Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Don't Hold Your Breath

Following on from my previous post, I have been thinking about breathing -- always a dangerous thing to do.

The first thing to say about breathing is that I am heartily in favour of it. It helps to keep away from the lips an unsightly bluish tint. Acknowledgements to AT teacher Malcolm Balk for this reflection (

In his original version of his Zazen instructions for everyone, Fukan-zazengi, Master Dogen talks about regulating the breathing (ãCëßñíí≤). What does this mean?

To me, it has come to mean the following four things:

(1) Pay attention to the breathing

(2) Let the breathing be

(3) Breathe out

(4) Allow undoing

Are they four separate things? Or are they one spontaneous process, expressed by/as Mind, Nature, Action, and The Ineffable?
No, they are not four separate things. They are one reality. There are never four separate things. There is only one real world.
Who taught me to think like this? Do you think I worked it out all by myself? No, however low in my estimation Gudo has sunk, and however low in his estimation I have sunk, he is my father and I am his son. Because, quite simply, he taught me to think the way I do, in four phases. Even if I try not to think in the way he taught me to think, I cannot help but think the way he taught me to think. From my first meeting with Gudo at the age of 22, I learned to practice thinking in this way. And now I can't stop, even if I want to.
That is why it was utterly absurd of Gudo to suggest, as he did last year, that he and I should each publish our own versions of the Shobogenzo translation. The present version is totally my version. And at the same time, it is totally his version.
When I look at Michael Luetchford's translation of the last verse of Nagarjuna's MMK, a part of me can't help feel sorry for him. How could he have been a student of Gudo for so many years and yet fail to maintain the original four-phased structure which, to me, was immediately blindingly apparent in the original Sanskrit -- (1) views, (2) wonderful Dharma, (3) compassionate means, (4) prostration to Gautama?

According to Frank Lambert's explanation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, energy of all kinds in our material world disperses or spreads out if it is not hindered from doing so. Entropy is the quantitative measure of that kind of spontaneous process: how much energy has flowed from being localized to becoming more widely spread out (at a specific temperature).
--Thanks to bubbha for drawing my attention to the above, from an article by Frank Lambert at

It strikes me that back in the 13th century Master Dogen was already onto the principle of entropy: Know a long breath as long and a short breath as short.

Frank Lambert's article states that all spontaneous happenings in the material world (those that continue without outside help, except perhaps for an initial start) are examples of the second law because they involve energy dispersing.

The usefulness of the initial start that Frank Lambert describes, in order to help set the spontaneous process of breathing in motion, is recognized in Alexander work and in Master Dogen's latter version of Fukan-zazengi. In Alexander work we practice what Alexander called the whispere ah, that is, whispering an ah sound in a sustained easy exhalation. In the latter version of Fukan-zazengi, Master Dogen writes not of regulating the breathing, but simply of making one full exhalation (åáãCà Íëß). It is exactly the same principle as Alexander's whispered ah: Deliberately do one out-breath in order to set the spontaneous process of breathing in motion.

Apart from giving it an initial start, it is impossible to do anything directly to improve breathing as a spontaneous process. But one can help the process INDIRECTLY, by allowing. One can help the process INDIRECTLY by, in Alexander jargon, allowing the neck to be free, to allow the head to release forward and up, to allow the back to lengthen and widen.

You will not get any real understanding by reading this blog of what Alexander was struggling to express with these words, which he himself recognized as potentially very misleading. He wrote of these phrases that he used: I think them inadequate, but with a teacher present to demonstrate in person what he means by them, they serve their purposes.

Anyway, for what it is worth, here I am, flesh and blood, tap, tap, tapping away at my keyboard, bearing witness to my experience that, after slaving away for fifteen years at the translation of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, I only began truly to understand Master Dogen's most fundamental teaching when I entered ten years ago into Alexander work.

Neither Gautama Buddha nor FM Alexander exercise a monopoly on the practice of allowing the deep, innermost connection between the head and the spine to come undone--any more than Frank Lambert owns the second law of thermodynamics. The practice of allowing ourselves to come undone is totally open to anybody.

What does it mean, then, to allow undoing to take place as a spontaneous process which, in turn, through this indirect means, releases breathing as a spontaneous process?

From apple-less spring branches,

Rain drops randomly,

As chirps and ears of birds and me,

Drop off.
Again, lest I deceive myself with my own words, what does it mean to allow? I do not know.
I have to keep reminding myself: Mike, you do not know. You are a searcher, not a knower.
What does it mean to allow? I do not know. When it happens, God only knows how.
Doubtless, before long, I will not be able to inhibit the delusory belief that I have got something else worth writing, and then I will publish another post on this blog. But in the meantime, please, don't hold your breath.


Blogger Michael Tait said...

