In last months talk on Solitude I described it as a process of letting go. Of putting yourself into a place where you abandoned distractions, entertainments, modern life. Pilgrimage is in one view “searching for solitude.” It is a way, in our world, in our culture to make that space for solitude. Consider how it was in India for Buddhists:
It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.
-Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 42)
Being a hermit in the West means that you are a bum, down and out, maybe crazy. Pilgrimage means you are a vagrant. But this can be worked with. There are activities we can engage in that have the veneer of respectability that allows us to engage solitude, to be on pilgrimage.
The essence of pilgrimage is commitment. Being completely committed to the path. More than just traveling to sacred places this is a form of practice itself a way of life. It ties together individual and monastic practice. The model is the method of practice in China.
Whip for Spurring Students Onward Through the Chan Barrier Checkpoints by Yunqi Zhuhong
“The Chan Whip was conceived by Zhuhong as a portable, convenient, no-nonsense “pocket companion guide” that addressed practitioners directly , providing not just method but morale. As such its selections deliberately eschew abstract discussions of theory in favor of sermons, exhortations, sayings, autobiographical narratives, letters, and anecdotal sketches dealing fankly—and encouragingly—with the concrete ups and downs of lived practice.”
–Jeffery L. Broughton, Chan Whip, p. 2
As an example of the life of practice (gongfu) incorporating the elements of pilgrimage Xueyan’s story (Ch’an Whip, p. 17). In the recording of the talk below you can hear the whole story with commentary.
The story gives an outline of how Chan practice (gongfu) was approached in the Song. This is what I mean by pilgrimage. In this story you can see that Xueyuan is completely dedicated to the path. He has his ups and downs–which are themselves instructive and part of the aim of the Ch’an Whip is to show the human side of these great teachers–but he stays with it and pushes pasts his low points. This is further an exemplar of continuous practice. Where even as he travels, is on the pilgrimage practice is ongoing.
Xueyuan, like the other longer anecdotes in the Ch’an Whip, ordains and works with a particular teacher and then begins traveling from practice place to practice place. This is the standard practice, typically one traveled after one has had an insight to test it and to push oneself deeper. Then seems to be an understanding that working with one teacher can be limiting. That is even a very awakened teacher has a style, a set of teaching devices and their own limits. All of these masters-to-be came to deeper awakenings and into their own mastery under other teachers. Not only these Ch’an Masters but all of the great Zen masters of Japan, Dogen, Hakuin Ekaku, Torei Enji, Gassan Jito, Bassui, Bankei all followed this path of pilgrimage.
Religious practice in America is essentially, I’d argue primarily, a social endeavor. Contemplative practices in contrast is a solitary practice. Even when you are siting shoulder to shoulder in the zendo, you are sitting alone. This tension between an essentially solitary practice and the American social club model pervades Zen centers. This emphasis on the group is so pervasive that it is common to encounter those that can only sit in the zendo, who are not able (or willing) to sit on their own. Considering that the essential practices are inherently solitary that orientation severely compromises ones practice.
Beyond though simply turning inward in our practice, being solitary, there is the practice of Solitude. This is an absolute core practice in my view and one well worth pursuing. In this talk we will contemplate this practice and it’s pursuit.
Throughout Chinese history, there have always been people who preferred to spend their lives in the mountains, getting by on less, sleeping under thatch, wearing old clothes, working the higher slopes, not talking much, writing even less—maybe a few poems, a recipe or two. Out of touch with the times but not with the seasons, they cultivated roots of the spirit, trading flatland dust for mountain mist. Distant and insignificant, they were the most respected men and women in the world’s oldest society.
No explanation has ever been offered or demanded for the admiration the Chinese have had for hermits. Hermits were simply there: beyond city walls, in the mountains, lone columns of smoke after a snowfall. As far back as records go, there were always hermits in China.
– Bill ‘Red Pine’ Porter , Road to Heaven, p. 12
In Road to Heaven Red Pine encounters more Taoists than Ch’an monks and while their approach and orientation is different they come from the same place. They are rooted in the cosmology that has informed Chinese religious practice for thousands of years. Before Buddhism before Taosim this view of reality led some to look inward, to commit completely to understanding. to isolate themselves in mountains
This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.
