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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sitting Long and Getting Tired

Sitting Long and Getting Tired

Koan 17 of the Hekiganroku


Cutting through nails and breaking steel for the first time, one could be called a Master of the First Principle. If you run away from arrows and evade swords you will be a failure in Zen. The place where even a needle cannot enter I’ll leave aside for a while, but when the foaming billows wash the sky, what will you do with yourself then?


A monk asked Kyorin, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” “Sitting long and getting tired.”

Kyorin was a follower of Ummon, and he worked with him for about twenty years. During the first eighteen years, all that Ummon ever said to him was, “What is it?” At the end of the eighteen years, Kyorin turned to Ummon and said, “I understand.” Ummon said, “Well, why don’t you demonstrate it?” Kyorin had to stay another three years.

Why is it not enough simply to understand? Ummon is not saying that understanding is useless, nor that we should give up trying to understand. The longing to understand is the power that drives practice. Zen, unfortunately has acquired an anti-intellectual reputation, many students taking literally what some Zen Masters have said. Understanding can take us to the door, but it cannot take us through.

From the beginning not a thing is. The problem is we try to interpret what Hui Neng means; we try, indeed, to understand it. We try to find a context in which to integrate what Hui Neng has said and so make sense of it. In the same way, when we are working on Mu, we try to find a context. We ask ourselves. “What does Mu mean? In asking that we try to find a place for Mu in our experience. Of course, Mu has no place in our experience. It is exactly the same when you are asking the question “Who?” We try to find an experience which will be an adequate response to the question “Who am I?”

On another occasion someone asked Kyorin, “What marvellous medicine does the Master prescribe?” Kyorin says, “It is not other than the ten thousand things.” What sort of medicine is the questioner asking about? It is the medicine that can resolve all our doubts. Do you see the floor? Take that twice a day. You think it is something other than the floor, the walls, the roads. You are certain there has to be something more. When commenting on Nansen’s, “Everyday mind is the way,” someone said that everyday mind means the mind purified of all of its doubts, concerns and conflicts. No, no. Your everyday mind is the way. This is why I say, “Don’t worry about the personality. The personality has enough to worry about; we don’t have to join in.”

You feel that there is really something: that this room, this cushion, this floor, this room is ‘something.’ But this ‘something’ must be questioned. “Isn’t the room here?” people ask; but that very room that they are asking about has passed, already gone, before they have ended their question. The room is now a different room. Just as they end the sentence, they, in speaking, are changing the room because of course the room included the question, “Is not this the room?” The room isn’t just the four walls, the floor; it is only when we use our spotlight mind, when we conceptualise, pick out, describe, or define, ‘the room’ that it becomes something with four walls and a floor. You cannot count all that makes up a room.

We forget the seeing and are only concerned with the seen.

Once you are open to this, then you will realise that ‘from the beginning not a thing is.’ Once you see it this way, then that very sense of “something” drops away. This is why Kyorin says the medicine is not other than the ten thousand things. Not other than the cushion, the floor, the room.

When I say that you ignore the seeing and only know the room, I am not suggesting that you try to see a void, or a hole, or an absence, where beforehand you saw the room. When the master says ‘not a thing is’ he is not digging holes in existence. It is that isness that is the question. What does it mean ‘to be’? The isness of the room, the isness of yourself are not different. To see into one is to see into the other. The most fundamental question then is ‘What is this isness?’ It is not permanence; it is not an enduring substratum, a ghostlike support. What is this isness then? When you are asking Mu? ‘No’, it is a clean sweep. No isness, no permanence, no essence.

The questioner goes on to ask, “What happens to one who takes this medicine?” Kyorin replies, “Sip some and see.” It is no good talking about this really; everything comes down to “Everyday mind is the way.”

Engo starts the introduction by saying, “Cutting through nails and breaking steel.” We all know what “Cutting through nails and breaking steel” means. It is that quality that comes during the second or third day of sesshin; it is a very fine description of that feeling, a kind of pain, but at the same time there is an austerity, yet also a cutting through. Underlying it all is what I call the desert, what others call boredom. When he says, “If you run away from arrows and evade swords you will be a failure in Zen,” he means that one must face this quality of zazen: this hard, austere, merciless quality of zazen; one must walk through it upright, open; but, to be able to do that, one must have come to terms with boredom.

Boredom is so prosaic that one wonders how it could fit into spiritual practice. How can one talk about facing boredom when we have got this great work of seeing into our true nature? To talk about boredom with the same breath that talks about practice seems indecent, it seems to be letting the side down. If I am sitting in boredom, being bored, I am not the valiant spiritual warrior who strides through the battle of existence, the spiritual warrior who cries out,

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire![1]

An interesting commencement address was given to some eager beaver students who had just graduated, ready to undertake the exciting, adventurous and dramatic process of life. A writer, Joseph Brodsky, giving the address, had the courage to tell them that for much of their lives they were going to be bored. Without doubt, he knew that our society is one that is least equipped to handle boredom. With all the gadgets and gimmicks, with all the different forms of entertainment and distraction that we have, with all the means by which we can become distracted from distraction by distraction, how can we face boredom?

Brodsky said, in the process of giving his commencement address, that boredom is an invasion of time into our set of values. We have the way that we feel things ought to be, and then time intervenes. It is like when you are waiting in a doctor’s waiting room: you’ve got your priorities, things that you want to get on with, and you’ve got to sit in this waiting room for two or three hours. It is an invasion of time into your set of values.

He went on to say, “It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is humility.” This is what the desert, what boredom can do for us. It is a violation of our expectations like nothing else. It cuts through and it cuts us down to size, and this is why boredom is so difficult to work with, so difficult to face and to open up to. Sitting in boredom is just like cutting through nails and breaking steel.

Many people when they are practising feel they shouldn’t be bored – they feel that they have to get on with the great work, they have got to strive — and so they conjure up difficulties and start working with those difficulties. They find something––anything––that will distract, give the impression that things are happening, give the impression that really this is true spiritual work that they are doing, and that they are not just sitting, bored.

To work with boredom means being completely one with it, being completely open to it, to be aware as boredom instead of being aware of boredom. Not judging yourself in relation to it, nor judging it in relation to yourself, but just entering into the condition, letting go of the very word “boredom,” entering into that state of no-thing-ness, nothingness.

Brodsky goes on to say, “The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become.” One reaction to boredom is anger, rage. It comes from a petulant belief that things ought to be different, that this is not how things ought to be. “I didn’t opt to suffer in this way; I do not mind the suffering of a martyr, but will not accept the suffering of boredom.” So a fury develops. Alternatively, a deep sense of depression develops, a feeling of helplessness in the face of the boredom, a feeling that one is unworthy, that one can’t deal with it, that one should be able to deal with it but can’t. Or, there can be a deep anxiety that comes in relation to boredom, a sense of time wasting, of losing time, of time not being productive and fruitful, a kind of panicky feeling.

But in the face of all this, for the first time, we begins to realise that we cannot do anything. This is one of Gurdjieff’s dictums: “Man cannot do.” It is a very profound statement. We think that we are in charge. We think that we are “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” as an English poet would have it. We think all we have to do is make up our minds and that will be enough. And then we sit cutting through nails and breaking steel. The more you face this truth, “I cannot do it,” the more humble and the more compassionate you become. Your heart softens. As Brodsky says, “If it takes paralysing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then welcome the boredom.” You must welcome the boredom, not simply put up with it. To accept boredom is not enough, you must embrace it. Only after you have completely embraced it can you go beyond it.

Brodsky continues, “What’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own and of everything else’s existence is that it is not a deception.” Boredom is not an idea: it is the absence of all fruitful ideas. It is a cleansing of the soul. “The meaninglessness of your own existence and of everyone else’s existence is not a deception.” We feel that we are so important. We feel that there is something that is special about us. But there is nothing like waiting for a few hours in a doctor’s waiting room to disabuse us of that, as long as we do not sit and grumble and protest and moan. Brodsky advises, “Try to embrace or let yourself be embraced by boredom and anguish, which are larger than you anyhow.” Boredom and anguish are larger than the feeling “I am important.” They are more true, more real.

He advises further, “No doubt you will find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can and then some more.” In other words, don’t set a term for how long you are prepared to embrace it, or as he puts it, “to be embraced by it.” Being embraced by it is your practice. In fact, working with this embrace is the greatest practice. Everything else that comes in sesshin comes as a consequence of the way that you open yourself to this vast Gobi desert of the soul. “Above all,” Brodsky adds, don’t think you’ve goofed somewhere along the line. Don’t try to retrace your steps to correct the error.” This is one of the things we feel, “This boredom isn’t it; this isn’t practice. How can this do any good whatsoever? What is the point of sitting with this anguish, this torment, this nothing? This is absurd. I’ve lost my way.”

Many people feel that the spiritual path is a path of ecstasy, enthusiasm or excitement. We want to see dazzling images of Christ or Buddha…not nothingness. Yet it is in the complete absence of excitement, bereft of enthusiasm, dried up of emotion that the true cleansing of the soul, the real purging of the spirit takes place This is the true purgatorial fire through which we must pass. As the English poet, W. H. Auden said, “Believe your pain.” We say, have faith in your suffering; it is leading you, it is guiding you, it is working for you. Without it, nothing can be accomplished. The sense of self has been built out of cast iron layered onto reinforced concrete and lined with impenetrable steel. Do you think you are going to cut through it in a weekend? Of course it is going to take time, energy, pain and hard work, and working in this desert is the work. Boredom is not a cul-de-sac. It is not straying from the path. What is good in practice may not be good in life; but what is good in life may not be good in practice. It is one of the most painful experiences, to be utterly bored.

We always come in to practice bathed in the magic and miracle of “At last I’ve found my way home.” The beginner’s mind is so wonderful to see. One sees it in workshops. It is a pleasure to give workshops. People’s eyes are sparkling after a workshop; there is a sense of energy and one can feel that. Sometimes people write afterward saying how much their lives have changed and how they now see what is necessary in their life. A lot of the accounts that one reads about spiritual work and spiritual experience are written by people who have had a week at the most of meditation, perhaps twenty minutes a day, and they go into raptures about how important the practice is. It is this kind of writing that leads us to believe that this is really what spiritual practice is about: these great moments of insight, these dazzling times of serenity, this sense of peace and beauty and wonder that pervades the whole world.

