The Fukanzazengi
Revisited: 2009

Rohatsu Sesshin Talk Number 3

by Josho Pat Phelan

This is the third day of sesshin and maybe you are settling in and beginning to forget that there is any other way of life. Ch’an Master Sheng-yen said, "The sole purpose of a Ch’an retreat is to practice." He said, "You should keep your attention entirely on practice, without trying to attain any results....The aim of practice is to train your patience and forbearance, to train your mind to become calm and stable. Any ... seeking will prevent your mind from settling down." In practice, looking outside ourselves for anything sabotages our efforts. Of course, we all do, we count the number of days until sesshin will be over, the number of periods of zazen until the break, measuring what we imagine is our ability to endure, comparing our actual experience to what we had hoped for, and so on. I think this measuring and tracking is a comfort because it is what we are used to, it’s our usual mental environment and how most of us were conditioned to approach life. It’s our strategy for getting through the day, the week, through college or a difficult time. And we think things like, "I made it through the morning, so I should be able to make it through the afternoon, or I made it through tea, if I’m careful about how I sit, I should be able to make I through to the end of the day." I think especially when we begin sitting sesshins, we tend to balance our abandon, on one hand, with tracking how we’re doing, on the other, to make sure we don’t get lost or suddenly find ourselves beyond our ability to cope. After I sat three or four sesshins and found that I survived, I was able to relax a little and start being able to risk abandoning my coping mechanisms of tracking and measuring. But it took several sesshins for me to trust that I would be OK letting go of figuring out where I was in the day and the week, and how my knees were doing, and so on.
Part of what we are doing in zazen and practice in general is finding our inner and outer balance, and one way to approach this is by allowing your self, allowing your back from the base of the spine through the neck and head, to find its own uprightness – the position your spine maintains with the least effort and the greatest ease. Katagiri Roshi said that "Real zazen is when our bodies and minds are completely balanced." As we begin sesshin, and go through the transition from the conditioned activity of daily life into the non-doing of zazen, or Zen meditation, it is probably unavoidable that we approach settling the mind and being still and upright as a task that we need to work at. But another way to approach zazen is through non-obstruction by allowing practice to happen rather than trying to make it happen. Sometimes when I sit, I have the image of a flower bud, like a water lily, that is about to bloom. Rather than trying to force your body into a straight posture, instead try opening to your fundamental clear Mind, letting layers of muscle open, relax and drop, the way a flower unfolds the layers of its petals. The opening of our body does not happen apart from the opening of our mind. When body opens, mind opens; and when the burdens of mind drop away, our whole being enjoys it.

It is important to be aware of our experience, but often our minds jump rather quickly from awareness into judging our experience; and in zazen, judging is always a hindrance because it involves discrimination – as we compare one thing to another. I assume that all of us feel we think too much in zazen. When we sit still, facing the wall trying to be aware, we naturally become more aware of our thinking than we are in our everyday activity. But I don’t necessarily think this means our minds are more active in zazen; rather, in zazen we are more aware of the activity of our mind. Our response to thinking usually takes one of two forms, either we engage in it and follow the story-line of our thoughts, or we try to resist or stop our thinking. When thoughts are present, instead of trying to get rid of them, just let them be. In Opening the Hand of Thought, Uchiyama Roshi said that no matter how long a rock sits, it will never think. In zazen we aren’t trying to turn ourselves into rocks. He compared the brain to the stomach, saying as the natural function of the stomach is to secrete digestive juices, the natural function of the brain is to secrete thoughts. It might be helpful to regard mental activity as secretions of the brain, as the brain sweating out thoughts. It’s just something that happens when the right conditions are right.

When your mind is active, try to stay connected with some stillness or steadiness beneath thought. I like the image of the ocean as a metaphor for the mind, with the waves on the surface of the ocean like our thinking – very active, moving here and there splashing around, while on the bottom of the ocean, the water is deep, steady, and still. Rather than being concerned about thinking in zazen or trying to disengage from thought, try simply to abandon your thinking. Don’t try to stop it, but abandon it by giving your thinking its own space or its own pasture as Suzuki Roshi said. Without stopping your thoughts or trying to do something about them, allow thoughts to be where they are, how they are, but simply abandon them and let your awareness settle like an anchor to the bottom of the ocean of your being.

