September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
The title of this post comes from Mumon’s comment on the koan “MU” in which he states that if you cannot pass through the barrier Mu then you are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses. The bushes and grasses he refers to are whatever we cling to that verifies our existence. They are our social standing, religious beliefs, money, habitual thoughts, various ideas and whatever else we use to establish a personal identity. That personal identity is the steady state self discussed in the last three posts. In the context of Mumon’s commentary, it is the ghost. It is therefore ironic that the loss of one’s personal supports is felt to be the death of self when this self is a ghost!
The steady state self has also been compared to a bubble floating on the ocean. As individuals we identify with our bubbles and fear their bursting. Yet when it does suddenly burst there arises the opportunity to realize one’s true identity as the ocean. This is why Tibetan Buddhists consider the moment of physical death to be so auspicious. It provides one last opportunity to realize our true nature, if it has not already been realized in the life just ending.
Of course, we do not wish to wait until we die before attaining enlightenment so we practice meditation to purify ourselves. That means eliminating attachment to whatever supports our personal identity and “completely exhausting,” as stated in Mumon’s comment, “the ways of ordinary mind.”
It may seem contrary to Mumon’s directions but one way of exhausting the ways of ordinary mind is to use its ability to think abstractly to make things simpler. An example of this is collecting all the things that go into making a personal identity and calling them ‘bushes and grasses’. Calling the self a steady state system is another example that, if done correctly, severs attachment to the self and it’s possessions. But while doing this we must not forget that these are just abstractions. As with pure science, when a more inclusive way of thinking comes along we must be willing to drop the old expression for the new. Otherwise we have just replaced one ghost with another.
One way to discover the inclusivity of a line of thought is to test it. Does it expand your understanding of Buddhist literature and make your meditation smoother? Does it help you throw away wrong knowledge and mistaken understanding? If so, it is a useful tool but remember that no matter how abstract your thinking becomes it can only take you so far. If you want heaven to tremble and the earth to quake you must go beyond thinking.
Mu, as a word, is the ultimate abstraction. It is the ultimate thought that includes within it all the philosophy and scriptures that have ever been written or ever will be written. It takes the one who uses it all the way to the highest reaches of human thought where he or she may touch the lowest level of Christ or Buddha consciousness (i.e., your true nature). It is so abstract that it even includes itself or, put another way, negates itself so that thought is left behind altogether.
Putting it in his most abstract terms Mumon wrote, “Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do not conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence.” It is, “All manifest, actual and alive.” And Life is never an abstraction.
A dog! Buddha nature!
All manifest, actual and alive.
But with the slightest touch of yes and no
Dead your body, lost your soul.
August 28, 2017 § 2 Comments
Steady state systems must continually renew their states to remain relatively unchanged through time. The reason for this is simple. Everything changes. There is nothing you can find in this world that does not change into something else over time. So for any state to remain relatively stable it must continuously counteract the changes taking place within and around it. This implies that there must be an underlying blueprint that determines the state to which a system will return. With the steady state systems that we identify as our individual selves, the blueprint is the self-image.
A self-image defines the boundaries of the self. It is the ego proper that says, “I am this and no other.” The ego can be quite persistent in rebuilding itself when its boundaries are transgressed. We’ve all had the experience of berating ourselves far too much over some faux pas or having some minor slight bother us throughout the day. These annoyances are the result of the ego trying to regain its self-image or steady state.
Self-images are maintained mostly by habit and repetitious thinking. In a previous post the idea of ‘loop thinking’ was introduced. By this was meant that the mind tends to think the same thoughts and reproduce the same feeling over and over again. As we go through the day we may catch ourselves thinking the same thoughts but do we realize that our viewpoints and attitudes are also just repeating thoughts? Do we realize that by thinking the same thoughts everyday that we feel the same feelings everyday? Or that the self’s sense of continuity is just a by-product of continuously thinking that you are ‘this, this, this but not that?’
A variation of loop thinking is storytelling. Storytelling involves the self’s relationship to others and the world and can be told in word or in deed. When done in word they are often told internally to paint our selves as heroes, victims or villains. When done in deed they manifest through our roles as parents, teachers, Christians, Americans, etc. Storytelling is loop thinking with an official end point but with the provision that the story can be retold again and again.
