John Crook: A Guestmaster's View
The role of guestmaster at a Chan retreat entails the responsibility for ensuring the comfort of the participants and visiting Master, the availability of necessary supplies and the organisation of affairs to ensure the even flow of the retreat programme. Together with Chief Cook and the Retreat Disciplinarian the work of the Guestmaster maintains the background quality of a retreat.
When I undertook this task with Shifu, I knew that it would not be an easy one. I wanted to ensure that as many applicants as possible would be able to benefit from Shifu's presence in this country, his first visit since his 1989 introduction of orthodox Chan to Britain at the Maenllwyd. Some thirty-two participants were coming, stretching our accommodation and resources to the limits.
The weeks before the retreat saw a detailed checking of equipment, everything from knives and forks to mats, zafus from Throssel Hole, chairs for mealtimes and new floor coverings. There were shopping expeditions, letters sent and parcels received and a considerable financial outlay to bring the quantities up to the required level and on time for the retreat.
The tunnel through the wall connecting the new Chan Hall to the house had to be completed. I was anxious that we could all move easily between the two to avoid repeated taking on and off of shoes to cross the mud of the yard between events. Edward, the builder, pushed the hole through on time, but everything was covered with the fine dust from his hearty demolitions. I went up to Pant-y-dwr a couple of days early to find the job only just completed and spent hours cleaning as well as laying out the rooms.
This needed careful planning. A Chan retreat has a tight schedule and everything must flow together in sequence. For this to happen all blocks need eliminating, so I worked out a scheme to ensure the optimum flow of persons. From Chan hall to dining space and back again and from sleeping areas to exercise yard and so on. Also because of shortage of space, extra tables for meals had to be erected and laid just before each meal and this had to be organised carefully. Finally I visualised each day's proceedings and imagined the various hold ups that could occur. By arranging everything appropriately I thought the retreat would run easily in spite of the pressure of so many people. Only the event itself would prove me right or wrong.
When everyone arrived they gradually occupied their sleeping places. Some discrete arrangements had been called for, the elderly being placed near toilets and the ladies, being displaced from their usual bedroom, given one of the upper floors of the Chan hall. The "toughies" were allocated the large unheated barn across the yard where they could see clouds or stars floating past the holes in the roof. The "toughies" are a special breed of participant many of whom have been coming to the Maenllwyd since the days when such conditions were the accepted norm. Among them are long distance third world travellers, mountaineers, an ex-Antarctic surveyor and those who just like making conditions for themselves as challenging as possible. When Shifu saw my own tent forlornly withstanding a Welsh April shower he was seriously alarmed for my health. I told him I was off to Mount Kailas in a month and needed some training!
Everything seemed to be settling down nicely when Shifu upset it all! I had carefully spaced out the sitting spaces in the Chan hall by using the upper floors as well as the main room. All this had been agreed by postal discussion. Suddenly Shifu said "No, put 'em all together" or the Mandarin to that effect. Hurriedly I reorganised, reflecting on the beauties of the Zen discipline, until everyone was within millimetres of each other, gasping from compression and appearing to meditate. It was a hard first day but then Shifu relented and gradually we spaced out again up into the attics. I think the need for air flow did it.
Shifu himself arrived with a cold and I was greatly concerned about him because, after Taiwan, mid-Wales in April can be dangerously chilling. Guo Yen Hse was also worried about him and we spent some time eliminating drafts and checking the heating. The "air pollution" was worrying them both and I realised they were caught between the Atlantic freshness of the oceanic hill breezes and the stuffiness of paraffin stoves. My explanation that the air was probably the least polluted in Britain did not seem to convince them and I muttered on in my mind remembering the air conditions in New York and Taipai. Shifu began wearing a surgical mask but whether it was from fear of spreading his own cold, the germs of others or the air pollution I was unable to determine.
Unknown to retreatants things came to a crisis on the third day when Guo Yen Hse was seriously worried about Shifu's cold. Shifu said that since I could run retreats as well as he I had better take over. What sort of Zen joke was this, I asked myself. I assembled all four participant Western doctors and Shifu provided them with a detailed account of his symptoms. Nodding their heads wisely they tut-tuttingly remarked that antibiotics merely made things worse and that it was bound to pass. I prescribed heavy rest until the evening lecture. Shifu, fortified by this encounter, was indomitably back on form by late afternoon. Grinning, he told me he had taken some of his Chinese medicine. Certainly he never looked back, as all participants know.
