Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coming Home

Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha! ~ The Heart Sutra

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~ T S Eliot, Four Quartets

We want The Absolute. Whether we call it Truth, Beauty, God or One, it is what we imagine to be beyond our own finitude in the (non)experience of completeness, perfection, nirvana or, as one recovered alcoholic I know calls it in fond memory: oblivion.

We seek It in faith like homesick children seeking refuge in Once Upon a Time, oriented toward Its pregnant absence as in a déjà vu, naïvely expecting that, upon remembering It, we will be magically transformed, in a Holy Communion, finding ourselves home at last. But we never do.

As long as we pursue the Absolute as a thing that is “out there”, we ground It in a world of objects that, in faith, was the very thing we had wished to transcend. So the more we try to grasp It, the further it recedes, eluding us over and over until we expire disappointed and unsatisfied like a dog tired of chasing its tail.

Immanuel Kant short-circuited the loop by postulating God and immortality as objects of moral faith that exist in the mind as things-in-themselves. In this he substituted belief for faith and bridged the gap between man and the Absolute. Science strives to do the same, but by capturing It with knowledge. Both are dogma.

In Buddhism, as in Spinozism, the Absolute is right here. It is not elsewhere. So there is no gap to bridge. All is sub specie aeternitatis, “under the aspect of eternity”. It is the thinking, not the thought; the knowing, not the known.

We Are It.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Zen Doubt

By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.


Rinzai zen. A response to the torpor of monks who apparently practiced in cloistered conditions, achieving perhaps a state of samadhi but without satori or kensho, the hallmark of Zen.

Koan practice. A formalized version of the quest that is the heart of Buddhist practice, the quest of those who seek deliverance from beyond the comforts and confines of the familiar, of home or God, from beyond the rituals and/or austerities of traditional forms of prayer and other practices, beyond even the morality and righteousness of religion as a bona fide public institution. On this path, nothing and no one frees you, not even God. The quest is a solitary one and deliverance is by oneself alone.

But when the practice crystallizes into a belief: Zen. Or into a style of practice: zazen. Or into a method of instruction: koan practice and dokusan. Here is the risk of becoming a disciple emulating a venerated teacher or tradition, grasping at that je ne sais quoi you are striving so hard to attain but only going through the motions of transformation and freedom. You are trying to be someone. So the content of practice reifies into the form, the quest hardens like a stone into a rote question, and surrender turns into the bones and sinew of the will to go on rather than the courage to yield.

And so there may come a time to leave; to go into the dark, alone, perhaps a violent act of freedom that breaks expectations like a fist shattering a sheet of ice. No person, no light to guide you. Light breaking through the darkness nonetheless:

Tokusan asked Ryutan about Zen far into the night.
At last Ryutan said, "The night is late. Why don't you retire?"
Tokusan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but he was met by darkness. Turning back to Ryutan, he said, "It is dark outside."
Ryutan lit a paper candle and handed it to him.
Tokusan was about to take it when Ryutan blew it out.
~ The Mumonkan, case 28

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The soul that sinneth, it shall die.

~ Ezekiel 18:20

The word guilty comes from the Old English gylt (meaning crime, sin or fault) and is synonymous with the French word coupable from the Latin culpabilis. There is no more serious infraction nor more costly payment than genuine guilt though its colloquial use to denote the superficial feelings that arise from human weakness (as in, "I feel guilty about eating that piece of chocolate cake") has turned guilty feelings into mere chafings of the ego. Guilt is yet the ultimate emotional discomfort, and it is caused by our having a moral conscience which is the hallmark of our humanity. By owning the imperfections that go along with being human, guilt is both the crime and the punishment, the sin and the fine or cost of our redemption.

Guilt's counterpart is denial, the suppression of the painful feelings that arise from having a moral conscience. Denial literally means negation which, in the case of conscience is the negation of what makes our hearts ache and as such drives a wedge between us and our true nature. In this, it is also a form of self-negation, the same denial that enables criminal behaviour and prevents ours and others' healing and wholeness.

