The Staff of the Hermit of the Lotus Flower Peak

Engo’s Introduction:

If the mind cannot get beyond something and nothing, you fall into a sea of poison. If you can distinguish the true from the false in as much time as a spark flies from flint when it is struck, if you can give or take life in a flash of lightning, then you can cut off the ten directions and stand firm like a thousand foot cliff. Who would ever be so? See the following.

The Case

The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff and said to the assembly, “When the Ancients got here, why did they not consent to stay here?” No one could answer, so he answered for them, “Because it is of no use on the way of life.” And then he asked, “After all, what would you do with it?” He made a verse that said, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people, I go straight into the myriad peaks”. And then Etcho’s verse, “To his eyes filled with sand, to his ears filled with dirt, he does not consent to stay in the myriad peaks. Falling flowers, flowing streams, very vast, he leaves no trace.
Let us discuss Engo’s introduction. “If the mind cannot get beyond something and nothing, you fall into a sea of poison.” What is there beyond ‘something and nothing’? What is there beyond ‘it is and it is not?’ It is not a rhetorical question; it is a real one. If there is nothing beyond ‘it is and it is not,’ then we are condemned to live within what Engo calls a sea of poison. The question is not only what is there beyond something and nothing, it is also what is beyond life and death? Again if death is the end, if there is nothing beyond life and death, if it is simply a matter of being born and dying, then why all the anguish, why all the suffering, why all the tribulation that goes on in between? What are we struggling to know, or to be, or to find, or to have? Humankind is engaged in a desperate struggle; we see this right down through the ages, all the wars, revolutions, all of the struggles, all of the strife, all of the creativity, the destruction, all of that has gone on between life and death. Why? Why is there this constant and tremendous explosion of creativity and destruction if it is simply a matter of living and dying?

We ask constantly, how can one live and not wonder 24 hours of the day about what is going on around us? When we just look at the political strife, the strife between nations, the greed, the poverty, and the brilliance, what is it about? What is going on? The question ‘what is beyond something and nothing’ is not an idle, rhetorical or Zen question; it is the question. The question, ‘What am I?’ has, as we will see, three elements: what is the sense of self; what is beyond the sense of self; what gives rise to the sense of self?

“If you can distinguish the true from the false in as much time as a spark flies from flint…” In other words, if you can live spontaneously, if you can see beyond dwelling in doubt “is it or is it not” “shall I or shall I not”, “will I or will I not”, the constant sense of being in a sea of indecision, if you can get beyond that, if you can give or take life in a flash of lightning… Give and take life, say yes and no, be with it as it is, or against it as it is, then you can cut off the ten directions and stand firm like a thousand foot cliff. Then you’ll no longer have to orient, locate, establish yourself as something.

The case begins by saying,” The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff.” What does the staff refer to? As you know, if you’ve seen pictures of travelling Zen monks, they invariably carry a staff. It is about as tall as they are, and often used either to dig their way along rocky pathways, ford rivers and climb mountains. So, what is this staff? Shibayama said a koan is like a blind man who is poking around with his staff precariously at the edge of a cliff, and the master takes away the staff, whirls the blind man around 3 times and throws him to the ground.

The staff is what we lean on, it is our constant support and companion, it is what helps us out in difficult situations. So then, what is that? What is this staff?

The staff is the sense of self, it is the personality, it is, if you want to use the word, the ego. The master Shan Tao held up his staff and said: All the ancient Buddhas are thus, all the future Buddhas are thus, all the present Buddhas are thus. What is he saying? He is holding up his stick above his head. “All the Buddhas are thus”, what does that mean? It means they are without support, they are no longer dependent, they are no longer leaning on a staff in order to get through life. When you no longer lean on the staff, not only as a support but also as a point of reference, then you are free.

Hsueh Feng held up his staff and said, “This one is just for people of medium and low faculties.” Obviously, he holds up his staff in a different way. “This one” is what people of medium and low faculties need to lean on, with which they find their way through life. But does he hold it up in a different way? Is it the same staff? The answer to that question is given in the following mondo.

A monk asked, “When you unexpectedly encounter someone of the highest potential, then what?” When you meet someone who is fully awakened, then what? What do you do in the face of that? And Hsueh Feng picked up his staff and left.

You don’t throw away the staff. So Feng uses the staff as a staff, not as the ultimate support, not as that upon which he had to depend; but nevertheless, he uses the staff. We don’t need to kill the sense of self; we don’t need to destroy it. The sense of self is really much like a servant; it is essential if we are going to live in a social world. The idea that we are going to be completely free of it, that we will no longer need it, that we are going to get beyond needing it in a complete and utter way, is an idea that is often conveyed in Indian Hinduism. This idea that someone somehow floats six feet above the ground, is not the Zen way. At the end of the Ten Ox Herding pictures is a monk who started off searching desperately everywhere for the ox, and ends up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a bag in the other, walking through the market. In other words, the transcendent and the immanent are completely at home. There is no separation, there is no difference.

But, before we leave the last story, what about “he picked up his staff and left”? You are face to face with someone who is fully awakened, you are in the presence, what do you do? Feng picks up his staff and walks off. What does that mean? We also encounter this action in a similar way in another story. Emperor Wu had a wonderful experience of the light, of a brilliant light, and all the courtiers congratulated him, except for one monk, a Buddhist monk. The Emperor asked, “Why is it that everyone is congratulating me, but you are not?” And the monk said, “The light that you saw was the light of your guardian angel, it was not the light of Buddha.” And the Emperor asked, ‘but what is the Buddha’s light?’ And the monk turned around and left. What is this, what is being said? Don’t look outside; be in the situation. The reason you have these stories and study koans is to encourage you to inhabit the situation. Do not look upon them as you might look upon some formula, or encounter them as you might encounter some theory, something that you can hold at arm’s length, and discuss and consider and ponder and criticize. You have to be in the story, in the koan. All koans are inviting you to come in, to work from within; you are Hsueh Feng walking away. What then do you leave behind? What is beyond something and nothing?

Ummon said, “I would use a different method to break up a monk’s confusion.” And a monk asked, “What would you do?” and Ummon hit him. What is the difference between Ummon striking the monk and the monk seeing someone walk away?

Zen constantly brings out this difference, although it is often missed in Western Zen: it is the difference between essence and function. This is a vital difference and is referred to in the koan which we are now working on.

A well-known story illustrates the difference. A monk and a master are hoeing in the garden, digging up the weeds. The master asks the monk, “What is it?” And the monk stands up thrusting his hoe into the ground. And the master said, “You have got the essence; you don’t have the function.” And the monk asked, “But what is the function?” and the master went on hoeing. Sometimes you work with a koan that wants to bring out the essence: for example “Buddha just sat.” Other times you work with a koan that gets at the function: “Whenever Gutei was asked a question he would simply raise a finger.” When the ox herding pictures end with the monk in the marketplace, meeting people, working with people and buying and selling and doing all that the rest of us do, he is exercising function.

If you are simply interested in getting something that is called kensho, awakening, satori or whatever, if you are just working with that in mind, you are only working with half of what the teaching is about, and, moreover, that half itself can become its own kind of sickness. As you probably know, there is the sickness of emptiness. It is very often accompanied by what is called ‘the stink of Zen.’ You can encounter this in Zen Centers. Some people, who are purported to have had kensho, carry with them an aura, accompanied by an awful smell. The aura is one of aloofness, an “I have made it,” along with a “poor you” attitude. You get it very often also among Christian priests and nuns, this awful stink of holiness, of righteousness.

Hakuin, in the Four Ways of Knowing, talks about the dharmakaya, the Great Mirror Wisdom, the Great Mirror Knowing. This is the first ‘encounter’ that we have. It is kensho; it is total openness. But then there is the wisdom or knowing of equality; this the wisdom of “what more do you want?” Mumon puts it this way:
Hundreds of flowers in spring,
The cool breeze in summer,
The moon in autumn,
snow in winter.”
One sees everything as it is.
Then there is the wisdom or knowing of differentiation – differentiation is quite different to discrimination. For example, the koan of two monks rolling up a blind. As Yasutani would say, “Even a cracked cup is perfect.” Another master said: everything is unique; there is no difference.
And then finally, there is the wisdom or knowing of action: walking, talking, laughing, writing, speaking. This is what I am asking about when I ask: who walked through the door? This is the wisdom that we call upon to sit down or stand up. This is function. Unfortunately, when asked, “Who sits?” or, “Who stands?” most people look for something or someone, they are still trying to find something. Or they work by searching within the essence, seeking to grasp the ‘nothing’ that they conceive themselves to be. Others believe that before they can answer the question they must have had some beautiful, ineffable, experience.
I would now like to refer to something said by the Hermit of the Lotus Peak. He said, “Whenever you study and ask questions (whenever you practice) there are not so many things to be concerned with” (there is not much that you need to know, to worry about.) He says, “Concerns arise because outside you conceive that mountains and rivers and the great earth exist” (you see cars and houses and highways exist in some absolute, complete way); “within you perceive that seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing exist“ (they are something. You say, I see with my eyes and I hear with my ears…seeing and hearing are something; one might say that they go on in the world); “above you see that there are various Buddhas that can be sought” (in other words, there is this whole realm of ideas, of the openness of the understanding the theories and so on); “and below you see that there are sentient beings who can be saved “(the ordinary saha world). “You must simply spit them all out at once(all of this that we are concerned with, all of this that takes up our time, all that we conceive of as existing whenever when we come to practice Zen).

“Afterwards, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, 24 hours a day you fuse everything into one” (Once you have spat it all out, once, to use Dogen’s words, “You have dropped body and mind” everything is open as oneness, everything is open as one whole. In other words, you spit them out because you’ve been living in a fragmented world. After spitting them out you come back and see that fragmented world is now just one unified whole, one harmony, one totality).”Then, though you are on top of a hair it’s as broad as the universe.” (Hamlet said, I could be confined in a nutshell, yet call myself king of infinite space. Wherever you are, you are free. Whatever goes on you have this fundamental refuge); “though you dwell in a boiling cauldron or in furnace embers, it is like being in the land of peace and happiness; though you dwell amidst gems and jewels in profusion, it’s like being in a thatched hut. If you are a competent adept you get to the one reality naturally without wasting effort.” You get to the one reality.

Someone commenting on what I have just quoted said, “There are eyes in the hermit’s words but his meaning is outside the words.” So what does that mean, “there are eyes in the hermit’s words”? Zen speaks of dead words and live words, words that are blind and words that have eyes and are alive, meaningful and fill the world with light. And why does he say, “but his meaning is outside the words”? It is like a master said, “Once you have the meaning, you can throw away the words.”

In another commentary along the same line, a master said, “Seven hundred eminent monks at the fifth patriarch’s place all understood the Buddha’s teaching. There was only one workman, Hui Neng, who did not understand the Buddha’s teaching. He just understood the path, that is why he obtained the Patriarch’s robe and bowl. Tell me how far apart are the Buddha’s teaching and the path?” A monk asked a master ‘What is truth?” “Ask the wall!” retorted the master. ‘I don’t understand,” complained the monk. “I don’t understand either said the master.

So let’s continue with the case. “The hermit of the Lotus Peak held up his staff.” So let me repeat what is the meaning of this? He held up his staff, what does that implies? What staff is it that he is holding up? He said to the assembly, “When the Ancients got here, why did they not consent to stay here?” Where? He is saying: when the Ancients came to awakening why did they not stay there? No one could answer, so he answered for them. “Because it is of no use on the way of life.”

That is true. On its own awakening means nothing. Hakuin emphasizes this time and time again. This is why he wrote the book on The Four Ways of Knowing. He says, “Because it is of no use on the way of life.” And again he asks, “After all, what would you do with it?” Well you can walk around and tell everyone, telling them how you came to awakening and when you came to awakening. You can make a big fuss of it!

The hermit made a verse saying: “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people, I go straight into the myriad peaks.” What does that mean? What are the myriad peaks? There was a master who said, “Peak after peak of snow covered mountains.” Climbing the mountain is a symbol for the work that we do. Someone said that Buddha went up the mountain for himself and went down for other people. Or it is said: One goes up the mountain for wisdom and goes down the mountain with compassion. So it is a symbol of the work; and the peak the – koan is about the hermit of the Lotus Flower peak – is the awakened state. So therefore when it starts off with “the hermit of the lotus peak held up his staff”, it means he is awakened. This is why he is saying, “I am awakened, why is it not sufficient to stay here?” and then he says, “With my staff across my shoulder (again something is being said by ‘the staff across my shoulder), I pay no heed to people (one has to understand that as well. In other words, he is not looking for guidance; he is not looking for suggestions or the support of others. He is completely and freely independent) and he goes straight into the myriad peaks”. In other words, there is not one mountain, there is not just one peak; there is peak upon peak of snow covered mountains. One does not stop, there is no stop, it is like Dogen said: “There is no beginning to awakening or end to practice, there is no beginning to practice or end to awakening.”

But how does he go into these myriad peaks? And Etcho provides us with the answer. He says, “With his eyes filled with sand, with his ears filled with dirt”. What is going on? He is blind and he is deaf; what kind of blindness, what kind of deafness is this? It is said that there are several levels of blindness. There is the blindness of the person who has never even considered the possibility that a transcendent realm is possible; and this sadly is the vast majority of people that you are going to meet. Sitting on the metro when you look round, that is if you are awake, you see everyone around is fast asleep, each has a glazed look in their eyes, a sag in their body, a sense of lostness, and this is how they live their lives. The fact that so few people hear the call is indeed a cause for very profound sorrow. This is why I continue to give workshops. It is not simply in order to bring people here to the Center; that is not it at all. Just to tell people, just to say there is a possibility, to say that you can actually find a way beyond this life of suffering, to say that, to allow people to hear it, is itself of great value. Of course again, one does have to be careful. We are not going around proselytizing, preaching, trying to persuade people they ought to practice; don’t waste your time and don’t hurt people doing this. But if people show some kind of responsiveness, if there is some interest, just fan that flame whatever it is, just a little. Not to bring them to Zen; it does not matter whether the flame bursts in as a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu flame, it does not really matter. I am not saying they are equal; it is not the point. But the idea that there is something more, there is a possibility, that we do not have to continue to live as machines, is something one can do to help.

