Sunday, December 31, 2006

An Example of Antagonistic Thinking

What I mean by antagonistic thinking is thinking that runs counter to what I feel I ought to do. The feeling of what I ought to do is based upon my body’s memory of what I habitually do. But through Alexander work I have been led, in fits and starts, to discover a kind of thinking that does not enslave me to what I feel I ought to do, but which rather is a liberating tendency.

In her book An Examined Life the master Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow gives an example of such liberation, through the process which she calls “ordering.”

Ordering means thinking the Alexander orders: e.g. to let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen.

Marjory relates:

I used to get this terrible pain under my right shoulder blade if I’d been overworked. It used to come on in the night and I always did something to get away from it. One night I sort of woke up in the real sense and thought: “You’re crazy! You teach people if they’ve got a pain to stay with it and not do anything, and here you are running away!”

So I just lay there ordering and it became more and more acute until I could hardly bear it and it went away and I’ve never had it since.

* * *

Without a lot of experience in Alexander work, Marjory’s story won’t mean anything to you, and neither should it. But it just might sow a seed of doubt in your mind that the point I have been vainly making to Gudo all these years about thinking, is not empty, but real.

Gudo asks me on his blog, rhetorically, what this kind of thinking has got to do with Zazen. Ryunin asks me on this blog the same question, possibly with more doubt in his mind. Possibly, that is, with a more open mind.

I tried to answer Ryunin’s question in an article I wrote in 2001 titled “Practising Detachment: A Brief Introduction to the FM Alexander Technique for Buddhist Practitioners.” You can read it if you like on my webpage at

If I try again to answer now: What Marjory is describing, first of all, is the experience of feeling acute pain and not doing anything about it. Pain receptors were sending messages to her brain, stimulating her to do something. But she inhibited the desire to act on these sensory messages.

Isn’t this essentially how we are called on to respond as beginners, or during an intensive period of sitting, when our legs are on fire? We inhibit the desire to act on sensory messages, and instead just sit there, persevering in our practice. This is called, in Alexander jargon, “non-doing.” Non-doing in this gross sense simply means not doing, physically refraining from doing, what our feeling is telling us to do.

Marjory says that she just lay there, ordering. The principle of non-doing is implicit not only in the physical action of just laying there, but also in the mental action of ordering. Non-doing on this level means not doing the orders.

The orders are verbal representations of an intention, a wish, a thought. Not a feeling, a thought. Not what people generally understand as a thought, but nevertheless a thought, a wish, a clear intention. And only that -- not a feeling.

In Alexander terms the intention is verbalized for example as: I wish to allow the neck to be free, to allow the head to be released out of the body, to allow the back to lengthen and widen, sending the knees away from the hips.

But remember Alexander’s caution: “When you think you’re thinking, you’re feeling.”

In Zazen, then, what is the thought, the intention, the wish? Gudo might say that the wish is for the autonomic nervous system to come into balance. Or one could say that the wish is for the Buddha’s enlightenment to be reawakened here and now. Or that the wish is for a condition of effortless ease in upright sitting. However the wish is verbalized, the vital principle that Alexander has to offer us is this: Don’t try to realise it by doing what you feel you need to do to realise it. Just think it. Just wish it.

This is the vital principle not only of Alexander work but also, I submit, of Master Dogen’s Zazen.

If anybody has got a better explanation of why Master Dogen instructed us “Think that state beyond thinking,” I have yet to hear it.

People today pass over Master Dogen’s instruction because they don’t clearly understand the intention behind it.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sit-Thinking is NOT seated thinking

On James Cohen's blog there is a section called "Zen Teacher Nishijima's introduction to seated meditation."

These words “seated meditation” are a very misleading translation of the word ZAZEN. The words betray a lack of clarity of understanding of Master Dogen’s fundamental teaching.

Master Dogen stressed that what he called ZAZEN is not SHU-ZEN. Sitting-meditation is not meditation that is learned.

In other words:

Sitting-Meditation is NOT seated meditation
Sitting-Dhyana is NOT seated dhyana
Sit-Thinking is NOT seated thinking

ZA means sitting and ZEN means dhyana, meditation, thinking.

We should not say, as Gudo has said on his blog, that dhyana means sitting. Dhyana means meditation.

But we should never says, as Cohen says, that sitting-meditation is seated meditation.

In Master Dogen’s teaching, the sitting is the meditation, and the meditation is the sitting.

Gudo clearly understands and loudly proclaims that Zazen, sitting-meditation, is action.

But Gudo, in my view, has failed to clarify the exact relationship between feeling in Zazen, thinking in Zazen, and Zazen as action.

