“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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11 Responses to SONG OF AWAKENING II

  1. Marie Lloyd says:

    There’s weeping for conventional reasons based on events I don’t like and then there’s just weeping. Here is a great trigger of just weeping.

  2. helmutm says:

    ‘At what moment does what you experience as real become a memory ?’

  3. helmutm says:

    Pondering on that question you find there isn’t anything that does not become a memory except ‘I am’ or ‘now’. For me this cuts to the bone and is very helpful.

  4. Claire says:

    “…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.”

    So how could it be “present” or “not present”???
    What would know that “Knowing is not present”, if not Knowing…

  5. Gervais Asselin says:

    What is amazing is that how life keeps one on track. If it’s not one thing it’s another. A bird’s song, the sound of the wind in the trees, stubbing one’s toe in the middle of the night, hearing that one has cancer, or reading a blog. Laughter or tears, It all seems like a miracle,

  6. Albert Low says:

    My daily activities are quite ordinary,
    I am totally at home with them,
    Holding on to nothing, letting nothing go,
    Every where is without hindrance, without conflict.
    Of what value the signs of rank and wealth?
    The last speck of dust obscuring hills and mountains is gone.
    My miraculous power and magical activity is
    In drawing water and chopping wood.

  7. Ken Tapscott says:

    Thank you for all of these teachings. They are a big help to me in trying to get to the core of these matters. I am practicing with two of Roshi Kapleau’s successors, and discovered your blog a few months ago. I recently read your book on Hakuin, and the book on “The Roots of Zen”, and the one on the sutras (which gets at the Heart Sutra better than any text I’ve found so far, including Mr. Red Pine’s somewhat less-than-helpful exegesis). I greatly appreciate your writings, and look forward to each new “episode” here.

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