Friday, March 27, 2015

Shunryu Suzuki on Zazen

Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆, 1904-1971)
Today I am sitting in Los Altos. Tomorrow morning I shall be in San Francisco. There is no connection between the "I" in Los Altos and the "I" in San Francisco. They are quite different beings. Here we have the freedom of existence. And there is no quality connecting you and me; when I say "you," there is no "I"; when I say "I ," there is no "you." You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our zazen. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish.
A wonderful painting is the result of the feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, "being" is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

(The above is excerpted from ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. A review of this incredible book can be found here.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #5

Dhammapada, Verses 11 & 12:

Those who mistake the unessential to be essential
And the essential to be unessential,
Dwelling in wrong thoughts,
Never arrive at the essential.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the unessential to be unessential,
Dwelling on right thoughts,
Do arrive at the essential.

Two concepts & their opposites dominate these two verses – The first is sare (essential) & its opposite asare (unessential); the second is samma-sankappa (right intention, translated as ‘right thoughts’ above) & miccha-sankappa (wrong-intention). Understanding these terms is crucial in understanding these verses, so this article must initially resemble something of a dictionary entry so that it has a sound foundation upon which to build. As the verse suggests, distinguishing the essential from the unessential is dependent upon our intention (sankappa), so it is with the idea of right-intention that we will begin.

Right-intention is the second aspects of the noble eightfold path (ariya-atthangikamagga), and with right-view (samma-ditthi) forms an aspect of the path known as wisdom (punya). Right view, put simply, involves viewing experience in the light of such teachings as the three characteristics (tilakkhana), which describe all things as impermanent (anicca), stressful (dukkha) & not-self (anatta). Right intention, which complements right-view and sets the mind up for moral & meditative training, involves setting the mind up in the right direction for such endeavours. It is sometimes translated as ‘right-thought.’ In the early texts, Buddha says, “What, now, is right-intention? It is intent free from lust (nekkhamma-sankappa), intent free from ill-will (avyapada-sankappa), and intent free from cruelty (avihimsa-sankappa). This is called right-intent.” (Digha-nikaya 22, Pali canon)

Being free of lust, ill-will and cruelty is to establish the mind in a state where it will be more able to facilitate a morally-positive lifestyle (which comprises a further three aspects of the path). All this helps to create a peaceful mind free of negativity & its associated guilt, thereby allowing a successful meditation practice to lead to calmness & wisdom, and eventually, enlightenment. Caught up in wrong intention leads to suffering & ignorance to the way things are, and makes progression along the Buddhist path impossible. Right-intention, therefore, is a crucial aspect of awakening or enlightenment.

The term essential (sare in Pali) can be looked at in two in ways. The first is explicit in the meaning of the verses as explained above, defining the essential as having right-intention (and by extension, as they are inextricably linked as the training in wisdom, right-view). That is, to practice the noble eightfold path and awaken to our true nature we need right-intention; it is essential if we wish to awaken to the way-things-are and live from this wisdom. The other way we can understand the word essential is implicit in the above verses’ meaning, and it is see to that which is essential to our being – and therefore essential to our ability to awaken.  This essential aspect within us is not a teaching or doctrine, but rather the essence of what we are, right now, when we take the time to actually look and see. Shall we look, then? Why not?!

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

•          Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

•          Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but whatsoever!

•          All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now are occurring in this invisible no-thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

So, you see, the essential isn’t merely a specific teaching or intent, but it is also that which can be experienced in this very moment as the essence of what we are. Merely seeing this doesn’t mean that we’re enlightened, however; it is a glimpse of what lies beneath our everyday facades, and it requires all the intent & effort summed up in the noble eightfold path to deepen and make permanent our experience of true nature. So, to “know the essential to be essential” can be understood and applied in these two, complementary ways. We need right-intention & right-view (the latter of which includes the above insight) to light up our lives with the living Dharma of Buddha and reside in the essential.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ajahn Brahm on Wisdom in Meditation

