Seeing is the room

The moon is the same old moon,
The flowers are not different,
But now I see
That I am the thingness of things.

Satori poem

When you read one of these postings, or when you read a conversation with Nisargadatta, it is not enough that you simply know the meaning of the words that are being used. You must also understand the meaning that the words are trying to express. If you stay with the meaning of the words alone, you will remain on the surface of what is being said. This is the way we read a newspaper. To understand the meaning that the words are trying to express requires more attention. It is like reading poetry, or even like reading a novel. You ‘inhabit’ the poem or novel. Sometimes an analogy is used to help to convey the meaning. This is done because with an analogy or metaphor it is sometimes easier to get behind the words and see the meaning.

We are often told, “Go beyond thought,” or, “You are beyond all form.” In an earlier posting I reminded you that the Prajnaparamita, one of the the basic sutras of the Zen sect, ends with a mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi , sattva. In English this mantra is saying, gone, gone , gone beyond, gone right beyond: pure knowing, rejoice. That these words come at the end of a sutra which has been boiled down to the essentials of practice is significant. All true practice is going beyond.To go ‘right beyond’ is Bodhi.

Let us ask once more, what does ‘to go beyond’ mean? Some people think that to go beyond has a mystical significance, that going beyond is to enter into a ‘higher realm.’ But this is not so; there is no higher realm. Every minute of the day offers us the possibility of ‘going beyond.’ This is why Nansen told Joshu, “Everyday mind is the way.”

In that earlier posting, I used the analogy of a painting to help show what it means ‘to go beyond.’ We see the painting but ignore the canvas on which it is painted. I have used another analogy several times in the past, but repeat it to give you once more the opportunity to go beyond the meaning of the words to the meaning that the words are wanting to convey.

Imagine that you are in a cinema. You are involved in all that is occurring on the screen. A man falling in love with a woman, a jealous husband , a quarrel, war, the countryside, laughter, tears, the whole passing parade of life is on the screen. You are involved in it; you are one with it. At the end of the film all that remains on the screen is a simple white light, and you say, “Let’s go home.” All the drama, all the excitement, the tension and emotions that you experienced with the people in the film––the lust and love, anger, fear–– all of this was made possible by modifications of that simple, white light. Yet, at no time during the film, were you aware of the light. The white light was beyond the film.

We must not be led astray by the words, “The white light.” It is not a light that you can see. A story is told of a Chinese emperor who was present at the dedication of a stupa. During the ceremony, he saw a bright white light. All those present, except one man, congratulated him on his good fortune. The emperor asked the man why he had not joined in the congratulations. The man, a Buddhist monk, said, “What you saw was the light of your guardian angel; it was not the light of Buddha.” “What is the light of Buddha?” asked the emperor. The monk walked away. He answers the emperor’s question exactly, but do not be fixated on the monk walking away.

Thoughts and ideas, your emotions, the feeling of “I am,” the belief “the world is real,” all the drama of your life, all the excitement, the fears, the failures; all are modifications of the white light, the white light called knowing, the light of Buddha. This is why the Diamond sutra ends with

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Different states of mind are constantly coming into being. At one time you can be quite depressed, quite in the dark, unable to go forward, and the next day, almost without you realizing it, you suddenly feels that life is easy, you love life. Then, another switch, and you are now bored or angry or whatever. These states just come into being and go out of being constantly, endlessly, without interruption. One state of mind follows before another state of mind has truly passed away. We feel what we experience is permanent, stable. But it is not what we experience that is permanent and stable. The white light is stable but it changes constantly; it is neither permanent nor impermanent. Yet, it never changes, forever remaining the white light.

When we wake up from sleep, in retrospect, sleep seems to have been just a blank, an absence. But these ‘blanks’ can occur when we look back on a day. Sometimes at the end of a day we just cannot remember anything that we have done, and it seems as though we have lived in a complete vacuum all day. We were asleep with our eyes open. But, when we were living through that ‘vacuum,’ we were deeply involved, present; not necessarily present to what we were doing, but involved, immersed in thoughts and dreams, memories, all mixed in together with what we were doing.

But we were present, even though to a dream. When you are asleep, you are beyond all the manifestations of the waking state. Each moment during sleep, you are present, deeply involved, totally involved, but, when you awaken, nothing stands out in the memory. Moreover, during sleep, we drift without any kind of hiatus, any kind of break, into dreams. Sometimes, the dreams are sufficiently striking that they persist into the day. But this is rare. Even as we wake up, the dream just disappears, and we think, “Well, I didn’t dream last night, it was all a blank.” But we were very present while we dreamed.

What I call the white light, awareness, what in Buddhism is called Bodhi, is the constant factor in everything. Sometime, because it is constant, it is called immutable. We must be careful, however, not to look upon the white light as having an independent existence apart from the world. In the Prajnaparamita it says, form is emptiness. Everything is emptiness: the world is the white light. But the Prajnaparamita also says that emptiness is form.

When we’re working on “Who am I?” we must separate the content from the substance. The content is the sense of self; the substance is the white light. We must go beyond the sense of self to the white light. Discern, if you like, or cognize, or penetrate, or go beyond the form to the white light. We use different words––white light, Bodhi, knowing, awareness, prajna, but in the end, although each has its own nuance, whether to call it knowing or Bodhi, awareness or prajna, is a matter of taste.

One of the more difficult aspects of practice is our struggle with thoughts. We do not need to chase them away, but recognize they’re just that. They are thoughts. They are modifications of the white light. It is the white light that gives them their apparent reality and value.

Thoughts are continuous to the point that they establish what seems to be a wall of reality, which you are constantly up against. And you have taken this wall of reality so much for granted that you think that when you’re in contact with it you are in contact with the real world. When you say the world is real, what you are really referring to is the world of thought that is constantly flowing through. And when you truly investigate thoughts you see this world has no substance; the thoughts have no substance. The world is simply the stream of thought, and thoughts themselves come out of awareness. When I say the world has no substance, I mean it has no independent substance: it has no independent reality.

This is why we are told, ‘it’s all around you,’ and, ‘it is like one in water crying I thirst,’ because it is all constantly coming out of awareness, or Bodhi.

“When you no longer think a thought, where does it go?” One can have the most painful thoughts, thoughts, for example, of being a total failure, which cause great pain. But what happens to that thought when you sleep? How real is it? Thoughts whip you, hurt you and then disappear, giving way to other thoughts, no doubt just as painful. From where do these thoughts come? To where do they go?

We go to sleep; then what happens to the self? Nothing. What can happen to an illusion? What can happen to the fairy that is not in the corner? Going to sleep, as you know, can be a very sweet process. Deep sleep has a beauty about it; it is suffused in love. What is that sweetness, beauty, and love? Deep sleep is, in its way, nearest to our true nature. Not because in sleep we are absent; when we are asleep the veil of illusion is thin. When we sleep thoughts have no ‘I.’

When we sleep, we do not solve the day’s problems, we do not take the day’s worries and solve them one by one, and, having solved them, then go to sleep. We don’t even let them go. Going to sleep is just like mist that just disappears when the sun rises. Ice dissolves in water, but in what are the thoughts dissolved?

The problem is that we take the content of thought seriously. If we get a thought, ‘I am no good’, we take that thought as being something that has value, truth, in and by itself. But the “I” that is no good is an ingredient in the thought itself. Outside the thought, ‘I am no good’, there is no “I” that is no good. However, once you have this thought, then a number of other thoughts and feelings flow from it. But if we are really aware as the thought, ‘I’m no good’ it dissolves, it is unable to stand up to the light of awareness. It’s true that often as soon as we cease giving the thought our full awareness it comes back, but this does not mean the thought is real. It simply means that there is a habit, a tendency for the mind to run in certain grooves. Even with the thoughts “I am something” or “I am the body,” or perhaps “I am a person,” it is the same. The ‘I’ that is the body is part of the thought, “I am the body” outside that thought there is no ‘I.’ The painter is part of the painting.

It is true also of the question, when did I come into being? The very idea of things coming into being is dependent on ‘I am.’ I am prior to all that can happen, not prior in time but in order. When you are asleep, there is no question of beginnings and endings. But as you wake up so the day is planned, a sequence comes about: this has to be done first, that has to be done next, cycles of action with a beginning, middle and end come into being, and so there is the appearance of a beginning and an end. But, when one looks closely, none of these cycles of action have a beginning. They all flow out of what was already going on.

For an event to begin, a context must exist in which the event can find its place. Because I believe that the world exists independently of me, I believe that that makes it possible for me to come into being. I believe that at birth I come into and at death go out of the world, a world that exists independently of me. Therefore, I believe, I have a beginning.

The Prajnaparamita says, “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind”. The nose, eyes, ears have no independent reality of their own. Colour, sound, smell, touch or what the mind takes hold of likewise have no independent existence apart from the white light. There is no world into which I am born, nor is there a world that I leave behind at death. This is why we say at the end of the Prajnaparamita, , “gate, gate, paragate.” Once we have gone beyond, then there is no eye, ear, nose; just in the same way that if you are in a cinema and you look up and see the light, you lose the film entirely. This is why Hakuin says, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.”

The Prajnaparamita also says, “form is only emptiness.” When you look around, you see things; these are the forms; the seeing is emptiness. The thoughts that hurt so much, these are the forms: knowing these thoughts is emptiness. But we overlook the seeing and the knowing. All that we are concerned with is the form, and because of that we assume the form has a reality. It is almost as though a thought is an independent person. Indeed, for a long time before we established this sense of “I” am something, and introjected it, then thoughts were other people. For example, where it says in the Old Testament that “God spoke to Moses” we would say today that Moses thought.

We see this so clearly in the Buddha story: when he sat under the Bo tree he had great determination, yet, even so, he was immediately assaulted by Mara. Mara comes to visit during sesshin. When you first come to sesshin, you have great determination. And, as you sit, Mara begins to attack you. The first assault of Mara is the assault of “I”. I am something. I am something special. Mara’s spears and arrows are the shafts of shame and anger that we feel; Mara’s daughters are the sexual feelings that pester us.

Claiming that Mara attacked Buddha, means that we tend to look upon our doubts and the mental assaults as independent existences. Yet, their power comes from knowing itself. To acknowledge this, to take the thoughts over and see them for what they are, is the work that we have to do.

When working with any particular troubling thought, notice that you do, in fact, feel that it has an independent existence, that you are seeing the thought as something other, almost as another person.

