Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Oh, Floody Marvelous!

The last couple of evenings in The Dock before Christmas have been cancelled due to the flooding which has badly disrupted most things around Carrick-on-Shannon.

The Dock has had to start cancelling shows and events in response to people's unwillingness to travel to, and within, the area.

We're now planning to start back on January 12th with a 6 or 8 week series of meetings/sittings in an 'Introduction to Buddhism' format with a different theme each week.

Hope you have a great holiday season. Keep sitting like mountains, and I hope that you are not too badly effected by any long river that may be misbehaving itself!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Four Noble Truths & Zazen.

From the perspective of our own Zazen practice, we looked at the Four Noble truths like this:

1. We considered 'Dukkha' as meaning more than just 'suffering'. We looked at the other meanings on it such as 'stress', 'tension', 'unease' etc that most modern people can likely identify with. We considered what 'Dukkha' might mean to us.

2. We looked at our habitual modes of thinking and behavior as the cause of 'Dukkha': our making of the 'me' versus 'other' situation that can cause conflict or friction between 'me' and 'other'; how we often split the situation and set up this sort of scenario with our likes and dislikes, our making things 'good' and 'bad' etc.

3. We looked at Zazen as an opportunity to stop the sort of activity as outlined in 2, as a break from it where we can learn that there's a freer alternative to our habitual activities. We considered how we can just let our reactions and habits go for a while and learn what they really are.

4. We looked at this truth as the traditional means to a balanced life as formulated by the Buddha.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Four Noble Truths (The Buddha’s first teaching).

'The Wheel of Dharma', or the wheel of Buddhist teachings; a symbol of what the Buddha initiated by teaching the Four Noble Truths.

Tonight we talked about the Four Noble Truths. This is said to be the first teaching the Buddha gave after he became awakened or realised under the bodhi tree.

The Four Noble Truths may seem a bit formulaic or abstract; and they have often been adopted in a sort of abstract philosophical or intellectual way. But maybe the original intention of the teaching was to point out something which is real and true about our lives. We can apply these truths to our own real lives and experiences and see if they hold up, if they are realistic and helpful.

These Truths are not discussed much in Japanese Zen Buddhism and are generally more associated with Theravada Buddhism. But they are a nice way to get a feeling for the original teachings of Buddhism and to relate to the Buddha's own life story. Also, we can consider how our own conduct/practice might relate to these four revelations.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Stop the War' & Monkeys.

Last night we looked at the old Japanese koan 'stop the war' which appeared recently on John Tarrant Roshi's blog.

What 'war' or conflict is the koan talking about? How does this conflict start? Can we stop it?

The koan came about from a troubled time in Japan's past when there was a lot of actual feudal conflict in the country, but it seems clear that it's also referring to 'war' as a more immediate situation in our own lives.

We also had a look at this story from Peter Rocca Sensei's blog:


Once there was a monkey with two-eyes who lived on an island. One day there was a terrible storm and the monkey got washed out to sea on a log. The monkey drifted on the log for weeks until he was washed ashore on another island far away from where he used to live. The monkey was hungry so he ran up to the edge of the jungle to look for food. At the edge of the jungle he saw another monkey. But the other monkey had only one eye, so the two-eyed monkey was very surprised. But when the other monkey saw the two-eyed monkey, the other monkey began laughing and howling. Then more and more monkeys came to see what was going on. All the monkeys who came had only one eye. When those one-eyed monkeys saw the two-eyed monkey they all started laughing and howling. They all pointed at the two-eyed monkey and said “Look, look, he's got two eyes! He's got two-eyes! Ha, ha, ha, ha...”


...It seems sort of related to the 'war' koan: how do we construct an 'other' in our mind by the way we perceive the other? Even though the monkeys are all monkeys they only see each other in terms of their slight difference when they look at each other.

