Saturday, June 30, 2007

Idle Reflection

On the other side is Lavender,
In stillness showing how.
Each flower flowing upward
Loves being here and now.

On this side sits a questionner,
Often asking how,
If the hurdle is vestibular,
To clear it and allow?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Fourfold Criterion Revisited (2): On Right Laws & Wrong Practice

The point of sitting-zen is got when the laws of the real universe are realized -- as those laws were realized when Gautama Buddha, guided by the concept of a middle way, sat under the bodhi tree.

Thus, the inherent rightness of the universe can be realized in a person’s practice of sitting-zen. But that does not mean that a person who practices sitting-zen necessarily becomes right.

Those laws of the real universe which are much more likely than a person to be right, might include, for example, the 2nd law of thermodynamics and Newton’s 3rd law of motion.

This week I have been reading James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton, quoted thus:

Law 3. To any action there is always an opposite and equal reaction; in other words, the actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and always opposite in direction.

My arse squashes down the black cushion, and the black cushion pushes right back up against my arse.

Probably the principle of resonance is relevant too. According to Wikipedia, “Strings or parts of strings may resonate at their fundamental or overtone frequencies when other strings are sounded. For example, an A string at 440 Hz will cause an E string at 330 Hz to resonate, because they share an overtone of 1320 Hz (3rd overtone of A and 4th overtone of E).”

I don’t clearly understand this principle of resonance, although I ought to, because it is a cornerstone of the listening work that I am supposed to be trained in professionally. Moreover, sympathetic resonance is the metaphor that Gudo Nishijima uses for the transmission of the Buddha’s teaching intuitively from teacher to student.

According to Paul Madaule of The Listening Centre in Toronto (follow the link on my webpage if interested), the ear is the organ of both inner listening and outer listening. The vestibular part of the ear is responsible for inner listening to relatively slow movements (like swaying left and right in sitting-zen, or like a 100-metre sprint), whereas the auditory part of the ear is responsible for outer listening to relatively fast movements (sound vibrations up to 20,000 cycles per second). But the ear is basically one. So it may be that listening to the resonant chanting of an old monk, or listening to violin music that is rich in overtones, can help the ear to tune into the kind of stillness (without fixity) which we want in our sitting-zen.

The vestibular system is responsible at brainstem level for integrating all kinds of sensory input to do with posture and muscle tone. Hence, we rely on the vestibular system much more than we tend to realize. And, in general, we don’t suppose how unreliable our vestibular system might be.

This is the essence of the problem identified by FM Alexander as “unreliable sensory appreciation.”

At root, it is the unreliability of our vestibular system that can mislead us into believing that we are balanced, right, and still in sitting-zen; when in fact we are just fixed.

On a previous post (A Fourfold Criterion Before Knowing and Seeing), I tried to outline the connections I perceive between four stages in Master Dogen’s instructions for sitting-meditation, the four elements of the Maha-sati-patanna Sutta, four Alexander directions, and -- underlying all these -- four vestibular reflexes.

Often I find myself, especially during my first sitting of the day when the mind is fresh, observing these four criteria -- or, more holistically, this fourfold criterion.

The first criterion has to do with body-energy, emotional state, and muscle tone -- particularly centred on the neck.

The second has to do with processing of sensory information, especially information pertaining to head balance.

The third has to do with clarity of intention, with ability to keep one’s eyes on the ball, and with preventing the kind of narrowing/tightening/holding/twisting of the back that hinders free breathing.

The fourth has to do with a person’s ability, especially through opening of the hips, to allow the self to be taken over by objective laws of the universe -- so that upright sitting may become a matter not of sophisticated subjective effort, but of spontaneous upflow of energy, or basic action and reaction.

In the end, the whole thing is circular because, as long as my hip joints are not free then I am not truly free of care.

In sitting-zen yesterday morning, for example, I was bothered by persisting noise from an engine outside. Not only was I bothered; I cared that I was bothered. After a while, I noticed that I cared that I was bothered. This is related with the first criterion.

I noticed further that, in my infantile state of caring and being bothered, I was holding myself in a kind of startle pattern. To some extent, I could perceive this pattern kinaesthetically. This is related with the second criterion.

