“In life’s dream, passing from heaven to hell, each realm seems real.”

According to Buddhist mythology there are six realms: two deva realms, the human realm, the realm of animals, the realm of hungry and thirsty ghosts and the realm of fighting demons. According to some Buddhist traditions, these are real worlds, and we transmigrate through these worlds according to the karma that we accrued during a life time.

The Zen tradition, on the other hand, says that in one lifetime we are constantly passing through these realms. We can even pass through them in a single day. Somebody smiles at us and tells us how beautiful or handsome we are, and we fly up into the deva realm. Then somebody looks at us angrily and immediately we plunge into the realm of fighting demons. We pass a shop and see something that we would like to buy, and we are into the realm of hungry and thirsty ghosts. And so it goes. As we pass through these realms, each one seems real. When we are angry, we are really angry. And it seems as though the whole world is red. The whole world is fiery.

There are two deva realms: one is the realm that rich and beautiful people inhabit. You see their photographs in Paris Match or People and other magazines. This is one deva realm. The other deva realm is the transcendental state, a samadhi condition. But we might go to the botanical gardens and walk around and enjoy the beauty and peace of the place and we pass into a kind of deva realm. The whole world is blue and green, everything is beautiful.

Or we decide that we really do have to get a new car, and we start worrying about what kind of car, from where to get the money, whether or not we are getting a good deal – and we are in the world of hungry and thirsty ghosts. We are constantly migrate through the six realms during sesshin. Someone comes into dokusan totally identified with his mind state. In the next dokusan he comes in an entirely different mind state and he is totally identified with that.

Perhaps you have noticed that when you are sick, you just cannot imagine being well; when you are well it is difficult to imagine being sick. What I say is real, is real. Not me, the personality, that says it is real, but that which bestows reality.. Even as you sit here at the moment, you see the room as real. You see it as something in its own right, having its own reality. And yet in a couple of days time, all of this that we are now experiencing will just be a vague memory. Although this is well known, what it implies is invariably overlooked. At what moment does what you are presently experiencing as real , ‘out there,’ become a memory ‘in here,’ in the mind? Where is that line between perception and memory?

Life is a dream. As we get older, life becomes increasingly like a dream. So much has come and gone. So much tension and excitement, drama, fears, failures and achievements have come and gone. And all are now quite insubstantial. Even the worst moments in the past are now quite insubstantial. And yet at the time it was so terrifyingly real.

“In life’s dream, passing from heaven to hell, each realm seems real.”

When you are asking, “What am I?” you are asking, “What is real? What does it mean, it is real?”

We have to remember that the word ‘reality’ has two meanings. Reality as the content of reality, and reality as the fact of reality We talk about the content of reality when we say, “Well your reality may be like that, but my reality is different.” Or, we say the reality of a bushman is quite different from the reality of a twentieth century manager. We are quite used to using this word reality as meaning the content, the experience that makes up what we call our reality.

But we say, “It is real,” which is a different use of the word ‘real.’; we say, “this room is real,” or “my pain is real,” or ‘my suffering is real,” “my thoughts are real.” What does it mean, it is real? Careful investigation will show that if the world is real then I am a phantom, I am a ghost. But if I am real then the world is a dream. How is this shift possible?.

“But with awakening the whole cosmos is completely empty.”

Cosmos, universe, or world mean the totality of experience that is possible at any given moment. It does not mean the galaxies, stars and suns, planets and moons. It means all that is graspable in a moment. And it is empty. One can accept that a memory is empty. If I have the memory of a table, I don’t expect to be able to dig inside my brain or mind or body and fish out a table. I can remember an ant or I can remember an elephant, it makes no difference. But we seem to think that this room in which we are sitting at the moment is real, even though the memory we have of it a moment later is empty.

When the world is real I am a ghost. The difficulty that many people have with the koan, “What am I?” comes from this truth. They work with the koan against the background of what they consider to be the ‘real’ world, and so in asking the question they are looking for a ghost.

If you say to somebody that the world is a dream, he might well say, but if a bus were coming roaring at you, you would not say that, would you? In other words, the ultimate in reality is impact by a bus. Then, working on the koan “What am I?” he tries to conjure up a self against the background of that immense bus. And of course, it seems very ghostly, like a phantom. But the Hindus have a saying: “Dog, no stone; stone, no dog.”

People, when seeing the vastness of the stars and galaxies, feel their own insignificance. But they forget that they are seeing that vast universe. It is as though by seeing the universe they swallow the universe. And the universe swallowed is not much more than a grain of salt. Do not seek to know yourself against the world, but know yourself as the world, as the reality of the world and as the reality of all possible worlds. Hakuin rightly says, “What is there outside us, what is there we lack?”

“But with awakening, the whole cosmos is completely empty.
No bad fortune, no good fortune. No loss, no gain.”

What is good fortune? What is bad fortune? Milt Erikson, the psychologist, starts off one of his books by saying, “Fortunately, when I was seventeen I had polio.”

Fortunately! Good fortune! How can we ever get around that? What is good fortune? Dogen’s parents died when he was young. I think his father died when he was three and his mother when he was eight. On the face of it, it was a tragedy; but it lead to his questioning and to awakening. As a consequence of the last world war, at the age of ten I was separated from my parents, brother and sister and evacuated from my home in London. For the first time I saw flowers and trees and fields in their natural state. I spent a whole year living with some very remarkable people. The experience changed my life for the better. On the face of it, to be torn away from one’s parents at the age of ten or eleven and to be put among strangers seems to be a tragedy. What is good fortune? What is bad fortune? What is loss? What is gain?

You know the old, but still very useful, saying: one person says, “I only have half a glass of beer” and another says, “I have a whole half glass of beer.”

This illustrates two kinds of attitudes towards the same situation. For one person the whole world is loss. For the other person the whole world is gain.

“No bad fortune, no good fortune. No loss, no gain.”

One must not believe that this implies a flat insipid life. It does not mean there are no problems. People are sometimes amazed when a person who is awakened is thrust into a situation of extreme difficulty. They cannot understand it. Sometimes, during a workshop I am even asked, “Does an awakened person feel pain?” One man told me that when he first went to a workshop he was put off because he saw that the teacher was obviously very stiff when he got down from the tan. People get a strange idea of what practice is all about. It is about the ups and downs of life. One has ill health and good health. It is not ‘my’ good health or ‘my’ bad health. But, there is nevertheless good health and bad health. There is the ability to do things and the inability to do things.