Just in case you think that this has no bearing on spiritual work, let me read you something from St. John. “One is left in such dryness that spiritual things and devout exercises, wherein one formerly found pleasure and delight, appear bitter and insipid.” He says furhter that the devout exercises wherein he formerly found pleasure and delight appear bitter and insipid. We know that changeover. That’s when one begins to think, “My God, what have I let myself in for?” It is, of course, at this stage that ninety percent of the people who came in and enjoyed the magic and who were going to practice and go to monasteries, leave.

St. John says, “As long as the aridity, the dryness of the night of sense lasts, spiritual persons suffer great tribulations.” This is so. We feel we want to get on, that this boredom is not right, that there’s got to be something else. We ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? What have I done wrong? Is there another teaching? How can I get out of this?” Many people go off into a sort of dopey state, drift off into a kind of half sleep. Others get all kinds of thoughts, images, sexual images and feelings, all kinds of past woes, anguish, regrets, anything the mind can dig up rather than stay in this aridity and dryness of the night of sense.

This anguish that people feel comes not only on account of the dryness they experience but because of the fear that they have lost their way. This is the biggest challenge. One cannot help but feel that this boredom is not right. It is alright to hear about it when one listens to a teisho. One accepts it. Yes, this is good, next time it comes I’m really going to work with it. And then it comes. This isn’t right. What’s the point? What’s it about? In other words, this sense “I am in control, I am the one, I can do it,” just won’t give up. As we say, there are people that rage against this.

St.John goes on to say, “These people, when they get a glimpse of this concrete and perfect life of the spirit, which manifests itself in the complete absence of all sweetness, which manifests in aridity, distaste, and in the many trials that are the true spiritual cross, they flee from it as from death.” He goes on to say, “They seek themselves in God” — in our terminology, they seek themselves in awakening, they feel they have come here for awakening — “[to seek oneself in God] is the very opposite of love.” To seek oneself in awakening is “to seek the favours and refreshing delights that come from it.” In other words, it is not really awakening that they are after; it is the feelings that they believe are going to accompany it, and above all the feeling of uniqueness and superiority which they will at last be able to enjoy to the fullest. St. John says, “Whereas to seek God in oneself is to incline oneself to choose all that is most distasteful, and this is the love of God.” Unquestionably, St. John of the Cross was an extremely developed spiritual being, and unquestionably he himself had passed through the desert, because otherwise he could not speak about it with such compassion.

But everything is grist for the mill. Everything. That stupidity you feel, that utter senselessness of what you are and what you are doing: all is grist for the mill. I know that while cutting through nails and breaking steel even to lift an eyelid, an eyebrow, feels like moving a ton weight, nevertheless, at some level, turn to it, see it as the practice.

The koan asks,

- “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”
- “Sitting long and getting tired.”

Sitting long and getting tired. Grist for the mill. When you have really sat long, have really worked your way through again and again, have passed through the furnace again and again, and have seen into the various mechanisms, machinations, twists and turns of what we call the self, what is left? Paradise? Kyoren says: “Sitting long and getting tired.”

This is perfect.

A haiku sums up this koan so well:

“The shell of a cicada
It sang itself
utterly away.”

[1] William Blake

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Locus of our Faith

“Is the practice of Zen always conscious, or can it be quite unconscious, below the threshold of awareness?” The question. which a questioner asked Nisargadatta, contains a number of other questions: what is ‘consciousness’? what is ‘unconsciousness’? is there a difference between consciousness and awareness? are just a few. It also highlights one of the basic problems that we have when talking about the practice of Zen. It is a truism that one cannot talk about what is ultimate, and yet can we even speak clearly about what, presumably, can be known? In our society we have such meagre, truly meagre, understanding of the human mind that this possibility is rarely realised.

 Even if you take such a simple word as ‘consciousness’ and ask yourself about consciousness in terms of all that is written and said in our society, you will realise that it has a myriad different meanings. For example, this questioner himself confuses awareness and consciousness; he starts off talking about consciousness and ends up talking about awareness. Not only is there this confusion, but also a lot of what we think we understand about the human mind is probably not so.

For example, Freud probably did an enormous disservice to our society. One might even say that, in a way, he corrupted what little understanding we have of the mind. Sometimes, when I say this to people they point out a number of things he said that were valuable, and undoubtedly they were; but possibly one of the greatest disservices that he did was to elevate ‘conscious mind’ to the pinnacle of evolution, and then have it opposed to an ‘unconscious’ ― a murky, tortured, perverted unconscious at that.

The question that the questioner asks really goes to the heart of the matter. What is it that we call on when we practice? You are sometimes asked, “Who is it that walks?” or “Who is it that talks?” You can ask the question right now as you read what I am saying. “Who is it that is reading?” When we say it is done ‘unconsciously,’ ‘automatically,’ we depreciate that which reads. We have put it below the conscious mind; it is something inferior, less. It is not something that we can have faith in. We can have faith only in the conscious mind, because it is the conscious mind that we feel is supreme. One of Freud’s dictums was that he was reclaiming the conscious mind from the unconscious mind. He likened it to the work that was done in Holland reclaiming the land from the sea. We have to hold in check, or overcome, this unconscious, bring it into the conscious mind because then we can deal with it. We can work with the conscious mind, the rational mind, the superior mind. And yet this mind, this conscious mind, is a very recent development in the field of life.

If you see a cat stalk a bird, or if you see it leap onto a high shelf, or if you see two kittens playing, you see what we would call ‘unconscious’ activity. We put it down even to ‘instinct,’ something that is lower still; and yet how beautiful the cat is when it makes that leap; how concentrated it is as it creeps towards that bird; how full of flexibility, fluidity, joy it is as it romps with another kitten. All of our Bruce Lees or Pete Kings in karate, the martial arts are clumsy oafs in comparison. This beautiful mind, it is not ‘unconscious’; when it walks, it walks.

See the dignity of a cat walking. It is not surprising that this feline family has been worshipped; the lion, the jaguar, the cat in Egypt, were looked upon as divine. Of course we now know, thanks to the latest researches that have been done, that the cat is just a machine, a complicated computer. We’ve degenerated even further; we’ve even got rid of instinct and consciousness and unconsciousness. Even so, the question remains. Who is it that is reading? It is no different to that which stalks the bird, which leaps to the high shelf, which gambols and runs and plays. It operates through a different mechanism, a clumsier mechanism, a grosser mechanism, but it is the same whatever.

Nisargadatta, in his reply, says in the case of beginners the practice is often deliberate and requires great determination, and so it is ‘conscious’ practice. What is this conscious mind, then? What does it do? We know that what really distinguishes us from the cat is that we have language. Cats communicate with us, and we communicate with cats, there is no question about it. So, when I talk about language I am not necessarily talking about communication. I’m talking about that ability to see, and seize, form; about the ability to isolate forms and freeze them. This then gives us the opportunity to choose between the forms, to choose one form over the other, to choose one way of behaving over the other, because we can perceive different ways of behaving in terms of different forms of behaviour: to work, to play, to meditate, to run, to jump. And so it is that we can choose. We come to choose meditation, zazen. Sometimes, we choose this as a way of behaving among other ways of behaving: “I think I’ll try meditation. I’ve tried hatha yoga. I think I’ll try meditation.” But these people rarely last long; they move on to something else. But some people run out of choices, and all that is left to them is meditation. In a way, meditation is then not chosen: it is meditation that chooses. But, nevertheless, there is the need for that assent, that ‘maintaining’ what has been given to us as meditation, and it is maintaining that which has been given to us that is the work of what we like to call our conscious mind.

We know when we sit and follow the breath, for example, that the mind constantly wanders. It goes into a kind of free flow, seizing this, seizing that. We endeavour to choose the ideal, the perfect, that which will bring stability, harmony, equilibrium, homeostasis to the mind, but because of the complexity of the mind, every choice is displaced by the possibility of another choice. So therefore, when we come to meditate, we stay open to that which has been given to us, that choiceless choice, if you like to call it that. And this requires deliberation, concentration; it requires that it be supported against the claim and clamour of all the other possibilities that keep offering themselves: memories, sensations, images, desires. But, underneath it all is a longing, a longing we say to come home; it is a longing for unity, a longing for the One. That is not a product of he ‘conscious’ mind.

The longing for the One is at the basis of all of our desires, but the problem is that the strategies we use to satisfy that longing, the conscious choices that we make to end the longing, are always abortive. They always end in a blind alley, but even so the restlessness of the mind, the surging of the mind is that longing for unity.

Because of the longing for unity we are divided against ourselves. We see the possibility of unity in being outstanding, in being unique, in being the one. We also see the possibility of unity in being the whole, in belonging, in engaging, in being involved as completely as possible. The former, if you like, is the will to power, and the other is the will to love, and they are in conflict.

The conflict of unities, as I have shown elsewhere is not just a human conflict. The conflict pervades the universe. One way that nature resolves this conflict of the opposites is through the cycle, through rhythms, oscillations, waves and undulations. I have a book called “Cycles,” and in this study of cycles, literally thousands of cycles have been identified, and, you can see, if you look carefully, every one of them comes out of the clash of opposites. This is how it is: our minds are surging in a constant undulation. This is why it is that we can be totally concentrated, fully present, and all of a sudden wake up as though we have been asleep. The more we bring the pressure of the mind to bear, to choose, the more we encourage this surging of the mind. We choose, and even as we sit in zazen, we keep changing our choice. Very often it is simply changing the strategy we use to practice. But within a given strategy, we are constantly concentrating on this or that or the other. When we first start we have an alternative; we try to grasp something, we try to choose something rather than something else. Very often we try to choose a still mind. We have this notion of peace, we have this idea, this form of peace that we feel can be attained by this that we call the conscious mind; or we choose this that we call awakening, or we choose this that we call success, or we choose this that we call the right way to practice. It doesn’t matter, it is still a form that we choose. Whatever form it takes, it’s a form. It is a product of this capability that the human being has for language, for structure, for forms, for freezing.

A master says, “No matter what you do, it is no good. Now what are you going to do?” What he is trying to do is open us up to another way of practice, the way that is other than choosing. We must shift the locus of our faith. There is no doubt about it that this that we call the conscious mind is capable of many extraordinary feats. There’s no question that the whole of civilisation has been made possible by our ability to make forms, or formulate, and to freeze those forms in concepts and relate those concepts to one another and so build incredible structures. It is a great achievement, but even that, even the creativity of those forms themselves, comes from a source beyond those forms. It comes from the source from which the body is held up on the tan, and it is to that source that we must ultimately return. It is that source that walks, that talks. We must not call it the unconscious; we must not call it the automatic. How can we have faith in the automatic, in the instinctive, in the unconscious? It is best of course not to call it anything, but the mind, being what it is, needs to make that leap into this seeming abyss from a stable platform. This is why the intellectual mind must be satisfied in what it is that we are doing.

