Ask yourself this question:

The following was written after a conversation Albert and I had one evening.

He was impressing on me the need to ask the question “What was my face before my parents were born?”, And then he said, you don’t have to try to find an answer, just pursue the question; the answer has already been given to you in the Prajna Paramita. This last sentence was said quite casually, no extra emphasis or fan fair. But suddenly the whole world broke into laughter and I could not stop laughing. He did not recite all the Prajna Paramita of course, just “no eye, ear, nose….” I write it all out as a hymn of joy for that moment.

No eye, ear, nose,
Tongue, body, mind;
No colour, sound, smell,
Taste, touch or what the mind
Takes hold of.
Nor even act of sensing.
No ignorance or end of it,
Nor all that comes of ignorance:
No withering, no death,
No end of them.
Nor is there pain, or cause of pain,
Or cease in pain, or noble path
To lead from pain,
Not even wisdom to attain,
Attainment too is emptiness.

“What is my face before my parents were born?”
Go beyond words, go beyond thoughts,
Go right beyond.
Awake, rejoice!

Albert was very disappointed at not being able to get out a blog for you, and so I though I would post this – it is after all what he wants to say to all of us. He is now in hospital again, having fallen and hit his head badly. – Jean Low

Ask yourself this question: “What was my face before my parents were born?”

It is the same question as “What is your true nature?” or “Who am I?” but it is put in a different format; a format that will take you right beyond if your pursue it diligently. It will cut through all the anchor points that hold firmly in place your sense of self, the feeling of who you are. Like Gulliver in the children’s story, tied down by all the tiny strings, unable to move. This question will cut through these strings and set you free.

But you have to really ask it, not just say the words. It doesn’t matter how much force and effort you put into saying the words, that is not enough. You have to follow it through. You do not have to try to find an answer, the answer has already been given to you in the Prajna Paramita; but you cannot hear this answer unless you can really ask the question.

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On the sense of self

We forget ourselves. We are fascinated by things, and by our experience of things, and we have come to believe that things––forms that can be perceived in one way or another––are all that exist. We practice, on the other hand, to break the spell of ‘things,’ to remember ourselves, to become aware of our own existence.

The fundamental teaching of Gurdjieff was, “Man does not remember himself.” All Gurdjieff’s teaching was directed to enabling us to break out from the mechanical, automatic reflexive reactions that give us the impression of being the ‘doer’. In fact, all that we do is a kind of knee jerk; something happens and something else responds. But no self is involved.

Gurdjieff used a metaphor, saying that we are like the old horse drawn cabs. He continued the metaphor saying that the horse is half starved, and ill treated. The carriage that should be oiled by the rough passage as it goes over the various bumps and holes and hollows in the road, is now so pampered that natural maintenance is no longer possible. The cab driver, he said, is invariably half drunk, and when he is not half drunk, is half asleep. The worst part is that any stranger can hire the cab, which means that all kinds of strangers are climbing in and out all day giving contradictory instructions and going in different directions.

In the metaphor, the horse is the emotions, the carriage the body, the cabby is the mind and the passenger is the Self. Gurdjieff used the metaphor to show the sad state of modern people. The owner moving in and out, being changed constantly, is the ‘I’ that is constantly changing, being taken over by this, being taken over by that. This instability is what Gurdjieff has in mind when he says, “Man does not remember himself.” Dogen said something similar: “The practice of Zen is to know the self. To know the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with the ten thousands things.”

Now-a-days, one might protest and say that people give too much attention to the self. They’re only too well aware of their own existence. One only has to think of so-called ‘selfies’ to realize to what extent people are self-absorbed. The words “I” and “my” are now overworked: iPhone, iPad, iBanking, iPublishing. But this is the self that Dogen says we should forget.

If we really “know the self” we see its instability, and its lack of ‘being.’ The ‘self’ is like the reflection in a mirror: it is there, but it is not there. On the other hand, the ‘Self’ that Gurdjieff speaks of is the tenth person.

Ten people have to cross a river, swollen because of a recent storm. After crossing, one of the group said that they should count to be sure all had crossed. When he counted he could only find nine. Another member of the group counts and only counts nine. The one who counts is never counted. In English the expression, “the one who counts” refers to the mot important one. Even so, the one who counts is never counted and so is forgotten.

We all know people who are full of themselves, who think of no-one but themselves. They see themselves as important, as interesting, or as superior. They regard others simply as extras required to dance in attendance, to admire and to pay respect. Surely, one might think, these people remember themselves only too well. But no, all this importance is just a dance of shadows having no foundation or meaning. These people are not full of themselves, but of illusions, indeed delusions, about themselves. They just want to attract the attention or admiration of other people, and so be reassured that they exist.

The problem is that we are fascinated by the reflection of ourselves. We know this reflection through ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions,’ ‘sensations,’ ‘ideas,’ ‘thoughts,’ and it is what we call our inner self or our inner mind. The cult of today is to have an ‘interesting’ self, an interesting personality. We go to great lengths to experience this reflection of the self. Indeed, most people confuse ego satisfaction––or reflection of self–– with happiness.

Ego satisfaction, which is a clear reflection of the self, and happiness are fundamentally different. It is not unusual for people to have intense ego satisfaction and yet at the same time be intensely unhappy. Workaholics are an example. It is also possible, but unusual, for someone to be quite happy without any sense of ego satisfaction. We all know this sense of happiness without ego satisfaction when we are deeply asleep. After we wake up from a dreamless sleep we have a feeling of deep well-being, deep peace. But in deep sleep there is no ego satisfaction.

Many people, paradoxically, hold on to their suffering because they are afraid that if they let go they will no longer have any ego satisfaction. Suffering is certain, it is always at hand and so is a very good foundation for the ego. Such people are unable to discern the difference between true happiness and the sensation of themselves, even if that sensation is the sensation of suffering.

Holding on to our suffering is just one of the many ways that we maintain the sense of self. One sees other ways, for example, in the way we stroke the chin, or twiddle the thumbs, cross the arms or legs, all with the intention of feeling the sense of self.

When in the face of others, we are uncomfortable, or feel awkward, or embarrassed, we say that we feel “at a loss.” The loss is a temporary loss of a secure sense of self. We have a number of stratagems by which we can recover the sense of self. But they too occur at a physical, mechanical level, and are quite innocuous. They are not cause for concern or the need to change.

But beyond these innocuous ways are other different, painful ways by which people provoke the sense of self. They hurt themselves, not necessarily literally but metaphorically, in order to regain the feeling of the sense of self, in order to get the feeling that they are, they are there, they are real.

Our practice is to go beyond the reflection that gives rise to the conflicting, contradictory aspect which ruins our lives.

Initially, we just need an insight, a flash, a moment in which there is no reflection of self. These moments occur occasionally. But when they occur, we close up immediately; no-reflection, we feel, is a loss of the sense of self, and because we lose the sense of self, we react, we clench to restore that sense of self, the very sense which we are practicing to transcend. We have an automatic resistance to these moments of openness and freedom.

To be present, alert, wakeful is to be in such a way that when such a moment occurs you are able to allow it to be, you do not flinch away from it. It is a moment beyond content, beyond knowing ‘something;’ it is upstream of reflection; it is to be without any awareness of the fact that you know: you just know. This is what Dogen calls ‘forgetting the self.’

This moment of pure knowing could be called ‘not knowing.’ When emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma “What are you?” Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know.” To speak of a knowing that is not knowing is either paradoxical or nonsensical. But not knowing is a global knowing, a knowing without limits or content. Its feeling counterpart is pure peace. Peace which is beyond any understanding, beyond any grasping.

Yet to one who is used to knowing himself through suffering and conflict, not knowing is a threat; it is like an abyss, a hollow menace. It can strike one with intense dread. But if one is present, it is possible at this moment to bring about a complete change, a turn-about. The lusting after reflections loses its grip. Dogen said that the process of coming to awakening was inexhaustible. But, even so, it is possible in an instant to break the grip of this fever of a reflective self.

Breaking the grip of the reflective self, loosening the clutch of the sense of self, is the essence of practice. One is then no longer aware of things, people or situations, but is upstream of all necessity to focus the attention on one thing rather than another.

Those who are working on Mu or Who, or even those who are following the breath, may find it strange to be told to go upstream of focusing the mind. “ Isn’t it really what the practice is all about: to focus intently on Mu, on Who, on the breath?” Yes, there is a time when one needs to focus the attention, to concentrate. We do so in order to withdraw the mind from all of its petty focuses, all of the petty concerns that we are hooked on. If we can focus the attention simply on Mu or Who or on the breath, we break the threads that tie us down like the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver; millions of small threads.

But we must go beyond focusing the attention. Practice is not simply a practice of concentration. It is rather a practice of contemplation. “Contemplation” means to be “one with;” it is being completely open. This is why it is important to maintain the questioning. Questioning allows the mind to become open and unfocused to the point that awareness, just pure awareness without content, without reflection without desire, can spring to the fore, burst to the light, explode.

These are all ways of talking about a turn-about, a release of the tyranny of the reflective mind. Focusing is closing the mind, fixing in place. When Gurdjieff says: “Remember yourself,” the only way to do so is simply to be. It’s like the famous quotation from the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God”. And yet this is far too much. All that one really needs to say is “Be still and know.” Again this is also far too much. All that one needs is “Be still” and all the rest is contained in that. No, just “Be”.

But in order to do this, in order to be able to enter into the stillness which is one’s own true nature, one has constantly to break up the addiction, fascination and compulsion to be things, to be something. This is why our practice always goes in two directions. One is the direction towards arousing the mind without resting it on anything. But in order to enter the stillness, we have to melt down the identities that we have created over a lifetime.

Awareness is a solvent. Simply by allowing a thought or an idea, a compulsion or an anxiety to rest in the field of pure, disinterested awareness is enough to dissolve that particular problem. You must experience this for yourself because it is an essential element of the work. Moreover, if you ask someone who is very anxious, to pin point exactly what is worrying him, that in itself––just allowing the person to really become totally aware of what is giving concern––is enough to bring about a release. It’s quite likely that much of the value that comes from psychotherapy comes from this dissolving aspect of the mind. But this dissolution will only occur if the person can open the mind without any kind of judgement whatsoever.

The most important aspect of our practice is to allow whatever lies within the field of awareness to remain there. But, you must be present, alert to this field. Naturally, there must be no judgement, no partiality, no wish to change. If you are able to do this then many strange thoughts and ideas, possibly quite cruel or violent, may pass through the mind. You will see that all kinds of thoughts surge up. These ideas can be quite antisocial, possibly unacceptable to anyone else if you told them about them. But that’s all right. Allow them to be, whatever they are.

I’m not saying that we’re all filled with horrible thoughts; I’m trying to encourage allowing whatever there is to float into awareness, no matter how terrifying it might be, and to have the faith that awareness will dissolve it. The all forgiving aspect of God, the all merciful aspect of God is really, in terms of what we’re saying, the solvent power of awareness. But it does take faith and willingness to just allow the mind to hang loose and to allow whatever there is to come and go as it will.

It is not necessary to go on a fishing expedition to try to get the mind to produce its garbage. One just stays steadily with Mu or Who, or allowing the breath to come and go, steadily working with that practice. Tensions will arise, resistance will occur, and agitation distract. As these feelings of discomfort invade, just continue without trying to change anything, without trying to add anything, or take anything away. It is like a sheet of paper that has become crumbled and every facet of this crumbled ball of paper is now reflecting against every other facet. This sets up a cacophony, a dissonance, a noise of random thoughts, fears and desires.

But, left alone, the paper smooths itself out, the wrinkles go, and, as this happens, an increasing clarity takes over. It is the nature of the mind to reassert its unity and wholeness. This reassertion of unity is the cause of our suffering. We suffer because we are whole: the mark of our suffering is the mark of the truth of our wholeness. Wholeness ultimately will assert or resolve itself. It does not matter whether you work or you don’t work. It does not matter whether you practice Zen or you don’t practice Zen. You are whole and complete, and ultimately you will return to that state. But because wholeness is returning to that state, you are working on yourself. Because of the smoothing out you are practicing Zen. The resistance to the practice comes from ‘I,’ ‘I’ want to be happy, ‘I’ want to get rid of all this suffering, ‘I’ want to come to awakening. ‘I’ is the resistance to wholeness. And it is from that very resistance that a deeper kind of pain comes about.

A difference exists between opening yourself to the natural hunger that one has to come home to unity, and ‘wanting to come to awakening.’ Wanting to come to awakening is simply a continuation of focusing the mind in order to be, or to grasp, something. It’s just another stratagem in order to ensure that the reflective consciousness has a focus. A focus gives the illusion of reality, an intensity, and this in turn gives a sense of meaning to what is otherwise a meaningless pursuit of shadows.

Yielding to the natural hunger that we have to come home, yielding to this natural need that we have to know ourselves for what we are, lacks drama. Very often it is a feeling that nothing is happening, or even that one has lost one’s way and is going through darkness. This is because we are released from the focus, from the orientation point, that gives a sense of significance that lies in the reflective self. It is the sense of self that provides what we feel is the meaning of our life. Everything that you know, everything that you know, all the values that you have, all the meaning that you have, all of this is the reflection of yourself. If you let it all go, the true self will still shine. But it will shine in a way which is free, open and unlimited.


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What are you?

“One of the truly vexing problems of phenomenology is… how is it that one can apprehend the other as subject?”

Although we long for unity, we live in a fractured world. Our life is like someone having to put together a jigsaw puzzle using pieces from a mixture of several different puzzles. Although unity is our true home, we have wandered into a world of duality.

We take for granted that you and me are different and separate beings. This is one duality. But we also take it for granted that me and the world are quit different and distinct. This is another duality.

When you talk to another person, to what are you talking? How do I know that ‘you’ are there? You must ask this question truly for yourself if you are to understand what I say. You must ask it in spite of the enormous difficulty in doing so. I will explain the difficulty later . Because of the difficulty, unfortunately, the question is rarely, if ever asked. This is unfortunate because by dwelling in this question we can open doors to the transcendent in a simple and uncomplicated way.

Let us take an every day occurrence: you and I are sitting in a cafe drinking coffee, chatting about this and that. How do I know that I am talking to you? or, to put the question in a slightly different way, “are you just the body that sits in front of me, or is there ‘something’ more?”

The behaviourist would say, “No, there is nothing more. You are just the body, just matter. You are, it is true, extremely complex, but it is simply because of this complexity that you appear to be something more than the body.” If this is the case, I am talking to neither a being, a person or consciousness. A different response would be given given by those working in the field of computers, even though, paradoxically they also believe that intelligence, sentience, and what we call a person, come from matter which has simply reached a sufficient degree of complexity.

The great British computer scientist, Alan Turing, proposed that if you talk to a machine – really talk to it, carry on a conversation with it just as you would with another [sic] normal human being – then the machine is intelligent. If after interacting for years with the machine it acts as if it has a personality, has consciousness, (and a conscience), then it really does.[1]

I asked at the beginning of this article, “How do I know that I am talking to you?” Turing would reply “I know you are you because I habitually interact with you as if you were you.” If I can be conditioned to believe that you are you, what would stop me from being conditioned to believe that a machine is also ‘you?’ However, you might well protest and say, “Hey, I am whether you are conditioned to see me as being or not.”

According to Turing, because I cannot disprove that machines and, presumably you, are conscious, I must assume that they and you are conscious. This, of course, is quite contrary to what the behaviourist would say: “You are not a being, a person nor do you have consciousness; you are a machine.” Thus, so far we have two responses to my question: the first response says, “I know you are you because I say you are;” the second says., “I know you are not you because I say you are not.”

In Madame Tussaud’s famous show in London, which is a waxwork show of the famous and infamous, a London policeman used to stand in a darkened corner by the entrance to the museum. It was not unusual for someone to go to the Bobby for directions or information, and then to recoil with slight horror when realizing that the Bobby was made of wax. We must ask ourselves, ‘If we are quite comfortable talking to machines, why does the recognition of our mistake create horror?

The problem is made even more complicated by the experience described in the quote that follows, an experience that is not by any means an unusual one.

“There was just the room with its shabby furniture and the fire burning in the grate and the red shaded lamp on the table. But, the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before. I was filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since”(My emphasis)

“The Presence was both about me and within me,” could be translated as the presence was both you and me.

