Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fear and Zazen in Norfolk

Last weekend I attended my second proper sesshin - two and a half days of zazen, Buddhist teachings and ceremony, work, silence and socialising. I enjoyed it tremendously of course.

I'm not the most sociable of people - I like to have my own personal space and time, which was a slight issue for me - but they were a great crowd of people, and the atmosphere was great and I made a few new friends.

I found the extended periods of zazen easier than last time. My posture is better - I didn't get the tense painful shoulders this time and I've almost got my sit-in-lotus-without-leg-going-completely-numb technique perfected. Also I have a greater acceptance now of discomfort which makes it easier to tolerate. And although my mind still wanders a lot, I think my Zazen was deeper - I certainly noticed a difference to my sitting when I came out, which was considerably deeper.

The Gudo, Jean Pierre, (who I just found out has a physics PhD) is perhaps slightly less approachable than Guy (the Gudo at my last sesshin), but I really enjoyed his teaching style. He's clearly a very intelligent man with a profound understanding of Buddhism. He put a new and refreshing emphasis on appreciation and expression of gratitude (even if we know not who or what to be grateful to), getting away from the tendency to interpret Zen as a sort of nihilism or amoralism, which is prevalent is a great deal of western thinking about Zen. There are two sides of the coin and the True Way is a path taken between them.

There was one incident, however, which I found really hard. I had a question I wanted to ask during the mondo (formally and publically asking the Gudo questions). I kept turning the question over in my mind, imagining the amusing way in which I was going to deliver it. However, although I got up and asked Guy a question last time, for some reason this time I couldn't summon the nerve. I've done the highest bungee jump in the world without hesitation (twice) and I've been cage diving with great white sharks, but public speaking still terrifies the wits out of me. (On the way home Gaby told me that there's a book on overcoming fear of public speaking called 'And Death came Third' - because public speaking comes top of people's fears and death comes third , don't know what comes second)

So after the mondo I asked the Secretary if it was possible to speak to the Gudo more privately at some point. Immediately I was suprised to be hurried into the room where he was sitting closely with what I can only describe as his 'Inner Circle' all of whom of course went silent and I was asked to divulge my question.

My mind went completely blank.

The question had gone. I was aware only of massive amounts of adrenaline rushing around in my brain and my consciousness of the attention of the people in the room. It was my first proper meeting with Jean Pierre and while at some level I had probably hoped to impress him and the senior practitioners around him with my understanding of Buddhism, instead I was exposing myself as being about as 'un-zen' as it is possible to be. There go my fantasies about reacting spontaneously and unselfconsciously to a roshi's koan. I made self-depreciating remarks to hide my embarrassment and buy some time, but there it was - I had intruded on the Gudo outside of the mondo with my little question and now I couldn't remember it and I was standing there like an idiot, watched by all the most important people at the sesshin. I was mortified with embarrassment. A timely reminder of suffering in the midst of my cosy zen thoughts perhaps. It felt like I was there for about a minute trying to remember the question but it was probably half that. Anyway after a bit of prompting I remembered my question: 'You were talking about the Buddhist teaching that 'Nothing is hidden'. Can you explain further what it means?' He explained it in terms of the famous Butterfly Effect - of effects resonating across the universe. It didn't mean that at any point in space and time we had access to all information. Ah it means that nothing is cut-off or separate, I thought. I stood and gassho'ed to the Gudo with a smile saying 'Thank you very much'. He asked for my name, and I actually felt a secret reluctance when I gave it to him, as if at some level I hoped instead that he and everyone else in the room would forget all about it and forget all about me and I could leave the room and it would be as if it had never happened.

I sat with these feelings through an hour and a half of Zazen. After that I needed to speak to Rosemary who was playing the role of Agony Nun for the weekend, and fortunately just after that we all had a few drinks to celebrate the last night of the sesshin. That helped too. I came to thank Jean Pierre when it was time to leave and he told me to keep up the brave face - and he shook my hand and told me that a question about Buddhist philosophy was like a gift to him. Very gracious.

It was a good lesson, all round.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Zen nonsense

It is a commonplace explanation of Zen Koans that they are riddles with no logical solution, designed to provoke a non-rational response. While this is not absolutely wrong, it is generally misunderstood to mean that the responses to Koans are arbitrary nonsense. Ben-ami Scharfstein makes a direct equivalence between Zen and Dada in The Sound of One Hand.

Dadaists used absurdity as a tool to articulate despair. Dada art was created with junk and visually repulsive materials as an expression of their stringent anti-establishmentarianism. Ben-ami Scharfstein equates this nonsensical Dada trait with the 'mystical madness' of Zen masters in his introduction to The Sound of the One Hand. He cites a poem by one of the Dadaists, Kurt Schwitters that begins with:


and ends with :

This nonsense verse is compared to one composed by Master Mumon who attained satori after a four-year contemplation of the 'Mu koan':
Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu!
Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu!

This is of course quite inaccurate, but an understandable mistake to make. Zen koans are often composed of complex metaphors and are often genuinely paradoxical, so to those unfamiliar with them they might well seem indistinguishable from Dadaist nonsense. Compare this:
"The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night...the East Mountain is moving over the water"

"DADA doubts everything. Dada is an armadillo. Everything is Dada, too. Beware of Dada. Anti-dadaism is a disease: selfkleptomania, man's normal condition, is DADA. But the real dadas are against DADA."

Or for that matter:
"But four young oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat --
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet."

I've come across Zen Buddhists online who have literally Edward Lear verses in response to questions about Buddhism. But this is a misunderstanding of Zen. Just because you can't immediately make sense of something does not mean it is nonsense.. All the koans I've been able to investigate in detail can be understood in terms of Buddhist philosophy, although it is of course possible that there are others which are indeed arbitrary nonsense - there are plenty of koans I can't yet make sense of.

It is a little known fact that the Dada art movement which later evolved into the Surrealist movement was strongly influenced by Zen, or perhaps more accurately, by a misinterpretation of Zen as anti-rationalism. This is not to say that Zen and Dada have no relation or that Dada has no value. Dada was a highly radical, subversive, nihilistic, anti-art movement, which sought to destroy traditional culture and aesthetics - to overthrow order and the violence - in particular the First World War - which the Dadaists believed it caused.

Dada is anti-rational - it aims to make as little sense as possible, to be free from reason. The aim of Zen is freedom too, but it is freedom from rejection as well as attachment. It is neither nihilistic nor chaotic. The key difference between Zen and Dada is that Dada is a form of nihilism and anti-rationalism and Zen avoids such extreme views, being a direct engagement with reality rather than being a philosophy or ideology at all.

You will never understand that life is a pun, for you will never be alone enough to reject hatred, judgments, all these things that require such an effort, in favor of a calm level state of mind that makes everything equal and without importance. Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918

A monk was asked to discard everything. "But I have nothing," he exclaimed. "Discard that too!" ordered his master.
(An aim of Buddhism is to avoid clinging to all concepts. 'Nothing' is a concept and is clinging to it can be a real problem for practioners. The master is telling the student to discard this too.)

Q: What is Buddha ? A: Dried shit on a stick.
(I think this is an attempt to sabotage the questioner's dualistic thinking, his mental searching for 'Buddha' separate from the mundane, a sacred reality separate from the profane. Buddha is this very reality, even on a stick you wipe shit with. So the master is switching the student's concept of the sacred with his concept of the profane in order that he can realise the sacred in the profane and the profane in the sacred, in other words to see the interdependent whole. This is the same as the principle: 'There is no difference between samsara and Nirvana')

I read a description of 'enlightenment' in terms of mountains walking a while back and it seemed like nonsense, but I came across an interpretation of it again recently. It was this that prompted this posting.