But then there are the blind people who are working on themselves and they just cannot see what is right in front of their nose. It is there; we can’t say it more clearly. What more do you want? This is it. You do not have to take a step, you do not have to find something that you have lost – if you hear the sound of traffic, that is enough it. But it is not the sound of traffic; it is hearing the sound of traffic. Not to know how to open the eyes, to hear with the eyes, this is a form of blindness.

Next is the blindness of the one who has just come to awakening. He is dazzled; he is blinded by the truth; he is blinded by the truth because he feels that truth is something, is an experience, that he has encountered it. It is that- that is it! This is the blindness that the hermit is talking about. If the one coming to awakening does not go beyond it, he lives constantly in a worse kind of blindness than the people in the metro.

And then there is the blindness of the Buddha. It is like Bodhidharma when someone asked him, “What are you?” he said, “I don’t know”. This is the blindness of Buddha.

And what is the blindness of the hermit of the Lotus Peak? His eyes filled with sand… what kind of blindness does he have? “He does not consent to stay in the myriad peaks.” Now what is that? The hermit has said, “I go straight into the myriad peaks.” But Etcho said, “He does not consent to stay there.”

This koan is teaching us or showing us something which is so very important. I have been reading some criticisms on what is called Buddhist modernism. And the constant refrain of these articles, of these criticisms, is that the North American Buddhists use the practice in a completely self-centered way. All they want is to get to the top of the peak, all they want is awakening. And it is for this very reason that I have chosen this koan today. Are you just interested in coming to awakening for yourself? Can you answer that question honestly? And if so, then answer the question of the hermit: When the Ancients got here, when they got that that you are so desperately seeking, why didn’t they stay there? He says, “Because it is of no use.”

One of the difficulties in a lay community like ours is that we do not really work with the sangha. As you know, the three treasures in Buddhism are Buddha, which, if you like, is awakening; Dharma, which, if you like, is the teaching; and Sangha, which, if you like, are the people with whom you work. It can get broader than that but we won’t go into that. We will concentrate on this at the moment: but we don’t have what we could realy call a Sangha. Because we can’t.

One of the things we have done is to reduce workdays to the minimum, to twice a year. Other sanghas have these on a regular basis. People are expected to attend workdays regularly. For a long time, Jean and I did the work here. We used to do the shopping, the clean-up of the zendo, all of it. And the reason we did so was because members at that time had young families, many were just starting on a career and many of them just did not have the possibility of coming to sit once or twice a week in addition to doing a lot of other chores. We recognized that. And so therefore there was not the possibility of getting people to realise that when you work, when you come to a workday, you are not simply coming to amuse yourself or to make friends, you are working for the Center, you are working for the Sangha. At one tine we had ten members who were residents in the house, we had a kind of community, and we expected those ten people, as a condition of their living in the house, to attend all the sittings, morning and evening and week-ends, and as many sesshins as possible. We were trying to establish that one did not come to the Center to sit in the zendo simply in order to come to awakening. One came in order to assist others. If there are only 2 or 3 people in the zendo, there is not the power that you get when there is a full zendo. Then there is a sense of energy, of dynamism, of reality. And this is the most elementary way that anyone can help and work with the sangha.

There are now relatively few people who are doing the work involved with running a Centre. This is another way you can help. Don’t wait to be told or asked to help with the work. You are there to help the sangha. The idea that we are simply working in order that “I” can come to awakening is itself simply a continuation of the “me culture” that dominates our society at the moment. With all of this grabbing money and just being interested in what “I” can get out of the world – we are being swamped by this kind of attitude. It is no good protesting against capitalism, against commercialism or against global economy or against war, as long as you have got one idea: “I” want to come to awakening.

Remember the stirring speech that John Kennedy gave in which he said, “Do no ask what my country can do for me, ask what I can do for my country.” Don’t ask what the Center can do for me or what Zen can do for me, ask what you can do for the Center.

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Gate, gate paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha
(Gone , gone , gone beyond, gone right beyond, Bodhi , svaha)

At the end of the sutra, Prajna Paramita Hridya, we chant, “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha!” Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone right beyond, and then, Bodhi. The whole of the Prajnaparamita is summed up in “going beyond.” The Prajnaparamita Hridya is a summation of the teaching of the Prajnaparamita school, one of the major schools of the Mahayana. The sutra can be reduced to, “ Gone, gone, gone beyond.”

The reason for working with a koan, such as “Who am I?” is to go beyond: beyond the sense of self, the sense “I am something.” This does not mean that we try to get rid of “I am something.” We do not say to ourselves, “I think I am something, but I am wrong; therefore I must I be nothing” In a similar way, a master said, “From the beginning not a thing is,” but that does not mean that we must dismiss things and see the world as a great hole; we must go beyond ‘I am’ and ‘things.’

So, what does ‘to go beyond’ mean?

Looking at a picture that hangs on the wall, you may be enchanted by the colour, forms, the proportions and design; but you ignore the canvas on which the painting was painted. And so it is with thoughts, ideas, emotions, as well as with the feeling of “I am,” and “the world is real:” all are painted on the canvas of Bodhi, or knowing. We ignore or forget the knowing, or, to use Gurdjieff’s words, “We forget ourselves.”

After we wake up from sleep, in retrospect, it seems as though sleep was just a blank; it seems there had been just nothing. But we can also remember similar blanks if we look back on a day. Sometimes at the end of a day we just cannot remember any of the day’s activities; we just feel that we have lived in a complete vacuum. But when we were living through that ‘vacuum’ we were deeply involved.

It is the same when we are asleep. When we are asleep, we are deeply involved, totally involved, but nothing stands out as a memory. Furthermore, during the night we drift in and out of dreams. When dreaming, we are neither awake nor fully asleep. Sometimes, but rarely, the dreams are sufficiently striking that they persist into the day. Most often, however, as we wake up, the dream just disappears and we often think afterwards, “Well, I didn’t dream last night, the night was just a blank.” That ‘blank’ is the canvas on which the picture of life is painted.

What I am calling a ‘canvas,’ but which the Prajnaparamita calls Bodhi, can also be called ‘being aware.’ Being aware is the constant factor beyond everything. In Sanskrit it is known as jna from which jnana and prajna are derived. When Nisargadatta talks about the immutable, this is what he is talking about.

We must be careful, of course, that we do not look upon being aware as having an independent existence that endures apart from the world. This is not so. Emptiness is form; form is emptiness: awareness is form; form is awareness. “It has no form, yet it appears.” Awareness has no form yet it appears; it appears as the room, as the anger, as the memory. The word, ‘to appear’ is a verb, it means something that is happening. The metaphor of a canvas can be misleading as canvas denotes something fixed that endures; awareness has no form that can be fixed.

When we are working on, “Who am I?” we discern the ‘substance’ beyond the content.(the etymology of substance is ‘that which stands under.’) Discern, cognize, penetrate, or go beyond the form to the substance. I try to use different words, but in the end, none of them are really satisfactory: substance, awareness, is beyond all thought.

This does not mean that we chase away thoughts, but recognize they are thoughts/awareness. We are fascinated by the thoughts, “Do I have cancer?” “Will I lose my job?” “ Is my child safe?” We are fascinated by their significance. We are fascinated by them in the same way that we are fascinated by the painting on the canvas. Moreover, thoughts are continuous to the point that they establish an apparent impenetrable wall that we constantly come up against. We have taken this wall so much for granted that we ignore the awareness that makes it possible and gives it life.

Although we are in contact with the wall of thought, we come to believe instead that we are in contact with the “real world.” When we say the world is real, we are referring to the world of thought, even though it is awareness that makes it real. If you truly investigate thoughts you will see the world that they create has no substance other than awareness. The wall is simply the stream of thought, and thoughts come out of awareness. When I say the world has no substance, I mean it has no independent substance, it has no independent reality.

A questioner once asked Nisagadatta, “When does awareness begin?” He replied, “Nothing has beginning or ending. As salt dissolves in water so does everything dissolve into pure being. Wisdom is eternally negating the unreal. To see the unreal is wisdom. Beyond this lies the inexpressible.”

The thoughts that we have are constantly dissolving. One of the questions I sometimes ask people is, “When you no longer think a thought, where does it go?” You can have the most painful thoughts, you can have the thought of being a total failure, and underlying it is extreme pain. But what happens to that thought when you go to sleep? How real is that thought? Even as you sit there a thought may be whipping you, hurting you, and then soon it disappears. And another thought comes up. Sometimes just as painful. Where do these thoughts come from? Where do they go?

We go to sleep; what happens to the sense of self? It just dissolves into awareness. Going to sleep is a very sweet process. Deep sleep has a beauty about it, a love about it. Why is that? Deep sleep is, in its way, nearest to our true nature. To realize our true nature we have to arouse the mind without resting it on anything. In deep sleep, the mind is not resting on anything: but it is not aroused. To go to sleep we dissolve our thoughts and the problems they give. We don’t solve them; we don’t take the day’s worries and solve them one by one and, having solved them, go to sleep. We don’t even let them go. It’s just like mist that disappears when the sun rises.

But what does Nisargadatta mean when he says, “Wisdom is eternally negating the unreal.” Negating the unreal is a way to look at practice. When we are asking, “Who am I?” we are negating the unreal. When we ask “What is Mu?” Mu is “No!” and in that “No!” is the dissolution of the unreal. Our problem is that we take the content of thoughts seriously; we take the thoughts as being real. If we get a thought, “I am no good,” we take that thought as being something that has value and truth. We believe the thought is saying something that is true, that it has value, reality and a consequence: I am no good. Having said or thought that, a number of other thoughts and feelings flow from it.

But if we really take a look at that ‘I’m no good,’ not at what it is saying, but as a thought /awareness  it dissolves. The thought cannot stand on its own in the light of awareness. It’s true that as soon as we turn to the thought itself and allow awareness to sink back into the background, the thought regains its power; but that does not mean it is real. It simply means that we have a habit, a tendency for the mind to run in certain grooves. It doesn’t mean that the content has any validity.

For example, Nisargadatta’s questioner talks about this habit of mind, when he says, “There is in me the conviction, I am the body. Granted, I am talking from unwisdom. But the state of feeling oneself to be the body, the body/mind, the mind/body or even pure mind, when did this begin?” This conviction, I am the body is the habit that is most deeply ingrained in us. It is a habit that is so complex, and has so many roots, that it is difficult to exhaust it. It takes many years of hard work to exhaust the conviction, I am the body.

The questioner asks, when does does this conviction begin? The implication in this question is that the conviction, and the thoughts of which it is composed, are something that ‘enter’ the mind and so have a beginning. This in turn implies that awareness is ‘something’ and the thoughts are ‘something’ else, and the two come together in time.

Nisargadatta replies, “You cannot speak of a beginning of consciousness. The very ideas of beginning and time are within consciousness. To talk meaningfully of the beginning of anything, you must step out of it. And the moment you step out of it, you realize that there is no such thing and never was. There is only reality in which no thing has any being of its own.”

It is like the question, when did I come into being, or when was I born? Yet, the very idea of things coming into being is dependant on ‘I,’ self, and the world of things already being there, already existing. When you are asleep, there is no question of beginnings and endings. But as you wake up so the day is planned out; a sequence emerges, and one says, “This has to be done first, that has to be done next…” and so there is the appearance of a beginning. Without the sense of self there is no world, there is no beginning. Moreover, there is no end either. That is self evident, but it is consistently overlooked. We always work on the assumption that the world existed and that I came into an already existing world, and one day I shall go out of the world leaving it behind.

Nisargadatta replies, “There is only reality in which no thing has any being of its own.”

This is why chant, “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind”. We are chanting that the nose, the eyes, the ear have no independent reality of their own. This is also why we chant at the end, “gate, gate, paragate”. Once we have gone beyond, then there is no eye, ear, or nose.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “Like waves are inseparable from the ocean, so all existence is rooted in being.”

“Form is only emptiness.” Form is the wave; emptiness the ocean. When you look around you see things; these are the forms, the waves. The ‘seeing’ is the emptiness, the ocean. When you have thoughts that are hurting you so much, these are forms. Knowing these thoughts is the emptiness. But you overlook the knowing. All that you are concerned about, is the content, the pain, and because of that you give the content a reality. It is almost as though a thought becomes an independent person.

Indeed for a long time, before humankind firmly established a sense of “I am something”, and introjected it, thoughts were other people. The Bible tells that God spoke to Moses; nowadays, we would say that Moses thought something. This is true of most of the interactions between the gods and human beings. Now we say that we think. In those days it was the gods that spoke as though they had an independent existence. This, by the way, does not mean that the gods were a product of the imagination. The Gods were as real as you are real to me.

The questioner persisted with his question, asking, “The fact is that here and now I am asking you, ‘when did the feeling I am the body arise?’ At my birth or this morning?” Nisargadatta replied, “Now.” The feeling I am the body is coming into existence right now! It’s not something that you received this morning or when you were born and persists as an enduring substance or substratum.. You are creating that feeling now. Nothing endures.

The questioner protests, “But I remember having it yesterday too!” Nisargadatta said, “The memory of yesterday is now only.” It is only now that you have that memory. The thought arises now, and the thought that you had it yesterday also arises now.

The questioner, quite perplexed, exclaims, “But surely I exist in time. I have a past and a future?”

`Nisargadatta “Yes, that’s how you see it, now.”

Now you are saying you have a past and a future. When you go into the past, you go into the past, now. When you project yourself into the future, you project yourself into the future, now.

Q.- “But there must have been a beginning.”

N.- “Now!”

Yes, there is a beginning now. Now is the beginning. We chant, “From the beginning all beings are Buddha”. But that beginning is not sometime in the eternal past. It is now. It is the origin; it is now.

