This is my second post on three attitudes which are fundamental to Zen training and practice. In the first one, I discussed the teaching poem of Shen Hsui, the “loser” in the famous, although probably mythical, poetry contest which took place in the latter part of the 7th century in China. I call this the “no mirror” attitude in contrast to Shen Hsui’s “mirror wiping” attitude.
Here’s the poem”
“The body is not the the Bodhi tree
Nor the mind a mirror bright
Since from the first no thing exists
Where can dust alight?”
This poem emanates from the tradition of the prajna paramita sutras, which are important in our tradition, since we chant the shortest of them, the heart sutra, every day. This group of sutras focus on deconstructing all of our beliefs about everything.
Here’s a little background on Hui Neng. He grew up in a more southerly area than Shen Hsui and is considered the founder of the southern school of Chan.
His father, an exiled administrator, died when Hui Neng was three. This plunged the family into poverty, and Hui Neng began supporting himself as a woodcutter. He was at the market one day and heard someone chant from the Diamond Sutra, “Awaken to the mind which does not abide anywhere.”
Apparently, he did just that!
Wanting to deepen this awakening he learned that he could study/practice at Hung Jen’s monastery in northern China. Hung Jen recognized his great potential. However, since he was both young and illiterate, he assigned him to the rice-hulling shed instead of sitting with other monks in the meditation hall.
Hui Neng knew nothing of the poetry contest until he heard a monk chanting Shen Hsiu’s verse. He asked another monk to take him to the wall and read the verse to him. He then asked the monk to write his verse, which I have just quoted, on the wall.
In his poem, Hui Neng, in contrast to Shen Hsui, is suggesting that a path which leads us somewhere other than where we are right now is of no value. Reality cannot be captured by any concepts. In line with the prajna paramita sutras, he points out that awakening is not about traveling from here to there. It’s not about working hard and checking our investment each day. Questions like, “Was my zazen sincere, or was I just spaced out the whole time? Am I working hard enough? Shouldn’t my mind be calmer by now?” are irrelevant. All we have to do is stop dividing things up through our thinking. Whereas the first poem promotes different forms of dust wiping meditation, he second poem indirectly implies that all we need to do is let go of everything we know and learned. Then we see clearly that our divisions, categorizations, and judgments are all mere fabrications.
Whereas Shen Hsui’s form of meditation is one in which we sit still, for Hui Neng whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down makes absolutely no difference. Even the labels which delineate sitting, standing, or lying down are just constructs and all constructs are fictional. If we pay attention with bare awareness- stopping, looking, and listening to whatever we encounter before our mind slices and dices or tries to remove dusts- the natural activity of what my first teacher Suzuki Roshi called “Big Mind” manifests itself.
“If you want to tame your sheep or cow, give it a large pasture,” he said.
Both of the poems imply that we can empty ourselves of the three most prevalent dusts of greed, anger, and delusion. The Bright Mirror poem suggests there’s a path from being blinded by these to enlightenment. The No Mirror approach is much simpler: Just let go of all the ideas you’ve accumulated about getting rid of dusts and come back to what is before you contaminate with any overlay of thought.
But with no path to do this, practitioners might easily become discouraged or confused.
When I teach meditation, I focus on the value of moving between focused dust wiping and bare awareness. For many years, I have moved between these two in my own meditation, often beginning with a focus and then when I get settled, broadening beyond it.
I would like to finish this piece by briefly mentioning a limitation of each of the attitudes expressed in these poems. Shen Hsui’s approach encourages competition with yourself or others to clean your mirror. It can result in a narrow, judgmental meditation which never sinks into Big Mind since as, I have suggested before, it is the nature of the mind to project memories into the present and future. Furthermore, the dust wiping approach seems to empower those people who are “good at it” and disempowers those who aren’t. On the other hand, Hui Neng’s approach suggests the discriminating mind is of little value, which is certainly not the case. Knowledge, reasoning, logic, and scientific pursuit are features of being human that have proven to be of great value. Any time we go too far in one direction at the expense of the other, our view of reality becomes distorted. Wholeness is lost.