This otherness of thought is particularly apparent in that continuous mono-dualogue that goes on in the mind. One has the feeling of explaining to, arguing with, discussing with, another person hidden somewhere in the shadows of the mind. Being aware of thoughts as separate will make the separation dissolve, and with this dissolution the thought loses its power.

Alternatively, if the thought is very powerful, and constantly giving you trouble, think the thoughts as your own, give yourself entirely to the thoughts, agree with the thoughts one hundred percent. Don’t resist them in any way whatever. Take the thoughts over as your own and once you do that fully, thoroughly, then again the thoughts lose their power entirely, because their power comes from the separation, made more powerful by the resistance that you gave it.

What we can say, therefore, is that the thought and all that goes with it, has no beginning but is constantly coming into being, and it does so ‘now.’ The thought ‘I am the body’ is coming into existence now! It’s not something that came into being sometime in the past at birth. Now the thought is arising.

It is important, when you are struggling with thoughts, to realize that those thoughts are now. When you are working on “Who am I?” you are working on “Who am I?” now. You cannot get away from now. People say, “But I’ve always had this problem,” but this always having this problem is now! “This problem came from my childhood.” But that childhood is now!

‘Now’ is awareness. We overlook our awareness of a memory and so believe the memory has a reality in the past. Once we recognize that the memory is indeed now, and that now is awareness, now is the white light, we put awareness back into the equation, and then we can see that there is no past, there is no future. At the same time, once we put the knowing back into the thought (knowing this thought), the thought is no longer something other than knowing. Because we resist the thought, or try to extract the knowing from the thought, believing the thought to be something other than knowing, we say, “The thought is over there; I don’t like that thought, I don’t want that thought,” then the thought takes on a reality of its own.

People often say, “I’m just being bombarded with thoughts; I just can’t get away from them. Every time I look around there’s another thought in me somewhere.” As long as you are looking on a thought as something that is coming at you, that you are being bombarded by thoughts, then you give thoughts an independent existence. To take over and truly look at thoughts, above all negative thoughts, requires a degree of determination, a degree of strength of mind,

When you are asking “Who am I?” you are not trying to find something called ‘I.’ You are steadily seeing into the dream, “I am something,” that is consistently reinforced by the flow of positive and negative thoughts

Self forgetfulness is darkness. Self forgetfulness is forgetting knowing. Self forgetfulness is moving out of now. When we move out of now, when we are lost in thought, then thoughts are independent of us. They are something apart. But when we remember ourselves, remember awareness, then thoughts are no longer independent. They arise from and they return to awareness.

We try to change ourselves, which really means changing our thoughts about ourselves. By doing so, we forget our self, we forget the medium in which thoughts arise. We forget the knowing. We are not present.

Wisdom lies in remembering the self, which means, being the white light in which everything arises. Dogen says, “The practice of Buddhism is the study of the self.” And then he says, “The study of the self is to forget the self.” In other words, when, through exhaustive practice, we really get to know the self, then the illusion of the self–– I am this but not that––becomes translucent. And then he says, “To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousand things.” Everything is in the medium of knowing. Everything is but shadows thrown by the light. To see is to be.

Practice, as Nisargadatta once said, consists in reminding oneself forcibly of one’s pure beingness. Our being is our knowing. We have to arouse the mind, awaken to the knowing. One way or another we must keep constantly to the truth that everything arises out of awareness. But this awareness is not something; it is not a substratum. It is like vast space, but only insofar as there is no obstruction.

We practice to break the spell cast by thoughts. Our suffering is not caused by thought. Thoughts are ways by which we obscure the cause of our suffering: the wound in our being. By obscuring the wound, thoughts prevent us from seeing our problem clearly. Because we cannot clearly see the problem, we do not know how to work with it. We should not believe that if we did not have troubling thoughts, we would not have to practice. Nor should we believe that the best way to deal with thoughts is to suppress them. We can only suppress thoughts by other thoughts.

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Hui Neng’s Flag: Koan 29 from the Mumonkan


The wind was flapping the temple flag and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved. They argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is your honourable minds that move.” The monks were awe-struck.

Mumon’s Comment

It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is not the mind that moves. How do you see the Patriarch? If you come to understand these matters deeply you will see that these two monks got gold when buying iron. The Patriarch could not withhold his compassion and courted disgrace.


Wind, flag, mind moving,
All equally to blame.
Only knowing how to open his mouth,
Unaware of his fault in talking.

The Platform sutra, the purported autobiography of Hui Neng, tells of Hui Neng’s awakening and subsequent appointment as the 6th patriarch. He was a poor woodcutter and supported himself and his widowed mother by selling firewood. On one occasion he happened to hear a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra. When the monk came to the line

“Arouse the mind without resting it on anything,” Hui Neng came to deep awakening. He asked the monk for the location of the monastery from which the monk had come, and, on being told, he went there.

The abbott of the monastery was the 5th Patriarch. Later the Patriarch decided that he should appoint a successor, and called upon the monks to write a gatha or short poem to show the degree of their awakening. The monks were all quite sure that the Head Monk would be the successor, and so he alone wrote a poem. He wrote,

The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror,
At all times we must strive to polish it
And let no dust alight.

Many of us think like this; if only I could keep the mind pure and serene everything would be O.K. The dust that the head monk speaks of is the dust of thought and opinion, concept and idea, all of the rambling confusion that passes through our minds throughout the day. He is saying, moreover, that ‘being,’ a substratum, underlies all that we do. We must do our utmost to keep it clean, free of dusts. It would then be like a mirror reflecting all without distinction.

When Hui-Neng read the verse he realized that the Head Monk had not yet seen into the complete truth, and so he also wrote a verse:

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
From the beginning not a thing is
Where is there room for dust?

These two poems––the Head Monk’s and Hui Neng’s––sum up the difference between two kind’s of religion. The poem of the head monk tells of the religion that asserts that a basic, permanent and unchanging beingness––Brahman, Atman, God, or Self––underlies and supports all. This is the view of most religions, and the head monk’s ‘clean mirror’ is samadhi. Samadhi, under various names and guises, was the aim of Patanjali’s Yoga, the

Tao Te King, the Christianity of the Desert Fathers, of St. John of the Cross, and of the Hinayana Buddhists, among others.

Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was ‘no substratum.’ As we have seen, the Diamond sutra has the famous line: “arouse the mind without resting it on anything.’ The Prajnaparamita Hridaya says, “and so the Bodhisattva holding to nothing whatever.” Holding on to nothing whatever is the meaning of Hui Neng’s poem. For those who, to use St Paul’s expression, see this absence of substratum ‘through a glass darkly,’ it is a terrifying experience. Brahman, Atman and God, and the philosophical ‘being’ have been created to fill the apparent void.

The Fifth Patriarch realized that indeed Hui Neng was the one. He also recognized that there would be some considerable jealousy and dismay among the flock when they heard that the bowl and robe, symbols of the Patriarchate, had been passed on to an illiterate layman. Hui Neng, at the time, knew next to nothing about Buddhism. As a consequence, they would see no merit in his receiving the robe and bowl. Therefore the Fifth Patriarch called Hui Neng in at night and read through the Diamond Sutra with him. When the Fifth patriarch came to, “Arouse the mind without resting it on anything,” Hui Neng had a further awakening. Then the Fifth Patriarch advised him to go off, virtually into hiding for a number of years, before coming back to declare his succession. He advised this because of his fear that the monks in the monastery would do some harm to Hui Neng.

Indeed, after Hui Neng had left, somehow what had happened became known by the monks. Among them was a general, who had given up his sword to become a monk. He was so incensed at the idea that this young illiterate should be the Sixth Patriarch that he pursued him with the intention of grabbing the robe and bowl and restoring them to the monastery and to the head monk. A koan tells that when the general eventually caught up with Hui Neng he simply turned around and put the robe and bowl on a rock, saying to the general, “There, take them. They should not be fought over.” According to the story, the general tried to take the robe and bowl but found that, however hard he struggled, he was quite unable to lift either the robe or the bowl from the rock. At that moment he fell trembling to his knees, and said that he did not want the robe and bowl; what he wanted was the teaching. Hui Neng said, “Beyond good and bad, what is there?” Instantly the General came to awakening.

Hui Neng joined a wandering troop of hunters. Eventually, after fifteen years, he went back to the monastery, and his first encounter was with these two monks arguing about the flag and the wind.

It is an interesting story. Some considerable doubt exists in academic circles about its veracity; there is even some doubt whether Hui Neng ever lived. But whether or not Hui Neng as a man lived, Hui Neng as a spirit most certainly lived. The teaching that came out at that time, whether from one man or as a result of a change in the understanding of society, sowed the seed of this remarkable flower called Zen Buddhism. The roots of our practice at this Centre are all firmly embedded in the soil of Hui Neng’s teachings. His purported autobiography, The Platform Sutra, is among the most accessible of the sutras, and the easiest to understand. It is, moreover, remarkable as it is one of only two sutras that did not come directly from the Buddha’s teaching, the other being the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Hui Neng taught, “All the ancients have set up ‘no thought’ as the main doctrine, ‘no form’ as the substance, and ‘no abiding’ as the basis.” No thought, no form, no abiding. Then he tells us, “No form is to be separated from form even when associated with form.” ‘ Separating, or perhaps we should say, discerning, ‘no form from form even when no form is together with form’ is the way to work with the koan Mu as well as with the koan “Who am I?”. When working on Mu, what do you mean when you say the world is? When you are working on “Who am I?” what do you mean by “I am.”

Most of us have the conviction that the world indeed is, and if you were to suggest to any of your colleagues or friends who know nothing about Zen teaching that “from the beginning not a thing is,” they would look upon you and wonder whether they should phone someone to come and take you away. That the world is real having its own intrinsic beingness,, is taken so utterly for granted. The world is there; who is going to doubt it? If you are working on Mu, then you investigate that ‘taking-for-granted.’

We must distinguish between ‘that the world is,’ and ‘what the world is.’ ‘What the world is’ is the world of form: of colour, shape, size and its many other qualities. ‘That the world is’ is the world of no form: it is the emptiness that is form. These are obviously not two different worlds, any more than the inside and outside of a cup are two different cups. Even so, Hui Neng is saying that we must not confuse the two; that we must discern that the world is from what the world is, we must discern emptiness from form.