In the Judeo Christian faith, repentance and confession are the basis of atonement, or the reconciliation between man and God. In non-theistic terms, this is clearing the conscience, like a pool of water becoming limpid once again. The ultimate atonement is achieved in death which is symbolically and vicariously recommended in the sacrificial offering of a lamb or goat. Of course what dies is not the literal sinner but denial itself as that wedge that divides me from myself and others. When denial finally expires, and the soul that sinneth with it, the pristine heart of conscience pure and clear is recovered:

And then, may the radiant red hook
Emanating from your pristine heart
Enter my crown, then descend my central channel,
Hook my very subtle clear light mind,
And bring it to your pristine realm.
~Phowa, Guided Meditation at the Time of Death

Sunday, November 6, 2011

So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
~ Genesis 3:23

Prayer, meditation, yoga... following the breath in and out... How do we find our way back home? All of the sages, saints and mystics tell you that Heaven is right before your very eyes, or just as plain as the nose on your face, but then why is it so difficult to find? Why is the way so “guarded”?

Our alienation is a fall from a state of grace. Not because of evil or impurity, but because of a loss of innocence, a loss of our basic harmlessness in, literally, not knowing who we are. One bite from the tree of knowledge and we're dead, we exist.

The reason the way home is so arduous is that we try with all our might to know what it is or to know who we really are, and in this we incessantly split off from what we seek. We simply cannot know ourselves and return to innocence at the same time. We cannot figure out the mystery.

So the way is not knowing, but it is not mindlessness either. It is mind before knowing. The flaming sword, and the mirror, are symbols of this: pristine awareness. This is what ultimately slices through duality itself, enabling us to see our true nature*. To find our way home is to be reconciled with what is, no separation, or atonement (my teacher, Albert Low, likes to emphasize “at-one-ment”). Just being.

I think another way to describe this is intimacy, or loving, although love is regrettably not a word that comes up in Buddhist literature very often. Sometimes it is described as bliss or ecstasy, but these fail to convey the gentleness, the simplicity, the warmth and breath of life coming home to itself. In fact, no concept can hope to elucidate an experience that is not a thing and cannot be known. The Garden surpasses all of these with a simple metaphor.

*I am informed by Zen teacher and translator, Jeff Shore, that “see nature” is the literal translation of the Chinese term kenshô

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Be true to your own self, love yourself absolutely
~Nisargadatta; I am That

Some Buddhist teachers talk as though awakening were a form of dissociation. They describe feelings as patterns and energy, and relationships as sensations and pixels, as though dissolving the cognitive or emotional content of experience were a release from human suffering.

There is a kind of bloodlessness in this approach to practice that is chilling. I think this is because these teachers are disconnected from their own psychologies, rigidly defended against their feelings, and have cultivated practice as a blessed escape from the painful demands of everyday life. After all, everyday life is a series of risks: the risk of conflict in relationship, the risk of failure in getting a job, the risk of total humiliation in love, the risk of drudgery in raising a family. The list is endless.

But dissociation is an escape from suffering, not its transcendence. Practice is not about becoming dispassionate or disengaged or even about becoming more self-sufficient. Trying to master oneself is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As my own teacher likes to say, quoting an anonymous Buddhist nun: don't pull up the flower with the weed!

Passion is not the enemy. It is the flower and the weed, the poison and the cure. But we are so full of self-loathing and have forgotten our own basic goodness. We are embarrassed rather than fascinated by ourselves and shun our own image rather than look deeply into it. When Narcissus saw his own reflection, he fell in love, not with his face, but with his beauty. This is the luminous mind that shines through every human face, every beauty mark, every blemish. My old mentor Robert Misrahi used to call it l'universel particulier: toi (you).

Love is the answer:

When you realize the depth and fullness of yourself, you know that every living being and the entire universe are included in your affection. But when you look at anything as separate from you, you cannot love it for you are afraid of it. Alienation causes fear and fear deepens alienation. It is a vicious circle. Only self-realization can break it. Go for it resolutely.
(Nisargadatta; I am That)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.
~ Rousseau;
The Social Contract

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid, not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.
~ Sartre;
Being and Nothingness

This week three friends spoke to me about feeling released from some deeply rooted hindrance to the full expression of their being. The first person was released from a life-long sense of shame, the second experienced a kind of complete vanishing of herself during meditation, the third (a therapist) admitted needing help and actually asked for it, something he had never done before.

Although all of my friends felt liberated from their unhealthy self-representations, they all reported experiencing a terror they had never felt before. They described it as worse than a panic attack, a paralyzing apprehension, not of what might come next, but that what comes next is nothing at all. Sartre called it vertige, the dizzying sense you get standing on the edge of an abyss, the heart-stopping fear that catches in your throat as you imagine yourself taking that leap into the void. It feels like self-willed dissolution, insanity or suicide.

