Everyone has their own light (teisho 1007 – 2005)

Before the thought ‘I am’ arises, what are you? You are always before the thoughts. You do not have to go backwards in some inner space, or go backwards in some inner time to get to the before. You are already before. When it says ‘From the beginning all beings are Buddha’ it is saying: at the origin, at the very source, this is your home, this is where you reside. Coming and going, you can never leave home, you are always at the source. This source is now. It is not a new way of knowing, it is dropping the illusion that goes with knowing, the illusion of something.

It is not a matter of understanding or interpretation. When we ask ‘who are you?’ we are not asking for any kind of definition. You cannot draw a boundary around it. There is only one world. That world is you. This matter is not in the eye, or in the ear, or in the environment. You can’t see it, you can’t hear it, it is not out there. As long as there is something to know, you have missed it. Forget gain and loss, forget achievement, forget getting something.

Everyone must investigate for themselves. Everyone has their own light, shining continuously now as of old. It is not something you see but something you see with, know with. Because of this light you see, you hear, you feel. This light is the seeing, the hearing, the feeling. The entire world is your divine light. The entire world is within your light, and the entire world is inseparable from yourself.

What was your face before your parents were born? It is because we are imbued with the notion of beginnings and endings, of birth and death, that we feel we are contained, that we are defined by life, by our bodies, by our experience. We feel we are subject to experience, that experience is primary. We feel the world is primary, that we are born into the world and die from the world.

Before existence, what are you? Before a thought arises, what are you? It is in the immediacy of the moment, now, that you can respond. A moment’s hesitation and you are in a state of reflection, which means you are outside yourself.

Knowing is not illuminating something, knowing something; Knowing illuminates itself.

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Questioning (teisho 1169 – 2009)

Nisargadatta: “As long as you take yourself to be a person, a body or a mind, separate from the stream of life, having a will of its own, pursuing its own aims, you are living merely on the surface.”

This points the direction we must go in our practice. What is a person? What does it mean, I am a person? We call this person ‘I’. It is this ‘I’ that we are investigating. We believe intently that we are this ‘I’. When we think we are a person we think we are something, that there is some form that we have, some shape, some kind of existence that we have. We are so habituated to the notion that there has to be an I – that thinks, that feels, that makes decisions – that we do not bother to question it. We pay lip service to the question, but always behind the question ‘Who am I?’ lies the certainty that I am something. So the question ‘Who am I?’ becomes ‘What sort of thing am I?’ We can never hear the answer because we are asking the wrong question.

All we want are answers, but it is realising the importance of the question that is necessary; of understanding the question, of asking the right question. The answers are all there, in the chants, in the sutras, but they are useless unless we can really ask the question. In grasping after an answer we let go of the question; we go into the dokusan room to ask ‘Is this the right answer?’

The frustration of the koans is that one wants to give an answer, but the koan is pointing to the question. Understanding the question is having the answer. One can only understand the question if one has the answer. There is no before and after with question and answer, no separation.

Questioning takes us beyond the fixed form of the self, the ‘I am something’. Answers inevitably take us to something. Or one could say that all we can accept as an answer is something. This is the trap of words. We can’t hear the answer because it is tied up in words. It can be tied up very nicely, very simply, but still tied up: ‘true self is no self, our own self is no self.’ We have to get the question, and not just in words, to unlock the answer.

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Hakuin’s Chant. (teisho 550 – 1997)

In his chant, In Praise of Zazen, Hakuin says, “But if we turn inwards and prove our true nature….”

In this teisho Albert talks about this turning inwards and points out that we mostly misunderstand what is required.  He starts by drawing attention to the word ‘But’, pointing out how important this word is.  The word ‘and’ could have been used instead grammatically.  However, it would not have had the same effect, the same impact as But.   But signifies a turnabout.

He points out that Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen is made up of three parts. The first talks about and examines the Wheel of Samsara, and how we endlessly circle the three worlds. The second part concerns itself with the merits of practice, of zazen that leads to samadhi.  And then all this is dismissed with a “But”.  “But if we turn inwards and prove our true nature.”