"The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night...the East Mountain is moving over the water"

My understanding is that these words are indended to challenge the ordinary view of a strict difference between living and non-living things - even mountains which appear to have persisted for eternity have no fixed nature and are in a state of continuous dynamic change, with mountains flowing through the landscape, being 'born' and 'dying' and flowing (as islands) across water.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

My Japanese Garden #2

I've now more-or less completed one end of the garden - don't forget that this entire section of the garden was covered in about 6 inches of concrete when I moved in. The main jobs remaining are to sort out the fencing, place some boulders and planting some cherry trees and other plants. It's taking a long time - I don't have a lot of time to spend on it - hopefully this time next year it will be near completion.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Buddha Manager

I´m on holiday in Seville at the moment with my son, my girlfriend Emily, her brother Guy and his daughter. Right now I´m waiting to be moved to a new room. There have been a lot of cock-ups in the hostel we´re staying at. It´s a friendly, lively atmosphere here, but really chaotic. Every night there have been people sleeping in the common room. Last night when we got in I found that I could´nt open my safe. Then around 2 or 3am I got woken by an American girl who my bed had been let to by mistake. It is mostly resolved now but I´m waiting in for them to move us to a new room.

I overheard a conversation on the first day between the manager and some Taiwanese girls. They expressed a little surprised that he was the manager - he´s very casual. And, showing his wide cultural knowledge, he explained that he was a buddha manager. I didn´t hear their reply. I can think of more accurate adjectives to describe his management style. But it´s interesting that the word ´Buddha´ is seemingly seen as interchangeable with ´incompetent stoner´.

We´re having a really nice time here. It´s great how the Spanish have a family- and child-friendly night-life culture unlike the UK where night-life seems only to cater mainly for the young and single. This approach seems healthier and there was this interesting news story which ties in with this

Also I´m getting through quite a lot of the Shobogenzo.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


The 'guerrilla artist' Banksy who recently attracted publicity for placing a life-sized model of a Guantanamo Bay detainee in Disneyland and for defacing Paris Hilton CDs has launched an exhibition in LA featuring a pink elephant in a pink 'room'. I think the elephant in the room is supposed to represent undiscussed world issues.

I'm really enjoying his work and his attitude. Some of it is reminiscent of Dead Kennedys and Radiohead artwork - in style and social theme. Great!

'Guerrilla artist' Banksy hits LA

In pictures: Banksy in LA

Monday, September 11, 2006

Karma Police

I recently had a bit of a run-in with the administration of a large Buddhist internet forum. The administration had recently changed and the new powers were taking a dim view of the free-form expression and allegedly almost 'anything goes' attitude of many of the posters on the Zen forum and were taking steps to purge this element. References to burning Buddha statues, killing the Buddha or questioning the authority of the mainstream interpretation of Buddha's teachings were to be forbidden.

Now, I've never been much into posting pictures of flowers or *gasp* pop lyrics on that forum. Most of my involvement was relatively serious discussion. Nor have I seriously challenged the accepted view of the content of what Buddha taught. However, I freely express my own agnosticism or doubt about unknown metaphysical truths such as the traditional descriptions of karma and rebirth.

Because of not accepting this, I thought I would have to always remain on the periphery of Buddhism. Yet it is clear that the Soto Zen sect I belong to does not insist on such beliefs. It appears that Brad Warner's branch of Zen does not insist on such acceptance or belief either since when I asked Gudo Nishijima directly about the afterlife he replied essentially that when we die 'that's it'. This as far as I understand could actually be classed as the view of Annihilationism - definitely regarded by Buddha as a 'wrong view' but this is another story and perhaps I misunderstood him.

Even though these administrators were not Zen practitioners they took the view that 'Zen Buddhists are Buddhists first' - in the sense that Zen Buddhists too had to accept 'Right Understanding' and that Right Understanding included acceptance of karma and rebirth.

My take was that a Zen practitioner does not cling to beliefs one way or the other. That moment-to-moment rebirth renders life-after-death meaningless and that belief that 'we' will be reborn ('sans self' or not) may be a form of covert Eternalism. But it was made clear to me that my views were not welcome anywhere on the board, so I have voluntarily avoided the place since.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Radiohead: V Festival 2006

What can I say? They did a huge set with loads of stuff from OK Computer and The Bends. They played Creep. Wow...

Beauty tips

People who meet me generally think I'm about 30 or in my early 30s, yet I'm at the venerable age of 37 years old! One colleague even thought I was 25! So, although no one ever asks me how I stay so young-looking I'm going to do the right thing and tell you anyway:

  1. Eat healthily
  2. Don't get too stressed about not doing enough exercise
  3. Avoid excessive sunlight.
    Why not try staying indoors and sitting in front of a computer instead?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Zen and therapy

Godo Guy Mercier talked of zazen at times in terms similar to a self-help therapy with destructive emotional and mental habits resolved through careful observation over a long period of time. Not radically dissimilar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I suppose.

In a recent podcast I was listening to, Cho Bo Ji was similarly describing Zen, free from mythology and in terms of acceptance of reality and avoiding getting 'mentally stuck'.

Stephen Batchelor describes Buddhism in secular terms, stripped of religious beliefs, leaving just a path to a positive way of being.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me. Yet there was quite a strong backlash against Batchelor from the Buddhist community, who apparently rejected his agnosticism about rebirth and karma, apparently seeing Batchelor's version of Buddhism as a pale, secular shadow of their noble religion, with it's talk of other worlds, heavenly realms and cycles of birth and death.

So, were they right or can Buddhism be described in terms of psychotherapy?

While it's natural for people to hold onto religious beliefs and be attached to myths about creation, life after death and so on, however I never really saw such beliefs as the essence of Buddhism. Buddha tended to refuse to answer metaphysical questions either on the basis that they are irrelevant to finding an escape from suffering or that the questions themselves were misconceived. Certainly I don't see Buddhism as intended as a belief system. It's for these reasons that I practice Zen rather than one of the schools of Buddhism, which are heavier on metaphysical or supernatural belief.

There are a number of therapists who have made similar claims (references needed), regarding Buddhism as an example of self-realisation which goes beyond ordinary therapy. There are countless therapists who incorporate Buddhist techniques and countless Buddhist books sold as theraputic self-help books.

One difference is that therapy is seen as a cure for the abnormal psychology of the section of society which is regarded as pathological, in other words, 'sick'. Buddhism on the other hand is seen as a universally appropriate practice. It is for this reason, that practicing Buddhism may been seen as having less of a social stigma than receiving therapy. To be precise, this is not because Buddhism does not pathologise one section of society, but because Buddhism regards virtually every sentient being as 'sick' in a sense. Only arahants and/or buddhas are free from this 'disease' that is existence. I think the key difference here is that our attitude towards mental health tends to be normative, that is, the goal of therapy is to make the abnormal normal. Buddhism on the other hand points out that normal people are in a state of suffering too and proposes that it is possible to be better than just 'normal'.

Far from being shameful, to practice Buddhism is regarded in Buddhist societies as a noble pursuit. Wouldn't this attitude of respect for one who has taken responsibility for his or her own welfare be more conducive to mental health and to people's preparedness to deal with these problems, than the current dominant one of castigating those who take such steps as 'the sick' and 'abnormal'? Perhaps it relates to a western attitude of scorn towards those who seek to find happiness in favour of those who are stoically productive?

So perhaps both Buddhism and therapy can be seen as not fundamentally different, just with different cultural meaning and with goals set at different points. But, if this is the case, what about Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist insights? Well, in Buddhism, thoughts are inseparable from the thinker - philosophy is just the mental acts of a particular being at a particular time - there are no Platonic thought-forms existing in some transcendent abstract plane.