Someone noted that it's a bit funny that the story turns the norm around: the one-eyed monkeys were the accepted norm on their island while the two-eyed monkey was seen as a freak! Maybe this says something about how we construct our accepted 'norms' and how those norms might be based on a limited, if comfortable and widely accepted, view.
The 'war' or conflict can be very subtle it seems. For example, in Zazen we might notice that we're thinking something like "I'm not doing this right, this is a waste of time!" or something like that. In this case there's already a 'right' opposed to a 'wrong' and a 'me' opposed to what I'm already doing and a 'doing' that is opposed 'time' etc etc etc. We might notice that such a situation, before we let it go, causes a sort of friction or tension that becomes manifest as a feeling or sensation in the real world, in our physical bodies.
In Zazen we can let all our thoughts and perceptions just come and go. We can take a break from that situation where we might latch on to views of both ourselves and others which cause friction or conflict in both our selves and the world.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fukanzazengi X: The Real Dragon?

The closing section of Fukanzazengi begins:

I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become
so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon.

Master Dogen always considers that our own direct zazen practice is the standard of learning in Buddhism. He advocates this sort of effort cautioning that we should not 'become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon'. This phrase refers to the story of Shoko, a person who really liked dragons and had many images of them in his house. One day a real dragon was passing by and thought that Shoko might like him to visit; Shoko completely freaked out when he opened the front door and saw the real dragon! The 'pictures of dragons' are our own concepts and ideas about Buddhism while 'the real dragon' is directly realising zazen ourselves.

Devote effort to the truth which is directly accessible and straightforward. Revere people who are beyond study and without intention.

Master Dogen was a very realistic teacher. He urged us to rely on our own practice/experience and revere those who make sincere efforts in this way.

Accord with the bodhi of the buddhas. Become a rightful successor to the samādhi of the patriarchs.

'Bodhi' means 'enlightenment' or 'awakening'. Master Dogen encourages us to practice zazen and accord with the same experience realised by buddhas. When we do this we are in the same state as buddhas themselves and we become successors to our natural state of awakened balance.

If you practice the state like this for a long time, you will surely become the state like this itself. The treasure house will open naturally, and you will be free to receive and to use [its contents] as you like.

Fukanzazengi ends

These last lines indicate that regular zazen practice has an accumulative effect and that we can gradually come to express the state of practice with our whole life. The 'opening of the treasure house' refers to the state of realising every single thing as a bit of the unhindered truth.

The translation of Fukanzazengi used in this commentary is by Gudo Nishijima and Mike Cross. It can be found as Appendix II of this e-book.

Mike Cross provides and excellent exploration of the meaning of the words comprising Fukanzazengi HERE.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Guilt, Original Sin, Delusion & Buddhism.

People marched in solidarity with victims of abuse. Dublin, June 10th, 09.

At our meeting last night the topic of guilt came up. The conversation quickly turned to Ireland's experience of Catholicism and how the Christian belief that we are originally tainted or sinful was used as a justification for all sorts of horrific acts against vulnerable people: People in positions of religious authority in Ireland (in church/State institutions etc) were able to act cruelly and degrade others using this sort of belief system as some sort of justification or rationale. Obviously this was, and is, very wrong and it seems Ireland has not yet fully managed to address the wounds caused by this negative culture of spiritual domination.

Buddhism does not really posit that we are originally sinful or tainted as such as Buddhism does not accept sin in the same sort of metaphysical way that Christianity does. Buddhism does accept though that we do have the potential to be deluded at all times, but it also teaches that, via our own efforts/practice, we can realise this and stop our habitual deluded activity at any moment: it presents us with that freedom, and so it is really a matter of our own conduct.

One of the Bodhisattva vows reads: Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

We can establish this for ourselves in our own practice: when we are sitting zazen allowing our thoughts and feelings to just come and go we are not engaging in the habitual activity of accepting that 'self' as some sort of substantial reality (to do so is delusion). Instead we can realise it and experience it as just what it is (realisation). But the 'stuff' of delusion doesn't cease (thoughts and feelings will just keep coming), instead we realise them for what they are... or we don't! (It's up to us). Practicing zazen regularly helps us develop a deeper and more direct understanding of how we are deluded, of how we make our deluded self.

