Picking up Shosan… again

So, I woke up this morning at a good time. With the time change, it is later, but I had a long, long nap yesterday, so I figure I’m a little ahead of the game today.

And I sat. For a “long” sitting. I had a luxurious weekend sit that’s twice the length of my weekday sits. I stretched my back, set my posture, and started the long, slow counting of breaths that takes me to a “zero point” place — neither up nor down for any period of time, but a center point where I can return regularly to interrupt the automatic cycling of my mind.

It was a pretty typical time, although I can tell that I am becoming more acclimated to this renewed practice. I settle in more easily. I don’t have as fast a racing heart as before. I am more aware, more quickly, of the cycles of my breath. And while the thoughts still race, I am less distressed by them, when they do.

One thing I noticed towards the end of my sit today, was that I was not quite where I was hoping to be. It’s hard to put a finger on that ineffable quality I was/am looking for — many people have many names for it: Buddha-nature, satori, kensho, enlightenment, peace… many, many names, none of which I actually use. What I was/am actually looking for — I remembered, near the end of my sit — is a warrior quality, a focused quality, a vital energy… where was it?

Where indeed?

And I remembered (roughly) what Shosan said:

“In Buddhist practice we carefully guard the self. In the Soto sect, older monks and novices alike say, ‘Let go of the self.’ These are good words. Based on these words, I wrote in the Kusawake [Parting of the Grasses], ‘Don’t forget the self.’ Look carefully into this stage of practice. The importance of practice lies solely in guarding the self with care. All delusion arises when you relax your vital energy. So firmly fix your gaze and don’t relax your vital energy throughout the day. Remain sharp and alert while guarding the self, and the six rebellious delusions will be annihilated. You should guard it so thoroughly that even in your dreams you don’t let down your guard. Though you think your guard is sufficiently up, you may relax unknowingly and be overcome by delusion. Your horse-consciousness will run wild in a field of delusion; and your monkey-mind will prance about on branches of fame and fortune. Resolutely open your eyes, let the phrase, “Don’t be deluded” be your reins, brace yourself sternly, and keep up your guard. Don’t relax your vital energy for even a moment!”

So yes, I had relaxed unknowingly. I had relaxed to the point of not paying attention any more to Shosan’s words… letting my attention wander off to be drawn into exploits and endeavors over the past week that excited me, but also tired me out and depleted me. I had relaxed. In some good ways, in some other not-so-good ways.

And I had let down my guard. I had let myself get tired and had not reined in my horse-consciousness… as my monkey-mind pranced about on those alluring branches. I had dropped my attention, abandoned my focus, and so marauding hordes had overtaken my proverbial castle.

At the time when I was sitting this morning, I had not fully recalled the substance of Shosan’s words above. But I had recalled the gist. I’d remembered Shosan. I’d remembered Death. And I spent the last part of my sit this morning studying death, as he encourages us to do.

When I did turn my attention to death, at first it was tentative and ginger, like stepping out onto a frozen pond, feeling for thin spots or slush. But the ice held. And I stepped out farther. I thought about death, the sense of my spirit leaving my body, the hold that my body might have on my spirit… what it would feel like, what it would be like. The sense of this body no longer being animated, of the essence removing itself from the vehicle… some koan.

And the more I studied it, the more I felt it, the more I sense it, the more I realized it. I will not be here forever. None of us will. I must make all that I can of each moment. Each of us must. Or we lose an amazing opportunity — the ultimate opportunity.

No more bullshit. No mas.

“Only study death,” Shosan said. “Only study death.”


Other deaths…

I have been thinking about studying death, wavering today between resisting what is in front of me, and engaging full-on by choice. I have these waves of reluctance, of hesitation, of holding back, that plunge me into a rigid mindset that makes me feel like I have no choice in the matters of my life.

It’s a terrible feeling, but one that has followed me throughout much of my life.

It feels like I’m dying. And it doesn’t feel good.

When this comes up, I am reminded of a short story I heard about once, that was the tale of a Japanese couple who had terrible money troubles. They were in such bad shape, that they made a pact to kill themselves, rather than continue to live under the burden of their debts. But when they immersed themselves in their suicide pact, and they prepared to die, they realized that a different kind of death was freeing them – the willingness to die at any time.

