I’m going to devote a couple of weeks to introducing Dogen’s short text Zazengi, an explication on the practice of zazen. In it, he gives a pithy overview of the pure mechanics and physical postures of it, and then wraps with a sort of definitive declaration that zazen paradoxically has nothing whatsoever to do with mechanics or posture.
I will start by going over Dogen’s postural suggestions, and expand on them a bit. This is one of the most emphasized aspects of our practice, but it can be easily misunderstood.
Following is the whole of Zazengi, maybe the shortest chapter in Shobogenzo. In his compassion and wisdom, to avoid our tendency for complications and confusion, his instructions are direct and simple:
Practicing Zen means zazen (sitting zen). A quiet place is most suitable for doing zazen. Place a thick mat on the floor. Do not allow drafts or mist to enter the room. Do not allow rain or dew to leak in. Protect the place where you sit; keep it in good condition. Ancient sages sat on the diamond seat or on a large rock. They laid grass thickly and sat on it. Keep the place where you sit softly lit. It should not be totally dark either during the day or at night. It is essential that it be warm in winter and cool in summer. Let go of all relations, and set all affairs at rest. Do not think of good, do not think of evil. Zazen has nothing to do with the function of intellect, volition, or consciousness, nor with memory, imagination, or contemplation. Do not seek to become a buddha. Be free from the discrimination of sitting and lying down. Be moderate in drinking and eating. Do not squander your time. Be as eager to do zazen as you would be to extinguish a fire upon your head. The fifth patriarch on Mt. Obai (Huang-mei) practiced nothing but zazen.
When you do zazen, wear a kesa (kashāya), and use a round cushion (za-fu) place on a padded mat (za-buton). The zafu should not extend completely under your legs, but should be placed just under your buttocks, so that your knees are on the zabuton, and your spine is on the zafu. This is the way that the buddhas and patriarchs sit when they do zazen. You may sit in either the half-lotus or the full-lotus position. When you sit in the full-lotus position, put your right foot on your left thigh, and put your left foot on your right thigh. The line of your toes should be even with the outer line of your thighs. When you sit in the half-lotus position, just put your left foot on your right thigh. Keep your clothing and kesa (kashāya) loose, but neat. Place your right hand on your left foot. And your left hand on your right hand palm. The tips of your thumbs should be lightly touching. Position both your hands as above, and put them close to your body. The tips of your thumbs should be aligned with your navel.
Sit upright in the proper position. Lean neither to the left nor to the right, neither forward nor backward. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders; your nose in line with your navel. Touch your tongue gently against the roof of your mouth. Breathe softly through your nose. Your lips and teeth should be gently closed. Keep your eyes open, but neither too widely nor too narrowly. Adjust your body and mind in this way; then exhale fully and take a breath. Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the way of doing zazen in accord with the dharma. Zazen is not learning meditation. Rather zazen itself is the dharma-gate of great peace and joy. It is undefiled practice-realization.
This is our entire way. It is very ordinary. But as we each discover every time we sit, it’s quite subtle. I am very impressed at how still our sangha is able to sit. Having entered our second year of practice together, I notice that is not such a big deal for virtually anyone walking through the door to sit upright and still for a full 35 minutes. Nyogen Senzaki, maybe the first Japanese priest to teach zazen to Americans, in the 1920s and ’30s taught people to sit for just 10 minutes – in church pews and chairs, no less.
He perceived that most Americans simply were incapable of doing more; he was resigned to just introducing what we could think of as the “morphogenetic field” of zazen in this culture, so that people later could truly participate in it more deeply. He had an incredibly long view. Speaking of which, I once heard a Tibetan teacher say that because Zen had established a foundation of sitting and stillness in America in the 1950s and ‘60s, Tibetan Buddhism had a much easier time being introduced here in the 1970s. And he wasn’t just talking about individuals doing one practice then the other, but rather something more energetic in the whole psycho-cultural body.
So, we are sitting still; but considering our physical habits as modern people, spending hours at desks and resting on soft furniture, we can understandably look a little slumpy, sometimes. A little occasional slumping can actually be a correction for some people who maybe chronically over-do. What we are looking for is our own living, harmonious, settled still-point between effort and non-effort.
I would like to expand a bit on Dogen’s instructions with some perceptions derived from my own practice. Namely this relates to the sheer physicality of it. We sit in a yoga studio, which underscores the point. I highly recommend that zazen practitioners engage in other physical therapies, like yoga, chiropractic, or somatic awareness training of various sorts. And then integrate this awareness into your posture, and practice of sitting.
I sat a retreat with a teacher last year who just gently touched the crown of my head and indicated that I extend up toward his hand. I am pretty diligent about extending my spine, but something about this physical instruction allowed me to find what felt like another couple of inches. It probably wasn’t that much, but it felt like it. When I talked with him about this later, he said he is sometimes amazed at how much length people will find when he just silently suggests it’s there; inches and inches!
Now, we need to make sure that our chin stays tucked a little bit, which should happen naturally when you gently press or lift from the crown of the head; this is slightly to the rear of the skull. Also, you might try simultaneously pressing from the back of the skull, as if there is a wall behind your head you are pushing against. Just for a breath or two; then relax. It does help align the spine. We should see that the curvature in the lower back is still there. The pelvis should naturally be tipped ever so slightly forward. There is a good yoga instruction about gently aiming the coccyx forward while tipping the pelvic bone back – this is another way to generate that feeling of lifted uprightness. It also gently “engages the core,” that phrase I am happy to hear used all over the place now. It applies in zazen, for sure. We shouldn’t just be “spilling our guts” forward; nor should we be sucking them in. Rather, again, we are finding something in between.
This all seems to happen quite naturally in full lotus, especially when our hips are open enough to do it properly. Dogen posits it as the ideal posture, and it really is quite wonderful when we can accomplish it. In full lotus, the correct spinal posture seems easier to find, and the stability is obvious. Of course, few modern people are able to accomplish this readily, or comfortably for the duration of our zazen. You will notice that the less folded our legs are, the more lift under your butt you need. In full lotus, an inch or two of padding works; in half lotus, 3-4 inches of lift is needed. One leg resting on the opposite calf – a sort of quarter-lotus (or what I call “half-ass lotus”) works for me sometimes, but I need a bit more lift again.
Then there is Burmese-style, which implies an entire culture favors it. This is both legs in front, parallel calf to shin, flat on the ground. You will notice the less lift you have, the more the spine bows back and the chin projects. It might be said that Tibetan monks often have this posture, presumably from living a life sitting on the ground, and it works for them. I’ve even heard Tibetan practitioners say they don’t have great posture! People can be great bodhisattvas, and maybe not have such great posture. You can have the best posture, and be a real creep. But our way to is to aim toward a naturally good posture, and I think this is a good, reasonable instruction.
I have tended to sit a lot in half lotus, as Dogen says with my left leg on top. Predictably, yoga asana practice has shown me that I am imbalanced, and the right hip has had to compensate for all the flexibility on the left. I am working now on correcting this, and sit half lotus with the right foot on top more. It’s a very alive thing, our zazen.
Our tongue should lightly touch the roof of our mouth, just behind the teeth. I notice that when I am stressed or pushing, my tongue can press up too hard; when I am drifting, it may fall away altogether. So this becomes a very wonderful point of mindful attention, a place to check yourself. It also allegedly completes a big energy circuit in the body, connecting the back and front channels of the body. Make sure that you do not clench your jaw; nor should your fly-trap (mouth) hang open.
The hands in their mudra also do this; they connect a circuit, and they act as a wonderful gauge of our presence. Pressed too hard together, they reveal tension. Falling apart, they indicate sleepiness or drift. They should just be lightly touching, with the thumb nails facing more or less upwards, not forward, for most of us forming a sort of goose egg-sized oval. The middle left fingers should just overlap the right palm slightly, the first and fourth fingers meeting the base of their opposite fingers. A few years ago I learned a wonderful traditional Soto instruction about resting the mind gently in the left palm. I think that’s about my favorite answer about what to do with the mind in zazen. Just gently place it there – which is of course an open question. What on earth does that actually mean? Check it out for yourself.
Mudra placement is important. If in full-lotus, the hands naturally rest on the feet in the correct placement. In other positions, make sure that one, the “cutting side” of the hands are touching the abdomen, not hanging out in space, and that the thumbs are about the level of the navel, not floating above or below. If tension forms in the shoulders, it can be quite restful for the hands to sit palm down on the knees. The mudra is a very focusing element, but sometimes, backing off is called for.
We keep our eyes a little open. I hear from a lot of people about all kinds of strange things happening with people’s eyes, especially when they start regular zazen practice. Tears, spontaneous uncontrolled eye movement, burning sensations, all kinds of things. Yogically it is said the eyes are the first place to hold tension, and the last place to release it. Their connection to cognition and our neurology is profound. I recommend taking glasses off and allowing the eyes to rest from that external constraint – some vision-training experts agree with me. Just keep the gaze soft; I mostly just allow myself to be aware of the light trickling in, try to keep my eyes still, blink occasionally, and let go.
My last comment about these bare-bones instruction is how marvelous I find his description even of our cushions, and how we attend to the space of zazen, our zen-do. Here he is 800 years ago in Japan precisely describing the nature of the cushions he saw in ancient temples in China, that we are sitting on here in Albuquerque in 2015. Extraordinary. This is not a “New Age” deal. Notice also that he is not indicating any form of ascetic austerities here – let the room be comfortable and consistent. Consistency is among the most important aspects of Zen training.
That about covers the physical aspects. There are endless nuances to discover, but we shouldn’t get too caught up in them.
As if to insure we don’t get hung up in some Cult of Perfect Posture, Dogen pulls the rug (or goza mat) out from under his own zafu and zabuton. He says, “Be free from the discrimination of sitting and lying down.” In Buddhism it is said there are four postures of practice: walking, sitting, standing, and lying down. That feels liberating in itself. In other words, nothing is excluded. Every position is a potential zazen moment.
And we have directions for all of these postures. You see them in our practice. The way we do kinhin, or walking zazen; the way we stand; the way we bow; there are even clear instructions for monks while sleeping (on your right side, which physiologically allows the heart to rest more naturally during sleep, etc.)
In a way all these postures act as training wheels to allow us to start to get our feet under us; however, it’s not like we graduate at some point. In time, we begin to experience zazen as a sort of celebration, of zazen itself; zazen which is just our own intention to awaken, manifested in the time-being.
The last few lines of Zazengi are a pure liberation, and perhaps the most succinct overview of Dogen’s total Dharma:
Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the way of doing zazen in accord with the dharma. Zazen is not learning meditation. Rather zazen itself is the dharma-gate of great peace and joy. It is undefiled practice-realization.
I suggest just sitting in the presence of this expression, and not trying too hard to parse out exactly what this means. Like great poetry or revelation, there is some quality about these words that doesn’t bear much analysis; or at least, reveal much more that way, beyond our first intuitive hit.
I appreciate this as one of the places where he clearly says zazen is “not meditation.” It forces us to really confront this question: what is meditation, anyway? Obviously it can mean many things, and zazen can encompass so-called meditation practices too. We need those, in so far as they can be tools for healing and growth. But Dogen is pointing to something much more expansive, and totally inclusive. Redemptive, even. He says zazen is nothing less than “the Dharma-gate of great peace and joy.” How is this so? Because “it is undefiled practice-realization.”
“Practice-realization” is a phrase indicating the core of Dogen’s message, which is that there can be no separation between practice and awakening. There is no awakening without practice, and there is no zazen practice that is not in itself already awakened. Turning toward zazen, you turn toward Buddha; turning toward Buddha, you are already Buddha. All ideas of a separation from our natural awakened nature have to be relinquished; zazen is this relinquishing. This infinite Buddha being, forever beyond total cognition, is therefor already manifest in even the urge to seek zazen. “Already being such a one, what is there to seek?”