I can’t impress on you enough that you must start with your own certainty, with your own feeling about the world and yourself. You must not pretend that you can say that the world is empty, or that you are not really ‘something.’ You have to see into the truth of this for yourself. This is paramount. Without your own understanding. you have no leverage whatsoever. If you say, “I know I am not something,” or, “I know the ego is an illusion,” all that you are then working with is a set of beliefs and ideas that have no roots, no foundation, no substance, and so therefore no value. There is no point in learning what Buddhism has to say, or what Nisargadatta. or the masters have to say. There is enough to see into without wasting your time learning about Buddhism. Once you are affronted by, “From the beginning not a thing is,” “You are not a thing, so what are you?” You can investigate why you are so certain that the world is real, you can also ask what this truth has to do with, ‘Separating no form from form even when no form is together with form.’

When you are working on Mu, you are questioning. Although eventually the question loses all its conceptual structure, nevertheless a hunger, a searching, or a basic need drives one on. When working on Mu you are asking, “What is fundamentally the case? What is the truth? What is real?” This must drive you, but necessarily you must start by acknowledging, “The world is real.” You will necessarily start with this as long as you have not confused yourself with a lot of Zenny ideas that you’ve picked up along the way.

It is exactly the same when you are questioning, “Who am I?” You must question the belief that you are ‘something.’ You question it, you doubt it, you ask about it, you want to know. But, again, you must start with the belief, ‘I am something!’ If you pretend that you do not have this belief, if you say, “Well I’m not something, but let’s nevertheless ask the question,” you will have no leverage, no grip. You have already bought an illusion. You have already settled for a conceptual, “Well, I know I’m not something.” But this is not good enough! A menu cannot satisfy hunger. You must demand the truth. You must doubt everything that Nisargadatta, Buddha, Hui Neng and everyone else says. Without starting from what you believe, and discarding everything else that others have told you, there is no point in the practice whatsoever.

When Hui Neng says, “You must separate no form from form,” it doesn’t mean that you must make a physical separation, but that you use discernment; you question isness, the isness of anything, the isness of the world; you say the room is, the sky is, the car is, the house is. What is “is?’ What does it mean, is?

When you are at home, not necessarily on the mat, then you could put the question “what do I mean when I say the world is real?”in your own words. You could think about it, meditate on it, turn the whole idea ‘is’ around, looking at it from different angles. In that way you are tilling the ground, hoeing the ground, so that when you plant the seed Mu or Who, the mind, the ground, is ready for it and the seed can grow. This is why it is worthwhile to read people like Nisargadatta because he will raise these questions and throw into doubt what you take for granted. Meditative work is very important, and reading can help you as long as you do not read for information or entertainment. As long as you are not reading in order to know more about Zen. What you read should be a challenge, and should help arouse the questioning; it should throw your certainties into doubts, and make you look at things from a different angle.

Hui Neng says, “No thought is not to think, even in the midst of thought.” This is a description of shikantaza. The mind is constantly arising, is constantly surging, is constantly moving around. In the midst of all the worrying and anxiety, if you look carefully, you will find there is no movement, no thought. No thought in the midst of thought is Mu. At some stage, there is a coming together, you might say, of shikantaza, of questioning “Who am I?” and of questioning “What is Mu?” They are no longer separate questions. You cannot discern or separate them out.

As you work, you will have intimations, flashes of insight, moments of difference. Maybe you will not recognize them consciously as being flashes and moments, but the mind eases because of one or other of them. Every now and again, you will awaken to no self, or no thing. You will discern, intuit, be deeply open to no form, no thought, no self, no thing. The trouble is that you try to grab this moment, you try to make something of it, or you see it as an experience, a ‘spiritual’ experience, and that nullifies the value of what happened.

Hui Neng goes on to say that non-abiding is the original nature of the human being. What is there to abide? The whole world is my body. Our troubles come because we try to pin ourselves down to a fixed, unmovable, “I am this.” As Dogen said, Buddha Nature is impermanence. The metaphor of a fountain springs to mind. See the essence of a fountain, the gushing up, the constant coming out of, coming out into. See the world as the outcome of the fountain. The world is knowing coming out of knowing, coming into knowing, it is knowing constantly gushing up; the world does not exist for a moment: it is knowing that is its own being.

Hui Neng was very critical of dead void sitting. Zen had affinities with Taoism and Confucianism as well as Buddhism, and the Taoists were inclined to practice dead void sitting. The head monk was undoubtedly highly influenced by the Taoist teachings and his gatha was the gatha of dead void sitting. Although the Taoist teachings, for example those by by Lao Tsu and Chuang-tsu, are interesting and fun to read, nevertheless there is a deadness about them. An old master criticized the Confucianists and the Taoists for maintaining a substratum of consciousness and serenity. He said that many sages wander astray by holding on to serene tranquility. “In my opinion,” this old master went on to say, “it is by maintaining tranquility that the Confucianists of the Sung dynasty became attached to the state of mind which did not allow any feeling of joy, anger, sadness or pleasure to arise. It is just by maintaining tranquility that Lao Tsu insists that one finally arrives at nothing and so comes to tranquility and serenity. The concentrated state at which the Arhats and Hinayanists arrive, as well as the fruit of their illumination, are also simply due to keeping to a state of tranquillity, and to that alone.”

Even during the spiritual famine that existed in England during the 1940’s and 1950’s I could not turn to Taoism as a serious way of assuaging the terrible thirst that I had. This teaching has a dullness, a deadness; you feel that you are in a kind of cobweb of spirituality.

Hui Neng said that a Zen teacher, Jen Shu, used to teach his disciples to concentrate their minds on quietness, to sit doing zazen for a long time and, as far as possible, not to lie down. One of them went to Hui Neng and asked him about this practice. Hui Neng said, “To concentrate the mind on quietness is a disease of the mind. This is not Zen. What an idea, restricting the body to sitting all the time; that is useless.” I went to Korea for a very short while, and was told there that a monk had just died who was famous because during his life as a monk he had not laid down to sleep. This is just asceticism; it is the most wasteful use of a human life. It simply builds up the sense of self, the sense of being in control. The suffering that we must work with is the suffering that comes naturally out of an everyday life. This is the spiritual way to work. It is not only pointless to inflict unnecessary suffering on oneself, it also hides real suffering from us.

Concentrating the mind on quietness is very seductive, and we must be constantly on guard because of the seduction. To work with quietness and peace is like looking into the mirror of the mind with the mind. It is awareness of awareness, and it is seductive because it gives a pseudo peace; it is pseudo because it makes the task of facing the trials and tribulations of life that much more painful. Undoubtedly, most of the recent teachings about meditation in the West are teaching dead void sitting, including some Vispassana and Zen teaching. This is why questioning is so very important, and why following the breath is so critical. The practice must have that living flame, that bubbling brook, that living water of life. Practice has to be original. It must be a new creation. True questioning is the yeast in the practice, the sense of aliveness. When I talk about longing, yearning, a deep need, I am talking about when one falls in love for the first time; how alive one is. It is making contact with this living aspect of oneself. This is what our practice is about. It is not having a quiet mind, a peaceful mind, a mind free of thoughts. This is not it.

Let me read some more of what Hui Neng says: “If you know how to bore into wood in order to get a spark of fire, your life will be like a red lotus flower.” This is a description of zazen, the spark of fire, the spark of living light. Sometimes when we practice it is like we are boring into hara. In one of the awakening accounts in the Three Pillars of Zen, the person described their practice as a kind of drill. Other people have described it as a kind of acetylene torch, the torch that cuts through metal. These analogies are not bad, as long as the practice is happening and not something that we are doing with our conscious mind. One can get a sense of bearing down, of penetrating through, of going into in a deep way, and if it is accompanied by genuine questioning, then the practice can really become deep. Keep the spark of fire going.

He says, “Your life will be like a red lotus flower growing unsullied from mire and mud.” Vimalakirti says something very similar: “Noble sir, flowers like the lotus, the water lily and the moon lily, do not grow on the dry ground in the desert, they grow in the swamps in mud. In the same way, the Buddha qualities do not grow in living beings who are already awakened, but in those living beings who are like swamps and mud of negative emotions.”

Nisargadatta says, “Look inside and be sorry.” Anyone who has taken an honest look inside and is not sorry, has not looked very carefully. Inside it is muddy, confused, contradictory, and conflicting. There may be hatred, anger, bitterness, disappointment, regret, sorrow, remorse; the whole lot is a stew of mud. And when we see it like this we are overwhelmed by anguish, and feel, “What can grow out of this mud and confusion?” But Zen masters, as we have seen, insist that it is in the midst of the everyday mind, the mind that is so confused, that the truth shines through. He goes on to say, “Know that all effective medicines taste bitter in the mouth.” He is referring to the desert, the scorching dryness of nothing happening. Practice can sometimes be extremely bitter, but as he says, effective medicine tastes bitter in the mouth.

He says, “Remember, what is unpleasant to the ear must come from the mouth of a loyal friend.” You should not resent being criticized, or, if you do resent it, then work with the resentment. It is no good blaming the other person. On sesshin, for example, even if you are told to do something that seems rather foolish, do it. It doesn’t matter, as long as you are not told to burn the house down. Do it. Why not? What does it matter? But being told to do something goes against the grain, the grain of our own inclinations. Sometimes, even if somebody just tells us, “Look, don’t stand there, stand here,” we get very angry, furious. “How dare they push me around?” But Hui Neng tells us to look into the fury, be one with it. See the ‘I’ that is buried in that fury. See the spurious need to be inviolate, unique, above, superior to that kind of treatment. See it. Burn it out. Our resentment doesn’t cause pain to anyone other than ourselves. Sometimes, another person just doesn’t like you and turns away from you. It hurts, it tortures you, but stay with the feeling. If you work like this, you may feel that you are drinking poison or stabbing yourself. By facing the insult you may feel that you are poisoning your life. Facing suffering like this is not some moral obligation. It does not come from the idea that we have to be perfect. It is selfish activity to get rid of selfishness.

Hui Neng says, “Repentance and amendment are sure to give birth to knowledge and wisdom.” Real repentance is to recognize honestly that we have acted badly. We should not use bluster, protest or complaint to cover up the shame that arises with this recognition. To sit in the middle of the shame, to allow that acid of repentance to erode that obdurate sense of “me first” is true Zen practice.

Hui Neng goes on to say, “To defend your shortcomings reveals only the lack of goodness in your heart. In your daily life make it a point to always do what is beneficial to others.” Some monasteries practice what is called ‘hidden virtue.’ You do something to help another without that person realizing who has done so. Someone put my sandals under the radiator to dry them out because they were covered in snow. This is an example of hidden virtue; it lifts one’s heart to receive hidden virtue… but it also lifts one’s heart to be able to give, to perform hidden virtue in that way. Another kind of virtue, another kind of giving that you can give that is beneficial to others, is to give a smile. I know talking about smiling is hackneyed. I know it seems to be California New Age twaddle. How sad it is something so beautiful as a smile has been so terribly abused. Smile. It is a gift. Again, it is not a gift simply to the other. When you smile you give yourself a moment of freedom, of oneness, of wholeness.