In nirvana there is nothing to ask or to seek.
Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.
With one decisive stroke now, lay the glass bare!

Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed. The writer, Uchua, had his awakening confirmed by Hui-Neng! Hui-Neng put his fist through the mirror on which dust could build up by saying “There is no mirror, where could the dust alight.” What then, does Uchua mean, “Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.”

The mirror image is used in two ways: the mirror is a metaphor for the Atman, an underlying ever-present self or I that is a substratum. Christianity has the same notion of an underlying substratum: the Supreme Being, a being that sustains the world and is everlasting. This could be seen as a mirror.

Zen has no substratum; it has no ‘everlasting,’ no eternity. Although we talk about Buddha nature and the Self, “I am,” we nevertheless constantly undermine or cut it away. The koan Mu means no-substratum. To see into Mu is to see no substratum. This does not simply mean that the world is empty; it means that emptiness itself is empty. One goes beyond being and not being. There is no “I am.” no knowing. Knowing is not always present. Knowing does not endure, it is beyond time. When one knows, one knows. Dogen says Buddha nature is impermanence. It is like a fountain constantly gushing up. Buddha nature is impermanence: that which changes never changes.

Seeing is constant but does not endure. Seeing is constant to that which is seen. Monks in Japan are called “unsui,” meaning clouds and water, that is to say complete flexibility. Nothing is frozen. Nothing is brittle and hard. When you are asking, “What is Mu?” or when you are asking what is anything, this is the direction in which you must look: Buddha nature is impermanence, no substratum. This is why the practice is an arousing; arouse the mind! At the moment, the mind is torpid, dull. It is as though it is encased in a prison of concepts and words having no flexibility. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Good is good. Bad is bad. I am me, you are you. The world is the world. This is this, that is that. And yet behind that frozen, rigid, inflexible world is a constant, dynamic, scintillating knowing.

“Dust builds up on a mirror not cleansed.”

As the dust builds up so this world becomes more and more rigid, and more and more we feel that we are caught up, bound up in the world.

And then he says,

“With one decisive stroke now, lay the glass bare!”

The decisive stroke is necessary. Awakening is always sudden, out of time, a cognitive flash. It is a moment out of time, or eternity within the moment. It is a moment of knowing without content, a moment of certainty without being certain of anything. And so we cannot anticipate. Do not anticipate, do not imagine. Do not try to conceive it, because it is in itself beyond imagination and conception. Imagination and conception are ways by which we maintain the mind in its frozen state. Our practice is a proposition. We propose constantly. We offer, we give ourselves over, we open ourselves. These are the words that best describe the practice.

Just as you cannot anticipate awakening, so awakening is possible at any moment. If you have the attitude, “well obviously I can’t come to awakening; my mind is so dull, so torpid; I’ve got a lot of work to do so just let me plod on. I am a plodder, but that’s all right. I’ll keep going and I’ll work at it and you know… “ This will not work! This will not do!

You are already Buddha. Hyakujo’s teacher asked him to rake in the ashes to see whether he could find some fire, and Hyakujo raked everywhere and said, “No, there is no fire at all.” And then the master said, “Now let me have a look.” And he raked around and he came across a little spark and he said to Hyakujo, “Is that not fire?” And with that Hyakujo came to deep awakening.

In Zen it is said, “Even in the driest well there is water.” Whatever you do, do not make judgements about yourself, about the kind of person you are, about the prospects you have. “From the beginning all beings are Buddha.” This is the truth. This is how it is. Right now, right now you can step out and let the whole burden drop. Right now!

And then he asks,

Who is it that has no thought? Who is it that is unborn?”

His question is not, who is it that has a thought? But who is it that has no thought? It is not, who is it that is in birth and death? But who is it that is unborn? You must go beyond no thought, beyond the unborn. It is not enough that you reach a state of equanimity: another step must be taken. A koan in the Mumonkan: asks, “How do you take a step from the top of a hundred foot pole?” How do you get beyond the unborn? How do you take a step beyond no-thought? How do you leap from “No one walks along this path”? There is knowing, and then there is knowing. And this knowing is just like an intense flash of light. The intense light that would come from the most precious jewel.

And then the song says,

“It’s as if really not born yet not unborn either.”

This is, unfortunately, how we live much of our lives: “as if really not born and yet not unborn either.” We live our lives in an intermediate state, a twilight realm. We are twilight people so often. We are promising constantly, but the promise is never fulfilled. We live in a world of shadows. Not born and yet not unborn. The clarity, the completeness, the wholeness that is possible, constantly evades us.

The song continues:

“Put this question to a wooden puppet:
Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?”

Why does he say, “Put this question to a wooden puppet.” In a way, that line answers the question: “Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?” A monk asked a Zen Master, “What is the truth?” The master replied, “Ask the wall.” The monk said, “I don’t understand!” The master said, “I don’t understand either!”

Why does the master say, “Ask the wall”? Why does the master say, “Ask a wooden puppet”? If you can see into that, then you see the answer to “Can Buddhahood be found by seeking it?”

Of course, the answer at one level is, no, Buddhahood cannot be found by seeking it because one is already Buddha. This, superficially, is what the ninth koan of the Mumonkan, Daitsu Chisho Buddha, is about. But one must go much deeper than that. That is just an intellectual understanding.

Ask a wooden puppet, ask the wall, ask a stone. You say, but a stone can not speak, a wooden puppet is mute, a wall is inanimate. But it is said that inanimate things preach the dharma.

“Just let everything go – earth, air, water, fire, wind.”

When Dogen was in China, he was sitting late one night and his master chided another monk who was dozing in the zendo and hit him with a slipper shouting, “This is no place to sleep! You must let fall body and mind.” Body and mind must fall. Drop body and mind. If you want to see into Mu, drop body and mind. If you want to see into Mu, drop everything; earth, air, water, fire, wind. This is everything that can be seen and known, everything that can be grasped, everything that can be felt. Go beyond it all. You are not something. Awaken beyond form. What is this?

What am I? My face before my parents were bon.

And then he says,

“Then drink and eat as you please, in Nirvana.”

This is like Hakuin who shouted at a monk, “Hey young man, die! Die now! And then do as you please.”

