Snow is falling. The white flakes drift down from the sky. Coming from the north the gentle blizzard reaches the southern hills. As the snow arrives so comes the great silence. The track is filling up, no one can come, and no one can go. Stillness lies in the reflection of the cloud brightened snow, white around the bird table. The Bullfinch is stealing the whitened buds, the tits are pecking at the nuts and the Nuthatch takes the seed to a branch and hammers it. Although it is cold, the feeling is warm. Now, as the silence and stillness descend, the Chan house is isolated. Its true nature appears.
What might Dogen say of this?
Once upon a time a famous biologist and his Zen practitioner companion were travelling in the high mountains of Dolpo in Nepal searching for Snow Leopards. For the biologist it was an ecological project; for the practitioner the Snow Leopard was an enlightenment quest in remote places. Their mutual understanding was rather slight! The winter was fast approaching and they were on their way south under falling snows.
In a remote valley they found a tiny deserted village, all inhabitants gone south over the passes for the winter. Yet, there was smoke drifting from the chimney of a small Gompa. Intrigued, they knocked upon the door. An old monk, one legged and dressed in yak cloth, woollen robes, creaked it open. He was quite alone. Knowing the villagers had all moved south, they asked him.
“Why are you staying here?”
“Oh,” he said “Can’t you see – a one legged man cannot cross passes in snow.”
“But how can you survive the winter here, alone, deep in snow and frozen in?” they asked.
“Well," he said, “I have everything”
The biologist understood him to mean he had logs and dung for heating, and supplies for simple food and drink. The practitioner understood him to mean something quite else. What was that? Perhaps only another practitioner can understand.
When the track is blocked for vehicles at Winterhead in winter, which is a rare occurrence, there can be no coming and going except by horse or on foot. With a damaged back, there can be no movement.
What does it mean to stay in minor uncertainties? Perhaps the Calor tank will soon be empty? Maybe the electricity will fail? Are there enough supplies in the freezer? Do I have everything?
Do we have ‘everything’ when uncertainty strikes? What is that?
The snowflakes drift softly on the Buddha room windows. The incense burns and the candle flames wander to and fro on the silent images. The sitter sits. The gentleness of the lone home floats the air. Everything is here, nothing missing. The sitter lets self-dissolve in stillness. What is to be found?
Do you know the fruits of silence? Do you know the blessing of the snow?
5 January 2010
Master Wuzu, he who got stuck in an inn talking too much with three monk companions so that the lights went out on them, left us several outstanding koans. One of them reads:
“It is like a Buffalo passing through a window. Head, horns and all four legs have all passed through. Why does the tail not follow?”
What a curious story! To begin with, what on earth is a buffalo doing trying to get through a window? The whole project is decidedly bizarre. Maybe it was really a door or a gate. The ‘window’ shows the Buffalo was really after something. Then again, if the buffalo got its bulging bits like horn, head and legs together with the bulky body through, why not the thin small tail? What is Master Wuzu on about?
Of course, this is a koan, so we are expecting something paradoxical. The issue is how to resolve the paradox, to understand it, to use it on the path to enlightenment. Here we will have a go at exploration. Koans can be used in more than one way. The primary way is through direct meditative engagement, looking and seeing, not thinking. Yet a number of masters, especially the great Dogen, also used koans as a basis for exploring the Dharma through thinking; a form of thinking that bounces around intuitive interpretations in the search for an insight that can later lead to experiential comprehension. This is an attempt at an ‘understanding’ beyond both knowledge and experience- a mature knowing. So enjoy this exploration but, when you tackle the koan yourself, you must travel your own way.
How many times have you been in a situation where all has been going well until at the last moment the whole endeavour is blocked? Think of trying to pass a driving test. You have managed everything yet parking by reversing is beyond you and the examiner refuses to qualify you. Maddening! Or again, you are working on a scientific problem or a mathematical investigation. You have done splendidly but some final insight, some conclusive experiment, refuses to bring the task to a satisfactory completion. Yet, in such cases as these, you can expect to reach a solution through practical means or by logical thinking, maybe going back through the whole project carefully checking all stages, all enquiries.
Then again, in meditation, all of us practitioners have the problem of repeatedly calming the mind only to lose it yet again as ramshackle thoughts, discriminations and prejudices well up from nowhere. We know we have to reset the mind and try again. Indeed, for us with often complex karmic conditioning, this is the quite usual process. It may take a lot of practice before a beginner tastes silence or bliss for first time.
Yet, this koan is not a logical matter. It is quite ridiculous. Why should the tiny tail prevent the buffalo passing through when the rest of its hulking body has done so? Even so, the koan does not say the tail will not follow –merely that it has not done so yet. This resembles many experiences in meditation. We sit and sit but the hassling mind will not release us from our worries, our preoccupations and our self-concern. Sometimes, especially when we expect too much, each sitting seems to get worse – until suddenly it may give way as a radical shift in attitude occurs. Usually it is difficult to see what has enabled this to happen.
So maybe Master Wuzu is not actually talking about Buffalos at all. He spins a challenge to us. What is the metaphor in this story concerning something that like this “tail’ unexpectedly prevents a conclusion? What blocks us from Dharma insight after so much seeming success? So what is the Dharma? At the least, it requires some re-enactment of what the Buddha did.
In studying the Dharma everyone begins with some knowledge of the Buddha’s ideas, one seeks to understand them - one thinks. Yet, the understanding of Dharma does not depend only on some clever thinking. Again and again in both past and present, teachers warn us that anything academic or indeed ‘rational’ won’t do it. All such approaches are just a preliminary look at a map. Why? Because descriptions never contact reality directly – they leave us stranded – half in, half out. Language does not touch the ‘thing in itself’ Traditionally therefore, after following the Buddha’s horns, head and legs, we have to turn to the yoga practices of his mind.
The clumsy buffalo, the hopeful practitioner, has been using his sensation, perception and memory of past events to attempt a passage through the Dharma window. Yet, one of the attributes of mind (the ‘skandhas’) has only been employed in a limited way. ‘Awareness’ is an essential aspect of all the ‘skandhas’ yet it is not in itself determined by them. What if we allow awareness to arise without any cognitive or perceptive discrimination? Sensation usually arises impurely as part of the other discriminatory processes and then remains a cunning barrier. The sound or sight is accompanied by name and memory. This body-dependent ‘tail’ inevitably accompanies the head, legs and horns. What happens if one lets the ‘tail’ as ‘bare awareness’ function by itself?
The moment the yogic practitioner lets go of the time-bound activities of thinking with past memories and hopes for the future he/she allows the horns, head and legs to simply pass beyond the barrier and out of sight. The remaining ‘tail’ then glows in all its unimpeded clarity -no longer bound by time. Bare Awareness, unpolluted by memory, by expectation, by time, glows in the consciousness of the present moment. Maybe this is the ‘tail’ one needs to uncover.
Yet not quite! You can become aware of the current presence of sensations: hi - here is the sound of distant traffic; hi – here’s the sound of a buzzard’s cry; but such sounds or sights may just pass by without shifting the mental state, which at once resumes its time-bound contemplations. Holding attention within that awareness does however do the trick. Sustained awareness becomes consciousness of the presence of the present moment as it runs along without thought. Out of this emerges the clarity of freedom from concern. This freedom, this clarity, can take the practitioner all the way to seeing that this simplicity alone is the root of one’s nature. Yet, at first the clarity is only a preliminary glimpse. It needs continued direct investigation.
The simple ‘tail’ of awareness is present throughout the whole activity of the body-mind, yet may also manifest as the mere presence of being in the presence of timeless present. Heads, horns, legs, have all gone on their way. There remains only the shining lucid ‘tail’ in unique purity. No time, just ‘now’ – a flowing with situational time. If this awareness -‘tail’ - is to pass through the window frame of Dharma understanding it needs a total attention beyond cognitive discriminations. The path is inevitably one of letting go - not any kind of acquisition. It is this realisation that practitioners often find so difficult to apply.