Again, this is something that we have to develop a feel for. We should feel an affection for zazen, and a connection to it as a manifestation of Buddha herself directing our awareness to Buddha herself. Entering that gate, we know an undefiled peace and joy, that transcends even our limited ideas of peace and joy. I feel a great sense of liberation in this teaching. I hope some of you do, too.
This week I’d like to talk again about zazen not being meditation, and it not being something that we do, exactly. I highly recommend this essay by our guiding teacher Taigen, called “Dogen’s Zazen as Other Power.” With this as a starting point, let me clarify first what the term “other power” means. I have talked about this here in the past, but for new people, “other power” here specifically refers to what is normally considered a contrasting Buddhist tradition.
In Pure Land Buddhism, the emphasis is on taking refuge in the Buddha Amida. Amida means “infinite light and life.” We often venerate the bodhisattva Kanzeon, or Kwan Yin; Kanzeon actually is often depicted as a devotee of Amida. So there is an interesting relationship there. Zen has at times been thought of as a “self-power” tradition, meaning that through some kind of personal effort, freedom from a constricted ego-self is attained. And this attitude can seem to appear in the teachings.
Shinran, the founder of some of the most influential Pure Land traditions in Japan (which historically have been the most popular of all sects), lived about the same time as Dogen. After decades of dedicated spiritual discipline, he came to a realization that he was truly “hopeless” when it came to accomplishing any of even the most basic sorts of Buddha qualities, like constancy or mindfulness. He realized that he couldn’t even pray for redemption of his faults without Amida’s compassion making his turn toward Buddha possible in the first place. So he encouraged a humble turning toward Amida’s grace, simply expressed as the phrase “Namo Amida Buddha.”
It is possible, helpful, and maybe even quite important to consider our zazen practice as a similar turning toward an other, higher power, and as a prayer for redeeming grace. Dogen taught that all self-gaining ideas have to be suspended for our zazen to have the right attitude, or posture.
The last paragraph of Taigen’s essay says :
“Dogen’s zazen, without gaining ideas or reliance on self-power, remains available. But the first generations of American Zen practitioners probably still lack full appreciation of the devotional depths of Buddhist practice. This is due in part to the influence of some Western psychotherapeutic orientations that promote ideals of mere self-improvement. Consumerist conditioning has also led practitioners to seek to acquire dramatic meditative experiences as products. It may well be that American Buddhism will not become fulfilled until the value of “other-power” is recognized. In my humble opinion, it will be an indication of American Buddhism’s maturity when American Zen students appreciate the subtle teachings and perspective of Shinran.”
Someone was telling me that in New York and some larger cities, people are opening “mindfulness centers,” where you pay a monthly fee to basically attend meditation sessions like you would yoga classes. People are of course paying these fees intending to “improve performance” and “increase psychological well-being.” These are fine aspirations in certain contexts. But as Taigen says, this is hardly the essence of Buddha’s teaching. Buddha did not set out to create a self-improvement program. He taught something more radical than that, and more basic.
I personally think one of the greatest threats to the actual sustainability of Buddhadharma in our country and culture is “spiritual materialism.” In essence, this comes down to approaching Buddhism to improve your capacity to win at the games you are already playing. It could be argued that turning toward Buddha calls for a suspension of certain games altogether. For instance, if someone is involved the arms trade, that person in order to truly experience Buddha’s wisdom and compassion will likely have to stop that. It’s like Tony Soprano going to psychotherapy. It was pretty obvious that no matter how much he talked about his issues, his growth and happiness remained limited by his lack of will to actually change and, for instance, stop killing people. He was not really turning toward a “higher/other power”; rather he was trying to find a way to keep doing what he was doing, just freed from the natural guilt, fear, and shame his actions were producing in his heart and mind.
Dogen taught that when we sit or simply turn toward Buddha in various ways, we let go of everything, and we trust. In the case of zazen, we trust the instructions to lengthen the spine, lower our eyelids, settle, and enjoy our inhale and our exhale. Beyond that, “we let go and let god.” I heard someone recently translate “god” as an acronym for “greater order of design.” For some, this can mean “reason.” For some, “the heart.” For us, we use the term “zazen” as almost interchangeable with “Buddha,” and it extends well beyond crossing our legs and settling our minds.
Taigen has been emphasizing that there are indeed actual concrete benefits from such an attitude and practice; he’s pointing out that we don’t need to just accept an unnatural doctrine of “no benefits.” We just have to have balance. I have an interesting personal example. I once did these neurological tests, with the electrodes and whatnot. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that when I did “self-power” exercises like visualizations etc., the effects looked little different than my normal waking awareness. But when I followed our instructions and practiced the zazen of “dropping off body and mind,” something quite extraordinary (and measurable) occurred. I don’t need to repeat this exercise; for me, this was a nice personal confirmation that we are onto something here, and that the ancestors aren’t just selling us a bill of goods!
This dropping off of body and mind and this turning toward Buddha is not something we achieve and then don’t attend to any longer. As long as we live, if we look carefully we will find the intrinsic human impulse to turn toward Buddha, or a “spiritual” orientation. We intuit, and reason, how limited our conventional human, materialist viewpoint is against the backdrop of the jaw-dropping reality of our existence, and the challenges we sometimes appear to be facing, personally and collectively. Yet when we sit, we find the ground. From that ground, we can witness the development in our lives of more authentic movement, thought, feeling, and actions. Do we do it? Or does Buddha do it? In zazen, we live out that question with vitality and faith.
– Keizan Titus
I recently came across a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi about his understanding of the message of Pope Francis. In particular, he focuses on what he calls a shift in Church doctrine, under Francis, from an emphasis on truth, to an emphasis on compassion and simple friendship:
On April 11, 2015, Francis released his Misericordiae Vultus to inaugurate a Holy Year of Mercy, and the document is an explicit redefinition of the relation between truth and compassion, insisting upon the superiority of compassion over truth.1 We may replace the word “compassion” with the word“empathy,” and also with the word “solidarity.”
