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Month: June, 2020

Virtual Sesshin Day 3 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 3  – May 14th, 2020

Moving through the world without obstruction

Everything that we are engaged in during this retreat is oriented around naturalness, around moving through the world without obstruction.  We are ‘just sitting’. We we are engaged in the outside practices we are ‘Just Walking’ and ‘Just Gazing’.  When we are doing samu, we are ‘Just Working’. Just doing whatever task we are engaged in.  When we chant we are ‘Just Chanting. All of these activities as well as all of the activities in our lives can be done directly  from our true nature. When we operate from the self, we are at least one step removed. This artificial construct of memories, feelings, conditioning takes in our surroundings and circumstances and processes it through this conditioning. The signals and hints that our true nature sends up to us — the feeling that we are in sync with circumstances — is treated as another input. An input that is so often overridden by our small concerns, our conditioned responses.  But when the self recedes and is revealed as inherently empty, when our identity is that of True Nature then are responding directly, naturally to circumstance and the environment. 

Wu Wei in Chuang Tzu. It is the title of Chapter 1, and section 11 of Chapter 6 includes this description of two sages: 

On loan from everything else, they’ll soon be entrusted back to the one body. Forgetting liver and gallbladder, abandoning ears and eyes, they’ll continue on again, tumbling and twirling through a blur of endings and beginnings. They roam at ease beyond the tawdry dust of this world, nothing’s own doing [wu-wei] wandering boundless and free through the selfless unfolding of things.

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270).

The practice of Wu Wei, Non-Doing or Effortless effort, is the heart of this retreat.  All of these practices are are oriented around slipping past the self, to pure awareness. When we see the conditioned self as empty, we then operate from Empty Awareness and move through the world without obstruction. It’s not that there are not obstacles in our path, but that we flow around them like water flowing past a rock. We are not pushed around but the thoughts, feelings and emotions. They arise from circumstance but the Still Pool can absorb it all without a ripple. 

Wu Wei

Wu has a double meaning that creates a profound literary/philosophical resonance here in these names, and in the book’s celebrated first sangha-case. In addition to meaning “Absence,” that fundamental cosmological/ontological principle, wu is a simple grammatical function word meaning “not.” So on the surface, Wu-men means simply “no-gate,” investing the title with the enigmatic and, as will become clear, profound concept of a “no-gate gateway,” a kind of distilled sangha-case. But wu must also be read as that generative Absence, transforming “no-gate” into “Absence-gate.” This adds a whole new dimension to the title—Wu-men Kuan—for it now means “Absence-gate gateway,” or perhaps “Absence’s gateway.” And that Absence-gate also appears in the first couplet of the four-line gatha that ends the book’s Foreword, where Tao (Way) also appears, together with Presence, the other fundamental element of Taoist ontology/cosmology: The great Way is a single Absence-gate here on a thousand roads of Presence. Once through this gateway, you wander all heaven and earth in a single stride.

This double meaning of wu had long been exploited in the philosophical tradition, complicating terms such as wu-wei and wu-sheng. Wu-wei (無為) dates to the earliest levels of Taoist thought and means literally “not/Absence” (wu) + “acting” (wei). It was a spiritual practice among ancient artist-intellectuals, and it was further cultivated in Ch’an practice. Wu-wei means “not acting” in the sense of acting without the metaphysics of self, or of being absent when you act. This selfless action is the movement of tzu-jan (Tao unfurling as the ten thousand individuated things), so wu-wei means acting as an integral part of tzu-jan’s spontaneous process of Absence burgeoning forth into Presence, and Presence dying back into Absence. This opens to the deepest level of wu-wei’s philosophical complex, where the term’s alternate sense of “Absence” + “acting” means wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as, the ontological source. As Ch’an masters dramatized in their wild antics, behavior that likens them to Chuang Tzu’s zany Taoist sages, to practice wu-wei is to move with the wild energy of the Cosmos itself, energy ancient artist-intellectuals recognized most dramatically in rivers-and-mountains landscapes.

-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (pp. xvi-xviii).

Acting from our True Nature

This naturalness, this Wu Wei is nothing less than our true nature acting through us.  When we move through the world from our true nature than there is nothing that can obstruct us. Barrier arise and are flowed around, circumstances do not overtake us.  When the small self is running the show, endlessly commenting on everything, we are removed, distanced from our surroundings. This adds a hesitancy, a self-conscious remove from responding to the moment. Those who hesitate are lost!

Wu-wei:  Nothing’s own doing, etc.

Impossible to translate the same way in every instance, wu-wei means acting as a spontaneous part of tzu-jan (things occurring of themselves) rather than with the self-conscious intention that seems to separate us from tzu-jan’s selfless process. Different contexts emphasize different aspects of this rich philosophical concept as writers exploit the term’s grammatical ambiguity. Literally meaning “not/nothing (wu) doing (wei),” wu-wei’s most straightforward translation is simply “doing nothing” in the sense of not interfering with the flawless and self-sufficient unfolding of tzu-jan. But this must always be conceived together with its mirror translation: “nothing doing” or “nothing’s own doing,” in the sense of being no one separate from tzu-jan when acting. 

As wu-wei is the movement of tzu-jan, when we act according to wu-wei we act as the generative source. This opens to the deepest level of this philosophical complex, for wu-wei can also be read quite literally as “non-being (wu) doing.” Here, wu-wei action is action directly from, or indeed as the ontological source: nonbeing burgeoning forth into being. This in turn invests the more straightforward translation (“doing nothing”) with its fullest dimensions, for “doing nothing” always carries the sense of “enacting nothing/nonbeing.”

