when the body does what the body does


unicorn-lights

“In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the ending of the world and the path leading to the ending of the world.”  -AN 4.45

It always amazes me when I catch myself trying to run before I can walk.  It shouldn’t surprise me but it does.  With all this cushion time, retreats, sesshins, workshops, and gosh-knows-what that I take on in the pursuit of that one ineffable experience of BAM! YOU’RE ENLIGHTENED! one would think that I could jog a few steps on this path of purification.  Apparently not and the road rash on my mentally constructed nose is strong evidence of this.

In sangha, we are exploring the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Yet again!  I can’t get enough of it so each year I subject my sangha mates to another round of the body-et al.-in-the-body-et al.  This Sunday, I pointed out that this fathom-long body is all we need to know in order to lift each foot out of the mud.  “Don’t leave home without it!” I warned.  Yet, each day, we do.  In the hub-bub and brou-hah-ha of the drama of our moments, it fades into the background and is barely perceptible.  Safe to say, even my preaching the Good Word about being in the body as the body had little impact on my monkey mind as I was setting up chairs on yoga mats and placed my little finger between the chair leg and mat.

This time the body is quite forgiving, leaving me with a little blood blister. Other times it hasn’t been though I hesitate to place malicious or punitive intent in its lap. The body does just what the body does. It’s only when that monkey mind grabs the sensations that arise from contact – in this case between form and touch organ – that the show begins.

Well, it won’t hurt any of us to relearn the fundamentals of this walking practice again and again.  Even if it isn’t Zen-sounding.  This, I think is where the running before walking happens too.  In all the glam of Zen practice, we forget to master the basic stuff, the Suttas that came before the Sutras.  After all, how else to understand the Prajnaparamita without understanding the skandhas and the container in which they manifest.  But I’ll be the first to say how I love a good treatise on the interconnection of quantum physics and the Prajnaparamita.  For that, by the way, dig into Mu Soeng’s The Heart of the Universe which has one of the most articulate interweavings of the two threads of unknowing.

Still and all, for all that unknowing is the fruit of our practice, it doesn’t hurt to return over and over to the framework of knowing.  Body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind.  Even so, we have a tendency to rush into the conceptual tangles, the objects of mind, by wanting to know how, why this mind responds to the body the way it does.

The body does just what the body does.

So hard to accept.

This is a lovely presentation on the body/mind connection and the base of practice as mindfulness of the body as the body, in the body:  Mindfulness, visualized.

Also check out Bhante Gunaratana’s new book, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English.

the practice of stuckness

Tomorrow is the Harvest Moon.  It’s also known as the Fruit Moon which prompts the question: what have been the fruits of our practice?  What will we gather together with the intention that it nourish us through the cold, dark nights ahead?  If the state of my life at this point is any indication of my stewardship of my spiritual ground, I’d say winter holds promise of a meager diet.  Where did the time go?  What happened to the plantings of six months ago?

Not only has the wild heat of the Summer been unforgiving of the vegetable and flower gardens, this inner heat of dissatisfaction has left me parched in my practice.  It could be a good thing, I suppose: an opportunity to see the places where my character fractures and edges where my ego curls up and withers.  The fact that I don’t like it is irrelevant because once the whole ball of self-reflection and intense scrutiny gets rolling, there’s not much that will stop it.  And the universe helps it along too.

You remember Sprout who pounced his way into our home, leaving a trail of mashed houseplants and mangled Beanie Babies.  He’s now a year old and thriving.

Meet his doppelgänger, Mystery formerly known as No Name.

I came home one Friday evening to find Sprout unusually needy of attention.  His security blanket, Frank, had been away for a few a days and I reframed his utilitarian affections for me as an opportunity to bond.  Apparently, the practice of equanimity was bearing fruit, transforming the typical bitterness I feel about feline fickleness.  And then I wondered if I was having a spiritual emergency when I saw two Sprouts at my feet, asking to be picked up.  It took a moment, a fascinating moment during which I physically felt my brain trying to make the two one, forcing my eyes to reset to a previous configuration.  One not two.

Sadly, though not for No Name, truth always vanquishes delusion.  And now we are left with a mystery, not just about the cat but the manner in which she got into the house and took up residence.  But reside she will, and preside over the reconfiguration of four cats, two litter boxes, and a deferment of my long-desired rescue dog.  The practice of letting go is getting a workout too.

On the bookish front, I’m blessed with two amazing books.  The Existential Buddhist, Seth Segall’s Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings is a tour de force of 9 essays bringing together the Dharma and Western perspectives of mental health.  I had it set for review in October but Frank has absconded with it which reminds me to deepen my practice of generosity and also lock away my new purchases.  The second is by Practice of Zen blogger, Ben Howard: Entering Zen, a collection of Ben’s writings that are always a delight and a deep teaching.  The few chapters I’ve read remind me that there is power in a practice that is softly open and that some things crumble and collapse despite being well-placed and useful at the time of planting.  The third book is a bit of a curiosity called The Heart Attack Sutra by Karl Brunnhölzl.  I have no memory of purchasing this; like Mystery, it seemed to just show up – about the time I was considering cancelling my echo cardiogram and stress echo test because my practice of remembering my mortality doesn’t include fuzzy pictures of a pulsing heart.  (Actually, seeing my heart beat in real-time has to be one of the most profound moments of deep meditation I have ever experienced!)

So.  Yes.  Practice has been a struggle over the last months.  And yet, and yet I know this is precisely the form and purpose of practice: to sit with this discomfort of things out of rhythm and without rhyme.  Dukkha at its most seductive tells us to move away from this stuckness, insists there are more important things to do, critical time that cannot be wasted.  And that is the precise moment to turn into the vast emptiness of practice.

hearts that see the forest

I’ve been immersed in books lately.  More so than usual.  Unfortunately these are not books I’m reading but books that are arriving, arriving at the door.  Books to be reviewed, books to be read, books to be studied.  Chaplaincy books, poetry books, psychology books, Buddhist books – all clamouring for attention.  And dare I mention the pixelated books in my e-readers that are sending me subliminal messages via 3G?  I can skate by with some of these by scanning the text and getting a feel for the author’s message.  Others are denser woods to navigate through and I risk not seeing the forest through the trees.

In some genres more than others, seeing the trees without losing sight of the forest is important.  The specifics of the book are critical to understanding the teachings they impart.  They must be practiced to be embodied and only then does a reflection on them have legs.  In particular, every book about Buddhism is a book with which one practices.  I’ve yet to find a book of this genre that didn’t demand this singular, whole-hearted commitment from the reader.  So, I quiver in fear at the number of Buddhist-y books stacking up on my shelf – I cleared out a single shelf solely populated by Buddhism-books-to-be-reviewed – because there are not enough life-times to practice what is contained between the covers of these volumes.

Somewhat disheartened, I stumbled around the megalithic bookstore in town wishing every sheet of paper bound between glossy laminates would leap up and flap their way up through the vents in the ceiling.  I stared at volumes of books by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh – two of the most prolific authors.  I rolled glassy-eyeballs over titles that proclaimed liberation and peace were possible.  And I bought one of them.

I can justify this!  Really.  It comes to me unburdened by any publishing company’s publicity agent.  In fact, Parallax Press is rather firm in ignoring my offers to review Thich Nhat Hanh’s books despite the sycophantic waving of my brown Order of Interbeing jacket.  So, blessed by such ignominy, I feel free to recommend this book, unhampered by any need to please anyone.

Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist sutras and commentaries initially looks like a compilation of Thấy’s various sutra commentary books.  It’s not.  It is 608 pages of revised translations and new commentaries on key sutras.  The Anapanasati, Satipatthana, Knowing a better way to live alone (my favourite and a life-changer), Better way to catch a snake, On the Middle Way, On Happiness, Eight Realizations of the Great Beings represent the Pali Canon.

The Heart and Diamond sutras bridge us into the Mahayana teachings.  Each sutra is given a clearer translation and deeper treatment in commentary than the previous single volumes.  This is followed with a series of sections focused solely on practice.  New and detailed exercises for the Awareness of Breathing and the Four Establishments of Mindfulness sutras are available in this voluminous text along with histories of and other texts related to the sutras.  The commentaries of the Diamond and Heart sutras are vastly expanded and directly connected to everyday life.

