Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Errata (4): Undue Pessimism

A few days ago I bought from the local LIDL store in La Ferte Mace, a bag of mini kit-kats, and couldn't stop eating them, one after another. The morning after, not unusually, I woke up feeling very sorry for myself.

There are moments here by the forest in France when I really do feel like a dragon that found water. But it generally turns out to be the kind of dragon that is easily knocked off its perch -- a dragon with dodgy vestibules.

On the post before this one I discussed JO-KEN-GE-DO -- the view, which is off the way, that transient situations might last forever. The flipside is DAN-KEN-GE-DO, lit. "cut view, off the way," in short, nihilism.

Whereas the former view violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics in its naive optimism, the latter view goes too far the other way: it fails to take account of the potential upside of the changeability of energy.

Wanting to leave one's own indelible mark in a flux -- whether by building temples as in the case of Emperor Wu or by translating Shobogenzo as in the case of yours truly -- is only a recipe for disappointment. It is like trying to paint one's signature in a pond.

On the other hand, because all is in flux we are always potentially connected with, not cut off from, that which Gautama Buddha awakened -- called in Sanskrit anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, supreme integral enlightenment.

Master Dogen compared enlightenment to a moon reflected in water. I don't make a mark on it, and it doesn't leave a mark on me.

Thus, despite Gudo's efforts for more than 20 years to teach me the true philosophical meaning of the middle way, I continue to wobble between selfish optimism and undue pessimism. I think it is mainly a vestibular problem.

At the end of his rules of sitting-Zen for everybody, Master Dogen promises us all that if we practice for a long time the matter of the ineffable, we are bound to be the ineffable itself.

But when I am physiologically out of balance -- Gudo would say when the autonomic nervous system is out of balance -- Master Dogen's promise means nothing to me. In the depths of kit-kat induced despondency, I cannot even remember it.

There again, I do not need to eat too much chocolate in order to feel discouraged and worthless. The merest hint of another's criticism, and my ensuing unconscious reaction, is more than enough to do the trick.

Once again, milord, can I plead not guilty on the grounds of diminished vestibular capability? (Low self-esteem is documented as a common secondary symptom of immature vestibular reflexes.)

Brad Warner on his blog provided a crystal-clear example of undue pessimism (or low self esteem?) when he negated any possibility of his own enlightenment. I think that this was probably a disappointed reaction to being too interested, earlier on in his Buddhist career, in the unduly selfish/optimistic hope of enlightenment as his permanent possession.

Master Dogen's promise gives grounds for unselfish optimism. He wrote: HISASHIKU INMO NARU KOTO O NASABA, SUBEKARAKU INMO NARUBESHI, "If for a long time you practice the matter of the ineffable, you will be the ineffable."

I say this is grounds for "unselfish optimism," because the possibility of me being ineffable includes the possibility of me transmitting the ineffable to others.

The wording is interesting -- in the first clause the object is INMO NARU KOTO, in the second clause the object is simply INMO. INMO means it, the ineffable. NARU KOTO means "the thing which is..."

I think that Master Dogen's wording may include the suggestion that we cannot practice the ineffable directly. The ineffable is always not that, nor that. What is readily available to us all, even as beginners, is the matter of the ineffable, the thing in which the ineffable inherently resides -- the practice of sitting-Zen. We can sit still in the lotus posture and open ourselves to the possibility of it. We can dangle ourselves out and hope (but not too expectantly) to be caught by it.

After a bit of practicing like this, I am liable to think, like a real non-dragon: "Yes, this is it! This is true uprightness! This is it!"

But no, that is never it. That is just a bit of a gap. That is just my vestibular system playing tricks on me again. I don't know anything called true uprightness. All I truly know is that even a homeopathic trace of the word "uprightness" causes me to stiffen up and hold myself in, to fix.

I know that under Gudo's crudely manipulating hand I indulged myself in a veritable fixing fest. Judging from his blog, in his mind Gudo would like to leave as his permanent legacy the bridging of Buddhism and humanism, so that he might go to Heaven secure in the knowledge that he has sown the seeds for the saving of human civilization. Here on planet Earth, however, Gudo's actual legacy among many of his students is a variety of stiff necks, frozen shoulders, headaches, bad backs, and aching hips. I hate to be so ungrateful, but this is true.

