Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Eleven

Dogen finishes with a koan.

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 is the heart of the Genjo koan and directly addresses the 'Great Doubt' that he set off from Japan to China to resolve - if it is the case that we already have (or are) Buddha nature - why do we need to practice? Or, in the terms of the metaphor he uses here - if air is everywhere, why does Master Baoche bother to fan himself? There is a kind of nihilistic interpretation of Buddhism which implies that since eveything is already empty or already awakened, there is no need to practice - yet it is clear that practice is required. So is the teaching of universal Buddha nature wrong?

There are some slight variations in the the translation of this passage with permanent sometimes translated as 'stationary', 'constant' or 'never changing' and 'reaching everywhere' sometimes translated as 'universal action', 'universally present', 'principle of its omnipresence' or 'blowing everywhere'.

So what does it mean? The air represents the universal dharma or intrinsic Buddha Nature. Why isn't it enough just for the air to exist ? Why isn't it enough just for the air to be everywhere? Why do we need to practise fanning/Buddhism as well?

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.

Master Baoche clearly rejects the notion that practice is unnecessary or that there is any contradiction between the universality of Buddha and the need for practice. However, when it comes to explaining why we need to practice his words are not forthcoming. He responds with an action - fanning himself. Fanning here means Buddhist practice. So his response as to why we need to practise (when Buddha is universal) is the act of practicing itself.

I wonder if this satisfied the monk. To some it might appear as obscurantism or simply the revelation that there is no reason to make any effort to practise at all. If Master Baoche did not fan himself would the air not still be everywhere?

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.

Dogen makes it clear that there is indeed value in practice. The practice of the Buddha Dharma ('the wind of the buddha's house') brings forth or reveals the treasures of the earth (gold) and turns the river to cream, or rather to ghee as is found in some translations. Ghee is a liquid clarified butter that is produced traditionally in India. It is held to be sacred and is used in Vedic/Hindu rituals and is considered to be food for Devas. It's also a staple ingredient in cooking. Vedic philosophers believed that the ghee was the essence of milk (the cow being a sacred animal) and used it as a ritual representation of the Atman (soul). This sort of essentialist thinking is alien to the Buddha's teachings which indicate that nothing has an essence or unchanging self-nature. However, the Buddha himself used ghee as a metaphor for spiritual refinement.
From a cow comes milk; from milk, curd; from curd, butter; from butter, ghee; from ghee, the skimmings of ghee, and that is reckoned the best; even so, monks, among these four individuals the person who is engaged in promoting his own good and also the good of another is the foremost, the chief, the principal, the best and the supreme.
- Chavalata Sutta/ Anguttara Nikaya IV.95
So, Dogen is saying that although Buddha nature is always manifested, Buddhist practice is necessary to reveal it.

The air has to be known and to do that we have to fan it across our skin. Gold is always present in the earth, but it cannot be seen until 'the wind of buddha's house' reveals it. It also transforms the base substance of milk into purified ghee or reveals the ghee within it. These are metaphors for the transformation of samsara into nirvana. To experience Buddha Nature and it's universal nature we need to practice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Ten

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.

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.
In our practice, we don't seek enlightenment externally to this moment. We don't make divide this experienced life into 'appearance' and 'reality'. We don't imagine an objective reality behind appearance. Both the surface appearance and the deeper revelation are 'it'. Practice and enlightenment are not separate. We don't seek for special states of mind. Samsara and nirvana are not separate.

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.
Enlightenment can only be found here and now in this moment. It is not the case that there is an inherent Buddha Nature in all beings - it does not appear until the moment of awakening.

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.

Realisation is not intellectual understanding and it cannot be grasped intellectually. This is true in realisation as well as in non-realisation. A Buddha cannot grasp his or her realsation intellectually. Hence, it is possible to be realised without being self-conscious of realisation. And even though this realisation can be manifested in thoughts and words, those thoughts and words do not contain realisation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Saving the world by sitting on our butts

My wife (who has a sensitive and anxious disposition) desperately wants her first child. She is in her mid-30s now. In the course of the last year she has miscarried three times and three times I have seen her heart break. There is no instruction manual given out for how best to support someone going through something like that and it has been a real learning curve for me. Even her normally-very-supportive best friend told her she could no longer support her and they are no longer firends. I know that I'm far from perfect but also know that I've been invaluable to someone who was dependent on me and whom I was in a position to genuinely support. I also know that my Buddhist and mindfulness practice has helped a great deal - allowing me to be calmer, more patient, more empathetic, less interfering and to have a better view of my own 'stuff' than I might otherwide have had.

Zen teachers I know have stated (quoting Dogen as saying that a person who does zazen unconsciously and automatically benefits all beings) that the best way to help others is not by supporting them or engaging with them in any way, but by practicing zazen. One explanation given was that without wisdom our attempts are useless or even harmful (which by itself I have some agreement with). And that zazen by itself (perhaps via the dedication ceremony) benefits all beings through some mysterious karmic processes.

