Friday, November 23, 2007

Dedicated to Guy



An old friend of mine who I had lost contact with for a very long time died yesterday. I managed to re-establish contact with his sister two weeks ago on Facebook just as he was taking a turn for the worse. It turned out that he's been living in the same town as my son for years. The picture above is from around the time when I first met him, during his Mohican Phase.

Guy was a very talented and loveable individual who was diagnosed with MS about 10 years ago and stuggled with a series of infections. I had the honour of sitting with him for a while during his last days. I hope to dedicate a Hannya Shingyo ceremony to him in the next few days. I've been affected by this more than I would have expected.

This is how he defined himself on blogger:

I have been an Artist and Double Bassist. I was moving in elevated circles, and given time I could have been famous (yeah, but!) Nearly ten years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I am a great fan of the NHS. Much as the Labour party have done for the British, I have never been able to vote for Blair (No"History [WON'T] forgive him"). I am the father of a charming and lovely son, yet I am the last to experience his beautiful nature because I am deemed incapable or unworthy to care by his wonderful mother. I am a skeptic, yet accept the machinations around me combine to limit my options somewhat — I am paralysed and constrained by events: I am only here to find out what is awaiting me. Anti-Freudian, HOW CAN anyone say to me "Just move on"? That is a huge failure of imagination, sensibility, and I know that I have a responsibility to commentate on my condition. I believe in the Buddhist idea of fate.

Now I have no idea if he liked Radiohead, but I love this an it's dedicated to him.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Excluding nothing

Inspired by Rosemary's taisho, I thought to myself 'exclude nothing'. Exclude nothing, not thoughts, not attempts to stop thoughts, not frustration, or will or ego or bad or samsara or pain or desire. Not even excluding things. If I try to 'include everything' my mind tries to reach out into nonself and contain it. Questions about whether I can include everything arise. But the negative, passive, process of not excluding anything calms my mind and opens it right up. My perspective is huge, without limits - self, nonself, past, present, future is all of one fabric. I had experienced samadhi before but never so completely, never with such complete scope. It was as if my sense of self penetrated into the rest of reality like a liquid being absorbed into tissue paper. There was nothing outside of this. Reality and/or my self felt absolutely whole.

But life goes on. I have a difficult ex-wife to deal with and I hear there's trouble in Burma.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

At Gatwick Airport

At Gatwick Airport
No longer thinking of illusion and reality
I drink coffee and eat a baguette

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our bodies floating down the muddy river

While you make pretty speeches,

I'm being cut to shreds.
You feed me to the lions,
a delicate balance
When this just feels like spinning plates.
I'm living in cloud cuckoo land.
And this just feels like spinning plates
Our bodies floating down the muddy river.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Universal Religion Part 2: The limits of universalism

Religion of course can be very divisive. As Richard Dawkins says it can inspire people to murder others because they have a barely distinguishable belief system. I don't agree with Dawkins that religion itself is a primary cause of violence, it is simply one more label by which we define tribal in-groups and out-groups - any ideology or physical difference will do just as well. In religion, emphasising commonality can bring people together, while emphasising difference has a danger of increasing hostility. On the other hand, by lumping everything together and glibly saying that it is all the same, we can muddy the water and distort the meaning of religions. And even if we can help bring religions together we do so at the risk of defining an in-group of religious people and an out-group of non-religions people.

I recently went on an interfaith peace march. In the current climate it seemed like a worthwhile cause, even if Oxford isn't exactly a religions warzone. It's hardly the Gaza Strip. I must admit that I felt a bit awkward - I've never done anything like that before, because I've never thought of myself as a religious person. But hey, Zen is technically a religion and I thought it was worth showing my face. It was good that all these different faiths were able to march in unity for the same cause and the speeches that were given, of course encouraged unity by emphasising common ground. But, I wondered at the way in which it seemed to exclude anyone who didn't have religious beliefs.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. We all believe in the same God..."
(Damn it the Hindus!)
"...We all believe in a Creator God..."
(darn! - Buddhists !)
"...We all have Religious Belief..."
(What are those Zen bastards doing here?!)
"...Well, at least we're not atheists!"

To say that 'all religions are essentially the same' is all very well, but what about polytheistic religions? What about the fact that Buddhists don't have a belief in God or in any transcendent absolute? What about religions which emphasise the ego such as Laveyan Satanism? What about non-religious 'peak experiences'. What about secular philosophies? What about ordinary life? We are always creating a perimeter somewhere. Attempting to find the unity of religion, Universalists expand the terriritory of 'the sacred' - the 'in-group' - but always leave an 'out-group'. Instead of finding unity, they are merely moving the borders of duality. Instead of dividing the world into Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc, it divides the world into believers and non-believers, divine and profane, good and evil. How can we transcend all in-groups and out-groups and find a sense of the truly universal?

And in finding this common religious ground, there is also a strong temptation to bend the meaning of other faiths so that they fit into our conceptual (and dualistic) framework. Now I have a lot of respect for Baha'i - if I was to be a theist of any sort I'd probably be a Baha'i. Similarly, I hope my perception of Pure Land Buddhism isn't offensive to anyone. And I don't want to generalise from a single case, but I came across Baha'i online recently who was interested in learning more about Buddhism. It was no surprise that the branch they were most interested in was Pure Land. Pure Land is a populist, non-monastic strand of Buddhism aimed at ordinary lay practitioners. It is very dualistic in it's teachings, and is remarkably similar to the Abrahamic religions in form - salvation is gained not through personal practice but in faith in higher powers. Nirvana is characterised as the 'Pure Land' - almost exactly the same as the celestial realms of Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths - a great example of convergent memetic evolution methinks - Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore would be delighted.

Why Buddhism doesn't quite fit

The majority of religions teach some sort of substantialism, which is inevitably dualistic - the world is divided into mind/matter, man/God, Atman/Brahma, sacred/profane, good/evil and so forth. They posit a transcendent power which is utterly distinct from ourselves and with which possibly in moments of mystical union we somehow become merged or receive communion with. Belief in the existence of a 'cosmic other' is something that has to be maintained by faith. Mystical 'union with the absolute' (if the faith allows such a thing) is a metaphysical event - the union of the substances of the human soul and of 'God'. They posit an eternal soul substance which corresponds to our sense of continuing personal identity. They reject the message of materialism, that our identity is produced by temporary physical form which is extinguished on death. Buddhism rejects both of these views as being based on the mistake of taking a conventional truth (identity) for an ultimate one (an immortal soul or a real self somehow arising from a temporary brain state).