What is this ‘turning inwards’?  Many people have difficulty with the idea of keeping the eyes open during meditation.  They feel they need to shut the eyes in order to turn inward.  They feel that to turn inwards means into the mind, into the head, into the chest, the heart.   Turning away from the world.  There is the feeling that in some way it is a direction.  When one hears a bird singing it is felt that the mind turns outwards; and to turn inwards is to turn away from the sound. Some people feel that turning inwards is to turn to their thoughts, or to their ideas.

You hear the sound of the bird singing, but you do not hear the hearing.  To hear the hearing, or to be aware of the hearing, is to turn inwards.  We think that all there is is the cry of the bird. It is not that we must block out the sound, rather that we must see into the hearing.  By becoming aware of the hearing rather than what is heard, of the seeing rather than what is seen, we can see into our true nature, become aware of our true nature.  Gurdjieff called it “Remembering yourself.

When you just hear the bird singing, that is form.  We need to go beyond the form to emptiness. Everything that we can know is form.   Form is not just that which has a shape. When it says “form is emptiness” in the Prajna Paramita, it goes on to say “feeling, thought and choice, consciousness itself, are the same as this. Dharmas here are empty…”   In other words, feeling, thought, consciousness are all form, and form is empty. What does it mean, form is empty?  To hear the  sound as empty is to hear the hearing.

Some people think that when it is said that form is emptiness it is another way of saying that form is nothing, that form is not being, but it isn’t.  Everything is what it is just as it is. But at the same time, everything is empty.  To see into the truth is not to see differently, it is to see the seeing.  This is turning inwards.

Our sense that things are what they are comes from a particular way that we use the mind. The mind is focused, and by that focusing something is selected out from what is otherwise simply a totality, a whole.  You hear the bird and you focus on the bird, you are not aware of the pavement under your feet.  Then your foot cramps and you are aware of standing on the pavement, and the bird song fades into the background, out of focus.  Then someone goes by and your foot, the pavement, the bird fade into the background and your next door neighbour comes into focus.  And so it goes on, the mind is in constant movement, focusing, constantly calling into being what is called dharmas, things.  We can call into being our feelings, our thoughts, our judgements;  we can call into being chairs, tables; or we can call  into being the whole room or the whole house, or the whole city, or the whole world.  We call it into being by focusing and we fix it by naming it.  Without a name, it slips constantly in and out of focus.

Because the mind is constantly focusing, the fact that everything is suspended in mind is overlooked.  Once things are named they all appear separate, including oneself, ‘I”.   I  become something separate, I become something in the world.

But if we turn inwards and prove our true nature” …. another name: true nature.  But this is immediately qualified by:  “our true self is no self.”   People tend to look on no self as a nothing, an absence.   But it is simply saying that I am is not something, not just another thing in the world.  ‘No-self’ stops the blind habit of the mind focusing and fixing, separating.  True self is no self, it has no fixed form, no name, there is nothing you can hold on to; but that does not mean that it is nothing.  It means that it is now free to be everything, to be fixed or unfixed as the occasion demands.  We go beyond a fixed form of the self.

“Then the gate to the oneness of cause and effect is thrown open.”  We usually look on it that there is a cause, a space, and then an effect – they are separate.  But there is no gap, there is no separation: striking the bell and the bell ringing are not separate, they are one. Everything is what it is, everything is coming out of itself in the moment.

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The Jewel Mirror Samadhi (teishos 934 – 2004 & 1200 – 2009)

This is the title of a fairly long poem, which could just as well have been called “Mu”.

Samadhi has two distinct meanings: there is the samadhi that one attains to, in which the sense of self opposed to the world drops away and for a time there is unity. There are many different levels of this kind of samadhi, starting with the ‘jogger’s high,’ in which one is no longer jogging, there is no sense of separation between oneself and the body, no sense of effort, and no distinction between oneself and the world. There are higher levels of this samadhi, for example the artist. If one is really engaged in writing, painting or playing music, it is possible to get into a state which is almost a trance; it isn’t a trance because one is fully aware, but one is not aware of particulars.

