Are you whipping the ox or the cart?

June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

In the koan, “Nanyue Polishes a Tile,” Nanyue asked Mazu why he was sitting zazen. Mazu replied that he sat to become a Buddha. Hearing this Nanyue picked up a tile and started to polish it. When asked what he was doing Nanyue said that he was trying to make a mirror.

“How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” asked Mazu.

“How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?” replied Nanyue.

“What do you mean by that?” said Mazu.

Nanyue said, “Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or the ox?”

Commenting upon this koan Zen Master Dogen said, “Although it is not the custom among worldly people, the Buddha Way has the custom of whipping the cart.”

The worldly people that Master Dogen referred to are those who, as noted in Section 25 of the Diamond Sutra, “…partake in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality.” They are those who are greatly attached to the ego-self. Believing it to be the real self they grasp and hold onto their egos as hard as they can, wholly believing in its reality and what it tells them. In the  koan, the ox is the ego. The cart is the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ upon which a bodhisattva sits with unwavering attention during the practice of perfecting wisdom.

I am defining the ego-self simply as a collection of physical and mental aggregates (e.g., the physical body, thought, emotion) that are mistaken to be one’s true nature. A key thought in this collection is the “I am” thought that, through grasping at things, creates the illusion of an independent, self-existence entity. To ensure its survival this entity (i.e., the ego) must continuously grasp at the things that define it in order to maintain itself ‘as it is.’

In the koan we are presented with a man who believes that he is someone called “Mazu” who is practicing zazen to become a Buddha. No doubt the man had heard that Buddhahood was something that cannot be attained but only realized. Nevertheless he had bought into the ego’s story that enlightenment is attainable only by perfecting “Mazu” and so he sat zazen to become a Buddha.

Believing that enlightenment comes from improving yourself is the main obstacle to Realization. This is the worldly custom of whipping the ox. It is the obstacle Nanyue was pointing to when he pretended to polish the tile to make it a mirror. It shows itself in the belief that enlightenment comes through acquisition, through gaining more knowledge, becoming more spiritual, becoming wiser or in some way ‘better.’

The custom of the Buddha Way has little if anything to do with self-improvement. It is just sitting on the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ with alert watching. Watching without following or acting upon the ego’s prompting, any more than you’d jump out of your seat in a movie theatre to change what is happening on the theatre screen.

As you sit, just watching, your impulse to follow the ego into its world is revealed, as is your strong belief in the reality of that world. You see how the ego grasps at what it desires and how it moves to protect itself from even the smallest of slights. You see how tightly it holds on, trying to maintain things just as they are and itself, just as it is. You see how attention pulls away from what is unpleasant and how it dims through that act of denial. You see all your resistance to knowing yourself, not as the watcher but as watching itself. Pure awareness.

Just watching creates a space in which the deep attachment to the ego begins to unravel. This mostly occurs in the unconscious; so it is important to resist the urge to do something in a vain attempt to polish the ego up a bit. All the time it must be remembered that the custom of the Buddha Way is just sitting, fully aware in the present moment, accepting ‘what is’ without trying to change it, attach to it or identify with it. It is being fully alive in the now of life. That! Is beating the cart.


Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.

May 10, 2018 § 4 Comments

The other night I dreamed of a woman who dissolved into the right side of my body. As she did, she transformed into razor sharp saws and scissors that began to cut away at my stomach from the inside out.

I’ve had similar dreams in the past in which normal people turned into fearful monsters and others in which I had been attacked by vicious animals with razor sharp teeth. It was only with this latest dream that I looked at these nocturnal events in light of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, © 1973. In it I found the following passage concerning Peaceful Deities and Wrathful Deities.

“By fleeing, through fear, terror, and awe, (you) fall over the precipices into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the least of the least of the devotees of the mystic mantrayana doctrines, as soon as he sees these blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be like that of human acquaintances. He will trust them; and becoming merged into them (italics mine), in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.” (p. 132)

There are forty-two mild or Peaceful Deities and fifty-eight angry or Wrathful Deities associated with the intermediate states between life and death known in Tibet as the Bardo. If they have heard of it at all, most people believe the bardo to be the Tibetan version of the after-life. There are, in fact, six intermediate bardo states, only two of which are associated with the after-life. A third refers to the actual state of dying and the other three to, a) existence in the womb, b) a state found in deep meditation and c) the bardo of the dream-state. (Ibid. 102.)

