Idle Thoughts While Walking Joshu’s Dog.

November 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha nature?”

Joshu replied, “Mu!”

Writings and talks on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” often invite us to place ourselves in the sandals of the monk who asked the question, “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?” Some go on to suggest that the monk is really asking if he, himself, has Buddha nature.

A core belief of Buddhism is that every sentient being has Buddha nature. In the previous post I suggested that core beliefs form the cornerstone of the self. If you take one away, the self begins to fall apart. If the monk is questioning his core belief we may suppose that he is at a crossroads or even in crisis. Perhaps he has failed to realize his own essence, so is now wondering if he has any Buddha nature at all. Instead of assuring him on this matter Joshu unhesitatingly says, “Mu!” which means “no” or “no thing” in Chinese.

Putting ourselves in the monk’s position might be easier if we consider that he’s really asking about his own worth or value. This is a question that we can all identify with because we have all asked it on multiple occasions. Yet when it is asked of Joshu he does not say we are good, he does not say we are bad. Following the Zen statement that “One should not discuss a dream,” he says ‘no thing’ and in doing so invites us to go beyond good and bad.

How we view our selves, as worthy or unworthy, is a core value of a self that is, after all, just a collection of thought that we have falsely identified as our true nature. Of this Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku wrote,

“Although it is nothing but dreamlike, illusory fancied thoughts, it can block the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own nature more effectively than an army of a hundred thousand demons. Sometimes it is called illusory thoughts, sometimes the root of birth and death, sometimes the passions, sometimes a demon. It is one thing with many names, but if you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real.”

When we believe the self is real we get caught up in whether a dog has Buddha nature or not, which is the Zen equivalent of asking, “Why do I feel so bad?” The question is meaningless because it is arises out of a false identification of the “I” with the feeling state called “bad.” It’s dung on a stick. The answer, however, isn’t meaningless because mu asserts that you are neither good nor bad. You are ‘no thing’. Not as in nothingness, the opposite of existence, but as That which comprehends all thought but is never itself thinkable.

In koan introspection, realizing that you are mu, no thing or no self requires the development of great doubt. Doubt that your concept of self is what you truly are, not doubt in your ability to realize this. So each time you find yourself believing that you are good or not good, worthy or unworthy, you cut through this belief with the sword of mu. If you don’t believe you can because you are too weak, cut through that belief with the sword of mu. When you drop the sword, pick it up again. Keep cutting until you have cut your way through the forest of thought. “Then,” as Mumon said in his comment on the koan, “your previous lesser knowledge disappears.” The self you believed was you is no longer seen to be real.

When you’ve reached the point where the self is seen as just a collection of thought, you automatically ask, “What am I?” You are but you are not thought or feeling. You cannot think or feel your way to an answer so the mind pauses. At this point  the light of awareness may now turn back upon itself to know itself as mu. But if you say instead that you are this or that, “If you say yes or no, you lose your own Buddha-nature.”


Idle thoughts in Autumn.

November 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve previously described the self as a steady state system, that is, as a collection of thought and feeling organized into a system that tends to remain steady over time.

This steady state self is similar to the ego as described by Carl Jung in that it anchors identity to a specific set of thought and feeling extracted from the sea of constantly changing perceptions and concepts in which the mind is immersed everyday. These anchors are created when awareness favors some thoughts over others as me or mine, while others are seen as not me or just treated with indifference. The result is an ego-consciousness that is dualistic in nature.

Ego-consciousness is perhaps a poor description as it implies the ego is conscious. In fact, ego is just a name given a collection of thought held within consciousness. To the Buddhist, ego reflects consciousness. It is the undiscriminating mind that believes ego to be conscious.

I’ve read in some Buddhist literature of the need to extinguish consciousness. For instance, Bodhidharma said, “If mind and consciousness are quiescent and extinct (italics mine), without a single thought stirring, this is called right enlightenment.” For my part, I interpret this as a directive to extinguish the dualistic ego-consciousness, not consciousness, itself.

If interpreted as a call to extinguish consciousness altogether, a practitioner may conclude that all thought must be extinguished as well. This, however, would only lead to repression and a blank state of mind. A better phrasing is to cease the false identification of consciousness with all classes of thought and object that lead to the erroneous belief that there is an independently existing self. There then arises the state Lin-chi Ch’an (? – 866 CE) described, “Like autumn waters, clear and still, pure and undisturbed, unmoving, quiet and deep, unhindered, such a person is called a person of the Tao, a person without trouble.”

To end false identification, awareness needs to step back and examine itself carefully. In the previous post, “The Parable of the Raft,” I described this in specific terms as the need to uncover the self’s core beliefs. To be clear, this is a narrow interpretation but one that I think will appeal to Westerners who come to meditation to resolve personal problems. The broader interpretation of stepping back is to look for any defilement of consciousness that mars its clarity and purity, but core beliefs are a good place to start.

As an organized system, the steady state self is built upon core beliefs that act as its support walls. When support walls are removed in a house, the house will fall. The same happens when the self’s supports are removed. Buddhist practice, however, does not ask that we tear down our support walls but merely that we cease to identify them as me or mine. A difficulty arises here in that one core belief is this false identification of our true nature with thought. This results in the ego resisting any attempt to end this false identification.

In his essay, “The Nature of the Rinzai (Linji) Koan Practice,” Victor Sogen Hori wrote, “…no matter how strong, wily, and resourceful one is in facing the opponent, that opponent (oneself) is always just as strong, wily, and resourceful in resisting.” As a steady state system, in other words, the self will always seek to maintain itself as it is. Yet, through sustained effort “… the student’s consummate dynamism,” as Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295) said, “carries him beyond the point where he explodes, annihilating the student’s identification with body and mind.”