In Christian parlance, without faith, hope is impossible. And faith seems to be over, since communism, democracy, and progressive dialectics crumbled at the end of the last century. Only capitalism survives. But faith in capitalism has collapsed as well, during the years of financial arrogance and precarious work. So faith is over.
I’m not a believer; I trust in no god and no ideology, so I don’t think that the end of faith is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think that when we are freed from faith we can grasp the real tendency of the time, and we can seize the most interesting opportunities that the tendency brings about.
But in order to seize the possible and to actualize it, we need friendship, solidarity, happiness, and pleasure in the relations among bodies. This is what we lack today. Not hope, not faith, but friendship is lacking. This is why mankind is teetering on the abyss of war and suicide.
Consequently, we must abandon hope: the world machine is ungovernable, and human will is impotent. Only friendship is left. This is how I understand Francis’s words.
As I do not expect redemption in my afterlife, I think that despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time. But I also think that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, as despair is the mood of the intellectual mind, while joy is the mood of the embodied mind. Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.
What a rich essay, and I think quite relevant for our practice. When Buddhism first came to America, it was usually associated with charismatic Asian (and then American) teachers, and young American students were only too eager to put these teachers onto a pedestal and see in them some expression of the Absolute. We wanted a spiritual Mommy or Daddy, someone in whom we could have absolute faith, absolute trust. And of course, it’s good to have teachers, it’s good to have someone we trust. But we found, all too often, that these charismatic teachers had feet of clay, and that they were sometimes downright sociopathic.
In a sense, this was the fall of Truth for us in the American Buddhist sangha. While in society at large, we lost faith in political and economic systems – communism, or democracy, or socialism, capitalism – in the sangha, we lost faith in the ideal of the Perfect Teacher, which was maybe just another example of our basic tendency to want something that just works, without our having to work with it, something that we can just trust in absolutely and give ourselves over to.
But, that’s not how it works, apparently. And I think in American Buddhism this has been a good thing. Certainly in our Suzuki-Roshi lineage, we have, to a great extent, dropped our fantasy of a perfect teacher and have placed more trust in our spiritual friendships. In spiritual friendships, we come together to practice, as best as we understand it, and to talk to each other as honestly and truthfully as we can about what’s going on for us. There are still vertical relationships, but we hold them rather lightly now. We know that our teachers are just normal people, not really different from us.
We want to connect, we want to have real conversation that goes beyond sports or politics. We want to talk about what’s important to us, and that’s what we are doing here, and I think that’s what Berardi is talking about.
Berardi’s last paragraph is so rich, let’s spend some time closely reading it: “Despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time”. This certainly resonates for me – when we look around and read the news, we see so much occasion for despair. Climate change alone is enough to induce despair. But when you think about it, this despair arises primarily from the intellect; it’s based on ideas, not usually on a direct physical experience. So as Berardi says, despair is the mood of the intellectual mind.
That would be sort of sad if this was the whole story, but it’s not. Berardi goes on to say, “Joy is the mood of the embodied mind.” This is a remarkable statement, and it’s one I’ve heard, in different forms, from teachers over the years. Even when we are twirling around in our minds, ruminating, worrying, our bodies are at ease and bliss. In our Soto Zen practice, we realize this through the practice of zazen. As Dogen Zenji wrote in the Fukanzazengi – “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”
In other words, zazen is not an intellectual activity. It is an activity of the body-mind, or as Berardi would call it, the embodied mind.
Berardi says, in a beautiful non-dual expression, that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, and that we reconcile them through our friendships, for “Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.” I think we know this generally, but in our Zen practice, this is referring to our sangha relations. Practicing with sangha is the total expression of our way. Ours is a communal way, the way of the sangha jewel.
In his fascicle, “The point of zazen”, Dogen writes, “What has been passed on, person-to-person, is the essential teaching of zazen alone.” We can take this meaning in two different ways. First, this statement emphasizes the interpersonal aspect of our practice. We are not solitary Buddhas. We come together as good friends to share our practice, share our lives, and to teach each other. Dogen always emphasized the relational aspect of practice, and our wonderful Zen stories from the koans are nearly always about relationships, between teachers and students, between students. Regardless of the content of these koans, they are, at a fundamental level, showing how the dharma is transmitted through our spiritual friendships. We learn about zazen from our relationships, warm hand to warm hand, not from a book.
Another way to understand this statement from Dogen is that the feeling we get from our friends, when we share real connection, real conversation, when we practice together, that experience of spiritual friendship is in itself the essential teaching of zazen alone. In other words, it’s not that zazen is some body of knowledge that we pass on to each other, like how a master baker passes on her knowledge of baking to an apprentice. That’s not what zazen is. It’s not a field of study. Instead, the essential teaching of zazen is precisely that which is passed on in our person-to-person relations. The dharma arises precisely in our friendships.
And as Berardi says, this is through these relations that we realize our embodied joy.
–Taisan Joe Galewsky
We’re here to pick up the pieces
Here to pick up the pieces
Let the place be good, my brothers
Let the place keep clean, my sisters
Come along, my brother
Come along, my sister
Come along, come along
Hurry up, hurry up
I recently was struck listening to this lyric from the song The Youth by the Jamaican Reggae legend Burning Spear (Live in Paris,1989). I saw Burning Spear once, in Queens I think, around 1995. I should say that while I was indeed in the hall, and not even that far from the stage, I mainly just listened to Burning Spear due to this thick haze of mysterious, strongly fragrant herbal incense pretty well obscuring any actual view. The place was full of what appeared to be the entire Rasta community of greater New York; I remember towering piles of dreadlocks stuffed under hats and long locks trailing to the floor, and very few if any other white people. It did all seem quite ceremonial, very religious, though I understandably felt a little alien and outside of it. No matter the contact high, or basic enjoyment of the music; it seemed appropriate to respectfully appreciate, but have no pretense to being “inside” (unlike this guy.)
I have read a bit about Rasta history and theology over the years (and listened to my share of the music, well beyond Bob.) It’s really fascinating stuff, and moving. It is no doubt a genuine spiritual revelation, and it appears to be a real yogic path of awakening and practice for many people truly called to it. Fundamentally, the Rastas see a world corrupted by greed, anger, and confusion. They recognize that people of color have long born a disproportionate brunt of this corruption. And they are guided to each personally heed an inner call to check aggression, and seek a spiritually-rooted response to all problems: physical, mental, social, and political. Samsara could be called Babylon; there are inner teachings and outer teachings, non-mandatory rituals, and simple, flexible directives toward a holistic response to life, not unlike the Noble Eightfold Path, including preferring organic, locally sourced vegetarian food, abstinence from alcohol, simple dress, right livelihood, etc. Good stuff. There is the shadow stuff too, but every human road has that.
It might seem a polar opposite religion to Soto Zen, and on the face of it, that might be true. But as with any path that is truly a path, I think that there is a place where the hearts meet. This lyric for me touches on that place. It seems like excellent Zen teaching in certain respects.
We’re here to pick up the pieces.
Suzuki roshi would say (echoing Dogen,) “life is one continous mistake.” My first Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, used to say “being born was your first mistake.” He had a kong-an or koan that I feel addresses this. It goes, “the mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean?” For me, it speaks to a fundamental brokenness and upsidedownness that we inevitably encounter during our journey in this life. If we didn’t know it, we certainly wouldn’t ever turn toward the “higher power” of zazen (or Jah, for that matter.)
Sitting zazen is picking up the pieces. Work as zazen is picking up the pieces. Sleeping as zazen is picking up the pieces. Engaging in political activism as zazen is picking up the pieces. I love the story about Shunryu Suzuki’s wife, Mitsu, breaking a prized cooking dish. A student watched her break it, be sad for a moment, then with closed eyes, sweetly press a shard to her cheek in farewell – and throw it all away. That is literally and figuratively picking up the pieces.
We have a human job to do in response to the gift of this human life. This is picking up the pieces.
Let the place be good, my brothers
Let the place keep clean, my sisters
I love this. He doesn’t say “you broke it; you buy it. Now clean up the damn pieces!” In this lilting, chill-out way he says to his fellow human beings (whom he knows to be and addresses as his own flesh and blood,) let it be good. It’s already good. Let that shine forth. Reveal it, to yourself and others. Let it be clean; it’s originally clean and bright.
This makes me think of living in Zen training temples; there quite naturally grows this sense of joy to just maintain things. Some people are angry at first to be guided how to mind things at all; this can even swing to the other extreme. One can become the dreaded… “Form Nazi!” Sooner or later you see through that hang-up, too. You stop thinking, “those shoes should be neat!” and begin to feel, “the shoes are just so happy when they are next to each other, taking care of each other.” You learn good wholesome routines of collective existence and care for things, and you feel good. And clean – with no need to be compulsively germ-free or anything.
Come along, my brother
Come along, my sister
First I notice that he is an elder presumably from the title addressing younger members of the community. He addresses them (and us) as peers, not patronizing anyone as unruly children, or bad people. Second, this can be heard as a Bodhisattva call for people to join in. It’s good to feel good, especially about taking care of things simply and uprightly. We love this, and it spreads outward; so we hope, and pray.
Come along, come along
Hurry up, hurry up
There is a little urgency here. We shouldn’t be freaking out. But we can have a little sense of hustle in our bustle. Like our chanting. Our chanting can suffer from people expecting others to carry the load, or folks not digging it so they sort of drag behind. We’ve been giving a little coaching, and its getting much better. And the main instruction is to just give it full attention and energy. You can hear it, and the whole room feels it. It’s got that bounce, that gentle energy swelling through it. It has purpose. Purposeless purpose. Our zazen can feel like this too, have this direction. Settled but lively.
We feel the urgency of our times, and our own personal call to awaken. Burning Spear says to hurry up, but notice how he is saying it: patiently, smoothly, without giddiness, as if there is all the time in the world.
This very mind is Buddha;
Practice is hard, expounding is easy.
No mind, no Buddha;
Expounding is hard, practice is easy.
One could say that this poem by Dogen encapsulates the entire essence of Zen.
The first and third phrases here come from stories about Ma-tsu, or Mazu: “the Horse Master,” so-called because he was supposedly big as a horse, and with charisma, skill, and wisdom in scale to his physical size. I sort of picture a sterner version of the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, if you know who that is.
Anyway, the story goes that for many years, Ma-tsu’s answer to nearly any Dharma question was some version of “this very mind is Buddha,” or “Mind is Buddha.” One of his senior disciples, Damei (which means “Ripe Plum,”) got transmission and went off, still practicing with ‘this mind is Buddha’ for many, many years. Later, Ma-tsu emphasized “no mind, no Buddha.” When this got back to Damei and he was asked if he would change his practice, he replied “this very mind is Buddha.” Upon hearing a report of this, Ma-tsu said of his former student, “the plum is ripe.”
Such a great story, and a lot to discuss; but I only want today to underscore Dogen’s poem and a couple of its possible themes. Our guiding teacher Taigen is about to return, and he will be concentrating on some stories from his new book about the great ancestor Dongshan (who lived in the century following Ma-tse.) This book is called “Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness.”
We could say that Zen has two basic possible emphases. One teaching, two aspects: emptiness teachings, and suchness teachings. Emptiness teaching is the Heart Sutra (form is emptiness, etc.) It is also “no mind, no Buddha.” It is not hard to imagine how sometimes, that is an extremely liberating thing to realize. Maybe we experience a great loss, and right in the middle of that we find grace, serenity, and wisdom. However, if we get too attached to this teaching, maybe we end up like the Nihilists in the Big Lebowski. “Nothing matters, Lebowski! Give us the money!” and we are generally a real bummer to hang around. It happens. It’s ok.
