Shikantaza

July 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

The last post introduced the image of a baby bird learning how to fly by watching its parents. The image symbolizes a watching that naturally turns to flight without the intermediary of thought. As such, it is a symbol of shikantaza, or ‘just sitting’ meditation.

When practicing shikantaza you don’t focus on anything in particular or try to make thoughts go away. You simply watch whatever arises in the present moment come and go, allowing everything to be just the way it is. Sights, sounds, smells are left to rise and fall away on their own accord. Thoughts are watched with no attempt to follow or suppress them. You take the pose of a baby bird who diligently watches its parents knowing that in doing so your true nature will spontaneously manifest.

The key to practicing shikantaza lays in allowing everything to be just the way it is. Watching is not a looking for something. It is an alert looking at things as they are without any mental commentary of good or not-good. Your aim is to abide with whatever unfolds without interference or resistance.

In the koan, “Everyday Life is the Path,” this watching is described as neither belonging to the perception world, nor the nonperception world. As neither cognition, nor noncognition. It is the practice of placing yourself “in the same freedom as sky.” It is non-thinking.

On the simplest level non-thinking is awareness of awareness.

Right now, where you are, you’re aware of most things around you, but it is only when you direct your attention to one of these that you become aware of being aware of it. For instance, when you turn your attention to your breath it doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. You know you’ve been aware of your breathing before you turned to it. Keeping your attention on a thing is awareness of awareness-with-an-object. Taking a mental step back from the object by shifting your attention to the awareness itself is awareness of awareness-without-an-object. It is the baby bird watching its parents.

Though it may seem contradictory, awareness-without-an-object still contains objects of thought and the senses. In fact, it is because you are aware of objects that awareness-without-an-object is conceived as possible. And it is through watching that you begin to recognize the space in which these objects arise. This space is awareness- or consciousness-without-an-object.

Through continuous watching, thought falls away in what Zen Master Dogen called “dropping off body and mind.” What’s left is awareness-without-an-object or what the Buddhist calls emptiness. This dropping off happens naturally so there is no need to try and manufacture it. In fact, trying to make it happen only inhibits it’s natural arising, as in doing so your focus has returned to the objects of awareness and not the awareness, itself.

It naturally follows that when you practice letting everything just be as it is, that you include yourself in the equation. As much as possible you refrain from labeling yourself as good or not-good. You cease trying to fix yourself. Instead of trying to improve or change, you just watch yourself as you are. Everyday life is the best place to practice this because everyday life will always bring you back to where you’re stuck.

Life will always show you where you’ve boxed yourself in. Where you’re resisting. Where you turn away and close your heart. All things done out of a deep-seated fear of the vast and uncontrollable nature of life that leaves you feeling small and helpless, like a baby bird. But a baby bird does not think of success or failure. It does not see itself flying or falling out of the sky. It just watches its parents and in doing so its own innate ability to fly manifests itself. If you just watch your thoughts come and go in the present moment, practicing awareness of awareness, then your true nature will spontaneously appear, too.

I am reminded of a hike my brother and I took up Windy Joe in Manning Park. We had just come to a 180 degree turn when I spotted some baby quails sitting motionlessly beneath a bush. I called out to my brother but even though we were just a few feet away he could not see them. Again, and again I pointed directly at them until, suddenly, whatever was blocking him fell away and he saw the quails.

Enlightenment is like that. We sit with attention on the breath, a koan or in shikantaza. Watching. Letting things be just as they are. Then one day, a day in which we’ve done nothing different from all the days before, we see what has been before us all along. And we soar.

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Everyday life is the Path

June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

Joshu asked Nansen: `What is the path?’

Nansen said: `Everyday life is the path.’

Joshu asked: `Can it be studied?’

Nansen said: `If you try to study, you will be far away from it.’

Joshu asked: `If I do not study, how can I know it is the path?’

Nansen said: `The path does not belong to the perception world, neither does it belong to the nonperception world. Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless. If you want to reach the true path beyond doubt, place yourself in the same freedom as sky. You name it neither good nor not-good.’