He says, “The attainment of the Tao does not depend on the mere giving of money.” I once received an e-mail telling me about some Tulku or Rinpoche who was coming to Montreal, exhorting me to give money, a donation to help pay for his trip, so that I would earn perpetual merit. I kept the money. Bodhi is to be found only as your mind, and only you can find it. That no one can do this work for me is the great liberating realization. It means I am the slave of no one, no thing. Once there is a Rimpoche, a roshi, a guru, a teacher, a saviour, someone on whom I must depend in one way or another for my salvation, I am enslaved by that person or their ideas. Hui Neng goes on to say, “Why waste your effort in seeking inner truth outside? If you will conduct yourself according to this gatha, you will see the Pure Land right before your eyes.” Hui Neng is a beautiful man and it is worth reading The Platform Sutra to get those gems of sheer generosity, compassion and ordinariness.

The wind is flapping on the temple grounds and two monks are arguing. This koan is addressing the dualism with its conflicts and contradictions that pervade our lives. The wind flapping and the flag flapping, these are just ways by which our attention is directed towards the problem of suffering, which arises from separation and dualism. But the koan presents the problem in a concrete form. Is it the wind that moves or is it the flag that moves? Although the monks are caught up in this conflict that seems so petty, nevertheless we also get caught up in all kinds of conflicts and get carried away them. We have the feeling that these conflicts can be resolved, that a right and a wrong way exists if only we can find it, that there are always true and a false statements: its either the flag that moves or the wind that moves

This kind of discussion has no end because our conflicts are invariably not between good and bad, or right and wrong. If it were so, there would be no argument: everybody would be going for the good. We are naturally inclined to do so. Most often the argument is good against good, or bad against bad. This is true for wars; in the 1939-45 war the Allies were fighting for what they saw as good and the Axis were fighting for what they saw was good. It was good against good. We demonize the other side. President Reagan talked of the Axis of Evil and this simply makes the conflict intractable. We cannot resolve any conflict unless we recognize that the conflict is most often good versus good. Hui Neng says, “It is not the wind that is moving, it is not the flag that is moving, it is the mind that is moving.” And this is true of most disputes and difficulties. They have their origin in the agitation of mind.

In the commentary it is said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is not the mind that moves.” This comes from a story about monks, who were visiting a convent, and were commenting on Hui Neng’s statement that it was the mind that moves. A nun overheard them and said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is not the mind that moves.” So what is it that moves if it is not the mind that moves? Is she contradicting Hui Neng? Is she saying Hui Neng is wrong, that it is not the mind that moves, or is she saying the same as Hui Neng? If she is, how can one say it is not the flag that moves, it is not the wind that moves, it is not the mind that moves, and then say it is the mind that moves? How can we say that without contradiction? If the nun is contradicting Hui Neng, then she is simply joining in on another kind of argument. Instead of the flag or wind moving, it is the mind or not the mind that moves.

We are used to the saying, ‘true self is no-self” and and we no longer see this as a mystery. But there is no self, there is no Mu, there is no knowing, there is no Zen. One must cut away constantly as long as one abides. As long as one settles, then one has gone back into the habitual ways of fixing, of freezing, of having, of grasping, of either the flag or the wind that moves. Hui Neng, when he said it is the mind that moves, cut away the flag and the wind. The nun cut away the mind that had now become something for these monks. When we’re working, we have to constantly refresh our minds.

Mumon asks, “How do you see the patriarch?” What does he mean by that question, “How do you see the patriarch?” Hui Neng has been dead for over 1500 years. Is Mumon asking you to imagine a picture? No, I do not think so. You see the patriarch in the same way that you see yourself. How do you see yourself? You must go beyond, go beyond, go beyond. When you say not a thing is, cut that away, and then what is there? Bodhi, Svaha!

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If you knew how to suffer

A monk asked a Zen Master, “How can I avoid the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?” “Go where there is no heat in summer or cold in winter.” “Where is that?” asked the monk. “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver,” replied the master.

This is a koan, a subject that students working in Rinzai Zen Buddhism use as a way of entering more deeply into the mystery of their own being.

Working on a koan is not an intellectual activity. Koans are like stories: they invite you in. They invite you to live what is being said rather than simply have an intellectual grasp of it. To see what I mean, you only have to imagine first that you are reading a novel and then that you are reading a technical treatise. In the first you live the drama of the novel, you see it from inside so to speak. You read a technical treatise from outside. Therefore to work with the koan we must ask ourselves what the master’s state of mind was when he replied, “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver.” Why did he answer in that way. We can only answer this question by entering the same state of mind.

But, before dwelling on the master’s state on mind, we must ask about the monk’s. Again we must enter the mind state of the monk. Was he only worried about the problem of heat and cold, or was he asking how to face the pain of life and death, and simply using heat and cold as one of the many causes of our suffering?

That life is suffering is the basic teaching of Buddhism. It is the first noble truth and although many different branches and schools of Buddhism exist, all of them are based upon this first truth. This is not a different teaching to the Christian. On entering a church we first meet a man on a cross, a symbol of the truth that life is suffering.

Buddhism began with the life and teaching of Gautama Siddhartha, or Shakyamuni. He lived about 2500 years ago. He was living a comfortable life, happily married with a child. He was wealthy and had all the comforts that could be had at the time. However, he had four encounters: the first with a sick person, the second with an old person and the third with a dead person. These disturbed him terribly and suffocated him with anxiety and dread. Then he had a fourth encounter, with a monk, and the serenity of the monk persuaded him to follow a religious path.

This story of Buddha’s meeting with these four situations is a concrete way of bringing home to us the truth that suffering––in particular, sickness, old age and death––are the lot of all humankind. Like Buddha, all of us, at some time in our lives, and above all when we are sick, realize our vulnerability. At these times we know in our hearts that it is so: life is suffering

This truth is brought home poignantly by a Buddhist parable, the parable of the mustard seed. A woman went to Buddha to ask for his help. She was stricken by grief. Her young baby had been playing, a snake had come and the baby had stretched out his hand to play with it, and was bitten. Now, with her dead baby in her arms, the woman called to Buddha for help. “Yes,” said Buddha, “I can help you. But, first you must bring me a mustard seed. It must come from a house that has not known suffering” The woman searched, and eventually returned to Buddha saying, “I can find many mustard seeds, but I cannot find a single house that has not known suffering.”

What kind of help would that be, one may well ask. Is Buddha simply saying, “Cheer up! Everyone suffers!” That could hardly be so or, if it were, it would not have lasted 2500 years as a religious story. What Buddha is saying is, “I can take away your suffering, but, if I do so, I will take away your humanity.” Life is like a tapestry of which the woof is experience and the weft is suffering.

Pain and suffering

We must make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is physical; it has a physical basis. Suffering is our reaction to the truth of sickness, old age and death, and the uncertainty and vulnerability to which these expose us. When we are in pain we also suffer, and so we suffer twice. The first is the physical pain; the second is the pain “I hurt!” “It is me that hurts!” These two pains are as though a microphone were held up to a loud speaker. The feedback increases until the pain becomes intolerable. It is then that we cry out that the pain is too much and that we cannot support it.

The monk, when asking his question, is asking the question for us all, “How can we face our suffering?” What can we do about the pain of life, and about the suffering that the pain of life causes?”

How can we face suffering?

The first step is to realize that indeed life is suffering. Suffering is not a punishment; we do not suffer because of an accident; nor can we blame others for our suffering. Suffering is not good for us; nor can we find a use or meaning for suffering. We suffer because we are human.

After we have taken this step, we must see that our suffering is indeed a twofold suffering. The first pain, the physical pain we may not be able to relieve. It is the second pain that we must face, and it is most often this pain, the pain, “I hurt!” that makes it all unbearable. “I hurt!” is often accompanied by a complaint, “How much longer must I put up with this,” or “It is unfair!” “Or why me, why should I be the one who suffers.” It is the idea “It is ‘I’ that hurts!” that causes us to suffer.

The cause of our suffering

The former Pope once said that hell is not a place but separation from God.   Furthermore, according to the Church, we all share in Adam’s curse. Adam disobeyed God’s injunction “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” and was cast out of the Garden of Eden. But, one might ask, “How can you say then that suffering is not a punishment? Was not Adam punished for his disobedience?” In Buddhism no such drama is played out. Instead of an original sin, Buddhism has a fundamental klesa. A klesa causes pain to oneself and to others.   The fundamental klesa is ignorance. We ignore, or turn our back on, our true nature. However, we are not punished and made to suffer because we are ignorant. Ignorance is already suffering. Ignorance is already separation; separation from our true nature. Separation, as the Pope rightly says, is hell. Saying that God cursed Adam is a dramatic and concrete way of describing the suffering that comes from separation. But, Adam’s separation is already a curse.

But, why should we turn our back on our true nature?

Desire as the cause of suffering

The second basic truth of Buddhism is that desire causes suffering. But, this is not simply the desire for a new hat, or a new house or new job. It is the desire to exist. This no doubt will seem strange. Is it not natural to want to exist? Yes, of course, and that is why it is natural to suffer. The question is not so much whether it is natural to want to exist, but whether an alternative is possible. Biologically we are made to want to exist, to want to survive, but even so, a spiritual alternative may be possible.

Before going on to this alternative however, let us say that our desire to exist is not simply a desire to live this life. It is a desire to exist absolutely, a desire for immortality; it is a desire to exist forever. Furthermore, many religions promise that this desire can be fulfilled, and that we shall live forever in a heaven, although there are not too many details about what we shall do forever in heaven.

But, let us ask ourselves, when we desire to exist, what are we desiring?

Exist is to stand outside.

The word ‘exist’ was originally two words: ex and sistere. ‘ Ex’ means outside. For example ‘exit’ and ‘exodus’ both have this meaning of ‘out.’ Sistere is a Latin word which means ‘to stand.’ Exist therefore means ‘to stand outside.’ When we desire to exist we desire to stand outside. But, outside what? We want to stand outside ourselves.

