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.”


When nothing is everything

I once read somewhere that a state of “blah” that most people complain about is actually the ideal for a spiritual practitioner, especially those of the Buddhist ilk.

That being in that place of neither-good/neither-bad is the optimim “locale” for our spirits, when we’re on this path.

And it made sense.

I also found it comforting.

I still do, in fact, as today I am feeling particularly “blah” — neither-good/neither-bad — which in the modern US mindset is actually “bad”. Somehow, we need to have something going on, all the time, or we’re not being “productive”. We’re not being “effective”. We’re not being the “change agents” we’re supposed to be.

Blah blah blah. Life is its own change agent. It doesn’t need me jumping in.

An Indian colleague once told me “Nirvana means ‘naked’ so when you’re experiencing Nirvana, you’re naked.” And he giggled. He was a funny guy. And he liked to have fun.

I’ve never forgotten what he said.

And I look around me at the world as it is. I read Gudo Nijishima. I think about the earthquake in Japan and and Suzuki Shosan, and I think about the story I once heard about — a short story about a Japanese couple who were having terrible money problems. They were in such dire straits, they planned to commit suicide together. Then, when they were about to do it, they realized that if they simply lived their lives as though they were ready to die at any moment, they could actually be free of the spectre of financial insecurity.

And so they decided to live.

I wonder if this is what Shosan talks about when he urges us to “only study death”… if he realized that this was the only way to truly find the freedom to practice. I know that it has helped me, the study of death. And in it, I do find freedom. To practice.

Today I am reading Nijishima, eating peanut butter & crackers, drinking water, and making a point of not chasing anything. I watch and wonder and offer what I can in return, but I intend to not chase.

Which is hard. No sooner do I state my intention to not chase, than I start following something or someone, to see where it leads. Much of our lives are structured around the Chase. In getting Something. In creating Something. In doing Something. If you get/create/do nothing, you’ve somehow failed to live up to your potential. If you don’t chase, you’re somehow deficient.

But what if all that is completely beyond the point of … well, everything? What if nothing is Nirvana? Nakedness. Nothingness. What if nothing is… everything?

First settle, then decide

Gray day...

It’s a gray day today. Perfect for laying low and reading and writing and doing a little work. Also perfect for taking care of some errands, as the weather tends to keep people inside watching television, which means less impedence when I’m out and about.

Some days, I just want to get things done. And gray days like today are perfect for that.

So, I’ve been wrestling with some conflicted feelings about my work / career. The path I started down 20 years ago, has turned a lot of corners in the past couple of decades, and I’m not sure it’s even where I want to be anymore. There’s so much hustle and go-go-going that plenty of days pass when I’m not exactly sure what I’ve gotten done. And I’m not sure when I’m going to get anything done. And I wonder if that’s even the point – getting things done.

I’ve been trying to change jobs, on and off, over the past three months. Some of the opportunities have sounded really good, others not so much. And I’ve been a little ground down by the process, really wanting to get out of the situation I’m in, but not seeing any good alternatives in my immediate future. Even the one that did look good to me, last week, seems more and more like a chaotic mess — out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The question that comes to mind, more and more, is “Should I stay or should I go?” And that old song by The Crash won’t get out of my mind.

So, I sit. I sit with it. And I breathe. And it occurred to me in the last day or so that rather than running after any possible alternatives right now, what I really need to do is just sit. Just sit with it. Let my autonomic nervous system stabilize, thanks to regular, steady zazen, and get the hell out of this damned constant fight-flight state.

Because fight-flight impedes clear thinking. And my thinking has been impeded for years, thanks to the line of work I’m in.

Now, you (and I) might think, “Well, if your line of work puts you in persistent fight-flight state, wouldn’t it make more sense to step away and make up your mind under different circumstances?”

Yes and no. I’m in a state of mind, these days (and have been, for years) that is so driven by adrenaline and sympathetic nervous system overdrive, that I really feel that a lot of my faculties have been dulled by the biochemical stress soup. My thinking is not clear. I can’t remember it having been truly clear, in terms of what I want to do with my life, in over 15 years. I’ve been bouncing from one crisis to the next, one health problem to the next, one money problem to the next, one family drama to the next, that some parts of my ability to reason have been severely tamped down and all but taken offline. I know how to deal with crisis. That’s a no-brainer — literally. But now I handle things going well… that’s a whole different story.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit with it. Literally sit. Every morning and every evening to the best of my ability. And I’m not going to think about it. Not about changing jobs, not about changing careers, not about anything job-related. I’m going to settle in where I am and focus on my semi-monastic zazen life. I’ll do it for a year — that’s the plan, anyway — or unless/until my job goes away or changes so dramatically that I cannot possibly continue in it and have to make a move.