Buddhism differs from other religions - apart from Taoism I think - in that there is no transcendent power - the mundane and the divine are not two, mind and matter are not two. Nirvana is not a separate realm from samsara; Buddha Nature is not separate from ordinary life. Buddhism teaches sunyata, or emptiness rather than divine substantialism. Buddhism teaches, not only the unity of 'the Divine', but the unity of the Profane with the Divine; not only the unity of religion, but the unity of religion with non-religion; not only the unity of man, but the unity of man, animals and inanimate objects; even the unity of unity and non-unity. Unity itself is not separate from non-unity - form (the relative, mundane) is not different from emptiness (the ultimate or universal nature of reality).

The union of man with the transcendent or divine is not a metaphysical event in Buddhism, nor is it even the collapse of a real duality. It is just the realisation that there never was a separation between the ordinary and the universal in the first place. It is the dropping of mentally created distinctions which had been taken as real dualities. The very duality between relative (man) and ultimate (God) is a constructed convention of the human mind.

But even to create a duality between dualism and non-dualism is more dualism. Experiences of the emptiness or unity of all things, which is seen in contrast to the ordinary dualistic world are regarded in Buddhism as incomplete because a non-dualism which exists in contrast to dualism is itself a dualistic viewpoint. Genuine non-dualism includes dualism, non-dualism, sacred, profane, God and non-God - nothing is excluded. Nirvana is the opposite samsara only from the perspective of those in samsara. Nothing is excluded. The point is that distinctions are real but only conventionally real, ultimately nothing is separate. To create a distinction between the conventional and the ultimate is again, conventional truth, ultimately there is no distinction. Nothing can be stated which is not conventional truth. This is why many Buddhist teachings appear dualistic in a way similar to other religions.

The barrier between self and cosmos in Buddhism is not a real physical or metaphysical separation or wall, it is a mental fabrication maintained by ourselves. At the moment of satori we fully realise its fabricated nature, we realise that there is no barrier to cross, nothing to attain.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Deshimaru Footage: Deshimaru Chanting

Also walking around with a rather cool hat on...

Friday, August 24, 2007

Deshimaru Footage: The Ordination of Barbera Kosen

Someone has been uploading old footage of Master Deshimaru onto YouTube - mostly in French. I think this is the best one - showing a young woman being ordained as a nun. Some cynical people might look at this and think that it;s just a bunch of French hippies, but I think it's beautiful.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Universal Religion: Part 1

To bring an understanding of Zen to Europe, Master Deshimaru talked as much in terms of 'God' as he talked about 'Buddha'. Yet, this wasn't a belief in a literal creator being or personal God - he was using the concept as a metaphor for 'the universal' or the fundamental principle of reality, not unlike the way that scientists like Einstein and Stephen Hawking use the concept.

Zazen is the same thing as God or Buddha. Dogen, the master of transmission, said, "Zazen itself is God." By that he meant that during zazen you are in harmony with the cosmos. In hishiryo consciousness there is no more anything. It is satori consciousness. The self has dropped away and dissolved. It is the consciousness of God. It is God. People have a personal God. We are not separate. There is no duality between God, Buddha, and ourselves.
- Master Deshimaru

According to many sources (for example the scholar Richard Gombrich) the Buddha adapted his teaching to whatever beliefs his audience had, whether they were Tantrics, Vedic fire-worshippers, Naga-worshippers, Yogins, rationalists or skeptics. And in the same way, Deshimaru was adapting his message to the language and concepts of Europe.

During a mondo, I asked Godo Mokuho Guy Mercier what the difference was between practicing Zen and practicing Zen as a Buddhist. Godo Guy responded by saying that we are all Buddhists, that is, all religions are essentially about the same thing, that Buddhism is about the universal, rather than some sectarian dogma. He also argued that the teachings of Jesus really had the same meaning as the teachings of Buddha. He's not the first to say something like this and of course I wonder how far it can be stretched - are the violent, judgemental teachings of the Old Testament the same as Buddhism and what about non-religions?

Universalism

In many ways each religion is quite different - they have mythologies, divine laws and metaphysical schemas that contradict one another. Yet at another level, they seem to intersect at a point that might be called 'mystical experience'. At this point all the major religions seem to be talking about one thing - the transcendence of the individual sense of self. This common ground is so well documented by students of comparative religion that it is almost a cliche. This is known as Universalism and Perennial Philosophy are about . But it's easy to make glib comments about all religions being the same, glossing over the differences - we need to understand the similarities and the differences. And we also need to consider whether its right to give religion a special status and exclude the secular activities in life.

Not all religions include the concept of God of course or even any kind of transcendent absolute. The common ground of religious experience, I would say, is the opening up of the ego to the whole of reality.

The following quotations should give a hint of this.

Hindism


As a lump of salt, cast in water would dissolve right into the
water...Arising out of these elements (bhuta), into them also one vanishes
away...

When his soul is in peace he is in peace, and then his soul is in
God...The Yogi who, lord of his mind, ever prays in this harmony of soul,
attains the peace of Nirvana, the peace supreme that is in me...Thus joy supreme
comes to the Yogi whose heart is still, whose passions are peace, who is pure
from sin, who is one with Brahman, with God.

- Bhagavad Gita

Buddhism


The individual shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at
the moment of satori...my individuality...melts away into something
indescribable, something which is of quite a different order from what I am
accustomed to.

- Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

Christianity

It was granted to me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevetheless, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul... This view was so subtle and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it.
- Terisa of Avil

Teresa's most famous book The Interior Castle describes a person's soul as a multi-chambered castle. Going deeper and deeper into your soul and facing your own fears, self-interests, ego and temptations gradually leads you into a deeper relationship with God. At the very central chamber the soul is at complete peace and complete union with God. This reminds me of the lyrics to Terrible Canyons of Static by God Speed You! Black Emperor.