To maintain a steady state, the self must impose its self-image upon the true nature of an individual and a corresponding supplementary image on the present moment. Put in other words, a person will see the world in a way that supports his or her steady state. For example, if optimism is a fundamental part of your makeup then you’ll view the world as a hopeful place. Anything that contradicts that view will be considered an anomaly or just outright dismissed. It simply isn’t possible for the self to maintain a steady state without simultaneously maintaining a worldview that supports that state.
Before studying the self we don’t usually see that we are thinking the same thoughts or feeling the same feelings over and over again. We don’t see that we are clinging to a concept of what we and the world are as a way of continuing our own story. Nor do we see this as essentially a mechanical process operating to maintain a steady state system. We see it as our own self and any disruption to it as a threat to the self.
If, after studying the self for a while, we start to suspect that it is not truly who we are then we can start to let go. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” And to forget means to let go. And that’s our practice. When repetitious thoughts echo that we’re not worthy, unreliable or incompetent, we let those thoughts go. When a story arises framing us as a victim, villain or hero, we let it go. All attempts to define us as something and keep us believing that we are that something, are let go and forgotten.
We sit, no longer a good person or a bad person. Not worthy or unworthy. Not a parent, not a teacher, not even a Buddhist. We are nothing. No one at all. Empty. “Sitting,” as Dogen said, “is itself the true form of the self.”
Yet in letting go, nothing is negated. Things still arise and fall but the self no longer seeks to change them into its own image. Instead, everything is just as it is.
To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, the self is a bubble on a wave in an ocean that does not really exist. It is a steady state system connected to other systems in a vast ocean of systems. It does not truly exist, yet the ocean still heaves and thrills.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
This post continues from the last on the idea that the self or ego is a steady state system. Note that a steady state is neither fixed nor locked in place. The self is not always sad or always happy. On the contrary, its thoughts and moods continuously rise and fall. What doesn’t change, what remains steady, is the system’s tendency to return again and again to a specific state of thought and feeling that is identified as the self. For instance, an optimistic person is one who continuously identifies over time with positive and cheerful thoughts.
Ayya Khema, in her book, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” wrote, “We’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn…”
Being “reborn at every minute” is another way of saying that the self continually returns to its steady state. This happens in a variety of ways. The optimistic self selectively attends only to positive thoughts while ignoring or denying negative ones. Most of us maintain our steady state by only associating with people who hold similar views to our own. We may exercise or diet to maintain the image that we feel most defines our self and dress in a particular style to suit that self. We will also tend to avoid situations that require we act in ways that run contrary to our self-image.
On a level that few of us are aware of, the self will continuously impress or superimpose upon our true nature, images and feelings that define or limit it. Similarly, the self will superimpose upon the present moment its beliefs about the world. It does this to maintain a sense of continuity because your true nature, like that of the present moment, is constant change. So as each new moment is reborn, the self counters with its own rebirth by saying, “This is what I am and this is the way the world is.”
At its core, this superimposition is a lie that seeks to define your true nature and the present moment as something that remains relatively unchanged. Regarding this, you may have heard that a characteristic of the spiritual seeker is that he or she has a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. I suspect that this feeling arises from an unconscious recognition of this lie trying to break through to conscious awareness.
The life of the spiritual seeker may be defined as a continuous waking from lies to the truth. Put another way, the spiritual seeker is one who continuously works to unseat the false authority of the ego and what it says about the true nature of the present moment.
The self’s superimpositions can be quite subtle and it’s up to each seeker to realize their own particular hidden assumptions about themselves and the world. One way to do this is to be mindful of what it is you are telling yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re unworthy? Are you walking about thinking others are out to get you or that the world is dangerous? Whatever you are continuously telling yourself is what you have to wake up from so you can see the world and your true nature as it really is.
One thing that I’d like to mention before closing this post is that it is not necessary to change your steady state self to realize your true nature. It is, of course, natural to want an end to suffering and we all have things that we’d like to change. We can continue to work on ourselves but in mindfulness meditation all you truly need do is realize the difference between your true nature and the present moment, and what is being superimposed upon them. Then continually work on not letting your superimpositions distract you from being who and what you truly are.
July 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
Zuigan called out to himself every day, “Master.”
Then he answered himself, “Yes, sir.”