David Hinton in Mountain Home
Solitary practice v. Solitude
Sitting on ones own, individual sitting is an essential practice, one that all followers of the way to cultivate. Ultimately we are always sitting on our own. But solitude is a practice of letting go, of abandoning the outside world and turning inward to our Original Nature. Consider this passage from Krishnamurti:
J. Krishnamurti On Loneliness – the issue of escape.
“Have you ever tried to be alone? When you do try, you will feel how extraordinarily difficult it is and how extraordinarily intelligent we must be to be alone, because the mind will not let us be alone. The mind becomes restless, it busies itself with escapes, so what are we doing? We are trying to fill this extraordinary void with the known. We discover how to be active, how to be social; we know how to study, how to turn on the radio. We are filling that thing which we do not know with the things we know. We try to fill that emptiness with various kinds of knowledge, relationship or things. Is that not so? That is our process, that is our existence. Now when you realize what you are doing, do you still think you can fill that void? You have tried every means of filling this void of loneliness. Have you succeeded in filling it? You have tried cinemas and you did not succeed and therefore you go after your gurus and your books or you become very active socially. Have you succeeded in filling it or have you merely covered it up? If you “have merely covered it up, it is still there; therefore it will come back. If you are able to escape altogether then you are locked up in an asylum or you become very, very dull. That is what is happening in the world.
Can this emptiness, this void, be filled? If not, can we run away from it, escape from it? If we have experienced and found one escape to be of no value, are not all other escapes therefore of no value? It does not matter whether you fill the emptiness with this or with that. So-called meditation is also an escape. It does not matter much that you change your way of escape.
How then will you find what to do about this loneliness? You can only find what to do when you have stopped escaping. Is that not so? When you are willing to face what is – which means you must not turn on the radio, which means you must turn your back to civilization – then that loneliness comes to an end, because it is completely transformed. It is no longer loneliness. If you understand what is then what is is the real. Because the “mind is continuously avoiding, escaping, refusing to see what is it creates its own hindrances. Because we have so many hindrances that are preventing us from seeing, we do not understand what is and therefore we are getting away from reality; all these hindrances have been created by the mind in order not to see what is. To see what is not only requires a great deal of capacity and awareness of action but it also means turning your back on everything that you have built up, your bank account, your name and everything that we call civilization. When you see what is, you will find how loneliness is transformed. ”
-Excerpt From On Loneliness by J. Krishnamurti in First and Last Freedom.
It is this perspective that is the practice of solitude. You aren’t lonely in true solitude, because there is no self to be lonely there is only what is. The issue of escape here is also worth noting. In Krishnamurti’s view all activities that we undertake are undertaken by the self and thus are self-defeating. Ch’an of course acknowledges this, notes that all of our practice, even mediation, is upaya, a skillful use of the self to get past the self. Krishnamurti is far more radical, simply telling us to see what is.
This shows us the way to the practice of solitude: letting go of our distractions, our escapes. Turning our back on civilization.
The Practice of Solitude
How then do we practice this? In general there is no guidebook, no practice program.. In general there are more warnings, than guidelines. There are concerns of escape, issues of arrogance, of not coming down from the mountain, of eschewing our great vow. In essence the practice is simply a letting go of everything. It doesn’t have to be forever, it can be for one day every so often. Spend the day in solitude. Spend a week in solitude. Spend a lifetime in solitude.
So we turn to examples, which is so often what the practice has to offer. The Buddhas and the patriarchs are examples of those far along the path. The icon of the buddha reminds us that this is possible. The Chinese hermit-monks are exemplary in showing, not telling us this path. The great documentary Amongst White Clouds, is an apt demonstration.
“They turn their backs on comforts and conveniences and entertainment. To return to something more basic. A calm and peace they trust lays at the true heart of human nature.” – narrator
“The key to this is sitting meditation. After sitting then go to bed. Wake in the morning and sit some more. Most of the hermits already understand the practice methods and they don’t make mistakes. If you have this foundation then you can live in the mountains. But you must understand the practice. If you don’t understand, in the mountains, you’l go astray and that’s nothing but torture. Just torture.”
The filmmaker and narrator of this documentary is a practitioner himself who came to the practice through very romantic ideals common in the young. He had genuine questions and was serious as well as being a talented filmmaker. He could see the orientation of these recluses even if his understanding of what drew them there was limited.
This is followed by an excerpt from a talk that the narrators teacher gives on mountain practice. He talks of having had a heated bed when he first came to the mountains but that it is unnecessary. In the quoted text he notes that there is preparation one has to have to undertake this practice. It is arduous and demanding and is not a romantic jaunt into the mountains. It isn’t “glamping”.
“What wisdom is there in solitude? What changes in a person living so close to birth and death in nature? Do I feel myself in this?Are we somehow different from this old tree? Dying to be reborn? This life, this struggle, but something in this nature, something in us all. A calm and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty.”
“’Ten thousand things, all in this breath…’ why are people in this world so busy? just for this one breath. They say, “busy, busy, mine mine…”, busy a whole lifetime for “Me”. When this breath is cut off you let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?”