Yet, heigh–ho, to walk the Bodhisattva’s path even this turns out not to be enough. The “tail’ itself must also be dropped lest it too becomes attachment. Between the tailing and the tailed lies the third place. What is that?
7 January 2010
From the start of our training we will have been confronted by the classical definition of Chan “A special transmission outside the scriptures, No dependence on words and letters, Direct seeing into the human heart.” But if words and reading are not allowed how on earth can one start and indeed continue any practice of Chan as a beginner. Furthermore, any visit to bookshops reveals a mammoth collection of books and articles describing Chan and its methods. So, why is this extraordinary contradiction?
Certainly, anyone trying to study what Buddhism is does need some systematic approach. I have described this as a four point series of stages:
Knowledge – reading something introductory about the key “formulae’ of the Buddha, Chan stories.
Experience – actually experiencing difficulty and success in Zazen (Chan meditation) and realising that there are states of mind that differ from the everyday.
Integration – starting to perceive the way knowledge is confirmed by experience and experience is understood through theory.
Understanding – the comprehension of the spiritual meaning of practice and knowledge. Indeed anyone wishing to uncover the nature of Buddhist wisdom and walk the Bodhisattva path needs to develop this fundamental understanding that comes ‘gradually’ through time and focus.
But, as we have seen, Chan challenges all this. Indeed great masters such as Linchi and Bassui in differing centuries - have maintained that any academic study, theorising, wordy debating are all totally useless and indeed irrelevant to uncovering the essential insight that depends on direct experience. Even time is irrelevant, since the only reality is a present moment. Yet, what is that since ‘now’ has always just passed by?
When one has spent some time investigating the practicality of zazen one discovers that certain experiences arise within a practice in which the everyday mind of intentionality and search is sustained. One can ‘achieve’ certain goals by deliberate practice and these changes do occur in a series. Thus the deliberate practice of samatha (calming the mind through breath control, or other yogic methods) or intense and extended focus on a paradoxical question (a hua tou) can bring the mind into a mode of consciousness marked by tranquillity, a feeling of ease in which the everyday awareness of one's self is none the less sustained. I call this mode ‘Tranquillity’ or ‘Self at Ease’. During such experiences further changes in awareness may arise, for example a feeling of love of life or being – a Disinterested Love without desire but very vivid, blissful or touched with gratitude and emptiness.
These experiences disappear when the mind begins to think about them with either positive or negative evaluation and in any case they gradually fade or change into one another for a while. The Japanese refer to these as “makyo” or illusions because they are not at all enlightenment. None the less, they are a sign of effective zazen practice. Sooner or later, the practitioner may perhaps have a quite different sort of experience that throws light on the mysterious “special transmission”. The mind changes its state from its own side without either intentionality or egoic will being involved. Suddenly one is present in a quite different realm that is extremely difficult to describe because it is literally beyond words. In this state, the self is ‘forgotten’, as Shifu puts it. The mind now has a quality of mirroring - as if in a mirror, all experience is simply reflected as it is and without judgement. Yet that mirror is clearly in being as a bare awareness itself, a condition that is a delight without words Yet, immediately the mind attempts to describe it in any way it ceases and ‘I’ am again the central pivot rather than the mirror. I call this ‘Clarity’ and it is the gate opening towards enlightenment. Actually, as Linchi and Bassui both remark, anyone who has not had this direct experience cannot understand what one who has had it is talking about; hence the ‘special transmission’ when a Master acknowledges it in another.
Clarity is then the gate opening a path that goes ‘all the way’. It may arise at any time when a mysterious silence falls on the mind, ego is forgotten in the oncoming delight and the mirror appears. There is absolutely nothing the ego - you - can do about it. As Reb Anderson once remarked, “You cannot do it!” It arises from its own side when something is ready. Certainly, meditative practice may facilitate its appearance since it often arises on or after a retreat. Often a slight shock to a one-pointed mind can initiate it and this may occur at any time. There is no possible prediction and no wanting has any effect. Much more rarely and under similar conditions one may suddenly experience a complete absence of ego intention or comment – not just ‘forgotten’ but, as Shifu remarks, totally ‘absent’ - and the experience is recognised by an awareness of that absence - afterwards. This experience is “Seeing the Nature”, the fundamental basis of mind when all the activities (skandhas) that create karmic concerns based in a self has gone. It is followed, as is Clarity, by profound ‘silence’ and a wonder that may perhaps explode in joy.
These states cannot be attained by any motivation rooted in self-interest. Since nearly all our daily concerns are based in time-anchored karma (conditioning) the beginner may find the whole thing deeply frustrating and may indeed wish to give up Chan altogether. While this is indeed understandable, it would be a sad mistake. What can the beginner do? The answer is “Have Faith!” But what sort of faith is this. Clearly, it is not of the Christian type depending on the kindness of a deity. This is a Faith in being itself, Life itself, a confidence that one is on a path that may show you your ‘true’ nature at some time when it, not you, decides. This Faith is similar to the Disinterested Love we have already mentioned. It can then be found by deliberate practice with a letting go of self-judgments in the everyday. It requires an attitude framed by Shifu as ‘every day is a good day’ or by Shunryu Suzuki as ‘Beginner’s Mind’. One discovers it through good will in all circumstances (whatever), openness in practice, freshness of spirit, gratitude and kindness to others.
Sometimes a visualisation can help one along to Tranquillity. Visualisation uses mental pictures as models of yogin practice. This is quite a common practice as both Linchi and Bassui again demonstrate. One I have been using lately is the following hua tou:
Deserted city square, midnight.
Full moon shining
For me the ‘deserted city square’ is a mental place where I find myself. It is empty of others, silent, it is midnight. Only I am there. The full moon is my state of zazen - silently illuminating. The Footsteps are startling – even slightly alarming .The question arises “What is this?” or “What is it?” This is where a discipline is vital. I do not allow any answer to arise but continue one pointedly gazing into the state of enquiry itself – the “What is it?” without seeking any answer. This is what Doubt or Great Doubt means in Zen speak. After a while, I usually find a smile appearing on my face. Tranquillity is there. Clearly there is no way “I” can shift Tranquillity into Clarity as an act of ego or will. Yet, this is enough to maintain Faith in the beauty of Being and the validity of practice. Anyway, who knows what may happen next?
Now I am not suggesting that you should use this hua tou as a visualisation in this way. Although of course, you may like to try it. You may however like to seek a simple visualisation that works for you in a similar way. We are all different, so probe your own fantasy and see what elicits a one-pointed fascination that can become a basis for a practice.
If you feel this is helpful – try it.
If not – then proceed with your own most valued method.
1 March 2010
“Accept the unacceptable - only then will it leave you“. So said Jean-Marc Mantel, a wise psychiatrist and savant of spirituality, at the Mindfulness conference in Bristol last summer. It was in response to a question regarding the difficulty of accepting the unexpected death of a loved one.
“Accept the unacceptable- only then will it leave you“
What is the unacceptable? When you explore this, you will find it always has to do with Time. Time changes all things, all things change in Time. Nothing remains unchangeable. Whether it is the holiday on a Turkish beach, a happy Christmas with your family or the eventide falling after a walk in the wilderness, “All good things come to an end,” as my Dad used to say whenever I was grumbling in a childhood discontent. But so too do the quarrels and strife of relationships, the car crash, the wars and rebellions. Whether good or bad, all things change. As the Buddha said to Ananda who was weeping over his beloved teacher’s approaching death: “Do you not yet know, Ananda, that all compounded things must fall apart?” And indeed all things are ‘compounded’.
While we find the relief of change from the ‘bad’ encouraging if not blissful, we are saddened or distraught by the ending of events that have made us happy. This is due to our attachment to things that bring us happiness, reward, status or credential. I, you, me, – we are all the same in our addictions to self-security, reputation or advancement, health and freedom from worry. When things become unacceptable, we may become lost in distress of many kinds. Only acceptance can cure this. So what is appropriate acceptance?
