My storehouse having been burnt down, nothing obstructs my view of the bright moon.
– Mizuta Masahide
In Zen, they sometimes talk about taking the backward step.
And as so often, it is a metaphor, and it’s also the description that’s close to the immediate experience of it – at least for me.
The forward step is going into familiar stories and images, fueled by familiar emotions and identities. It’s a very familiar territory, and it feels like tightening a knot. It’s an escape from uncomfortable sensations, emotions, images and thoughts. It’s a distraction. It’s an attempt to run away.
And the backward step is to open to what’s here, meet the discomfort that’s here, notice it’s already opened to, welcome it, find what it’s deepest wish is for, invite it to notice what it really is. And it is to notice the images and thoughts that’s here, and inquire into these to find what’s more true for me.
The first is experienced as a forward step because it’s often very familiar, it’s what I have learned to do from our families, friends and culture. It’s also a forward step because it takes me “away” from what’s really going on for me.
The second is experienced as a backward step because it’s – at least at first – more unfamiliar to me, and it brings me towards what’s here – the contraction, the sensations, the images and thoughts as images and thoughts.
Something very simple about the gateless gate:
When I am caught up in thoughts about time and space, confusion and awakening, a me and I, there appears to be an I that is now confused, in the past was more awake, in the future can awake, and is not as awake as some others out there. It all seems and feels very real and true. The gate leading from confusion to clarity seems real and true.
When there is more clarity – when images of time and space, confusion and awake, a me and I, an inner and outer world, a gate from confusion to clarity are recognized as images, happening within and as awareness, it all looks a bit different. It’s all appearances and experiences within and as awareness, including a me and I that is confused or clear, confusion and clarity, and a gate leading from confusion to clarity.
So being caught up in and taking these thoughts as real and true, there is certainly the appearance of time, a me and I, confusion and clarity, and a gate to pass through. It all feels very real and substantial. Passing through this gate, it’s all revealed as happening within and as awareness. It’s all the play of awareness. Spirit taking on all these different forms, and temporarily identifying as a me and I, and taking thoughts of confusion and clarity etc. as real and true, making it all appear real and true to itself. It’s the infinite temporarily experiencing itself as finite, from the “inside” of all of these ideas, and then again noticing itself as infinite.
So there is a gate since it’s experienced as real and true. And there is not a gate, since it’s all happening within and as awareness. And as capacity for all of this – awareness and it’s infinite forms and appearances.
It’s a gateless gate.
Take the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.
– Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi
Dogen mentions taking the backward step.
It seems that I just wrote about one of these backward steps: Noticing and connecting with the fear that’s here, behind unease, tension, discomfort etc.
The forward step, the habitual step for many of us, is the recoil from the fear, and instead go into reactive emotions, tension, seeking comfort, over-thinking and so on. And the backward step is to instead notice and connect with this fear.
Another backwards step is The Work. Here, the forward step – the habitual one for many of us – is to take the belief and run with it, fuel it as it leads to more thoughts, emotions, a life in the world. The backward step is to notice the belief, write it down, and take it to inquiry to see what’s there.
Yet another is sense field inquiry. Or even, in a sense, ho’oponopono. Or one of the many other practices which invites us to look at what’s really here, or reverse a process of going into and fueling beliefs.
Of course, what Dogen talked about was zazen.
I just spent three weeks at a Zen center and am reminded of what I already knew from experience: There is no substitute for structured training with a competent teacher.
Since I have written about the dark night more lately, I can add that I suspect that the processes inherent in a dark night (switches into the opposite end of polarities, disowned voices surfacing, disidentifying with familiar identities and viewpoints) happens in such a setting as well, but often in a more stable and slightly easier way. The setting provide support and stability through the schedule, community and teacher, and the sitting provide space for it all to unfold and pass through. Without such a structure, it can go a bit haywire – loss of health, friends, ability to function etc. – as I know from own experience. Of course, there are unique and valuable lessons available within and outside of a traditional structure.
Here is a classic Zen question/koan:
What’s hearing the sounds?
Or… What’s standing? What’s walking?
As with any question, the asking and exploration is what’s important, and whatever is “found” is not really it. There is always further to go.
I am finally getting around to listen to some of the talks of Shinzen Young, and it is easy to understand why I have heard universally good things about him. He seems very clear, and has a very comfortable “human packaging” as well.
Live up to your attainment with care.
– Sixth Patriarch
Here is yet another way to appreciate this quote….
When I inquire into a belief and find what is more true for me, can I live up to those insights with care?
Can I notice the symptoms of again attaching to the story as true? What did I find when I inquired into it intially, and how would it be to live from those insights here and now? What happens if I live one or more of the turnarounds in this situation? What do I find if I explore it again, here now, in a fresh way?
Live up to your attainment with care.
– Sixth Patriarch
A few more things about this….
I can use a more yang or yin approach to live up to my attainment with care. A yang approach may be: don’t not allow yourself to fall into old patterns. (Don’t think you are absolutely right, protect a viewpoint etc.) While a yin approach may be to simply notice the symptoms of identifying with a viewpoint, and then find what is more true for me. Can I find the freedom to use one or the other, or both, depending on what seems most helpful in the situation?
Also, living up to your attainment means to live with integrity, to live from absolute and relative truths. When I live from relative truths, I live in ways that seem the most sane, mature, wise and kind, even in a conventional sense. And living from absolute truth is to remind myself of what I really am, and that there is no absolute truth inherent in any story or viewpoint. I use stories as practical guidelines for attention and action, chose the stories that seem the most helpful and appropriate in the situation, in the context of don’t know.
Live up to your attainment with care.
– Sixth Patriarch
In this koan (see the full text below), Myo awakened. (Reality awakened to itself, awakened from temporarily taking itself to be Myo.)
And after awakening, there is the process of living from it with care. It can easily be obscured, and that happens as soon as we take any story as true or identify with any viewpoint.
As Byron Katie says, we are awakened – or not – to a thought. The thought that is here now.
Hence, you should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear.
– Dogen from Enlightenment Unfolds (1999)
What does it mean to take the backward step?
I noticed the symptoms of solidifying a story, taking it as real. I noticed a solidified sense of a separate I, a center located in space, boundaries appearing as real, slight unease, tension, sense of precariousness, a viewpoint to defend, and so on. It was just the beginning movements, but still quite noticeable.
I could see that one option is to enhance, elaborate, support and defend the story, making it appear even more true. This is the forward step and it solidifies the story, and the sense of a separate I, even more.
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: “The flag is moving.”
The other said: “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”
– The Gateless Gate #29
The wind and flag are moving in my own world of images. There are perceptions and then an overlay of images telling me it is a flag moving in, or being moved by, the wind. It is all happening within my own world of images. When I recognize that, there is the possibility of not taking my own world of images as substantial and real. It is very helpful to use an imagined overlay, but also good to notice it is all happening within my own world of images.
An ox passes through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t it’s tail pass through?
This is a koan that has come up for me now since it reflects immediate experience.
The ox passes through the window. The world and this human self is recognized, in immediacy, as awakeness itself. As no thing appearing as something.
Yet the tail does not pass through. There is still identification with the doer and observer. Even as the doer and observer is recognized as awakeness itself, even as it is recognized as a gestalt made up of sensations and images, there is still some remaining identification there.
Buddhist teachers like to give surprising answers to the question what is Buddha?
Three pounds of flax seed. A shit covered stick.
And sometimes, just twirling a flower.
It may sound clever. Or cute. Or confusing. Or even deep.
But it can be very simple.
Each of these – flax seed, shit, twirling a flower – is awakeness itself.
The question is, what is Buddha? And the answer is literal, pointing directly to the Buddha. To a form that is awakeness itself.
It is the simplest, most direct answer possible.
It is common in Zen to say that shikantaza – just sitting, choiceless awareness – is not practice.
We are not practicing in preparation for anything, or to get somewhere. Shikantaza itself is the real thing. It is what we are noticing itself.
It is awakeness noticing itself. This timeless now within, to and as which everything happens.
In that sense, shikantaza is not a practice.
Yet there is also a practice element in shikantaza, which shows up in two ways.
First, it is the practice of shifting into what we are noticing itself.
Attention is absorbed on the inside of thoughts, it is noticed, and there is a shift back into just sitting. This practice happens on the cushion, often several times during a sitting period.
And this practice on the cushion is also a practice for daily life. We practice shifting into what we are noticing itself on the cushion, and then bring it into daily life.
For a few years in my life, there was what I came to call “instant karma”. I would go into judgment about someone, fueling a sense of being right and a separate I, and then, days, hours or often minutes later, I would find myself in the same position as the one I had judged, sometimes in a quite literal way. It was a great way of learning, and very humbling.
It is always true that I am what I see in others, but it is not always so easy to notice. It may happen in a quite different form and area of life. So when it happens in a more literal way, it is harder to overlook. (That more literal form can be experienced as another flavor of synchronicity.)
