You are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.

September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

The title of this post comes from Mumon’s comment on the koan “MU” in which he states that if you cannot pass through the barrier Mu then you are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses. The bushes and grasses he refers to are whatever we cling to that verifies our existence. They are our social standing, religious beliefs, money, habitual thoughts, various ideas and whatever else we use to establish a personal identity. That personal identity is the steady state self discussed in the last three posts. In the context of Mumon’s commentary, it is the ghost. It is therefore ironic that the loss of one’s personal supports is felt to be the death of self when this self is a ghost!

The steady state self has also been compared to a bubble floating on the ocean. As individuals we identify with our bubbles and fear their bursting. Yet when it does suddenly burst there arises the opportunity to realize one’s true identity as the ocean. This is why Tibetan Buddhists consider the moment of physical death to be so auspicious. It provides one last opportunity to realize our true nature, if it has not already been realized in the life just ending.

Of course, we do not wish to wait until we die before attaining enlightenment so we practice meditation to purify ourselves. That means eliminating attachment to whatever supports our personal identity and “completely exhausting,” as stated in Mumon’s comment, “the ways of ordinary mind.”

It may seem contrary to Mumon’s directions but one way of exhausting the ways of ordinary mind is to use its ability to think abstractly to make things simpler. An example of this is collecting all the things that go into making a personal identity and calling them ‘bushes and grasses’. Calling the self a steady state system is another example that, if done correctly, severs attachment to the self and it’s possessions. But while doing this we must not forget that these are just abstractions. As with pure science, when a more inclusive way of thinking comes along we must be willing to drop the old expression for the new. Otherwise we have just replaced one ghost with another.

One way to discover the inclusivity of a line of thought is to test it. Does it expand your understanding of Buddhist literature and make your meditation smoother? Does it help you throw away wrong knowledge and mistaken understanding? If so, it is a useful tool but remember that no matter how abstract your thinking becomes it can only take you so far. If you want heaven to tremble and the earth to quake you must go beyond thinking.

Mu, as a word, is the ultimate abstraction. It is the ultimate thought that includes within it all the philosophy and scriptures that have ever been written or ever will be written. It takes the one who uses it all the way to the highest reaches of human thought where he or she may touch the lowest level of Christ or Buddha consciousness (i.e., your true nature). It is so abstract that it even includes itself or, put another way, negates itself so that thought is left behind altogether.

Putting it in his most abstract terms Mumon wrote, “Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do not conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence.” It is, “All manifest, actual and alive.” And Life is never an abstraction.

A dog! Buddha nature!

All manifest, actual and alive.

But with the slightest touch of yes and no

Dead your body, lost your soul.

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Self-image and the Steady State

August 28, 2017 § 2 Comments

Steady state systems must continually renew their states to remain relatively unchanged through time. The reason for this is simple. Everything changes. There is nothing you can find in this world that does not change into something else over time. So for any state to remain relatively stable it must continuously counteract the changes taking place within and around it. This implies that there must be an underlying blueprint that determines the state to which a system will return. With the steady state systems that we identify as our individual selves, the blueprint is the self-image.

A self-image defines the boundaries of the self. It is the ego proper that says, “I am this and no other.”  The ego can be quite persistent in rebuilding itself when its boundaries are transgressed. We’ve all had the experience of berating ourselves far too much over some faux pas or having some minor slight bother us throughout the day. These annoyances are the result of the ego trying to regain its self-image or steady state.

Self-images are maintained mostly by habit and repetitious thinking. In a previous post the idea of ‘loop thinking’ was introduced. By this was meant that the mind tends to think the same thoughts and reproduce the same feeling over and over again. As we go through the day we may catch ourselves thinking the same thoughts but do we realize that our viewpoints and attitudes are also just repeating thoughts? Do we realize that by thinking the same thoughts everyday that we feel the same feelings everyday? Or that the self’s sense of continuity is just a by-product of continuously thinking that you are ‘this, this, this but not that?’

A variation of loop thinking is storytelling. Storytelling involves the self’s relationship to others and the world and can be told in word or in deed. When done in word they are often told internally to paint our selves as heroes, victims or villains. When done in deed they manifest through our roles as parents, teachers, Christians, Americans, etc. Storytelling is loop thinking with an official end point but with the provision that the story can be retold again and again.