My response over many years to the two sides of Gudo -- excellence in philosphical understanding, incompetence in practical guidance -- has been to imitate the action of (in the words of Pierre Turlur) a yo-yo. Pierre has observed me yo-yo-ing between renewed belief that Gudo might be an eternal buddha after all, and despondency that such a crude hand cannot be true.

Meanwhile, Master Dogen's promise continues to point us, to point us all, to the existence of something, I don't know what it is, in the middle way between the unreality of JOKEN-GEDO and the despondency of DANKEN-GEDO.

Yes, it is heartbreaking that the most inexpressibly gorgeous, warm and familiar accumulations of energy are prone to disperse spontaneously, unless prevented from doing so. On the other hand, because of the tendency which energy has to change, whatever it is that Gautama Buddha awakened may not be totally cut off from us yet.

Having practiced for six years the sitting-Zen in which the ineffable resides, Gautama Buddha became the ineffable itself. Practicing for nine years the sitting-Zen in which the ineffable resides, Master Bodhidharma was the ineffable itself. How could a person of the present -- even if he is a grumpy kit-kat scoffer who can't stop wobbling -- fail to keep striving for it?

What is it? What is "the ineffable"?
It is not that. Nor that. I don't know what it is.

What is "the matter of the ineffable"?
That much I do know, thanks primarily to Gautama, Bodhidharma, Dogen and Gudo. It is to sit in the full lotus posture, upright and still.

But uprightness and stillness are vestibular functions. So, my final question is this:

Not necessarily as a once-and-for-all liberation, but just for the odd moment or two that makes all the struggle seem worthwhile, how to spring this body free from the influence of the faulty vestibular functioning that ordinarily governs this body?

With this question, I shall stop posting for a while, and limit myself to responding to any questions that OB, MT, J&T or others might like to raise.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Errata (3): Wanting to Be Effective

While living as a student in Shefffield aged around 20 to 21, I got caught up in a kind of pre-Zen koan, an Accounting & Financial Management koan -- What is organisational effectiveness? What makes an organisation truly effective?

I would think about this problem all day long, and lie in bed thinking about it too.

There were two main approaches to the problem: the goals approach, and the systems approach. Wanting to find a definitive answer as a foundation for my own prospective career in corporate management, I wobbled back and forth between the two approaches.

The reason I had chosen management accounting as a subject of study in the first place was a strong desire to be effective, to make my mark. As a schoolboy I was both altruistic and ambitious -- a dream-hero. The pleasures of living a humble, simple life as an ordinary bloke didn't occur to me. I thought I was destined for great things. And to make a great mark in the real world, I figured, you need great material power -- the kind of power that lies in the hands of leaders of big corporations.

In many ways, I have behaved like the Chinese Emperor Wu, who strove to accumulate great merit by building loads of Buddhist temples, having sutras copied, et cetera.

Have I completely sprang free from that deluded viewpoint yet? No, I haven't. It has been too difficult for me so far, despite the input of several excellent teachers, to give up the deep-seated belief that real, lasting change is only affected by a big effort to shift matter about.

Delusory belief in the permanence of what cannot be permanent is traditionally represented by four Chinese characters:
JO = constancy, permanence.
KEN = view
GEDO = off the way.

Energy, even in its most gorgeous & warm accumulations, even in its most sharp & brilliant combinations, has an inherent tendency to disperse, and it will disperse spontaneously unless prevented from doing so. This truth is glaringly evident, but very difficult to accept.

To see things, notwithstanding the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as if their existence were permanent, is a deluded and one-sided view, off the middle way.

Only recently have I begun to see that holding onto such a one-sided view is at root not a philosophical problem. It is a vestibular problem, a kind of grasping for security. Straying from the middle way in any sphere is always a vestibular problem. Wobbling is just a vestibular problem.

My failure thus far to achieve any true merit has been just a vestibular problem.

When Emperor Wu asked Master Bodhidharma what merit he had acquired through his temple-building and other efforts to promote Buddhism, Bodhidharma replied: "None at all."

So the Emperor asked, "What is true merit?"

The Master said, "The body being naturally empty and still."

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Errata (2): Confession

When we receive the bodhisattva precepts, we do prostrations and practice confession.