That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
- Jesus, John 17: 21 -23


Islam


Adorn me with Thy Unity
Clothe me with thy selfhood
And raise me up to thy Oneness,
So that when Thy creatures see me
They will say we have seen Thee
And thou art That

- Abu Yazid
Fools laud and magnify the mosque, While they strive to oppress holy men of
heart. But the former is mere form, the latter spirit and truth. The only true
mosque is that in the heart of saints. The mosque that is built in the hearts of
the saints Is the place of worship for all, for God dwells there.
- Masnavi, Book 2 Story 13
I pray God the Omnipotent to place us in the ranks of His chosen, among the
number of those He directs to the path of safety; in whom He inspires
fervour lest they forget Him; whom He cleanses from all defilement, that
nothing remain in them except Himself; yea, of those whom He indwells
completely, that they may adore none beside Him.
- Al Ghazzali

Mystical Experiences

According authors such as William Stace, all mystical experiences share the same characteristics:

  • unity
  • time- spacelessness
  • sense of reality = knowledge not subjective
  • peace/happiness
  • sacredness paradox/logic defied
  • ineffability
  • loss of sense of self

Only the packaging varies - the framework of ideas, culture, language and mythology in which they are conceived and described. As I see it, to the mystic, God or Brahma or Buddha is everywhere - it's only when a strong attachment is made to the philosophical, theological or mythological framework - the means of communication - that this self-transcendence descends into dogmatism, self-righteousness, bigotry, intolerance and potentially violence. The experience of satori and samadhi are the equivalent of union with God, Brahma etc. Only the metaphysics or dogma varies.

Every major religion has it's mystics and it's universalists, but every religion has its dogmatists and fundamentalists too - just as every polical party has a left wing and a right wing. Perhaps more than any other faith, Bahá'í puts a great deal of emphasis of religious universality. Bahai is a branch of Islam which teaches that all religion is an expression or appreciation of God.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Progressive Buddhism

I'm setting up a blog on the topic of modern or progressive Buddhism:

- looking at Buddhism in the light of modern knowledge, free from over-attachment to ancient dogmas,
- looking at the best ways to integrate Buddhism into Modern/Western societies
- discussing and encouraging an empirical or scientific approach
- Seeing insight and awakening as a living tradition

I'm looking for people to contribute

If we get a bit of momentum I'd like to invite people like Stephen Bachelor and Susan Blackmore to contribute.

Looking forward to hear from you.

Justin

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Heart Sutra chant in English

Like most Zen groups, at the International Zen Association we chant the Heart Sutra in Japanese - or in archaic Sino-Indo-Japanese to be more accurate. It certainly gives a sense of something significant and exotic, arcane even and the act of chanting itself is good concentration. However, in my humble opinion, the meaning is important and is best understood in the context of practice rather than reading dry translations afterwards. So I can see a good case for chanting it in English. There are of course many English translations of this sutra, but mostly into prose.

So, by cross-referencing several translations I've produced this Heart Sutra chant in English - I may tweak it over time, so if anyone has any comments on my interpretation I'd appreciate hearing them.

Gassho

Heart – of the – Great – Perfection of – Wisdom – Sutra

A-va-lo-kiteshva-ra-Bodhi-satt-va
While-practicing-deep-Perfection-of-Wisdom
Saw-all-five-skan-dhas-are-empty-of-self
ending-all-suffering
Sha-ri-put-ra-form-is-not-different-from-emptiness
Emptiness-not-different-from-form
form-is-emptiness-emptiness-is-form
Feel-ings-per-cep-tions-vol-i-tions-consciousness-the-same-is-true-of-these
Sha-ri-put-ra-all-dhar-mas-are-marked-with-emptiness
They-are-not-born-nor-dest-royed
are-not-im-pure-nor-pure
do-not-in-crease-nor-de-crease
There-fore-in-emptiness-no-form
no-feel-ings-per-cep-tions-vol-i-tion-consciousness
no-eye-ear-nose-tongue-body-mind
no-col-our-sound-smell-taste-touch-ment-al-ob-ject
no-sight-sub-stance-and-so-forth-un-til-no-consciousness-sub-stance
no-ignorance-and-no-end-of-ignorance
no-ag-ing-and-death-and-no-end-of-ag-ing-and-death
no-suffering-nor-origin-of-suffering
nor-end-of-suffering-nor-path-to-end-suffering
no-know-ledge-and-no-att-ain-ment
With-no-thing-to-att-ain
the-Bodhi-satt-va-fol-lows-Per-fect-Wis-dom
has-no-ill-u-sion
with-no-ill-u-sion-no-fear-exists
far-from-every-false-view
he-realis-es-per-fect-Nir-va-na
All-Buddh-as-in-the-past-present-and-fut-ure
there-fore-att-ain-com-plete-self-realised-liberation
So-know-the-Per-fection-of-Wis-dom
is-the-great-tran-scendent-man-tra
is-the-great-bright-man-tra
is-the-high-est-man-tra
is-the-ut-most-man-tra
can-re-move-all-suffering-al-so-true-not-false
so-speak-the-Per-fection-of-Wis-dom-man-tra
speak-the-mantra-that-says
gone-gone-gone-beyond
gone-fully-beyond-Awake-hooray!
Heart-of-Wis-dom-su-tra

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Zen Buddhism and Love

From Alan Watts and D T Suzuki to Brad Warner I got the impression that Zen was harsh and iconclastic. But there are ways in which the actual practice of Zen has surprised my me. One of those ways is just how 'religious' it all is. By this I mean that there is a great deal of ritual, ceremony, chanting, and dressing up in special clothes. I was expecting something more austere and simple. It isn't very dogmatic or metaphysical, but in form it's remarkably close to Christianity and other religions. It's like Catholicism without the God; reverence without object of reverence; faith without object of faith.

Another thing that surprised me was the emphasis on love. I knew that Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism emphasised direct cultivatation of metta ('loving kindness') and in contrast Zen seemed to emphasise transcendence of ideas of good and evil - something which I was concerned might lead to a sort of amoral attitude. This was reinforced by stories about the association between Zen and the martial arts and it's involvement in pre-war Japanese militarism. Compassion was something that, according to doctrine, arose naturally from awakening, but whether this was true or not I couldn't know.

