Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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.

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.