Over the last year or so, I have had some stories going about people making noise during sitting practice, especially since I am used to the relative quietness of the Zen zendo, and have been going to more adveita type groups who tend to be less strict in their meditation instructions. (In Zen, sitting still and not making a sound is a pretty standard guideline, and the monitor will often remind folks if they don’t follow it, sometimes by a loud shout.)
So yesterday, when I finally did a mini sesshin (Zen retreat), I found myself as the by far most noisy one. I have brewed on a germ for several days, and the main symptom is a persistent and unstoppable dry cough. I coughed and swallowed incessantly, and on top of it all had a very growly stomach at times. (The swallowing and talkative stomach from sucking on Fisherman’s Friends to alleviate the couching.)
I found myself in the exact role I had judged others for being in, and was helpless in changing it. All I could do was to find some peace with it, and allow it to work on me. To wear down old habits, soften me, to wear down and expand my identity as someone who is quiet and follows strict zendo guidelines. To feel it, take it in.
It also helped me take another look at noisy folks in the zendo. For seasoned practitioners, it either doesn’t matter or is actually a benefit. Any sound just become part of what is happening, and I also find that sharp sounds, such as a cough, helps me stay alert and awake. And if it is annoying, that too becomes part of the practice. It is just part of what is arising.
Or we can take a closer look at it. What happens when there is an experience of being annoyed? What happens if I resist the experience, try to push it away? What happens if I fully allow it, as it is? And what is annoyance? Where do I find it? Do I find it outside of a sensation and a story about that sensation? If annoyance is part of the content of experience, coming and going as any other content of experience, what it is that does not come and go? And what am I?
But for beginners, it may be different. For them, it may just be distracting.
Kazuaki Tanahashi is in town, and I had the opportunity to go to an excellent presentation yesterday on Dogen, and an ink brush presentation today at the art museum.
One of the stories he told today was about John Cage who apparently was influenced by a D. T. Suzuki comment about Zen being complete freedom. Cage had taken it in a more western sense, as a freedom from any rules and traditions, and went on to create some amazing and innovative music.
It was a misunderstanding on his part, of course, as the Zen form of freedom is quite different (although can include the form it took for Cage). Tanahashi commented that misunderstandings are sometimes more interesting.
I can see how that is true in a few different ways.
It is true in that it can lead to some quite different and refreshing perspectives that can lead to new insights for everyone.
It is true in that it gives the person an opportunity to project, notice and get familiar with and explore something alive for them. (John Cage obviously had that form of freedom brewing in him, and took the D.T. Suzuki quote as an opportunity to support it and bring it out in his life.)
It is true in that it is an invitation to notice it as a projection, especially when we realize it is a misunderstanding.
And it is true in that it still leaves the conventional/intended understanding to be discovered. This is interesting in itself, and the process of discovering it can be interesting as well.
In Zen and other traditions, they talk about leaving no trace, or the man that casts no shadow or leaves no footprints in the snow.
This can be understood in several ways, and I am probably aware of only a few.
In a worldly sense, it means leaving no trace ecologically and socially. To leave our ecosystems and society to our children and decedents in no worse condition than it was for us. This is the ecological and generational sense of leaving no trace.
It can also mean leaving no trace as a guest, or in one’s own home, in terms of cleaning up after oneself, and here also leave the house in no worse condition than when we entered. This is the politeness sense of leaving no trace.
In a different sense, it can mean leaving no trace in terms of the dynamics and processes of this human self, or those this human self participate in. Instead of resisting these processes, we can allow them fully and even amplify them, seeing where they lead and what they ask of us and have to show us. We could say that this is the Process Work meaning of leaving no trace.
And finally, it can mean leaving no trace in terms of not being caught up in identification with content of awareness, or as Byron Katie says, to not be at war with what is. Identification is released from stories, so also with resistance, which allows the struggle and drama to go out of it. This human self is allowed to live its own life, as it does anyway. This is the nondual sense of leaving no trace.
What is the truth in the reversal of this statement? In what way is leave traces true?
In our human life, we do leave traces. Whatever we do has social and ecological ripple effects, and we are aware of only a very few of them. So by bringing more awareness, information and experience to this, we can aim at producing ripple effects that are more likely – in our best guess – to support life rather than harm it. We leave traces anyway, so why not bring as much attention to it as possible. Why not be a little more consciously engaged.
There is another way of playing with the initial sentence: don’t leave traces of no traces. When I make a big deal out of leaving no trace, then that in itself is leaving a trace. Again, just something to notice.
In ancient days an old woman made offering to a hermit over a period of twenty years, and one day she sent her sixteen-year-old niece to take food to the hermit, telling her to make advances to him and to see what he would do. So the girl lay her head on the hermits lap and said, how is this?
The hermit said: The withered tree is rooted in an ancient rock in bitter cold during winter months. There is no warmth, no life.
The girl reported this to her aunt, and the old woman said: That vulgarian! How outrageous! To think that I have made offerings to him for twenty years!
So she drove the hermit away and burnt down his cottage.
Zen, in my limited experience, is of course about awakening in the traditional sense, the realization of no I with an Other. But it is equally much about becoming more fully human, and how the practice before awakening, and the awakening itself, allows us to be more fully, deeply and richly human.
In the beginning, and depending on what teachings we are exposed to and practices we engage in, it can appear as the two are somehow in conflict. But after a while, and even right away with the right teachings and practices, we can see very clearly how they are not only aligned, but support each other. When we deepen into one, we can deepen further into the other.
Including both not only makes the path much more enjoyable, and allows us to get something out of it even if there is not a stable awakening of Big Mind, but it also allows Big Mind – however clearly it has awakened to itself – to express itself more fully, richly and fluidly through our human self.
It helps who we take ourselves to be, before awakening. And it helps what we find ourselves to always be to express itself more fully and richly, following awakening. (Big Mind always expresses itself fully and perfectly, whether it is awake to itself or not, and no matter what shape the human self is in, but there is still a difference in how maturely, richly and fluidly it is expressed through our human self.)
To use God language, we can say that all is God, no matter what, and it is all God expressing and exploring itself. But there is a difference in whether it is awake to itself or not. And there is a difference in how healed, mature and developed the human self is that it is awake (or not) to itself through. Why focus on just one?
In this case, the test was not only how attached the monk still was to beliefs and identities, which is the awakening aspect, but also how fluidly any awakening and release from beliefs and identities was expressed. The monk failed in both respects.
As with any koan, this one must be resolved by living it. It is never resolved by insight alone, however clever, even if it comes from a clear and stable awakening.
Ikkyu, that crazy monk, knew this:
The old woman was bighearted enough
To elevate the pure monk with a girl to wed.
Tonight if a beauty were to embrace me
My withered old willow branch would sprout a new shoot!
A good topic over at Thoughts Chase Thoughts: Buddhism is not about becoming a good person, but becoming a human being.
And really, it is about both. It is about deepening into our humanity, as it is, and as it reveals itself and matures when not resisted. And it is about living from ethical guidelines, from the empathy that naturally emerges from embracing the fullness of our own humanity, and from the inherent goodness revealed behind narrow beliefs and identities.
By deepening in our embrace of the fullness of who we are, as human beings, there is a release of resistance to any of it and also a release of beliefs and identities. This opens for a recognition of our shared humanity, and of ourselves and others, which in turn tends to lead to a natural empathy which spills over into our lives. And this release of beliefs and identities also invites us to notice what we are.
Exploring what we are, untouched by stories, there is a fuller allowing and a wider embrace of who we are, as human beings. And there is also an uncovering of the inherent compassion and wisdom in what we are, this awake void and form, noticing itself, even while operating through this one particular human self.
And by following ethical guidelines throughout this process, we are more likely to stay out of trouble and be less of a nuisance to others in a conventional way, and it also helps us deepen into who and what we are. Ethical guidelines helps us notice what is happening, what comes up in us and how we relate to it. They serve as a pointer for recognizing our shared humanity and ourselves in others. And they mimic how we naturally live our lives within the context of Big Mind/Big Heart awake to itself.
This is something that is (I assume) clear to folks who have done some meditation practice, and (apparently) can be confusing to those outside looking in.
I just read an anthology of essays by and interviews with the Norwegian philosopher Arne NÃ¦ss, where an interviewer refer to Zen as a philosophy of no-doing, which he (strangely enough) took to mean never getting involved in any sort of social action, and also watched a movie involving the French resistance, and the combination of the two brought it up.
When there is a reference to allowing in a meditation context, it means allowing experience… not resisting experience (including the resistance itself!) This is very different from allowing and not resisting circumstances in the world, such as social injustice and violence against living beings.
The two go perfectly well together. The Germans invade France, maybe kill or torture friends and family, and great sadness and anger may come up, and I can fully allow those experiences. To resist these experiences creates drama and suffering. To not resist them allows for clarity and a sense of ease, even in the midst of the intensity of the experiences and the situation.
What arises may also involve active resistance to the situation that is going on, including actively resisting the German invasion in different ways. In fact, not resisting experience is likely to allow strong empathy to emerge, within more clarity and less drama, which in turn translates to more effective actions in the world.