One of the most brilliant and influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, saw metaphysical philosophy as a sort of sickness - an overextension of linguistic terms beyond their valid scope, attempting to speak about that which is ineffable. There is a lot of overlap between this an Zen. In Buddhist terminology this might be described as a confusion between conventional and ultimate truths. Wittgenstein's cure was Linguistic Philosophy - language is based on convention and needs to be reigned in when it is applied as if universally applicable.

Our grandest philosophies and most penetrating insights are still just thoughts. Our insights are just the dropping away of our delusions and in that sense are dependent upon them. This is one reason not to get attached to any insights we have. Even if we become 'fully enlightened', we are still entirely human.

Friday, July 28, 2006


At the risk of boring the internet community stupid here are some pictures of my everyday life. This is reality for me. I'm cautious about posting details of my releationships with other people and emotional life so it's all practical stuff. To what extent are my abstract musings an escape from this reality?

An empty skip - boring? Not to me.

Not bad for an evening's work

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My Japanese Garden #1

This is a photo of the garden I took just before we bought the property. Nearly half of it is covered in a concrete patio. The rest of it is patchy, overgrown lawn. If I had realised that the concrete was 6 inches + thick I might have thought twice about removing it, but it's ugly as hell - what were they thinking?

This is just the top layer of concrete - the second layer was slightly thinner.

I've been doing bits and pieces for a couple of month now, chopping down trees, getting rid of piles of rubble at the far end and so on, but now it was time to tackle The Big One - the patio - and my lump hammer just wasn't up to the task. So at the weekend I hired a skip and a pneumatic drill and I broke it all up. Unfortunately, it's not called a mini skip for nothing and I filled it up in no time. So I got another one today. This is how the garden looked earlier today - this must be its lowest point in terms of immediate appearance - the Beirut look.

I removed the vast bulk of the remaining rubble and bricks tonight, with some help from Emily and our second skip is 3/4 full. I'll post another picture of the cleared up garden when I get a chance.

A few years ago I might have found this pretty boring. But I'm getting some real satidfaction out of the project even if it's going to take a long time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Working in sweltering London and crappy hotels

I wish I was in the habit of carrying my camera with me everywhere if only to record the sheer crappiness of the hotel I just stayed in. I'm doing freelance work with an agency in London on a regulal basis now - which is great, I need the money and it means I'm finally working in something that resembles a 'proper design agency' with pretty varied and creative work. I used to live in london and although I'm glad to have moved out I do enjoy the buzz of visiting and working there. It's quite a trek from where I live in Banbury, so when I have two days work together it makes sense to get a room somewhere. I don't need a gold leaf wardrobe, all I need is a clean, simple room. I've stayed in plenty of corporate chain hotels and they are pretty soulless in spite of high quuality fittings.

The first place I stayed was The Generator - which is really a glorified backpacker's hostel. I enjoyed watching France play Portugal with a bunch of complete strangers and reading with cold beer in my hand. But my reservation got messed up this time and I ended up in the worst hotel I've ever seen in this country - furniture held together with cellotape, no hot water, sheets and towels with stains. Nice. Maybe I'll start a hotel photo diary.

There was Chilli Peppers gig on in Earl's Court and I had to fight my way through literally thousands of drunk sweaty fans coming in the opposite direction.

Monday, July 10, 2006

if only I can make a perfect rakusu...

I've always been wary of adhering to any sort of belief system, but I've found little in Soto Zen to object to on that front. For me it's more about releasing attachment to beliefs than gaining new ones. I do wonder though whether some of the people I practice with are attached to the trappings of the practice - the ceremonies, the wearing of kimonos and kesas, the chanting in archaic Sino-Japanese. I wonder if they will eventually burn the raft of the dharma in order to achieve greater liberation or whether they will float around in circles anchored to the Buddha.

I just go there to sit. The only time I wore a kimono was on an occasion when I was asked to lead a sitting - it seemed inappropriate not too. I do see usefulness in ritual acts in terms of mindfulness though. And I am sewing a rakusu.

However, I wonder whether this rakusu is just another useless attachment. When it is complete I don't know whether I will get ordained in it, give it away or destroy it. What would lead to the least attachment, bearing in mind that rejection is a form of attachment too? It's a sort of 'koan' for me right now. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. So I'm just focussing of practicing detachment - I'll just see what I do.

It seems possible to wear robes etc without attachment. For myself I wonder if it creates a sense of separation between ordinary life and spiritual life.

I question the motivation for wanting to wear a special costume enough that I would make substantial efforts to own one. Is it that we want to belong? Or feel holy? I know people I practice with who seem very attached to their rakusus and kesas - not at all surprising when they painstakingly stitched them by hand. They get ever so upset if they get dirty? Am I not creating one more thing to cling to ? More conditions for freedom and happiness?

I see the Believers of other religions around me practicing similar things to Zen. Are they doing it because it is a raft to take them to enlightenment? All of them? And we see similar things with ideologies of all sorts. They all have their rationalisations for while such things are needed. Maybe it has more to do with a sense of belonging to something 'special' and 'sacred'? Maybe it has everything to do with social psychology and nothing to do with the furtherment of enlightenment. I don't know. Maybe it can be both.

What this is really about deep down is this: I have a fear of having my mind melted by religious indoctrination. This isn't something I associate with zazen (which is a good anti-BS tool) but with religious trappings and beliefs - even the minimal ones of Zen. I practice Zen in part because it is so minimal in this regard, but it is there nevertheless.

'Fear' is a bit strong, but I have a slight anxiety that by accepting the uniform of a faith I am discouraging myself from testing for myself, thinking for myself and replacing that with conformity to doctrine and blind (or at least only partially sighted) faith. Zen is gooood....Zen is gooood...Zen is the solution to all problems...if only I can make a perfect kesa... Within Zen I believe this is sometimes called 'Zen sickness'.

Here is a fairly extreme attitude of importance attached to religious trappings in Soto Zen. I suspect that this attitude has a more to do with protecting and furthering Zen as a social institution than it has to do with individual awakening.

Not just a garment, the kesa itself is zazen. It is the robe of zazen and the robe of true Zen practice. Since the time of Shakyamuni, all of the masters of the transmission received, respected, wore, taught and passed on the kesa. Like zazen, it is nothing mysterious or mystical, but a natural part of our daily practice.

Some might say the kesa is not really important: "It's a formalism, unnecessary, zazen alone is enough, I don't need to wear it." And of course someone can do zazen without a kesa, it is not absolutely necessary. But without the kesa, zazen becomes only a method of body-mind training, not a true religion. For those who seek the Way, the kesa has a great value.

Wearing the kesa and doing zazen, unconsciously, naturally, automatically, we can receive the great merits of the true Way. Anyone can wear the kesa, and whether it be the grand kesa or the rakusu (mini-kesa), the merits are the same. It protects us as it protects the Way itself.

Comments? Advice? Anecdotes?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Zen Cat

I've not really had any time to blog recently. However, I am getting some reading done and I've redesigned my design website. Moving Sky

It includes a link to my latest project - a talking cat that studies Zen (under construction). I'm hoping to have him animated in the future. Zen Cat

Let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tick tock, tick tock...

Work goes on, it will start to run out soon then I'll need new contracts.

I had an idea that I'm working on to create an online animated character which users can interact with. I think I know how to do it: 3DS MAX, Swift 3D, Flash, AIML. If only I had time...

Had a half day of Zazen at the weekend. I'd like to get into the habit of sitting almost every day again. So many distractions. I've finally got around to sewing my rakusu again - Rosemary gave me a pattern to work to. Making reasonable progress now after a slow start.

We did some nice stone tiling in the kitchen. A good result even if we wasted a lot of money trying to chemically remove sealant residue when the only thing that worked was a scrubbing pad and a bit of hard work.