This doesn't accord with my experience. My experience is that to influence the world we need to engage with it. I certainly have no experience of this mysterious process and would have to believe in it through blind faith. I remember hearing about the belief among transcendental meditators that simply by doing TM they could influence social harmony in a positive way (by emanating harmony in some mysterious way). But, as I recall, the supposed evidence for this didn't withstand much scrutiny.

One of these teachers (not knowing the full background) suggested that I should not have cut short a week-long retreat to support my wife. This seems like a rather escapist view of life.

I have also heard of a monk in the same lineage declining to visit his own father on his deathbed in order to attend an extended retreat.

Buddhist ethics are indeed focussed on the intentionality behind our actions, but if my intention is sincerely to benefit all rather than just myself then my intention will be to actually act rather than merely to have 'good intentions'. My understanding of our dedication ceremonies and vows had always been that they are expressions of selflessness, ways to let go of selfish attachments, rather than seen as acts which by themselves help others and absolve us of any further responsibility to them. Is it really more selfless to dwell in private feelings of harmony than to actually help others? For me, to help others we have to actually engage with them. Meditation and self-awareness may help us in our relationships a great deal. Letting go of trying to change others may help a great deal, but we still have to engage, to be there, to care, and to act with wisdom and compassion. We need to 'return to the world' or 'return to the marketplace' rather than simply look after and dwell in our own feelings of cosmic harmony.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Nine

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.

The particular cannot be separated from the whole. To try to escape from your current situation is delusion. To realise your current situation is true practice. And yet 'finding your place where you are' goes beyond both the idea that reality is carried over from the past and the idea that there is no past and that only the present moment exists.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Eight

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.

There is a story of an old fish swimming past two young ones who says “The water’s nice today isn’t it?”. One of the younger fish turns to the other and says “What’s water?”.

We may go through much of our lives with our attention so preoccupied by our various goals that we may not notice, but one day we may suddenly wake up to the most fundamental of things - the reality of this moment-to-moment existence. We can call it mind, or being, or life, or Tao, or Buddha, or God, or emptiness, or the present moment, or reality - it doesn't matter much - none of these concepts really captures it.

It is easy to fall into treating this experienced reality as if it was a distinct thing and becoming attached to various metaphysical beliefs about it. At the time of Buddha, Bramins claimed the whole experience of our lives was experienced by an absolute, unchanging atman or metaphysical soul which was at the same time identical with Brahma, or God. Buddha denied this of course and so does Dogen.

This 'essence of being', Dogen calls 'life' - the fish is life and the water is life, the bird is life and the air is life. The fish is not separate from the water - wherever the fish goes, water is there - wherever the bird goes, air is there. The bird and fish are in harmony with the universe. This is their practice-enlightenment.

Beings are totally surrounded by and at one with this emptiness - breathing it in and breathing it our moment after moment, totally dependent on it and inseparable from it. Buddha is like this - it is always present and yet we may see it clearly or be blind to it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?

"Meet a doctor who thinks you can better understand the self by destroying it"

After the confusion about 'annihilating the self' is cleared up this is a very interesting story.

Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A moment of commuter time

A moment of commuter time,
rush hour frozen,
drivers rage silently,
trapped in their cars,
rising sun illuminates,
this hazy world.

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Seven

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.

Here Dogen is talking about the relative or particular and it's relation to the absolute or universal.

There are many sayings from Patriarchs and Masters which appear to equate the particular with the universal.

For example:

A monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of Bodidharma's coming to China?" Joshu said, "The oak tree in the front garden."

And there are many Zen practitioners who see their own experienced reality as the whole of reality. However, according to Dogen this is an incomplete understanding. This is a self-centred or solipsistic position that takes one's relative, subjective perspective for the whole of reality. The full understanding of the dharma is that no one perspective is the whole picture. Even though object and subject are not divided, reality has an unlimited number of aspects or views depending on various viewpoints. All beings are the dharma.

Each entity in the world - his example is an ocean - has myriad appearances depending on the perspective - to a man in a boat it appears circular, to a sea-dwelling dragon it appears as a palace, to a deva in the heavens it appears as a small precious jewel. It has infinite appearances. No single perspective or appearance can be singled out as the real or objective entity. (This is not the same as the subjectivist theory that all opinions are equally valid or that believing something is the same as it being true.) Each appearance is according to the limitations of each viewpoint. All of our experiences are like this - we cannot see the whole of reality at any time. Reality includes all of these interdependent aspects of subject and object. And this is the case for everything we see and don't see.

To know the universal is to know the relativity and limitation of one's own perspective. Subject and object are not separate, yet the universe is not limited to a viewpoint of a single invidual, rather it is like a jewel with ever-changing facets or like Indra's net - a vast net with a shining, multi-faceted jewel at each vertex - each jewel reflecting every other.

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infintely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
- Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, Francis Harold Cook

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Six

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.

This section is about the relationship between relative and absolute or ordinary beings and enlightenment. Enlightenment is true nature, true reality and is here represented by the moon. The relative, finite, personal mind is represented by water, which reflects the absolute.