Yes, Zazen is action. But the practical problem remains of how to realize it.

FM Alexander clearly understood that, given the universal defect of unreliable feeling, the realization of freedom in action depends on our ability to discover what thinking is.

FM Alexander re-discovered for our time the secret of Zen -- what true dhyana is, what true meditation is, what true thinking is.

In response to me stating my understanding that dhyana means thinking (but not what we generally understand thinking to be), Gudo wrote:

“I can never agree with such an idea. After my more than 60 years of study, I would like to insist clearly that the original meaning of dhyana is just the balance of the autonomic nervous system.”

I responded to this by arguing that dhyana is a conscious effort of practice, not a state of balance.

Then Gudo wrote, on his blog: “I think that dhyana is the name of practice, and so it is different from the state of practice.”

That suggests that when Gudo said “dhyana is just the balance of the autonomic nervous system” he was using the word balance to express not a noun/state but to express a verb/process.

In that case, if Gudo wants to connect his teaching to Master Dogen’s instruction, “Think that state beyond thinking,” one way may be for him to say that balancing by the autonomic nervous system = thinking by the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, he should say that dhyana means not only thinking by the brain in the head, but also thinking by the brain in the autonomic nervous system. And going further still, he should say that dhyana means thinking by the brain in the heart, and thinking by the brain in the spine, and thinking by the brain in every cell in the body.

This, as I understand it, is what FM Alexander meant by “thinking -- but not what people understand by thinking.” And this, as I understand it, might be what Master Dogen meant by HISHIRYO, “non-thinking.”

In Gudo’s mind, HISHIRYO expresses action itself, which is dimensionally different from thinking, and so anybody who even suggests that HISHIRYO might express a kind of thinking, must be a non-Buddhist. This is why Gudo, in all sincerity, sees it as his Buddhist duty as a monk to criticize my opinion.

But it may be that Gudo’s perception of the real situation is wrong, that Gudo hasn’t understood Master Dogen’s intention clearly and hasn’t understood my intention clearly. In that case, it might be my Buddhist duty as a non-monk to continue my efforts to criticize Gudo’s opinion.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Thinking with the Heart?

I was reflecting yesterday on my recent increasing dissatisfaction with what I perceive to be the one-sidedness of the approaches of teachers who have influenced me deeply: Gudo Nishijima, who I perceive to be prejudiced against the whole idea of thinking in Zazen; and Alexander teachers who do not generally recognize the value of attaching to a physical sitting posture which is rigidly fixed by tradition -- that is, the full lotus posture. (If they recognize it, then why don’t they do it?)

Following the mirror principle, I mused, my dissatisfaction (or, to be more honest, frustration/anger), doubtless means that I am becoming aware on some level of one-sidedness in my own practice.

Then this morning I recalled that a Christmas card from an old Zazen friend in Japan had contained this brief pointer: “Found interesting books by Joseph Chilton Pearce and Alice Miller... Also impacting my thinking on Zen...”

Some kind soul on this blog pointed me in the direction of Alice Miller several months ago, and I found her views very enlightening.

I vaguely remembered the name Chilton Pearce from reading about the cerebellum and reticular activating system while training years ago as a neuro-developmental therapist. Anyway, I looked him up on the internet and my attention was particularly taken by this opening sentence of an interview at

“The idea that we can think with our hearts is no longer just a metaphor, but is, in fact, a very real phenomenon.”

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Anyone for Non-Thinking?

In the effort to clarify what the words HISHIRYO, “non-thinking,” might mean, I am going to relate an episode that probably won’t mean anything to you, but it continues to mean a lot to me.

In the summer holidays of 1997, fully two years into my Alexander teacher training, I went for a lesson with FM Alexander’s niece Marjory Barlow. By then, at the age of 82, Marjory had been devoting herself to her uncle’s work for 65 years.

In the car on the way down to London, I had been listening to a recording of a lecture by Marjory. It was a lecture I had attended, the first time I saw Majory in person, in my home town of Birmingham in July 1995. Thirty years previously, in 1965, Marjory had delivered another FM Alexander Memorial Lecture -- the one that is reproduced in full on my Alexander blog and web-page ( This lecture in 1995 was more informal; it’s theme was: Thinking.

I parked my car outside Marjory’s flat in Hampstead, rang the buzzer and walked up the three flights of stairs to her teaching room. On the way up, I passed a large framed photograph, taken by Linda McCartney, of Marjory sitting very upright in a chair.

On entering Marjory’s teaching room I stood in preparation for the usual starting activity of an Alexander lesson -- “chair work.” This involves a pupil being guided by a teacher to lengthen in stature while bending the knees. The pupil thus ends up being seated in a chair, without the pupil having had to think of sitting down as an end to be gained.