One thing I never had to worry about was food. The cooks did marvels and Simon's oriental flair was being much appreciated. In spite of great difficulty, meals were faultlessly on time and the Zen of cookery much in evidence. Working with Guo Yen Hse was learningful. In spite of considerable pressure he was sustaining an ease of manner and a kind of light personal discipline that touched me deeply and gave me confidence. When he felt something needed correction he would take me aside gently and politely mention it. I usually managed to put it right. Likewise the strength of mind shown by Paul Kennedy, our interpreter, impressed me greatly. He was having problems sleeping and sitting but never once did this show in his excellent and often witty work for us.
Surprisingly, once the retreat got underway I lost my anxieties. The flow of events and the way in which, in spite of everything, the retreat fell together delighted me. I let the universe take over and applied my method. Some very good sittings followed and my mind calmed. Shifu's teachings were often inspiring and I delighted especially in the method of Direct Meditation. It came naturally to me as I love the contemplation of nature and it had clear affinity with Dzogchen teaching which I had received from some Tibetan teachers. When the retreat was well advanced Shifu called me to him. He was smiling. Good news, he said, one of the participants has attained kensho. I was delighted especially when I learned who it was. I had known this man, a doctor, for some years. He had come to many Western Zen Retreats previously. During his first retreats he had cried a great deal being blessed by this freedom to weep out his suffering. Then on one retreat, as we were chanting, he had suddenly gained a deep insight into the meaning of the Heart Sutra, an insight that left him weeping and laughing at the same time and at intervals thereafter. He had found the insight so beautiful and yet so ordinary that only so could he express it. Having had a comparable experience myself I felt I knew what was happening. On later retreats these experiences had recurred to him with an increasing clarity until in one interview he had given me so profound an insight into the sutra and its meaning that I felt sure he had "seen the nature". I shared this with him but felt I would like his experience to be validated by Shifu. I had not explicitly identified him to Shifu and awaited the result of his retreat this time with interest. His report is presented below.
Shifu told us he does not frequently validate such insights unless he is very sure. He feels that many transmissions given in Japan are rather trivial because of the pressure of the training system of young monks. He would prefer caution, since true "seeing the nature" is often preceded by emotional states that look like it and feel exceptional but lack the clarity of the real thing. He said that his recognition of this participant's attainment should remain confidential during the retreat. He was against public pronouncements like school prize-givings. In any case, he told us, nothing has been attained except an insight into the ground of one's own nature that was already there. To make any kind of announcement would merely block others, setting up targets, imaginings, envy and making people strain for a goal for which they might not be ready. Furthermore, there is nothing for the person involved to be proud about. Yet he may make the mistake of becoming so and then seeking egoistically for more such proofs of his attainment. This would be a sad if understandable error.
Insights such as this come about by the effects of good karma. I would almost use the term "grace" for it. There is nothing one can do to "attain" it except follow the method and train diligently. It may or may not arise, only doing so indeed when the desire for it and the implied self-cherishing entirely vanish. This is a natural event when certain conditions ripen. Because no-one can find it with a desiring ego, training in humility and patience is the only way. It is for this reason too that the goal of Shifu's retreats is not set on such a target. The goal is training in awareness, the realisation of one's own condition and how little one understands it or controls one's behaviour and inner experiences, repentance and the gaining of a Zen attitude through hearing the teachings and practising the methods.
All this meant that nothing was said in public. It was a private matter like the content of all interviews with the Master. The participant asked Shifu how he should speak of the occurrence. Describe what happened without evaluation, was the answer. Shifu has subsequently mentioned this event in his New York journal and I feel that it is now a good thing to tell of it here, for it is only during the retreat itself that such mentioning can most seriously mislead. To talk about it in the terms above is moreover important. Many people have serious miscomprehensions on this subject and give themselves a lot of trouble as a result. The competitive become more so, the jealous - mean, the depressed - mournful and the successful - arrogant. It is important to read the Masters on this subject. In many cases a great Master had only one or two such deep experiences in his whole life which was otherwise devoted to deep training in compassion towards others. Often the first experience is quite trivial and only after many years is deeper insight attained. Some great teachers never "see the nature" and yet make major contributions to human life. Others stand frequently within its transcending yet ordinary presence. The whole matter is part of the expression of the mystical capacity of the human mind which many Buddhists have also experienced with varying degrees of depth and frequency. Shifu says that the significance of the insight within Zen is the confirmation it brings of the accuracy of the teachings.