The moon does not get wet,

You cannot hinder enlightenment. The absolute is unborn and unconditioned, it isn't obstructed by our conditioning, our karma, our relative minds. It is always fully manifested. The particular cannot obstruct the whole, for it always is a manifestation of the whole. Being empty of self-nature, it is delusion to imagine that we can be anything other than Buddha.

nor is the water broken.

Enlightenment does not divide you. True realisation does not create a duality out of enlightenment and samsara. An ordinary being who does not know enlightenment creates a duality out of samsara and imagined enlightenment. An ordinary being who has glimpsed enlightenment may create a duality out of samsara and recalled enlightenment. True enlightenment is to see that there is no duality between samsara and enlightenment. Or as Dogen put it earlier 'no trace of realisation remains'.

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.

If we examine a particular thing carefully we cannot find it's essence, all we find is conditions produced by conditions produced by conditions which ultimately include the whole universe. Buddha nature is universal - it is perfectly expressed without hindrance through each particular thing no matter how small. Each particular is the entire vastness of the universal.

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.

The mind is the universe and the universe is the mind. Buddha nature or enlightenment are not something separate or additional to the self and the world. They are the true self and the true world. They are the actual nature of things at all times.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Five

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.

This analogy about firewood and ash is really pointing to the nature of human existence. It's sometimes interpreted to mean that Dogen taught that there was no such thing as post-mortem rebirth and initially I interpreted it this way too. However, I don't think this is correct. However, having said that, there are other important Zen masters such as the 6th Patriarch who do point to rebirth in other realms in terms of states of being in this life - psychological interpretations of rebirth are not just a modern phenomenon. This section is an introduction to Dogen's theory of Uji, 'Being-Time'.

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again.
Change occurs only in one direction. In modern physics we have a concept of the 'arrow of time' and this corresponds loosley with that. This is change from the conventional perspective.

Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before.
Having said that, since entities do not have a self or identity that is continuous or carried forward through time, it is incorrect to say that one state changes into another. Before it burns firewood is just firewood. By the time it is ash, the firewood is already gone. The 'firewood' nature or identity is not preserved and carried forward within the ash - it is always only exactly what it actually is at a given moment. One thing does not change state, because there is no 'one thing' that continues from the before to the after. Existence is momentary. This corresponds to an understanding that could be expressed as 'only the present moment exists - the past and future are illusions'.

...fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.
Each moment or state includes its past and future - the universal laws of conditionality (causality) are what allow things to be what they are at any given moment - and there is no phenomena other than those laws of conditionality. And yet, simultaneously each moment or state is completely just itself, independent of it's past and future, because no self is carried forward through the change - from the before to the after.

Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.
This is the line that is perhaps most tempting to interpret as a denial of rebirth. But (as I recall, please correct me otherwise) Dogen makes reference to literal rebirth elsewhere in his writing, so this can be taken as a reiteration that there is no self which is carried forward from one life to another. As one state never returns to its previous state, death never turns into life. That is, no self is ever carried forward to be reborn.

it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death
Yet, in Buddhism it is taught that life does not change into death. Because there are no selves, nothing is ever born, nothing really comes into being. In this sense there is no birth. It is also taught that death does not turn into life. Nothing is carried forward through death into the next life. In this sense there is no death. Since there are never any substantial selves, nothing ever comes into being or is destroyed. What we commonly see as birth and death is ultimately no birth and no death, that is The Unborn.

Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment.
The Unborn isn't something that exists in addition to phenomena, it is phenomena just as they are. Things are always just as they are, and without the continuity of a real self to unite them, each state or moment is just itself, one does not become the other.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sickest Buddhist

Bit of an abrupt change of tone here. But I thought you guys might appreciate this video by Arj Barker of Flight of the Conchords fame.

Sickest Buddhist from GenerateLA on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Impermanence and suffering: Our story

Can I share something with you all?

My wife suffers with anxiety. We've been trying for a child for about a year. She is afraid that she'll never be able to have one. She miscarried in January and again in April. Many people have no idea what miscarriage can be like, thinking of it as nothing more than a 'heavy period'. In fact, it can really be a bereavement. Now she's pregnant again, which is great in a sense, but in another means a great deal of stress and worry for her - especially during this early period.

My role, of course, is to give her whatever support I can. And mostly this means listening and being there for her. My own practice has helped me tremendously. As a Zen Buddhist and someone learning to teach MBCT of course I've suggested meditation, but she can't - the silence and doing nothing makes her feel anxious - perhaps she feels too strongly that she has to 'try to relax', I'm not sure. But anyway she's not inclined to keep trying and it's not beneficial for me to pressure her.

She is sympathetic to the 'Buddhist approach' and gets some benefit from listening to the wisdom of Edward Brown (SFZC), Pema Chodron and Ekhart Tolle. Yoga, pilates, the gym and having a dog also help.

After losing her pregnancy symptoms the second time, she had a scan but had to wait for another 12 days for a second scan to confirm it. That period was possibly the most difficult period of her life. Even though she has a great career, and a loving family and plans for the future, she found it so intensely distressing that she was contemplating suicide.