When you are working on your first koan, you feel like you are rolling a huge rock up hill, a rock that is just beyond your strength. It slips and you stuff your foot under it; you push and it slips again, you heave your shoulder against it and it rolls up the hill a little and so you push and then it slips again and it rolls down. You grab it, stop it, push up again and again. It moves a little, and you push.

Two monks were on a pilgrimage monk carrying their belongings on the end of a stick as was the custom. One monk had recently come to awakening. The other asked him, “Well what is it?” The monk took the bundle off his shoulder and drops it onto the ground. The first monk says, “Oh, is that all?” The other monk grabs the bundle, puts it on his shoulder, and goes off.

One drops body and mind, and then one can pick it up but it is no longer a burden.

“Everything in the universe is fleeting and empty.”

Not only everything in the universe is fleeting and empty. The universe itself is fleeting and empty. There is no universe, no world, no cosmos. Do away with it all! Keep cutting through this attachment, this wanting something.

“Everything in the universe is fleeting and empty.
This is the perfect awakening of the Tathagatha.”

“From the beginning, not a thing is.” What is this? What are you? Why this grasping? Look into the grasping, the wanting, the needing, longing, yearning. What is it? Give yourself over to it. Become it. Let it swallow you up. Let it take you home. Wanting to be something is, ultimately, wanting to come home.. You are not wrong in your longing: you just do not long enough. Desires are not a problem,; the problem is a desire for this or that but are desires for this or that when you can desire the whole.

What are you? What is it? What is this world? Do not get into philosophy or anything like that. Thinking about it is no use. It is an experiencing. What does it mean to experience? The water is cool, the sky is blue and the grass is green.

An intelligent questioning is necessary. It is not simply throwing yourself at it. When we say become one with it, the most immediate way that you can do so is by awakening to it intelligently. It is like you are talking to someone and you want to remember the name of an author, and it just wont come. The name is right there, on the tip of your tongue. You keep feeling around for it, you almost get it. Finally the mind yields it up, although it may not be until the next day. That is how you practice with Mu or Who. There is a kind of grasping and letting go simultaneously, an intensity but an intensity within a relaxed state.

You say, but I’m not sitting 7 or 10 hrs a day on a mat when I am trying to remember names. Much of my time on sesshin is spent fighting pain. And this is true. But one fights the pain, one struggles with the discomfort of a sesshin Then there are times when, as a consequence, this pearl of great price comes within the range of your perception. And then you can turn this sharp diamond mind to see right through it. Do not feel that the struggle that you make on the mat to keep the mind from wandering is in any way a waste of time.

It is exactly like a person learning to play the piano. You have to go through boring finger exercises day after day, day after day. Even the great geniuses still go on practicing day after day. But then comes the possibility to play a sonata, or to play a concerto.

A true follower of the Way speaks with certainty.”

‘Speaks with authority’ might be better When you knows you know. You do not have to hedge or twist. In the dokusan room, we ask, “What is Mu?” You know, you know. You have authority, the response comes right from the heart, right from the center, right from the truth itself and nothing can stop it.

While you should not talk about things for which you do not have the authority to speak, that of which you do have the authority to speak of, you must speak. When people ask you questions about Zen, if they are sincere, genuine questions, you must speak from your own experience, but don’t go beyond it.

“You, who lack will and self discipline, be inquiring.”

Arouse the question! You who lack will and self discipline, arouse the question Be inquiring.

“Going straight to the root is the whole mark of the Buddha.
Picking at the leaves and collecting the branches is no use at all.
Most people do not know the pearl that answers all wishes,
The great pearl that is found in the storehouse of the Tathagatha.
Its miracle workings are neither empty nor not empty.”

During a dokusan someone asked, “What is the use of Zen?” And he added, “There are other disciplines in which you send help to other people, you send out love and peace into the universe.” Until we have really seen into this sense of ‘I’ then all of the good will and good wishes that we have towards others is always tainted. While it is true that it may be possible to help others through prayer and meditation, nevertheless the greatest help you can give to others is to reduce the strength of your own sense of self importance. No doubt many are helped by sesshin who do not even know a sesshin is in progress. We are one mind. And to the extent that we are authentic and sincere in our practice, to that extent, we are at this very moment fulfilling our vow to save all sentient beings. Even so cutting out the root of the sense of self is the greatest help that you can give. It is a lifetime’s work, and at the end of the lifetime the root may still be flourishing. But this is the direction we must go. If you want to help others, first of all, help yourself. And there is no better way to help yourself than seeing into the illusion of the belief, of the craving, ‘I am the center of the world.’

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The Song of Awakening was composed by Uchua, a Chinese Zen master, a contemporary of Hui-Neng.  He came to awakening after having read some phrases from the Vimalakirti Sutra, and went to Hui-Neng to have his awakening verified.  That he came to awakening while reading is important.  The anti-intellectual attitude that so often pervades Japanese and American Zen gives us the impression that any kind of intellectual activity, any use of the mind through words, concepts and ideas, is taboo.  But most of the Zen masters were very familiar with the sutras. For example, Bodhidharma who taught transmission beyond words and letters, passed on the Lankavatara sutra to Hui K’o the second patriarch. For someone to come to awakening when reading is not at all uncommon.   Another famous example is Chinul, one of the founders of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism. This reading is not, of course, done to acquire knowledge and information, but seeks to penetrate through the layer of words to the core of understanding.  A Zen master said, “When you have the meaning you can throw away the words.” But first you must get the meaning, and for this you will need the words.

The Song of Realizing the Way, or Song of Awakening, begins with:

“Have you ever met the one versed in the way of ease,
One with nothing to do and nothing to get?”

On the face of it, this seems to be asking whether you have met an awakened person.  But that would be a superficial reading of these lines.  “The one seasoned in the way” is your true nature. When you ‘see into,’ or ‘meet,’ your true nature you have the feeling of everything suddenly being easy – you are “versed” in the way of ease.” You feel ‘oiled.’

Periodically, during a sesshin, you will encounter this feeling of ease.  For a long time you just sit feeling dryness, bareness, as though walking along a dusty, cobbled road on your knees. Suddenly, you feel an easing.  Your heart seems to soften, and you feel the rightness of what you  are doing.  It is important not to wallow in that feeling, although one has a great temptation to do so. But by not disturbing, by not trying to get something from it, you can stay in that way of ease in a free way.   This is the antechamber to awakening.  If you try to seize it, or push it, or use it, then you walk out of the antechamber, back onto the dry and dusty road.