What happens is that we become wholly identified with our functions and characteristics, the parts that make up our “self” as persona. We forget that we are not them (the parts) and gradually invest our whole being in them, clinging to them as if our very life depended on them. We think “I am = I am x, y or z (attributes)”.

To alter what I am (even if it is to free myself from a great burden, like shame) feels like losing I am, i.e. feels like dying!

This is why a prisoner sometimes chooses to return to the prison. Over-identified with the ball and chain, the elation of freedom is eclipsed by the terror of feeling severed from what he is. But the prisoner has to die for the man to live.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

And the end of all our exploring.
Will be to
arrive where we started.
know the place for the first time.

~ Little Gidding, TS Eliot

The internet has given a whole new face to long-distance relationships
And it's the face of a screen,
An interface
That defies time zones and places.

no colour, sound, smell, taste, touch, or what the mind takes hold of, nor even act of sensing

How weird. But how true!
My own mind framing seeing.
Not you, not even my projections onto you
(Although you are there, poor dear, putting up with this nonsense, waiting patiently three hours behind)
But my mind seeing projecting
Seeing seeing, right there before my very eyes
Like staring into the mirror at life itself.

Here then, my love
Is emptiness:
Not in the pixels I see
Nor in the beautiful face
That moves me to sadness because it is not really here to see,
But in my own looking through them all
To you.

We smile and laugh
(But not too hard because we might fall off our chairs
And disappear from view)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Now you have to stand in desire,
all your life long,
if you are to make progress in the way of perfection.
~Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous

In everyday situations, when faced with ambiguity, conflict or other challenges, we are prone to respond instinctively with a fight or flight reaction. In spiritual practice, on the contrary, we are encouraged to just sit, do nothing, and breathe.

In Contractions, I wrote about the crucible as indispensable to the transformation and sublimation of energy in relationships. The same holds true of spiritual practice.

What happens when, voluntarily entering the crucible, you offer no escape from cycles or loops of thoughts and feelings? At first it may feel unbearably uncomfortable, increasing suffering. And at the beginning, it is tempting to get up and do something else. This is the right thing to do if one is not choosing to practice. But if one intends to go beyond suffering rather than avoid it, one must stay with it. Then the energy in the loop is contained and intensified, just like the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass. You do not have to focus, just contain. This is the exercise of following the breath, the magic crucible of practice and prayer. And just like oxygen to fire, breathing will give you all the space and fuel you need.

No solutions emerge with practice, because practice is a constant rekindling of what you already are-- beyond all problems, beyond all specifics, beyond all thises and thatses. Practice will not bless you or bring you peace or any state of mind or emotional satisfaction. It will bring you face-to-face with being, that's all, but that's everything! Just being. Dynamic, active, desiring, but not wanting, love.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

At present you need to live the question
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

So will you also frolic with me on the edge of this ominous time and wrest from it whatever it may offer
~ Friedrich Schleiermacher, Letter to his Bride

In Western culture we confuse renunciation and sacrifice. We see our nature as inherently “bad” and regard the slaughtering of our heart's desire as the necessary payment for original sin. We understand our redemption literally as an exchange or trade-off rather than as something freely given up in the true spirit of offering.

Moreover, there is an urgency to expiate the badness that we are uncomfortable holding, a need to eject it from ourselves as quickly as possible. This is the origin of confession, but also of pornography, projection and scapegoating. Unable to contain our forbidden parts, and if we cannot either secretly indulge or confess them, we will project them onto others whom we will then publicly shun, exclude or otherwise attempt to cut off from ourselves.

This disembodied moralism and its dark side (moral perversity) have been sealed on our collective consciousness since the age of Enlightenment. Their coolness is, I think, best illustrated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who extolled moral duty as arising in the mind in strict obedience to a moral law borne of reason alone:
Duty! Thou sublime and mighty name that dost embrace nothing charming or insinuating, but requirest submission .... but merely holdest forth a law which of itself finds entrance into the mind, and yet gains reluctant reverence.
(Critique of Practical Reason)

The performance of a duty that demands submission or sacrifice is an act of violence. Renunciation, on the other hand, is an act of generosity that arises from the body itself and manifests as a stirring of the heart. It is warmth, not coolness. Love, not reason.