We could also just call this breathing out.
So then we might encounter medicinal suchness teachings, like “your very own mind right now just as it is without any separation in time, space, set, or setting, just as it is, experiencing and co-creating reality, is a perfect expression of the wisdom of the highest principle of awakeness possible.” A great teaching, obviously. We all would like to live in some sense of this I think.
Breathing in, we are “inspired.”
However, we live in an insanely positivist society, with paradigmatic dysfunctions that go back thousands of years, that are encoded in and as our body/minds. I was thinking recently about that (pretty disturbing) Soundgarden video for Black Hole Sun, where these nice modern, suburban people have these big plastic smiles that just keep growing until they become monstrous and terrifying. A concise visualization of how even our interest in spiritual practice can get twisted by some kind of attachment to outcomes, to just being “shiny happy people” or “accomplished spiritual people,” without maybe having felt our way through our questions, our grief, our difficulties, our personal faults, and our social, even planetary responsibilities. We might even consider this video a sort of emptiness teaching (I am a “Gen X’er” and I would say that the so-called Grunge and Riot Grrl movements, and our generation generally, were colored by the need to express generational anger, with its underlying grief, at the poverty of the (patriarchal) positivist/materialist vision being expressed by the mainstream society of the time.)
Dogen even helps us by pointing out how our practice might show us where we are on this spectrum of teachings. Sometimes, sitting is hard, but talking about the ideas flows naturally. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Other times, we practice with joy and ease, and have no desire to utter one word. It can be like that. If we translate this into our daily life, perhaps sometimes we feel very plugged-in with work, for instance, and we don’t need to analyze it too much. Other times, we have to step back, talk with trusted advisers, not do, and wait. We can play with this idea and each come up with other examples I’m sure.
I personally feel that for our time right now, we are in deep need of some grounded, affirming suchness teachings. This is why I am so happy that Taigen was inspired to publish his new book now. I think we can all get a lot out of it, if we are open and keep our wits about us.
I’d like to introduce a “case” if you will from our founding ancestor Dogen. This is from the Eihei Koroku, the compendium of his short practice discussions mostly given to the monks living and practicing with him in the temple he founded, in the 13th c. These talks were translated by our guiding teacher Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, and Rev. Shohaku Okamura.
The talk goes like this:
In ancient times, someone was high up in a tower and saw two monks walking by. Two heavenly beings were sweeping the road and scattered flowers behind the monks. When the monks returned, two demons shouted and spit at the monks, and swept away their footprints. The person observing this finally descended from the tower and asked the two monks what happened. The two monks said, “When we were going, we were discussing the principles of Buddhas. When we were returning, we were in engaged in random talk. That is the reason.” Realizing this deeply, the two monks were repentant and continued on their way.
Listen, although this story concerns the two monks coarse realms of consciousness, if we examine it minutely, this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.
An ancient said, “Although it was like this, it was exactly because those heavenly beings scattered flowers on the road that the demonic spirits could see the two monks.”
If there had been no road upon which the heavenly beings could scatter flowers, and there was no means for the demonic spirits to observe them, then what could have happened? Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand this? Nobody in previous generations has discussed this, but I will now speak about it:
After a pause Dogen said: Buddhas do not appear in the world by depending on the sixteen especially excellent meditation methods, which generate the spiritual powers. Even when ordinary people with sharp capacity practice these kinds of meditation, the cessation of outflows does not occur. When tathagathas expound the teaching, the cessation of outflows does occur.
A complex talk I think. But I love the immediacy of the image, and so I chose this because when we have a strong image like this I think we can carry it away with us for contemplation later. The image can float up for consideration maybe when it feels applicable.
So in essence, we have a dissection, dissolution, and even involution of our conventional dualistic view. The story can be read as a pretty straightforward morality tale, and that seems like the original intent. Monks talk about Buddha, and angels descend and rejoice in their goodness; when they talk about mundane matters, demons follow them around spitting. So the monks “repent” and likely vow to be more studious and diligent. I think we can all relate to this – we want to be good people, good citizens, and good zen practitioners – even maybe good Buddhists.
But Dogen begins to indicate how this is not the true Zen way, or at least its not a complete understanding. He says about this story, “this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.”
I like this use here of the word “sentimental.” We must remember that in Buddhist psychology, “thoughts” and “feelings” are seen as equal, along with all manner of sensations. Of course, even science shows us that thoughts generate feelings, and vice versa, which concretely shapes our experience of our bodies, and vice versa. We are complex happenings, and these distinctions are all provisional. Our problems often seem to involve getting stuck in the sensations, in the divisions, and in the appearance of external-seeming conditions before our eyes and other sense organs. And especially caught in notions about them being “good” or “bad.”
When Dogen says “if such thoughts do not arise” we might think he means that we should therefore somehow find a way to not think. Many other “Zen” teachers have said as much. You may have noticed this is easier said than done. Our brains think. Dogen nowhere says that they shouldn’t. But he does say that we are not simply our thoughts. There is a fully functioning reality (that we are already uninterruptedly participating in) beyond our mere dualistic, linear thinking.
This reality, he says explicitly, is not found through “meditation”, of any kind (even “the sixteen especially excellent” methods!) Once again we are reminded how our zazen practice is not “meditation.” We are not freed from our “outflows” by anything we can “do or not do.” Someone asked about “outflows,” and this is a good question. I think we can substitute the word “projections,” as used in a modern psychological sense. Like when Carl Jung said that when you fall in “love at first sight,” one should be highly on guard, because what is almost invariably occurring is a massive projection of one’s inner anima or animus (one’s inner psychological male or female counterpart) onto this other person, who is simply acting as a screen for the light of your own “outflow.” That is maybe a helpful way to consider one aspect of this.