When you are struggling with thoughts, those thoughts are now. When you are working on “Who am I?” you are working on “Who am I?” now. You cannot get away from now. “Coming and going we never leave home.” People say, “But I’ve always had this problem”, but this always having this problem is now! “This problem came from my childhood, from the way that my mother, or father, or someone, treated me.” But that childhood is now! You are born now; you die now.

‘Now’ is what we have called Bodhi and awareness. It is because we forget the knowing of a memory that we believe the memory has a reality in the past. Once we recognize that the memory is indeed now, in other words, once we put knowing back into the equation, we see that there is no past, there is no future, only now. Once we put the knowing back as “I know this thought,” that thought automatically is now and loses its power. Because we resist the thought, we say, “The thought is over there; I don’t like that thought, I don’t want that thought” the thought takes on a reality and a power of its own.

Thoughts are a product of mind and no product of mind can be more real than the mind itself. But then, is the mind real? It is but a collection of ‘products,’ each of them transitory. How can a succession of transitory products be considered real?

People often say, “I’m being bombarded with thoughts; I just can’t get away from them. Every time I look around there’s another thought.” To see thoughts like this is to give them an independent existence. It requires a degree of determination, a degree of strength of mind, to take one of those thoughts––above all a negative thought––and truly look at it.

We take everything for granted. As Nisargadatta says, “The illusion of being the body/mind is there only because it is not investigated.” ‘No investigation’ is the thread on which all states of mind are strung. We go into a room and it is light. We turn off the light. Where has there light gone?

You may say that is not a real question but simply a collection of words arranged like a question. But do you not ask what happens after death? Is that not only a collection of words that has no meaning?

So often our states of mind, all names and forms of existence, are taken for granted and not investigated. They then exist in imagination and credulity. “I am” is the truth; “I am this, I am that” are the illusion, but taken for granted and rarely examined or questioned. To investigate, to no longer take things for granted, means that we have to overcome immense inertia, and most prefer to turn over and go to sleep.

Nothing is stronger than you, because you are real and everything else is dependant upon your being. No thought, any thought, is stronger than you are. You are the one that thinks it. There is no reason for you to be enslaved by any thought, to be the subject of any thought, because you are the one that’s giving that thought life.

Wisdom lies in remembering yourself. This means coming home to the medium in which everything arises. Dogen said, “The study of Buddhism is the study of the self.” And then he says, “The study of the self is to forget the self.” In other words, when one really remembers the self then the forms of the self, the sense of self, begin to dissolve. And finally he says, “To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousand things.” Everything arises in the medium of the self, or of knowing, or, to use an analogy that I have used, everything is but shadows thrown by the light of the projector.

For most of us the conviction, ‘I am the body,” seems to be the reality, and it seems to us that the truth, ‘I am pure being,’ must be imposed as an idea as something true but not experienced. Nisargadatta reminds us, ” What we think of as the body is an integration, in the mind, of a vast number of sensory perceptions.” This includes all of the kinaesthetic sensations, the emotions, the thoughts, the vision that we have. All of this is all added together, integrated, unified, just in the same way that when we go into a room, this room is a set of perceptions that we have and integrate.

It is said that in practicing we cross over to the other shore. Etymologically, the word ‘Paramita’ can be divided into two words: para and mita. Para means ’beyond’ and it also means ‘the further bank or shore.’ Mita means ‘that which has arrived.’ Paramita means that which has arrived at the further shore. “ Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate.” But the further shore is here and now.

In the words of T.S. Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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Death, where is thy sting?

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
St Paul

In a conversation with a visitor Nisargadatta said, “The jnani knows neither birth nor death. Existence and non-existence are the same to him.”

Jnana means ‘to know’ or ‘knowing.’ It is most often translated as “knowledge,” but knowledge is already crystallised knowing and is, in a way, dead. Knowing is vital and alive.  Jnana comes from ‘jna’ which is primordial, non-reflected, awareness, and is the basis for all intelligent life. With jnana there is no knower, so we could say, “Knowing knows neither birth nor death. Existence and non-existence are the same.”

Perhaps you remember that when you attended the workshop, I spent some time talking about the word ‘existence.’ I pointed out that the need to exist, the thrust, the insistence on existence, is the source of our suffering. To put it that way sounds strange, because everybody wants to exist. While this is true, it follows from that that everyone suffers. Existence is made of two words: ex which means outside of (ex: exit, exodus) and sistere, to stand. ‘To exist’ is to stand outside of ourselves, and the need to stand ‘outside of’ is the source of our suffering. This is a way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve.  God of the Israelites was the personification of the powerful urge of life.  Adam, when he disobeyed God, turned his back on the very source of life and so was caste out of the Garden of Eden, the original state of peace and contentment to which we so desperately strive to return.

We create our world by perceiving it.  When we create our world we then stand outside it, or separate ourselves from it.  We say, the world is over there; I am here. Moreover a moment’s observation will show that a sense of self lies at the center of the world that we create. We hear about a million people that are homeless in Burma for example, and we say how shocking it is. We hear about Katrina in New Orleans and although a few thousand people are affected, we feel somehow it is more serious, particularly for an American. Then we hear that Rivière des Prairies is likely to flood and we get very upset. In other words, as the catastrophe gets closer to home, so it becomes more catastrophic. And we see the same thing from the point of view of time. A death ten years ago does not have the same impact as a death yesterday.

The questioner, because Nisargsdatta has said, “The jnani knows neither birth nor death,” asks, “When your body dies, do you remain?” And Nisargadatta replies, “Nothing dies. The body is just imagined, there is no such thing.” The “nothing dies” follows from “the body is just imagined, there is no such thing”. Every day we chant the Prajnaparamita and we say, “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.” In other words, we are affirming the imaginary nature of the body.

Perhaps ‘imaginary’ is not the best word, while illusory would be better. Imaginary can mean arbitrary, and illusory does not usually have this meaning.  It means, rather, lacking in substance.

The body and the world are illusory because we are standing outside them, because we are separating ourselves from them. We therefore see ourselves from outside. We say my body, my mind, my thoughts, we even say, my self.  This indicates that at some level I am separate from all these. The ‘thingness,’ the ‘isness’––we might say, the essence of what we call ourselves––only appears to be solid and real.

When you are reading a book for example, where is the body? Or when you are really engaged in some creative activity, where is the body? Or when you are with someone that you love and you are just sitting there with them? But if I say ‘the body is illusory,’ you immediately snap to and say, “I cannot understand that; the body is very much there. It aches constantly.” You might say further that the body only appears to be absent because my attention is distracted from it when I am reading a book. But then what is this “attention” that it can make the body appear or disappear?  When we ask ourselves, “What am I?” we have to investigate all of this.

Even so, when you read “there is no self,” or “the body is illusory,” or something like that, do not take that as a piece of information that must now be included within your understanding: information that you have to integrate somehow in order to find a way to live with it.  We hear, “True self is no self” for example, and may think  “Well, Hakuin said it, the teacher said it, so therefore it must be so. How can I live with that?” People say in the dokusan room, “I know that I am not something.”  This is not true; all that they can in truth say is, “I have heard and read that I am not something.“

To say, “I know that I am not something,” or, “True self is no self,” is just substituting one illusory belief for another. Everything Hakuin or Buddha say must come as a challenge, not as a new belief. Possibly the most important trait in practice is honesty, honesty with oneself. Honesty means that we do not claim to know when we do not. It means that ultimately we must challenge all our credos, all our beliefs, all that we feel is absolutely certain.

For example, every day on a sesshin, you chant, “No eyes, ears, nose, body, mind.” Do you have a nose, do you have eyes, ears, a body? Are you going to be satisfied with just mindlessly chanting it, just using an empty set of phrases? Or are you going to ask yourself, what does that mean “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind”?

Moreover, when we consider the Prajna Paramita, when we really dwell on it, we see that it is a chant of death. No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or what the mind takes hold on. Is this not talking about death? We say that if you are going to see truly into yourself or truly into Mu or truly into any of your koans, you must see truly into death.

The questioner asks, “Before another century will pass, you will be dead to all around you. Your body will be covered with flowers and then burned. That will be our experience.” In other words, we will see you cremated. “Now what’s going to be your experience?” Nisargadatta answers, “The world is your personal experience. How can it be affected?”

What sort of death are we talking about when we say that the Prajnaparamita is the sutra of death? Are we simply talking about the death of the body? Is that the death? Earlier he says, “nothing dies.” When we say that seeing into yourself is the same as seeing into death, it is seeing into this illusory sense of a self.

You say that you are afraid of death, yet if you consider it very carefully, you can only come to the conclusion that you are not afraid of death, but that you are afraid of the idea of death. Some people claim that they are not afraid of death.  What they mean is that they do not have a very strong idea of death. The idea of death is the idea of ‘nothing.’ When we consider death, and it brings up fear, we are considering the idea of nothing, negation, annihilation. This idea negates the thrust to exist, the need to stand out and be the one, special, and unique, and with that idea comes the fear of death. We can no longer affirm an absolute, omnipotent and omniscient self. Yet it is precisely our claim to be an absolute self that supports our idea of ourselves. We believe that death is the greatest mystery. But the mystery of death is the mystery of what it means ‘to be;’ to be beyond the idea of something and nothing. It is not the mystery of what it means to die. The great mystery is “I am” and “I am” is beyond the thrust to existence with its consequent fear of annihilation.

I have a favourite sentence that I often use in dokusan when I am talking about the need to struggle with the sense of self: the phrase of the nun who said, “I cannot pull up the weed, because if I pull up the weed, I pull up the flower.”  Another, similar phrase is, “The thief, my son.” That which is most precious is at the same time the thief of my life. The thrust to existence obscures and conceals “I am;” “I am” is beyond the thrust to exist, sustaining it and giving it vitality and life.  In a similar way the light of the cinema projector is obscured, concealed by our fascination with what happens on the screen. Yet that light of the projector gives vitality and life to the film. The apparent negation of what cannot be negated, is the mystery. The mystery of death is how can that, which cannot be negated, be negated by death?  And when we put it in those terms, we see the mystery crumbles. Because the negation is an idea; “I am” is the reality.

When, therefore, we are asking, “who am I?” inevitably, if we are serious about the question, it brings about a sense of dis-ease, even anguish, and sometimes fear, panic, or horror. We are questioning that which is most precious to us. For most of us, the illusory sense of self is the reality, and “I am” the illusion. To question the sense of self  invites “I am” to annihilate it.

So to return to Nisargadatta’s answer, in reply to the question, “After death what will be your experience,“ “The world is your personal experience, how can it be affected?” it is also true that the world is your creation. Let me remind you that when I speak of the world, I am not talking about stars, planets, suns and galaxies. The zendo here is our world at the moment; our immediate experience encompasses it and so we call it “the world.”

The world is not simply something that comes to you through your senses. As you go about your business during the day, you do get a certain amount of stimulation through the senses – your hear a car, or the voice of someone speaking to you, you see the trees and houses, you smell the flowers– there is this objective world if you like.  But a course of psychology 101 will show you that this sense stimulation forms a mere part of our perception. Perception of the world is the result of a remarkable creative process, involving our awareness, phenomena, senses and language, as well as our memories, education and training. Each of us has a worldview by which we bring all of this together in a meaningful way.This is what we call the world.

In elaboration of what he had said, Nisargadatta continues, saying, “You might have been delivering a lecture for two hours, where has it gone when it is over?” And this is a point that I have often made. Where is the breakfast that we ate this morning? We say, it is in the memory. But what does that mean actually: it is in the memory? People say, the memory is stored in the neurons. But is it? Undoubtedly some connection exists between neurons and memory, in the same way there is some connection between a violin and music.  But we cannot say that the music is stored in the violin. We see neurons from the outside; we know of them because we perceive them with our senses. But memories are not outside.

So where is breakfast? Let us leave aside anything that we have read or learned about this and go straight to the experience. Let us find a line that we have to cross in order to find where “external reality” may suddenly be transmuted into an “internal state.” Of course there is no line. It is all “memory.” Even the neurons that are supposed to store memory, are memory. Or, to use different words,  the breakfast, neurons and the whole world  are all subjective states, that is to say, states that are dependent on a subject perceiving them.  Perception and memory cannot be separated. We have many different phrases and words –– world, memory, perception, reality, outside, inside–– and believe that these refer to different things, faculties or abilities.  But they are ways by which we try to make sense of an ever changing, kaleidoscopic whole that has no parts, things, faculties or abilities.

Now you are dying, where is it all going? When you have a thought and that thought no longer exists, where has it gone? If you say it has gone nowhere, then you must say it was never anywhere. But you had the thought, there was a thought, and then the thought goes. Where? A koan asks, “when the light of the candle is blown out, where does the light go?”  When we ask people that, all we get from them is pffff…. That’s not it, that’s not it at all! Where does the light go? Where does the memory go? You remember something and then you let it go.  What happens, what is remembering, what is forgetting? If life and the world are one with your experience, where does that experience go when you die? That is the same question as where does a thought go.

In answer to his own question  “Where does the lecture go when it is over?” he says, “It has merged into silence in which the beginning, the middle and end of the lecture are all together.” I am a little concerned about the idea that the lecture “merges with silence.” That implies that before the merging, the lecture and silence were separated.

Even so what is this silence? Sometimes, at the beginning of a sesshin, I say that one must enter into the silence, the silence beyond the silence. I sometimes refer to silence as  ‘ringing stillness,’ so what is ringing stillness into which our memories, our thoughts, our experiences return? Just as Nisargadatta says, “The beginning, middle and end of the lecture are all together in silence,” so we can say, “the beginning, middle and end of life––our memories thoughts and experiences–– are together in death.”

Just as an aside, some Christians have a belief in the resurrection of the body. I cannot help asking myself, which of my bodies is going to resurrect? Is it going to be that healthy young body that used to run about on a soccer field all day, that walked, swam and danced, or is it going to be this decrepit old thing I can scarcely drag around anymore? We can only hope can’t we?

The beginning, middle and end are one; it is the end of time. He says, “Time has come to a stop. It was, but it is no more.” He goes on to say, “The silence after a life of talking and the silence after a life of silence is the same silence.”

