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Kusen

296. Everyday Life

At the end of chapter 16 of the MMK, where Nagarjuna is talking about nirvana, he writes the following:

“People who say that they want to stop grasping and get the state of nirvana are really grasping for something. In the state where nirvana is not something to be attained and everyday life is not something to be abandoned, what is everyday life? How shall we conceive of nirvana?”

The miraculous ordinariness of everyday life is very popular in zen. You tend to get rather formulaic expressions about carrying water and chopping firewood, or eating rice and drinking tea, things like that, even if we no longer do those apparently mundane things.

There’s a danger however that we imagine that what is being said in these statements is that when I am doing something mundane, like washing the dishes for example, I am washing the dishes mindfully. Or when I am washing the dishes I am completely present. Or some unselfconsciously self aggrandising formulation like that.

The point of everyday life in Nagarjuna’s sense is that the self is not something fixed, even something fixed negatively, but rather is radically indeterminate, porous, changeable, interconnected, going in and out of focus and suchlike.

When we are doing something ordinary,  like washing the dishes, sometimes it’s very much as if the self in the normal sense is there. Other times we feel very embodied. We’re very aware of our senses: of the play of water in our hands, the  feel of the air.

Other times we’re very aware of our physicality, our balance, our fleshiness. Sometimes it’s as if everything is just this one piece. Sometimes it’s as if the self is like a ghost, coming in and out of presence. We just stop grasping: for a something, for a nothing.

We just need to pay attention, and just see what we see, without preconception.

When we talk of everyday life in the context of self, what we’re moving away from is an idea of self in the fixed, unreflexive and dualistic that people will often think of it: there’s a little me inside this body, experiencing things and directing this body. That’s the important shift. We emphasise the apparently mundane because the miraculous indeterminacy of this life happens everywhere.

Yet we don’t substitute that unreflexive idea with a ‘Buddhist’ idea of  no self, where somehow the space of this person is rubbed out. So, as it were, there remains a person shaped space moving around the room. Because there’s still something fixed, just nobler, as if the self has become the Holy Ghost. 

That kind of spiritual grasping is still within the dream of the self.

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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.

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Kusen

291. The Catarrh of the Self

Master Joshu said to his monks, “If you remain in this monastery, practise zazen assiduously for five years, for ten years – even although you say nothing, nobody can say that you are without expression.”

In Buddhism, what do we mean by ‘expression’? 

The earliest forms of written language, rather depressingly, are not epics or magical stories. They’re lists, usually lists of possessions. Inventories. They’re testament to a tendency which has increased since the invention of writing: to control, to regard ourselves as separate from the world, and the world and all its parts are objects for our manipulation, ownership and control.

That’s not the case for all language. Oral language is very related to singing. And indeed the earliest versions of many of the Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra for example, are in verse form. So people said  or sang it rather than read it.

Singing, obviously, is very different from writing. It’s specific to the person and the moment. In the moment of singing, the person is part of the fabric of Great Being. So, as it were, the Universe is singing that person.

Our zazen is like this. Sometimes the Universe is singing us in the form of a black ocean. Sometimes in the form of an open sky. Sometimes in the form of a great fire. Sometimes in the form of a tree, or a mountain. Sometimes in the form of pain and loss. Sometimes in the form of dignity and love.

Sometimes when we are walking along we hear birdsong. It’s very piercing – it fills the air. We look up and imagine that the tree is full of birds. But in fact there’s only one bird, a little bird, perched high up the tree. 

The little bird is able to sing so clearly because it’s unconstrained by the catarrh of the self.

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280. Cave of the Whole World

In all his voluminous writings, so far as I’m aware, Master Dogen only makes a statement about Enlightenment once. And significantly he makes that not to his monks but to a lay follower. In the Genjokoan he says:

To carry the self forward to experience the myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is Awakening.

Genjōkōan, Dogen

To understand this we need to understand the word for self, “jiko’’, has two distinct meanings. One is self in the ordinary sense – the ego self. And the other is the big self of everything – of which the little self is a part – the whole universe. So if we paraphrase this statement it would be something like:

To carry my self forward to experience things is delusion. To allow each thing to manifest itself is Enlightenment.