In my third and last post, I’ll discuss one more attitude toward Zen practice which comes from the teaching of Dogen: the Shattered Mirror.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I discuss three attitudes from our tradition that inform our practice. In the next two or three posts I want to briefly review what I said there and elaborate on points I have thought about since the book was published six years ago.
The first two are poems come out of a fictionalized story from 8th century China. It takes place in Hung Jen’s monastery. This early Zen teacher is ready to appoint his eventual successor and calls on his monks to write poems to express their understanding.
The head monk, Shen Hsui, wrote a poem anonymously on the wall because he was afraid to fall short of his teacher’s expectations. This poem was received by his teacher somewhat positively. One translation reads: “The body is the bodhi tree; The mind the mirror bright; Be careful to wipe it clean; and let no dust alight.”
This poem harkens back more than a thousand years to the Theravada or “teaching of the elders.” We also find these instructions in the earliest Yoga scriptures and in European deep thinkers like William Blake with his famous statement, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
This is based on the belief that our natural state of mind is mirror-like and reflects everything within it. In our meditation practice, we patiently and persistently polish this mirror so that it reflects everything accurately. As a result, its luminosity penetrates everything. Sometimes the practice of mirror wiping, (which includes a commitment both to daily meditation as well a longperiods of sitting in retreats), can be both arduous and tedious, but if we have a goal and a clear direction, we keep at it.
Its roots are in Indian yogacara practice. Yoga means, “to yoke.” As we empty out all the gunk we carry around in our heads, we yoke ourselves to a spacious timelessness which includes all life.
Dust is always accumulating: our concepts, ideas, worries, and anxieties are always arising and darkening our vision. This past year has been like no other in most of our lives in the amount of dust it has stirred up. What’s been happening in our country has created a dust storm which has discolored all of our mirrors.
It’s been a year when many have needed a routine of focused meditation more than ever. There are so many “dust wiping” techniques you can use; whether it is watching or counting your breathing, scanning your body for places of stress of tension, repeating a phrase or mantra over and over as you sit, doing a loving-kindness meditation or even listening to a guided meditation app.
Often, I compare this “dust wiping” practice to learning to play a musical instrument. If you practice every day regardless of your level of success, sooner or later you will learn to wipe the dust away even after sitting for a short time. You may wonder how the poem which promotes this practice was the losing one. I will talk about this in my next post.
This post is about the following interchange between two Chinese Zen practitioners which supposedly took place in the 9th century. First, I will focus on Avalokitesvara, who is the subject of their discussion. Then, I will discuss the interaction between the two monks.
Blue Cliff Record, Case #89
Yunyan asked Daowu, “‘How does the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara use those many hands and eyes?”’
Daowu answered, “‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.”’
Yunyan said, “I understand.”
Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?”
Yunyan said, “‘All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only 80% of the answer.”
Yunyan said, “How would you say it, Elder Brother?”
Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who vows never to rest until he has freed all beings from their emotional suffering. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that he can only reach out to some of them. After struggling to meet the needs of so many, he gets a tremendous headache and his head splits into eleven pieces. Buddha then gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering and reach out to all of them. He tries to reach out to all those who need aid but finds that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Buddha comes to his aid and gives him a thousand arms to use to help folks.
With all these arms, hands, and in addition, eyes, he now can embrace everyone. Not knowing whether he will be effective at supporting or connecting, he reaches out. When he does this, he is not split by different thoughts about being good enough helper or how long it will take. He is just naturally extending himself. To do this effectively, he must allow his measuring, judging mind to descend into his heart so he can act from heart-mind.
With his new ability, he (or in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, she) now has the ability to reach out to everyone who needs support. And according to Daowu, she proceeds like someone in the middle of the night reaching out to adjust their pillow. In this situation our eyes are not enough, our ears are not enough, our thinking is not enough. Even the color of our pillow and its other features are irrelevant. To find our pillow we only need to do one thing: let go of our self-talk, which means letting go of the need to have things figured out or even to “know” anything. She just extends herself beyond the limitations of her knowledge or understanding.
