7/27/2022 Stopping Thinking (or not). An old metaphor for trying to stop thoughts in meditation is that it’s like trying to get rid of weeds by placing a heavy rock on top of them. When the rock is removed the weeds grow right back. But just because they always come back, doesn’t mean it’s useless to stop thoughts. Even if it were possible to stop thinking entirely, forever, it would cripple normal functioning.
But stopping thinking temporarily — or at least slowing it down enough to see the forest for the trees, is essential to meditation practice.
Not thinking isn’t stopping all mental activity and becoming brain dead or getting into some kind of trance state that shuts everything out. It’s opening up and becoming more aware and awake to what is immediately present. The part of the mind that thinks conceptually and discursively is just a narrow, individual sliver of normal mentation — but it tends to be all-consuming, shutting out the rest of the world, which is vast by comparison.
Thinking serves to foster and protect a separate identity or self and the conditioning necessary for it’s continuity. While that’s essential for dealing with everyday life, it comes at considerable cost, cutting the individual off from deeper more satisfying levels of existence and understanding.
In the hexagram Keeping still, Mountain, the I Ching emphasizes keeping the back still —
The back is named because in the back are located all the nerve fibers that mediate movement. If the movement of these spinal nerves is brought to a standstill, the ego, with its restlessness, disappears as it were. When a man has thus become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it the struggle and tumult of individual beings, and therefore he has the true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.
Simply settling the body and mind in the posture of meditation, and sitting still, will naturally eliminate the tendency to follow trains of thought. But it’s important to just let thoughts go rather than try to suppress them, which is like smothering a fire, it makes a lot of smoke and, as the I Ching says, The heart suffocates … Calmness must develop naturally and gradually, from inner composure. If one tries to induce calmness by artificial rigidity, meditation will lead to unwholesome results.
7/16/2022 Loneliness VS. Solitude. A brief survey of research into loneliness and solitude reveals that they are two divergent phenomena, which are often confused.
Loneliness, does not necessarily mean to actually be “alone.” The feeling of loneliness is amplified in crowds, when there’s no connection with other surrounding individuals. Social isolation is shown to be bad for our brains and health in general. The part of the brain that develops to deal with social situations and other people literally shrinks. Probably the loneliest place to be is in a crowded city without friends or acquaintances.
Solitude by contrast is to actually be alone, away from other people. Studies have shown that “people who learn to find comfort in solitude tend to be happier, experience lower levels of stress and are less likely to have depression.” Time alone, for many of us, is just as important as time spent with friends and family.
David Brooks, in a New York Times column today about lonely young men who become mass shooters, writes, “We see ourselves as others see us, and when no one sees us, our sense of self disintegrates.”
Other people project an identity and a reality onto us, which gives us a sense of belonging and security that most folks have difficulty living without. But that identity is also restrictive and limiting. Solitude can be liberating, opening up a larger more secure sense of self that includes the whole world. By contrast, the mass shooter, in a misguided attempt to create a larger than life self, is driven by loneliness to become famous for killing other people.
7/12/2022 Diversion and Distraction. My brother, bless his heart, gave us a Roku for our TV when he visited recently. I think he felt sorry for us, poor Luddites, deprived of the latest in technology to divert us from the existential boredom of human existence. We already had a TV, but it was only used for the occasional DVD movie from the local video rental store, one of the last of its kind. But our TV had never been hooked up to anything. Until now.
Before long I was spending almost every evening laying back in an old recliner staring at the TV, mostly watching youtube videos and mysteries on Brit Box. That’s still only a fraction of the time the average American spends glued to a screen.
Eventually I started to feel guilty. I was already spending too much time looking at the news on my computer and agonizing over the impending takeover of the country by fascist mobs.
Why guilty? Because I wasn’t being productive. I was wasting time.
I realized I’ve been infected by that uniquely American syndrome – the protestant work ethic. Americans, more than citizens of any other country, are defined by what they do for work. Research shows that we also suffer much more when we’re “out of work.” Usually the first question from a new acquaintance is, “What do you do?”
Then there’s Zen Buddhism, which is also infused with a strong work ethic. Zen monasteries in ancient China supported themselves for the most part with agriculture and simple manufacturing of things such as straw sandals. That’s how zen survived the persecution of Buddhists by Emperor Wu in the 9th century, which wiped out the other larger Buddhist sects who were dependent on the ruling class for support.
The 8th century Chinese zen master, Pai Chang, who established the Zen monastic rule, had a saying, “A day without work is a day without food.” He was insistent on working every day. When he was very old, he persisted in this, and his monks worried he would hasten his death, but they were unable to get him to stop. Finally, in desperation, they hid his tools from him. “I have no virtue,” he said, “Why should others work for me?” Then he refused to eat anything. Finally the monks relented and gave him his tools so he could continue working – and eating.
Once Yun Yen asked him, “Every day there’s hard work to do. Who do you do it for?” Pai Chang said, “There is someone who requires it.” Yun Yen said, “Why not have him do it himself?” Pai Chang replied, “He has no tools.”
At the end of his poem, Merging of Difference and Unity Shitou, wrote –
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.
Or in another translation —
I humbly say to those who study the mystery,
Don’t waste time.
7/3/2022 Huang Po and the One Mind. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, On the Transmission of Mind, Translated by John Blofeld and published in 1958, should be on any short list of essential books on zen. I first read it in the 1980’s when a friend, who wasn’t that interested in meditation, thought I might like it. I’ve probably read it more times than any other book.
Huang Po was a zen master in ninth century China, a pivotal era in the history of zen, or chan, from which most of the collected stories and koan originate. He was the teacher of Rinzai, founder of one of the two major schools of zen to come down to us.
When Rinzai experienced a great enlightenment he exclaimed, “After all, there’s not much to Huang Po’s zen.”
Indeed, his instruction is simple (if difficult) — just rid yourself of all conceptual thought and in a flash you’ll awaken to the One Mind. Every single thing, Buddhas and ordinary beings, are just the One Mind and the One Mind is like the Void, unfathomable and boundless.
Despite his insistence that all concepts be let go of, Huang Po introduced the overarching concept of “One Mind.” The One Mind, the source of all forms and phenomena, is at the same time empty like the Great Void — an echo of the form and emptiness of the Heart Sutra.
There is nothing that can be said or made evident. There is just the omnipresent voidness of the real self-existent nature of everything, and nothing more.
When concentration and clarity are sufficient, the bare concept of the One Mind can be used as an object of meditation to trigger enlightening experiences and insight.
In Bendowa, Dogen, the Founder of Soto Zen in Japan, states, “All dharmas are the One Mind, and the One Mind is all dharmas.” I think that by “dharmas” Dogen is not referring to teachings, but to what I’d call “mind streams.” Thus all mind-streams are one mind.
The Zen Teaching of Huang Po is full of technical Buddhists terms and images. It’s definitely not for beginners, although some who read it immediately think that they’ve understood zen enlightenment and that there’s no need to practice further. But Huang Po himself says —
Even if you understand this, you must make the most strenuous efforts. Throughout this life, you can never be sure of living long enough to take another breath.
6/29/2022 Unconscious Consciousness. The other day I opened an upper cupboard to get something. Apparently a glass lid on a sauce pan was leaning against the cupboard door. When I reached up and pulled it open, the heavy glass lid flew out like a Frisbee.
My hand shot out sideways and grabbed it in midair.
If I’d had to think about it first I couldn’t have possibly caught the lid before it hit something. That kind of thing happens to me a lot. I’ve had several close calls, especially while driving, where I managed to barely avoid serious accidents with quick, completely unconscious reactions.
I believe such abilities are heightened through meditation practice. When individual thoughts and the conscious mind, which separate us from everything else, are quieted and put aside in meditation and emptiness, then a larger, unconscious, more universal mind takes over and the entire world becomes a friend and helper. To quote the Bhagavadgita from the chapter on meditation —
One’s own self is the friend of that Self by whom the lower self is conquered; on the other hand, that very Self, of one who has not conquered their lower self, behaves inimically, like one’s own enemy.