Ajahn Brahm (1951-present): A happy meditator

When people meditate they often use too much force; they just keep bashing away at the same place. Lack of progress isn’t always due to insufficient effort or motivation, or too little time spent on the meditation cushion or the walking path. Sometimes it’s just that the wisdom isn’t sharp enough to get through the problems, and if you only had a bit more wisdom, you would suffer less and achieve deeper states more quickly. Thus cultivating the factor of wisdom is extremely important.
The first of the noble truths as expounded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is the truth of suffering (SN 56:11). You have to focus your wisdom faculty on that suffering. Suffering just is; it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re trying to avoid it. Suffering is the nature of the world, the nature of the body, the nature of the mind. Things don’t always go the way you want them to. Occasionally they do, but never as often as you’d like. The suffering that comes from being frustrated with meditation practice – being bored or feeling stuck or whatever – is an aspect of the first noble truth. Disappointment, not getting what you want in life – basically the five khandhas – this is all suffering. So don’t force the issue and say, “This isn’t right; it shouldn’t be this way; I’m doing something wrong.” Instead, stop, focus, and remind yourself that this is just the nature of things. If meditation doesn’t go the way you want it to, or if the body is aching or the mind is sleepy, remember: that’s just the nature of the body and the mind.
A wonderful thing happens when you get wise to the nature of the body, the mind, and life itself. When you realize that it’s all just nature, just a process of cause and effect, you also realize that it’s not your problem anymore. You see that detachment comes from the wisdom of recognizing the nature of suffering in life: you can’t do much about it, so you leave it alone. When you leave it alone, you develop the mental attitude that is aware and alert, that watches but doesn’t get involved. If you don’t arouse the doer in the difficult moments, you’re actually turning a bad meditation into a source of future calm. In fact, the whole job of meditation practice is putting effort into how you’re experiencing things, not worrying about what you’re experiencing. Focus on how you’re aware of the hindrances, the desire and ill will, the boredom and frustration. What’s important is your attitude toward the situations you come across in meditation and how you react to them, rather than the situations themselves.
To establish the right attitude, we need to use our wisdom. When we realize that our experiences are just nature, we don’t react by feeling afraid, guilty, frustrated, or disappointed. We don’t lose our confidence, thinking, “I can’t do it.” Of course you can’t do it! I can’t do meditation either. Every time Ajahn Brahm starts to meditate, he messes it up. But I’ve got enough wisdom to know that if I step out of the way, a beautiful, clear space appears between me and what I’m watching. Then there’s no frustration or boredom. If those feelings still linger in the background, you just leave them alone. You don’t get involved or create more problems. You just watch and gather the data.
(The above is excerpted from Ajahn Brahm’s brilliant book on meditation called ‘The Art of Disappearing,’ a review of which can be read here.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Nyogen Senzaki on "This Sameness"

Nyogen Senzaki (千崎 如幻, 1876–1958)

In Buddhism, everything is seen from three points of view; that of substance, of aspect, and of function. (These three points of view parallel Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as the philosophical, practical, and historical approaches to these Treasures.) For instance, I hold a pencil. The substance of this pencil is graphite and wood, its aspect is long and slender, somewhat like a chopstick in a Chinese restaurant. The function of this pencil is that of writing something on paper. Everything in this world – the Buddha included – can be seen from these three points of view.