We can see that there is a sort of mutual relationship between 'delusion' and 'realisation' in Buddhism then and that they are not abstract, absolute, opposing values. 'Realisation' and 'delusion' do not exist outside of our own real and actual conduct at this very moment... and when we're fully engaged in really doing something then at that moment where is realisation and where is delusion?

Heaping the painful delusion of guilt on top of our general deluded state is obviously not considered good practice from a Buddhist perspective: the fact that we have done wrong in the past does not prohibit us from realising and actualising what is right at this moment.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fukanzazengi IX: Essential Pivot.

Fukanzazengi continues:

In general, [the patriarchs] of this world and of other directions, of the Western
Heavens and of the Eastern Lands, all similarly maintain the Buddha’s posture,
and solely indulge in the custom of our religion. They simply devote themselves
to sitting, and are caught by the still state.

Master Dogen again presents sitting in zazen as the essential standard and custom of Buddhism.

Although there are myriad distinctions and thousands of differences, we
should just practice [za]zen and pursue the truth.

He often recognises the great diversity in the world ('the myriad things') in his writings, but here he presents zen practice as indispensable to the pursuit of the truth within that diversity.

Why should we abandon our own seat on the floor to come and go without purpose through the dusty borders of foreign lands? If we misplace one step we pass over the moment of the present.

The truth is right here/ right now when we realise it in our own practice. We don't need to travel to mystical, foreign places to find it. It's easy to go off on a whim with some lofty goal in mind and miss the truth of the present situation.

We have already received the essential pivot which is the human
body: we must never pass time in vain. We are maintaining and relying upon
the pivotal essence which is the Buddha’s truth: who could wish idly to enjoy
sparks [that fly] from flint? What is more, the body is like a dewdrop on a blade
of grass. Life passes like a flash of lightning. Suddenly it is gone. In an instant
it is lost.
Master Dogen sees the impermanent, fragile human body as an 'essential pivot' as we can use our body to realise the truth in zen practice. He combines this image of a 'pivot' with our 'maintaining and relying on the Buddha's truth'. This is the view of Buddhist practice where this very moment is rendered the essential turning point or 'pivot' where we realise our inherent freedom: In zazen we realise that we are generally deluded by perceptions and thoughts ('body and mind'), and that, in a moment of sincere practice, we can allow them to drop off and realise them for what they actually are and allow them to realise us as what we are ('dropping off body and mind'). 'Sparks flying from a flint' suggests things which may be attractive and distracting but which are ultimately fleeting and not substantial (it suggests life where we are distracted by our thoughts and fantasies).

Impermanence is a universal theme in Buddhism; our lives are short when looked at from a broader perspective. Buddhist masters often seek to encourage us to use our time to realise the Great Matter of our life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fukanzazengi VIII: 'What Will They Non-think of Next!?'

Therefore, we do not discuss intelligence as superior and stupidity as inferior.
Do not choose between clever people and dull ones. If we singlemindedly
make effort [in zazen] that truly is pursuit of the truth. Practice-and-experience
is naturally untainted. Actions are more balanced and constant.

In the previous sections Master Dogen has pointed out that effort to realise the Buddhist truth is not a matter of engaging our usual thinking and discriminating activities. For that reason he says here that a person's effort to realise the truth is not contingent on them being some intellectual heavyweight, or a dimwit for that matter.

The crux of the matter is the right sort of effort in practice (i.e. 'dropping off body and mind' or allowing perceptions and thoughts- clever ones and dozy ones alike!- to just come and go).

In this way we can enjoy the 'naturally untainted' balanced state of practice-and-experience where, after a while's sitting, our thoughts and perceptions just come and go unhindered. People often find that this state of practice informs their everyday actions and that, with regular practice, things generally seem more clear, balanced and stable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fukanzazengi VII: Keeping the 'Real' in 'Realisation'.

When we rise from sitting, we should move the body slowly and stand up
calmly. We should not be hurried or violent.

This direction is very practical. It's not advisable to rush to stand up after zazen as our legs might have fallen asleep without us noticing and we could keel over! Besides, it's good to not be too quick and hurried as it might disturb others in the case where we are sitting in a group.

We see in the past that those who transcended the common and transcended the sacred, and those who died while sitting or died while standing, relied totally on this power.

Master Dogen indicates that zazen was indispensable to those who realised the truth in the past. The truth is the real, present situation which is neither sacred nor common nor contingent on any such implied value or interpretation. 'Those who died while sitting or standing' suggests Buddhist masters who practiced right up until their death. It also suggests to me the state of practice itself where we 'drop off body and mind', our thoughts and perceptions: In zen imagery a person in the state of Buddhist realisation is sometimes referred to as a 'withered tree'.

Moreover, the changing of the moment, through the means of a finger, a pole, a needle, or a wooden clapper; and the experience of the state, through the manifestation of a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout, can never be understood by thinking and discrimination.

Here Master Dogen indicates the nature of our actions and the experience of real, concrete objects in the present moment. When we act we can effectively change and make the moment in which we act. Buddhism is a philosophy based on our real actions in the present moment. As noted in the previous post, the present moment is the only moment where we can really do anything as the future has not yet arrived (it's only a thought) and the past is but a memory confined to our brain.

'A finger, a pole, a needle and a ceremonial wooden clapper' are all things which have been used by Buddhist masters of the past to indicate and realise the truth of concrete action in the present moment.

How could they [the real objects listed above] be known through mystical powers or practice and experience?

The experience of this state of real, substantial action through the use of real things like 'a zen master's ceremonial whisk, a fist, a staff or a shout' can never really be understood or grasped by 'thinking and discrimination' or even by some mystical state of mind. This line points out that zazen is not thinking/ discriminating-type activity, we can't 'get it' in that way as all things actually exist differently to how we think and perceive them (we see things through the 'filter' of our senses and our likes/dislikes... another being such as a fly would see the same thing, say a lump of cow dung, completely differently: 'yum yum, dinnertime!') This suggests that reality exists before our senses and our thinking and that zazen is an action which is not hindered or limited in any way by thinking and discrimination because it contains and allows for thinking and discrimination.

They [the real objects listed above] may be dignified behavior beyond sound and form. How could they be anything other than criteria that precede knowing and seeing?

Master Dogen suggests that real things may be our zazen practice, or our 'dignified behavior', itself: When we drop our discriminating thoughts ('me' versus 'this' and 'that' etc) and we allow our perceptions to just come a go (so that we are 'beyond sound and form') there is nothing left to give the faulty impression that we are separate from everything else, including real objects everywhere. For this reason Master Dogen reveres real objects as expressions of the truth. He sees them as the truth which 'precedes knowing and seeing'.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fukanzazengi VI: Of Tigers & Dragons.

Fukanzazengi continues:

This sitting in zazen is not learning Zen concentration. It is simply the
peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma. It is the practice-and-experience which perfectly realizes the state of bodhi. The universe is conspicuously realized, and
restrictions and hindrances never reach it. To grasp this meaning is to be like
a dragon that has found water, or like a tiger in its mountain stronghold. Remember, the right Dharma is naturally manifesting itself before us, and darkness and distraction have dropped away already.

Given the general ideas towards meditation in Buddhism it may seem strange to some when Master Dogen says that the zazen he is advocating is not a matter of improving one's powers of concentration using an object such as the breath, or the counting of the breaths, or following physical sensations, or watching thoughts etc etc etc... The practice which Master Dogen is pointing to is more fundamental than, more immediate and real than, our own mental efforts to control, improve, manipulate and generally interfere with the way things already originally are.