This expression “stand outside” or, more simply, “stand out” has another meaning.   ‘To stand out,’ or to be ‘outstanding,’ means to excel, to be the best, to be the only one. It means also, to be known as the best, to be known as unique. To be outstanding gives an absolute quality to the desire to exist. We could say that all people wish to exist and, in having that wish, also wish to be outstanding. Indeed, not only people have this wish. Cats and dogs, horses and elephants, insects and fish, all have this wish to exist, to survive, and to stand out. One sees this in the territorial struggles that animals engage in. Even two beetles, if they meet, will fight, one trying to turn the other onto its back.

The desire to stand outside ourselves is what Buddhism calls ignorance. We ‘ignore’ our true nature. Another way of looking at all this is idolatry. Idolatry means to take a part and claim that it is the whole. Just like the Jews who worshiped the Golden Calf, we claim that ‘this’ particular form is the whole, is God. The word ‘idol’ comes from a Greek word eidos that means form. When we wish to exist we wish to continue forever in a form. The form could be a body, or a soul or personality, most often the form is given the name ‘I.’ When we wish to exist in a form, we turn our back on our true nature; we ignore our true nature because our true nature is beyond form. In turning our back in this way we commit the sin of separation and therefore suffer.

Why do we wish to exist? Most people would think this a very strange question. The answer seems so obvious that the question is unnecessary. I want to exist because all my pleasure and joy come from existence.   But do they? And in any case is this the real reason that we want to exist? If it is why do people commit suicide? And in any case what is the ‘true nature’ that we turn our back upon?

There are two conditions that seem the same but that are quite different: not wanting to die, and being afraid of death. One does not want to die. Life is wonderful. It is full of surprises, pleasures, joys. It is true that life is suffering, but the joy of life is worth the price of suffering.

But, then there is the fear of death. What is the fear of death?

The fear of death is the fear of annihilation, the fear that ‘I’ will become nothing. But what will be annihilated? If you were sure that although your body will be annihilated ‘you’ will not die, would you be so concerned about death? The fear of death is not the fear of the loss of the body, but the fear of the loss of ‘I.’ However, what is so strange is that each night we willingly surrender this ‘I’ to oblivion. Of course, we do so because we have the faith that in the morning we shall be able again to rediscover ‘I.’ Even so, we surrender this ‘I,’ and very willingly. If we can so readily surrender ‘I’ to oblivion, is the ‘I’ after all so important? Is there not a paradox here? What we so readily put aside each night, we yet prize so much that we can fall into a panic at the mere thought of its loss.

The paradox becomes more obvious when we realize that many people commit suicide when the integrity of ‘I’ is threatened. They kill ‘I’ to protect ‘I.’ During the slump of 1929 many people killed themselves because they lost a fortune and could not bear to live without the money. Many warriors would rather commit suicide than lose their honour. But, what is honour if it is not the integrity of ‘I.’

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Is not this grain, which must die, the ‘I’ of which I am now writing? Is not this life that we must give up for Christ’s sake, the life of ‘I?’

What we fear most… that we must do. We love this ‘I’ so much that most of our life is spent protecting, maintaining, affirming, nourishing, it. We invest it in a cause, a flag, an ideology, a country, possessions, or another person and, when we do so then that cause, flag, ideology, country becomes precious. It too becomes unique, distinct, separate, and superior. The power that comes from this investment can be seen in the fact that in 1962 we came close to destroying the planet to protect the investment of ‘I’ in ‘democracy’ on the one hand and in ‘communism’ on the other.

Who am I?

So again, why do we want to exist, or rather why are we so afraid to die?   The answer lies somewhere in the question who, or what, is “I?” Many religions use this question as a basis for spiritual practice. Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, the Upanishads have recommended it.   The last Pope in an encyclical said this question was a question that all Christians should ask themselves.   In Zen Buddhism the question is posed as a koan: “What was your face before your parents were born?”

If we investigate “I” closely we see that it is not a simple entity. On the contrary it is very complex. A Zen nun said, “I cannot pull up the weed because if I do so I will pull up the flower.” An idol is not simply a form. It is the form of God. I must know God to create an idol. ‘I’ is the idol of the Westerner. But we cannot simply pull up this weed. If we do so we shall pull up the flower. This is so because a form is ‘something.’ Modern idolatry is “I am something.” I am something is false. It is like a weed. But we cannot pull it up because we shall destroy the flower.   The flower is ‘I am.’ I am is not something: it only becomes something after I have invested it in a form. I am is knowing, and knowing is without beginning or end. Knowing is not dependent upon the body, although the forms of knowledge are.

The koan.

We said that we wanted to know the state of mind of the monk when he asked his question, “How can I avoid the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?” How can I avoid the suffering of life? Now we see the ‘I’ that wants to be free from the suffering is the ‘I’ that causes the suffering. The monk’s mind state is confusion, pain, and darkness.   He searches to avoid suffering by searching to protect ‘I.’ And by protecting ‘I’ he protects the cause of his suffering. The only true resolution, as Christ has said, is that the ‘I’ should die. It is like having a thorn in your foot; you do not protect the thorn. But, as a Zen nun declared, “I cannot pull out the weed. If I do so, I will pull out the flower.” It is not simply a question of killing ‘I.’ Many spiritual disciplines, through asceticism, advocate killing the ‘I.’ The result is either a spiritual zombie or someone who is more proud and conceited than before.

The question. “How must I face suffering?” is put as a koan because the answer is not obvious. Since the time of Descartes we have come to believe that every question can be clear and distinct and the answer to the question must be equally clear and distinct. But, questions of life and death are neither clear nor distinct; flowers and weeds mingle. Such questions begin where science ends. To resolve a koan one must go beyond logic, beyond the clarity of yes and no. One must return through “I am” to true nature.

The master says, “Go to the place where summer is not hot, and winter is not cold.” You must go upstream of suffering, upstream of dualism. The ‘I’ which is opposed to ‘you,’ to ‘the world,’ to ‘God,’ to the body, indeed opposed to all, must be surrendered. Instead of duality, Unity reigns. But, where can we find a place where summer is not hot and winter is not cold?

As we said at the beginning, to answer this question we must enter the mind-state of the master. What is that mind-state? An answer can only come through much meditation and prayer. But let us first see whether clues exist to lead us in the right direction in the work that we must do. Someone asked a master, “What is your teaching?” The master replied, “Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy.”   We must go beyond all things, all forms and idols, beyond the very idea of ‘I.’ This does not mean that we enter a blank world, a world of nothing or of annihilation. It is a world beyond separation and division. Another master said; “The gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master. The green of the pine and the white of the snow are the colors of the master, the one who lifts the hands, moves the legs, sees hears.”

Yet another master said:

The moon is still the same old moon
The flowers are not different
But now I see
That I am the thingness of things.

It is with these clues in mind that we have to meditate on the state of mind of the master. I am not something; all somethings must die. All forms are dependent upon all other forms. All forms moreover, come into being, persist and then go out of being. They are born, exist and die. It is like a collection of puddles. They all come into being with the rain. They stay a while and then dry up. Each in its own way reflects the moon, the whole moon. But when they dry up the moon is unchanged, unaffected.

But the monk asks, “Where is it that summer that is not hot or winter that is not cold?” The master replies, “When it is hot, sweat; when it is cold, shiver.” Do we have any alternative but to sweat when it is hot, shiver when it is cold?” Yes, we can complain about it; we can protest, resist. In short we can suffer.

If you knew how to suffer

In the Apocrypha, the collection of scriptures that were rejected by the Council of Nicea that decreed on what were and what were not authentic Christian scriptures, is a Hymn of Jesus. In that hymn the following lines appear, “If you knew how to suffer, you would have the power not to suffer.” The master is not saying we should accept suffering. We only accept what we cannot reject. What the master is saying is ‘know how to suffer.’ We do not know how to suffer. We suffer unconsciously, mechanically. It is a knee-jerk response. To know how to suffer is to suffer intentionally. To suffer intentionally is to be one with the suffering, not to separate from it. By separating we suffer. Through separation ‘I’ is born, and when ‘I’ is born the world of the ten thousand things are born in its wake. Vast emptiness is shattered, and suffering becomes our lot. Our struggle to avoid suffering creates suffering.

Our true nature is One, whole, perfect. In Zen its symbol is the full moon. Love and gratitude is its expression. When we turn our back on our true nature, we suffer the torments of the exile, and we wander through heat and cold, looking here and there to find our home again. We lose touch with ourselves and love and gratitude dry up.   Love becomes liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting. Gratitude is lost in a confusion of rights and expectations, demands and needs. The world becomes sterile and dead: a wasteland. We long for the living water, we long to be redeemed from the fires of hell. “How,” we cry, “can we be free of the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold?”

But, as the poet T..S..Eliot says,

The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre,
To be redeeme’d from fire by fire.

If you knew how to suffer, you would have the power not to suffer.

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“I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14.)

I am, the Subject that knows all things, and is known by none. Just as I say the world is, so I say ‘I am’, and I have no doubt that I am. No one, who can forego prejudice and preconception, can have doubts that he, or she, is real and not simply some idea such as “I am the movement of molecules.” As Subject, knowing and ‘I am’ imply each other.

If I were to ask someone, “Are you?” The reply would most likely be, “Yes, I am the body”, or, “I am a person”, or, “I am a woman”, or, “I am a man”. The neurologist would say, “I am the brain.” A priest might well say, “I am the soul.” Yet another person might say, “I do not know what I am, but I am surely something.” All of these are talking about their idea of what they are, and furthermore, about their idea that they are something.

‘That I am and ‘what I am are quite different.

Can I prove to another that I am? No, I cannot possibly prove this. Can I describe to another what I mean when I say, ‘I am’? No, I cannot even do that. If I am not demonstrable, explicable or comunicable, what is the point of my saying that I am?

What is demonstrable, explicable and communicable belongs to the realm of what I am. That I am does not belong to that realm. It cannot be judged by the criteria derived from another, different, realm. Even so, using the word ‘objective’ to mean unbiased by my own desires, wishes, and hopes, the statement ‘I am’ is quite objective, and so should be acceptable as a fact. Furthermore, what is known by a scientist obviously depends on ‘I am’ of the scientist, that is the scientist as Subject.

Insofar as I am indescribable, ungraspable, we cannot discover that I am with the discriminating mind, the mind that we use to make judgments, decisions, assessments; the mind we use to relate to the world in a conceptual way. Because we are unable to use this mind, we come to the conclusion that there is no such state beyond existence, beyond experience, beyond what can be grasped. That I am becomes just a ghost in the machine. The problem is that whenever you try to give a description , it seems as though, because you are using the language of experience, you are talking about an experience.