At these words Joshu was enlightened.

Mumon’s Comment: Nansen could melt Joshu’s frozen doubts at once when Joshu asked his questions. I doubt that Joshu reached the point that Nansen did. He needed thirty more years of study.

In spring, hundreds of flowers; in autumn, a harvest moon;
In the summer, a refreshing breeze; in winter snow will accompany you.
If useless things do not hang in your mind,
Any season is a good season for you.


 

I find this koan to be a beautiful description of one’s true nature but wish here to focus on the koan’s use of the word study. Namely, the seeming contradiction of Nansen’s caution not to study the path and Mumon’s comment that Joshu needed to study thirty more years to reach Nansen’s point.

Anyone who studies koans should keep in mind that English translations may not do full justice to the meaning of a word or phrase originally written in the Japanese (or Chinese) language. In the case of this koan, ‘study’ has one meaning when used in the sentence, “If you try to study, you will be far away from it.” And another meaning when Mumon speaks of the need for thirty more years of study.

The first usage refers to intellectual study. Through intellectually study, a dichotomy or sense of separation is created, chiefly through the intellect’s dependence on language which is its main tool. Language uses a subject/object structure that by its very nature separates the subject, “I,” from the object, and any given object from all other objects. When everyday life is studied this way, separation is a natural by-product.

In his essay, “To Study the Self,” Shohaku Okumura translates the Japanese word study as “to get accustomed to,” “to become familiar with,” “to get used to,” or “to become intimate with.” He goes on to say that the Chinese character for study represents a baby bird watching its parents so that it may learn how to fly. In the koan the second usage of the word study refers to this kind of study. It is a watching that naturally turns to action, or non-action, without the intermediary of thought. It is intimate in the sense that there is no sense of separation between the Knower and the Known.

It may be concluded from the way study is used in the koan that there are two types of knowledge being presented. The first is relative knowledge, so-called because it is based upon the relationship of the subject to the object (and the relationship between objects). The second is absolute knowledge. In absolute knowledge there is no subject/object separation. Here, identity is found to be identical to the object.

The identity of the Subject with the Object is not a new idea. In his aphorisms, Patanjali referred to lower levels of samadhi as the mind achieving identity with its object of concentration. In higher levels of samadhi where there is no object of concentration identity is achieved with emptiness. In the koan, absolute knowledge is found where the path does not belong to the perception world, nor to the nonperception world. Where “Cognition is a delusion and noncognition is senseless.”

In his book, “Pathways Through to Space,” Franklin Merrell-Wolff called this type of knowledge “Knowledge through Identity.”

As Knowledge through Identity is not based in the subject/object field, language is not a reliable tool to transmit It. Language is of course used by the Mystic but often just to stir the transcendent knowledge that lies deep within his listeners. Jesus’ use of parables is one example of this kind of transmission.

Absolute knowledge is fully realized by a newly Awakened One yet when it comes to expressing it, he finds himself in the same position as a baby bird who wishes to fly. He must watch those who already know how to fly and through them learn how to express the higher knowledge through his own individual talents and abilities. He must learn how to express it in his everyday life.

Mumon suggests that it may take thirty more years of study for Joshu to reach the point Nansen did. I suspect Mumon was trying to remind us that if even the Awakened cannot perfectly express the absolute in relative terms that we should not take our understanding too seriously. Just let everyday life be your path. And don’t let useless things hang in your mind.

Those who speak, do not know.

May 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

It may be said that recognizing emptiness is the key to Buddhist enlightenment. Yet what can be said about emptiness that doesn’t turn it into an object of thought that negates its very nature as emptiness? Lao Tsu recognized this when he wrote, “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.” Yet the late Dainin Katagiri Roshi said, “You have to say something. If you don’t speak, nobody will understand.”

In my view, saying something is useful when you don’t attempt to define emptiness but, rather, just point to it like a finger points to the moon. In any discussion the aim is for fear and intellectual resistance to drop away, thus making emptiness attractive or, to put it another way, making it our friend.