Still clearing the garden of old building materials left by the previous occupants and taking it to the waste centre. It's like the scene in The Great Escape where they remove small amounds of soil by smuggling it in their trousers. When can I start my Japanese garden? Saw two nice and reasonably priced 'stone' lanterns made of concrete. I went to the quarry yesterday and it looks like I can buy boulders and rockery rocks and have them delivered. Cotswold stone - white, yellow or red, yes I think red. Little white pebbles around the base like surf around islands.

We have tickets on Friday to see a Japanese production of Titus Andronicus in Stratford-on-Avon.

I'm working on a couple of substantial blog posts - one on the nature and applicabability of the concept of truth in Zen, and another one I've been trying to get out for ages on the Anthropic Principle. Watch this space...

Monday, June 05, 2006


Wittgenstein is one of my favourite philosphers, although I haven't yet read one of his books from one cover to the other. I came across some nice quotations today, which really resonate well with Buddhist philosophy, Zen especially.

the problems vanish when you are in the nonverbal dimension of consciousness. You see the answers to all the questions that theologians and metaphysicians ask and you see why their questions are absurd. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.
- Tractatus 6.52

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. -
- Tractatus 6.521

In other words, if a particular way of cognising/symbolising reality leads to seemingly intractable dualisms and problems such as 'The Hard Problem of Consciousness' those problems are not necessarily inherent in reality, but may be artefacts of the way the mind interprets, symbolises and communicates about reality.

Of course, Wittgenstein's concerns were slightly different and aimed at intellectuals rather than humanity in general. He saw his linguistic philosphy as a solution to traditional philosphy which he seems to have regarded almost as a pathology. He saw all or almost all of the problems of philosophy and metaphysics as being due to extending language beyond its appropriate use. Zen on the other hand seems to see the problem as being more deep-rooted and widespread - that taking the conventional truths of thought and speech as absolute truths causes suffering for all sentient beings. For me, whether this applies to animals or not, is an interesting question.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Is Buddhism a religion ? II

The subject matter of Buddhism is this entire phenomenon that we call 'our life', 'existence', 'reality' etc. As such, it includes all particular values or beliefs - one god, many gods or no god; good and evil; religion and non-religion; Materialism and Idealism; Dualism and Monism; spiritual and non-spiritual; existence and non-existence; unity and multiplicity; the all and the individual. Nothing is excluded. How can we say it is any particular thing?

Yet when we practice by sitting we are still sitting and when we practice by walking we are still walking. So, when we practice by practicing Buddhism we are still practicing Buddhism and Buddhism is generally regarded as a religion. So, at a conventional level it seems acceptable to refer to Buddhism as a religion of sorts.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Two Poems by Ryokan

Too lazy to be ambitious
I let the world take care of itself;
Ten days' worth of rice in my bag
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace
why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.

My life may appear melancholy,
But traveling through this world
I have entrusted myself to Heaven.
In my sack, three quarts of rice;
By the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
If someone asks what is the mark of
enlightenment or illusion
I cannot say - wealth and honor are nothing but dust.
As the evening rain falls I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer.

( tr. John Stevens)


Rosemary and the other more senior members of our Zen group are going off for a sesshin next week and I've been asked to lead the group next week. I'm a little nervous because I've not done any of it before. However, it's a good opportunity to learn new things and anyway, all the people who would notice if I slipped up will be away.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dogen's Genjo Koan (Pt.3) - My Interpretation

Let me reiterate that I don't by any stretch of the imagination consider myself as an authority on the text. I'm doing this to aid my own ongoing study and hopefully helping some other people at the same time.

Dogen is notoriously difficult to interpret for a number of reasons:
- As with all Zen Masters he is attempting to indicate something which cannot really be defined by words or even thoughts
- He uses ideas which are difficult and subtle
- His statements contradict one another - even from one sentence to the next. I would suggest that the key to understanding these contradictions lies in understanding that Buddhism teaches two truths - conventional truth and what is called 'ultimate' truth and the same situation can be described in contradictory terms from these two viewpoints.
- He writes in extended poetic metaphors, the meaning of which are not only difficult to grasp, but sometimes can only be understood as references to imagery used by his contemporaries and antecedents but which are now obscure

The Genjo Koan is widely regarded as being one of the key passages of the Shobogenzo and is probably the most widely discussed. No doubt my clumsy attempts to grasp the meaning will lose the poetic qualities of the text.

Being able to understand Dogen's writing does not mean one is 'enlightened'. And being unable to understand it does not mean that one lacks understanding of Buddhism. However, I hope that after this little project I will be in a better position to tackle the rest of the Shobogenzo. Hopefull it will be useful to others too.

The following lectures by Rev. Shohaku Okumura have been invaluable resources for me:
Dogen Zenji's Genjo-Koan Lecture
Genjo-Koan: Actualization of Reality, Part 2

And this is a very useful tool for comparing various translations:
8 English Translations of Genjokoan

As all things are buddha-dharma, there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings. As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The buddha way, in essence, is leaping clear of abundance and lack; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

There are two truths of Buddhism. The traditional teaching as originally described by Gautama Buddha is the conventional truth of Buddhism: delusion and enlightenment and the path from one to the other, life and death, ordinary beings and Buddhas. However when Right View is understood it is seen that all things are inter-dependent and have no fixed self - it is seen that is they have no ultimate existence, they are empty and thus never come into or pass out of existence. This is the second truth of Buddhism - it cannot be said that these entities exist, nor can it be said that they lack existence. Yet the actual practice of Buddhism goes beyond or is a middle path between these two conceptual truths of multiplicity and emptiness. This corresponds to the third truth of Buddhism according to the Tien T'ai/Tendai sect. It is because things are empty, because there are no fixed natures that change and being are possible, hence there is birth and death, delusion and enlightenment, Buddhas and ordinary beings as we experience them. However, it is desire and aversion to all such unsubstantial phenomena of all sorts which is the root of our suffering.

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion. When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddha.

Buddhist practice which is self-centred, that is it is, seen as an attempt to reach enlightenment through the efforts of the individual self, is based on the delusion of fixed-self. Practice which is seen as the expression of all things through the individual self is the enlightened view. To see delusion as delusion is enlightenment; to be deluded about enlightenment (to see it as separate from the reality of here and now for example) is samsara. Some are awakened about awakening and some are deluded about delusion. Being a Buddha (being a non-conceptual realisation) does not necessarily mean that one knows one is Buddha, but being a Buddha is a process of ongoing, unfolding awakening.

When you see forms or hear sounds, fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharma intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illumined, the other side is dark.

Through absorption of our whole being into phenomena, we know phenomena intimately, but to see this as a duality - the mind reflecting phenomena like a mirror is an error. We cannot see the objective and our subjective perception of it side by side, because there is only one reality.

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.

Buddhist practice is the study of the self. Studying the self, we realise that there is no fixed self, that the self is empty. To realise this is to realise ourselves as an expression of all reality. When this occurs, all sense of our own self and that of others as actual separate identities disappears. All attachment to concepts drops away - even the thought of our own realisation - we become free from such conceptual attachments. When you first seek Awakening you imagine that you are far from it, but when you attain it, you realise it is what you already are.

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.

Our perspective on the universe is distorted by the fact of our subjectivity - that part of that which is being observed is that which is doing the observing. Because our mind cannot really see itself we imagine that it remains constant while the reality around it changes. But through Buddhist practice we can realise that nothing has a fixed self, nothing remains unchanged.

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.
This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakable teaching in the Buddha's discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.
Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

Because entities lack a fixed self, change is possible and irreversible. In the process of change it is a mistake to see an earlier state and a later state as earlier and later states of one continuous entity. Each state or moment both includes its past and future and is free from it at the same time. The past and future of each state exists, but they exist in that moment. Each state is just itself. Just as a phenomenon does not return from a later stage to an earlier stage, death does not become life. There is no continuous identity (ie. atman) that survives from one life into another.