After we confirmed the second miscarriage, she had a breakthough. She realised that she couldn't go on like that and at some level she decided that things had to change. She simplified her life as much as possible and decided just to stop ruminating about the past and future so much and live more in the present. It was borne of sheer necessity but influenced by Buddhist thought, and Ekhart Tolle too.

My brother-in-law also found Eckhart Tolle helpful while he was splitting up with his wife (he now does Soto Zen practice). And he gave her some valuable 'spiritual' support at that time too. One of my Soto Zen teachers cited 'The Power of Now' as one of his favourite Zen books even though it's not technically Zen. I also quite like it myself, although there are parts about the evolution of consciousness that I'm happy to leave.

For me the fundamental principles of Buddhism are universal and different approaches suit different people. Something that occured to me was that perhaps 80%+ of the population would benefits from applying these principles to the way they live and yet 95% of the population are put-off by the trappings of traditional Buddhism. This is why I started to study Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. And hearing face-to-face how MBCT is helping people with chronic depression and other problems - people who would never practice Zen - just reinforces this view.

I'm all for ways to make these principles accessible for people who wouldn't go near a traditional Zen dojo.

Thanks for listening.

_/\_ Justin

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Four

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.

This part is a quite straightforward account of the relationship between delusion of self and the reality expressed by the Buddhist concepts of Anatta, Sunyata and Annica.

Although there are only ever impermanent phenomena arising and passing, without any constant component, the delusions of our subjective perspective give us the illusion that we have an absolute, continuous existence through time. Just as when you are onboard a boat it may appear that the boat is stationary, and everything else is moving, so it appears that the self is stationary or continuous while the phenomena it perceives are changing. But in fact, the boat is moving and the mind is constantly changing. The is the principle of Anatta (no-fixed-self) taught in Buddhism from earliest times.

The same principle applies to all entities - sentient and non-sentient - even though our minds attribute them continuous identity or existence, observed carefully, it can be seen that nothing at all has a continuous, separate existence. In this respect there are really no 'things' except as provisional ideas of identity and continuity. This is the principle of Sunyata (emptiness of self).

Because nothing has any constant part, or fixed identity, there is nothing to obstruct reality from changing. There is nothing that is not always changing. This is the principle of Annica (impermanence).

Buddhist practice allows us to see this original reality of change and inseparability clearly, and to bring ourselves into harmony with it, being free of deluded notions of continuous self.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Three

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.

Buddhism is the investigation of self. This is not the investigation of one's own psychology primarily, but the investigation of existence. Who am I? What is this? What is my true nature? What is reality? Some forms of Zen or other types of Buddhism focus on questions like this in a concentrated way. This isn't a contemporary Soto Zen practice, yet we are confronted with existence, with the matter of reality, self, and other, at every turn. In zazen we are immersed in it.

From earliest times, Buddhism has taught the principle of Anatta, or 'no-self'. When we look for a self all we can find are various phenomena: the body, sensations, thoughts and so on, but nothing at all can be found that is fixed or continuous or distinct from phenomena. Even our perspective and personality changes. External and internal phenomena are in a state of constant change. Yet we tend to have an unexamined belief in our own distinctness and continuity. The sense of self is linked closely with memory and with the abstraction of reality into conceptual symbols to be used by thought and language. Yet no actual self can be found. We may come up with philosophical arguments as to why this may be so, but in the clear gaze of zazen we recognise this as just more thinking.

This no-self is not really a philosophical conclusion or a belief, but an experience. It is not oblivion or the destruction of the personality. It is seeing that this sense of being separate from the universe is manufactured by activities of the personal mind. This is not the gaining of a new belief but the abandonment of an old one.

When there is no separate self there is no separate other. The whole universe becomes something intimate. We share our being with the whole universe and with every being in it. It is not just our own self that drops away it is the selves of all beings and all things. All selves are manufactured by this mind rather than being intrinsic to the world. Everything and everybody interpenetrates everything else. And this is the case at all times. To see that this being is empty of self is to see that all phenomena are empty of self. And to see that is to be intimate with the impermanent, interdepent nature of all beings and phenomena. This is the mind in a state of freedom, clinging to nothing.

No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

It is easy after such experiences to make the mistake of becoming attached to them, to be constrained by them, to see this awakening as something final or fixed, something to be reproduced later, something distinct from ordinary consciousness. But to do this is to manufacture a self for the experience of self-less-ness. Real liberation doesn't get stuck anywhere, not even in liberation. Nothing leaves a trace because nothing has or is a fixed self. Real liberation moves freely without end.

This passage is a direct expression of Dogen's own initial enlightenment. Some contemporary Soto teachers would deny this and deny the significance of any enlightenment experiences, arguing that Dogen's realisation is nothing more than a description of the practice of shikantaza. This isn't false but it is more than a set of zazen instuctions, it is the description of a breakthough insight which resolved Dogen's 'geat doubt' - the apparent contradiction between original enlightenment and the need to practice - provoking him to offer incense in his master's room.