The godos of the Association Zen Internationale I have practiced with, perhaps especially Jean-Pierre, teach that in the West we have an unbalanced understanding based on attachment to emptiness and negation in Zen - an understanding that can lead to nihilism and amoralism. Soto Zen in Japan, he teaches, is more positive, emphasising espression of appreciation, gratitude and love.

The Zen I have experienced here has not consisted of cerebral mind-games, not has it had the sometimes sickly-sweet 'sincerity' of some Buddhist groups I've experienced - but it has been an exercise in awareness, interdependent living. Day to day activities are practiced with consciousness, with appreciation and emphasising interdependence. Most meals are eaten in silence, but with people serving each other rather than themselves. It's a great atmosphere. And this practice of caring for other people becomes a habit that seeps into the rest of life. Emily was very impressed by my attentiveness when I came out of my 7-day sesshin.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sesshin and ordination: the aftermath

Well, I'm back. I had a great time. The sight of two French monks singing sentimental songs together was worthwhile in itself.

I received Jukai (called, rather grandly, 'Bodhisattva Ordination' in these circles) from Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure who led it. Jean-Pierre was a student of Deshimaru and is head of Kanshoji and ex-head of la Gendronierre Temple, he has also received transmission from the Soto sect in Japan so you might say he has a good pedigree. He gave a number of very interesting taisho's on Dogen and teachings from his own heart. So I am now 'Shonin', meaning 'True human being', just like the famous Shinran Shonin and Nichiren Shonin. That's something to live up to.

A few days before the ordination I had made an appointment to speak to him specifically about the issue of the meaning of rebirth and karma and whether my understanding was compatible with ordination. His answer was that Buddhism should not be seen as a religious dogma. He explained rebirth in terms of interdependence and impermanence, and mind and matter as two inseperable aspects of the same reality - in terms I had no issue with. I raised the question of the literal truth of the twelve steps of dependent origination and the idea that karma/conditions are reborn as a single being. He said that sometimes four steps were taught and sometimes twelve. And that although we could conceive of the rebirth of matter, the psychological aspect was impossible to comprehend. Essentially, the teaching of dependent origination is true, but it is a metaphor, he said, a finger pointing at the moon. Don't gaze at the finger. Metaphysical speculation about the mechanics of rebirth of mind after death was given no importance by Jean-Pierre, nor was it taught as something we had to accept in order to practice or some sort of dogmatic fact which we would have to open ourselves up to. All the emphasis of his teaching is on awakening to the reality of the moment and engaging positively with the conditions of that moment (i.e. karma). It was very much an applied teaching. Whether you believe in a literal (reincarnation-like) reading of dependent origination or not is immaterial to the teachings of Buddhism.

All that practice (perhaps especially the silent eating and Japanese style serving of one another) must have had an effect. I really feel that I had a direct experience of interdependence at a social and emotional level, which resonated well with Jean-Pierre's emphasis on love. Since I got back Emily has commented several times that I seem very attentive (not by conscious effort really) and said 'I like you as a Bodhisattva'.

It took me two days to settle into my zazen, then I had two 'good' days - I really felt at peace and what Jean-Pierre was saying seemed to make a lot of sense: 'White reeds moving in the moonlight'. Then my back started to hurt and I ended with three days of Backache Mind and Confused Mind. Also, it hit me how 'religious' it all was, especially the ordination and I got a bit freaked out by the fact that I was getting initiated into a religion. I clearly have a fear of religion. On the last night we had some wine and an impromptu sing-song which was fun. Food was great as usual.

It will take a while to digest all that.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Anatomy of motorway congestion

I have a one hour drive to and from work every day. Because of this I start to notice certain patterns I didn't see before.

For example, motorway congestion almost always follows the same pattern.

1. Traffic in the fast lane slows down so that there is little difference between the fast and the middle lane
2. Quite suddenly, the traffic slows down dramatically. This almost always affects the fast lane first, then the middle lane, then the slow lane. This is because the slowing of the traffic is like a wave which is transmitted backwards along the route and faster traffic transmits it faster.
3. At this point it is best to head into the middle or or slow lane. Most people don't realise this and pile into the fast lane in frustration, slowing it down more.
4. As the worst of the congestion passes, the pattern changes - the traffic in the fast lane starts to speed up first. At this point, it's best to get back into the fast lane.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sesshin and ordination

Next week I'll be in sesshin for a week - the longest ever for me. Not only that but I'll be taking my 'Bodhisattva ordination' (a fancy name for Jukai /taking the precepts/taking refuge).

However, before I can do that I have to finish sewing my rakusu and there's still loads to do!

Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Zen Mind and Ordinary Mind


Several years ago I came across an interesting article on Zen in the Karate discussion website www.24fightingchickens.com . I can't find the article now, but as far as I recall Rob Redmond criticised Zen meditation saying that it was 'just' the reduction of abstract thought, freeing up mental bandwidth for awareness of the present, in other words, it has no deep significance.

In a sense, this is right. Our ordinary conciousness consists largely of projections into the past, future and hypothetical situations. As the illustration above suggests, in this state out attention is largely temporal (forwards and backwards in time), leaving very little mental bandwith for awareness of the reality of what is actually occurring. Not only that, but (given the current impossibility of time travel) experiencing the past and future is impossible, so all of this awareness is virtual - it is hypothesised from what is going on now, such as memories and predictions based on deduction, intuition and experience. We take these abstractions for truth or reality and the process of projection and identification with past and future events causes us to see our life in terms of continuous existence. We wonder whether this continuity will cease with physical death or continue into an afterlife.

When we do zazen or similar meditation, this virtual activity quietens down and we become aware of what is actually going on. I don't mean that we suddenly gain special access to what is thought of as 'objective reality' or Kantian 'things-in-themselves'. But we experience the events of our life unmediated by thought - we experience the sounds of our breathing or sounds from outside directly, in all it's uniqueness and familiarity and it's indescribable complexity. We can feel the causal reverberations of the universe. We can't find anything (other than convention) to distinguish between the events in 'ourselves' from those 'outside'. Seeing our memories as experiences that literally 'we' did or didn't have no longer seems to mean much. The idea of annihilation or continuity into afterlife no longer seem to mean much. Instead memories and anticipations are just mental events occuring now - one more aspect of the relentless surge of change without real begining and end, which is the real nature of this life. To experience this is to experience Ku, Sunyata, emptiness.

I used to think that the aim of Zen was to exist in this state permenantly. However, this is impractical - we need memory and anticipation to survive. Also to see this state as real and the ordinary state as false or inferior is to create one more duality and duality is the activity of samsara, the deluded mind. The true aim of Zen as I understand it, is to find this emptiness in meditation and contemplation and to realise that when we meditate we are not creating emptiness nor are we moving from non-emptiness to emptiness - rather, we are paying attention to the emptiness which is the actual nature of all of our existence, whatever we are doing, whatever our state of mind. There never was a continuous self, nor continuous entities of any sort. There is only a vast rippling matrix of interdependent cause and effect. Looking inwards or outwards we can find no continuity. What we thought was the continuous existence of ourselves is really change. Whether we realise it or not existence is empty of self - whether we are in a 'zen state' or an 'ordinary state' there is no continuous self. We don't need to be in a special state to make emptiness real. The only thing that makes a difference in this respect is seeing the nature of things or not and how this affects our experience of living. In this sense ordinary mind and zen mind are already one, samsara and nirvana are not different.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Self and brain

The last time I did zazen it was really very deep - there was almost no sense of self, only constantly shifting processes of sensation, feeling and thought. At one point the thought appeared that this was an unborn, undying state, neither eternal nor nonexistent, but free from birth and death.

I had just been reading a text, which had inspired me. But this wasn't a sutra or the writings of some mystic, it was a description of the issues surrounding consciousness and self from the perspective of neuroscience.

For some reason the author decided to write it from the perspective of a fiction person in the future.

...who's running the show? How does the brain, with its diverse and distributed functions, come to arrive at a unified sense of identity? "Soul" doesn't figure in the lexicon of neuroscience, but what about the soul's secular cousin, "self"? Could we speak of a person's brain without, ultimately, speaking of the person? Was the self merely the sum of its cerebral parts? The illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling - the natural intuition that somewhere in the shadows of the brain there lurks an observing "I", an experiencer of experiences, thinker of thoughts and controller of actions.

This was hard to reconcile with the material facts (the vacant machinery that actually packs the skull) and it was plain to see that the mental operations underlying our sense of self - feelings, thoughts, memories - were dispersed throughout the brain. There was no homuncular assembly point where a little soul-pilot sat watching the dials of experience and pulling the levers of action. We were,
neuropsychologically speaking, all over the place. And anyway, who did we think was pulling the levers in the little soul-pilot's head? If we found a ghost in the machine we'd have to start looking for the machine in the ghost.

Belief in an inner essence, or central core, of personhood, was called "ego theory". The alternative, "bundle theory", made more neurological sense but offended our deepest intuitions. Too bad, I thought. We should learn to face facts. The philosopher Derek Parfit put it starkly: we are not what we believe ourselves to be. Actions and experiences are interconnected but ownerless. A human life consists of a long series - or bundle - of enmeshed mental states rolling like tumbleweed down the days and years, but with no one (no thing) at the centre. An embodied brain acts, thinks, has certain experiences, and that's all. There is no deeper fact about being a person. The enchanted loom of the brain does not require a weaver.


These discoveries and questions echo what has been taught in Buddhism for over two millenia - it's not exactly that the self doesn't exist, it's that rather than being an essence or something objectively real, it's a narrative that we tell ourselves and each other. In other words it is conventional truth rather than ultimate truth. Ultimately there are only processes in a constant state of change.

...Michael Gazzaniga, one of the great pioneers of cognitive neuroscience, pointed to a specialised left-hemisphere system - he called it "the Interpreter" - whose function was to wind disparate strands of brain function into a single thread of subjective experience. It worked by identifying patterns of activity across different brain modules and correlating these with events in the external world: it was a teller of tales. The minimal self gave us our sense of location and boundary, and our intuitions of agency - the feeling that we exercise
control over our actions. But these fundamentals of self-awareness were rather fragile constructs. Disturbances of temporal and parietal lobe function could cause profound dislocations of perception such as out-of-body experiences and autoscopic hallucinations (seeing one's body in extrapersonal space). Damage to the frontal lobes could disturb the sense of agency, with limbs developing a recalcitrant will of their own.

The extended self, too, was neurologically fragile. It could be gradually dismantled by dementia, or shattered by a sudden viral attack, the story of the self dissolved with the dissolution of memory. In contrast, a deep-brain stroke or injury to the frontal lobes could leave memory unaffected but recalibrate the machineries of emotion and temperament. The story continued, but the central character had changed beyond recognition. Sometimes the brain's story-telling mechanism itself broke down, resulting in the confabulation of fictional, often fantastical, autobiographical distortions. As science writer John McCrone put it, we are all just a stumble or burst blood vessel away from being someone else. Selfhood is malleable. That was the message.


The Big Questions: What is consciousness?

When I first came across these sorts of ideas as a psychology and philosophy undergraduate, I found them deeply disconcerting. It was one of the things that drew me to Buddhism - Derek Parfit was perhaps the last straw - I endeavored to find a positive and harmonious way of existing in this 'void' of no-self. But now such descriptions are a source of inspiration.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Empty of what?


One of the more difficult concepts in Buddhism - one of the most fundamental as well as perhaps the most widely misunderstood - is rendered in English as emptiness. In Zen it is taught with the Japanese word Ku. Many people misunderstand emptiness as complete non-existence. When I first came across this idea as an undergraduate, I imagined it was teaching that the phenomenal world was a sort of hologram hiding a sort of vast, cosmic nothingness. The term is sometimes translated as void, or worse The Void, which doesn't help. The word in English also has negative connotations implying a destitution of meaning or value or feeling. Is it any wonder that people think Buddhism is nihilistic? Is this misunderstanding of emptiness just a problem of its translation into English?