While writing this I wondered whether there was anything in the participant's report that might be a guide to others. Reading it carefully I note the following points. Firstly this participant was unusually focused and determined. He already knew what he was after but also that egoistic striving would be pointless. He therefore set himself to apply his method to the exclusion of everything else. Taking Shifu's teaching about self-isolation very seriously he cut himself off from all concern with others. He showed a sort of ruthlessness with himself, discounting his physical pain. He resisted wandering thoughts and the temptation to allow reminiscences to flow through his head. The past was irrelevant, only the present counted. He saw that he had to penetrate beyond the aesthetics of beautiful experiences into their nature within his own mind. Finally he saw that his own mentality was a condition of limitation; it was universal and not personal mind that was flowing. In this identification he found truth.
I learnt many things during the retreat and these will doubtless find their way into later presentations to this journal. None the less when it came to my turn to speak on the last evening I felt I was a bit too enthusiastic about the material success of the event. In spite of being a trained public speaker I always find a terrifying shyness overcomes me at such times. I feel I can never assess such a rich experience so close to it - but then it is not really assessment that is being requested.
I was glad Philip was able to pass on his puppies and that no dogs had to die because of us. In London I was blessed by the company of Shifu, Guo Yen Hse and my old friend Yiu Yan Nang as we visited the British Museum and British Library to see the ancient paintings and manuscripts from Tung Huang in a private viewing. It was a privilege to look at them in such company.
At Bristol Parkway we nearly missed our train. A porter held a door open in time but we almost lost some luggage. It was still sitting on the platform. Remembering the consequent rush I had later asked Shifu how he had felt. He said he had looked at the luggage and, feeling the train move, had said to himself "Ah, there it goes!"
I find it embarrassing to write to the above title for all of us could easily pontificate on what is wrong with the world. Yet present events can hardly pass without comment among those of us concerned with the quality of human life. As I write two ten year old boys are being held by police for the premeditated abduction and gruesome murder of a toddler. Of course, if these little boys are guilty they will bear the stigma for the rest of their lives. Yet we must ask if any ten year old should bear the whole responsibility for such a terrible crime. A ten year old child cannot do other than reflect the conditions in the society that has bred him or her. In this terrible killing we see our world reflected. As the angry and distressed crowds stand unaccustomedly in the churches how many are wondering about their own involvement in this crime, the gross social negligence that allowed it to happen?
This event is but the sharp point of a general malaise that has been the subject of much recent commentary. Ministers attempt to talk us out of it but a general despondency reflects the levels of unemployment, crime, rape, child abuse, social and marital discord, all running at high levels. It is no comfort to reflect that in this deep recession similar features are found throughout Europe with racism and ethnic cleansing as its worst manifestation. It is in this sort of situation that fascism gains its hold. Recent and justifiable complaints about the uselessness of our present politicians could lead into that sort of attempted answer.
The causes of our distress are undoubtedly many but a few features are clear enough. Our sense of national and regional identity expresses itself in loyalty and dedication to institutions. Recently most of those which have been historically most enduring have shown signs of failure. There is a general breakdown in community feeling correlating with the centralisation of power in Westminster and the under-funding of distributed power outwards into newly structured systems of medical provision and education. The malaise in Universities is especially striking. But the loss of a sense of community is also related to the high mobility of the workforce, the urbanisation of dormitory villages, the collapse of farming communities and the ethos of economic individualism that allows the careless growth of an underclass of youngsters begging in the hearts of our cities. The Thatcherite failure to address social and psychological needs through favouring a focus on material economy and a competitive free for all is linked to the absence of a caring political philosophy and the collapse of socialist ideals.
What does this mean for those who subscribe to this journal? We need to ask ourselves what we really stand for. Do we attend Zen meditation groups simply to reduce our own anxieties, to find a togetherness with a few others who feel the same way, to seek some relief from our social distress? Have we any sense of community in what we are about? Do we care about the elderly in our own group or about the children of our younger members? Do we merely attend our meetings when the whim takes us or we have nothing better to do? Are we seriously committed to training or merely trying to comfort ourselves as we recline in our comfortable middle class armchairs in front of our imitation log fires?
These are matters we should seriously consider for we are citizens of our land and how we are is the state of our nation. In this issue of our journal Shih-fu warns us about the dangers of busying about do-gooding. He points to the need to work on our own personalities and their expression in the world. In the Dharma this need takes pride of place because everything else follows from it. Yet the forces that rule society are also to a degree independent of personal expression. Institutions, economies and social systems run in their own way and are only indirectly responsive to the personalities that are the cogs within their machines. We have to tap the sources of social power and expression as well as those of our personal morality. The difficulty in society arises as much from our institutions as it does from ourselves. It follows that all of us need to be politicians, to argue for the expression of our practice in society at large. This is not done by huge donations of money but rather through the spread of cells that activate at the personal level and so shift the quality of institutions from within. There is a role for the appropriately subversive in our national structure. Our job is to sustain a continuous critique. It will take the Tibetans a long time to regain control of their land. It will take us a long time to re-enchant our own.
A new retreat for annual presentation at the Maenllwyd.
In this retreat we begin with methods common to Zen and to Tibetan Buddhism, calming the mind and gaining insight into its nature and then introduce further methods which are known as Tantra.
The purpose of doing this is to allow participants to become aware of the wide range of methods available in Mahayana Buddhism and to fulfil in part the Ch'an vow to "master limitless approaches to Dharma". Such a retreat is rare and participants are invited to make the most of the opportunity.
The main idea in Tantra is to transform the mind through directly envisaging the presence of the Buddha or Bodhisattva. The visualised being may then confer blessings, purification, peace of mind, power or stabilisation of insight depending upon the specific "sadhana" (ritual visualisation) performed. The practitioner, after appropriate training and initiation, may also identify him or herself with the figure, thereby acquiring, for a brief time, the mind of a Buddha. Although this is merely an exercise, the lamas say that such practice gradually transforms the mind through repeated familiarisation with the psychological content of the image. It is of course essential that this content is truly apperceived, for without that the exercise is only fantasy. The only danger is that, instead of insight, illusions of power and ego enhancement may result. Tantric practice needs to be firmly anchored in the humility and compassion of the Bodhisattva vow.
A further Tantric practice is the visualisation of the chakras and energy channels of the body which, in Higher Yogic Tantra, is then combined with 'deity' visualisation as in the Six Yogas of Naropa.
The aim of Tantric practice is Mahamudra, a term equivalent in meaning to the 'mind of insight' in Zen. There is a "path of preparation", in which one purposefully applies the methods. There is also a "path of completion", which is the expression of insight once it is realised. Within the latter there is no intentionality since the "fox is already caught". The adept knows that the path of completion begins only after the ending of preparation. In each sitting session, preparation may lead into completion. However, for the beginner, the methods of preparation will not yet have yielded the essential insight. In the Nyingma practice of "Dzogschen" the practitioner is wholly within the path of completion. Yet even here, a return to preparation is needed whenever insight is lost.
Zen, Mahamudra and Dzogschen each have a similar goal in mind. The richness of the range of methods available will not be found contradictory so long as a firm understanding of the basis is apprehended. This lies in the Prajnaparamita Sutras of the Buddha and teachings closely related to these.
On this retreat, which focuses on practice rather than philosophy, certain basic tantric methods will be taught, including some limited use of chakra visualisation and the practice of a Chenrezi (Avalokitesvara) sadhana. The way in which these can empower sitting meditation and quicken the deepening of insight is the focus of this retreat. Participants should be enabled to develop an effective practice to take home with them. Individual interviews, as in Western Zen Retreats, will monitor each individual's understanding and consider how far Tantric methods are useful for that person. Talks clarifying Tantra in relation to Zen will be given at intervals during the retreat. Depending on progress an initiation enabling participants to practice the Chenrezi Sadhana outside retreat may be given.
I hope that some of the mystification surrounding the subject of Tantra can be dispelled and the great value of its careful use under supervision be made apparent.
Edited and abbreviated text of a lecture on the Sutra given by John Crook to the Bristol Ch'an group on the evening of November 18th 1992. This is the second part of a short series of talks. Beginning in our last issue the Sutra now continues:
Form is precisely emptiness.
And emptiness precisely form.
So also are sensation, perception, volition and consciousness;
Sariputra, this voidness of all dharmas is not born, not destroyed,
Not impure, not pure, does not increase nor decrease.
In voidness there is no form
And no sensation, perception, volition or consciousness,
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,
No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought,
There is no realm of the eye
All the way up to no realm of mental cognition.
There is no ignorance and no ending of ignorance.
There is no ageing and death and no ending of ageing and death.
There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering and no path.
There is no wisdom or any attainment.
Here we have the pivotal message of the "Second Turning of the Wheel of the Law", the doctrine of emptiness as the central feature of the Mahayana. Yet when we examine the way the idea is presented we find the language used belongs at first to the older vision, the philosophical doctrine of the Theravada. Scholars who have studied the text carefully suggest that it was assembled from the huge Prajnaparamita literature during a transitional period in the history of Buddhism when a fresh emphasis was gradually extending the ideas of the original view. The difference lies in the wider scope and greater range of perspective. Let us see how this happens.
The main ideas of the early doctrine go right back to the first sermon when the Buddha spoke to his yogin friends in the Deer Park at Benares. The Buddha expressed his new found understanding, his enlightenment, very simply in the Four Noble Truths, that life is suffering, that suffering is due to craving, that craving can end and that the way is eightfold in method.
The word translated as craving means any kind of wanting, either wanting something you have not got, or not wanting something which you have. Either way it is the movement of desire or rejection which is the root of the lack of ease. Clearly the Buddha is speaking primarily about mental suffering, about attitudes we hold which cause us distress. He is not talking about the pain of a broken leg, but rather the attitudes towards a broken leg which can make a great deal of difference to the manner in which we cope with an accident. He speaks of the mental approaches to life and not some magical or idealistic idea which will stop a broken leg from hurting.
If you find that you are suffering the Buddha recommends that you look into your own mind to see what it is doing with the problem. Instead of evoking some state of passionless trance or samadhi the Buddha recommended his own method of Vipassana. This method requires a practitioner to look directly at the processes of his own thought and feeling without denying them. One has to ask the question "What is going on here?" and then explore it fully by letting thought and feeling express itself within an acute awareness of process.
What do you find? Well, you find sensations, ideas, wants and consciousness. You also realise that all this is situated in the form that is your physical presence. These features are known as the five 'skandhas'. All mental phenomena are structured in this way. Whenever you look into your mind you will find them.
Furthermore they are based in the operations of the eye, ear, nose, sense of touch and awareness and the mental corollaries of these physical systems. You also become aware that these systems get old, wear out and die. At the centre of all this activity is your sense of your "own being", your self, ego or I. This is the Buddha's model of the mind described in detail in the scriptures of the Theravada known as Abhidharma.
But the Buddha also said that such processes of knowing, wanting and rejecting, all centred on the presence of a self, are in a special sense quite illusory. These are the terms you come up with when you set out to analyse and describe the way the mind works. Where is the self? Is it the totality of the body? Is it in the body at all? What is its relation to the body? As you read this - try to find it. Paradoxically while you will have little doubt about the fact of your existence, the precise location or mode of being of what you appear to be is very far from obvious. Similarly, if you seek to locate the roots of experience whether of sensation, volition, thought or awareness you again find yourself tumbling into an absence of certainty, into a great doubt. Such processes are easy to name but when you seek to locate or find them, or observe from where they arise, there is more of an absence than a presence. It is as if these words don't refer to things but to merely transient states the objectivity of which is highly illusory.
The Buddha said that all these words simply isolate aspects of a process of interdependent origination ('pratityasamutpada'); where the mind is so are all of they. But where is the mind? It too is in an interdependent relationship of inner and outer, of before and after, of now-ness and then-ness. Nothing in fact can be pinned down. There is at root just a great flowing together. Furthermore, in meditation these processes flow apart in ways that differ from everyday minding. There are alternative ways of seeing things. Indeed what are things? Are they out there or in the mind, part in or part out? Can one actually say?
The Buddha said that all these processes lacked objectivity as things with intrinsic selfhood. They were empty of "inherent existence", rather their being had the nature of flow which only appeared partible through the activity of a discriminatory mind. Self was therefore empty and, since that was so, to be attached to it as if it were a thing was to be in great ignorance. In fact, this was the root of all illusion and suffering. Meditation on this allows one to drop attachment, drop the illusory projection of objectivity and enter a world of revelatory freedom. Words are names and, as modern thinkers might say, we tend to live within our texts and not within truth itself. To let go of the assumptions of the worldly illusion, ('Samsara') is to find the freedom of 'nirvana' where all texts themselves are dropped.