Have you ever listened to silence?  Just listened to it without any thought of how peaceful it is, or how restful, indeed without any judgement or comment at all. Furthermore, when we hear a sound, does silence no longer exist? Is there silence at one moment, then the next moment there is no longer sound but silence? Or is the sound the sound of silence? Is sound the body of silence? And if we could use “sound: life” and “silence: death” as analogies – when we are alive does death no longer exist? Is there life one moment and death the next. Or is life the body of death. Most of us think that because we die, there is no longer life and because we live there is not yet death. If life is the body of death, what we call death is no longer a dark empty hole but is a brilliant, scintillating light of love.

The problem is that we can only experience the death of others.  The death of others is a loss, darkness.  Death is a negation.  And so we think that our own death must likewise be loss, negative and darkness. “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as the poet, Dylan Thomas would say.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “Immortality is freedom from the feeling ‘I am.’” Many people think that their feelings are the truth. We feel peace, or we feel silence even, and the feeling is so intimate that we are under the impression that with feelings, particularly the feeing “I am,” we are somehow in touch with the truth. Moreover, people confuse the feeling “I am” with the truth “I am.” The truth “I am” is beyond all feelings. Again, from the Prajnaparamita: “no eyes, ears, tongue, body, mind…. “it is beyond all of that. The “I am” is beyond feeling, thought, choice; it is beyond consciousness itself. Because, when we say that the Prajnaparamita is the chant of death, the Prajnaparamita is also the chant “I am.”

“Immortality is freedom from the feeling “I am.” It is freedom from existence. Existence pins us. It is like we are fixed to a static center. We are like a donkey tied to a pole of a static center around which we turn and turn. The pole is that sense of self, the sense or feeling “I am”, the feeling of being something: a person, a mind, a soul or something. When the pole is cut down, is just nothing left? It is like a house: the house is destroyed, what is left? Koan number 8 of the Mumonkan tells us, “Zen master Gettan said to a monk, “Keichu made a hundred carts. If we took off the wheels and removed the axle, what would be left? Most reply, “There would be nothing left.” However, only because we stand outside the situation is there nothing left: we first have something, then we have nothing. But what is beyond something and nothing? Is this not another way of asking, “What is beyond life and death?”

Nisargadatta tells us, “Immortality is freedom from the feeling ‘I am,’ yet it is not extinction. On the contrary, it is a state infinitely more real, aware and happy than you can possibly think of. Only self-consciousness is no more.” Only existence is no more. Because existence and self consciousness are inseparable

The questioner then asks, “Why does the great death of the mind coincide with the small death of the body?” He says, “It does not. You may die a hundred deaths without a break in the mental turmoil or you may keep your body and die only in the mind. The death of the mind is the birth of wisdom.” As Hakuin’s says, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.” Nisargadatta is saying  that there is this great death, and that the great death is at the same time the great resurrection. In fact, in Zen, the resurrection comes before the great death and makes it possible.

The questioner says, “The person goes and only the presence remains?” and Nisargadatta says, “Who remains to say there is presence?” Some believe that after death there is going to be just a presence; some even have the fear that they will be present to utter loneliness. Yet, when there is no sense of self, who or what is present?

Nisargadatta adds, “In the timeless state, there is no self to take refuge in.” It frightens us when we hear that. It is so vast, so awful. One has to bring to mind the parable of the young man who wandered from his father’s estate. It comes from the Lotus Sutra. His father was very rich, a very powerful lord, and this boy wanders away and gets lost. Eventually he has to live on the food of the pigs and animals and lives a miserable existence for a long time. But then, in his wandering, by accident he stumbles on to the land of his father. His father sees him and recognizes him immediately. But rather than run out and say you are my son, welcome home, he realizes that this will be too much for the boy, that he will become terrified. And so therefore he gives him the most menial of tasks, and then gradually promotes him through until he can say finally, you are my son. This is how it is with us. The truth is too sparkling, too awful, too brilliant, it is like looking into the sun, it blinds us and so fills us with fear. We can get a glimpse of the brilliance in flashes. Every now and again we may see it, we are open to it and for many of us it is just like being caught in a raging storm.

He says, “In the timeless state there is no self to take refuge in.” He says, “The man who carries a parcel is anxious not to lose it. He is parcel-conscious. And the man who cherishes the sense of self,  is self-conscious.” When you are working on a preliminary koan, Mu or Who, I say you must get lost in the questioning, you must become one with the question; the ‘person’ is no longer there. Mu asks the question. And it is the fear of losing that sense of self in the process of seeing into MU that is the barrier through which so many are unable to pass. That is why it takes so long for us to come to awakening, true awakening. Because we are struggling all the time at one level or another to maintain contact with a sense of existence, with a sense of being something, a reality, essence, a core of substance of some kind. The Christians say, “The fear of the lord is the beginning of understanding”. When Moses met God he was afraid. And this sort of terror in the face of the truth is well documented in many different traditions.

He says, “The jnani holds on to nothing and cannot be said to be conscious.” Consciousness is a mixture of language, concepts, ideas, sense perceptions, and memories; all of this is centered on the thrust to be. Whether consciousness can melt  away completely, whether it is possible to live without any sense of self, I do not know. It seems certainly reasonable and, from the way he speaks, it seems that Nisargadatta has attained that state. But it might take us many lifetimes. We should not pretend to something that we have not reached, because that pretence itself will be destructive of any future progress in our spiritual life.

He says, “The jnani holds on to nothing (and so it says in the Prajna Paramita: the Bodhisattva holding to nothing whatever) and cannot be said to be conscious. And yet he is not unconscious. He is the very heart of awareness.” We can enter into a very profound samadhi and in that state there is no sense of self, no consciousness, there is nothing to hold on to. The whole body is the body of peace, is the body of openness, and it is a condition of pure happiness, pure joy.

“We call him [the jnani] clothed in space (the very heart of awareness) the naked one beyond all appearances. There is no name and shape under which he may be said to exist, yet he is the only one that truly is.” He does not appear. When we exist we appear. When we exist we appear to be a man or a woman or a person, we appear.  We have no form, yet we appear.

The questioner complains, “I cannot grasp it.” Nisargadatta asks, “Who can? The mind has its limits.” When we practice, we are not trying to grasp the truth, we are not trying to get it, we are not trying to bring it down into a state that is accessible to the understanding. We need the courage to release the grasping, which after all is a form of  control. Generally speaking, our need to understand is the need to control. Our science is no longer a science seeking the truth; our scientists are seeking for certainty. They are all looking to control, to find some technical application, something that will enable us to control situations to a greater degree.

“Who can? The mind has its limits. It is enough to bring it to the very frontiers of knowledge and make you face the immensity of the unknown.” This is, as I said in the last posting, the function of our intelligence. It is to bring us to the frontiers of the immense unknowable, not the unknown. The unknown may one day be known. But one gets to the frontiers of the unknowable, that which can never be known.

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What is it?

Hyakujo took a jug, put it on the floor, and asked: “Don’t call this a jug, what is it?” The head monk said, “You cannot call it a shoe.” Hyakujo then asked Isan. Isan walked over, kicked over the jug and left.

I must warn you.  This will be a different kind of posting. As you know I have consistently said that the practice of Zen is an intelligent practice; we must use our intelligence when working on a koan.  Zen is not an immaculate conception that has appeared out of nowhere.  The basic questions that Zen asks are: who am I? and what is reality? (Mu) The primary ‘sin’ in Buddhism is ignorance; another way of putting this is that we take for granted what should not be taken for granted.  We ignore our origins: or, as Gurdjieff pointed out, we do not remember ourselves; we ignore ourselves.  Moreover, we naively believe that the world is a ‘thing’ made up of ‘things,’ each of which has an independent existence.

In the koan quoted above, Hyakujo asks what is it? He is not asking simply about the jug. The head monk thought that he was.  The monk felt that ‘something’ was there to which we attach the label ‘jug.’  Therefore, obviously, that something could not also be called a ‘shoe.’  But Hyakujo was asking about the ‘something.’  What is that ‘something;’ indeed what is anything?  Or, more directly, what is reality?  This, one way or another, is the question underlying most of the koans. It is also the question that has challenged some of the greatest thinkers both East and West.   Plato put it this way: “For manifestly you have been long aware of what you mean by ‘being’.   We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.”

Plato’s perplexity is what the masters call the doubt sensation.  However, our problem is not that we cannot find the answer to the question, ‘what is reality?’ The problem is that we cannot find the question. As Plato points out, we have been long aware of what we mean by reality, we take it for granted and do not know how to question it.  When we come to question what am I? or what is MU? we have no idea how to proceed. In this posting I would like to help you find the question, because without it you cannot practice intelligently.

One reason, and possibly the most important reason, why so many great thinkers have failed to answer the question, is that they are, and were, looking for an intellectual answer. This is somewhat like being very hungry and looking for a good menu. Just as we cannot know who or what we are, so we cannot know what ‘being’ or reality is.  The philosopher Kant came to this conclusion and he seemed to be satisfied to say that we do not know. It is like he went in a great circle and arrived back at where he started.

When we practice we are not looking for an intellectual answer.  This is why we should not be daunted by the fact that so many great thinkers have failed. We are the response that we seek.  You may remember the monk who asked a master, “What is my treasure?” The master replied, “Your question is your treasure.”

If I am reality, if I manifest reality with every action  that I take, where does intelligence come in?  Why do I need to think at all?  Will thinking not take me away from the goal? Yes indeed it will.  This is the problem. You think that you are something, you think that you are separate from the world; you think that the world is something made up of somethings… the list is endless.  By saying that you must use your intelligence, I do not mean that you should find correct answers or ways of saying what the world is, or what you are, or what things are. You must use your intelligence to question your assumptions.

Don’t retreat behind excuses like, “Zen says thinking is no good,” or, “I am not an intellectual person,” or “I would prefer to just practice.”  What I am going to ask you to do is hard work, you must use you mind!

“Do we see what is there, or do we see what we believe to be there?” “Is there anything there?” “What happens to the room after I leave it?”  These are all ways of asking “What is reality?”

Let me tell a story to try to show what I mean.

In the sixties, two white policemen shot and killed two black men in a Detroit motel. Author, John Hersey, [1] wrote an account of the incident in a book called The Algiers Motel Incident. He interviewed eight people who were eyewitnesses, and they gave him eight different versions. At the end of the book Hersey summed up what ‘really’ happened, basing his conclusion on what he had been told.

Is his conclusion ‘really’ what happened, or, was Hersey simply offering a ninth version?

Suppose that eight people added up a column of figures, and each arrived at a different total. Then someone comes along and says, “The way to the real total is to add the totals together and divide by eight.” Would this be the right total, or just another total?

If Hersey could not say what happened, then how can we know what did happen? Please do not skip too lightly over the question. If you do you will miss what I want to say.

Most of us would be sure that something happened, and we might believe that if a sufficient number of witnesses were interviewed, what really happened could be uncovered. However, the more people interviewed, the more versions, the more conflicting statements, and the greater difficulty we would have in deciding what really happened.

Can we, then, ever say what really happened? If not, we should surely ask whether indeed anything did ’really’ happen.  It is interesting to note that the finest minds in theoretical physics have asked just his question. One of the most famous of these, the physicist Werner Heisenberg, said, “The term ‘happens’ is restricted to observation.”  In other words, at the sub-atomic level, until an observation is made nothing ‘happens.’ If this is true of the ‘micro’ sub-atomic world, is it also true of our ‘macro’ world? Does a happening depend on there being an observer?  What Heisenberg said must surely suggests that we should not decide too hastily whether or not something ‘happened’ at the Algiers Motel.

In answer to the question, “did anything ’really’ happen?” Heisenberg gives Einstein’s answer to a similar question:[2] “But something must happen, this we cannot doubt. This something need not be described in terms of electrons or waves of light quanta, but unless it is described somehow the task of physics is not completed. It cannot be admitted that it refers to the act of observation only.” (my emphasis) Most of us would agree with this; but what happened?

The problem
A similar problem to the Algiers motel incident has existed ever since humans started to think objectively: what do we mean when we say that the world is real?  The problem can be summed up in two limericks

There was once a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad”

Someone answered this by saying:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the Quad
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Signed, yours faithfully, God.

If one is not looking at the tree, does it continue to exist? On the face of it one would say, “Of course the tree is always there,” just in the same way that one would say, “Of course something really happened in the Algiers motel incident.” However, we must ask further, “In that case, in what manner is the tree there?” or “In what manner did something happen?” The answer given in the second doggerel says that the tree, and no doubt what happened in the Algiers Motel incident, is in the mind of God. Although, as human beings, we may never ‘really’ know what the tree ultimately is, yet a completely objective viewpoint, which we could call God, could conceivably register what the tree is, and the truth would then be available in the mind of God. The question then must be, “In what manner is the tree in the mind of God?” Or, in a less biblical way of speaking, in what manner is the tree there if we consider it from an entirely objective point of view? When is a tree just a tree?

By asking about the manner of the tree’s existence I mean the following: if I look at a tree from the south and then from the north, the tree appears in a different manner. If I look at it from the south, I see that it is just in front of a barn. Beyond the barn is a landscape of trees, and beyond that there are hills, the sky and clouds. All this must be included in the manner in which I see the tree. If I look at it from the north, I no longer see the barn, and the tree is now some way from a house, which is part of a neighborhood of houses.

You might protest and say, “Yes, but it is still the same tree,” whether seen from the south or from the north.  This, though, is what is in doubt. Is it the ‘same’ tree? Suppose that you close your eyes as you walk from the south to the north; does the tree disappear and reappear when you open your eyes? “No,” you might say, “of course not.” What is it that persists: the tree that you will see from the north or the one that you saw from the south? I might agree with you if you say that the tree does not disappear and that it is still there. However, in what manner is it still there?