The word “accept” is a tricky one. It can mean a fatalistic giving up in the face of adversity. I accept, I say, with my hands in the air in surrender handing over to the will of adversity. Yet “accept” can also mean a willingness to face the ‘facts’ and from that basis to do something about it.
But Time? What can one do about that?
We need to understand that Time is nothing other than the flow of events endlessly moving from cause to effect in complex patterns as the Universe unfolds. As the Buddha saw, this is the first law needed for understanding. Every apparent thing is ‘empty’ of permanence. Furthermore, because every apparent thing is itself endlessly changing there can be no absolute thing. Things are ‘empty’ of any fixed ‘self’. When we look into the functioning of our own minds we find that is as true inwardly as it is outwardly.
In zazen, we sit in Time but as we develop calmness we find that Time changes as we loosen attachment to the apparent events it holds within its grasp. Time becomes stilled in a vast presence within the endless present moment of being. A sort of ‘eternity’ is felt within which time happens. It runs along and at such moments of present stillness this seeming eternity becomes real in us. Meditators find in such stillness the relief from time-anchored anxiety that they seek. Everything is relative and in seeing the process of mutual relativity between all things there is no thing one need or indeed can attach to. Realisation in experience heals these hurts. “There is no time – so what is memory“, as one hua tou asks.
This is why trivial practice needs deeper investigation on intensive retreat. The discovery of a vastness within time is subjective and does not occur either through wanting it or in hurrying. Several days of tranquillity are essential before such Clarity can arise. In my recent book (World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism), I have tried to show how these insights may be applied to the problems besetting us in the current world situation. Clearly in political strife, whether of national, cultural or racial origin, what is needed is negotiation resting in a basis of dispassion – a reliance on reflection on the whole rather than a reactive attachment to a defended half. Acceptance of other’s viewpoints as negotiable and understandable is the key. But problems today take us beyond this simple solution.
Few of us have yet realised the true immensity of the triple problem besetting our entire world culture today. Dependent on an economy based in energy from fossil fuels we resist the idea of “Peak Oil” – the awareness that our supply of fossil energy is now running down, we are past the ‘peak’ of its exploitation and we are running out – much faster than perhaps we think. Our usage of such fuels has blown carbon clouds into the atmosphere generating planetary warming and accompanying climate change that can herald regional disasters.
These in turn will wreck our economic structure depriving us of the resources and finance to tackle the problem, without attention, these three processes will wreck our economies so that resources and money will not be available to bring about a cure. These three processes have already begun and are so frightening that many people and their views expressed in the media fall repeatedly into denial – a refusal to accept the facts and to dream on as if such change was not already underway.
All of us, and Buddhists especially because of our wisdom lineages, need to face up to these potentially impending horrors. When we come to terms with the issue of Time we can begin to see the personal mode of transition we need to follow in growing a new world of less self-addicted cultures, social groups and individuals.
My message to you today is this. Tonight, as you sit, contemplate these realities that face us all. What is your own attitude? Is it adequate? Do you see the Dharma view? How can you face up to these realities and help others to resist their tendencies to a denial that in an eventual collective panic can lead to disaster?
Sit – contemplate – regain your vision. Accept the unacceptable – only then will it leave you. And there is work to be done.
28 April 2010
We all know the last line of the Heart Sutra because we chant it every day on retreat and probably from time to time on weekly meetings. The Sanskrit is Gaté Gaté Paragaté, Parasamgaté Bodhi Svaha usually translated as “Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether gone, Wisdom All Hail” It is often taken to be a description of the enlightenment experience known as kensho in Japanese or kaiwu in Chinese. But this is not enough.
In a valuable discussion of Great Master Dogen’s account of this expression, we find that Roshi Jiyu Kennet, the foundress of Throssel Hole Abbey, gives an interesting and contrasting translation. She renders it "Going, going, going on beyond and always going on beyond, always becoming Buddha, Hail”. She decided on this rendering after long discussions with her own teacher Roshi Kohõ Zenji in Japan. Why should she put it this way?
Dogen's viewpoint is fascinating. He bases his view on the idea that we all have inherent within us the same nature as the Buddha. When we explore this viewpoint practically through looking into our minds we find that the initial door to understanding it lies through considering the five aspects of mind known as the ‘skandhas’. These are Sensation, Perception, Cognition, Action, Awareness, which, taken together, comprise the functions of mind. We need to discover that basic Awareness alone, still present when all other mental activities are dropped is none other than the root of Buddha nature itself.
The reason is this. The first four 'skandhas' work together to give us our ideas about who we are. They function throughout our lives to build up our karma. Here lie all our problems acquired through time, especially those fearful of threats to self, worries about ones’ importance, looks, intelligence, rank, credentials, being liked or not and death as the silencing of it all. Simple awareness, being no more than ‘present in the presence of the present’ without all these hassling activities, brings insight and clarity. This ‘emptiness’ of mind is entirely practical and none other than the root nature of what the Buddha uncovered.
But awareness is continuous, it moves with time; mirroring time as it is without judging it. It is never ‘gone’ but is evermore ’going’. The Buddha mind that lies within us runs along in every moment, every hour, but our understanding of it is obscured by our worried preoccupations with our troubles. Once we can grasp the truth in ourselves through experience, we can manifest as ’Buddha’ without any sense of self-importance.
Of course, the reality of life is that we have to become aware of our fears and worries in such a way as to go beyond them. They arise inevitably because we are human but they can be set aside, let go. The Buddha too was human; he experienced the hassles of life, managing monks, interviewing puzzled people, helping Brahmins extend their minds, founding monasteries, trying to inject wisdom into politicians. We have to think of him as an active, concerned person. He knew it all but also transcended it through letting go into the simplicity of presence in the present without avoidance.
If we want to be like the Buddha, this must also be our path. It is not a matter of letting go into some cloud nine of bliss, some endless beatitude or inner peace but rather a vivid engagement with all the troubles of life while knowing how to transcend them. In our everyday practice we need to understand this ’going on’. Sometimes we sit and go as far as we can in our meditation. Sometimes we travel to retreats because training is essential if we hope to ‘go far’ in the Dharma, sometimes we try to help another who is suffering. We seek to limit our own selfishness and mean tendencies. We examine the Aspirational Prayer with serious intention to practice all of it.
Gradually, we move towards understanding Buddhism not as an ‘ism’ but as a matured way of being, a participation. It requires endless dedication, confronting difficulties, seeing the triviality and selfishness of so much of our society and ourselves. This is what learning ‘to be a Buddha’ means.
If you were asked ”What is the most important idea in Buddhism?” what would you say? I would have to answer ‘Preceptual Truth’; so, what is ‘Preceptual Truth’? It is an expression that I believe comes from Roshi Jiyu Kennet, the founder and first Abbess of Throssel Hole Abbey. As we know, our Chan Lay precepts are: Not to kill; Not to steal; Not to lie; Not to commit harmful sex; Not to become inebriated. Preceptual Truth means the holding of these precepts in faith, with understanding, and with contemplative investigation so that they form an integral part of one’s life practice.
Perhaps some of you may be surprised at this. Maybe you think that Enlightenment should be the most important idea in Buddhism. Certainly, this is the idea that has been most emphasized in Zen since Daisetz Suzuki first came West and played such a major role in bringing Zen to Western attention. Yet, it is not always mentioned that the uncovering of an enlightenment experience, like everything else, is subject to causes and conditions. There is nothing merely technical or automatic about it. No fixed plan can produce it. The causes and conditions need to be right if the selfish ego is to let go of its hold on the mind so that such silent freedom may arise.