After an opening pleasantry or two, with me remaining standing, Marjory began the process which she called “ordering.”

With one hand on the back of my neck and the other in front, Marjory feistily intoned: “Free your neck; head forward and up....” And then, to my surprise: “No, no. You’re doing it.”

Not aware that I was doing anything, I tried again, going back to the process of thinking as I understood it.

“Again, let the neck be free, to let the head go.... No, no. You’re doing it.”

And so we carried on. After several minutes standing like this, I was literally sweating with anxiety. It seemed to me that Marjory was not being at all helpful, just repeatedly giving me the same stimulus and letting me know that my response was wrong. I might have been inclined to think that there was something wrong with her teaching method -- except that I knew she was the most senior Alexander teacher on the face of the planet. I was in a proper pickle.

In the 1995 lecture which I had listened to in the car, one of the things Marjory had said about Thinking was this:

“We’re bringing the brain and the nervous system into communication with the rest of the body through a conscious process. We’re doing it deliberately. We’re choosing to do it. FM used to say that it’s very like wishing or wanting something. If you’re going on a picnic you say you hope it’ll be fine tomorrow. Well, there ain’t a darn thing you can do to make it be fine. But that is what this process of ordering is. It’s wanting. Wanting something.”

Like a drowning man clutching for a straw, I remembered this part of Majory’s lecture. OK, I reasoned, nothing else is working. I will try thinking in the manner of a child wishing for nice weather to go on a picnic (as opposed to my usual habit of feeling myself to be a kind of heroic macho explorer, defying all adversity). I’m sure as hell that this isn’t going to work. But I will give it a try.

“YES!” Marjory cried. “That’s it!”

This may have been the beginning of the beginning of me suspecting what “non-thinking” might really mean.

What I had thought of as thinking, until then, was not what Alexander meant by thinking but was a subtle variety of what I had been relying on my whole life up to then -- i.e. feeling. Two years training as an Alexander teacher had greatly increased my subtlety. In fact, I had become quite an expert at deceiving myself and others that I knew what Alexander thinking was. (I am still rather good at this form of deception.) But I didn’t fool Marjory, not for a second. Marjory knew. From the moment I walked through her door, Marjory had me sussed.

Following this episode, I had a long series of forty or so lessons with Marjory, until she left her flat in Hampstead to go and live with her son in Dulwich.

An essential part of those lessons was always the same: Marjory would present to me, though not always using the same words, the stimulus of the Alexander orders. For example:

“We want every joint in the body to open up.”

“Neck free. Head forward and up. Spine to lengthen. Back to widen. Widen across the upper part of the arms as you widen the back. Send the knees away from the hips.”

And my main job, in response to the stimulus of those orders, was NOT TO DO them.

Think them, yes, by all means. But do not do them. And remember what FM used to say: “When you think you’re thinking you’re feeling, when you think you’re feeling you’re doing.”

Even after two years of full-time Alexander training, with one-to-one hands-on guidance most days, I still hadn’t begun to understand, before this lesson with Marjory, what Alexander might have meant by “thinking.” Do I expect other Zazen practitioners to begin to understand, just by reading what I write? No, I don’t. But in the minds of maybe one or two people reading this, a tiny seed of great doubt may be sown. And that tiny seed might cause somebody, following in my footsteps, to become a total loser. I’m not talking about losing £12,000 or so. I’m talking about something that costs much more than that.

But, let me tell you: it’s worth it. Oh yes.

My situation might not look so favourable, and much of the time it doesn’t feel so favourable. But I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.

Yesterday I visited a good friend, who told me that, to him, I appeared not to be happy, to be troubled, in my Zazen practice. It was the honest feedback of a true friend. At the same time, my friend’s observation, and my initial worried response to it, might have been just another case of doubting the real dragon.

Today I have sat for an hour, half an hour, and another half an hour, with effort, feeling and thinking, without truly being caught by the still state. But next week I am going to France, where I will be.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Antagonistic Action (4): Feeling vs Thinking

What is Zazen?

Realized in unity, it is a whole which is greater than the sum of two parts -- two parts which are in antagonistic opposition to each other.

The ZA part expresses the physical act of sitting, requiring a physical effort guided by the faculty of feeling.

The ZEN part expresses the mental act of meditating/thinking, requring an effort based on a faculty which is not a slave to feeling.

When ZA and ZEN truly become ZAZEN, it is not a physical or mental effort, but a Dharma-gate of effortless ease.

Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen wrote an excellent book called Sensing, Feeling & Action. If I intended to write a book, which for the present I don’t, I might call it Feeling, Thinking & Action. For Master Dogen’s purposes, I think the latter title would be more to the point.