One of the astronauts, I think his name was Sheppard, encountered God when he was on the moon. People who have near death experiences sometimes encounter a ‘person’ whom they call ‘a being of light.’ Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, also as a being of light, and Moses talked to God. If I wanted to I could multiply examples like these a hundred, a thousand fold. But do we have to? All of us have had a faint shadow of what is implied by this presence. Who has not had that eerie feeling, when in a house on one’s own, or walking along a dark path, of another presence nearby? A presence that often has has a numinous quality

The “Someone who was not myself,,” the God of Shepard and Moses, and the Christ that Paul met on the way to Damascus, always appeared, not as some abstract ghost, but as a ‘person’, although perhaps it would be better to say, as the essence of person. I suggest, they are ‘you,’ but are they different to Tutring’s ‘you?’

So we have a dilemmas, on the one hand is Turing’s ‘you.’ This is a machine, but nevertheless, according to Tipler, it is a real, you. On the other hand we have the ‘you’ of Moses, Paul, Sheppard and many others. This a real, but you without form. Then there is ‘you’ that I am talking to in the café.

The question of what constitutes ‘awareness-of you’ is a difficult one. If someone truly believes that machines are alive and aware, as some primitive people believed that idols carved of wood were truly alive, then surely we must account for such experiences. On the other hand, people have encountered ‘you ‘as a presence or a living light or Christ, Buddha, Krishna, and Kali and we must account for that presence as well. Moreover , in so far as they are both encounters with ‘you,’ the same explanation must cover both ‘you’s,’ even though, on the face of it, they are quite different.

Another, common and different, encounter with ‘you’ is the little girl or boy playing with a doll. The famous Calvin and Hobbes strip cartoon illustrates so well what I am now referring ImageExtract-001to. Calvin, as you are probably aware, was a little boy who, like many little boys, had a pet teddy bear. Sometimes the teddy bear, whose name was Hobbes, was a scruffy, well worn doll, at others it was another person alongside Calvin with whom Calvin was in full communication. Most people would dismiss this as an example of the very vivid imagination of children. But what is this ‘imagination?’ Is it that same as the imagination of Moses, Paul or Arjuna?

Let me make a final reference, this time to the work of the late Julian James, one time professor of psychology. He authored a book in which he wrote of a time before the development of human consciousness. He called this the bicameral era. The word ‘bicameral’ means “two legislative chambers.” At this time me-you was separated into two identities : me on the one hand and you on the other. “You” spoke to “me” as the voice of the gods. A vestige of this communication continues in most people today who have a continuous mono-duologue churning at the back of their minds.

Simply condemning all these people, including Calvin, Turing, and calling them stupid, ignorant, and wrong, is not a reasonable response. Nor is simply dismissing the experiences as ‘imagination,’ illusion, or self-suggestion. Bearing in mind we are talking about Moses as well as Calvin, if we were to get a satisfactory answer, would it show that there is a transcendent ‘reality’ which does not need physical support of any kind, but which at the same time is not imaginary nor illusory? While, for most societies in the past, the transcendent would not have come as any surprise, in our society it is something that most of our leading thinkers, if they do not simply ignore it, would scoff at as mere superstition.

Again, let me ask, I say “I see you,” What do I mean? I see your body and its behaviour and in this way I know your body and behaviour. However, in addition, I also know that you are you, just as Calvin knew Hobbes as ‘you,’ and Moses knew God as ‘you.’ How do I know that you are, not simply ‘you’ as some kind of imagination, as a body, as a set of responses or as a repertoire of behaviour, or even you, as a soul?

For example a man who is in love with a woman is pervaded by her whole presence whether she is with him or not. He may, it is true, recall certain mannerisms that she has: her way of smiling, of leaning forward when she speaks, the way she brushes the hair out of her eyes, but for him, beyond all of this, is ‘you,’ the woman he loves. What does that mean? Who are you who lies beyond mere memory of detail? The same question arises when we consider the mystic’s encounter with his beloved of the kind we quoted in the example above. What, or who, was encountered? In the quotation in which he speaks of the encounter, the author says that he could describe the presence as ‘Christ coming to him,’ in other words the presence, he felt, was a person. How can we account for this in a reasonable way?

A famous Sufi mystic, Ib’n ‘Arabi, put it this way, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” In other words, to know myself is to know you. ‘Christ,’ ‘the Lord,’ you in the café, ‘Hobbes,’ ‘you’ are not an object among other objects, but Subject; ‘you’ are [my] knowing. That does not mean that you are [my] knowing something. We have difficulty in understanding that ‘you’ are simply knowing because we believe that even we ourselves are objects, separated and isolated in a world of objects. ‘Alone and afraid in a world I never made’ as someone put it.

It could be said that we know the world through causal relations, that is through sense data of one kind or another, which create in us images, sounds, and smells. As objects, things or persons, we are inhabited, some believe, by souls or spirits and these are also, in their own way, objects. With this belief in being a separate, isolated object among objects is associated the tacit assumption that my world could exist without me. Because of this belief moreover, when confronted with the mystery of ‘you,’ we ask ourselves, “What stimulus from the outside, what causal relation, which of my senses, tells me of ‘your’ presence?”

If you are indeed a separate, isolated object, then, as Turing has pointed out, all that we have left of you is behaviour: the twinkle in your eye, the smile, the toss of your head, because only this can possibly come to us via the senses. But then what about that presence, God, the Lord, the Presence in the room, that has no accompanying form or behaviour, the presence which is just presence? What about the beloved who pervades yet transcends all of her manifestations? And what about Hobbes who has no twinkle in his eye, smile, nor toss of his head,

Though ‘you’ may or may not have a material counterpart, this does not mean that you must be ‘a product of my imagination.’ It does show, however, that my awareness-of you is not dependent upon sense data. I do not see ‘you’ with my eyes. Furthermore, although we have used words to describe this encounter of you and me, it should be stressed that the encounter is in no way dependent upon words, thoughts, names nor ideas. Neither you nor me is an idea; you are you without any need of words, just as me is me without needing the word ‘me.’

Martin Buber, in his book I and Thou, says,“I-you is basic, it is not derived. Another does not cause the relation I-thou, but gives it expression. We are content with this I-you evocation until it is shown that we err.” ‘You’ do not cause the relation I-you; you evoke it. Thus I-you does not tell us anything about what evokes it, other than what evokes it has the power of evocation. This means that if someone truly believes that a machine is alive, when he addresses this machine as ‘you,’ he does not thereby confirm the aliveness of the machine, but confirms that the machine can awaken a genuine transcendent and primordial ‘experience,’ an experience me-you which is at least as real as my experience of the world.

But, is this not saying that you are my imagination: that you evoke an imaginary image in me?

Each of us is an individual, that which cannot be divided, and yet we are divided. Each of us is one, but two. Although this defies logic, nevertheless ‘experience’ shows that this logic is too limited. The ‘experience’ is of Me-you is the experience of one that is two. To understand this further we have to explore in some detail different modes of awareness.

According to modern psychology, the young baby’s awareness is different from an adult’s awareness. Child psychologist, Alison Gopnik, tells us that the consciousness of a baby could be called ‘lantern consciousness,’ while the consciousness of an adult could be called ‘flashlight’ consciousness. A lantern would light a room without any distinction or differentiation. It would light it up “all at once.” Flashlight awareness would light up one item at a time; in other words it would distinguish and differentiate.

For example, suppose that you wanted something from the cellar. You could turn on a light, in which case everything in the cellar is lit up equally, or you could turn on a flashlight, which would light up one thing at a time. Thus there are two modes of awareness. The names that I gave to these two modes[2] are: awareness-as and awareness-of. We are aware-as the world, and this awareness corresponds to Gopnik’s lantern consciousness; we are also aware-of the world, and this corresponds to Gopnik’s flashlight consciousness. Awareness-as is constant and unceasing. Awareness-of arises out of awareness-as much like the waves arise out of the sea.

We are all, all the time, including when we are asleep, aware-as. Awareness-of picks out specific items from the background given to us by awareness-as. For example, you are aware-as the pressure of the seat against your body. When I say this, you immediately become aware-of it. You are aware-as the floor, but my having said that immediately turns on your flashlight awareness and you become aware-of it. This is why it is so difficult to talk about awareness-as, and why it is so difficult for people to understand it. Awareness-of can only pick out one thing at a time. The one thing then stands out from the rest, it ‘exists’ uniquely and it acquires a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness.

Awareness-of can also be aware of itself, and from this comes the drama of life and of me-you. Just as what is lit up by flashlight awareness stands out from the rest and ‘exists’ uniquely while acquiring a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness, so the light of the flashlight that is shone upon by the same flashlight stands out from the rest, ‘exists’ uniquely and acquires a reality not enjoyed by all that is lit up by lantern awareness.

This new existence is called ‘me,’ and, as you can see, me is very ambiguous. For example when a flashlight lights up an object, the light goes from the source (the flashlight) to the destination (the object.) When the flashlight shines on itself the light goes from the source (the flashlight) to the destination (the same flashlight.) One cannot think about this, otherwise one will become quite dizzy. The Jesuit and palaeontologist, Teillard de Chardin, in his book, the Phenomenon of Man, tried to think about it and wrote this:

“As soon as a child is born it must breath or it will die. Similarly the reflective psychic center once turned in on itself can only subsist by means of a double movement which in reality is one and the same. It centers itself further upon itself by entry into a new space and at the same time it centers the rest of the world around itself by the establishment of an even more coherent and better organized perspective in the realities which surround it.” He went on to say, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus but with a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born. The ego only persists by becoming ever more itself, in the measure in which it makes everything itself.”

What de Chardin calls the ‘reflexive psychic center’ is ‘me.’ In the example of the flashlight, ‘me’ is both the source and the destination. Being both source and destination simultaneously is what de Chardin describes as “the reflective psychic center [turning] in on itself.” It does this by by means of “a double movement which in reality is one and the same.” ‘Me’c centers the rest of the world around itself. This is an experience that most of us must have of being at the center of the world, not only geographically, but dynamically.[3] But this is only half of the double movement. The other half is that it centers itself further on itself through ‘you.’ But this double movement is “one and the same.” This is shown in the metaphor of the flashlight turned on itself in that the light that is sent out from the source and received by the destination is the same light. The lights are “one and the same.”

de Chardin goes on to say, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus but with a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.” The metaphor of the flashlight is, like all metaphors, limited. With this metaphor the source of the light and the destination, although the same, is fixed. But de Chardin says, “We are not dealing with an immutably fixed focus.” Another, better metaphor to show what he means by “a vortex which grows deeper as it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.,” is the metaphor of the microphone placed up against a loud-speaker. In an emotionally charged situation the microphone (me) is the source and the loudspeaker (you) is the destination. But as soon as the sound leaves the microphone the loudspeaker (you) becomes the source and the microphone (me) becomes the destination and a vortex develops. Finally, “it sucks fluid at the heart of which it was born.” The vortex of sound builds up because it feeds on the sound which is fed into the microphone.

Let us return to the account that I gave earlier of a “mystical experience.”

The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before. I was filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since6

The presence was “about me and within me.” This corresponds to de Chardin’s reflective psychic center that turns in on itself and subsists by means of a double movement which in reality is one and the same. The presence is also the ‘light’ that is both source and destination. In a similar way, “I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before,” is also de Chardin’s double movement. “Being filled with an intense happiness, and almost unbearable joy, such as I had never known before and have never known since” illustrates de Chardin’s vortex.

Attempts have been made to depict this “double movement,” the self that is reflecting the ImageExtract-002
self that is reflecting…. that is the foundation of ‘me’. They are interesting mainly because all of them fail. de Chardin’s (and my) tortuous attempt to talk about the ambiguity in words, when it is beyond concepts and reason, is also a failure

Possibly the most famous of these attempts to picture the “double movement” is the Oruborus, or symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail. It is of interest to us as it often symbolizes self-reflexivity, that is to say, de Chardin’s reflective psychic center. It can also symbolize cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, corresponding to the vortex of which de Chardin writes.

ImageExtract-003The problem, however, with this symbol is that it fails to depict the ambiguous nature of self reflexivity. If the head depicts the source and the tail the destination then the symbol only depicts half of the self reflexivity. Some artists realized this and attempted, unsuccessfully, to adjust the symbol by giving it two heads.

Another symbol yet for ‘double movement’ is the vesica pisces.image001

In this symbol the centers of the circles are on the periphery of the other circle. One way of talking about the double movement is: the center is at the periphery while at the same time being the center. I have often used the expression, ‘me-as-center/me-as-periphery.’ Once more, the ambiguity is not shown in the vesica pisces and the only way to see the ambiguity is to collapse the two circles into one.


The last illustration that I shall use is Escher’s Man at the Gallery. This shows a man, in a gallery. (left corner,) looking at a picture. The picture is of the same man in a gallery looking at a picture . In the center of the picture is a white circle. The switch over from the man looking at the picture to the picture of the same man looking at a picture in the gallery is covered over by a white circle. The reason is that it is impossible to depict that crossover.

Let us pause for a moment to see where we have got to.

 Martin Buber’s spoke of  “I thou ”and “i It’ as primary words although I prefer to call it the primary word ‘me-you.”The ‘me-you’ relation covers a very wide spectrum from Moses talking to God to a little girl putting her doll to bed, with me talking to you over a cup of coffee somewhere midway on the spectrum. Although we could dismiss Moses’ encounter and the little girl’s action as imagination or delusion, we can hardly dismiss my encounter with you in the same way: you and I are real. Neither is the product of the other’s imagination So who or what are ‘you?’

End Notes:

[1] ibid p.20

[2] See for example Albert Low Creating Consciousness:a study in consciousness, creativity, evolution and violence.

[3] I have explored the meaning and significance of the ’dynamic center ‘ in “I am therefore I think” CreateSpace 2013

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“Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.: Oscar Wilde. “

Rinzai says: “Followers of the Way, if you want insight into the dharma as it is, just don’t be taken in by the deluded views of others.”

Throughout our whole life we have been subjected to the deluded views of others. When we say deluded views, we mean views that are essentially biased. For example, we put great emphasis on competition in our society. Right from the beginning we are encouraged to strive to be the first and the best. In my elementary school we were arranged in the class according to who was top of the class and who was bottom of the class. And so it went throughout the whole of our school career.

In the business world one scrambles across the backs of others, undercutting, cheating, lying, betraying, always with the view that it is important for us to get ahead. I do not know if they still exist, but managers used to have what were called “career paths.” We were persuaded to set up our career path: where we wanted to be when we were thirty, where we wanted to be when we were forty, and so on. And some people became frantic because they were not living up to their career path.

Fashion after fashion comes into being on how to live our lives, supported by all kinds of hype and propaganda, and like sheep we follow. Any number of examples could be given of our willingness to be taken in by the deluded views of others: wearing the hat back to front, ‘selfies,’ carrying a back-pack, jogging, eating gluten free food and drinking eight bottles of water a day. However, by far the craziest example of being led by the nose is the baby stroller.

First let me quote from Richard Coss, professor of psychology at California university:

At the fourth week of age, many full-term infants will vigorously attempt to establish eye contact by visually searching for the eyes of another person.· The duration of eye contact between mother and infant has been observed to last for several minutes if the mother deliberately sustains eye contact.[1]

Now, the stroller is designed in such a way that that not only is there no eye contact possible between the mother and baby, but the mother cannot even see the baby unless she stops and peers around the obstructions of the stroller. The baby could be choking to death yet the mother would not be able to see this happening. The design of the stroller is the very opposite of a well designed stroller and blocks a basic relation that mother and baby crave. Yet, mother after mother buys and uses these monstrosities. Why? Because they are the fashion. Because the mothers are taken in by the deluded views of others

All of our competitiveness, as well as our willingness to behave like sheep, is based on the firm conviction that we are something. Moreover, that we must be the best something is driven into us and, of course, we want it driven into us. We want to join in this competition, we want to be top of the class, get ahead. A whole mythology supports this deluded view. No wonder it takes so much effort to swim against this tide. No wonder we feel dry when we work on Zen, which has nothing to do with getting ahead, with being first, the best. Nor has it anything to do with gaining respect and admiration from others.

When we are sitting facing the wall, we are on our own. It is not surprising that people feel sometimes that they are not getting anywhere in their practice. Possibly, this society we are living in at the moment is the least conducive, least supportive of spiritual endeavour. From the point of view of spirituality, it is a wasteland. One would have difficulty talking about what we do to almost anybody outside Zen circles without being laughed at. But somehow or other we must have the strength to stand against this. One of the few symbols that one finds in Zen practice is the symbol of the carp that swims upstream. And it is swimming upstream of our own inclinations and upstream of the propaganda of society that supports those inclinations, upstream of the deluded views of others. And it is hard work.

