when the body does what the body does


“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 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.


(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)


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

intimate secret

Yes, a little Sprout fix for those of you feline-inclined.  February is Feline Appreciation Month by the way, so go out and hug something furry with sharp teeth and claws.

Back to books.  Tasty ones.  I remember the day I dug into Analayo’s Satipatthana and just about swooned at the deliciousness of taking nibbles out of the sutra, one word, one sentence at a time.  It should be tedious but it’s not.   Or perhaps it’s a peculiarity of mine that most won’t point out in polite company.  Liberated Life Project asked on the Facebook page:

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing right now for a job, what would you do to earn your livelihood? Quick… first thought, best thought!

I replied: study, learn, write.

How’s that for smacking up against my most intimate truth?  I think I’ve momentarily arrived at that place where studying is truly for pleasure, learning is amazing just for what it entails, and writing is a joyous expression of weaving the threads together.  More than all that, I hope I’ve learned to let go of the nay-saying voices: the folks who deride my love of reading about Buddhism, the ones who stand proud on their fundamentalist views that Buddhism is only about beliefs, or the ones whose faces pucker in fear and disgust when I start a sentence with “Well, Red Pine’s translation of the Heart Sutra is fascinating for its…”

Study.  Learn.  Write.

There’s a lip-smacking delight in this.  I said to my coach (did I mention that I have one?): When you return from your journey of 10,000 Leagues under the Self, I’d like to study a sutra and start on my path of learning.  His response in summary: “Why wait until I return?”  In effect, he suggested I start immediately by intensifying my daily practice: meditations morning and evening every day until our next meeting.  I was thrilled.  We’re into Day Two.  And I’ve deliciously failed already!  Look, Ma!  I’m Learning!

Study this.  In that moment of waking, notice the sinking mind.  In that moment of turning away from the edge of the bed, notice the holding back.  There really is a space for a choice.  “Failure means you’re in the game,” he said in our first session.  I may well end up MVP!

Learn something.  Red Pine opens his commentary(1) of the Heart Sutra with a translation of “prajna which means ‘wisdom’ and is a combination of pra, meaning ‘before,’ and jna, meaning ‘to know.'”   Wisdom is something that comes before knowing, a “beginner’s mind” that is transcendent and not tied to discrete entities, and by definition not something that can be “learned.”  I’m still in the game!

Write.  In a word, practice.  It’s no different from getting up, sitting down, and opening ourselves to this unfolding panorama of life as it is.  It’s tedious; muses are highly disrespectful of agendas and scheduled appointments.  It’s frustrating; the black squiggles on the page or in the mind don’t always lend themselves to transparent coherence.  It’s terrifying; it will never measure up to what the mind created in that interstitial space between sleep and waking up.  Do it anyway.  Stay in the game!

Someone asked me in a meeting whether the meditation session we run on Sunday are different from the one on Thursday.  Although I gave an answer that would encourage engagement, this is what I wanted to say:

There is no answer I can give you that will bring you to your life right here, right now.  If your choices are based on the particulars of time and distance, no schedule or location in space will never be the right one.  No plan of practice or topic of the day will bring you to that most intimate secret in your heart.  No matter what the schedule, personality of teacher, or some vague peculiarity of community, if you do not choose to step out into your life you cannot arrive in it and learn the magic it is.



(1) The Heart Sutra, translated and commentary by Red Pine

in boundlessness, no near or far

Illustration:  Manjughosa on a blue lion with two bodhisattva attendants (possibly Prince Sudhana and Yamari, an emanation of Manjushri)

The Simile of Space

“Lord Buddha, space does not think, ‘What am I near to, what am I far from?’  Why?  Because, Lord Buddha, a bodhisattva, a great being, practising the perfection of wisdom, does not think, ‘I am near supreme, truly perfect enlightenment, I am far from the stage of a disciple of the stage of a pratyekabuddha.’  Why?  Because the perfection of wisdom is something free from such discrimination.”

The Perfection of Wisdom by R.C. Jamieson (pg. 97)

a timber, a plank

The Simile of the Ship

“When a ship is wrecked at sea, those who do not hold onto a timber, or plank, or other solid support will drown in the water, never reaching the other shore.  Subhuti, those that do hold onto a timber, or plank, or other solid support will not drown in the water.  Happily unhindered, they may reach the shore, where they will stand safe and sound on firm ground.

“Similarly, Subhuti, a bodhisattva who is endowed with a full measure of faith and purity, of kindness and intentions, but without taking hold of the perfection of wisdom, can fall along the way.  Not reaching all-embracing knowledge, he may remain only a disciple, or a pratyekabuddha.”

The Perfection of Wisdom by R.C. Jamieson (pg 63)

Illustration:  The Buddha of the past, Dipamkara at sea with two attendants.  He is the protector of others from sea monsters.