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328. The nature of faith in Zen

In his practice instructions, Master Hongzhi advises us to practice with the faith that all beings are our ancestors. At least, that’s what we would take his instructions as meaning. 

What’s important to understand, with his instructions and those of all the other masters, is that they are not using representational language. They’re using descriptive language: they are not telling us how the world is or how it should be; or what practice is, or what practice should be, but rather, they’re describing what their world is and what their practice is. How it is for them.

Because all these masters are practising and existing within our common humanity, we can practice with the faith that what Hongzhi is saying is a true experience for him and so, with the faith that it can be a true experience for us. And, in a sense, faith makes it so.

The connection between expression and faith is different from what we might ordinarily imagine. Expression is not stating something universal, something out there which is ‘true’, but it is expressing how it is with this person. And through the expression of this person, we can come to understand that what this person is experiencing, I, too, can experience. Whether the jewel is endarkened or not, I can have faith that it is there.

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316. A Billion Stars

Nagarjuna said that Buddhism was the relinquishment of all views.

By ‘views’ he meant a comprehensive theory, or picture, of the world. A statement of how things are, worldpictures.

 The Buddha himself conspicuously refused to answer general metaphysical questions put to him about whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens to us when we die, and so on. 

That was unusual at his time, 5th century B.C India, where religious figures were expected to expound a particular position or view. 

The Buddha’s language can be seen as being strategic and situational, directed towards relieving the suffering of whatever particular person was in front of him,  not stating a general theoretical position and working backwards to the concrete situation.

After some considerable time had elapsed after the Buddha’s death, some Buddhist schools attempted to craft what the Buddha had said into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy. This seems to have coincided with his teachings being written down and grouped together.

It’s that which Nagarjuna is reacting against when he’s talking about the relinquishing of views. And he’s doing that through a newfound emphasis on emptiness, derived from the prajnaparamita sutras.

He talked about the relinquishment of views because it seems an inescapable part of our nature as human beings to create pictures of the world. It’s as if we’re almost continuously seeing images of the world, of ourselves, and grasping these as reality. 

If we do that, then this world, the only world in which we can experience joy, becomes a ghost cave. It becomes like dead ashes.

If we see a little bird singing its heart out, even if we had a book to translate birdsong, I don’t think that we would ask ourselves, “what is that bird saying, and is it true or not?” Rather, we would see the bird’s ‘truth’ in its full expression of itself. The bird however does not require to grapple with the polarity which we have, between the felt, particular and indeterminate, and the symbolic and abstract. 

In his book, The Master and his emissary, Ian McGilchrist speculated that we had two languages; a left brain language and a right brain language. 

The right brain language is older and is particular.  It is song, poetry, metaphorical language. It’s expressive of a particular person at a particular time and place. It’s ‘true’ because the person is fully expressing themself. The person, in their expression, is true.

Left brain language by contrast is to do with making truth, making pictures of the world. It was given a tremendous boost with the invention of writing. And if you look at the earliest forms of writing, these aren’t magical statements about the nature of experience, they’re lists, they’re inventories:- “That’s my cow.” “That’s my land.” “That’s my slave,” and so on. 

The question for us as human beings is, who we want to be and what we want our life to be. Whether we want our life to be an inventory or programme of gain and loss. Or if we want it to be like a billion stars.

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300. Faith

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 marvellously 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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288. This Dharma Position

Towards the end of his life Uchiyama Roshi, the teacher of Shohaku Okumura wrote this poem, ‘Samadhi, Treasury of the Radiant Light’:

Though poor, never poor

Though sick,never sick

Though ageing, never ageing

Though dying, never dying

Reality prior to division

Here lies unlimited depth

Using more traditional language, Uchiyama Roshi is talking about our dharma position. That is, seen one way, we are particular limited beings, in our karmic position, with our gender, age, health and so on. In another way, because we are part of this dynamic wholeness, each being is also that whole. It’s like touching a person. You can touch that person on the hand, and simultaneously you are touching their hand, but you are also touching the whole person.

That experience of wholeness cannot be achieved by taking the familiar dualities of mind and body, self and world and by effort fusing them into one. We can only find ourselves there, as it were, by accident. The paradigm way of finding ourselves there by accident is through Zazen, and the gradual erosion of these apparent dualities in our actual experience when we sit. When we sit in a balanced posture, our idea of ourself, of this lump of mind flesh , is intermittently eclipsed by the felt experience of spaciousness. 

The spaciousness inside us, around us and outside us. That space is continuous. In this way we can gradually get to a position which is underneath these dualities, but we can’t -sadly – get there with the head.

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279. Not Personal, Relational

What’s distinctive about Zen is that the truth isn’t personal, it’s relational. Although there is a teacher and a student, the true teacher is the clear, open and whole hearted engagement of both of them, together.

My first teacher Nancy Amphoux was dying of cancer in 1992 when she came to Glasgow for the last time to teach.

At that time, the cancer had spread into her bones, particularly her sternum, which was crumbling away. I asked her if she intended to take pain relief and she said that she wouldn’t, because it was more important to be able to teach clearly than to suffer temporary pain.

It took me a long time to realize that the person she was teaching clearly was me.

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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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252. All the dust illuminated

The last time my first teacher Nancy Amphoux came to Scotland we sat in a dusty room in Glasgow Street.

In the afternoon while we were sitting, bright sunlight shone into the room, illuminating all the dust hanging in the air.

The light was still, the dust was still, neither obstructed the other.

The smoke from the incense moved amongst both, the dancing of a life.

In Buddhism we keep coming across, in a slightly disguised way, the idea of a person.

Who or what is walking the Way if not a person?

Who or what is balanced, if not a person?

And indeed we can see walking as a kind of dynamic balance. The integration of apparent dualities within a living whole, ‘opposites’ reconfigured as two aspects of something which is dynamic and alive.

We need to find this true person. And our mind cannot find it. All it can ever find is a person who has been cut in half, and no matter how hard we try we cannot restore that person to life.

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248. The purpose of practice

I asked my first teacher if the purpose of practice is to become enlightened.

She said, ‘No. The purpose is to become a human being.’

But what does this mean?

It’s like a person who is a counterfeit painter, painting pictures of the world in the style of great artists. These artists are variously called Compassion, Wisdom, Presence, Enlightenment.

But the person knows that no matter how convincing the paintings appear to be, they are fake and will always be at risk of being seen as fake.

Yet what the person doesn’t understand is that these ‘great artists’ are demons. Falseness is the whole point.

This pictured world is flooding out of us at each moment; vivid, perfect. If we wish to be like human beings, we only need to be like small children: fearless, whole.

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Issho Fujita on posture

Please read a brilliant essay by Issho Fujita on posture from Dharma Eye.

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240. One piece zen

Issho Fujita described our practice as “One Piece Zen”. That is, rather than the individual striving of this person, our practice expresses the dynamic unity of all beings, all being, all space.

The trap is to picture a cosmos, with us within it. To escape that trap, we need to feel this dynamic unity as something real, not imagined. That’s why the posture is so important.

In our posture, we have the actual experience of dynamic wholeness and aliveness with our liberated spines. We have the actual experience of vast dynamic space with our liberated breath.

So, our posture, from the perspective of the self, is the symbolic enactment of the two facets of this dynamic unity, and the unity itself. And, when body and mind is dropped off, this enactment is no longer just symbolic, but real.