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.


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