The habitual way of experiencing

I was looking through a list of music on Albert’s computer, when in the midst of all the composers and music titles I saw ‘Teisho’. When I opened the file I found fifteen teishos, or ‘fifteen songs’ as they were designated on that site.  I do not know whether they are on the Centre website.  I have listened to a great many of those for doing the blog, and I did not recognize the one I went on to listen to.  They did not have any teisho numbers or the year they were given, and I do not know why they were there amongst the music.  But directly I started listening to one, I knew this was the next blog.

Thanks to one of our members, I can now give the teisho number: 1056, year 2006.


One of the main errors people make when working on Mu or ‘Who am I?’ is trying to know Mu, or know who or what they are.  And there is obviously a dualism here -that which knows and that which is known. It is precisely this which is the cause of our suffering. We have koans because it is utterly impossible to talk about the truth, about reality, about what we are.  Even that statement, ‘what you are’, creates a division.

You are sometimes asked when going into dokusan, ‘who came through the door?’ And you look for something which corresponds to ‘who’ and something that corresponds to the word ‘door’.  Everything is broken up, separate. Everything seems to be separate from the rest because we have the words that refer to them as separate. The question ‘who came through the door?’ is urging you to move out of this habitual way of experiencing

One could say there have been three creations: the creation of matter, the creation of life and the creation of consciousness.  And consciousness is dependent upon language, on words.  With words a whole universe was created.  But at the same time words stifle, they freeze, they turn everything to stone. So how can words approximate the great mystery of being?

When you ask ‘Who am I?’ do not look for an answer. Any answer will enclose, freeze, will box in the truth.  You are asked to demonstrate the koan, because in a demonstration it is possible to keep the fluidity and livingness of the situation. Unfortunately many people try to convey with the demonstration what they have already worked out in words or thoughts. The demonstration then becomes a kind of sign language.  Asking the question ‘who am I?’ is like using a blow torch to melt down blocks of stone.

Mu negates it all, Mu is No.  It is essentially ‘no thing.’   What do we mean by ‘a thing’?  To dwell on this alone could be a life time’s meditation.  What is there beyond something and nothing? One must struggle to stay between and not to slip one way or the other.  A monk asked Joshu, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’ and Joshu said ‘No.’   Yet another time someone asked him the same question and he said ‘Yes.’   He is obviously not using yes and no in the way that we usually use them. When Hakuin says, ‘True self is no self’  he is not speaking of an absence.  If you were not already the answer you could not even raise the question. This is what is different about this question that has no answer to the question that has an answer.   An answer lies outside.  The question that has no answer is that to which you are the answer. In other words, to work with the question ‘who am I?’ you must start from home, you must start from the truth that you are.  The question is therefore how can I enrich the appreciation of that I am.  The only way you can do this is to enrich the question. The question must be a natural, authentic, original question.  It must be your question.  To struggle to find an answer just nullifies the whole practice.  Find the question, which has been buried under all kinds of projects, all kinds of dreams, opinions, prejudices; buried under the whole of one’s life, because the question is painful, uncomfortable, irritating, disturbing, sometimes frightening.

We are talking about your question, not a Zen question.  A Zen question is neutral, it has no emotive content. How can you come home to the question, because doing so is coming home to yourself.  Coming home to being. Hakuin said to practice one needs great faith, but one is great faith.  He said one needs great doubt, but one’s whole life is doubt. He said we need great perseverance, but perseverance itself is life, it is going on.    We are so used to looking outside ourself, it is habitual.  To live a life in society we strive to be objective, to face up to things and not get carried away.  We need language, we need words, thoughts and concepts. We need projects.  And we have been seduced into believing that this is all there is. We have fallen asleep. We think we are something.

When it says in the Diamond Sutra, ‘arouse the mind without resting it on anything’, it is inviting you to let go of the basic thought of something.  Wake up, sleep is the sleep of something. The world is something, I am something, everything is something.   There is no awakening, there is no knowing, there is no being, there is no truth, there is no reality, there is no thing. This is the Prajna Paramita. It is because nothing is given, because there is no bedrock, no fundamental security, that you are free.

