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About the Blog

These posts tend to be short. So much has been written about Buddhism and it is easy to find out more about any aspect of the teaching that you may be interested in. Sometimes I give book references. What is more important is that you find out your own true nature for yourself. This is what I am trying to give pointers towards.

Blinded by Thought

Many years ago I taught myself to draw using a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Her premise is that anyone who can hold a pencil and make a straight line can draw. The problem is that we don’t see what is in front of us because our thinking mind – the left side of the brain – hijacks our perception. The mind thinks it already knows what things look like and that blinds it to the actuality.

Look at a straight-sided mug, for instance. It appears to have straight sides with an ellipse at the top and a partial ellipse at the bottom. But if you draw that you get pointy bits where the sides meet the top and bottom edges, whereas in reality these places are rounded.

The book contains a number of exercises to make you really look at things, such as drawing the irregular spaces between objects that the mind can’t guess at. I was amazed at how quickly my drawing improved once I learned to look.

Just so with our other perceptive faculties, for example listening. Those of us who teach will, I’m sure, have had the experience of explaining something perfectly clearly, and possibly more than once, only to find out later that a student thought we said something completely different because that was what they already had in their mind and so did not hear what we actually said.

Once we know that this is how our mind works we can cultivate the ability to let go of thought and perceive more clearly. Just as I could learn to see and draw more accurately, we can become aware of how our thoughts can prevent us from hearing what is being said, or understanding the reality of a situation. The following quote from Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind gives us a clue:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

P.S. If anyone has a spare copy of either of these books and would like to donate them to the library here at Sitting Buddha Hermitage I would be very grateful. (Please email before sending as I only need one copy of each!)

No Problem

What would your life be like if you had no problems? And what if I suggested you that you have no problems? I don’t mean that all the tough stuff stops happening, I mean that it ceases to be a problem for you because you don’t see it as such.

How would you define the term problem? I think it is something along the lines of an unpleasant, unwanted or unexpected situation that is painful or difficult to deal with. It also carries an implicit sense that something is wrong. Maybe I think that something is wrong with me. Or I think that something is wrong with the world that delivered me up this problem.

Notice that this is all taking place in the realm of thought. Whatever the situation that we are facing, it is a coming together of causes and conditions. Just that. It is we who label it problem.

The Buddhist view is that each moment, in its arising, is immaculate, exactly what it needs to be. Our life is unfolding perfectly.

In Rev. Master Jiyu’s diary of her years in Japan, published as The Wild White Goose, there is a passage (p. 44 of the 2002 second edition) that she wrote after experiencing the beginnings of her first kensho (enlightennment experience):

The only thing I can possibly do in order to learn anything is to accept, in blind faith, everything that is happening to me, believing that it is all for my good, whatever it may be.

And there is a footnote to this, which says:

This is probably the most important sentence in the book from the point of view of someone who wishes to learn Zen.

What if you were to take the attitude that everything that happens is for your own good? Even if that seems far-fetched to you at the moment it is at least as valid a view as thinking of life’s difficult situations as problems. And doesn’t it make you feel more open instead of closed down? Doesn’t it make the whole situation more workable? I pose these questions for you to answer from your own experience, if you wish to explore this for yourself.

Right Effort

Right Effort is the effort to think, speak and act skilfully. It is traditionally described as the effort to prevent and overcome negative states of mind and to cultivate and maintain positive states of mind. So it is primarily concerned with mental, rather than physical effort.

So what does this mean in practice? When we are doing seated meditation it is pretty obvious that right effort is the effort required to keep our mind in the present moment, letting go of thought as it arises and paying attention to our inner landscape in a completely non-judgemental way.

As we go about our daily lives, however, we generally need to adopt a broader awareness. Sometimes it will be appropriate to bring a very focussed concentration to a task, but much of the time I think our awareness is more free-flowing. How then to apply right effort?

I’ve thought about this a lot recently and we discussed it at our Wednesday Sangha Evening. Last Saturday I attended the Regional Sangha Day in Leeds and joined a discussion on How can we be more present? which really ties in with right effort, and decided to continue this topic the following day on the day retreat here at the Hermitage. So with thanks to all who contributed their thoughts, the way that I am currently thinking of right effort is:

Right Effort is the effort to be present to oneself.

By which I mean that we have sufficient awareness of ourselves to be able to sense and respond to that inner prompting that nudges us to lend a hand, offer a kind word, stop what we were about to do, alter our course and all those other fine adjustments we make if we go through our day with an open mind and heart and an attitude of listening, both within and without.

The opposite to this would be the person who is determined to stick to their plan, to do things their own way, who is tuned out to any input from whatever source. This may take a lot of effort but it is certainly not right effort.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood is one of three steps of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path that are traditionally considered to be concerned with morality, the other two being right speech and right action.

Right – or skilful – livelihood asks how do we make our living? Does our job cause harm to anyone, including ourself? Is it beneficial to others? Does it require us to break the Precepts? Is it helping us in our spiritual practice or is it so stressful, for example, that we find it difficult or impossible to act mindfully and compassionately?

I think the question of right livelihood is quite complicated in today’s global society where you may be working for a large organisation with some questionable business practices even if your own role does not require you to act in any way that would go against your conscience. And there are many people in this world who have no choice but to do a job that wrecks their health and that of others.

Rather than looking at the nature of the job perhaps we would do better to look at our own motivation. If our motivation is unskilful, if we are greedy or ruthlessly ambitious, then any job we do is likely to be done in such a way as to cause harm, in which case it will not be right livelihood. On the other hand, if our motivation is to bring as much wisdom and compassion as we can to anything we do, then we may be able to transform even the most unpromising work environment into a means of helping beings.

Right Speech

Campaigning for the general election is in full swing here in the UK and I can’t help being struck by the harshness of speech that has become the norm for politicians. I also feel deeply that it does not have to be this way.

In the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha set out a complete guide to a compassionate way of living that will bring the most joy and fulfilment to oneself and others and lead to the realisation of our true nature. I believe these steps can be practised by anyone, whatever their walk of life and regardless of the way that their colleagues choose to conduct themselves.

One of the steps on the Path is right speech. In his book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, in the summary at the end of the chapter on Skilful Speech, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana lists some key points including this one:

The test of Skilful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”

I realise that this is a pretty tall order when in the midst of a lively conversation or debate, but the more one practises skilful speech in everyday life the more it becomes natural to speak in this way and, actually, to feel it keenly when one makes even a slight mistake and speaks in a harmful way.

Trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice we will often find ourselves going against the flow of what is considered normal behaviour, and it takes great courage and effort to do so. I am heartened by the few, exceptional, politicians that I have seen or heard of who can express themselves and their policies clearly and effectively without demeaning others. Such a person demonstrates to me a strength of character that is truly inspiring.

Dropping Off Body and Mind

Great Master Dogen’s expression dropping off body and mind has captured the imagination of many who have heard it and has been the subject of much study and scholarship. The expression appears to originate with Dogen’s master Tendo Nyojo, occurring many times in Dogen’s record of his conversations with his master.

Dogen himself uses the expression in a frequently quoted passage from Genjokoan, a key chapter in his Shobogenzo:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express the ungraspable trace of realization.

The above translation is by Shohaku Okumura, from the chapter called Dropping Off Body and Mind in his book Realizing Genjokoan. Here is part of Okumura’s explanation of dropping off body and mind from the same chapter:

We have many different experiences during the course of our lives, and in the process of experiencing these billions of things we create a self-image. We come to consider ourselves as capable or incapable, superior or inferior, rich or poor, honest or dishonest. We define ourselves in this way and hold on to ideas of who we are; we create the karmic self. But when we sit in zazen, we let go of all these self-images. When we open the hand of thought, these concepts drop off and the body and mind are released from karmic bindings.

These billions of experiences have not just created a self-image, they have created our whole world-view and way of being in the world. Another term for this is conditioning – we have been conditioned by everything that has happened to us in our lives. Meditation shows us that we do not need to be bound by our conditioning, we do not have to be limited by what has happened to us in the past, by the way things have been.

And it is not just our minds, but our bodies also, that are temporary collections of molecules, constantly in flux, impossible to hold on to.

As another of the Soto Zen ancestors, Sekito Kisen, puts it in Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage (trans. Taigen Dan Leighton):

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.

Open your hands and walk, innocent.

Walking Lightly

When we do walking meditation we step from one moment into the next, leaving the last moment behind and stepping into this new one with an open heart and mind. We tread softly, we carry nothing with us. We feel the ground beneath our feet, especially if we go barefoot. We feel our muscles and joints keeping us poised. Perhaps we are aware of our clothing moving against our skin, or the touch of the air as we move through it. We walk in harmony with those around us, neither slower nor faster than they. Thoughts may come and go, but we simply walk.

Walking meditation is a beautiful practice and also a wonderful metaphor for moving lightly through life.

Breathe

Further to last week’s post on relaxing tension in the body and mind, I’d like to talk briefly about how the way we breathe is linked to how much relaxation or tension we experience.

When we do zazen the instruction regarding the breath is to let ourselves breathe naturally through the nose without trying to manipulate the breath in any way, and I am not going to suggest we do anything differently when we are meditating.

What I am going to suggest is that you pay some attention to the quality of your breathing as you go about about your daily activities. What is your breathing like when you are feeling relaxed? Is it slow and deep? Are your ribs expanding nicely out to your sides? And what is happening when you feel stressed? I expect you will find that your breath is faster and shallow and maybe your ribcage is frozen. No real problem if this happens infrequently and for short spells. But for a lot of us this rapid and frozen way of breathing has become a habit and can actually be creating more tension.

The good news is that we can train ourselves out of bad habits and into better ones. There’s tons of information out there about improving your breathing (just type breathing into Amazon and you’ll see what I mean) but really, all you need to do to get started is notice your breathing when you are tense and see how you feel after taking a few good old-fashioned deep breaths, breathing slowly and letting your ribs expand to the sides. Does that feel good? Has the amount of tension you feel reduced?

Sometimes just bringing our attention to the breath, without the intention to change it, can be enough to trigger the body to bring itself back into balance by regulating the breath. Any improvement in the way we breathe is going to reduce tension and help us to be more relaxed both on and off the meditation cushion.

Relaxing into Meditation

We all know the benefits of relaxation, but perhaps we don’t associate relaxation with meditation. However, being able to relax our body in meditation goes a long way to helping the mind to be calm and open.

Don’t get me wrong – a relaxed body is not a prerequisite for meditation and if we have pain or tension from an underlying condition that we can do nothing about then we can certainly meditate with that pain and tension. What I am talking about is what I have heard referred to as volitional tension, the tension we have a choice to hold or let go of, even if that choice is not immediately accessible to us.

Tension in the body is closely associated with resistance to unwanted thoughts, emotions and sensations. When we meditate we start to see how and why we resist, and the suffering it causes us, and begin to let go. We can greatly aid this process by becoming aware of our physical tension and doing what we can to release it. There are many, many ways to do this including any recreational activity that helps you unwind any any type of bodywork that releases muscle tension.

I find it helpful to spend a moment or two, when I sit to meditate, becoming aware of tension in my body – for me it is often in my neck and shoulders – and picturing it flowing out of my body into the earth as I breath out. All of us hold layers of tension in our bodies that have built up over the course of our lives. Working to dissolve our tension will definitely benefit our meditation and also improve the quality of our lives.