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.