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.

Meditating With Distraction

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

It common while meditating to find yourself thinking rather than attentively watching the breath. When you do, the instruction is to take note of the distraction by labeling it as ‘thinking’ and then return to watching the breath. Although this simple act may seem inconsequential it is the foundation of awakening.

Meditation is the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. This statement should be understood as descriptive, meaning that it describes what goes on during meditation more than it tells you what to do. Anyone who’s taken up the practice knows it to be true. During meditation you rarely sit with unwavering attention on the present moment. The mind wanders. You stray from the breath. ‘Waken’ to the fact that you’re thinking and return to the breath where, after a time, you again become distracted.

In simple terms, waking is a recognition that you’ve strayed from watching the breath. What takes your attention away is called a distraction, which includes environmental or physical conditions of the body, such as excessive noise or pain in the legs. Usually when Buddhists speak of distraction though they mean thinking (which includes concepts, imagery and the emotions). It is important to note that waking to thinking does not mean stopping thinking. It means not being carried away by it.

In his book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama spoke of three kinds of distraction. The first he called chasing thoughts, by which he meant ‘to follow some initial thought with more thought.’ The second is drowsiness or nodding off. The third is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing. Of this latter type he wrote, “Without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure… that has been totally fabricated within our own act of chasing after thoughts.”

To Kosho Uchiyama’s list I’d like to add a fourth type of distraction. This is the “I” thought. The “I” thought exists both as a singular thought and as a thought that is attached to, and identified with, other thoughts and things. As a singular thought it is your sense of self or sense that you are, however vague that feeling might be. When the “I” thought attaches to other things it produces thoughts that identify it as ill or healthy, worthy or unworthy, smart or stupid, and a whole host of other concepts that combine into an individual idea that defines who and what you are.

In the sense that a thought is about a thing and never that thing itself, the “I” thought, whether it stands alone or as attached, is not the ‘real’ you. It is a fabrication, just like the characters you have dialogues with in Uchiyama’s third type of distraction are fabrications. It differs from these other fabrications only in its tendency to persevere throughout your life. (Reminiscent of Einstein’s, “…reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion.”) As fabrications go it is very useful in navigating your way through life. But when it comes to meditation it is a distraction that you need to wake up from if you want to discover your true nature.

When you sit with awareness on the breath the “I” thought sits with you, as a subtle sense of a self that stands in opposition to the breath. It is this thought that creates the sense of separation you have with life. When you wake to the “I” thought the instruction is the same as waking to any other thought. You label it as ‘thinking’ and then return to your breathing. However, as the “I” thought is very persistent, no effort need be undertaken to stop it. As with any other distraction the aim is to continuously return to your breathing as best you can.

Perhaps you heard or read of someone who said she suddenly became one with everything. That, for example, there was no longer a bird singing; there was just singing. Consider this in terms of what is written above. Does it not seem the experience of oneness would be the natural result of the “I” thought dropping away, taking with it that sense of separation from the world as it goes? And does it not seem equally likely that as you practice waking from your own sense of self that you, too, will have this experience? Assuming, of course, you don’t let that thought distract you.

Choice.

July 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Zen Master Dogen said, “There are those who continue realizing beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.” We may wonder if these categories do not overlap.

The other day I noticed that my awareness had a particular feeling tone to it that had escaped my previous attention. Upon becoming aware of it I realized that it had been there for some time, which meant that I had already been aware of it before I became aware of it. As Franklin Merrell-Wolff might have said, we can be aware and we can be aware of being aware.

So this particular feeling toned state was already occupying my state of awareness before I became fully aware of it. What made this realization different from other times this had happened was that with this realization came another. That I had chosen to identify with the particular feeling and, in so doing, was perpetuating it!

I had previously read about the question of choice in relation to enlightenment without really knowing what it meant. In her book, “When Fear Falls Away,” Jan Frazier referred to the fact that she always had a choice in what to feel but didn’t realize it until after her enlightenment. Eckhart Tolle wrote in, “A New Earth,” that if you could realize that you are creating your own suffering then an infinite number of possibilities, more intelligent possibilities, would open up.

Both authors were talking about choice and how we limit our choices but I didn’t understand how this happened. It was only after my small above stated experience that I realized for the first time how I was limiting my choice. It was through false identification, which may be loosely defined as confusing the observer with that being observed.

In identifying with a particular state I am unknowingly giving my mind a directive to maintain that state for as long as possible, thus limiting my choice. If, for example, I define myself using a time when I felt awkward, then I may feel awkward in all future social situations. My mind will work to make that identity ‘real’ to me by pointing out how people are reacting to my awkwardness. Whether they are or not is not the question. The mind will maintain my chosen identity and its consequences even if it has to distort reality in the process.

Having an ego identity that can be maintained over time does give one a sense of security (albeit a false sense of security) but it is also limits choice. Instead of allowing yourself to feel all the things you can feel in life, you are left to feeling just a few, or the one. Instead of being open to life we spend our time trying to maintain our picture of the world and our own values. We become, as Dogen said, “deluded within delusion.”

When we see, actually see, that we are choosing who we want to be in each and every moment then we open ourselves up to all the things we might be in any given moment. Again in Zen Master Dogen’s words, we become one of “those who continue realizing beyond realization.” That is why it is important to awaken to the reality of the present moment, rather than fabricate one within our own minds.

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.

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.

Where Am I?

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