The second quote here has always struck me from when I first watched this documentary over a decade ago. This really is the essence of the practice in a few sentences. The documentary is filled with wisdom from this recluses and is well worth spending time with.
Attachment to solitude
Since like some many Ch’an practices, there isn’t so much a detailed description, or a set of guidelines for the practice of solitude, what we mostly find is an orientation and then a discussion of the pitfalls that one can encounter. In the previous section, quote from Amongst White Clouds, the recluses noted the issues of coming to this practice before one is ready. In the biography of the Japanese monk Bassui we see this underscored.
There was a monk from Bassiu’s hometown by the name of Tokukei Jisha who had cut himself off from the world, retiring to the mountains, practicing religious austerities for many years. Hearing of this monk, Bassui decided to pay him a visit.”
– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 4
Tokukei became a mentor, friend and teacher of Bassui and is a classic example of the hermit tradition in Japan. When he first visits him he asks Bassui why his head is shaved (indicating he is a monk) but he doesn’t wear robes. Bassui at this point really eschewed formal practice and all its trappings. Tokukei could see his immaturity and while they practiced together he said he needed to resolve the great matter and to have it sealed by an awakened master.
Bassui went to see Fukuan Sōki, of Hōunji Temple in Hitachi province, a noted Zen master who had studied in China. Fukuan had a following that numbered about two thousand. Bassui, unimpressed with Fukuan, returned to his hometown and went to see his friend Tokukei. He told Tokukei that he had not got on well with Fukuan and was planning to practice by himself in some isolated mountain retreat. Tokukei, having spent over twenty years practicing austerities in seclusion, had developed a great deal of pride in his practice. This pride became the cause of much of his pain and suffering. He warned Bassui of the dangers of this kind of seclusion before fully understanding “the great matter” or receiving the transmission from a true teacher. Though Bassui had received verification from Kōzan, he gave up the idea of secluding himself in the mountains in accord with his friend’s advice and instead spent that year in a summer and winter training sesshin with Tokukei.
– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 5 and 6
Here we can see Tokukei outline these pitfalls of these practices. Just like the recluse from Amongst White Clouds who said that being in the mountains before one is ready is “torture,” Tokukei is warning that if one does make it as a recluse this can lead to pride and arrogance. This he said leads to pain and suffering. Solitude as a practice can be explored and be very fruitful in short stints but to undertake it long term, you need to be prepared.
It was around this time that Bassui built his first hermitage in Nanasawa in his home province, Sagami. Tokukei came to visit him there, and this time he seemed pleased with Bassui’s decision to retire to a hermitage to continue his practice. He seemed to be telling Bassui that since he now had met both requirements—having clarified the Way and having received verification from a true teacher—he was ready to undertake this kind of practice.
– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 7
Bassui now is ready for this practice and it is appropriate to do so. In fact one often feels drawn to seclusion, to focusing purely on deepening ones insight after one has awakened. Hakuin talks of this and of course it comes up in the Chinese hermit tradition. This is not a romantic notion of seclusion at this point, but the next logical step in ones practice.
Alone, Looking for Blossoms Along the River
A poem by Tu Fu, translated by David Hinton
Who understands the grief these riverside blossoms inflict?
It makes me crazy, and there’s no one here to tell, so I go
searching for our southern neighbor, my old friend in wine,
but he’s gone ten days drinking. All I find is an empty bed.
A thick frenzy of blossoms crowding our river shorelines,
I wander along, listing dangerously, in full fear of spring.
With poems and wine against all that profusion, I endure:
arrangements for this ancient, white-haired man can wait.
Deep river repose, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
and such goings-on: red blossoms blazing among white.
Answering spring’s radiant glories, I too have my place:
sending them off with a lovely wine on the shores of life.
Looking east to the city all smoke crowded with blossoms,
I love our little Hundred-Flower Stream tower even more:
to open gold jars and label out fine wine, calling beautiful
women to dance on embroidered mats: who could bear it?
At the monastery abbot’s grace, the river flows away east,
spring’s radiant glories idle and tired among sparse winds.
In this crush of peach blossoms open without their owner’s
empty mind, I can treasure reds deep or shallow the same.
Blossoms crowd orchard paths where the abbot’s wife lives:
thousands, tens of clustered thousands weigh branches down,
and ceaseless butterflies linger in playful dance, as exquisite
oriole song tumbles along empty and altogether its very self
translated by David Hinton in The Selected Poems of Tu Fu
Pei Xiu asked, “What is Buddha?”