There is nevertheless a dualism in the kind of Samadhi which is the result of some kind of activity or process. Buddha studied with the teachers of meditation leading to Samadhi. He then said that this is not the way to resolve the enigma of birth and death and suffering.

Then there is the Samadhi which is being extolled in this verse. You are always in this Mirror Samadhi. Everything that one does is the expression of this Samadhi: walking, talking, eating, sleeping. This Mirror Samadhi is home, it is Mu.

It is only because we perceive things in a dualistic way: me/you, me/it, right/ wrong – which is inevitable once one takes up a fixed view point – that we don’t appreciate the truth that Samadhi is our natural state.

When Buddha said ‘throughout heaven and earth, I alone am the honored one’, this is the expression of the Samadhi state which is our natural state; and each of us with Buddha can affirm that throughout heaven and earth, I alone am the honored one, because each of us is the honored one; each of us is Buddha. Each of us is the light and each of us is nevertheless whole and complete. All sentient beings – people, cats, dogs, birds, bugs, – each is Buddha and yet each is itself.

We are not practicing to come home, but to realize that we are already home.

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Koans (teishos 593-1998 & 1026-2006)

To say it in the abstract is easy, but to explain reality in words is difficult. This is the key to koans. When one is working on a koan, any explanation is an utter waste of time.

When one thinks of what language has made possible, it is awe inspiring. Yet we take it for granted, we do not give it a thought. But despite all of this linguistic magnificence words just cannot touch it, cannot explain the colour red; try to tell a blind man what the colour red is. When one starts looking at what words cannot do one realises that despite all their magnificence, they are very thin things. What am I? Where is a word that can come anywhere near it?

This is the reason we have koans. To try to put up a frame to focus the mind in a way that is not a convergent focus. A focus that is not seizing or grasping. It is a way by which one can set the mind in readiness.

When one is asking What am I? one must go right to the source of that word ‘I’. Cut right through. There is a koan that tells of Layman Pang being asked to give a talk on the Diamond sutra. He comes up to the lectern and “CRACK”, then walks away. In that CRACK are all the sutras.

To see into your true nature you must walk the razor’s edge, you must wake up to this razor’s edge, this subtlety of perception.

Awakening is always a flash. It isn’t a question of time even. It is not that one moment there is the unawakened state and the next moment the awakened state. It is talked about in this way because we have to divide things up to talk about anything. There is no before and after with awakening. It is no moment. One realises one was never unawakened, that one is always in samadhi.

“The bodhisatva, holding to nothing whatever, is freed of delusive hindrance, rid of the fear bred by it.” Everything is just as it is.

What do you want? What are you looking for? It is so easy to be carried along by the stream of events. We think that knowledge is desirable and that there is a self that we can gain knowledge about. Knowledge is over-emphasised in our society. What is it that gives status to knowledge? Why do we want to know? Knowing is our very nature and we believe that in knowledge we can capture that knowing. Nisargadatta: “True knowledge of the self is not knowledge. It is not something you find by searching. “

Dogen said, “You must think the unthinkable” and this is using the mind in an intense way. What is the difference between using the mind and gaining knowledge? Using the mind is awakening the mind, but it can only be awakened if there is some kind of problem, something that doesn’t fit. It is in being presented with a contradiction that the mind becomes active. This is why knowledge is deadening. It says: this is how it is. There is no argument; no room for contradiction or ambiguity. When we use the mind to deal with an ambiguity, something that doesn’t fit, the mind is aroused. So when we say use the mind, we want you to search out that which is contradictory, which doesn’t fit. Search out the absurd, ask questions about that which nobody asks questions about. Look at things differently, turn things on their head. This is koan practice. A koan always has a contradiction. The basis of all koans is: “there is nothing you can do. Now, what are you going to do?”

Use the confusion of your life. Life is constantly throwing up conflicts, ambiguities. Use the tension; the mind is dull and torpid if we leave it alone, we sink easily into inertia, into habit. It is for this reason that we have to take up a koan. One uses the mind, not in the direction of resolving something, but in order to find the problem, to realize the problem, not to get away from it.