“I am,” “Who am I?,” “The sound of one hand clapping,” all of these are windows on to ‘I am,” that which always is. I am not prior to the discriminating mind in terms of time; it is not ‘that I am,’  and then I am ceases and the discriminating mind takes over. It is more like when one sees a mountain rising out of the earth, one doesn’t take the earth into account; all that one sees is the mountain. In the magnificent carvings by Rodin, the material that he had used from which to carve the figures is left clearly stated. The figures are sometimes seen emerging out of the stone. In this way there was no doubt that the figure was made of stone.

I am immutable; I am pure awareness, I am all and yet nothing particular. Those who are struggling with the question, “What am I?” could very likely say, “I hear what you say, but what you are saying doesn’t mean anything to me.” And then, if they are truly sincere, they will go on and say, “How can I make it mean something to me?” Regrettably, most often they simply say, “What you are saying does not make any sense to me,” and walk away as though they have said the last word about what does and doesn’t make sense.

But the truly serious person, the person with any degree of humility, says, “What you are saying doesn’t make sense; how can I please make it make sense?”

I am the means, the bridge. The beauty is that I am the means and I am the end. I am also is the way. Remember, Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” This word Way means “the path”; I am the path. But there is also the way that you walk the way. How do you walk the way? In what way do you walk the way? I am the way of the way. And then there is: “What is at the end of the way?” In Chinese the way is the “Tao.” And the Tao, the way, is the end of the way, it is the ultimate of the way; it is, if you like, the goal of the way. I am is both the way and the end of the way. And I am the way of walking the way.

While working on I am, never forget I am. Forget you own name, forget your own face, but never forget I am. This doesn’t mean that you should have I am in the forefront of your consciousness when you are at work. What you should realize when you are at work is your work is I am! When you have time outside sesshin, apart from work on the mat, try to explore what that means. ‘Your work is I am, and I am is the one who does the work.” If you are making a separation, if I am is this but not that, then it is simply another part of experience. But I am the carving and the stone out of which the carving is made. I am the experience and that out of which experience arises.

Think of I am! Use your ordinary intellectual mind to think about it until your intellectual mind breaks under the strain. I don’t mean that it literally breaks down, but it just says, “this is enough, I can’t do it. There’s nothing I can think of in any way that is going to help this.” Prove it for yourself! It is said countless times that this is the case, but how many people have really sat down and said, “To hell with this, I’m going to work this one out for myself. I’ll think it through”, and really given their mind to saying, “Okay, I am is not something; now what does that mean, I am is not something? I am is emptiness, what does that mean? I am is everything, what does that mean? I am is immutable, what does that mean? He asks me, ‘What colour am I ? what does he mean?” Think about it! And, of course, one doesn’t know where or how to start thinking about it! The mind is numb in connection with this question; “What “I am?” But then have faith. Countless people have broken through this koan. And in breaking through this koan they have demonstrated that this immutability, this peace that surpasses understanding, this love that springs out naturally and constantly, all are revealed by penetrating I am. I am not some new experiment; I am not some “New Age” gimmick.

You will get to the point where you say, “I don’t know what to do,” and it is only then that the practice really begins. Up until then you have always had the belief that you knew what to do with this koan. This means that you were still juggling it using the discriminating mind, you felt that you were going to pin it down

Of course you are going to be disappointed. Every time you recognizes the failure of the discriminating mind to be able to handle the koan, you are disappointed. This discriminating mind is a most marvellous toy. And there is no reason why we should throw it away, but we must get it into its proper place. It should be the servant, but, unfortunately, it has become the master.

Nevertheless we must put up with all disappointments and continue on, until suddenly the mind turns around. In the Lankavatara Sutra, this is called Paravritti. The sutra talks about the turnabout that we call kensho. The turnabout in the manas, in the heart, the viewpoint, the very depths of the mind itself, and the fundamental contradiction is loosened. Suddenly the mind turns around, away from the words “I am” towards the reality beyond the words.

Many people, after they have read half a page of Zen, start talking about how wicked words are. Any kind of thought you express, they rush up to you and say, “But you shouldn’t be thinking; if you are practicing Zen, how can you possibly think, how can you possibly use words, how can you possibly define terms?” The English philosopher Locke said, “Words are money for fools, but counters for the wise.” It is said that Buddha used words as words. That is, he used words as counters. The words God, Christ, Buddha, me, I and you; these are all words! But, at the same time, words are containers. They contain. What is important is what they contain. A Master said, “When you know what a word contains, then you can throw the word away.”

Now I am contains everything. How is it possible that I am can contain everything? What does that mean: “I am contains everything”? Nothing is outside I am. I am the wall, the house, the car and the road. There is just I am. Only I am. Now what does that mean? Be puzzled, be concerned. At one level, I am are just a nonsense syllables: but there is no reason why I am should not be nonsense syllables as well as containing everything. Don’t get trapped into some mystical view of I am. It isn’t mystical at all, it is right before your face; it is your face–– your face before your parents were born. Repeated attempts to go beyond the word is what is called meditation; this is Zazen.

I am Buddha-nature, one’s true-self, one’s own-self. What does Buddha-nature mean? What does true-self, own-self mean? Hakuin says, “Our true-self is no-self.” When we are asking “Who?” what does it mean, “our true-self is no-self”? The I is No-I. Muga in Japanese. Mu we are familiar with, and ga means I: No-I. When you are asking “Who am I?” who is this no-I? “No one walks along this path this autumn evening.” Who is this no-one? But be very careful, do to fall into the trap! It is not simply that if you say it enough times it will be enough. It needs that spark of intelligence.

Meister Eckhart quoted an ancient philosopher who said, “I am aware of something that sparkles in my intelligence; I clearly perceive it is somewhat but what I cannot grasp. Yet methinks if I could only seize it I should know all truth.” St Augustine said something very similar, “ I am conscious of something within me that plays before my soul and is as a light dancing in front of it. Were this brought to steadiness and perfection in me it would surely be eternal life.” You bring it to steadiness and perfection with the very intelligence that has created it. And when we talk about intelligence, it is that sparkle of the mind.

Of course, I am using a metaphor when I talk about “the sparkle of the mind”. When one uses the word ‘spark’, some people tend to think in terms of the sparklers that you get on fireworks day. There is a sparkle; there is an intensity, a ripple, a clarity. It is that leaven of the mind, it is that mind which is aroused without resting on anything. If you hear a really funny story it awakens a light right in the heart of things, an opening in the very heart of things. It is the same when you ‘see into.’ If you have some particular puzzle or problem, you can suddenly see into the solution, “Oh, of course!” This is what we are talking about, this intelligence. And that intelligence needs to be used.

Some people say it is like boring with an acetylene torch, those torches that can cut though metal. You have this brilliant flame, this acetylene torch burning in hara. This invites images; see it just as a pointer. Harada roshi used to say, “There is a blind Buddha in the hara, make him see!” If you are working on I am, the way to do so is to make the blind Buddha see. If you are working on Mu!, make the blind Buddha see. This is meditation.

Hearing something like this some people say, “I thought you said that you are not supposed to do anything.” There was a man at the last Workshop who just wouldn’t stop arguing, because in the French edition of The Butterfly’s Dream the last chapter starts by saying that Zen is realizing that there is nothing that needs to be done. He thought this meant doing nothing, that one just has to “sit and hope for the best.” “Not-doing” is nothing like that. Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, name it what you will, there is the need for penetration! And this penetration is exhausting and exacting. But it is not “doing something,” strangely enough. To arouse the mind without resting it on anything – you can squeeze all the muscles of your body, and you can squeeze all the muscles of your mind, but the very mind that does this is the mind you have to open. How can you take a step to the place you already are? And yet if you don’t take that step, you will never be at home where you already are.

Here is the true test of your practice. Of course, often we just have to use muscles, we just push, we do anything, we do everything. We squeeze our hands, we clench our teeth, furrow the eyebrows, and we do all of these things. They have to be done. They have to be passed through.

Sometimes the mind is so hippity-hoppity one looks for a pain just to sit with, to stop this mind clippity-clopping along. This too has to be done. If you are desperate enough, you will do anything. But then, as you penetrate further, there is just a still, still burning: the still point of the turning world, as T.S.Eliot would say. An unmoving motion. A dynamism.

In the beginning was the word, and everything has flowed from the word. And to get back to the beginning – and this doesn’t mean to say the beginning in time, but the beginning as the source of it all – we must go beyond the word. It is as simple as that. Just go beyond the word I am. Just go beyond the word ‘I’. But we have backed up ‘I’ with so much baggage. And I am is so ungraspable, so impenetrable, that we don’t even know how to start, let alone get before ‘I’. And yet this must be done. Get home, get there, where it all started from, and where it all is at the moment anyway.

When I talk like this some people throw up their hands and say, “Well, I don’t know what he is talking about. This is all too much for me. Zen is very complex.” And I always say, “It is not Zen that is complex, it is you who are complex.” It is extremely simple. Just be there before complexity arises, before any kind of this and that, yes and no, up and down, me and you arises.

There is only one way to come to awakening and that is to stop living in delusions. This does not mean you have to give up your present way of life: your marriage, your job or what you are doing and go away to a monastery. This, indeed, is the worst thing you can do. You take all your troubles with you, and you have acquired a whole new set that you have to work with when you get there. No, where you are is good enough, but how can you stop living in delusions? Of course there is a lot in our life that we can simplify, there is a lot that we do that is quite unnecessary. Certainly, looking at television comes high among them. If you waste your time looking at television, then how are you ever going to get the energy or the effort to get beyond this barrier? It is not a question of giving up all the things that one is satisfied with about oneself and one’s life, all one’s sources of comfort, but rather seeing what use you are making of them. Seeing how you are using all of this in order to insure that you do not wake up. Paradoxical, but true.

People say, “I want to come to awakening.” But awakening has nothing for the personality at all. There is no use to awakening, it is useless. And all that the personality knows as useful is that which in some way will make it more comfortable, enhance its power, or enhance its satisfaction. This is what is useful to the personality. Of course the unknown has no use for the personality. I am not putting practice down when I say that it has no use, I am elevating it beyond any possibility of judging it in that way, beyond any possibility of putting a price on it. “The pearl of great price”, this is what I are talking about. We sometimes ask ourselves, particularly when we begin, “What is the use of this sitting?” No use at all. Be quite clear to yourself about it. It is useless. You have solved that problem, you have answered that question. Now let us get on with the practice.