Yesterday I talked about the practice of "non-thinking." Non-thinking, shikantaza and "turning the light around" are different ways of talking about the same thing. Instead of trying to not think or to get rid of thinking, which is a kind of abstinence from thought that can easily lead to a hostile relationship with our thinking, our effort can be to engage with our bodily presence which is always a non-discursive presence. This is done in zazen, not so much by focusing on one part of our body, such as the knee or back, but rather by settling into the holistic sense of our whole presence or energy. If you find your mind going from awareness into judging, try welcoming your comparative thinking or critical voice as a friend, without trying to change it. Try bringing your full awareness to the judging activity and let it be in the midst of your unwavering attention.

I want to continue talking about what to do with the mind in zazen by looking at the passage in the "Fukanzazengi" where Dogen said, You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.

Dogen taught that rather than looking for enlightenment outside ourselves by studying sutras and other teachings, we should practice with our own mind directly and intimately by "learning the backward step that turns our light within to illuminate the self." This brings awareness back to our Original Nature, turning the light of awareness away from objects back on itself – back to the original luminosity of mind, the source of awareness.

Turning the light around is returning attention to the source of consciousness, reversing the usual process of going outward to engage with objects, and instead returning to the subject of consciousness. So, instead of engaging with the objects of our senses or our thinking, the practice is to retrace awareness back to the source of consciousness, illuminating Original Nature. Dogen compared our thoughts and emotions to wild birds flying about and wild monkeys racing around. He said, "If you once make these birds and monkeys reverse their course and reflect back, you will naturally become unified." The practice of letting go of our distractions, preoccupations and contents of mind, allows awareness to come to rest on itself. When we talk about "turning the light around," it may sound dualistic, like an exercise or a task like steering our attention the way we steer a car, but that’s not quite right. The translator, Tom Cleary wrote about this as using awareness itself as the object of consciousness which cannot be grasped, and therefore cannot be an object, so this becomes engaging in an objectless focus. When this happens, our awareness is non-dual since there is nothing outside the awareness – we are the awareness.

In "Song of the Grass Roof Hut," Sekito Kisen or Shi’tou, who lived 500 years before Dogen, wrote "turn the light around and then just return." "Turning the light around" was practiced both in Chinese Zen and Taoism hundreds of years before Dogen lived, and he continued rather than creating this practice. Another example is Kyogen who lived in the 9th century. One day Kyogen asked his teacher Kuei-shan, "Where is the abiding place of the Real Buddha?" and Kuei-shan replied, "Imagine the wonder of no thought, and trace it back to the infinity of light."

When Kyogen became a teacher, one day he entered the hall and addressed his monks, "The Way is attained by means of enlightenment and is not found in words. It is mysterious and majestic, and without the slightest breach. Don’t belabor your mind! Just turn the light inward. Those disciples using total effort every day to realize enlightenment are just backward and confused." The criticism of "using total effort everyday to realize enlightenment" may sound strange, but I would suggest that Kyogen was referring to a grasping, goal-oriented practice aimed at gaining enlightenment.

Another example of this practice involves Yang Shan or Kyozan, Kyogen’s dharma brother who also studied with Kuei-shan. One day he asked Kuei-shan, "What is the true abode of Buddha?" Kuei-shan replied, "Think of the unfathomable mystery and return your thoughts to the inexhaustible numinous light. When thoughts are exhausted you’ve arrived at the source, where true nature is revealed as eternally abiding. In that place there is no difference between affairs (conventional reality) and principle (ultimate truth), and the true Buddha is manifested."

And the last story I want to tell takes place when Kyozan was a teacher. One day he asked a monk, "Where do you come from?" The monk said, "From Yun province. Kyozan asked, "Do you think of that place?" The monk replied, "I think of it often."

Kyozan said, "That which thinks is mind, that which is thought of is the object or the environment. In the environment are various things – mountains, rivers, land, towers, houses, people, horses, and other things. Think back to the mind which thinks – are there so many things in there?"

The monk said, "When I get there, I do not see anything existing at all."

Kyozan said, "What you have realized is still within mind. It brings about the stage of belief (or faith), but not yet the stage of person."

The stage of faith refers to disentangling from objects of mind in meditation while still maintaining awareness. Once we are no longer thinking, the tendency is to zone out or fall asleep. I think letting go of objects of mind while staying awake and present, with bare bones consciousness, is like walking on a tight rope, trying not to tip and fall into thinking on one side or fall into sleeping on the other. Being aware without thinking is referred to as taming the mind. The word "faith" is used to mean trust or confidence – confidence in our own Buddha Nature, confidence that since our very own mind is inherently enlightened that our own experience is enough for practice. Searching outside ourselves for enlightenment is indicative of a lack of trust in Buddha Nature.

Tom Cleary said that the practice of ‘turning the light around and looking back,’ is a way to disentangle ourselves and become free from objects. He said the "stage of person" that Kyogen mentioned is a further maturing of practice, of going beyond calming and disentangling the mind in meditation, so that when we leave meditation we are be able to move about freely wherever we are without getting caught, because whatever we meet is fundamentally the light of Buddha’s mind. Liberation is freedom to be in the midst of everyday activity without losing awareness.

The process of reversing the light back to the source of awareness is called eko hensho in Japanese. It is looking into the mind itself, sitting with the experience of bare mind, instead of trying to practice with the contents of mind. Early Buddhism had a tendency to look very carefully at the components of experience, and "instants" of consciousness, trying to understand what might be called the building blocks of consciousness. Whereas Chinese Buddhism, especially Zen in China, had a more holistic emphasis. Instead of trying to break down experience into individual components, Zen emphasizes unifying body and mind, and experiencing the non-duality of inside and outside. In the book, No Beginning, No End, Jakusho Kwong said, "In meditation you are turning your radiance inward. Since we try not to see the objective world, there is only one whole world, the wholeness completely contained within yourself. This is the radiance."

Light is sometimes used as a metaphor for awareness, Buddha Nature, or Original Face. Dogen’s disciple Keizan wrote The Record of Transmitting the Light which is a collection of enlightenment stories of the first 52 ancestors in our lineage beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha and going through Dogen’s disciple Koun Ejo. The light that is transmitted refers to Shakyamuni Buddha’s zazen as enlightenment. Francis Cook who translated this work said, "The very light within humans and living beings in general is Shakyamuni Buddha’s zazen as enlightenment." "It is this light that is transmitted from master to disciple as the disciple discovers this light within himself. In fact, once the light is discovered, this is the transmission." Because nothing is passed from one person to another, this is called "transmission of the untransmittable."

Kobun Chino Roshi, a Zen priest who helped Suzuki Roshi establish the practice at Tassajara, compared the essence of the precepts to light. He said, "The main subject of Denko-e (or the study of transmission) is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light....The precepts are the reflected light world of one precept, which is Buddha’s mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha."

Where is the light? Is it located in your eyes, in your brain, your heart or hara? Where does our awareness reside? Returning the light to its source, is not something to think about – it’s not a mental exercise; and it is not a visualization, although it may sound like it is. Katagiri Roshi used the phrase, "settle the self on the self." When we do this, we are no longer looking around to be entertained by sense objects or our storyline. Bring the awareness that seeks out objects back to awareness itself, settling in this ungraspable place.

So, there is no need to fight or struggle with your thinking. Thinking is a natural, biochemical process of the brain. When the mind is active, let it be active. Fighting this activity feeds it, giving it strength. Instead simply withdraw your attention from the storyline, returning to the bottom of the ocean of your being, reconnecting to stillness.

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan 2010

Zen Talks Page   Home Page