“If you want to transcend birth and death,” said Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163), “and cross the sea of suffering, you must raise straight the banner of effort. Directly beneath it, faith will become sufficient. Only where this faith has become sufficient will the event take place of transcending birth and death and crossing the sea of suffering.”

The Parable of the Raft.

October 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the Buddha’s parable of the raft, a man wishes to cross a river to reach the safety of the far shore. To accomplish this he builds a raft to paddle across the dangerous river. The raft represents the dharma, or the Buddha’s teaching, and the far shore represents enlightenment. At the end of this parable the Buddha asks if the man should continue to carry the raft upon reaching the far shore or leave it behind.

Some with a small taste of higher consciousness use this parable to justify their not following some or all of the Buddha’s teaching. A better interpretation is that once the basics of a skill are mastered the adept need no longer refer back to them. A musician, for example, need not continually remind herself how to play. She just plays. In the same way, the enlightened one naturally expresses the Buddha’s teaching of right speech, right thought, compassion, etc. There is no need to think about it, it is just done.

There is an implicit flaw in interpreting this parable as saying that enlightenment is something that takes place in the future. Buddhist practice is to continually awaken from distraction to the present moment. It is in the now that enlightenment is realized. Zen Master Dogen says as much when he equates practice with enlightenment or tells us that Shiktanza, or just sitting, is the actualization of Buddha nature. The far shore does not exist in the future but right here, right now.

With that said, the parable might be interpreted as a representation of the mind trying to stay in the present moment, symbolized as the far shore. The river is the river of conscious and unconscious thought that distracts from the moment. Paddling the raft refers to the work needed to prevent the mind from following or being swept away by the river of thought.

In the early stage of meditation much effort is required to stay in the moment. Of particular importance to this effort is seeing the difference between thinking and one’s immediate surrounding. As this awareness develops brief moments of being alert and alive in the now may arise. It is during these effortless moments that the raft is temporarily left behind. As awareness once again gets distracted the raft must again be taken up. Practice, or dropping thought and returning to the present, must continue unabated to advance along the path. Waking to distraction and returning to the now. That is our practice.

When the mind calms and you start to feel more and more at peace you may start to believe that the far shore is at hand. Your practice, however, is still shallow. Awareness needs to step back and examine itself carefully to find subtle thoughts being followed almost unconsciously. These often arise as core beliefs that define you as, for example, unworthy, in danger, apart or something similar. Your task is to bring these beliefs into full awareness and let them go.

“To study the Buddha way, is to study self,” wrote Zen Master Dogen. “To study self, is to forget self.”

To be clear, the point of crossing the river is not to forget self in the nihilistic sense. You need only forget your false identification as a ‘this or that’ for your true nature to emerge. Then you discover that the “I” in your self is the same “I” in every self. This is the I of which the Buddha said at birth, “Between heaven and earth I alone am the honored one.”

Between the near shore of self and the far shore of no self is the river of life. How we honor life, how we actualize our Buddha nature in each and every moment is how we ride the raft.

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.

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.

The Superimposed Self

August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

This post continues from the last on the idea that the self or ego is a steady state system. Note that a steady state is neither fixed nor locked in place. The self is not always sad or always happy. On the contrary, its thoughts and moods continuously rise and fall. What doesn’t change, what remains steady, is the system’s tendency to return again and again to a specific state of thought and feeling that is identified as the self. For instance, an optimistic person is one who continuously identifies over time with positive and cheerful thoughts.

Ayya Khema, in her book, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” wrote, “We’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn…”

Being “reborn at every minute” is another way of saying that the self continually returns to its steady state. This happens in a variety of ways. The optimistic self selectively attends only to positive thoughts while ignoring or denying negative ones. Most of us maintain our steady state by only associating with people who hold similar views to our own. We may exercise or diet to maintain the image that we feel most defines our self and dress in a particular style to suit that self. We will also tend to avoid situations that require we act in ways that run contrary to our self-image.

On a level that few of us are aware of, the self will continuously impress or superimpose upon our true nature, images and feelings that define or limit it. Similarly, the self will superimpose upon the present moment its beliefs about the world. It does this to maintain a sense of continuity because your true nature, like that of the present moment, is constant change. So as each new moment is reborn, the self counters with its own rebirth by saying, “This is what I am and this is the way the world is.”

At its core, this superimposition is a lie that seeks to define your true nature and the present moment as something that remains relatively unchanged. Regarding this, you may have heard that a characteristic of the spiritual seeker is that he or she has a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. I suspect that this feeling arises from an unconscious recognition of this lie trying to break through to conscious awareness.

The life of the spiritual seeker may be defined as a continuous waking from lies to the truth. Put another way, the spiritual seeker is one who continuously works to unseat the false authority of the ego and what it says about the true nature of the present moment.

The self’s superimpositions can be quite subtle and it’s up to each seeker to realize their own particular hidden assumptions about themselves and the world. One way to do this is to be mindful of what it is you are telling yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re unworthy? Are you walking about thinking others are out to get you or that the world is dangerous? Whatever you are continuously telling yourself is what you have to wake up from so you can see the world and your true nature as it really is.

One thing that I’d like to mention before closing this post is that it is not necessary to change your steady state self to realize your true nature. It is, of course, natural to want an end to suffering and we all have things that we’d like to change. We can continue to work on ourselves but in mindfulness meditation all you truly need do is realize the difference between your true nature and the present moment, and what is being superimposed upon them. Then continually work on not letting your superimpositions distract you from being who and what you truly are.

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.

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