Doing prostrations, I have no doubt, can be a big help in vestibular re-training. I have no doubt because a few years ago I guided an anonymous reader of this blog, a vipassana devotee and Alexander teacher, through a reflex inhibition programme that was based almost solely on bowing work. The experiment seemed to be successful -- although if it had been more successful, at least from my point of view, the man in question might now be more than an anonymous reader of this blog.

For the confession, we recite four lines. In Japanese, they are:

GA = I
SHAKU = in the past
SHO = object particle
ZO = committed
SHO = many, various
AKU = bad
GO = acts
"The many bad acts committed by me in the past,"

KAI = all
YU = stem from
MUSHI = [times] without beginning
DON = greed
JIN = anger
CHI = stupidity, delusion
"All have stemmed since times without beginning from greed, anger and delusion."

When I reflect back on what seem to me to have been my most serious mistakes, the karmic deeds whose ripples I still feel most keenly today, especially in the period between waking and sitting, bodily passions have played their part, but I see increasingly clearly that the real reason why, for example, I cheated on the woman I loved, was delusion: I was lost, disoriented, had no sense of a true direction, had no wide and true perspective in which to see things.

So, yes, it had to do with imbalance in the autonomic nervous system; but more than that, I now believe, it had to do with vestibular dysfunction.

I still feel lost, disoriented, and lacking a true sense of direction. For example, where am I going now with this blog? I have no idea. I just seem to blunder on day by day.

When I was working in earnest on the Shobogenzo translation, tough though it was, persevering with that work had a true direction in it, which was a kind of salvation to me. But since I stopped work on the Shobogenzo translation, ten years ago now, in 1997, I seem to have been guilty of a tremendous amount of aimless wandering.

The only difference between my being lost 30 years ago and being lost now is that recently I do see increasingly clearly that being lost is at root a vestibular problem. And vestibular problems do tend to run in the Cross family -- giving rise to the recognized phenomena in Ireland and Wales of "the Cross temper," and the interesting fact that, despite being a leading member in his youth of his school rugby and cricket teams (games generally played with the eyes open), my father, when I tested his tonic labyrinthine reflex with his eyes closed, fell over at once.


The many bad acts committed by me in the past,
All have stemmed since times without beginning from greed, anger and delusion.
They were done with body, mouth, and mind.
I now totally confess and repent them all.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


On further reflection, I see that in the conclusion to my yesterday's post, there was a gap.

It may be truer to say that true uprightness is ineffable -- no-one knows what it is.

But in investigating how energy is not transmuted upwards but is instead poisoned and misdirected by greed/end-gaining, fear/anger, and delusion/disorientation, I have come to the definite conclusion that faulty vestibular functioning plays the pivotal role.

Having arrived at this, I realize that Gudo already got here many years before me -- at least he understood it in principle. In practice, he put his hand in front of my chin and pulled my chin crudely backwards, as if he knew what uprightness was. But that mistake remains for him to address. I can only endeavor to make amends for my own mistakes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spontaneous Opening of the Treasure House

That the treasure-house opens naturally, or spontaneously, is Master Dogen's fundamentally optimistic realization, expressed at the beginning and at the end of his rules of sitting-Zen for everybody. It is the fundamentally optimistic realization expressed in the Lotus Sutra, that the Universe is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.

When Gudo first met Kodo, he became a target that was hit by this teaching, and he has spent nearly 70 years endeavoring to clarify it. The truth, Gudo proclaims, is available to us naturally because our natural state is balance of the autonomic nervous system; and, to enjoy this state, we should just sit upright, keeping the spine in the position that feels to us to be vertically straight.

What I am proposing to you is a more dynamic clarification of what true uprightness is -- based on testing out Gudo's hypothesis, by trial and frequent error, in the painful laboratory of my own life.

According to Prof. Frank Lambert, all spontaneous processes are manifestations of the 2nd law of thermodynamics (=energy-change), because they involve energy dispersing.

So if we wish to clarify the real meaning of body and mind spontaneously dropping off, and the treasure house spontaneously opening, we should understand those phenomena dynamically, in terms of energy change.