This 'practice-and-experience' is a 'gateway' to 'Dharma' (or the truth of reality). It realises 'the state of bodhi', the state of realising, or awakening to, Reality, or the universe as it just is before we mess around with it! When we sit upright and allow everything to come and go for a time we cease those habitual reactions to thoughts and perceptions which give rise to the impression of some limited 'self'. In this way we can 'drop off' that self and directly realise what is 'naturally manifesting itself before us'.
The image of the dragon and the tiger is nice. In old Chinese symbolism, the dragon was a powerful water creature and so the 'dragon finding water' is its returning to its natural place, its original element. Likewise the majestic tiger is most at home, and most powerful and effective, in it's mountain stronghold.

Our original place is right here when we realise it as such. Reality is right here, our life is always happening right here (although we might not often recognise this!) 'Right here' is the only place where we can actually really do anything effective as 'the past' is just a fabricated memory in our brain and 'the future' is just an expectation, an assumption or a projected thought. Just try stamping your foot now... that's you realising the substantial present, and the substantial present being realised by you.

When we reclaim 'right here' in upright sitting zazen we're no longer confused or disempowered by our fantasies, our confused thinking, our ideas of 'right' and 'wrong' or 'past' and 'future' or 'me' and 'other'... We can give our running after things, and/or our running away from them, a rest and be like a dragon finding its watery home after a time of dryness, or be like a tiger released from captivity back into its majestic mountain home: We regain our freedom and nothing can assail us.



Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fukanzazengi V: 'Sit Non-thinking'.

Mountains unperturbed by passing clouds.

Next, Master Dogen throws light on the essential, or 'pivotal', matter of zazen:

"When the physical posture is already settled, make one complete exhalation
and sway left and right. Sitting immovably in the mountain-still state, “Think
about this concrete state beyond thinking.” “How can the state beyond thinking
be thought about?” "It is different from thinking" [or "it is non-thinking"]. This is just the pivot of zazen."

He advises that we should first settle into the physical posture. Then we exhale and sway or rock a little from side to side (generally about six or eight times or thereabouts); this is a nice way to stretch and loosen up a bit, and it helps us find a central point of balance for our upper body. Sitting still, upright and strong like a mountain, we 'think beyond thinking' or 'think non-thinking' as it has also been translated.

This may seem like an unusual term. How do we 'think non-thinking'? Well, we don't sit trying to directly 'not think', that would be really frustrating because thoughts would likely just keep coming up frustrating our effort. 'Non-thinking' is not just 'not thinking' because thoughts are naturally arising and present, but in 'non-thinking' we don't grab on to our thoughts and get involved with them, or reject them or try to suppress them (which is just getting involved with 'em in another way). We just let them come and go. 'Non-thinking' is just letting thoughts come and go. If we find ourselves grabbing onto a thought and thinking about something (as we often will) we just stop it and return to sitting letting our thoughts come and go again. That's zazen.

When we're sitting 'non-thinking' thus we can say that we are 'beyond thinking'; we aren't being pulled around by our usual reactions to our thoughts (judging them as 'good' and 'bad' and all that, remember?) and so we can calmly sit and experience our thoughts just coming and going and take a rest from our usual reactive thinking activity.

The line on 'non-thinking/beyond thinking' is in quotation marks as it comes from a conversation between Master Yakusan Igen and a monk; it's taken from a traditional zen story or koan.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fukanzazengi IV: 'Posture' etc.

Master Gudo Nishijima sitting zazen.

In the next section, Master Dogen reiterates that zazen is not a willful mental effort of the sort that intentionally thinking something or willing something is. He advises we give everything ('the myriad things') a rest and to stop thinking of things in terms of them being 'good' and 'bad' (i.e. to let them arise just as they are). We should not try to become a buddha; to do so would just be to engage in a type of misguided willful thinking based on whatever we imagine a 'buddha' to be:

"In general, a quiet room is good for practicing [za]zen, and food and drink
are taken in moderation. Cast aside all involvements. Give the myriad things a
rest. Do not think of good and bad. Do not consider right and wrong. Stop the
driving movement of mind, will, consciousness. Cease intellectual consideration
through images, thoughts, and reflections. Do not aim to become a buddha.
How could [this] be connected with sitting or lying down?"

'How could [this] be connected with sitting or lying down?' Here Master Dogen is emphasising that zazen is not just the usual activity of sitting or lying down where we might be daydreaming or thinking as we habitually do. Zazen is quite different in that it requires us to just stop doing our habitual thinking activity when we notice that we are doing it.

The instructions continue with a description of the physical posture of zazen:

"We usually spread a thick mat on the place where we sit, and use a round
cushion on top of that. Either sit in the full lotus posture or sit in the half lotus
. To sit in the full lotus posture, first put the right foot on the left thigh,
then put the left foot on the right thigh. To sit in the half lotus posture, just press
the left foot onto the right thigh."

Most people will initially find it difficult to sit in half lotus as advised here. In fact, you might even hurt yourself if you try. People who have been doing yoga for some time may be able to attempt these postures, but everyone should be careful when attempting this; if there is any pain at all (particularly in the knees) then please stop. The hips will generally loosen up if you practice every day. You might consider doing a few warm-up stretches. Progress will likely happen quite slowly though, so patience is required. What's called the Burmese posture is a safer alternative in the meantime. It's a good one because the knees are both on the floor forming the very stable base that both lotus and half lotus provide.

The hand position discussed below is called the 'mudra'. It's said the thumbs should touch together gently; sometimes we might find that we're pushing them together too hard and so we can relax this or maybe we'll notice that our thumb tips have fallen apart or collapsed downwards in which case we should just fix them.
"Spread the clothing loosely and make it neat. Then put the right hand above
the left foot, and place the left hand on the right palm. The thumbs meet and
support each other. Just make the body upright and sit up straight. Do not lean
to the left, incline to the right, slouch forward, or lean backward. The ears must
be aligned with the shoulders, and the nose aligned with the navel. Hold the
tongue against the palate, keep the lips and teeth closed, and keep the eyes open.
Breathe softly through the nose."

We sit upright and gently keep the mouth and teeth closed while we breathe gently and normally through the nose. The tongue is kept against the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth. This stops air from going over the taste buds causing salivation. The eyes are generally kept relaxed and half open with the gaze cast down at about a 45 degree angle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fukanzazengi III: 'Grabbing the Ineffable'.

In the next section, Master Dogen attempts to clarify in a very direct way just what type of conduct zazen is :

"...Therefore we should cease the intellectual work of studying sayings and chasing words. We should learn the backwards step of turning light and reflecting. Body and mind will naturally fall away, and the original features will manifest themselves before us. If we want to attain the matter of the ineffable, we should practice the matter of the ineffable at once."

Master Dogen was very concerned with 'sayings and words'; he compiled a big collection of Zen sayings or 'koans', and his voluminous philosophical masterpiece Shobogenzo contains thousands of words which are largely brilliant commentaries on Zen koans. In short, Master Dogen saw 'sayings and words' as very valuable and important. He is saying here though that the practice of zazen is a break from studying words and pursuing sayings and sorts of intentional mental activity.

'The backwards step' is a nice phrase that reminds me of how we sit down backwards on to the zafu (meditation cushion) before we turn to face the wall in zazen. It also suggests to me a type of retreat from our outwardly active world, the suspension of our usual activities and of our efforts to pursue goals or advance ourselves in the world.

'Turning light and reflecting' suggests the aspect of zazen where we become naturally more aware of our thoughts and feelings and all those things which are generally more concealed or underlying in our usual daily life: When we sit zazen for a while these things naturally, and without any great effort required, seem to arise to the surface. In zazen we can experience ourselves more clearly just as we might be able to discern our features clearly by looking in a mirror. Our attention is naturally reflected inwards.

'Body and mind will naturally fall away' describes the nice, balanced state of zazen where our thoughts and bodily perceptions just come and go unhindered when we stop involving ourselves with them by either grabbing onto them or rejecting them (trying to suppress them).

