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.


Blogger Michael Kendo Tait said...

You write 'the sitting Zen in which the ineffable resides.' But the ineffable doesn't reside anywhere surely, anywhere identifiable that isn't everything and everywhere right now at least. We practise 'sitting Zen' but the ineffable is always practising us.

Sometimes there's a sense that there may have been a moment in which something we could call true stillness may have occurred but by that time it is long gone.

It seems to me that it is our ordinary lives striving for uprightness, for the best that a continued attempt to balance and open ourselves can offer that truly enables something real. If we permit ourselves to stop putting our shoulder to the door, the treasure house opens naturally. More often than not, my shoulder is against that door but knowing that is not without value, it is the knowledge of non-Buddha, to coin a phrase.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hi MT.

Master Dogen recommended us: INMO NO JI O EN TO HOSSEBA, KYU NI INMO NO JI O TSUTOME YO. "Wanting to grasp the matter of the ineffable, practice the matter of the ineffable, at once!"

In the second clause INMO NO JI (matter of the ineffable) is the object, O is the object particle, and TSUTOMERU (practice, make effort) is the verb.

Whether or not the ineffable is practising me, I do not know. It is a philosophical problem. How to practice the matter of the ineffable is what interests me.

My desire has been to clarify for people like you and me how to practice the matter of the ineffable. How to practice the matter. The matter is the one great matter, Zazen, sitting-zen, i.e., just sitting. Not "sitting zen." Never "sitting zen."

If you advocate sitting zen, do you also advocate walking zen, and talking zen? Do you advocate shitting zen? It sounds like it.

How to practice sitting-zen. To clarify this has been my goal. My failure to achieve it, I see more and more clearly, has been due to my brain's weak capacity to integrate incoming information into a meaningful whole, which is at root a vestibular problem.

Master Bodhidharma said: "The body is empty and still."
Master Dogen wrote: "The sky is clear through to the heavens and birds are flying like birds. The water is clear through to the bottom and fish are swimming like fish."

Because I have been a bright spark since early childhood, when I was precocious at reading, it has not been too difficult for me to translate teachings like these into English, and it not difficult for me to engage in futile discussions about their meaning.

But because my actions are invariably guided by faulty sensory processing, it is extremely difficult for me to realize their real meaning in sitting.

Even though the teaching seems too difficult for a wobbling non-Buddhist like me to realize, even I was not excluded from the target audience of Master Dogen when he wrote his rules of sitting-zen for everybody. And at the end of that work he promised us all, "If for a long time you practice the matter of the ineffable, you will be the ineffable." So we might be wrong to be unduly pessimistic.

But we need to be clear that the one great matter is not a kind of Zen, or a style of Zen, or a school of Zen, or a tradition of Zen, that is practiced, for example, by sitting in a certain way, by doing prostrations in a certain way, by reciting this or that, by confessing like this or that, by studying or not studying koans, by taking meals like this or like that, et cetera. The one great matter is just sitting-zen itself.

In Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen, in the Zen of DT Suzuki, in Zen & The Art of Archery, Zen skiing, et cetera, et cetera, vestibular dysfunction is not a problem. But in my sitting-zen, it is a very real problem, beginning with a bow.

After I have bowed, my breathing is a sign of how I am -- not great this morning; I didn't sleep well. I seek some ease in this condition (but not too greedily; blue lotuses open in fire). After a while I breathe out and sway left and right. Then sit still.




It has to do with the stimulating the integrative function of the vestibular system.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007  
Blogger Pete, an ordinary bloke. said...

Much of what I think of as knowledge is actually information picked up from experts in one field or another. I accept it on trust. The vestibular system is an example of this sort of knowledge. Although I have checked it out on various internet site and can accept it on trust I have never actually seen it, handled it or heard it. Even before hearing of the vestibular system I often experienced physical unbalance and emotional turbulence. When in a confrontation that is not going my way I often snap and fly into a rage. Generally, but not always, this reaction takes me by surprise. It is as if I do not know myself yet anger has been with me for nearly all of my life. I really don’t know why I behave in the way I do for most of the time. The truth is I do not know myself except to say that in my everyday life I constantly lie, steal, lust, criticize, become angry and, although I don’t sell liquor, stand my round. Basically I think of myself as a shit. I often ask myself, when I know I will be a shit to the day I die, why sit zazen when I could forget myself walking the hills or lying down in the grass and staring at the sky? In my everyday life I have never come anywhere near to manifesting the eight truths of a great human being and only in sitting Zazen is there a glimmer of the precepts being kept. As for being in the “balanced state” and “being the ineffable” how do I know that I am not deceiving myself with hope and faulty self perception?

Cheers Mike,

Thursday, May 31, 2007  
Blogger Conrad Brown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thursday, May 31, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Dear Pete & Conrad,

Just to say thank you very much for these two truly excellent contributions -- they arrive together like two buses, after a wait of 18 months.