If, with your eyes closed, you were to walk around the tree in a circle, and at each degree of the circumference of this circle you opened your eyes and looked at the tree, by the time that you have completed the circle you would have seen 360 ‘trees.’ If a botanist, a carpenter, a hunter, each of whom would have a substantially different point of view, were to walk around with you, 4×360 ‘trees’ would be seen. As you can see we could multiply indefinitely the ‘number of trees’ that are seen. Why should we say that one or other of these points of view is the ‘real’ tree? But, if the real tree cannot be found by adding another point of view, and if we do not want to resort to idealism ––everything is just in the mind––where will we find the real tree?

You might object and say that we are not talking about the tree and the barn, house, sky and cloud, we are just talking about the tree, separate from all of these. If one separates the tree from all that is around it, we can then claim that the tree really is there.  Again this objection misses the point. The question is not whether the tree is there; the question is in what manner is the tree there?  For example, suppose we are hovering above the tree in a helicopter, or lying beneath the tree in its shade.  Or suppose that we are an ant crawling along a branch, or a bird building a nest in the tree. The manner in which the tree exists from each of these viewpoints is different.

As I said, philosophers have been asking this question since the dawn of time.  A recent one, philosopher Christopher Norris, would dismiss my question, ‘in what manner does the tree exist?’ by saying that it [the question] involves “nothing more than a moderate descriptive claim, i.e. that we ’make’ these various worlds by bringing reality under various schemes, versions, descriptions, but only in so far as that reality exists independently of us and our beliefs concerning it.” [my emphasis]

But, this is my point: what is that ‘reality’ that exists independently of us, and our beliefs concerning it? Another way of posing the same problem is, what is the tree without a point of view? or what really happened at the Algiers motel that is not dependant upon any of the witnesses? The first limerick is asking this question. Is it not strange that the tree remains a tree, even when no one is looking at it? Is it not strange that the room continues to exist after you have left it? Is it not strange that something happened, although no one can know what happened beyond what they saw?

The importance of the observer
What all this indicates is that our ‘tree’ is not only a physical object; our ‘tree’ is also the view that we have of it. Let me try to say this in a slightly different way.

When I say the tree is the physical object, this is like saying ‘I know the tree is there’. In other words, I forget the ‘I know,’ and affirm that the tree can stand on its own whether I am there or not. On the other hand, when I say the tree is dependent on the view that I have of it, I say that ‘I know the tree is there.’  This means that in the first case – ‘I know the tree is there’—I pretend that the subject does not exist.  I see the tree Objectively.  When I say that I know the tree is there, the subject is reinserted into the equation as the most important element: the tree is there because I know it is there.  I see the tree Subjectively.

Before we go on I must clear up a confusion that arises because of the way we use the words  ‘objectively’ and ‘subjectively.’  The word ‘subjective’ usually means ‘biased by my prejudices, wishes, and ideas.’  The word ‘objective’ means without my personal bias.  However, when I say that I see the tree ‘subjectively’ I do not mean that I am biased in the way that I see it.  I mean ‘I as Subject’ see the tree.  On the other hand when I say I see the tree objectively, I do not necessarily mean that I see it without bias; I mean I see it as an object.

In order to avoid this confusion I would like to say I see the tree Objectively––with a capital ‘O’––when I mean I see it as an object; I will use objectively – with a small ’o’––when I mean I see it without bias.  In the same way I will use the word Subjectively––capital S —when I refer to seeing something as Subject, and will use subjectively — small ‘s’––when referring to seeing something with bias.  Thus a scientist is being subjective if he says that the only true way to see the world is Objectively.  Furthermore, to say I know the tree is there, is a Subjective statement but I am being objective when I say it.

To continue now with our discussion, for the tree to be as it is when we see it from the south or from the north, it has to be seen in some particular manner. For the tree to be in any particular manner, it has to be seen or known to be in that manner. This, I think, is what an idealist philosopher would mean when saying that ‘seeing is being’ (esse est percipii: to be is to be perceived”).   Very roughly speaking, an idealist is a philosopher who would say that “it is all in the mind”; nothing exists except the product of our mind. There are many Zen Buddhist teachers who seem to think that Buddhism is an idealist philosophy.  However, these people think that seeing and being are identical.  (By the way, when I say ‘seeing is being,’ seeing is still seeing; being is still being.)

The naïve view of most people is that ‘something’ is always there, and we stick a label on it.  This, if you remember is what the monk thought. Together with Hyakujo, I am questioning the ’something that is there.’ I am not, however, suggesting that nothing is there; I am questioning, “In what manner is something there?”

The tree is a tree is a tree says the naïve realist.  Yes, but in what manner is it a tree? Does the realist think of some kind of tree that ‘contains,’ somehow, all possible ways of viewing it?  I asked you to imagine walking around the tree with eyes closed and to open them at every degree of the circle. If you were to do this, your observation would have gaps as you went with eyes closed from one degree to the next. Another theoretical physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, on whose work quantum mechanics is partly based, said, “Observations are to be regarded as discrete, discontinuous events. Between, there are gaps which we cannot fill in.” [3] In my example these “gaps we cannot fill in,” are times when the tree is no longer, as far as we can know, a ‘tree’ because no one is seeing it.  In the quantum world, scientists now recognize that we can no longer dispense with you and me. Without us there is no world. As Goswami, another physicist and author of The Self-Aware Universe,[4]says, “A correlated quantum system has the attribute of a certain unbroken wholeness that includes an observing consciousness. Such a system has an innate wholeness that is non-local and transcends space-time.”

That is something of a jaw-breaker but simply means the following: The tree and I are a correlated system that has the attribute of a whole, which includes me as the observing consciousness. When I look at the tree, I ‘select out,’ I ‘perceive the tree,’ and make a tree that tree. ‘A’ tree and ‘that’ tree are quite different. ‘A’ tree exists only in the imagination as a thought.  Please do reflect on this. Therefore, ‘a’ tree can have any properties that one likes to imagine, including that of being able to make a noise when no one hears it. It is like the smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, which can, in much the same way, exist independently of the cat.

On the other hand, if I talk about that tree, I mean that concrete tree, which includes my seeing it, and which ’I’ see from the south, from a distance of twenty feet and which has a barn and so on behind it. To repeat what Goswami said, “The tree and I are a correlated system that has the attribute of a whole, which includes me as the observing consciousness.” Using the wording that I used above, I could put it this way: “I know that tree is there”, and this can be said in four different ways: common sense says, “I know that tree is there.” The idealist says, “I know that tree is there.” The realist says, “I know that tree is there.”

But there would appear to be yet another way:  “I know that tree is there.”

What happens to ‘a’ tree, and what happens to ‘that tree’ when no one is looking at them, are two vastly different questions. If you ask an idealist, “What happens to ‘a’ tree if no one sees it?” he will answer, “There will be no tree.” A naïve realist will say, “I don’t see the problem. It will still be a tree.” The idealist and realist are, however, dealing with imaginary trees. ‘A’ tree is not ‘a tree,’ that is a real concrete tree, until it is seen as ‘that’ tree. Therefore, one cannot ask what happens to that tree when I no longer look at it, because, let me repeat, that tree includes my seeing it.

We cannot accept the idealist’s solution to our problem. “The tree is only a point of view of a tree.” This solution tells us that the world is like a town in a Hollywood western: all front and no back; all façade and no substance. The drama, uncertainty, and struggle of life, including the struggle to survive, just drain away. We cannot therefore say, as the idealist would, that the tree is entirely dependent upon my seeing it.

Yet I seem to be talking as an idealist when I say,“ ‘A’ tree is not ‘a tree,’ that is, a real concrete tree, until it is seen as ‘that’ tree.” Someone could well ask, “Is that not taking the idealist point of view?” I would say, “Yes, it is.” That same person would then say, “But surely, there has to be a tree that you see!” I would say, “Yes, you’re right.” But that is a realist’s view. Simply to say, however, that they are both right in their own way, or to say that they come from different ways of understanding, or even to take a pragmatic view and say they are complementary, evades this most fundamental and difficult of questions: what is reality?

So, if a tree alone in the forest falls, does it make a noise?  What is Mu?

[1] Hearsey John The Algiers Motel Incident
[2]  Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science.  (New York: Harper TorchBooks, 1962)  p. 113/4  
[3] Goswami , Amit (1995) The Self –Aware Universe (Jeremy Tarcher: New York) p 87
[4] ibid p. 117

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Practice Is Not Magic

People sometimes tell me, “I’ve tried this and that but nothing has happened!” This no doubt means that they feel there is, or should be, some kind of magic that either they or a teacher can call upon to make something happen.  They believe that if they go through the right kind of incantation, do the right things, say the right words, or feel the right things, then, because of the magical power of this teaching or technique, wonderful things should happen to them.  Meditation still has a kind of magical aura that surrounds it.  This is obvious if one picks up a New Age magazine or New Age books that talk about meditation.  It’s all flowers and halos.

There is no magic.  Or rather, the magician is you.  To look outside yourself, to expect someone else or some system to do something for you is really putting yourself in the position of a slave.  If somebody can do something for you that is of vital importance, you’re dependent upon that person.   And this dependency is a form of enslavement.

One sees the truth of this particularly with the various political ‘isms’ and Utopias that have been offered: fascism, Nazism, communism, and nationalism.  People are dominated by the political system they have joined; they’re taken over by it, they’re ruled by it.  The abominable things that come out of these isms, the terrible things that people do to one another, come from their being slaves.  They are slaves inflicting punishment for their enslaved state on other slaves.

The only true value, the only true possibility, comes from your own power, faith and wisdom.  This means that you are already free.  You do not need a teacher or a teaching.  All that a teacher or teaching can do is allow you to work for yourself.

But, you must have a single-minded desire, or longing for the truth. Ultimately all our desires are the desire to find ourselves.  Even joining the various isms that we can join in the world is done in the hope that it will lead us home.  People do not use the words “lead us home;” they use instead words like ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment’ or ‘perfection.’  But these are substitute words.  Where is there fulfillment, perfection, happiness, and success outside of yourself?  When are you most happy?  It is when you’re most at one with whatever it is that you’re doing.  When you can give yourself over to it without reservation.  When you want it and, at that moment, want nothing else.

Our problem is that we cannot seek to know ourselves unconditionally and without reservation, except after much practice and much suffering.  People often ask, “Why does it take so long to come to awakening?”  And the answer is, of course, that we want something else.

People feel that it’s enough simply to say they want this or that, or even just to think they want it.  Sometimes I ask people, what is it you want from practice?  And they say, “Oh, I’d like to come to awakening.”  And very often they give a little laugh afterwards.  They reply much in the same way as they might say, “Oh, I’d like a new hat.” A Hindu story tells of a guru and his student walking along the seashore.  The student told the guru that he would very much like to come to awakening.  The guru seized hold of the student and thrust his head under the water and held it there while the student thrashed around helplessly.  Eventually the guru let go of the student who arose spluttering and coughing, sucking in the air as fast as he could. The guru said, “”When you want awakening as much as you want air at this moment, nothing can stop you.” When the pain gets so bad, when you really do feel that you have reached the end of the road and that you have exhausted all your strategies to avoid seeing the truth that life is suffering, then it will be possible for you to say truly, “I want nothing else.”

Basically, everyone wants to come home and nothing else. And, in a way, everyone will eventually come home.  If we are just contingent, accidental things that happen to exist, and if within this several pounds of flesh there is a spirit that floats around somewhere, then of course, such a statement is absurd.  But if everything comes out of and returns to  One Mind, then such a statement is a truism; it is scarcely worth saying.

When you’re practicing with Mu or Who or when you’re following the breath, this practice will enable you, if you are sincere and honest, to come to the point where you will truly want nothing else.  But this means that you must practice without protest.  You must practice without complaint or self-pity.  And also, of course, you must practice without expectation.  Protest and complaint simply undo the work that you’ve done so far.  Protest and complaint set up a counter current to the current of the work.  It sets up a conflict and it generates it’s own kind of pain.  Truly, only by trudging through the desert of the mind will you find the truth.  You do not find the truth in lush meadows.  In the desert everything is taken away from you.  People very often say, “I’ve even lost the taste of practice.  I don’t know, I’ve got no feel for the practice.  The practice means really nothing to me.”

That’s good!  Why should practice mean something to you?  It is because you still have the belief that Zen practice is in addition to the question “Who am I?”  One keeps touching this ‘practice’,  stroking it, feeling it for reassurance. Some people ‘practice’ just in the same way that they carry magic pebbles or wear crosses.  In the desert, even this is taken away.  All of your talismans, your magical charms are taken away.  One feels, I have nothing to look forward to.  That’s right!  There is nothing to look forward to.  This is the problem: ‘looking forward to’ is the lure, is the bait that constantly attracts you out of yourself.  You are always looking for the Promised Land. But in the desert, the Promised Land just dries up and shrivels.

You do not even have feelings in the desert; just flat emptiness.  This is again a good thing because so many people feel that to ‘turn inward’ is to turn into their feelings.  In the sixties feelings were themselves a new religion.  In the New Age philosophy, feelings­­–– feeling good about yourself, feeling good about others, feeling good about one’s life, one’s situation­­–– were all that mattered. But in the desert, the feelings dry up and all that is left is a naked, bare, austere possibility.

This is the master’s furnace.  It is during these moments, during this time in practice that the real work is done.  The dross is burned off and only what is true remains.  Don’t back off the desert!  It’s true that during these times it seems that the practice is so remote, so uninteresting.  You feel so feeble, so futile.  But it is the personality that suffers. You must go on even so, although now it is no longer the personality that goes on.  It is what is true that does so.  Do not force yourself.  Just be there; just stay there, moment by moment. Come back again, and again and again.  Not with force or fury, not with gritted teeth, not with clenched fists.  You just come back, and then you come back again.

In this way you are starting to be honest with yourself.  And you’re starting to really want nothing else.

The problem is not that we have other desires, but that these other desires are so often in conflict.  How many people are there that have the real need just to live a life that gives them the possibility to turn in on themselves fully and completely?  And yet at the same time they have the need to become engaged as fully as possible in the world, to be lost in some profession, undertaking, or project.  It is as though in each of us there are the two: the hermit and the professional.  A monk and a businessman.  The nun and the business-woman.  And they both have their own agendas and  their own set of conflicts. Sei and her soul are separated!