The prime causes and conditions in this case involve the understanding of the precepts. Why is this? The answer is simple. Most religious systems have ethical injunctions that resemble the list of Chan precepts. Certainly in Christianity, we have the Ten Commandments. The fact must be that very early in human history it was realised that peoples who endlessly indulged in fighting, killing, stealing, deception, rape and inebriation were doomed to endless uproar – even when raiding tribes could for a time perhaps enjoy the fruits of their conquests. Only stabilised people, with ethics that could control these evils, could find peace and prosperity.
At our personal, individual level too it is easy to see that those of us who indulge in such activities cannot live happy lives, at most we will be incarcerated to save the general public from our misbehaviours, at least we will have an uneasy conscience. It is obvious that anyone with an uneasy conscience will be very unlikely to calm the mind to attain the clarity needed to even consider the possibility of enlightenment.
Living by Preceptual Truth provides the causes and conditions needed if a practitioner is to make progress in the Dharma. In Buddhism, the breaking of a precept is not a sin causing some God to wrathfully subject us to punishment or excommunication. Rather, in Buddhism such behaviour is considered a mistake. Mistakes have consequences but usually these can be corrected by subsequent actions that restore the mind to peace. The precepts are thus not commandments from outside but rather principles a wise person adopts to run his or her own life.
I often regret the negative wording of the Precepts. Indeed, Simon and I have spent some time trying to find positive statements to express the same points. It turns out that precepts have many metaphorical extensions. For example, by abusing a child one may kill its faith in itself and life, by deceiving someone one can set up mistrust of oneself that lasts a long time and may generalise among others, by drinking too much at a party one may cause an accident in which one’s best friend dies through one’s actions. You can think out many metaphors for these terms yourself.
One approach would be to replace the negative injunctions with positive ones such as the following:
Always enhance life
Always respect others and their possessions.
Always speak truth
Always share loving kindness and not just sex.
Sustain the balance of the mind.
In these ways, you can contemplate in greater detail what your own ethical principles may be. It is also important to remember that the five precepts are more detailed versions of the basic Great Precepts: Do no evil, Do no harm to others, Always do only good. The precepts also appear as koans. Sometimes, for example, a lie may be compassionate or shooting a murderer may stop him or her killing even more people. In such cases, although some karmic retribution may arise, the fact of compassionate intent will lead to forgiveness.
Preceptual Truth is thus sometimes a real-life hua-tou of serious concern. To move forward in the Dharma, to find peace in meditative practice, there needs to be a firm ethical basis. Without it, there will be unease, anxiety, worry, self-concern; all of which make up an uneasy conscience. After a mistake, to rediscover innocence is crucial. There are many ways. Immaculacy may not always be possible in this difficult life but it can become an aim and a theme for investigation. We all know when we have made a mistake. The first action in practice must be to restore one’s self at ease. This is why Preceptual Truth is the first consideration in pursuing the Dharma.
Go to it! This is the first move to make on Taking Refuge.
4 July 2010
Many of us beginners do not really understand the central theme of the Dharma. This is because most of us come into practice for basically therapeutic reasons, seeking freedom from alienation in life or suffering. In fact, the Buddha supplies us with a total worldview upon which to base a personal understanding of the place of our sentient lives in the Universe. This worldview replaces the need for superstitions interpreting the meaning of life through some external authority such as some God or other. Needless to say, such a view is a challenge to all dogmatists and also to materialist atheists.
What is this worldview? It is based in an intuition that the entire cosmos is one process unified through a common essence or basis. All causation happens within this system, there is no outside or magical power imposing itself from outside. We ourselves are part of this system and both our basic sensations and our knowledge based on inferences from sensation belong within it. Our task therefore is to understand this relationship as clearly as we can and to create ways of being that bring us all ease within it.
The Buddha saw that although the only knowledge we can have of our universal context is through our senses, we get highly confused in understanding this. We fail to realise the nature of ‘being’. His fundamental view is called the Law of Co-dependent Arising, which states that every identifiable cause in a sequence and in all conditions is an aspect of a single process. This process is endlessly moving forward in continuous change so that everything one may see, hear or know is essentially impermanent. This means that everything exists only in the NOW. From this comes the importance of discovering how to be ‘present within the presence of the present’ without confusion.
Our trouble is that we fear the loss of the entity we believe we are, the “me”. This fear leads us to grab onto any illusory idea of permanent security we can think up –indeed the normal basis of religions! We lock on to the past to fix the future, we want security, and we want credentials.
The Buddha went on to discover that by allowing impermanence to simply be, he could go beyond dualities and find a oneness within the universal flow itself. While this does not allow us to escape birth and death literally, it can transcend them in direct participation within the universal mystery as it flows along. This mystery he called the Unborn, from which any interpretation may emerge through mental discrimination. Rather than discrimination, the practice of the Dharma is to return to participation in the Unborn. Why is that of personal significance? Well - because it restores self-at-ease, prevents us locking-on to things, gives us a sense of unity with all things and enables us to help others still under delusion.
Yet, our tendency to cling onto self-concern, self-righteousness and basic pride easily distorts our practice through what are called Deviations. The great Tibetan Shakya Shri, the teacher of Tipun Padma Chogyal (See Yogins of Ladakh. Crook and Low) gives us some details about what a deviation can be and how avoided.
Fundamentally, a deviation is any preference towards attachments to worldly matters on the one hand or clinging to an idea of ‘emptiness’ on the other. One who may have had an enlightenment experience can nevertheless become attached to the idea of it, a memory, a longing for it and suffer through that clinging. Such a person’s understanding is incomplete.
There are many examples of how we deviate from the unity expressed in the Heart Sutra:
“Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is form.
Form is precisely Emptiness, Emptiness is precisely Form”
Emptiness here means an absence of discriminations in a state of openness to all. There are two movements here, from everyday life of diversified form into the freedom of unification and back again. We often get stuck on one side or the other. The task is to find the third way by which the two imply one another. Shakya Shri gives many rather sophisticated examples.
How about us WCF practitioners?
We all need to consider when and how we slip into deviations. It may seem odd at first that Dharma practice takes one entirely out of social and cultural concerns. Why is this? You must work it out for yourselves. Yet, are deviations totally bad? No - not at all; to discuss, even argue, to administrate, look after accounts, to take a viewpoint, to participate in social issues, may give all us one some insights into ourselves and others, our wants and needs and some sort of ideational comprehension. They may also help us to help others though good administration and considering the Precepts. Yet, these activities cannot move us out of individualism towards that timeless insight that directly contacts the Unborn, the ‘essence of mind’. That will emerge ‘from its own side’ when we are ready, when we have let go. How can we become ready? Watch out for those time-born attachments that comprise all deviations.
20 July 2010
I have just returned from the ceremony of scattering the Ashes of Dr Sally Masheder at the cairn above The Maenllwyd. Before the Scattering we held a brief ceremony of chants and prayers chosen in her last days by Sally herself. I gave this short Teisho:
“I have been wondering why Sally should have chosen The Maenllwyd as the location for the scattering of her ashes. Perhaps it was because:
Stillness and Time merge in the misted valley
Soft light glittering on dew-faced
Sycamores and birch
Beset with bracken groves and sedge
Where sheep wander
And a vixen once fed cubs in a bank
Even the brook lacks music
No heavy rain this week
Yet lawn-grass pushes up
And the compost smells like wine.
The summer chill of the Welsh hills
Is warmed by Rayburn heat
In the bright kitchen,
Coffee on the hob,
Chan Hall clappers signalling
”Come for a meditation!”
Already brewing in the softened air.
I am reminded that once when a great Chan master was dying he said to his sobbing monks around him “Why are you making such a fuss. I am going nowhere!” And Geshe Damcho Yonten once told me a beautiful Sadhana that seems relevant here.
There once was a yogin hermit who lived in a cave high up above a small village. He did his practice there and sustained his enlightenment. Once a week, some villagers would come and bring him some food, grateful to him for filling the great hills with his presence.