It is not necessary to be emptied of bodily desire, made hollow like a shell in order to be made holy. It is not necessary to be pure. On the contrary, to be whole, we cannot leave any parts behind. Muddy roots must be included, just like the lotus.

What is renunciation then? What is given up if there is no sacrifice? Paradoxically, it is the act of “letting go of holding on and holding back” (Pema Chodron; The Wisdom of No Escape)

It is not effortless but is in fact, as Gurdjieff says, “intentional suffering”, as we need to make an extraordinary effort to stop trying to sort things out and, as the saying goes “stop doing something and just sit there”. We need to tolerate ambiguity and overcome the quick-fix mentality, we need to learn patience. Rather than aspire to the dissolution of complexity into manageable parts, aspire instead to its resolution into clarity and savour its darkness and mystery.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

He said, "Neville, you must first start with self. Find self, don't be ashamed ever of the being you are. Discover it and start the changing of that self"
~ Neville Goddard, Changing the Feeling of "I"

Becoming "awake" involves seeing our confusion more clearly
~Cogyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom

Maturity entails regression. By this I mean that, beyond a certain point in our development, we begin to go backwards. We spend our youth and early adulthood building ourselves up, physically and mentally, acquiring language, knowledge and other skills, to forge ourselves an identity. We invest all of our energy into becoming somebody. Then, at some point, when we experience love and loss, suffering and impotence, we enter a crisis and everything that we've built turns out to be mere scaffolding for the real inner work that we must do.

It is truly like a seed falling to the ground.

First, in love, the outer shell drops away, uncovering the naked and vulnerable baby that has never grown up. If anything, it has only grown into a monster that bellows and moans, whines and rages jealously against just the threat of separation from its lover, our parental imago. To comfort ourselves we sleep in the same bed, like children alongside our mothers.

Then, in loss-- of a job or loved one we depended on, or because we experience personal failure or the inevitable loss of virility, beauty or power that accompanies aging--, we are stripped down another layer to the bare and fragile bones of “I am”, the universal human condition, revealing beyond pride that uniqueness is what we all have in common.

Finally, old age, illness and death, the ultimate humiliation.

Something must die for the something else to live. This is a law of nature and its truth is echoed by all wisdom traditions, whether Christian, Jewish, Sufi or Buddhist. It is the essence of spiritual transformation. Thich Nhat Hahn calls the transformation “composting” (Peace is Every Step) and Pema Chodron all but calls it a pile of shit (“it's a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff”; The Wisdom of No Escape). Poets allude to it more discreetly as a kind of ripening or fermenting, as in Shakespeare's “Ripeness is all” (King Lear). I personally prefer Chogyam Trungpa's “It's one insult after another”.

Through spiritual practice and prayer or meditation, or just by being eroded by life, the mature self is constantly regressing. Back to child, to the baby, back to the fetus asleep in the womb and into the darkness before life, this is the direction of becoming genuine and authentic, awake to the dream "unclothed in full and final self-forgetting" (The Book of Privy Counseling).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

We want to be at the center: at the source of power; and we want to be at the center: the center of attraction. Indeed ‘look at me’ could be called the cosmic game.
~ Albert Low, I Am Therefore I Think

Men seem to have a very difficult time with shame, the flip side of the legendary “male ego”. They experience vulnerability as a threat to their survival and tend to seek external validation as proof that they exist. When a fight breaks out between two men, it is often due to one of them having felt insulted or humiliated. When a man fails to provide for his wife or family, he feels deflated and depressed. Grandiosity is mistaken as an expression of masculine pride when in fact it is an attempt to compensate for feelings of impotence and inadequacy.

Women, on the other hand, seem to struggle with insecurity, the flip side of the legendary “do I look all right to you?” They need reassurance and understanding, everlasting proof that they are loved just as they are. When a fight breaks out between two women, it is often due to a breach of empathy. When a woman is ignored by her lover, she feels cut off and alone. The need for attention and connection is often mistaken for emotional dependency when in fact it is an attempt to compensate for feelings of unattractiveness.

Although the core struggle for both sexes is one of personal recognition (“look at me!”), there seem to be distinct variations on the theme depending on one's gender identity.

How does one explain this?
Albert Low, in I Am Therefore I Think (an ebook to be published in the fall of 2011), takes an innovative look into gender dynamics in terms of the play between what he calls “me-as-center” and “me-as-periphery”. The masculine container for this oscillation, he believes, is more identified with the center as “power”, whereas the feminine is more identified with the center as “attraction”.