The way to truth lies through the destruction of the false, the illusory, of that which has been taken for granted. To destroy the false you must question your deepest beliefs. But you cannot do this with a hammer, you must use a scalpel, and do it gently, intimately, lovingly, patiently.

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The Divine Spark

teisho 1362 (2015)

If we are going to practice Zen, particularly on sesshin, it must be one wholehearted practice.  Everything must be directed towards the question ‘Who am I?’    How would you answer this question?  There is only one response, what is it?

Koans and mondo invite you in.  There is a world of difference between a koan and a dissertation. You can read a dissertation from outside, but with a koan you can only work from within.  It is a bit like the difference between going to a lecture and going to a play, your attitude is completely different.  When you listen to a lecture the words being used are conceptual words, the lecture is over there.  But with a play you participate, you become one with the actors, you see it all from inside.

When working with a koan or mondo you must see it as a drama, you must be involved with it.  A monk called Issan is asked by his teacher, ‘Who are you?’  And he replied, ‘Issan.’ The teacher then told him to rake the fire, and Issan replied, ‘I have done so, but it is dead.’ The teacher raked the fire and found a tiny ember; he said, ‘is this not fire?’  Issan came to awakening.

What is this all about?  If you look at it from outside, it seems to be nonsense.  You have to be Issan, suffering from the deadness, the absence of any vital spark, the sense of the futility of being; and suddenly a shaft of light breaks through.  After Issan’s awakening his teacher, Hyakujo, said: ‘By the ineffable subtlety of thinking without thinking, turn your attention inwards and reflect upon the infinite power of the divine spark.’  This is how you must practice, thinking without thinking.   To think is to arouse the mind; the mind becomes active, dynamic.  That which is essential in you is asleep, it needs to be aroused, awakened. This is why suffering is important: with pleasure the mind can go to sleep; with pain and suffering the mind cannot go to sleep, it either has to struggle or capitulate.

‘Turn your attention inwards.’  This does not mean turn your attention to the body, the head, the heart.  It means ‘become involved, no longer hold everything at arms’ length, no longer see everything from outside, be one with.’  This is turning inwards.

‘Reflect upon the infinite power of the divine spark.’ One of our problems is that we cannot believe in the power of being, the power of knowing.  Most people look upon being and knowing as abstract concepts with which they have no resonance; a sort of ghost in the machine without any real power or substance.  And yet the whole world is your knowing.  The power of the world is your power. The reality of the world is your reality. This is so overwhelming that we cannot even contemplate it and this is why it takes so long to come to awakening.  Even after awakening it takes years before even an inkling of the truth of the power of knowing can seep in.  The infinite power of the divine spark.

This is the cognitive moment when you know in all its purity knowing without any blemish, without any shadow, without any kind of form, that divine spark that you are.  It is this that has to be relieved of the burden of knowledge, freed from the inertia of habit.

‘When thinking can go no further, it returns to its source.’ That is, when you reach that state where you are completely stymied, you can’t go forward and you can’t go back. You just want to give up, run away, think of something else. That impossible moment, and yet it is the moment of possibility: ‘it returns to its source.’

‘When your thinking can go no further, it returns to its source, where nature and form eternally abide.’   This can be put as ‘where emptiness and form are one,’ or ‘knowing and being are one.’ This is your true nature.

The whole practice has to be subtle, this is where allowing comes in, the allowing which is extreme vigilance, openness, non interfering.  Wanting to come to awakening, working to come to awakening, to reach what you see as a glorious end, makes awakening impossible. There is no such awakening as that which you envisage.  Be concerned with nothing other than seeing into what is true, what is real, what is not an idea. Then there is no end envisaged. if you work in order to get a result, it is hard and painful and one looks for an end.  But if you work with the enjoyment of the process of the work itself, seeking to see into what is true, what is real, it is no longer hard, one no longer looks for an end, simply a deepening of the process.

