Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The True Essence of Zazen

The essence of Zazen is to sit upright in such a way, to accept and to use the self in such a way, that we enter and experience samadhi.

Samadhi, as enjoyed by Gautama Buddha under the bodhi tree and as recommended by the Buddha as the eighth item of the eightfold noble path, is our original and natural condition of integration and balance. It is our original state and our natural state of being.

We don’t have to manufacture samadhi artificially. It is our birthright as a human being.

The above teaching I received from my original Buddhist teacher Gudo Nishijima.

The teaching that follows I did not understand in Japan but have only begun to understand since returning to England, under the direction of experienced Alexander teachers:

Samadhi may be our original and natural state, but it is not our habitual state.

Therefore to enter and experience samadhi requires us to refrain from doing those things that we habitually do which prevent us from entering and experiencing samadhi.

It is not that, when we sit on the zafu and cross our legs, all our habits suddenly leave us. We bring our habitual (partial) manner of accepting and using the self with us onto the Zazen cushion.

So, for me, the practice of just sitting does not mean simply switching onto automatic pilot. Rather, my practice of just sitting in the full lotus posture is the physical manifestation of my Buddhist intention to go against the stream of habit.

Even within the sitting practice itself, it is necessary from time to time to renew this Buddhist intention. When the right thing is doing itself, fine, let it be: just enjoy it. When the body-mind passes out of quietness, when the body complains, or something arises in the mind, then it is necessary to wake up, to renew my Buddhist intention.

This intention is the meaning of Master Dogen’s instruction:
“Think the state of not-thinking.”

“But how can the state of not-thinking be thought?”

“It is different from thinking.”

This is the true essence of Zazen. The true essence is not only the synthesis, but also the thesis and anti-thesis.

Intention is the thesis. Negation of intention is the anti-thesis. Just sitting is the synthesis.

Just sitting is the synthesis. But without the thesis and anti-thesis, there is no synthesis. Without intention there is no just sitting.

Intention is the key that unlocks the door to the inner sanctum of the Buddhist patriarchs. Intention is not the inner sanctum itself, but it is the first key that unlocks the door.

Not only before Zazen, but also during Zazen, when I drift out of balance, I renew my intention to come back to balance. Intention is the first key.

The second key is attention. Renewing my intention, I bring my attention back to the manner in which, in sitting, I am accepting and using the self. It is probably my habitual, partial manner of accepting and using the self.

My intention is to sit NOT in a manner which accords with my habit.

I have probably written about this in a way that makes it sound complicated. It is actually a very simple way of practice. Very simple, but not easy.

In asking us to go against the stream of habit, Gautama Buddha gave us a much more difficult challenge than most people are prone to assume.

8 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

An excellent and refreshing post indeed. This is what I have been waiting to hear from you. Thank you.


I believe that awareness of those habits that restrict our true intention is key to entering that state of samadhi.

I have sat for many forty minute periods with right intention yet lacked right attention. It is very simple indeed, yet the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you Chris.

Those habits that restrict us are mainly unconscious. They are blind, habitual reactions. Idealistic and materialistic thought-patterns, yes: but more than that, they are patterns of pyscho-physical reaction that are deeply woven into the core of our being.

So how to stop doing things that we are not even aware of?

The first step is the intention to break out. The next step is awareness of those habitual reactions with which we lock ourselves in.

For this, it seems to me, a teacher who really knows the score is indispensible, at least for a lesser mortal like myself.

How can I, with my faulty sensory awareness, find out by myself what I am doing wrong?

We need not only a teacher who expounds true theory but also a real, living hand to guide us, to help us to become aware of our wrong doing.

I think this is why Master Dogen wrote in a work called Gakudo-yojin-shu, that without meeting a true teacher it is best not to study at all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005  
Blogger reallynotimportant said...

This is much better. I will think a lot more before commenting on the content.

It still feels like you are speaking from your mind and desiring to create grand pictures rather than speaking from the heart.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005  
Blogger reallynotimportant said...

I think I have now found the words I need! It is really to do with how "Mental Intention" is interpreted. The key aspect is whether you are interpting this as a coercive or persuasive intention. With a coercive intetion you are 'forcing' your body to go in a particular direction - like pushing a ball underwater. With persuasive intention you are pushing the ball along the surface of the water. With one method you are working against the body and another with the body. It is very difficult to put into words.

I was taught QiGong/ChiKung (Energy Work) by a master practicioner. The most important lesson (and it was #1, repeated often) was not to use mental force. The best rule of thumb I can think of is that if it feels difficult then you are doing it wrong. If it feels effortless AND relaxed then you are doing it right. Effortless and Relaxed can also be analogous to an expectant waiting. I was always taught that using mental force was dangerous in a very real sense. At the level of practice used for the Alexander technique I don't think this is an issue.

I think the only real issue I have with the Alexander Technique is it can encourage the use of mental force which is inappropriate. Within the context of Zazen I would say that using force is definitely not appropriate since it is very far from "Just Sitting" and very far from mindbody integration.

In QiGong the standard path is to develop first of all awarenss of the mindbody. This is like beginning to see the ball floating on the surface. Once you can see both the ball and the surface then it is possible to push the ball in the right direction. Alexander Technique can (if poorly done IMHO) be a case of repeatedly hitting the water until by accident you hit the ball and it moves. Timescales for QiGong work are measured in years and decades with several years being typically required to obtain reasonable mindbody awareness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Floating weed, Many thanks for your wise words.

Having gone "roaming in samadhi" for an hour, as per your recommendation, it seems to me that there is something inherently antagonistic in me, and my habit is not to accept this. My habit is to think that this antagonism cannot be the Buddha-nature, and so rather than accepting this antagonism as part of a bigger whole, I tend to try to be Buddha instead. Zazen calls upon me to accept and to use the whole of myself. But my habit is not to accept certain aspects of myself. So my intention just to sit includes the intention to go against this habit of not accepting myself.

Yes, to think about things in this way, creating imaginary dragons with which to fight, is absurd. A fool who thinks like this, knowing thinking like this to be absurd, is indeed a fool who compounds his foolishness with further foolishness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you for your comment, RNI.

My impression is that your understanding of what Alexander discovered is only very superficial, as is my own.

You write: "The best rule of thumb I can think of is that if it feels difficult then you are doing it wrong."

This fails to take account of Alexander's principle of faulty sensory awareness. Our feelings of what is difficult or right are not reliable.

This is why, in the business of re-education of postural activity, whether in Zazen or in Alexander work, most of us seem to need the guiding hand of a true teacher.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005  
Blogger reallynotimportant said...

"This fails to take account of Alexander's principle of faulty sensory awareness. Our feelings of what is difficult or right are not reliable. "

Difficult and force are not the same thing. Something can feel difficult to do and not be using force. Hard to describe. Sorry!

Thursday, December 22, 2005  

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