I’m giving myself a year to settle down, settle in, and not go chasing after what’s-next, like I always have in the past. There’s no sense to it — literally. So, I’m going to give myself the room I need to get myself back on track, recover from all my sympathetic overdrive damage, and find a place in myself and in my life where I can actually think coherently and rationally and hopefully about where I want to go and what I want to do.

The thought comes to mind that, if I’ve been so stunted by all that sympathetic overdrive bias, what makes me think I can ever get any of it back.

Because that’s how the human system works. We’re plastic, we’re adaptable, and even though our brains may be dulled by an overabundance of adrenaline, we have a whole other half to ourselves that can heal that — it’s built to do just that. It’s the parasympathetic nervous system, and it is designed to get us to rest and digest, beef up the immune system, regulate the body’s automatic functions, and basically recover and recoup the depleted resources from (supposedly transient) crisis.

I need to give myself a year. I’ve been in one form of crisis or another for a long, long time — as long as I can remember, actually. And I need to just settle in and focus on strengthening my foundation for future growth. Most of all, I just want to enjoy myself again and learn how to relax. I’d like to work my way to being able to assume a half-lotus position in the next 12 months. I’d like to deepen my practice to sesshin level. I’d like to really delve into the whole zazen experience and learn firsthand what that is like, rather than reading the words of a lot of other people.

And I need to strengthen my vital energy, as Shosan talks about. I need to strengthen that with all my warrior zen might, because that is what will keep me going through it all. Sitting zazen regularly for a year, while the sh*t is hitting the fan (my workplace is actually really stressful and ridiculous and our home-office bosses are as out of touch as they are embarrassingly arrogant) is a way for me to cultivate the vital energy I require to progress and, well, get my life back.

Yes, get my life back — the vital energy that keeps me buoyed and on-going, in the face of whatever comes up.

We cannot always control the things that come up in front of us. But I sure as hell can strengthen the internal systems I have that will let me respond appropriately to what I encounter.

So that’s it.

Just sit.

Forgetting about enlightenment

Is the sun coming up or going down? ... ... Who cares?

From Warrior of Zen, page 35:

The samurai said, “After I practiced zazen for a while, light appeared before me. When I reported this to the Elder Mutoku, he said it was the light of the Dharma-body, and that if I exerted myself more and more, my whole body would be filled with light. I thought that I would become ordained and cultivate this practice for a sustained period.

The Master said: “You have made a great mistake. That light often appears because one’s vital energy is withering. If you treat it as something worthile, you will eventually go crazy. Haven’t you noticed a drop in your energy level?”

The samurai responded: “Yes, it has dropped quite a bit. The sound of something being ground in an earthenware mortar echoes in my chest until I can hardly bear it.”

The Master said: “Look at that! See how you’ve lost significant energy?” You still have valuable time left. Quickly discard this practice.”

Beware the “light” of “enlightenment” – it can lead you astray and leave you depleted and less “light” than before.

One of the things I really enjoy about Shosan, is that he repeatedly says to forget about enlightenment and focus on the everyday. He talks about farmers being in the perfect circumstances to practice. And he talks about merchants also being in a great position to practice. Because they/we are in the midst of the flow of life. And zen/zazen is not only something for the cushion, but something for the everyday.

“Always practice,” say the zen masters whose words I have been reading lately, in addition to Shosan. Living and Dying in Zazen shares this with us.

Shosan goes on to talk on page 36 about experiencing Kensho and dancing with gratitude, “feeling that nothing existed.” Then he discarded that, because he realized it did not suit him. And he went on with his life.

I, too, have had those kinds of experiences. Several of them changed my life completely and altered forever how I see and relate to the world. But they were only gateways to the Greater Matter — the matter of living my life to the best of my ability… the matter of maintaining equanimity and composure in the face of anything and everything.

No matter what.

I think I’ll write more about this in a moment.

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.

Five Points in Buddhist Practice – Shosan’s deepest wishes regarding practice

“The Buddha is infinite grace and perfection.  If you practice without aiming at infinite grace, you are not a disciple of the Buddha.  Now, without the ripening of your fearless mind, you won’t be able to make use of this infinite grace.  Infinite grace can be used to the degree that your fearless mind has matured.  That’s why I hope you will practice with this aim in mind.  Using this infinite grace involves detaching yourself from ego.”

Suzuki Shosan (1579 –1655)

Five Points in Buddhist Practice – it means nothing

The Master spoke again:  “Although I’ve written about these five stages, it means nothing.  I wrote about them because I will die soon, and I wanted to have people understand these teachings thoroughly.  But they cannot be applied in this way all at once.  It takes many lifetimes of continual practice before you can understand them and make a true vow to apply them in your life.  Don’t think you will make full use of them in one lifetime or even two.  Even though I have thoroughly understood these teachings and clearly grasped the seed, I’m still not able to use it freely.  You may discover gold, but if you don’t actually take it from the ground, you can’t make any use of it.

Suzuki Shosan (1579 –1655)