We look for the experience of awakening, but awakening is not a new experience, it is a new way of experiencing.

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Reality has no form

teisho 1316 (2013)

Reality has no form. This is what we cannot grasp with the reasoning, discriminating, intellectual mind. It has no form, and yet it appears. Everything is the appearance of that which has no form.

A non Buddhist once addressed the honored one: ” I do not ask for words, nor do I ask for no words.”  The world honored one just sat. This just sitting has been described as walking along the edge of a sword and running over the sharp ridges of an iceberg.

This koan appears in both the Mumonkan, no.32, and the Hekiganroku, no.65. It is a very important koan because it goes to the heart of the matter. It has no form and yet it appears.  Reality has no form. We cannot grasp this with the reasoning, discriminating, intellectual mind.  How does it appear? It appears as a chair, as a room, as the voice of a child crying. It appears as the myriad thoughts that cross your mind.  It is constantly appearing and we take it all for granted.  It responds spontaneously, there is no interval between looking and seeing. There is no interval between a sound and hearing it.   It is this spontaneity, this no gap, which is its hall-mark. It arises in emptiness.  This emptiness is not an absence. You need take no steps. Just let go your hold on the cliff

It is interesting that the non Buddhist does not actually ask a question. And it was in response to this no question that Buddha just sat. This ‘just sitting’ has to do with the delicacy of awareness that can appreciate silence – that is what the koan is about. This delicacy of awareness is a feather touch, you cannot put any weight on it, you cannot grasp it, or use any kind of heavy-handed approach. It is like walking along the edge of a sword.  There is nothing to do.  Just let go.

Buddha just sat.  But Buddha just sat for all sentient beings, not just for the non Buddhist, not for one particular occasion.

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Karma is empty

teisho 1039 (2006)

This teisho was based on some talks given by Ma Tsu. He said that those who seek the dharma should not seek for anything.

To sit in order to become a buddha, to become awakened, is a waste of time. To sit in order to become anything is a waste of time. Every day is a good day, before or after awakening. We think we have good days and bad days, but beneath it all is the truth that every day is a good day.   You are life itself, you are the vitality of being. And this vitality that we are is not isolated, separate; we are all of life, each one is the complete whole.

It is natural for human beings to seek the dharma, that sense of wholeness and totality, beyond the fragmentation that we have created by our ignorance.  We seek something that can release us from the bondage of incompleteness.  We feel sure there must be something that would give us the fulfilment that we know in our very depths is our true nature.  But that effort, that search to find completeness, only leads us further astray.

There is no buddha outside the totality that you are; there is no totality outside the totality that you are.  It is this separating out, this division, the claiming of something as an absolute point of rest from which everything else must take its orientation, that causes the alienation and unsatisfactoriness we feel in our life.

Often when people start practicing Zen, they imagine some kind of culmination in purity. It is because of our imagination of how life and practice should be that we are frustrated, disappointed and despairing. One must start from where one is, without reliance on either purity or defilement, not attaching to good nor rejecting evil, because rejecting evil assumes one knows what is correct, what is right.

It is not that we shouldn’t search for perfection, but don’t say that perfection lies in this way or that, in doing this rather than that, because then we are no longer searching for perfection but rather for an idea of perfection.