The concept that is rendered as Ku in Japanese derives from the Chinese Wu , which comes from Sunyata (Sanskrit), which in turn comes from Sunnata (Pali). The adjective in Pali is Sunna (empty). Have we lost the meaning in this game of Chinese whispers? Sunnata has the same connotation of ordinary physical emptiness in Pali as emptiness has in English - and it was sometimes misunderstood in similar ways. Confusion about the meaning was common even in the time of Buddha it appears and Buddhism has at times been accused of nihilism through much of its history. But in 'Dhamma language' emptiness doesn't mean total nonexistence, or nihilism. It means something quite specific, which can be expressed in positive as well as negative terms, but which is an experience that is beyond words and even concepts. It is the transcendence of the narrow identification of self to an egoless experience of reality without borders, the experience of samadhi - the non-dualistic state of consciousness seen as a pre-cursor to Nirvana.

Originally Sunna referred directly to the anatta (no self-nature) doctrine.

According to orthodox religious and philosophical thought at the time Buddha lived, each and every living being had its own unchanging 'soul' or essence - the atman - which was or became unified with the cosmic Atman (according to some the same as Brahman) on enlightenment. Buddha was contradicting this doctrine - anatta/anatman was a denial of atta/ atman - and sunna was an expression of this. It wasn't a denial of mind or consciousness or the sense of self, it was a denial of a real, enduring, independent, self-existent essence or soul.

In the Suñña Sutta, Ananda asks the Buddha, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."

So, emptiness is not total nonexistence, but refers specifically to the absence of an atman - an ultimately real self, essence or identity. And describes reality in terms of interdependence rather than self-standing existences. But what relevance does this have to non-Brahmanists and non-metaphysicians?

Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities. The identities of things in the world are conventions of the human mind and society. We project these perceived identities outwards onto the universe itself, as if the universe really was divided up into discreet and abiding objects. At best, we see these 'things' as having changing relationships and properties, but nevertheless, an enduring identity. Buddhism teaches that the notion of entities is nominal or conventional. It is a necessary feature of thought and language that we treat identifiable aspects of reality as if they have a continuous existence - even if we acknowledge that this existence is characterised by change. Many computer programming languages are said to be 'object orientated' in the sense that they handle data in terms of identities or objects which have certain properties at any given time. The way that human beings think is remarkably similar to this in some ways. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, we confuse conventional reality with ultimate reality - that is, we confuse the nominal with the actual. No doubt it is a functional, pragmatic way to deal with information, but not a true reflection of reality, which as modern physics tells us, is a seamless and deeply interdependent flux - an evolving matrix of processes within processes. According to Buddhism it is this disparity between out attachment to the notion of enduring entities and the transience of reality, which causes the suffering that we experience from day to day.

Why do the original teachings emphasise this negative description, in terms of absence? It was framed in this way, to respond to the eternalist atman doctrine while perhaps minimising the chance of being interpreted as a new set of statements about the essence of reality. The power of this tendency to reify reality - to project our concepts of identity as if they existed externally - means that we may see even a teaching of inter-dependence in terms of a network of relationships between entities, when really it is only the mind that creates the existence of any entities or even relationships - reality is a seamless - and ultimately indescribable - whole. This is why, to avid nihilistic misunderstandings, some modern teachers describe emptiness in terms of openness or fullness - because phenomena are empty of that which would separate or confine them - a self-existent identity or essence.

Buddha taught that all phenomena are characterised by three qualities - the Three Marks of Existence:



Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.

Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)

Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) impersonality, or non-Self. The human personality, "soul", or Self, is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.

Source

These characteristics are inter-dependent: it is because things lack an independent essence, that they are in a constant state of change; it is because we hold onto the changing aspects of reality as if they had a continuous existence that they are unsatisfactory for us. Emptiness is really just the same as interdependence or dependent origination, and some of the clearest accounts I've come across explain it in these terms. Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Heart Sutra (which I recommend) describes it using his own terminology of 'inter-being'.



If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper...So we can say that the cloud and the paper 'inter-are.' We cannot just be by ourselves alone; we have to inter-be with every other thing.


A class of Mahayana sutras called the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras developed this concept of emptiness. The earliest is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which is chanted in a shortened form in Zen dojos as the Heart sutra. It includes a number of quite enigmatic lines on emptiness:



"Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty."

"Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase."

Emptiness is that which is beyond dualities - it is raw reality, prior to conceptualisation and language. It is not to be seen as another concept, set in opposition to phenomena such as form (matter), sensation, perception, mentality, or consciousness. Reality is not separate from appearance. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this beautifully as follows:



Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.

Probably the second most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself was Nagarjuna who, at the time that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging, developed the concept of Sunyata with a thorough and extensive philosophy of negation - the best known exposition of his thought is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Key features of this teaching are:


  • The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness of all things (i.e., all things, including the Buddha, have no inherent existence)

  • The identity of pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) with śunyatā

  • The indifferentiability of nirvāṇa from saṃsāra

  • The tentative or merely conventional nature of all truth

The former is expressed in terms of the 'emptiness of emptiness':



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

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.

One of the problems with philosophies based (for teaching purposes) on negation, such as anatta, sunna and to an even greater extent the work of Middle Path philosophers such as Nagarjuna, is that it is easily interpreted as nihilism. Many people misinterpret these ideas as a denial of reality. But Nagarjuna's philosophy is not nihilistic, it is negative to avoid all attachment to concepts, all reification. But really it is indicating through denial and silence, that which is beyond language and concepts. It is intended to negate attachment to concepts in order to see through them to reality. He has prompted comparison with the (equally misunderstood) 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A group of Mahayana sutras referred to as the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Womb) Sutras teach that there is a permanent, unchanging essence within each being. The term Tathagatagarbha can be variously translated as 'Buddha Womb', 'Buddha Embryo' etc, and is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with Buddha Nature. It may have arisen as a result of Hindu/Brahmanist influences since it arose during a Hindu revival in India. These sutras are in agreement that the Tathagatagarbha is an undefiled, eternal essence within all beings. It is presented as an antidote to a false, nihilistic understanding of emptiness. But, as I have already argued, to see these doctrines as nihilism is to totally (yet understandably) misunderstand them. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists adhere to this view literally. However such an interpretation seems essentially indistinguishable from the Vedic/Brahminist teachings of Atman that Buddhism rose out of and broke away from. Others see such interpretation as being in contradiction to the principles of anatman and sunyata. To me, this raises the question of why, if Buddha was essentially in agreement with the Brahminists, he felt any need to debate with them and to give radical, innovative teachings which directly contradicted them. Buddha rejected eternalism as well as annihilationism. How does this interpretation differ from eternalism? Is this not just another attempt to cling to atman, to imagined permanence? Another reification of concepts? How do we reconcile this with the rest of Buddhist philosophy?