One day he died but the villagers, seeing how he still sat in such deep repose, left him as he was. Occasionally, they returned with incense to visit him. The years passed, his body shrank and decayed, feeding the flies, gradually the skeleton appeared. Time passed, the bones fell apart lying in the cave entrance. In the end all the passing villager could see was a pile of spreading dust.
Then, one year, a flower appeared, grew and bloomed. A wandering yogin passed by and seeing the flower, stopped, explored the cave and began to sit. Once again, the villagers came once a week bringing supplies.
When Sally’s ashes are scattered at the cairn, some of them will fall on the growing grass, which the rabbits will eat. The fox will take some of them and the ashes move up the food chain. The sheep will graze along the brook taking some more and, in course of time, these may end indeed in some of ourselves or in our coats. Some will end in the bodies of mice discovered by the kites that breed now next door in the big oak. Some will fall in the stream and drift down the Marteg Brook to the River Wye and on past towns and villages to the sea and thus to the ocean. So Sally merges with earth, sky and sea passing on her way.
Sally, thinking of The Maenllwyd, came here for her last journey. The Maenllwyd was in her mind. Thus it is that, whenever you come to visit, Sally will be in your mind. She has not gone anywhere. Stillness and Time merge in the softened air.”
15 August 2010
The reach of the human mind becomes more extraordinary the more one contemplates it. Some recent studies have compared the two main ways by which we deal with the knowledge that accumulates in our heads during our lifetime. These two ways have not always been recognised or one has been given priority over the other. In the practice of Zen, these two ways are both employed but to rather differing purposes and outcomes. In our practice, we need to understand this to avoid making false judgements and deviation from the “Middle Way”.
The two ways of thinks can be described as ‘analytical’ on the one hand and ‘holistic’ on the other. What does this mean?
Analytical or discriminative thinking follows the normal structure of language in making distinctions between ideas and words as discrete structures or meanings each one quite distinct and differentiated from others. This is the usual way in which we talk, study, and do much thinking and science. It makes words into discrete ‘things’ or actions. We become so used to it that it feels quite natural and obvious, seeming to express the form of the natural world and our engagement in it.
Holistic thinking links thoughts and feelings together into patterns within which more discrete ideas are closely associated as aspects of a single ‘whole’. This is actually the normal way by which we become aware of circumstances but it is quickly broken up into its precise bits through the immediate and habitual intervention of the analytical mode. Holistic thinking is the way by which we appreciate poetry and feel its power. Take for example these words from Keats’ Ode to autumn;
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run
We do not experience these words as separate things but rather take the whole picture as one, vividly felt state. Of course, it is then possible for an analyst to examine the grammar or the choice of words but that is not how poetry is read or intended to be received.
The whole issue has been opened up recently by some thoughtful work on the writings of the great German author, play writer and poet Goethe. He was actually deeply involved in scientific investigation but is barely recognised as a scientist because he did not express his discoveries in the analytical way of most scientific thought. Much of his scientific work is actually quite valid when seen in the light of the interconnectedness of the natural world. The distinction has been expressed as looking at 'unity in multiplicity' (holistic) as opposed to ‘multiplicity in unity' (analytical).
It so happens that this holistic way of thinking is re-emerging in contemporary sciences. For example, in evolutionary theory it is possible to analyse the links between species living in a wood but also to apperceive the wood as a holistic system – trees taking nutriment from the soil turning it into energy through photosynthesis in leaves, providing humus giving rise to bacteria and algae, plants eaten by insects eaten by birds each within its ’own niche’. Great Tits exploring twigs and ground cover, Blue Tits more focused on twigs, Wood Warblers living in tree tops, Robins low down, while foxes take voles and rabbits . The ‘whole’ is the wood. Scientists see this as the ecosystem. Both analytical and holistic thinking are used here, some preferring the think one way and some the other. Another example is the co-dependency of flowers and bees. They have evolved in relation to one another.
In our practice of Zen we make distinctions between, on the one hand, the hassling mind beset with detailed fusspotting over items of concern and, on the other, the awareness of total patterns. These latter can include apperceiving the relationship between worries and the total experience of a present moment in which troubles may dissolve. We then allow the worrying distinctions between past and future merge in being 'present within the presence of the present’'
When we can see clearly the difference between these two ways of being here, we can understand the differing action of these modes of thought. Understanding this is very helpful when we consider our practice of meditation. Making the distinction in practice is however not so easy. We are so educated in analytical thinking that we attach to ‘things’ habitually, locking ourselves up in past concerns or future possibilities. To appreciate the presence of the present we need to drop that and fall into the holistic mode. With practice, this becomes a whole mode of being present. As we know this relieves us of much anxiety, calms the mind and opens us up to a perception of reality quite distinguishable from that of our worried attachments.
When we sit, we need to know where we are in our thinking, drop the analytical and see the merging of present experiences in the continuing wholeness of being. When we understand this, we are ready to look into the Middle Way that brings them together and accepts difficulties without denying them. We place them in the wider context of a continuum of passing time. Fixating neither in ‘things’ nor disappearing into ‘emptiness’, we come to the Middle Way. This is where Self at Ease begins.
After this bit of thinking, let us now return to our practice.
On my way to bed, I turn out the light and notice with surprise another illumination filling the room from my large window. I open it and look outside. A full moon is riding the sky above the pear trees. Its silvery light glistens delicately on the dewy lawn. Late summer yet the air is warm while the moonlight sheds a cooling touch.
I go out onto the lawn. Nothing moves. There is a perfect silence. Not a rustle of a mouse, not an owl call - just a simple, illuminating stillness. There is something mysterious about it: not only because I cannot see beyond the shadows, but something else as if a different dimension had opened itself to the senses.
And indeed it has. The moonlight reflecting dimly the brightness coming from the distant sun takes us into another world. How rarely do we venture there! We hide away indoors as the darkness falls of an evening. Or else we scuttle in from the garage having parked the car in the dark. Moonlight is rare in Britain and full moons only appear once a month. This is special.
Why do we pay so little attention to the Night? In the still nights of a windless full moon, there is a wonder beyond the windows. That’s the word – wonder! So often, we flee from the wonders of our world even when they are right there before us - demanding nothing.
Wonder – the world is full of wonder and the night can be an especial case. Let us go out now and tread on the dew-dampened grass under the moon’s orb. What is this wonder about? Perhaps it is the mystery of ‘half-light’?
Allow the being of the still ‘moment-without–thought’ to be. That is a half-light too – an opening to a thoughtless moment.
Let’s not ignore the night. When it glows in silver wonder, go forth and meet that mystery. It is simple enough. And we should never avoid simplicity, for that is where one can discover a secret of Zen - the half-light of no-reason.
Dogen told us the important discovery in ‘Sitting’ lies not in thought nor in the rejection of thought but simply in being without thought. Moonlight is sunlight as half-light. Meditation can reveal a mental half-light as one moves from Samatha into Tranquillity and then maybe into Clarity.
Have you discovered that you can also fall into ’without-thought’ at any moment? This can be surprisingly revealing. Just stop thinking, sharply surprising the mind with a “PHAT”!
Turn the inner lights out and you will discover the moon beyond the window. Explore the actuality of this. There is an opening here.
21 September 2010
All of us probably know the story that founded Chan. Even so, let’s retell it, briefly.
The Buddha was out walking with a bunch of monks. The monks were arguing about a number of questions such as “Does the Universe have a beginning. Yes or no?”, “Does it have an end?“, “Do Buddhas live forever?“
The Buddha took no part in the discussion. Noticing this, Ananda said to him ”World Honoured one! Have you nothing to say about such important questions?” The Buddha did not reply but instead bent down and picking a flower he held it up before the monks. They were bewildered – all except Mahakasyapa who smiled.
The Buddha must have smiled too for he gave Mahakasyapa the flower saying something like, “Here is the sign of your special transmission without dependence on words or letters and outside the scriptures”. And Zen was born.
