great person.

We can see ritual from this perspective.

Ritual takes us out of a thinking position and into a feeling position, takes us out of an individual perspective and moves us into a collective one, where the perspectives of each of us form the whole, like shards of glass making a mirror. 

Primarily, what we are doing when we wholeheartedly enact ritual is enacting this shared, connective and dynamic reality, which is our true life.

I think that this is what the contemporary writer and teacher Taigen Dan Leighton means when he talks of Zazen as ‘enactment ritual’- it’s not a means to something. It’s the expression of everything.

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270. A Fragment of Momentary Being

Our true teacher is not a person in the usual sense, but a fragment of momentary being. And because that is so, our true teacher is everywhere, like specks of gold in the granite mountain. When we bow to the gold, we bow to the mountain. When we bow to the mountain, we bow to all our teachers.

Therefore, when we bow, we do so without regard to time or place. We bow when we are eating. We bow when we are sleeping. We bow within all the activities of our life.

We bow when there are fences and walls between us. We bow when there are mountains and rivers between us. We bow when there are lifetimes between us. We bow when there is suffering between us.

Between us.

By enacting this great mystical power of gratitude and wonder, we calm and protect the entire earth. We calm and manifest all worlds. We calm and protect all moments, so they do not fall into nothingness. We calm and protect this great fabric of all being between us.

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242. The Robe Verse

The kesa and rakusu are symbols of interdependence, and its reality.

Before we put the rakusu or kesa on, we place it on top of our heads and chant the Kesa Sutra.

So, as it were, we are placing interdependence above the self.

The first line of the sutra has the character ‘datsu’, the same datsu within Dogen’s description of zazen: shinjin datsuraku, dropping off body and mind. That is, dropping off, from moment to moment, the belief that this experience is my experience.

So we are putting something on, interdependence, and dropping something off, our separateness.

That being so, our focus when we sit is not to bring anything about, or exclude anything, but to welcome everything. Because we are not just the symbol of interdependence, but the reality

which is not something which happens to us, or something we see, but what we are.

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233. Bowing

Bowing is a modification of prostration.

When we prostrate, we de-centre the head, throwing it forward into the world, throwing it down on the ground of all being.

Our body is open and vulnerable. Our hands are without all the things of the self.

On entering the dojo we bow to the altar: to Buddha and to the flowers of emptiness. We bow to the incense that perfumes the space. We bow to our cushion. We bow to our fellow practitioners.

It is not that our cushion is a small person and you are great person or that Buddha is a great person and you are a small person. No. When we put our hands together and bow, a great person appears – not just in front of our hands, not just behind our hands. Not just in the hands themselves:

Everywhere.

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206. The purpose of bowing

Before we sit down we bow to our cushion and bow to everyone.

How so?

In this place of practice, everything has equal and absolute value.

It is not that the person is great and the cushion is menial.

No!

It is not that the cushion, the mat, the floor, the incense, the Buddha are here to facilitate my practice.

No

Everything in this place is conducting this practice.

Because this is so, even though this room is only 12 foot Square, it is the whole universe.

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205. The point of ritual

Bowing.

1. It is like the heart is a very clever person, a brilliant person, who can only express himself through an infinite number of stupid persons. The stupid person of bowing, for instance

But each of those stupid persons, in that expression, becomes a brilliant person. An infinitely faceted person.

Until skewered on words.

2. When students ask the teacher about bowing, the teacher will often reply that it’s an expression of non-duality. We bring 2 apparently separate things – the hands – together. I’ve done this myself.

It’s not that the answer is wrong, but it’s incomplete.

We could equally say that when we bow, we de-centre the head. When I bow to you, I de-centre my self; I make myself an object in your world. And so, bowing is leaving the prison of the self and entering a cascade of lived, shared worlds.

This answer isn’t wrong either, but it’s incomplete. Because bowing’s expression is limitless.

3. How we view Ritual is the canary in the coal mine. If we misunderstand it, if we imagine that Ritual is language put into physical form – I bow to express gratitude, for example – then we cannot prevent that view gradually seeping everywhere.

Which is our end.

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190. Ceaseless enquiry

Because zazen is entirely outside the dream of the self, it is ceaseless enquiry. Not from a position of insufficiency or acquisition, but faith.

At the moment of gratitude, doing prostrations, we strike our head three times on the ground, and raise our hands. At the moment of enlightenment, the Buddha touched the ground. Is it the same ground, or not? If the same, how? If different, how?

When we raise our hands, we are symbolically lifting up the Buddha’s feet. Of course, we aren’t really lifting up the Buddha’s feet, nor the self. Rather, we are lifting multitudes

Multitudes

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178. The death of ritual

Ritual starts out as neither magical or symbolic, and neither does language. But both, in decay, reach these points, and then we’re in a fix: the corpse can’t see the living being.

At first, ritual is a complete effort in the present moment. It opens up our hearts like verandah doors opening up to sunlight. It’s not for anything. Its dignity and beauty is entirely itself. Ourselves.

Then superstition arrives. We imagine that we can do something with it. Redeem a dead person. Banish ghosts. Rearrange.

And that degeneration provokes the subsequent, Protestant one. So then ritual, like its child, language, must be symbolic.

It’s hard to grasp the measure of the loss