They essentially died to their present lives and plunged head-first into a quality of living that cause them to “die” to the life they wanted to leave – without needing to physically kill themselves.

And they were free.

I have no idea who wrote the story – I just heard/read about it one day – but the lesson stays with me. The act of dying, the choice to die, can take many forms. You can end your physical life. Or you can end your dependency on a certain type of physical life. You can end a certain outlook that has been “life” to you. You can be ready to die – physically or mentally or spiritually – at any time.

And this sort of death can be studied, though the types of vital energy that are released feel quite different to me. The vital energy released from studying my physical/material death feels much more physically compelling, than, say, the vital energy released from studying the end of a certain mental or spiritual frame of mind/being. It is all a kind of dying, and it can all be studied, while sitting.

I’ve been studying it this morning, as I’ve gone through the actions of my day — actions I do not want to participate in, but must, because this is my job and this is where I am right now. Letting go of that kind of thought, that mindset which pits me against what is right in front of me… letting that die… it’s making today better than bearable. It’s making it fine. Rising and falling. As it is.

Shosan talks about the importance of doing zazen in the course of your day, not just at appointed times. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done for years, even before I ever found out about Shosan. I do it, not because he recommends it, but because it makes sense.

As it is.

Only study death


Time and time again, Shosan tells us “Study death. Study death.” It builds the vital energy that conquers all.

So, following his direction, I have been studying death. My own passing, my own cessation of existence. I have sat with a sibling while they died. I have had a lot of losses over the years, of people close to me passing on. Even the ones who didn’t physically die, but left for another world and never looked back at mine, have been like dying loved-ones. They are as faint to me now, as those who have truly dropped their bodies and moved on.

It’s true, it does built that vital energy.

And today, as I sat, I took a slightly different approach. I studied a different kind of death. The death of my conditioning, my dependency on my conditioning, the chatter in my mind, the qualities and reactions that I tend to think comprise “me”.

You see, I have an extremely rigorous week ahead of me. My schedule will be very hectic, very non-stop, for the next three days. After that I get to relax and enjoy myself, but up front, right ahead of me, I have a gauntlet to run, and I am not looking forward to it.

At least, the conditioned part of me that is attached to different reactions that I’ve had in the past, is not looking forward to it. The different sorts of behavior and preferences and “individual” characteristics that I think make up “me” are really dreading it. As though it were a terrible noose around my neck that’s only getting tighter.

Those aspects of “me” which have already concocted a soup of trials and errors ahead in the next three days, are absolutely positively convinced that they are right and correct and perfect.

But they’re not. They’re only one small part of my whole. And they need to die.

I’m running out of time – I have to be somewhere in half an hour – but I will write more about this later.

Till then.

Glaring zazen

Fix your gaze

I spent yesterday reading Suzuki Shōsan. I had plenty of time – I was on a cross-country flight, which seemed to take forever.

It gave me plenty of time to read, to reflect, to sit zazen. I basically hardly moved for 6 hours, which is an experience I’ve been trying to create for a long time. I have my plans to do sesshin or sit for extended periods, but then life brings me something that needs to be tended to.

So, in a way, yesterday was a gift. And I had a great opportunity to just sit. Sit and read Shōsan. And think about what he said.

One aspect of his teachings (as communicated in Arthur Braverman’s collection of Shōsan’s writings, Warrior of Zen, is “Nio Zazen”. I am working on understanding what this means. The Nio, as I understand them, are temple guardians who fiercely protect the Buddha nature. And Nio Zazen is something that appears to be particular to Japan. Winston Lee King writes about this in his book Death was his kōan: the samurai-Zen of Suzuki Shōsan, so I will definitely need to check that out. But for now, while I’m on this trip, I’ll stick with the simpler question of “glaring zazen” which Shōsan mentions many times.

The idea of sitting with your gaze fixed, your teeth gritted, and all your vital energy focused on something, seems at sharp contrast with most of the American Buddhist teachings I’ve heard. In the States, it seems that the whole point of Buddhism and zazen is to avoid that kind of intense experience, and to treat zazen and meditation as a path to healing. Shōsan doesn’t seem particularly concerned with that. For him, zazen is all about studying death, all about training yourself to go beyond death, and focusing your full attention on your vital energy.