What is going on here? Why did not the Buddha participate? What was it that Mahakasyapa understood? Well, we were not there and cannot question them, yet reading the subsequent Chan teachings and the Mahayana philosophy upon which they are based gives us some clues.
There are two aspects to this. Mahakasyapa had a vivid experiential insight. It was a psychological event. Something happened. But Mahakasyapa also intuited the Buddha’s meaning. His understanding rested upon the Buddha’s own talks that had introduced his insights to his first followers. These initial discoveries were the Law of Co-dependent Arising and the Four Noble Truths that followed from the Law. These indeed are the roots of Mahayana thought throughout Asia.
What’s the story then? The Buddha saw that there could be no answer to these questions because there was simply no way of finding out what was the case in any of them. It was rather that some monks would have the opinion that “Yes the Universe has a beginning” and others would say “No, it does not - it has always been”. Opinions without conclusive evidence goes nowhere except into argument and quarrelling. Such muddles follow from this Yes-No ‘dualism’, which is a constant cause of trouble in the world. You can think up our own dilemmas. Is there a God? What kind of God? Whose God is right? Is there life after death? What happened before the Big Bang? And so on.
The Buddha knew that such questions arise from seeing the Universe, the World, God or Life and Death as ‘things’ with their own separate existence from one another. The apparent ‘thingness’ of nouns in language suggests this. For example, I exist and therefore must be a thing. If my body dies, do I continue? We can’t know but often we invent solutions involving further abstractions - such as ‘soul’ or ‘heaven’ or the ‘Absolute’. These abstractions are merely linguistic .We cannot actually find them, see them or examine them in any empirical sense. They are inferences from dualistic arguments. Since the Buddha understood this, he knew he could not say either yes or no to any such questions? Is there a way through?
The Buddha saw every apparent thing in the universe as co-dependent. Nothing had separate ‘inherent’ existence by itself. Nor was anything founded on nothing. There always was a context of conditions giving rise to some thing to which we give a name. This is Buddha’s view of non-dualism, ‘advaita’ in Sanskrit. Things certainly exist but not as independent ‘things’ with their own properties – rather they are representations within a process of interdependence.
Think of your ‘self’. You depend on air, water, food. Without these and the organs that acquire them you could not exist. Likewise your idea of your ‘self’ comes from inferring that something must be the basis of you being here. This is what John, Simon, Jane, Peter is. The idea emerges from our growth as beings from babyhood in a culture that names things and their actions. They are all expressions of a process. No thing in itself exists independently; yet it is there.
So he picks the flower. The flower represents soil, water, seed growth, colour attractive to bees, pollen and the fact that the Buddha happened to see it as response to the monks confused dilemmas. So, hey, here it is. Here is something we call a flower. Here it is in its suchness (tathata) arisen from hosts of determining conditions but not a thing in any way separate in itself as a ’thing’ with private powers. It is empty (sunya) of all that.
Mahakasyapa must have heard the Buddha’s discourses many times and he saw that the Buddha was presenting them in one momentary symbol. In experiencing that insight he had no need for words. He simply grasped the import of the Buddha’s symbol. It answered the monk’s questions at the level underlying them. The Buddha’s flower was expressing the nature of the universe as a process immediately present to the senses in each moment. Thus it is!
Such an experience can be ‘enlightening’ providing an instant clarity of how things are. It is the ‘being present in the presence of the present’; the flower as the universe – now. Yet time as we usually see it is likewise an illusion. The past no longer is, the future is only in the imagination and you cannot find now because it is always a goner. Yet, here we are – endlessly moving on together with everything else. How wonderful! And so he smiled. The Buddha, seeing his smile told him “Yes - you’ve got it”. Soon it will be your turn to convey this to others.
This story is the first of many koans and hua-tous. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” - Without dependency, no sound, no clap. “I am not it yet it is all of me” - I am not the universe but I am totally in process with it. “What is this?” - This and only THIS is this now. “Where do these wonders exist?” - Where indeed? What ‘where’ are we talking about here?
All the great Mahayana philosophers argued from these points. The insight is very simple yet the philosophers go into great subtlety not necessary for the beginning practitioner. The insight comes when the mind has been calmed and the attachment to this 'thing' called me dissolves. In a flowing oneness of co-dependency, the unity of all is apparent without words and for a long time the practitioner can do without them.
Yet, if we stop here some may think. “That’s all very well but what’s the significance of this wordy account?” The important message to practitioners is that Mahakasyapa saw the meanings in the flower instantaneously. He was not thinking about it. What was this insight?
Such moments occur when the mind drops both ego and the attachments of the ego; the hassling mind worrying about ‘things’, possessions, credentials, life and death and becomes aware of the oneness of all momentary experience in the flowing presence of the Universe as a whole. There it is – a total intuited presence, a feeling of oneness and wonder. In our Western Chan, we call this clarity or tranquillity, Self at Ease. It is a moment when, as Hongzhi puts it, “Silently and serenely, one forgets all words. Clearly and vividly, it appears before you. When one realises it, time has no limits. When experiencing it, your surroundings come to life.”
Here the ‘it’ remains unstated, mysterious, a word that stands in for an essentially wordless wonder. This is all the practitioner need know and the words of the philosophers merely thresh out the meanings within it. Yet, that is not all. When one turns again to look at the world, one sees the huge amount of distress and suffering all self-related dualistic thought produces. The wonder turns to empathy for those who suffer, this is compassion. And one begins to move towards helping others as best one can. As Shi fu puts it, the ego transforms into wisdom.
If you want to tell others about it all, then you need the skill of appropriate language. The koans are the stories that undo the stories of our illusions. Where does this undoing happen?
10 November 2010
So Christmas has come and gone – and a white Christmas too. Was it splendid as a White Christmas should be? Well - that depends. If you were quietly at home with the kids, it was probably wonderful – the beauty of the scenery, the fun of the children tobogganing but if you were struggling to fly from Heathrow or Gatwick or stuck on the M5 or M25 – then it was pretty well a cold hell. Whatever it was, we now see the New Year coming – and a HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU TOO.
How should we in the WCF approach the New Year? Do we make New Year resolutions? It might be a good idea for we have a lot to learn. We might perhaps ask ourselves what mistakes we may be making.
Oddly enough, perhaps our greatest mistake is our Zen exaggeration of the importance of enlightenment – or rather our failure to properly understand what this requires. Although all branches of the Buddha’s Dharma focus on enlightenment only in Zen is such a fuss made about having an “enlightenment experience” defined as a precise psychological event. Furthermore, it is we in the West who engage in this error most clearly. There are historical reasons for this but that no longer excuses us from making this sometimes harmful mistake.
Let us be clear about this. An “enlightenment experience” or kensho in Japanese (Chinese kaiwu) is an event that follows from the practice of a one-pointed mind in which all awareness of the ego-self disappears for a time revealing a state of extraordinary illumination, clarity and joy. The experience is quite unique, rare and marked by the wonderment of self-absence. Such a moment may sometimes occur spontaneously outside practice and outside Zen and that tells us that it is a quite natural if rare occurrence depending like everything else on certain conditions either spontaneously or acquired through practice.
So why is it so significant? The reason is that it is an experiential verification of what is otherwise known only in thought or theory. One WCF practitioner who had had a brief glimpse told me that she now had lost all doubt in a completely clear understanding of Dharma. Even so, this does not mean one is now an ‘enlightened being’. Such an accolade can only be applied to those who are not only wise but also deeply compassionate and remarkably active people such as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu or Mother Teresa to name examples from a range of cultures, religions and races. None of us would, I trust, be foolish enough to think of ourselves as among them. Shi fu sometimes said, “I am not enlightened!” and none of these three names would make such a claim either. It is we who recognise the exceptional spirituality of such persons. They themselves make nothing of it.