As Dogen practiced with Master Nyojo, the master said "The practice of zazen is the dropping off of body and mind.". At that moment Dogen had a great realisation. He went to see Master Nyojo and offered incense. The master asked him why he had come and Dogen said "body and mind have dropped off". Nyojo said "Body and mind have been dropped; you have dropped body and mind!". Dogen said "Please don't validate me so quickly.". Nyojo said "I am not validating you too quickly" then Dogen asked "What is not affirmed lightly?" and Nyojo said "Dropping has dropped off".

There are two aspects of awakening that are recognised by both the Rinzai and Soto schools, although they generally have a slightly different emphasis.

Firstly 'no attainment, nothing to attain' emphasises ultimate truth or sameness: Buddha or original enlightenment is something that is already completely manifested and at the same time is totally non-existent. Awakening to 'it' or not awakening to 'it' - both are equally 'it'.

Secondly 'there is realisation and a path to realisation' emphasises the relative truth or difference: this universality of Buddha nature has to be realised. The universality of Buddha nature by itself doesn't save anyone from delusion and suffering. Thus we need to make efforts, we need to practice in order to see our true, original nature and actualise the Way.

Sometimes Dogen talks about one side and sometimes he talks about the other. Being attached to one side or the other is to have a limited view.

Those who chase enlightenment, feeling themselves removed from it, suffer from a delusion of duality or idealism. This is the tendency to see enlightenment as a remote state of perfection far removed from our current imperfection and suffering. We conceptualise enlightenment as something outside of this moment, outside of ourselves. This is a common understanding of people who have not seen their own nature. Often those who have some preliminary glimpse of their true nature will cling to the glimpse as if enlightenment was restricted to it. This is the dualistic view of samsara and nirvana.

The other limited view is sameness or nihilism - sometimes referred to as 'emptiness sickness'. Many Prajnaparamita, Madhyamika and Zen texts talk of 'no attainment, nothing to attain', 'ordinary mind is buddha' or 'practice and attainment are one'. The Soto school in particular tends to emphasise this. Yet this is often understood only superficially as a denial of enlightenment, or the significance of insight. Some teachers even teach zazen as a purely postural, physical activity that only relaxes or balances the mind and treat insight experiences with contempt. Others talk of enlightenment as if it was only a realisation that there is nothing to realise. But this would be nothing more than a freedom from the idea of enlightenment and a resignment to one's current condition. If this was all there is to actualising enlightenment then a blind and deaf man who has never heard of the dharma is as liberated as a fully-actualised buddha. If we see no need to make effort or to have insight into the true nature of ourselves and things, then we are doomed to skate around on the surface with a superficial or merely intellectual understanding of 'nothing to attain'.

Sometimes this 'Body and mind have dropped off' is understood as an instruction or description of ordinary zazen, as letting go of thoughts and attachments. But it goes deeper than that. The body and mind dropping off is the dropping off of self and the selves of all beings. Dogen's physical self and mental self were revealed to be empty, non-separate from the being of the whole world. This was the moment when Dogen deeply 'forgot his self and was actualized by myriad things' and deeply realised 'suchness'.

Dogen did not get caught up in conceptualising and clinging to his experience. He did not manufacture a self for his enlightenment, or a dualism of enlightenment/not-enlightenment in other words. He did not carry it. His enlightenment left no trace. It left no trace of itself because Dogen did not manufacture a self for it. Master Nyojo recognised this and said that 'dropping has dropped off'. This no-trace continued endlessly. The realisation that there are no separate things did not get made into a false thing which was separate from other things.

Master Joshu had a lesson about this.

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.”

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.

An ordinary person who has not glimpsed their own Buddha nature, has a concept of enlightenment as something that is completely removed from their life, something entirely external. It is imagined that a great transformation would have to occur or that something would have to be added for enlightenment to be realised in their life. The enlightenment of all the Buddhas and Patriarchs has been the realisation of something utterly immediate, that which was always intimately present is suddenly or gradually seen clearly as Buddha nature. It is one's own immediate and intimate nature, one's true identity, right under one's nose at all times which is clearly seen as original enlightenment.

The line "At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self." shows the absolute and relative sides simultaneously. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted is the relative side (difference) revealing the necessity of actualisation, attainment, insight, transmission - the path of practice in other words....you are immediately your original self is the absolute side (non-difference) revealing that simultaneously with the need for practice and attainment is the reality that realisation is always fully manifested. Non-attainment is something that needs to be attained (and abandoned). True insight is seeing both sides simultanteously without contradiction.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Two

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.

A practice based on the notion of a continuous self that through personal effort awakens to the multitude of phenomena is a delusion. A self-centred, egotistical practise is founded on the deluded, dualistic notion of a separate self. Awakening is seeing through the delusion of self. So, awakening then can be expressed as the multitude of phenomena lighting up the self. The realised perspective is that the whole universe awakens to us.

Those who shine light on or penetrate delusion are called 'buddhas'. Those who form deluded notions about enlightenment are called 'ordinary beings'. Realisation is not a static state but unfolds endlessly. Likewise delusion builds on delusion.