Gudo Nishijima’s Zazen teaching, in a nutshell, is: not the parasympathetic-nervous-system-dominated state of feeling, not the sympathetic-nervous-system-dominated state of thinking, but just the balanced state of action. In short: Not Feeling, Not Thinking, Just Action.

This is Gudo’s Buddhist thesis.

My anti-thesis is simply this: Feeling and Thinking and Action.

My Buddhist master’s understanding is based on nearly 70 years of sitting in lotus. My understanding is based on only 25 years of sitting in lotus. But my understanding is also based on 12 years in the Alexander work, whose true value is very difficult to suppose, for a person who has not experienced it deeply in practice.

People who think that Alexander work is a kind of bodywork, are wrong.

Alexander work begins with the recognition of what FM Alexander observed to be a universal defect: “unreliable sensory appreciation.” First he discovered it in himself; then he noticed that he wasn’t the only damn fool who felt himself to be right when the mirror showed him to be wrong. In civilized society, we are almost all like that -- misguided by unreliable body-feeling. Ray Evans, my Alexander head of training, was ahead of the game in seeing the connection with immature primitive reflexes.

Clearly understanding that body-feeling is unreliable, Alexander got himself going in the right direction by trusting something other than his feeling. What was it? Some kind of intuition? In his first book he called it “Man’s Supreme Inheritance.”

The full title was Man’s Supreme Inheritance -- Conscious Guidance and Control in Relation to Human Evolution in Civlization.

People are prone to think about Alexander work as all about posture -- which in a secondary sense it is. But for FM Alexander himself, the work was primarily about consciousness and thinking and rationality. He described his work as an exercise is finding out what thinking is.

Thus, in writing of psychophysical unity, in other words, unity of mind and body, Alexander put mind first.

Master Dogen, conversely, wrote of unity of body and mind, and dropping off of body and mind. Following the example of Master Tendo Nyojo, he always put body before mind. This is vital to understanding Master Dogen’s teaching, which is always rooted in regular physical practice of Zazen, with the body seated in the traditional full lotus posture.

Although body-feeling is an unreliable guide, I rely on it, as a starting point. As a seeker of Gautama Buddha’s truth, irrespective of whether my feeling is right or wrong, primarily I put my trust in this physical sitting posture.

But because body-feeling is an unreliable guide, I also put my trust in another faculty, which -- even if it is not human reason per se -- is at least informed by rationality. Two and two, for all practical purposes, is always four. Reason is reliable. But on its own reason is powerless. Therefore in Zazen practice I put my trust not only in the physical posture, but also in rational intention, volition, thinking.

Originally dhyana just means thinking.

In a recent email to me, Gudo wrote as follows:

You wrote that "The original meaning of dhyana, as I understand it, is just ‘thinking.’” But I can never agree with such an idea. After my more than 60 years of study, I would like to insist clearly that "The original meaning of dhyana is just the balance of the autonomic nervous system."

* * *

My reply to Gudo was as follows:

You describe that, when you notice that you are thinking something in Zazen, you bring your consciousness back to the state that you call balance of the autonomic nervous system. You identify dhyana with the original state to which you wish to come back -- i.e. in your words, balance of the autonomic nervous system. But the true meaning of dhyana, within your own description, if we follow the literal meaning of the word as per the Monier Williams Sanskrit dictionary (dhyana = meditation/thought), is not our original state. Dhyana is rather the effort to "bring consciousness back," i.e. the effort to re-direct consciousness. This effort also is a kind of thinking. Therefore Master Dogen instructed us: Think that state beyond thinking.

* * *

The great value of Alexander work, to me at least, has been to clarify what kind of thinking dhyana is.

Although the aim of Zazen, Sitting-Dhyana, is a state of effortless ease which is beyond thinking, I pursue this state through physical and mental effort. I make my one-sided effort on the unreliable basis of body-feeling, and make my opposite-sided effort on the impossible basis of mind-thinking.

In Fukan-zazen-gi Master Dogen instructs us:

Having regulated the physical posture, breathe out, sway left and right, and then, sitting still, think the state beyond thinking. How can the state beyond thinking be thought? Non-thinking. This is the vital art of sitting-dhyana. What is called sitting-dhyana is not a kind of dhyana to be learned. It is the Dharma-gate of peace and ease. It is the practice and experience that perfectly realizes the Buddha’s enlightenment. The laws of the Universe are realized, there being nothing with which a dragon or a tiger might be caught or caged.

