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320. Alaya Consciousness

The two primary influences from India in the development of Zen in China were the Emptiness perspective of Nagarjuna and the early Mahayana (the Madhyamika school) and Yogacara. The third primary influence on Zen, the Buddha Nature perspectives, are, arguably, indigenous to China.

Nagarjuna comes first. In his work we see the destruction of attempts to make Buddhism into a coherent philosophical system. After his – ostensibly –  destructive work near the start of the development of Mahayana, that route of systematising was cut off. But there’s a limited shelf life in simply reiterating the truth of Emptiness, over and over. And this might be a reason why the Chinese Madhyamika school didn’t last, and why the Zen school most directly associated with Nagarjuna, the Oxhead school, didn’t last either, although they were pivotal in later developments through their authorship of The Platform Sutra.

Historically, the school which rose directly after Nagarjuna, and possibly in response, was Yogacara, often called mind-only, or consciousness-only.

The term’s unfortunate because when we hear ‘mind-only’,  we think of Idealism in Western philosophy – which makes claims about the unreality of the world, which has a doubly unfortunate tie-in with the mistaken view of emptiness as being vacuity, nothingness.

Yogacara has nothing to do with that. Its interest is in focusing our attention on what we actually experience and what we can experience. It’s not making truth claims about the world, the sort  which would be involved in any systematic philosophising  of Buddhism, which Nagarjuna made impossible.

Yogacara says that there’s eight consciousnesses. The first six are familiar: the five senses plus mind (which is traditionally thought of as a sense in Buddhism).

Where it’s innovative is that it posits two further consciousnesses which, at least in part, attempt to address the issue of the  self, which has been a primary issue in Buddhism from the outset.

The seventh consciousness in the Yogacara system is ego consciousness. It’s that aspect of experience which appropriates what we’re experiencing as mine – as my experience. 

The eighth consciousness is the pivot. It’s called Alaya consciousness, which is often rendered as ‘storehouse consciousness’. That word storehouse is a bit unfortunate, I think, because it has the connotation for us of a kind of granary reserve from which next year’s harvest can be produced. But that’s not the purpose of the term. Rather, it’s to suggest that present experience derives from past experience – our karma, if you want to put it that way.

Alaya does not specifically mean storehouse in Sanskrit. It means dwelling. So: where we figuratively live or what is habitual and usual for us is the intention – one intention – of the phrase, which encapsulates something, which I think that we can agree on.

We’re like a little Alsatian puppy that gets bitten, very young, by a black Labrador. And then – for the rest of our lives – we look around for black Labradors to attack, before they attack us.

We can see that when we’re sitting. Alongside all the randomness, the mental noise, what comes up has a certain emotional structure to it which is unpleasantly familiar to us. You might have a  habitual feeling of fear, or anxiety. I may have habitual feelings of anger, or of indignation, or of bitterness. But I think you get the idea. 

It’s not that the Alaya consciousness – the dwelling– is full of seeds for the future. It’s rather, it’s full of ghosts from the past who keep half incarnating in our present experience.

The pivot for the Yogacara system is when we see this. When we can see the deep structure, as it were, of our experience (quintessentially during zazen). When we can see that, that’s the potential  switch to what it would call mirror consciousness, which is the other aspect of Alaya.

Instead of being in this karmic tempest, it’s as if we’re seeing it within a mirror. Or, more accurately, we’re like a mirror which is just simply, dispassionately experiencing whatever is in front of it. 

And the Yogacara would say that that switch then works its way back down through the previous seven consciousnesses, and transforms experience from something dualistic and predetermined by the past into something non-dual and spontaneously one with the aliveness of everything in the present moment. Dogen’s small boat, unperturbed by the waves. So, that’s the switch.

Rather than abstractions, we should think of these consciousnesses in terms of our actual experience in zazen. Being aware of this tendency to appropriate experience to me, aware of the familiar structures that our thoughts and emotions habitually congeal into. And sometimes, because of that awareness, we can experience this mirror consciousness, this pivot.

It’s not something which we work and work and work and work towards and eventually realise and retain, a fantasy of becoming enlightened. It’s something which we experience in the present moment and lose in the present moment. But it’s the experiencing of it which is important. This enlightening moment.