Tapping into that larger unconscious Self makes it easier to get into a “flow state” or “zone,” where you’re completely immersed in each action you’re taking and everything else drops away in total concentration and ecstatic clarity. Whatever you’re doing comes together effortlessly, each element falling into place at just the right time, without having to think about it.
6/24/2022 Selected Lines from the Song of the Grass Hut
By Shitou Xiqian
Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A shining window below the green pines—
jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn the light around to shine within; then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.
“Grass” construction is a form of thatch which can make structures that are quite substantial. “Ten feet square,” or 10ft by 10 ft is about double the size of my little teahouse/meditation hut, which is only 9ft by 6ft, the smallest standard sized teahouse. But my hut is only used for meditation, serving tea and the occasional nap, while Shitou apparently lived in his hut year-round. I have an 8ft by 18ft vintage travel trailer, painted dark green to blend with the woods, parked nearby for cooking and sleeping (which I bought from a neighbor for $125 about 20 years ago).
The Japanese teahouse is based on the romantic tradition of the hut in the wilderness where Chinese recluses retired from the world to meditate. Such huts were built from the simplest, readily available, local materials. I put together my rustic hut from local redwood board and batten, with shoji window screens cut from pellon interfacing (used in sewing) from a yardage store — more durable than rice paper from Japan. The walls are modular, built separately, so they can be unscrewed and taken apart for transport. It was originally sited hanging on a steep bank over the San Lorenzo River in the Santa Cruz Mountains and now rests in a secluded area among pine trees and Rhododendrons on the northern coast of California.
6/23/2022 Pranayama. In the sixties I started doing pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), along with hatha yoga and intensive meditation, and I’ve continued to incorporate various pranayama exercise into my daily meditation routine.
I do at least one round of alternate breathing (Nadi Suddhi), or nerve purification, with practically every period of sitting meditation (the method is shown near the end of meditation basics). I’ve found alternate breath control to be especially helpful at the beginning of meditation to calm overactive discursive thinking.
I was skeptical of the practice of just breathing from only one side to activate specific subtle nerve channels (nadi) said to exist on either side of the spine, in order to control “prana” or psycho/sexual energy — the right nostril side (pingala) being the extroverted (Active), solar nadi and the left nostril side (ida) the introverted, lunar nadi.
Then I came across a 2019 review of scientific evidence on the effects of yogic breath control (pranayama) that appears to confirm yogic teachings regarding alternate breathing, as well as numerous benefits of pranayama in general. According to research, Nadi Suddhi breathing just through the left nostril stimulates the parasympathetic system and a general relaxation response, along with a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, whereas right nostril breathing does the opposite, activating the sympathetic nervous system’s “flight or fight response,” along with an increase in both blood pressure and heart rate.
6/22/2022 Meditation and Self. According to some recent research into Mind-body practices and the self, “yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement.” That statement implies that meditation and yoga enhance the ego. But I think it’s misleading. Both Mahayana (including zen) and Vedantic systems of meditation, posit two layers of self — a small, individual self and a big, universal Self. Or as Suzuki Roshi taught, “small mind and big mind.”
Most individuals who are considered egotistical are actually insecure, with fragile egos in need of reinforcement. By contrast those who appear selfless have strong, secure egos. Why? Because their small self/mind has been subsumed to some degree by big mind. Thus meditation and yoga appear to strengthen the individual ego when it is actually “lost” in a larger, more universal self.
As indicated in my earlier blogpost Sameness and Difference below, according to the Lankavatara Sutra the small self/mind and the big Self/mind are neither separate or not separate (the same or different). However, the big Self/mind essentially supersedes the small self/mind in the long run, like waves returning to the ocean.
6/21/2022 Enlightened Mind. The mind of enlightenment is always present in everyone, equally, without exception. But it usually goes unrecognized, even though it is sometimes spontaneously experienced. Without understanding or training it isn’t cultivated. Thus it’s neglected and covered by worldly concerns and myriad conditions. It’s been compared to a priceless jewel lost in a dung heap. When there’s a real glimpse, it isn’t soon forgotten. Like losing a valuable gem in a crowded marketplace, a frantic search begins.
