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319. Experiencing Emptiness in Zazen

If we practice Zazen with a purely psychological or consciousness focus, it’s very difficult to overcome the sense that the contents of our mind come in pre-formed thoughts and emotions. Although we might understand intellectually that those are constructions, they can often prove very difficult to either dissolve or to embody (in embodiment, we are aware of the roots, as it were, in our body, in our senses, of what we’re choosing to describe as a thought or an emotion). That being the case, with this psychological focus, our practice is often primarily an exercise in stoicism and resistance. We’re trying to avoid being taken somewhere by the emotion which arises, being taken somewhere by the thought which arises, being drawn into interpretation, being carried away by a network of related thoughts and suchlike. The two pillars of practice are equanimity and joy. With this focus, equanimity is paramount, but joy is nowhere to be found.

Because our bodily feelings – our sensations – are far less seductive than our thoughts and emotions, it is much easier to experience their dissolution. Not though for pain. With pain, it is difficult not to collapse the awareness around that pain. If we practice with a psychological focus, the body is largely invisible until we feel pain. But once we do, it is all too visible, but in a way which is cramped around that experience of pain, and the anxious thoughts that come bounding along with it.

However, if we just give our attention to non-pain sensations that we are experiencing in the body – a slight tightness in the shoulders, heat in the palms of the hands, and so on – which are emotionally neutral and lacking in the significance which thoughts and emotions appear to have for us, we can hold those sensations in our awareness, but not contract around them. Our awareness doesn’t collapse around the sensation, so we’re able to feel it within a wide, spacious awareness. And if we’re able to do that, we’ll notice that what initially  we think of as something fixed and physical  is quite diffuse and indeterminate. Something that starts out by being a some-thing (this tightness in my shoulders) loses its shape and boundaries. And rather than remaining like a thing, it becomes more like an energetic pattern which changes, merges, appears, disappears. 

With body sensation we can have a direct experience of the emptiness of that sensation. And on the back of that, a felt experience of the emptiness of the form of this body.

The purpose of Zazen is not to pacify or still the mind, but pacifying the mind is a necessary prerequisite for enlivening the body, and it is that which is required to overcome duality. We need to understand that stilling the mind does not mean eradicating thoughts; it means to make the mind vast, not silent. In order to do that we require to, as it were,  drop the mind both into the enlivened body and thence release both into  the greater alive awareness, which includes this being, and all beings.

When I started practising Zazen, we were given an instruction that if our attention wandered we should bring it back to our breath, and to the various aspects of our posture. And, for me at least, that second instruction induced a kind of picturing of my posture. So I would think, “Am I balanced correctly? Are my shoulders tight?” and so on, almost as if either me, or someone like me, was looking from outside. We can see this strange picturing activity of our body going on all the time. For instance, if you say to someone, “Pick this up with your left hand,” the person will very often look at their hand and then pick it up, so the hand is existing in two ways: in an object way, like a seen object existing as an image, but also existing from the inside, in a felt way. But in our culture, the first sense is very often dominant, with all the attendant splitting and alienation.

One of the fruits of Zazen is that this picturing activity, which we are usually unaware of, and which creates a fundamental dislocation, is gradually reduced. If the instruction that I had been given was, rather than attending to various aspects of my posture, being asked to attend to various sensations which I was experiencing in my body- sensations, for instance, of heat or coldness, of slight tension, of weight – sensations which were emotionally neutral, and which couldn’t easily  be pictured, then those initial years of practice would, I think, have been different. And if I had been instructed to hold an awareness of those sensations, but not to contract the awareness around them, then I think my experience of my body would have changed: less objectified, more energetic, more patterned, more empty.

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318. Letting the body leap

When we start Zazen, what is disconcerting and dispiriting is the torrent of thoughts and emotions which we appear to have. We have an idea of what Zazen should be like, yet our experience is very different. And that’s when most people stop practice; they give up.

If we don’t give up, we gradually come to understand that the problem is not the thoughts and feelings. The problem is that when they arise, our awareness contracts around them. When we realize that, we can start to change our attitude, so rather than will these thoughts and feelings away, or distract ourselves with something else, we open out our awareness. For example, if I’m experiencing an imaginary noise – a tune, say, or a remembered conversation, – I’m not attempting to kill or nullify that. What I’m doing instead is throwing my awareness wide open, so I’m hearing everything.

