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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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309. Non-attachment, Nonseparation

Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion

Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty

Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.

When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.

Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.

When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.

We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.

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308. The Posture of Zazen

Most contemporary discourse on meditation talks about it in terms of consciousness: what’s going on in our mind; our thoughts; the intrusiveness and nature of those thoughts; all that sort of stuff. And behind that – but not very far behind – is the idea that meditation has a purpose, which is self development. That idea is wrong.

When asked why Buddhism, throughout its history, has insisted on meditation in the cross-legged position they usually say something like, “Well that was just the position that was comfortable for people in classical India.” Except, it would have been equally comfortable for people then to have meditated standing up, or leaning against a tree, or lying down, or sitting in their easy chair, or whatever.

We’ve no reason to think that the cross-legged position was universally comfortable for people. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have meditation instructions by Dogen, for example, which clearly make allowances for people who are incapable of sitting in the full lotus position.

It’s very illuminating to look at the full lotus position as a yoga posture. And if you’ve seen anyone do that, it’s plainly a dynamic posture. The practitioner requires to sit with a tilt on the pelvis, pushing the buttocks out. They’re clearly sitting on their sit bones and they have to get their knees on the ground. And once they manage to do all that, it’s a very dynamic posture: their base chakra (the perineum) is open and in contact with the ground. And there’s a stretch of the whole body between the base chakra and the crown chakra (the fontanelle, at the crown of the head). It feels as if there’s a push coming from the earth, uncompressing the spine, pushing the head upwards.

The only difference between the yoga posture and the customary meditation position is that meditators place a cushion under the pelvis, which makes the posture easier.

It’s also worth noting that in Tantric practices (like the microcosmic orbit in Chinese Tantra) again the cross-legged position is used. The purpose is different: to circulate energy up the back energy channel, then down the front channel. Although it may be of some significance that Bodhidharma, as well as being the founder of Chinese Zen is also (probably apocryphally) the founder of Chinese Tantra, as well as Kung Fu.

The marginalisation of the body in contemporary discourse about meditation is, I think, mistaken. And if that’s so, we’re obliged to look at meditation, not primarily through the lens of consciousness, but as a dynamic interplay between the alive whole body, the dynamic breath and wide and vivid awareness. And within all that, somewhere, is the mind – but it’s no longer of central importance.

And accordingly, whether the mind is busy or quiet, agitated or peaceful, is no longer the most important thing going on in our practice. Put the body in the correct position and it is – we are – naturally activated. The push which rises up, uncompressing our spine, is not something which we’re determining with our will. It’s not something which we’re creating with our voluntary muscles. It’s just something which, as it were, we’re a witness to. 

But not a bystander. 

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307. Dropping off body and mind

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way. 

Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.

So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.

So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.

If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else. 

We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.

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303. Pai-chang’s Three Levels of Zazen

Pai-chang, one of Master Mazu’s principal successors, said that there were three levels of zazen.

The first level, which he equated with Theravadan practice, is non-attachment. At this level, the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky is apposite. So we do not grasp or attach to our thoughts and feelings. And we allow them to come and go freely in this non-attachment.

And in terms of the metaphor, our mind and our awareness is like the broad sky. So this stage would correspond with emptiness. So: emptiness, non-attachment, non-grasping.

The second level, which Pai-chang calls the Trap of Bodhisattvas, is when we are no longer attached to non-attachment. So we, as it were, open our heart and are not separate or detached from all beings. This opens a compassionate space which we can equate with the Bodhisattva.

So in terms of the Lotus sutra, for example, the first stage corresponds with the vehicle of the Sravakas (the voice hearers) or the Pratyekabuddhas (the self-enlightening practitioners). And the second level corresponds with the Bodhisattva vehicle.

The “trap” of the second level is that there is still a self.

At his third level  that residual sense of self (compassionate self) is dropped off. And so there’s just simply what can be variously termed: ‘one piece Zen’; ‘suchness’; ‘the Buddha vehicle’ ( in Lotus sutra parlance); ‘one mind’ (to use Mazu’s term); and so on. So just simply this ‘is-ness’. Which includes these other vehicles, as nothing is left out.