For some people this is easily accomplished. They are simple people with simple faith. They have little store in ideas, in the value of ideas, in the value of thinking, in the value of reason, and above all in the value of the conscious mind. They have little to cling to. But none of us in this room are that simple. We are all too clever, far too clever. This is why I have to take so long to disabuse you of the notion that it is the unconscious that is holding up that body. And it is being held up. If I shot one of you, the body would collapse in a moment. It would just be a heap of bones and flesh. But now it is taut, upright, defying gravity. But what part is this celebrated conscious mind playing in all of this?

Nisargadatta says, “Those that are practising sincerely for many years are intent on self-realisation all the time, whether conscious of it or not.” What brought you here? What brought you to this sesshin? It certainly wasn’t the food that we provide. It certainly wasn’t the sleeping accommodations, nor was it the comfort of sitting on the tan or the interesting people that you are going to meet. What was it that brought you here? If your conscious mind is anything like mine, you would rather be miles away. And yet you can’t be miles away. You’ve got to be here. One feels disappointment when told, “I’m sorry, we do not have a place for you on sesshin.” One feels the let down, the betrayal, the anger. So what is it? Why not have faith in that? Why not let go of this belief in “I,” which is another word for this formulating mind, this mind of forms? Why not give up faith in that mind, and turn to that which is always, always working for your good, because the good, just like the true, or the holy, or the beautiful, is ultimately the realisation of unity, the One, the whole, the harmony, the completeness. It is working unceasingly in us. It is us. That is what we are. You can call it creativity if you wish, or intuition, or understanding, the spirit, the soul, even call it God. It is holding us up. It is hearing what I say. It is seeing the zendo. It is knowing. And yet this formulating mind still cannot let go. I say, “What is it? What are you? What is Mu?” Can you see you are looking for “What form can I give it?” “ How can I grasp it?” “How can I have it?” Can you see that grasping mind at work? What are you, truly now, what are you? Can you see how there is a movement of that mind towards grasping? What are you? What is real? What is reality? Watch it. See it.

It is said that shikantaza is the highest form of practice. Shikantaza is simply letting go of this compulsion to grasp. That’s all. Someone said it is like a person with no hands clenching her fists. That is shikantaza. There is no need to give a form to yourself. There is no need to find a form for that which is holding the body up. Can you see that now? As you sit there, where is this body? What is there, truly, right now? We are not forms. Do not give it a form. What is there now, right there? As you relinquish the need to formulate, to define, to conceive, as you relinquish that, so one sees more clearly what is meant by “forms are empty.” There is a movement outwards, and with the movement outwards comes a scattering of forms. With the movement inwards there is a relinquishment; one lets go, one releases, one liberates from these forms. And what is left? It is not nothing.

Nisargadatta says, “Unconscious practice is most effective because it is spontaneous and steady.” We now understand that the ‘unconscious’ is the real mind. It manifests basically as an ongoing search/expression of unity; unending, without source or cause because it is the source and cause of all. This is you, without source or cause. Nothing has brought you into existence. Nothing is prior to you. You are not part of some greater whole. To say that you are part of a greater whole comes from using this conscious mind, this formulating mind. Nothing can be said about you.

The questioner asks, “What is the position of a person who was a sincere student of practice for some time and then became discouraged and abandoned all efforts?” The question is then about your deliberate, conscious, practice. You let go of deliberate conscious practice, and then what? Nisargadatta replies, “What a person appears to do or not do is often deceptive.” You see there are people who can go through tremendous activity that could appear to be, and even be called, practice. These are often people who are very holy; they go through all the rituals and do everything according to the book. They sit long periods of time. It all comes out of a concept they have of themselves as being a spiritual person. It is a product of this formulating mind. “I am a spiritual person.” And then there is the one who apparently doesn’t do anything and yet comes to great awakening. But you see, what we are talking about is the appearance. One appears to be very holy and the other appears to be quite the opposite. And yet if one were able to enter in, the second person is constantly at work, there is a constant friction, a constant yes and no going on, a constant unease, a lack of any ability to make a final choice, whereas the first person has chosen; there is no internal strife any more. One has made it, “This is what I am,” and that person is spiritually dead.

He says, “A person in apparent lethargy may be just gathering strength.” This is why when you practice you need great honesty with yourself. Is your striving simply because you feel that you have to strive in order to maintain the feeling that you are practising Zen, or is there no alternative but to strive? On the other hand, is this lethargy truly a kind of fatigue, a giving up, a laziness, or is it that immobility that sometimes comes in practice, a kind of spiritual numbness that comes from having exhausted all apparent possibilities?

Nisargadatta says, “The causes of our behaviour are very subtle. One must not be quick to condemn or even to praise.” I remember at Rochester I was always terribly discouraged when I saw the younger men and women who would be sitting in the zendo after 9:30, and I couldn’t even think of sitting in the zendo, until one night I happened to summon up more of whatever it took, I think it was more pride, and I noticed that these people kept looking at one another. They were waiting to see when someone else was going to leave, and then one suddenly saw a kind of evacuation of the zendo. They weren’t really sitting; they were competing for who could sit the longest. One does not judge practice by the behaviour of other people. We must work according to this deep sensitivity, that is another word for honesty, that we can have towards what is needful, what needs to be done. And what needs to be done does not come from the conscious mind. You know in fairy stories it is always the ignorant one, or the one who is led by animals or insects, or the one who walks in the dark, or who is blindfolded, who makes the grade. It is that not-knowing that we must rely on.

Nisargadatta says, “Remember that practice is the work of the inner self on the outer self. All that the outer does is merely in response to the inner.” It is not only in spiritual work that this is true. It is our openness, our transparency, our permeability, that which cannot be described, which determines our maturity.

The questioner asks, “Even so the outer helps.” Nisargadatta replies, “How much can it help and in what way? It has some control over the body and can improve its posture and breathing. Over the mind’s thoughts and feelings it has little mastery because it itself is the mind. It is the inner that can control the outer. The outer would be wise to obey.” When we talk to people about following the breath, we always point out to them that we all have a feeling of wanting to be in control. The outer, conscious mind––that is to say, the formulating mind or “I”––have to be in control. Some people get into extreme states of tension and they are afraid to let go because they feel that they will fly out of control. But even the so called normal person is always trying to add, subtract, change and shift, constantly manipulating, judging, choosing this rather than that, constantly wanting to be in control of their lives. These choices, these graspings, these judgements fracture the mind in such a way that it becomes completely and eternally at war with itself. It takes courage to allow, to be open, but we can start with this by following the breath. When we follow the breath we begin to be able to allow. We begin to become permeable, or open, or transparent to the true control, that is to say to that which is holding the body up at the moment, that which talks and walks .

The questioner asks, “If it is the inner that is ultimately responsible for our spiritual development, why is the outer so much exalted and encouraged?” In other words, why do I keep saying to you, “Be present”? Why do I say to you, “Don’t waste a moment”? Why do I say, “These seven days are very precious”? Nisargadatta answers, “The outer can help by being quiet and free from desire and fear.” In other words, it is an opening he is talking about, a letting go. When I say, “Be present,” it is not a grasping but a releasing; you are present, you cannot be absent. You cannot be absent. But you can let go of these desires, fears and forms that you are present to. You can just be present. You do not need to have something to be present to. You do not need an idea in your mind to be present.

He says, “You will have noticed that all advice to the outer is in the form of negations, such as stop, refrain, forgo, give up, sacrifice, surrender, see the false as false.” It is always in that direction, to be open, to allow. This is the effort that the conscious mind can do, can make. The effort that it can make is to let go of its own efforts. The conscious mind can do this because it is this formulating mind alone that formulates. There is a releasement there that is possible. When you are asking, “Who am I?” it is a releasement from all the possible forms that you think you are that must respond: not finding that ultimate form that you are. It is the same with Mu. It is the releasement from all the forms in which you enclose or give body to the world and to yourself, all the ways that you separate things from things, things from you, and you from others. To ask, “What is Mu?” is to melt; it is not to freeze.

He says, “Even the little description of reality that is given is through denials; not this, not that. All positives belong to the inner self, as all absence to reality.” It is very important how one begins any enterprise because it sows the seeds from which the enterprise germinates and grows. It is said in Zen, if you want to go north, do not turn your cart towards the south. “You are!” or if you like, “It is.” That is North. Don’t turn your cart towards an idea of what you are. That is south.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Going to dokusan

 Why the Japanese words?

Our practice has three main supports: zazen, teisho and dokusan.  We use the Japanese names because we do not really have adequate English or French equivalents.  Often we talk about ‘meditation’ instead of zazen, but ‘meditation’ is really an inadequate word.  We say also that it is ‘concentration’ and ‘contemplation,’ but neither of these quite match what the practice is all about.  Our formal practice is almost all of these, but not quite. So we use ‘zazen’ instead.

The same goes for ‘teisho.’  Teisho is, in a way, a talk, although ‘talk’ suggests something very casual.  It is in a way a lecture, although ‘lecture’ is too intellectual a word. One might say that it is a sermon, although most of the sermons that I have heard have always been moralizing, pompous and boring, and I hope that teishos here in Montreal do not fall into that category. 

And what other name could we give to dokusan?  Interview?  But that is when someone is looking to get information out of you, an employer, for example, who is thinking of employing you.  Counseling? Well, yes, this is a very important part of dokusan, particularly if someone has a specific problem, a hang-up, something that they desperately need to talk with someone about, and which is preventing them from being able to practice. However, deeper psychological problems are better dealt with outside of dokusan, and even with a specialist if they are very deep and long lasting..  A confessional?  Again, it is said that confession is good for the soul, and it is good to express one’s remorse, one’s sorrow, one’s guilt. Dokusan, with its complete confidentiality, can be a good opportunity sometimes to unburden oneself in this way. But that by no means is its real purpose.

So it is all of these things, but none of them in particular.  What should we call it other than ‘dokusan?’  The French word rendezvous is not bad, although somehow, in my mind at least, rendezvous always sounds slightly illicit. 


