Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Teetering Stillness

In Master Dogen's instructions for Zazen, at least in the later versions such as Fukan-zazengi rufu-bon, and Shobogenzo Zazengi, which is chapter 58 in Book 3, there is a phrase of four Chinese characters. I am not able to reproduce them on this computer. But phonetically the phrase is read "GOTSU-GOTSU to ZA-JO shi te...."

Speaking of Book 3, when Michael Luetchford and Jeremy Pearson published Shobogenzo Book 3 in 1997, in consultation with Gudo Nishijima they decided to make certain small changes, mainly to the footnotes but also in several places to the text, without consulting me. At that time I had already moved to England to join an Alexander teacher-training course. Gudo Nishijima had written me a letter in 1996 or 1997 expressing his hope that I would "come back to Buddhism," but I hadn't taken much notice. I was quite confident in my own mind that the only reason I was pursuing the Alexander way was better to understand the Buddha's way of Zazen. Gudo's letter was a danger signal, but I just never imagined what it might be signalling, so I tried to ignore it. What happened in due course was that a meeting was held in Tokyo and an explicit decision was made that I should not be consulted about various changes to Book 3. My understanding is that Michael and Yoko Luetchford were responsible for calling the meeting, that Gudo Nishijima had ultimate responsibility for the decision, and Jeremy Pearson allowed his initial objections to be overridden.

The changes were no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I regarded the whole episode as a total and utter betrayal, and it effectively signalled the end of my translation partnership with Gudo Nishijima--which was more of a tragedy than he will ever realize. He has remained firmly in denial with regard to who did what in the English translation of Shobogenzo. He likes to think he did it himself, with a bit of assistance from me on the re-writing side. Maybe that's why he felt justified in making changes uni-laterally, going against the one fundamental rule of our translation partnership. But the truth is that when he translates Buddhist texts into English, what he writes is not a translation but rather his own interpretation and opinion. If Brad Warner re-writes the Nishijima translation of Nagarjuna's MMK, without going back to the original Sanskrit, it will be very interesting to see what Sanskrit scholars make of it. I suppose that Brad, having apparently accepted the re-writing task, will never actually bring the project to fruition. If he does, then I strongly suppose that the translation will not stand up to the scrutiny of anyone who knows Sanskrit. I suppose these things because I know very well what kind of English translator Gudo Nishijima is.

I digress. Notwithstanding the fact that they let me down in the process -- for which both Michael Luetchford and Jeremy Pearson have apologized to me in recent years -- they did actually publish Book 3. And they did a bloody good job of it; as they also did a bloody good job of publishing Books 1, 2, and 4. As far as I am concerned it is a damn shame that they are not still publishing Shobogenzo. It is a damn shame that Emma Gibson is not still distributing it in the US.

Why are MJL, JMP and EG not still performing these services? Why did I feel unable to continue serving Gudo Nishijima as his translation partner? The answer is because of the suspicions of a controlling old man. He suspected an "evil plan" on my part to subvert his Shobogenzo translation and his Buddhist movement with what he calls "Alexander Technique theory." Later, he grew suspicious of MJL's motives. He was afraid of losing his grip on control of Windbell Publications. So he sabotaged the whole publication process, through the agency of his malicious enforcer James Cohen. Last year the old man became suspicious, in turn, that James Cohen, with his dubious legal know-how, was out to gain control over all his copyrights, and he sent me an urgent email to that effect. When I reflect on how I responded to the stimulus of the old man's email, I can but shake my head that I have remained in denial for so long. I clung to the utterly vain hope that somehow, if I could only express myself clearly enough, all would once more be sweetness and light between us.

I retrospect, I begin to see the single root cause of many problems. Taking off the rose-coloured spectacles of denial, I begin, with a rapidly diminishing sense of inner-conflict and anger, to see, as they are, the suspicions of a sad old man who wants to hold onto control. That is all it is. That is all it has ever been. Just that.

Again, I digress. When MJL and JMP, aka Windbell Publications, published Book 3 in 1997, the translation of "GOTSU-GOTSU to ZA-JO shite...." in chapter 58 was: "Sitting in balance in the mountain-still state...."

While standing by that translation, I have not stopped trying to hit the target, in my own understanding of the words, closer to the bulls-eye. Every practice of Zazen is a new opportunity to examine afresh what those words might really mean.

ZA means to sit. JO (otherwise pronounced TEI) means definite, fixed, constant, regular, set. If you go to a restaurant in Japan and order a TEI-SHOKU, "fixed meal," you will get the set menu. When Chinese translators of Sanskrit texts wanted to find a Chinese character that matched the meaning of the Sanskrit word samadhi, they chose JO. JO expresses samadhi as something definite, constant, regular -- "the balanced state of body and mind" in Gudo Nishijima's words; in other words, according to his very definite view on the matter, "the balanced state of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system."

Still, I am not totally happy about "sitting in balance" as a translation of ZA-JO. The original characters are more direct--two words, not three. Not "sitting in samadhi" but "sit-samadhi-ing." Not "sitting in balance" but "sit-balance-ing." But "sit-balancing" doesn't sound quite right, does it? Do you see? Translating Shobogenzo into English is no easy undertaking. In a sense, I wish that everybody could translate Master Dogen's instructions for Zazen for themselves, and not take my word for it, or the word of anybody else.

The character GOTSU, or KOTSU, is given in Chinese-English character dictionaries as "high and level; lofty; bald; dangerous" (Nelson) and as "rising high; bald; unstable" (Spahn/Hadamitzky). The original pictograph is a very simple one of three strokes. It looks like an overhanging cliff. If I remember rightly, Gudo Nishijima told me that the character originally did depict a cliff.

When I first met JMP in England at the end of 1989, Jeremy was interested in parallels and correspondences between the teaching of Master Dogen and the poetry of TS Elliot. I responded to Jeremy's interest in the way I had cultivated through my twenties -- with closed-minded arrogance: "Elliot never practised Zazen. What would he know?" But in 1994, when I came across the phrase "stillness without fixity" in Marjory Barlow's teaching, as an expression of what we are aiming for in Alexander work, I was struck by it. And it turns out that the phrase is derived from the first of Elliot's four quartets.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity.

In Gudo Nishijima's translation of Shobogenzo into modern Japanese he gives the meaning of GOTSU-GOTSU as ugokanai-sama "a state of non-movement." So this is how I understood the words in 1997, simply as expressing something unmoving, like a cliff or a mountain -- "mountain-still."

But as I have progressed in the Alexander work, I have become more clear about what kind of stillness we want, and what kind of stillness we don't want. What we want is stillness without fixity. What we don't want is to hold ourselves still. We don't want to stiffen up. We don't want to fix. Fixing, as Marjory Barlow says, in her book An Examined Life, is our biggest evil: "That's our biggest evil, fixing. FM Alexander used to say that. 'You all fix.' See, it's the desire to hold onto something. You've got to let it go and be in danger."

Thus I have started to wonder about what else, in addition to the central meaning of stillness, the character GOTSU, with its connotation of an overhanging cliff, might suggest. An overhanging cliff is still, yes, but precariously so. It carries an inherent sense of insecurity, of instability, of danger, of precarious balance. Do you see what I am getting at?

"Sit-balancing in teetering stillness, think the state of not thinking."
No, it's not a good translation. Or is it? I don't know. Translating Shobogenzo seems to be a never-ending process.

You may see this post as a rambling mess. Rightly so. The attempts of a suspicious old man to hold onto control, and the unenlightened reactions to him of people like me, have created an awful bloody mess. But do you also see how, in a very real sense, the two strands of this ramble are very profoundly interconnected?

Do you see what I am getting at? Am I succeeding in conveying what Alexander work has demonstrated to me? The great enemies of true Buddhism are not, as the old man sees it, out there. The most formidable enemy of true Buddhism lies within: it is our desire, the desire of each of us, to hold on. We dare not let go and be in danger. We are afraid to teeter on the brink.


Blogger Friend said...

'You all fix.' See, it's the desire to hold onto something. You've got to let it go and be in danger."