And so now, standing on Gudo's shoulders, I am suggesting that true uprightness is a spontaneous transformation of energy that is sensed and directed primarily by means of the vestibular system.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Four Reflexes & Eight Precepts

Perhaps, when our hands are released from the tight grip of the Moro/palmar reflex, when loving ears are open, when the intention actually to help others is established firmly, and when we realize as human beings that we are all in the same big boat... perhaps it is then that we can begin to relate to each other as Enlightenment-Beings, as beings whose true nature is Gautama Buddha's state of enlightenment -- as Bodhisattvas.

Going further, Gautama Buddha bequeathed to us his ultimate teaching in the form of eight precepts, namely:

When the Moro reflex is aberrant, we are liable to be temporarily hyper-active, or over-motivated, and all the senses are liable to be too open, as a result of the release of adrenaline and other stimulating neuro-transmitters.

SHOYOKU, on the other hand, means to have small desire, or not to be greedy, not to grasp -- either for objects of the senses or for desired results.
CHISOKU means to know satisfaction, to be content.

Gautama Buddha's ultimate teaching was:

When the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex is unduly excited, the inner ear is over-stimulated, so that we are liable to be disturbed by internal and external noise, and to feel disoriented.

GYOJAKUJO means to enjoy peace and quiet.
GON-SHOJIN means to get on with some work, to carry on with some actual, real, non-abstract job -- with one's feet on the ground.

Gautama Buddha's ultimate teaching was:

The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex has to do with pointing in a definite direction and, by extension, it has to do with concrete intention; the concrete intention to do something.

FU-BONEN means not to lose mindfulness, attention, awareness. At the same time, it may mean not to lose desire, volition, intention.
SHU-ZENJO means to practice Zen-balance, Zen-stillness; in other words, it expresses the concrete act of practicing sitting-Zen.

Gautama Buddha's ultimate teaching was:

Inhibition of the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex has to do with bridging the gap between the more or less subconsciously-controlled state of a monkey and the state of a conscious human being.

SHU-CHIE means to practice the intuitive wisdom (called prajna in Sanskrit) that is associated with sitting-Zen practice.
FU-KERON means not to engage in idle discussion.

Having a strong tendency to get lost in idle dreams and tangential discussions, I wake up feeling shattered; I go back to square one.

When something within us cries "Pick me up!" but the call goes unanswered, just there, in the raging fire of a raw Moro reflex, SHOYOKU-CHISOKU may be a blue lotus opening.

In other words, just in not being too greedy to get out of the fire, there may be a bit of Nirvana already.

Thus, an eternal buddha named Marjory Barlow said to me: "Listen, love. Being prepared to be wrong is the golden key."

Monday, May 21, 2007

How Not to Practice Sitting-Zen -- Personal Testimony

The primary importance of the vestibular sense and the four main vestibular reflexes underlines the danger of not taking due care of loving relationships -- so that we either become too dependent upon the love of others, or too lonely and alienated in our independence.

Taking due care (= not too careless, not too careful) is itself a vestibular problem -- because it is the vestibular system which, in all conflicts between opposites, enables us to find the middle.

Thus, dualistic thinking also is a vestibular problem. The key to transcendence of dualistic thinking lies not, as people are prone to think, in the cerebral cortex, but in the vestibular system.

Shortly after I first met the sitting-Zen of Zen masters Dogen and Gudo, a dichotomy arose in my mind between my own emotional happiness and the Samadhi of the ancestors.

Seeming to confirm my own dualistic thoughts, Gudo himself told me, in response to a question I asked in a lecture given at the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai center in the Mita district of Tokyo, in the autumn of 1983: “It is a question of selection.”

The English lecture was sandwiched in between two sitting-Zen sessions. After the second sitting, while preparations were being made for the subsequent lecture in Japanese, Gudo approached me and attempted to back track from his former position. He recommended me at least to call up my then other half in England.

But I had spent the previous 45 minutes redoubling my resolve, shutting out the pain in my legs, stiffening up my neck and pulling down my chin, and thus feeling myself to be strong, upright, balanced -- the embodiment of a freewheeling dream-hero.

“The situation does not affect my balance so much,” I unknowingly lied.

I had strong confidence -- confidence of a certain kind, based on much excited reasoning but very scant experience -- that by forcing the spine to be as straight as I felt possible, I could make my autonomic nervous system balanced and thus, relying on these means, keep myself heroically balanced in any circumstance.

That youthful confidence, of course, turned out to be utterly false. At the root of the mistake, I see more and more clearly, was vestibular dysfunction.