One who is enlightened is not self-conscious of being a Buddha. This doesn't mean that someone who knows they are enlightened (such as Shakyamuni Buddha) is in fact not enlightened, it means that manifesting Buddhahood is beyond limited concepts of Buddha and non-Buddha.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section One

Dogen's Shobogenzo is, in the main, notoriously difficult. Two factors are the diffculties of translating from Japanese language to English and medieval Japanese-Chinese Buddhist references to a contemporary audience, but his philosophy and presentation are also quite obscure in themselves. Sometimes I wonder who he had in mind as his audience. I don't count myself as an authority or expert here but, drawing on many sources, this is my interpretation - an interpretation which is provisional and probably always will be.

The Genjo koan is possibly the most heavily quoted and important text within the Shobogenzo. Most of the key themes of Dogen's philosophy are exposed here:

the relationship between conventional and ultimate truths in Buddhism
the relationship between delusion and awakening
the relationship between relative and absolute
The nature of the self, life and death in terms of 'Being-time'
Dogen's Great Doubt - if we already have Buddha Nature why do we need to practice?

I'm using the Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi translation. There is a very useful webpage here which allows direct comparison of 8 different translations. I'll be posting this in several sections.

Section One

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.

This section is about the relationship between the conventional and ultimate teachings of Buddhism.

In Dogen's time and in our own, we typically come across the Buddhist teachings in two forms. Firstly, the conventional religious teachings most especially as presented in the Pali Canon, in which we are taught the Four Noble Truths, the distinction between delusion and realisation, life and death, suffering and the path to end suffering. Secondly, and especially from the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras we have teachings that apparently contradict the conventional teachings. As the Heart Sutra says:

Nothing is born, nothing dies,
nothing is pure, nothing is stained,
nothing increases and nothing decreases.
So, in emptiness...
There is no ignorance,
and no end to ignorance.
There is no old age and death,
and no end to old age and death.
There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

Is this a real contradiction or just the revelation of another, perhaps deeper truth? And how do we reconcile these apparently contradictory teachings?

This also takes us to the 'Great Doubt' that Dogen travelled to China to resolve: If we already have (or 'are' in Dogen's language) Buddha Nature - and this is not mere potential - why do we need to practice at all?

As all things are buddha-dharma, there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings.

The first sentence is the Buddhist world-view from the conventional, conceptual or dualistic perspective - the perspective of differentiation, that is, from the ordinary human way of looking at things. This corresponds to the Buddha-dharma as described in most of the Pali Canon. There is a difference between delusion and realisation, birth and death, Buddhas and ordinary beings and it seems that Buddhism is about the progression from one condition to another.

[Note: The very first phrase As all things are buddha-dharma... is quite difficult to interpret. Do we interpret as 'Since all things are Buddhism' or 'when all things are seen as Buddhism' or 'if all things are seen as if they were Buddhism'? I suspect the former. To see everything as Buddhism (or Buddha) is to see all things in terms of Buddhist convention.]

As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

This is reality from the ultimate, non-conceptual, non-dualistic perspective - the perspective of emptiness, as described with the philosophy of negation used in the Prajnaparamita sutras and the Madhyamaka philosophers. Buddha taught that no phenomena have or are a self. Nagarjuna explored this deeply in his Mula Madhyamaka Karika.

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

Entities have no independent identity, they do not exist as absolute entities, thus in that sense they are not entities at all - so ultimately there is no delusion, no realisation, no Buddha, ordinary beings, birth or death. These are not inherently real distinctions, they are fabrications.

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.

So how do we reconcile these apparent opposites? Do we hold to the teaching of emptiness as the final superior truth? The teaching of emptiness or 'No this or that' is not ultimately real either - it too is a fabrication, another conventional designation and is a problem if it is clung to and seen as a denial of reality. And the apparent duality of conventional and ultimate is a dualistic fabrication too.

(To say) "Is," is eternity-grasping; (to say) "Is not," is a nihilistic view...

Although (the term) "self" is caused to be known (of, about), and although (a doctrine or teaching of) "no self" is taught,
No "self" or any "nonself" whatsoever has been taught by the Buddhas.
The designable is ceased when/where the range of thought is ceased...

"Empty" should not be said (or "would be impossible to say"), nor should "Nonempty",
nor "both and neither"; but they are spoken of for the purpose of praj~naptification..

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 non-empty thing / Does not exist...

There is nothing whatsoever of samsara distinguishing (it) from nirvana.
There is nothing whatsoever of nirvana distinguishing it from samsara.
(That?) is the limit which is the limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara;
Even a very subtle interval is not found of (between) them...

There is no dharma whatsoever taught by the Buddha to whomever whenever, wherever.

- from Nagarjuna's MMK

The place where all dualities are reconciled is in reality itself, which is beyond grasping by thoughts and language. The essence of Buddhism transcends existence and non-existence and transcends differentiation and non-differentiation. Reality is neither absolute existence nor is it non-existence. It is a continual unfolding without anything fixed.

And yet it is only because phenomena are empty that they are real phenomena. It is only because they are not fixed natures that they can arise and have their (relative) existence and potency in the world - that change and differentiation are possible.