If you are not here what is there to fuss about? Of course the world remains in itself, ineffably so. There is sensation, form and process and it is beautiful. Why do you want more? Or want it to be otherwise? This is how things are. There is no need to crave or reject because there is nothing substantial to crave or want.
The essential feature of this approach is to realise that it is based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation. The Buddha is speaking out of his enlightenment. He is sharing it, transmitting it. To receive it one has to follow the same path. Philosophically the idea of "self' is a "category error". Self is simply not the sort of thing it seems to be. Meditation is essential to realise this existentially. At some point there is an "Ah ha!" experience. "So that's it" you will say. You have dropped a concept and seen a freedom. These are first steps on the path leading to a place where your view of self as entity itself also falls away.
In the "Second Turning of the Wheel of the Law" these ideas were pressed further. In the traditional view, the Buddha himself taught this extension to certain disciples who were ready for it. Some scholars in fact believe there was a minority belief among certain practitioners which always held the new view. Others think there was a gradual revision of the original insight.
The idea of emptiness came to be focused not only on psychological phenomena but applied to all phenomena of any son anywhere. Whereas the Buddha's first approach had been psychological and had shown how the individual could go beyond self-limitation, the notion of everything as empty now expands and expands until everything you can think of, the vast cosmos itself is seen as Vast Emptiness. Vastness unlimited, unbounded spaciousness, timeless presence.
Do you catch the idea? Imagine the space through which the universe has expanded since the Big Bang. Physicists say one cannot really talk of this in terms of space or time at all since neither of these had existence before the primal explosion. There is eternity, an endless present moment; an imagined vastness.
This is the root of the Mahayana. So also, however, is the opposite realisation. If all form is precisely emptiness, emptiness nonetheless appears to us as form. Form is precisely emptiness but emptiness also is precisely form. Samsara and Nirvana are contrasting perspectives on the Unknown Nature that lies behind it all. The vision of the Mahayana is that both are true in a co-emergent mutuality which becomes the focus of meditation itself.
In the older vision the ending of self-cherishing led to the realisation of the Arhat - one who had gone beyond and disappeared without a care. In the new view no-one has disappeared. The market place is still full of the goods and contending merchants. The sadness of the ignorance, the horror of war, abuse, crime and the knot tied by visions of self-importance or fearful insignificance appear again as real; an illusory vision maybe but one that inspires an appropriate compassion. The new idea is the Bodhisattva, one who seeks enlightenment only so as to assist others to enlightenment themselves.
How can others be helped along the path? This is the way of the Bodhisattva. Paradoxically this way has no path as such, no resolution as such, no wisdom inheres within it. Suffering is empty yet never ceases. There is no attainment. There is however the activity of the Bodhisattva functioning within the dual insight that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In the co-emergent vision the Bodhisattva knows nothing - yet through his being he seeks to transform the world.
How do we comprehend this? What is our starting point here? Take pain. Look into it closely. In meditation place your awareness on your aching knee, the itch on your cheek or your backache. If you can sustain a disinterested awareness it changes its apparent nature. Instead of pain to be rejected or escaped it changes to mere sensation, neutral. If you just feel it to be so the discomfort slowly disappears. Finally it moves on and something else appears. What then did the word 'pain' mean?
Zen masters are not very sympathetic if you have a backache in meditation on retreat. "Put your mind in it!" they may say. Change may take time but mostly you suddenly find yourself free and realise the extent to which your own fear of pain was creating it. (Of course this practice is not appropriate in cases of actual medical problems).
Now look at form. Is your body really here? If so in what manner? Shut your eyes and where is it? All this has to be gone into. "You" may entirely disappear and instead of your body on the cushion there may be a mere awareness of presence. A presence of what?
Now look at the Universe in all its multiplicity. What happens if you persist with the Koan "What is it?"
If we look at volition, our wants and rejections, we find they are structured by ideas which we project upon our world. These projections are called "samskaras". They are the product of our education, relations with parents, karma rolling down through centuries. We conceive things in highly patterned ways in which our presuppositions create only apparent realities. In modern psychotherapies these are the sources of neurosis, fixed attributions the Illusory nature of which we have not seen. You believe you should be seen as famous or beautiful yet you are not so perceived. Trouble for everyone, pride, jealousy and paranoia, fear that one may not be what one has cracked oneself up to be.