Rinzai says, “Whatever you encounter either within or without, slay it at once. On meeting a Buddha, slay the Buddha. On meeting a Patriarch, slay the Patriarch. On meeting an Arhat, slay the Arhat. On meeting your parents, slay your parents. On meeting your kinsmen, slay your kinsmen that you may attain emancipation. By not cleaving to things you gain emancipation”.

This is one of the most celebrated of all Rinzai’s sayings and one of the sayings that is most misunderstood. Because of it Zen is sometimes said to be violent. However, we must remember that Christ said, “I do not bring peace, I bring a sword.”

We can interpret what Rinzai says, “If you meet the Buddha, slay the Buddha,” in several ways. On the one hand he means that when you are practicing, you should not let Buddha, parents, teachers, friends get in the way. You must be ruthless in this. If we cling to the notion of some superior being, then we are a slave to that superior being. If we cling to our family, then we are a slave to our family.

What we are looking for is certainly not dependence; it is certainly not what so often passes for religion, which insists that we have to have something on which we can depend. We can depend on nothing. But at the same time, we are not looking for independence, we are not seeking to separate ourselves from, to be aloof from, or to be above, everyone else. What we are looking for is non-dependence. We can be in situations, but not dependent on them for our well-being. It is what we are attached to that we must somehow find a way to cut ourselves free from.

Someone might say, “Oh no, this is not right; we are all dependent on one another; without the help of one another we just cannot live.” And of course, this is true. But the emphasis should be on giving help. People say, “But love is very important in life”. Of course it is. But we should be the ones that are loving. When we cling to other people, when we say that these people are the most important thing in our lives, that we need them, are dependent upon them, we become a burden to them. We act as a kind of jailer as far as they are concerned. Even when we try to do good for them, our doing good is still a form of interference. But if we are free, then we can give or take as the situation demands. We can help or be helped as necessary.

We can understand the statement, “If you meet the Buddha kill the Buddha!” in another way. During prolonged zazen we can sometime encounter strange and very striking experiences. We call them “spiritual experiences” and tend to look upon them as being very special and so cling to them. However, an experience is just an experience, spiritual or otherwise. To cling to any experience is to set up a road block on the Way. This why Rinzai tells us to cut away all experience, even the experience of meeting Buddha or Christ.

“Followers of the way, in the Buddha dharma, no effort is necessary. Just be your ordinary selves: relieving yourselves, putting on clothes, eating food, lying down to sleep when tired.”

Again he emphasizes the truth that no effort is necessary; nothing needs to be done. Some people still misunderstand what he is saying, because they feel that this means that we do not have to do anything. But that is far from what is being said. In order to see that there is nothing that needs to be done, we have to struggle and strive. We have to put out effort. We have to do things, we have to try things. But we must always do them with the recognition that we are going in the direction of finding a way to see that fundamentally everything is O.K. just as it is.

This is an entirely different kind of effort to the effort of ambition that wants to add something or get something or get rid of something. The effort that one is making towards seeing that there is nothing that needs to be done is an effort of de-contraction. It is not an effort of focusing and contraction. It is an effort to open. It’s not an effort to close. And there is an effort to open. We often quote this, “She goes into the forest without disturbing a blade of grass. She goes into the lake without making a ripple.” To reach such a point requires enormous discipline. It means that we have let drop body and mind. And our question then is how can we make this kind of no effort; what is called in Chinese “wu wei,” the effortless effort, or the effort of no effort?

“Just be your ordinary selves”.

This, of course, is the problem: we just cannot be our ordinary selves. It is this ordinary self that we are rebelling against. To avoid being our ordinary self we have agreed to be conditioned and brain washed, subjected to the propaganda of superiority. We have gone along with this propaganda, we have agreed to it. How can we possibly just be our ordinary selves? When we look at this and start working towards just being our ordinary selves, we sometimes get the feeling that we are committing a kind of spiritual suicide.

It takes your breath away sometimes when you really start to look into this notion of just being ordinary. It seems to be a betrayal of oneself. One feels one is letting the side down; one is letting oneself down. Facing up to the pain that this brings, the humiliation, the disappointment, a sense of losing something which is valuable – takes a certain kind of effort, a certain kind of application, a certain kind of commitment.

“Just make yourself master of every situation and wherever you stand is the true place.”

Now, if you think about that at all, you will realize that there seems to be a contradiction. On the one hand, he is saying just be ordinary, be yourself as you are, and then he is saying be master of every situation. One gets the feeling that he wants us to be a kind of busy body. The kind of person that has to dominate everything; what we used to call “the head cook and bottle washer.” But interestingly enough, this is not the case. It is like a master said, “I do nothing all day, but nothing is left undone”. It means that when you are master of the situation, you are at one with it. You are not opposed to it and it is not opposed to you. To be one with a situation means that you can be ordinary in that situation, that you are not trying to do something special.

For example, if you are going to write, then you are open and free. You are not writing a masterpiece You let come into the mind whatever wants to come in, however ordinary it may seem. What is important is to be immersed in the process of writing, to be one with what you are doing at the moment. If you are fixated on the result you will freeze up and words will fail you. What seems ordinary can very often be interesting.

It is the same if one wants to organize something. What is essential is to look at what needs to be done in the situation, not what you would like to do to the situation. This is being master of the situation. But at the same time it is being ordinary. A monk in Japan is called “unsui,” meaning clouds and water. And a monk is called a cloud because a cloud drifts. Nowadays, when we talk about a person who is a drifter, we mean a person who doesn’t take hold of a situation. But another way of looking at drifting is possible, and that is being so totally at one with the situation that one moves entirely in tune with it.

It is the same with water. Water flows. It is pliant, it moves. It finds its way. It always goes forward. It is this which is meant by being master of every situation. And this is what is meant by being the master of your practice. To master your practice is to move along with what is at the moment in front of you. It is not dictating to the situation what you think you would like it to be, or what it ought to be, or what you have read or heard that it could be. It is being so totally one with whatever comes that it is almost as though you are floating in the practice. When pain comes, one moves along with the pain; when dryness comes, one moves along with the dryness; when one is totally and utterly thwarted and frustrated, one moves along with the frustration and the feeling of being thwarted. And one can do this to the extent that one is not trying to be something because of the practice, to attain something for oneself as an ego entity.

We keep saying there is nothing to attain. But this nothing to attain is not a negative statement. In attaining nothing you let emerge the full richness of what you already are. In trying to attain something, you never know what richness there is.

Someone said, “Life is what happens when I am otherwise engaged.” We are so busy imagining what could be, or what should be, or what should not be that the beauty and the richness of what is completely eludes us. And then we say, my life is flat and uninteresting. And because we are trying to push the practice in a certain direction and it cannot go in that direction, we say, I am not getting anywhere in my practice.

When one has let go of this need to get somewhere then one flows, the practice moves, things change and develop. Again, when we say there is nothing to attain, do understand we mean that in true practice there is nothing for that sense of “I am something” to attain.

One does attain richness of life, a sense of fulfillment, a sense of being at ease, a sense of the rightness of one’s life and one’s position in life. The feeling of the rightness of life itself. But we think, well, anyone can get that.

He says, “Make yourself master in every situation. Wherever you are, wherever you stand is the true place. You can no longer be driven around by circumstances. Even if in your former unregenerate days you had committed the five heinous crimes, they’d turn into oceans of deliverance”. (The five heinous crimes are patricide, matricide, killing an Arhat, shedding the blood of a Buddha and destroying the harmony of the Sangha.)

Even if we have not committed the five heinous crimes, most of us have memories that cause us to be inwardly whipped. T.S. Eliot talks about “When fool’s approval stings”, and probably you know very well what he means, having practiced zazen for so long. Things that at one time you felt were so good you now see against the background of the egoism involved, as well as the need to push oneself forward and be something special. These may not be heinous crimes, but they can be extremely painful memories.

As he says, if you are masters of the situation, if you are able to move and flow with the situation, then these karmic debts gradually get paid off. At some stage in your practice you will find that the things that at the moment are so difficult to work with, so painful, will turn around and become the most marvellous energy to push you forward. No doubt many of you have already experienced this turn around to some extent. It is as though you have been fighting uphill and, all of a sudden, you are able to freewheel and everything is working in your favour.

“Students nowadays know nothing of the dharma. They are just like sheep nuzzling and guzzling whatever their noses strike against. Neither discriminate between master and slave nor guest and host.”

People pick up odds and ends about Zen and so called ‘spirituality’ as they go along and the odds and ends become part of their store of ‘wisdom,’ often to be used in argument with others; they feel that they are enhancing their spiritual standing. Moreover, every now and again someone comes to me and says, “Why don’t you go and see such and such a visiting lama, why don’t you go and listen to such and such a swami speak?” Or, “here is a good book that you should read written by a Zen teacher.” One doesn’t need this kind of thing, this isn’t necessary. We all know what to do. The question is how can we get the time, energy and effort to do what we know needs to be done?

Someone asked Rinzai. “What about the state where Mind and minds do not differ?” Rinzai replied, “The moment you try to question me your mind has already differed; your nature and form have separated from each other.” On another occasion, before the monk could even open his mouth to ask a question, Rinzai hit him. When the monk protested that he had not even opened his mouth, Rinzai asked, “What is the use of waiting until you have opened your mouth?”

The monk is asking, “What about the state where we are just one? The condition in which the totality is not separated out as a separated individual?”

To separate nature (Buddha Nature) and form. People set the world up in the very way that makes it delusory. The moment they ask the question, they have already set it up in such a way that they are unable to see what is being pointed out. They  say, “I” can see “it!” and so set up an “I” (nature) in contrast to seing an “It” (form) and when they argue in this way they have already separated mind from Mind. Unity has already been broken up; the indivisible has been divided.

And you make this separation at one level or another when you are working on Who and Mu.

People ask, “What does it mean, Mu is everything?” And once they have asked that question in that way, there is already a division; they are already working within the divided state. Mu is already out there, problematic. “What does it mean,” they ask, “the no self?” What does no self mean? And there it is. It is implied that I am a self, so why are we talking about a no-self? They are falling right down into the abyss. It is the wording of the question as much as anything that creates this crevasse; that splits open this schism: ‘mu’ and ‘me,’ ‘no self’ and ‘me.’ We must break, discard this kind of questioning. It is not the kind of questioning that will lead to any depth of awareness. You must start with what is, not with what you can name as being. If there is a tendency to name, that is what we must work with. If you find yourself asking this kind of abstract, verbal, question then this is what you have to work with. What is it that is asking this kind of verbal question? But again, one must get beyond the words. What are you trying to do with this kind of question? Are you trying to protect something, avoid hard work? win some points? When you first start working on Who or Mu, it is necessary to work with words. One does this for quite a while. But eventually one gets way beyond the need to be reinforcing the question with words.

When practicing, flow with what is. This is the difficulty. This is the effort that is required. But it is quite evident that this is a new kind of effort. It is an effort which is based on faith, on the affirmation of the fact that nothing needs to be done. This is why Rinzai emphasizes it so constantly. It is the same with Dogen. Dogen was constantly coming back to this emphasis, “Nothing needs to be done.”

Start with that and then the question is, how can you infiltrate rather than how can you oppose? How can you become one with rather than how can you control?

“Followers of the Way, make no mistake; in this world and in the next there is not a thing that has a self nature nor a nature that is productive of a self.”

And you think, well, I’ve heard that before, but what does it mean? “In this world and the next there is not a thing that has a self nature.” It’s like being able to merge with a sea of serenity. Once you enter into this, it is the end of opposition.

Buddha said that his teaching was like a raft, and that when you have crossed the ocean of birth and death, you would leave the raft behind. This means that all the teaching of Buddhism is provisional. When I speak about practice and about that which surrounds practice I am not saying the truth, I am not giving the truth. What I am doing is giving a scaffolding which must later on be taken down. It’s like the expression “empty:” the whole world is empty. What we must immediately do is to see that that word itself is empty. In other words, we must not make emptiness into ‘something.’

When he says, “in this world and the next there is not a thing that has a self nature,” we must not then fixate on that.. The words of Buddha are ways of being. The Prajna Paramita is not a statement of fact. It’s a way of being.

He says, “In this world and the next, there is not a thing that has a self nature. There are just empty names, and the letters of these names are also empty.”

Just empty names. All words that we use are empty. We cannot speak the truth because the truth can’t be spoken. Zen has the saying “Don’t confuse the finger with the moon.” There are no true words; all words are empty. And so, therefore, they are provisional; they are for the time being. A master once said, “Once you have the meaning, you can throw away the word.” And in one of the sutras, Buddha says words to the effect that, “An apple is not an apple, that is why it’s called an apple”.

Rinzai says, “All that you are doing is taking these worthless names to be real. If you do this, you are making a big mistake. For though they exist, they belong in the realm of dependency and change and are like robes to be put on and taken off. There is the robe of awakening, of self, of no self. There’s the robe of knowing, the robe of Buddha, of God,” and so on. (Actually, he used other words, but we substituted them for words that are more familiar for you.)

When we talk about awakening, we are not talking about a truth. The word awakening is empty. It is provisional. If you fix on it, and make it into something, then you are a slave to it.

This is why he says, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”

Once it has become fixed, you must unfix it. We’ve got words like ‘me’ and ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘it’. Heavy words, but they are empty. They are what a master called “flowers of the air”.

Rinzai says, “The three vehicles and the twelve divisions of the teaching are so much old toilet paper.”

We would better understand what he is saying if we substituted the word bible for Buddha’s teaching. The Bible is so much toilet paper. Because the teaching that the Bible contains, or the Scriptures or the Tripitaka or whatever contains, is far more valuable than what it is written on. And the teaching that the Tripitaka and the Bible contain you already know. You are already it’s full expression. And if this is not the case then throw away that teaching. It’s simply an accretion; it’s simply something that you’re adding to yourself. You are whole and complete. Why add something? Why try to add a barnacle?

He says, “Buddha is an illusory phantom.”

Awakening is an illusory phantom. Spirituality is an illusion. Zen is an empty word as are the words ‘knowing’ and ‘being.’

He says, “The Patriarchs are all old monks.”

And that’s right, that’s what they were. The Zen paintings of the Patriarchs by Hakuin, for example, his painting of Bodhidharma, shows a scruffy old man with broken teeth, baggy eyes and a big nose. How different this is to the famous picture of Jesus with long flowing golden locks, a neatly trimmed beard, blues eyes gazing up to heaven. Hakuin’s painting makes us look through the form. And this is our practice. It’s as though we are surrounded by a lattice work of words and concepts. This lattice is so tightly woven that only very little light can come through. And somehow we have to melt it down. We don’t solve our problems, we melt them down. We dissolve them. It’s like the conjurer’s knot, you take the two ends and give the rope a hard tug and the knot vanishes.

He says, “Were you not born of parents? If you seek Buddha, you will be held in the grip of Buddha Mara. If you seek the Patriarchs, you will be bound by the ropes of the Patriarch Mara. If you seek awakening, you’ll be bound by the ropes of the awakening Mara.

Anything that you seek is going to bind you. This is why we say that when you are practicing the question is, how can you become one with whatever there is in front of you. Whatever is in front of you is already Mu. There it is! Why look for Mu? It is there. It is the same with Who. You are looking for Who am I? What am I? “Like one in water crying I thirst”! And it takes work. It takes hard struggle in order to enter into what I’m saying. It’s not something you can fall off the chair and do.

It’s like Rinzai says, “It is not that I understood from the moment I was born, but that after exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline in an instant I knew myself.”

“Exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline” Rinzai was like you and me. Just like you and me. No difference at all. He too went through sesshin after sesshin. Before he became a Zen Buddhist he was working with a Vinaya sect. It’s a sect that relies simply on discipline and moral precepts as the Way. And then he worked under Huang-Po as we know, for three years. “Exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline.” And this is the teacher that says, “There is nothing that needs to be done.” Can you understand now that it is not a question of sitting back and doing nothing. But it is to have these two perspectives, great faith and great doubt. Great faith on its own would lead eventually just to inertness. Great doubt would just lead to a frantic kind of agitation. Bring the two together, accompany it with great perseverance and you have genuine practice.

Why don’t you make up your mind, now once and for all, that no matter what comes, you will not stop this work until you reach full awakening. Why not make up your mind so that you can then get rid forever of these questions about whether the practice is, is not, cannot or whatever. When you make your vow: “The Great Way of Buddha I vow to attain”, then make it as a vow. And then at some level, whatever level, see that everything is O.K., that there is truly nothing that needs to be done, that from the beginning all beings are Buddha, from the beginning all beings are fully awake. And then make up your mind to investigate this to really know for yourself, through every pore of your being, what that means.