“One with nothing to do and nothing to get.”

The miracle of wakefulness is the miracle of ‘not doing.’  “No one walks along the path.”  No one walks, talks, sees, and eats.  The belief that ‘I’ must do, ‘I’ must be in control, ‘I’ am the one that matters, is the primary illusion.  The way of ease is a way of not doing.  But the way of not doing is not the way of doing nothing.  Walking, there is no one that walks, but this is not a blankness, not an absence but a presence.  On the contrary, when I say, ‘I’ walk, then  that is an absence: it is an absence of the vastness of being.  That is a loss.

We are afraid to let go.  We feel if we do so, things will fly out of control.  We feel that then anything can happen.  On the contrary, when we let go of the illusion of being in control, then everything goes according to the way the situation requires.  You see this with great artists. A good musician, for example, has gone beyond technique.  When a great musician plays, there is no one who plays.  Similarly with a great athlete; she has no  sense of being in control.

When you ask, “Who am I?”  you are not seeking someone or something, you are asking about the illusion of being the do-er.  The illusion of being the one who does things.  There is nothing to do.  Nothing to master.  When we can allow this to be the case then everything is done, everything is mastered.  A Zen master said, “I do nothing all day, but nothing is left undone.”

The song goes on and says:

“The real nature of ignorance is Buddha nature itself.”

In Buddhism ignorance is the major klesá. A klesá is that which brings suffering to others and to ourselves. There are two other klesá: anger and greed. Greed, anger, and ignorance are the three supports of our personality. An ignorant person is one who ignores, or turns his back on, his true nature. He does this by forgetting the world of unity and harmony, and dwells instead in the dualistic illusions of you and me, God and me, the world and me.

We tend to ignore those we do not like as well as the things we do not like. But they do not disappear. In the same way, our true nature does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the contrary, turning our back is none other than the activity of true nature, just as the illusion of a dualistic world is our true nature in action.

The song goes on to confirm this by saying,

“The empty illusory body is the very body of the Dharma.”

Hakuin puts it this way in his Chant in Praise of Zazen: “This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus Land, and this very body, the body of Buddha.”

We are not trying to get out of this world.  The world, material things, are not evil, nor are they an obstacle, or obstruction to awakening.  We are not trying to get away from every day life and existence and go to a Pure Land beyond it all.  We cannot, because the world and things and our every day life are the manifestations of our true nature.  What I see is what I am.  What I experience, what I know,  is what I am.  Someone might say, “But you say we cannot see ourselves, we cannot experience ourselves.”  And this is true.  But it still remains that what I see and what I know is what I am .

One of the most difficult things for us to understand is that reality is not a quality of the world, it is not given to us by the world. What we say is real, is indeed real.  What we know as real, is real. We give reality to the world. This is not the reality of the reflective mind, the mind that reflects itself and believes that it sees a real world. It is what Mind, the Great Mirror Wisdom, itself knows.

Although the mind reflects itself, it cannot get outside itself to appraise, or question, our knowing.  And yet this is what we are so often trying to do when we ask the question,
”Who, or what, am I?” We try to get outside ‘I am’ to know ‘I am.’ Someone put it rather neatly the other day when we were talking together; he said, “It is like a camera trying to take a photograph of the inside of the camera”.  This is the ultimate in the reflected mind.  The effort to get outside the mind is already the reflective mind at work.  There is no hiatus, no moment when I am the mind and another moment when I can get outside the mind to see it.  This is why we say that when you ask the question “Who am I?” I am is already fully manifest.

We ask in dokusan,  “who is it that asks the question?”   And students say, “I do.” But by saying this they separate themselves from themselves.  The “I” that they speak of is seen as an object in the world.   It is ignoring this truth of separation that is the root of suffering

Talking, as I did just now, about ‘Mind’ and the ‘reflective mind’ gives the impression that there are two minds. However, there are not two minds, a mind that seeks the way and a mind that is sought.  There are not two selves, the ego and the Self.  This is why we say that awakening is like melting.  Hakuin tells us in his Chant in Praise of Zazen, “Like water and ice, without water no ice.” With water and ice there are not two substances water and ice, but, instead, water and frozen water.

In a sesshin we can get to a point where we just cannot go forward, nor can we retreat back to where we were. Yet we just cannot stay where we are. Like a rat in a bamboo tube, as Hakuin would say. This causes people to fall into despair.  This is one of the main complaints that I hear in the dokusan room,  “I am just stuck!  I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.  I don’t know where to go from here.  What must I do?”

These people do not realize that their practice has brought them to that point.  At the beginning of practice we are filled with all kinds of wild hopes, illusions and expectations. As we practice, slowly these are stripped away. Each person’s very nature is knowing,  the practice is to awaken to knowing.  And necessarily, although we may not be conscious of it, knowing eats away at the illusions we bring to practice. One of the main illusion is that there is something to attain.

When we start practice, we are full of illusions, full of images and ideas of what it means to be awakened.  Time and again I have seen people come to start practice thinking, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  This practice is easy.  Why do people say it takes years to see into it?” I had just this feeling at the beginning.  One has a kind of buoyancy, a confidence, an attitude of “let’s get this over quickly.” This buoyancy, this ‘confidence’ feeds on all kinds of subtle images and thoughts, expectations, beliefs, and dreams.  The work that we do, simply by keeping coming back to the question, “Who am I?” or “What is MU?” causes these illusions to drop or drain away, melt away.  When these dreams, illusion beliefs, and all the bits that we have read and chewed over begin to drop away, we reach the state where we do not know what to do anymore, we feel stuck.

Some people say, “I think  Zen practice has taken away my faith.  I had a lot of faith when I started this practice.  But I don’t seem to have any faith anymore.  I seem to have lost it all.  It seems to me I don’t even have the motivation I used to have.”  All this is true; all this is good. It is not faith that they have lost but illusory beliefs.

A book, He Leadeth Me, tells how a Jesuit priest sustained himself with prayer during a period of solitary confinement in Lubianka prison in Moscow.  Eventually, because of the pressures that he had been under, the sheer agony and anguish of his existence in Lubianka, he signed a document that declared that he was a spy for the Vatican. When he returned to his cell, he felt that he had betrayed himself and that everything, even God, had deserted him.   And he fell into the darkness of deep depression.  Then he remembered the agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemany and how three times Christ had asked that the cup be taken away from him, and three times Christ had said, “Thy will be done”.  And it was at that moment, when he fully entered into his own despair and yet could in turn say, “Thy will be done,” that he suddenly came to a very deep awakening.

It is not necessary for us to suffer that kind of agony;  undoubtedly too much agony can be an obstruction to the purification that is necessary.  We can only tolerate so much.  But sesshin is a harmonic of that priest’s time in the isolation cell.  You are told to keep the eyes down.  You face the wall.  You sit and you must not move.  The food is very plain and only available at meal times.  All distractions are covered up or taken away. Mirrors are covered up.  All that can interest you or take you out of yourself is obscured.  In other words, this denudation process, of taking away and stripping down, is the process of true spiritual practice.  And so when you see yourself in this condition, this inability to go forward, to go back, this inability to stay where you are, and are pervaded by general irritability and the feeling of having been betrayed, of having been abandoned, this is the doorway, this is the way through.  You should not try  to scramble back up again,  look around,  or protest.  You go on. But, you do not go on as a hero.  You simply go on.  You simply take the next step. Thy will be done.

And then the song says,

“When the Dharma body is realized there is nothing at all.
The original nature of all things is innately Buddha.”

Your original nature is what you see.  No ‘me and the world,’ no ‘me and you’.  When you see a flower, you think that you see the colour and the form.   Yet all that you are seeing is light, but you don’t see the light, you see the colour.  You think that you see things, other people, objects, space.  But you do not see objects, things, other people, space.  You see light.  And the light is knowing.  This is why, “what you know as real, is real.  What you know as so, is so.”

People sometimes have the most extraordinary beliefs: cannibals for example. That is to say, the beliefs are extraordinary as far as you or I are concerned. But they are not extraordinary from the believer’s point of view.  From their point of view, what they do is what is right; they would think that you or I are doing extraordinary things. When I first went to France from England I could not understand why all the French drove on the wrong side of the road. There is no world outside knowing.  Knowing is the world.

This is the meaning of “When the Dharma body is realized, there is nothing at all.”   Innately, the original nature of all things is knowing (Dharma body).  But I do not mean knowing things; knowing is things.  Emptiness is form.  When you are asking “Who am I?” there is not an ‘I am’ that you are going to find.  The question is already it.  We say, “It is going to rain, or “It is time we left,” or, “It is a long way home.” What is ‘it’? ‘It’ and ‘I’ both affirm a non existent duality. The sense of self, the sense of being something is quite unnecessary, it is a burden that we carry for no reason at all.

The song says,

” Elements of the self come and go like clouds without purpose.”

The elements of the self are the skandhas.  The word “skandha” is often translated as ‘heap.” However, it would perhaps be better translated as ‘collection.” The five skandhas are:  the skandha of form, of feeling, of thought (ideation, concept, images), of intention (will, motivation, desire,) and the skandha of consciousness.  We constantly identify ourselves with these five skandhas.  We think we are the body; this is the skandha of form.  We see the body, we see it from outside.  We see the form of it.  We feel the pain of it.  We also identify ourselves with our feelings.  With our emotions: I am angry, I am sad, I am happy.  But then we get into more refined feelings:  the feeling of being, the feeling of knowing, the feeling of beauty, and we think this feeling is really me.  This is very much New Age.  But feeling, too, is empty.

As the Prajnaparamita says, “feeling, thought, and choice, consciousness itself, are the same as this, dharmas here are empty.”

We identify ourselves with our thoughts, desires and intentions.  We think that the intentionality that we have, the search that we have to see into our true nature is ‘my’ intention, ‘my’ search, that the intentionality is me.  We say, “ ‘I’ want to come to awakening.”  But the search to awaken is also empty: empty of ego, sense of self or personhood.

And then we have consciousness.  So many people feel that as long as they sit and  are conscious of being conscious, aware of being aware, this is the ultimate.  They believe that if they cling to consciousness of being conscious long enough then some truth will surely reveal itself.  But the belief in consciousness as the ultimate is a cul-de-sac.  It is a dead end.  One must get out of that belief by any way possible.  All five skandha are empty, all are forms of knowing. Nothing holds these five together.   The sense of a unified integrated self, particularly the self which is held together by understanding and intuition, is an illusion.

The song goes on to say,,

“Greed, hatred and ignorance appear and disappear like ocean foam.”

What is interesting about this is that it says that greed, anger, hatred and ignorance do appear.  People have the impression that the mind of the awakened person is empty, vacant without thought or feeling.  When the expression, or the metaphor of empty space, is used, it is used because empty space and true nature are non-obstructing. True nature, like space, has no barriers. True Nature has nothing that obstructs, hinders, or catches.  But the awakened mind is not a vacant mind.  It is not a mind that floats on cloud nine. As Zen master Joshu says, “It is not cold ashes, it is not a dead tree. It is a hundred flowers in colourful bloom.”

Ummon says, “This old monk loves anger, loves joy.” Hakuin’s books overflow with passion like lava flowing from a volcano. To be unobstructed by greed, anger and delusion we must let go of ‘I am angry,’ ‘I am greedy,’ ‘I am ignorant.’  We cannot escape our karma.  Karma is like an ocean in which waves of thought, passion and action are constantly churning. Karma is not happening to us, but rather, because we are human beings, we are human karma. Karma includes delusive passions.

So often people ask, “What is the use of my practice?  What good is it?  It has done nothing for me.  I still get angry, so surely I have taken the wrong route.”  Or they feel suffering, despair, or they encounter difficulties and then say, “I don’t understand why my life is so difficult.  I have been meditating now for five, six years, and my life is still so difficult.” This is similar to the Christian who says, “I have faith in God, why is my life so full of trouble ?  I pray to God, I am a good Christian….”

The only answer is, it is because you are a good Christian that you are able to suffer, that you have the strength to recognize that you suffer.  It is because you have done so much zazen that you are able to awaken to the pain of life.  You are at last coming home.  At last seeing what the first noble truth or axiom of Buuddhism “Life is founded on suffering” really means.  Now you can go through the suffering.  To see, “Life is suffering” is only half way.  Go on!  But this does not mean go on out of suffering.  Rather, to use the words of Jesus, “Pick up your cross.” Not only your own  but also the cross of whomever you see around you.

An anti-life attitude of wanting to escape from life and its suffering so often pervades spiritual practice.  But life is wonderful!  Like Baso said, “Everyday is a good day.”  And like Baso also said, “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha.”  Remember that this was when he was dying and in considerable pain.  One of his senior disciples came to him and asked him, “Well, how is it?” In other words, how are you facing this situation?  What is it, talk to me from your suffering.  And  Basso said,  “Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha”.

A sun faced Buddha was reputed to have lived for kalpas.  A moon faced Buddha lived just a day and a night.  Whether for a long time or short time, suffering is still suffering. We cannot escape, but we no longer need to endure suffering.  It is that ‘I’ suffer that is the problem.  Erase that and every day is a good day.

“Greed, hatred and delusion appear and disappear like ocean foam.”

In other words, no ‘I’ clings to greed, hatred and delusion.  This does not mean an absence of emotion but that life flows unimpeded.  We are told at the beginning of a sesshin:  “You will pass through all kinds of mind states, but do not be identified with any of them.  Let life flow.”

“When you reach the heart of reality you find neither self nor other and even the worst kind of karma dissolves at once.”

This does not mean the karma vanishes.  If it were to vanish, then the whole world would vanish.  If we get rid of anything, then we get rid of everything. Everything is connected with everything else.  But let the sense ‘I am the do-er,’ ‘I am the sufferer,’ ‘I am the one,’ dissolve.  “I” is the hook that ties you to karma.

Devadatta, Buddha’s cousin, because he was envious of Buddha and of his spiritual riches, tried to kill him on three occasions.  For this he was plunged into the very deepest hell.  He called out to Buddha for help and Buddha sent Manjusri with a message: Devadatta would remain in the deepest hell for five kalpas (an infinite length of time) but at the end of that time he would become Buddha.  And Devadatta said, “In that case I can turn on my side and rest in the fires of hell in peace.” By fully accepting his karma Devadatta was freed from it.

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Coming and going we never leave home

True self is no-self. Does this mean that we are nothing, a kind of ghost in the machine? We are told, “You are not something”. Even so, the ghost of something stalks across the landscape of the mind: it seems that there is something that is “not something.” No-self is like a spirit hidden in the darkness. Perhaps this is how people developed the idea of a soul, or of a spirit. They could see clearly enough that a person is not just the body. But they still had ‘something’ in mind: a sense of something in its absence. But true self is no-self: there is not even an absence.

We live in a world constructed with words and thoughts. Words and thoughts are like a skeleton fleshed out with sensations, emotions and feelings. Because we are so dependant on words and conditioned by thoughts, we are no longer aware of them. Instead our awareness has been trained completely into clustering or freezing around concepts that we believe make up reality

I wonder how a cat sees the world? We have the tendency to imagine the world through the cat’s eyes much as we see the world through our own, but from a lower perspective, from a lower viewpoint, perhaps hazy and dark. But is this how a cat sees? Trying to see the world as a cat sees it is an invitation to step outside the very basic categories, concepts and words by which we structure our perceptions. This is simply an exercise and not by any means a practice. It is a way of trying to stretch the mind, to loosen it up, to be less centred on our habitual way of perceiving.

To return to “true self is no self,” Nisargadatta once said, “I am the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the fullness of happiness.” The beingness of being, what is that? He could have also said, “I am the sound of sound or the color of color. “Mu” is the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing. When you see the world, you do not see the seeing. The seeing of the seeing is the knowingness of the knowing. Gurdjieff said, “You forget yourself.” What is the self that we forget? We do not forget the sense of self; we are always reminding ourselves of it. We are always reaching into the sense of self, into the sensation of being. I deliberately use the expression ‘the sense of self,’ because that is all that it is: a sensation focused around a center. But, like everything else, we take it for granted, we never ask, “From where does the sense of self come?” What is the sense of self? Gurdjieff is not referring to the sense of self when he says that we forget our self. We forget that we are the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing; we forget that we are the reality of it all.

Our sense of self is often accompanied by a certain feeling, a feeling that is habitual, repeated over and over and over again: it might be the feeling of hopelessness, or the feeling of anger, or of anxiety. We have a constant feeling: a kind of spasm within the feelings; it is that spasm that gives us the assurance that we are.

“Who walks?” It is walking that walks, I am the anxiety of anxiety, the laughter of laughter; apart from this there is nothing that I can call ”I”. When I say there is just walking, it seems as though I am reducing a person, you, to a machine. This is what the neuroscientist would like to say: there is just movement of molecules, of impulses along nerves, a concatenation of intricate wiring that is fired, and the action is carried out. He too would say that there is no consciousness in those movements or impulses; there is no intention involved in them. Sure enough, you could look through the most powerful microscope possible, and you would not find any consciousness there. But the neuroscientist is not saying what I am saying when I say, “walking walks.” I am saying that consciousness focused by the sense of self cannot do anything other than register what is happening. ‘No one walks along this path this autumn evening.’

A scientist decided that he would find out how much a soul weighed and so know how much substance is in the soul. So he weighed someone before and after death. I think he found a difference, but it was not the difference of the soul leaving the body. There is no difference in that way because there is no soul that leaves the body. So what is there? What does it mean, “Walking is just walking,” if it does not mean a machine, and if it does not mean that somewhere diffused in that machine, one way or another, there is a ghost that is operating it. You can only answer that by returning to your self, by remembering the self that is no-self. You must return to no-one reading this article. You cannot search in the body. Nor can you go to thoughts and concepts about ‘walking is just walking.’ You walk without any preconceived notions, without even the notion of having no preconceived notions.

What are you? What does “true self is no-self” mean? I am not asking what do the words mean; what is the meaning behind the words? Or, if your practice is Mu!, what is Mu? What is reality? What is is? These are not of course different questions, “What is Mu?” and “Who am I?” Both lead to the same destination.   “What is Mu?” is less seductive than “Who am I? The question, “Who am I?” can lead us into subjective states, into sensations, emotions and feelings believing that one or other is the true self. We can lose ourselves in the feeling of subjectivity. Many of us tend to explore feelings in the mistaken belief that we are exploring ourself.

