Virtual Sesshin Day 1 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 1  – May 12th, 2020

Practice in the time of physical distancing. 

Whenever we sit, we sit alone. And yet the motivation aspect of gathering together, sitting together, sharing space together, following a set form and schedule can’t be underestimated. There is a different energy in a room filled with people.  But in essence there is no difference sitting on our own and with others. When we open up to our Original Nature the illusory boundaries between self and other diminish. In the ground of being we are all seamless.

Over this week we are going to be looking at how Ch’an was practiced by the Chinese, which has diverged from its roots in Taoism as it migrated to Japan and the West. This will provide context for the body of techniques that we are going to be exploring in this.  My perspective is that of one in training, pointing toward the path for others. The practices and foundations that have born fruit are worth sharing.

These practices are oriented toward solitary practice, though of course can always be used in any context. But they specifically do not depend upon a teacher, though it is always worth taking advantage of a teacher when one can. We project a lot onto the teachers and they can easily become yet another barrier we have to get through. The true value in a teacher is to keep pushing you, to keep saying “not yet”, to keep hubris in check and to verify our understanding.  In leu of a teacher always know there is more to go, always keep pushing. There is no end to the path and thus you can always go deeper.

We are going to be doing practices both inside and outside that are oriented toward Empty Awareness. While one can of course use this time in whatever techniques you are engaged in, I encourage you to try out this program for this retreat. There is value in trying something different, something fresh. It can stimulate and engage your practice and when you return to your previous techniques you may find them more alive again.

Working with different practices

All practices are skillful means and there are a myriad of skillful means. This is so because every mind is different and responds to these different skillful means. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of the different upaya so that they can be employed where they are needed.  Zongmi, a contemporary of Huangbo (Obaku) wrote an extensive text rooting the teachings of the ten primary branches of the Ch’an in his time in the canonical teaching of the sutras.  In this quote he explains the value of such a treatise: 

“First, there are those who have not fully awakened, in spite of the fact that have been studying under a master, and also, those who are conducting an earnest search, but have not yet met a good friend. By enabling them to browse through this compilation, they will have before them the dead behind the words of the masters, and they will use these to penetrate their own minds and cut of any remaining thoughts,  Second there are those who are already awakened, but who desire ti go in and become masters. This compilation will enable them to broaden their learning, and increase their good skill in teaching derives in order to embrace sentient beings and answer questions during instruction .” 

“Each [of the lineages] has a purport; none of them is in conflict with the intention of the Buddha” (Jeffery Broughton, Zongmi on Chan, p. 107-8)

These two purports he puts in are the same as what I am following in these talks: to present practices that may appeal to different minds at different stages on the path. All teachings are provisional and will need to be abandoned. Do not get attached to the false notion of the “one true way.”

Empty Awareness

When we are rooted in our direct experience, our internal monologue falls away and we are just operating as Awareness. This is being in tune with our Original Nature, simply pure awareness expressing itself through our relative forms, our bodies.  When our sense of identity is rooted in our Original Nature this is Empty Awareness.  Normally our identity is rooted in our sense of self, which is an amalgam of memories, feelings, conditioning.  When we let go of our conditioning this sense of the small self is seen as fundamentally empty. Empty Awareness is what remains.

As the commentary falls away there is a sense of an immense silence. There is a great power in stillness and out of it seeps this great silence. Silence is the experience of empty awareness. When you begin to slip into this modality it almost seems like a roaring silence.  All of the practices of this retreat are devoted to silence, to pure, empty awareness.

The foundations of Ch’an practice,
Zongmi writhes that Ch’an is a uniquely Chinese Expression of Buddhism. He saw it’s pithy phrases, use of poetry, direct response to conditions as embodying the Chinese character and culture which is heavily oriented around poetry.  But its whole understanding of how the universe manifests itself and how we live within it underlies that. Without beginning from that perspective Ch’an loses much of its essence. We will examine the foundations of Ch’an primarily through the works of David Hinton and through Ch’an Master Sheng Yen we will see it put into practice.

Absence and Presence

“No-Gate Gateway’s native philosophical context extends back over two millennia prior to its composition. And yet it remains remarkably contemporary to us, for as we will see it is an empirically grounded spirituality that weaves human consciousness into landscape and Cosmos at profound levels. In its radical essence, Ch’an is a formalized philosophical practice cultivating a spiritual ecology that is an extension of Taoism, the empirically based spiritual philosophy that had shaped Chinese intellectual life for over a thousand years before Buddhism arrived in China. Ch’an originated in the fourth century through an amalgamation of these two traditions: Taoism and dhyāna (meaning “meditation,” and rendered in Chinese as Ch’an) Buddhism. It was widely considered by artist-intellectuals as a form of Taoist thought refined and reconfigured by Buddhist meditation practice.

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