In my lessons with Marjory Barlow, the main activity she got me to practice was to inhibit my too quick reaction to the stimulus of her request that I should extend a leg. However long a gap I maintained between receiving the stimulus and eventually responding by moving the leg, the gap was never too long for her. She used to say: "That's it! Always pays to wait."

In that spirit, I am going to resist the temptation to respond too quickly to these very stimulating comments/questions. I will respond eventually. But for now I am going to post this and then put the computer to sleep.

Thanks again,


Thursday, May 31, 2007  
Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

I have been hesitant to leave any comments here often. I do not want to be mistaken for “one who knows.” I keep coming back to this blog, each time what I consider writing is a bit different. I think this is good.

When I was a recruiter I often dealt with applicants who would address concerns or drawbacks with the service as you can likely imagine. Being skillful in sales we would advise them to “take a step back and look at the big picture” Then we would remind them of all of the benefits of service that satisfied their needs. Now, I am very happy that that duty is in the past and well behind me. But the lesson is not lost on me. When the occasions come when I feel like I have been knocked down from my mountain I take a step back, and see that I have not tumbled so far down after all despite dodgy vestibules.

Could the vestibular problem only be a problem if you allow it to be?
When I play the flute in order to get the right technique you have to have a loose neck.
After a while my head will begin to drop and I can no longer get my “Ro” note to play a sound. It took a teacher to show me this and become aware of it. I still slip sometimes in practice. But I still practice.

When I was first passed over for promotion three years ago my world shook. This is no tiny hint of criticism. The organization I had given the whole of my adult life to said that I was not good enough to hold the next higher grade. I had an opportunity to leave. But I stay and I do the things that are required of me with vigor. (But my motivation did hit a low for a while and probably will again around the 15th next month when I get passed over the 4th time.) My wife helped me to cope with this; she said some old saying like fall down three times, get up four. Mike, fall down three times get up four.

There is another type of gap I would like to ask about.
I don’t know if it has to do with a vestibular problem or not. The gap I am talking about is the one between action and reaction (and a whole lot more I can’t get into). Someone shoots at me I shoot back. In combat this should be instantaneous. But this is not so good for a human being and those in the profession of war have problems adjusting when we get back to the wife and kids.
Mind the gap between the action and reaction. Could this be what Marjory Barlow was trying to impart to you?

Although I may have been critical of him, I do like Brad Warner’s writing style I find his books to read easily and contain a lot of good stuff. I think it is better to be awake and aware than “enlightened.” What is it about “enlightenment” that is important to you?

What is not ineffable?
I once, after a disorientated experience, thought that the ineffable was the gap. It is not. But it is part of it. The gap connects everything and non thing alike without discrimination.

“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?”

Mind the gap and everything it connects to. And even a grumpy Kit-Kat scoffer who can’t stop wobbling might taste something besides the guilty taste of chocolate.

Take care

Thursday, May 31, 2007  
Blogger Michael Kendo Tait said...

I would advocate just sitting, I might also advocate just walking, just talking and just shitting too.

If the ineffable is the state of reality, the ineffable is all around, within and without, as far as we can experience.

Like any ordinary bloke I more often than not feel like a sole agent forging a difficult path through a hostile environment. I carefully negotiate obstacles and try to maintain the energy to do all the things I need to do for my life, my wife and kids, my home, my job.

But sometimes just sitting reveals this position to be a tenacious gallery of false opinions. The real universe is originally in accord with all elements of itself, including human beings. As you quote from Master Dogen "The sky is clear through to the heavens and birds are flying like birds. The water is clear through to the bottom and fish are swimming like fish."

I sometimes notice in people (more often in people who don’t practise zazen than those that do) that this real experience seems to be the true body of virtue in action, what's called compassion or wisdom and so forth. But such qualities cannot be aware of themselves as qualities so Pete’s point about faulty self-perception seems absolutely accurate to me. What is ‘compassion’ when it is aware of itself? Something like its polar opposite I imagine.

The very ordinary experience of contentment, a sense of coming as close as each sit allows to wholeness with experience is all the encouragement we really need to practise zazen, even if that might be a bit unreliable. Proceeding from relative stillness and returning to relative stillness as the pivot of a pretty wobbly life is OK I reckon. Perhaps that speaks to a poverty of ambition on my part, I don’t know, it seems to be the best I can do.

I wonder though, whether purposeless, defeated, dishonourable sitting of shits like Pete and passed-over soldiers like J & T (I can’t speak for Conrad but I gather some disillusion) useless relentless sitting of ordinary people are real lives unfolding.

Wobbling doggedly through the shit, non-Buddha grows a garden of lotus. Should he care one way or another?

Friday, June 01, 2007  

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