And we might imagine that what we require to do as practitioners is to develop the first level as a foundation. And once we’ve done that then we move up the levels. And so we find our way to the third level and we stay there.

But it seems to me, whilst it’s true that we require to develop a foundation, that we experience all three levels freely within our actual sitting.

So it’s not like there are heightening rooms which we can progressively enter and remain in. Rather, it is like spaces within this vast single hall of practice where all beings can stand.

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302. Practice Realisation

One of the three meanings of satori is ‘practice realisation’. Practice realisation is an abbreviation of a longer phrase which is something like, “I hear the teachings of the Buddha (on matters like interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suffering and so on). I accept those teachings. Accordingly I practise zazen. And through practising zazen I have the realisation that those teachings are true.”

‘Realisation’ here has two meanings. Firstly that from my perspective, practice leads me to accept at a more fundamental level the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Second, ‘realisation’ also means objectively that my practice actualises – makes real –  those teachings.

And that brings into view a wider issue: the relationship between the teachings and Zazen, which can be problematic for some Zen practitioners, who have an unfortunate tendency to be proudly ignorant  through misunderstanding Bodhidharma’s poem that Zen is “A special transmission outside the scriptures, No reliance on words or letters”.

The relationship between the teachings and practice is a symbiotic spiral. It’s not simply that I do zazen, realise that the teachings are true and then put the teachings away and never attend to them again. No. The teachings enable the landscape of zazen to be opened out, illuminated. And vice versa. My experience of zazen enables me to engage with the teachings in a deeper and more personal way.

We can see the teachings throughout buddhist history not as a progression where deficiencies are identified then dealt with by a subsequent development. But rather that all the teachings map on, in some sense, to our experience in zazen. Not like a shadow, but like a partner.

So for instance, we have the original teachings which focus very much on allowing our experience to come and go freely, not getting attached to thoughts and so on. We have the later teachings on emptiness. And then we have teachings, particularly the Chinese tradition from the Tang Dynasty onward, which focus on suchness.

It’s not that these different teachings represent some kind of progression toward perfection,  but rather they’re locations in a gradually elaborated landscape where we can come and go freely, like a little bird. The landscape elaborates itself because of love.

If our life is very stormy then we may want to shelter in the cave of the original teachings, where we’re just simply very attentive to our inchoate experience coming and going freely, like a storm blowing somewhere else.

And other times we might want to be freely flying in this vast space of empty awareness.

And other times we might be within this one-piece compassionate sitting where the heart is everywhere.

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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 marvously 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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278. Joshu’s Man of True Practice

A monk asked, “I wonder if a man of true practice can be perceived by gods and demons, or not?” The master said, “They can perceive him.”

The monk said, “Where’s his fault?” The master said, “Faults are wherever they are looked for.”

The monk said, “In that case it is not practice.” The master said, “It is practice.

When we start sitting it may well be from the perspective of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha. In other words, we are drawn to practice in the belief that it  will lessen my suffering, or practice will bring me benefit, ideally enlightenment, but after a while we realise that we have completely misunderstood the nature of practice, and that the misunderstanding was necessary.

It is as if, within experience, there are multitudes. Our way of practice is not to skewer these dharmas on the needle of our definition, but to allow them to be, in all their multifacetedness and thus, quiescent, whether they vex us or not.

It may not be Nirvana as we imagine it, but it is.

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276. Labelling a Thought

Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?

I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.

There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here. 

One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.

But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable. 

As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes. 

This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it. 

It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to. 

Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.

In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.

It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.

And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent. 

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268. What is Zazen?

Master Dogen asked “ If the cart is stuck, do you beat the ox or beat the cart?”

In other words, what is zazen? Is it an effort to purify the mind, or is it the full effort of this body of practice to express itself fully?

And in his greatness, his unique position, he answers “the cart”.

This body of practice is not the pictured lump of flesh, it is our actual experience. Freed from this picture, whether “the mind” is agitated or peaceful is of no consequence; it is like an electron in a cathedral.