This is not to imply that knowledge and understanding are unimportant. They are a vitally important component of who we are, but its only 80%, as Daowu suggests. Our ability to successfully reach out to someone whether we know or understand them is vast and unlimited.
I saw Suzuki Roshi reach out in this way on a number of occasions. Years ago, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a student continually overslept and missed the early meditation that was a mandatory part of the program. Those who were in charge of practice got together and based on their understanding of him, determined that he just wasn’t suited for a monastic situation and told Suzuki he should be kicked out. Suzuki listened to them and said “Donald has a very good heart and a deep desire to learn our way. I am going to make him my attendant.” The practice leaders scratched their heads. Didn’t he understand Donald’s obvious limitations? But As the months and years went on, this student became one of Suzuki’s most prominent and well-respected disciples.
Now I want to discuss Daowu and Yunyan a little more and the difference between the depth of understanding of each.
What do you think the difference might be in the understanding of Daowu and that of Yunyan? If Chinese lineage charts are correct about that early time period, both these fellows had the same teacher. A personal relationship between a student and his or her teacher has been one of the key distinguishing features of Zen since its beginning. There are a number of stories about Daowu, but Yunyan is less well known.
To reach beyond Yunyan’s 80% and be a fully functioning bodhisattva as Daowu was, I think we need to do three things:
First, we need to allow ourselves to sink into the great spaciousness of not knowing. Our ego operating system, which is vitally important to our well-being, is continually trying to know as much as possible to give us a feeling of security in an insecure world. But if we allow the thoughts which keep our system revved up, to slow down, our mind quite naturally descends into our heart. Then we can settle deeply into a kind of knowing which brings great clarity rather than confusion and we find that we can respond to someone’s pain with both compassion and wisdom.
Second, we need to fully bear witness to peoples’ suffering. By deeply listening to them and being there for them, our mind begins to descend into our heart. My friend, Patrick, before he took me on the first of many treks to reach out to folks in homeless camps, gave me one piece of simple advice. “If you completely focus on being with them, listening to them, paying attention to them with no hint of judgment or attempt to give advice they will begin to trust you.”
Most people who are in psychological pain don’t want or need to be fixed, don’t want us to look away, don’t want us to sink into despair about their situation or condition. But if we can empty out our thoughts entirely and be an undiluted presence for them, together we can work wonders. This means holding a space open, refusing to close our eyes, turn away, or use psychological mechanisms to distance ourselves from them or their situation. There’s no greater gift we can give someone than deeply listening to them from heart-mind.
The third thing we can do to manifest Avalokitesvara’s power is to do our best to act with lovingkindness toward everyone and everything. This seems like a tall order, but through our meditation practice, our mind naturally to descend into our heart time and time again. When this happens, we see/feel others’ suffering as not separate from ours without a trace of co-dependency. When we develop the capacity to embrace not knowing, we find that bearing witness easily follows and loving kindness emanates from these two. Lo and behold, we have developed the capacity to find our pillow in the dark.
This teaching seems to have fully penetrated Daowu’s psyche. He understands that Avalokitesvara models a connection to others that emanates from within and throughout his body, not just on its surface.
The more adept we become at reaching for our pillow, the more all the if’s, and’s, and but’s that circle through our minds subside. We have moved from the interdependent web of life as a good idea, to a description of who and what actually is. The haiku poet Issa feels this when he writes, Hey! Don’t swat: the fly wrings his hands on bended knees.
On the other hand, when we aren’t doing this, as the third ancestor Seng Tsan says, “Heaven and earth are torn apart.” Daowu isn’t necessarily a better person than Yunyan, but Yunyan’s mind hasn’t fully descended into his heart at the moment of their interchange and Daowu’s has. Are you ready to allow your own mind to make this same descent?
If you are a serious meditator, you have the potential to liberate a deep sense of happiness that comes when you’re your critical, complaining self drops into a great spaciousness. In my next pieces I want to discuss how this happens.
Even in times like we have experienced the last year, where stress around us and within us seems to have permeated everything, it is possible to do this. There’s a deep well of happiness which is waiting within each of us to burst out. In Buddhist terms this deep well is referred to as sukkha, which we fail to experience whenever it is covered over by suffering/dukkha.
