Is the glass half empty?

October 22, 2012 § 10 Comments


Master Hakuin meditates on the eternal question, “Is the glass half empty?”


Form, is the form of emptiness.

October 14, 2012 § 4 Comments


Shakyamuni’s teaching (e.g., The Four Noble Truths, the Four Immeasurables) can be considered a positive formulation of Buddhism that was seemingly negated by the Heart Sutra’s “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  That negation, however, was more a refinement or extension of the teachings that took the understanding of the nature of reality to new and deeper levels.  Centuries later, Dogen’s assertion that “form is form and emptiness is emptiness” brought the pendulum back to a positive expression of Buddhism where form is understood to be as important to understanding reality as is emptiness. Neither expression should be considered superior to the other.  Both appeal to a specific personality type and both can be considered as statements that originated out of the needs of a particular moment in time.

By the time Hakuin Ekaku was born in 1686 the Japaneses Buddhist schools of Soto and Rinzai Zen had both fallen into decline.  Hakuin revitalized the Rinzai School but was critical of the Soto School that took Dogen’s teaching to mean that simply calming oneself or sitting with a blank mind was true enlightenment.  As Hakuin showed with his own experience, there are deeper levels of mind to fathom and one mustn’t stop with the first inklings of enlightenment.

Hakuin took Zen Buddhism back to the teachings of the Heart Sutra asserting that “form, is the form of emptiness”.  To me, this phrasing perfectly unifies form with emptiness and emptiness with form and certainly deserves more attention.

Consider that in zazen one strips away all interpretations placed upon the forms that arise in consciousness so that they become empty of projected content.   This is not unlike therapy wherein, for example, a client overcomes his fears by progressively stripping away all conditioned responses that keep the fear alive.  But in zazen (and, of course, in all true meditation) all interpretations projected onto form are removed so that they are seen as they are, not as we wish or fear them to be.

As practice deepens, and more interpretations are removed, it becomes clear that all form is nothing more than modifications of consciousness.  This understanding is not achieved through a mere intellectual consideration of form and consciousness but is a direct result of type of knowing that arises through practice that is neither perception nor cognition.  But an intellectual understanding can be gained by considering that even the scientist tells us that subatomic particles do not have any form unless they are measured or observed.  In other words, there is no form without an observer.  So if form is dependent upon a conscious observer then form is a “modification” of consciousness.

In deeper forms of zazen and meditation there is an immediate knowledge of the I that is not relative knowledge, meaning it is not knowledge about the I or knowledge that is dependent upon descriptions, thoughts or feelings.  As such, it is an “I” that is not dependent upon any object or form.

In practice one can know the “I” without form or as a mere inference, meaning one knows the “I” as emptiness.  But it is not emptiness in the nihilistic sense of nothing at all.  It is emptiness in the sense of pure potential wherein all things are made possible, all knowledge exists as pure meaning and the “I” is pure Light, or pure Consciousness.

To know consciousness as emptiness means we recognize that consciousness is all there is.  All form is known as nothing more than modifications of consciousness.  There is no body except that modification of consciousness we call a body.  There is no chair to sit in except that modification of consciousness we call a chair.  No book.  No computer screen.  No form at all, whether perceived or cognized, that is other than a modification of consciousness that we have assigned a name.  In this way form, is the form of emptiness.


October 9, 2012 § 4 Comments

I’ve been funneling my study of shikantaza, or “just sitting”, through the writings of Zen Master Eihei Dōgen.  I’ve learnt that in spite of its continuous use by Zen monks over the centuries there is no one universal description of the practice.  In fact, some say shikantaza is not even considered a practice or meditation, at all!

Shikantaza, at its core, is nothing but just sitting.  There are no chants, no counting of the breath, no subtle object of concentration, and no tool to focus the attention.  It is as it says, “just sitting”.  To say any more misses the point of describing shikantaza in this bare bones manner.  But as descriptions go, “just sitting” doesn’t tell you much so it does seem that some further elaboration is required.

There is a common theme in many writings that one must stop seeking enlightenment, as seeking is an outward looking, goal-oriented process that separates you from you.  Regarding this Dōgen said, “Conveying one-self toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.”

“To carry out practice-enlightenment” is shikantaza.  “Conveying one-self toward all things’ is looking away from self towards objects. To convey one-self toward all things while just sitting is a delusional state wherein you are looking to the world of form to find the formless.

To avoid this objectification of nirvana Dōgen directs one to just sit with no aim or purpose, maintaining a heightened sense of awareness that takes no heed of any thought or form that arises in consciousness.   Dōgen describes this as, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

Dōgen asserts that just sitting in a state of openness to every thought that arises and falls is “all things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment”.  But this accepting and letting go of form isn’t just a means to self-realization.  According to Dōgen, it actually is enlightenment or realization.

When Dōgen tells us that just sitting is enlightenment he is referring to correct sitting, not idle sitting with a blank mind in state of dualism.  This is indicated where he wrote, “When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, the person is immediately an original person.” A correct understanding of the Buddha’s teaching results in sitting that actualizes the original person. Although a self-actualized original person sounds very new age, Dōgen’s usage goes beyond just an attempt to describe someone who is psychologically sound of mind.  To Dōgen the actualized original person is one who’s identity is solidly grounded in the original source, or one’s true nature.

A superficial understanding of Dōgen’s teaching may leave one wondering why just sitting is necessary if a correct transmission of the Dharma is all that’s needed to make one an original person.  However, it is through just sitting that the correct transmission of the Dharma ends in the recognition of the original person.  I say ‘recognition’ because the truth is you already are an original person, all you need do is recognize that fact.

When just sitting, we let go of thinking.  When just sitting, we let go of all aspirations, hopes, fears and desires.  These still arise but by not clinging they are released.  By not clinging we accept whatever springs into consciousness, neither negating nor affirming what arises.  We just sit, waking up, breathing and letting go of thoughts.  And in this, body and mind fall away and we come to realize that it was you all along, the original person, your true self or Buddha nature that was just sitting.  You just didn’t recognize it till now.

Where Am I?

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