In this way we gradually learn to develop what Charlotte Joko Beck called ‘A Bigger Container’, within which all that disturbs us can simply come and go within a broader awareness.

We can see a similar process going on with physical phenomena. Often when we’re sitting we’ll experience physical discomfort, or what appears to be physical discomfort. We’ll notice perhaps some disagreeable sensation in our hips, or our knees, or our shoulders, and what will tend to happen is that again we will contract  our awareness, collapsing around the sensation. This contraction is usually accompanied by thoughts, such as “Oh, I wonder if this is getting worse… When’s the bell going to go… What does this mean…  Am I ill in some way…”. 

Just as we can change our attitude to the thoughts and emotions which arise, we can also change our attitude to what appears as physical discomfort. We can experience it, but within a greater awareness.

If we’re able to do that, what seems to happen is that the solidity of the discomfort gradually becomes more diffuse, and rather than being a specifically located thing, it seems to become more like an energetic pattern. And what we also notice is that when we can hold that discomfort in this greater space, then the experience of it is often accompanied by images or emotions. So we discover that our mind isn’t just located in our mind; our mind also appears to be located in our body.

Just as non-attachment to thoughts and emotions changes our idea of what our mind is – our experience of what our mind is – then non-attachment to physical discomfort changes our sense of what our body is. Body is much less a thing, a lump of flesh and bone, and much more a kind of spacious, energetic, interconnectedness.

We don’t just need to apply that to sensations of discomfort, we can apply it generally; to any feelings of, say, tightness in the back of the head, contraction in the belly, tremors in the legs, elation in the chest: any sensations; pleasurable, unpleasurable, neutral. Everything which is going on, which is much more than we had first thought. The body is much more alive than we first thought.

 Practicing in this way gradually changes our sense of our body. I think that’s one of the reasons why some groups – not us, but some groups – insist on very long periods of sitting, almost to cause the crisis which will potentially liberate the practitioner from a habitual way of experiencing body phenomena. 
It’s this which Dogen is referring to when he talks about the body leaping out of itself. It’s not that our heart is leaping out of our chest, but rather our heart is leaping out of our ‘heart’.

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310. The direction of practice

One of the most dispiriting things for people starting practice comes from the idea that practice is the gateway to tranquility and peacefulness. Yet when they start it’s as if there’s this crappy person inside their head talking repetitive, bloviating, interpretative nonsense. And always complaining about what’s going on, about not being enlightened, being bored; nonsense really.

As a preliminary, stabilising step it’s important that we get some distance from this crappy person. So we learn equanimity, non-reactivity, mindful awareness and so on. So, as it were, we’re establishing some space around this crappy person.

But the problem is that we’re still within the room of the self. And if we stay with this self centred perspective, we’re likely to see zazen in terms of equanimity or in terms of consciousness. But either way we’re not going to see zazen in terms of connectedness and joy.

So what we require to do is fall out of this room of the self and into the body. And from there we can experience joy, connection, non-duality and so on.

But when we say ‘body’ we don’t mean your picture of the body because then ‘body’ is just another object in your mind. We mean actual alive, vivid embodiment. This vividness can’t be contained within ourselves; it seeps out. So everything (perhaps starting near to us and gradually percolating outwards) loses its picturedness, its conceptuality and acquires vivid embodiment. 

And it’s in this context that we need to see the descriptive language of the Mahayana sutras. They are not describing something fantastical but the actual experience of zazen. But with these familiar constraints of mind and self and consciousness and separation cast off.

Our ways of describing Zazen are limitless and should be understood as being both partial and limitless. Because the point of a community of practitioners is that the expression of the dharma is never closed, never completed.

It’s as if your spine is a cascade of pearls. It’s as if your rib cage is like a weightless basket moving in emptiness. It’s as if your heart inside that basket is a great light, extending everywhere.

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305. The Unpictured Body

In zazen we talk a great deal about the body but what do we mean by ‘body’?

If you ask someone in the West to point to their body, they’re very likely to point to their torso. They’re unlikely to point to their head. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you state it, it’s obvious: our head is part of our body.

I find that the easiest way to start to enliven the body is through the sensory awareness that we have here: the feeling of our tongue in our mouth; the tension around our eyes; the weight of our jaw; the awareness of the air in our nostrils.