Whenever human beings feel threatened, they focus on the negative because of the urge to survive. When we muster our energy to avoid harm, we have little left to act compassionately toward ourselves or others. The more we feel threatened the more we overlook our feelings of genuine connection with others and the world around us. Instead, we stay on edge to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge our own specific fears. When negative emotions are not acknowledged, our vision narrows, our intuition shuts down, we lose the ability to be reflective, and are likely to cause harm to ourselves or others. The best way to support this process is to make good use of the three-legged stool, buddha, dharma, and sangha or mentor/teacher, teaching, and community. This is similar to a good 12 step program. Without an effective sponsor, attention to specific steps in the program laid out in the Big Book or elsewhere, and support from a community of folks who are also recovering, our stool is likely to fall over. In meditation practice, it’s quite similar, although our recovery is from a more fundamental addiction, addiction to our inner dialogue.
I have worked with many people over the years to name and become intimate with the fears that keep their inner dialogue compulsively going, so they can be fully present to whatever they experience. This courageous unburdening through a supportive meditation routine has frees us to do what I call “enlightening delusion.” As Dogen says, “The ultimate paradox of Zen liberation lies in the fact that one attains enlightenment only in and through delusion itself, never apart from it.
First, we name our deluded fear as we relinquish our hold on any and all images of how things need to be, or should be, or might have been. By practicing not resisting what is over and over again, and saying “yes” to each feeling or emotion, we find we are able to both accept whatever’s happening regardless of how negative it is, and no longer suffering about this suffering.
A friend of mine was recently complaining about how rents in his neighborhood have soared in the last twenty years due to gentrification. “I can’t stand that our neighborhood has become so chi-chi. It shouldn’t be this way,” he said. He brought up both the increased gentrification of our neighborhood (which is also Zen Center’s) and the increase in crime. First, he ranted and raved about former then latter. Then he moved on to the city’s myopia to drivers’ winter needs by putting in so many bike lanes on streets when it’s too cold to bike half of the year or more. As he continued his rant, I began to feel exhausted.
How about just, “Yes, this is the way things are,” and if you remain upset, sponsor your upsetness. I am not suggesting being a doormat. Once we have fully accepted something, we can move on to decide if we want to try to modify it. “Yes, the neighborhood has become chi-chi and crime ridden and I feel sad about it, but I am going to do something to try to make it more livable.” There’s really no word that comes close to the warm, calming glow we can all feel when we fully embrace what is, which includes sponsoring (but not indulging) any and all related emotions that come up. Dogen calls this “cultivating and expressing parental or grandmotherly mind.”
In my last piece I discussed the first two dimensions of heart-mind (citta, in Sanskrit). As we open up more and more to each of these dimensions, we are able to rest quite naturally in heart-mind without getting all tangled up in our heads. The dimensions are: Physical; Mental; Emotional; Openness; Full/Empty.
Now I will discuss the last three.
There is an emotional-affective component to each of the stories we tell ourselves. Generally, there is an underlying current or mood which sustain our stories or from which they arise. If we open to this emotional landscape with our bare awareness practice, we may feel a spaciousness within and surrounding whatever story we are telling.
In 2020, many of us were carrying concealed emotional guns as a result of distress that arose from the pandemic combined with the physical and emotional turmoil within our country. I supported quite a few practitioners one-to-one last year who were upset to discover that their emotional guns were always cocked and ready to fire. Once they clearly and non-judgmentally saw this, they were able to put their emotional gun aside.
It is normal for our moods to change continually. In a dharma talk I gave just before Zen Center closed do the pandemic, I talked about my own mood that very morning. I woke up and saw the sun. I was delighted. Wonderful! My mood immediately lifted. Then the story arose: I’ll walk to the Zen Center this morning. It will feel great to get out in the fresh morning air and hear the birds. Or maybe I’ll ride my bicycle and go along the lake.
I got dressed, went downstairs, and began telling my wife my plan for the morning. “Tim, it’s really cold out there.”
The story I was telling was glued to my mood. As the sky turned grey, my mind turned gloomy. I was able to notice the coupling of my emotions and my thoughts. I chuckled and even guffawed, and all trace of emotional heaviness vanished.
This reminds me of a story from Tales of a Magic Monastery:
“Let me tell you something that happened on the last day of retreat. I told the guest master that I didn’t think I would be able to get back soon because I wouldn’t have time. He came right back at me with, “The problem isn’t TIME, it’s HEAVINESS.” He turned and went downstairs and came back with a little carpet. “Here take this. It’s a magic carpet. If you’ll just sit on it and let go of your heaviness, you can go anywhere you want. It’s not a question of time.”
I have come to know that this is true. People laugh at me when I tell them.
All right. Then stay there.”
The fourth dimension of heart-mind is openness. When bare awareness is present, nothing gets left out. This is the, “disappearing picture-frame” dimension. When the frame disappears, the picture includes everything. We begin to experience this openness as our non-judgmental, kind, attentiveness opens. We notice that we can experience fully our bodily sensations, our thoughts, and our emotions, letting them move through us with no resistance whatsoever. We are developing the ability to live our lives fully, without splitting off from any component of our experience.
We no longer shrivel up in the prison of our thought in which the world gets smaller and smaller. We no longer leave anything out.
As we open up to the first four dimensions in our meditation practice, our ego-identification starts to dissolve. We get a taste of interconnectedness.
When this happens, we quite naturally move through openness to full/emptiness, the fifth dimension. The full/emptiness dimension is uncharted territory, where form is none other than emptiness and emptiness constantly manifests as form. We realize that the seemingly tangible stuff of life is just dynamic movement; things are empty because there are no things to grasp on to.
Consciousness divides, separates, and reifies things. But everything is thoroughly pervaded by everything else. As the 7th century Chinese Zen master Seng-Ts’an, says, “One is no other than all; all no other than one.”
Chinese landscape paintings evoke the 5th dimension, the mystery of the great unknown. Generally, landscape paintings include a waterfall, mist, a steep mountain framed against a blue sky, and in the background a tiny human being. The fifth dimension may seem mysterious and ephemeral, but it’s the dimension in which our own heart-mind realizes that it is the heart-mind of the universe. When this happens, we completely dis-identify with the small being standing alone in the world, and instead feel the joy of being linked to everyone and everything. Like the tiny human figures in landscape paintings, we feel embraced by all life.
Once we have entered the openness dimension, we think we are ready to enter the fullness/emptiness dimension, but when we begin to move to a deeper level than openness, we tend to be gripped by anxiety or fear. We may ask ourselves, what will happen to us if ego dissolves? But there’s absolutely no need to worry. Already we are the heart-mind of the universe- ungraspable and uncharted, supported by form/emptiness- totally imbued with all life.
I was working with a practitioner last year who described the following:
“I was sitting in my office looking out the window when a hawk suddenly appeared against a cloudless blue sky. Watching the hawk soar, dive, and coast on the wind, suddenly slipped into the fifth dimension. I was in total awe! There was no gap between me, and the sky, and the hawk. There was no observer.”
That sounds wonderful,” I said. “Yes, it was. And then my iPhone rang,” he replied.
The Tang dynasty Zen teach Yumen said, “With realization, all things are one family. Without realization, all things are separate and disconnected.” When we still our mind and open up to heart-mind, we know all things as one family, just as my student did when he saw the hawk. Yumen added, “Without realization, all things are one family, too.” It doesn’t matter how much time we spend regretting the past or lamenting over my tragedies; we’re still the same interdependent universe. We are just not noticing it because we’re stuck in our own stuff.
The same student asked me how to have that experience again. I replied, “Forget about trying to have any kind of experience and just be.” Is it possible to just be on the track? The sights you see are ever-changing. The track has no origin and no destination. When we are just walking the track one step at a time, it’s not hard to open to fully to heart-mind, including all 5 of its dimensions. If you open beyond the 4th dimension, you may find a beautiful song arising from somewhere or nowhere... it doesn’t really matter.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher