140. Buddha is momentary

My first teacher said it was impossible to break the mirror of the self with the head.

It’s true. Not because the mirror is unbreakable, but because the attempt to break it is still the activity of the self. And it’s not necessary.

Self is momentary. Buddha is momentary. We wobble between this moment of Buddha and this moment of self. But one does not obstruct the other.

He is me but I am not him.


127. Kodo Sawaki

Kodo Sawaki said, “I have wasted my whole life in zazen”

Pay attention to his words. He didn’t say he’d wasted his life. He said he’d wasted his whole life.

When we’re on Retreat at Ardfern, the house and the dojo are surrounded by trees, and each of these trees is alive with birds. In each moment, they are completely exerting and expressing themselves. They are, moment to moment, completely pouring out -wasting- their lives. There’s nothing left over.

Once, when we were sitting, there were two bangs on the large glass frontage to the dojo. Two birds had flown straight at us. One, striking the window, had broken his neck. The other, striking the window, had flown away.

Our tragedy as human beings is that we’re not like this. Often, the moment is only half combusted. And sometimes, for each of us, it is as if these half burnt fragments lodge like ash in our throat. We can’t swallow them. We can’t spit them out.

Zazen is like a great fire.


117. The Zen Doctrine of No Self

One of D. T. Suzuki’s most famous books is ‘The Zen Doctrine of No-Self’. It’s a very seductive title. Once we’ve got the theory clear, we can start to practice. Once we’ve got the map, we can make our way to the territory. It’s a completely erroneous perspective.

My first teacher said, “you cannot break the mirror of the self with the head”. Denying the self is also asserting the self because – just like atheism – what is denied remains there in outline. A god shaped space, a self shaped space. We need to understand that Buddhism is the relinquishing of all views. The relinquishing of all views and discovering in the midst of practice that territory in which the karmic mind is not sovereign.

And in this place there are maps. Some are incomprehensible to us, some are like a dream and some are like daybreak.


112. Having No Head

The whole Zen literature is a commentary on practice. Actual practice. Your practice.

Before spiritual language degenerates into religion, it is always the effort of a real person, using what is available, to describe their actual experience.

Always the effort of a real person to describe their actual experience. And because we too are that real person, it describes our experience. Not the experience of some far distant moment after decades or lifetimes of practice, but this moment, when we drop the familiar dualities of self and world, mind and body and so on. The language is often shocking and startling because it needs to be, to knock us out of our habitual configuration of experience around a ‘Me’.

For example, the writer Douglas Harding describes Zazen as being like having no head. He doesn’t mean that cognition, sensation and so on disappears. But rather that we lose the sense of this experience as mine. So rather than locating this aliveness within a space called me, there is just this aliveness, which fills everywhere.


45. Wholeness

My teacher Michael Luetchford said that people imagine that Wholeness is taking two distinct things–mind and body, say, or self and world–and fusing them together by dint of a stupendous spiritual effort.

Which is idiotic. The core insight of Buddhism is dependent origination; in Dogen’s terms, Full Dynamic Functioning. Taken seriously, it is the diamond which cuts through all delusions: self, separateness, grasping and rejecting, time as the container of things and the narrative space of the self; everything.

But it’s no good as an idea. We have to feel it.


15. In Memoriam: Nancy Amphoux

When I started practice, I was very interested in koans. I asked Nancy about them. She said, brusquely “Don’t concern yourself with koans. Your life is the koan”. At the time, I can’t say I found this an entirely satisfactory answer.

In Rinzai, koans are used as a teaching device to prod the student towards a different experience of reality. “Koan” originally meant something like an official pronouncement by the Emperor, something universal and unchallengeable.

Of the two characters which make up ‘koan’. ‘ko’ means universal and ‘an’ means wood or desk; so, something written down which has universal application.

Dogen uses a different character for ‘an’, which means something like ‘pushing with the hand’ [to heal]; so for him, Koan is both the universal and the personal, emptiness and form, and this is how he sees zazen too. So Nancy was right.

She wasn’t frightened of death, but she was frightened of her heart stopping beating. In her last moments she chanted the Heart Sutra over and over, fainter and fainter.

Her heart has never stopped beating.


14. The Hidden River

Nancy said that when we practice, it is as if we become aware of a huge underground river running through our lives.

The desert does not bloom. The mirrors do not shatter.

Yet something both very deep and very simple manifests itself.


5. Breaking the Mirror of the Self

My earlier teacher, Jean Baby, who died during our Winter Retreat, said to me once:

You can’t break the mirror of the self with the head.

What I took this to mean is that sitting isn’t a heroic activity. It is simply understanding where delusion and liberation are located.

We can see our delusive and endless tendency to conceptualise, to continually make a map of the world, thinking we need this to navigate our lives. But if we take Emptiness seriously, the world is whole, immediate, inconceivable, alive. And it is always prepared to burst through the map we make of it, if we don’t lead with the head; if we just let ourselves fall backwards into reality.

So Liberation, Enlightenment, isn’t hidden within ourselves. It is abundantly available if we care to see.

We are saved by all beings.