What might have happened then, on a good day, is that I might have heeded Master Dogen’s teaching to, Sit still, “Thinking the state of not thinking.” How? “Non-thinking.”

I might have clarified the intention to be just unthinkingly sat by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, Newton’s 3rd law of motion, et cetera.

But I failed to heed Master Dogen’s teaching. Instead, I started thinking about writing this blog post and I continued thinking about this blog post until my hour of sitting was up.

Why did I fail to stay on the right track? It was a problem of intention. I fell at the hurdle of the third criterion.

Rather than intending to realize what Master Bodhidharma called ultimate merit -- the body being naturally empty and still -- I intended to make a little mark by having my say on this blog. Rather than intending to allow a bit of nothing, I intended to realize a little bit of something, a little bit of my thing. So it was a problem of intention. At the same time, intention is a vestibular problem. Veering off track is always a vestibular problem. Once again, therefore, I would like to claim the vestibular amendment.

In the final analysis, however, even if my straying from the middle way stems from congenital vestibular dysfunction, I am still responsible for it. So I do not wish to put forward vestibular dysfunction as a justification for wrong practice.

But for anyone who wishes to understand why a gap is liable to arise between the inherent rightness of the laws of the universe, and the wrong practice of people who pursue the realization of those laws by sitting-zen, I recommend investigation of the vestibular system in general and the four vestibular reflexes in particular.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Fourfold Criterion Revisited (1): Not a Prayer

In zazen, I tend to care.

The head is held, I’m not sure where.

When holding stops, ribs let in air.

Can I do it?

Not a prayer.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Buddha’s Teaching is Not Realism

The teaching of Gautama Buddha is not a view; it is the Law whose realization, in the stillness of sitting-zen, is freedom.

Gudo’s view that “Buddhism is Realism” is not the Buddha’s teaching itself; it is a philosophical view.

The teaching of Gautama Buddha is not a view; it is the Dharma-robe, wrapped in which a shaven-headed sitter is dangled out... and, all being well, bitten.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Willow Warbler & Wobbler Warbling

A Willow Warbler Warbling:

The Warbling of a Wobbler:

Delusion and doubt?
Vestibular illness!
So dangle self out
Till bitten by stillness

Friday, June 08, 2007

Letting the Other (4): No Net, No Cage


RA: nets
RO: cages
IMADA: yet
ITARAZU: not arrived

"Nets and cages have never arrived."

In the Gyoji chapter of Shobogenzo Master Dogen relates how his Master Tendo declined the gift of 10,000 pieces of silver. In all innocence, I asked Gudo why Tendo declined the gift. I couldn’t understand why. Gudo replied, “Master Tendo was just enjoying his simple life.”

I am going to stop posting now.

I have had enough of responding badly to people’s cheap views and opinions. From now on I am not going to tolerate or publish any more of those. I am going to make more use of the reject option.

But if you have an expensive question on Master Dogen’s rules of sitting-zen, please ask it, not only for your own benefit, and I will endeavor to answer it, not only for my own benefit.

My answer will undoubtedly be unduly wordy and complicated, not clear and simple like Master Tendo.

Are there any questions?

Letting the Other (3): Impermanence

Fifty years

Isn't long

To make a friend

Of being wrong...


GYOSHITSU: the body, physical substance
SO: grass
RO: dew
NO GOTOKU: be like

"The body is like a dew drop on a blade of grass."

"The universal law is realized."

I think that when Master Dogen looked at the real world, he saw the law of energy change, i.e. the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Energy changes. It is not that sitting-zen practice creates energy change. Energy changes. That is the fundamental rule. That is the Law.

In regular daily practice of sitting-zen we can gradually begin to observe and to understand the law of energy change - how flowers fall, how weeds grow. The fragility of this dew-drop life.

The Law is not susceptible to any interference from us whatsoever, however excellent we might be at sitting in the full lotus posture for x hours per day.

The power of even a great sitting buddha is not a change that he or she creates. The energy that is available to us in sitting-zen comes only from digestion of the food we eat; it is not a change we create; the potential for change was already there in the food that is now releasing its energy for us.

The possibility does arise, however, of us learning in practice to re-direct this energy more and more autonomously.

“Learn the backward step of turning light.”

The question that then arises is: How? How might I re-direct my energy?