That birth does not become death, that there is no fixed self that continues from birth to death is accepted Buddhist doctrine. Because of this birth is not the real beginning of a real continuous entity - birth is unborn... It is also taught that there is no fixed self that continues from death to birth. Because there is no continuous self to come to an end, the true understanding of death is 'no death'...

Birth and death are not the birth and death of an imagined additional continous entity - the fixed self. Birth and death are just fully the reality of themselves at the time when they exist and no more. There is no fixed entity that comes into being or stops being, there is just endless unfolding change.

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.

When we Awaken we realise that reality is expressed through us, like the moon reflected in water. The whole of reality expresses itself in each and every part of reality. Yet the vastness of reality does not affect our being and our enlightenment does not interfere with the universe. Reality is exactly itself whether we realise its true nature or not.

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing. For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.
Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

People who have a partial realisation of Buddhism think that they have the whole teaching. When you are fully awakened you can see the limitation of your own perspectives. To realise the 'oneness' of all things is not complete awakening, because our point of view is always limited, even our sense of oneness. In actuality, reality has infinite appearances and 'oneness' is just one of them.

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.
Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish. You can go further. There is practice-enlightenment which encompasses limited and unlimited life.

The fish in the water and the bird in the air are metaphors for sentient beings in emptiness, in the dharma, in reality, fully at one with the dharma, inseparable from it, unable to leave it, yet unconscious of it.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others'. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.

This is Dogen's conclusion as to how we should live according to the Buddha Dharma. We should not conceptually try to investigate all of reality before we allow ourselves to live in it. To practice Buddhism is to find your place in reality - it makes reality real, rather than conceptual. This place is not far away - it can be found right where you are. Finding your place is something that occurs only at the present moment and awakening is something that occurs only at the present moment. This place does not belong to self or non-self; it is neither true to say that it has existed eternally nor is it just coming into existence. (All of these ways of thinking about it would be to ascribe to it a separate essence or self and thus lose it.)

Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, to attain one thing is to penetrate one thing; to meet one practice is to sustain one practice.
Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma. Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

'To penetrate' here means 'to be be absorbed into', 'to lose all sense of separation from'. Correct Buddhist practice is to do whatever it is that we are doing with all of our being - not necessarily with all of our 'effort' (if such a thing has meaning here) but with all of our being, so that there is no distinction between us and the phenomenal reality of our actions, whether that be kinhin, zazen, eating, working or whatever. Because realisation occurs at the same time as our self 'becomes one with all things' there is no clear moment of self-awareness of enlightenment. Realisation is not conceptual knowledge and when it appears we cannot really know it intellectually.

Mayu, Zen master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?”
“Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,” Mayu replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.”
“What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. Mayu just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply.
The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent. Because of that, the wind of the buddha's house brings forth the gold of the earth and makes fragrant the cream of the long river.

This koan is a metaphor for Dogen's 'Great Doubt' - if we are already enlightened then why do we need to practice? The wind is the wind of dharma, reality, suchness. Fanning the wind represents Buddhist practice ie. Zazen. If the dharma is permanent and reaches everywhere why do we need to make any effort? The dharma does reach everywhere but delusion obscures it. The dharma fully penetrates even delusion, hatred and attachment. Yet those things are still confuse our mind. Practice eliminates these things allowing us to realise our own oneness with the dharma - our own original enlightenment allowing us to be free to be happy.

Monday, May 22, 2006


I think that Zen practice has helped me to accept that I am ordinary and that not only is it OK to be ordinary, it can be pretty wonderful, pretty extraordinary even. What makes life satisfying and extraordinary doesn't have much to do with how 'special' society regards me or I regard myself - although I do like my loved ones to think me special...but that's a little different.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A reply to: 'Buddhist Retreat, Why I gave up on finding my religion', By John Horgan

Original article

This article was first published in 2003. Seemingly it is John Horgan's previous dabbling with Buddhism which qualifies him to criticise what he claims it represents, but Buddhism is very difficult to understand and many spend their lives following or reacting against misunderstandings of it. While I don't claim to fully understand it myself I certainly understand it better than John Horgan, so I'm going to respond to his criticisms.

Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word.

Something appearing (naively) to be 'functionally theistic' is not the same as it being theistic. Buddhists rely on their own effort for salvation not the mercy of imaginary beings. Anyway, there do appear to be some functional benefits to theism. Why else would it have evolved and become so dominant as a biological tendency and a cultural phenomenon? Those who are engaged in organised religion are happier and healthier than those who are not. Perhaps organised religion is also good for the moral welfare of nations. Buddhism, it would seem, gives the same benefits as theism without having to rely on faith to believe in the literal existence of beings which are really (at best) unknowable.

Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Buddhism teaches rebirth rather than reincarnation and the difference is not just in name. In Hinduist reincarnation, a permanent self ('Atman') is incarnated in body after body like someone changing their clothes. Buddha denied that such a permanent self exists. With Buddhist rebirth there is no entity to be reborn, just effects following on from causes just as in ordinary existence. Some actions lead to bad consequences and some lead to good consequences. There is no need for judgement. Admittedly traditional Buddhism does not necessarily have the same notions of what actions lead to bad conseqences as modern westerners, but that is really just a difference of detail. If someone kills an insect I don't believe that that will lead to bad consequences - except in so far as cruelty may be cause of unhappiness or unless the insect is a killer bee. Nevertheless it is true that some actions are in the interests of my future happiness and some are against the interests of my future happiness.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

If the aim of meditation in Buddhism was relaxation, then Horgan might have a point. However, the aim of meditation is the elimination of suffering and there is good evidence that meditators are happier. And what worthwhile activity is free from challenges and difficulties?

The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

Anatta is not the principle that there is no self at all. Anatta is the principle that there is no unchanging, permanent self. And this is indeed borne out by neuroscience which reveals a mind that is a series of massively parallel and constantly changing processes. There is not even a single central 'place' where all our perceptions and experiences meet.

Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.

It seems presumptious to suggest that not absolutely accepting the relatively new (by the standards of Buddhism) ethical philosophy of Humanism is unacceptable. Nevertheless, I agree with Horgan in so much as that being a senior member of the Buddhist clergy is no guarantee of compassionate behaviour. As for whether Buddhism leads to compassion on the whole, I simply don't know. But again, the final aim of Buddhism is not compassion but elimination of suffering.

What's worse, Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes, "when a brain continues truly to express the self-nature intrinsic to its [transcendent] experiences." Buddhists infected with this belief can easily excuse their teachers' abusive acts as hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.

I agree that some such abuses have happened. People who act like this I would suggest have an incomplete understanding of Buddhism as amoral. It is foolish to excuse such behaviour on the grounds that being 'beyond good and evil' makes you immune to moral culpability. Many sociopaths could be described as internally 'beyond good and evil' in a similar way.

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

Lots of Zen Buddhists are agnostic. It doesn't matter what you believe in Zen with regards to metaphysical notions. I would say that when you are agnostic about your agnosticism - when you don't even believe your own thoughts, whether they be beliefs or doubts - then you are enlightened.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'ĂȘtre of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Science has never shown that we are accidental in the way described. The chance of this universe having properties suitable for the formation of complex matter, let alone life, let alone intelligent life by chance alone is so small that it is barely worth considering. The only known explanations for this are the various sorts of Anthropic Principle or various sorts of creation myths. All of these explanations require that in some sense conscious beings are a necessary part of the universe.