'The original features will manifest themselves before us' recalls themes from the Zen traditions like the popular old koan 'show me your original face before you were born'. It's an invitation to manifest the balanced state of zazen, to manifest our life, as it is before we manipulate it with thinking and any willful activities.

'If we want to attain the matter of the ineffable, we should practice the matter of the ineffable at once.' This last line has a strong whiff of the old Zen dialogues to it also; in one sense it doesn't make much sense and yet it seems to have a ring of truth to it. How can 'the ineffable' be a 'matter'? How can we possibly attain that which is ineffable? Surely you can't hold the ineffable in your hand or practice it without disappearing off the face of the Earth!?

This line comes from a wonderful saying by Master Tozan:

"If you want to attain the matter of the ineffable, you must have become someone of the ineffable. Now that you are already someone ineffable, why worry about attaining the matter of the ineffable?"

Buddhism holds that everything at this very moment is by nature already ineffable; all things material and immaterial constantly come and go from moment to moment in the endless dance of creation/ recreation. This allows for things to exist, to change, move and grow. A famous line from one of the most important Buddhist sutras (The Heart Sutra) reads: 'Form is emptiness, emptiness is form'. 'Attaining' this is to express it directly in zazen where we don't need to worry about attaining things as they already exist as they do (including us). Our body and mind, our perceptions and thoughts, naturally fall away of their own accord when we allow them to. In this way we can directly experience and learn the nature of ourselves and of everything.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fukanzazengi II: 'The News is Good!... But Effort is Required on Our Part if We're to Actualise it'.

A famous depiction of Master Bodhidharma.

Master Dogen began this text about sitting Zen by presenting the Buddhist philosophical view that everything is already perfect as it is. This idea, in and of itself, is not really much use to us though as we generally recognise that this is effectively not always the case and that life can be more than a bit of a pain-in-the-ass of times... there are plenty of great ideas out there, but they often seem to offer limited comfort when it comes to the deep, sometimes troubling, fundamental questions of human existence such as 'why do we suffer?' and 'why are we here?'

A reason for a fractured and dissonant experience of life is outlined in the second paragraph. Master Dogen suggests that our habitual ways of thinking (our splitting of everything into 'this' and 'that', 'me' and 'other' and our mistaking this for some substantial reality in itself) is a cause of confusion. He points out that addressing this problem is not just a case of adopting nice ideas or fancy philosophical/ religious thinking but of a 'vigorous bodily method'.

The way to address the situation, as Buddhism sees it, is not confined to, or by, philosophy then: It requires a way of real conduct more substantial than thinking alone.

Master Dogen goes on to build on this theme of the importance of actual direct practice by reminding us that even the great Masters themselves were required to practice directly in this way:

"Moreover, we can [still] see the traces of the six years spent sitting up straight by the natural sage of Jetavana park. We can still hear rumours of the nine years spent facing the wall by the transmitter of the mind-seal of Shaolin [temple]. The ancient saints were like that already: how could people today fail to make effort?"

'The natural sage of Jetavana park' is the historical Buddha himself while 'the transmitter of the mind-seal of Shaolin' is Master Bodhidharma who is considered the first Zen patriarch as it is believed that he brought Buddhism from India to China.
Master Bodhidharma was said to have practiced Zazen facing a wall for nine years. This custom is retained in Japanese Soto Zen and so practitioners generally sit a short distance from a blank wall with their eyes cast downwards.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oh Yeah, 'Why do you do Zazen?'

Oh yeah, this question came up the other night. I thought it was a good one:

Why do you do Zazen?

Having my practical head on I said the reason that I sit zazen is because I did it this morning, and last night, and yesterday morning, and the night and morning before that... I wasn't messing around or being cute: One period of sitting (in my case) does seem to be a big reason as to why I do it next time, and I've noticed that a bit of reluctance to doing it starts creeping in if I miss a link in that sequential chain. I suppose this is an aspect of Zazen as a type of training. It's widely recommended that we practice regularly.