“What does it mean to be?” might be thought to be a harder question. “What does it mean to be?” is another way of asking, “Who am I?” It also is another way of asking, “What is Mu?” What does it mean to be? It is no good trying to understand this in terms of the meaning of the words ‘being’ or ‘existence.’ It is also useless to try to get some feeling of being. Being is beyond any thought, feeling or sensation of being. You must look right into the heart, or right into the light, or perhaps better yet, right into the darkness of being, or right into the darkness of yourself. But it is only obscure, it is only dark, as far as the conscious mind is concerned, because the conscious mind has lived its whole life in artificial light.

Another problem that goes along with this question, “What is Mu?” is that we are used to the idea that when we apply the mind, we apply the mind in abstractions and relationships. We deal in generalities, in universals. But to practice is to come to what is given, concretely, now. without any presumptions, or expectations. You cannot even rely on Mu to be ‘something’ that continues into the next moment. You have to investigate again, and again, and again. It is not enough simply to have come to a conclusion. You must come to a new way of being.

One might ask, “If I am beyond words, what shall I look with?” The question is a good one. In a way, the answer is “Nothing. Let it be. Don’t look.” Do you remember the koan where the non-Buddhist asked the Buddha, “Don’t give me words, don’t give me silence.” Buddha just sat. What does “just sitting” mean? Buddha is not answering the question. Buddha just sat, and in that just sitting is everything: it is silence and talking, it is sitting and standing. When you are working on “Who am I?” you must ‘just sit.’ If you do this, then the restlessness and distress, the constant movement of the mind will surge up. You will then tend to leave ‘just sitting’ and launch yourself into the torrent of mental agitation. But no. You must be anchored. This is one of the reasons why we have the zazen posture, and why the zazen posture is so important. But, the posture must be a good posture, the back straight, the centre of gravity low. This gives us at least a physical anchoring, a stability, and because of this stability this other, deeper, immutable stability that we are can ‘appear’ as the absence of everything else. Immutability, the beingness of being, the knowingness of knowing, the immutability that you are, is the ultimate security. Immutable stability is impregnable. It is the ultimate refuge because you see there is no need for a refuge. When you are asking this question “What am I?” or “What is Mu?” you are returning to “Buddha just sat.” You are returning to the immutability that you are, the ‘unmovability’ that you are.

As long as you read in the abstract all that I am writing, it will mean nothing to you. The personality cannot feed on the abstract because what is abstracted is reality. As a personality ‘I’ have all kinds of desires, needs, lacks; all kinds of conflicts, worries, confusion. Taking what I have said as a theory will mean that it has no life and does not touch what is essential in life. This is a complaint made so often: “I came for bread and you gave me stones.” For this reason we have a very high turnover in people practicing Zen at the Montreal Zen Center. Most people come for some solace, or they are looking for some kind of medication. Their life is in turmoil, or their life is in ruins, or their life is totally and utterly unsatisfactory, and they look for a magic potion, they look for it in a new collection of concepts and words.

The mind has a kind of ‘Midas’ touch. Instead of turning everything to gold, it turns bread into stones. People come and they are given a question, “Who are you?” and they cannot relate struggling with this question “Who am I?” with the torment of, “Does she love me or doesn’t she love me?” or “Is this cancer or isn’t it cancer?” or “Will I get the sack or won’t I get the sack?” Most have a sense of the weariness and the slackness of life. And they are told to ask the question, “Who am I?” What connection does this question have with my misery? How will it deal with any of that torment of life in any way whatsoever? Of course, it does not have any connection. If you stay only with the words, with the thoughts, “What am I?” you just go from the reality of being to a dead castle of thoughts.

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

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

But the absolute quality of the problems, their ‘do or die’ aspect, the feeling that my whole life is ruined or threatened because of this or that, all that drops away along with the spasm . I lose the sense of being identified with what comes up. I still have to solve problems that arise, but I do not have to be identified with them.

It is not so much that we step outside the problems: we realize that we are already outside them. We can then see thoughts, ideas and worries just like we would see the crowd passing by if we were standing in St. Catherine Street on a busy day. We do not get into the middle of the crowd and try to stop it; we do not hold our arms out to stop the flow. People just pass by.   In just being, we do not stop the flow. The flow is just a flow.

Because we take our problems for granted, we consider that this is how it has to be. Some people do not even realize that they suffer. They are suffering terribly, but they are so convinced that this is how it has to be that they no longer see it as suffering. This was brought home to me very starkly, one day. When I was working in a company, I had to ask my boss for time off in order to go to sesshins. He asked me one day, “What exactly are you doing? Why are you doing all this?” I said, “Well, I’m like most people. My life is suffering. I suffer quite a deal, and I want to see the source of it and find what I can do about it.” He said, “You say everyone suffers? I don’t suffer.” He looked at me out of haunted eyes and said, “I don’t suffer. How can you say everyone suffers?” I asked myself at that moment, “This man does not know he suffers! How is that possible?” We take our suffering for granted. We feel this is how it has to be. There is no alternative. By practicing zazen, we do not get rid of problems. We no longer see them in an absolute way; our problems are no longer absolute, we realize that we suffer.

When people asked Buddha, “Is this the case?” he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask him, “Is this not the case?” and he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” Or they would ask, “Is it both the case and not the case?” and again he would say, “It is a viewpoint.” In other words, see it from that point of view, it is a viewpoint. We say that Buddhism does not aim at giving correct knowledge or a correct viewpoint. Buddha is not saying, “Look, I have the truth.” What he is saying is, “It is a viewpoint”. Moreover, Buddha is not saying, “It is only a viewpoint.”

Let me tell you a story about when I was young. I used to love going to the Tuppenny Rush.   Tuppennce was two pence, two pennies, and the rush was because you had to get into the ‘cinema’ first. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get a seat. I used to go to see the Saturday films, which would be projected onto an ordinary bed sheet.

Sometimes, when the film was well underway, somebody might want something that was behind the screen, and he would go behind using a flashlight. Of course, that ruined the film. Here’s this guy galloping along on his horse trying to get this Indian, and, all of a sudden, he is obliterated by the light of a flashlight shining at the back of the screen. In other words, I would see the film without seeing it as having an absolute reality. The light defused the tension; it takes the poison out of it.   I’m offering you awakening; to awaken to the viewpoint, the iewpoint that is your life. You’re not living your life; you are living your viewpoint of your life. The viewpoint is the flashlight behind the screen. You live your life, not the life.