And after that he added, “Become sober.”
Again he answered, “yes, sir.”
“And after that,” he continued, “do not be deceived by others.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” he answered.
(The Gateless Gate)
Attention turns of late to the matter of the self or ego. It has occurred to me that the self may be thought of as a steady state system; meaning that it is a psychological system that actively maintains itself, as is, so that it remains relatively unchanged over time.
Koan 12 illustrates one way the self maintains itself that we might call ‘inner speak’. Inner speak is an inner conversation or debate held with an internalized position or idea that manifests in the mind as an imaginary figure. In the koan the imaginary figure is the ‘Master’ that Zuigan converses with daily.
It is fairly clear that Zuigan knows that he is talking to himself. In your and my inner speak, however, we often feel as if we are talking to a real person. In his comment on the koan Mumon describes this confusion as a ‘puppet show’. This seems a good comparison for his time because anyone watching a puppet show often forgets that the puppets aren’t real people. Someone else is pulling the strings and, though it doesn’t seem like it, in inner speak that person is the self.
Mumon also uses the imagery of masks to describe inner speak. He writes that Zuigan, “uses one mask to call ‘Master’ and another that answers the master. Another mask says ‘Sober up’ and another, ‘Do not be cheated by others.’ ”
Interweaving imagery of puppets and masks may be a little confusing but so is inner speak. In conversation with ourselves we often don masks that reflect our position. If we feel put upon, for example, we wear the mask of victim. If we are cheated, we may put on an angry face. I imagine inner speak as wearing a puppet on one hand, while holding a mask over the face with the other!
Masks and puppets are all a part of the dynamic of maintaining a steady state self but is this all we really are? In his poem at the end of the koan Mumon writes:
Some Zen students do not realize the true man in a mask
Because they recognize ego-soul.
Ego-soul is the seed of birth and death,
And foolish people call it the true man.
The self, or ego-soul, is not who you or I truly am and clinging to it, as Mumon said, “is a mistake.” It is a mistake because in identifying with the ego-soul we forget our true nature and become subject to the ego-soul’s on-going birth and death. Not just in a different physical form, but the moment to moment dying and rebirth of the self as it loses its steady state and tries to regain it through inner speak. Liberation comes from realizing that our true nature is emptiness.
“Fellows of the way,” said Master Huizhao, “a true Buddha has no form, and the true dharma has no marks. From your mind’s illusions, marks and appearances are created. What you get is a wild fox’s spirit, which is the view of those outside the way, and not of a true Buddha.”
Master Huizhao could just as easily have said ‘masks’ as marks. Yet his message is clear. The ego-self is just a system of thinking trying to preserve itself. Our true nature has no form.
June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Hoen said: “The past and future Buddhas, both are his servants. Who is he?”
Mumon’s comment: If you realize clearly who he is, it is as if you met your own father on a busy street. There is no need to ask anyone whether or not your recognition is true.
Do not fight with another’s bow and arrow.
Do not ride another’s horse.
Do not discuss another’s faults.
Do not interfere with another’s work.
“The Gateless Gate” (Koan 45)
Most come to the path with the question, “Who am I?” Hoen asks, “Who is he?”
To the Buddhist there is no permanent self. What others call a permanent self is actually an ever-changing collection of feelings, perceptions and thoughts associated with a physical body. Out of this aggregate comes a concept of self that is presumed to be permanent but which is, in fact, constantly in flux.
The self is just an endless line of passing stages given names like child, adult, husband, wife, happy, sad, etc. Underneath these there is no self but that no self is not nothingness. It is the innermost essence of all sentient beings.
In meditation you study self to drop self and in doing so come to know your true essence. When studying self you ask, “Who am I?” But when the self is dropped and your essence revealed, it is seen as the ‘other’. The question then becomes, “Who is the other? Who is he? Who is she?”
It is through their actions that others are known.
In the documentary “Possibilities” the great jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, said, “A master wants you to reveal yourself.” Herbie Hancock wasn’t suggesting that he was a master. He was merely saying that when he encouraged musicians to show their talent, and he showed his, that something of greater value arose than if he just told them what to play. In the true sense of the koan, Herbie Hancock was asking the question, “Who is he?” It wasn’t the ego he wanted to know but the musician and he could only know that by how the person played.