The universe may also be seen from the standpoint of another threefold classification: the three so-called “worlds” of desire, the material, and the nonmaterial. “God,” “Brahma,” or “Allah” all belong to the world of desire, since they are nothing but the postulation of human desire.
These three worlds constitute the substance of the universe. Just as there is nothing to be called the substance of this pencil except graphite and wood, so there is nothing in this universe apart from these worlds.
Sometimes we include in the substance of the universe something that is not classifiable in terms of these three worlds – something like the “soul,” for example. The way this comes about is that we cling to a certain aspect of something and, in order to explain it, postulate some kind of substance existing outside of that aspect which, we presume, makes,  rules, and governs it. In this way we arrive at the idea that there is such a thing as a soul, which is somehow responsible for mental and physical processes. Nonsense! We’ve never had such a thing, nor will we ever have such a thing!
Our body is nothing but a part of the material world, and our mind is nothing but a group of desires, a power of grasping in the world of desire. So-called “desire” is a function of the nonmaterial world. Because the material world is nothing but another form of the nonmaterial – a fact proven by modern science, which has shown that groups of matter are merely different groups of electrons, these in turn being nothing but a certain energy form – our mind and body are not two different things, but just one substance with two aspects. Moreover, the same relation which obtains between your mind and your body obtains between your body and the whole universe – and between your mind and the minds of all sentient beings. So you see, the worlds of desire, of the material, and of the nonmaterial are one.
This sameness is absolute and infinite. To avoid the possibility of misunderstanding, however, we speak of this sameness negatively, calling it “nothingness” or “nirvana.” If you are enthusiastic about returning to your long-lost home, and if you strive in deep, constant meditation, all of you will attain realization and acquire nirvana without fail. For the Buddha said: “Nirvana is visible and present; inviting all to come and see; leading to the goal; intelligible to the wise; each for oneself.”
(The above is extracted from a wonderful book called ‘Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy’ which contains the teachings of Nyogen Senzaki, and is published by Wisdom Publications.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Buddha's Feet: Walking Meditation

Walking meditation reveals our true "buddha-feet"
Walking meditation is not so very well known in the West, but is a common practice in the traditional forms of Buddhism found in Asia, and is known as kinhin in Japanese and cankama in Pali. In the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand many well-known monks, such as the renowned meditation master Ajahn Mun, have used the latter method to cultivate enlightening mind states. In Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery) in Ubon Ratchathani, walking meditation is used by many of the contemplatives, and is been promoted by its former abbot Ajahn Nyanadhammo in the excellent pamphlet ‘Walking Meditation’ downloadable here. Here’s an instructive extract from this short work:
“In this method, while walking place all your attention at the soles of the feet, on the sensations and feelings as they arise and pass away (this is assuming that you are walking bare footed, as most monks do. Although light soled shoes can be worn if necessary.) As you begin walking, the feeling will change. As the foot is lifted and comes down again into contact with the path, a new feeling arises. Be aware of that sensation, as it is felt through the sole of the foot. Again as the foot lifts, mentally note the new feeling as it arises. When you lift each foot and place it down, know the sensations felt. At each new step, certain new feelings are experienced and old feelings cease. These should be known with mindfulness. With each step there is a new feeling experienced – feeling arising, feeling passing away; feeling arising, feeling passing away.”
Walking meditation is a useful alternative (or complementary) technique with regards to sitting meditation, the classical physical position for Buddhist meditative practice. In ‘Walking Meditation,’ Ajahn Nyanadhammo states that many monks and nuns have realized insight and enlightenment whilst practicing walking meditation. He also says that in the Forest Monastic Tradition every part of life is an opportunity to meditate, not only when doing sitting meditation. So, cankama can be used as an integrated aspect of Buddhist practice, allowing the various processes of life to be investigated and understood as impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal.

I personally find walking meditation effective for establishing mindfulness in the mornings, and in his book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond,’ Ajahn Brahm states that Buddha himself used cankama early in the mornings (a lot earlier in the mornings than me!). He also tells a story from his own life that illustrates the potential power of walking meditation. Early in his monastic training, Ajahn Brahm was doing cankama and was so absorbed in this practice that he lost track of time and missed the beginning of an important ceremony. Another monk came to fetch him, but had great difficulty arousing the young monk from the deep state of concentration (samadhi) that he had developed, so much so that he took quite some time to come out of the feeling of beauty and peace that had arisen during his walking. Ajahn Brahm states the following in the same book:

“As your mindfulness increases, you will know more and more of the sensations of walking. Then you find that walking does have this sense of beauty and peace to it. Every step becomes a “beautiful step.” And it can very easily absorb all your attention as you become fascinated by just walking. You can receive a great deal of Samadhi through walking meditation in this way. That Samadhi is experienced as peacefulness, a sense of stillness, a sense of the mind being very comfortable and very happy in its own corner.”

There are many variations of walking meditation, but one simple method to begin with is the following:

  1. Find a suitable place for cankama. This can be outside, perhaps positioned between two trees as in the practice of forest monks, or indoors, say in a corridor or longish room. I use the sitting room in my house, which is about seventeen steps long – in the forest tradition it’s often up to thirty paces long.
  2. Do cankama barefooted if possible, as this heightens the sensation of the feet touching the ground, which is usually the main focus of attention.
  3. Establish mindfulness prior to beginning to walk. This can be done by holding one’s hands in anjali (palm-to-palm, as in prayer) and reciting a brief Buddhist phrase, perhaps remembering the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
  4. Holding one’s hands in front of one’s self walk at a comfortable pace, neither too fast nor too slow, enabling one to be mindful of each step.
  5. Keep looking about a meter and a half in front, avoiding looking at this and that.
  6. Focus awareness on the feet, noting the different sensations as each foot is placed on the ground and then rises from it, much as one might focus on the breath.
  7. When you reach the end of your meditation path, turn around and stand still for a few moments, re-establishing mindfulness before resuming walking.
  8. To begin with, do cankama for about fifteen minutes, longer if it’s comfortable. Eventually, half an hour to an hour will become possible without losing mindfulness.
Using walking meditation this way, we can lay the foundations of a steady and alert mind which can be of benefit away from the meditation path. A sense of beauty and peace may arise that accompanies every step that we take, making the simple experience of walking a deeply pleasurable one. We may find that there is an increase in the general alertness of our actions as well as with regards the feeling of walking itself. Then, wherever we are, we will be walking with Buddha’s feet of wisdom.

The above post is a revised version of a post that first appeared on this blog in September 2009. A review of Ajahn Brahm’s great book ‘Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond’ can be read here.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ajahn Sumedho on Noticing Space

Ajahn Sumedho (1934-present): Notice the space around him?
Beginning to notice the space around people is a very different way of looking at somebody, isn't it? We look at the space around them rather than looking at them. This is a way of beginning to open oneself. When one has a spacious mind, then there is room for everything. When one has a narrow mind, then there is only room for a few things; everything has to be manipulated and controlled, so that you have only what you think is right -- what you want is there -- and everything else has to be pushed out. Now life on that level is always suppressed and constricted; it is always a struggle -- there is always tension to keep everything in order all the time. If you have got just a very narrow view of life, the disorder of life always has to be ordered for you, so you are always busy, manipulating the mind, pushing things out or holding on to things. This is the dukkha of ignorance, which comes from not understanding things.