So what is Master Dogen saying about thinking? I understand that Master Dogen is saying, with Alexander, that, yes, because body-feeling is unreliable, we should rely in Zazen on the faculty that is opposed to body-feeling, that is, the mental effort of thinking. So he says: “THINK that state beyond thinking.”

This understanding that I am saying now is totally different from what Gudo Nishijima has taught me. In my view, his teaching on this point is not accurate and not reliable. He is prejudiced against thinking.

Master Dogen instructs us: “Think that state beyond thinking. How? Non-thinking.”

With regard to HISHIRYO, “non-thinking,” Gudo Nishijima is adamant that this expresses action itself, sitting itself, which is different from thinking. But I am not convinced by that argument either.

I may be wrong on this, but my understanding now is that Master Dogen not only exhorts us to make a mental effort with the imperative “Think that state beyond thinking,” but also points us in the same direction with the words “Non-thinking.”

My anti-thesis to Gudo’s thesis is this: HISHIRYO, “non-thinking,” expresses not action itself, but rather thinking itself, the mental effort which is antagonistically opposed to bodily effort based on feeling.

In Shobogenzo Master Dogen discusses the term HIBUTSU, “non-buddha.” Non-buddha means a true buddha, a real buddha, a buddha whose reality is contrary to habitual conceptions of buddha, a buddha whose reality is contrary to what people are prone to feel and think buddha is.

Similarly, I suggest, HISHIRYO means thinking, real thinking, real intention, real volition -- thinking whose reality is contrary to our habitual conceptions of thinking.

This real thinking is thinking of the kind Alexander described -- “Thinking, but not what you understand by thinking.”

Master Dogen goes on to stress that:
What is called ZAZEN “Sitting-dhyana” is not SHU-ZEN “learning-dhyana.”

What is Master Dogen denying? I think that Master Dogen is stressing that the ZEN part of ZAZEN, the thinking part, the mental part, is not something that we have to learn. It is something that, in Zazen, we have the opportunity to re-discover.

This tallies with Master Dogen’s main message in Fukan-zazen-gi: Zazen is not an effort to bring enlightenment into being, not an effort to learn how to become Buddha; it is rather an effort to be taken over by the all-pervading enlightenment that already exists within us and around us, an effort to stop not being Buddha. The point is not to learn something new. It is to discover our original inheritance, to let open the treasure-storehouse which is our birthright.

Master Dogen’s intention, as I understand it now, is that the kind of thinking he is exhorting us to practice is not sophisticated, not intellectual, not pretentious, not insincere, not unreal. It is not a faculty that we have to learn. It is a faculty we have had since our first voluntary movements and non-movements in our earliest infancy.

My original state is one of peace and ease, and I wish to come back to it. Just that. What should this wish be called? Volition? Clarity of intention? Thinking? Non-thinking?

Alexander used to say: “This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is.” This is subtly different from saying “This work is learning thinking” or “learning how to think.”

The great difficulty that I encounter in hands-on Alexander teaching work is not that I haven’t learned how to think: I already know perfectly well how to think. I have known since I was a baby. The difficulty is that in my practice here and now, I do not trust the incredible tangible power that a thought has. Without the assurance of feeling something that feels right, I don’t feel secure, and so my hands are taken over by a grabbing response.

When my Alexander teacher, after her 45 years in the work, puts her hands on me, I experience without any doubt the power of a thought. Her hands do absolutely nothing; they are just there. And yet something flows through her hands and seems to dig my head out from the depths of me, from the very soles of my feet. She calls this something “a thought.”

“It is a kind of wish, isn’t it?” I asked her once. “Yes,” she replied, “but it is a wish that won’t take No for an answer.”

In other words: “It is a wish, but not what you understand by a wish.” It is stronger and more real than that. Non-wishing.

When I myself am in the teaching role, at the critical moment when I wish to cause the pupil to rise from the chair, I am prone to feel that I have to do something with my hands and so I do something with my hands -- instead of just leaving them open and allowing them to transmit a thought. When, with the teacher’s help, I am able to inhibit this doing/feeling response, then something truly magical happens.

The miraculous power of a thought. A wish that won’t take No for an answer. Whatever we call it, it is a kind of mental effort that goes against the body’s habitual stream of activity which is pulled along by unreliable feeling.

Finally, I come back to my favourite three sentences from Shobogenzo chapter 72, Zanmai-o-zanmai:

Practice bodily sitting in the full lotus posture.
Practice mentally sitting in the full lotus posture.
Practice body and mind dropping off sitting in the full lotus posture.