The aim of being balanced, and thereby performing a heroic service to humanity, wasn’t in itself so very wrong. But my conception of how to go about it, my conception of the appropriate means, was upside down. And getting things upside down, or putting the cart before the horse, grasping for the end before giving due attention to the proper means, is at root a vestibular problem.

A truly upright sitting posture cannot be forced; true uprightness is the flower of a vestibular system that is functioning freely, unencumbered in the first instance by unduly excited fear reflexes.

Yes, true uprightness frees us from fear. But more fundamentally, following the hierarchy of the vestibular reflexes, freedom from fear opens the way to true uprightness.

True uprightness arises out of quietness, that is, in the first instance, out of a sense of not having to try, out of detachment, out of not caring about noise.

“I wish to assume the truly upright, fearless posture of Gautama Buddha, in which the autonomic nervous system is balanced. Therefore I will go off on my own, and make a concerted deliberate effort to keep my spine in the position which feels to me to be as close as possible to the vertical. In short, I will try my damnedest to become Buddha.”

This is just the means whereby a person who has vestibular dysfunction -- and who is consequently worried about being wrong, afraid of being unloved or rejected from the herd, and who is therefore anxious to occupy a position in the herd -- may try to become Buddha. This is exactly how not to practice sitting-Zen.

On a deep, intuitive level, Gudo understands the above very well. His guidance caused me to clarify it.

But he didn’t understand it well enough to help me when I most needed help. On the contrary, it was he who had guided me with his hands, at the temple in the summer of 1982, to pull my neckbones back and pull my chin downwards.

Even if I live to be a hundred, I will never be able to explain in words the true way to practice sitting-Zen.

But Gudo's mistake I have understood a little. My own mistake I have understood a little.

How NOT to practice sitting-Zen, THAT I have understood a little, THAT I can explain a little.

“Seated meditation” is not it.
Abdominal breathing is not it.
The requirement of “proper posture” is not it.
The exhortation to keep the spine straight vertically is not it.

In sum, any slight tendency to try to be right (even a hundredth or a thousandth of a gap), arising out of vestibular dysfunction and the associated deep-seated fear of being wrong, is not it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Fourfold Criterion before Knowing and Seeing

I was first made aware of the influence on human behaviour of four vestibular reflexes, by the late Ray Evans, who was a marine engineer, a student of yoga, my Alexander head of training, and a lifelong striver in pursuit of understanding of the human condition. Following Ray's example, in 1998-99 I underwent a year of professional training under Peter Blythe in Chester in order to look into the reflexes more deeply. From then on the process of investigating the reflexes gestated slowly in me -- hindered by doubt about whether excursions into the body of sometimes reductionist scientific knowledge called neuro-physiology might be an escape from truly holistic work.

Then about a year ago I was asked to give a talk on the reflexes at the annual conference of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) in Reading. I chose as the title "Four Primitive Reflexes." The talk seemed to go well, much better than I expected. Preparing for the talk, and follow-up work since, has encouraged me to think again about the four reflexes as the necessary a priori basis of Alexander work, of sitting-meditation as taught by Gautama the Buddha and Zen Master Dogen -- indeed as the a priori basis of all efforts to bring about true constructive change.

The four reflexes are all vestibular -- they are mediated at brainstem level by the vestibular nucleii and their development is broadly responsible for regulation of postural muscle tone. If the vestibular system is the foundation stone of human behaviour, the four reflexes can be seen as the four cornerstones.

To give them their 'scientific' names -- the names by which neuro-physiologists refer to them, they are:
1. The Moro Reflex.
2. The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR).
3. The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR).
4. The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR).

To give them more descriptive names that reflect my understanding of them, they are:
1. The panic & grasp reflex;
- the reflex of instinctively breaking out of fear paralysis, stiffening the neck and throwing the arms out in panic, then clasping the arms in and grasping for security.
2. The head balance / vestibular training reflex;
3. The side-to-side pointing reflex;
- the reflex of intention, which opposes the instinctive panic reflex in the same way that the panic reflex opposes fear paralysis.
4. The top-and-bottom bridging reflex

I submit that underlying the four Alexander directions, underlying the four noble truths, underlying the underlying structure of four philosophies in Shobogenzo, and also underlying the four elements enumerated in the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, is this a priori foursome. The four vestibular reflexes constitute an a priori universal truth in that they are present in every human baby -- the first three reflexes at birth, the fourth when an infant comes onto hands and knees at around 6 months.