If you do this, then every situation that ever can arise in your life again will be your friend.

[1] Coss, Richard Reflections on the Evil Eye published in Dundes, Alan editor (1992) The Evil Eye (the University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin) p. 82.

The internet will give many other examples of the importance of eye contact between mother and baby.

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Conscious Labor and Intentional Suffering

Someone said to Nisargadatta, “All and sundry are urging me to meditate. I find no zest in meditation but I’m interested in many other things, some I want very much. And my mind goes to them. My attempts at meditation are so half-hearted. What am I to do?”

This is a complaint that many make. St-Paul said, That I would, that I do not. That I would not, that I do.” Even so, when one really enters deeply into zazen, there is the feeling of its utter rightness, a sense of, “This is what it’s all about!” And yet, the mind struggles constantly against letting go into that condition. And for many people the struggle is just too much, and they give up.

There is nothing outside us that can prevent us practicing. All the obstacles that we encounter on the way are self imposed. This does not mean that we impose them intentionally. But often, at a deep level, the mind has a tendency in one direction, while at a more superficial level it has a tendency in the opposite direction. Because the surface level is so often articulate, has a form, and because we believe that thoughts have value, the surface level seems to be reality. The deeper levels are all inarticulate ; they have no way of giving voice to their tendency.

When you are following the breath you allow these deeper aspects of the mind to have increasing influence. It is the same when one is asking, “Who am I?” One begins to see that the sense, “I am a man,” or, “I am a person” or, “I am happy,” have no real influence in life, that they do not make anything happen; then we are more prepared to listen to the deeper inarticulate voices.

Our zazen practice basically is the practice of awakening faith. Faith is knowing beyond all understanding. Understanding cannot lead us to faith. This does not mean that faith is accepting in spite of understanding, which is very often what people believe that faith indeed is. They are confusing faith with belief. Belief is being uncritically and emotionally attached to an idea. For example, one has to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead. One cannot understand that, but one has to accept it. But this is not faith at all. Another way to look at faith is to see it as living – knowing, being and acting – without support.

When you walk or talk or get out of bed in the morning, you are demonstrating faith. One does not need to understand how to sit down; one sits. One doesn’t need to understand how to eat. One doesn’t need to understand how to go to sleep. One goes to sleep. But in spite of the fact that we live in faith, and that most of what we do comes out of faith, nevertheless, we still turn to understanding for guidance.

Of course, understanding is necessary; if you are going to drive a car you have to understand how it is done, initially. Or if you are a doctor, lawyer or a teacher, understanding is necessary. But then understanding should be the tool of faith instead of being the master of faith.

When I ask, “Who walks?” or “Who talks?” it is to break through a crust of prejudices, thoughts, habits, and of wanting to grasp, or of wanting to be something. It’s an effort to break through into freedom so that you can live in faith.

Who sees the room at the moment? It’s not the eyes that see. It is not the body or brain that sees. Although these are all necessary in order to see, ‘something’ more is necessary.

Buddha asked Ananda, “If the bell stops ringing, do you stop hearing?” To hear the bell ringing requires ears and brain. But then the bell stops ringing. Do you stop hearing? If not, then who or what goes on hearing, and what is heard?

Listen to the silence. What hears the silence? Do you think if you covered up your ears you would not hear the silence? Of course you would hear it! When you close your eyes you don’t stop seeing. You see darkness or a kind of light or whatever. It’s not that you don’t see.

When you get into a deep state and for the time being thoughts are diminished or even let go of, you do not stop knowing. So what is it that hears, that sees, that knows?

I must remind you of the trap that the question, “What is it?” contains. Perhaps it would be better to ask, “How do you hear?” although that too has its problems. But “what” is asked to take you beyond the ‘what.’ It’s to push you to the point at which you ultimately see there is no what. The sound is the hearing. The silence is the hearing. The floor is the seeing. The thought is the knowing. But, again, this is not the ‘is’ of identity.

Do not yield easily! The normal response would be, “I do!” I hear, I see, or I know. Do not look for a Zenny response. This would be weakness and would destroy any possibility of real work.

Creativity is called forth by conflicts. Without tension, without conflict there is no creativity. Of course, there is always a degree of conflict so there is always a degree of creativity. You say one thing, I say the opposite. Use the tension in the conflict

If you hold your ground and say “I do,” “I walk,” “I hear,” or “I see,” and really mean it, and if, at the same time, you trust that I am talking from my own experience when I say “seeing is the wall,” then a conflict is set up and a creative solution is possible.

The conflicts of daily existence, the shocks and disasters of life, summon the deep, creative parts of life. Unfortunately, most often the creativity is given over to avoiding the pain of the situation or to establishing some new point of stability. I say unfortunately, although, of course, in life this is fortunate because we want to avoid pain, we want to have stability. It is unfortunate because if one were to enter into the conflict, then perhaps the light of creativity could reveal itself in awakening.

When you’re struggling with your koan you are struggling with a conflict of yes and no; it is in that struggle that the work is done. I ask, “What are you?” You cannot say and yet you must say. It is in that very frustration, that very inability to go forward, go back, or stay where you are, that arouses the mind. It is when that mind has been aroused because it just cannot go forward but has to go forward that one suddenly lets go of this whole tendency to try to grasp, try to seize. One opens oneself totally to faith.

This same kind of attitude can be carried into our everyday life. I heard, just the other day, of a local man, well known in Montreal as a man who is said to be deeply awakened. Somebody told me his story; it’s an interesting one. He had lost his job and he was very desperate. He was about fifty at the time and did not know how to go on. He went to an unemployment agency and the man behind the counter said to him, “Well, don’t worry! You’ll be all right. Something will turn up.” But as he went away he heard this same man turn to a colleague behind the counter and say, “That guy is finished!” It hit him so hard that he just fell into total despair. He felt so humiliated by what that man had said. He went home and locked himself in his room. He was in that state of despair and all of a sudden it all slipped away. Everything was free. I had never heard his story before, but it is a very moving one..

Zen master Kyogen was a great intellectual. He always wanted to find answers in books. When his teacher questioned him he tried to remember the answer from a book. The teacher of course kept throwing away the answers, and Kyogen kept coming back and eventually he was totally desperate and said, “This is obviously not for me, Zen is not for me.” In complete despair he went off and looked after the graves of former monks and teachers. One day as he was sweeping the pathway, a pebble sprung back and struck the stick of the broom and at that moment he came to deep awakening.

Make up your mind that your whole life is to be dedicated to awakening the faith mind. This doesn’t mean to say that you will have to do anything different to what you’re doing. It does not mean to say you’ll have to give up your work, or your family, or anything like that. But it does mean that no matter what happens you will seek the challenge rather than try to escape from the problem: boredom, difficulty, frustration, disappointment, and anguish, these are the substance of practice.

Once you have awakened the faith mind, you have come home to yourself, even if it’s just a mere flash. From then on you will be willing to open yourself to a situation without judgment or expectation.

By staying with the suffering, awareness that is dormant and passive begins to awaken and to become active. Awareness makes the difference; active awareness dissolves the knots. It is not the cleverness of a teacher, nor the magic of the practice. Throughout the ages all kinds of ways, asceticism, pilgrimages and fasting for example, have been used to bring people to active awareness. In the 21st century we do not need this. The very stress of life with its contradictory and often impossible demands, used wisely are enough to work with. When you follow the breath, just be one with the breath, just allow the breath to flow unimpeded, unaided in an out. No judgment. No expectation. No demand that things must be different. Let whatever comes up simply be. In this way you will awaken the slumbering awareness.

You are not trying to make something happen. You are not trying to come to awakening. What you are doing is you are opening yourself as sincerely as possible to whatever is. When you ask “Who am I?” you are going to the very heart of the matter, to the very core of the situation. “I” is at the point of maximum pain and tension. It is within that tension that “I” emerges as a buffer, as a kunderbuffer to use Gurdjieff’s term. It is a form of protection. As long as you are unwilling to unreservedly and unconditionally stay with the pain, frustration, boredom or anguish of life, the tyrant “I”will rule your life. But you cannot just make up your mind in a half hearted way that this is what you are going to do. Practice must be sincere. If you are in it for a cheap ride it will just be a ride in circles.

To arouse active awareness one asks, one searches: what is feeling this, what is knowing this? And your answer must be, ” I am feeling this. I know it.” What then is that ‘I’ that knows this? If asked sincerely, that means in full recognition of the meaning of the question, ‘I’ will lose some of its grip. And then there will simply be knowing the feeling. Or knowing and feeling will be one. And then there comes: “Oh I’m not that!” And there is a sliding away like the calving of an iceberg.

It is so essential that this does not turn into a technique. Do not say to yourself, “O.K. I know what to do now. Let’s go ahead and do it,” because then the tyrant takes over. Your practice must come out of a deep dissatisfaction. Things are not somehow as you feel they ought to be. Something is missing; something real is not there and that “something” is very important. You do not need to know or say what it is. It is just an ache, a hunger, anguish or whatever. This is where you must start. Eventually this practice will allow you to see into what I am describing, but you will do so in your own way, in your own time. If you simply try to take what I’m saying and apply it as a technique, you’re going ahead of yourself. You will be going into a grasping, a getting, a wanting, practice.

What brings you constantly to practice, what takes you constantly to sesshin? That feeling you have after sesshin, the sadness and disappointment, let that be your guide even though it is dark, even though it does not seem to go anywhere, even though it seems to be just stirring up the mud, go into it, let it take you home. Have faith in your suffering.

“I” is not simply false. This is the trouble. If it were simply false, it would be easy. One could chop it off. But let me remind you again what the nun said. She said, “I cannot pull up the weed…” I cannot pull up the falseness, because if I pull up the falseness, “…I pull up the flower.” And this is the problem with this sense of I. It is true and it is false, that is why we call it a monster. This is why it calls for discernment. This is why it is no good getting into a battle with it.

The Christian religion often makes this mistake. I was reading just a little while ago an interesting novel written by an ex-nun. She was talking about her experience as a nun. She was subjected to all kinds of brutal treatment. She was encouraged to be harsh on herself, and had to carry out acts of contrition of mortification. It was explained to her that she had the devil (I) and the devil had to be subdued. One sees these sad looking women on the Metro. Obviously, they have come out of convents. It is so sad to see the bitterness and pain in their faces.

No, we cannot fight “I” because we would also be fighting the truth. To say, « I-am-seeing» is true; to say «‘I’am seeing» is not. Nothing is black and white. Everything is ambiguous, every thing is right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad. It is imperative that you are at ease to some extent with ambiguity. I have written a great deal about ambiguity in various books and I hope that you have taken the trouble to read at least one or two. Bring your intelligence to bear, use the discerning power that you have, use the ‘third eye’ or ‘third ear’ that feels the truth, that discerns. Discernment is called for when you’re working with “Who am I?” or “What is Mu?” “Form is only emptiness:” you must be able to discern the truth of that, not know it or understand it.

Our problem is to extract knowing from what is known. This is by no means impossible for you. It is simple; not easy, but simple. Take whatever you are feeling at the moment; breath it in and out. Whatever you are feeling, whatever you are is it. The feeling is the known; the work is to discern the knowing. You are knowing. But you believe that you are what is known; you believe that you are the sense of self. You believe that you have a form or structure, because all that you can know are forms and structures. As a form, you can fit in with and relate to other forms and become part of a greater whole. This gives you the feeling that you are alive and a person in the world, acting and working.

But ‘I’ is illusory. It is a collection of memories, ideas and opinions held together by negative feelings. All the pain, difficulty and frustration is centered on ‘I’. ‘I’ is embedded in the magnetic center that gives it the power of endurance, stability and permanence. Because ‘I’ goes to sleep that proves it is an illusion. You go to sleep and the whole illusion dissolves. You can be in a state of utter agony not knowing which way to go, which way to turn. Then you lay down and go to sleep.

But in sleep you are aware. What is not present is memory. Surely you’ve had the experience of lying in bed early in the morning in a state where you don’t know whether you are asleep or awake. Awareness is always there, but ‘you’ are not there. Samadhi also shows the illusory nature of “I.” In samadhi there is no person, no-one. The world is just unobstructed. You can walk through walls, completely open. No person and no problems.

Be present during the day. Remember yourself. Being present, or remembering yourself, is not observing yourself. You must not simply turn into an observer. To do so is the death of a spiritual life. To observe is to separate yourself from what is observed. Even so some Zen teachers recommend becoming an observer because doing so means that you are not affected by what is happening. This enables you to maintain a pseudo calmness, an aloofness from the troubles of the world. But the price is one’s emotional life. The heart hardens, empathy dries up and one becomes increasingly isolated.

This is why I insist upon allowing the breath to breathe, And it is why I ask, “Are you following the breath? You’re not controlling the breath, are you? Or, you are not simply observing the breath?” One of the dangers with breath practice and with Shikantaza practice is that one simply observes what is happening.

We are both observers and participants in the drama of existence. This is the basic ambiguity and is at the root of our agony and ecstasy. This is the twist of existence, that we are both in the audience and on the stage at the same time. It is true that if we kill the one on the stage and just leave the one in the audience, the twist will no longer be there. But where is the life? Where is the creativity? Where is that possibility of arousing the deep mind, the deeper creative intelligence that is lying dormant? This is why we say that to just observe is the end of our spiritual life. We slip into what Zen calls the dead void or the cave of pseudo emancipation. We must beware!. By working on a koan and particularly working with a teacher you are less likely to fall into the morass.

To arouse the mind without resting on anything is the opposite of dead void sitting. It is only possible in the midst of the fire of the opposites; it is a creative flash of pure cognition, a moment of knowing without knowledge. Gurdjieff said that the ancient ways are no longer available to us. The only way left for the modern human being is the way of conscious labor and intentional suffering. I constantly stress that we must enter into the twist of existence, the deep contradiction or ambiguity if life, We must face the suffering, and we cannot escape this torment that we must past through, except by living a superficial, inauthentic life of a ghost.

Sesshin d’octobre 2002 2:7

En lisant Nisargadatta


Q: “Tout le monde m’incite à la méditation. Je n’ai aucun goût pour la méditation mais beaucoup d’autres choses éveillent mon intérêt et certaines me captivent énormément. Mon esprit va vers elles et mes efforts pour méditer manquent d’enthousiasme. Que dois-je faire?”

Je pense que plusieurs d’entre nous se plaignent de la même chose. Est-ce

St-Paul qui disait: “Je fais ce que je ne veux pas et je ne fais pas ce que je voudrais”? Une chose des plus intéressantes c’est que lorsqu’on entre vraiment profondément en zazen, il y a cette impression d’être vraiment sur la bonne voie. Il y a ce sentiment que: “Voilà ce dont il s’agit!” Et cependant, l’esprit combat constamment pour ne pas s’abandonner à la situation. Et pour plusieurs le combat est trop pénible et ils abandonnent.

Mais cette profonde reconnaissance de la justesse du zazen a beaucoup plus de réalité que le froufrou de tous nos autres intérêts. Nous avons une carpe en bas, sur la garde-robe de l’entrée; ce poisson nage à contre courrant. Et lorsque nous faisons zazen nous nageons à contre courrant de nos préjugés, de nos convictions et de nos réactions habituelles.

Il n’y a rien en dehors de nous qui peut nous empêcher d’avancer. Tous les obstacles rencontrés sur la voie nous sont imposés par nous-même. De toute évidence, ceci ne veut pas dire que nous le faisons intentionnellement. Mais très souvent nous trouvons qu’à un niveau plus profond il y a une tendance dans une direction et à un niveau plus superficiel une tendance vers la direction opposée. Et parce que, si souvent, le niveau superficiel est plus articulé, il a une forme, il est en relation avec d’autres aspects, il semble que ce niveau superficiel est tout ce qu’il y a. Une des choses qu’on réalise lorsqu’on pratique c’est que l’esprit a, en effet, plusieurs niveaux. Mais les niveaux plus profonds sont tous inarticulés. Ils n’ont aucune façon de faire connaître leur tendance.

Lorsqu’on suit la respiration par exemple, on permet à ces aspects plus profonds d’avoir une influence croissante.