All of that is readily accessible to us in an immediate way that sensory information elsewhere in the body very often isn’t. So if we have a holistic sense of the body as including the head and all the sensory awareness there, then we can see how that sensory awareness can – as it were – gradually seep downwards. To our throat, our torso; all of us, animating and enlivening the whole body.

There’s an additional benefit. We habitually (in the West at least) identify the head with the mind and with the self, so the mind/body split has a physical counterpart and reinforcement  in the head/body split. Reintegrating the head with the rest of the body starts to undo that primary, unconscious split, relocating the mind within the body, and hence changing our sense of both.

And when we do this, our sense of both ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can change. Our mind is no longer necessarily just located within our head. Our body is no longer an object just located in space. And that starts to undo the self/world split which, in my view at least, is essential.

Turning to the breath, everyone is familiar with the instruction that when we feel distracted, we should give our attention to our breath. 

Why is the breath so fundamental to meditation? Perhaps because it is immediate and difficult to objectify, or straightforwardly conceptualise. We cannot help but notice that when our breath changes, our state changes.

We often talk about being aware of the breath as if the breath and the body are two separate facets of experience. But if we pay careful attention we’ll see that our experience of the breath and our experience of the movement within us (when we take an in-breath, for example) is the one movement. And we can focus on the breath or we can focus on the body which is moving, or alternate. But it’s essentially two aspects of the one experience. It is not like wind blowing through the stiff rock of a cave. It is like two beings dancing.

We are not picturing the body from an imaginary, external vantage point. We place our attention whenever we can immediately feel, and gradually widen and deepen that, from the ‘inside’. 

Additionally, if we can sit in the correct posture, our body is progressively enlivened without conscious effort. If our pelvis is in the right position, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, then we experience an uplift that often feels as if the back of our neck is being stretched and our head is moving upwards. I experience the uplift as originating somewhere in my upper thoracic spine, but you may experience it differently. The key is to experience it, not force it. 

That feeling of uplift is the source of a terrible instruction about tucking your chin in and stretching the back of the neck. It’s terrible because there’s an attempted duplication of something which needs to be non-forced and automatic. If you are sitting correctly, your chin will naturally be slightly tucked in, but you can’t will it, anymore than you can create a joke by forced laughter. 

Your sit bone isn’t a single point, it’s three dimensional, like – say – the elbow, and it’s helpful if you can experience that three dimensionality, that front and back, by touch and movement. And that illustrates a more general point about balance: it is an exquisite aliveness, not a forced absence of movement. We are subtly wobbling around the point of balance, like a tightrope walker.

When you’re sitting correctly – correctly for you – you’ll  also experience a relaxing and widening of the back of the head, specifically around the occipital point, what the Chinese call the Jade Pillow. 

Correct posture also manifests a dynamic relationship with the ground.

Your weight is dropping down into the ground and the ground is pushing up, like two hands pushing gently together. There is something similar, although more subtle, happening with the space around and above us.

When we sit, we are in a dynamic and connected relationship with the environment: through the ground; through the air; through the breath. All of this breaks down the self/world dualism for the benefit of both: the body is no longer spatially imprisoned and disconnected from the world, the world is no longer “out there”, waiting to be done-to, but immediate and alive.

Zazen is not the practice of the self. It is the effort of all beings expressed through this person.

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298.The Ghost Cave

The Buddha said that our state of perception when we meditate is not ordinary perception, neither is it a special kind of perception, neither is it disordered perception, neither is it no perception.

So what is it?

The suggestion is that it is a state which is always available to us but which somehow we overlook. That state is where we are not attempting to grasp our experience with our certainty. We are not making a picture of the world. It cannot be pictured, because it is inherently whole, alive and changing.

 It’s within this context we need to understand the familiar metaphor of our state in Zazen being like clouds in an empty sky. It’s not that there is a person down on the ground looking upwards, seeing the empty sky and clouds. It’s just simply clouds and empty sky. In the context of that metaphor the clouds are our changeable, dynamic, unconceivable experience and the sky is our breath. Not just our breath, the vast space of our awareness too, but our breath, certainly.

The Greek word for soul, psyche also means to breathe. The Greek word for body is soma. When we allow our breath to be unhindered, then our breath and our awareness, together, can go to  every part of our body, re-embodying this person, and breaking the spell of there being a little person inside this person who is directing everything.