Now the spacious mind has room for everything. It is like the space in this room, which is never harmed by what goes in and out of this room. In fact, we say 'the space in this room', but actually the room is in the space; the building is in the space. When the building has gone the space will still be here. So we can have a perspective, we have the actual walls and the shape of the room, and the space. Right now we can see the limit of this room, and the space of this room is contained by the limits of this building.
Space is something that we tend not to notice, because it doesn't grasp our attention, does it? It is not like a beautiful flower something really beautiful, or something really horrible -- which pulls your attention right to it. You can be completely mesmerised in an instant by something exciting, fascinating, horrible or terrible; but you can't do that with space, can you? To notice space you have to calm down -- you have to contemplate it.
This is because spaciousness is not extreme, it has no extreme qualities. It is just spacious, whereas flowers can be extremely beautiful, with beautiful bright reds and oranges and purples, beautiful shapes -- extremely beautiful shapes -- that are just so dazzling to our minds. Our something else can be really ugly and disgusting.
But space is not dazzling, it is not disgusting, and yet without space there would not be anything else; we couldn't see. If you had just this room, and filled it up with things so it became solid, or filled it up with cement -- a big cement block -- there'd be no space left in this room. Then, of course, you couldn't have beautiful flowers or anything else; it would just be a big block. It would be useless, wouldn't it? So we need both; we need to appreciate the form and the space, because they are the perfect couple, the true marriage, perfect harmony -- space and form. We contemplate this, we reflect, and from this comes wisdom. We know how things are, rather than always trying to create things the way we might want them to be.
Now apply this to the mind. Use the 'I' consciousness to see space as an object to the 'I'. We can see that mentally there are the thoughts, emotions -- the mental conditions -- that arise and cease. Usually we are dazzled, repelled or just bound by the thoughts and emotions; we go from one thing to another -- trying to get rid of them or reacting, controlling and manipulating them. So we never have any perspective in our lives, we just become obsessed with repression and indulgence; we are caught in those two extremes.
With meditation we have the opportunity to contemplate the mind. The silence of the mind is like the space in the room; it is always there, but it is subtle. It doesn't stand out, it doesn't grab your attention. It has no extreme quality which would stimulate and grasp your attention, so you have to pay attention, you have to be attentive. Now one can use the sound of silence (or the primordial sound, sound of the mind, or whatever you want to call it) very skilfully, by bringing it up, paying attention to it. By concentrating your attention on that for a while, it becomes something that you can really begin to know. It is the mode of knowing in which one can reflect. It's not a concentrated state you absorb into, it's not a suppressive kind of concentration. The mind is concentrated in a state of balance and openness, rather than absorbed into an object, so that one can actually think and use that as a way of seeing things in perspective -- letting things go.
Now I really want you to investigate this so that you begin to see how to let go of things rather than just have the idea that you should let go of things. You might come away from this retreat with the idea that you should let go of things. Then, when you can't let go of things, you'd start thinking, "I can't let go of things," -- but that is another ego problem that you have created. "Only others can let go, but I can't let go. I should let go -- Venerable Sumedho said everybody should let go." But that very simple thing is another "I am", isn't it?
Now you can take that simple thing and begin to notice, reflect and contemplate the space around those two words; rather than looking for something else, you just sustain attention on the space around those two words. It's like looking at the space in this room; you don't go looking for the space, do you? 'Where is the space in this room?' thinking, 'I am looking for the space in this room, have you seen it?' What do you do? You look at it; you are open to it because it is here all the time. It is not anything you are going to find in the cupboard or in the next room or under the floor. It is right here now -- so you open, you begin to notice.
(The above is an extract from the talk ‘Noticing Space’ found in the book ‘The Mind and the Way.’ A review of this wonderful book by Ajahn Sumedho can be found here.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

D.T. Suzuki on "A Is Not-A"

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎, 1870-1966)

We generally think that “A is A” is absolute, and that the proposition “A is not-A” or “A is B” is unthinkable. We have never been able to break through these conditions of the understanding; they have been too imposing. But now Zen declares that words are words and no more. When words cease to correspond with facts it is time for us to part with words and return to facts. As long as logic has its practical value it is to be made use of; but when it fails to work, or when it tries to go beyond its proper limits, we must cry, “Halt!” Ever since the awakening of consciousness we have endeavored to solve the mysteries of being and to quench our thirst for logic through the dualism of “A” and “not-A”; that is, by calling a bridge a bridge, by making the water flow, and dust arise from the earth; but to our great disappointment we have never been able to obtain peace of mind, perfect happiness, and a thorough understanding of life and the world. We have come, as it were, to the end of our wits. No further steps could we take which would lead us to a broader field of reality. The inmost agonies of the soul could not be expressed in words, when lo! light comes over our entire being. This is the beginning of Zen. For we now realize that “A is not-A” after all, that logic is one-sided, that illogicality so-called is not in the last analysis necessarily illogical; what is superficially irrational has after all its own logic, which is in correspondence with the true state of things. “Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands!” By this we are made perfectly happy, for strangely this contradiction is what we have been seeking for all the time since the dawning of the intellect. The dawning of the intellect did not mean the assertion of the intellect, but the transcending of itself. The meaning of the proposition “A is A” is realized only when “A is not-A”. To be itself is not to be itself – this is the logic of Zen, and satisfies all our aspirations.

(Taken from ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. A review of the book can be found here.)