Talks on the Fukanzazengi by
This is the second day of our December 7-day sesshin, or meditation intensive, which commemorates Buddha's Enlightenment. During sesshin, we sit zazen here together, we eat in the zendo together, we chant, do walking meditation and work together. For these 7 days and nights of sesshin, we try to let go of anything that draws us away from this present moment.
The Chinese Chan Master Sheng-yen said, "The sole purpose of a Chan [or Zen] retreat is to practice. 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. But, 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 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 in a way because it is what we are used to, it's our usual mental environment. 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 it through to the end of the day." I think especially when we begin sitting sesshins, we tend to balance our abandon with tracking how we're doing 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 begin relaxing 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 alright, and to let go of figuring out where I was in the day and the week, how my knees were doing, and so on.
Part of what we are working on 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 up through the neck and head, to find its own uprightness, the position of greatest ease. Katagiri Roshi said, "Real zazen is when our bodies and minds are completely balanced." When we begin zazen practice, it is probably unavoidable that we try to work at settling the mind and work at being still and sitting upright, while going through the transition from the busy-ness of daily life into the non-doing of zazen. But another way to approach this 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 most basic being, to your fundamental clear mind, letting layers of muscle open, relax and drop, the way a flower unfolds its petals. The opening of our body doesn't 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 most of us here feel that 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 often takes one of two forms, either we engage in it and follow the storyline 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 that 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 or the brain sweating out thoughts. It's just something that happens when the conditions are right.
When your mind is active, try to stay connected to 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 anything 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.
Again, instead of trying to not think or to get rid of thinking, which is a kind of abstinence from thought which can easily lead to a hostile relationship with our thinking, our effort can be to engage with our bodily presence which is always non-discursive. In zazen this isn't so much a focus on one part of our body, such as a knee or the back, but settling into the holistic sense of our whole presence or energy. If you do find your mind going from awareness into judging, try welcoming your comparative thinking and critical voice as a friend, without trying to change it. Instead bring your full awareness to the judging activity and let it be in the midst of your unwavering attention.
Yesterday, I began talking about Master Dogen's text, the "Fukanzazengi," which we chant sometimes in service. The word "zazengi" refers to a short, easily memorized text that is devoted to the method and importance of zazen practice. It is a kind of how-to-do-it manual, and Dogen wrote at least three of these, "Zazengi," "Zazenshin" and the "Fukanzazengi." Today, we are ready for the second section which begins, 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 Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion. This is a reference to the "Hsin Hsing Ming," a poem by the 3rd Chinese Ancestor, Seng-ts'an or Kanshi Sosan. A theme of the "Hsing Hsing Ming" is how to meet Buddha mind within our ordinary activity. The "Hsin Hsin Ming" or "Trust in Mind," begins, "The Great Way is not difficult, for those who have no preferences. When freed from grasping and aversion, it reveals itself clearly and undisguised. A hair's breadth difference, and heaven and earth are set apart. If you want it to appear, have no opinions for or against. The duality of like and dislike is the dis-ease of the mind." Since mind or consciousness and we ourselves, as well as everything are part of a deep interconnectedness, we are never separate from anything. But when the slightest discrimination arises, the oneness of subject and object becomes split in two, and the separation we perceive might as well be as distant as heaven is from earth.
Now, I want to focus on the next section, 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 teaches that rather than seeking for understanding outside ourselves through reading sutras and studying the teachings, through reasoning, thinking, and so on, we should practice with our own mind directly and intimately by learning the backward step that turns the light of our awareness within to illuminate the self. This returns awareness from thoughts and external objects to fundamental consciousness, returning the light of awareness to clear, open, limitless mind, the source of our awareness.
Turning the light around can be done by directing our attention inward to the source of consciousness, reversing the usual process of going outward to engage with objects, and instead returning to the source of consciousness, which is consciousness itself. So, instead of engaging with the objects of our senses or our thinking, the practice is to turn awareness back to the source of consciousness.
The practice of letting go of the 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, or like an exercise or a task, like steering our attention the way we steer a car, but I don't think that is quite right. The translator Tom Cleary talks 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 awareness.
"Turning the light around" was practiced in Chinese Zen and Taoism before Dogen's time. Some examples of this teaching are Kyogen, who asked his teacher Isan, "Where is the abiding place of the Real Buddha?" and Isan 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."
Kyogen's dharma brother Kyozan, asked Isan, "What is the true abode of Buddha?" Isan said, "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 (or conventional reality) and principle (or ultimate truth), and the true Buddha is manifested."
And the last story that I want to tell takes place when Kyozan was a teacher.
One day he asked a monk, "Where do you come from?"
The stage of faith is explained as 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 a tight rope, trying not to tip over and fall into thinking, on one side, or fall into sleeping on the other. Tom Cleary said that the practice of "turning the light around" is a way to disentangle ourselves and become free from objects. 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 outside 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 the freedom to be in the midst of everyday activity without losing awareness.
This 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. "Light" is sometimes used as a metaphor for our Original Face before our parents were born. Keizan Zenji wrote The Record of Transmitting the Lightin the 14th century. This is a collection of enlightenment stories of the first fifty-two ancestors in our lineage beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha and going through Dogen's disciple Koun Ejo — these are the names we chant in service when we chant the Names of Buddhas and Ancestors. The Record of Transmitting the Light is considered the second most important text in Japanese Soto Zen, after Dogen's Shobogenzo. The light that is transmitted refers to Shakyamuni Buddha's zazen as enlightenment. Francis Cook who translated this text 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 who was 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 [the study of transmission] is how to become a transmitter of actual light, life light....You don't use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality, or fulfilling your dream of your highest image.... 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 intimate place where nothing is the other.
Maezumi Roshi said, "The point of our practice...is to realize ... that we are intrinsically, originally the Way itself, which is complete and free." He said, "Realization is itself transmission....you transmit yourself to yourself by realizing this very body, this very mind, this very place is Buddha."
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.
Please be here so you may enjoy this moment of being, forgetting you've had any other life. That life cannot help you here in sesshin. And the world outside doesn't depend on your memory of it. Let your memories, thoughts and stories go, allowing yourself to enjoy the fullness of this moment with all beings.
© 2020 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan