Nanyue Polishes a Tile.

June 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

Monk polishing a tile


Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “ Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?”  Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.”  Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.

Mazu said, “What are you doing?”  Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”

Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”  Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”


This is part of a famous koan that is included in Dogen’s Shobogenzo. It emphasizes that practice is done in the here and now, where looking to the past or future can only be seen as a distraction.

Like Mazu intending to be a Buddha, we, too, look to some future “Aha!” moment that signals our practice is complete. We are like those with a chronic illness who recall healthier days, while hoping the future will bring better times.

We may draw a parallel between practice and our mental state when ill. When ill, we use distraction and denial to avoid pain. In practice, we look outside the present moment for answers, never thinking that it is only by embracing the present moment that they may be found. We tell ourselves.”It can’t be that simple!” That’s when Nanyue comes along, polishing a brick to make it a mirror, asking, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”

Nanyue is telling us not to pile up ideas about the past and future, or good health and Buddhahood. When we do, we cover over what is originally here; our original health and original face. That is why we must kill the Buddha. Not the actual Buddha, of course, but the ideas we hold about Buddhahood that obscure the true nature of the universe and ourselves.

Because we have clothed the “I” we are today in images and thought, we find it difficult to believe it is the same “I” of the Buddha. Having made this discrimination we conclude that we must change self to achieve Buddhahood. We then set out on a long journey to try out new ideas that will polish our brick into a mirror. True practice, however, is never a matter of adding things but dropping them. In this way our original nature unfolds naturally and our original health is revealed.

In practice this means staying with our immediate surrounding. We place our attention in a specific space like the tip of the nose where the breath comes in and out, the Hara that is just below the navel or by focusing on the floor a few feet in front of us. The aim is to stay connected to our physical surroundings, returning to it each time we are pulled into thinking.

Uncovering original face and finding original health does not mean all is resolved and good health restored. To expect this is merely to place another covering over our true nature. Our practice is just to let the present moment unfold without labeling it good or bad, or running to or from it.

When a brick, then be a brick. When the brick is a mirror, then you are a Buddha. And when you are a Buddha, then you are you. Each is not transformed into the other but is, in fact, originally the other. Like subatomic particles that change into other particles but are always energy, the process is the goal itself. There is nothing extra.

Past and Future are Cut Off.

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Past and future

In the first chapter of Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō he discusses time, telling us that past and future are cut off from this present moment. Using the example of firewood Dōgen writes,

“Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after.”

The typical understanding of time is that the present flows like a raft on a river from the past into the future. In this view, ‘before and after’ is primary to the present moment. Firewood comes before ash that, in turn, comes after firewood. Adulthood comes after childhood and before old age. Depending upon one’s personal temperament, life under the sway of time is either ceaseless becoming or endless dying.

Dōgen tells us that this is not how things are. The immediate moment or space you are in, he tells us, is primary. What is here and now does have a before and after but that past and future is cut off. Our only actual experience or reality that we know, in other words, is this present moment and not of something coming into existence or ceasing to be. As Dōgen wrote it, “firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after… Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before or after.”

We may express these two views in terms of a motion picture. When we watch a movie we see one scene coming after another. When we examine the actual film, however, we discover that we were really watching a series of still images. Each image occupies its own position on the film with an image coming before and after it (except the first and last images, of course!) The before and after images, however, are ‘cut off’ from the center image by clear strips on the film. Every image is like this, having its own position and its own before and after.

Dōgen is not playing the cosmologist when he takes up the discussion of time. He is presenting us with a way to approach mindfulness and meditation.

The ordinary mind is continually thinking in terms of before and after. It is looking to the past for experience to draw upon and to the future for results. It is always occupied with a thousand desires and a thousand plans, searching and never still. This is the nature of temporal consciousness.

Dōgen presents us with an alternative to temporal consciousness that I call spatial consciousness. This consciousness is always here but is hidden by the noise of temporal thought and desire. To realize it all we need do is drop ‘before and after’ and stay with what exists now, in the present moment. We do not try to alter or deny it. Nor do we think of how it was in the past or how we want it to be in the future. We just stay with what is here in the present moment as it is. This is how we approach mindfulness and meditation.

Spatial vs. Temporal Consciousness

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park 2595

The story is told of a monk who sat in meditation. As he began he heard the evening bell toll. The morning bell then chimed with no sense of any intervening passage of time or loss of awareness.

This brief vignette serves to introduce the idea of temporal versus spatial consciousness. Temporal consciousness, as the name suggests, is awareness of change, of past and future. In meditation, for example, any sound we hear will arouse an awareness of duration, with a definite starting and expected end point to the sound.

Ordinary thinking that is desire based is temporal by nature. When we think of something we want it is typically with the hope that the desire will be fulfilled in time. When we put this desire into words we use a subject/verb/object structure that suggests the notion of time, as in, “I want to see Africa.” Because of its temporal nature, desire based thought mars meditation as it takes us out of the present moment and into memories of the past or dreams of the future.

Opposed to the temporal is spatial consciousness. While the former implies becoming, the latter suggests being. Spatial consciousness is not dominated by thought of what was or what might be but is an awareness of what is, here and now. It is reflected in concepts that suggest immediacy, such as ‘identity’ and ‘now’. In contrast to temporal thinking, spatial consciousness is represented in sentences without an object, as in the assertion, “I am.” Or in the Zen phrase, “Just this.”

We might describe meditation as the practice of minimizing temporal consciousness while maximizing spatial consciousness. In practical terms, this means turning attention away from thoughts that suggest process, such as how we are doing or what we will do after the meditation, to just sitting in the awareness of our immediate space. At first we do this by focusing on a particular location such as the tip of the nose, a candle or the hara located just below the navel. As we progress we come to a point where we just sit, alert and aware in the space we occupy in the present moment. When the monk did this in the above story, time ceased to exist.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” If we do not understand that the past and the future are temporal constructs while the present moment is spatial, the Buddha’s meaning might elude us. Yet if we understand this then we understand that the present moment is our immediate surrounding. And it is this space only that we need focus on in our meditation.

A note, do not think that spatial consciousness is nirvanic consciousness. The latter transcends both temporal and spatial consciousness and is, properly, neither. Spatial consciousness, however, is more like nirvana than is temporal. By focusing on the spatial we are aligning ourselves with Nirvana and therefore in a better situation to let it lift and transform us.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for June, 2016 at August Meditations.

%d bloggers like this: