Editorial from the Chan Hall.
What is this journal for? Why do some of us work so hard to keep on issuing these copies of New Chan Forum? What is the policy of this publication? First of all, it is not a house journal retailing our meetings, events and personal experiences as if in a chat room. Rather, it has a serious teaching intent augmenting our programme of retreats and the work of our regional groups. It attempts to develop clearly the means by which we fulfil our charitable constitution.
There may be some who would prefer ‘lighter’ material, others might seek philosophy. Our intent is essentially existential: to further the experience of Chan, to deepen our understanding through sharing and to show what we have felt and thought while doing this. So we include serious but not ‘academic’ texts, poems, accounts of retreat experiences, comments on the times and Buddhist iniquities as we see them, as well as hopes for the future, sermons, stories and laughs. Certainly we invite contributions in all these modes. Perhaps especially it would be good to have more accounts of the experience of trying to practice Dharma in everyday life: at the shop counter; in the bank; building a house or a car; negotiating business or counselling the bereaved. Whatever it is - how did your understanding of Dharma, such as whatever it may be, play a role in your work and thought?
At our recent AGM I tried to explain my understanding of what the WCF is endeavouring to teach through its retreats and other offerings. Based profoundly in the Dharma revelation of Master Sheng yen this is an attempt to make clear the Buddha's subtle message to our time within our own particular Sangha. It seems worthwhile providing some of what I said then, here, for a wider audience.
These are very difficult times in which the understanding of human spirituality is deeply confused, especially in the West, and in which the politics of contemporary consumerism create forms of self-concern which the Dharma confronts with perspectives that may seem counter cultural in spite of their psychological depth. These are times when presentation matters, because unless ideas are perceived as relevant they will not be heeded. Hence I am emphasising certain aspects of the Dharma more strongly than others (see NCF 27: Passing down the Robe) in order to clarify the purpose of the Dharma to contemporaries more clearly.
Chan is an enlightenment project and the requirements for a deep understanding of such an endeavour are essentially self-confrontational. The root project of the Buddha is the setting aside of the self which is both the root of illusory attachment and the source of ignorance. The process is necessarily one of self-understanding - which means you, which means me. Yet we live in a time when self-concerned individualism, encouraged by every commercial means possible, is the basis of our capitalistic, competitive striving. As David Loy has been pointing out in recent writings, our strong sense of ‘lack’ is rooted in the despair that the illusory attachment to self ultimately generates. Today it is not so much alternative outer- path religions that comprise a problem for Buddhism, but rather the unconscious cravings for wealth, status, self-esteem and aggressive acquisition necessary for capitalism to continue. And capitalism is a proven means of limiting the poverty for some while increasing it for others. How then can we confront the ego, not so much the rampant evil ego of a Saddam Hussein, which produces its own gross opposition, but the subtle ego of semi-conscious self-enhancement at the expense of others that manifests in everyday affairs and sustains our unease.
In modern Zen these issues are compounded by an almost competitive seeking for ‘enlightenment’ as a product of propaganda by some Zen institutions. An illusion about enlightenment is projected as the ‘product’ of training. Yet Chan/Zen teaching makes clear that an enlightenment experience, let alone a continuing enlightened state, cannot arise through any sort of self-based desire. Given the nature of our culture this is not only a difficult task to undertake but quite problematic for conventional understanding. Furthermore there may be a number of paths which individuals may take, paths that are relative to their karmic character.
To many westerners, Zen still seems to be solely about the attainment of a precise experience known from the Japanese as "kensho", by which is meant an event, commonly of very short duration, in which ego concern totally vanishes in the extraordinary clarity of an unfiltered perception revealing the universe just ‘as it is’. This experience became emphasised for Westerners as the goal of zen in the influential writing of the great scholar Daisetz Suzuki whose personal training as a layman in Rinzai Zen followed that suitable for young monks who needed a quick qualification in order to inherit the temples of their fathers. High-pressure training induced experiences but many of them, according to Master Sheng yen, were probably shallow and arising while the young men were as yet hardly mature. Furthermore, Suzuki had failed to mention another focus of great importance in Japan, the Soto Zen approach brought there from China by the great monk Dogen. In this Cao-dong tradition all of us are considered basically enlightened from the start, it is only the complexity and depth of our ‘vexations’ that prevent us knowing this. In other words, enlightenment does not have to be sought for it is already there. We need to learn to ‘lean back’ into it - as Roshi Reb Anderson has expressed it, an outcome barely possible for those desperately searching for something that has never been lost; a search furthermore clearly driven by subtle egoism.
All this is not to suggest that a kensho experience is not extremely significant, merely that for some it becomes too exclusively the focus of Zen training as a desired outcome. The insight gained through such an experience is life changing in its realisation that the mind does not depend on the ego for its function and that the world just goes on in its impermanent flux anyway. It naturally leads to a falling away of suffering through an increasing concern with the needs of others. Yet, since it happens to one as it were ‘from its own side’ and in its own time when the mind is ready, its occurrence cannot be premeditated or grasped by any sort of wanting. Indeed to want it is to preclude it.
People vary in the likelihood of having such an experience. In both the Chan and the Tibetan traditions three grades of individual are described. There are those for whom the insight arises spontaneously, maybe outside the realm of teaching altogether, and it only needs the refinement of a teaching from a master to set the individual on the path of a Bodhisattva. Master Huineng is a good example. For others, intensive long-term training in meditation methods is required (for example Dogen) but, even then, such training cannot without fail yield such a paradoxical experience. There are also some whose karmic obscurations are so heavy that it is unlikely their egoistic referencing can ever be laid aside. Master Sheng yen says that it is within a life dedicated to Dharma that kensho arises, not through any specific method or meditational training. It is also vital to realise that the egoistic self returns so that continued work is needed. One experience does not mean you are enlightened person - you have had no more than a glimpse of what that may mean.
It follows that our WCF training, particularly for newcomers, should start with a method and a focus that grants some success without the immediate need for the radical undermining of self that is ultimately demanded but which may seem unreachable in everyday life. In our retreats over twenty years, the number of persons who have, or may have, experienced an enlightenment moment (kensho) is extremely small. Yet many have felt that extraordinary oneness and clarity that comes from an insight into the interdependence of self and universe - the ‘one-mind experience’.
This valuable insight may arise through intensive training on retreat at a stage well before the letting go of self at a deeper level is likely. While teaching the dharma of enlightenment, it seems additionally important to encourage retreatants and Dharma practitioners in this less paradoxical direction. Such an insight I call ‘self at ease’. There is a sense of oneness with all things, a profound experience of peace and a clarity of perception due to a marked reduction in the fog of ego concern, even though the practitioner may be quite self-congratulatory in the bliss of attainment. ‘Self at ease’ is attainable directly through adequately focussed attention once the confusion of thought has died down. As Dogen puts it "When you do these things for some time the treasure house opens naturally". Self at ease can then become a basis for further practice, ‘not meditation’ as the Tibetans put it, a bare awareness without purpose that eventually allows the realisation of higher states (jnanas), ‘manifesting from their side’, and which, with insight into emptiness, become the revelation of our basic unselfed condition (tathagata garbha).
These points suggest our training must focus first on calming the mind. This requires a precise attentiveness to the mind’s process that arises in the practice of Silent Illumination or Mahamudra. No glitzy, worried mainstreaming to fit contemporary culture is required here. What is needed is the entirely conventional application of the Buddha's methods as revealed in the Sutras, developed in the Abhidharma and emphasised in the Mahayana sutras that lie at the basis of Chan/Zen. Since these methods can produce a ‘taste of chocolate’ as Lama Thubten Yeshe used to say, they can encourage practitioners into a deeper understanding of the Dharma eventually leading to a heartfelt letting go of attachments of all kinds - including ‘me’. Gradual training and sudden insight are thereby related.
The application of insight requires an everyday process of mindfulness. Our training must therefore also encourage a daily practice that is not so much a time spent in ‘sitting’ as a moment to moment cultivation of self-awareness: a knowing why I do this, within a gentle critique that does not beat oneself over the head. Such mindfulness is actually the practice of the eightfold path. Any mechanical practice will not do the trick. Mindfulness is all in the everyday.
Finally a warning: if a practitioner settles down in 'self at ease ' he/ she will be like someone who, as Shifu has put it, finds a level place upon a mountain full of ferns, fresh water and sunshine and behaves as if it were the summit itself. Not so. ‘Self at ease’ must itself be let go, otherwise it too will grow stale in a false contentment. The path never ends. The mystery beyond the signless signpost pointing out over the ocean has not yet been understood.
In the end one suspects all this is forgotten. At home in the universe the bodhisattva is not concerned with him/herself nor with discovering anything. There is simply the task of working for all in the knowledge that everything is a sharing in all.
One may thus say - this is all words. Hughie told us recently of a story in which a Japanese teacher with little English was asked for his view of practice in the UK. He said:
"Books, books, books,
too much, too much, too much,
dustbin, dustbin, dustbin!"
And, of course, this is spot on. If you find yourself at the top of a thousand foot pole all you have to do is to step off. One discovers:
Everything as usual....
But most of us have yet to reach the top of the thousand-foot pole - let alone attempt the stepping off it. Those who do need no words.
These remarks have been made to encourage those for whom the path may begin to seem too difficult or irrelevant to our times. The Dharma path is not only long and wide, it has many tracks. The root intention must be the development of bodhicitta - the spirit of the bodhisattva seeking enlightenment for all irrespective of him/herself. And, for this, those of humble attainment, as the world seems to know, may contribute much. Even those who seem to be in the third category, deeply troubled human beings such as the great monk Hakuin was for so long, may actually become greater practitioners than those with sharp Dharma intuition. Kindness, compassion and empathy are also the routes to great insights that may arise when time alone knows the moment. Let no one be proud.
This "teisho" has been given at Sharpham College and at the Maenllwyd in variant forms. Stuart McLeod has kindly transcribed the disks for us which John has edited for presentation here.
This little poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was shown me by a student on the Buddhism course at a Sharpham College. Introducing a weekend of Chan there I thought it showed me a way to begin. The poem is called "Keeping Quiet".
"Now we will all count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth let's not speak in any language. Let's stop for a second and not move our arms about so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines.
We would all be together in a sudden strangeness. Fishermen in the cold sea would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers in the shade doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with inactivity.
Life is what it's about. "
Neruda goes on to tell us that if we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves. He pondered whether perhaps then the earth could teach us that although everything seems dead in winter yet soon all is alive again.
"Now I'll count up to twelve and you keep quiet, I'll disappear."
A powerful poem. Yet in Chan and Zen there is something more than simply keeping silence. To investigate what that 'more' is we have to look deeply. Let's try and have a look at the Great Matter straight away. We'll probably not comprehend it at once but the endeavour is worth doing. After all how can one introduce Zen except by Zen. Zen often side-steps what one thinks is the 'point', yet any such "point" is just a thought.
Recall the story of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was the Indian monk who brought the Chan tradition from India to China. This is the legend that has come down through the ages. Legends are not necessarily history yet legends are part of history. Bodhidharma probably came by sea by way of Indonesia. There seems to be no record of him having travelled to China by the Silk Route as many other great teachers did. You may remember that when he arrived in China he had a rather uncomfortable meeting with the Emperor, who misunderstood what he had to say. It was a very frank meeting yet the Emperor could not understand Bodhidharma. Perhaps this travelling monk was too direct. One might criticise Bodhidharma and say that perhaps he lacked the skill to get his message across to so materialistic a mind as the emperor's. In any case, after this miscommunication, Bodhidharma went off into the mountains by himself and sit in a cave for the proverbial, famous nine years of gazing at a wall.
A somewhat distraught monk came to find him. This monk was eventually to become the second Patriarch in China, but at that time he was puzzled, disturbed as are so many of us. If you think of a time when you've felt ill at ease, disturbed, you know what this monk felt like. He came to Bodhidharma, and Bodhidharma took absolutely not the blindest bit of notice of him. He just continued looking at the wall. But the monk kept saying "Bodhidharma, great teacher, please." Nothing happened, silence, staring at the wall. So he got desperate and the story says he chopped off his arm and held it out to Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma said "Hah, Really! You must need something seriously to chop your arm off." Of course it might not have been his arm, it might have been his finger, it might have been anything. If you chop your arm off, doctors would tell you that you wouldn't be in a very good position to ask any questions!
Whatever he did was sufficient for Bodhidharma to turn away from the wall and say, "Well, what do you want then?" One gets the impression that Bodhidharma was certainly a bit of a grumpy old codger. "What do you want then?" So the monk said, "Please, my mind is so disturbed. Please calm my mind." Bodhidharma said, "Well, the first thing is, you have to show it to me. Find your mind and let me see it. " So the monk sat and looked for his mind - thought, thought, looked, thought, thought, looked, looked, thought, puzzled, paced up and down, maybe went away for a week, came back again and finally said, "I can't find my mind!" "Oh," said Bodhidharma, "Can't find it eh? Well therefore I have calmed it." And the monk realised something very important. He was suddenly in a state of not searching, he was somewhere else, and in that somewhere else was a great peace.
That story is picked up again in variant version in a Chinese text discovered in the last century in the Dung Huang caves of North China, a very interesting place where both ancient Tibetan and Chinese texts were discovered all mixed up. Some texts which scholars might have thought would be in Chinese have been found in Tibetan and vice versa. This particular text has been recently translated and is called 'The Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions'2 - the letting go of ideas. Let's just look at the first two pages. They clearly pick up on the story I've just told you.
It begins with a general statement.
The Great Way is without limit, fathomless, subtle, beyond comprehension, beyond words. Master Nuri and his disciple Emmon were discussing the truth. The master sat silent and was saying nothing. Emmon suddenly got up and said:
"What is it that we call the heart - mind? How is this heart - mind pacified?"
The master answered, "You should not assume the mind-heart, for then there's no need to pacify it. That is called pacifying the heart - mind."
Emmon said, "But if there is no heart-mind then how can we learn the Way?"
"The heart-mind cannot think of the Way, so why should the Way depend upon the heart-mind?"
Let's look at this. Here's Emmon, like our first monk, the man who was troubled and went to Bodhidharma. Emmon is not so anxious, not so disturbed but he is very concerned to understand what the mind, sometimes translated as heart, is. 3 "What is this thing?" he says, "what is this mind? The mind is so often disturbed you know, how can we pacify it?" The master says, "You shouldn't assume the mind." Interesting, fascinating statement, which requires a great deal of penetration. If you assume something to be present or something to be there you're making an assumption, it's a thought. I think I have a mind. So assuming the existence of something that we call the mind, prejudges the whole thing. And if we make a prejudgement that we have got a worrying mind then of course it goes on worrying. But if we don't assume it, we can question it. What is this thing that I'm calling a mind or a heart, which is this worrying entity? If I drop it or I stop assuming that it's there, is this pacifying the heart, pacifying the mind?
Let's see if we can enter into a discussion with Master Nuri. "Master Nuri that's all very well, but I mean I am worried, I am concerned, I have a mind don't I? I spend my whole time fussing." "Yes," says the teacher, "that's true, but look actually what you're doing. You're assuming there is a thing there called "you" - called your mind. You're making an assumption. Why don't you actually look at what experience is, the process of experience itself. What do you then find? Do you find a thing?"
Hmm okay, so let's sit and do that.
Now those of us who have sat and done a good deal of meditation will realise that you don't find a "thing". What you find is a kind of ongoing, flowing experience. Yet, when we come out of that and start talking, we speak about the mind, the entity, myself, me, ego. And what we then do is grab hold of that thought as if it were a thing. We also give it a name - John. So by my own attributing of a name, an entity, to this flowing experience, I generate an object, a reification which I then grab hold of. "That's me!" And this me, called John, should be peaceful, must be enlightened, must be clever, must be handsome, must be perennially young. And if you're perhaps a lady, you must be forever beautiful, forever desirable, forever lovable. Me, this idea, must have those qualities, and if I don't have any of those things or if they are threatened or if I have a doubt about them, then this apparent thing called John gets depressed.
We can see there's an assumption here, the assumption of the importance of being John, or being Simon, or being Jane, or any one of us. The Jane-ity of our existence, the Simon-ness of my being, the John-ness of who one is, becomes terribly important as an object which has to be tinkered with, corrected, improved, made more beautiful. We spend our whole time fussing about it. It's called self-concern.
But supposing instead of indulging in self-concern, I actually look at experience.
The best way of doing that is in meditation, because in meditation we may manage to drop all the words. You will find 90 per cent of the words in your head are about 'muggins'- me. I challenge you to look at your thoughts to check this. Of course if you're studying for an examination or playing a piece of music, you may not then be thinking of yourself, but, okay, you stop playing the piece of music and you think, "Ah, I did that well!" or "Oh, what a mess I'm making of this essay," or "Oh dear, my meditation is so appalling," or "I'm so sorry, I've not done meditation for a whole week."
People sometimes come to me apologising as if they should be doing meditation the whole time, as if it concerned me! Self-concern. Check it out. I think you'll find maybe 85 per cent, but possibly even 95 per cent of the time that your mind is just spinning freely, it's about muggins. We all are making an assumption as to how important this heart-mind, this "muggins" is.
The beauty of meditation is that, after a while, (and those of you who've done a fair amount meditation will know this to be true) somehow that self-concern gets put on the back-burner or may even be dropped. And, although one is aware one is still Jane sitting on a cushion, one is not preoccupied with that, one is not assuming the importance of it any longer. And what do you then find? Well, you find experience of awareness just flowing. Instead of saying, "What is the mind?" we could say, "What is a river? What is its true nature?" You might reply, "A river is water." In the same way as one would ask, "What am I? What is my true nature?" and you'd reply, "Well, I am a mind" Going further you might add, just as a river is water so a mind is experience.
Let’s penetrate further. If I say to you, "Come, let's go down to the river today," It's not quite the same thing as saying, "Come, let's go to the water today," is it? The river is something bigger than just the water. The river is herons, otters, children splashing, willows, birds flying over, seagulls up from the estuary, fish, trout, salmon, and water. And the water that you looked at five minutes ago is not there. The water itself is not the water, it is water. It's a flowing ongoing movement.
If we take this metaphor for the river as being a metaphor for the mind, then we might ask, "Well what is this experience which sometimes churns up all these pains and agonies and worries?" I begin being concerned about this thing- this mind. Sometimes in Zen meditation I relax and go away from it, stop searching and it's peaceful, and I find something which could almost be called freedom. Freedom from being me, which is the most profound of all freedoms. And one knows that everything is part of the river. Maybe the freedom from being me is like seeing an otter. "Hey, there's an otter down there, beautiful, rare creature, an otter." Maybe it's like that.
So what is this awful noise that goes on all the time, this negative side of our preoccupation? In Buddhism it's called karma, the stream of karma. Karma is very similar to what in our Western vocabulary we would call neurosis. Neurosis itself would be particularly obsessive karma. Yet karma is not merely obsessive, it is anything that comes out of one's past and which is influencing one's present. In our psychotherapeutic mode, we talk about neurosis and conditioning and all the influence of the past which has come down to cause us distress. I dare say all of us here are neurotic in one way or another, well I'm quite certain we are, no doubt about it!
We know that when we're behaving neurotically, it is like an obsession. Something crops up and goes round and round. Yet karma is also the memories of joyous experiences which, when remembered, can become reborn in the present. Karma comprises the memories, complex, emotionally laden memories, which are constantly being reactivated by associations in the present time. They come up again and again and again, in various patterns. Karma, however, is also open to novelty arising in the now. It's quite wrong to think that one's present moment is totally determined by one's past.
Out of the past have come the moments which evoke distress in the present. One needs to allow that flow to occur. If one becomes fixated in certain attitudes towards that stream of the past which keeps cropping up in one's life, it's like "assuming the mind". One assumes that I'm a so and so, I'm a neurotic, I'm - whatever word it might be - I'm somebody who's been abused. I'm somebody who had a certain kind of mum, or a certain kind of dad. Karma is more than that. In karma, we also talk often about past life experiences. I'm not going to argue about what the nature of past life experiences might be, but certainly it is true that things that happened before our birth do affect us now. The karma of other people's lives comes down to us. For example, I know that that the life of my great grandmother affected my granny, which affected my mother, which affected me. Down through the generations comes the karma of the distant past, so far distant we can no longer trace it. It goes back through our culture. Most of us here are either English, or Welsh, or Chinese, we each have these cultural histories, sometimes of conflict, which goes down through the past, and crop up again in the present.
