409. Satori

The Japanese word satori is variously translated as realisation, verification, awakening and enlightenment, amongst others. The reason for this breadth is that it encompasses three distinct Chinese Expressions. 

The first is ‘practice realisation/verification: one hears the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, interdependence and so on. One then  practices and the practice verifies the teaching— you realise it’s true.

The second is something like asleep/awakening. We  awaken from the dream of the self or we awaken within the dream of the self. 

The third is delusion/enlightenment. The ideogram for it is quite interesting. The top part is something like ‘mind’ and the bottom part of it has these little legs.  The suggestion is that in a state of delusion these little legs, prompted by thoughts, carry us to this place, that place, and this other place, all without ceasing. By implication Enlightenment is the stopping of this -not  of the thought but being carried hither and thither without cease. And thus, by necessary  implication,  our aim as practitioners is not to void the mind, but it is to understand our egoic latching on to thoughts and those thoughts then taking us everywhere in the kind of habitual distracted agitated way that many of us experience.

What we need to understand is that these little legs of delusion can only take us somewhere when we’re on the ground of the self. Otherwise, the little legs don’t work. When we’re ‘standing’ on emptiness, they don’t work. 

This, all our mental activity, all our thinking doesn’t remain the distraction that (from a self-centred point of view) we think it is,  but rather becomes a manifestation of the interdependence of everything. So we don’t need to go looking for somewhere outside of ourselves to find the truth of what the Buddha was talking about. The very mundane activity of banal thought which, when we start meditation we think we need to get away from, is that very thing which, when seen from other than a self-centred perspective is, in itself, interdependence.  


402. Original Face

The Japanese word usually translated as ‘original’ occurs in many distinctive phrases—‘original nature’, ‘original face’, ‘original person’, and so on. 

When we hear this phrase ‘original nature’ or ‘original person’, we might think that underneath the grime of our karma is something which is our true


The problem, as often occurs in the translation of Japanese terms to English, is the translation’s wrong. The Japanese word which is translated as ‘original’ has two parts. The first part does mean original or true, amongst other meanings.

But what of the second part?

That part means ‘portion’ or ‘part of’. So when you put the two together and add ‘person’, the phrase ‘original person’ doesn’t mean that there’s something inside of you which is originally you. What it is saying is that the ‘original person’ is everything in non-duality, and you are a part of that wholeness. 


385. Natural, not intentional

One of the reasons for the peculiar forms Chinese Buddhism took was a recognition that there’s an apparent contradiction at the heart of Buddhism. If we say that life is suffering and what causes suffering is desire, and so we should be free of desire, then isn’t that itself a desire?

Likewise in the Shin Jin Mei where it says “The Great Way is not difficult, only avoid picking and choosing”. Isn’t the intentional avoidance of picking and choosing itself a kind of preference? 

It’s because of this recognition that there was a shift within Chinese Buddhism from an intentional state to a natural state—from an intentional state to a spontaneous state. This, fortuitously, chimed in well with existing Chinese culture.

Yet we can’t will ourselves to be natural; we can’t will ourselves to be spontaneous; any more than we can will ourselves to be surprised. 

But despite that, naturalness and spontaneity plainly arise.

If we have naturalness rather than intentional action as our basic position, then we can start to understand two associated things. 

One is that enlightenment is already here, so we’re not required to drive ourselves forward to attain something that we don’t presently have. Rather, we need to change our perspective, take our blinkers off.

The second is the position of faith. Underlying naturalness is a deep faith that this world and this person is complete and perfect as is. We don’t need to keep flapping the wings of egotistical spiritual self-improvement for fear that we fall into nothingness. Rather, the ground of faith [Buddha Nature, if you want to use that language], is always here, like an invisible sun. 


301. The Buddha’s Enlightenment

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, like the Nativity story, developed over time. In the best known version, the Buddha sits down under the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he attains enlightenment.

As he’s sitting through the night  Mara appears, and attempts to unsettle him with apparitions to create fear and sexual desire. Yet whether he is unsettled or not, the Buddha continues to sit.  As dawn approaches, the Buddha touches the ground with his hand, and Mara and his forces disappear. As dawn breaks, he looks up to the sky and sees the morning star, Venus. And at that point he attains awakening.

The earliest versions of the Buddhist enlightenment contain hardly any of these ingredients. We’re simply told that he attained Nirvana. Not that he attained enlightenment. And it’s clear from the context that Nirvana is not a unique quality or faculty which only the Buddha had, but is something readily available to other people, once the nature of our existence is understood.

So when the Buddha starts teaching, others will frequently attain Nirvana too.

Elaborating the  story to make it about the Buddha’s enlightenment carries the risk of removing him from the whole messy mass of humanity. Changing him from being a very unusual person to a unique person.