There are two aspects to practice. One is coming to I am, to awakening, coming home, coming to see the source out of which it all arises; seeing into while being that which is beyond form, beyond identity, beyond any kind of structure. But the other aspect of our practice is to see the machine that we are, the mechanics of the machine that we are. Gurdjieff always used to say that the human being is a machine.

A Behaviourist wrote a long book on Gurdjieff because he thought Gurdjieff meant what the Behaviourist means by saying that a human being is a machine. But Gurdjieff was talking of the human being as a perpetual motion machine or wheel of samsara that turns unendingly.

We must see into our mechanicalness, and by that I do not mean the simple absent minded behaviour that we do, but rather the total “interactingness” of what we do. We do what we do because we are what we are.

The unknowable is what we call reality. Reality cannot be known, we cannot know reality. As long as we feel that we can know reality then we are living on the brink of the chute that sends us into this world in which we are tied up in our own consciousness. A dreadful sense of claustrophobia can afflict us, particularly when we begin to awaken a little in the depths. We have a sense of being bound in our own mind, tied up in our own mind. This claustrophobia sometimes creates a deep anguish, a panic, or an acute anxiety in us. It can create a kind of nausea and tension. We have at the same time a feeling of having nothing to hold on to. But we must go on then. This is good news: in practice terror is good news.

People say that practice is boring. Not interesting. When you get bored, particularly when you are sitting with dryness, the tense arid dryness that comes, make up your mind that you are really going to investigate it. Not intellectually or conceptually so that you can describe it to somebody or analyze it or find out its source in past situations or anything like that. But you are really going to know what it feels like to be bored. You are really going to take this on and be as bored as you can. Find a way so that you can increase the sense of being bored so that you really, really know what being bored is. Get beyond this lust for interest, for glitter.

Only when you are satiated by all the interesting things can you really practice. This doesn’t mean one has to start living it up and going through all the sins of the world. What are you looking for? What do you want? First of all, be honest. Say what you want. To say that you want awakening is just flapping your gums. What do you want? And just keep pressing home with that question; what do I want? Any time something is offered up, look at it and say, “What does this mean? What will this give? What will this do?” Look at it, get it, see it, and then one realizes, “No, that is not really what I want.”

Hubert Benoit, the French writer, said, “What we really want is light and movement. When we can’t have light and movement, we will settle for light and stillness. And if we can’t have light and stillness, then we will have darkness and movement. But what we won’t have is darkness and stillness.” And it is this revulsion, this backing away from darkness and stillness, this wanting to stir the mind again, that keeps us in an agitated state. During daily living it is extremely difficult to resist this, but during sesshin there is nothing to disturb you. The point of a sesshin (the fact that we dim the lights, that we try to keep everything as quiet as possible, that we ask people to blow their noses outside the Zendo so there is not this shattering noise that goes through if a person does this sort of thing,) is to give you the opportunity to throw yourself totally into this search, beyond the glitter and titillations of existence, into this which is the source of it all, but which, when you are seeing it from the outside, is simply darkness and stillness.

Reality has no content or form. This is why it can’t be known. One looks around and says, “But the room is real. Surely the content of reality is the room”. No. The content of the room is what you perceive. And what you perceive with is reality. Because of you, the room is real; it is not because the room is real that you see it.

For the personality, practice is like going towards death. But “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Each one of us has our own work to do. Don’t ever compare yourself with another person. You are incomparable. Like someone said, “Everything is unique, there is no difference”. Your work is your work. By this, we don’t mean ‘you’ the personality. That which supports and underlies the personality, is working out its destiny. All that the personality can do is not get in the way. By giving ourselves over to the practice, by being totally one with “I am!” or being totally one with “What am I?,” we ensure that we don’t get in the way. If our practice is following the breath, then all is just following the breath. Remember, when you are practicing, that Buddha said, “You must practice as though your hair is on fire.” But you must also practice in such a way that it is like going into a lake without making a ripple; like going into a forest without disturbing a blade of grass.



Dogen taught Fukan Zazengi, “To practice the Way single-heartedly is, in itself, awakening.

There is no gap between practice and awakening or zazen and daily life. I do not struggle and sweat to come to awakening. I struggle to let go of the illusion that I am not awakened, the illusion that, to be fulfilled, I need something in experience. But I do not even know of this illusion until I practice.


As most of you know, I am no longer able to participate in as many of the Center’s activities as I would like.

To make up for this I have been publishing the blog, and also have written two books: Nectar from Heaven and What more do you want?.

I have just written, and have had published, a third, a booklet (50 pages,) on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan. This Dogen masterpiece is the first chapter of his Shobogenzo, and has been the subject of discussion and commentary through the years.

I have given a new version of the Gentian koan, which incidentally was originally written as a letter addressed to a layman.

I have published it as a booklet, because it is an ideal text for meditation. It is not a book to sit down and read, but a book that one can return to again and again, and each time derive more understanding and inspiration.

The book costs 5.00, and if you would like me to post a copy to you, the cost of postage would be a further 6.00.

Book cover

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The Spasm of the Mind

Our thoughts just will not let us be; they go on from the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed, and then they continue through the night in the form of dreams. We might even believe that we exist because of our thoughts: I think therefore I am. We are in the midst of what the psychologist, William James, called ‘a stream of consciousness.’ But really, it is not a stream of consciousness at all: it is a stream of thoughts, one thought after another. They are very often in conflict with each other, or in conflict with the intention that we have, and this creates many of our difficulties. The Dhammapada, for example, says, “All that we are is the result of our thoughts. It is founded on our thoughts.”

What seems to happen is that the mind turns back on itself; or, to put it another way, the mind is reflected back onto itself as awareness of awareness. This is sometimes called, ‘self’ awareness––although there is no self to be aware of. By giving this ‘self’ a name, ‘me,’ it becomes fixed. What we call ‘me,’ therefore, is a fold in the mind that is fixed as a thought with a name.

We say that human beings are self conscious; and at one time scientists believed that only human beings are self conscious, and that self consciousness makes human beings unique. However, experiments with a mirror have shown that chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants are ‘self’ conscious.

Our first awakening––that Hakuin called awakening to the Great Mirror Wisdom, or Dharmakya––is awakening to non-reflective awareness. Our sense of ourselves, our sense of being something, is based on reflected awareness. Before awakening it is as though we see everything in the mirror of the mind. When “we see into our true nature” the basic spasm of the mind, (that Hubert Benoit calls the imaginative-emotive spasm) is released. We experience the spasm as a tension, as a knot that we are constantly trying to release. This tension provides the basis for the sense of self. The stream of thought is an attempt to dissipate the tension created by reflection.

When we are practicing, we simply allow the tension to be and we pay no attention to the thoughts. In other words, we do not take note of the content of the mind. By fighting and struggling with thoughts, we simply affirm them as being important.

Of course it is very difficult not to pay attention to thoughts; it is very difficult not to listen to the voices that are constantly calling to us. I have referred to the stream of thought, but I could equally well have referred to the stream of monologue. This voice, the disembodied ghost, perpetually criticizes, judges, comments, explains, rationalizes, justifies, and bullies. The interesting thing about the monologue, is that one is both the speaker and the listener: that which inflicts the punishment and that which receives the punishment. It always seems as though we are talking to someone with this inner monologue, but at the same time it always seems that someone is talking to us. The trouble starts when we take the voice seriously.

When working on Who am I? or Mu, we constantly return our attention to the question. When we question we open the mind; when we affirm or make a statement the mind is closed. You could say that the question is searching for the possibility to reflect back with an answer. Therefore to that extent, when questioning, the mind is not reflecting back on itself with the same power. It is not necessary to conceptualize the question or use the words “What is Mu?” or “Who am I?” After one has been practicing for a long time, when one applies the mind in a concentrated way, the question is already there. The question simply colours the way the mind is brought to bear.

If you have difficulty with thoughts then it is not a bad idea to sub-vocally voice to yourself “Mu” or ‘Who.” That is a way by which to struggle through these very difficult periods. But this is only an emergency. But even when you voice the question, you are drawing your attention away from self reflecting, the ‘reflecting back’ quality. This is why it is important not to try to grasp an answer. If you’re constantly trying to anticipate an answer, then you are closing the mind, bringing the mind into a ‘reflecting back’ condition.

In Zen it is sometime said, when practicing ‘be stupid,’ ‘be an idiot.’ That is to say, have a totally open mind; be with the receptive quality of the mind alone. It is like the beak of a young bird in the nest waiting to be fed. It’s open. But, you are vigilant! It’s not just simply a sleepy condition, you are vigilant. If you have seen a young bird in the nest, then you know it is full of life. Everything is bobbing around. This is vigilant openness. A Chinese writer uses the expression ‘flexible hollow.’ ‘Hollow’ means open; flexible is what is alive, vital.

Sometimes, thoughts are very cruel, sometimes very vicious, at other times they are very angry. Always underneath lies tension and pain. Stay with the tension and pain. The mind is turned back on itself which can cause a schism. The mind is then in an impossible situation. Originally the mind is whole, it is one, and yet when it is turned back on itself this wholeness can be torn in two: reflector and reflected. Often, underlying the notion of “I,” lies the pain of being torn. “I must,” “I ought,” “I should,” are ways we try to stave off the pain. Underneath it all is a wound.

We look upon thoughts as pictures that can give us information. We ask “Do I have cancer?” “Will I get fired?” “Does she love me?” On the contrary, look through thoughts like looking through a window; let the thoughts be transparent. When you feel that the thoughts have some value, then you look at them in the same way that you might look at a picture. You are stopped by the thought. And because the thought has been named, or the implicit inner thought is verbalized, then it becomes an object, something. It becomes something in the same way that everything else becomes an object when named: soul, mind, ghost, God, they are all objects, things, because they are named. We take them as being something and so we take them as real.

Yet we can look through thoughts. When you are in deep states of samadhi, thoughts still drift in and out. But instead of being pictures, they are like dreams that you look through. The thoughts no longer stop you, they lose their power. Thoughts seem to melt and the solidity of the thoughts yields.

Nisargadatta, in a conversation that he had with a visitor, said, ”Remember whatever happens, does so because ‘I am'”. You are the tenth person. Everything is contained in you. To say, “I am everything” or “I am the whole world” is really redundant. ‘I am’ is “I am the whole world”. The whole world, at the moment, is the totality of your experience that is possible because ‘I am’. Even ‘I am’ is redundant. ‘The world’ is the result of being able to live without the sense of self, without the reflection back in a verbal way.