-David Hinton. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (p. 270)

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Virtual Sesshin Day 2 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 2  – May 13th, 2020

Cultivating the Still Pool

We began yesterday with what I call ‘relaxing into awareness’. Relaxing into awareness can lead us right down into our true nature. You relax the body until you have no sense of it, you relax your placing of attention until there is only awareness, you relax your thinking until there is only silence. This is cultivating the still pool.

Becoming like a perfectly still pool, reflecting everything and nothing. This is the basis of all of our practices. There are several paths here, following the breath, relaxing into awareness and just sitting are the routes that we are going to take.  The Ch’an approach is one of naturalness, which is something we will constantly encounter and explore.  

The question of effort is a vital one.  Whenever there is effort, the self is involved.  But we can use effort to establish a practice, toward naturalness.  This is captured simply and directly in this mondo between Chou Chou (Joshu) and Nanyue (Nansen)

Ordinary Mind is the Way

Chou Chou (Visitation-Land) asked Nanyue (Wellspring-South Mountain):
“What is Way?”
“Ordinary mind is Way,” answered Master Nanyue.
“Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
“To set out is to be distant from.”
“But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?”
“Way isn’t something you can understand, and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness.
“If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe, all generative emptiness you can see through into boundless clarity
“Now, how can you force that into coherence with the logic of yes-this no-that?”
Hearing these words, Chaou chou was suddenly awakened.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway  (p. 46).

We are going to move from relaxing into awareness into ‘Just Sitting’.  When we relax into awareness, especially if you can take that final step of relaxing your attention, you are almost there to Just Sitting.  In its purest form Just Siting, is simply sitting in empty awareness.  There is no concerns of the self, no agenda, no technique.  It is what Sheng Yen calls the ‘Method of No-Method.’  Just like with effort we can employ, very basic techniques such as the relaxing method, to reach a place where we let go of method. That place is the Still Pool. The Still Pool is bottomless, all the way down to the ground of being, fundamental reality.  We can sink down into the Still Pool until we are fully plunged into our true nature. We can drop questions in and see what emerges. And at times we can just dive right in and break through to our depths.

Ch’an Mediation

As noted yesterday, along with these direct practices to engage in, we are also examining their grounded in the classical Ch’an, which has quite a different orientation than Zen. Yesterday we considered the Taoist elements that form the heart of Ch’an practice, based in the fundamental concept of reality as a generative tissue from which the ten thousand things arise and fall back into. Ch’an meditation is a process for directly encountering this cosmological tissue, to dropping the illusory separateness that we have.

We will return to David Hinton’s discussion of this in his introduction to his translation of the Wu-men Kuan. In this excerpt he is describing cultivating the Still Pool toward Empty Awareness.

With experience, the movement of thought during meditation slows enough that we notice each thought emerging from a kind of emptiness, evolving through its transformations, and finally disappearing back into that emptiness. This leads to the realization that the cosmology of Absence and Presence defines consciousness too, thoughts being Presence emerging from and vanishing back into Absence. That is, consciousness is part of the same cosmological tissue as the empirical world, with thoughts emerging from a generative emptiness exactly as the ten thousand things do.

Eventually the stream of thought falls silent, and we inhabit empty consciousness, free of that center of identity. That is, we inhabit the most fundamental nature of consciousness, and that fundamental nature is nothing other than Absence. Here consciousness inhabits the primal Cosmos in the most complete and immediate way, dwelling as integral to the very source of the Cosmos’s generative unfolding, for this Absence is not simply the tranquil silence we encounter in meditation, but something much deeper: a dark vastness beyond word and thought, the tumultuous source of life and death.

Ch’an calls this “empty-mind” (空心). 空 is essentially synonymous in the Ch’an literature with wu, and the double meaning of wu (“not/Absence”) is used to describe this empty-mind further as wu-hsin (無心): “no-mind,” meaning consciousness free of language and thought and memory, the mental apparatus of identity, or “Absence-mind,” consciousness in its original-nature as that generative cosmological tissue. But there’s more. Hsieh Ling-yün (385–433 C.E.), the great rivers-and-mountains poet, in the earliest surviving Ch’an text, calls this empty-mind “the tranquil mirror, all mystery and shadow,” and then continues: “one must become Absence and mirror the whole.” “Tranquil,” “mirror,” “mystery and shadow,” “Absence”—this description distills the conceptual world of the Tao Te Ching, and it shares Lao Tzu’s intent: to transform immediate experience so that we dwell as integral to landscape and Cosmos. Here, the act of perception becomes a spiritual act: empty-mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things free of all thought and explanation—utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient. This is a perennial theme in No-Gate Gateway, and it is the heart of Ch’an as a landscape practice. In such mirror-deep perception, earth’s vast rivers-and-mountains landscapes replace thought and even identity itself, revealing the unity of consciousness and landscape/Cosmos that is the heart of sage-dwelling in ancient China.

-David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxi)

Hinton here gets at how the Outdoor practices that we are engaging in function.  It is this notion of the “act of perception as a spiritual act” or as I’d put it as a practice.  It is letting this sensory data come in, without the endless commentary, of moving through the world in empty awareness. That we are practicing.  The Still Pool can be that place from which we always operate. 

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