This is something I can understand. All the fancy words and the delightful philosophies just end up confusing me to no end, and frankly it seems to me that those who hang their hats on specific philosophies inevitably and invariably end up devoting a vast amount of their time and energy to defending their positionings and shoring up their arguments, like so many ramparts around a village. But they build their walls and their defenses so high that the village within ends up cut off from the rest of the world, the rest of life, and they die from within… all the while with a beautiful castle constructed that impresses everyone who draws near.

Let the record show that I am pretty much of a dunce in most things. I have my moments, but the harder I try, the worse things seem to screw up. I seem to have been created with a built-in hubris-killer, which probably works in my favor. My castle walls have been torn down countless times, and my interior village has not only been exposed to the outside world, but it’s also been ravaged by waves of invaders, and I’ve had to rebuild a number of times.

This has not been much f’ing fun. It’s been a big pain in my ass, actually. But the end result is, I’ve got a village that — based on prior experience and observation — can withstand and survive just about anything.

So, there we have it.

And what strikes me about the urging of practicing “glaring zazen” — the fixing of one’s gaze on some intense image, or the fixing of one’s attention on some warrior focus — is the kind of thing that works exactly right for someone like me. Hell, I have no idea what’s to come, from one day to the next. My clever mind can tell me all sorts of BS, from day to day, and eventually I will learn — up close and personal — how limited that “inner wisdom” really is. And when I find out just how wrong I turned out to be, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus to put my affairs in order again.

I’m not talking about aligning my energies with the universe — I’m talking about paying bills and making amends to someone I’ve really pissed off. If I don’t have a fierce ability to focus and follow through — if my vital energy is depleted by self-doubt and niggling — if I am so caught up in my own head that I can’t pay attention to what’s really going on outside my head, well then, I’m well and truly screwed. And that’s no good.

It sucks, in fact.

See, here’s the deal. My daily life is pretty intense. I have always had a driving, active energy, and it’s taken me a long time to learn how to manage and direct it. Having a driving, active energy can get you in some deep sh*t, when you’re not paying close attention. When I back off and let myself off the hook, things start to get all “interesting” and the train heads off the tracks. Then I have to work overtime to set things to right again.

To do that, I  need the intensity of what I think the Nio have. Even to keep myself on track from the start, I need that intensity, that focus. So, at every step along the way, I have to maintain my vital energy and keep on point.

I don’t have a choice.

So, I have to do my zazen differently from others. I have to sit and breathe in a very specific way. I have to devote my attention NOT to just observing my thoughts and feelings arising, but to training my attention to stay focused, and holding myself on point and on-target.

I have to — as Shōsan describes it — grit my teeth and focus on death, so that vital energy is strengthened in me. This is not optional. It’s required. If I do any less, I am lost in the miasmic millieu of what I think is called “sinking zazen”, where I fall away and am left with what some call “satori” or “self-realization”, but I call a cul-de-sac of navel-gazing.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’ve had plenty of experience in that cul-de-sac.  I have had many, many experiences with being suffused with a sense of oneness where all divisions between all created things dissolves into the ethers of illusion. It’s amazing, it’s valuable, and it’s worth pursuing. But make no mistake  — it is a cul-de-sac that can and will take me off the path I need to be on, that can and will distract me from living the life that demands my full attention. And with my very human nature, I can easily delude myself into thinking that my “true” calling is to sit around all day and “anchor the energy” for the betterment of the world.

But the same voice that urges me to step away and steep my whole being in the Essence of Oneness, is the same voice that tells me that what is right in front of me is not worth paying attention to — and that’s BS. From what I’ve observed in my life, that what is right in front of me is the only thing worth paying attention to. It’s a gift, it’s a mitzvah, it’s an obligation (sometimes odious) that brings with it the chance to truly transform the experience — for myself and for others.

So, to make the most of the opportunities in front of me, I need to keep that focus, fix my gaze on the ideas and images that are put in my way, and make the most of them in that moment. For that moment will never, ever come again.

As Shōsan reminds us, “You will die! You will die!”