Quintessentially of course, Dogen is always talking about our experience in zazen. And in zazen, this person of practice is the Cave of the whole world, illuminated.

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245. The self of all things

“To carry the self forward to experience the myriad things is delusion.

To allow the myriad things to come forward and illuminate the self is enlightenment.”

As always, Dogen is quintessentially talking about zazen.

The myriad things are not just walls, trees, birds, fences and so on, but everything – dreams, memories, waking hallucinations: everything.

The word that is translated as ‘self’, ‘jiko’ means both the small self, the ego, and the self of all things, everything.

But which self is illuminated? One or other? Both or neither?

Even when we are within the wooden box of the small self, we can still see a sliver of sky.

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235. The needle

If we practice from the perspective of the self, there are always two persons: the person who experiences and the person who judges and assesses that experience. The sense is of incompleteness, frustration and disappointment. It is as if the Master always wishes the Servant to go through a door to a new world, but the Servant is useless, and either wanders off to nowhere in particular, or is immobile. And the door is nowhere to be seen.

If we practice from the perspective of buddha, likewise there are two persons: self and buddha, but the sense is entirely different. There is nothing to get. There is nowhere to go. The sense is of spaciousness, warmth and intimacy.

I described this as like a parent holding their sleeping baby’s head, but it’s important not to fixate on any particular image. It is the function of these images to pierce the heart, not to gather in the head. The needle goes in first time, or not at all.

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217. The Buddhist doctrine of no self

If you were to ask someone to give an example of Buddhist doctrine, the example given may well be ‘the Buddhist doctrine of no-self’.

But actually that isn’t true, in two senses.

Firstly, at no point in the sutras or anywhere else did the Buddha either deny the self or affirm the self.

He just pointed out that our ideas of what the self is are incoherent and contradictory, and whether or not the self existed, we couldn’t find it in any of the familiar places.

And he did this because thinking in terms of self and world is obviously dualistic; but likewise thinking in terms of no self and world is dualistic too.

It is as if one sketched out an outline of a person, filled it up with imaginary karma, and called the whole thing ‘self’. And you then took that content away, simply leaving the outline again, and this time filled up the space with imaginary enlightenment. What is the difference, really?

And this is the second sense. There isn’t ‘Buddhist doctrine’ in the normal sense, because the heart of Buddhism isn’t within the conceptual realm.

If our understanding is theoretical then our liberation will also be theoretical.

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207. Like a dream

We compare this life to a dream because, amongst other things, dream illuminates suffering, no-self and impermanence.

Our desire – attraction, aversion – is inescapable. But we don’t need to escape. We just need to experience. Just experience.

In dreams, we cannot say there isn’t a self, but nor can we locate it.

And rather than beings within time, there is just vibrant impermanence; a changing, kaleidoscopic whole.

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204. Good and bad zazen

The Self asserts itself twice : first openly, then by stealth.

We are often told that zazen is not meditation, and that’s true, if meditation is seen as a way of controlling the mind, expanding consciousness, increasing compassion and similar egoic drivel.

But we also need to be alert to a different form of self assertion: imagining that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experience. So, when we are sitting, we might imagine (good) raw experience to be somehow dimmed by the (bad) experience of judging, commenting, associating and so on, which our ‘mind’ seems to be doing automatically. But who is it who wishes to get this (bad) experience out of the way?

Our practice is to experience everything in vast open awareness.

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202. Jiko

In the Genjokoan, Master Dogen wrote:

“To carry the self forward to experience the myriad charms is delusion. For the myriad dharmas to come forth and illuminate the self is enlightenment”

Dogen, Genjokoan

‘Self’ is ‘Jiko‘, which has two meanings. The first is self in the usual sense; the ego, the small, personal self. The second meaning however is the whole of dependent origination. The whole works. The big self.

Dogen switches between the meanings, so we can paraphrase him as saying:

“To sit in zazen and experience everything as my experience, and to be concerned with ‘me’ is delusion. To unobstruct each thing’s illumination of the whole of time, the whole of existence, is enlightenment”

Know this: your practice is not a personal practice. It is entirely unconcerned with your puny needs and wants. It is the whole universe practicing, through this body.