C’est la même chose lorsqu’on demande “Qui suis-je?” On commence à vraiment voir que la sensation je suis un homme ou je suis une personne ou je suis heureux ou je m’ennuie ou je vais faire ceci ou je ne peux pas faire cela, toutes ces façons formelles de penser, penser en pure forme, sans vraiment un contenu profond, lorsqu’on commence à réaliser que les pensées n’ont aucune influence réelle dans la vie, qu’elles n’ont aucune capacité de faire que les choses arrivent, alors on est plus réceptif pour écouter les voix plus profondes et inarticulées.

Notre pratique à la base est la pratique d’éveiller la foi. Il y a un texte très connu, (pas exactement un sutra mais il en a le statut dans le Zen) qui s’appelle “L’Eveil de la Foi”. Et il y a aussi les fameux vers du 3e patriarche, “Poèmes sur l’Esprit de Foi”. En chinois, le mot pour esprit est aussi le mot pour coeur. Donc en réalité c’est un poème sur l’Esprit du Coeur. Et c’est cet Esprit du Coeur que nous éveillons.

La foi c’est connaître au delà de toute compréhension. La compréhension ne peut pas nous mener à cette foi. Il faut être prudent et ne pas interpréter ce que je dis comme: “la foi c’est accepter sans comprendre”. C’est souvent, en effet, ce que les gens croient qu’est la foi . Non, ce n’est pas accepter sans comprendre comme par exemple l’idée que Jésus est ressucité des morts. On ne peut comprendre cela mais on doit l’accepter. C’est un article de foi. Et tout le reste de ces supposés miracles. Nous devons les accepter. Ceci n’est pas du tout de la foi. C’est simplement un moyen de contrôler.

Mais lorsque vous marchez et parlez, ceci est au delà de la compréhension. On n’a pas besoin de comprendre comment s’asseoir. On s’assoie. On n’a pas besoin de comprendre comment manger. On n’a pas besoin de comprendre comment s’endormir. On s’endort. Une énorme démonstration de foi! Mais en dépit du fait que nous vivons dans la foi, (quelqu’un a dit que les poissons vivent dans l’eau, les oiseaux vivent dans l’air et les humains vivent dans la foi) en dépit du fait que nous vivons toute notre vie dans la foi , que presque tout ce que nous faisons provient de la foi, néanmoins, nous nous tournons quand même vers cette compréhension pour nous guider.

Bien sûr, la compréhension est nécessaire si nous allons conduire une voiture, on doit comprendre comment le faire. Initialement. Ou si on veut faire du pain, on doit comprendre comment le faire. Ou si on est un médecin ou un avocat ou un professeur, la compréhension alors est nécessaire. Mais la compréhension doit être l’outil de la foi alors qu’elle est maintenant devenue la maîtresse de la foi. Et c’est là le sujet de notre pratique.

Quand je dis: “Qui marche?” ou “Qui parle?” c’est pour briser cette croûte des préjugés et des pensées, des habitudes, du vouloir agripper, du vouloir être quelque chose. C’est un effort pour vous faire pénétrer cette liberté que vous êtes essentiellement.

De même, lorsqu’on vous demande des questions telles que: “Quelle couleur êtes-vous?” Ceci, encore une fois, est un effort pour briser cette fermeture d’esprit qui vient de l’insistance à comprendre.

N: “Demandez-vous à qui tout ceci arrive.”

Qui est-ce qui entend ma voix à l’instant? Ce ne sont pas les oreilles qui entendent. Ce n’est pas le corps qui entend. Ce n’est pas l’esprit qui entend. Bien que tout cela soit nécessaire pour que entendre soit possible.

De même, qui est-ce qui voit le zendo, le plancher devant vous? Les yeux ne voient pas. Sans les yeux on ne peut pas voir le plancher mais ça ne veut pas dire que sans les yeux on ne peut voir.

Il y a cette fameuse question du Bouddha: “Si la cloche cesse de sonner, est-ce que vous cessez d’entendre?”

Entendre la cloche sonner nécessite des oreilles, un cerveau et tout le reste. Mais pour entendre est-ce qu’il est besoin de tout ça? Qui ou quoi entend alors? Je demande souvent aux gens d’écouter le silence. Faites le maintenant!

Qu’est-ce qui entend le silence?

Pensez-vous que si vous vous bouchez les oreilles vous n’entendrez pas le silence?

Bien sûr que vous l’entendrez! Quand vous fermez les yeux, vous ne cessez pas de voir. Vous voyez la noirceur ou une sorte de lumière ou quoi que ce soit. Ce n’est pas que vous ne voyez pas.

C’est comme lorsque vous atteignez un état profond et que pour le moment les pensées diminuent ou même cessent; vous ne cessez pas de connaître. Alors qu’est-ce qui entend, qui voit, qui connaît?

Encore une fois, bien sûr, nous devons vous avertir ou vous rappeler le piège que contient la question “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Peut-être serait-il mieux de demander: “Comment se fait-il que vous entendiez?

Mais le quoi est dit dans le but de vous conduire au-delà du quoi. C’est pour vous pousser au point où, ultimement, vous voyez qu’il n’y a aucun quoi. Le bruit c’est entendre. Le silence c’est entendre. Le plancher c’est voir. La pensée c’est connaître. Mais, encore une fois, ce n’est pas le ‘est’ de l’identité.

N: “Demandez-vous à qui tout ceci arrive. Utilisez tout comme une opportunité pour plonger en vous-même.”

Utilisez tout! Faites vous à l’idée que toute votre vie doit être la pratique. Que la sesshin est simplement une intensification de la pratique; ce n’est pas une sorte particulière de pratique. Que le zazen est une intensification de la pratique. Que la vie est la pratique.

Nous avons dit que c’est dans la confusion et les conflits que la créativité est appelée à se manifester. C’est presque comme le positif et le négatif de l’électricité qui produit le courant. Vous poussez un bouton et vous ouvrez le courant qui passe d’une borne positive à une borne négative. Quelque chose comme çà. Sans cette tension, sans ce conflit il n’y a pas de créativité. Evidemment, il y a toujours un certain degré de conflit donc, en autant que la vie est concernée, il y a toujours un degré de créativité. Peut-être que dans le sommeil profond ceci ne serait pas exact mais par ailleurs ça l’est.

De toute façon, c’est dans les conflits de l’existence journalière, c’est dans les chocs de la vie, c’est dans les désastres de la vie que cette partie profonde de nous-même est appelée à se manifester. Malheureusement, le problème se résoud, une nouvelle création apparaît, un nouveau point de stabilité est trouvé. Je dis malheureusement malgré que, bien sûr, dans la vie c’est heureux. C’est ce que nous voulons mais c’est malheureux parce que si c’était possible d’entrer dans le processus même alors il serait possible que cette lumière de la créativité se révèle à nous.

Et c’est là qu’une sesshin devient quelque chose de spécial. Quand vous luttez avec votre koan, c’est dans cette lutte que le travail est contenu. C’est dans la frustration même, dans cette inabilité à avancer, reculer ou rester sur place que se trouve l’éveil de cet esprit. C’est lorsque cet esprit a été éveillé parce qu’il ne peut tout simplement pas avancer, mais il doit avancer, que soudainement on laisse aller toute cette tendance à essayer d’agripper ou de saisir. On s’ouvre totalement à ce que j’ai appelé la foi.

Cette même sorte d’attitude peut se transposer dans notre vie de tous les jours. On nous a parlé récemment d’un homme de la région; il est bien connu ici à Montréal comme une personne profondément éveillé. Quelqu’un m’a raconté son histoire. Elle est très intéressante. Il avait perdu son travail et était très désespéré. Il avait environ 50 ans à cette époque et ne savait pas comment poursuivre. Il se présenta dans un bureau d’assurance emploi et apparemment l’homme derrière le comptoir lui dit:”Bien, il ne faut pas vous inquièter. Ça ira très bien pour vous. Quelque chose se présentera.” Mais alors qu’il quittait il entendit ce même homme dire à son collègue derrière le comptoir: “Cet homme est fini!” Ça l’a tellement frappé qu’il tomba dans un profond désespoir. Il se sentait tellement humilié par ce que cet homme avait dit. Il rentra chez lui et s’enferma à clef dans sa chambre. Il était dans un tel état de désespoir et tout d’un coup tout s’est envolé. Tout était libre. Comme je disais, il est bien connu et les gens me parlent souvent de lui. Je ne connaissais pas son histoire qui est très touchante.

Souvenez-vous de Kyogen. C’était un grand intellectuel. Il courait toujours pour essayer de vérifier les choses dans les livres. Lorsque son maître le questionnait il essayait de trouver les réponses dans les livres. Le maître évidemment, refusait continuellement ses réponses mais il revenait sans cesse et éventuellement il devint complètement désespéré et dit: “Ceci n’est évidemment pas pour moi. Le zen n’est pas pour moi.” Alors il partit et commença à s’occuper d’un cimetière où se trouvaient les dépouilles d’anciens moines et de maîtres. Et un jour pendant qu’il balayait le sentier, un petit caillou rebondit et frappa le baton du balai et à ce moment il s’éveilla profondément. Ce fut de son désespoir, de sa complète inaptitude, de l’obscurité dans laquelle il était plongé que ce moment put surgir.

Maintenant, je ne dis pas qu’il faut être désespéré pour s’éveiller. Certain ne le sont pas. Mais ce que je dis, c’est qu’on ne peut pas dire que cette sorte de situation est un empêchement de quelque sorte à la pratique.

N: “Utilisez tout…”

Faites vous à l’idée que votre vie entière sera dédiée à, non pas la pratique du zen mais à ce que nous pouvons appelé pour l’instant, la pratique spirituelle, l’éveil de l’esprit de foi.

Ceci ne veut pas dire que vous devrez faire quelque chose de différent de ce que vous faites déjà. Ça ne veut pas dire que vous devrez quitter votre travail ou votre famille ou quoi que ce soit. Mais ça veut dire que votre attitude envers quoi qu’il arrive sera une attitude de chercher les défits plutot que de chercher à éviter les problèmes. Et, bien sûr, ceci n’est pas quelque chose dont vous iriez ensuite discuter avec les gens. On ne parle pas de cela avec les autres parce que ça c’est l’attitude du héros et le zen n’a ni le temps ni la place pour les héros.

N: “Utilisez tout comme une opportunité pour plonger en vous-même.”

Et cet ennui, cette difficulté, cette frustration, ce désapointement, cette angoisse, utilisez tout!

N: “Eclairez votre chemin en brûlant les obstacles dans l’intensité de l’attention (awareness).”

Voyez-vous, une fois que l’esprit de foi est éveillé, une fois que vous êtes rentré à l’intérieur de vous-même, même si ce n’est qu’un simple éclair, à partir de là, cette volonté de s’ouvrir à la situation, sans jugement ou attente, augmente.

Et ce qu’il dit au sujet de brûler les obstacles dans l’intensité de l’attention vient directement de sa propre expérience. C’est comme ça. Beaucoup de gens ont pu s’en rendre compte.

Ceci, d’une certaine façon, est vraiment ce que fait la psychothérapie lorsqu’elle est bien faite. Ce qu’on fait en tant que thérapeute, c’est d’amener les gens, de toutes sortes de façons, à être attentifs à ce qui les trouble. C’est l’attention qui fera la différence. C’est l’attention qui va dissoudre les noeuds. Ce n’est pas la sagacité du psychothérapeute. Et ceci c’est simplement suivre la respiration, être simplement un avec la respiration. Il n’y a pas de jugement. Il n’y a pas d’attente. Il n’y a pas d’exigence que les choses soient autrement.

Et de même avec “Qui?” ou “Mu?” Vous n’essayez pas de susciter un évènement. Vous n’essayez pas de devenir “éveillé”. Ce que vous faites, c’est vous ouvrir à tout ce qui est, aussi intensément que possible.

Et lorsque nous demandons: “Qui suis-je?” nous allons vers le noeud même de la situation, au coeur même de la situation. “Je” est à l’endroit où il y a le maximum de douleur et de tension. C’est à l’intérieur de cette tension que “je” émerge comme une sorte de bouclier, comme une sorte de façon de chercher protection, sécurité ou comfort. Et dissoudre cela puis entrer dans la confusion sous-jacente, ou la difficulté ou quoi que ce soit, dissoudre cela puis aller au-delà, çà c’est la voie de notre pratique. Mais vous ne pouvez pas prendre la décision que c’est ce que vous allez faire. C’est ce que nous disons, la pratique doit être sincère. Si on pense faire une balade gratuite, on fera juste tourner en ronds.

N: “Lorsqu’il vous arrive d’avoir des désirs ou des peurs, ce ne sont pas les désirs ou les peurs qui sont faux et doivent disparaître mais la personne qui désire et qui a peur.”

En d’autres mots, c’est le “je”. Qui est-ce qui désire? Qui est-ce qui a peur?

Ce “je” est comme un monstre. Si vous avez jamais eu de l’intérêt pour l’alchimie et les sciences occultes, vous savez que les monstres sont quelque chose comme lorsque vous avez un corps de lion avec une tête de dragon ou quelque chose comme ça.

Et le “je” est comme un amalgame. Nous avons parlé de connaître et il y a la matière ou le cerveau ou ce que vous voulez l’appeler. C’est le monstre. C’est ce qui doit être discerné. Lorsqu’on fait ce genre de travail, lorsqu’on permet à ce qui est d’être là, mais cherchant à l’aide de la question “Qui suis-je?” par exemple, alors apparaît…. bien, ça peut-être un profond gémissement, un sens profond de lourdeur à l’intérieur de nous, l’impression de n’être vraiment plus capable de continuer. C’est quelque chose d’automatique, c’est quelque chose qui est incrusté, pour ainsi dire, dans la personnalité. C’est une des façons par lesquelles on reconnaît que l’on est. C’est ceci qui nous réconforte, même si c’est un réconfort lourd et douloureux, un fardeau. C’est préférable au vide. Sans cela nous avons peur, qu’en effet, nous ne serions plus rien.

Mais on questionne, on cherche. Qu’est-ce qui a cette sensation? Qui connaît cela? Et la première chose qui se présente c’est: “je” suis ce qui a cette sensation. “Je” suis ce qui connait. Et l’on entre dans cela tout en continuant à suivre l’inspiration et l’expiration. Quel est ce “je” qui connait? Et alors le “je” perdra un peu de son emprise. Puis il y aura seulement la connaissance de la lourdeur. Ou plutot, on pourrait dire que c’est vraiment comme connaître et lourdeur étant presque la même chose. Et puis apparaît ce: “Oh, je ne suis pas cela!” Puis il y a comme une glissade, comme un iceberg se séparant de la masse de glace polaire.

Maintenant, lorsque je fais cette description, il est essentiel que ceci ne soit pas compris comme une technique à utiliser. On dit: “O.K. Je sais comment faire maintenant. Allons-y et mettons ceci en pratique.”

Tout vient de cette insatisfaction profonde. Il y a cette profonde insatisfaction. Les choses ne sont pas comme elles devraient être, pensons-nous. Il manque quelque chose. Il manque quelque chose de réelle, d’important. On n’est même pas obligé d’être capable d’articuler cela aussi bien. C’est juste qu’il y a cette douleur, cette faim, ce quelque chose. C’est là d’où il faut partir. Eventuellement ceci vous permettra de voir dans ce que nous décrivons mais à votre propre façon, au moment qui conviendra. Si vous essayez de prendre ce que je dis et de l’appliquer vous vous devancez vous-même. Cela devient du désir, de l’avidité. Ouvrez-vous à cet initial…. ce qui vous amène constamment à la pratique; ce qui vous amène constamment en sesshin. Ce sentiment que vous éprouvez après une sesshin, cette tristesse, ce désapointement, cette sensation qu’il y a encore cela, c’est encore là! C’est encore là! Entrez dans cela. Laissez cela être votre guide, même si c’est obscur, même si ça semble allez nulle part, même si ça semble n’être qu’un brassage de boue, entrez dedans, laissez le vous emmener à la maison. Ayez foi en votre souffrance!

N: “Mais la personne qui désire et a peur doit disparaître. Ça n’a aucun sens de combattre les désirs et les peurs qui peuvent être parfaitement naturels et justifiés. C’est la personne qui est ébranlée par eux qui est la cause des fautes passées et présentes. Cette personne doit être examinée attentivement et sa fausseté démasquée. Alors ce sera la fin de son pouvoir sur vous.

Mais ce n’est pas simplement faux. Ce “je” est un monstre comme nous avons dit. Il n’est pas simplement faux. La difficulté est là. Si c’était seulement faux ce serait facile, on pourrait l’amputer. Mais laissez-moi vous rappeler de nouveau ce que disait la religieuse: “Je ne peux arracher la mauvaise herbe… (Je ne peux arracher la fausseté) …parce que si je le fais, j’arracherai la fleur.”