You might imagine that Herbie Hancock wouldn’t be impressed by a musician playing in another’s style. In the words of the koan, that musician would have been riding another’s horse or fighting with another’s bow and arrow. You might also imagine that he wouldn’t point out faults or interfere with another’s playing if it truly came from the heart. Whether a true expression was feast or famine, Hancock’s idea was to turn it into something of value.
That is how to approach koan 45, if not life in general. Take your inner recognition and find a way to express it that is your own. Take each moment and turn it into something of value. And in each encounter with others, seek to do the same. It is the expression that is all-important.
May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am intrigued by the following description of Mae Chee Kaew’s inner activity before her enlightenment, found in “Mae CheeKaew. Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment.” By Bhikkhu Silaratano.
The author writes that Mae Chee Kaew “began to meticulously scrutinize her mind’s extraordinary radiance, looking for any signs of imperfection. The luminous mind appeared unblemished, untroubled and exceedingly pure at first. But when she looked at it more closely she began to notice that an equally refined dullness occasionally emerged to tarnish that radiant, crystal-clear essence of knowing.”
Although it may not be readily apparent, what the author describes is essentially the same meditation practice that you or I undertake each time we sit.
Mae Chee Kaew’s meticulously scrutiny is analogous to the mental alertness that we aspire to in meditation. Her search for imperfection is our endeavor to wake up from distracting thought. And the dullness that tarnished her ‘crystal-clear essence of knowing’ is just a highly refined or subtle thought. Unlike Mae Chee Kaew, our thoughts are less subtle and our own knowing not crystal-clear. Nonetheless, when we sit in meditation we examine the same Buddha mind she did in the same way.
Whether a thought is coarse or refined, it still dulls awareness of the present moment. Whether the mind is clear or murky, it is still Buddha mind. Your mind is the radiant, luminous mind. All you need do to see this is wake from the thoughts that dull your awareness, the crystal-clear essence of knowing.
To quote Mumon from The Gateless Gate, if one sees this clearly “there is no Shakyamuni Buddha before him and no future Buddha after him.” That is to say, all concepts obscure the ever-present Buddha Mind, even the concept of Buddha. So when you sit, drop all expectation of ‘something else’ because the very mind you have right now is Buddha mind.
Dropping all expectation is returning to the present moment. In the present moment there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings. When we sit with simple awareness, flowers die and weeds grow without clinging or aversion. When we stray into thinking, we return once again to the present moment, expecting nothing, seeking nothing.
Realizing that practice is simply stepping back on the path each time you step off, with no expectation of anything happening, may make you feel a bit like King Sisyphus. In Greek myth he was forced, over and over for eternity, to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down upon him. But if we awaken to the fact that this simple returning to the path each time we step off is the actualization of our own Buddha nature, then we are firmly on the path to realizing the luminous Buddha mind.
Upon her enlightenment Mae Chee Kaew’s said,
“Body, mind and essence are all distinct and separate realities. Absolutely everything is known — earth, water, fire and wind; body, feeling, memory, thought and consciousness; sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touches and emotions; anger, greed and delusion — all are known.
“I know them all as they exist — in their own natural states.
“But no matter how much I am exposed to them, I am unable to detect even an instant when they have any power over my heart. They arise, they cease. They are forever changing. But the presence that knows them never changes for an instant. It is forever unborn and undying.”
To quote Mumon, again, “If you understand this intimately, you yourself can enter the great meditation while you are living in the world of delusion.”
May 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
An oak tree in the garden stands on its own. It doesn’t seek a teacher to tell it where it must go or how to get there. An oak tree in the garden knows there are no enlightened ones and no enlightenment.
An oak tree in the garden doesn’t think this is what it must do or this is what it must achieve. It knows there is nothing to do and nothing to achieve. An oak tree in the garden knows there is no delusion and no realization.
An oak tree in the garden knows the fallen rain rising up through its roots. Yet it does not feel lack or something missing when, reaching its leaves, the rain returns to the sky. Within the oak things arise and fall yet all the while the oak remains unaffected. The oak tree in the garden is forever unborn and undying.
An oak tree in the garden actualizes itself exactly as it is in every moment. In delusion and realization, life and death, buddhas and living beings. It does not need to think about this. It does not need words to describe it. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.