The bewilderment of being
Perhaps we should ask then what actually goes on, why do we have dokusan, what would be lost if we did not have it?  The answer is intimately connected with the broader question, “What is practice about anyway?”  When we are no longer able to take everything in the world for granted, we can only wonder at what “it is all about.” It’s like living with a perpetual culture shock.  Of course practice is not necessarily ‘all about’ anything, and our question is simply an approximation to the feeling of bewilderment, wonder, surprise, puzzlement that we feel when the screen of habitual thoughts and reactions drop away. My body for example: it has its own needs and demands, its pains and its anguish, and its life goes on like some storm driven island in a sea of confusion.  Also, these thoughts that form by themselves, have their day, wreak their havoc, and just as unexpectedly fade away to be replaced by other, totally disconnected thoughts.  All of them take their toll, either in pain or pleasure; none of them, when looked at in the overall, mean a thing. Yet one can be preoccupied and anguished by some of them for days, weeks and even longer.  

And then there are all the other people, all of them like me, all of them whirling around their own center of gravity. Inexplicably, I am involved with some of them, identified with them in some way, either as husband, father, friend, teacher, customer, patient, neighbor or something else.  Mostly, I have the feeling of being in control, or, as one optimist said, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  But my mastery and captaincy are more often in theory rather than practice.  When I come down to it I do not even know how I stand up, let alone how I manage to speak with such ease and fluency. My ‘control’ is so often a matter of rationalization, “it turned out for the best,” “its just bad luck” “people don’t understand me.” “Better, luck next time.”

It is only after we have taken off our spectacles of expectation, habit, inertia and general disinterest that this kind of bewilderment can come in.  Otherwise it is a nine to five life.



Some of us sit down in the midst of it, often more out of sheer exhaustion than anything so exalted as a spiritual need.  We would like to start from the beginning and work forward and get it sorted out, but we are always in the middle, and lost on the way.  Catastrophes rarely have the courage, or decency, to meet us face to face, but so often come as something that starts innocuously as a shadow and then suddenly takes on the specter of a major storm.

And so we “practice.”  This often means that we need some kind of help and we go to someone and ask for it.  It is interesting that although we often need it, we do not as often want it. Few are the people who, initially, really do ask for help.  They come to dokusan because it is part of the process: everyone goes to dokusan so they go too. Furthermore, they react to dokusan in the way they react to the confusion of life.  They try to dominate it, bluster their way through, try to slip through the cracks, evade the issue, argue, lose their temper, seduce, throw tantrums, create dramas and eventually, so often, simply ignore the counsel they are given.  

It is surprising how many people think that the practice has some kind of magical power.  Prayer for the westerner is, in a way, asking for a magical transformation of an impossible situation. People come to dokusan with the same demand for magic. This attitude is encouraged by mondo in which a student goes to a teacher, asks a question, the teacher behaves in a seemingly outlandish way, and the monk comes to awakening.  Some students wait for the teacher also to behave in some outlandish way. Of course they not say so in so many words.  But you can see that they are surprised when they get just a practical response and not an incantational one.

Some teachers do prey on the gullibility of their students and encourage reverential awe.  They claim to have supernatural power, perhaps a hawk eye with which they are able to track the inner state of the student, from the moment the student rings the bell to the moment that she or he finally leaves the dokusan room.  It is true that a teacher can, in a flash, sum up the state of mind of the student when the student comes into the room.  But it is equally true that the student can, in a flash, sum up the state of mind of the teacher also.  During our life we interact and react with so many people that this “sixth sense” comes naturally.  The difference between a good teacher and a student is that a teacher will trust his or her intuition whereas the student will often tend to overlay what they have intuited with what they expect a teacher to be like. I say a good teacher will be able to do this, because there are some teachers who are more worried about being seen as a teacher than they are about working with their students. 

It has taken us many years and a lot of hard work to get ourselves in the mess that we are in when we come to practice.  We also inherit the mess of society.  The mores and customs of society are often a group reaction to an impossible situation.  War, revolution, terrorism are extreme responses, but, even when these are not occurring, there is always a kind of underground simmering of discontent, resentment and resistance.  And we take all these conflicts on as our own. Yasutani roshi used to say that to be a member of a group is to bear the karma of that group. And there truly is no magic.  That was one of the great insights of Buddha.  In his day the belief in magic was more overt than in ours, although no doubt not more believed in.  This is why the Dharmapadda begins by saying,

By oneself evil is done

By onself one suffres

By oneself evil is undone

No-one can purify another.

There are no leaps of magic or miracles.  The gods are as helpless as we are when it comes to avoiding the results of karma.  This is why I spend comparatively little time in dokusan with peoples’ problems.  Life is a problem, as Zorba the Greek said.  The content of our mind is not important.  From the point of view of practice our life, as the world sees it, may be an utter mess, we can be a total failure in all that we have tried to do, but this does not hinder the practice.  We do not have to have good thoughts to come to awakening.  Good thoughts are as much a burden as bad ones.  In other words it is not what we are that is significant; it is that we are.  It is not what we know; but that we know.  This is the great leap of faith that is required, and it is in this direction that all my efforts in dokusan tend.  How to encourage the student first to see that the content of her or his mind is not important in the context of practice.  Then to encourage the student to question, to be open to the doubt sensation, and then to  see that a leap from the ‘what’ to the ‘that’ is both desirable and possible.  And then I do all that can be done to push someone into making the leap.


Making the leap

Language lets us down more than ever when we talk about “awakening.” As Mumon says in his commentary on the koan” Mu!” “You will know this [awakening], but for yourself only, like a dumb person who has had a dream.” We talk about “making the leap” simply to emphasize that awakening is not a smooth transition within consciousness, as is the case when our thoughts move from one idea to another. This is why practice, to some people, can seem to be so frustrating, and why to others it seems a sheer impossibility.  We are told, indeed, that we must move from the possible to the impossible. Mumon tells us, ”All the delusive and useless knowledge that you have collected up to the present — throw it away.” He says further, “To reach subtle awakening you must cut off ordinary ways of thought.  If you do not pass these barriers, and do not cut off ordinary thought, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the grasses and weeds.” In other words, throw away as well the useless way of thinking that you have used up till now.  


 So, what must we ‘do?’ 

“Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty four thousand pores; summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into this question day and night without ceasing.  Question it day and night.”   But then, one might well ask, is this not the opposite of what you have been telling us for some time now?  Do you not emphasize the importance of ‘allowing?’  Does not what Mumon says imply striving, hard work and extreme effort.   ‘Allowing,’ surely, is the direct opposite of that.

 Again we are caught in the snare of language: ‘summoning up a great mass of doubt’ does not involve supreme personal effort, nor does ‘allowing’ mean sitting back waiting for something to happen.


Great Faith and Great Doubt

As you know Hakuin tells us that to practice we need Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Perseverance. The answer to the apparent enigma posed above lies in understanding “Great Faith and the Great Doubt.”

In Zen in the Art of Archery, the author, Herrigal, tells us that archery involves three aspects: drawing the bow, holding the drawn bow and releasing the arrow. The arrow must be released without any intention on the part of the archer. These three aspects are also to be found in working on a koan: entering the doubt, staying within the tension (or great doubt,) and taking the leap.  All this is possible only though Great Faith and Great Perseverance.

 During the seventeenth century Europe passed though what has famously been called the Age of Reason, or Enlightenment.  For several centuries it was believed that this was an unmitigated good.  More recently this belief has been questioned by what is called Post Modernism, a hodge-podge of challenges to the ideas spread by the Age of Reason.  One of the principle ideas of the Age of Reason is that ambiguity is taboo, anathema, evidence of shoddy thinking.   But, by saying that we closed the door to the creative alive, consciousness that is rich with meaning and significance, and have banished it to the darkness of a murky unconscious. For example an author, Anthony Flew, of a popular book on thinking tells us, “To tolerate contradiction [or ambiguity] is to be indifferent to truth. For the person who, whether directly or by implication, knowingly both asserts and denies one and the same proposition, shows by that behavior that he does not care whether he asserts what is false and not true, or whether he denies what is true and not false…………….for whenever and wherever I tolerate self-contradiction, then and there I make it evident, either that I do not care at all about truth, or that at any rate I do care about something else more”

So, what is ambiguity? A short answer is “the self seeing the self seeing the self.” The ancients saw it as a snake swallowing its own tail.  The Sufis call is a unoambus: a one (uno) that is two (ambus.)  In psychology I was taught that awareness of awareness is the precursor of consciousness. But my teacher was quite oblivious to the implication of awareness of awareness. ‘Awareness of awareness as a precursor to consciousness’ means that underlying what we call consciousness is the self seeing the self seeing the self.  It is like holding a mirror up to the mirror; the reflections spin away to infinity. Awareness of awareness is a mirror held up to a mirror. 

 Few people are willing to face the implications of ambiguity, but most of us are forced by life and circumstances to face it anyway. As I have shown in a number of my books, ambiguity is at the basis of all our suffering.  The philosopher Descartes described very graphically what it feels like to be caught up in ambiguity.  “[I am] filled . . . with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them.   And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface.”  

We often know this feeling that Descartes is describing as worry, anxiety or anguish.  Some of us know it as panic.  Descartes answer was to find certainty, an answer that we all resort to. Certainty, security , peace  and comfort: they are all on the altar of what Gurdjieff called “the evil inner God self calming.”  The certainty that we seek is a stable and secure point of reference. The stability of this point of reference is made possible by language, because language fixes what is otherwise fleeting and transient.  

Zen master Shibayama, talking about koans tells us, “Suppose here is a completely blind man who trudges along leaning on his stick and depending on his intuition.   The role of the koan is to mercilessly take the stick away from him and to push him down after turning him around.  Now the blind man has lost his sole support and intuition and will not know where to go or how to proceed.   He will be thrown into the abyss of despair.   In this same way, the nanto koan will mercilessly take away all our intellect and knowledge.  In short, the role of the koan is not to lead us to satori easily , but on the contrary to make us lose our way and drive us to despair.”

The stick is our point of reference, our dynamic center. It is like a life buoy that we cling to in the midst of the raging ocean of life.  To allow the stick to be taken away from us, to let go our grip on the lifebuoy, requires great faith. When we let go we enter into Great Doubt, that could also be called, Great Anguish or Great Despair. Instead of fighting against this despair, instead of doing all that we can to resolve the issue, we allow ourselves to sink more deeply into it.