The truth that the whole world is contained in ‘I am’ is fundamental. It is not something which we learn, nor is it a philosophy that we acquire. It is not something that we get hold of or get to know about. Everything, every philosophy, everything we get to know about, the whole division of experience in the multiplicity of words comes out of the most fundamental truth, the whole world is ‘I am’. Knowing is being. This is true whether you are conscious of it or not.

We forget ourselves. When Gurdjieff says, “Remember yourself”, when I say, “Be present”, it is saying that the world is you. But because we forget ourselves we believe that the world is independent of us. Bassui says, “I am the world.” He says: “The universe and yourself are of the same root, you and every single thing are a unity; the gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master; the green of the pine, the white of the snow, these are the color of the master, the very one who lifts the hands and moves the legs, sees and hears.”

When you are practicing, you are coming home. When you are asking “Who am I” you are smoothing out the bumps, letting go of the knots, and releasing the mind from its own grip. To see into Mu is to let go of all reflection. As you well know, it is pointless to think about the question “Who am I?” The verb ‘to think’ and the verb ‘to reflect’ mean more or less the same thing. One might very well say, “Let me reflect on that for a while before I decide.” To reflect is perhaps somewhat more ponderous than to think.

Mu is non reflection. “From the beginning, not a thing is”, or, if you like, “True self is no self.” When Dogen said, “To know the self is to forget the self,” he too is saying no reflection. Let go of the reflection and then you are, as Bassui has pointed out, “one with the ten thousand things”. You must go directly towards simplicity. ‘Letting go,’ ‘non attachment’ is non reflection, non turning back. This takes great courage because in doing so you let go of the sense of self. It seems as though you are dying, because the sense of self gives the illusory sense of existing.

All religions talk of thee need for the death of the old person and birth of the new. But all that is required is just an unfolding. For a long time we just don’t have the faith. We feel that we have to hang on, we cling, we struggle. But if we can see our practice as the self releasing its grip on the self, we will have the confidence that we are coming home.

Wherever you are is real; you can never get outside yourself. Theoretically I could duplicate your body in every possible detail, but I cannot duplicate you. I cannot get you outside of yourself in anyway. There is no outside of you, nor is there an inside.

Nisargadatta told his visitor, “Whatever happens, happens because ‘I am’. All reminds you that you are.” Everything is your face. He went on to say that to experience, you must be.

When Nisargadatta says that you are, he don’t mean that you are ‘something.’ All that I can say is that you are; I cannot say what you are. I sometimes say that you are pure awareness, or that you are knowing. But this is saying far too much. I say it because I want to direct your orientation away from things and objects. But what you are is truly inexpressible. When I ask, “Who walks?” some people still sit and think about this. And yet I ring the bell, and up they leap and off they go without a thought. Now, who responded to the bell? Who walks? Who bows? Who eats?

As Nisargadatta says, you need not stop thinking. In a book on Zen and painting the author said, “Sit in a comfortable position, get rid of all thoughts…” But, apart from the sheer impossibility of doing this, practice is not ‘getting rid of all thoughts’. It is seeing that the mind is intrinsically empty. Seeing that the whole world is intrinsically empty, that it has no substance, no ‘thingness’ of its own.

There are thoughts beyond thoughts. Our problem is not simply the thoughts that flicker across the mind. There are other thoughts that are churning constantly below the surface of consciousness and as you allow the mind to relax so you begin to be aware of them. They are still churning, they are still random, they still have no connection one with the other, but the movement of the mind is there all the time. But do not be interested in the content of this movement. Don’t take it as being of any value whatsoever to you. Whatever it is, however intimate, do not dwell upon it. This injunction does not only concern bad thought: it concerns all thought. It is not that we are plagued by bad thoughts and must replace them by good thoughts. Even good thoughts are bad thoughts. It’s like a master asked of one of his disciples, “Which of the words of the Tripitika were written by the devil?” The disciple replied, “All the words of the Tripitika were written by the devil.” The master congratulated him and said, “No one is ever going to take you for a ride.”

The hook that attaches us to all thoughts, feelings and sensations is ‘I’. If you have taken the time to be present while allowing the inner monologue to churn on, you will have seen that it always churns around ‘I'; it always churns around me. As Nisargadatta says, “All conversations turn on ‘I’.”

If you listen in to a conversation, you will see that there is a hidden agenda. This is ‘I’. This is why we will only listen so long to another person speaking before getting irritated and wanting to butt in to start talking about ourselves. We feel that it is about time ‘I’ was established. We also tend to balance the books. If someone says something that, subtly affirms [his] ‘I’ we will say something, equally subtly, that affirms [our own] ‘I’.

Nisargadatta tells us to “make straight your hooks and nothing can hold you.” It is because we hook onto things that they can affect us in the way that they do. A short while ago a young woman phoned me and it was evident from her voice that she was swearing at me. But it just could not touch me because she was speaking Polish. I did not understand what she was saying. There was no hook. It is only because we allow what others say or do to become attached to us, that we are affected by it.

This is why we work so hard to see into “I am something”. And, of course, for most of us it takes a lifetime or more to straighten out the hooks. But that is not important. We do not practice to avoid the pain that others inflict upon us. Nor is it to avoid or get free from the pain of life. We practice because we have to practice, that is all! There is no other reason. Or we could say that life is practicing through us.

The belief, “I am something” is an addiction just as much as some drugs can be an addiction. This is why Nisargadatta says, “Give up your addictions. There is nothing else to give up.” Practice is so difficult because we are hung up on ‘I am something.’ A Zen Center used the twelve steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous as twelve steps in the practice of Zen. This shows that they recognized the addictive quality of the sense ‘I am something’.

If you have struggled with cigarette smoking you will know how hard it is to give up even that addiction. You know how irritable it makes you feel, how you have to pass through a kind of dark night of the soul in which there is just nothing to look forward to. After giving up smoking one feels the days just stretch endlessly. The day is just like a lunar landscape. One craves anything, any kind of stimulus that will break that intense monotony of nothing to look forward to. And that is just because of giving up a cigarette. In practice we are giving up a much greater addiction, the addiction to the self! And people wonder why it’s tough!

“Give up your addictions. There is nothing else to give up. Stop your routine of acquisitiveness, your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours. Be effortless.”

“Stop your routine of acquisitiveness” Nisargadatta advises. Stop your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours. It is always a source of disappointment when people say, “You know, nothing is happening. I’ve been practicing for so long and nothing is happening.” Of course nothing is happening. Truly, practice has nothing to do with making something happen. It is the lust for acquiring results that stops us from being at one with the process. There is one activity that you are doing in life which is useless. That is, you are sitting in zazen; this is useless. Regard it as useless and be effortless

Another way of looking at it is this: when people say that nothing is happening it means that they have certain criteria by which they are judging their progress. For example, whether they are as irritable with other people as they have been in the past, or whether people like them more, or whether life is what they call easier. And these may be the last things that will give way in the practice.

When you are practicing it’s like taking a drop of clear water and putting it into a muddy pond. That muddy pond is changed in its entirety as a consequence of that drop of clear water. But you will not be able to detect that change. It’s not as though you scoop out a hole in the water and put in its place a drop of clear water. The practice is like constantly adding clear water to a muddy pool and eventually, of course, the clarity will far exceed the muddiness. The analogy stops there as one can only push any analogy so far.

Reflecting back, turning back onto yourself in order to find if you are progressing, is one of the great obstacles to practice. Take it that you are making a gift to life with the practice that you do. What you call the self is not going to benefit from this practice. It eventually will die, so how can it benefit? Once you sees it like this, then you will no longer look inside yourself to see whether you have ‘improved.’ You will no longer look at other people and ask, “Are they any better? They don’t seem any better to me!” Or criticize and say, “Good Lord, he drinks beer! How can he be awakened?”

Someone said that when he first started practicing Zen, his heart sank when he saw his teacher getting up from a period of zazen limping because his legs were stiff.   By checking, by using criteria to judge ‘progress’, you set up hurdles to leap over. Then, if you can leap over them you tell yourself that you have made progress. But often you just crash into the hurdles and then go to the dokusan room and say, “I am not making any progress.”

Nisargadatta exhorts us to, “Stop your routine of acquisitiveness, your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours.”

People say to me, “Well if I am not going to look for results. what then?” Not looking for results would be freedom. You will feel a sense of élan when you just throw yourself in and no longer try to grasp, grab, or get. If you want to cross the ocean, don’t keep swimming around in the harbour. Get out to sea!

“Be effortless,” says Nisargadatta. This is the direction to go. This is ‘Shikantaza’. This is seeing truly that nothing needs to be done. The questioner misunderstands and replies, “But life is effort. There are so many things to do.” Many people confuse “Nothing needs to be done!” with “do nothing.” This is like sitting down in the middle of the road thinking that this is a going on the journey.

Nisargadatta just says,   “What needs doing, do it. Don’t resist. Your balance must be dynamic based on doing just the right thing from moment to moment. Don’t be a child unwilling to grow up. Stereotyped gestures and postures will not help.”

And then he says, “Rely entirely on your clarity of thought, purity of motive and integrity of action. You cannot possibly go wrong. Go beyond and leave all behind.”

That is a very powerful statement, “Rely entirely on your clarity of thought”. What we would say is, rely on the fact that you do know. Don’t ask yourself, what is it that I know? Just know. Everyone knows. This is why it says, “From the beginning all beings are Buddha”. Every living being knows. Knowing is living. As knowing is not something, it is impossible for it ever to go out. You are a light that shines by itself. You know. Your very being is knowing. That is the clarity of thought.

Purity of motive: give yourself over to the truth, no longer seek to bolster the sense of self by acquiring or getting results. Seek truth wherever this search may lead.

Perhaps the Buddhas and the Patriarchs and the masters were mistaken, perhaps they were fools, perhaps they were cowards or charlatans, but that should in no way impede your search for the truth and reality. Make up your mind that you are not going to accept anything else but the real, whatever it costs, however long it takes. This is purity of motive.

And then there is integrity of action. You know what needs to be done. What needs to be done is fundamentally simple. You do not have to follow a complex routine. You can forget every thing that you have ever heard and learned, forget every book that you have read about Zen. You know what needs to be done. And so, do it! That is integrity of effort, integrity of action.

The real is all that is worthwhile. Go for it!

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The Staff of the Hermit of the Lotus Flower Peak

Engo’s Introduction:

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

The Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does ‘to go beyond’ mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.- “Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the words of T.S. Eliot

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

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