In reality the totality and the particular always arise and express themselves together. There are no waves apart from the ocean and no ocean apart from the waves. In this way all beings already [i]are [/i]Buddha Nature. The particular are not at all separate from the universal.

Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

Even though all beings are already Buddha Nature - and this is fully real and not just a potentiality - this reality alone does not solve the problem of suffering. Except for the problem of suffering - the First Noble Truth - Buddhism would be unneccessary. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is craving for things to be other than they are. We react to circumstances we like by trying to hold onto them, yet because they are impermanent and ultimately unfulfilling we suffer. We react to circumstances we dislike by trying to push them away, destroy them, escape from them or wish them away, but we can't. We can never change the moment we are in right now (the only moment that is real) and the urge to do so is suffering. In this way, delusion about our true nature causes attachment and attachment causes suffering.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The dog shat on my nirvana

Dew in the morning sun
In front of me
The dog squats on the lawn

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Mindfulness based therapy and Buddhism

When we were young, we rejected the idea of Buddhism as a religion. We saw it as a philosophy or as psychology. But Buddhism is not just psychology. True Buddhism is not used by the ego to further its goals.
- Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure, my Soto Zen teacher (paraphrased)

I've just completed the first programme in my training to become a teacher of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Stress Reduction. These techniques are derived from Buddhist vipassana combined with Cognitive Behavioural methods. There are no religious trappings. Some Buddhist teachings are given but the dominant theoretical frameworks are psychological and physiological.

I've been practicing Zen and studying Buddhism for a few years now this puts me in the very interesting position of being able to compare the practices and to compare Buddhist, psychological and physiological paradigms.

The basic model of the difference between therapy and a true spiritual practice is one that I picked up from my psychology tutor.

Spiritual practices differ from therapy in terms of scope. The aim of the latter is for the individual to reach functional normality, while the aim of the former is self-actualisation or enlightenment that goes well beyond normality.
- My undergraduate psychology tutor (paraphrased)

It's quite clear that MBCT teachers see it, not perhaps as Buddhism exactly, but certainly as a practise of what the Buddha taught.

It's the best thing that's happened in Buddhism in 2500 years
- Jon Kabat-Zinn (speaking about the new MBCT '3 minute breathing space' practise, paraphrased)

So, the Buddhists were right. They just didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know about neural pathways - how could they?
- Jini Lavelle, my mindfulness teacher (paraphrased)

There are many similarities - the mindfulness practice called 'choiceless awareness' is virtually indistinuishable from shikantaza zazen. I was expecting the mindfulness to be more goal-orientated perhaps, but both practices emphasise 'being' rather than 'doing'. Sitting in silence with a group of mutually supportive individuals noticing thoughts arise and any reaction to those thoughts and the sensation of air across the skin and the sounds of birds and traffic outside, and with no objective in mind, I could just as easily be at a MBCT sitting as a Zen sitting. And this is the core of both practices. Does it really matter whether the people I'm with came because they wish for enlightenment or inner peace or an end to depression and anxiety? Does it matter whether people bow to a Buddha statue? Surely the fundamental practice is the same and the effect on people's lives is essentially the same?


Some techniques involve focussed attention (breath zazen/breath mindfulness)
Other techniques involve open awareness (shikantaza/choiceless awareness)
People encouraged to have upright and dignified posture
Doing discouraged in favour of non-doing or being
Practice continues off the cushion
Compassion seems to naturally appear


Sitting on cushions is encouraged
Hands in universal mudra
Eyes half open/lowered
Emphasis on mind-body unity as well mindfulness
Mindfulness/mind-body unity practiced with traditional, ceremonial practices
Moral code given (precepts)
Compassion to self and others encouraged
Bodhisattva concept of practicing for the benefit of others
Original purpose is enlightenment which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is Buddhism or Buddhism with a little psychology
Formal refuge may be taken

Most people are on chairs
Hands flat or on thighs
Eyes encouraged to be closed
Emphasis on only mindfulness
Mindfulness practiced with ordinary, contemporary practices
No moral code given
Kindness to self encouraged, compassion to others emerges
Awareness of impact of practice on others but no Bodhisattva concept
Original purpose is therapeutic which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is psychology or psychology with a little Buddhism
No formal refuge is taken

As with anything else, Buddhists tend to fall in a range of attitudes from conservative to liberal about matters like this. I tend to see many spiritual and some psycholgical traditions as doing and talking about the same processes and experiences as Buddhism, just with different doctrinal foundations. So this puts me at the liberal end. Others take the teachings very literally and see formal refuge and belief in traditional views of karma and rebirth as essential.

I have no firm conclusions about this. I'd be interested in people's experiences and opinions about it. Can Buddhist practice be seen as psychology? If not, why not?

According to some it cannot - there is no formal refuge in the Buddha. There is no belief in the metaphysical points of doctrine such as literal rebirth (but this is often the case in Western Buddhism anyway especially Zen). Others say there is no goal of enlightenment - yet how much actual difference does having such an aim make? Also, in Soto Zen (according to most instruction at least - I'm not convinced that there is never intentionality at all) goals are abandoned, and in MBCT/SR there is some aim to become free of what could be described in terms of ignorance, greed and desire. In what fundamental sense is this different from the goal of nirvana - which Buddha described as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states?