Normally, we react to doubt and anguish by searching for some certainty, something we can hold onto, some reassurance: that is to say we search for a dynamic Center, the stick of the blind man.  This is quite opposite to allowing.  But it shows that allowing is not a passive, resigned attitude.  On the contrary it is a very vigilant, attentive, alert state. If you were voluntarily walking through the jungle in the darkness of night you would not be in a passive, resigned state of mind!  Thus there is no contradiction between arousing the great ball of doubt and allowing: on the contrary they complement each other.



Going to dokusan

Going to dokusan is so often a painful business, we look for reasons for not wanting to go.  “It is obvious that a lot of people want to have dokusan, perhaps I should hang back and give them first chance?”   In particular people ask,   “Should I go only when I have something to say?”  or, “Should I try to prove that I am working well or improving in the practice?”  The answer is that one should trust the teacher.  One can never go to too many dokusans.  There is, it is true, a logistical problem, particularly now that I am getting old, but that is for the teacher to solve.  Also you must remember that you are not there for the teacher; the teacher is there for you.  In other words, you do not have to keep the teacher happy by showing him/her that you are working hard.  All of us realize that we are not working as fully as we might.  Indeed complacency with our practice is the end of our practice.  We, therefore, feel some guilt, we see others and the teacher working very hard, and we feel sometimes that we are letting them down.  Stay with the guilt; do not try to get rid of it by strategies or by shifting it on to the teacher.  

 Although the teacher says that we must go to dokusan open without a thought other than the involvement with our practice, in our minds we still wonder whether we have to have a question, or a real problem before we go. “What if I have absolutely nothing to say? Do I take the time of others if I go in spite of that?” It’s the same with the questions the teacher is going to ask.  “Should I have some answer ready?”  All of this, of course, comes from our confusion of that we know with what we know. 

Generally speaking we have a social self and a personal self.  We spend a great deal of energy ensuring that only the social self is shown to others.  This same energy is expended in the dokusan room as well.  We can become afraid of being impolite if we let ourselves be too spontaneous. Or else we might behave in some unaesthetic way. Or, worst of all, we might lose control and so, we fear, do some unforgivable thing. ‘That I know’ is utterly spontaneous, it has no cause or reason for being, no beginning or end.  It is a light that shines by itself; it is, as Mumon says somewhere,  “Spring, but not of the four seasons.”   It is this spontaneity that, given the chance, dokusan will call up. If only one can get a glimpse of what this means.  Probably, it is mainly in dokusan that the circumstances are just right for this flash.  However, if you go to dokusan with your ready-made questions and ready-made answers, spontaneity will not have a chance to burst through.  Let me be clear, I am not saying that you should not have questions.  By all means come with them if they arise by themselves. However, do not fabricate questions.  Above all do not fabricate responses.

When it is said that we must be involved with our practice, it means as involved as possible.  We are not seeking perfection, some absolute state of being. Nor are we seeking to be good, a good person or a good student.  In other words each of us is, as Yasutani used to say, “a complete meal” To be oneself is a rare opportunity.

Sometimes, the teacher pushes the student away, wrings the bell, expresses disgust, cuts the student off before she can even open her mouth. Astonishingly, some people will go away and smolder with resentment about this.  Instead of working with the very humiliation that the teacher so wants the student to work with, she comes back with an argument all prepared, of the “you said I said you said variety.” The creativity that we are, can only really express itself initially in stress situations; this is why we are told to work in the midst of the difficulties.  An analogy is the generation of electricity when the armature crosses the magnetic field generated by the two poles of a magnet.  The stronger the magnetic field the greater power that is generated.

Dokusan is not a social encounter, nor a therapeutic one.  It could be looked upon as a teaching encounter, although again it is not quite this either, because, particularly in our society, teaching involves passing information from one person to another   It is in being willing to stay within the stress, the ambiguity of the encounter, not trying to classify the ambiguity, or to use one’s habitual reactions, that one can find the most value in dokusan.  This may well be very difficult, but in the end this is where its rewards will be found.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Teisho no 3 September 2013: The Diamond Sutra

As you know, the Diamond sutra is one of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and the Prajnaparamita sutras are the basis of our Zen practice. Indeed, unless you have worked thoroughly with the Prajnaparamita Hridaya and the Diamond Sutra, you are not really ready to practice Zen. There is a tendency to dismiss the sutras, to dismiss the whole background of Buddhism, and just to take the zazen as being what it’s all about. While it is true that the heart of our practice is zazen, nevertheless it is fed and nourished by the sutras and above all by the Prajnaparamita sutras.

I wrote a book on the sutras and I do recommend that you refer back to it from time to time in order to maintain, so to say, contact with the roots of our tradition. We must not make the mistake that we can cut with all of this tradition, and dismiss it as so much unnecessary tomfoolery. It is true that we do have to cut off many of the accretions that have grown up as a consequence of it passing through the Japanese culture. Indeed, I would like, as far as possible, to cleanse it, for our purposes, of its Japanese associations. Not because there is anything wrong with Japanese Zen and the Japanese masters: far from it. But we must realize that the Zen that we  practice must be rooted in and relevant to our Quebec society. It is within this society in which we live now that we are going to practice. We do not have to go back into the past to practice, even though we do need the sustenance that can come from the past.

The Diamond Sutra begins very dramatically, and it begins very dramatically because it has no drama at all. Anybody that has read any of the sutras, the Hua Yen Sutra for example or the Lotus Sutra, know all the bombast that goes into the beginning, where Buddha is surrounded by a hundred thousand Bodhisattvas  and ten thousand Mahasattvas and devas. This we don’t need. It was necessary for the time in which it was brought up because it was a way by which the overwhelmingness of Buddhism could be demonstrated, the sheer massiveness, the sheer radicalness of Buddhism could be shown. And unfortunately, many of us still don’t realize just how radical Buddhism really is, just how far reaching, how profound the teaching is.

But nowadays we are bombarded all the time with the outrageous, with the overwhelming, with the massive. Therefore, the beginning of the Diamond Sutra is most appropriate for our time. One day at breakfast time the World Honored One put on his robe and carrying his bowl made his way into the great city of Sravasti to beg for his food. In the midst of the city, he begged from door to door according to the rule. This done, he returned to his retreat and ate his meal. When he had finished, he put away his robe and begging bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat and sat down.

The utter simplicity of that, the lack of bombast… one must see into this, see into  the sheer humility of the whole account.  This is the World Honored One, and yet, this is an old man going about his daily routine. And it is that old man going about his daily routine that is our teacher. As long as we have Buddha up there, exalted, on a throne, flashing radiant light from here to there in the midst of many cosmoses and so on, it is all out of our reach. We are lost in awe, in wonder perhaps, but at the same time must ask, “What good is all that to me?” But then there is this old man, and we can really be acquainted with him, close to him, we can enter into his world in a very direct and complete way. When you read the Diamond Sutra, don’t skip the beginning; dwell on it, dwell on what it is telling us about simplicity and humility.

And Subhuti asked, “World Honored One, if people want complete awakening, how should they control their thoughts?” And he says,  “Bodhisattvas should discipline their thoughts thus: All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation.” What does Buddha mean by that, who is “me” that assures us of complete liberation? Who is that me? This ‘me’ is the Tathagata; the Tathagata liberates us. And again what does that mean? It does not mean what the Christians mean when they talk about Jesus saving us. When Jesus saves us there is that man over there, Jesus: the man who, by sacrificing himself on the cross, saves us from our sins. I do not quite know what that really means but, you can see in general what it means: someone saves someone else. But this is not the meaning of All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation.

This “me” of Buddha is “me” of the Tathagata, and the only way that you are going to encounter “me”, the Tathagata, is through the simplicity to which the opening of the Diamond sutra introduces us. And as we say, the way to encounter the Tathagata is by just allowing what is to be. When you do that, then the Tathagata is with you, the Tathagata is you.

All living beings are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation. Yet when vast immeasurable innumerable numbers of beings have been liberated, not one has been liberated. Why is this? Because no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego entity, a personality, a being or a separate individuality.

Now, of course this is nothing new to you. In fact…you have heard it so many times that you can just dismiss it and get on with your normal way of dreaming. But listen to what it says: no one is liberated. Not one being has been liberated. He liberates innumerable numbers of beings but no one has been liberated. Why is this? And he says, “Because there is no ego entity, personality, being or separate individuality.”

You are used hearing this also, and some of you have applied it to yourself. Some of you are beginning to realize perhaps, and perhaps even profoundly, that you are not something. “There is no ego” is not a philosophical statement, and it does no good reciting it to yourself in some belief that it is a kind of magical incantation, which will bring you nearer the truth: it will not. ‘There is no ego’ has no reason or “because.”  But if you’ve really examined everything that you think you are, from every angle, then it will come to you that you are not even a shadow. It is not that you are absent; ‘no ego’ is not annihilation, and Buddhism is not a nihilistic teaching. But our need to cling to a limited sense of self means that we lose sight of the truth that we encompass all that there is within our universe, that nothing lies outside, that we contain all. Being “open to all” is true liberation. The possibility of being open to all is present for all of us; at every moment it is like that–– we encompass all–– except we are looking elsewhere.

What is important in what Buddha is saying is that there are no other people either. Listen: ‘there are no other people either.’ You have populated your universe with all kinds of people: people that you like, people that you dislike, people you say are your friends, people who are members of your family, and everyone of them you have endowed with an ego, a personality, a being or a separate individuality. But there is no other individual, separate individuality or being.

One of the interesting things is that you even give an ego to the cat or the dog that is your pet. People ask sometimes, what happens to my dog when it dies, and they really feel there is an entity in that dog or cat, that is the essence of the cat, an essence that is “a cat.” And they even see a person, a real person in an idol. If you were once a young girl, and you were brought up in the traditional way, you would have been given dolls. And you used to endow the dolls with a personality, a personality that was real for you for the time being. When you go to a cinema, those people up there are real for you during the length of the film. You see their personality; you know them as a person. This is particularly true of soap operas; people fall in love with characters in the soap opera, they get terribly upset, depressed sometimes even to a pathological degree, because soap opera people get into difficulties. Those film or soap opera characters are real to some people, like your aunt is real to you.