Taking up meditation practice, day by day over decades, it becomes more familiar. In the refuge of inner silence and emptiness it shines forth. Everything is resolved in an instant. All is forgiven.
The mind of enlightenment is the only stable source of happiness. Every other happiness is impermanent and fleeting, sometimes even changing to its opposite.
6/20/22 Pursuit of Happiness. About 20 years ago I wrote a somewhat rambling piece for a local magazine titled “This Present Moment.” A typically zen line I came up with, which the editor liked so much he featured it in an enlarged excerpt, was — “If happiness is getting what you want, then the way to be happy, instantly, is to want what you get.” I thought I was pretty clever, until I happened to listen to a tape of a talk by Ajhan Amaro, a Theravada Buddhist Monk living at a monastery nearby, in which he repeated the exact same line word for word. Although he didn’t attribute the saying, I assumed he’d read my article, and I was flattered that he would repeat something I’d written. Then I saw the date on the tape — it was apparently made shortly before the magazine came out. So I don’t know if that saying is original or not, or where it came from. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s true regardless — wanting what you get is crucial to happiness.
It can also be difficult sometimes.
This morning my cat, with a little help from my not paying attention, managed to break an irreplaceable plate I was very fond of. I have to admit it was a bit of a struggle not to let it spoil my mood.
But I persevered. And after a few minutes I let it go. Everything is impermanent I told myself. It was just another reminder that my 80-year-old body wasn’t going to last much longer either, something I don’t contemplate much, but maybe I ought to.
Then one of my renters called to say the new water heater I’d just installed a few days prior, in a cramped space under his counter, had stopped producing hot water. Oddly enough that wasn’t as difficult to swallow as the cracked plate, since it presented a challenge, and I pride myself on keeping the place up and providing a nice living space for someone. I also knew there was a good chance I could find the problem and fix it, which I did shortly after driving over there.
That afternoon my old walk-behind mower broke down mowing the large over-grown back yard and I had to spend precious time working on it in the hot sun. It was then that the multiple meditation periods I’d done the day before really kicked in. I was overcome with happiness just to be there, lying on the grass, sweating and awkwardly reaching under the mower, even with my sore shoulder. I was happy. Even blissful.
Afterwards, when I turned on the drip system I’d laid to a bunch of Rhododendrons, I discovered the mower had mangled one of the drip lines and I had to squeeze new pieces back together with my old stiff hands. But I was still really happy. Why? It wasn’t any sort of mental gymnastics. Nothing special. It was just myself, being myself. Completely. In the present moment. Nothing else required.
6/19/2022 Innocence. It’s Sunday evening and I just returned from my weekly meditation retreat in my little teahouse/meditation hut in the woods near here. Such a beautiful day on the North Coast of California! It was all I could do not to work in the garden instead of sitting zazen all day. As often happens I got sleepy around 3:00 o’clock so I lay down on the tatami for one period and took a brief nap. I awoke and went back to meditating with renewed focus. Before my nap the 25 minute periods of zazen seemed to drag on forever, and I kept glancing at the timer, but after the nap my mind was suddenly clear and open and the time flew by. Amazing.
As is my habit I’d made a bowl of macha (powdered green tea) when I first arrived in the morning. Then I threw the I Ching. I got Hexagram 25, Innocence. It’s not one of my favorites because the judgement says, If someone is not as he should be, he has misfortune. I’m rarely “as I should be” (innocent). However, there was a change in the second line which read, If one does not count on the harvest while plowing, nor on the use of the ground while clearing it, it furthers one to undertake something. This reminded me that past and future have no real existence and that I shouldn’t think I need to work really hard at meditation from now until I breakthrough to complete enlightenment in some distant future, because the enlightened mind is always ever-present (even if I’m only occasionally aware of it). All it requires is to be innocent of such thoughts and completely present right here in this instant.