These conflicting needs and desires that we have are what Buddhism calls the Wheel of Samsara.  The need to escape from it, the need to be the businessman but then the need to be the monk, keeps the wheel turning.  In the same way, the need to lose oneself, to give oneself over to something outside oneself yet also to live a meditative life just keeps the wheel turning.

Sometimes people phone to ask whether I could recommend a monastery where they could go to live and ‘really practice.’ Unfortunately there are still Zen Centers that encourage this kind of activity.  I say ‘unfortunately’ because it does give the impression that the real work that one does in the world is not ‘spiritual’ work, and only work that one does in a monastery, center or ashram is real.

These people who phone have the yearning to retire from the world that many of us have.  The nun or the monk part of us longs for this kind of life.  As a consequence we tend to look slightingly on our day-to-day activities, the work that we have to do, the mundane work that seems to be so boring, tedious and inconsequential. I’ve heard people who have undergone extensive training in a profession say that they feel their lives and their work are meaningless.  While it is true that, in terms of the absolute, whatever is relative is inconsequential, even so, the only way the absolute can manifest is through the relative, through what we look on as inconsequential and contingent.

A disciple said to his master, “Everything is an illusion.” and the master said, “Don’t insult Brahman.” Layman Pang said, “My magical power and miraculous activity are chopping wood and carrying water.”

Even to sweep the floor is magic.

When we are told that we must want to see into ourselves and nothing else, this is not an invitation to depreciate what we do on a day-to-day basis.  On the contrary, it means that we must see whatever we do on a day-to-day basis is the fullest manifestation of our true nature.  In that way we would do it with full awareness, full commitment.  Whatever you do, do it!  Don’t judge it.  If it’s necessary to change your job, you’ll change it.  But it is not necessary constantly to spend time wondering whether you ought to do so.

Many people keep themselves in a state of suspension in this way.  Their inability to commit themselves, their unwillingness to commit themselves, prevents them from finding the fulfillment that they seek. They want to have their cake and eat it. And yet in this very suspended state, they lose the cake altogether: they lose the possibility to be at one with what it is they are  doing.

So many people spend their time wondering how they can get into more activity, do more things, meet more people.  In the extreme, they are workaholics who are always busy, are always on the go.  Never do they have the possibility of just sitting and enjoying the possibility of just sitting, or of reading and just enjoying reading,  or of just gardening or of just walking.

Christ said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” Find yourself and do as you please, because everything you do then will be fulfilling.  But first you must find yourself!

Let me repeat: finding yourself is possible in sweeping the floor, in carrying out the garbage, in doing whatever it is that your work calls upon you to do.  It is true that if situations were different you could be employed better.  It’s almost certainly true that most people are not fulfilled in their work in a way that might be possible were the society organized in an ideal way.  But it is also true that if pigs had wings they could fly.  It is a waste of effort, time, and energy to dwell on what is possible: everything and nothing is possible.  But it is not a waste of time to keep bringing yourself back to the moment wherever you are, and giving yourself fully to what you are doing.  When you do something, do it simply because it is there to be done, and not because of the rewards that you will get or the results that you will attain.

All great art comes naturally out of the artist.  For example, if you read the letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, you will see that he was just painting. That was Van Gogh: painting. It wasn’t “a person” painting.  He wrote a letter in which he says that he hadn’t eaten more than a crust of bread every other night for several weeks because he had used the money that he had received from Theo to buy paints, paper, and to pay the models.  His brother was supporting him by sending him money. Van Gogh did not sell a painting throughout his whole life.  And as you know they sell now for sixty million dollars each. Schubert also hardly ever heard any of his music played while he was alive.  Van Gogh painted, Schubert wrote music, because one does it.  It’s there to be done.

They worked beyond all thought of loss and gain.  This does not mean that we are not pleased when others appreciate what we do.  Of course we are.  But this is not why we do it.  We do it because it is there to be done. This, too, is how to practice.  Some people are proud of their practice.  They feel that they are superior to others in some way.  They feel that they are on an inner track.  Others are disappointed and dejected about their practice.  They are not getting anywhere so to say. On the contrary, give yourself over to the practice because that is what is required.  Interestingly enough, when we really give ourselves fully to the practice, we know this is right.  This is it!  This is what I’ve been looking for.  We have a sense of completeness such as we can get in very few other situations.

Doing something because it is there to be done is particularly important when helping others or ‘doing good.’ There was a master who used to live in a tree.  He would never go into a monastery or a temple.  But he would sometimes sit in a tree outside.  And he did this up to a very advanced age,; even when he was about eighty, he still sat up in trees.  And a monk came along on one occasion and said, “What you are doing up there old man is dangerous.” The master looked down and said, “It’s not as dangerous as what you are doing down there.”  The monk asked, “What do you mean?” “You don’t even know how to live,” replied the master. “All right, how do you live?” responded the monk.  “Avoid evil, do good, save all sentient beings.”  “Oh, a child of eight knows that!” snorted the monk. “Yes, but an old man of eighty can’t do it,” retorted the master.

What is interesting is that the master says, first of all “avoid evil.”  So many people want to do good, and yet they do not know how to avoid doing evil.  This need, this wish, this longing to do good is naturally an expression of our true nature.  But once it becomes a desire that people have––the desire to be a good person––it becomes a form of sentimentality, and sentimentality is the desire to experience  pleasure without having paid the price to do so.

“Avoid evil.”  And how do you avoid evil?  The only way to avoid evil is to know yourself.  It’s to see into one’s own conflicts and go beyond them.  Because it seems that all evil comes from people acting in dreams.

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The Cause of Our Sorrow

“When I look at my life, at the mess it seems to be, at the mistakes, confusions and problems that I have created, evaded, or made worse, I find it difficult to believe that simply sitting and following the breath is going to make a difference.  Besides, I find the practice so difficult, boring and unrewarding that I cannot find the energy to keep up a consistent practice, and this simply depresses me more.  What can I do?”

This question is so often asked.  “What can I do?”

A vicious circle is at work: the difficulty of the practice creates a feeling of inadequacy.  The feeling of inadequacy makes the practice difficult.  Because the practice is difficult, we find less and less time for it, this creates a feeling of inadequacy and so the wheel turns.  And in any case, what is the point of it all any way?   It is like a maze in which one wanders perpetually.

This maze, however, is not simply the maze of the practice.  It is also the maze of life.  As Hakuin says, “From dark path to dark path we’ve wandered in darkness, how can we be free from the wheel of samsara.”  For the phrase, “Wheel of samsara” just read the “maze of life.”  It was the wheel of samsara––the maze––that brought us to practice in the first place.  When we first met up with it, hope burst out, together with an awakening of love, a renewal of faith.  It all seemed so easy.  Indeed, it seemed, in the light of Hope, Love and Faith that anything can be accomplished.  But then the clouds came over, and the sun of life was covered once again.  Again, we have fallen into the hole of despair and…………….. now what?  What can I do?  Guilt then nags; shame tortures:  tomorrow I’ll do it, tomorrow it will be different, tomorrow will be clearer.  Tomorrow, tomorrow is a balm with which we soothe the wounds from the scorching fire of today.

What must I do, what hope have I? The second patriarch, Eka, asked Bodhidharma this question, and Bodhidharma threw back, “The incomparable Truth of the Buddhas can only be attained by eternally striving, practicing what cannot be practiced and bearing the unbearable.  How can you, with your little virtue, little wisdom, and with your easy and self conceited mind, dare to aspire to attain the teaching.  It is only so much labor lost!”

Sometimes it is necessary to encourage, to restore lost hope and build up renewed faith.  Each is whole and complete, all of  us know this in our heart of hearts, all can come to awakening.  But sometimes to do this is a disservice.  One teacher said, “Do not say ‘Cheer up everything will be O.K.  Perhaps it won’t be.”   On the face of it, it seems too cruel to give the kind of reply Bodhidharma gave to Eka, but in truth he cut away all tomorrows for Eka.

Let us pursue a little further the dialogue between Bohidharma and Eka.  The koan says, “The second Patriarch cut off his right arm.”   In English we have a saying, “I would give my right arm for such and such!” “Such and such” being something highly desirable.  It is an interesting statement and one that can throw light on this enigma:  The second patriarch cut off his  right arm.  What can I do? If I am right handed then I do things with my right arm. To cut off the right arm, literally or metaphorically, is to give up my ability to do.  “What can I do?”  asked Eka. “Nothing” said Bodhidharma.  So the second Patriarch cut off his right arm.  He gave up the vain effort to do something.

Eka then said, “My mind is not yet at peace.  I beg you teacher, please give it peace for me.” He had done everything and still “My mind is not yet at peace.”

St. John of the Cross, talking about people who are practicing, says the following:

“They have now practiced for some time in the way of virtue and have persevered in meditation and prayer, whereby through the sweetness and pleasure they have found therein, they have lost (to some small degree) their love of the things of the world and have gained some degree of spiritual strength in God; this has enabled them to some extent to refrain from creature desires.”

He then says that when these people really feel that they are getting somewhere at last,

“God turns all this light of theirs into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired.  And thus he leaves them completely in the dark that they know not whither to go with their sensible imagination and meditation; for they cannot advance a step in meditation as they were wont to do aforetime, their inward senses being submerged in this night, and left with such dryness that not only do they experience no pleasure and consolation in the spiritual things and good exercises wherein they were wont to find their delights and pleasures, but instead on the contrary they find insipidity and bitterness in the said things’ pleasures.”

Because of this dryness and aridity, St John says spiritual people suffer by

“reason not so much of the aridities they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things.”

It is only when we have reached the point of no return that this dark night really becomes a torment.  Before then, we can always back off, pretend that it does not matter, go to another Center, find another way.  We can always blame the teacher, the teaching, other people.   But after the point of no return, after we have burnt our bridges and have nowhere to turn, then this dark night can become intolerable, and we may suffer untold anguish.  We have to go on, but we cannot.  Hakuin says that it is like a rat in a bamboo tube; Yasutani roshi says it is like swallowing a hot rice cake that gets stuck in the throat.

Our practice has nothing whatever for the personality.  Yet, everything we do in life, one way or another feeds, protects, soothes, comforts, stimulates or enhances the personality.  We expect at least as much from a spiritual practice.  More indeed; we want to be exalted, uplifted, raised to new heights of joy, peace and beauty. We want to get into heaven, as Gurdjieff said, “with our boots on.”

It is true that when we look at our life and see all the mess and confusion, we do wonder how just sitting is going to make any difference.    After Eka had said,  “My mind is not yet at peace.  I beg you teacher please give it peace for me.” Bodhidharm simply said, “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest”  How would you bring me your mind?  Eka said, “I have searched for my mind but cannot find it.”

So with what mind did Eka look for the mind? Hakuin said that true self is no self; true mind is no mind.

When we hear Hakuin’s “true self is no self” we wonder whether this means that we are nothing.  Although “true self is no self,”  even so the ghost of ‘something’ stalks across our mental landscape: or, rather, a “not something.”  It is like a spirit of some kind; perhaps  this is where people had the idea of a soul, of a spirit, because they could see that we are not simply the body, and so we have to be something more.  Something that we might call an “ontological residue.”  We have the sense of something in its absence.  But no, it isn’t like that.  There is no absence even.

Because we are so linguistically determined, because we are so conceptually conditioned, because, through our education,  our awareness has now been trained completely into clustering or freezing around concepts and thoughts, we are unable to see that reality has no form. I wonder how a cat sees the world?  One has the tendency to imagine the world through the cat’s eyes to be from a lower, dimmer, perspective.  But , ask yourself, is this how a cat sees?  Such a question is an invitation to step outside the very basic categories by which we structure our perceptions.  This is simply an exercise, it is not by any means a practice that I recommend, but it is a way of trying to stretch the mind, to loosen it up, to be less centred on the human, conceptual, way of perceiving.

You are, as Nisargadatta once said,  “the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing.” When you see the world, you do not see the seeing.  The seeing of the seeing is the knowingness of the knowing.  Gurdjieff said, “You forget yourself.”  What is the self that you forget?  We do not forget the sense of self; we are always reminding ourselves of it.  We are always reaching into it, into this sense of self, into the sensation of being.  Our sense of self is often accompanied by a feeling: a feeling that is habitual, repeated over and over and over again: it might be  the feeling of hopelessness, or of anger, or else the feeling of anxiety.  We have a constant feeling, a kind of spasm within the feelings, and it gives us the false assurance that we and the world are real.

Gurdjieff is not referring to the sense of self when he says tht we forget our self. We forget that we are the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing; we forget that we are the reality of it all.  But, by putting it into words once more, I have betrayed the very meaning that I am trying to convey, because  you can now look at it at arm’s length, from ouside, like looking at the corpse of a butterfly.

“Who walks?”  It is walking that walks, it is speaking that speaks, it is sitting that sits, it is laughing that laughs, it is anger that is angry, it is anxiety that is anxious.  You are the anxiety of anxiety, the laughter of laughter, the walking of walking, the sitting of sitting.  When the teacher says there is just walking, we wonder whether he is reducing a person––me––to a machine.  This is what a neurologists would do.  He would say that there is just movement of nerves, of impulses along nerves, a concatenation of intricate wiring that is fired, and then we walk.  He would claim that there is  is no awareness, no intention, involved in walking.  He would say that  you could look through the most powerful microscope possible, the most complicated imaging apparatus, and you wouldn’t find any awareness or consciosness.

So what is there, then?  What does it mean, “Walking is just walking,” if it does not mean that we are machines, and if, also,  it does not mean that somewhere diffused in that machine, one way or another, is a ghost that is operating it.  You can only answer that by returning to yourself.  You cannot go to the body.  You cannot go to thoughts and concepts about it: all that you can get out of thoughts , are more thoughts.  You walk without any preconceived notions: even the notion of having no preconceived notions.

