‘In the zazen of patch-robed monks, first you should sit correctly with upright postture. Then regulate your breath and settle your mind…
In the Mahayana there is… a method for regulating breath, which is knowing that one breath is long, another breath is short. The breath reaches the tanden and comes up from the tanden. Although exhale and inhale differ, both of them occur depending on the tanden. Impermanence is easy to clarify, and regulating the mind is easy to accomplish.
My late teacher Tiantong said, “Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore is is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.”
My late teacher said it like that. Suppose someone were to ask Eihei, “Master, how do you regulate your breath?”
I would simply say to him: Although it is not the great vehicle [Mahayana], it differs from the lesser vehicle. Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle.
Suppose that person inquired again, “Ultimately, what is it?
I would say to him: Exhale and inhale are neither long nor short.’ (Extensive Record, 390)
‘Illusion and awakening do not have different natures. We must grasp the origin of that which so completely blinds our self that we see dualism where none exists. We must become conscious within our most profound depths that our body, as it is, is one with our mind and that it is identical with the essence of the universe.’ (Commentary on the Song of Awakening)
I was starting to get embarrassed that I have not finished a book of any kind since the pandemic started, so I resolved to put my laptop away yesterday afternoon and pick up this book again. While I find some of Sawaki Roshi’s idiosyncracies a little grating, there are many gems as he illuminates the wonderful Shodoka.
Right now in San Francisco, we are between a heatwave and an atmospheric river – between one of those warm, sunny spells in the middle of winter that make me glad I live in California, and storms which will bring much needed rain to the area for the rest of the week. It also feels like we are between the optimism of the new administration taking its place, and the sinking realisation that the vaccination rollout is not necessarily going to mean the end of our dealings with the pandemic.
Since I moved in September, I have been glad to have a sweet and cosy apartment to hunker down in, and also especially grateful to be co-habiting with my partner, to be able to devote energy to building our lives together, and to have that intimate human connection that many have been suffering the lack of this past year. I feel very lucky in this regard. And since the turn of the year I have been glad to be able to offer a dharma talk at Zen Center, and to be able to start a new class for Within Meditation (each of the three Wednesdays so far has seen history being made, with insurrection followed by impeachment followed by inauguration). At the same time, the precarity of livelihood and health means that I don’t take any of this for granted.
In the middle of all these aspects of my life, one of my new routines is taking Collin the dog out for a walk several times a day, with my partner, or by myself. He is elderly, so we don’t usually cover more than half-a-dozen blocks. There are several variations of route around where we live, obviously, and I enjoy seeing the various houses, the distant city landmarks, the sky and the clouds, the different sidewalk plantings, which offer blossoms even in the middle of winter. And I enjoy watching Colling navigate in his way; he seems used to his new city life, and like any dog, relishes following his nose for traces of the other dogs we see and meet around the neighbourhood. I am not running so many errands on my bike these days, so the walk often serves as a valuable screen break during a day of working from home, gentle exercise, and the opportunity to pay close attention to my surroundings each time, however familiar and mundane they may appear to be.
‘I once heard a roshi give an ‘as-if’ explanation of Rinzai Zen methods. He said that when one becomes completely discontented with being in the suffering world of Samsara and doing things that seem worthless – what we might call ‘the divine discontent’ – it feels as though the whole structure of relativity surrounds one; and there arises a longing to break completely out of the whole thing and see reality for ourselves. The structure surrounds and traps us as though we were living in a prison. It is like being in a greenhouse made of frosted glass, and in meditation we attack it. Some people start breathing and rubbing at the frosting until they can see through a large patch, but it is dim and smeared. Others start scratching away with a fingernail until they get a bright peep-hole; but although sharply clear, it is very tiny. We must try to shatter the whole thing and find that “Nothing exists except pure radiant mind.”‘ (from the Middle Way)
A comment from Jerry, a long-time Zen Center acquaintance, about having sat a sesshin in London in 1972 sent me on a search for more details. One of the fruits of the search was finding a publication from the Buddhist Society – the source spring for most of Buddhist activity in the UK – and reading a fascinating account of Muriel Daw undertaking traditional monastic training with Soen Nakagawa. Look out for other excerpts coming along.
‘Even though we say “just sit,” to understand what does it mean is rather difficult, maybe. So that is why Dogen Zenji left us so many teachings to explain what is just to sit. But it does not mean his teaching is so difficult. When you sit, you know, without thinking or without expecting anything, and when you accept yourself as a buddha or as a tools of buddha or ornament of buddha, or if you understand everything is the unfolding of the absolute teaching or truth, or if you understand everything is a part of the great being–one whole being, when you reach this understanding, whatever we say, whatever we think, or whatever we see, that is the actual teaching of Buddha. And whatever we do, that is actual practice of the Buddha himself.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)
‘Yunyan asked a monk what he was doing. The monk replied, “I’ve been talking to a rock.” Yunyan said, “Did it nod to you [indicating that it understood you]? When the monk didn’t reply, Yunyan answered for him: “It nodded to you before you even said anything.”‘
‘What is called Zazen means to live at peace in the true basis of the universe, which is stillness. Movement is a secondary attribution: stillness is the real condition. Out of stillness comes all activity.’
I will be saying a few words about zazen, and then sitting still, at 6pm this evening, in my regular class for Within Meditation.
‘The Patriarchs and the descendants of the Bodhidharma are not supposed to rely on words and letters. Is that supposed to mean that silence is to be preferred and words are to be avoided? On the contrary, the one thing they want is for students to see that the real truth lies neither in words nor in silence. Once this fact is clear to you, all the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs are matters within your own house. So if you want to understand their teachings, please let go of whatever knowledge and wisdom you may have acquired up until now.’ (West Mountain Evening Talk)
‘It’s a fairy tale to think that once we have attained deep faith, or have had some great enlightenment experience, our whole life will be one joyous delight after another and all sadness will be swept away, so that all we can see is paradise. Living a life of true reality, experiencing an ongoing restlessness with alternate moments of joy and sadness, there has to be a settling into one’s life in a much deeper place, where you face whatever comes up. Likewise, true religious teaching is not a denial of our day-to-day predicaments; it is not cleverly glossing over reality, or feigning happiness. On the contrary, true religious teaching has to be able to show us how we can swim through one wave at a time—that is, those waves of laughter, tears, prosperity, or adversity.
Studying and practicing the buddhadharma is neither a kind of academic exercise to be carried out only after your livelihood has been secured, nor some sort of zazen performed when circumstances are favorable. I was forced to search out what true religion is when I was not unlike a stray dog, always badgered by anxieties over daily life, having to pick up whatever scraps I could.’ (from Laughter Through the Tears)