It seems to me that more often than not action is not uninflected therefore what is the important truth, uninflection/unadornment/non-doing or doing/action itself? Given that it is also possible to do non-doing while sitting completely still (doing nothing in some practitioners' view) this also points to the truth of non-doing as greater than the assertion of doing. I wonder that it stems from a misunderstanding of the Sanskrit but I cannot know
(having no Sanskrit) but of course; manifesting the state of non-doing, if we are doing in this state then we set the wheel of dharma in motion. But if we just act without the state which is 'undoing' we continue our lives of delusion.

As I sit, the window staring out of me, where is the state not manifesting?

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Floating Weed.

Gudo wrote to me a couple of years ago of his intention to establish Dogen Sangha as an organization in the middle way between the Soto Sect and secular society.

My conception of the middle way is not like that. (To hell with the Soto Sect, I say.)

My conception of the middle way is like this:

Undoing is a spontaneous happening in the middle way between holding and collapse.

But true undoing, Zazen truly being Zazen, requires me to drop off even this conception. Dropping off even this conception, then I can really breath.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

Between holding and collapse is the state in which we can be as all things, existing simultaneously as they is.

Profoundly giving away and profoundly vulnerable, removing obstructions to this life we spread our selves as widely as the kesa across everything that is. Dropping-off this ragged self, we inherit the great self implicit in all things both individually and as one whole.

This is the understanding of weeds, floating and caught, holding and collapsing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Floating Weed, try this:

(1) Make a tight fist

(2) Open your hand

(3) No, REALLY open it! Undo your fingers from your arms.

(4) Now open your nostrils in the same way, and for the first time in your life, breathe.

If you don't understand, then I recommend Alexander work under a good teacher.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Ryan Trusell said...

If you and Gudo did put out separate versions of Shobogenzo, how would they differ. You say the present edition is both totally yours and totally his. I wonder would you elaborate on this statement. I realize that, inherent to the work of translation, decisions must be made which temper the finished product (especially, I imagine, dealing in languages as different as English and Japanese)but the version of Shobogenzo I'm really interested in is Dogen Zenji's. Not speaking Japanese myself I must trust the translation. If you say Gudo has wrong understanding and he says you have an evil Alexander technique agenda, where does that put my faith in the text you have both put your names on?

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger oxeye said...

Mike, That you allowed yourself to behave like a child (at least on this blog) seemed to me at first, to be nothing but self-indulgence. You never tried to hide your frustrations and disappointments. You insulted people, hurt some feelings, acted like an ass at times. You stubbornly repeated your half-baked ideas over and over again as if they were some hooked fish that you might lose if you didn‘t struggle with. I thought to myself that this guy must be slightly unhinged. Always with the head and the neck, the chin and the spine. We were witnessing you allowing your undoing to take place spontaneously. It seemed rather messy to some of us who view only a portion of it here online. It worried some people. Others criticized you and tried to set you straight.. But I think you are just allowing yourself a chance at further growth. Some people will be hobbled by their habitual actions which are really non-actions. I guess I will be one of those. I think you will allow that not to happen to you. You have a rather ruthless vision right now. Just don't expect anything.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, bubbha.

Yes, that is the point I have already made. The interpretation of Shobogenzo that matters is Master Dogen's. That is why our present version is titled Master Dogen's Shobogenzo.

If there are any terms in the present version of Shobogenzo that you have a doubt about, that you don't feel you can put your faith in, then ask me and, as far as possible, I will try to make it possible for you to make your own translation -- as we tried in the case of MU-I.

Incidentally, with regard to the discussion of MU-I, thank you again for making the link with the 2nd law of thermo-dynamics and spontaneity.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Michael Tait said...

I understand but I hold my breath anyway. I profoundly wish to release my breath, to release this self into everything but I do not, I habitually hold onto it like a precious bird, afraid it will fly out of my hands and disappear for ever. Occasionally I have permitted to know a long breath as long, it has been released and with it all things.

I'm a foolish thing, of this I'm sure, there's no doubt at all.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

oxeye, mike:
I think this blog is no more than mike being true to himself for once. That is a good thing and probably a new thing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Oxeye.

What does it mean to allow? That is the question I ask, of others, yes, but primarily of myself.

If my allowing takes the form "Thy will be done" (but only as long as everybody will think I am a mature, balanced, great guy, manifestly exuding 'compassion' and all the other Buddhist virtues), is that true allowing, or not?

No, evidently that is not true allowing.

So sod that.

And if people would like me to limit my behavior so as to accord with their expectations of how a Zen Master should behave, then sod those people.

I am one individual asking the question, "What does it mean to allow?"

That is all I am--a lonesome traveller, not a politician, not a professional Buddhist, not a fame-seeker, not a cog in the turning wheels of a Buddhist sect. A lonesome traveller, bearing witness to a journey he has made and is still making.