What is going on here, what is this? Once upon a time the world was populated by gods and they were real, they weren’t imaginary. The people that worshiped gods were not mad, they did not have some idiotic feelings that meant they had to create gods. When Moses talked to God he talked to God, he talked to “someone.”

The late Julian Jaynes, a psychologist, gave convincing argument for the truth that people actually talked to gods. There are many people, who, when a close member of the family dies, still talk to them. So what is real here? Are you real? When you say to somebody “you”, what, or who, are you talking to? Have you asked yourself about this? Because if you do, you’ll see that it offers an opening into this profound mystery of being. Just see it for a moment: there are no people, there are no beings, none of the cats, dogs or whatever that you’ve ever known had a personality or being. When you see me, what do you see? When you talk to me, what do you talk to? You ‘create’ me in exactly the same way that you ‘create’ yourself. That sense of “me,” which you have, is the same sense of “you.” When you say “you” it is the same as when you say “me”.

Of course, overlaying the foundation of that sense of self there are various nuances. It is interesting that when you think, let’s say of a friend, there is a certain quality that person has that no other person has in your memory. And all of these people that you have encountered, each one is given a kind of quality, they are thought of as carrying their own kind of being, and it is that which makes us feel they are individual and separate. But we are feeling the feeling; the feeling does not belong to the people themselves. 

Now, obviously, you are not a figment of my imagination, and I assure you I am not a figment of yours. There is something that is real here. We are not dismissing it all and saying it is all unreal. But, what is it then? Because if you can penetrate into that, you are, at the same time, penetrating into the question “Who Am I?

We have to break through this inertia that leads us to take everything for granted, the inertia that tells us that it is too much trouble to think otherwise. This inertia is an awful tyrant. Moreover, because other people have told us one way or another that this is how it is, we accept that that is how it is. Everybody in society agrees that there are individuals, separate people, personalities, that there are ego entities or whatever. Humanism that came out in the 17th century turned this into a kind of religion. It is a religious belief, the person is the soul, the soul that God created. We cannot have abortions because the foetus has a soul that God created. God didn’t create anything because there is no ego entity, personality or person called God to create in the first place, and in the second place there is no entity that has been created.

So what are you? And what are all those people around you? What is your friend, or husband or lover or mother or father? Ask yourself about this now: suppose there is no ego entity anywhere, what is there then? What are you in the face of death. To really consider this calls for a kind of stretching of the girders of the soul, a kind of opening that is really difficult because one keeps on wanting to go back to the inert way, to the way of saying, “Oh, what does it matter. That is how it is.”

And then there is the question, “Can the Tathagata be recognised by some material characteristics?” You can understand this question at two levels. One is, “Can you recognise a realised person by some material characteristics?” (the 32 marks of the Buddha for example). But at the same time, the question can also mean: does kensho give you any way by which you separate out, are different from others such that others can identify it. Many people are practicing in order to get kensho so that they will have at least something that separates them from others, something that is like a reward for the work they are doing.

Subhuti says, No Honored One. The Tathagata cannot be recognised by any material characteristic. None at all.

A story is told of a “highly developed man” (if you like to use those words.) All the birds recognised his spiritual attainment and they brought flowers and dropped them at his feet. This man became very worried and asked himself, “What has gone wrong, what have I done wrong?” He was asking, why is it that practise has not eliminated everything that distinguishes me from everything else. Why cannot I take my true place as the universe itself? 

Buddha says, “My teaching of the good law is to be likened unto a raft. The dharma must be relinquished, how much more so the adharma.” This is a very famous saying. Unfortunately this too has sometimes been misunderstood. Some people say, “Well Buddha himself has said that we should not hold on to his teaching. So let us throw it all away. Buddha himself said it should not be held on to, why are we holding on to it?” But you see, that’s like somebody in the middle of a river saying,  “Well, it is only a raft, let’s get rid of it.” He would not get very far, would he? No, the only time you get rid of it is when you have reached the other shore… when you really see that there is no thing, when you really see there is no person. There is then no dharma left anyway, there is nothing to give up, there is not “now I can give it up and let it go.”   What Buddha is saying is “this is the direction to go.” Do not go in the direction in which one worships the scriptures and feels there is something sacred about the writings that must be preserved and venerated.

Then there is a very enigmatic statement that is interesting because it undercuts the very way we think, particularly in the West. He says, the Tataghata declares the world is not really a world, it is called a world. The logic of the West is based on the logic of identity, everything is what it is. And he says, no it isn’t. It is called that but that doesn’t mean to say it is that. Because we give ‘things’ names, we give them, or appear to give them, endurance; we appear to give them something that can go on for eternity. It is particularly true when we come to talk about you and me. “I” is a word; that is all. It has not any kind of substance; it is simply a word, a puff of air that makes a sound. But “I”! We can hear sometimes people when they use this word… it is so precious, so juicy, so succulent, that they can’t let it go. Have you spent a day not using the word “I”? Please do so. You’ll find it is an extremely long, boring, uninteresting day. It is not enlivened periodically by that juicy word “I.” You’ll then see what part it plays in our lives and you’ll also ask perhaps, “Why am I spending so much time defending, protecting, nurturing this word, this sense of being!”

No wisdom can we get hold on, no highest perfection. There is no wisdom, no highest perfection. As it says here, when told of this, if one is not bewildered and in no way anxious about it, then one is on the Way. It is only when one has really seen into the truth that one can say that there is no wisdom or highest perfection and not be stressed out by it. Of course, there is a difference between saying it and really saying it. When you really realise this — there is no thing,  no perfection, there is no ultimate attainment, no knowing, no being, no thing — when you really get into it, in the first instance it is like looking into an awful chasm. And we immediately shy away from it; this is one of the things people say: they have this profound fear but they don’t know what they are afraid of. They are afraid of this chasm, they are beginning to taste the truth, and the truth is too terrible to bear. It is only too terrible to bear because we have devoted our lives to not seeing it, to turning our back constantly on it. And it is because of this that when we start opening up we often go through periods of severe anxiety.

The philosopher Heidegger, who incidentally was profoundly affected by Zen Buddhism, experienced this fear.  He says, “’Dread of’ is always a dreadful feeling ‘about’ – but not about this or that.” In dread, “there is nothing to hold on to. Dread “reveals nothing, it holds us in suspense because we [along with every thing else] slip away from ourselves. For this reason it is not ‘you’ or ‘I’ who has the uncanny feeling but ‘one.’”

He went on to say, “Dread strikes us dumb…all affirmation fails in the face of it. The fact that when we are caught in the uncanniness of dread we often try to break the empty silence by words spoken at random, only proves the presence of Nothing”

My work at one time called for a lot of travelling and I used to drive a lot. Sometimes I’d be driving and just get the feeling the world was crumbling in front of me, because I was looking into, I was  seeing, this no thingness , and there was this sense I was driving into nothing …. I had to stop the car periodically just to recover (and to recover was to reassure myself that everything was ‘normal.’)

The sutra says, A bodhisattva courses in the Prajnaparamita. In form, in feeling, will, perception and consciousness, nowhere in them do they find a place to rest. There is nowhere to rest. And again, rest is above all what we want. The most we can offer the dead is that they rest in peace. And we constantly want to rest, “just let me rest for a while”; how often have you felt that in your life? Shakespeare, I think it was in the Tempest, said: Time must have a stop. That’s it. Somewhere, something has to stop, something has to come to a culmination, a closure; something has to end. In Zen, it is looked upon as the last word of Zen. I’ve got to find the last word of Zen, I’ve got to get to that point where I have arrived, I have made it, I can rest there. This is the ultimate drive in most of us. And the sutra says: there is no rest. There is no ultimate point of arrival; there is no Judgment Day or ultimate realisation where you can say: I have done it at last.

One of the great things about school was that we were always having exams. Alright, having exams was a pain, but at the same time they gave us a sense of ‘we are going to achieve’. And when we got our marks, we felt we had got something.  School life was punctuated by periods of achievement, or possible achievement. In life there is no rest… you just get through one thing, and as you get through it so another thing comes up, and then as you get through that…and on its goes. As someone said, life is just one damned thing after the other.

If a Bodhisattva practices charity with a mind attached to formal notions, she is likened to a person groping sightless in the gloom. But a Bodhisattva who practices charity with mind detached from any formal notions, is like a person whose eyes open in the radiant glory of the morning to whom all kinds of object are clearly visible. Elsewhere, it says again that when you practice charity or when you help other people you must realise there are no other people to help. And this is so important. Because, very often we feel–– and this is and particularly in our Western society, so-called Christian society––that one of the ways we can progress on the spiritual path is by helping other people.

Or very often it is just a feeling: I want to help other people. But if you are helping other people and there are people that you feel you are really helping, then sooner or later, you will feel superior to those people. You can’t help it. You are in the driver seat, the helper; they are in the receiver seat, the helpless. You see it very often in the medical profession: nurses and doctors. There is a certain superiority they have over you because they genuinely want to help; but they see you as a person, they are taught to see you as a person, as an object with all kinds of levers and pulleys that must be kept going .

This notion of seeing other people as other people and helping them leads into all kinds of difficulties.  No wonder we have the expression “As cold as charity.” You help people because you help people; not because you are a good person, not because it helps you into heaven. If you do that––help people because you help people–– then there are no people that you help. That does not mean you do away with them, that you’ve got a blank space in front of you. But we must divest ourselves of this sense there are other people in the world. And of course, when people think about that with their minds: “Oh God, that would be lonely! That is madness!” No. Because you are everybody else; you are your mother, you are your father, you are your lover, you are your enemy. It is not ‘as though you are.’ You are the other. Most religions see this in one way or another, in Christianity “everyone is my brother and sister”.

You are.  But it is not the ‘you’ that you think you are; it is not you the personality, you the sense of self, that is. No, that sense of self by definition is individual, isolated and unique. If that is the case, how can you be the other. But the point is that this isolated, unique sense of self is not you. You are not an empty space either. Here is the wonderful, wonderful mystery. And because you fiddle around with all kinds of other things, you cannot get into this mystery, which is such a terrible shame. It is a beautiful mystery if you can allow it to be.

There is another saying in the Diamond sutra that is also very worthwhile to bear in mind, very worthwhile: “One who is reviled by others has transgressed in former lives which dooms him or her to fall into an evil world. But because of the scorn and vilification by others in the present life the transgressions in the  former life are wiped out. You see, somebody comes up and says to you: “Who the hell do you think you are. Get out…!” You immediately turn round and say: “What?!”  Immediately the bristles are up and the fangs come out. But this, the humiliation that we feel in the face of that insult, is the sense that I, the unique one, is no longer unique. I, the unique one, has been dislodged from its throne. And when you are working on the tan, what are you trying to do? If you are sincere, if you are honest, you are trying to see into this shadow. And by doing that, you are naturally getting the unique one off its throne. You are doing the very thing yourself that your enemy would do for you. So when your enemy, or this person that does not like you, comes up, when they do their work, this is wonderful. They are doing your work for you; and this is free! It is given to you without any kind of charge!

There was a Sufi teacher who told his student to pay people to insult him. And he did so for 3 years and then the teacher said, “Ok, you don’t need to do that anymore.” And this student went off, and he was about to enter into a town and there was a beggar sitting outside the gate who would curse everyone who went through.  He would insult them in every possible ways. So of course when this student went through he too was insulted as well. And he laughed, “Thank you very much,” he said, “during the last 3 years I have been paying for that!” You see, in future let’s look at this: if you have got somebody insulting you like that at the office… feel the pain, feel the scorn, it is not that it is a way of shielding from it, on the contrary… but you see, as I said, you could spend hours on the tan and still not get that degree of erosion of the sense of self that comes in those few minutes.

* * *

Nectar from Heaven

final cover copy

                                  Monk:  Who can bring the nectar of heaven?

                                 Zen master Joshu: Thank you for bringing it to me.

The new book, Nectar from Heaven: stories from heart to heart, is now available for sale.   It is made up  of a collection of  stories and inspirational pieces that I have used over the years during the sesshin talks that I give, as well as at the last evening of sesshin.  It is a companion book to What more do you want? Zen Questions: Zen Responses.  I have written them in the hope that they, as well as the articles that appear in Thoughts along the Way, in addition to making up for my having to curtail my participation in the Center’s activities, will be of value to those who practice Zen but who do not have a competent teacher.

I have not attempted to interpret the stories in any way.  Each story has a specific point to make, a point which has relevance both to our practice as well as to life. I have added short quotes to the stories by way of amplification or simply because the quotes have an appeal.

The stories have been garnered from many different religious traditions, and some of them I have written myself as they helped me, at some time, to get a thought across to the sesshin participants.  The book has been very nicely illustrated by some drawings that my wife, Jean, has done, and by other drawings generously donated by my good friend, Jeffrey Frith a very fine Australian artist.

The book is not only addressed to people who practice Zen, or other spiritual way.  The stories have relevance and value for everyone.  They would, therefore, make an ideal Holiday present!

The cost of the book is 15.00 plus 6.00 postage and handling.

Best wishes to you all

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Practice must be a 24 hour job

The following is an edited transcript of a teisho that I gave during the Sept 2013 four day sesshin.  Monique Dumont has kindly transcribed it .

In the last blog I pointed out how radical Zen Buddhism is.  The very idea that we have of being a person — an isolated and separate individual, someone with a body, mind and even a soul that is quite apart from the flow of life, with a will of our own and our own aims and goals — is an illusion.  We must see into this illusion: this is what practice is all about. This is the reason for koans such as “What am I?” and “What is MU?” Both of them point, one at the shadow and the other at that which makes the shadow possible. The Prajnaparamita Hridaya, which is the basis of Zen practice, is devoted to expanding on this truth: “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, no colors, sounds, smells, touch, or what the mind takes hold of,” and so it goes on; everything that we think of as ourselves or as our own is shown to be empty.

It is very distressing to hear people say that they are working on “Who am I?” yet, when asked, have no idea about what they are doing. You simply look into that which you think you are. You look directly at that. You know what you think you are: it is that which sustains you from the moment you get up in the morning to the time you go back to sleep; but even during sleep it still invades your dreams. It is that sense you have of being, the sense of being a person, of being someone. You say, “I see, I hear, I walk, I talk. So, what is this I? What do you think you are? You are not what you think you are, but that doesn’t mean to say you don’t think you are it.

Practice must be a 24 hours job; it is not a nine to five. It is not something that you do for one hour in the morning, and then forget for the rest of the day. If you are serious, zazen on the mat is not the whole practice; the practice is full time.  But that full time practice is only possible if you have the urgent need for practice to be full time. In turn, that urgent need is only possible if you are convinced. You must be convinced that the way you are living at the moment is both unsatisfactory and constantly causing different kinds of suffering. If you are not convinced of that, then you are just playing at practice. If you pretend your life is not one continuous stream of suffering with 5 minutes intervals of truce every now and then, then you are not seeing things straight and clearly. This is particularly true now: you are all getting older and you will get older still!  You cannot stop the onrush of time.

Our constant protection of the sense of self continues even in our practice. We hold the practice at arm’s length, so to say.  The Indian sage, Nisargadatta, points out, very wisely, that the painter is part of the painting. You should dwell on this phrase and see how it applies. When you are asking the question “Who am I?” most of you ask the question at arm’s length. Like all the other questions in your life, you feel that you have a question here and over there somewhere is the answer. But it is not like that. The question is already the answer; the painter is part of the painting. As long as we look at this objectively, from outside, at arm’s length, then all we are going to see are a number of various interesting concepts and ideas; but when we enter into it subjectively, then it becomes something which is full of feelings, dramas and different kinds of emotions. Furthermore, when you are really asking this question, “What am I?”––you don’t’ have to ask it verbally––if you are really searching constantly into what is, then you are asking the question without even verbalising it. If you are striving to see this, you are striving to let go of all of the screens and words and images that you have tried in the past to cover it all up with. When you are trying to penetrate into that sense of self, you are asking the question “What am I?” or you are asking the question “What is Mu?” Now, give yourself over to this question unconditionally, and this is the way by which you can truly let go of these various verbal conceptual impediments.

We protect the sense of self, and one of the ways we do it is with vanity and pride. We see ourselves as being separate and special, see ourselves as being unique–– we don’t necessarily put it that way to ourselves, but it is in all our attitudes, the very way we go about anything, we always act on the assumption, “given that I am special”, “given that I am unique.” This is why we get indignant, self-righteous at the merest slight, why we feel that people don’t consider us enough, why we feel that the world is against us; why we experience all the other kinds of misery and grief that we heap on our own heads with that underlying assumption “given that I am unique”. And, insofar as the struggle to maintain that sense of self, protect it, feed it, nurture it, insofar as that is and has been for a whole life time and possibly many lifetimes, our sole occupation, our sole real value, then when we come to look into this sense of self, really to search into it, then necessarily we are going to suffer. We are going to feel a sense of frustration and inadequacy; we are going to get a sense of failure,  a sense of desperation, and also of course with it comes an underlying despair. Anyone that has really worked in this way, and has come to any sense of realisation has gone through the valley of despair.

People protest about the practice, object to the feeling of despair. They have been working for many years and  the work has brought them to the point that this artificial structure, this phantom, this shadow, is beginning to fade, and they do everything they can to put it back again. They ask for ways by which they can reconstruct it, not directly, but that is what they are asking. When they say “I am despairing”, they are asking “can you help me put it back as it was when I was comfortable, when I could lay in bed and sleep without these damned crumbs waking me up all the time.”

If you are going to do this practice, you must do it. There are no half measures. In China, as you know, in the best monasteries, a monk who wanted to join the monastery had to wait about a week on the steps of the monastery without any kind of attention other than monks occasionally bringing him something to eat and drink. A monk had to stay there a week like that and then, if he was still there at the end of the week, the head monk might invite him in. He would be put into a room on his own, again for a week or so. Only after that would he be allowed into the main hall to participate in the monastic affairs. The reason for this is that anyone who was lukewarm, anyone who was half-hearted, would be driven away; and it was in that person’s interest to be driven away, because you cannot come into this practice, get moving half way through, and then decide “I want to get off”. You are in it;  there is no turning back now. Alright, you can leave the Center, people do that, but it won’t be a decent life after. There’ll always be that nagging sense, that feeling of having done half of what was possible, and so you have missed the best thing you could have done in your life. You are in it now. Go! go the whole hog, don’t turn back, just let it be: This is the way! Without that kind of “élan”, that kind of “let’s go” feeling, you’ll be suffering more than you ever would have been if you’d never heard of Zen.

Nisargadatta says on another occasion, “You must put in true worth before you can expect something real. What is your worth?” That is a good question. What is real about you? What is not another idea, not another artificial image, something else that has been stuffed into the breach to plug it against the awful sense of nothingness that often arises in your life. What is your worth?

Someone asked him, “By what measure shall I measure it. How can I know what my worth is?” And Nisargadatta says, “Look at the content of your mind.” Again, if you are doing a 24 hour practice, this won’t be difficult. One of the things we often suggest is that every now and again you take a snapshot of what is going on, you just get a feel for your reactions to situations, good and bad situations, a time when you are very angry, a time when you are very happy, what are you then, what is it that make you, ‘you’ in that situation? But at the same time you can assess what is the content of your mind. What are you thinking about: revenge, resentment, how you wish the world was different, a feeling of being hard done by? What is the content of your mind on a day to day basis? How much of it is open to what is, open to the possibility of realisation and truth, how much of your time is spent like that? If it is mainly the former, that is your worth; if it is mainly the latter, that is your worth.

This is a very good exercise. It is during these moments in the day that you can see what you really feel… when you are sitting on the tan, it is something of an artificial situation, and there is a kind of area set up, a zazen area, which is somewhat artificial. But it is not artificial when you get into bed or out of bed, when you are feeling ill, when you are waiting in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these times are when you should really to be there, these are the times to see, not in any kind of analytical, conceptual way, but just a complete open mind to what is. Once you can do this, then you are beginning to get into a 24 hours a day practice. It is particularly valuable when you get that feeling of the nothingness of life, when you feel a kind of boredom, a kind of uselessness, a kind of ‘what is the point.’ You get to see what is going on there then: get to know yourself.

Nisargadatta comments, “The value of regular meditation is that it takes you away from the humdrum of daily routine and reminds you that you are not what you believe yourself to be.” Does it? Does your meditation do that, or does it send you off to sleep? Are you meditating in order to get that comfortable feeling, or are you really working, trying to open up to what is? This is the problem: we develop a habit of zazen. It is like brushing your teeth in the morning, it is just one of those things you do. You sit there, mostly waiting for the bell to ring, so you can get up and do your thing. But early in the morning, when you first get up, is a wonderful opportunity to really penetrate into the heart of things.