C’est ça le problème avec le “je”. C’est vrai et c’est faux.

C’est la raison pour laquelle on l’appelle un monstre. C’est pourquoi il faut du discernement. C’est pourquoi il est inutile d’engager une bataille avec ce “je”. Vous avez ça beaucoup dans certaines religions comme… je lisais dernièrement un roman très intéressant écrit par une ancienne religieuse. Elle raconte son expérience comme religieuse pendant laquelle elle a connu toutes sortes de situations vraiment brutales. On l’encourageait même à être brutale envers elle-même. Elle dut accomplir des actes de pénitence et d’auto mortification. On lui avait expliqué que le démon la possédait et qu’il devait être subjugué.

Ça ne vaut rien! On voit souvent ces pauvres femmes dans les environs. De toute évidence elle sont sorti du couvent. Il est si triste de voir l’amertume et la souffrance dans leur figure.

Non, nous ne pouvons pas combattre ce “je” parce que nous combattons la vérité d’une certaine façon. C’est la raison de l’utilisation des koans, c’est la raison de toute cette chose, cette nature paradoxale. Ce n’est pas simplement blanc ou noir. Tout est ambigüe, tordu, vrai/faux, oui/non, bon/mauvais.

Et c’est pourquoi on a besoin de ce que j’appelle l’intelligence. On a besoin de mettre son intelligence au travail, son pouvoir de discernement, ce sens que … ce troisième oeil ou troisième oreille, comme je l’appelle, qui sonde, qui discerne. Et c’est ce discernement dont vous avez besoin lorsque vous travaillez avec “Qui suis-je?” ou “Qu’est-ce que Mu?” Ce “la forme n’est que vide”. On doit être capable de le discerner, non pas le connaître ou le comprendre.

N: “Cette personne doit être examinée attentivement et sa fausseté démasquée.”

La fausseté est dévoilée quand vous voyez: “Je ne suis pas cela!” Le “Je suis” est extrait du “cela”. Le “Je suis” …. c’est ce que je veux dire quand je dis: “C’est comme extraire un brin d’herbe, une tige d’herbe de sa gaine”. C’est extraire le “connaître” de ce qui est connu.

Et nous ne sommes pas en train d’essayer d’en faire une sorte de situation impossible pour vous. C’est très simple. Pas facile, mais simple.

Vous prenez ce qui est là pendant que vous êtes assis et vous inspirez et expirez; quoi que ce soit, où que vous soyiez, c’est cela. Et, si vous voulez, c’est un amalgame de ce que j’appelle connaître et matière ou appellons-le être. Ce qu’il faut c’est discerner le “connaître” dans cela. Et ce n’est pas impossible parce que c’est ce que vous êtes.

Mais vous croyez que vous êtes quelque chose au-delà de cela. Vous croyez que l’aspect “être”, l’aspect formel, l’aspect structure est ce que vous êtes parce qu’il y a une sorte de réalité, un sorte de définition. Et c’est cette définition, cette aptitude à se conjuguer avec d’autres choses et à devenir une partie d’un plus grand tout et ainsi de suite qui nous donne l’impression d’être vivant et une personne dans le monde qui agit et tout le reste.

Mais c’est le discernement, ce que Gurdjieff appelle “séparer le grossier du raffiné”. C’est ce que les alchimistes appellait “distiller l’élixir”. C’est changer les détritus de la confusion, la “massa confusa” en or.

N: “Après tout, il disparait (la personne, le ‘je’) chaque fois que vous vous endormez.”

En d’autres mots, toute cette sensation de douleur, de difficulté, de frustration et de perte, tout ça est centré sur le “je”. “Je” lui donne le centre magnétique qui lui donne le pouvoir de durabilité, de stabilité et de permanence. Ce “je” s’endort et le tout est dissout.

On peut être dans un état de complète agonie ne sachant pas quel côté aller, quel côté se tourner puis on se couche et on s’endort. Les soldats s’endorment au milieu d’une bataille.

N: “Dans le sommeil profond vous n’êtes plus une personne consciente d’elle-même et malgré cela vous êtes vivant.”

Et, bien sûr, vous êtes présent (aware). Ce qui n’est pas présent, c’est la mémoire.

Vous ne vous rappellez pas mais sûrement vous avez eu cette expérience lors d’une période de repos, si vous aviez travaillé très dur et vous prenez un repos, vous êtes allongé sur le lit et vous êtes dans cet état où l’on ne sait pas très bien si on est endormi ou éveillé. Et puis vous allez plus profond.

La présence est toujours là.

Vous avez une mère et son petit enfant. Elle s’endort profondément, le petit se retourne dans son lit et la mère est éveillée. Pourquoi est-ce ainsi? Comment est-ce ainsi?

Il y a eu, il y a peu de temps, peut-être vous rappellez-vous avoir lu dans le journal, cet homme qui tué sa belle-mère pendant qu’il dormait. Et il s’en est tiré!

Alors si vous voulez tuer… Bon, passons.

N: “Quand vous êtes vivant et conscient mais vous n’êtes plus conscient de vous-même, vous n’êtes plus une personne.”

Peut-être avez-vous connu des états de samadhi. C’est exactement la même chose. Le monde est sans obstacles. Vous pouvez passer à travers les murs, c’est complètement ouvert. Pas de personne et pas de problèmes. Vous n’avez plus un soucis au monde. Alors on connaît la vraie béatitude.

N: “Pendant les heures de veille vous êtes … “

Côté B

Ce qu’il dit c’est regardez-vous comme étant en train de jouer sur la scène de la vie. Mais pour moi, ceci n’est pas un bon conseil. Ce n’est pas comme ça que ça doit être. On ne doit pas devenir simplement un observateur. En fait, ceci est vraiment la fin d’une vie spirituelle si l’on devient simplement un observateur. Et c’est possible. C’est pourquoi les gens sont sans doute fatigués à mourir de m’entendre leur demander s’ils suivent la respiration. Vous ne contrôler pas la respiration n’est-ce pas? Ou, vous n’êtes pas simplement en train d’observer la respiration, n’est-ce pas? Parce que ceci est un des grands dangers, particulièrement dans la pratique de la respiration et par dessus tout dans la pratique du Shikantaza que de simplement observer ce qui se passe.

Il y a une certaine sorte de pratique Vipassana qui encourage cette sorte de chose. On est incité a nommer ce qui vient à la surface telle que pensées, pensées ou colère, colère etc. En d’autres mots, on se sépare de la chose.

Il y a un livre très populaire (en fait, plusieurs personnes voulaient m’en donner un exemplaire) dans lequel cette femme prône actuellement ceci comme une pratique Zen. Et elle dit que vous ne serez pas aussi facilement troublé par les difficultés de la vie. Et ceci est vraie. Si on devient un observateur, si on voit cela simplement comme un spectacle alors on n’est pas dérangé. Mais en même temps il n’en reste rien. Ça devient comme un western hollywoodien dans lequel tout est apparence et rien en profondeur.

Nous sommes à la fois observateur et participant dans le drame de l’existence. Et c’est ce qui nous gêne. C’est précisément là qu’est le noeud de l’existence, être dans l’audience et sur la scène en même temps. Et il est vraie que si on tue la personne sur la scène et qu’on est seulement la personne dans l’audience, alors, ce noeud n’est plus là. Mais où est la vie? Où est la créativité? Où est cette possibilité d’éveiller l’esprit profond? Cet esprit profond et créatif, cette intelligence créative qui somnole? C’est pourquoi nous disons que c’est la fin de notre vie spirituelle. C’est ça que dans le zen on appelle un “vide mort” ou “la caverne de la pseudo émancipation” et nous devons nous en méfier.

Si vous travaillez avec un koan et particulièrement avec un maître, ceci sera quelque chose qu’il surveillera particulièrement. Les gens n’aiment pas ça mais nous matraquons ceux qui s’embourbent dans de telles situations parce que c’est la fin.

N: “Vous insistez toujours sur l’aspect cognitif de la réalité. Vous mentionnez rarement l’affection et jamais la volonté.”

Q: “La volonté, l’affection, la béatitude, l’effort et le plaisir sont si profondément entachés du personnel qu’on ne peut leur faire confiance.”

Vous savez, Gurdjieff disait que la voie ancienne de la foi, l’espérance et la charité n’est plus disponible pour nous. Et il disait que la seule voie qui reste à l’être humain moderne est la voie de la conscience. Et ce dont il parlait c’est ce que nous disons constamment, cette reconnaissance de l’ambigüité, du noeud, du dilemme. Il faut faire face; on ne peut échapper à ces tourments par lesquels nous devons passer.

Et cette personne lorsqu’elle parle de l’affection et de la volonté etc, pense à cette sorte de spiritualité plus élevée dont on entend très souvent parler, l’amour etc…

N: “La clarification et la purification nécessaire au début du voyage, seulement l’attention (awareness) peut les procurer.”

Et le début du voyage, en effet, c’est jusqu’à ce que vous ayiez eu trois éveils. C’est toujours le début du voyage. Nous sommes toujours au début. N’arrivez jamais plus loin que le début. Mais ce qu’il dit est tellement vraie. C’est l’éveil de cet esprit, l’éveil de ce “connaître”. Qu’est-ce que connaître? Qu’est-ce que la présence? C’est là où nous commençons et, vraiment, là où nous finissons.

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Knowing the unknowable

Is everything knowable? Scientists claim that everything in principle can be known. That means to say that although there is the unknown, it still can, if the circumstances are right, be known. However, what makes the known possible? It cannot be more of what is known. What makes experience possible? It cannot be more experience; more experience can widen, enrich, contradict or qualify experience, but it cannot create experience. So what can create the known? It is the unknowable and you are unknowable. As long as you believe that you can eventually know what you are, or know what Mu is, then you will be perpetually walking around in the prison ground of conceptual ideas. This is the great challenge, this is the great impossibility. How can we go beyond, how can we make that leap, from ‘I am something’ to ‘I am’, from the known to the unknowable? We call that leap ‘kensho’ and those who have made that leap could be called realized people. However, we do not leap from here to there. We leap from here to here.

So what exactly is that leap? This really is a question you should ask yourself: what does the leap mean? It is the same question as “Who am I?” or, better still, “ What is my face before my parents were born?”   If you are really asking this question, it is no good to remain within the possible. It is no use at all looking for a technique, a way, a method, a teaching – there are no paths to the top of the mountain: every step that you take goes down.. Many people when they hear this drop their hands and say “Oh what is the point….”

You are the unknowable. That is your true nature. Any attempt to know your true nature moves you away; or, another way to put it, sullies your true nature. It is so essential for your practice to realize this. You must start with the faith, “I am the unknowable.” As long as you want to stay within the possible, within the known, you are giving yourself an impossible task. It is not necessary to say that you are the unknowable. That is gilding the lily. It is not even necessary to say I am. That you are is enough.

As the Diamond sutra tells us, “There are no distinctive marks of Tathagata (an awakened person).” This is important, not simply as an answer to, “How will I recognize a person who is realized?” it also must qualify what you are doing in your own practice. Many people think that an awakened person is in some way a superior person, someone who has got on the inside track of truth, that somehow there is something special about an awakened person. And people have this idea, not because of the teacher or the awakened person, but because they themselves want to be unique; they are practising in order to have distinguishing marks so that other people will recognize their brilliance. This need to be unique, need to be special, need to be someone––very often it is accompanied with the need to be superior–– is a curse of life. I say it is a curse of life because it does not only pertain to human beings, but it pertains to animals also, the alpha complex, the need to be unique. This need is so widespread. It underlies wars and revolutions, divorces and murder, as well most other conflicts and misunderstandings.

It is made obvious by nationalisms. All nations claim they are unique. For example, a short while ago Quebec wanted the fact of its uniqueness written into the Canadian constitution; currently in American politics a politician who does not subscribe to the idea of ‘American ‘exceptionalism’ will not get far as a politician. However Canada is unique because I say it is unique, and I say it because I am a unique person. I bestow my uniqueness on Canada. I bestow it not only on Canada, but on my religion, my family, even the hockey team that I follow. My being unique, special, is something that is constantly part of my experience. And it has to be rooted out, this is the great impediment, this is the obstacle to a real life.

One of the difficulties with being unique is that we want to be it in such a way that we do not have to affirm it. We want to be special, but we do not want to make any kind of overt gesture towards being so. If I have to assert my uniqueness, it means that it is in doubt and indicates that I am no longer unique. My uniqueness has to be taken totally for granted. It is not at all unusual for people to deny that they feel unique. Their uniqueness is unquestioned, it is absolute. This means that when we are practising, our uniqueness is extremely difficult to work with, particularly on a sesshin when there is no-one who is challenging us, no-one to make uniqueness surge up.

Our claim to be unique is why humiliation is such a wonderful medicine if you are really practicing, because the act of humiliating us challenges and overthrows for the moment our certainty of being unique. Even so, as you know, if you really work on yourself, to be humiliated can be extremely painful. On a sesshin, you are not humiliated very much, although some people do find coming to dokusan humiliating. But during everyday life, we are given abundant opportunities to see into the need to be unique. When this happens, be aware; if you become angry, become angry, but feel the pain of the anger, the remorse, the regret. Do not make excuses, to not make promises about future anger, do not criticize yourself, and above all do not blame the other person. Each time you are able to do this, you erode more of the ego or sense of self. A chapter on humility that was written by Hubert Benoit is essential reading if you are going to work with humiliation. If you do not have access to this chapter please send me an e-mail and I will send it to you.

You are unknowable but you live your life as the known, as the unique sense of self. The sense of self is but a set of habits based upon a set of memories. These habits are ways of reacting to situations, and these habits are very deeply ingrained. They have been ingrained, some say, since time immemorial; that we are carrying over our karma, or if you like, the ingrained habits of many lives.

An awakening, even if it is a deep awakening, is not going to shake this castle of concepts and structures and habits very profoundly. Remember that Hakuin, on his awakening tells us, “My pride soared up like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself: ‘In the past two or three hundred years no one could have accomplished such a marvellous break-through as this.’” The sense of self, because it is so well known and familiar, is taken to be precious, so much so that I say that I am the sense of self. Most people who are practicing even search into it to find true self. Even so the sense of self is unnecessary. It is a burden that you carry much as a bag lady carries her precious belongings. One must question this sense of self, at the very core of which lies, festering in the dark, uniqueness.

The struggle to get to know and to go beyond the sense of self is the primary task for any one who seriously practices Zen. The primary task is not to come to awakening. Awakening is a great help in the struggle. Some say that it is essential. But the sense of self is like a cancer that sucks the very life and vitality out of life as is evident in so many people who are exhausted on the treadmills of fame and gain all in the service of their enemy.

The only way to struggle with the sense of self is by being constantly aware of its workings. Life gives us a constant array of possibilities for working with it. For example, you are in a queue and someone pushes in front of you; a motorist blasts you with the car’s horn; or someone steals your purse. Be aware of your reaction.   But you must be willing, ready and alert. The sense of self thrives in the darkness of inadvertence, in the darkness of forgetfulness and ignorance. Shine the light of awareness on to it. Do not analyze what is happening, do not delve into the past for reasons, and above all do not blame others for your suffering. No one can hurt you but yourself.

This work is the work of a lifetime. Impatience, particularly impatience with the practice, is but an expression of “I am important! Why should I have to wait for kensho!” Love the practice, love it as you would love a saviour. Be intent on the process, never mind the result.

Awakening itself is not enough to root out the malignancy. This is why we work on subsequent koans. By passing the first koan, we make a hole in the screen that is apparently separating us from true self, and subsequent koans help enlarge that hole. But it is also said that ending your koan practice is just the beginning of real practise. As Dogen said, “There is no beginning to practice or end to awakening, there is no beginning to awakening or end to practice.” See this as a lifetime’s work, not as something that you are trying to get through, get done with so that you can get on with your life. As long as you have that attitude then you are in hurry and as long as you are in hurry you are wasting your time. Patience is of the utmost virtue in practice, the patience to be what you are.

Only the personality can be recognized, and the personality is built up because I constantly ignore the truth that I am. The habit patterns of the personality are ways of reassuring myself that I am. You must have known times when you have been in a state of utter confusion, utter panic. Then you grasped at anything, anything at all, as a way of reassurance. They say a drowning person clutches at a straw and that is true also of a person in an utter state of confusion. And that straw, because it rescued you from the jaws of hell, becomes like reinforced concrete, another big block in the development of the personality. If at the moment of being in extreme panic you could go with it, you would disappear into the arms of your own true nature. The panic is a fear that indeed you are going to disappear and so you fight against salvation.

