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Monday, 25 December 2017 11:32


All the Zen lineages trace their ancestry back to the sixth ancestor Huineng, who, so the story goes, obtained a secret transmission from the fifth anscestor Hongren. In the story, Hongren asks his monks to write a poem about zazen. His chief disciple, Shenxiu, was the only one who responded. Huineng criticised the poem. In response, Hongren recognised Huineng as his true successor, and gave him transmission.

This is the poem, as often translated into English:


The body is the bodhi tree
The mind the bright mirror
At all times we should polish it
And not let dust collect


However, the original Chinese reads something like:


Body is bodhi tree
Mind like clear mirror stand
At all times diligently polish
Do not let dust settle


When we first hear the poem in its normal translation, we imagine that Shenxiu is talking about your body and your mind, and that your mind is like a bright mirror which needs to be kept clear of the dust of thoughts by the effort of Zazen. That ties in with an individualistic, mindful, psychological sense of what zazen is.

Except, the poem doesn't actually say that.

Let's consider the actual text.

The body is the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment. So it is associated with that, obviously. But also, it is an unusual tree because it's hollow.  So it's also a symbol of interdependence.

Is this the personal body, or not? Or both? Or neither?

When we hear that the mind is like a mirror, we form an image of a mirror, on a stand, in a room, that we polish through our effort, and so keep bright. But where in this image is the bodhi tree? Is it in the room, with the mirror, or not? And shouldn't the (personal)  body be the stand of the mirror? And what is the stand anyway, and how does it relate to the mirror/mind?

The original text doesn't make clear who or what is being polished. The translations do, and it seems clear why. What would we be polishing, if not a mirror? It's obvious, isn't it?

But obviousness is the co-conspirator of deception.

If we rephrase it as something like "with vigorous effort, the dust does not settle anywhere", we may start to get somewhere.

If dust appears in vast space, moved here and there by the vigorous life of the air, both illuminated by light, there's no problem. The problem arises when the dust settles. Not because it becomes anything different, but because space is eradicated. There's just dust, and the dust becomes fixed. And what it comes to rest on becomes fixed too, as 'me', 'objective world', 'mirror', and so on.


 

Last Updated on Monday, 25 December 2017 12:45
 
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Monday, 25 December 2017 04:42


"The path of all buddhas and ancestors arises before the first forms emerge; it cannot be spoken of using conventional views"

This is the first sentence of Chapter 39 of the Shobogenzo. What are we to make of it?

One of the first places the Glasgow Group practiced was an unkempt room in the International Flat, near the University. Nancy did an Introductory Day there in 1991. It was a bright cold winter day. Light flooded through the window, illuminating the dust in the air.

Dogen said that zazen was dropping off body and mind. He claimed he got this formulation from his teacher, Nyojo. But scholars have recently thought what Nyojo - a Chinese master - actually said to the monks practicing zazen was "you should drop off mind dust", and Dogen's creative genius reformulated it, because 'dust' and 'body' are homonyms in Japanese, but not Chinese.

What would we make of someone who was fascinated by the dust: how it moved, where it came from, the patterns it made, and so on, endlessly? If we were to say to this person that the movement of the dust was just the movement of the air, like objects bobbing on water, would it change him? And if it didn't, wouldn't we think we think he was a simpleton?

And isn't the dust of our thoughts, illuminated by practice,  absolutely like this? Non practitioners imagine that they spring out of nothing, but they don't. And isn't that fertile 'no-thing', that greater space, within and around and beyond, the path? The presence or absence of dust is neither here nor there. The light illuminates the space. And with it, the dust.

 

 

Last Updated on Monday, 25 December 2017 05:44
 
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Monday, 25 December 2017 04:38


Fujita described Zazen as 'one piece' Zen.

The one piece is everything.

The difficulty with this perspective is that we tend to oscillate between the individual and the universal.

And between self abnegation and self inflation.

Unless we challenge the individualistic assumption that is as natural to us as breathing. More, even.


But we should try:

Examine our actual experience. Our experience now is not that we are practicing with others, but we are practicing together.

Each of us with our sincere effort within this body of practice.




Last Updated on Monday, 25 December 2017 04:40
 
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Monday, 25 December 2017 04:34

 

Ritual starts out as neither magical or symbolic, and neither does language. But both, in decay, reach these points, and then we're in a fix: the corpse can't see the living being.

At first, ritual is a complete effort in the present moment. It opens up our hearts like verandah doors opening up to sunlight. It's not for anything. Its dignity and beauty is entirely itself. Ourselves.

Then superstition arrives. We imagine that we can do something with it. Redeem a dead person. Banish ghosts. Rearrange.

And that degeneration provokes the subsequent, Protestant one. So then ritual, like its child, language, must be symbolic.

It's hard to grasp the measure of the loss


 

 
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Monday, 25 December 2017 04:26

 

In the Eihei Shingi, Dogen gives exhaustive descriptions of how monastic life should be regulated: how to sit, obviously, but also how to sleep, how to clean your teeth, how to use the toilet, how the teacher should enter the dojo and how he should walk around it: everything. Or almost everything. The glaring exception is that he doesn't say anything about the breath during zazen.

In fact, all he says about the breath, throughout his writings, is that we should take a deep outbreath when we start zazen, and that we should let a short breath be short and a long breath be long.

How should we understand this? Well, one way would be to acknowledge that an emphasis on the breath in modern practice derives from an unexamined assumption that zazen is an individual practice. If the primary thing is our own state from moment to moment, it is important how we regulate ourselves. And so teachers - including myself - give lots of descriptions about how breathing might be 'better'

But what if this is an assumption that Dogen didn't have? And what if we're wrong? Could we explain Dogen's apparent lack of interest in the breath as due to him having a different perspective, that zazen wasn't individual experience and effort, but collective ?

From the perspective of the individual practitioner, practicing within an individualistic assumption, there is a switching back and forth between the individual and the universal, the Dharmakaya, and also the risk of a surreptitious inflation of the Self to cosmic proportions. This happens because both 'self' and 'universe' are constructions, they don't arise within actual experience in the way we think they do.

But if the 'subject' of practice isn't the individual but the collective of practitioners and the space between them, isn't that a more fruitful way to experience the 'One Piece Zen' that Fujita talks about? And doesn't that better accord with our actual experience?

The space where we practice together, and everything within it - the Sangha Body, as it were - is both the reality and metaphor of interdependence. And because it has no boundaries, it seeps out everywhere, like slowly falling water.


 

 
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