Without suggesting that gender identity is a fixed thing (and I would agree with Albert Low that we are fundamentally androgynous beings who oscillate between center-as-power and center-as-attraction) masculinity does tend toward a center-as-power that is distinctly phallic. It is power that is exerted by pushing or penetrating. The feminine center-as-attraction, on the other hand, is more womb-like. It calls or pulls toward itself, a power that can be both seductive and nurturing but is always subversive and alluring.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
~ Matthew 7:15

Anger is taboo in our culture.

Unlike other negative emotions... sadness, fear, boredom... raw anger is socially proscribed and must be refined-- suppressed or “managed”-- before it is heard. We send angry children to their rooms and withdraw from angry friends or lovers until they “cool down”. We refuse to listen to an agitated roar until it subsides to a levelheaded whimper.

Because of our anxiety around anger, we fail to attend to the nuances of different situations that involve the expression of anger, and are not very nuanced in our reactions to it. When anger is expressed to us, we tend to hear it as expressed at us. When anger is expressed at us, we tend to experience it as an assault...

So anger generally elicits a defensive reaction that does not win the angry person our support or sympathy. Worse, it often elicits a counter-attack. This, I believe, is because it is mistaken for aggression, a precursor to violence and declaration of war. We defend by attacking back, and all hell breaks loose. Welcome to the animal realm. But, as Norman Cottrell of the Beck Institute in an online article on Anger versus Aggression says,
... anger doesn't break bones, aggression does. Anger need not sabotage one's goals, aggression or passive-aggression does. And anger doesn't always imply violence. People can be angry without being violent -- they can use it as energy for constructive action. And they can be violent without being angry -- as in the instrumental actions of a sociopath ("Nothing personal. It's just business.").

The irony of course is that we are so defended against anger that we don't notice when aggression, the real enemy, creeps in like a wolf in sheep's clothing, masked by equanimity, rational argumentation or eloquent silence.

Over-preoccupied with the messenger, we are in danger of not hearing the message.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Unexpectedly, as I opened myself
to love, I was accepted.
~Chogyam Trungpa, The Perfect Love Poem

Conflict arises when two people want to be heard and neither is listening. There is disharmony, polarity, a split. This disharmony escalates into dissonance when, instead of taking turns being quiet and listening to each other, you raise the volume and take turns making speeches. You're caught in serial monologues that deepen the conflict and polarize you even more. Cacophony now threatens as you feel compelled to defend yourselves, firing arguments at each other like artillery in the hopes of quashing all resistance to being heard. Alas, you are perceived as the aggressor and defended against in turn... and on and on it goes. Like a war.

In order to resolve conflict nonviolently, monologue has to yield to dialogue, and self-promotion to vulnerability, that is, exposing one's inner world as opposed to imposing it on someone else. Nonviolent communication has been described as comprising four aspects: making an observation about how the situation affects you; sharing your feelings about it; stating your need; and making a request. It has also been described succinctly as making “I statements”. Basically, instead of trying to survive a conflict by taking down the other guy (the war path described above), you expose your weakness to him and ask for help.

This is very similar to Harville Hendrix dialogue guidelines for couples, except that empathic listening, or mirroring, is included from the outset. Mirroring what you hear is a form of holding the person who is exposing himself to you, ensuring his sense of safety, much like a loving mother who holds a child overwhelmed by his feelings. It is a way of containing and regulating intense reactive emotions, healing the wound that caused us to defend against others in the first place.

Ideally, the resolution of conflict is less ambitious than unity, but more ambitious than nonviolence. It is harmonious duality, like the healthy differentiation between a child and his mother when she compassionately embraces his separation and departure.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Great Doubt

If you do not get it from yourself, Where will you go for it?
~ Dogen
We have a fear of facing ourselves. That is the obstacle.
~ Chogyam Trungpa

The masters talk about Great Doubt. It is one of the three jewels of Zen training, the others being Great Faith and Great Effort. What kind of doubt could this be? It could not be the intellectual disbelief of a skeptic as that would annul faith. Nor could it be the apathetic disposition of the uninspired as that would annul effort. No. It must be something that drives inquiry, a burning doubt, an inquisitiveness that is not easily sated.

There is a voracity to doubt that is like fire, refining the quest down to its core. As K. von Durkheim says in The Way of Transformation, “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

Students are inclined to think that the spiritual path can be learned from books or by emulating their teachers, by following some instruction in a progressive step-by-step fashion, like walking up a flight of stairs. But, by all accounts, the first step is doubt, unlearning what you know, Learning How to Learn.

Doubt is the best teacher. It pushes you off the top stair so that you fall to the bottom and learn to crawl up on your own hands and knees. Doubt is the best teacher because it induces confusion. Doubt is the best teacher because it stokes the fire rather than quenches it until, as Eliot says, “what you know is what you do not know”. No teacher can teach you doubt, he can only show you the dark:

For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment.
(TS Eliot; East Coker)

Today, my humble friend the poet John O, reminded me that the reason smoking pot leads to insight is that it relaxes patterned thinking. Perhaps the paranoia of the first-time pot smoker is in fact a mild case of the Great Doubt. Perhaps this is why Trungpa and Gurdjieff forced intoxicants on their students...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent


In his Tenzo Kyukun (Instructions for the Zen Cook), Dogen emphasizes the importance of the Parental Mind (roshin) which is an attitude of caring and concern, the heart of compassion. It is one of the so-called Three Minds or sanshin, the other two being Big Mind (daishin) and Joyful Mind (kishin).

The spirit of Zen is the inclusiveness of One Heart/Mind, and Parental Mind conveys this most aptly. An old saying describes it as “seeing the pot as your own head and the water as your lifeblood” (quoted by Uchiyama in his commentary of Dogen's Instructions, p. 53). In modern day Japan, it is conveyed by the popular expression minna no kimochi de (see this article).

But one must be careful not to confuse the One of parental mind with the identification of oneself with another self or some larger body. For example, as a first-time nursing mother, I felt that my head had been screwed onto my infant's body. Though a radical departure from my usual self-involvement, I confess that one mind in this case felt more like being a milking cow, headless but nowhere near enlightened.

From a psychological point of view, children and nations are mere narcissistic extensions, that is, extensions of ourselves. This is not synonymous with No-self, and I doubt it is very different in other cultures though they may profess self-transcendence in the national body.

Nor is parental mind the same as superior mind, i.e. the role of mother, father, teacher or boss. This does not transcend separation; it prohibits it. To stretch the capacity of parental mind, try adopting it with someone you perceive as equal to or more powerful than yourself. Separateness then becomes harder to transcend, and inclusiveness snaps like a rubber band as soon as conflict threatens. It is for this reason that love turns to hate more often in an erotic connection than in a filial one. With two strangers, the inclusiveness ideal recedes even further, unless the two are united in anonymity. Without the glue of desire and attachment, we remain in most cases, two detached solitudes.

Uchiyama describes parental mind simply as the "Self inclusive of the whole world", i.e. as:

nothing other than the very things, people or situations we presently encounter and know, and helps us discover our lives through these things and, in turn, pour all our life ardor back into them.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
~ TS Eliot; Little Gidding

Lately, I have met many women aged 40 to 50 who are suffering from hairshirt syndrome. This is a condition where life becomes so unbearable that you simply want to rip it off and stuff it in the garbage.

These women are not suicidal. Menopausal? Perhaps. They tend to have children, too many, though they do not live out of a shoe. In fact, they are often emotionally and financially autonomous and they usually work out too. But they're still bored. And how they suffer! The slightest glitch in their lives causes them unbearable distress. Their husbands, if they still have them, get the brunt of their dissatisfaction because they are desperate to pin the blame somewhere.

Why? Why are they so angry? And what is the cure?

Toni Packer suggests in this article that anger comes from not getting what you want and that you can pull the plug on that “deep reservoir of rage” by bringing attention to the stories fueling the belief that you've been wrongfully victimized.

But if you reach down deeper still, beyond the story and into the more diffuse negative energy underneath, you touch into disappointment. You'd been spurred on by the belief in a happy ending but now you see that imperfection is one of Life's inexhaustible resources and you're surrounded by unmet expectations. You thought you'd get out what you put in, but you got karma, not justice. And in the process your faith got mangled like your gnarly middle-aged hands, and your good nature's become like a latex glove to which you've developed an allergy. Your own skin has become a constant source of irritation.

Stop fighting and make room. Make room for it all. A Zen koan goes "When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through” (Tozan). Some versions say: be so hot/so cold that it kills you. Be like a snake shedding its skin. Let it die so Life can renew you.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Attainment too is emptiness
Heart Sutra

Rinzai Zen emphasizes the importance of kensho or satori, that is, a sudden awakening after an intense and often bitter spiritual struggle. According to Hakuin, father of the Rinzai tradition that has survived today, kensho is the touchstone of authentic Zen practice.

Rinzai Zen uses koans that are designed to bring doubt to such a pitch that one ultimately breaks out of the cocoon of dualistic understanding. The process can be very painful. One could even call it “extreme meditation”. Shibayama puts it this way:
One has to be prepared to risk his life and, even then, satori may not be accessible. Zen has been described since the olden days as the way for only a handful of geniuses.
A Flower Does not Talk
(Hakuin's tough love attitude has been passed on to his Rinzai heirs, and not without his unfortunate elitism.)

Looking beyond the fact that Rinzai poses as superior to other practices that lack its machismo, there are other questions one might raise about its placing so much emphasis on attaining kensho, the most salient being: how can kensho simultaneously be an awakening and an experience that can purportedly be authenticated by a master as “shallow” or “deep”? Is awakening measurable and, if so, where is one mind then?

But also, although koans are interesting practice tools, awakening is not exclusively about transcending conceptual understanding. Suffering is everywhere ready to be transcended in many different guises. Is it necessary to tease out doubt so ruthlessly with koans?

Finally, does awakening need to come as a shock to “revive us from the abyss of unconsciousness” (Shibayama) or is living awake a gradual unfolding of what we already are?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Form is emptiness,
emptiness is form

form is not other than emptiness;

emptiness is not other than form.

~ Prajnaparamita (The Heart Sutra)

There are no essences, experiences or insights that capture what is: form is emptiness.

But emptiness is not nothing; for then it would be something other than what is, or its negation. And it is not: emptiness is no other than form.

Emptiness and form are flip sides of the same coin. They are what is, ever-present but never anywhere in particular. This cannot be grasped by the mind because being cannot be known as being. Only thoughts can be known.

This is the challenge of being awake: to be without knowing it.

One tries to negate thoughts by thinking not this, not that... as in MU! Or as in the Heart Sutra's“No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body mind: no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or what the mind takes hold of”. Still, thoughts keep splitting the mind off from itself, reproducing separation from being, constantly knowing. Practicing like this is a blood bath of cutting without the mind ever cutting into itself.

But practice can be as painless as surrender. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom goes: om gate gate paragate paramsamgate bodhi svaha. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond! One awakens, not via words or thoughts or even compassion, but by going through the gateless gate of one's heartmind opening to what is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

awakening mind

Just as the lotus, born of mud,
is not tainted thereby,
So the lotus of the Buddha
preserves the realization of voidness.
~ Vimalakirti Sutra

The iconography associated with awakened mind can be violent, depicting angry-looking spirits that bare their teeth while holding up the skulls of various enemies they've slain, or sword-wielding warriors mounted on animalsa lion, bull or elephantemerging victorious from battle.

A typical symbol of awakening is Manjushri, the bodhisattva of discriminating wisdom. Although his name is translated roughly as gentle glory, he encourages aspirants to transcend duality by cutting through it and is often depicted with a shining sword in his right hand. In my practice center, we place a handsome statue of him on the altar to inspire aspirants during sesshin. I can assure you, there is nothing gentle about it.

Though cutting metaphors effectively convey the incisive nature of a clear and determined mind, they symbolize a top-down virile approach to awakening. Over-reliance on this approach can shut down the mind rather than open it like the lotus. It is good to remember that the lotus is the classic pedestal of enlightened deities.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Two cocks were fighting and a monk asked:
"Why do they do this?"
and the master replied:
"It is because of you."

You are Hell, as Sartre would say. You disturb the placid stream of awareness that is my own limpid dream. You want me to see you but I’ll fight to the death for you to see me first.

But how quickly my rage melts into the mirror of your gentle consideration, reflecting back an image that is faithful to how I want to be seen. And then You are Heaven. To know me is to love me.

Attunement, acknowledgement, validation.