That says it on every level for me. But this kind of statement is made from knowledge issuing from direct experience. The direct experience happened first. The statement resonantes with me and I hope one day to give birth to this insight in practice.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

You've now made yourself clear.

The stillness is a dynamic stillness of a living system.

Although all appears still it is not the stillness of a rigid thing but of a flexible thing and a flexible thing will never be rigidly still but always in a state where there is a little bit of 'wobble'.

The 'wobble' can only occur when the system is relaxed and stable and is the natural response of a dynamic system.

A spinning top is still (ignore the spinning) and if pushed will wobble briefly and then return to the centre.

A tree in a breeze is both still and not still. It is not resiting the breeze.

After reading this and ItIsNotThat I finally understand what you are trying to say and I think you are correct.

This summarises Stillness without Fixity and Allowing in the context of the body.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger goofball said...

I'm calling you GOTSU from now on. :-)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Graham said...


From this post I think you might enjoy the martial art/health practice of Yi Quan - based on finding stillness in movement - and the writings of its founder Wang Zhang Zhai.

I think he became an expert at 'teetering on the brink.'

Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger HumptyDumpty said...

Hello Mike

Lately I have become increasingly interested in your comments and I would be grateful if you could answer a few questions that have arisen from my possible misunderstanding of Zazen.

1. My understanding of Zazen so far is that it can help you come to terms with the fact that you are, and will always be, an imperfect human being. However I seem to have picked up the notion from your blog that Zazen / AT is driven towards producing the perfect human. Can you comment and possibly clarify this for me please?

2. I've always thought that it is our unconscious reactions that make us human. If Zazen helps us to discover the real human being then how does liberation from the unconscious as promoted in Zazen / AT tie in with that? Wouldn't be be denying our human nature?

3. I first became interested in Buddhism a few years ago because I wanted to address some problems with the destructive way I reacted to situations in my life. I'm now at a stage where I really feel that I've addressed some of these problems and my life is good just the way it is. I really mean that. Is Zazen / AT really for me then, cause by getting involved I feel that I would be trying to better myself when I am, as I said, more or less happy with myself as I am, imperfections and all.

That said, a part of me still thinks that if I'm going to practice, and I do practice cause it helps me stay on an even keel, I might as well do it right. Should I fix what might not broken.

Many thanks and best wishes


Wednesday, February 01, 2006  
Blogger oxeye said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thanks to all for above comments.

I think that what Master Dogen is saying with the words "GOTSU-GOTSU to ZAJO shi te" is essentially very simple: Just sit still...

"Sitting still, really, really still, think the state of not thinking."

The simplicity is lost in the way I respond to those words. In trying to be right, in trying to be still, I respond to those words, by stiffening, fixing, holding. In trying to understand the real meaning of what Master Dogen is saying, I respond to those words by trying to grasp them with my intellect.

In Alexander terms, these responses are two sides of one habitual pattern, which FM Alexander called "end-gaining."

Because this is how I am, when I met Gudo Nishijima I jumped to the wrong conclusion about him. And Gudo used my unenlightened, end-gaining tendency to achieve what Gudo wanted to achieve -- a good English translation of Shobogenzo which he could think of as his own.

Maybe it is a never-ending learning process -- end-gaining, and suffering the painful side-effects; jumping to the wrong conclusion, and finding that you were wrong.

Gudo Nishijima is a very skillful teacher, in the sense of being a very skillful manipulator of others. I don't want to be like that. So don't ask my advice about what to do. I don't know.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...


I see humility in what you write. This is very good to see and the first time I have seen it in a post.

I am confident you are now rowing in the right direction.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger zero said...


your inside story on the translation and publication much appreciated. Perhaps important for the records too.

What strikes and disturbs me is how the old man's "balanced state" theory (and perhaps other things as well) may have influenced the translation. And it continues to baffle me that anyone, let alone a Zen Master, would accept a materialistic, reductionistic explanation of samadhi. In his own words: " practicing Zazen everyday we can become accustomed to having balance in our ANS, and that state is just the state of Buddhas." In addition, this reductionistic definition contradicts his own teaching on the four philosophies...

What is lost by such a definition is the subtleties, and what is gained is that attractive thing - a sense of clarity and control. Something to hold on to.

And isn't it all in the subtleties, and isn't poetry, such as Eliot's, in the end the only thing that can aspire to describe the subtlest and highest things, and as Thomas Aquinas said "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things."

As for MMK, my naive intuition was that this subtleness of samadhi, and the attempts to describe it was part of the inspiration for Nagarjuna's philosophy:

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor not real.
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Incidentally very much in line with your response to an earlier post of mine.

Thank you.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero. Your comment really is music to my ears. I absolutely agree with everything you wrote.

About the translation, if you read my original Notes at the front of Shobogenzo Book 1, I begin by saying:

"Just stick closely to the original Japanese text. Make it Master Dogen's Shobogenzo." The sub-text was: Make it Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, and NOT Gudo Nishijima's Shobogenzo.

My intention in doing the translation was (1)when in doubt, to rely on Gudo Nishijima's interpretation faithfully, and at the same time (2) to remove all trace of Gudo Nishijima's interpretation as totally as possible; and thereby just to let Master Dogen speak. I cannot promise you that I succeeded. On the contrary, I am sure that in many places I failed. But I can say to you with total sincerity: I promise you that this was what I tried to do. I saw my work as a service to Master Dogen.

I finished my Notes by writing: "All who benefit from this translation, myself included, should be profoundly grateful to Nishijima Roshi for his unceasing effort to clarify the real meaning of Shobogenzo." I did not write that I did feel profoundly grateful, because I didn't.

At that time it worried me that I didn't feel grateful. I was so deeply into the habit of suppressing my feelings about everything.

In retrospect I needn't have worried. Though I still carry my habit of suppressing my emotion, I begin to see more clearly that this is just another kind of unconscious doing. Deep though this habit is, it is a bad habit to drop off like any other bad habit.

A final thought. Marjory Barlow told me that when FM Alexander was asked what he believed in, he used to reply: "I believe in everything. And I believe in nothing."

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Siren said...

I've been (basically) following this long back-and-forth/story between you, Brad, Nishijima, and I am thrilled to finally see a post where you address AT and how you see its relationship to zazen. I've sort of been waiting, and wondering when you might speak more concretely about AT. I have studied AT and, currently, Feldenkrais. Being a musician, my voice teacher is a Feldenkrais teacher and the work has been HUGE for me on every level. I don't think most readers knew who FM A was, nor what you were getting at with AT.

Zero's comment: 'And isn't it all in the subtleties, and isn't poetry, such as Eliot's, in the end the only thing that can aspire to describe the subtlest and highest things'. Hooray! Yes!

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, siren. I also appreciated zero's comment.

About AT and Zazen:

Worrying about stiffening the neck causes us to stiffen the neck. We can call it a discovery of FM Alexander, or a bit of Buddhist wisdom, or just a universal human truth.

For a person who is committed to pursuing the truth in Zazen, I don't think any kind of view is necessary on the relationship of AT to Zazen.

On the other hand, it might be desirable for us Zazen devotees not to persist with any unconscious misconceptions that we bring to Zazen.

From this point of view I can testify to the fact that Alexander work has been invaluable for me. The meaning of "sitting still" is a case in point. My wrong conception of stillness was to do with holding and fixing. Alexander work has helped me to see this wrong conception for what it is. But it was never necessary for me to have had the misconception in the first place.

Unfortunately I had the wrong conception already. And my reaction to the teaching of Gudo Nishijima only reinforced the wrong conception. Are there others out there as stupid as me? Maybe there are. Maybe Brad is one, but just hasn't realized it yet.

In sum, I take your point. I suppose I find it easier to bear witness, responding to comments as they come in, and posting up what emerges day by day, rather than to try and set out some systematic view of my own about AT & Zazen.

Anyway, taking your point, I will make my next post an article I wrote a few years ago to try to explain AT to Zazen practitioners.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  

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