“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.

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.

Making Practice a Part of Everyday Life.

January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Making Practice Part of Life

Buddhist meditation practice includes integrating what is experienced in practice into every moment of daily life or, as Mumon described in his comment on the koan Mu, fully concentrating “your 360 bones and joints.” Some may take this as a directive for single-minded concentration to the exclusion of all else. Such concentration may be achievable to those in a retreat or living a monastic life. The majority however has worldly obligations that require periodic attention that preclude any such single-minded effort. This means that for most of us integration takes place as time allows. It must be remembered though that even sudden realizations need time for integration. So all attempts done now to make practice a part of daily life will eventually make realization easier to integrate when awakening does happen.

We may ask what integration is. It is not a casual or intellectual study but a gradual reworking of the mind so that the essence of the new sought after life become a natural expression in ones behavior and attitudes. The aim is to actualize practice that in a very direct way means the spontaneous and creative expression of true nature uninhibited by previous conditioning, inhibitions and dysfunctional thinking.

The ideas and constructs that condition how we see the world are a barrier to the natural expression of our true nature. The reason for this is clear. When the world is labeled as this or that it ceases to be experienced as a unitary whole. It is broken into parts with only some pieces considered valuable. At the same time one’s own nature is divided into good and bad with the latter being rejected or repressed. This act of division becomes a barrier to fully acknowledging all of the self and accepting the world as it is. The result is a feeling that something is lacking in us. A feeling that persists until the barrier of ideas and thoughts that we have constructed about us is broken through and we come to see our true nature in its entirety.

Barriers are immediately available for inspection at any time as they consist of one’s own thoughts. By just observing thought, as done in meditation, you come to see how thought regularly focuses the attention on some things while acting as a barrier to recognizing others. Further observation reveals that thought follows certain themes that create tendencies to react to situations in the same way, even when the situations are markedly different. Examples of themes are the persistent tendency to seek the approval of some nebulous authority, the continuous sabotaging of your own efforts to succeed or the belief that you are unworthy. Themes, it should be noted, are not all negative. The key point to be made about them is that they are all constructions of thought that limit you from realizing your full potential and true nature.

As your true nature is no nature at all, you are neither worthy nor unworthy, good nor bad, nor any other dualistic notion. Making practice a part of life therefore means seeing through the barriers that divide your behavior into the acceptable and unacceptable so that you are no longer limited in how you meet life. Put another way, how you respond one day does not then become the blueprint that dictates how you must respond every day. You are free to make the appropriate response as situations change.

Consider that on one occasion Joshu answered the question “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” with the word “Mu.” But on another he responded “U” or yes. In both situations Joshu was responding to the needs of the moment. To have responded with the same answer in both situations would have robbed the koan of its versatility and led to its disuse a long time ago.

It is said that each day is a chance to start over again. In Zen, each moment is an opportunity to meet life anew. Not with habitual or conditions responses, nor with the same attitudes that leave a feeling of something lacking. But with the joy and spontaneity that comes with the freedom to choose your own actions and live your own life. When viewed this way, it is very easy to take up practice with 360 bones and joints and every fibre of our being.

The Central Point of Zen Practice.

December 31, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dreaming Abstract Impasto

The central point of Zen practice is to cease clinging to all forms of thought. Enlightenment cannot be realized through logic, inference or conceptualization. It is not a this or that which can be known by thinking. Thought is the barrier to enlightenment.

Most of us cannot function without thought. We depend upon thought, our beliefs, ideas and strategies to get us through the day. The very notion of self rests upon such supports for its existence. Take away our career roles, those as mother or father, our religious or philosophical beliefs, etc., and we would lose who we are and fall into crisis.

We cling to thought to avoid the loss of self and give to it the status of reality to lend the self the same sense of permanence. Thought, however, is illusion. No thought can accurately contain every truth or represent every aspect of reality. Even the most mathematically perfect theories of the physicist fall short of fully comprehending the universe. Over time, one theory gives way to another then the search is on again to find a more inclusive theory. On and on it goes. If even the best minds of today’s science cannot find complete understanding through thought then how less so can our ordinary minds?

Not just ordinary thought is an illusion but so is every conceivable idea and as such are hindrances to enlightenment. Even the idea that life’s ultimate meaning can be known through enlightenment is an illusion that must be relinquished if one is to be truly free and independent. It is therefore an important part of Zen practice that we see through the illusion of thought. We must teach ourselves that thought is not real but just thought and that ultimately even the thought of self is an illusion.

If you cannot pass through the barrier of thought you will be like a ghost that clings to trees and grasses. This barrier is one of your own making. To know your true identity and realize pure enlightenment cease believing that every thought that enters your mind is true. Learn to let go of the belief that your thoughts represent something real in your world. Remember. Even the most abstract notion merely approaches reality and can never encompass it. No object of thought can become Light.

Where Am I?

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