In spite of their fearsome appearance, Wrathful Deities are actually disguised Peaceful Deities who come to you to help. Regardless of which of the six states they are found, they act to awaken you to the fact that all people and objects encountered in the bardo, including the Deities themselves, are nothing but reflections of your own consciousness.

In Western terms Wrathful and Peaceful Deities are what the psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes of the collective unconscious. Archetypes may be thought of as universal ideas that exist in the unconscious as empty concepts until they are fleshed out by personal experience. Within their culture Tibetans have specific images of these deities while Westerners would be more likely to imagine Wrathful Deities as, for example, Satan or the Devil; and Peaceful Deities as, perhaps, angels. In my own bardo dream state, Wrathful Deities take various forms but all seem to be monstrous or have a razor component that identify them as the same wrathful dream character.

Dreams and dream interpretation have been an interest of mine for a long time. Over the years I’ve learned that the dream consciousness isn’t something that disappears when I wake up. Often what I dreamed the night before may still be found in the periphery of my consciousness after I awake. There the dream imagery and dream characters follow me around, so to speak, appearing as vague feelings or subtle mental images that influence my behavior as I go about my day.

Sometimes it is the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities that accompany me through the day. When they do, according to the Tibetans, they come to show me that something I believe to be real is really nothing more than a reflection of my own consciousness. Understanding this may be easier if looked at it through the Buddhist lens.

Buddhism states that everything we experience exists in a state of constant change. There is nothing that exists underneath any experience that is fixed or unchanging (i.e., has self-existent). All is impermanence. In our hearts we know this to be true, which means we also know that this fundamental fact applies to the self, as well. The self that we like to imagine we are, the one that thinks and acts, doesn’t really exist. This makes the core of our being seem to be apparent nothingness. And that scares us.

Believing our true nature to be nothingness, we run from it towards the world of appearance. Even though that world is also empty, we try to make it real by clinging to whatever fills the void and avoiding what might bring us face to face with our apparent emptiness.

Enter the Peaceful Deities come to tell us that if we let go our attachments we will find our true nature, which is not nothingness but Fullness and Light. Yet because we believe our true nature to be nothingness fear kicks in, distorting these peaceful messengers into wrathful demons come to throw us into the proverbial fires of hell.

In my dream the woman was a Peaceful Deity who became Wrathful due to my own clinging and aversion (not shown in the dream but taking place in my waking life). Her turning into razor sharp saws that cut away at me from the inside was an obvious symbol of my own suffering. At the same time it was a symbol of her attempt to sever my attachments. She was not the author of my suffering. It was my own clinging and aversion that wrote that chapter of my life.

As can be seen from my own dream experience, we do not have to wait for death and dying to come to use the teachings of the Bardo. Right now (and more so for practitioners of the Way) we are all in an intermediate state where Peaceful and Wrathful Deities are working just off-stage to help release us from attachment. We may know them as thoughts and images that pop into our minds during the day that cause us to be afraid, angry or sad. When they do, our task is not to turn away from these unpleasant feelings but, in the words of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, meet them like “human acquaintances,” for they are valuable allies in our effort to uproot attachment.

Finally, “becoming merged into them,” as quoted above from The Tibetan the Book of the Dead, has the same meaning as becoming attached to nothing. In the process of dropping our clinging and aversion we merge into that apparent nothingness that we feared lie at the core of our being. Only in this merging we find that it is not nothingness. Existence has not ceased. It continues completely free of all things. That is why the Book say, “becoming merged into them, in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.”

Keichu’s Wheel

April 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

The other night, just before retiring, I thought I’d take a look out the kitchen window for the moon.

The house lights had just been turned off so my eyes were not yet adjusted to the night. I could see out the window well enough but when I turned back to the kitchen all was dark. Now I knew, or thought I knew, that there was a chair beside me so I reached out to grab it. To my surprise there was nothing there. As my hand waved about in empty space only a thin concept of a chair existed where I expected a real chair. I say ‘thin’ because without a solid chair in my grasp the concept had no depth.

The time that elapsed while my hand waved in empty space was less than a second. It’s likely that if my eyes were adjusted a bit more to the dark I would have noticed the chair was in a different place and missed this experience altogether. Having it though I immediately realized how it paralleled the experience no self.

The experience of no self is one in which you reach out to grab something called “me” only to find it is no longer there and, if fact, was never there in the first place. It was just a concept that arose out of an aggregation of conditioned responses, thoughts and feelings brought together in an ad hoc manner. As such, the self has no depth. Upon seeing this you realize that there never was a “you” that was doing, thinking or feeling. In fact, you were not thinking, at all. Thoughts were thinking you!

A short time after the above experience I happened to reread the eighth koan of “The Gateless Gate” called Keichu’s Wheel. It reads, “Getsuan said to his students: Keichu, the first wheel-maker of China, made two wheels of fifty spokes each. Now, suppose you removed the hub uniting the spokes. What would become of the wheel? And had Keichu done this, could he be called the master wheel-maker?”

I had not understood this koan before because I had seen the hub of a wheel as something useful. An idea perhaps inspired by Chapter Eleven of the “Tao te Ching” that begins, “Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; It is the center hole that makes it useful.” Getsuan questioning what would become of the wheel if it had no hub only left me with the obvious rational answer, that is, that it would be useless. Rational answers, of course, are of no value in koan study, as koans point to an experience that is beyond reason.

My “no chair” experience shed new light on the koan. It was now obvious that the wheel was a symbol of the self. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the concept of a wheel is like the concept of the self. Both are an aggregation of things. One is an aggregation of a rim, spokes and hub. The other, thought, feeling and various things like life experiences that are held together by grasping and aversion. When clinging and aversion come to an end, the self is realized as emptiness (Lao Tsu’s “center hole”). Certain tendencies might continue, just as the spokes of a wheel continue to dangle from a wheel’s rim when the hub is removed. But they are no longer recognized as an organized self that is real and self-existent. They are ‘just thoughts,’ ‘just feeling.’ Or, as Nagarjuna said, there are only actions, no doer.

Realization of no self is the mystical death wherein the false reality of self dissolves in the underlying Reality of Awareness. To the extent that you cling to the self there may be a fear of non-existence or even a feeling that you are going mad. But if you examine these fears closely you will discover that what you truly are, your true nature, has been here all along. It cannot be destroyed with the death of the self because the self was always an illusion. Something you thought you were, but never were.

Mumon asserts this at the end the koan with the poem,

When the hubless wheel turns,

Master or no master can stop it.

It turns above heaven and below earth,

South, north, east and west.

Awareness is the ‘hubless wheel’ that turns whether there is the illusion of self or not. Nothing can affect It. It turns above heaven and below earth. And It is your true nature.

No self means no self.

March 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

The Buddhist nun Ayya Khema said that the most difficult aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that there is no individual self who owns the body and mind. That’s quite a bold statement. Outside of an asylum you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe they actually exist. So what can we make of this teaching?

In previous posts I described the self as a concept, in the traditional sense of a concept as an idea that brings together a collection of things under one name. A bed, for instance, is an idea that arises out of the combination of a mattress, duvet, pillows and the need for sleep. The Buddha said that the self is composed of the five aggregates of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and sense consciousness. So the self is a concept that brings the five aggregates together under one name.

When we speak of a bed we do not believe that it is something other than its component parts. Yet when we speak of the self we believe we are talking about something other than its five aggregates. I believe we do this because the aggregates are experienced as something real, so we falsely conclude that the concept that represents it, i.e., the self, must be real, too. But concepts are not real things in the world, they are just ideas about the world.

Even though the self is just an idea, its five aggregates are real and so cannot be ignored. The psychologist Carl Jung pointed this out when he said that the contents of the psyche are not just psychological. They are as real in the experiential sense as anything felt through the physical senses. This appearance of reality adds to our sense that there is something real called the self. But lest you decide that the self may as well be taken as real if you’re going to experience it that way, remember that you also believe in your dreams when you’re sleeping.

At this point I doubt that you are now convinced that there is no self. Especially if you happen to have read Zen Master Hakuin’s account of his first meeting with Shōju Rōjin. He writes of it in “Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave.”

“We arrived in Iiyama, and I was granted an interview with Shōju Rōjin. The old teacher took one look at me and immediately asked, “How do you see Mu?” “No way to lay a hand or foot on it,” I replied. Shōju reached out, pushed the end of my nose with his fingers, and said, “Well, I just got a hand on it!”

Shōju Rōjin was showing Master Hakuin that Mu, our true nature, is real. So you might conclude from this that there is a self. But Shōju Rōjin wasn’t saying that, unless you want to believe that your nose is your real self.