If you feel that your life is in a mess, do not try to sort out the mess. You need to see it as a viewpoint, as a way of seeing. The way that you see your life is just one way of seeing it. You think it is the only way of seeing it. It’s not that there is a better way of seeing it, but what you think of as your life is a way of seeing it. To realize, to waken to the viewpoint, will be like a flashlight behind the screen. Your life will no longer have that stark, absolute reality that you think, indeed are quite sure that it has. You relinquish your identification with it. You say, “I am that.” You are not that. All that you can say is “I am.”   In this way you let go of the sense of being inevitably involved, of having to be involved, of having to resolve the tangle of life.

Nisargadatta says, “What you believe you need is not what you need.” What you believe you have to do about your life, you do not have to do. Your life will be lived whatever you do. The die is cast now. When we were young there were forks on the road that we could take ― there were many of them when we were young ― but every fork we took reduced the number of the forks we could take until eventually the road is set out before us. Now all we have to do is walk it. But who is it that walks? This is important, not the road that you walk. A homeless man living on the streets in Austin, Texas, wrote an interesting book. He described a thoroughly interesting life, thoroughly exciting, and thoroughly worthwhile, although he didn’t work at all and had no home. Reading his account, I thought, “That sounds a fascinating life. Perhaps I could try that, perhaps I could become homeless.” What you believe you need is not what you need. We set up barriers to climb over, and, having climbed over them we build more barriers, and we get weary, and we say, life is just climbing over barriers all the time; why isn’t it more smooth going? Then we build up another barrier and start climbing over it.

Once we see––and we do not have to see very deeply––but once we see there is a way of stepping outside, of no longer being identified with our anxieties and worries, then that is that: I am not that. Once we see, “I am not that,” then we knows this truly is the way. I am…that is all. Everything is an illusion and an obstacle. By seeing you life as a viewpoint you can see that all experience is experience; it is not experience of ‘something’; it is not the experience of a reality outside the experience. Reality is given to it by your identification with it. Because you say, “I am it,” it, whatever ‘it’ is, becomes real. If I am a confused life, then that life is a very real confused life. ‘I am’ is too simple. We ask, “Is that all? Just to see that I am?” Refusing the simple, people say, “I am hungry for bread, but you give me stones.” To return to what you already are is too simple and so therefore too difficult.

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

Many of us believe, “If I practice, I’m going to get understanding; I’m going to get high level experience; I’m going to reach high spiritual states; I’m going to become a good person, a loving person,” and all of the other acquisitions we believe will come with awakening. We come to practice with the sense of “I want to get.” A frequent complaint that I hear in dokusan is, “I haven’t got anything at all out of this practice. I have been practicing, how long have I been practicing, and I haven’t got anything, nothing.”   Practicing to acquire is like gold imagining that an addition of copper will improve it. A philosopher said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” ‘I am’ is to will one thing. Purification is seeing that you simply are. Purification is not rejection of the impure; it is seeing that you are. It is knowing that you know. Circling around the question, “What am I?” fiddling with it, discussing it, looking at it from different angles, assessing it, protesting about it, all this is simply vanity.

Someone might say, “Seeing that I am is easier said than done. Seeing that I am is like being told to just get rid of my life. Undoubtedly the entanglement of life comes from the content of the mind. But the mind is there is in all its confusion.” But, where do we get the certainty that the mind is there other than from the mind? Our reaction to the situation is part of the situation. A painter is part of the painting. We have this tendency to separate the mind and say, “The mind over there is the problem.” But we fail to recognize that that statement, “The mind over there is the problem” is the mind at work. It is similar to when someone says, “I know I’ve got a big ego.” It is the big ego that is talking. All that we do and think ultimately is in order to protect, nourish and support the mind itself, but it is the mind itself that does all of this nourishing. It all comes out of the fact that I have to be! This is why Rinzai asks, “What is the use of waiting until you have opened your mind?”

The compulsion to be is the compulsion to survive. I have to survive; I have to be. “Having to be” is the problem. When we sit following the breath, involved with the koan, or just sitting, we are letting go of the compulsion, the necessity, to be”. This is why people get upset when they are told to “step outside the problem.” They think, “Even though my life is a mess, I have to be that life, because there isn’t anything else. That is what I am. Without that I am nothing. I am a vacancy. I am a void. I’d sooner have a disastrous life than be nothing.” But again, it is the mind, the “having to be” that has to be. The mind has to have the mind.

In the entrance to the Montreal Zen Center zendo building you will find a statue as well as a picture of a carp. These are to remind us constantly, as we come through the entrance into the zendo, of what we are coming to do. The carp swims up against the stream, and we are going against the current. The current is the current “having to be.” To let go of “having to be” is to go against the current. “Just being” is letting go of the compulsion “I have to be.” Coming home to the truth that you are, breaks the lynch pin that holds you to the illusion of life. Stepping outside the illusion takes you beyond experience.

But, then, how do you step outside the troubled mind?

By returning to the truth that you are. And how do you do that? You ask the question “What am I?” and whatever offers itself to you is a viewpoint. Anything that you can experience is a viewpoint. In other words, you are simply letting go of your identification with the viewpoint. You are breaking the connection. Practice is a long journey because we are thoroughly identified with the mind, but each time we come back to the question, if we really enter into the question, or rather each time we really allow the question to be, we cut another link and another tie has been broken.

The statement, “Stay with the questioning. Allow the questioning to be,” is too simple. We get a thought, “Well this is interesting,” and before we knows it, we have wandered into the never never land of endless thought. We are right back into misery again. We want to be entertained. Practice is too boring, people say. “When I do zazen I get bored.” Although getting bored is natural, we reject it and seek drama. We stir up whatever will, one way or another, distract and provide drama and action. It is so hard and requires such discipline to realize that there is only one thread throughout practice: to stay with the questioning, be the questioning. Let nothing else intervene.   Lose interest in thoughts. As Nisargadatta would say, “Stay beyond all thoughts in silent being awareness. It is not progress, for what you have come to is already there waiting for you.” Coming and going we never leave home.

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Seeing is the room

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

Satori poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hui Neng’s Flag: Koan 29 from the Mumonkan


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

Mumon’s Comment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you knew how to suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain and suffering

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

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

How can we face suffering?

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

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

The cause of our suffering

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

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

Desire as the cause of suffering

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

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

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

Exist is to stand outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I?

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

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

The koan.

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

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

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

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

Yet another master said:

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

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

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

If you knew how to suffer

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

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

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

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

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

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“I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Book cover

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