Take the koan Mu. Mu means No. Everything has Buddha nature, and yet Joshu says that a dog does not have Buddha nature. Mu. How do you know “No”? How can you enter into No? How can you enter into a negation? You have to ponder this, question it, dig deeply into it. You have to use the mind. It is thinking, but not in the way of closure. You are enlivening the questioning condition. It is because one realises that nothing one can do is of any avail that the question becomes so imperative.

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The Song of Realising the Way. (teisho 1338, 2014)

People think that reading is taboo in Zen. But time and again you get people who read something and it clicks and they come to awakening. Albert comments that there were many books in his life that were strong pointers on the Way.

The verses called “The Song of Realising the Way” are about corroborating the Dharma through one’s own experience. What Zen is against in reading something and feeling that, having read it, one knows it. This is of course quite absurd. It is the personal realisation, the personal awakening, coming home to oneself that is essential.

The verses start with “Haven’t you met the one, mature and at ease?” This could mean: haven’t you met someone who is awakened, who is developed and who has seen into the truth. But at a deeper level, it means your own true nature, which is all knowing, all being, does not need to develop and has no need for further education. The notion that we are on earth in order to pass the exam of existence so that we can get promoted into a higher grade, is not the Zen way. “This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land, and this very body the body of Buddha.” This very body is the body of the one mature and at ease. The essential nature of one’s true self is that it is at ease. Yet one could say that human beings are very rarely at ease. Care, concern, anxiety, and stress is the lot of human beings. It is the day to day sense of futility, the sense that something profound is missing, that somehow one has missed the boat, that is our suffering.

“Haven’t you met the one mature and at ease, the one with nothing to do and nothing to master?” There is no need for development, you are not here to develop yourself, and we emphasise this because so often there is this feeling that one has to do something that is going to make a difference. But there is nothing that is going to make a difference, you are already at one. This is so difficult to accept, that we are at one with the creative power of the universe. That the world in its entirety is our own creation. “It is like one in water crying I thirst.'” The practice is not about getting understanding, it is about coming home to this truth of being, this is the only worthwhile aspect of practice. Coming home to your true nature, the one with nothing to do and nothing to master. The one who neither rejects thought nor seeks truth. People sometimes feel it is necessary to suppress thought or avoid thought; they feel that they have to empty the mind. But thought is not the problem, the problem is that we do not see that thought itself is a manifestation of what we are fundamentally, a manifestation of Knowing.

When you have a bout of anguish, see that in that very misery there is the sense of I, there is an identification that gives reality. We look on this anguish as real, but we give it reality. It is only when you take it over as your own that you can let it go.

“Neither reject thought nor seek truth.” We are not trying to find out who we are, we are not trying to find what is real, what is truth, we are trying to allow it to manifest, to open ourselves so that the light can shine naturally within us or through us. The truth is already present, you are the truth.

Seeing is being, hearing is being. As long as you feel that hearing is a faculty you have, that this faculty hears something that is coming from over there, then you live in a dualistic world. It is because we do not examine what appears to be so obvious, what we take for granted, that we are constantly tormented.

The I that we look upon as the knower is also known, it is also an outcome of knowing. People feel that the body is an impediment, but this very body is the body of Buddha. We do not have to get rid of anything, change anything, we have to awaken our basic knowing.

The sense of things having a self-nature dissolves. It is not that things disappear but that there is a dissolution of the thingness. The true nature of all things is innately Buddha.

“Greed, anger and ignorance appear and disappear like ocean foam.” Very often the basic knowing/being is looked upon as water, and the water becomes disturbed, and then it becomes disturbed because of the disturbance. And then the disturbance creates more disturbance. And so it continues until instead of having a calm, peaceful lake, you have a raging ocean spitting out greed, anger, and ignorance.

People want a purpose for everything. They ask Why? The why of wonder is simply expressing something inexpressible. The other why is asking what is the purpose, everything must have a reason for being. But there is no purpose; everything is meaningful, everything is purposeful; but that does not mean that there is a purpose, that beyond what is happening there is something else that we can call a purpose. Life is meaningful, life is the process, not the result. This is what Zen teaches.

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On Getting Old

It has been a very heavy winter, and we could all do with something to smile about. I found something that made me smile and thought I would share it with you. The lighter side of Albert. This article was written for Zen Gong some time ago, I think when he was in his seventies.