To understand Shōju it would perhaps help if I reminded you that concepts are a sampling of reality. They take specific things from the environment and group them together in a way that makes them appear separate from all other things. Hence the bed is separate from the floor. The floor is different from the wall, which is different from the body, which is different from the self that calls the bed “mine.” That’s what the mind does when it conceptualizes. It makes the true nature of things appear separate when, in reality, there is no separation. Zen Master Dōgen put it this way in his epic work, Shōbōgenzō, where he compared life to being in a boat.

He first wrote, …there is no “I” other than the boat. Then went on to say,

When we are riding in a boat, our body and mind, self and environment, are all “essential parts” of the boat. The whole great earth and the whole empty space are essential parts of the boat. “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus.

In the best sense of the Buddhist principle of dependent origination Dōgen illustrates how everything is an essential part of everything else, which means that everything is connected. “Body and mind, self and environment” are all essential parts of life. That part about self might seem confusing but by it Dōgen meant the five aggregates. It is the “me” referred to the first part of the quote that I now add in its entirety,

Life, for example, is similar to a person riding in a boat. In this boat, “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. Although “I” operate the boat, the boat is carrying “me” and there is no “I” other than the boat. “I” am on the boat and “I” make the boat into the boat.

Dōgen speaks of the “I” and the “me” in terms of the former being the operator and the latter being a passenger. The “I” as operator is what I’ve called in previous posts the bare point of awareness but here Dōgen identifies it as the bare power of awareness. “I” use the sails, “I” am at the helm, and “I” pole the boat. This “I” is not just a passive observer like the “me” being carried through life. It is the active power behind life, the life of the universe and the activity of your life as “me.” It is this “I” that Shōju Rōjin was bringing to Master Hakuin’s attention when he pulled his nose.

This “I” is the same “I” in “you” as it is in “me.” They are not two but One. It is formlessness and emptiness so may be called no self. Yet it is not nothingness so it may be called the True Self, even though in comparison to It “you” and “me” are just illusion. Yet even as illusion we are essential parts that the “I” not only guides and directs though life but also is our Life. Realizing “I” as “life” and “life” as “I” are thus, is enlightenment.

The Middle Way

February 25, 2018 § Leave a comment

Thinking about Buddhism doesn’t lead to enlightenment, but it may exhaust all your ideas about what it’s like.

I once read that Zen Master Dogen often used concepts to negate concepts. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do with the last few posts.

Adding to things cannot be better than nothing” looked at how conceptualizing sensory experience adds things to it that isn’t really there. The title of the post, “You can see right through to the bottom” referred to seeing your actual experience before your concepts add these extras. “The Extended Now” introduced Einstein’s idea that what we traditionally call the here and now is actually an experience of different times. “Many Mansions, Many Worlds” suggested that each of us creates our own version of the world that is, in essence, an alternate universe. And “Nagarjuna’s Runner” aimed at showing these worlds to be dynamic, ever-changing activity.

These posts sought to negate, or at least undermine, the concept that there is a solid world ‘out there’ that exists whether we are around or not. How can we believe in such a world when we learn that it is just a collection of events that happened in the past and may happen in the future? When our ‘present’ experience is composed of things that no longer exist or are yet to exist? And doesn’t the Buddha’s statement upon his awakening, “I and all beings everywhere have simultaneously realized liberation,” make a little more sense when we realize that his ‘beings everywhere’ exist in a universe that arose with his own awakening?

Each of us creates our own version of reality that we continue to act upon throughout our lives and which acts upon us as we live. It is an interactive system in which there is no separation between self as the bare point of awareness and the other as the fundamental stuff of the universe. But make no mistake; it is only through the interaction of these two poles of consciousness that the world is given form. Without it, Consciousness may only be described as formlessness and emptiness.

The interaction of consciousness with itself is ceaseless activity that operates under the principle of dependent origination that states all things (i.e., dharmas or objects) arise together in dependence upon all other things and the subject as the bare point of awareness. You are identical with this activity. It forms the content of your life and is your life. Yet because this activity is generated by the interaction of a formless consciousness with itself, it is also emptiness. Realizing that form is emptiness and emptiness is form through meditation and then actualizing it in your daily life is enlightenment.

