Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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. 

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

219. You’re the fool

Sometimes, as if in a dream, we enter a house called Buddha, sit at a table called Zazen, and opposite us is a fool; repetitive, moody, mocking. And the more we wish him to shut up, the louder he is. And we think that if we just endure this, at some point he will go away, or at least be silent, and then better companions: wisdom, compassion, stillness and so on will appear; and they need to appear soon, before we are thrown into nothingness.

We need to understand that we’re the fool. Wisdom, compassion, stillness have been there all along.

How so? Because each thing is everything. A pinpoint of light illuminates the entire universe.

Categories
Kusen

Zazen Instructions

When we talk about zazen, we need to be careful that our instructions do not casually reinforce the habitual dualities of body/mind and self/world. Yet, the most common instruction that newcomers are given does exactly this, the injunction to allow thoughts to come and go freely.

Perhaps we give this instruction because newcomers are always surprised and distressed at the unrelenting cascade of drivel that appears to be surging through them the moment they start sitting. But zazen is the practice of all of us, not just the mind.

After a while, what becomes more apparent is the persistent colouring of experience in a way that is often very disagreeable: agitation, fear, torpor, boredom, despair. How do we advise the student then? If we call these emotions, we somehow allocate them to the mind. If we call them disturbances of the nervous system, we somehow allocate them to the body. Either way, the duality is enforced.

We need to find a way to talk about practice which doesn’t take these familiar dualities for granted, only to try to dissolve them later.

One way is through the actual experience of breathing. If we pay careful attention, it is not that our breath is the movement of air in and out of our lungs, in and out of our mouth and nose. Our actual experience is that our breath goes everywhere. It goes up, into our head, it goes down, into our pelvis. It extends everywhere.

And, experiencing the breath in this way, it is possible to see a different duality: the dynamic movement of this spacious breath, like an expanding and contracting pillar of emptiness at our core. And around this pillar, likewise alive, likewise moving, the fabric of form; a fabric which is sometimes the body, sometimes the mind, sometimes the heart, sometimes the world.

Categories
Kusen

169. Zazen is not a practice of the self

The most important thing for us to understand is that Zazen is not a practice of the self. It is a practice of the Buddha.

That being so, it is not concerned with purifying or perfecting the self. Or setting the self off on a journey.

It is not concerned with furnishing the house of the self with wisdom and compassion.

But rather, becoming completely intimate with the ground.

My first teacher said, “What is it which stops the Universe from collapsing?”

He didn’t answer. Of course, he didn’t need to.

Categories
Kusen

160. Stilling the mind

With application, stilling the mind is not difficult. What is difficult is dropping off the sense of self. The sense of something to gain, something to lose. Self separate from the alive wholeness of everything.

Dropping off the sense of self, or ‘me’, which is central to our practice, means we do not describe practice in terms of acquisition, aspiring to acquire wisdom, enlightenment, compassion or whatever.

That is why we describe our practice as the whole universe experiencing itself through this body.

Categories
Kusen

158. Allowing thoughts to come and go

The practice of allowing thoughts to come and go freely and not attaching to them is an ancient practice. It goes right back to the origins of Buddhism.

But if we think the aim of this practice is just to make ‘the mind’ still, to make ‘consciousness’ empty; then our practice lacks compassion.

It’s for this reason that when Buddhism went to China and the Chinese truly made it their own, they changed the emphasis from emptiness to suchness. The unstatable state when we are no longer conceptually grasping experience, fabricating self and object, when everything is vivid and whole.

Not Nothing, but nothing that can be described. No-thing, because Everything.

Categories
Kusen

153. Restlessness and torpor

Of the five hindrances, three seem more related to the mind and two – restlessness and torpor – seem more related to the body.

Restlessness and torpor often arise because we misconceive the relationship between breath and body.

What is the body? Often, we conceive it as something fixed and rigid, like a stone house. And we then imagine that there is a technique of breathing – long slow out breaths say, or a focus on the lower abdomen – that we need to apply.

But we are mistaken.

We place such emphasis on the posture because it enables the breath to breathe itself. This breathing is like a column of enlivened space, from the base chakra in the pelvic floor upwards to the crown chakra at the top of the head. And the body is like fabric around this column. When we breathe in, the column expands and the fabric moves. When we breathe out, the column contracts and the fabric moves. The whole body breathes. The whole body moves.

Categories
Kusen

139. Shikantaza

Master Dogen described our practice of shikantaza as dropping off body and mind.

The Japanese which is rendered as ‘dropping off’ has two aspects. One is intentional, as we might drop off an article of clothing. The other is natural, like leaves falling in Autumn.

Dropping off mind, means dropping off that dualism between mind and world, and which is often prominent, although unacknowledged, in meditation.

So we don’t think, “I must make my mind clear, my thoughts are an encumbrance to that”. But rather, thoughts are just one more thing going on within unbroken experience, where there is not inner and outer, me and not-me.

And likewise dropping off body, we don’t think “My body is experiencing these sensations and emotions”, but rather, there is just this experiencing, which includes everything.

We can drop off Mind, in the sense that we can relocate the mind within the body, but we need to drop off both, otherwise the dualism remains.

So dropping off body and mind is, as it were, sitting within the body of the world. It is not to do with individual gain, or individual effort, and so it is the gateway to peace and joy.