An awakened person does not make any claims, grandiose or otherwise. You can be sure that all who proclaim their own greatness and uniqueness are not awakened. Unfortunately, there have been in America a number of teachers who have abused the trust of their students and have pretended to have certain unique powers. Much of this has been aimed simply at seducing the students. It is a terrible, terrible misuse of trust.

The problem is that on the way we can encounter many mysterious and striking experiences. The student mistakes one of these for awakening and then has his or her mistake confirmed to be authentic by a teacher who is not awakened and lacks any authority at all. We do have remarkable experiences – and I am not saying these remarkable experiences do not have their value––but if one clings to them, if one makes something of them, then they are simply another concrete block put into this personality. We must always keep in mind Dogen’s response when asked what he attained from his travels in China: “I walk on my own feet, I see through my own eyes.”

When we are practicing, we might have another kind of experience: the experience of just being ordinary, inconsequential, even perhaps feel that we are a failure. It is not unusual to have this feeling of being ordinary, both on and off sesshin. Often we react with a certain amount of dismay, or with a feeling of having taken a wrong turning. “I have practiced a long time and I am not special. I have to do something about it, my practice has not given me anything, I am just another ordinary person.” This is not an unusual experience. And these are moments to slide into like a thief in the night, just be with that feeling, and be thoroughly, thoroughly ordinary.

We hear about transmission, indeed there is a special ceremony called Inka in which transmission occurs. People sometimes ask whether awakening can be directly transmitted to another. When I first started reading Zen, and read mondos telling of a disciple asking a question and the master replying and the monk coming to awakening I thought, “Gee, that is good, I just have to find the right teacher because he or she will be able to say bingo or whatever it is and I will be awakened!” However in the Dhamapada it says, “By oneself evil is done; by oneself one suffers. By oneself evil is undone. No-one can purify another.” It is worth mentioning that Nisargadatta says the opposite. He says, “Yes, it can. The words of an awakened person have the power of dispelling ignorance and darkness in the mind. It is not the words that matter, but the power behind them.”

However it is not so much the power behind them; it is your readiness. This is why listening to a teisho is a form of meditation. One is very much there, very present, alert, but not in a judgmental way, not in a way by which one filters what is coming through. This obviously is where a teacher must have great integrity and be talking simply from his or her own awakening. But once that is established, once you are allowing the present moment to be, then it is possible for something to be said which somehow sparks a cognitive flash. You do not know what it is – you simply know that it is right. Don’t search to try to find what is just right, don’t try to put it into words. Once you see this “ah yes” it has done its work, it has already lit up part of the darkness. To try to grab it, to try to do something about it, adds another block.

Some people leave the practice after years of practice and feel that they are a failure. By this they mean that they have not attained anything, that they have not attained awakening. They believe that attainment must be manifest; that others must be able to see what has been attained in order to be successful in practice. This is a very common complaint. People come into the dokusan room and say, “I have practiced for a long time, everything is still the same, I have got nothing from my practice.” What is it that they are trying to get? What is it that they want? What is it above all that will satisfy them? I said right at the beginning of this article that an awakened person has no distinguishing marks. So how can we practice for years in the hope of some distinguishing marks?

Regrettably, very regrettably, most people practice Zen in order to have their uniqueness recognized and enhanced. Many people, as I said before, look upon awakening as awakening to their true brilliance. Because nothing has happened, no confirmation of the light that should be shining out of the center of their forehead has been given, they say the practice is no good. This is such a shame, such a waste.

I have said many times that one must start off with the faith “I am”. It is a very simple opening. It is very simple – I am. You don’t need to say the words. Just to be. If one really just is – it is very often accompanied by a feeling of wonder. Ah! Just to be comes sometimes as something of a shock. During Workshops you sometimes get the beginner’s mind. You’ll get one or two people star struck – you can see they are walking around in a daze because they have suddenly realized “I am!” and it is a total revelation to them.

So unless we start here, I am, we are going essentially to try to find something with our practice, try to get something from it. Yet nothing, nothing is comparable to opening to the truth “I am!” Anything else is simply a shadow cast by the light of being. Our practice is: opening to what I am already. “From the beginning, all beings are Buddha.” The problem is that I have spent my life constantly trying to reassure myself that I am. And this has led me to this curse of uniqueness, because I believe that unless I am unique, I am not really; I believe that I lack an essential quality of being. I turn my back on the very treasure that I am seeking. This is why it is so important to work from where you are, and so get back to where you are. You are not going from A to B in this practice, you are going from A to A.

The people that wander around in a daze after simply attending a workshop have already seen something, but it is shallow and without roots. But then there are people like Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharshi. It is possible to enrich, enrich, enrich constantly. Once one has seen this, it is no longer necessary to try to be something special, be something different. It is no longer necessary that I go from being a grubby person without any real attributes to fame and glory. I have no need to attain a brilliance of being, something extraordinary. Let go of that, see that you are really grubby, lacking any attributes, just an ordinary person. The brilliance that you seek is the grubby personality that you despise. That which has no form appears. That which has no form appears as an ordinary person. It appears as an ordinary person because truly there are only ordinary people.

I was in the guard of honour in the Navy, (that truly was no achievement; I just happened to be the right height.) At one time I was in the guard of honour for the Queen and as she went by I thought “My Lord, how short she is!” All that I saw at that moment was a middleaged woman walking past me. We want people who we can look up to. We want to have heroes, this is why we have kings and queens and presidents and leaders and all the rest. We want them to be unique, special, so much so that we will lie to ourselves about them, deliberately overlooking their weaknesses and ordinariness. It is in this way that spurious teachers are able to pass as famous roshis. Kings and emperors were looked upon as semi-divine or, as in Japan, fully divine. Because this is what we want. We want something out of this world. There is nothing out of this world other than your true self. You will not find magic anywhere other than when you get out of bed in the morning.

There is no success, there is no failure. One way to look at it is there is a lake and when the wind blows you get sometimes ripples, sometimes waves. But at the same time, the lake is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. If you live just on the surface, all that you will know is whether there are ripples or waves or smoothness. If there is smoothness, you say whoopee we are getting somewhere! And when there are waves you say, oh dear, I am getting nowhere! But, all the time there is a deepening, an increasing richness which you cannot detect as long as you remain on the surface.

How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday? You just can’t say. There is no comparison; there is nothing to compare with. You may remember that you felt miserable yesterday, but it is a memory; I am asking for a feeling. How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday. Stay with the feeling and you realize that it is impossible to make a comparison. Your feelings could be far richer today than they ever were a week or two ago and yet, if you are stuck on the waves on the surface, you will say “well nothing has happened”. Have faith, this is the point, or be faith. If faith, then faith.

You are the unknowable. When emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma said, “I do not know.” You do not know because you are knowing. Knowing is I am; I am knowing. Meditate on this. What is knowing? And how can it have any kind of influence? Knowing is useless, utterly and completely useless. It is as useless as the rose in the garden, as the butterfly that flutters by, as the sun that shines. It is only as a cog in the machine that I can be useful. Only when I see myself as a cog in the machine do I want to have results. A result will mean that I am a bigger cog.

One cog turns another, the whole machine intermeshes. We could see the world as a set of intermeshing causes. Here is a metaphor that might help you: a man lies dead on the floor, bleeding from the head; and there is another man standing with a smoking gun. The question is: what caused that man’s death? You might say: the gun. Or was it the bullet, or was it the fact that this man bought a gun, or was it the fact that it was possible to buy a gun, or was it because the dead man was seducing the other man’s wife, or was it because the man with the gun was poor or unstable or whatever? In other words, all of these are looked upon as causes. You will find some action group or other that will support any one of those causes.

So what is it? It is obviously the whole world is in on any action. This is why, As Gurdjieff rightly said, “Man cannot do.” It is worth seeing into this because by doing so you can be relieved of a great deal of frustration. You can contribute but you cannot determine the value of that contribution or the result that it should get. This of course relates just as much to practice as it does to activity in life. You contribute in your practice; you practice but the result in not up to you. Man proposes, God disposes. That is how it is in the world, and how it is when you are practicing. Instead of using the word God we could say, ‘the totality of the situation’ and it is the true self that is, after all, the totality of the situation.

With the totality of the situation there is no origin, is no cause for you. Nothing brought you into being and nothing can take you out of being. You are not related to anything. How can you be when you are everything. Knowing is not a thing to be bound by causes and results. It is beyond causality altogether. There is no path to awakening. When you are working on yourself, you are exhausting all the resources of your being. You have let it all go. Unless you do so, then there is always something left over that might be it. You will know when all your resources are exhausted because that is the moment of awakening. But you must exhaust all those resources, all that practice, you cannot hold anything back. Let go of all desires that take precedence over the desire for awakening. In the end you let go of all ways, all causes, techniques and methods for bringing about awakening.

Home is the self. “Coming and going we never leave the Self – or true nature.” (It is unfortunate this word self can mean so many things). Home is a wonderful word. When you were young did you ever get lost? Perhaps it was dark, the rain was pouring down, and your feet were getting sore from walking. All of a sudden you realize “I am home!” Utter, utter relief! There is nothing brilliant, exceptional, or outstanding about home. It is ordinary. But it is extraordinary in its ordinariness: security, freedom from fear, happiness, these are the hallmarks of home. When you really see, you see the whole world as home.

Just be! If you are following the breath just allow the breath to flow in and out without obstruction or help. Be thoroughly present to whatever may arise. Not what you think ought to arise, or will arise, or has arisen or could arise, but everything that is at the moment. In this way you will get to know, without comment or judgment, your sensations, feelings and thoughts. Don’t analyze them, don’t take them to pieces, don’t try to feel something about them, above all do not wander about in the past, blaming your mother, father, brother or whomever for your plight. If pain arises just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pain, just the sensation of pain. If pleasure arises, just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pleasure. Or the pure feeling of anxiety, just the feeling of anxiety, just stay with this. In this way, you will go beyond them. You go beyond to this that appears to be pain and anxiety. That which has no form appears.

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Case number 55 of the Hekiganroku

Alive or dead?


Quiet and secret, entirely One–unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening. Like a dash of sparks, a flash of lightning, cutting through all confusion. Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail he is like cliff a thousand feet high. Can one help people by teaching a single way or not? To test, I cite this. Look!


Dogo and Zen-gen went to a house to show sympathy . Zen-gen hit the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?” Dogen replied, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead.” Zen-gen demanded, “ Why won’t you say?” Dogo repeated, “I won’t say.” On their way home, Zen-gen cried, “Tell me right now teacher, alive or dead; if you don’t tell me, I will hit you.” Dogo said, “You may hit me, but I won’t say.” Zen-gen hit him.

Later after Dogo died, Zen-gen went to Seki-so and told him the foregoing story. Seki-so said, “I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.” Zen-gen said, “ Why won’t you say?” Seki-so repeated, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” At these words Zen-gen came to awakening.

One day, Zen-gen took a hoe into the Buddha hall and crossed back and forth, from east to west and west to east. Seki-so asked, “What are you doing?” Zen-gen said,“ I am looking for my teacher’s relics.” Seki-so said, “Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies – what relics of our late master are you looking for?”

Zen-gen said, “It is a way of repaying the kindness of my old teach r.” Fu of T’ai Yuan said, “The late masters relics are still present. “


Hares and horses have horns
Cows and goats have none.
It is quite infinitesimal,
It piles up mountain high.
The golden relic still exists,
It still exists now.
Foaming billows sweep the sky.
Where can you put it? No, nowhere!
The single sandal returned to India
And is lost forever.

This is a tragic Koan. However, before commenting on it, perhaps I could dwell for a while on the introduction. The introductions, provided by Zen master Engo, often set the background to a Koan. In a similar way, we live our life against a “background.” Sadly, most people ignore this background. All they see therefore, are disjointed, fragmented elements with no cohesion, coordination or intrinsic meaning. This makes them believe that they have to find, or even give, life a meaning. They believe that life must have a point and that this point must be found in what they are doing, or in a relation with some special person, or in being “successful,” or whatever.

Although I use the word “background” this is only a metaphor. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that we are always living in samadhi; samadhi is our natural state. But samadhi does not exist like the sky or space. Unfortunately, when I talk about a background, one immediately, whether one likes it or not, conjures up something, an essence or substratum However, what I mean by this background is the very absence of an essence, the very absence of any reality outside. Everything, including time and space, something and nothing, life and death, is eternally coming into being, and I do not mean everything is becoming. Samadhi, or what one might like to call Buddha-nature or Bodhi-nature, the original, primordial Light or the One, is the source of this fountain of being.

Quiet and secret, entirely One.

I am not part of the Whole; I am the Whole, the One. Most people find this so difficult to understand. They believe things surround them and so think that they also are things among things. Then they generalize and believe further that all these things collectively make up a whole of which they are now a part. Such beliefs involve a separation, a dualism. They imply “me” and “it,” “me and the world,” “me and the Whole,” “me and Cosmic consciousness” . We must let go of this opposition, this separation if we want to see into this koan. This is why Engo starts right off saying, “Quiet and secret, entirely One.” This is it!

Notice, Engo says “Quiet and secret.”Quiet… The One is the Silence of Silence. It is the Stillness of Stillness. It is secret, hidden … we look for it in vain. When one looks at a flower, all one sees, is the flower. When one looks at another person, all one sees is that other person. One sees a stone and all that one sees is a stone. Things among things. One forgets oneself. And yet, and yet! Quiet and secret is the One.

Unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening!

This is how it is! Vital, alive, brilliant. Our technological society, and the science that has made it possible, offers us a dead world. Space travel is the vogue and out-of-space is a chilling, dead, vacancy, a gaping void, like some horrible monster’s mouth. Then matter, separated from life, has been broken down into units or waves. All is just dead movement. Animals are mindless machines. Even human beings are seen as complicated robots, programmed, hard-wired, switched on and off.

We laugh at “primitive people.” We say they animated nature, and smile at them, because they saw spirits in trees and in the rocks. They saw fairies in the glen. They are so ridiculous, utterly ridiculous … We, on the other hand, have an objective viewpoint. We see things objectively! Naturally, when we see things objectively, everything becomes an object: you, me, our lives, our hopes and fears” just. objects, or movement of objects! Preferably square ones, so that we can measure them exactly. However, is it possible that the primitives did not animate the world, but that perhaps, we have killed it? Perhaps the whole world, including rocks and stones, was once alive, once, really alive. When one sees it from the standpoint that each of us is the Whole, each of us is in samadhi, each of us is samadhi then all is alive. Samadhi is an ever-uprising, ever-flowing, ever-springing stream of being, of knowing. Then the whole world again comes alive, alive with unimpeded action, immediate perception, then everything will manifest awakening!

Unimpeded action, immediate perception, everything manifests awakening. Like a dash of sparks or a flash of lightning, cutting through all complications.

When we practice Zen, we want to raise the dead. We want to bring back to life our own lives. When you ask the question “Who am I?” You must see yourself as living. You are alive! If you see yourself simply in terms of thoughts and ideas, if you know life itself only as a concept, you will not be able to realize this most obvious truth! Concepts kill, concepts freeze. You are not a concept. You are an immediate, living quality. One awakens to just this. Once you become alive, the world becomes alive, everything is alive. In the Rock Opera, Jesus-Christ Super Star, Jesus sings, “If you shut me up, the rocks and stones will start to sing. In Zen, it says, “The rocks and stones preach the Dharma. The rocks and stones will start to sing! Wake up, wake up! Let the rocks and stones start to sing!

Engo then says, “Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail. This is a very dangerous thing to do and not something I would recommend. What Engo means is that you practice in the midst of dangers, in the midst of it all. If you want the tiger’s cub you must go into the tiger’s cave. A painting by Shi K’o of a Zen master leaning on the back of a tiger, fast asleep is the picture of the fully awakened man.

Sitting on the tigers head, seizing its tail he is like a thousand foot high cliff. Who is the “He” to whom Engo refers?

He then asks, “Is there a way to help people by teaching a single way?” What is a single way? It is the way by which we see “singly.” In the Gospels according to St. Thomas it is said, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body is filled with light.”


Before we go to the case, perhaps we could comment on a two mondos that involve Zen-gen. He is the monk who struck the master. Later, he became in his own right, quite a famous master.

A monk once asked him, “ I am very close to you, separated only by the window; why is it, I do not see your face?”