When we look at our experience in meditation, what we commonly see is the unrolling of some aspect of our karma. When we reach a point when we can drop that, no longer assuming the importance of the mind, we can see the mind's content is karma, all the unrolling karma is of the mind. This is what the mind is full of. When we identify with that content, making it "mine", we feel the distress and the worry. When we drop it, what do we find?
Well... we find something like silence, something like peace. We know of course that the content of the mind will come up again very quickly and very easily. A memory will trigger something that then emerges yet again. This silence provides a context for the content of the mind. If we put that content to one side, we then perceive the context within which that content operates. And the context is stillness, silence, motionless. As in this very room.... at this moment, the content of this room is the noise which my voice is making. Yet this voice, this noise that I'm making, appears in a certain context, this particular Chan Hall. And if I stop making that noise..... the hall is peaceful.
The Chan Hall furthermore also has a context. The context of this autumn day, the leaves falling off trees, the sun shining, and the brook running. The owl calling in the early morning before light. The experiential context of being in this room is never still. Like the universe itself, all is moving. If you want to grab hold of something and hold it still, permanently there, you're on the wrong track. That would also be making an assumption. You assume that you can get something. There is no "thing" standing in isolation by itself. The universe as a whole is continuously moving.
With training, we drop the content of our worries and discover the context within which those worries are occurring. Becoming context is freedom. The noise of the mind is its own prison. Put the prison aside and you find the space within which it existed. It's like visiting the river, and not being preoccupied with the nature of water.
Our two stories point to an essential, central pivot on which the whole practice of Chan balances, this curious relationship between thought and experience without thought. Dogen, the great Soto Zen master, points out that there is thought (shiriyo) and there is no thought (mu-shiryo) which is the suppression of thought. Yet the really important thing is to be without thought (hi-shiriyo), not to bother about thought or no thought, just be without it. Being "without thought" is when the mind begins to be open to the spacious context in which we live, and which is the current aspect of the universe itself. We exclude ourselves from the universe by identifying with the "little me" of vexation. When I let the "little me" go there is a sense of merging with these progressive layers of context - the room, the garden, the sky, the universe.
This capacity to free oneself from the worrisome content of self-concern, and to let oneself drift or fall into the spaciousness of experience itself, a spaciousness which is always available, is the essence of Zen. It is going to the place before one's mother or father existed.
It's a bit like those games we play as children, when you write a letter to Mummy, and it's addressed to the street, the town, the country, the continent, the planet Earth, the galaxy, the sky, the universe, and then you run out of words altogether. I dare say most of you have written such a letter and pushed it in the post box. God knows what the postman thought of it! Perhaps he got enlightened.
There are many ways in which such an opening comes about. Karma determines the way. There are those of us who have very obsessive minds, heavily preoccupied within the karmic stream. They have to work very hard to break out of their obsessions. There are others who by dint of great discipline on the cushion, can find peace and quiet. There are others who just spot it as an insight straight away, "Yes of course, it's obvious." Yet the first two types, the ones who are obsessively worried and the ones who sit in a silence of self- suppression, they also can have that insight at any moment. There's no way of predicting it.
What is the insight? Dropping the content and discovering the context. Context is the universe merging within us, and we will find as we go on talking, this word "merging" will come forward as a prime teaching. Merging with... what? Why can't we use a word for it? We have to go beyond words, because then we won't be caught up by them. Why review in words? Too long a journey. Don't assume the mind.
"Now I'll count up to twelve and you keep quiet, I'll disappear."
1 This talk was first given at Sharpham College in October 2002 and extended in teaching at the Maenllwyd. The taped version has been generously and skilfully transcribed by Stuart McLeod to whom I am most grateful. The transcription has been lightly edited to make it a readable text.
2 See: Myokyo-ni and M Bromley. 1988. A Treatise on The Ceasing of Notions. An early Zen text from Tun-huang with commentary by Soko Morinaga Roshi. Zen Centre. London.
3 In Chinese, the word which stands for mind is not very well translated by the English word mind. That's why sometimes it's called the heart, it's not just the intellectual capacity but the heartfelt mindfulness of being.