I grow old, I grow old
Shall I wear the bottom of my trousers rolled?

So you want me to write about getting old. I do not know why you ask me to do this kind of thing. After all, I am only a beginner and I don’t know much about the subject. Furthermore, as far as I can remember, this is the first time that I have got old. But the little that I do know about the subject impels me to say that if the alternative were not so dubious I would tell you, “Don’t do it.” For one thing, there is no future in it. For another, it really is not for sissies. I remember once Philip Kapleau, as he lowered himself gingerly into an armchair, – he was over eighty at the time – groaning, “Whoever said, ‘Grow old with me the best is yet to be’ must have been about 21.” Either that or it must have been said by a seventy-year-old guy on ecstasy.

Let me share some of my discoveries about getting old. For one thing getting out of bed in the morning sometimes feels a lot like getting out of a train wreck. They say that if, after the age of fifty you do not ache when you get out of bed then you are dead. Let me tell you, after the age of seventy, sometimes when you get out of bed you wish you were. Another thing is that bits start falling off. I have already lost parts of my eyes to cataract operations, many of my teeth and a hip. It’s true that they gave me replacement parts, but somehow they don’t seem to work quite so well as the originals used to.

Another problem is that no-one does things as well as they used to when I was young. The kids are a lot more unruly, fruit no longer tastes like fruit, you can never find a sales assistant when you want one, and you just try getting someone on the phone; one of my fingers has become arthritic pressing all the buttons. In those days bank managers called you “Sir!” doctors made home calls and the policeman was your friend. There was even a song that said, “If you want to know the time ask a policeman.”

Just think. When I was young we had all the time in the world. We could even read a book from beginning to end. We did not have TV, the Web, cell phones, computer games, or e-mail and yet we remained perfectly sane. An airplane was something you rushed out of doors to see, and it was only the local doctor who could afford a car. No washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves, or telephones, disturbed the peace. No Big Macs, no pizzas, no TV dinners! Central heating was unknown as was air-conditioning. We had no i-pod, i-mac, no DVD, VCR, CD or even Hi-Fi. I remember a teacher telling me that the developing industries to get into were electronics and plastics, and although I nodded wisely it took me quite a while before I knew what the words even meant.

Another thing is that for an old person the world has a lot more living people in it. For a twenty-year-old anyone older than thirty becomes invisible. In fact, I remember a movie that was, I think, playing in the 60’s, in which anyone older than thirty was sent off to a happy farm, where they were fed on happy pills to keep them out of the way.

You know when you are getting old when

  • It seems that every other week you are having another birthday.
  • When the real meaning of “Happy returns of the day” strikes you for the first time.
  • When you find yourself in the middle of a room wondering why and how you got there.
  • When you start talking about one thing and end up talking about something quite different.
  • When an elderly lady gives you her seat on the metro.
  • When you no longer save Xmas wrappings for next Xmas.
  • When your doctor looks like a teenager.
  • When you do not buy green bananas anymore.
  • When doing up your shoelaces is the major accomplishment of the day.

A very well known koan is the one where a monk goes to a master and asks, “How can I get away from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter?” If he had been an old monk he might well have asked, “How can I get away from the aches in the morning and the pains at night?” As you probably know the maser said, “Go where there is no heat in summer and cold in winter.” ‘Oh!” replied the monk, “Where is that?” “When in summer, sweat; when in winter, shiver.” So where do we go to find where there is no ache in the morning or pain at night?

I remember when, during my last trip to England, I visited my old aunt. She was ninety-three years old at the time, living on her own and fiercely independent and during the past couple of years had kicked out two social workers who had come to help look after her because they got in her way. She had been recently discharged from hospital after suffering a touch of food poisoning. In the latter part of her life, she had been back and forth to the hospital several times for various ailments and certainly knew the aches in the morning and the pains at night. I asked her, “How old are you, aunt?” “Ninety-three,” she said. “How old do you feel?” I continued. Without a pause, she flashed back, “Twenty-one!” and gave me the most beatific smile. I know just what she meant.

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