Yet there’s also a way of looking at the enlightenment story which is a simple description of our experience in zazen. The tree – the Bodhi tree – under which the Buddha is sheltering-  is hollow, empty. It has no self essence, only location and connection. Its branches extend everywhere into space. Its roots extend everywhere in time. It’s a clear symbol of interdependence.

The ground which the Buddha touches is the ground of your practice body. And Mara, I would have thought, is clearly indicative of intruding and habitual patterns of thought and feeling. The space, which is actualised by the Buddha looking up and seeing the morning star through and within this vast space, is the space of awareness in zazen.

What’s the function of the morning star? The word that is rendered as enlightenment,yet ‘Bodhi’ doesn’t have any connotations of light, or of illumination. It simply means ‘awakened’. Yet it’s said (in the story) that at the moment of his enlightenment the Buddha said, “Now I and all other beings are enlightened.”

If you think about light, then the light – space, illuminated –  must permeate everywhere. If it didn’t then he could neither see the morning star, or anything else. But at the same time the morning star is particular. So it is both particular and universal. As are we.  


155. Avoid picking and choosing

The verses of faith mind starts:

The Great Way is not difficult

Only avoid picking and choosing.

When love and hate do not arise,

Things cease to exist, in the old way.

It is not that things cease to exist, but that they cease to exist ‘in the old way’, that is, dualistically. Me here. The world way out there. Each of us, looking for ropes, looking for snares.

When we sit we relax our gaze; the world isn’t ‘out there’ any longer. It is not sliced up into this and that. Any longer

If our gaze is relaxed, then our gaze includes our eyes, and the whole head and the whole body. The gaze encompasses everything

Is this not ceasing to exist in the old way?


137. The metaphor of the mirror in zen

In Chinese Buddhism the image of a mirror is very frequent, both to describe practice and to describe enlightenment.

It is quite difficult for us to understand, because when we think of a mirror we think of two: the image in the mirror and the owner of that image.

The whole point of the metaphor however is that there is not two: there is just the mirror.

In the mirror, what appears to be separate is really just part of the whole image.

So each individual thing is there and not there.

Similarly, and perhaps unlike the thing itself, we can look on the image with equanimity.

Understanding all this, we are inclined to see the mirror as being a description of how the universe is. But actually, it’s a description of how the practitioner is. It’s a description of practice.

The reflection is the whole body: the masks of the present moment reconnected with the faces of the past, the tendrils of thought dipping deep into bodily sensation. The mirror is infinitely angled: from the past to the present, from the mind to the body, from this body to all bodies, from the storm to the lingering debris; all directions.

We can’t see it with the eyes.


114. Shiho

Zen is transmitted I Shin Den Shin. ‘Shin’ is mind, or heart. So, from one real person to another. But how many is the real person? One, or many, or both?

‘Mind’ doesn’t mean the personal, karmic mind, obviously. And, likewise, heart.

In the Shiho, the document of transmission, the whole lineage is written out, one name after the other. And all the names are connected by a single red thread. A heart thread. So all the names are an expression of that heart.

This heart.


108. The Ghost Cave

In Zen, the fixed self is sometimes referred to as the Ghost Cave.

We can see our practice as a kind of dynamic coming and going. From this place out into the illuminated universal and back again into the apparent personal, and so on, endlessly. The metaphor of cave, an opening in the mountain, is worth paying attention to.

The self is not characterized as a prison, something we are trapped within. Or something to be annihilated. Rather, it is to be understood. It is a Ghost Cave because we do not understand it. The ghosts are restless because they do not understand themselves.

This cave is part of the Great Mountain of all things. It is our only way inside this mountain. Dynamic, compassionate awareness pacifies the mind. Pacifies the whole mountain.


96. Who’s What?

When I was little, I would point at things and ask my mother, “What’s that?”

And my mother would patiently reply “that’s a tree”, “that’s a car”, and so on.

As I kept asking the question, other voices would say, “That’s how things are.””This is life and this is death.” And so on.

So when I am looking at the world, looking at myself, it is always as if I am looking through the eyes of someone else.

And the mind’s eye, likewise. That’s why, when we practice, it’s very important that we soften our gaze. The world comes to us, not in the familiar way, but an intimate way.   Seeing this way becomes an aspect of a broader felt sense. The breath moving inside us. Our weight. The birdsong touching our ears.

Self or no-self? Isn’t the answer obvious?


38. Compassionate Mind

Compassionate Mind is essential for practice.

The noise in our head is like a small child. If we follow the noise, it will never grow up. If we hate or ignore the noise, we cut out our own heart. We need to hold the noise in vast, compassionate space; vast compassionate awareness.

It is this space which allows it, and all beings, to live.