Balancing life so that it includes existence and non-existence, form and emptiness, is what Buddhists call The Middle Way. Yet this balance, when achieved, cannot be maintained over time. It is not possible to indefinitely maintain a steady state in a constantly changing universe. At best, you aspire to attain this balance in the ceaseless activity of daily life, knowing it is not a thing to which you may cling but a way of life.

Perhaps the story of the Krakatoa and the Fourth Point lighthouse bears repeating here. Before Krakatoa erupted in August of 1883 it thundered for many months, spewing ash and lava. One night the keeper of the Fourth Point lighthouse on an adjacent island was watching this show when a sudden massive explosion was felt coming from deep beneath the volcano. Under the moonlight the keeper watched as in all directions the sea suddenly became as still as a mirror. Then, just like that, the sea’s motion resumed.

Obtaining the middle way is about as rare as seeing the sea completely becalmed under a moonlit sky. And it lasts about as long, too. Nevertheless our practice is to actualize the middle way in our daily life. We practice being in the present moment unclouded by thought, expressing compassion and loving-kindness to all. But as life is constantly presenting us with new challenges there is no set rule for living the middle way. It is not a concept but a way of life in which you just embrace each moment, let it go, then embrace it again.

Many Mansions, Many Worlds.

February 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

In his essay, “The Tenzo Kyokun and Shikantaza,” Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama wrote, “…the world I experience is one I alone can experience, and not anyone else can experience it along with me. To express this as precisely as possible, as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience; I live out my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies.”

Kosho Uchiyama’s words may be considered in relation to quantum mechanics. It says subatomic particles exist in an infinite number of states until they are observed, upon which they collapse into one state. For example, light (i.e., photons) coming from distant suns exist everywhere in the universe as probability waves until it is observed, at which time it becomes localized and become known as stars.

Before Kosho Uchiyama was born, what was to become his experience existed in this infinite number, or formless, states. His birth simultaneously gave birth to the world he experienced and when he died that world also died. Everyone’s experience is like this, coming about as a result of an interaction of the observer and the formless universe of infinite states. This is not merely a psychological experience but an actual giving of form to a universe that would otherwise remain merely as a probability.

It is important to understand that the observer being referred to is not the ego. It is the “I” as the simple bare point of awareness around which the ego is constructed. Where this “I” is before birth and where it goes at death is not the subject of this post. And in a way that is not a real question anyways. What matters most is that the “I” in each of us only collapses particular parts of the infinite number of states the universe can take. Even when standing side-by-side looking at stars, each of us collapses different photons coming from those stars. Only you can know the parts you collapse, just as only I can know the parts I collapse. This means that each of us is experiencing a different or alternate version of the same reality or universe.

The role of the observer, as this is called, is a touchy subject in quantum mechanics. Many do not like to admit that the observer plays any role in the formation of the universe. To get around this, they proposed that it only appears that a collapse into one state has occurred as a result of an observation. In this view every state collapses but does so in alternate universes where we cannot see it. In other words, creation does not simply consist of one universe but a multiple number of universes or multiverse.

Technically the existence of multiple universes is a hypothetical outcome of the theoretical model that arises out of quantum mechanics. As far as hypothetical outcomes of theoretical models go, this one is pretty dicey because there is no way to prove it. But it occurs to me that we do not need to negate the role of consciousness to have multiple universes. We already know that each of us is experiencing an alternate version of reality. Each version fits the description of an alternate universe in that each is a different collapse of the infinite number of probable collapses. So may we not say that each of us are living in our own parallel, yet alternate, universes created by the interaction of bare points of awareness with probability waves?

Each of us lives in an alternate universe or version of reality that comes into existence as we are born and ends as we die. Master Hung-chih (1091–1157) expressed this as,

There is neither mind nor world to rely on

Yet do the two interact, mutually.


Kosho Uchiyama expressed it by saying, “the world forms the contents of my self.” He went on to say, “When we do zazen, we personally experience this clearly; we become nothing other than ourselves.” Zen Master Dogen expressed it as the self being ‘verified by all things’. And when he said, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

We see in these statements that zazen is an awakening to the reality of dependent origination, the Buddhist principle that states all dharmas (i.e., objects, including the self) arise in interdependence with all other dharmas. In zazen we experience this as body and mind dropping away, leaving the bare point of awareness and the world indistinguishable. Awakening to this reality, to the inseparable nature of the other and I, is Realization.


Just sitting

Attending to the present moment

The universe unfolds naturally.


Just sitting

Breathing in and out

Buddha nature is actualized.

Nagarjuna’s Runner

January 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

A while back I read of a physicist who said the fundamental “stuff” of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information. I had to smile at that remark for to me it showed the physicist’s ignorance of his own philosophy of science that states science can make no claim to the fundamental stuff of the universe. It can only study the way this stuff (in philosophy called the thing-in-itself) acts in relationship to other stuff. That relationship is expressed as information, so in saying that information is the stuff of the universe the physicist was engaging in the logical fallacy known as a circular argument.

Quantum mechanics is more aligned to the philosophy of science. This branch of physics says that it really doesn’t matter what quantum mechanics is about because there is no actual world of electrons, photons, quarks, etc. There is only a description of the world that uses these terms and it works in describing what is observed.

The traditional line of scientific inquiry is to study ‘things’ as if they existed independently of the observer. In most situations this approach works quite well until, that is, you start to study the quantum world of the very small. It is here, where the traditional ideas of causality, time and space breakdown, that the observer or consciousness plays a noticeable role.

It is by way of experimental observation that the quantum world is known. Prior to observation the quantum world exists (for mathematical purposes) only as a probability wave. Once an observation is made this world ‘collapses’ into something that can be described in quantum terms. Much to the discomfort of many scientists, in the world of quantum mechanics observation means conscious observation. This means that consciousness and the quantum world are inseparable.

Rephrasing the above we may say that, in general, science is interested in the relationship of two or more things. Where the quantum world is concerned, science must include the role of consciousness for its study to be inclusive. If we pare this down even further, we may say that science studies the interaction of the thing-in-itself and consciousness.

The important part of this simplification is that the known part is the interaction, not the thing-in-itself or the observer. These two can never be known in their entirety as a quantifiable figure or as an object of thought. The Buddhist expresses this unknowability by saying, “you can’t bite your own teeth and can’t taste your own tongue.” And in the Bible in Exodus 33:20, it is expressed by God telling Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”

Those of you who have read this far may be thinking that it’s taking me a long time to bring this horse to the water trough. I felt this preamble necessary to clearly explain the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna’s (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) statement on running and the runner. A statement he used to illustrate that there is no persistent self.

Nagarjuna said, “there is no runner beside the action of running and that outside of running there is no runner.” A scientist might say the same thing if he remembers that his area of study is the interaction of things, and not the thing-in-itself.

It may be easier to see this if we think in quantum terms. We may only say something about a sub-atomic particle when it is observed, otherwise it has no actual form that we may talk about. If we observe it as moving from point a to point b, and then substitute the word moving with running, we may say that the particle is a runner. Once our observation stops, however, both the runner and the running cease to be. The particle goes back to just being a probability, meaning that it did not persist in time.

Just as the scientist would say that there is no such thing as a persistent sub-atomic particle, so the Buddhist says there is no persistent self. Neither, however, are being nihilistic. They are merely saying that we can say nothing about the fundamental stuff of the universe or consciousness. In practice, we can only see their interaction.

Before the horse finishes drinking I’d like to apply this to the Zen practice of shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. Most people don’t know what to make of this practice. Their rational minds tell them that there must be something more to it than just sitting. Yet from the perspective of this post, that’s all it is. It’s just sitting between the unquantifiable object and the unquantifiable subject.

Thinking continues during shikantaza but you don’t try to stop it. Instead, awareness just returns again and again to the present moment and the act of sitting. As the thoughts that temporarily flash through the mind become less of a distraction you’ll discover another layer of thinking. These are the deeper concepts that have been directing your thinking, dictating what you think about yourself and the world. Once again, there is no attempt to change these thoughts. The practice is to ‘just sit’.

During the process of just sitting you’ll notice a more persistent concept called the “I” which takes on the roll of ‘the sitter’. Nagarjuna’s words should guide you here. “There is no runner beside the action of running,” means there is no sitter beside the action of sitting. “And that outside of running there is no runner” means, outside of action there is no self. In other words, the “I” that you think is sitting is just another thought distracting you from the act of ‘just sitting’. And like all other thoughts and concepts it may be dropped.

Shikantaza is the actualization of your true nature realized as the action of sitting with body and mind fallen away. Here, body and mind are defined as the concepts assigned to the fundamental stuff of the universe (the body) and to consciousness (the mind). When they fall away you realize Emptiness and that its true manifestation is action or Life. To repeat Nagarjuna, “there is only the act of running.”


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