The Buddhist view in my mind is quite close to the Anthropic Principle not in the sense that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind or with the purpose of creating mankind, but that what we think of a 'the universe' cannot really be separated from what we think of as 'ourselves'. Any belief in a fundamental separation would be very difficult to defend scientifically and would be correctly understood to be a metaphysical belief.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


I was doing zazen last night. I've been busy with work and sorting out the new house so Zen is taking a lower priority for a while. I haven't done much serious sitting for a couple of weeks so for the first 20 minutes or so I was pretty distracted.

After that I entered a state which was almost effortless. It was as if the core part of the discursive mind just turned off. Wordlessness is a better word than silence. Reality was a sort of surging 'roar'. Thoughts and words seemed utterly irrelevant to describe it, like an unknown language. It was a roar because the dominant sensation was the sounds of traffic and passersby from outside the window. Yet that roar excluded no part of the phenomenal world.

There were still thoughts going on and I was still able to detach myself from the state at times. I 'interrogated' this state with a few questions.

Q: what is this?

Q: self or no-self?

Q: 'neither this nor that'?
A: Close but no cigar. ROAAAAR!

Q: 'oneness'?

Q: 'neither one nor two'?

Q: nonduality?
A: neither yes nor no. ROAAAR!

Q: enlightenment?
A: Just this - ROOOAAAR

I felt there was nothing I could say (or even think) about it. My tongue had been cut out.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Just finished reading... Nagarjuna

I've just finished reading Jay L Garfield's
The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way : Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, which seems to be the best rated commentary on Nagarjuna's most important work. It's quite dense reading but very rewarding - Garfield's insight is penetrating and Nagarjuna's philosphy is powerful, rigorous and sublime.

Nagarjuna is probably the most influential Buddhist philosopher after Gautama Buddha himself and the chief proponent of the early Mahayana Madhyamaka philosophy, which emphasises the 'Middle Way' between philosophical extremes particularly Eternalism and Nihilism. Nagarjuna is also the developer of Gautama Buddha's concept of sunya ('void') into the concept of Sunyata ('emptiness of self-nature'). This logical approach to Buddhist philosphy, although very powerful was often misunderstood as a form of Nihilism and probably for this reason was generally supplanted with more poetic, metaphorical approaches.

Much like Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna is logically rigorous yet manages to indicate a 'sublime' reality which transcends logic and language. He even refutes the views of philosophers without proposing or holding any view whatsoever - successfully as far as I can tell.

He covers pretty much every aspect of philosphy and metaphysics - reducing beliefs and problems (again like Wittgenstein) to errors of thought and language - and reading him clarifies a great many confusing aspects of Buddhist philosophy such as the nature of the self, which are glossed over by so many others.

One of the concepts I really wanted to get to grips with when I started this was the idea that not only are entities 'empty' but that 'emptiness itself is empty' (and so on). And this book certainly helped me to understand this. Emptiness is not to be mistaken as an essential characteristic of entities or reality - it is not itself the self-existent nature of things - it is only a reference to the lack of self-existence in things. That lack is not a property just as nothing is not a thing.

Here are a few choice extracts.

He opens with this little corker:

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Although this sounds Nihilistic, it is not, but this can only be properly understood in the context of the rest of the work. And refuting the view of emptiness as a an inherent property or a view to be clung to is perhaps the core and final message of the text.

On emptiness he says:

Whatever is the essence of the Tathagata [Buddha],
That is the essence of the world.
The Tathagata has no essence.
The world is without essence.

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor notreal.
This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

Many problems in Western philosphy as well as Buddhism can be seen in terms of a confusion between conventional and 'ultimate' categories of truth.

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.

The human tendency to reify - to treat abstract concepts as inherent entities or properties - is difficult to escape. Even emptiness becomes something that Buddhist's cling to and regard as some sort of inherent or transcendent reality or a nihilistic view of the universe as non-existent.

By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

For that reason - that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn -
The Buddha's mind dispaired of being able to teach it.

You have presented fallacious refutations
That are not relevant to emptiness.
Your confusion about emptiness
Does not belong to me.

"Empty" should not be asserted.
"Nonempty" should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted.
They are only used nominally.

What is dependently co-arisen
That is to be explained to be emtiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

The victorious ones [ie. Buddhas] have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

For those, like myself who desire logical thoroughness, Nagarjuna is ideal, yet he leaves us with a vision of the world in which logic and language are peripheral and provisional and in which 'absolute truth' is absent - a view of reality in which everything is just as it is. I'll finish with this excerpt from Wittgenstein which resonates extremely well with Nagarjuna.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

What can be said can be said clearly
What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.

Given that Nagarjuna has only become visible to western philosophers in the last two or three decades, it seems, I imagine that Wittgenstein was entirely unaware of Nagarjuna.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Why I don't separate the personal stuff from the philosophy

Since a lot of what I write is quite abstract and specialised, I've considered separating it from the personal stuff. And a lot of people do that.

On one level it seems sensible and more 'user-friendly' to do that, but I don't want to regard these abstract ideas as if they were free-floating entities in some separate Platonic realm. Rather, they are my thoughts, the thoughts of a particular brain and body and life. I want to cultivate the perspective that my thoughts are just another bodily function rather than being 'truth'. So, all my ideas here are should be seen as descriptions of my mind at any particular time.

It's a sort of ongoing experiment, I'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My revamped website

For a living I design websites, Flash animations, graphic panels, HTML user interfaces, brochures and 3D animations. I've been working primarily with one client - British Telecom - on their Contact Central project for about five years. I need to branch out and get some new business, so I've build a little portfolio site online.

Moving Sky

There are some improvements I could make, but it will suffice for now.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Past is Dependent on the Present

I've had some ideas bubbling away in my brain for a few years now, which I've been hoping to crystallise into something concrete. It's view which is inspired by the Buddhism and by the Anthropic Principle. It has many aspects and I hope to get some of the ideas down in this blog.

It's all about the relationship between subjective and objective aspects of reality, the nature of consciousness, space and time. All sounds very grand doesn't it? If only I could get it together to work through it.

According to the various versions of the Anthropic Principle the constants of the universe are not arbitrary (actually the possibility that they would lead to a universe which is capable of evolving intelligent life is remote in the extreme). Rather, every observed universe must (at least locally) be consistent with the emergence of sentient observers.

My modified version extended the principle to explain not only why humanity is here, but why 'I' am here and that probabalistic attempts to explain the unfolding of history are misguided because history is determined by the present in so far as it must be consistent with not only the evolution of sentient life, but with the conception of my parents and of me and every moment of history which enables this moment to happen. Thus, although the present is dependent upon the past, the past is also determined by the present. The unfolding of history isn't random or arbitrary - it has a sort of telos which makes *this* inevitable. And of course *this* is marked by consciousness.

The old view of history being dependent only on its own past is turned inside out. The past and the present are interdependent. 'Mind' in back in the centre of the picture. Subject and object are two sides of the same coin. And it all ties in closely with Buddhist notions of relativity, mind and that only the present is true reality.

It seems that Stephen Hawking's new theory is very closely related.

Exploring Stephen Hawking's Flexiverse

Well Professor Hawking if you want some more new ideas - watch this space.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Chopping wood, carrying bricks...

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
– Wu Li

We have lots to do in our new home. Even though my experience of gardening is close to zero, I've decided to build a Japanese style garden in the back. There was a gnarly tree against the back fence which consisted of some sort of climbing plant overgrown with ivy and entwined with the fence.

I was tempted to keep it because it had character, but it was quite ugly and dominated the whole space, so I chopped it down. Actually it was so entwined with the fence that I had to dismantle it piece by piece. It took a surprising amount of work, but I found it really satisfying. It was nice to be outside doing simple physical tasks - certainly it seemed less like 'work' than sitting in front of a computer designing graphics and web sites. It got me thinking - I'm sure I feel far less 'alienated' than I once did - both socially and existentially. It's hard to know how much of that is down to maturity and finally meeting someone who was right for me and how much of it is down to Zen.