The Dalai Lama said that emptiness is, “the true nature of things and events.” Reading this for the first time I recalled a philosophy class in which it was said that we can never know if our senses are giving us an accurate representation of the outside world. We can’t know for sure, in other words, what a thing really is. Although I did not know it at the time, this was my first introduction to emptiness.

You may have heard this idea expressed as a question on whether the color you see, for instance, the color blue, is the same color blue I see. Quantum mechanics gives us its own answer to that question. It states that the light you see coming from an object is composed of different photons than the light I see coming from the same object. Hence, we are each seeing a different blue.

Quantum mechanics further states that without an observer the light exists only as probability waves. As probability waves, the photons that make up light exist only as a probability of being found somewhere in the universe. To be clear, this does not mean that the photons exist as real things that we just happen to find at some point in space. It means that the photons don’t exist at all until they are observed! Probability waves, it would seem, are the quantum physicist’s way of saying emptiness.

Kosho Uchiyama used the example of two people looking at a teacup to express the above idea. According to Uchiyama, each person sees a teacup that exists for him or her alone, in that neither person can see the teacup through the eyes of the other. Because their experiences are not the same, what they call a teacup is only a mutually agreed upon concept and not the thing-in-itself that philosophers speak of as the true contents of the universe.

Considering all this we might conclude that the true nature of things can never be known. But that implies the only way to know a thing is via the senses or through concepts. Buddhism says there is another way of knowing. One that lies asleep or dormant in most people but when roused does allow the direct realization of emptiness.

This third way of knowing has sometimes been called the Third Eye. In spite of its occult implications what the Third Eye refers to is a way of knowing that is neither perception nor cognition. Of course, one cannot conceive of such a way of knowing for the simple reason that one cannot use concepts on that which by its very nature is not a concept. Yet most everyone who meditates does so with the aim of conceptualizing emptiness. They see emptiness as something to be experienced, usually in the future. They see it as a subtle object that must be grasped to be understood. But emptiness can never be known this way. Concepts must be put aside, and one must just sit with no expectation of anything happening, at all.

The simple truth is that there is nothing that the perceiving or conceptualizing mind can do to realize emptiness. Emptiness is not a thing that can be acted upon. It is emptiness. So, when you sit in meditation and find yourself trying to figure it out or trying to find it, just laugh a little. And then continue sitting. That is how you make emptiness your friend.

 

The Heart Sutra

April 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

Having read Thich Nhat Hanh’s new translation of The Heart Sūtra. ( https://plumvillage.org/news/thich-nhat-hanh-new-heart-sutra-translation/ ) it occurred to me that it may be useful to put a different take on the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Not for the purpose of rewriting Buddhist teachings but to see if viewing emptiness in a new light may not remove some of the obstacles to its understanding. So, without further ado, let’s look at emptiness as openness.

The Heart Sutra is all about realizing emptiness. Emptiness of form. Emptiness of the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, etc. When you realize this emptiness, you realize that all phenomena “are not separate self entities.”

This is not a nihilistic assertion. The existence of phenomena is not being denied here. Just its existence as separate self-entities. It is the same view given in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, which states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon all other phenomena. Both are affirmations of the oneness of all things, which can happen only if all things are open systems.

In scientific terms, a system is considered open when mass or energy can flow between it and its environment. Rather than go all scientific, let’s consider this on a simpler level. Imagine a corral in a field. For this corral to be considered an open system it would have to have a gate which opens to the surrounding field for things to pass in and out. If the corral had no gate it would be a closed system (and somewhat useless, too).

In this analogy the corral may represent any open system you wish; concepts, the building blocks of the universe, your own self, etc. When it comes to concepts, The Heart Sutra refers to them in terms of paired concepts of,

no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

In our analogy paired concepts, like birth and death, may be seen as two corrals that share a common side that has a gate that allows passage between the two corrals. The meaning intended here is that birth cannot be properly conceptualized without its opposite, i.e., death. Birth implies death and death implies birth. Neither are “separate self entities” because of the gate that connects the two. In effect, because of the gate there really is only one corral whose true nature is not birth and death, but “no Birth no Death.”

The Heart Sutra refers to birth and death as “no Birth no Death” because the boundary between the two is not rigidly defined. At any time, the gate that connects the two can swing open. The further the gate opens, the more birth and death dissolve into each other. When the gate is fully open, birth and death lose all boundaries that define them as separate concepts. You can no longer call them birth or death, or even birth and death. The best you can say is “no Birth no Death.”

Although this ‘no this, no that’ approach is a more accurate way to describe the true nature of phenomena, if we are not careful it can easily become a subtle concept, or separate self-entity, in its own right. To counteract this, the two (yet one) corrals of birth and death must be seen as having other gates that open to complementary concepts such as beginning and ending, start and finish, being and non-being, etc. When something is born, for example, something must come into being. So, birth and death are connected to other concepts that are connected to other concepts such that the boundaries between all concepts become blurred.

If we carry this to its logical conclusion, we find that every concept is a gateway to every other concept. In terms of our analogy, we are no longer looking at corrals with definitive sides but corrals whose sides are all gates that open up to other corrals whose sides are also gates. If we were to stand on a hill overlooking all this, we’d see a collection of gates in an otherwise empty field. With this insight all boundaries fall away. Everything is open.

Without boundaries to define a thing you may say that it is empty or you may say that is it open. It’s really a matter of personal predilection how you describe it. In The Heart Sutra, however, Avalokiteshvara would say “no Emptiness no Openness.”

Moving away from concepts and turning our attention to the fundamental building blocks of the universe, we see that that there can be no separate fundamental particle that exists separate from all else. If there were such a closed system, then it would never be able to interact with the world around it.

In order to interact with something, a system must be open. It must have places (i.e., gates) where there are no boundaries between it and other systems. It is through this boundless openness that all interactions, all phenomena and all of life become possible.

There is a deep-seated fear of this openness because it leaves us with the feeling that there is no ground to stand on. That nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable. This creates a great deal of insecurity that motivates our grasping and clingy behaviour. To make ourselves feel more secure, we cling to the notion that there are boundaries that keep us safe. We imagine that the sides of our corrals are not gates but solid walls that keep whatever lies in the field out. The Heart Sutra reminds us, however, that these are empty. That the side of every corral is a gate that, once you stop holding them shut, will open to the ever-expanding field of Life about you that is your life.

Practicing this Insight brings you to the open field where you see no more obstacles in your mind, and because there are no more obstacles, you can overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions and realize Perfect Nirvana.

The mantra of this Insight is “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!” Translated it means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it.” We may also think of it as gone through the open gate. Through all gates leaving us, “Open, open, open beyond, open completely beyond, awake, so be it.”

 

Opening the Heart.

March 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

In the last post I spoke of an experience I had many years ago in which my heart opened and all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. I had a general idea of what was going on at that time but recently a clearer explanation came to me.

The experience began with a seemingly innocuous statement from a security guard that no photographs were allowed in the area where I stood. Upon hearing this all the boundaries that my ego had worked so hard to establish over the years fell away. I was left feeling completely vulnerable and my nervous system a raw nerve without any protection or covering whatsoever.

I see now that some part of me felt as if the fundamental mistake that I believed myself to be had been revealed for all to see. It was this mistake, this original sin, if you like, that my ego had been working so hard to cover up all my life.

The belief that my own nature was a fundamental mistake began that first time I was hurt so long ago. Looking for an explanation to the cause of the hurt led me to the belief that I was somehow fundamentally wrong. There must be something wrong with me, I thought, or I wouldn’t have been treated so.

Now I don’t remember who had hurt me, nor does it matter. What matters is that being hurt is a universal event for all people. And from it the early beginnings of the human ego take shape as the developing mind seeks to hide its vulnerable spot beneath layers of defenses meant to protect it from further hurt. This is done by selectively denying the hurt-self, as I call it, while developing qualities that will compensate for its perceived weakness. Qualities that are essentially the opposite of these weaknesses.