The face is often used in Zen to refer to Buddha nature. Can you see why? A break-through koan asks, “What was your face before your parents were born?” Another master said, “The mountains, fields, and trees, these are my face.” What then is this window that separates Zen-gen from the master’s face? I often use the window as a metaphor for a koan. Alas! if you cannot see through a koan it is not a window but a thousand mile high cliff. Zen-gen says, I see it but I don’t see it. Why don’t I see your face? All that separates is a window, not a wall, but a window! Normally a window doesn’t separate anything. Normally a window is there, in order to avoid separation, it is there in order so that you can see through it. And yet this monk is saying, “ I am separated only by a window, why I can’t see your face?

Then master Dogo declared, “The universe is never veiled!” This reply is like the sub-title of the book that I wrote on the Mumonkan, “The World a Gateway.” What is it a gateway to?

In the other mondo, that took place after Zen-gen had become a Zen master, a monk told him, “I have come to train myself in order to solve the question of life and death.” This is worthy objective. It is said that if one cannot face death one cannot face life. However, Zen-gen answered, “At my place, there is not such thing as life and death.” Another master said, “If Buddha is in life and death, there is no life or death.”


Another mondo involves Seki-So, who comes in towards the end of the koan. He was also a very famous Zen master after having been a disciple of Tozan. One day, Tozan said to his monks, “After the summer sesshin you disperse, some going east, some going west but you should go through the thousands of miles of country where there is no blade of grass.”

In the Zen tradition the year was divided into four parts each of three months: the spring months were devoted to practice, the summer months were devoted to pilgrimages, the autumn months were again devoted to practice, and the winter three months were again given over to pilgrimages. Rochester Zen Center was organized in that way. The teacher was there for two terms of three months and, during the other months, he was away.

Anyway Tozan says that you should go through the thousands of miles of country where there is no blade of grass. What sort of country is that? The Prajnaparamita says, “no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.” To understand what the sutra means you must journey through the country where there is no blade of grass.

Then Seki-So said, “When I go out of the gate I find grass there.” Did he miss the point? or did he take what Tozan was saying one step further? Why does he say, “ When I go out of the gate I see grass.” Bodhidharma talks of vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy. Joshu speaks of the oak-tree in the garden. Which of the two is right?

So, let us return to the Koan. Dogo was the teacher and Zen-gen his disciple. It is quite likely that Zen-gen, insofar as he was accompanying the teacher on this occasion, would have been a close disciple to Dogo. Zen-gen and Dogo went to the house of a lay student who had died, to make a condolence call and to express their regret and sympathy. While they were there, Zen-gen struck the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?

In a way, I suppose, we could say that Zen-gen is asking, “What is life, and, above all, what is death?” This question about death, what is death, what will happen to me after I die, can bring one to the brink of desperation. One can become completely suffocated by it. I suffered just this kind of torment for about two years in the early part of my training. Everywhere I went, this spectre of death accompanied me. I would sit, it would sit. I would get up and walk, it would get up and walk. Having breakfast, going to bed, at work, wherever I went, there were this horror of death, this terrible feeling coming from the realization that everything was coming to an end, everything was impermanent

The question, “What is the point of life which ends in that way, in nothing!” was a constant torture. I was haunted by the recognition that in 50, 100 years, everybody around me, would be dead. Strangers would populate the whole world. Everything one has done, that seems to be so meaningful, would be completely forgotten! Two hundred years, not even the dust will remain! I was filled with a sense of hopelessness, I felt that any kind of activity, in these circumstances, was useless.

Buddha also must have been haunted by a similar horror. It is said that he met a sick person an old person and a dead person, and that these encounters completely overwhelmed him, so much so that he had to leave home and search for a way out of the horror of impermanence. However, these encounters are simply a graphic way of saying that he encountered sickness, old age and death.

I wondered at the time, and sometimes still wonder, how people without any spiritual sustenance do not also walk around in horror! What enables people to be so stupefied that they don’t wake up to the terror of the situation?

A monk went to his teacher and said, “I am not afraid of death!” The teacher answered, “Oh, what a pity!” The fear of death is one of the greatest friends that we can have on the spiritual path. It forces us to look, to ask seriously, “What is it about? What does it mean? What am I doing? What am I?” Anytime the fear of death strikes you, do not waste the opportunity that is offered. Treasure the moment, use it! Sit on the tiger’s head, grasp the tiger’s tail … Because this is the way, truly, to open yourself up to what is worthwhile.

A Zen master, Suzuki Shosan, who lived during the 1600’s, had been a samurai earlier in his life. As you know samurais were trained to face death at any moment. In Shosan’s time a samurai was completely at the service of his Lord. If the Lord told him to commit suicide, he would have had no alternative but to do so. In other words, the samurai was living constantly on the edge. Suzuki Shosan practiced Zen and, in his own way, became a famous Zen teacher,. He did away with all the koans and just had his students meditate on death. As he said, “Make the one character ‘death’ the master in your heart, observing it and letting go of everything else.”

Gurdjieff used to say that we are asleep and far from any contact with what is real. He said that the only hope left for humanity was that some kind of organ should be implanted in us, to remind us constantly of our own death and the death of all those around us. Remember, all those whom you hate, despise, all whom you look upon as being problems in your life, as being enemies, as well as all those you love, those who are your friends, they too will all die.

This is similar to something else that this samurai Zen master, Suzuki Shosan, said, “How idiotic, nobody from a hundred years ago is around today. All traces of them have vanished. But forgetting this, we desire trivial things and become planners and schemers. How stupid!”

Many people find walking around a cemetery and reading the inscriptions on tomb’s stones very tranquilizing. I shall never forget some inscriptions on a set of six tombstones in a Montreal cemetery. Five of them were in memory of people who had all died in the same year. One of them lived on and died 40 years later. The one who lived, was a woman. Of the five who died in that same terrible year, one was a man and four were evidently children. One could not help feel the tragedy soaked in those stones. And yet, a peace pervaded them nevertheless.

Suzuki Shosan said, “Guard this feeling of death with all your might! That is all I ever say. As long as Shosan is alive, he will talk of nothing but death.”

Guard this feeling of death! Guard this fear of death! This is what we have just said, “Guard it, because it is your friend!” Unfortunately, the fear of death takes us by the throat most often at 2.30 in the morning when our resources and defences are at their lowest. All that we want to do then is to throw up the battlements, surround ourselves with stone walls, get out the guns and shoot down the enemy. Anything! This is when you put steel in the concrete bunker that you call “myself,” to reinforce it. This is when you slam down the portcullis, tear up the drawbridge. This is when the ego, the sense of self, the feeling of “I am something,” is imbedded ever more deeply, deeply into your being. But it is precisely at this time that you can open yourself, because, paradoxically, it is now that the bunker is at its weakest. The enemy is already on its way in. The enemy which is yourself.

Buddha gave an account of his own struggle with the enemy , an account that is very inspiring. He said, “Suppose I spend nights in shrines of forest, park, or tree, fearsome and hair-raising though they may be, making such shrines my lodging for the night, that I might behold for myself the panic and fear and horror of it all … a deer maybe came upon me, or a peacock threw down a twig, or else a breeze stirred up a heap of fallen leaves. Then I thought here comes that fear and panic and horror.

He actually went into these shrines and the forests to allow fears, panic and horror to overtake him.

“Then I had this thought, ‘Why do I remain thus in constant fear and apprehension? Let me bend down to my will that panic fear and horror, just as I am, and just as it has come to be.’ So, as I was walking to and fro, that panic, fear and horror came upon me. Then I neither stood still nor sat nor lay down, but just walking up and down I bent that panic and fear and horror to my will.”

Buddha says that by going out to meet fear, one will eventually find a way through it.

It is obvious that this question of death and its meaning must have been a terrible torment to Zen-gen. I say it is obvious, because later, on his way home, he attacks Dogo and cries out, “You must tell me otherwise I will hit you.” He then goes on to strike the master, which was, of course, a very serious thing to do. But it shows the degree of desperation that Zen-gen must have felt.

The three kinds of death

What is the fear of death, anyway? It is as well to get to know the size of your adversary. There are three kinds of death.

Anonymous death

There is the anonymous death. This is the death that you see on TV or read about it in the newspaper. Ten thousand people in China were killed in a flood, or forty thousands Turkish people were killed in an earthquake, or 250 people died in an airplane crash. Numbers, deaths. In this age of “faction” or infotainment on TV we are never quite sure anymore whether death is real or simulated. One is never sure whether the news shots are real or whether they have simply been taken out of old films and are being used for some reason or other. What is number anyway? Ten thousand, hundred thousand? Forty million people were killed in the last world war. Some people think fifty millions! But, ten million more or less, what is the difference? This is what I mean by anonymous death. Many people expect to die this is the kind of death. It is so prevalent that they expect to die an anonymous death.

Death of a loved one

Then there is another death. The death of someone you love. Her, death rips away half a world. You see her die. You hear her agony. You feel her fear. You want to do something to release her pain but it is all out of your reach. It is like someone slipping away, drowning. You can’t quite reach her fingers as she slides away. One is left in that stunned, dead kind of feeling , numbed and asking what it all means? But her death tells you nothing about your death. It tells you a lot about loss, about grief, about pain. But, it tells you nothing about your death. One can learn nothing about death by seeing another die. All that it tells you is that you are in the face of an utter mystery.

One’s own death

The only way that we can know anything, anything at all about death, is by dying. This means that, because we are not dying physically, when we are afraid of death, we are not afraid of physical death. We are afraid of the idea of death. Socrates in the Apology said that perhaps death is the best thing that could ever happen to me. Why do I know that death is something bad? When we are present at the death of another we see all those people crying. We are stunned; we don’t know what is going on. So we think the worst.

Shakespeare wondered about the dreams that we may encounter when we have shuffle off this ‘mortal coil.’ “Ah, there’s the rub,” he says, “ Who knows what dreams may come?” However, most people are not afraid of the dreams. Most people say, “I don’t mind the dreams –– I don’t want the nothing.” It is the idea of nothing, which paralyzes. It is this idea of “nothing” that we must take a close look at. If you work with the fear of death, look at the idea of nothing. Is this what you are afraid of, and is this the same as death? Are you afraid of the idea of annihilation? If you look a little closer you may see that it is not just an idea of annihilation that you fear, it is also the idea of being swallowed” The fear of death is the feeling of being swallowed.

What can swallow you, if not you yourself? This is the source of our fear! We are constantly fighting against ourselves. All our struggles to maintain, to hold on, to resist, to live at all costs, comes from the fear of this giant behind us, this enemy, this dark sinister force which bears down on us, threatening to engulf us. We live in terror until we turn around and find that this dark sinister force is simply our true nature. A poem called the Hound of Heaven, written by a catholic priest, the English poey Francis Thompson, is about a man running away, pursued by a hound, by a ferocious dog. The poem is about the terror that he feels as he runs from “the hound of heaven,” as he calls it. Eventually he can run no more and he stumbles and falls. As he lies there, he turns to find that it is not a fierce hound that awaits him, but God.

Angelus Silesius said, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.” If you turn and face the hound of heaven, if you look down its jaws and see that it is God, how can you ever die after that?

But, as we said, it is in the chilling hours of the morning, when you can hear your own heart beating, pounding, when your hair stands on end, that one needs the courage to look down the jaws of the hound of heaven.

Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist said “When one is alone, and it is night and so dark and quiet that one does not hear or see anything but the thoughts that add and subtract the years of one’s life, and the long sequence of those unpleasant facts, which prove cruelly how far the hand of the clock has advanced and that slow and uncheckable approach of that dark wall, which threatens to swallow up irretrievably all I love, possess, hope and strive for, then all the wise dicta go into hiding and fear descends upon the sleepless like a choking blanket.

An English poet said,”

We are the fools of time and terror
Days steal on us, and steal from us ; yet we live,
Loathing our life, and yet dreading still to die

The koan once more

Against the background of all of that, one must understand Zen-gen’s anguish when he said to his master, “Tell me or I will strike you!” Why does Dogo say, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” What does he mean? I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead! Zen-gen strikes a coffin so how can Dogen say alive? But, he can surely say ‘dead’ Zen -gan is asking about the corpse in the coffin , but is that what Dogo is talking about?

Tell me, right now, are you alive or dead? Now you say, I am alive, but what do you mean by that? Do you know really what it means to be alive? Do you know it, or do you think it? Is being alive an idea that you are holding carefully, protecting very carefully in the same way that you are holding, protecting very carefully the idea I am a person? If so, are you saying that that idea is alive? But of course ideas don’t live. Life lives ideas.

What gives life? It is not life itself. It is like daylight. Daylight does not simply come from the sun. Daylight comes because the light of the sun strikes the atmosphere. Life comes from the light of life striking an organism. Just as light and the atmosphere are indistinguishable and so give daylight, so the light of life and the organism are indistinguishable and so give life. What is this life giving force? If it is life giving, why should it not be also death giving? We think that this Quiet and secret and entirely One must only give life. But why should it give only life? The quiet and secret, entirely one is it alive or is it dead?

After Zen-gen had struck the master, he had to leave the monastery for fear of reprisals from the other monks. Later, after Dogen passed on, Zen-gen went to see another master Seki-so and told him what had happened. Seki-so also said, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” Zen-gen asked, “Why won’t you say?” Seki-so repeated, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead!” Zen-gen came to awakening. When Dogen said, “I won’t say, I won’t say!” Zen-gen was thrown into such anguish that he struck out. When Seki-so said, “I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead,” he came to awakening. What was the difference? What did he see the second time that he didn’t see the first?

The first time he saw, ‘I won’t say, I won’t say death’, as a denial, negative. It was a barrier. Zen-gen perceived Dogo as refusing. The second time, he sees, ‘I won’t say alive, I won’t say dead,’ not as a refusal to answer, not in a negative way, but in a positive way. It is said “ If there is Buddha in life and death, there is no life and death.” Or let me put it this way: beyond life and death, what are you? Beyond being and not-being, what are you? Don’t say nothing.

One day Zen-gen took a hoe into the Buddha hall and crossed back and forth, from east to west and west to east. Seki-so asked, “What are you doing?” Zen-gen answered, “ I am looking for my teacher’s relics.

It was said that a very holy man, when he died, would leave a deposit from his neck, like a necklace. It was called Buddha’s necklace. These hard deposits, calcium I suppose, do not burn during cremation. They are very highly prized as relics coming from a holy man, and are sometimes put into stupas which become sites for pilgrimages. But what was Zen-gen up to? He is walking back and forward in the Buddha Hall with a hoe. The Buddha hall is like a Zendo. It is a place where a number of Buddha figures can be found, and it is used very often as a place for meeting and for talks and so on. But you certainly do not go in there with a hoe. You are not going to dig anything at all in a Buddha Hall! What is Zen-gen doing? What does he mean when he says that he is looking for the relics of the master? In any case, where are the relics of the master right now?

Seki-so said, “Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies – what relics of our late master are you looking for?”

In other words, the whole world is full to the brim. How can you hope to find these relics that you are looking for? Everything is form. Where are you going to find emptiness? Everything is One. Where are you going to find anything else? Then Zeng-gen said, “It is a way of repaying the kindness of my old teacher.”

Somebody asked Hakuin, “what happens after we die?” Hakuin answered, “ I don’t know.” The man said, “Well, what do you mean, ‘I don’t know?’ Are you not a Zen master?” Hakuin said, “Yes, but not a dead one.” This question has haunted human beings at all times. The story of Gilgamesh is very, very old story which some people say to be six thousand years old. It was handed down in an oral tradition a long time before it was written down. Gilgamesh went on pilgrimage after his great friend had died. He wanted to find the meaning of life in the face of death. In other words, the struggle with the meaning of life and of death is one the oldest of the struggles that human beings have engaged in and they have come up with many different ways of dealing with this question.

Each one of us, in our own way, has to come to terms with it.. We may come to terms with it by ignoring it and letting it lie on the wayside. However, the trouble is that if the question dies on the wayside, so does the question of life. It is the way that we work with the fact of death that will determine the quality and way that we live. None of us can predict how we are going to die, whether we are going to die peacefully or whether we are going to die stricken with fear. To boast in any way that one is going to die a death of equanimity is utmost foolishness. All kinds of hazards or problems can strike us at the moment of death. However, we can struggle to face the fear of death, because the fear of death is not the fear of physical death. The fear of death that we can struggle with, is the fear of death of the personality. This is what we are afraid of, the death of the feeling that I am in control, the death of the sense of self.

Christ said “Except a seed falls into the ground and die, it remains alone. But, if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”


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