Could it be that the authors of these sutras (which were of course attributed to Buddha, but which did not appear until several centuries after his death) had misunderstood such doctrines as Anatta, Sunyata and Madhyamaka philosophy as nihilism? Or perhaps they were creating an antidote to the popular misunderstanding of such teachings as nihilism - redressing the balance by teaching emptiness in positive terms.

In one of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, it is explained that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is a teaching method:



Then Mahamati said to the Blessed One: In the Scriptures mention is made of the Womb of Tathágata-hood and it is taught that that which is born of it is by nature bright and pure, originally unspotted and endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence. As it is described it is a precious gem but wrapped in a dirty garment soiled by greed, anger, folly and false-imagination. We are taught that this Buddha-nature immanent in everyone is eternal, unchanging, and auspicious. It is not this, which is born of the Womb of Tathágata-hood the same as the soul-substance that is taught by the philosophers? The Divine Atman as taught by them is also claimed to be eternal, inscrutable, unchanging, and imperishable. Is there, or is there not a difference?

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the Divine Atman as taught by the philosophers. What I teach is Tathágata-hood in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unborn-ness, unqualified ness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathágata-hood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of ego-less-ness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imageless-ness. The religious teaching of the Tathágatas are just like a potter making various vessels by his own skill of hand with the aid of rod, water and thread, out of the one mass of clay, so the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness in order to remove the last trace of discrimination that is preventing disciples from attaining a self-realization of Noble Wisdom. The doctrine of the Tathágata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of "soul" as being something self-existent may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment. All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind. No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.

Note the phrase 'the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness'. In what sense is the ego-less-ness twofold? I propose that it is twofold through both negative expression (anatta, sunyata) and positive expression (Tathagatagarbha, dependent origination).

In his article The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata' Heng-Ching Shih expresses the same argument in detail.



In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? ...It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'.

There is a passage in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra' in which Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It reads:


Good son, Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness ,which is 'prajna' itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and non-self. What is empty is 'samsara' and what is not empty is great 'nirvana' ... Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.

Heng-Ching Shih explains this as follows:


The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony [between] being and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both encompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.

Interpreting the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as soteriological - as a teaching device - rather than as theoretical and literal in this way, we can resolve an apparent conflict into a teaching which is harmonious with the rest of Buddhist philosophy.

As with Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching of emptiness, we have another, relatively easy to understand, positive expression of the core teaching of Buddhism. And again we have the danger of literalism and reification - an even greater danger in this case due to the ambiguity of the texts and the ease with which they can be seen as metaphysics. The key, I believe, is to see all of these teachings as just that - to walk a Middle Path, avoiding literalism, clinging to no particular articulation, positive or negative, but instead letting go of all attachment to concepts and language and instead being open to reality itself without such 'mediation'. All good Buddhist teachings are knowingly pragmatic and soteriological, in my opinion.

Monday, March 19, 2007

It will be gone with the other

I think it's a mistake to regard Rinzai and Soto Zen as opposing schools or even as teaching something different. Sometimes it seems to be a mistake to think that other religions are teaching something different from Zen. I've been listening to audio downloads from an American Rinzai Zen temple called Cho Bo Ji. You can hear these on the RSS feed on the right hand column of this blog, but the best place to get them is as podcasts on iTunes. I've really been enjoying these. Genjo Marinello is as entertaining as he is profound. I can't recommend them enough. This morning he was talking about one of the Koans in the Blue Cliff Record - Daizu's "It will be gone with the other".

A monk asks Daizu if, when this incarnation of the universe comes to an end, 'It' (meaning Buddha, the Tao, the absolute) will be destroyed. Daizu says, much to the monk's dismay, 'It will be gone with the other'. Daizu is sabotaging the monk's attempt to clutch onto the essence of reality as something fixed and permanent.

Genjo Marinello then talks about getting to know the eccentric Zen Master and poet Soen Roshi when he was in Japan and recites some of his beautiful haiku:

Clearness
Sky and water reflecting
My heart

He juxtaposes the monks question from the koan with the haiku:

'Will it be gone with the other?'
'It will be gone with the other'.
Yet 'Clearness. Sky and water reflecting my heart'. No talk of 'It'.

Hearing that on the podcast as I drove to work, after a weekend of Zen and visiting old friends in the south west, I had a sense of something profoundly sublime, which was quite overwhelming. It even brought me to tears for a few moments - I had to compose myself so that I didn't crash the car. I can only feebly try to describe it as a sense of a hand reaching out to grasp something and encountering empty space, only to be caressed by a gentle breeze blowing on the skin. Perhaps it shows how much further poetry can go than philosophy.

'Will It perish at the end of the universe?' really means 'is impermanence permanent or impermanent?' or 'does emptiness have a self-nature or not'? Daizu did not want the monk to cling to 'It' as a fixed thing. There are a significant number of Buddhists who interpret the meaning of their religion just like this: all phenomena are empty and impermanent apart from Buddha Nature which is permanent. I think the real meaning of Daizu's response was not 'emptiness has no self'. Nor, I think, did he just want to deny the unborn, undying nature of Buddha just as a teaching device to bring the student away from clinging merely to the idea of it. Reality is not to be regarded as a thing, which either passes out of existence or remains in a state of stasis. Reality is where concepts of birth and death and stasis have no meaning - these are conventions of thought and language - ultimately reality is beyond all of these terms. This is what Nagarjuna meant when he taught the 'emptiness of emptiness'.

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

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.

A monk once asked Joshu “If I have nothing in my mind, what should I do?”
“Throw it out.” Replied Joshu.
“But if there is nothing in my mind how can I throw it out?”
“Then,”
said Joshu, “you will have to carry it out.”

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Bowing


When we bow to open up the ego to the whole universe we are ordinary students practicing Zen. When the universe expresses itself through the body as a bow, that is the awakened perspective.

- Shunryu Suzuki

Most of us, most of the time, go around with our heads full of thoughts and intentions, desires and plans, which take us away from the reality of the present. Even when we're walking to the Zen dojo we might be thinking about bills we have to pay or about a conversation we might have when we get there. The forms of behaviour that we practice in the dojo are designed to bring our awareness to reality and the present moment and to abandon our egotistical 'picking and choosing'. When we step into the dojo we don't do it according to our personal preference, nor even according to the authority of someone else, but according to the prescribed form of our tradition and we do it with awareness. We step over the threshold with the left foot, then bring the right foot over to meet it. Then we put our hands together and bow to the Buddha and our dharma ancestors on the altar. When we've reached our place, we bow to the seat and the wall we will face, then we turn around and bow to the seat opposite.

To a Westerner unfamiliar with Zen or Zen arts, these actions can seem very strange. We no longer have a culture where we bow to one another in greeting or to show respect. Western missionaries travelling to Asia described Buddhists as statue worshippers or idolaters. Even a three year old child knows that a statue is not a sentient being, yet Buddhists bow to them. Many others think that Buddhists are worshipping a god or supernatural being called 'Buddha' who is represented by the statue.

Most Western cultures place a lot of value on the primacy of the individual - we do not like to bow to anyone or anything. This might be part of the reason that so many westerners are drawn to the iconoclastic or apparently nihilistic stories which come from Zen. Yet Zen is rarely iconoclastic and never nihilistic. Philip Kapleau tells the story of two Americans who travel to a Japanese Zen monastery in the 1950s and are dismayed to see monks bowing to the altar and ask, "The old Chinese Zen masters burned or spit on Buddha statues, why do you bow down before them?" The roshi replies. "If you want to spit you spit, I prefer to bow."

So, what is the meaning of our bowing to the Buddha?

Sometimes, to educate their disciples, Zen masters have burned statues of the Buddha. In this dojo there is a very beautiful statue of the Buddha and I always bow down respectfully in front of it. Why? Because it is Buddha? Or because it cost a lot? In fact, it is to you I am bowing, because when you practice zazen you are living Buddhas. You must not get this wrong: Zen is beyond all religions. Buddha is just a name. Only zazen is important; during zazen you are Buddha.

- Master Deshimaru

When we bow to the Buddha we are showing respect to our teacher - just as we show respect to our living teachers and to representations of our dharma ancestors, we express respect to the teacher of teachers - the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. It is unimportant that Gauthama Siddhartha is dead and that it is only a statue made of metal or wood that we are bowing to - what is important is our expression of appreciation. Really we are expressing appreciation to the principle that the statue represents, awakening to reality just as it is. We are bowing to the human inner nature, which is not our ego or our thoughts, but the reality that gives rise to ego and thoughts. We are bowing to Buddha nature, our own innermost heart and mind. We are bowing to everybody's Buddha Nature, becoming one with it. We are bowing before reality just as it is.

When we bow to the zafu and the wall we are bowing inwards to our own heart, our own Buddha Nature, the true reality of our being, rather than our narrow sense of personal identity. When we bow to the person opposite us, we are bowing outwards - expressing appreciation for the Buddhist community we are practicing with and for the world beyond it. We are bowing to one another's Buddha Nature.

Master Deshimaru taught that when we gassho, one hand represents the cosmos and the other represents the self. The two come together to form complete unity. So, when we bow this symbolises the unity in duality.

Sampai is the deepest bowing that we do in Zen. It involves prostrating ourselves repeatedly with our foreheads on the floor. Bowing is an expression of humility, but not humiliation - a wounded or threatened ego can be even stronger than one which is proud and confident. We are abandoning the identification with the narrow sense of self, the duality of self and other, in order to open up to the rest of the universe. Ideally the act of bowing should be an act conducted without effort of will and without conscious purpose - so that it is not our personal self that bows, rather it is an act without an actor; it is the universe that bows.

If we perform an action with our whole consciousness and we do it peacefully without recoiling from it or clinging to it or longing for something else, even if only for a brief moment, then we can experience an inner silence in which there is no judgement, or desire or abstraction to divide reality into 'self' and 'other'. At that time we lose the illusion that we are distinct and separate from the universe. Life becomes whole.

As long as there is true bowing, the Buddha Way will not deteriorate.

- Dogen

Monday, February 05, 2007

Still living

It's amazing that anyone is still visiting this blog, considering how infrequently I've been updating it in recent months, but I'm still getting about a half dozen visitors a day. I think they arrive here by accident. But all is well in my world - here's a quick update:

  • I've now landed myself a permanent job,
    which is great because it brings me and Emily the security we need. One slight drawback is that I'm now doing a significant amount of commuting and have little time for blogging. I'm also using it as an opportunity to overcome my fear of public speaking.
  • Emily and I are now engaged !
    It should be interesting - a Humanist ceremony with a reading by a Zen nun and my brother's wife and daughters in their hijabs. Shall I wear my kilt?
  • Emily and I are planning to get a dog !
    A small one - either that or a rat...
  • The home improvements continue their steady plodding
    How long will it take?
  • I'm making good progress with my rakusu
    I was hoping to get Bodhisattva Ordination (a terribly grand name given in our organisation for 'taking the precepts') at Summer Sesshin this year, but it looks like this might be postponed again. We'd like to have a child within a couple of years so this might be the last chance we get for an exotic holiday in the Far East for a long time. After that there won't be any holiday time left for the 9 day retreat needed for ordination. It will just have to wait - my committment is in my heart. Maybe I'll start a kesa.
  • I just came back from another 3 day sesshin in Wales.
    Really enjoyed it. More responsibility this time - I was 'Service' outside the Dojo and 'Pillar' inside. Guy is a great teacher. I asked him a question:
    What is the difference between practicing Zen and practicing Zen as a Buddhist?
    His answer was that not only can Zen not be separated from Buddhism, but that all religion and all life was essentially Buddhism whether it goes by that name or not. I liked these lines he came up with:

    At the bottom of the ocean there are no waves
    There is only peace and unity

  • My understanding of Buddhism is less abstract and intellectual now and more real
    Don't have too much time for or interest in online debates of any sort.