That is the question we tend to jump to. That is the essence of Saddha’s question in the previous post.

A few years ago I asked Marjory Barlow if she was aware of her student’s progress from lesson to lesson. “Oh yes,” she replied, “I know it in my hands.” “Can you put into words what are the criteria of progress?” I asked. “Three things.” Marjory answered: “Less trying. More freedom and ease. Less misdirection of energy.”

The way she phrased the last criterion is all-important.

Similarly, when the Buddha set out the fundamental rule for his new order of wandering mendicants, he said:

Not to commit wrongs.
To let rights be done.
Naturally purifies the mind.
This is the teaching of the buddhas.

Notice where the Buddha started -- with a negative. Stop doing the wrong thing first. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to do the right thing. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to learn how to direct your energy more effectively. Start by learning how to misdirect your energy less.

Without explicit neuro-physiological knowledge of the vestibular reflexes, what both Gautama and Marjory understood, as I see it, is that it is all too easy, when dealing with an imperfectly co-ordinated person, to start by over-exciting the Moro reflex, in which case the whole vestibular system is knocked out of kilter, and confused grasping ensues.

Thus, in his rules of sitting-zen for everybody, the English translation of which you can read on my webpage at, Master Dogen starts with his fundamentally optimistic view of the world -- a view that signals that there is no emergency, no reason to panic, no urgent need to dash to the bookshop and start learning Russian.

DO: the truth, bodhi, the Buddha’s enlightenment
MOTO: originally, fundamentally
EN: all around
ZU: pervades
IKADEKA: how...?
SHUSHO: practice/experience
O: [object particle]
KARAN: ... could it borrow?

“The truth originally is all around. How could it rely on practice and experience?”

Letting the Other (2): Widening and Lengthening


MIMI: ears
TO: (conjunctive particle)
KATA: shoulders
TAI SURU: oppose, align with
HANA: nose
HESO: navel
TAI SESHIMEN: (causitive form of TAI SURU) cause to oppose, cause to be aligned in opposition with
KOTO O YOSU: it is vital that....
"It is vital to cause the ears and shoulders to be opposed, and the nose and navel to be opposed."

In my sitting, the direction for the ears and shoulders to be opposed to each other ("to be aligned with each other" in some interpretations), has less to do with symmetrical alignment than it has to do with preventing a certain kind of reaction.

Marjory Barlow wrote of the force of gravity and the opposing force that is cultivated in Alexander work: the force of levity. At the same time, Marjory often used to tell me in the lessons she gave me, "We all go mad on the lengthening and neglect the widening."

Master Dogen's direction for the nose and navel to be opposed, has to do with a lengthening, anti-gravity direction. But the direction he gives before that, for the ears and shoulders to be opposed, has mainly to do, as I see it, with widening -- or, to be more precise, with preventing the narrowing tendency which sitting-zen practitioners are very liable to exhibit in our eagerness to lengthen.

In muscular terms, to ask ears and shoulders to release away from each other is to ask for a release of the big outer muscle of the upper back, the trapezius. At the same time, this direction has a lot to do with are called in Alexander jargon "the Dart spirals" -- after Professor Raymond Dart, a famous anthropologist, anatomist, and supporter of FM Alexander's work. Dart identified a great swathe of deeper muscle, a broad muscular sheet, that crosses from the left ear, across between the shoulder blades, and round to the right side of the rib-cage, then across the belly to the left side of the pelvis -- and vice versa, from the right ear round the left ribs and over to the right side of the pelvis. If you wish to follow the line in an anatomy book, look up splenius capitus/cervicis >> rhomboids >> serratus anterior >> external oblique >> internal oblique.

On a good day, release in this direction seems to cause the whole of the back to widen, including the pelvis, so that I feel the sacro-iliac joints freeing up. And when this happens it is as if the breath is passing right down into that area.

This kind of talk is liable to put us wrong -- because we are all prone to try to do the widening direction, just as we are prone to try to do the lengthening direction. We are prone to try to create a change.

But we needn't necessarily worry about going wrong. Going wrong is how we learn. Going wrong is fine, as long as the wrong tendency is illuminated by at least a glimmer of detached awareness.

The point to come back to, the point that goes against the grain of our frenetic achievement-oriented culture, is that in the sitting-zen of Master Dogen we are not in the business of creating change. Our primary work is preventing the wrong kind of change, not creating a Buddhist empire like that of Emperor Wu.

Thus, Master Bodhidharma’s expression of ultimate merit is recorded, in Shobogenzo chapter 30, Gyoji, by four lines of four Chinese characters:

JO: pure -- i.e. not defiled by greed, anger, and delusion; free of undue influence of the panic reflex
CHI: wisdom -- ability to reflect what is, as it is
MYO: subtly, delicately -- not a function of gross muscular doing
EN: surrounding
“Pure wisdom being subtly all-encompassing”

TAI: the body -- the body of a sitting-zen practitioner extending maybe to the physical world of nature (aka “the whole body of the Tathagata”)
ONOZUKARA: naturally, spontaneously -- not as a result of our deluded efforts to create change
KU: empty -- plus minus zero; not a physical experience of something; a bit of nothing; no undue excitement of the autonomic nervous system
JAKU: still, quiet -- no undue excitement of the ear
“The body being naturally empty and still.”

NYO-ZE: like this, as it is
KU-DOKU: merit, virtue -- the target to which the Master pointed us
"Merit like this"

FU: not, beyond
I: by
SE: the world -- the community of subconsciously controlled human beings
KYU: sought
"Is beyond what is sought by the world."

Preventing the wrong kind of change, in the context of this post, means not narrowing. The non-wrong kind of change -- widening -- is not something we create: it does itself, following the fundamental law of the Universe.


SHINJIN: body, mind
JINNEN: naturally, spontaneously
DATSURAKU: drop off
HONRAI: original
MENMOKU: face & eyes, features, face
GENZEN: emerge

Body and mind drop off spontaneously, and our original features emerge.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Letting the Other Hit the Target

When eyes focus on a target it not only a function of vision but also of eye movement -- a vestibular problem.

When the ears focus on a target, it is not only a function of audition but also of what Alfred Tomatis/Paul Madaule have called "the listening posture" -- again, a vestibular problem. (For more on this, follow the listening link on my webpage at

Hitting, or not hitting, a target is always a vestibular problem.

In recent posts I have discussed my own past history and persisting strong tendency to miss the target, and have expressed my conclusion that this is primarily a vestibular problem.

In response, MT, CB, OB and J&T all have had the guts to manifest the results of their own sincere but, as I see them, incomplete efforts to hit the target.

Wondering how to respond to the comments left on this post, I had the idea just to draw attention to some relevant lines from Master Dogen's rules of sitting-Zen.

Where did that idea come from? It came from my recognition that whereas I am deeply prone to miss the target, Master Dogen himself seems to have had some peculiar ability to hit the target, in his thoughts and in his words.

In Shobogenzo chap. 74, Temborin, Turning of the Dharma Wheel, Master Dogen discusses the comments of several revered teachers of the past on the teaching that "When a person exhibits the truth and returns to the origin, space in the ten directions totally disappears."

For example, he quotes, as a wrecking-ball of romantic thought, the comment of his own teacher, the Old Buddha Tendo:

"When a person exhibits the truth and returns to the origin, a beggar boy breaks his food-bowl."

Then Master Dogen delivers his own comment:

"When a person exhibits the truth and returns to the origin, space in the ten directions exhibits the truth and returns to the origin."

I remember sitting in my teacher Gudo's office more than twenty years ago discussing the translation of this chapter. Gudo explained and praised the comments of the various masters and then said: "But we feel that Master Dogen just hit the target."

Again, in chapter 27, Zazenshin, A Needle for Sitting-Zen, Master Dogen quotes Master Wanshi:

"The water is clean right to the bottom,
Fishes are swimming, slowly, slowly.
The sky is wide beyond limit,
And birds are flying, far, far away."

Master Dogen's own variation, and his conclusion to the chapter, is this:

"The water is clear, right down to the ground,
Fishes are swimming like fishes.
The sky is wide, clear through to the heavens,
And birds are flying like birds.

The needle for sitting-zen of Zen Master Wanshi is never imperfect in expression but I would like to express it further like this. In sum, children and grandchildren of the buddha-ancestors should unfailingly learn in practice that sitting-zen is the one great matter. This is the authentic seal which is received and transmitted one-to-one."

Again, one is left with the strong impression that Wanshi may have hit the target, but Dogen scored a bulls-eye.

In sitting-Zen, hitting of the target means practice/experience of the same state that Gautama Buddha practiced/experienced under the bodhi tree.

That target is unknowable to me; it is not a target that is susceptible to me aiming for it directly -- although the words of past teachers, and the living example of living teachers, are available to point me in the right direction.

It seems to me that Master Dogen's rules of sitting-Zen for everybody are designed to guide me -- a person of poorly integrated vestibular reflexes and faulty vestibular functioning, who is liable by himself to miss every target -- first to allow the vestibular system naturally to quieten down, and then to allow the vestibular system to direct the body naturally to open up (and not only intellectually), so that even I might become a target that is available for Guatama Buddha's enlightenment, partially and temporarily, to hit.

Master Dogen wrote the first edition (Shinpitsu-bon) of his Rules of Sitting-Zen for Everybody, when he was still in his twenties. From where I sit, that edition already hits the target just about as well as any words can. But, evidently not satisfied with his earlier effort, Master Dogen revised this work into another edition (Rufu-bon), which is the one presented on my web-page.

I have been endeavoring above to clarify why, in wanting to hit the target for O|B Pete, Conrad, et al, I am going to fall back on a literal exposition of Master Dogen's own words.

So, after another unduly lengthy pre-amble, here goes:

FU: universally.
"Buddhism is an international religion," someone once said. Mmmm. "The Buddha's teaching is universal" may be more like it. A problem of
Japanese- English translation? Maybe.
Universal means for all, for everybody, for all manner of celestial, human, and infernal beings. For MT, CB, OB, J&T. For all true amateurs -- for all who truly love sitting-zen. Also for non-amateurs, for professional monks who ignorantly believe themselves to belong to a group called "the Soto Sect" founded by Master Dogen. For new recruits, seasoned warriors, and broken veterans of the US marine corps. Also for those guys shooting from the other side. For east-coast Jewish lawyers. For west coast Buddhist punks. For people suffering from any form of vestibular problem, however extreme or mild. Nobody is excluded. Not me, not you, not him or her. Neither us, nor them.
KAN: to recommend
ZAZEN: (one word) sitting-dhyana, sitting-zen.
GI: rule, standard method.
"Rules of Sitting-Zen for Everybody."

ZEN: good
AKU: bad, evil
O: object particle
OMAWAZU: don't think
"Don't think of good and bad."
I think Master Dogen might tell us, Pete, along with William Shakespeare, that we are not really inherently bad, but thinking makes us so. But, yes, thinking does make us so. And it is not always so easy to stop such thinking -- because such thinking sometimes has its basis in vestibular dysfunction. As I mentioned before, people with poorly integrated Moro reflexes usually suffer from low self-esteem, which they may disguise in myriad ways. If the cause of low self-esteem is vestibular, there is no way for psychological counselling to get to the root of the problem.

ZE: right, correct, true
HI: wrong, incorrect, false
O: object particle
"Don't care about right and wrong."
The right side of an argument can be a very restricting place to be -- recognition of which is reflected in the old gypsy curse. I think the consciousness that Master Bodhidharma expressed to Emperor Wu as "true wisdom being subtly all-encompassing" was not too unfocused, but not too focused either. Similarly, in connection with Alexander work, Patrick Macdonald said something along the lines of that if you are careful you will never get anywhere; if you are careless you might. Knowing you as I do, Conrad, I think that you might be liable to err on the side of carefulness. There are good teachers I have been fortunate to know who have not always been careful and correct, but who have known a bit about what freedom is. I think that in the vipassana tradition, Ajahn Sumedho, who is reknowned for his good sense of humour, may be one such example -- although I haven't met him in person, but only listened to some tapes of his talks.

ANI .... N YA: How could it be... ?
ZA: sitting
GA: lying down, reclining
KAKAWARU: to have to do with, to be connected with
"How could [this approach to sitting-Zen] have to do with sitting and lying down?"
Both in Buddhist practice and in Alexander work, we are liable to go around all day subtly trying to be right, carefully practicing Buddhist mindfulness or dutifully organizing ourselves by means of our Alexander directions. I think that Master Dogen wants to point us beyond all that, to a condition of greater ease and freedom.

BODAI: bodhi; the Buddha's enlightenment. Short for the Sanskrit phrase anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, supreme, integral, full awakening.
O: object particle
GUJIN SURU: to perfectly realize, to reach the limit of, to get to the bottom of
SHUSHO: practice-experience
NARI: is
"[Sitting-zen] is the practice-experience that gets right to the bottom of the Buddha's enlightenment."
The Buddha's enlightenment is to sitting-Zen as the flag is to golf. If a teacher tells you it is not important to get there, it might be because the teacher is encouraging you to attend to the means rather than the end, to keep your eye on the ball, or it might be because he hasn't yet truly understood the subject he is trying to say something about.

CHI: to know, to recognize intellectually
KEN: to see, to have a view
NO: particle
SAKI: before
KISOKU: criterion
"a criterion before knowing and seeing" -- Master Dogen pointed to something more simple and primitive, and yet more truly powerful in bringing about real change, than intellectual knowledge and the visual sense. Experience in Alexander work leads me to believe, with Conrad, that this something has to do not only with the autonomic nervous system but also, more pivotally, with the way that a person's relates with gravity -- a vestibular problem. My Alexander head of training, Ray Evans, would sometimes describe Alexander work as "vestibular re-education." Ten years later, I am just beginning to glimpse the profundity of what Ray understood.
It is my stupidity to expect people who haven't experienced this work of "vestibular re-education," to get a sense of what it is about, just from what I have been writing about the vestibular system. I am sorry about this stupidity on my part, but I can't help it -- as a teacher I always have this impatient tendency. Once I have understood something, I find it difficult to understand why others can't get it straight away too, as soon as I explain it to them.
Some of the thoughts expressed by MT and J&T, while impressive at a certain level, are more representative of the usual thoughts of intelligent, educated people in our culture -- more based on psychology/philosophy rather than understanding of the centrality of the vestibular system. The comments of Pete and Conrad may be missing of the target, but I think they are missing of the true target. That is why I felt so excited and gratified when I read them on Thursday night.

ZA: sitting
YORI: from
TATSU: to rise, stand up
SOTSU; hurried
BO: violent
NARU BEKARAZU: should not be
"If you rise from sitting.... do not be hurried and violent."
What is the difference between (a) allowing a spontaneous action (which may involve extremely rapid and energetic movement), as an appropriate response to a given situation, and (b) giving way to a violent emotional reaction which is not appropriate?
How is it that some people, even in the heat of combat, or even under the spotlight of a musical performance, can appear to have time and to be very calm? I think of a great martial artist I have watched in training, generating incredible power at the punching board without much apparent effort, and of a virtuoso concert pianist I know.
I think that this man and this woman, have established, through diligent and regular training, clear pathways through which they are able to send energy strongly and with a minimum of fuss, with a minimum of leakage. So their actions, even when a lot of energy is expended in a very short space of time, have an air of unhurried effortless ease.
Gudo would say that such people are able to keep their autonomic nervous system balanced at all times. But I think it may be more accurate to say that the key factor is how well or poorly the Moro reflex is able to be integrated in the given situation. If the Moro reflex is well integrated, the sympathetic nervous system is able to access large reserves of extra energy without too many adverse vestibular side-effects, such as losing the head.
I started trying in earnest to be such a person 30 years ago, when I began training in the Japanese martial art, karate-do. After 30 years of endeavour, I haven't succeeded at all in becoming such a heroic individual. Rather, I am easily liable to be defeated by a trip to the supermarket. But I think that I have begun to understand a little what the major obstacle has been, why I am so prone to losing my head in unfamiliar surroundings.

BUTSU: Buddha, one who is awake
BODAI: bodhi, the enlightenment of a buddha
NI: object particle
GATTO SURU: This is a compound of two characters. If I remember rightly, GATSU means to fit, to bring together (as in GASSHO, joining palms), and TO means to hit the target.
"Accord with the enlightenment of the buddhas."
How to spring the body free is a vestibular question. It is useless to guess at the answer before truly understanding the question. Just to stay with the question is difficult enough.