If it is true that any real change in human behaviour must take account of the four main reflexes, then maybe it should not be surprising that the number four, and multiples thereof, tend to crop up in practical teachings that are concerned with real (not only intellectual or psychological) change.

To anybody used to working with the four directions that Alexander recommended us to give "altogether, one after the other," the connection with the four reflexes is obvious once attention has been drawn to it.
1. Let the NECK be free
2. To let the HEAD release out
3. To let the BACK widen
4. To let the LEGS out

In the four noble truths:
1. Suffering may be equated with emotional attachments and reactions that are fuelled by and associated with the panic/grasping reflex.
2. Grasping (or "end-gaining" in AT jargon) is the origin/accumulation of suffering because of the universal defect that Alexander identified as unreliable sensory appreciation -- essentially a vestibular problem associated with imperfect integration of all four reflexes but no. 2 in particular. The faultier a person's vestibular-proprioception is, then the more that person tends to create harmful side-effects by grasping for a result. A dog whose coordination is perfect does not create harmful side effects when chasing a stick. The movements of a well-coordinated person fully committed to gaining an end, similarly, emanate only beauty. But most of the time most of us are not like that.
3. Stopping suffering might depend primarily on inhibiting the panic/grasping reflex and thereby quieting all the unconscious attachments and reactions that are secondary to it. As a movement, the panic reflex is a symmetrical pattern, which is opposed or inhibited by reflex no. 3, the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex. At the same time, whereas panic is an instinctive, unconscious, involuntary state, the pointing (or punching) reflex may be seen as at the root of all intentional activity -- so on this level too, the ATNR opposes or inhibits the Moro pattern.
4. The establishment of right pathways involves bridging the gap between instinctive, unconscious, reactive behaviour and more enlightened, conscious, decisive behaviour. (In physical terms, this may be equated with a harmonization of the energy centres in the head, the heart, and the pelvis.) This bridging of the gap between unconsciousness and consciousness depends on the mature evolution of all four reflexes, but ultimately on integration of the STNR, the bridging reflex. It has been said that a crucial difference between monkeys and humans is that (some) humans are able to walk upright with neck, hips, and knees fully and easily extended, thereby demonstrating inhibition of the STNR.... Anybody care to join me for a banana?

In the Maha-Satipattana Sutta, the four elements are:
1. Kaya; body.
2. Vedana; feeling
3. Citta; intention
4. Dhamma; realizations

In light of the four reflexes and also in light of the four stages that can be observed in Master Dogen's rules of sitting-meditation, I offer the following interpretation of the four elements:
1. Bodily non-emotion.
Just being physically present. Noticing how I am, without caring; being aware of what is going on in the body emotionally, without reacting further to bodily reactions that are already going on. If the ultimate aim is really to be free, to liberate the body from emotional attachment and reaction, the primary thing must be not to grasp, emotionally or intellectually, for that or any other result. In short, not to try to be a buddha. To be content to be the non-buddha.
2. Sensory non-perception.
Being open to sensory feedback about where I am, especially about where the head is relative to the rest of the body. Relying on the unreliable (but not totally relying on it) -- like Ray Mears consulting a cheap compass.
3. Intentional non-thinking.
Intending to allow. Willing fearless spontaneity, like a baby pointing (as if to say, "I want THAT one!"). Not only willing it, but also, eventually, intentionally doing something to get the ball rolling -- breathing out fully and swaying.
4. Non-doing.
Not me doing it. It doing itself. A spontaneous upflow of energy. Sitting as a spontaneous process. Body and mind spontaneously dropping off. Realizations of non-constancy in all its manifestations

To express it in sum, in light of the integral upward direction that unites the four:
1. Allowing oneself to be not necessarily up.
2. Sensing the possibility of an upward direction.
3. Thinking up.
4. Going up

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Preamble (2): On Arrogance & Imperialism, Modern Psychology, Seeking Ease in Suffering, Not Being Up to the Task, Etc.

In his rules for sitting-Zen Master Dogen cautions against pride in understanding. This pride is liable to be unconscious, and it is not always an individual thing. It can be a cultural thing. Perhaps it is a matter of what Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious.” Or perhaps not.

Certainly there can be institutional intellectual arrogance -- when I was 10 years old I passed an entrance examination in order to attend one such elitist institution, called King Edwards School, Birmingham. Founded in 1663 (I think), the school churned out more than its fair share of builders of the British Empire. Even at Oxford and Cambridge, we were told, KES boys had a reputation for being deep thinkers.

If might makes right, does that mean that the cultural or racial arrogance of empire-builders is justified, for a while?

What kind of elite is going to be the builders of the next great empire?

What role in that empire might be played by Master Dogen’s rules of sitting-Zen FOR EVERYBODY? A unifying role? A subversive role? A negligible role? None of the above?

It seems to me that several excellent Buddhist teachers in the world today have not only a background in ancient religious wisdom but also some grasp of modern sciences such as psychology. James Cohen, whose heritage appears to be Judaism, may be one example. Richard Morrissey, whose heritage appears to be Christian, may be another. The Dalai Lama, whose heritage is evidently Buddhist, is another.

Meanwhile, the criterion that precedes knowing and seeing is manifested in actions like brandishing a fist or a reverberating yell; it is not primarily a religious or psychological phenomenon.

Two Dharma-heirs of Gudo, one who has never met me, one a British friend who has sat with me on numerous occasions, have recommended me in the past year or two to undergo psychological counselling. I don’t rule anything out, but I myself would never recommend others to go down that route. Both those guys seem to have taken pains not to get on the wrong side of Gudo, whom they naturally revere for bestowing the Dharma on them, but their recommendation suggests to me that neither of them -- neither the one whom I consider a friend nor the other one -- are coming from the same place as Gudo himself. They may be legitimate heirs of Gudo, legally speaking, but biologically speaking his lifeblood is not like that.

Anger is one of the three poisons, a physical thing. Being angry, I come to the forest and sit in lotus.

I never heard Gudo recommend anybody at all ever to take even one small step in the direction of psychotherapy. Generally speaking, he recommended people to practice sitting-Zen itself and to study Shobogenzo, whose root is sitting-Zen.

During solitary retreat here in France, I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4. I like Radio 4 a lot. But everybody on it is an amateur psycho-analyst -- every news reporter or presenter of Desert Island Discs is an expert on human psychology.

Maybe it is a source of unconscious pride for we “educated” Radio 4 listeners that nowadays we have understood just about everything there is to understand in human life, on the basis of modern psychology.

Psychology is generally accepted as a bona fide science, higher up the food chain than Alexander work. In future, people may see that the teachings of both Alexander and Dogen, being concerned with acceptance and use of the whole self, are a cut above psychology.

Today I took a close-up digital photo of a robin, with which I was thrilled. Looking at the photo brought a smile spontaneously to my face. In my excitement, however, I erased the photo. I took some other photos of the robin too, but I erased the best one. It was a small loss within the greater scheme of things, but a loss all the same, and a useful reminder to me of how I am prone to react to any kind of loss -- by holding the breath.

Uptight breath holding is a strong unconscious tendency that I have observed in myself in response to many difficult stimuli along the way -- from disappointment, disorientation, and difficult choices, through to the desire to stretch out painful legs.

Isn’t the scenery of every sitter’s journey inevitably littered with these kinds of experiences -- times of loss, of missed boats; feelings of being disoriented, or seasick; frustrations, unforeseen stops at unmarked crossroads; and ultimately sheer pain, unavoidable physical discomfort?

And isn’t the tendency to restrict the breathing, when confronted with such stimuli, a universal one?

Because the tendency is unconscious, it often goes unnoticed, unless brought into awareness by an effort of attention.

According to some commentators the effort required is more than an effort of attention. There are Dharma-heirs of Gudo who have written of belly breathing -- for example, Michel Proulx and Richard Morrissey. Their advocacy of abdominal breathing shows that they have not got Gudo’s lifeblood either. Gudo only ever recommended me to attend to the matter of sitting upright, because, when we are truly upright, the breathing takes care of itself.

Of course, most of the time I am not truly upright. Alexander work made me aware of that. In general, I am more or less uptight. In that case, the traditional way is not to do something with the belly to help the breathing; it is rather to stop being uptight and get back on the vigorous road to uprightness. Then the breathing will become easier, naturally.