Freedom, release or relief, from this process – which we desire in order to fulfill our genuine aspiration and vow to experience reality, including other people, on their own terms beyond our self-clinging and desires and projections – is found only in “hearing tathagathas expound the Dharma.” Ok; so what are these tathagathas, and what is the teaching they expound? The word literally means “Thus Come Ones,” or realized beings we call Buddhas. In a real sense, they are our actual teachers and spiritual friends with whom we gather to practice and receive instructions. But in a deeper sense, it is the birdsong outside the window right now, or the traffic on the other side of the building. It is the sensation of the floor beneath us, the cool of the air conditioned air emanating out of the vents. It is our direct undeniable experience of these things, that no one can take away from us. In each of these sensations, we are “thus come.” And all things are similarly “thus come.”
In zazen, we practice “dropping off body and mind.” It’s like pushing in the clutch – the projection machinery continues to perhaps churn, but we choose to not actively engage it. It’s like those old projectors in school where you could turn out the bulb, but the fan kept whirring and the spools kept turning. But our attention is no longer fixed on the magical display that was just being projected. In time, our relationship to the display begins to shift. We don’t cling so much to it. We maybe still laugh or cry, but more for the release and genuine humanness of laughing or crying, hopefully not so much because we are freaking out about the show. But that will happen too, and even that’s ok.
One of our guiding teachers, Taigen Dan Leighton, will be visiting again from Chicago!
There will be three events, including a just added book signing at Bookworks!
Friday, July 10
book-signing and talk for his new book,
Just This Is It:
Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness
Bookworks: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, Albuquerque 344-8139
Saturday, July 11
Just This Is It:
Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness
Dragonfly Yoga Studio: 1301 Rio Grande Blvd NW #2, ABQ
($50 suggested donation; no one turned away. Kindly RSVP)
Monday, July 13
zazen and talk
Dragonfly Yoga Studio
Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness
The joy of “suchness”—the absolute and true nature inherent in all appearance—shines through the teachings attributed to Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), the legendary founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan Buddhism (the predecessor of Sōtō Zen). Taigen Dan Leighton looks at the teachings attributed to Dongshan—in his Recorded Sayings and in the numerous koans in which he is featured as a character—to reveal the subtlety and depth of the teaching on the nature of reality that Dongshan expresses. Included are an analysis of the well-known teaching poem “Jewel Mirror Samadhi” and of the understanding of particular and universal expressed in the teaching of the Five Degrees. “The teachings embedded in the stories about Dongshan provide a rich legacy that has been sustained in practice traditions,” says Taigen. “Dongshan’s subtle teachings about engagement with suchness remain vital today for Zen people and are available for all those who wish to find meaning amid the challenges to modern life.”
The day will be interspersed with discussion and periods of zazen (silent meditation.)
Taigen is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.”
Location: Dragonfly Yoga, Albuquerque
1:00 – 2:45 Dharma talk and discussion
3:15 – 5:20 Dharma talk and discussion
5:20 Closing vows
Please contact email@example.com for reservations.
There is a suggested donation is $50.00, but any donation will be absolutely fine.
Taigen will also be providing an opportunity for dokusan (private practice interviews) to interested practitioners. Please contact Keizan@valleydragon.org if interested.
During World War II, when I visited a coal mine in Kyushu, they allowed me to go into the mine. Like the miners, I put on a hard hat with a headlamp and went down in an elevator. For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast. Then I started to feel as if it were going up. I shone my headlamp on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily. When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but once the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising. The balance has shifted. In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.
Saying “I’ve had satori!” is only feeling a difference in the balance. Saying “I’m deluded!” is feeling another. To say food tastes delicious or terrible, to be rich or poor, all are just feelings about shifts in the balance.
In most cases, our ordinary way of thinking only considers differences in the balance.
Human beings put I into everything without knowing it. We sometimes say “That was really good!” What is it good for? It’s just good for me, that’s all.
We usually do things expecting some personal profit. And if the results turn out different from our hidden agenda, we feel disappointed and exhausted.
–Kodo Sawaki Roshi
We live our lives immersed in the subjective world of me and mine. Everything is evaluated in terms of the relative balance of our preferences. That this is even a framework that could be questioned is beyond most of us before we come to practice. It’s the water we swim in. Zazen is the practice, the realization of stepping outside of this framework. It’s not a preparatory practice that we do so that some time down the road we might be able to have some special experience that allows us to see outside of the framework. When we sit down, take the posture, and bring our awareness to our breath, body and mind, we immediately set aside this subjective agenda. It’s not that the agenda disappears. We notice the thoughts about this balance arising all the time during zazen. My knee hurts. I wonder if it would hurt less if I move it just a little bit. I wonder when the bell is going to ring? I hope the dharma talk isn’t boring tonight. I have some acid reflux. I wish I had taken an antacid before zazen.
On and on it goes, but because we have made a commitment to just sit in nonreactivity, we don’t act on those impulses. We notice them and their ceaseless arising, but by not engaging with them, we get some perspective on them, we see how this constant stream of evaluation is entire subjective world.
In his commentary to this passage by Kodo Sawaki, Uchiyama Roshi says about this point:
Good or bad luck is always our main concern. But in reality, is there good or bad fortune? There isn’t. There are only calculations using our expectations as a yardstick. . . it’s human to have expectations, but clinging to them causes suffering. If we can loosen our grip on expectations and settle down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment, we find unshakeable peace of mind, and a truly stable life unfolds. Doing zazen is ceasing to be a person always gauging gain and loss and evaluating life according to such calculations.