Some of this ego development is simply a part of one’s normal development where perceived weakness is turned to strength. A child, for example, may find his social skills lacking and begin to study his popular friends to learn how to be more social. However, if this lack was the source of an early hurt, he may eventually find himself to be a very popular fellow but still believe that he is fundamentally a fraud. He may go through life with a deep fear that others may discover this pretense and that some catastrophic rejection will occur when they do.

The relationship between the ego and the hurt-self is akin to a house and the foundation on which it is built. On a firm foundation a house will be able to withstand a lot of stressors but where the foundation is weak the house may easily crumble. Similarly, an ego built upon trauma will easily fall when the stress is great, or even when there appears to be little or no outer stress. One should not conclude, however, that where there is no trauma an ego will stand firm. Each of us have our own particular soft, vulnerable spot and when that is exposed the ego can crumble quite easily.

The ego will do everything it can to keep awareness away from the vulnerable spot because that is the one place it cannot survive. There it begins to fall away and that feels like death to the ego. As it begins to dissolve the sense of separation from the outside world drops away. It is possible at these times to feel a sense of joy and union with the world, but it is also possible to feel very vulnerable, as I did in my experience. When that happens, it means the ego is still holding on, still trying to protect itself. It’s doesn’t want to let go because it fears this new open space, which is really life in all its immensity.

The ego wants to keep you from opening your heart to that vast open space. That space is all about you right now. To know it, all you need do is to drop your thoughts. How do you do this? Just turn your attention towards something simple. The branches moving in the wind outside your window. The sound of the cars driving by that come in waves like the surf. Your own breath. Any of these are doorways to this open space, aka., the present moment. Don’t look beyond these simple things for some grander sense of consciousness. Just stay with the awareness. And when the ego starts thinking again, just drop it, too.

An experience with my open heart.

February 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

My mother was a devote Catholic. I grew up in a house decorated with Christian icons. Crucifixes hanging over doors were never given a second thought. One icon that did stick in my mind, however, was the image of Christ pointing to his exposed heart. “Why?” I thought, “Would anyone expose his heart to the world like that?”

Years later my heart was suddenly, and unpreparedly, exposed. It happened when a security guard said I couldn’t take any photographs in the area. Suddenly all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. Although nothing in my surroundings changed, everything had opened up and I felt as a raw nerve, left exposed and unprotected to the harshness of the world.

In spite of my extreme sense of vulnerability I could not help but notice that this open space seemed a lot like the various experiences of higher consciousness I had read about. Except that there was nothing pleasant about this. I was completely sensitized to everything and felt entirely unsafe. The intensity of that experience waned after a few hours, but it took two years for the effect to work its way out of my system.

It was of great interest when, years later, I read Pema Chodron’s writing on the soft, vulnerable spot, or what I have recently come to call the hurt-self. I immediately recognized the vulnerable spot to be the area I had come into contact with so many years before. Pema Chodron confirmed in her writings the relationship between this soft spot and higher consciousness. And, if you want to advance along the path toward enlightenment, that you must connect with this soft spot. Like the iconic image of Christ, you must live with an open heart.

To live with an open heart is to live in the present moment without bias to anything that arises. Mindfulness meditation is the key to that life. In fact, mindfulness meditation may be described as the practice of opening your heart to life, as it is, in the present moment. You begin this practice by continually watching your own mind to see how you turn away from suffering and your own hurt-self. Then you expand your practice into daily life to see how you turn away from the suffering of others and the world.

The more you practice, the more you see how your conditioned awareness looks away from that soft, vulnerable spot that is your wounded heart. The key word here is awareness. I can’t stress that enough because you’re not looking to judge or fix anything. You’re just watching your awareness. Each time you find it dimming or moving excitedly to find something else to think about, you take note and return to the present moment. Over time you’ll find patterns in this movement. Patterns that reveal a history of trying to avoid some unpleasant thought or feeling. Patterns of self-protection that have led you to turn away from suffering, whether it’s yours or another’s, and close your heart.