So there is a big difference between resistance to experience, which only creates suffering for myself, and active resistance to and engagement with circumstances, which may arise from compassion and clarity.
As long as there is still a sense of a separate self hanging around, there will inevitably be inflation. Or more precisely, the inherent neutrality is split into a sense of being better and worse than the rest of the world.
Inflation can especially easily happen when the soul level surfaces in its many forms… as alive presence, indwelling God, luminosity, fertile darkness, luminous blackness, or in whatever other form it takes. On the inherent neutrality of all this, stories are placed, and they are inevitably believed in, to some extent at least… oh – I must be special since this is happening to me, finally – all my years of practice is paying off!, I know something others don’t, I am at a more advanced level than others, and so on. As usual, the variations are endless. And it will happen, even if we know, intellectually, the illusion and mistake that is behind it.
Technically, inflation is when the “ego” takes on something as its own, when it really doesn’t belong to the ego. The term “ego” here means (a) a belief in the story of a separate self, and (b) that sense of a separate self is then placed upon this human self. So all that is happening is that what occurs outside of that boundary is, to some extent, placed within the boundary, as if what is inside somehow possesses, or can take credit for, what is outside.
In Zen and some other traditions, they deal with it by not talking about it, and if a student brings it up, the teacher will ignore it, or (figuratively or literally) give the student a smack with the stick.
It works, to some extent, but is also a crude way of dealing with it. Most of the time, it just creates more confusion for the student.
To me, it seems more effective to (a) allow the inflation (it is there anyway, so may as well allow it), and (b) inquire into it to find what is already more true.
Here is a small addition to the initial post on Bankei’s reminder of not siding with oneself.
I side with myself when I side with my beliefs and identities. And I don’t side with myself when I investigate these beliefs and identities, and find what is already more true for myself… the truth in the reversals of the initial story, and the inherent neutrality of the situation.
A more accurate way of putting it is that I am not siding with my beliefs and identities.
And by not siding with my beliefs, I am actually siding with myself… with what is already more true for me. With the natural fluidity of mind, seeing each story as only a relative truth, receptive to the truths of each of the turnarounds.
Instead of don’t side with yourself, the slogan could be side with your(true)self! Or, if we have Hindu inclinations, side with your Self…! But that would be confusing for most people.
Bankei was a good teacher. Knowing that we naturally identify with our beliefs and take them as I or me, he said don’t side with yourself (with what you take yourself to be). He was free to meet people where they are at.
Bankei advised to not side with yourself.
When I am in the grips of a belief or an identity, I am siding with myself. I believe something is true, and dammit if I am not going to protect it, defend it, come up with reasons why it is obviously true, and so get even more entrenched and stuck in it.
The alternative is to not side with myself, in different ways.
I can notice a belief or an identity being triggered… with its sense of something to protect, stress, righteousness, going into further stories…
Right there, I may find myself refraining from fueling it further and acting blindly on it.
Or I may find that the grip on it loosens, allowing my mind to be more receptive to the truth in the turnarounds, and my heart more receptive to the situation, bringing a sense of connection with myself and other (if another is involved).
And I can then, when the situation allows, take time to investigate the belief (and identity) more in depth. Is it true? What happens when I hold onto the belief? If it is not there? What are the truths in its reversals?
That is the real not siding with oneself: going outside of the boundaries of the initial story and identity, in a very gentle way, seeing what is already more true for me… the truth of what happens when the belief is held onto, the truth in its reversals, even tasting the situation as inherently neutral when the stories cancel each other out.
I have no dharma to give. I only cure diseases and undo knots.
Followers of the Way who come from everywhere, try not to depend on anything.
There is no Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization.
What are you so hotly chasing? Putting a head on top of your head, you blind fools.
Your head is right where it should be.
– Lin Chi
This quote from the Chinese Zen teacher Lin Chi perfectly captures the insights that emerge through Byron Katie’s inquiry process.
When we believe in thoughts, we put a head on to of our head. We get caught up in everything that comes out of believing in thoughts, such as circular thoughts, elaborate abstract constructs, justifications, and judgment, blame, shame, guilt anger, sadness, etc. We create our own little hell, just from believing in thoughts.
When we inquire into our beliefs, we cannot take them seriously anymore. What is revealed is the nature of mind, the spacious clarity, the natural and unbound wisdom and compassion.
This head is right where it should be – and it is always there, even when covered up by beliefs in thoughts.
There is no belief in an abstract thought/idea of Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization. There is only a direct experience and living of that which these terms point to.