groping the elephant

Eminent students [of the Dharma], long accustomed to groping for the elephant, pray do not doubt the true dragon.*

I like my misconceptions.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say I don’t dislike them enough.  In fact, they are so weakly challenged for their right of passage through my inner world that they tend to leave quite a mess behind.  None of this genteel “guests” in the Guesthouse à la Rumi.  And yet, strangely, I like them for the momentary respite they give me from reality.

Then on Monday, Barry at Ox Herding wrote a lovely post on reality to which I commented that “if reality is not optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  So there you have it.  Grope on that elephant all you want; reality will win out when you sit atop it and the tree trunks start moving.

*Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting: Essential writings on the zen practice of shikantaza.

PS: Barry has graciously offered his new book The Path of Zen to everyone.  It’s simply beautiful… and very real!  Please click here to obtain a copy.  A deep bow of gratitude for all your teachings, Barry!

Edit: “if reality is optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  Not surprising I’m always confused!

an opportunity provided by a finger

Practice, apparently, is not about recognizing esoteric signs.  Fingers (flipped or no), banners, needles or mallets don’t count.  Nor do Rorschach leavings in the bottom of my ink pots.  Realization of our true nature doesn’t come carefully packaged and delivered by Fed-Ex.  And, listen carefully, it definitely doesn’t arise out of being whacked by a kyosaku, pummelled by a fist, a staff or a shout*.

This is the place we get stuck.  We try to understand enlightenment by our discriminative mind; yet, our discriminative, our discursive thought, is the very thing that binds us.  The question really is how to go beyond, how to transcend that dichotomy.  But we all have to start with that discriminative mind. 

At this point, I am beginning to get the inkling that I’ve wasted precious practice time diving into shallow waters.  But the discriminative mind, the mind that wants to have evidence, steps, and stories, is what we have as the start point.  Perhaps that first tentative step (or sometimes ego-inflated step) is simply to want this because my own suffering is too much and I am willing to take, buy, trade, barter time on the cushion for the promise of relief.

That’s ok.  Unless it stops there.

*Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed), The Art of Just Sitting, 2nd Edition

art amid all

Come said the muse,
sing me a song no poet has yet chanted,
Sing me the universal.

In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed of perfection.

By every life a share or more or less,
None born but it is born, conceal’d or unconceal’d the seed is.

Walt Whitman

In the cold, damp shelter of our primitive ancestors, lit only by the flickering of a campfire, at day’s end there was a time for recollection and stillness that would help to fuel the next day’s events.  Since the beginning of human history, the still point has served as the birthplace of all our activity.  Virtually every creature on this great earth practices the backward step of quieting down and entering this still point.  Birds, beasts, bugs, and fish all seem to find time in their daily existence to relax and recreate – to bring forth the flower from what Whitman called “the seed of perfection.”

John Daido Loori – Editor’s Preface
The Art of Just Sitting

adjust just sitting

Hummingbirds like to hang out in the front garden.  There, the bee balm and honeysuckle keep them well-fed enough to dismiss my plastic containers of fake nectar.  Sometimes, however, they hover over the little red fake flowers and I can watch them, entranced by the buzz of the wings.  It amazes me that wings can move so fast and the sparkles doesn’t fly off the feathers.  To keep themselves fed they may have to visit as many as 1,000 flowers a day.  Perhaps the fake nectar helps although I doubt the average hummingbird gets a complex if it sips sugar syrup rather than flower nectar.  Its only intention after all is to just do what it does.

In the term shikantaza, the word shikan is sometimes translated as “just,” or “only.”  Ta Means “hit,” and za means “sit.”  It literally means “hit sitting,” but the ta really intensifies “sitting.”  So it means “sitting.”  Shikan means “just,” but it also means “by all means do it,” or “get on with it.”

Tenshin Reb Anderson, in Just Sitting (The Art of Just Sitting edited by John Daido Loori), emphasizes the intention of shikantaza – stopping conceptions of what it should be and experiencing, immediately and directly.  Just sit.  As with his book Being Upright, I like Anderson’s affinity for another slant on the word “just.”

In English, just also means “valid within the law, legitimate, suitable, or fitting.”  It means “sound, well-founded.”  It means “exact, accurate.”  It means “upright before God, righteous, upright before truth.”

It may feel uncomfortable or even contrary to load onto shikantaza these concepts that carry a tinge of “right” and “wrong” in the sense of judgment, but I don’t know that practice can be separated from the ethics or ethos of practice.  However, Anderson takes it in an interesting direction.

What I’m saying here is just reminding you of what you already know, what you already intend.  Mostly, what I will be doing besides reminding you will be simply adjusting you, just “justing” you.  That’s all.  That’s all I can do.  I’m not correcting you, I’m adjusting you.  Of course, I can’t really adjust you: you’re already adjusted.  But sometimes I may feel that you’d look a little more “just” if you sat like this, rather than like that.  If I see your mudra over here, I may think, “You’d be a little more just if it were over there.”

I try to steer clear of any kind of judgment in the adjustment: I just adjust.  And then it’s for you not to think about being judged, but rather whether you feel more just after the adjustment.


actual reality

The baby cardinals have trouble staying on the feeder.  They don’t cling like the baby woodpeckers or nuthatches.  Mostly they careen against the column of mesh, knocking themselves off in a shower of sunflower seeds which lie on the ground for the mourning doves and sparrows.  Eventually, they manage to crash and cling to the rim on the rebound.  It takes practice.

Dogen said, To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.  He used the Japanese word narau for “study” and its root means “to get accustomed to,” “to become familiar with,” “to get used to,” or “to become intimate with.”

Shohaku Okumura in To Study the Self (in The Art of Just Sitting edited by John Daido Loori) explains:

In the Chinese character for narau, the upper part of the kanji means “bird’s wings.”  The lower part of the kanji refers to “self.”  This study is like a baby bird studying or learning how to fly with its parents.  By nature,  a baby bird has the ability to fly, but a baby bird does not know how to fly.  So the baby watches its parents and learns how to fly.  It tries again and again, and finally it can fly like its parents.  This is the original meaning of “to study” here.  This is not simply intellectual study.

Okumura points out that accumulation of intellectual knowledge keeps us from flying, by which he means, we cannot live out our true meaning weighted down by perceptions and ignorance.  (Ironic how knowledge can also lend itself to entrenching ignorance.)  To see actual reality we must become who we actually are (actualize ourselves).  And studying the self is as essential for us to become human as is flying to a baby bird is to become a bird (except for those cute penguins and ostriches). 

all within mind

The house finch looks like it’s been dipped in a bucket of raw grape juice.  They don’t tend to come by much.  The larger birds might be keeping them away.  Yet every so often, at dusk, there will be one or two that swoop down to the feeders.  In some lights, they appear red, in others they take on a bluish tinge.  In all lights, they exude a sense of having just surfaced from a great depth, dripping colour from crown to chest.

When I see them, I feel as though they are part of a vast red-blue-ness that sometimes separates away in little fragments and the colour is a direct transmission from some boundless ocean.

Mind as the directly transmitted buddhadharma is used in the sense of mind extending throughout all things, and of all things being included within mind.  When we speak of a zazen based on the innate oneness of mind and environment, it should not be understood that zazen is a method of psychic concentration or of trying to still one’s mind.

Kosho Uchiyama writes in The Tenzo Kyokun and Shikantaza (in The Art of Just Sitting, edited by John Daido Loori) and goes on to ask “What, then, is the meaning of mind extending throughout all things and all things being included within mind?” 

What is the colour of a house finch?

awareness arises

I was watching the birds and noticed one of the female rose-breasted grosbeak had a dash of yellow just under the line at her throat.  The female grosbeak is a bit like a large sparrow and despite the nomenclature, is not rose-breasted.  Mottled-brown and white, the only dramatic flair in her coloration are the thick brown lines around her eyes that give her an intense look.  Yellow stood out.  I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed this in the years of watching the grosbeak.

Noticing is like that.  I can look for something in my study for hours only to have it mysteriously appear just as my frustration is cresting or has crashed.  The joke in our house is to go straight to frustration and surrender which would make the sought-for object appear like magic.  Sadly it works often enough that we might be using it as a standard strategy and missing the point that it is when we let go that awareness arises.

Practice is like that.  Counter-intuitive intuition.  Keizan Jokin writes in “Zazen Yojinki: Notes on what to be aware of in zazen (translated by Yasuda Joshu & Anzan Hoshin in The Art of Just Sitting, edited by John Daido Loori):

Listening and thinking about (mind in zazen), views have not ceased and the mind is obstructed…  True sitting puts all things to rest yet penetrates everywhere…  Being afflicted by the five obstructions arises from basic ignorance, and ignorance arises from not understanding your own nature.

It’s hard to see frustration as nothing, a no-thing.  My mind grabs it as a pivotal moment in which what is happening is not what should be happening.  Confusion arises. 

If you want to cease your confusion, you must cease involvement in thoughts of good or bad.  Stop getting caught up in unnecessary affairs.  A mind “unoccupied” together with a body “free of activity” is the essential point to remember.

And immediately after confusion, delusion sets in.  “I know I performed an action although every shred of data in my current awareness says not.

When delusive attachments end, the mind of delusion dies out.  When delusion dies out, the Reality that was always the case manifests and you are always clearly aware of it.  It is not a matter of extinction nor of activity.

The struggle between what is and what should be stops.  And, the rose-breasted grosbeak can reveal its brilliant yellow collar.