Afterwards in my little trailer nearby, when I made my traditional beans and rice dinner, with vegetables from the garden, my mindfulness continued, along with a blissful sense of well-being.
6/18/20202222 Hatha Yoga and the Full Lotus. I first encountered the word “Yoga” when I read Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga as a teenager in the 1950’s. It was only later that I discovered there are numerous different types of yoga, including hatha yoga, which is what most people today identify with the term yoga — probably because yoga teachers in the West tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the physical postures (asana) of hatha yoga.
In the late sixties, at the age of twenty-six, I retreated to an isolated shack beside a pond in the foothills of the Sierras to devote myself to meditation. In order to get my body to sit comfortably in the full lotus I took up the practice of hatha yoga. Unlike today, with yoga studios almost everywhere, hatha yoga classes were very rare in those days. So I read the few books on the subject that were available and started experimenting with the physical postures on my own. The asana that I found to be the most helpful for getting into a full lotus is the head to knee forward bend or “Janu Sirsasana.”
To do the head to knee pose, sit upright, flat on the floor, with both legs straight out in front of you. Pull one foot back towards your groin, with the bent leg on the floor and the sole of the foot against the inside of the opposite thigh.
Keeping the back straight reach forward over the extended leg with both hands. Be sure to maintain the natural curve of the low back. With the inbreath stretch out towards the front foot to eventually grasp the big toe. On the outbreath relax the torso downwards, the head going towards the knee, with the aim of touching the forehead to the straight knee and the elbows to the floor on either side. Continue stretching and relaxing for several deep in and out breaths before switching sides.
To make the knees more flexible for the half or full lotus, raise the the bent leg and place the foot over the opposite thigh, as in the half lotus, keeping the knee on the floor. Then bend forward again as before, stretching and relaxing with in and out breaths, alternating which leg is on the opposite thigh and which is straight out in front. If the pose is repeated two or three times on both sides, you should find that with each repetition you’re able to bend forward and downwards more easily and the bent leg will become more flexible.
Actually sitting in the half or full lotus, gradually extending the time, is still the best way to get the body used to sitting that way, but the head to knee pose is wonderful for loosening up the hips and knees in preparation.
When sitting in the half lotus with either leg on top is comfortable, you can progress to the full lotus. Place a foot on the opposite thigh and then very carefully bend the other leg in and lift the foot over and onto the opposite thigh in the full lotus. If possible, alternate which leg is on top, gradually extending the time. Gently reverse the process when coming out of the full lotus.
A variation of the head to knee forward bend is the Maha Mudra, which is used, along with special breathing exercises, to stimulate kundalini and control sexual energy. After you bring one foot back towards the groin you put both hands on the floor and lift yourself up slightly, then slide forward over the the foot until the heal rests under one side of the perineum.
Note — There is a “Mahamudra” tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that is probably not connected to the above Maha Mudra.
6/17/2022 Sameness and Difference. In the Lankavatara Sutra, right near the beginning, the Buddha states — Thus, Mahamati, if the intrinsic aspect of our repository consciousness and the unfolding aspect of consciousness were separate, the repository consciousness could not be its cause. But if they were not separate, the cessation of the unfolding aspect of consciousness would also mean the cessation of repository consciousness And yet its intrinsic aspect does not cease. Thus, Mahamati, what ceases is not the intrinsic aspect of consciousness, only its karmic aspect. For if the intrinsic aspect of consciousness ceased, Mahamati, that would be no different from the nihilistic views proposed by followers of other paths.
In the popular metaphor of water and waves — they are neither separate, nor not separate. If they were separate, water could not contain waves. But it does. Hence they are not separate. And yet if they were really not separate, when the waves ceased, the water would also cease. But the water remains, even when the waves cease.
When it is free of the unfolding and karmic aspects of consciousness, the “repository consciousness” is known as the tathagata-garba (womb of the Buddha) or simply the Buddha Mind.
In the next paragraph of the Lankvatara, the Buddha states, Mahamati, the followers of other paths claim that when the grasping of an external world ceases, the continuity of consciousness also ceases. But if the continuity of consciousness ceased, that continuity which has no beginning would also cease.