I learned from my own experience that it’s best to ease into an open heart. You are, after all, dropping all your defences, and doing that too quickly can induce trauma. It’s best to do it slowly. As you do, as you become friends with yourself, something interesting happens. You discover that your suffering actually decreases. That’s because your very resistance to suffering is the major cause of suffering! To quote Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

The Hurt Self.

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Meditation has been described here in August Meditations as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. Distraction was given in general terms as thought or thinking, the content of which is often dictated by underlying attachment and identification, the two main causes of suffering. Meditation may therefore be also described as the continuous waking from ego attachment and identification to what I call the hurt-self.

Now imagine a time in your youth when all things were bright and new. You were feeling pretty good about yourself and going about your business when someone came along and said or did something hurtful. This may have been your first encounter with hurt or one of many that didn’t bother you before but, for whatever reason, this time you held onto it. It stuck. This was a pivotal moment in your life for you had just identified as a hurt-self that needs protection and in doing so laid down the foundation for your emerging ego.

The significance of that moment lay in the fact that your awareness became confined to the ego’s narrow definition of itself as a hurt-self. Before this moment awareness flowed freely from moment to moment. After it, awareness came under the influence of the ego’s primary goal to maintain itself as it is or, to put it another way, to protect itself at all times. A narrative that ‘you’ were a ‘hurt you’ began as a way of keeping you safe, to which you began collecting instances of hurt to reinforce this narrative. When none were immediately available, past instances were recalled or ones yet to come were imagined.

With each new addition to the narrative the hurt-self became more and more sensitive, at times withdrawing into itself like a raw nerve touched by something sharp. This is what Pema Chodron calls the vulnerable, soft spot. It is the spot in your psyche that you don’t want the world to see and most want not to see in yourself. To accomplish this, you began directing awareness, yours and others, away from the spot. A persona or false self-image was created for outward appearance. While inwardly, you started burying the hurt-self through denial, an effort aided by feelings of shame and anger over what you believed to be your own weakness and vulnerability.

Ostensibly, these avoidance mechanisms were presented as a way to keep you safe. What was actually happening though was that the ego was keeping itself safe. This needs to be clearly understood. The ego is what it identifies with. If the attachment and identification to the hurt-self stopped, the ego believes it would stop or die. And to the extent that an individual believes himself to be the ego, he will naturally fear this death and want to keep his self-image intact and the hurt-self hidden. The result of these machinations is a self-made prison that limits awareness to seeing itself and the world through prison bars.

The bars of your prison are your own thoughts. Not sound, logical thought but the kind that is based upon the false premise that you really are the hurt self. And the corollary that you must protect that self at all cost if you are to survive in this world. Any problem arising from this false premise has no real solution because it is not based in reality. Following any such thought will lead to dead ends or be just plain gibberish.

Prison bars are numerous and vary from person to person but here are a few common ones.

  • Thinking the same thoughts over and over again (Loop thinking, as I call it)
  • Double-bind thinking, where two or more conflicting thoughts bind the awareness to an insolvable problem that by its nature creates an emotional conflict
  • All or nothing thinking
  • Catastrophic expectations
  • Perfectionism and the belief that you must fix yourself
  • Inner characters that tell you what to do and what not to do
  • The persona or self-image that you present to the world
  • Story-telling, wherein life events are made into a story that reinforces the hurt self

Thoughts such as those described above are all strategies of the ego that direct awareness into a maze of thinking that distort your experience so that you no longer live in the present moment but in your head. The only way to exit this maze is to turn your awareness towards what you’ve been avoiding. Meditation is a means to that end, but a word of warning.

The vulnerable, soft spot contains a lifetime of hurt. Where there is a history of mental illness or trauma it is better to seek professional psychological help than face it alone. For those with no such history, unraveling the knot in your heart will still be difficult. When times get tough, it may be of some consul to remember the words of Rumi who said, “That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.”

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