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...)