It is like the Earth’s gravity pulling at a green leaf, which a tree won’t drop. The leaf turns golden and the tree pushes it out, but still the leaf won’t drop. When the wind blows, and the leaf floats free, we should not say that it wasn’t gravity, and should not say that it wasn’t the will of the tree. We should not say that it was only the wind. It was gravity and the tree and the wind, altogether and one after another.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Antagonistic Action (3): Ears vs Shoulders; Nose vs Navel

In his instructions for Zazen, in the part about regulating the physical form (before he gets to the section about thinking), Master Dogen writes:


MIMI means ears.
...TO ...TO are particles meaning both... and....
KATA means shoulders.
TAI SHI is an inflected form of TAI SURU, which means to oppose.
HANA means nose.
...TO ...TO is as above.
HESO means navel
TAI SESHIMEN is the causitive of TAI SURU: to cause to oppose
KOTO makes the preceding into the object clause
O is the object particle
YOSU means is vital.

Literally: “It is vital to cause the ears and shoulders, the nose and the navel, to oppose each other.”

English translations of Fukan-zazen-gi are prone to veer away from the literal translation, reflecting the translator’s endeavor to make sense of what he doesn’t necessarily understand.

The original rendering into English of Fukan-zazen-gi in the first edition of To Meet the Real Dragon (1984), by Gudo Nishijima with Jeffrey Bailey, has:

“Hold your head straight so that your ears are equidistant from your shoulders and your nose is in line with your naval.”

For the second edition of To Meet the Read Dragon (1992), I revised it as follows, in line with my intention to go for the translation that mirrored the original as closely as possible:

“The ears must be aligned with the shoulders, and the nose aligned with the navel.”

This is closer, but I think it still misses the target. The primary meaning of TAI SURU, if you look it up in the dictionary, is not to do with alignment; it is to do with opposition, antagonistic opposition. But in 1992, before I stumbled on Alexander’s teaching, I was more interested in alignment than in opposition, and so my translation reflected my own bias.

For TAISURU, the Kenkyusha dictionary gives: face, confront, be opposite to... oppose.

For the original Chinese character that Master Dogen used, TAI, the Nelson character dictionary gives: the opposite; antonym; even, equal; versus; counter-, anti-, versus.

Thus, a case can be made that Master Dogen used the character TAI to express equality, equidistance, symmetry, alignment.

But that argument, even if it comes from my own Buddhist teacher, doesn’t convince me.

The interpretation of TAI that hits the target, I think, is that TAI expresses the principle of allowing muscular release. In other words, TAI expresses the principle that when a bunch of muscle releases, the two things at either end of the bunch of muscle are released in opposite directions from each other -- irrespective of so-called good alignment, true symmetry, good or bad posture, et cetera.

This week I led a one-day workshop for Alexander teachers. The title was “immature primitive reflexes and faulty sensory appreciation.” In outlining how the reflexes develop, I highlighted the theme of antagonistic action -- how, for example, the Moro reflex opposes the fear paralysis response, how the two parts of the Moro reflex oppose each other, how the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex opposes the symmetrical pattern of the Moro reflex; how the strong tendency which the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex has to divide the baby into two sides, left and right, is opposed by postural reflexes such as the amphibian reflex and segmental rolling reflexes, and then by cross-pattern movements such as crawling on the belly and crawling hands on knees.

During the workshop I quoted to the other Alexander teachers Master Dogen’s instruction for the ears and shoulders, and nose and navel in Zazen. I just quoted it literally: “It is vital to cause the ears vis-a-vis the shoulders, and the nose vis-a-vis the navel, to oppose each other.”

The reaction I got was not: “That sounds strange” or “That sounds like Japanese English” or “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

No, the reaction I got was simply: “What wonderful directions!”

The Alexander teachers present understood the literal translation of Master Dogen’s words, because “ears being allowed to oppose the shoulders” is just another way of saying the Alexander direction “neck being allowed to release” and “nose being allowed to oppose the navel” is just another way of saying the Alexander direction “allowing oneself to lengthen in stature.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Antagonistic Action (2): Related Quotes

“You are all quite perfect, apart from what you are doing.”
Marjory Barlow

* * * * *

“The second law of thermodynamics says that energy of all kinds in our material world disperses or spreads out if it is not hindered from doing so.”

