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.
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.
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.
February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
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.
June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
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.
January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
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.