The master replied, “The mind is buddha. No-mind is the Way. If you neither arouse your mind nor allow yourself to think in terms of such mental conceptions as existence and nonexistence, long and short, self and others, and subject and object, then the mind is originally buddha and buddha is originally the mind.”
-Ch’an Master Huangbo, from A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, p. 127
Because all things arise from the generative emptiness that is fundamental reality, our experience is rife with contradictions. This and That are simultaneously Not-This and Not-That and bear no fundamental separation. ‘Mind is Buddha‘ and ‘No Mind, No Buddha‘ can both be a reflection of reality depending on circumstance. We can be asked to examine something from one view as absolute reality and then examine its opposite as also simply another aspect of this reality. For where can anything arise but from the generative ground of fundamental reality? All of the dualities, contradictory thoughts, paradoxical views, all are contained within true nature.
Working with contradiction is a way to get past our discriminating, conceptual mind. Deeply engaging with something, a word, a view, a fundamental question and following it down to its essential emptiness can lead to insight. Then contemplating its opposite to the same place can open to a deeper insight. Working with contradictory statements can efficiently reveal this inherent emptiness, that ultimately there is no there, there.
Koan’s try to “cut off the mind road.” They try to tease mind outside of thought and explanation, and so, to return consciousness to silence and the more immediate experience possible to empty-mind. That empty-mind precludes the distancing of things as object. Like meditation, Koan’s establish mind in a relation of mirror-like immediacy, allowing an immediate experience of landscape’s ten thousand things in and of themselves, an elemental mystery. And that mirrorlike immediacy reveals that we are ourselves wholly a part of that elemental mystery.”
-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan,, p. xxi
Working with Gong’an (Jp. Koan) or Huatou (Jp. Wato) is a formalized practice of this type of work. But we can work with the contradiction of our lives, of the deep questions of ‘who am I, really?’ or ‘what is this?’ When dualities arise we push deeper into them, see both views as empty and ultimately seamless. For more on this topic please see the Dharma Talk below the fold.
Dharma Talk from the April 25th, 2020 Day of Practice at Tahoma Zen Monastery
The last few weeks in our talks we have been investigating the triune intertwined approach of : Being in the body, Being Outside and Being in Silence each with its many attendant practices. These practices are ones that we can do on our own with positive results. We should always check any insights with a genuine teacher, but in these times when we have no choice but to practice more on our own, this approach has an even greater vitality.
Once one is able to truly Be in Silence than this is the ground from which one can do inquiry, whether it be huatou (wato), Koan Study, or Self-Inquiry. Of these practices only Self-Inquiry can be pursued on one’s own. The core part of this sort of self-directed practice is to never be satisfied, always look again, always go deeper.
A Natural Practice
In an essay entitled The Seven Tongues of God Timothy Leary postulated that there are seven essential questions that define the religious experience: what is reality, what is life, who is man, what is awareness, who am I, what do our emotions mean and is there life after death .
“Religion is a social system which has evolved its roles, rules, rituals, values, language, space-time locations to further the pursuit for the same goals, to answer these questions subjectively through the revelatory experience. […] A religion which fails to provide direct experiential answers to these spiritual questions becomes secular, political, and tends to oppose the individual revelatory confrontation.”
– Timothy Leary, from The Seven Tongues of God in Politics of Ecstasy p. 13
Religions seem to always begin with the direct revelatory exploration of these questions and then over time codify into a set of prepackaged answers and intermediaries to that direct experience. The history of many religions seems to be one of constant schisms based on eliminating the intermediaries only to over time build them up again. Leary on the other hand stated that not only could you discover the answer to these questions yourself but that it was our fundamental purpose do so.
Find out for yourself. Seeking. I codified this as looking into ‘What is really going on’. That is what is happening at an absolutely fundamental level. In essence I was exploring one of the essential Self-Inqurey questions: What is this?
Many people develop these burning questions on their own and pursue them to awakening, even without any practice framework or understanding at all. But combined with a genuine practice it can be a lot more powerful.
After I began formal Zen Practice I was listening to Dharma talks from numerous sources and from Roshi Bodhin of the Rochester Zen Center I heard a teisho from Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Bassui felt one had to see into ones true nature before one could engage in Koan Study or other practices. From his youth he was driven question ‘Who is the Master” and strove hard until he answered this and had it verified by a genuine Master. From Braverman’s Introduction to Mud and Water:
When Bassui asks, “Who is the master?” as he did of himself during his own training, and demands that his students pursue this enquiry to its core, not stopping even at realization, but rather, “…throwing out [realization], returning to the one who realizes…” (Kana hōgo), Bassui is pointing to the nature of the Self, which can be understood when one truly learns the nature of “he” who makes decisions, he who moves the arms and legs…. In the words of Rinzai, “…you must recognize the one who manipulates these reflections. He is the primal source of all the Buddhas and every place is home to which the follower of the Way returns.”