Of course, there are effects in doing Zazen that people enjoy too. Master Dogen refers to it as a 'joyful and ease-ful gate to the truth'. When we do it for a little while I think we can enjoy it as a nice rest from our usual activity; we don't have to follow our thoughts or engage our usual responses. It frees us up a bit and helps us experience ourselves a little more clearly. That's a nice feeling (even if it isn't always so easy or clear-cut in practice!)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Big River, Two Fish!

Our 'small group' was 50 per cent 'me' at last night's meeting!

We had a nice chat and sat a little Zazen together anyway, which was good.

I'm not sure how it will work out in the long run but, for the time being, I'm planning to continue looking at Fukanzazengi here, there and wherever.

I'll post another bit about it in the next day or two (busy, busy, busy...)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Looking at Fukanzazengi.

Our group is reading and discussing Fukanzazengi.

Fukanzazengi or 'Universal Guide to the Method of Zazen' is an instructional text written by the thirteenth century monk Eihei Dogen (A.K.A. Dogen Zenji or Master Dogen). It's held as quite an influential text as Master Dogen is considered the founder of what is now the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan (one of the two main schools, the other being the Rinzai Zen school).

The text offers both practical instructions for doing Zazen and a discussion of some important Buddhist philosophical points.

It starts like this:

"Now, when we research it, the truth originally is all around: why should we rely upon practice and experience? The real vehicle exists naturally: why should we put forth great effort? Furthermore, the whole body far transcends dust and dirt: who could believe in the means of sweeping and polishing? In general, we do not stray from the right state: of what use, then, are the tip-toes of training?"

Buddhism has a very optimistic view of human life. Buddhist philosophy states that we're originally perfect, that everything is perfect just as it is, that reality is real all the time, that our natural perfection can never be tainted... why then, Master Dogen asks, should we bother practicing Zazen, or following a philosophy/religion, or making efforts to be good and moral if this is the case?

The text continues:

"... However, if there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, the separation is as great as that between heaven and earth; and if a trace of disagreement arises, we lose the mind in confusion."

Master Dogen answers his original question with this statement. He says that, although we are originally perfect, although we already embody the truth, there is a tendency for us to think in ways which effectively create separation, disagreement and confusion. We tend to think in terms of 'me' versus 'other', 'good' versus 'bad', 'like' versus 'dislike' etc etc etc... and so via our thinking we fracture the innate perfection-of-things-just-as-they-are and go off behaving in ways based on an erroneous view which assumes that our discriminative thinking represents some sort of substantial reality. The mind gets confused as generally we habitually think in this way creating sometimes very complex and ingrained patterns of thought which result in habitual behaviors and responses. This can cause us to suffer, to feel that things aren't really quite right, like we're missing something. Sometimes we might get exhausted by it and it might even seriously effect our health or our relationships to others.

"...Proud of our understanding and richly endowed with realization, we obtain special states of insight; we attain the truth; we clarify the mind; we acquire the zeal that pierces the sky; we ramble through remote intellectual spheres, going in with the head: and yet, we have almost completely lost the vigorous road of getting the body out."

This is a caution against replacing one type of confusion with another, that is, replacing ordinary, everyday confusion with the confusion of adopting Buddhism as a sort of mental escape or a form of cerebral self gratification. Master Dogen reminds us in the last line that Buddhist practice is a 'vigorous', tangible practice involving our body where we allow our discriminative thinking, and all thoughts (even nice, comfy religious ones!!!), to just come and go. In this way our body need no longer be 'pushed around' by what we think and want. The body 'gets out' of that situation for a time in the disciplined-but-relaxed upright sitting of Zazen.

In these opening paragraphs of Fukanzazengi Master Dogen has started with presenting a Buddhist philosophical view which he has contrasted with the real problematic situation of the general human condition. Next he points out that the optimistic Buddhist philosophical view is realistic... but only when it is enacted in our own direct practice.

More to come...