To maintain a steady state, the self must impose its self-image upon the true nature of an individual and a corresponding supplementary image on the present moment. Put in other words, a person will see the world in a way that supports his or her steady state. For example, if optimism is a fundamental part of your makeup then you’ll view the world as a hopeful place. Anything that contradicts that view will be considered an anomaly or just outright dismissed. It simply isn’t possible for the self to maintain a steady state without simultaneously maintaining a worldview that supports that state.

Before studying the self we don’t usually see that we are thinking the same thoughts or feeling the same feelings over and over again. We don’t see that we are clinging to a concept of what we and the world are as a way of continuing our own story. Nor do we see this as essentially a mechanical process operating to maintain a steady state system. We see it as our own self and any disruption to it as a threat to the self.

If, after studying the self for a while, we start to suspect that it is not truly who we are then we can start to let go. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” And to forget means to let go. And that’s our practice. When repetitious thoughts echo that we’re not worthy, unreliable or incompetent, we let those thoughts go. When a story arises framing us as a victim, villain or hero, we let it go. All attempts to define us as something and keep us believing that we are that something, are let go and forgotten.

We sit, no longer a good person or a bad person. Not worthy or unworthy. Not a parent, not a teacher, not even a Buddhist. We are nothing. No one at all. Empty. “Sitting,” as Dogen said, “is itself the true form of the self.”

Yet in letting go, nothing is negated. Things still arise and fall but the self no longer seeks to change them into its own image. Instead, everything is just as it is.

To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, the self is a bubble on a wave in an ocean that does not really exist. It is a steady state system connected to other systems in a vast ocean of systems. It does not truly exist, yet the ocean still heaves and thrills.

Koan #12. “Zuigan Calls His Own Master”

July 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Zuigan called out to himself every day, “Master.”

Then he answered himself, “Yes, sir.”

And after that he added, “Become sober.”

Again he answered, “yes, sir.”

“And after that,” he continued, “do not be deceived by others.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” he answered.

             (The Gateless Gate)

 

Attention turns of late to the matter of the self or ego. It has occurred to me that the self may be thought of as a steady state system; meaning that it is a psychological system that actively maintains itself, as is, so that it remains relatively unchanged over time.

Koan 12 illustrates one way the self maintains itself that we might call ‘inner speak’. Inner speak is an inner conversation or debate held with an internalized position or idea that manifests in the mind as an imaginary figure. In the koan the imaginary figure is the ‘Master’ that Zuigan converses with daily.

It is fairly clear that Zuigan knows that he is talking to himself. In your and my inner speak, however, we often feel as if we are talking to a real person. In his comment on the koan Mumon describes this confusion as a ‘puppet show’. This seems a good comparison for his time because anyone watching a puppet show often forgets that the puppets aren’t real people. Someone else is pulling the strings and, though it doesn’t seem like it, in inner speak that person is the self.

Mumon also uses the imagery of masks to describe inner speak. He writes that Zuigan, “uses one mask to call ‘Master’ and another that answers the master. Another mask says ‘Sober up’ and another, ‘Do not be cheated by others.’ ”

Interweaving imagery of puppets and masks may be a little confusing but so is inner speak. In conversation with ourselves we often don masks that reflect our position. If we feel put upon, for example, we wear the mask of victim. If we are cheated, we may put on an angry face. I imagine inner speak as wearing a puppet on one hand, while holding a mask over the face with the other!

Masks and puppets are all a part of the dynamic of maintaining a steady state self but is this all we really are? In his poem at the end of the koan Mumon writes:

Some Zen students do not realize the true man in a mask

Because they recognize ego-soul.

Ego-soul is the seed of birth and death,

And foolish people call it the true man.

The self, or ego-soul, is not who you or I truly am and clinging to it, as Mumon said, “is a mistake.” It is a mistake because in identifying with the ego-soul we forget our true nature and become subject to the ego-soul’s on-going birth and death. Not just in a different physical form, but the moment to moment dying and rebirth of the self as it loses its steady state and tries to regain it through inner speak. Liberation comes from realizing that our true nature is emptiness.

“Fellows of the way,” said Master Huizhao, “a true Buddha has no form, and the true dharma has no marks. From your mind’s illusions, marks and appearances are created. What you get is a wild fox’s spirit, which is the view of those outside the way, and not of a true Buddha.”

Master Huizhao could just as easily have said ‘masks’ as marks. Yet his message is clear. The ego-self is just a system of thinking trying to preserve itself. Our true nature has no form.

“Who is he?”

June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Hoen said: “The past and future Buddhas, both are his servants. Who is he?”

Mumon’s comment: If you realize clearly who he is, it is as if you met your own father on a busy street. There is no need to ask anyone whether or not your recognition is true.

Do not fight with another’s bow and arrow.

Do not ride another’s horse.

Do not discuss another’s faults.

Do not interfere with another’s work.

­“The Gateless Gate” (Koan 45)

Most come to the path with the question, “Who am I?” Hoen asks, “Who is he?”

To the Buddhist there is no permanent self. What others call a permanent self is actually an ever-changing collection of feelings, perceptions and thoughts associated with a physical body. Out of this aggregate comes a concept of self that is presumed to be permanent but which is, in fact, constantly in flux.

The self is just an endless line of passing stages given names like child, adult, husband, wife, happy, sad, etc. Underneath these there is no self but that no self is not nothingness. It is the innermost essence of all sentient beings.

In meditation you study self to drop self and in doing so come to know your true essence. When studying self you ask, “Who am I?” But when the self is dropped and your essence revealed, it is seen as the ‘other’. The question then becomes, “Who is the other? Who is he? Who is she?”

It is through their actions that others are known.

In the documentary “Possibilities” the great jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, said, “A master wants you to reveal yourself.” Herbie Hancock wasn’t suggesting that he was a master. He was merely saying that when he encouraged musicians to show their talent, and he showed his, that something of greater value arose than if he just told them what to play. In the true sense of the koan, Herbie Hancock was asking the question, “Who is he?” It wasn’t the ego he wanted to know but the musician and he could only know that by how the person played.

You might imagine that Herbie Hancock wouldn’t be impressed by a musician playing in another’s style. In the words of the koan, that musician would have been riding another’s horse or fighting with another’s bow and arrow. You might also imagine that he wouldn’t point out faults or interfere with another’s playing if it truly came from the heart. Whether a true expression was feast or famine, Hancock’s idea was to turn it into something of value.

That is how to approach koan 45, if not life in general. Take your inner recognition and find a way to express it that is your own. Take each moment and turn it into something of value. And in each encounter with others, seek to do the same. It is the expression that is all-important.

An Oak Tree in the Garden

May 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

An oak tree in the garden stands on its own. It doesn’t seek a teacher to tell it where it must go or how to get there. An oak tree in the garden knows there are no enlightened ones and no enlightenment.

An oak tree in the garden doesn’t think this is what it must do or this is what it must achieve. It knows there is nothing to do and nothing to achieve. An oak tree in the garden knows there is no delusion and no realization.

An oak tree in the garden knows the fallen rain rising up through its roots. Yet it does not feel lack or something missing when, reaching its leaves, the rain returns to the sky. Within the oak things arise and fall yet all the while the oak remains unaffected. The oak tree in the garden is forever unborn and undying.

An oak tree in the garden actualizes itself exactly as it is in every moment. In delusion and realization, life and death, buddhas and living beings. It does not need to think about this. It does not need words to describe it. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

When you meet a Zen master on the road

April 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

Meditation is the practice of waking from the world of thought to the reality of the present moment. Koan study is one way to practice this waking.

In “The Gateless Gate,” koan 36 has Goso saying, “When you meet a Zen master on the road you cannot talk to him, you cannot face him with silence. What are you going to do?”

Mumon’s commentary on the koan reads: In such a case, if you can answer him intimately, your realization will be beautiful, but if you cannot, you should look about without seeing anything.

Meeting a Zen master on the road,

Face him neither with words nor silence.

Give him an uppercut

And you will be called one who understands Zen.

 

A key part of this koan is Mumon’s, “you should look about without seeing anything.” It is quite impossible to look and not see anything, so we need to go beyond any idea of ordinary perception to understand these words. But we needn’t step into the extraordinary because to look without seeing simply means to see the present moment without distraction.

Distractions are many. We are all thought litterbugs who toss judgments, fear and desire out onto the landscape to spoil the beauty that is actually there. So Mumon asks we focus on the moment and not the litter. He tells us to look without seeing.

Koan 36 addresses a particular type of thought litter surrounding authority but to understand it we must talk a little about the mind.