 It is ominously significant for us now that when we think of the word soul – if we think of it at all – we don’t think of it in terms of the dynamic, aware body, we think of it as a kind of ghost. Something both here and not here. But here’s the thing: if we exist within the ghost of the self, then our life now is insubstantial, like a ghost. We don’t need to die to experience living in the ghost cave, because that is where we are. Practice means to get free of this ghost cave, and to live.

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287. Letting Your Body Leap

When people unfamiliar with our practice talk about zazen, they’ll often refer to it as objectless meditation. And what they mean by that is that there isn’t a mandala, a mantra or an object that we fix our attention on when we’re doing zazen.

But they do tend to find their way to discovering an object of meditation circuitously. They’ll describe it as being something like awareness itself. So they’ll say that in zazen we are aware of our awareness; or they may say that we are aware of emptiness; or of dependent origination. So there’s lots of formulations, not forgetting of course the familiar one of bringing the attention back to the body and the breath, and hence to  assume that that’s the object of meditation.

All these perspectives arise from the same mistake, which is assuming that meditation is something that we do with our minds. And because the mind is inherently dualistic, then that way of looking at things will always be divided into a subject and an object. But that’s not our practice.

Dogen, in the Fukanzazengi recognized something like this when he wrote,

“You could be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization or acquire outstanding wisdom and attain the Way by clarifying the mind. Still, if you are wandering about in your head you may miss the vital path of letting your body leap.”

Dogen, Fukanzazengi

That’s the Tanahashi translation, and both in that translation and the other ones that we presently have in English it’s not so clear what Dogen’s doing in his own language. In it, he’s making a kind of joke. The suggestion is that if we understand zazen intellectually, our head gets stuck. So we can jam our head in the entranceway of zazen, but we can’t get our body in.

Whereas if we can get our body in, our mind will follow. But of course we can’t get our body in intentionally. We have to fall backwards into the space, whole.

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282. The Body Is The Bodhi Tree

The first line of the poem in the Platform Sutra attributed to Shen-xui is, “the body is the bodhi tree.” In other words, the body in zazen is like the bodhi tree. 

What are we to make of that? 

The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

It has several distinctive qualities. It’s very old:  it lasts a very long time, has a very long life. The second, and more fundamental quality is that it’s hollow. It doesn’t have a core.

Like all trees, it is completely rooted in the great earth. It doesn’t require to move. And it’s completely expressive in the great sky. 

The emptiness inside of it isn’t the absence of anything, it’s the presence of everything. 

How does that compare with the emptiness–the space–inside us when we are practising?

The arising of our thoughts, insofar as it’s not an attempt to  interpret our present experience, is surely interdependence in time. The experience now of thoughts and feelings is the tremble and echo of the activity of everything. 

The dynamic space which we experience in our body, in our breath, as we are balanced, breathing in and breathing out cannot be clearly separated from the space around us and in turn, that cannot be clearly separated from the greater space, extending in all directions, everywhere, like floodwater, surging in, surging out.

Outside my window is a great tree. When the wind blows it moves its limbs freely, like a dancer.

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274. Sitting Joyfully

Sitting Joyfully

In his Fukanzazengi, his Universal Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen has this to say about Zazen: it is not learning meditation, it’s simply the Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy. 

The Dharma Gate of Ease and Joy

Dogen is a famously difficult writer and this seems a surprisingly straightforward passage. But although it’s straightforward, it’s hard for us to get. At a pinch, I think, we can understand how Zazen connects with Ease, in the sense that we’re putting aside our ideas, our conditioning. 

If we think of Zazen in terms of the Virtues, we’re probably thinking of Equanimity. Compassion too, at a push. But Joy? That seems much more problematic. 

It’s difficult. It’s physically challenging. It’s psychologically very challenging. Surely the point of it is to enduringly go towards some state that we might term Enlightenment. Which might, of course, entail Joy. And I think that would be most people’s understanding of what Zazen is, and indeed what meditation is.

But Dogen doesn’t say that “at some point in the future, Zazen will be joyful”. He says that Joy is one of its principle characteristics, together with Ease. And I think to have any chance of understanding what he’s talking about, we have to go back to basics, and the basics for us mean the basics of the Posture.

It’s one of the peculiarities of Buddhism that the central feature of it is this very physical practice of meditation. But yet we’re not given huge amounts of instruction about how we’re supposed to sit. 

So for example, when I was first introduced to Zazen I was told only two things.

The first is that if you’re sitting in some variant of the cross-legged position, then your knees need to be on the ground. And that’s eminently practical, because if your knees are off the ground, propped up by a cushion, your back’s going to bow out and you’re going to be uncomfortable. And the second instruction, which is more ubiquitous I think, was that we should push up with the top of the head and tuck the chin in. 

And that was it. 

The instruction about the knees obviously makes sense. The instruction about pushing up with the top of the head is a terrible instruction, and it’s terrible because it’s introducing tension – more tension–into the head and neck. And it’s directing our attention to the wrong place. It’s like trying to improve the decor of the attic whilst the basement is collapsing from dry rot. 

So the foundation of our practice requires us to start lower down. What I say to my students, repetitively – but never enough – is that the absolute foundation of sitting is the correct position of your pelvis. That’s absolutely essential. And specifically you require to tilt your pelvis forward in such a way that your bum is sticking out a bit, so there’s a curve in your lower spine. And your weight is going down directly through your sit bones, and specifically the middle and front sections of your set bones.

And if you have that as your foundation, then everything above that stands a chance of being right. If your pelvis is in the right position, you’re not having to make an effort to keep your trunk straight. Your trunk is naturally straight. And you could sit upright for an indefinite period of time.

And likewise, because your pelvis is in the right position, your head can be in the right position as well. It can be nice and balanced, and not heavy on the trunk. And that produces tremendous benefits. Conversely, if we’re following some idiotic instruction like pushing up our head, whilst our pelvis is out of position, then we’re going to be uncomfortable and our attention is going to be disproportionately fixed on our head. 

Which means even more disproportionately on our thoughts, and we’ll state that the purpose of Zazen is to empty the mind. Then fruitlessly try to get rid of those ridiculous repetitive thoughts, and replace them with something wise, or empty. Or both.

However, if the body is in the right position, then our attention isn’t so much on our head and trying to do something with the head and neck. Our attention is much more on our torso. If we’re sitting in the right position, the musculature of our body is right, so those nice postural muscles are doing their proper job. And our breathing is naturally in our lower belly and our pelvis, primarily. It’s obviously not fixed there – because that creates more tension–but it’s primarily located there, naturally.

And here’s the point: if our body is balanced we’re released from the tyranny of the mind. If our body is balanced then our awareness can be embodied. And if awareness is embodied, then we have a lot more attention that we can give to our pelvis, to our belly, to our torso, to our throat. And the effect of all of that is that the stretching that we’re trying to do through our will if we’re trying to consciously push up with the top of our head seems to effortlessly occur, lower down. 

There is a sense of expansion and elongation in the torso but it’s not willed. It’s not something that we’re intentionally doing with our muscles. It’s something that happens naturally. 

Then we’re experiencing the body, the whole body, when we’re sitting. Not as some vehicle of the mind, but as something pleasurable and dynamically alive.

Hence, Joy.

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267. The Senses in Zazen

Our five familiar senses stand, as it were, at the border between our body and the world, gathering information about the world. Except, other than when we are in pain, our body, apart from its surface details, is largely unknown. Not in the abstract, obviously. We have a lot of information about our body. We have a body of knowledge. But we don’t, generally, have a body of feeling.

When we do zazen, the situation changes. Our familiar senses are displaced by ones less culturally familiar. The sense of the breath moving dynamically inside us in a dance with our flesh. The sense of the aliveness of the spine uncompressing itself, like a tree expressing how it is to be upward. And the sense of balance between this body and the great earth.

These senses have nothing to do with information, and everything to do with expression and interconnection: it’s a paradox. We constantly go on about non duality, yet zazen awakens the body from the stupor of the self. And this enlivened body of expression is our bridge, both symbolic and real, to the greater body of all beings.

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249. The body of the buddha

One of the most significant innovations of the Mahayana is the Dharmakaya; the idea that the whole universe is the body of the Buddha. It is a radical re-imagining and enlivening of our normal view, changing our picture of the universe from a collection of objective, separate and largely inanimate things, from which we are somehow separate, to one where everything is “alive” and expressive, within a greater, alive whole.

I believe it derives from our actual experience in zazen. When we sit, we are not within the primary alienation, which thinks of the body as an object, distinct from, yet controlled by, the self. Rather, we experience ourselves as activity and expression – aliveness – and there is no clear boundary between this body, and the great body of all being.

It is not that this small body becomes the great body, nor that this small deluded person becomes a great person, because this would simply be ego inflation on a grand scale. But rather, we are taken back into the heart of all being.