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Tag: Empty Awarness

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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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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Virtual Sesshin May 2020: Overview and Sources

by tendo zenji

From May 12th-16th, 2020, we held a Virtual Sesshin, broadcast from Tahoma Zen Monastery. The theme of this retreat was Empty Awareness and presented a variety of Ch’an Theory and Technique around this theme. The retreat was oriented around practice and was primarily rounds of zazen. There was an emphasis on outdoor practice, with both outdoor zazen as well as specific outdoor Empty Awareness practices. These approaches complimented the seated meditation that made up the bulk of most days. Each day featured a Dharma Talk which will be posted over the forthcoming days.

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In this first post documenting this retreat we will examine the source material that was used throughout the retreat. The grounding of the retreat was in David Hinton’s Taoist understanding of Ch’an.

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No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
Translated by David Hinton
Shambhala, 2018
ISBN-10: 161180437X

David Hinton’s essential new translation of the Wu-men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan) was the core text for the grounding of this retreat into Ch’an thought. The introduction of this bought sketches out Chinese Ontology and its grounding in Taosism. This introduction illuminates how Chan practitioners approached the practice, integrated Buddhism and Taoism and worked with the Gong’an (Japanese: Koan) in this text. The translation of each case maintains the poetry, ontology grounding and elegance of the initial Chinese text.

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Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

Translated by David Hinton
New Directions, 2005
ASIN: B00O2R6G64

David Hinton’s selection and translations of poems from throughout the entire history of the Mountains and Rivers tradition. This again features an essential introduction that grounds the poetry and the movement in its Taoist and Ch’an roots. Absolutely essential text for understanding the degree to which the natural world is considered a part of the practice and filled with wonderful poems that capture our true nature in the wild.

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Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
David Hinton
Shambhala, 2019
ASIN: B07V8C265M

This absolutely unique book is part biography, part discourse on translation and part examination of the awakened life. A companion piece to Hinton’s newly revised and expanded Selected Poems of Tu Fu this book provides deep insight into translating Chinese poems. But most essentially it displays how a person who moves through the world without obstruction operates in this troubled world.

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The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2008
ASIN: B00C5KK72E

This was the core practice book that we used for this retreat. Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is unparalleled in presenting Just Sitting at both a practical level as well as its context within the Ch’an tradition. Featuring both a set of teisho from retreat directly on Silent Illumination it also includes several essays and translations from Chan Master Hongzhi the innovator of the technique. Absolutely essential reading for those who wish to continue on with this practice.

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Shattering the Great Doubt: the Chan Practice of Huatou
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2009
ASIN: B00C5KK738

This volume from Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is on the practice of Huatoa, a form of incessant inquiry. As an open and still mind is a prerequisite for this work (and any inquiry work) it presents the core method of Silent Illumination and related practices. Since both this book and the Method of No-Method are taking from teisho’s in retreat, this gives a somewhat different angle on those approaches. This also was the core text for the Rohatsu Observance that we held here at Tahoma in January of this year.

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Zongmi on Chan
Translation and commentary by Jeffery L. Broughton
Columbia University Press, 2009
ASIN: B0092WV78Q

This academic translation of Zongmi’s surviving original works provides deep insight into how to look at all of the various streams of Ch’an. While not heavily used during this retreat, it has influenced my thinking on working with skillful means and understanding the different schools of Ch’an and Zen.