25 years ago I read the following words in a book by Gudo Nishijima. I have quoted them before but will quote them again:

It is necessary to believe that if we practice Zazen every day, our actions are neither good nor bad (though they will surely be judged as such by others), but merely the inevitable process of our unfolding toward truth.

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Floating Weed,

You say you profoundly wish to release your breath. On further investigation, you may be surprised to find that you are lying to yourself. If you truly wished to release your breath, what could possibly hold it?

Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Back again Mikedoe?

Like a well-worn pair of carpet slippers and a steaming cup of hot choco...




Thursday, March 09, 2006  
Blogger oxeye said...

Mikedoe, I am just as capable of misunderstanding Mike as you are.

Friday, March 10, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Ray.

Equally, may all angels, cupids, goblins, and fairies from the bottom of the garden, be rounded up and eliminated.

Friday, March 10, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Oxeye.

Whereas real understanding of anything worth understanding is probably only approached very gradually, over years and years, it seems we are all capable of misunderstanding anything almost immediately.

Friday, March 10, 2006  
Blogger SteveP said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Friday, March 10, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thanks for the kind thought, Ray. But luck doesn't come into it. I reap what I sow, bad and good.

Friday, March 10, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Sitting in lotus
Endeavoring not to hold the breath
Listening to the birds:
In this there is joy and peace.

This much I (nobody holy, a middle-aged Brummie basher, who still enjoys shagging his middle-aged wife) do know, for myself.

What you mean, Ray, I do not know. You do not show your blogger's profile. You could be anybody, meaning any number of things.

Me, I am a guy who holds his breath, endeavoring to do so less and less.

I do not say "gassho"; I do not say "peace." I am more inclined to say, to those who come to me with expectations that I should say such things, "Sod off."

In the case of my so-called Dharma-brother James Cohen, the words that spring to mind are not "Sod off" but something much stronger, along the lines of "You make me want to puke, you pretentious, pseudo-monk, who licks an old master's arse to get his own fame and profit."

It is when, satisfied by a bacon sandwich and birdsong, I have no fish to fry, it is then that I am free to see such things and free to say such things. Because of translating Shobogenzo for many years, I understand that Master Dogen was also like that.

He didn't care where the chips would fly. He just told it like he saw it.

Beneath my gruff exterior, I bow in my heart to Dogen, and to Gautama, who, using compassionate means, taught the wonderful Dharma, as practice of non-holding.

Hasn't anybody got any questions for me, an old Brummie basher who still likes to shag his wife, to try and answer?

Saturday, March 11, 2006  
Blogger SteveP said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Saturday, March 11, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

I have actually learnt something from your actions and your words coinciding.

Thank you.

I am now off to buy some BBQ pig wings. The day could not get weirder....

Saturday, March 11, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Not at all, Ray.

You simply provided a spark which allowed something to take place spontaneously.

The people who, in response to whose words and actions, I have upset myself, include Gudo Nishijima, and my so-called Dharma brothers -- Michael Luetchford, Jeremy Pearson, Brad Warner and James Cohen.

Of those five, MJL and JMP have apologized to me for wrongs they committed against me many years ago. But neither Gudo nor the latter two have.

Gudo wronged me because he jumped to a wrong conclusion about the Alexander Technique. But him being the man he is, a man of very short stature even by Japanese standards, he would rather die than make himself any smaller by confessing his mistake. In that case, let him go to hell.

As far as I am concerned, Warner and Cohen are relative newcomers. I was busting a gut on the Shobogenzo translation long, long before they arrived on the scene. So their attitude now, putting on airs, really offends me. They need putting in their place. The Old Man does not seem to have the mind to do that. Gudo's senior Dharma-heir, Michael Luetchford, is keeping his silence.

So as far as I am able, with my own limited ability, I would like to put those two lickspittles back in their place.

There are things about James Cohen that I wish to say and I have been putting off saying them now for some time.

Saturday, March 11, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Ray. You have nothing to apologize for whatever. I appreciate your honest testimony.

I think that for men like us today, difficult relationships with our father are the norm rather than the exception.

But that doesn't mean that, as a Zazen practitioner and an Alexander teacher, I go around recommending every man I meet to seek psychiatric help -- which is what Cohen did (as you can see from my latest posts), without ever having met me. I find his attitude sickening.

Probably I reacted to your use of the salutation "peace," which is what Cohen often closes with. But it is just a pretentious front. The guy is a big trouble-maker.

I know that I am not the only one of Gudo's "Dharma-heirs" who in angered by Cohen's hypocrisy. But others--wisely or not, who knows?--choose not to air their grievances in public.

Saturday, March 11, 2006  

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