As you possibly know, there are at least two aspects of the mind: the ‘conscious spotlight mind,’ and non-reflecting awareness in which everything, the awareness and ‘the world’ are one. We tend to think of this as the ‘unconscious,’ but it is not unconscious at all; it is far more conscious than what we think of as our conscious mind.  This non reflecting awareness is most present early in the morning just after you awaken;  it fades into the background as it is overtaken and dominated by the cares that we have, stemming from the urgency to develop the sense of self so that it is strong and secure and comfortable and winning. Early in the morning, therefore, if you allow it to be, can be a very valuable time. Just as you wake up––some people wake up at half past two in the morning––if you then simply allow the mind to rest freely, without it pursuing any kind of idea, above all any kind of worry, if the mind is open, then you can get a very deep awareness of what is essential. Because the spotlight mind, the so-called conscious or reasonable mind, is at rest.

Unfortunately also, sometimes first thing in the morning, tension can be at its greatest. This is when you get those dreams in which you are searching for something, you are trying to find your way home, you can’t find the key, or you’ve lost your car, or some similar situation. You are searching to find that center of gravity, that stable point around which this sense of self is created.

Regular meditation, letting go of the humdrum of daily routine, as Nisargadatta has said, reminds you that you are not what you believe yourself to be. That reminder is the basis of “What am I?” “What am I?” is a constant reminder to come back to what is. When you work on “Who am I,” eventually you must just allow the truth to reveal itself.  Do not look for the truth to reveal itself, just allow it to open up.

But, as Nisargadatta rightly says, even remembering is not enough: “action must follow conviction.” That action is to lend yourself to what is revealed, however difficult that may be. When you really see into the openness, the non thingness of things and of the self, then there is a recoil, then you feel “No, not now…. later!.” You must let yourself go forward, because that is the moment where the possibilities become actualities.

The questioner asks, “Is not gradualness the law of life?” Nisargadatta says, “Oh no, the preparation alone is gradual, change itself is sudden and complete.” It is like when you’ve got a problem, you can spend weeks on wrestling with it and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got the answer. But that is only possible because the yearning for a resolution continues throughout all that preparation. The preparation is guided by that yearning for a resolution, but the resolution itself is sudden and unpredictable. There are some Zen masters that claim they can tell when a person is near or far from awakening. But no, that is not possible. It is not possible for people themselves to know, so it is certainly not possible for someone outside. And this is why you should not sit there saying, “Well, it does not seem anything is happening” or whatever, because in that way you’re letting go of that drive, that sense of resolution being possible. An urgency, a kind of yearning need, is what sustains true zazen. This is why we say if you just be patient,  start off allowing whatever is to be, that yearning will arise because it is natural, it is not something you can artificially create. And if you allow the yearning long enough, then sooner or later, some resolution occurs. Very often the yearning comes out as a sense of profound dissatisfaction, but even so, under that dissatisfaction, indeed the reason for that dissatisfaction, is a yearning for the complete, yearning for the whole, yearning for the real. And so anything other than the real, anything fragmented, anything that does not come whole, is unsatisfactory.  Our fragmented life leads to the various feelings that we have of nothing being of much use, everything being pointless, and all the rest of it.

The resolution is sudden and we cannot predict it’s arrival. You allow; and that resolution will take care of itself. “Gradual change does not take you to a new level of being; you need courage to let go.” If you are following the breath and you are really working towards allowing the breath to flow, or, better still you recognize the direction to go is towards allowing, then you are not trying to turn it on as a technique.  Allowing the breath to flow is not a technique. It is a way of being. By allowing, a possibility arises; out of that possibility an actuality occurs. But let it come, don’t chase it, don’t be in a hurry. This is the problem with most people: they are in a hurry, they haven’t got the patience necessary to let the flower bloom. “You need courage to let go.” By following the breath, by allowing, you develop the courage, and with the courage you are more able to let go, to just be with, to follow, to be one with the breath and this in turn gives more courage. All this is true as long as all the time the practice is genuine, authentic, and honest.

A questioner says to Nisargadatta, “I admit that it is courage that I lack.” But Nisargadatta says, “No, it is because you are not fully convinced.” And this is the problem with many people. They would like it to be so, they would like what I say to be true, they are fully in agreement with everything I say,  they go along with it, but they are not convinced. Underneath, there is “Yes, but even so, it is not like that really. I really am a body, I really am in a world of things, at the end there is just death and nothing else. I like what he says; I would love to live like that, but….” You know, this sort of nagging underlying feeling of leaking away, even in the midst of being filled with the truth. Again the thing is not to snuff out those doubts, not to stamp on them, not to grind them under the heel of wilfulness – allow them to be, be one with.

Very often your doubts are very good, they are real doubts. Because what they are doubting is not the truth, you cannot doubt the truth, truth is truth. With the doubt you are doubting your own way of conceiving the truth. Even when you listen to someone, even while you say, “Yes I agree with what you say,” you have already turned what is being said into something else. Perhaps you’ve been a Christian all your life, you hear something about Buddha nature and you say, “Oh yes, I see, he is talking about the soul.” No, it is not the soul, it is Buddha Nature. But you do not have what it takes to ponder the meaning of this term, ‘Buddha nature,’ and so turn it into a more familiar term that you think that you understand. Already, because you turn Buddha nature into something else, already doubt is possible because Buddha nature is not the soul, that is not what was said, that is not what was meant. So don’t be in a hurry to stamp out your doubts, let them come up -  what are you truly doubting? This is very important. As long as you go on and ignore the doubts, deny them, and say, “I have been practising too long to have those doubts,” you lose the possibility of going deeper. Doubts are possible at any stage in the practice. Some of my greatest doubts rose up the day before awakening. I remember I wanted to walk out of the Zendo.

“It is because you are not fully convinced.” And this is where reading is helpful, if you can read intelligently, because our intellect must be satisfied. Particularly, if we are of an intellectual bent, particularly if we’ve got an inquiring mind, then we do need to satisfy the intellect, up to a point, because otherwise it will generate the doubts. And this is why when you read you must read intelligently, not just to gain information, you read to challenge what you already believe to be the case. Not to prove it wrong but to go beyond it.

He says, “Complete conviction generates desire and courage.” Of course it does. Once you are really convinced that awakening is possible, that a transformed life is within your reach, once you are convinced, nothing can stop you, nothing. A sense of supreme power arises coming from the fact that everything that was before an obstacle turns into another aspect of your drive. This is why, in some of the accounts of people coming to awakening, they seem to be doing extraordinary things; it is only extraordinary because everything that was a problem now becomes the solution.

He says, “Meditation is the art of acquiring faith through understanding.” Very interesting. Not through knowledge, not through knowing more, but through understanding. And understanding is not by any means a conceptual thing. A mother very often understands a child in a way that nobody else can ever do. She does not put it down and say,” well Freud said,” or “Jung said,” no, there is a feel. She knows. Because deep down she has really become one with her child, she is totally at home as the child and so therefore, naturally, she can understand. And this is how it is, this is why you work, you raise doubts, you investigate problems, you don’t let things slip, saying it does not really matter – it does matter. This is where you get involved, constantly involved.

Quoting Nisargadatta again, “Meditation is the art of achieving faith through understanding. In meditation, you repeatedly consider the teaching received in all of its aspects until, out of clarity, confidence is born and with confidence action.” This is important, this is why we say intelligence is necessary, but that can also be misleading. It is necessary to take everything and examine it, but examine it within the framework of what you have already really understood. Understanding is like a constant integration, a constant bringing together of all kinds of knowledge which is otherwise totally scattered. When there is this completely organic whole of understanding, then out of that wisdom will naturally arise.

“Understanding and action are inseparable.” I think it is Spinoza who said: will and understanding are one. It is out of an integrated being that true will is manifested and true will is quite different to self-will. Self-will is simply the dominant desire of the moment. People say athletes, Olympic athletes, must have will power to be able to continue the arduous training they go through. A friend of mine was an Olympic runner and she was always at it – she had the desire to win. She saw herself always crossing the line first; this was her ultimate and only desire. As a consequence, out of that, followed all the rest. It was not her will, it was her desire. On the other hand, you may see people who are in agony, when they walk you can see they are crippled, their body all twisted, and yet they go on. They have will.

And it is this way that you must practice: not for the desire for some result or achievement but because it is in you to do it, it comes out of you naturally. And if you have an integrated understanding, then this natural dynamism of life will come out as a single will. Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

“If action does not follow understanding, examine your understanding.” Not your knowledge, your understanding. Understanding always has a major feeling component, knowledge can be completely without feeling. Philosophy for instance has no feeling. It is that feel for things, like we said about the mother, it was her feeling that was her understanding and it is your feeling for life, which is something we have neglected terribly. This feeling for life is often neglected in academia.  The writing of many academics is devoid of any kind of feeling; it has a dryness, a deadness, a lack of real involvement.

“Self-depreciation will take you nowhere. Without clarity and emotional assent, of what use is will?” Then the questioner asks, “What do you mean by emotional assent. Am I not to act against my desire?” You can’t act against your desires, your desires lead you to the action. To act against your desire means to say you have a stronger desire, not a complete lack of desire. This idea that one has to get rid of desire, has to get rid of need, is absurd. Desire is life. Desire and life are one – desire is the forward thrust of life; Life going onwards towards life. The difficulties arise when desires come out of an emotional response, not a response from understanding. A  person without desire is dead

“You will not act against your desires.” You can’t. “Clarity is not enough, energy comes from love. You must love to act, whatever the shape and object of your love.” A mother sees her child  in trouble and she won’t hesitate to go immediately to his help. And this sense of being ‘one with’ is important: not emotional love, nor the love of emotion. Real love is not an emotion. Real love is simply acting as a complete human being – which means you are at one with whatever there is. As Nisargadatta says,  “Energy comes from love. You must love to act whatever the shape and object of your love. Without clarity and charity, courage is destructive.” Without clarity, without awareness, without openness to what is, courage is destructive.

But returning to how the teisho began. See into this truth, however strange, however absurd, however unbelievable it is: you are not a person. You are not what you think you are. The investigation into the sense of self, whatever shape or form it takes, must, one way or another, undermine that conviction, that absolute certainty “I am something”. You must undermine that certainty, and, in undermining it, you will suffer. But in suffering, you’ll become free.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments