You can see right through to the bottom.

January 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

Most believe that the senses do a fairly good job of presenting us with what is actually ‘out there’ in the real world. But the brain doesn’t just reproduce what the senses give it. It reworks it into a conceptual experience.

Back in the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, astronomers identified faint objects in the night sky that they called “nebulae” because of their fuzzy appearance. During those times the idea of a galaxy, and that our sun was part of one, wasn’t part of the astronomer’s conceptual framework. It was only in the 1920’s that their existence was established by better telescopes and the nebulae determined to be galaxies.

In the 1950’s astronomers identified numerous objects whose spectrums were found to be markedly red-shifted, indicating the objects were flying away from us at speeds up to 40% or more of that of light. A debate began among astronomers. Were these quasi-stellar objects red-shifted by deep gravitational wells? Did some form of antimatter or a white hole end of a wormhole cause it? The answer came in the 1970’s after more data was collected and conceptual models were sufficiently developed. These quasars, as they were called, were extremely distant galaxies whose red-shift was caused by space itself expanding over great distances.

In the above two instances we find the science of the day unable to explain phenomena that is later determined to be a specific thing or class of things. It is tempting to believe that these ‘things’ were always there as they are known today, and that astronomers just needed better instruments to see them. But to identify them there also had to be a refinement of concepts and, in some cases, the development of new concepts that built upon the accepted conceptual framework of the time. All of which implies that if we used different concepts then our experience would also be different.

Today astronomers have a new mystery called dark matter to fit into their conceptual framework. A few have proposed that the solution is to rework the present framework, i.e., rewrite the general laws of relativity, so that dark matter can be discounted. Most reject this approach out of a belief that dark matter does exist, even though they have never directly observed it. Another thing science cannot yet ‘see’ is dark energy; a hypothetical energy of an unknown type that astronomers believe is responsible for the observed acceleration of the universe. How we come to experience dark matter and dark energy will eventually depend on the concepts science develops to know them.

In his book, “You Have To Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight,” Dainin Katagiri writes, “Like physics and biology, Buddhism is an attempt to study things as they are. But in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, what we study is something more than what appears as objects to our minds.”

“More than what appears as objects to our minds” is the object as it is before given conceptual form. It is, in effect, formlessness. Or, if you prefer, it is a sea of constantly changing energy existing in n-dimensional space, where n is an unknown quantity.

Zazen, states Katagiri, is the way to study this formless sea of energy. It is the way to know things “before we conceptualize about them” and “before we fall into thought.” Where the scientist finds a fuzzy object or a quasi-stellar object, he studies it in order to develop more and better concepts. But in zazen we just stay in that first moment of discovery without looking for any idea beyond it. By just being here, we learn to see the interconnectedness of everything. We see the Whole.

There are many advantages to conceptual thinking. From it come the many scientific advances that make our lives easier. But concepts also leave us feeling separate and alone in a world of solid parts that seem to work against each other and us. If, however, we were to practice staying in the first moment, i.e., the present moment, we would learn to see right through to the bottom of our concepts to know Reality as it really is in its numberless dimensions.

The Chinese poet Han-shan wrote,

The clear water sparkles like crystal,

You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.

My mind is free from every thought,

Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.

Since it cannot be wantonly roused,

Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.

When you have learned to know in this way

You will know there is no inside or out!

From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan


The Extended Now

December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The previous post touched upon our human experience as a conceptual experience. This means that the brain doesn’t just replay what the senses record, it takes that raw material and processes it into familiar, steady concepts. No matter what form a hat takes, for example, it is always a hat. Yet if we were to put sandals on our head, so efficient is the system of conceptualizing that we would not be confused. Sandals are sandals. Hats are hats.

Concepts work so well in making sense of the world that we end up believing that they are the world. But a concept is just an idea, it is not reality. Take, for instance, the concept of time.

A common view of time is that it is like a river with now, or the present moment, being a one-dimensional line that crosses from bank to bank, dividing the past from the future as it moves down the river. Einstein, in his Theory of Special Relativity, challenged that idea. He said that you are at the mid-point of this line and that the further the line extends from you, the wider it becomes. As it widens it begins to include the past and the future in what he called the extended present.

Imagine that you are looking at the Andromeda galaxy through a powerful telescope. Textbooks say that Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years away. So you would be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at the galaxy, as it was that long ago. In fact, because Andromeda is 220,000 light years in diameter, you are seeing light that left the far edge of the galaxy thousands of years before the light left the middle, which, in turn, left before the light left from the front. You are seeing the galaxy’s past and future in a now that extends back 2.54 million years. This zone in which things are neither past nor future is the expanded present.

Let’s take a more down to earth example. Imagine you are sitting in meditation. Before you are a single candle flame lighting a blank wall. Individual photons are racing away from the candle at the speed of light but even at that speed it still takes time to reach your eyes. Photons coming directly from the candle’s flame arrive at your eyes a fraction of a nanosecond before those that bounce off the wall. The result is that what you see at any given moment is a collection of light from different periods of time.