The mind works by constantly favoring significant details of life, while ignoring the insignificant. Actions considered favorable are encouraged, while others that do not are discouraged. Once the mind has figured out which is which, it sets up mental blocks or barriers to keep self-expression within the boundaries of what is acceptable. Over time these barriers fall into the background of consciousness where they exert their influence invisibly, or as projections in the outer world. Either way, their authoritative force is felt to be something exterior to the self.

To study this feature of the mind koan 36 provides a hypothetical Zen master as the recipient of projected authority and conflicting rules to represent its barriers. As with any koan, this study is not just an intellectual exercise but must involve the whole person. The full power of awareness must be brought to bear on the inner experience of being blocked by one’s projections. The invisible restrictions placed upon the self must be felt and made visible. Only then will the barriers be seen as your own mind operating as if it were some exterior force.

The coercive force of authority in social situations, like that presented in the koan, generally come from the belief that power resides in the other. If this belief is held within awareness and compared to the present moment, it will be seen as false. Then, something clicks, and you realize that it simply makes no sense to coerce yourself into inaction or into doing something you don’t want to do.

This “Aha!” moment is symbolized as an uppercut in the koan’s poem. It is not a call to actually hit someone but a representation of the spontaneous energy of the self being released.

With this initial realization the mind’s barriers begin to crumble. As it deepens and extends to other areas of life, all the authoritarian thoughts littering your mental landscape become apparent. The full realization of this “will be beautiful”, to use the words of the koan. “And you will be called one who understands Zen”.

Non-thinking

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

evolution-of-thought-non-thinking

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

 

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

 

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

 

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

 

This brief Zen story may seem abstruse but when ‘thinking not thinking’ is interpreted as not following thought, it falls into place with meditation as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment.

We come to realize the extent of our distraction only after some attempts to practice being in the present moment. We find that our days have been spent watching thought play out on an inner screen. The stories we’ve projected about life, what people say about us, and what we think about ourselves, we’ve taken to be real. And we come to see that we’ve been interacting with these stories more than we have to the actual world.

To stop this we must first create an intention not to follow thought or, as Yaoshan said, ‘think not thinking.’ One way of doing this is described in the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. He described thoughts as waves that have a certain force that must be countered by opposing waves of thought. Hateful thoughts, for example, are to be countered with thoughts of loving-kindness. By continually creating opposing waves of thought, the mind is eventually stilled.

In other practice thoughts are simply labeled as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Emotions are identified as ‘fear, fear, fear’ or ‘boredom, boredom, boredom’, etc. The same is done with other distractions such as noises or physical discomfort. All distractions are labeled and the attention is returned to the present moment. In this way the mind uses thought to not follow thought.

Labeling thought has its place with simple distractions but there are more complex aggregates of thought and emotion that are not so easily named. These are the thoughts that are identified as self, and they naturally arise with thoughts that stand in opposition to the self. In psychology these opposing forces have many descriptors like the id and superego, the inner child and internalized parent or the underdog and the top dog. However they’re called, the conflict they produce may often make it impossible to simply sit and be in the present moment.

Holding these opposing forces up for thoughtful examination often helps to clarify and resolve conflicts. The aim is not so much psychoanalysis but a genuine attempt to realize these forces as merely thoughts that do not need to be followed or obeyed. When, for example, an inner parent has you feeling like a child again, by continually comparing your inner situation to the outer, i.e., the present moment, you come to realize that the parent exists only in your mind. Seeing this clearly means there is no need to follow the parent’s dictates, if they are not appropriate to the situation. It may have been in part related to these conflicts that Zen Master Dogen said, “Sometimes you study the way by casting off the mind. Sometimes you study the way by taking up the mind. Either way, study the way with thinking, and study the way with non-thinking.”

In the beginning of practice it is necessary to use thought to stop following thought. But when the intention not to think has become so established that it is carried out without thinking, as in a habit, thoughts are dropped automatically. Awareness of the present moment then arises naturally. That moment may still contain thoughts but they remain off to the side, so to speak. This alert awareness is non-thinking.

Non-thinking is not some far off goal. Whenever we are alert and momentarily not following thought; that is non-thinking. Whenever awareness is centered in the present, this is non-thinking. These may not be states that occur often in our practice but they are something we can experience today. And that is our practice, to take our isolated moments of non-thinking and turn them into a continuous string of never ending pearls.

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