What are you then?  Or if your practice is Mu, What is Mu?  What is reality?  What is is?  These are not different questions, “What is Mu?” and “Who am I?”  They both lead to the same destination.  “What is Mu?” is less seductive than “Who am I?”  The question, “Who am I?” can lead us into the subjective states, and we can lose ourselves in subjectivity, in insights, memories and dreams. We then explore subjectivity in the mistaken belief that we are exploring ourself.

“What does it mean to be?” is another way of asking, “Who am I?” It is no good trying to answer this question by looking up the meaning of the words ‘being’ or ‘existence.’  It is useless to try to get some feeling of the relation that being has with other states.  You must look right into the heart, or right into the light, or perhaps better yet, right into the darkness of being, or right into the darkness of yourself.  But it is only obscure, it is only dark as far as the conscious mind is concerned, because the conscious mind has lived its whole life in artificial light, the light of concepts and thoughts.

This is the problem that goes along with this question, “What is Mu?”  We are used to the idea that when we apply the mind  we must use abstractions and relationships.  We deal in generalities, in universals.  But the whole point about this practice is coming home to what exactly is given, concretely, at this moment.  You cannot even rely on what is at this moment continuing into the next moment.  You have to investigate again, and again, and again.  It is not enough simply to have come to a conclusion.  You must come to a new way of being.

Someone might ask, “If we are beyond words, how can we talk about what we are?” The question is a good one.  In a way, the answer is “We cannot.  Don’t let’s talk.”  You remember the koan where the non-Buddhist asked the Buddha, “Don’t give me words, don’t give me silence.”  And Buddha just sat.  Buddha gives the perfect answer.  What is this “just sitting”? Buddha just sat, and in that just sitting is everything: it is silence and talking, it is sitting and standing.

When you are working on “Who am I?” you must ‘just sit.’  If you do this, then the restlessness and distress, the constant movement of the mind, will surge up, and you will tend to leave ‘just sitting’ and launch yourself into the torrent of mental agitation.  But no.  You must be anchored.  This need to be anchored is the chief reasons why we have the zazen posture, and why the zazen posture is so important.  It is so important that our posture is a good posture: the back must be striaght and the centre of gravity low. We do not have to sit in the lotus posture to achieve this.  The stable posture gives us at least a physical anchoring, a stability, and because of this stability this other, deeper, immutable stability that we are can then exert its influence.  Immutability, the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the immutability that you are, is the ultimate security.  It is impregnable.  When you are asking this question, “What am I?” you are returning to “Buddha just sat.”  You are returning to the immutability, the unmovability that you are.

Nisargadatta once told a questioner more or less what I have been saying and  the questioner retorted by saying, “Metaphysically what you say holds together.  There is no food for me in what you say.  It is so completely beyond my urgent needs.  When I ask for bread you are giving me jewels; they are beautiful no doubt, but I am hungry.”  The questioner is saying that what you [Nisargadatta] are talking about offers nothing to me as a personality.  As a personality I have all kinds of desires, needs, lacks, all kinds of conflicts, worries, confusion.  What you are saying doesn’t touch any of them.  This is a complaint made so often.  This is why there is a very high turnover in people practising Zen at the Montreal Zen Center. Most people come for some kind of solace; they are looking for some kind of medication for a sick personality.  Their life is in turmoil, and is totally and utterly unsatisfactory.  They come and they are given a question, “Who are you?” and there is no way they can relate struggling with this question “Who am I?” with this torment of, “Does she love me or doesn’t she love me?” or, “Is this cancer or isn’t it cancer?” or, “Will I get the sack or won’t I get the sack?”  There is always a sense of the weariness and the slackness of life.  And you are told to ask the question, “Who am I?”  What is the point?  How will it deal with any of that torment of life in any way whatsoever?  And of course, it doesn’t.  You just step out of the whole issue, leave it behind.

I remember a man once said to me, “It is the privilege of a human being not to solve his problems but to step outside them.”  It took me many years to realise how true that was.  This is how it is.  As long as you nag away at these problems, as long as you feel they are the issue, they are what is of concern, then of course, they will be the issue, they will be of concern, because that is what you are doing.  You make the problems in the first place, and by wanting now to get rid of them, you are perpetuating the problems. It is often likened to a person who is having a very difficult dream, a nightmare: the best thing you can do for that person is to wake them up.

We are not saying that awakening means that you have no problems.  Somebody asked Nisargadatta, “Do you have problems?” and he said, “Yes, I have problems.  As long as one has a body, one suffers.”  Someone said to Buddha, “The good Gautama neither knows nor sees suffering.” And Buddha replied, “It is not that I do not know suffering, do not see it.  I know it; I see it.”

But the absolute quality of the problems, their ‘seriousness,’ the feeling that my whole life is ruined or threatened with ruin  because of this or that, all that drops away.  We are no longer identified with what comes up.  We have to resolve problems, but we are not identified with them.  We see thoughts, ideas and worries just like we would if we stood along the side of St. Catherine Street on a busy day; we just let the crowd pass by.  We don’t try to get in the middle and stop it, hold our arms out and stop the flow.  People just pass by.  It is exactly the same to just be.  In just being, we do not stop the flow.

The questioner said, “When I ask for bread, you are giving me jewels; they are beautiful no doubt, but I am hungry.”  Nisargadatta replied, “It is not so.  I am offering you exactly what you need: awakening.”  Because we feel that our problems are, in some way, insurmountable we consider that this is just how it has to be.  There are some people who do not even realise that they suffer.  They are suffering terribly, but they are so convinced that this is how it has to be that they no longer see it as suffering.

This was brought home to me very starkly..  I used to have to get time off now and again to go to sesshins, and I would talk to my boss about this.  He asked me one day, “What exactly are you doing?  Why are you doing all this?”  I said, “Well, I’m like most people.  My life is suffering.  I suffer quite a lot and I really want to see the source of it and what I can do about it.”  He said, “You say everyone suffers?  I don’t suffer.”  He looked at me out of haunted eyes and said, “I don’t suffer.  How can you say everyone suffers?”  I realised at that moment that this man does not know he suffers.  How is that possible?  We take our suffering for granted.  We feel this is how it has to be;  it is life and there is no alternative.

When people asked Buddha, “Is this the case?” he would say, “It is a viewpoint.”  Or they would ask him, “Is this not the case?” and he would say, “It is a viewpoint.”  Or they would ask, “Is it both the case and not the case?” and again he would say, “It is a viewpoint.”  In other words, he was saying that you are seeing the situation from that point of view, it is a viewpoint.  Buddhism does not aim to give you correct knowledge or a correct viewpoint.

Let me tell you a story. When I was a child I  used to love going to the Tuppenny Rush.   “Tuppennce” was two pence, two pennies, and the “rush” was because you had to get in first,  otherwise, you wouldn’t get a seat.  The rush was to see the Saturday films and these were projected onto an ordinary bed sheet set up as a screen.  Sometimes, you would get to the middle of the film and somebody would want something behind the screen and would search for it with a flashlight. Of course, that ruined the film.  Here’s some cowboy galloping along on his horse trying to get the Indian, and all of a sudden he is obliterated by the light of a torch shining at the back.  In other words, I would be seeing it  without seeing it as having that absolute realness, that absolute starkness.  It is defused; the poison is taken out of it.  This is what Buddha is saying. He is saying,  “I am offering you awakening, to awaken to the viewpoint that you have on your life.  You’re not living your life; you are living your viewpoint of your life.  This is your life; it is not the life.”

Nisargadatta says, “You are not hungry and you need no bread.  You need cessation, relinquishing, disentanglement.” He is saying that if you feel your life is in a mess, what you need is cessation, relinquishing, disentanglement, you do not have to sort out the mess.  You need to see it as a viewpoint, as a way of seeing.  Without the viewpont there is no life. But you overlook the viewpoint. While it is the only way of seeing it, neverthelss it is a viewpoint.  It’s not that there is a better way of seeing it, but what you think of as your life is your way of seeing it.  To realize this will be like a flashlight behind the screen.  You life will no longer have that stark, absolute reality that you think, indeed  you are quite sure,  it has.  You will wake up to the dream; you do not wake up from the dream. Relinquishing is relinquishing your identification with situations.  You believe “I am that.”  You are not that.  All that you can say is “I am.”  The question ‘What am I?’ is not designed to get you to see what you are so much as to get you to stop identifying yourself with what you think you are.

Nisargadatta says, “What you believe you need is not what you need.”  What you believe you have to do about your life, you do not have to do.  Your life will be lived on.  The die is cast now.  When we are young there are forks on the road that we can take ― there are many of them when we are young ― but every fork we take reduces the number of forks we can take until eventually the road is set out before us.  Now all we have to do is walk it.  But who is it that walks?  This is important, not the road that you walk.  The road can be anything; the road of a rich person or a poor person; of a wise person or a dull person A man in Austin, Texas––he was a homeless man living on the streets––wrote an interesting book. He lived a thoroughly interesting, exciting, and  worthwhile life, although he didn’t work at all and only owned the clothes he walked in. But nevertheless, reading his account, I thought, “That sounds a fascinating life. Perhaps I could try that, perhaps I could become homeless.”  What you believe you need is not what you need. We set up barriers to climb over, and after we have  climbed over them, we build up more barriers, and then we get weary, and we say, “What is it with Zen?  All you have to do is climb over barriers all the time.  Why isn’t it more smooth going?”  Then we build up another barrier and start climbing over it.

Nisargadatta says, “Your real need, I know.”  ‘I know what your real need is; you don’t.’ That is an interesting statement.  But once you see––and you don’t have to see very deeply––but once you see there is a way of disentangling, or of stepping outside, then you see “I am not that.”  Once you see that, then you know this truly is the way.  He says, “You need to return to the state in which ‘I am,’ your natural state.  Anything else you may think of is an illusion and an obstacle.”  This is disentanglement. You now can see that all experience is experience; it is not reality itself.  The reality is given to it by your identification with it.  Because you say, “I am it,”  it, whatever it is, becomes real.  If I am a confused life, then that life is a very confused life.  “Believe me, you need nothing except to be what you already are.”  It is too simple.  Is that all?  Just to be what I am?  This is why the man says but I am hungry, you’ve got to feed me; you’ve given me jewels.  That’s too easy, too simple, to return to what you already are.

We say to people, “What are you?” and time and time again they are unable to respond because they are trying to tell me.  Instead of returning to what they are, instead of being, they try to think, they try to give a thought structure, because this is the way the mind is so conditioned to work. But the response to the question “What are you?” is simply to be.  In the same way the answer to the question “Who walks?” is simply to walk.  There is nothing else but being; there isn’t ‘something’ that is.  Being is.  You don’t need to be something to be.  That “something to be” is the unnecessary addition.  It is the dream.  And it is the total entanglement of your life.

Nisargadatta says, “You imagine you will increase your value by acquisition.”  In other words, you think that, “If I practice, I’m going to get understanding; I’m going to get good experience; I’m going to reach high spiritual states; I’m going to become a good person, a loving person,” and you believe that all of these you are going to acquire as a consequence of awakening.  We have the sense of “I want to get.”  Very often, when they come to dokusan, people say, “I haven’t got anything at all out of this practice.  I have been practising, how long have I been practising, and I haven’t got anything, nothing.” Nisargadatta says, “You imagine you will increase your value by acquisition.”  It is like gold, imagining that an addition of copper will improve it.  “Elimination, purification, renunciation of all that is foreign to your nature is enough.”  What is purification, elimination?  It is simply seeing that you simply are.  It isn’t a rejection.  It is seeing that you are, not what you are.  It is knowing that you know.  And then he says, “Eliminate all that is foreign to your nature, all else is vanity.”  And this is the case.  This circling around the question, fiddling with it, discussing it, looking at it from different angles, assessing it, protesting about it, all of this is simply vanity.

The questioner says, “It is easier said than done.  A person comes to you with a stomach ache and you advise him to disgorge his stomach.  Of course without the mind there would be no problem, but the mind is there most tangibly.”  This is a bit like someone saying, “Well, you are telling me just to get rid of my life.  There is no question that my life is tangled.”  You can’t doubt that; life is tangled.  This is what the questioner is saying.  The mind is there;  after all, the entanglement of the life is in the content of the mind, so the mind is there.  Nisargadatta says, “It is the mind that tells you that the mind is there.”  Your reaction to the situation is part of the situation.  A painter is part of the painting.  We have this tendency to separate out and say, “The mind over there is the problem” without realising that that statement, “The mind over there is the problem” is the mind at work.  It’s like when people say, “I know I’ve got a big ego.”  It is the big ego that is talking.  Nisargatta says, “All the endless arguments about the mind are produced by the mind itself for its own protection, continuation and expansion.”  It all comes out of the fact that I have to be.

The compulsion to be, and that always mean the compulsion to be ‘something,’  is like the compulsion to survive.  I have to survive.  I have to be.  And it is “ I have to be” that is the problem.  You do not ‘have to be;’ you do not have to do something, know somehting, have something, to be. When we are sitting and allowing the breath to breathe, we are letting go of the “have to be:” that compulsion, that necessity.  This is why people always get upset when told “step outside it.” Underlying their distress is, “I have to be what you want me to step outside of.”  Even though my life is a mess, I have to be that life, because there isn’t anything else.  That is what I am.  Without that I am nothing.  I am a vacancy.  I am a void.  I’d sooner have a disastrous life than be nothing.

In the entrance to the Zendo building is a statue of a carp. This is to remind us constantly, as we come through the entrance into the zendo, of what we are coming to do.  The carp swims against the stream and we, by practicing, are going against the current, the current of  “having to be.”  To go against the current  “having to be” is let it go: to let go of all our achievements and of all our wish to achieve.  “Just being” is letting go of the compulsion “I have to be.”  Coming home to the fact that you are, breaks the lynch pin that holds you to your life of suffering.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “It is the blank refusal to consider the convolutions and convulsions of the mind that can take you beyond it.”  Stepping outside it takes you beyond it. Again, how do you step outside it?  By returning to the truth that you are.  And how do you do that?  You ask the question “What am I?”  and whatever offers itself to you, you know right away, that is a viewpoint.  Anything that you can experience, that is a viewpoint.  In other words, you are no longer indentifying yourself with what offers itself.  You are breaking that identification.  It is a long journey because you are thoroughly identified with the content of your mind, but each time you earnestly come back to ‘What am I?’ if you really ask the question, you cut another link and another tie has been broken.

