6/29/2022 Unconscious Consciousness. Last Sunday, getting ready to make a bowl of my traditional rice and veges with adzuki beans, after meditations in my teahut, I opened an upper cupboard in my trailer. 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 conditioned 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 in 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.
I’ve had projects that flowed together like that and other times when everything seemed to be putting up a fight. When that happens, the best thing to do is retreat, and either do something else, or sit down and meditate until all resistance dissolves.
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. Shitou’s hut was likely more than “ten square feet,” which is not large enough to lie down in, much less live in. My teahouse/meditation hut is 9 feet by 6 feet, or three 3 x 6 foot tatami mats, the smallest standard sized teahouse.
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 local 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 North 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 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 that’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 15 or 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 that I thought 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 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 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 the best way to get the body used to sitting like that, 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 it 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 little electronic tester. When I take it just before my late night meditation it’s normal, but right afterwards it’s as much as twenty points 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, and falter (in my opinion) when they go off on their own, 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.
I’ll probably combine this commentary with others, to make a separate section for book reviews.