This idea of settling down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment is the key point, I think. Our practice doesn’t make us into some sort of super-beings who are always grooving on whatever is going on. But we can come to see that whatever our experience is, is just the side of the balance at this moment. It may meet our preferences or not, but we can settle into that moment with some ease and spaciousness.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the relative world. We still have our jobs and our families, we vote in elections, we have to buy new tires for our car, we have to fix the water heater, we have to make choices all the time. Even during zazen, when the instruction and the commitment is to not move, we sometimes have to move. When that moment arises, we don’t beat ourselves up about it, we just move, quietly and efficiently and don’t make a big deal out of it. Zen isn’t quietism, and we don’t use our spiritual practice to avoid making the hard choices that we face in a normal human life. Instead, zazen gives us room in which to inhabit our lives without getting so terribly wrapped up in the constant subjective analysis that we usually live with.
This is a subtle practice, and while our words can point to it, it’s not something that we can necessarily grasp with our conscious mind. As Dogen Zenji wrote in Genjo Koan:
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
We live in a multidimensional world but can only experience the four dimensions of space and time. The other dimensions can be intuited, but perhaps not directly grasped.
This reminds me of something that Shohaku Okumura taught in a sesshin he led at San Francisco Zen Center many years ago. He said (and I am paraphrasing here):
When we make a map of the world, we have to use a map projection and because of that, there is always some distortion. The point of zazen isn’t to throw the map away or to make a better map; instead, the point of zazen is just to sit directly on the Earth.
This is an intuitive practice. We can talk about it at the edges, we can point to it indirectly, but ultimately, it’s something we have to experience directly.
The great Beat poet Philip Whalen was a Zen priest in our lineage and I recently came across a section of poem that he wrote that evokes some of this sense:
Chaos is an ideal state
None of us has ever experienced it
We are familiar with confusion, muddle and disarray
True disorder is inaccessible to us
–Taisan Joe Galewsky
Human life is complicated. There are times of war when firebombs fall from the sky and times of peace when we can take a midday nap by the fireplace. Sometimes we have to work all night, and sometimes we can enjoy drinking sake. Buddhadharma is living this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teachings. –Kodo Sawaki Roshi
Usually we are brought to practice by some difficulty in our lives. Maybe it’s something acute like a grave illness or addiction, or maybe it’s just the persistent sense that something’s not quite right in our lives. Regardless of how we come to practice, many people come to the zendo with the idea that a spiritual practice is somehow going to let us leap over our problems and enter into some rarified space where our problems are no longer with us. Of course, that’s not what Buddhist practice, and especially not what Soto Zen is about at all.
Kodo Sawaki very elegantly describes the human condition. We have good days and bad days, days or even years of catastrophe and days or even years of great ease. Our practice is not to transcend these conditions or even to prefer one set of conditions over another, but just to be continuously present to them, continuously present to our life all the time, no matter what.
The key here is continuity of practice. When Sawaki Roshi tells us to live this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teaching, this is what he means. He used to teach students to be attentive without suki, which is a quintessentially Japanese term that means literally ‘a space between two objects’. When continuity is broken, there is a suki, when tension slackens, some laxity creeps in, and this is suki. We should practice without gaps, without suki. What does it mean to practice without suki?
During formal practice, it can definitely mean being very strictly attentive to our breath and our posture, moment by moment, and being meticulously aware of each arising of thought and letting it go as soon as it enters into awareness. It can definitely mean extending that precise and continuous awareness into our formal walking meditation, into our formal meals, into our work period. By all means, it is good and helpful to practice in this way, without slacking. But Uchiyama Roshi takes a wider view:
Sawaki roshi always taught us to be attentive without suki, without break, but he didn’t mean that one could never take a bath! He taught attentiveness to our everyday lives, including stormy and calm days, always guided by the Buddha.
Shohaku Okumura expands on this: In Uchiyama Roshi’s usage, it means being continuously attentive to every situation in our lives. When we need to work, we wholeheartedly work; when we can take a nap, simply take a nap; when we bathe, just relax and enjoy. We can live our complex lives following Buddha’s teachings in every moment.
This emphasis on being continuously attentive to every situation of our lives is a hallmark of our practice, and really I think it has to be the hallmark of any true spiritual practice. When we do this, we bring every aspect of our lives into our practice. There’s nothing left out. It’s not correct to think that we are necessarily slacking when we take a nap. Or that we are somehow better if we forego break time in order to work more. In our practice, we place equal emphasis on work time, zendo time, and break time. By that, I don’t mean that our days are uniformly distributed between work, zendo and breaktime. It means that we don’t elevate one thing over the other. In the monastery, during work periods, there are set periods to take a break. When the bell rings indicating that it’s time to take a break, you tidy up your workspace, set down your tools, and go take a break. It’s not appropriate to keep working through the break. We don’t say ‘Oh, let me finish up these few things and then I’ll take my break.’ It’s not heroic to do that. When that bell rings, the practice is to take a break.
When it’s time to work, we go to work; when it’s time to take a break, we take a break. When we’re at work, we’re not wrapped up in how wonderful our break is going to be, fantasizing about the scones and tea you’re going to have. And when we are taking a break, we’re not planning what work we need to finish during the next work period. I have personally found this approach to be extremely refreshing, and I think it’s a powerful antidote to our work-obsessed culture.
Dogen expresses this idea so beautifully in his magnificent essay called Gyoji, or Continuous Practice:
On the great road of Buddha ancestors,there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It is the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way.
This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or yourself, it is so.
In other words, continuous practice, living our lives without suki, is not even something we do through our own power. We may think that to practice continuously means making this titantic effort all of the time, but Dogen tells us this is not so. Instead, Dogen tells us that continuous practice is the way our lives already are. Our lives continue, moment after moment, without break, without pause, regardless of our efforts. Just to be alive is to be engaged in continuous practice. Even just the moment of aspiration, the moment when we hear these ideas and feel inspired, there is not a moment’s gap as we have already entered the path of continuous practice.
For sure, we must still make our best effort. We must still practice zazen and make the effort to bring this awareness into our lives, but you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re doing continuous practice properly, and you don’t have to measure how far your efforts may be from your ideal. From there very start, there is no gap, no suki. Indeed, how could there ever be a gap in your life?
–Taisan Joe Galewsky