Then the questioner says, “Sir, I am a humble seeker, while you are the supreme reality itself.  Now the seeker approaches the supreme in order to be enlightened.  What does the supreme do?”  Nisargadatta says, “Listen to what I keep on telling you and do not move away from it.”  But of course, everybody moves away.  The statement, “Stay with the questioning.  Allow the questioning to be,” is too simple.  We get a thought, “Well this is interesting,” and before we know it, we are lost in the maze of thought.  We are  right back into misery again.  We want entertainment.  Struggling with the question, or ‘just allowing,’ are too boring, people say.  When I practice I get bored.  So we stir up interest, one way or another; we create some drama, we arouse some action.  Yet, only one thread should persist throughout life, and that is the thread of practice, and the practice is to stay with your questioning.  Be your questioning.  Let nothing else intervene.

Nirsagadatta would say, “Having reached that far, abandon all thoughts, not only of the world, but of yourself also.”  In other words, no longer be interested.  Lose interest in thoughts.  “Stay beyond all thoughts in silent being awareness. It is not progress, for what you have come to is already there waiting for you.”  Coming and going we never leave home.

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Joshu’s Mu

Trees shed thousands, millions of seeds, yet only one or two sprout and, in their turn, go on to become a tree. A teisho is like this. It is sowing seeds. Some of the seeds may not sprout for years. Most of them will just pass you by. It may well take some time, but perhaps one day a seed will sprout and you will suddenly turn around and say, “Ah, now I see what he was getting at.”

You should not try to understand what I say. Understanding is a natural process of the mind; it is rather like digesting food. One digests knowledge, information and experience and this is what we call understanding. Philosophy means just that (or at least it used to mean that): struggling to find an integrated, meaningful and worthwhile understanding of how we know what we know and how much reliance we can place on what we know, as well as an understanding of reality and our place in the world. The problem with understanding is that we try to take it with us into the transcendent, to go beyond, when we are attempting to come to terms with the inconceivable. Then it is a hindrance: even an obstruction.

What is said in a teisho should be seen as a challenge, an attempt to bring you to the edge, to make you realize there is something beyond what you habitually feel that you know. What is ‘beyond’ is what is most worthwhile. But each of us must realize it for ourselves. It cannot be given to us by another.

Words are in their way small miracles, but that which performs the miracle of speech is a much greater miracle yet. Koans are about that miracle, or rather they are not about it but are its full manifestation.

Koan 1 of the Mumonkan.

A monk once asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joshu answered “Mu.”

All our practice, indeed all spiritual practice, is summed up, contained in, Joshu’s Mu. NO! not the no, the opposite to yes, but the NO that cuts off Buddha’s feet and makes the mountains move. Some of you are working on “Who am I?” In exactly the same way, all spiritual practice is in that one question, “Who?” The only answer to which lies in front of your nose. What is spiritual practice? What are we doing when we engage in a spiritual practice? We are not looking for special states of mind, for peace, compassion, sublimity, or awakening. We must not believe for a moment that Joshu’s Mu is any kind of technique, a way by which we can manipulate reality to our advantage. Our practice is like a prayer, but again we must understand that we use the word “prayer” not in the way that most people look upon it: a way of persuading, cajoling, demanding, pleading with, some power to change the inevitable. Our practice is like a prayer of supplication, a prayer by which we open ourselves to what is beyond any rosy picture or Utopian dream.

What is Joshu’s Mu? Does a dog have Buddha nature? First you must enter into the monk’s question, because, if you are seriously practicing Zen, his question is your question. What am I? What does it mean when I say, “I am?” How can we stop taking “I am” for granted? Indeed, how can we stop taking our whole life for granted? This is the basis of koan practice: no longer to use ready-made, second-hand ideas and thoughts. The monk was in agony, unless you see that you too are in agony you are wasting your time. Don’t be afraid of the truth. The monk desperately wanted an answer to questions that, if we are at all awake, are the questions we all have, and he turned to Joshu for help. What a waste of time!

I always ask people why they are practicing. Sometimes people say, “I want to see if I can break out. I want to see if I can get out of this rat race, this feeling that I’ve seen it all before.” This wish to break out leads people to believe that spiritual practice requires some kind of enthusiasm, excitement or emotional high. But to break out is to examine everything as closely as though your life depends on it, and then to examine the process of examining. What is anything? We are so convinced that we know what we mean when we say that ‘something is’ — that the room is here, that the garden is there, that the house is there — we are so convinced of this that we go beyond it, we ignore the significance of this conviction.

Hui Neng said, “From the beginning, not a thing is.” You must see this kind of phrase, as well as a phrase like “true self is no self,” as a kind of medicine you take to cure you of the sickness of taking things for granted. Buddha said that his teaching was a raft; then he asked, “When you cross over, do you carry the raft on your head?” We must not look at what Hui Neng says as a teaching, as something that we learn and absorb and take as our own. It is a challenge. Otherwise it is sheer poison that can lead you into the darkest confusion We can no more say that from the beginning not a thing is than we can say that true self is no self, until we know for ourselves their truth; but when we know their truth; we must then forget them.

This is the beauty of Mu. Mu is so austere, its like a mouth full of dust, we cannot grasp it or take it for granted. It leaves no residue. It leaves nothing behind. You just cannot understand what Joshu is saying.. This is why we always say at the beginning of sesshin, “You have not come here to understand.” When we try to understand we try to build an edifice, a conceptual house in which to live, a structure of ideas that we can be sure of. You have heard so often that people believe they can grasp reality in thoughts and words, that they can understand themselves through psychology and the world through philosophy or science. But still you do it. You believe that it is possible; not in any overt, conscious way, but as a tacit assumption. Even though you may consider yourself to be anything but an intellectual, you still have your own metaphysics. But if you’ve really worked on yourself, you will see that every idea that you grasp is empty. When you look at it closely it somehow melts. Even the ideas that one felt were so important, one sees they have no substance to them. They are but “flowers of the air” as the Lankavatara sutra would say. Mu is a solvent, like an acid, that dissolves ideas.

When we first start the practice, our struggle is to just hold on to Mu, just to keep it in mind, just to stay with it. And when we’ve done that for a while we begin to wonder, “What is the point of this kind of practice?” and this is when a deeper kind of practice can begin to take over. But one really must face that question, “What is the point of this kind of practice?” because the switch from just holding on to Mu, to looking into Mu, is radical. It is the difference between working on Mu from the outside––holding on to MU––and struggling to work on MU from the inside. Mu means to be totally undefined, completely unlocated, completely without borders or limits, indeed, with nothing to hold on to. It’s like when we chant from the Prajnaparamita, “and so the Bodhisattva, holding to nothing whatever.” But we must be careful because we must not make something of nothing, nor is our practice simply “slipping away.” A line from a poem by the English poet John Keats says, “Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget;” this is not what practice is about. You do not have to dissolve; you do not go into a special state, some trancelike state; your ideas must fade, dissolve, not you. And this is only possible in your light, in the light of your awareness; what is important is the clarity and intensity of your light. That is to say the degree to which you are committed, the sincerity and honesty of your practice. We sometimes ask, “Are you?” and if one can be com¬pletely innocent, completely unsophisticated, naïve, in response to that question, one gets a taste of what we mean when we say that the ideas must dissolve.

Zen has a saying, “When thoughts of the world are strong, then thoughts of the dharma are weak; when thoughts of the dharma are strong, then thoughts of the world are weak.” Thoughts of the world are so strong because we take things for granted; moreover, we think they are so important that our very life depends upon them. One of the key words that holds it all in place is the word “is.” This is why we warn you that the question, “What ‘is’ Mu?” or “Who ‘are’ you?” is a trap. Mu means no “is,” or rather no fixed, permanent and absolute “is.” Dogen speaks of “uji,” being-time. He says everything is time: every ‘is’ is flowing. The zendo is time, the cushion is time, the house is time. There is a koan, called a preliminary koan, and it says, “Standing on the bridge and lo, the stream no longer flows, it is the bridge that flows.” Because we take everything for granted with the concrete base of “is,” we see the world as something static. The world is like a stage on which a play of our life is being enacted. We believe that in the background is the stage, the scenery; all is fixed, unmoving, static; while in the foreground is my life. I move through the world, my life is like a stream flowing while the banks of the stream remain stable. But Dogen says the banks are also flowing. The stage, the scenery, are part of the play. This is not that everything is becoming, we are not saying that at all; there is no becoming. When I am silent it seems that nothing is happening, but everything is happening. Nothing ever stops happening. Everything is happening. What is happening may not be what I want to happen, but it happens nevertheless. To see into this is a way of melting down this carapace, this shell, of what we call existence.

In another koan, Hyakujo goes out with Baso, and, while they are out, some wild geese fly overhead, and Baso says to Hyakujo, “Hyakujo, where are they?” And Hyakujo says, “They have flown away.” Baso grabs Hyakujo by the nose and twists his nose. Why? Why does Baso twist Hyakujo’s nose? We believe that things come and go, that I come and go. Because we believe in this notion of time as a stream that is flowing, things appear and disappear. But there is no birth, no death, there is no appearing and disappearing. As Hakuin says, “In coming and going we never leave home.” This is why we say that there is no becoming.

There are no things to appear, and no things to discover over there. You put them ‘over there.’ For example, if you look at your body, you can put it ‘over there,’ in which case you say “I have a body.” But when you don’t say, “I have a body,” then the body dissolves. One is left simply with what one calls in retrospect, sensations, pains perhaps, because you are ‘inside,’ so to say. Not inside the body, but inside the pain or the sensations: you feel them. You are aware as the body, not aware of it. But when Hui Neng says, “From the beginning, not a thing is,” he is neither inside nor outside. Mu is beyond inside and outside. The meaning of the words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ drops away; there is no connection between what you are and anything that you can say to express what you are. No connection at all. When you really see into yourself, then all that you’ve known, understood, realized, just melts like a cloud. Joshu’s Mu means just that: it is not a state of mind.

Our practice must become more subtle. We should not believe that as a consequence of practice we are going to know more or understand more. By subtle, I mean more transparent, that you see through ideas and not with ideas. Someone said it is like throwing a slate into a deep clear pool. If you have ever done that you know the fascination of seeing it sink deeper and deeper. We sometimes liken it to experiencing a piece of music. One can listen to a piece of music many times and at the end one can say, “I think I am beginning to see what that music is about.” Then you listen to it a few more times and then say, “Ah! Now I see what it is about!” There is no end to practice. As Hakuin said, “Practice is like the sea, the further you go the deeper it gets.” You mustn’t look upon practice as some kind of race that you are running, as some kind of marathon that you have undertaken, that one day you will run across the finishing line and win.

When I first heard this I was filled with despair because, above all I wanted closure, wanted a finality, wanted a stop. Our belief in a stop, in a finality, our lusting after closure gives us the impetus for taking things for granted. Our belief in gaining and getting and having and achieving is the manifestation of this need for closure, and of course the ultimate in closure is death. We are in that situation of wanting to find rest and peace, and yet knowing that the last thing that we really want is rest and peace, because to gain rest and peace we must get outside time. Time knows no rest. We get outside time by thoughts and names, by, if you like, abstraction. So we are able to have this stage on which to put on our play, this ability to get outside time, but when we get outside time we get outside life.

There is a fairy story called The Midas Touch, about a king who wanted wealth, and a wise man came and said “Yes, I can give you wealth. Everything you touch will turn to gold,” and the whole world froze solid as a consequence. When we give workshops we often say that Zen is like a smorgasbord, take your pick. This is after we have introduced all the possibilities that Zen practice can give: satisfying curiosity, less physical stress, less psychological stress, more concentration power, creativity, and then we say choose, but choose well because perhaps you will get what you want, but won’t want what you get. King Midas got what he wanted, but then he didn’t want what he got. For everything to turn to gold means that you achieve what you want, but what is it you want? Joshu’s Mu is the opposite to the Midas Touch. There are two ways of being rich; one is to earn or gain a lot of money, the other way is to let go of all unnecessary desires. A man with a million dollars who wants two million dollars is a poor man; a man with nothing who wants nothing is rich. When we talk in terms of riches and poverty, we always think in terms of money, but money is just a symbol of our ability to grasp, our ability to take things for granted.

When your practice becomes more subtle, your life will become richer. But if you are struggling constantly to grasp, to get, to achieve, then naturally your life will become poorer, you will be like a person with a million dollars that wants two million dollars. You know the koan about the monk Seizei, who said to the master “I am poor and destitute. I beg you, give me sustenance.” He had a million and he wanted two. And the master pointed this out to him and said, “Seizei!” “Yes sir.” “There, you’ve drunk the finest wine in China and still you say that you are poor.” But to see into that requires subtlety, deli¬cacy. You must work with a feather touch. Of course, when we are on sesshin, and after we have sat for several hours, then our practice begins to get very dry and difficult; we can only stay present by using great effort, we can even lose the whole question, we are in a kind of daze, and then we wonder, how can we have a subtle practice in the midst of this?

Our practice becomes more subtle when we no longer try to get through, past or over the dry periods. By not wanting another experience, something else, something different. Simply because the practice is uncomfortable does not mean that it is a bad practice. Practice requires immense humility, and humility leads to patience; but we say to ourselves, surely something else should be possible now, something else should come; we are always fidgeting for this something else, so we are not able to be one with the moment, and being one with the moment is what I mean by being subtle.

Mu is not an alternative viewpoint. Joshu’s Mu is beyond all description. As Hakuin says, “beyond exultation.” Mu is life. That we want magic and miracles is because echoes of Mu resonate through us. Mumon says, “Hundreds of flowers in the spring, the cool breeze in summer, the moon in autumn, snow in winter.” What more do you want

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