The same is true for all experience. The further across space you look, the further back in time you’re seeing. Even if that time is only measured in nanoseconds you never see the world as it is in some present moment that’s ‘out there’. That is just a concept you created. The reality is that the only place the present moment exists is inside of you. Yet because even that statement implies separation it, too, isn’t accurate. In fact, you and the present moment are identical, for if there were any separation your experience would always lay outside of you where you could never know it!

It may be said that the present moment has an absolute and a relative sense. In the absolute sense the present moment has no duration and so it is a temporal void. Yet when we take the content of any given moment into consideration, we find that it is a collection of inter-related things that happen over time relative to each other. This relative relationship is what gives the present moment a sense of duration or extension. It is in this extended now that all experience unfolds; yet it unfolds in emptiness.


Adding to things cannot be better than nothing.

December 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

“We are always looking outside of what is and looking to make something more than it is…” — Roko Sherry Chayat.

The other night as I watched a special featuring Neil Young, in the top left of the TV screen there appeared a circle of light that I didn’t immediately recognize. In the split second it took to realize that I didn’t know what it was, my brain immediately processed it as the brim of one of the artist’s hats hanging on a metal rack. My mind, as Roko Sherry Chayat intimated, looked beyond the immediate perception and found a concept that would make sense of it. The circle of light was a hat.

The human brain does not simply take the stuff of the senses and recreate it as it is ‘out there.’ Sensory data is processed along side a long list of concepts to see which one makes the most sense of the data in the overall context of the moment. Then it reconstructs the data into what we call experience. The above image catches the mind in this process. Presented with two equal interpretations, the mind switches back and forth between the image of a wine glass and the profiles of two human faces.

An advantage to using concepts is that the mind doesn’t need to keep figuring out what its seeing each time the data changes a little. Once the shifting trapezoidal form in your room is identified as a bed, it becomes a fixed rectangular box. Then, from any angle and any distance viewed, it stays a bed. The same is true of all other experience. Even though the basic sensory stuff is constantly changing, we experience objects as relatively fixed in time and space. Seldom do we notice that our environment is constantly changing, or even consider that space and time are also concepts that we use to organize our experience into a comprehensible form.

Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377 –1446) invention of linear perspective in art is an example of how the mind invents space. Before Brunelleschi, artists tended to paint flat two-dimensional shapes. His invention of linear perspective gave depth to paintings. Streets and building faded into an imaginary vanishing point. People and things meant to appear in the distance of a canvas, were now correctly proportioned to what was at the front.

Today we might think that people always experienced the world with linear perspective, but is that so? Is it possible that before Brunellechi people didn’t see the world with linear perspective? And if that is so, is it possible that concepts specific to one culture enable its people to experience the world in ways others cannot. And possibly to do things in ways others cannot imagine?

I sometimes wonder if ancient cultures weren’t able to move 30-ton blocks of stone without the giant cranes we’d use today, simply because they conceived of the problem differently. And if the Indigenous belief in dimensions of existence that overlap our own, aren’t what’s responsible for their sightings of lake serpents with horse-shaped heads, ape-like men called Sasquatch and Sky people whose lights they’ve seen in the sky both historically and today.

Modern science, of course, would debunk such things by citing their own conceptual scheme of things. But, as we have seen, concepts change. Even today, some scientific minds are willing to consider (without evidence) the possibility of multiple universes that exist along side our own. And anyone who’s familiar with the quantum world knows that a lot of strange things go on there.

Concepts determine experience. We need only turn off the lights to see that this is so. At night my eyes might only register fuzzy grey lines but overtop of this lies a concept that give these lines the form I call ‘the gate at the top of the stairs.’ And the darkness on either side of me has superimposed over it the concept of the hall I’m standing in. Though my physical eyes can see nothing clearly, my mind’s eye see’s every object in the room as a familiar concept.

Life might be a lot easier if only descriptive concepts like the halls and the gate shaped our experience. But as Chayat said, the mind always wants to make something more. And in the course of adding to things, it creates the concept of a self or an “I” that is having all this experience. And from this come other concepts like the other, separation and dualism that in turn produce suffering as we begin to feel alone, incomplete and vulnerable.

Fortunately, as the Buddha said, there is a way to end suffering. It begins with the recognition that the self is just a concept and concepts are only ideas about Reality. They are not Reality, Itself.

We have lived in a conceptual world for so long that we have forgotten our true nature. To rediscover it, we must release our tight grip on concepts so that we may instead hold them but lightly. That is why Buddhism advocates non-thinking. Non-thinking isn’t the same as not thinking, which is a suppression of thought. Non-thinking is sitting in clear awareness, not filtered or colored by concepts that linger in the background, even the concept of self. Then, we live each day without expectation, desire, clinging or fear. All of which are, in the end, nothing but concepts, themselves.

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.

%d bloggers like this: