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.


Post a Comment

<< Home