It turns out that it is very difficult to think differently, to change these deeply emotionally rooted presuppositions. Some such 'samskaras' have dreadful consequences. They produce prejudice and ethnic cleansing of all sorts be they in Serbia, Tibet under Chinese domination or the paranoid Muslim fear of Salman Rushdie (he might be right and that must never be allowed).
In what sense are these 'samskaras' empty? If you examine your own prejudices and biases in deep meditation you will find out. Just as pain dissolves when examined with a meditative mind so too do the 'samskaras' weaken their hold upon our attitudes. Prejudice dissolves in meditation as the self becomes freed of selfishness. Pre-conceptions drop away. Others are seen just as they are, as deluded as you are. In the same boat. Compassion has a chance to emerge in the mind.
As meditators you need to examine your own 'samskaras' and work with them. Let them appear in full force and do not shrink from them. Then go into them, examine their bases. How can we test that they are empty?
The purpose of the Western Zen Retreat is to allow your personal 'samskaras' to arise in the communication exercise. Working with "Who am I?" your judgemental nature appears undeniably. After multiple evasions and excuses you have to admit who you are. Gradually it all appears less dreadful. As you realise this is just the way you think, so you realise it is possible to think differently.
But something else is going on. In meditation the mind is much calmer and more insightful. You reach the point of realising that your whole self-conception and that of others is a rigmarole of the imagination. You may reach a point where you simply give it up. You drop it. And, as it disappears, you realise your mind is suddenly cool, clear and empty of discrimination that leads to prejudice. You see others just as they are, as you are. And giving up the self you can understand Shih-fu when he says "Let the Universe do it". You are no different from the Universe.
When the mind lets it all go, becoming still and quiet you may find there is no sensation of time, no fixity in space. There is a sort of cosmic reference, no longer walls, boundaries, horizons. The clock ticks but where is the ticking? It no longer advances in time, it goes backwards and forwards. Momentless presence, eternity. Eternity itself never moves. Have you ever moved?
If you have touched the Eternal you will know there is no wisdom, no attainment, no path. There is the fullness you cannot express. Beyond its limitations the mind can only find the ineffable. What began as a mountain is no more a mountain, but then it is simply the mountain again. What was said can no longer be said, but then it is said again. The text is empty but outside of being it is all we have.
The text of the Sutra moves on. "With nothing to attain, the Bodhisattvas relying on insight have no obstruction in their minds. And having no confusion and imaginings they reach ultimate Nirvana". Afterwards the Bodhisattva will go into the kitchen and prepare for you just another cup of tea. Earl Grey or Peppermint perhaps?
Arriving in the yard
I switch off the engine
and gaze at the view,
evening sun on the rolling hills
yellow fields, dark woods.
In the sudden silence
a buzzard mews,
distantly guiding sheep
Entering the gate
I come home to my hermitage,
welcoming trees brood
and the old door creaks on rusty hinges
falling plaster needs sweeping from the floor,
softly on cold flags moisture gleams.
Lighting the fire
I watch slow smoke rising,
hang in the windless cwm.
The smells of the hills
roll in through opened windows,
thankfully I breath out city air,
inside my room
The hills lie still, only sheep disturb
this summer evening's equanimity,
over the farmstead yard
the dark soul'd sycamore broods
bunched branches heavily
Wide valley, patchwork fields
roof the bedrock of this land,
few travellers, for tourists hug the towns
and roads that cut like knives,
here shady lanes meander yet,
one travels vaguely,
things do not get
so easily done.
Fading light brings deeper silence,
the grey stone soul turns inward to the cwm,
this sycamore now holds its breath
continuously - my eyes roam
yard to landscape far to near,
behind my chair
the small and unlit house
waits like an old friend.
Freshly cool the silent room inhales
the fair scent of summer night
candles on the table flutter
an incense mingling breeze.
Retreated from our seared souls' silences,
those zombie spaces where in the cold snake
kills the warm, composed heart opens
to the pains that move yet are not changed.
If I could give you now this other stillness
wherein the night owl cries beyond the barn
two minds' silences would be as one
grateful emptiness of a midnight calm.
And yet heart's silences like secrets
are for the single one alone -
in your universe and far away you move
here candles flutter in hay scented air