There’s a contemplative feel to the writing (though I admit often having trouble getting into Thấy’s style) and it promises to challenge anyone attempting a sutra study.  If ever there was a book that qualified being called a Buddhist Bible, this might be it.  I’m looking forward to practicing with it over my lifetime.

on the art of losing one’s head

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara while moving through the deep chaos of renovations saw that form is emptiness.  She lost her head over that insight.  I take it only as a comment on the profoundity of the teachings and not a reflection of the vast complication that is my life at the moment.  However, Avalokite presents an important consideration which is the point of our practice: how do we lose our heads skillfully?

IF you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

With apology to Rudyard Kipling who began his poem with the implication that success lies in keeping one’s head when all about are losing theirs, I am beginning to understand that the object of practice is very much the losing of one’s head. My head.  Lost, fallen, tumbled off its precarious perch atop a spindle of a spine.  Strangely, this is a good thing because as that unwieldy lump falls off, I am left with nothing to rely on but my intimate connection with who I am.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…

I was blessed with a number of conversations over the last week with friends and colleagues who are good at holding my feet to the fire of trust, patience, transparency, and meeting aversion.  Perhaps the best teachings I received were to drop away from the anxiety that keeps me from speaking my truth.  The tendency when we fear loss is a natural gasp, an intake and holding of the breath which easily translates into a holding on.  When I see this as nothing more than a knee-jerk response fueled by thoughts of loss and not any loss that is real, my head falls off.  That frontal lobe dominance, that story-machine which churns out the miserable and the macabre – it withers and shrivels and drops off.  

This is a challenging practice.  It calls on us to hold our seat in the firestorm yet not be foolishly consumed, to be flexible in our commitments yet honour them, to hold true to our values yet find a path that is mutually nourishing.  It calls on us to lose our head and find our heart.

Avalokiteshvara lost her head one day.  And as I contemplated in the deep course of practice, I found the heart of what is true, intimate, and pure.

 

the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva

Sprout discovers The Thing.  It doesn’t fill him with as much fear as the Five Fears that assail bodhisattvas.  I found this a fascinating tidbit about bodhisattvas in Red Pine’s commentary (and there are innumerable delicious morsels in his translation of the Heart Sutra).

First a bit a backtracking.  The problem with studying, learning, and  writing is the time for consolidation isn’t always available.  After Rohatsu in December, I committed to taking on the various commentaries on the Heart Sutra and have been delighted by some I didn’t know about.  Coincidentally (or not), a copy of Red Pine’s translation arrived from Counterpoint Press and that just sealed the deal to dive into the sutra.  (I have Ken McLeod’s contribution on the shelf but may not get to it until later this year!)

Second, a bit of history.  The first book on the Prajnaparamita I tackled was Lex Hixon’s Mother of All Buddhas.  The outcome was the same as I would have had as a fair-to-middling Elementary School student trying to read about Quantum Physics.  Then came Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, The Heart of Understanding from which I extracted the magical nature of the mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.  That seemed to suffice with regular chanting of his translation of the sutra and admonishment to simply let it seep into my bones.  Unfortunately (or not), I’m not much given to blind belief and kept returning to and becoming discouraged by Hixon’s tome.

Over time, I think I fell into the common experience that the Heart Sutra is one part faith healing, one part penetrable only by advanced scholars, one part confounding of terms and language, one part apostolic creed, one part…  You get the idea.  It seemed to be the elephant many blind wise persons were trying to describe to equally blind audiences.

Before you buy my version of the elephant, do listen to Kaz Tanahashi’s commentary on the Prajnaparamita.  The recordings are from Rohatsu at Upaya Zen Center and are in the first 20 minutes of each dharma talk.  Listen to rest of the talks too but Kaz’s description of the origins and the intent of the sutra are invaluable to clarifying this tangle that arose out of scriptural, doctrinal, and cultural contacts.

Now to Red Pine.  This translation and commentary is painstakingly written and expresses the tangled history with luminous clarity.  You can read various tidbits from it in the previous posts of this week.   However, what really stands out for me is the way Red Pine puts into perspective the historical backdrop and the doctrinal intent of the sutra – with a dollop of rollicking Buddhist mythology.  As he walks through the sutra, we learn about the intentional way it is set up to deconstruct (as a deconstruction itself!) the teachings of the ancients which lay stuck in objectifying experience.  He takes us through to the meaning of being a bodhisattva and the challenges.  That was worth the price of admission.  And finally, there is a lovely flourish that draws the circle of going inwards into practice so we can emerge from the womb of the Prajnaparamita as buddhas (hence the sutra’s epithet, Mother of All Buddhas).

Back to the teaser: what are the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva?

We fear survival – what if I give all and that generosity depletes me?

We fear criticism – what if we are censured, undermined by the dis-ingenuousness of others?

We fear death – what if we back away from that ultimate sacrifice, of giving up our life for another, for all others?

We fear a bad existence – what if the teachings are not available just as we come into being and need them to guide us?

We fear speaking before others – what if we fail in relaying the urgency of practice if we are all to realize being buddhas?

This is the holding back in the early stages of bodhisattva-hood.  When we cannot extend our practice beyond these fears, it gives birth to a refusal time and again to engage in this very life that is our own.

resting places

Being a bodhisattva would be overwhelming if form, feelings, perceptions, memories, and consciousness were real.  Imagine the assault on our sensory powers and the domains in which they function!  Red Pine (1) explains that there are Twelves Abodes or “resting places” of our awareness: six sensory powers (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and six domains in which they function (shape, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought).  Through these Twelve Abodes, we trace and locate what we call our experience.

And we already know the punch line.  None of these exist in and of themselves, being constructed of a “constant flux” of sensory flow.  That much is the typical patter of reciting the Prajnaparamita but what I really liked in Red Pine’s commentary was what should have been obvious about seeking the reality of the self.

We don’t tend to look for our sense of abiding self in the ear.  Or the eye.  Or nose, tongue, or body.  (Well, for those of us with body image issues perhaps we do see our enduring self inappropriately in the body!  Perhaps vanity and fears were localized differently in the Buddha’s time.)  We tend to seek our Self in the mind and the effluent of mind, thoughts.  Now, we can easily accept the insanity of saying my Self is defined by my nose and its function and yet we cannot discard the assertion of the mind that it irrevocably defines us.

Go figure.

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(1)  The Heart Sutra translation and commentary by Red Pine (Counterpoint Press)

first line of defense

Try telling an orally fixated kitten that you too like to lick your bowl clean.  It’s a Zen thing, I explained.  Clean your bowl!  As you can see, he’s not impressed.  I’m fascinated by Sprout’s practice of defending himself.  My lacerations will heal soon and the sting does little to deter me from testing out what actually triggers his grab-and-slash reflexes.  So far I’ve sorted out that it has little to do with territory (but he has yet to meet the other two cats) or food (ample and free-range).  It does have much to do with that vulnerable underbelly.

Form.  The first of the Five Skandhas and the one that stands as the exemplar of the boundlessness, the unknowability of the other four.  Red Pine in his commentary (1) says that it represents our obsession with the material.  It is “our first line of defense in contesting attacks on the validity of our existence…” and we need to believe it exists.  We try to define ourselves in terms of the structure, shape, and extension into space and time of our body.  Oh and, how we fail.

Red Pine goes on to say we disregard the other four skandhas at our own peril.  We risk entrenching form as the only path to understanding emptiness and forget the intricate role all five play with each other.  One of the things that always fascinated me about this section of the Heart Sutra is the dropping out of “sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness” from the recitation.  It worries me that we don’t chant them with the same thundering detail as we do with form.  It elevates form as something to truly be wary of and without attention, our stance to the other four becomes one of benign neglect.  And, truth be told, becoming caught in believing the solidity of sensations, perceptions, memory, and consciousness is more cause for worry than form by itself.

Let me put it this way: when the body fails us, we may have a sense of assault on our image, identity, potential, and so on.  However the power of the delusion that we are identified by our form lies not in the body but in what we sense in it (pain!), perceive of it (Oh this is never going to end!), memories we have of it (the last time I was laid up forever!), and consciousness of the experience with it (why me!?).

So repeat regularly:

Feelings are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as feelings
Perceptions are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as perceptions
Mental formations are the same  as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as mental formations
Discernment is the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as discernment. (2)

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(1) Heart Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine
(2) Skandha terms from Heart Sutra version translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Joan Halifax Roshi © 2003