All that kensho means is that someone has understood something deeply and personally and thus ‘attained’ a level of insight more clearly than most. It means no more than that.
Now – pay attention! The teaching is repeatedly made that kensho is impossible to reach by any kind of ego thought, will or intention. The reason is obvious - if the ego is active even unconsciously, no kensho - defined as egoless - can possibly arise. Yet, speaking bluntly, many of us in the WCF, and that may include long term practitioners, seem incapable of realising this and stumble on egotistically and often unconsciously trying to get to a place we are preventing ourselves from reaching. And, in our blindness, we forget that it is within the practice of egoless, compassionate kindness that lies the path to understanding Dharma.
Be careful! Examine yourselves because any one capable of even moderate mind-reading of others easily perceives the expression of such egotistic desire. Shi fu, for example, was noticeably sharp in detecting it and returning such false aspirants to the starting base. It is essential that any Dharma Heir do the same.
But you may well say – surely, an aspiration to achieve such insight is natural. Yes – indeed but it is essential to understand the paradoxical nature of this quest. Only through the dropping of the ego inclination towards self-importance and through the practice of kindness to others can you even step upon this path. Indeed, as the Tibetans tell us, it is precisely through compassion that wisdom arises.
So what should our New Year resolution be? The answer is the renewed attention by all of us to kindness. The practice of ’Metta' is crucial here. It is an everyday practice. Let thoughts of tolerance, kindness, forbearance, and love arise in the place of self-justification and criticism of others. Compared with this any meditational statistic such as the length of one’s retreats, which one chooses as a Teacher or which ‘school’ one follows is of little or even no significance.
It is worth recalling the very first practice recommended by old Bodhidharma. If someone is angry with you contemplate what it is that you have contributed to the other’s anger. So often, we react to another’s anger or scorn by rejection and self-justification. Don’t do that! Reflect on one’s own demerits in the situation and find a way through that lacks antagonism. Not easy – but that is the Bodhisattva way. It applies to each one of us. Go to it as the New Year arises.
29 December 2010
Kuan Yin says, “Yesterday was 2010. Today is 2011. Have you yet made the transition?”
When silence flows from the loom of illumination vastness appears, right hemisphere regaining authority over the left, a moment of complete understanding arising.
For some the word “God” evokes it; for others the stillness of space simply emerges. With the fading of clouds, the sun shines in clarity, warming the heart, brightening the vision. A paradox may uncover it, sudden laughter shattering the sky.
Available from within, this teaching is never transmitted for it is always there. Yet, listen to the teacher - lest she withdraw to the high hills where only persistent seekers can find her. The paths are rocky and steps in the wilderness only traced by the sharp.
Wooded hills surround the green valley, limestone-filtered water emerging onto sand. The ravens are calling and the young buzzard mews on high. In a far distance, the motorway hums, recalling the distant, human sea.
Single steps take the long walk back to the market place of kindness.
1 January 2011
When someone has decided to follow the path of the Buddha it is usual for him or her to make a formal commitment to that path by participating in a simple ceremony known as Taking Refuge. We have recently put together a short liturgical text enabling people to Take Refuge through the Western Chan Fellowship. This Teisho seeks to explain what is involved and to provide a source for the presentation of the ceremony by a leader asked to do so.
Taking Refuge is a serious commitment not to be undertaken lightly. It is not like joining a club; rather it is an affirmation that you intend to follow a life-defining path of great depth that has an ancient history. You should not do this simply because you want to join up with some new friends, rather, you need to understand what you are doing by some appropriate study and preliminary practice that confirms in your heart that this path is right for you. It is fundamentally a life-long commitment although not a restrictive one: to change a path may be to admit a mistake but, in the Buddha’s view, it is a choice open to you.
There are, of course, other paths that define life commitments, and it would be appropriate for you to know what they are. Through having a sincere look around, you can come to a reliable decision. Undertaking to live following the principles of the Buddha’s teaching is about learning to live a more useful life both for yourself and for others. This in turn helps to create a more positive society through rejecting the patterns of ignorance that often surround us. Taking Refuge defines a spiritual path enabling you to enter a world of increasing wisdom and compassion. It confirms a resolution to study, practice and understand that Path, not as a rejection of other ways that may suit others but as a simple personal choice and preference.
Many of us are unsure about how to live our lives. Some with spiritual inclinations are also confused as to which of the many paths on offer is the one to choose. Gone are the days when each culture had a clear practice. Today, due to world-wide information technology, we may choose from the whole repertoire of the ethical history of humanity. Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha had an extraordinary insight into the nature of our minds and the practice that investigating it would entail. Essentially, this insight is summarized in his initial teachings given to five friends in the famous Deer Park at Sarnath outside Benares, a place you can still visit today. We know these teachings as the Law of Dependent Co-arising and the Four Noble Truths. On considering these, you will at once recognize the originality and depth of his discovery and its implications for humanity. His teachings developed over many years and spread through India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Japan and Tibet. There are contrasts between these regional paths but the essential root is the same. Today, all these teachings in their rich variety are available in the West and provide a striking contrast to other paths you may know. When you study these root teachings and are clear about them, you have the basis for deciding whether they indicate the right path for you.
Taking Refuge has three aspects. Firstly, there is the Buddha, meaning the appreciation of a great person and his insight. Secondly, there is the Dharma, which is his teachings in Sutras and commentaries and thirdly the Sangha, the community of monastics and lay people. Taking Refuge is in these Three Jewels in their completeness not in any one of the lineages through which they are expressed. None the less, it will be through a lineage that you enter the path.
In our lineage of Chinese Zen, the path of understanding has both gradual and sudden learning. By gradual study and the practice of meditation with an accomplished teacher, you develop a deep appreciation of the depth of this path. Through meditation and intensive retreat, as well as at other times of less formal reflection, you may gain sudden, intuitive insights into the meaning. Mind and heart are united in a growing depth of realisation. Naturally, you change into someone with increasing wisdom and a growing compassion for all living things. The way forward may surprise you. It is more a matter of letting go to discover the root of being rather than a seeking for some gain.
Taking Refuge requires mutual trust between the person leading the refuge ceremony and the person taking refuge. Whoever presents this ceremony needs to have taken refuge him/herself and should show signs of a degree of wisdom and kindness in their lives. If this is not apparent to you then it may be best to look elsewhere.
Taking Refuge through the Western Chan Fellowship is therefore an entry to the Dharma in its totality and it does not mean you have to remain a member of this particular lineage forever. Your dedication is to the Three Jewels wherever they are properly expressed so that participation in the practices of other Dharma lineages is quite OK. Yet, teachings do vary and you will need to consider them. Most people do choose to follow a lineage of their choice.
The Western Chan Fellowship inherits the two main schools of Chinese Zen as assembled by a great teacher who recently passed away, the Venerable Chan Master Sheng Yen. He entrusted two people to teach in his place in Britain, the first was John Crook, currently the Teacher of the Fellowship, and the second, Simon Child. Both are known as Dharma Heirs, due to the transmission to them of the Master’s trust. Yet, it is now you who must decide on their reliability for you.
Our Fellowship has expanded greatly in recent years and now has some nineteen regional groups across the United Kingdom and affiliated Sanghas in Poland, Norway and France. John and Simon are vigorously engaged in transmitting the Dharma through teachings and retreats and in training other leaders of various levels.
We wish you well and welcome to the Dharma!
Sooner or later we all suffer. The nature of life ensures it, yet without life not one of us would have the extraordinary experience of Being. Life remains wonderful and mysterious in spite of suffering. Yet, to cope with suffering is often far from simple. It may require great spiritual strength. Suffering comes in so many forms, psychological and physical, social or political, through a failure in health or accident, through old age and weakness and finally through the approach of death. All of us, sooner or later, must have one or other form of failure in health. Cancer is a major enemy of us all and has certainly struck a friend, a relative, a loved one, a spouse or child of each of us. As I proceed through my seventies, so many of my relatives and friends have passed on, many of them from cancer. I can assure you, growing old is not so easy and the recurrent losses of dear ones can be very depressing.