Some people feel their life is a mess and ask what they have done that it should be such a mess. Each decision they have made in their life has led to where they are. Each one of us is the product of our own attitudes, our own decisions, and reactions. Some people have extremely tough situations to deal with: some are born deformed, some are born into extreme poverty, some are born to abusive parents.  Even so, what comes out of the situation is the reaction the person had to that situation; it is part of the burden they have to pay for in what is called our karma.  Each one of us is our karma, the sum total of all the profound reactions we have had, the judgements and decisions we have made.  People say it is their bad luck that has got them into a situation or their bad karma.  And in saying this they make the bad luck and the bad karma  ‘something’.  It is an outside influence on them, over which they have no control.  To melt down this ‘bad karma’ one needs to see into its emptiness.  We need to see it is of our own making, it is our own.  On the one hand, this is bad news because it means we have the full responsibility for our situation.  And yet it is good news because we are free.  We are not dependent on anything or anyone.  Ma Tsu said,  ‘The nature of karma is empty, it is without self-nature.’ The most profound disappointment you have had in your life, the greatest despair, the greatest sense of failure, this is your karma, and your karma is empty. And there is no reason whatever for you to continue to carry that burden.  You can put it down.  You are life itself, you are the vitality of being.

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Actionless action

teisho 1334,  (2014)

Koan practice is not a Zen practice but a life practice that brings into question the very basis on which we live our life. And as a consequence it is necessarily going to cause suffering. The security we feel is illusory, built on the feeling ‘I am something unique in the world.’   When we ask the question ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is Mu?’ this is going to be undermined.

Working on a koan, one must think without thinking.  In his book ‘All and Everything’, Gurdjieff says that the non desires must predominate over the desires.  A non desire is not an absence of desire, what is it then?  Benoit in ‘Let Go’ talks about a non will to experience. This is allowing.  Allowing is actionless action.  It is thinking without thinking.   ‘Mu’ and ‘Who am I?’ is a profound use of the mind, or perhaps better put, a non use of the mind: arousing the mind without resting it on anything.  It is intense action, but without any kind of form, any kind of content, any kind of result.  It is not striving for an answer, it is questioning.  The mind is active but not with a grasping result oriented attitude.  Without thinking something, without thinking what does it mean, you turn with absolute faith to ‘I am’.    Not the words, not the concept, but that which the words mask and hide although they are meant to  reveal.

When you think you can go no further, when you are completely stymied, when you see it is utterly impossible, when you can’t see any point in going on, realise that  it has taken years of work for you to get to this point.

Awakening is coming to.   It is like when you wake up in the morning, first you are asleep and then you come to.  You don’t come to anything, you simply come to. There is that story about a monk who had had an awakening:  he meets a brother monk who asks, ‘what is it?’.  And the first monk, who was travelling with his belongings in a bundle over his shoulder, put his baggage down on the floor. And the brother monk said, ‘Is that all?’   The first monk picked up his bundle and went on walking.

When you ask ‘Who am I?’ you expect something to be completely different. We are constantly looking for something special, something dramatic.  But when you yourself pick up your bundle and go on walking, you will find it is so ordinary, so wonderfully ordinary.  Only you can do it, but this is good news. While you are dependent on someone else, you are tied like a donkey to a pole.  Because it is your work alone that can free you, you are already free.

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Medicine and Sickness

Teisho 681 – 1999

“The clear-eyed one has no abode. At one time on top of the mountain, weeds thick all around; at another in the bustle of the market place enjoying perfect peace of mind.”

What is this clear-eyed one? The top of the mountain is usually looked upon as full awakening, and yet it is said ‘weeds thick all around.’ Weeds are the verbal entanglements of existence. How can one have total clarity and yet be surrounded by weeds? You would think that it would be in the market place that you would be surrounded by weeds and at the top of the mountain that you would have perfect peace of mind.

A koan is always talking about you. When you ask ‘who am I?’ you are asking ‘who is the clear-eyed one?’ We are seeking constantly for a kind of perfection, wanting to display a face of mercy, not the face of wrath. But Buddha has many faces and if one is willing to reveal them all, one can be one with everyone. Everyone is your true nature.

What are you looking for? If I tell you that you lack nothing, this is deception. When it is said ‘all beings are Buddha’ this too is deception. The moment you hear talk about Zen, you immediately want to know about it, and will ask what is Buddha, what is a patriarch? Anything that is said we go chasing after, wondering about it, theorizing about it. How can we cut through all the verbiage? You seek high and low for understanding, but in so doing you get further away from Zen. Searching just leads you away from the source of your being, but not searching is not the answer either. Yet the truth is simplicity itself.