This sounds a lot like eternalism, unless it’s remembered that when the “unfolding aspect of consciousness” ceases, so do all distinctions, such as unfolding and ceasing.
6/16/2022 Late Night Meditations and Blood Pressure. After a lifetime of sleeping like a baby (or a teenager), when I turned sixty I started waking up in the middle of the night after about four hours and I’d have trouble getting back to sleep again. Now, instead of fighting it, I get out of bed, don an ample terrycloth robe with a monk’s hood, and sit down (by the heater in winter) and meditate for two hours (four 25 minute periods of sitting with 5 minutes of walking meditation in between) before going back to sleep for another three or four hours.
I’ve come to savor those meditations in the peace and quiet of the dead of night. Combined with a session before bedtime and again in the morning I can easily reach my goal of three hours of zazen a day. Apparently that’s what it takes for me to continue experiencing those delicious moments of spontaneous insight. While the insights are not as exuberant as they once were, they are deeper and more lasting — although I have yet to reach stability and continuity, it that’s even possible.
Lately, I’ve been occasionally checking my blood pressure with a handy electronic tester. When I take it just before my late night meditation it’s normal or even slightly elevated, but right afterwards it’s twenty points or more lower for the top number and 10 points lower for the other number. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. It’s almost too low, although I don’t have any symptoms of low blood pressure, like dizziness or feeling faint. My daytime meditation sessions also produce a drop in blood pressure, but not as dramatic — only a few points lower after meditating. It does show that its having an effect on my organism, a least temporarily.
Meditation is often touted as some sort of cure-all, but I think it’s been oversold. Most folks who start meditating give it up before very long. I’ve stuck with it for almost 60 years out of an insane need to understand this life, where we come from and where we go. It turns out that the answers are intuitive and subjective, and unless one is a teacher or writing books, and making a career of it, it’s hard to justify all the time and effort. I don’t blame those who quit after a while. It’s a long hard path, with little pay-off in the currency of this world. Still, I don’t regret a moment of it.
6/15/2022 The Lankavatara Sutra. My first copy of the Lankvatara was the “epitomized version” by Dwight Goddard which I read and reread in the early sixties while living in the Haight Ashbury. It’s based on D.T. Suzuki’s version, translated from a 1923 sanskrit recension, or composite. Why Suzuki would choose what is obviously an inferior version to translate into English, when there were good Chinese translations available, is a mystery to me. He did something similar with his translation of an inferior version of the Awakening of Faith, another seminal Mahayana Buddhist text. I think that unlike some translators, such as Thomas Cleary, who are only good at translating, D.T. Suzuki was at his best when writing original material rather than translating texts into English. Cleary also has a translation of the Lankavatara (only available on Kindle) which I have yet to read, but that sounds very similar to Suzuki’s.
Goodard’s version of the Lankavatara, despite being “epitomized,” is still plenty complex and abstruse, but simpler and more accessible than D.T. Suzuki’s translation, upon which it was based (with Suzuki’s blessing). It hammers home the basic message of the Lankavatara — that everything is an illusion, or “mind only,” and that the truth can only be experienced through personal realization and cannot be expressed in words.
Lately I’ve been “studying” (one doesn’t easily just read the Lankvatara) the comparatively recent translation by Red Pine. I put off buying it for some time because I was skeptical that a bearded American from Port Townsend Washington was up to such a daunting task. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised, to say the least. Red Pine’s translation from the most popular Chinese version, which was probably the same one that Bodhidharma recommended as the only text his disciple would need, is surprisingly different than what D.T. Suzuki came up with — one obvious difference being the translation of a central concept in the Sutra that is said to be the basis of an illusory perception of reality, that Suzuki apparently translated as “discrimination” and Red Pine translates instead as “projection.” I think that both words are meant to describe how our conceptual mind creates a manageable reality from the constantly changing, chaotic input of the senses. The Sutra emphasizes that it’s those mental discriminations and projections that prevent us from seeing our true nature.