Perhaps I'll post some photos of the garden as it evolves.

Emily's brother Guy was here with his little daughter. He's just split up with his wife, so we were consoling him and he was helping us with the house. It's a real shame because he's a really nice guy. His wife has bi-polar disorder - and she blames her inability to find happiness largely on her husband, in spite of him bending over backwards to try to please her.

Apparently he came away with the impression that we live a really 'wholesome' life. Emily baking in the kitchen with Guy's daughter and me chopping down trees and practicing Zen. If only they knew...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Buddha Nature

This is based partly on experience and partly on my understanding of the expressions of Buddhist Masters - I'm not trying to pass myself off as 'fully enlightened' or anything.

The Middle Way of Buddha is about freedom - internal freedom:

By virtue of being linguistic and conceptual expressions of actuality which is ultimately inexpressable, the Buddhist teachings contain many hazards, which we can imagine as holes that we can get trapped in. Understanding Buddhism is like eating food without touching it. People get trapped in these conceptual holes when they reify concepts - when they regard an idea as a real entity or as an independent essence. A Buddha on the other hand moves freely - even into these holes - but is not impeded.

When Buddhism began people believed in that all things had an inherent independent nature - things had an essence that made them what they are, people had an atman, which passed from one life to another, even the universe had an Atman - which some regarded to be Brahma. Buddha saw this as a delusional view which he called Eternalism and taught Anatta and Anatman. Unfortunately some interpreted this teaching as a teaching of 'no-self' as opposed to a simple refutation of Eternalism. They thought he was teaching that reality consists of 'other' or that self does not exist in any way whatsoever or that there is a temporary self that arises from the physical body, which becomes non-existent when we die - people were reifying no-self. So Buddha taught the Middle Way between Eternalism and Nihilism to encourage people to avoid both of these conceptual traps. So Anatta and the Middle Way were taught like this for a long time after Buddha died. However, in order to discourage people from reifying self, Buddha, impermanence and any number of Buddhist concepts, the philosophy used to describe the Middle Way was generally one of negation and, combined with Anatta, people continued mistakenly to interpret Buddhism nihilistically.

So a new teaching was introduced - a way of expressing this Middle Way in positive terms - Buddha Nature. According to the Nirvana Sutra this was Buddha's final teaching. There is no evidence of it before the Nirvana Sutra was written (just before the time Jesus was born as far as I recall) and I don't know if that account is true or not - however I do see it as a valid teaching method. In a sense it comes full circle, since it resembles the Vedic Atman teaching, however, to take it literally as an inherent, independent essence or entity is to fall into or remain in a trap.

All 'dharmas' (truths, realities) are nominal, not inherent enities that exist independently of other entities or of mind.

'Atta' (self) is not an independent inherent entity - atman means an inherent independent self, so that is all that is meant by anatman

'Anatta' is not a quality that is possessed by the universe. There is no non-self, there is no 'other than me'. The distinction between self/nonself is mentally produced.

'Nirvana' is not a place.

'A person' is not really an independent entity or essence.

'The void' is not a place, nor is it nothingness.

'Sunyata' (emptiness) is not really a property, essence or entity.

'The Middle Way' is not really a path which exists only 'in the middle'

'Consciousness' is not really an entity or an essence

And 'Buddha Nature' is not really a being which is inside of the ordinary mind. Buddha Nature is the the ordinary mind - seen clearly.

All of these things may be treated, conceptually and linguistically as if they were intact, distict entities, but actually they are not. Even Buddhist masters have to act in this way according to convention in order to conceptualise and communicate. The important thing is not to beleive in the absolute existence of these entities. All entities have merely a provisional existence. Even Buddhahood.

Buddhism is not based on metaphysical speculation but on observation of phenomenal reality - that which actually exists.

Buddhism is about non-duality - not just as a method imbedded within a scheme which is itself dualistic, not as a method to travel from Samsara to Nirvana - but as a realisation of the true nature of how things actually are, in the first place. Neither self not non-self, neither Buddha Nature nor no Buddha Nature. The non-duality of Buddhahood is not an entity, it is not something which exists in any way distinctly from ordinary existence (we make the distinction); it is not something that comes into being and not something that dies, it is neither self nor nonself, neither negation nor affirmation, it is the way things actually are already.

Buddhahood is acheived by recognising that one's self (or more accurately the distinction between self and other) is provisional and conventional. To realise that the duality between self and nonself is constructed is to realise that all things are inseparable from self-nature ('all is self') and to realise that there is no self('all is nonself') simultaneously. Traces of self/nonself may remain in the realisation or in the articulation of course which is why enlightenment may appear coloured one way or the other. Enlightenment is complete when this subtle 'framing' of reality disappears - when not a trace of anatta or self or Buddha Nature or even Enlightenment remains. In theistic terms it is the simultaneous death and realisation of God (Brahma, whatever); the one and the all are the same; the ultimate distinction betwen subject and object collapses. Yet everything is ordinary, as it always was.

That's my understanding anyway. This is Mumon's comment on Joshu's Dog:

To realize Zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarchs. Enlightenment always comes after the road to thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost.

You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch? This one word, Mu, is it. This is the barrier of Zen. If you pass through it you will see Joshu face to face. Then you can work hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Is this not a pleasant thing to do?

If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore in your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? and carry it day and night. Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing. It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence. If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

Then your previous lesser knowledge disappears. As a fruit ripening in season, you subjectivity and objectivity naturally become one. It is like a dumb man who has had a dream. He knows about it but he cannot tell it. When he enters this condition his ego-shell is crushed and he can shake the heaven and move the earth. He is like a great warrior with a sharp sword. If a Buddha stands in his way, he will cut him down; if a patriarch offers him any obstacle, he will kill him; and he will be free in his way of birth and death. He can enter any world as if it were his own playground.

I will tell you how to do this with this koan: Just concentrate your whole energy into this Mu, and do not allow any discontinuation. When you enter this Mu and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature."

Friday, March 24, 2006

Thought for the day: curtain fabric

So we've moved into our new place. There's a lot of DIY-type stuff to be done, but we're settled in. I'm back to going down to Oxford for Zazen regularly. There's a small Buddhist group in town here, which I intend to investigate - Thai Forest tradition - maybe I can alternate.

My practice went pretty much out the window for a few weeks but I'm getting back into it. It's slightly harder to settle the mind when you've not been practicing regularly. Sometimes the moment when the mind quiets can be quite dramatic - like a persistent background noise which you had grown accustomed to suddenly stopping; a powerful stillness and centered-ness - the mind which was darting around just dropping away to leave a powerful silence.

There's a big reorganisation going on with my primary work client and the future of contractors like me seems to be up in the air, so I'm feeling a bit insecure on that front. I've started looking for other jobs. I'm also working on an online application with an ex-colleague. So, I'm quite busy.

No special insights to write about Buddhism at the moment, although I'm still working(slowly) through Nagarjuna's 'Mulamadhyamakakarika', which is now my favouritest Buddhism book ever. And I hope to post the final part of my interpretation of Dogen's 'Genjo Koan' soon. I've started re-publishing a few selected posts from here on the group blog 'Flapping Mouths' to give them a bit more exposure. They seem to be being received quite well.

Emily's brother and his wife have separated, which is sad to hear. They have a young daughter.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra

Here's my interpretation:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva while practicing deep Prajna Paramita
Perceived all five skandhas were empty and was saved from suffering and distress

Avalokiteshvara was practicing perfect wisdom when he realised that the five aggregates that constitute a human being ("matter", "sensation", "cognition", "volition", "consciousness") all exist only dependently and relatively, lacking in intrinsic nature or reality. And he was liberated from suffering.

Shariputra, form is no different from emptiness
Emptiness is no different from form
That which is form is emptiness
That which is emptiness is form
Feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness, the same is true of these

Matter and emptiness are inseparable. There is no emptiness (lack of intrinsic reality) separate from the apparent world and vice versa. The same applies to the rest of the aggregates. (Ultimate reality does not transcend relative/conventional reality - they are one and the same. This is the non-duality of Nirvana and Samsara.)

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness
They do not appear or disappear
are not tainted or pure
do not increase or decrease

Lacking intrinsic reality or essence, there are ultimately no phenomena to appear or disappear. (see Nagarjuna for details)

Therefore in emptiness no form,
no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind
no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, object of mind
no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness
no ignorance and also no extinction of ignorance
and so forth until no old age and death and no extinction of old age and death
no suffering, origination, stopping, path
no cognition also no attainment

Ultimately phenomena have no existence. Even Samsara and Nirvana have no intrinsic existence.

with nothing to attain
the Bodhisattva depends upon Prajna Paramita
and (his) mind is no hindrance
without any hindrance no fear exists
far apart from every inverted view
(he) dwells in Nirvana

Realising that there is no attainment or lack of attainment, the practitioner uses the perfection of Wisdom to liberate the mind from false views and fears and he finds Nirvana.

All Buddhas in the Three Worlds
depend on Prajna Paramita
and attain complete unsurpassed enlightenment

This is how all Buddha's become enlightened.

Therefore know the Prajna Paramita
is the great transcendent mantra
is the great bright mantra
is the utmost mantra
is the supreme mantra
which is able to relieve all suffering and is true, not false
so proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra
proclaim the mantra that says
gone, gone, gone beyond
gone all the way beyond, Bodhi Svaha!

So, the Great Heart of Wisdom mantra is an important and powerful teaching which liberates from suffering - learn it. It goes:
'Gone, gone, Gone beyond
gone all the way beyond, Enlightenment, how wonderful! '

For more information see

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What is the sound of one mouth flapping?

We're right in the middle of moving house now, which is why I've not been very active here lately. We've bought a townhouse in Banbury which we really like. It has loads of potential! I'm planning to build a Japanese garden in the back. Wish me luck! Plus there's loads to do inside. I'm going to be busy!

I've been checking out Brad Warner's blog (author of Hardcore Zen) and the great debates that have been going on there. Brad's bringing the blogging to an end so Jules has organised a group blog Flapping Mouths where we can continue our discussions.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Zen and compassion: uncomfortable questions

There's an interesting debate going on over at Brad's blog on Zen and War. Brian Victoria has documented the involvement of Japanese Zen in militarism and imperialism before WW2. This got me back to thinking about Zen's approach to compassion and ethics generally.

Zen was clearly used as a political/ideological device by the Japanese state. But if Zen cultivates wisdom and compassion why didn't those roshis who dedicated their lives to Zen see through all tht in their wisdom and compassion and detachment? Were they as awakened as they were supposed or were they political puppets? I don't know any stories of such abuses in Zen's native China. Even its incorporation into the warrior arts of the Samurai was a distortion of its original form. Buddhism emphasises compassion and avoidance of killing. So of course this raises some challenging questions for Zen.

To incorporate Buddhism into deadly fighting arts it has to be distorted. Again in Buddhist philosophy we see this apparent duality between relative and absolute with regards to ethics. On one hand we must abide by precepts and on the other hand ultimately there is no inherent right and wrong. The idea here is that precepts are a code of conduct for students to follow, but not absolute moral principles and that as we become 'awakened' such rules can be put down, replaced with a natural and intuitive understanding of what is the right thing to do. 'Right' in this case is not determined in reference to some external moral principle but just means according to wisdom and compassion. But this 'freedom from good and evil' has been exploited militaristically by the Japanese up to WW2 and hedonistically by American Zen masters. We could argue that to cling to this ultimate perspective is not true understanding of Zen - the precepts are still there to be followed. And I think there is validity in this. But we have to think about how actual Zen practice influences actual behaviour in the real world.

Of course its all too easy to separate ourselves from such uncomfortable events by saying 'ah but that's not TRUE Zen'. But whether we can provide arguments as to whether these people are 'true practitioners' or not, at another level this is just another example of the 'No True Scotsman Fallacy' which is used by Christians and Muslims to distance their belief-system from the actions of some of its adherents. Either practicing a religion (or a 'religion' in the case of Zen) makes people on average more 'good', less good or neither. It's that simple. And surely that has to include ideologically distorted versions, since if the original version wasn't there it couldn't be distorted for other ends.

Wisdom in Buddhism is the loss of dualistic delusions. What about compassion? Many forms of Buddhism teach meditations to directly cultivate compassion. In Zen however, there is really only one meditation - Zazen - which aims to reveal our true nondualistic nature. The idea here is that revealing this nature will also remove all barriers for our natural happiness and compassion.

While I can with some degree of confidence accept the idea that we all naturally like to be happy and will be happier if obstacles to it are removed. And I am happier since I began practicing (although strictly I can't know exactly why since a number of other things have changed in my life). However, the idea that we become naturally more compassionate seems more tenuous. What is the basis for believing we are naturally compassionate? Our understanding of evolution would suggest that naturally we come in a range of demeanors. Perhaps someone who is happier is also inclined to be kinder to others? Actually I read some recent research which suggested that depressed people (surprisingly perhaps) were more sympathetic. Perhaps happy people are less inclined to be 'troublesome'? That seems likely, but of course sometimes being 'troublesome' in the short term can serve a greater good (meaning reduce suffering) in the longer term. Perhaps happy people are also less passionate about political and ethical issues? I don't know.

In original Mahayana Buddhism compassion is directly cultivated such as with Metta Bavanah meditation. If our practice is to directly to cultivate compassion then the temptation is strong to engage in repression and self-deception - to act compassionate when we don't feel it. And indeed I've met a number of Buddhists with that sort of dishonest over-nice quality that I usually associate with Christians.

I suspect that Zen abandoned such practices (along with excessive ritualism, chanting, offerings etc) as extraneous to the core and 'pure' practice of observation. But in their search for 'unadorned purity' could they be throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Zen practice does not exist outside of multiplicity and complexity, even zazen is an action. Perhaps it is necessary to develop selflessness of the heart as well as selflessness of the mind?

However, the Zen approach only works if our 'true nature' is compassionate, which I have no reason to believe. According to Buddhism, in fact, nothing has an inherent nature, so humans have no 'original' qualities compassionate or otherwise. Everything is a product of the conditions it is dependent on - and the nature that is expressed is nothing more than that, including whether compassion has been cultivated or not.

It's for this reason that I supplement my zazen with Metta Bavanah, but I also always try to be very honest with myself about how I feel and to be responsible to myself and others for how I behave.

In response to the idea of Metta meditation some Zen practitioners question whether compassion can be cultivated at all. I can assure them that it can - the feeling can be very powerful. Have they tried it?

Sometimes talking to Buddhists about 'social engagement' they say that action at a political or social level is unneccessary and that all you need to do is to gradually change yourself and the positive consequences emate from you like ripples on a pond. While that's a lovely image it begs questions about whether passively being a good Buddhist necessarily makes other people's lives better.

Buddhism is a tool for making positive changes in yourself. Buddhism has never really been about changing society - except in so far as you act compassionately and help others to change themselves. However, in Buddha's day ordinary people did not have as much power as they do now. Since we do, we should use that power compassionately and wisely.

Given the quite profound re-evaluation that Buddhism is undergoing in its adaptations to Western and modern culture, might this be a good time to re-evaluate Zen's approach to compassion, perhaps, if nothing else, to help prevent its exploitation by militaristic powers in the future.