There is no one who can do it but yourself. Your teacher can only hear your testimony, he can only say no when it is not the case; when it is the case then his yes is superfluous. And if it isn’t done, of what use is a life of 70, 80 or 90 years? This precious treasure is constantly being trampled underfoot. We ignore that which is essential and take that which is accidental, peripheral, as being our treasure. Arouse the mind.

The belief that all mental activity should be at an end, that we should live a vacuous phantom like life, the belief in an ideal perfection – all Zen teachers are cutting this down and saying come home to what is now. Live it for whatever it is, happiness or sadness, agony or peace, triumph or failure, because if you live it thoroughly, completely, then you transcend it.

To work on a koan one must see into the twist, the conflict. When you are working with ‘Who am I?’ you must see into this contradiction: the expectation of perfection and the constant realization of imperfection. When working with Mu it is just the same. If it is true that we are whole and complete, why do we suffer?

When you are working with a koan don’t try to avoid the suffering of life; don’t feel you are going to put the suffering in life on one side, work on the koan until you come to awakening, and then, as an awakened being, deal with the problems of life. This will not work. We think there is sickness: the confusion of life; and that then there is the medicine, which is practice, which will bring us to awakening. But if one looks more deeply one sees that the sickness is that of separation, twoness, me and you, life and death. As long as we approach our practice with the point of view that there is the sickness of life and the medicine of practice, we are simply perpetuating the original confusion. Medicine and sickness cure each other. The whole world is medicine.

As long as you are separate from your question, the medicine and the sickness do not cure each other. It is only when we are able to see that every day mind is the way that our practice becomes true medicine. It is only when the sickness has cured us of our medicine that we are free. As long as we feel that the medicine is good and the sickness is bad then we shall be forever going in circles. So don’t practice to become awakened. When you practice to become awakened, awakening is the medicine, your life is the sickness. How can you practice in such a way that there is no good, no bad, no right, no wrong? Judging your practice can only be done within the very dualism that the practice is seeking to cure.

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Investigate Identifications

Teisho 914, 2004

Nisargadatta:  “Go back to that state of pure being where the I am is still in its purity before it became contaminated with I am this or I am that.” This sums up the entirety of the practice: whether we are following the breath, working on Mu, Who am I?, the sound of one hand clapping, or any of the subsequent koans.

It is useless to try to find yourself or to look for Mu.  As soon as you start seeking I am or seeking Mu, you are already an infinite distance from it.   You must break through the prison of ideas.  When you know I am, you are firmly within that prison. When you think Mu is this or that, you are firmly in prison. To know I am is the beginning, it is like a finger that points. But to stay with knowing I am is staying in prison.

What is this state of pure being that Nisargadatta speaks of?  It sleeps.  It sleeps in sound, it sleeps in sight, it sleeps in feelings, it dreams.   What is it that dreams? The very question is itself a trap. It introduces a separation between being and knowing. The word ‘what’ implies something that can be known, knowledge that can be grasped, understood.  But every attempt to define yourself means you have to step outside yourself.  What is real has no form, no quality, no shape, it has no existence.  We always insist that there is something that is the doer.

He says, go back to that state of pure being where the I am is still in its purity, before it became contaminated with I am this or I am that.  Your burden is identification, I am this or I am that.  This is what you must investigate.  The practice is not to see that you are not something, this is simply dealing with thoughts and images, beliefs.  Investigate your identifications.  As long as you see yourself as the body, as being a self, separate and distinct, you see yourself as a thing amongst things.

You are.   Beyond all explanation, beyond all cause and effect.  All beings are Buddha. Life is I am.   What does it mean, to be alive?  I am alive, what more is there, what are you going to add to that?

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