It’s as if in our normal experience, strangers keep coming into our dwelling. And when the stranger opens their mouth to say what they need to say, we don’t hear their voice – we hear our voice. Or, to put it another way, when the stranger is about to start speaking, we suddenly take a gag and place it across the mouth of that person, stopping them from speaking. And we write something on that gag like ‘fear’ or ‘pain’, whatever is most familiar. The switch is: not doing that. Not gagging the stranger. Not failing to hear the stranger’s voice. But living at this moment with the voices of all these strangers, all around us. Who then, aren’t.

And never were

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315. The Middle Way

Buddhism is often called The Middle Way. What does that mean? 

The most common way of describing it was as neither remaining within the sensuality and attachment of secular life, which the Buddha had whilst staying in his father’s palace, but neither was it to do the kind of mortification practices that the Buddha with his five ascetic companions practiced, before he broke with them and had his awakening.

The middle way can also be thought of in a related way to that. The five ascetics were not simply people doing tough guy exercises. They were doing gruelling mortification practices from the standpoint that each of us has an unchanging soul or self that is trapped within the body, trapped by the circumstances of individual existence, and that through these practices of mortification, liberation of the soul, the eternal essence, could be attained. 

The apparent contrast is with people – people rather like ourselves – who believe that the self comes into existence when we’re born, continues throughout our life, is the owner and agent of our experience, and at death it’s all over. It’s not eternal, but whilst we’re alive, it exists. 

Buddhism is not a middle way in the sense that it tries to take some middle position between these two apparent extremes. In fact, it takes an even more extreme position by denying that there’s an essence or unchanging self at all. So in what way can we describe it as the middle way?

We can take these positions (the conscious position of the ascetics about the existence of the unchanging soul, and the unconscious assumptions of people in everyday life about a persisting, though mortal, self) and think of them in terms of views, perspectives on the world, dogmas. We can then use the analogy of two pillars forming an arch. In this perspective, the middle way is not a position, it’s the space of expression, freedom and emptiness between those two fixed positions. A bird can land and can make its home on either of these pillars, but it can’t fly through them. To the bird, the contrast isn’t between the two pillars, but between the pillars and the liberating and expressive space.

That same perspective we can apply to zazen, for example, saying, well, there’s one view that would regard zazen as being our physical activity – something we do with the body and breath, like a yoga position – and there’s the opposite view, where we think that zazen is about our consciousness, about our mind, so the activity of the body is incidental, and what’s really important is the development of our consciousness.

You can see that taking either a purely physical or mental view, or some connecting arch of the two, distorts and impoverishes our experience immensely. It conceptualizes the body whilst pretending not to, and it misses an enormous part of our actual experience.

We might take the view that our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t account for the larger part of our actual experience, our energetic sensations, our temporal fluctuations and so on. No view does.

Taking a view – any view – entails the shadow creation of its apparent opposite, but also a limitation and impoverishment of our actual experience, and the life, expression and possibilities of that experience. It’s for that reason that Nagarjuna says that Buddhism is the relinquishment of all views, and because of this, is The Middle Way.

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312. Emptiness and Fullness

The buddha said that the cause of our suffering is ‘clinging’ and ‘grasping’; attachment and aversion.

In order for clinging to be possible, we require a belief in two things: first, a belief in a persisting self; a ‘grasper’ as it were, and second, a belief that the objects of our perception and imagination are persisting and real; something which can be ‘grasped’.

In order to dislodge both of these beliefs, buddhists say that everything is ‘empty’. 

In a sense we are prisoners of our evolution – we’re still ‘monkeys’ reaching for imaginary fruit from the tree of illusion. But sometimes we can live differently, without this fundamental duality of ‘grasper’ and ‘thing to be grasped’, or of ‘self’ and ‘world’. That is the function of emptiness.

Emptiness is often represented by the metaphor of a mirror – images in a mirror – but more frequently by the metaphor of a dream. That is to say, our experience is not an illusion; there is not just nothingness, but our experience can’t be grasped.

And precisely because it cannot be grasped, it can be fully lived.

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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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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.