A few years ago during a solitary retreat here in France, I wrote the following verse:

Thirty years after school,
Here I am, still a fool.
What I feel to be true uprightness
Turns out to be just uptightness.

The two kinds of extreme response to suffering are (1) to be overwhelmed by it and collapse, as if wishing to curl up and die; and (2) to refuse to be bowed by it and stiffen up. Either response is accompanied by restriction of the respiratory mechanism; in other words, by a lack of physical ease.

Master Dogen’s rules for sitting-Zen guide us to seek that physical ease, which lies in the middle way between giving up and trying too hard. Dogen exhorts us to get the point that sitting-Zen is not meditation to learn (not “seated meditation” or “seated Zen”); it is rather a gate to effortless ease.

This search is not primarily a psychological journey. It is a search for ease in sitting -- a sitting posture that is characterized by true uprightness, which, in other words, is characterized by neither slumping nor uptightness; a sitting posture in which, after one deliberate out-breath to get the ball rolling, breathing is left to take care of itself.

Seeking ease in sitting might be like seeking a blue lotus, in which case the principle to remember might be this:

Fire does not turn into blue lotus flowers. Blue lotus flowers open in fire.

Thus, in the daily quest for true uprightness, observing Master Dogen’s rules, I attend first of all to how I actually am in my body, and where I am in spacetime/gravity. Out of this attention, eventually, on a good day, there may arise the concrete clear intention to sit truly upright, not uptight, and to sit still. Ultimately, the gap between intention and the real act of easy upright sitting in stillness, has actually to be bridged.

Is there a single criterion that covers (and not only in a linear, serial way), each of the above four bases -- emotional state, spacetime awareness, intention to sit upright, and uprightness itself?

In seeking to clarify what this criterion might be, psychology may not be the traditional place to start.

According to Gudo, the criterion is not a psychological one but a physical one: namely, balance of the autonomic nervous system.

Maybe to touch the first base is to have covered all bases already -- I don’t know. But it seems to me that to repay the old man’s benevolence requires us to clarify the criterion further, covering all bases more explicitly.

Clarifying the criterion does not mean only to write clear explanations of it; it means, as authentic successors to the Samadhi of ninety-odd ancestors (all of whom were celibate monks), to manifest the criterion in practice. To accomplish all this without falling into the trap of pride in the understanding of little me… strikes me as an extremely difficult proposition. My track record so far, clearly, has not been spotlessly free of errors.

Now I will draw to a conclusion this intended pre-amble which has turned into a lengthy ramble. My final thought is that to repay a master’s benevolence does not mean to suck up to him, out of gratitude for having received a few feet of silk certifying that Joe Bloggs is a Zen Master. Truly to repay Gudo’s benevolence is, without going against the essence of his teaching, to be clearer about the essence of his teaching than he is himself. That is the task. Regardless of our own deeply unreliable and ever-wobbling feelings as to whether or not we are up to the task, that is the task.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Criterion before Knowing and Seeing: Preamble

As a young man of 22, I met an old man who seemed to meet my criteria of what a Buddha might be. Later I found that it was not so; the old man was very far from perfect; there were many things he did not know. In retrospect, the clue had been there in his monk’s name: Gudo, Stupid Way. Neither knowing nor wanting to know what he did not know, the stupid old man acted in stupid ways that produced, unbeknowns to him, all kinds of imperfect side effects. The old man was, it turned out, a non-buddha.

Acting in the naive and false belief that this non-buddha might be a true Buddha I made all kinds of tremendously stupid mistakes of my own, producing my own unpleasant side effects.

Under the old non-buddha, I came confidently to misunderstand that the teaching of Gautama, the historical Buddha, was not primarily a matter of psychology or spirituality. I came to believe in the existence of a criterion that precedes even the knowing of the great scientists and even the spiritual insights of the great religious seers -- that criterion being primarily a matter of how to sit upright in the full lotus posture, thereby (or so the non-buddha said) “bringing the autonomic nervous system into balance.”

Thus, naively believing that the strange and simplistic teaching of the non-buddha might have some kernel of truth in it, I became obsessively and unhealthily interested in the matter of how to sit upright. And this obsessive and unhealthy interest led me back to England to investigate the discoveries of FM Alexander.