In bringing people back to the “master who hears, sees…” Bassui, like Rinzai, is steering students away from the feeling, “I know.”
– Arthur Braverman, from Mud and Water, (pp. 18-19).
In the below talk we delve deep into the core of Bassui’s inquiry based teaching and his rigor and fidelity to the practice. Lin-Chi (Rinzai) throughout his talks would persistently ask of the assembly of ‘Who is listening to the dharma right now? This question, ‘Who is listening, right now’, Bassui asked himself incessantly until he truly knew. Thought his teaching career he would bring students constantly back to seeing into their own minds, to answering for themselves “who is listening?”
The Practice of Self-Inquiry
“To relax your body, first relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.”
– Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt:, p. 8
Settle into the body, placing ones attention on anything tense and exhale, until totally relaxed. From here turn your attention upon itself, or upon the totality of the body, or simply stop placing your attention anywhere. Abide in awareness. If thoughts arise, let them arise and fall. If sensations arise, let them rise and fall. If you follow them, notice then and then return simply being in awareness. If you get too distracted, return to the body scan and relax where is tense. Conclude this with resting your attention in the tanden for a few breaths. Then place your awareness upon itself. From here you can begin inquiry.
In Ch’an practices are three core forms of inquiry:
Huatou (wato) is an unceasing questioning of the mind leading to ‘Apprehension and Anxiety’ the “Great Ball of Doubt” which one shatters, revealing our true nature.
Koan study looks at things through numerous angles to get to a root question. While there are koans oriented around breakthrough there are numerous other aspects of practice that is being investigated.
Self-Inquiry is asking the question into the calm tranquility of the mind and listening for the response. It can be more thought of setting the ground, the orientation for abiding in awareness.
There are numerous question one can inquiry into What is This? Who Am I? are the most fundamental and virtually all others resolve into this. They are of course two sides of the same coin. But other inquiries can be useful for cutting though our own specific conditioning for getting past attachments. What is real? What is True? Who is listening? What am I? What is most essential? and so on.
Question the self to see what comes up. Then this must be questioned. Questioning must continue until there is only our true nature remains. This process is why this is such a fruitful practice to engage in in self-directed practice. There is no endpoint, we always can keep question, going deeper. When available, like Bassui, we verify any deep insight with a genuine teacher. But otherwise we continue the questioning, always finding more.
In the talk from this day all of this and more is explored in greater depth.
vanishing snows north, feeding
easily on winter-
kill death. How
exquisite the death-
flight offers: endlessly
dark and deep, I must
breath. And in the silence
decide, I glimpse
how that dark
teaching sets us
free, how it
sets us free, and then
again into flight.
David Hinton, from Desert: Poems
A white-haired old man in my fifties
I’ve fled north and south away from trouble
this feeble body wrapped in thin clothing
always on the move and never warm
beset by illness and failing health
the world all mud and ashes
for ten thousand miles on Earth or in Heaven
I haven’t found a place I belong
my wife and children are still with me
whenever I see them I sigh
my hometown is a wasteland of weeds
all my neighbors have scattered
I don’t see a road leading back
I’ve cried out my eyes on Hsiang.
— Tu Fu
translated by Bill Porter (Red Pine) in Finding Them Gone
5 Deer Park
No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.
Entering those deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.
6 Magnolia Park
Autumn mountains, gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.
Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.
11 Vagary Lake
Flute-song carries beyond further shores.
In dusk light, I bid you a sage’s farewell.
Across this lake, in the turn of a head,
mountain greens furl into white clouds.
— Wang Wei (701-761)
translated by David Hinton in Mountain Home
Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-Chia
Taking a little food, a light walking-stick,
I wander up to my home in quiet mystery
the path along streams winding far away
onto ridgetops, no end to this wonder at
slow waters silent in their frozen beauty
and bamboo glistening at heart with frost,
cascades scattering a confusion of spray
and broad forests crowding distant cliffs.
Thinking it’s moonrise I see in the west
and sunset I’m watching blaze in the east,
I hike on until dark, then linger out night
sheltered away in deep expanses of shadow.
Immune to high importance: that’s renown.
Walk humbly and it’s all promise in beauty,
for in quiet mystery the way runs smooth,
ascending remote heights beyond compare.
utter tranquility, the distinction between
yes this and no that lost, I embrace primal
unity, thought and silence woven together,
that deep healing where we venture forth.
translated by David Hinton
in The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yün