According to my Soto Zen teacher, the reason Zen cannot be described as psychology is that a practise that is used to fulfill the goals of the ego is not a true Zen practice. I can see what he means, however it seems to me that there are problems with this distinction, namely there is no clear point at which a practise is ego-driven and when it is not. All goal-oriented activity is the ego using an activity for it's own purposes. This includes Buddhist spiritual goals. Also whether Soto Zen emphasises non-seeking mind or not, it is not free from 'contamination' by intentionality and thus ego. I have met a number of Soto monks and nuns for who - it seems to me - practice is being used by ego at least to an extent. To insist otherwise is to idealise Soto. Also, the mindfulness of MBCT is a practice of non-doing just as Zen is. So there is no clear distinction at all in this case.

A tendency I've seen in many spiritual practitioners is to seek to raise their own practise by diminishing others. This 'spiritual snobbery' seems to be not uncommon in Buddhism, including Zen, even though 'not having preferences' is supposed to be practised. Many seem to regard their own practise as 'True Buddhism' while the others are engaged in some sort of corrupted practise. Mahayana refer to Theravada as the 'Lesser Vehicle', Theravadans accuse Mahayana as deviating from and corrupting the original words of Shakyamuni Buddha, Soto Zen accuses Rinzai Zen of chasing insight experiences and Rinzai Zen accuses Soto of 'dead sitting' without insight. Non-Buddhist practises are typically even further down in their estimation. Yet there are others who see the wisdom of Buddha as an expression of a more universal wisdom that may be found in all forms of Buddhism, even the words of Rumi, Christ and in every experience of life.

The tentative conclusion I'm coming to is that there is no fundamental difference, rather merely a difference in emphasis and perhaps depth.

I asked my Rinzai teacher about this, any although he didn't answer my question directly (he had no direct experience of mindfulness based approaches) he spoke of Buddhism and therapy not as the same thing but not just by making a value distinction between them either. Drawing on his experience as a psychotherapist, he spoke about them as equally valid and complimentary.

There is an overlap between therapy and Zen, although they are not quite the same. I see Zen as allowing peple to open up their heart and mind and that spaciousness can uncover various complexes and neuroses, although it doesn't address them directly. Psychotherapy or CBT focusses on those specific problems without giving the wider spaciousness that Zen allows. And although that Zen spaciousness doesn't address the problems directly, it can give room for the issues to untangle.
- Genjo Marinello (paraphrased)

To my mind, the place that mindfulness therapy would fit here is in the middle - primarily creating spaciousness but also enhancing understanding and focussed awareness for the specific problems of chronic depression, anxiety, and stress.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Scales of the dragon

When doing zazen
Sit for 6 years
Like the Buddha
Even when you only sit for 10 minutes

Sitting without beginning or end
Only fathomless depth.
A thought arises in eternity:
'I hope we finish soon -
I need to go to the toilet'

As we sit
100 people walk past the door
Talking loudly
Slamming doors.
Scales of the dragon!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Latest Zen News article

Zen News is the newsletter for the UK branch of the International Zen Association. I've was asked to write a third article for it - about the autumn Sesshin that took place in Norfolk in November. This is it:

Autumn Sesshin 2008 – What is true practice

The autumn sesshin at Sheringham was marked by dramatic weather outside and quietness in the dojo.

It was pitch black and the wind was howling as it buffeted the Norfolk coast when I arrived, quite late, at the youth hostel. As always, the welcome was warm. I had just stepped through the door when the metal sounded for dinner.

When we got up the next morning for zazen, it was still completely dark and the wind was still pounding on the walls. As we sat, it gently rained and the sky gradually brightened.
The roaring wind outside
A cool breeze blows through the dojo
The dojo was mostly silent. There were no kusen until the final day and, although there were many people on their first sesshin, zazen was very quiet. It was especially quiet for me as I had been having problems with my ears and I couldn’t hear properly. In the environment of a sesshin, where sound plays a very important role, this can be a problem. At one point, I missed the beginning of zazen because I couldn’t hear the wood.

In the first mondo, Jean-Pierre was asking us to consider ‘what is true practice?’. We shouldn’t see our life circumstances as an obstacle to our practice. True practice, he said, was accessing mind that moves freely.
The Godo asks us
What is true practice?
A bright moth flutters over our heads
On Saturday morning it snowed; and then rained; and then hailed. Then, while we were doing zazen, it brightened up a little. By this stage I was almost completely deaf. It made conversation a little difficult. Luckily I could still hear well enough to help Jeremy type up the mondo.
In the morning, snow
Rain, hail, blue sky
Brightness reflecting on bald heads
On Sunday morning the snow started to fall once more – not intermittently as before, but steadily and heavily, leaving a white blanket on the ground for us to cross on our journeys home.
Transcribing the mondo
‘What is true practice?’
Snowflakes fly around the old pine tree