Yet suffering comes not only to those who may be ill but also to those who care for them and seek to comfort. How difficult it is sometimes to find the right words to help someone who, perhaps for the first time, suddenly faces a threat of death much sooner than expected. How often at the hospital bedside one finds the right words so difficult to find. Indeed, paradoxically, it is often the sick person who finds the words to comfort a distressed visitor. Then again, how can we be sure whether comforting is what is actually needed. Perhaps that may be quite wrong. All that may be needed is companionship for a while, a sharing of memories, humour, and even macabre humour. One wonderful old ornithologist I knew, heavily drugged to keep him going till he finished his book on bird migration in Africa - a masterpiece, used to greet me, to the laughter of his hospital room mates, with "Hi John - back again to see the old decaying corpse!"
Perhaps often it is not speaking but listening that is the clue. Just sit and listen. As the other talks, maybe confides in the visitor, one can discover what it is right to say, to investigate, and to open up. If one has not learned to listen in one’s life, it can become a problem to know when to stay silent with another. Hopefully, practitioners have discovered the importance of this.
Then again there is that especial silence when two of you enter it together and the stillness itself becomes the communication. It is here that one's mutual roots in practice show themselves. At such a moment, the fear for one's 'self' fades away for both of you. There is simply the presence of the present, as maybe so often before in easier circumstances. This being-beyond-self-concern is at such a time the true refuge. Even pain may disappear or become unimportant because there is no one hurting; the vastness of the spacious mind brings a clarity, and both of you can know it. How wonderful this can be to spouses and lovers who, a moment before, were aching with the fear of loss. While such a moment may occur without training, clearly here past practice of mindful awareness and insight into the processes of the self can yield that inner peace so important to recover when it has been lost.
The sick person may have unusual clarity of insight. Indeed the sick and the caring visitor may have an especial intimacy born of a lifetime's practice and openness to compassion. In whatever way these insights may have arisen in a life, there is karma here to generate thankfulness. Even at the end, the mysterious wonder of life shines through in the selfless moment. Sometimes the seeming misfortune can bring that inner understanding one may have longed for years. So let us not immediately believe that suffering is a misfortune. It depends, as usual, on the mind, and so it is something to investigate. Again and again "Investigate!" as the masters have told us. Never stop investigating. Our "Being", when freed from attachment and open to acceptance, continues in wonder.
My love to you all.
Chuan deng Jing di.
30 July 2009
This morning, sitting in the Buddha Room at Winterhead, I glanced out of the window. There in the holly tree flitted a small brown bird, a Phylloscopus warbler, arrived from Africa riding on the spring weather coming up from the south. Species of this genus are difficult to identify, all small brownies. There are three of them visiting Britain, the Chiffchaff, the Willow Warbler and the Wood Warbler. Unless one has very good binoculars and precise knowledge, one can tell them apart only by their songs. Since Wood Warblers only frequent the canopy of woodland, this one could only be either Chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler. It was not singing!
This is the first migrant I have seen this spring. It reminded me of the wonders of migration; the way thousands of little birds travel annually to and from Africa crossing deserts and seas to breed in food-rich Europe and then returning for the winter to warmer climes. It is extraordinary how animals adapt to their circumstances and evolve these extraordinary abilities. Yet we, who are so clever, often fail to do so.
The wonders of nature are not always friendly. Some of us live in dangerous places. The Japanese are well adjusted to the frequency of earthquakes but the horror of the recent enormous quake and its resultant, terrifying tsunami took even them by surprise. One wonders however at the seeming stupidity of placing nuclear reactors on the coast in a most vulnerable region. No doubt there were sound economic reasons for doing this some forty years ago. Yet we are beginning to appreciate that we need to take nature and the dangers it often poses far more seriously.
It is not only the positioning of reactors but also the use of atomic radiation itself that needs questioning and indeed our entire relation to nature and our physical environment. The arrogance of our cock-a-hoop understanding of economics in relation to nature has led to this against the cautionary advice of science. We need to engage our often very ignorant politicians vigorously in this matter in this time of ever increasing urgency. What to do? Write to MPs? Join protest movements? Any sound approach will do. Spread the word – urgently.
We love nature; walks in the countryside, sailing the coast or across the Channel, climbing mountains, observing birds, mammals, insects, the excitement of spotting a fox slipping across a meadow – or, these days, even down a street. Yet many of us, including some of our would-be leaders, do not always understand the need to respect it. Nature wields awesome powers before which we need to show some of the respect age-old Shamans used to do before their gods of mountain snows, avalanches, springs and sunshine.
In our practice of Zen, we have two approaches that encourage this re-orientation. The first is the Law of Dependent Co-origination that tells us that all things are parts of a whole ever changing natural process. This insight of the Buddha was amazingly exact as modern science confirms. Then we have our meditative skills allowing us to sit silently in woods or moors appreciating the wonders that glow before us. This above all should show us how we need to respect nature if we are to remain human within a civilisation we can respect. Let us all be ever mindful of these things and consider the appropriate actions we should take.
16 March 2011
Some of us keep a Buddha image in the place where we like to meditate. Maybe we also light a candle and incense stick before entering zazen, or do some chanting. Why do we do these things?
Maybe it is simply out of respect for the memory of the Buddha or a habitual gesture of the Sangha to which we belong. Maybe the Buddha represents for us the aspiration that underlies our practice. Yet, we also may contemplate the Buddha image more directly asking "What is that?" Here comes a hua-tou. Indeed - what is that?
Our response is likely to reflect our current state of mind yet even to ask the question is to precipitate us into a deeper appreciation of the image before us. What is it that we have placed there?
Of course, in itself, the image is just a piece of metal or a block of gilded wood subject, like us, to ageing and decay. But, why use the candle and the incense? Is this mere idolatry? Do we merely project our hopes for salvation onto a block of wood imagining it to have some occult power? Do we let superstition into our practice or some memory of Christian procedures of worship?
Someone carved that body, that face. Buddhas have many faces. Mass-produced ones have little to say but a hand-made image may be a work of art carrying within it the residues of an artist's empowerment. Buddha faces may contain many possible forms of 'interiority.' In gazing into the face, one may 'read' a moment of enlightenment, an awareness of the presence of the present or deep Samadhi. Each expression is subtly different, the skill of the artist depicting his or her own understanding. Yet, these are human faces. Given our own experiences we can interpret them and read from them an insight. If you have the chance to visit the Buddha galleries in Le Musée Guimet in Paris, you will be amazed at the depth and beauty the assembled Buddha heads of many cultures depict.
When your zazen reaches a degree of 'Self at Ease', the tranquillity may allow you to see a similar state expressing itself in your Buddha's face sitting there in your private shrine. Whose interiority is that? Your wooden block in itself has no interiority, nor is the artist present. Have you not projected your own 'Self at Ease' onto the image? Have you not empowered it yourself? And now you receive it back through the insight of zazen. This is what Tibetan lamas intend when they chant mantras while writing OM AH HUM on the back of a tangka. Given insight, you are reading the mind of the guru in his empowerment of a picture.
May be this is the secret of a Buddha image? Empowered by an artist, it never the less receives your own empowering state of mind that filters out all negatives, retaining just the clarity of your inner vision. This is your own potential enlightenment you witness there. Out of respect for 'that', you light the incense, let the candle burn. Whenever the opposites have been set aside, the Buddha mind is present. The ancient Buddha faces in their varying expressions depict this well and reflect your own condition.
Sitting with a Buddha is sitting with one's self in clarity. This is a moment for gratitude, giving thanks to the originator, Shakyamuni, who discovered the insight by himself. All of us have this potential. All of us have the face of Buddha that manifests in the interview room in moments of realisation. We need to recall it as often as we can.
1 May 2011