“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.”
Prof. Frank Lambert,

"Chemical kinetics firmly restrains time's arrow in the taut bow of thermodynamics for milliseconds or millennia."
Prof. Frank Lambert,

* * * * *

“In a future work I hope to deal more fully with the scientific aspect of practical respiratory re-education. At present I simply state the great principle to be antagonistic action.”
FM Alexander,
Intro to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-education, 1906

“One pyscho-physical factor provides a position of rigidity... [and] constitutes a steady and firm condition which enables the Directive Agent of the sphere of consciousness to discriminate the action of the kinaesthetic and motion agents....
The whole condition which thus obtains is herein termed antagonistic action.”
FM Alexander, MSI (1910 edition)

* * * * *

Practice bodily sitting in the full lotus posture.
Practice mentally sitting in the full lotus posture.
Practice body and mind dropping off sitting in the full lotus posture.
Zen Master Dogen, Shobogenzo Zanmai-o-zanmai

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Antagonistic Action (1)

I would like to say something about the principle of antagonistic action. There are many aspects of this great principle, and I would love to write a lot about several of them. But right now I am in the early stages of a cold, and so for the time being I am going to hang fire and, as far as possible, just bear witness to whatever is going on between the cold virus and my immune system.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hard Work, Finding Ease

Marjory wrote: “The wrong inner patterns are the doing which has to be stopped.”

To stop doing, in sitting upright in the full lotus posture, is to find true ease.

But this is very hard work.

Physically, to sit upright in the full lotus posture requires an effort. Even a Zen master has to make an effort to get himself up out of bed in the morning and go to his sitting place. A beginner has to make even more of a physical effort, day by day, in order eventually to become free from pain when sitting with the legs crossed in lotus.

Mentally, an even greater effort is required in order to stop the wrong inner patterns that Marjory talked about. She described, more eloquently than I ever will, the kind of effort that is required, in her beautifully elegant Alexander Memorial Lecture given in November 1965 -- reproduced in full on my sister blog “It is not that.”

Whatever mental effort I make, it always turns out to be another case of “No. It is not that.” That is why, I suppose, Marjory used to say that if you really do this work, it keeps you humble. My mental efforts invariably miss the target. The problem is that my mental efforts, though totally necessary, are included in the wrong inner patterns which are the doing which has to be stopped.

What is the connection between the Alexander recognition “It is not that,” and the key phrase in Fukan-zazen-gi HISHIRYO, “non-thinking”? For me, the connection is very strong.

Everybody has to find that connection for himself or herself. I cannot force you to sit in the full lotus posture, learn Fukan-zazen-gi off by heart, and then get inside your brain and make the connection for you. I wish I could. But I can’t do the work for you. The best I can do is to do the work for myself.

I make a physical effort to sit in the full lotus posture every day. In general, I sit in four sessions per day, early morning, late morning, afternoon, and evening.

I make a mental effort to stop doing, to find ease.

As a result of these efforts, especially when I am practicing alone by the forest in France, sometimes ease finds me.

Then I understand what Marjory endeavored to teach me. Then I understand why Master Dogen said HISHIRYO, non-thinking, was the essential art of Zazen, which is not a kind of training but is rather a kind of gate to reality -- ANRAKU no HOMON. HOMON means Dharma-gate. ANRAKU means ease.

Zazen is not easy, but it’s criterion is ease.

I am sorry, Marjory. I am not worthy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


The late Marjory Barlow, an eternal Buddha, often said to me, “FM used to say that this work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is.”

“FM” was Marjory’s uncle, Frederick Matthias Alexander, founder of the body of work that endures the label of “the Alexander Technique.” But FM himself, Marjory told me, never used to call it “the Technique.” To him it was always just the Work.

When Marjory said “this work” I understood her to mean the work that she and I were doing together -- pursuing the truth. Sometimes after she gave me a lesson on the table in her flat in Hampstead we would sit together in Zazen in her teaching room. It was a natural progression into silence.

During a lesson, after some minutes of working on the table, Marjory would sometimes say something along the lines of “That’s it. That’s what we want. THE WHOLE BODY INFORMED WITH THOUGHT.”

The whole body informed with thought.

What Marjory, and what FM before her, called "thinking" does not mean thinking about, does not mean intellectual thinking. Thinking the neck to be free does not mean thinking about the neck being free. It means thinking the neck free. It is the kind of thinking a footballer does with his feet or a martial artist following the path of sincerity does with his fists.


“Think that state beyond thinking. How can the state beyond thinking be thought? Non-thinking. This is just the essential art of Zazen.”

Think that which cannot be thought -- freedom, spontaneity, oneness with all things, complete ease in sitting. How can freedom, spontaneity, oneness, ease... be thought? It is a target that thinking cannot hit. But we can aim ourselves in the direction of that target, with thinking that includes ever-deepening understanding of its own inability to hit the target -- non-thinking.

Thus, through the physical effort of sitting upright, and the mental effort of non-thinking the unthinkable, we allow a possibility of the target hitting us, of body and mind spontaneously dropping off.

In a recent email, Gudo wrote to me:

Not to do but to think is the typical Western thought... Your teaching, that Master Dogen instructs us to think in Zazen, is completely wrong.