The Shaolin monks train to be impervious to You, to become like the well-trained cock whose eyes, according to Chuang Tzu, “do not even flicker when another bird crows. He stands immobile like a block of wood. He is a mature fighter. Other birds will take one look at him and run”.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In her book Start Where you Are, Pema Chodron recounts an incident when her desire to help a student was frustrated by his relapse into an addiction. She felt quite angry and disappointed about it and went to her teacher Chogyam Trungpa for advice. She quotes him as saying to her that, instead of having any expectations of people, she should “just be kind to them”. Her point is that helping behaviours, while appearing to be altruistic, are often “really about wanting success for ourselves” i.e. self-serving.

I have heard several Buddhist teachers echo this observation. They are pointing to a kind of moral activism latent in spiritual seekers, a covert form of intrusiveness motivated by the compulsion to rescue. Moral activism of this kind is neither loving nor compassionate. Rather, it is an attempt to exercise one’s power over a person or situation. And it is aggressive. By penetrating another’s space or violating his boundaries, separation is resisted rather than transcended.

This is true but not the whole story.

Like the helping behaviours driven by moral activism, passivism can also be unaware of its desire to take control of a person or situation. Masking its aggression as benign non-action, the silent treatment poses as non-interference, and moral indifference as equanimity. Whereas activism errs on the side of violating boundaries, passivism creates an invisible wall that disorients and distresses others. This reinforces the boundaries separating people and is as violent as transgressing them.

By penetrating boundaries or reinforcing them we set ourselves up as adversaries. Compassionate and loving action, on the other hand, implies that boundaries and distinctions have dissolved.

Just be kind.

My son put it very simply. Holding him, I’d said one morning that I felt his heart against mine. He responded by saying “They’re not against each other; they're on the same team”. And this is how love is.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Even if my skin should parch
even if my hand should wither
even if my bones should crumble into dust,
until I have attained the truth
I shall not move from this seat

Thus spoke the Buddha on the eve of his awakening.

He had been following the example of ascetics and had endured five years of mental and physical deprivation, believing that austerity was the path to freedom. But it was not. He only became more confused and distraught. Then along came a woman by the name of Sujata who offered him milk and rice which he took to satisfy his hunger and, all at once, he was invigorated and, as the next day dawned, came to full awakening.

This story teaches us that perseverance is important but not to the point of extremism. Extremism is just another trap engaging the mind in battle and leading to more suffering. No matter how hard we try to free ourselves, trying is not the way out. The way out is the way out. Respecting our capacity enables us to find it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

my original face

Look at the theatre masks. The smile turned upside down is a frown, and the grimace a grin; the same muscles contract in different directions.

Now imagine the sound each makes; the sound of laughter or sobbing. They sound similar too except that laughing is “drier” like an explosion of fiery air, whereas sobbing is “wet” like the gushing of a dam when it breaks.

Although laughing and sobbing move energy in different directions*, they both release tension from the solar plexus and are accompanied by convulsions of the diaphragm and the shedding of heat and often tears.

They both split us open. That is why we say that something tragic causes us to “break up” or “burst into tears”, and that something very funny is “side-splitting”, or “cracks us up”. Like a kernel of popcorn that explodes with the heat, the fine shell that holds us together gives way. It is a form of deliverance or catharsis.

But what am I delivered from? What laughs when I laugh? What cries when I cry? And why is it that the same incident can bring both joy and sorrow?

Originally, Greek tragedy and comedy were performed around a ritual object of worship-- a deity, hero or phallus-- whose death and rebirth was enacted through song and dance. Northrop Frye situated tragedy and comedy on a continuous cycle of birth/death/rebirth, tragedy being the Fall (death) part of the cycle and comedy the Spring (birth) mythos where the tragic hero is reborn as a clown.

We laugh and cry for the same reason: because we are at the mercy of the circle of life or Bhavacakra in Sanskrit. That’s why sex and other bodily functions are the brunt of so many jokes; they are out of our control. Freud attributed the funniness of “dirty jokes” to their having mischievously transgressed the inner censor (superego) whose task is to hide our nakedness from ourselves.

Ultimately, however, even nakedness hides the emptiness from which the circle of life is born.

What laughs when I laugh and cries when I cry comes from beyond joy and sorrow, and can be no other than what is unborn and undying in me, the flow of emptiness behind the mask whose hollow face hides my true nature. This precedes my birth and death and will survive my own existence. It is my original face before even my parents were born (Huineng).

*In yoga, these alternating currents running through the body are called prana (the transmutive energy of the inhalating breath that moves upward) and apana (the evacuative exhalating breath that moves downward).