But Master Dogen’s instruction is very clear:

Think that state beyond thinking.

It is not Mike Cross’s teaching. It is just Master Dogen’s instruction.

I think that Gudo’s words are, at root, the expression of his prejudice against HAKUJIN NO BUNKA, the white man’s [intellectual] culture, against which Gudo fought in WWII. He is prejudiced against thinking. Knowing that the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha cannot be grasped by intellectual thinking, because enlightenment it is a real integral state of awakening that includes the whole self and the whole of nature (or “the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system”), Gudo is not only wary of intellectual thinking but he is also prejudiced against thinking in general. He tars all varieties of thinking with the same brush.

Gudo himself has a very active intellect which he knows from experience has been prone in the past to lead him into delusion. So his antipathy towards “typical Western thought” might be just another case of the old mirror principle.

The reason I have spent the last 12 years in England, not in Japan, is that FM’s teaching and Marjory’s teaching on how to think in Zazen is just true. Gudo’s prejudice against thinking in Zazen is just false.

There is no room for compromise on this one, no middle way. Gudo’s teaching is part of a Japanese confusion that needs to be cut at its roots.

Marjory’s principle of thinking is true. It is just Master Dogen’s principle for Zazen.

I shall endeavor to do my bit to see that Marjory’s principle does not get lost.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Full Moon over Champsecret

Not a mirror of anyone’s mind:

Round moon and two great circles of light

Like halos, you said? No, fuck off.

A target waiting to hit a buddha.

Accomplishing the Truth

Master Dogen wrote that accomplishment of the truth is like the moon being reflected in water.

He did not state that accomplishment of the truth is some particular property of the water.

If some stupid person stated that accomplishment of the truth was, for example, just the stillness of water, would that be an expression of true accomplishment of the truth?

Or might it be only the inaccurate thought and unreliable feeling of a stupid person? Might it be that the stupid person has been expending much valuable energy got from meals in vain? Might that person be guilty of having emptily recited, like a frog in a spring paddy field, the words “JODO NO TAME NO YUE NI” without ever having truly verified, in his own experience, the meaning of JODO? And might the cause of the stupid person’s failure be his arrogance to think that his own inaccurate thought and unreliable feeling had hit the target that can never be hit by thought and feeling, the target which is hit by the moon itself?

Might that stupid person be a very conspicuous example of the second part of Fukan-zazen-gi, beginning with the caution: “If, however, there is the slightest gap....”? And if that stupid person devoted his life to criticizing the intellectual basis of Western civilization, might all that criticism be understood, in the end, as a very clear example of the mirrror principle?

Because of my own enormous arrogance, I sought out as a true mirror the most arrogant Buddhist teacher in the world -- Gudo Nishijima, who thinks he has hit the target with his theory of balance of the autonomic nervous system.

So now, because the mirror principle never fails, I am continuing, for a while, to express my fury with myself. Gudo Mike Cross: You stupid, blind, arrogant bastard.

Even a person like this can accomplish the truth. Such is the all-encompassing virtue of the moon.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Not Five Reflections

If people truly wish to accomplish the truth, that is, to realize not only balance of the autonomic nervous system but the supreme integral awakening of Gautama Buddha under the bodhi tree, what is really important?

According to Master Dogen’s fundamental teaching, what is really important is not to recite the five reflections of go-kan-no-ge, but to practice Zazen, dropping off body and mind.

When I was in Japan Gudo always recommended me not to think but just to do. But from Alexander work in England I understood that whatever I do, I do on the basis of my unreliable feeling.

So from Alexander work I learned the opposite principle: not to do but to think.

Then finally I could understand Master Dogen’s teaching to sit in the full lotus posture bodily, mentally, and as body and mind dropping off.

Therefore my understanding of Fukan-zazen-gi is that Master Dogen first instructs us to do something -- to sit upright in the full lotus posture in the traditional manner. Then, once the physical act of sitting upright has been regulated, and the body has been deprived of oxygen once and swayed left and right, Master Dogen instructs us to think.

Not to think about, not an an intellectual reflection, as in go-kan-no-ge. But to think. To think the target. In other words, to make in Zazen a mental effort, going against the stream of habitual thought, to think the target that inaccurate thinking and unreliable feeling cannot hit.

Thus, physically sitting in the full lotus posture and thinking the target that we cannot hit, we open ourselves to the possibility of the target hitting us, which Master Dogen called body and mind dropping off.

I think that the new rule of Gudo’s blog is no long comments but just short questions. Knowingly to break the rule might be too arrogant, so I will post this on my own blog.