Don’t Expect Applause

I have been a member of Treeleaf online sangha for around 18 months now. The first year was tremendously exciting, with much to learn about Sōtō Zen, the novelty of online zazenkai and the flurry of Ango, Rohatsu and then Jukai. Now practice has become more mundane, settling into a routine, much the same as anything else does. Part of me yearns for that excitement of newness but, as a sangha member said recently, tides change and we need to learn to shift with them.

One thing I have been noticing in myself recently is a tendency to look for encouragement on my sangha forum, especially from the two teachers, and, conversely, become disheartened if the opposite happens. Is a sign of mature practice? I don’t think so. Continue reading


Why Zen Has No Raft

“From the very beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice,without water no ice,
outside us no Buddhas.”
— Hakuin Ekaku

“We usually don’t look. We overlook.”
— Alan Watts

In the parable of the raft (Alagaddupama Sutta, verses 13-15), the Buddha compares the dharma to a raft for transporting sentient beings from the near shore of samsara to the far shore of nirvana.  Just as after crossing a river it would be foolish to continue to carry a raft, once nirvana is reached, there is no more need for the dharma; all concepts around Buddhism and being Buddhist can be let go,.

Shortly after the Buddha achieved awakening under the Bodhi tree, he was met by a man on the road who, in seeing there was something special about him, asked ‘What are you?’.  The Buddha did not identify himself as a man or by any other label corresponding to his rank, religion, clan, or ethnicity.  He merely declared himself to be one thing – awake. Continue reading

Mind Like The Sky

For the mind of Man alone is free to explore the lofty vastness of the cosmic infinite, to transcend ordinary consciousness, to roam the secret corridors of the brain where past and future melt into one…  And universe and individual are linked, the one mirrored in the other, and each contains the other.
Michael Moorcock

Body like a mountain
Breath like the wind
Mind like the sky
— Tibetan Meditation Instruction

One of the first things I do in the morning is step outside and look up at the sky.  It seems to be a sure fire way of lifting me out of whatever thoughts are spinning in my head  and putting me in touch with the wider world.  Breathing in fresh air is probably a part of it, but there is something about the vastness of the sky that seems to open my mind out beyond my usual everyday preoccupations. Continue reading

Apprenticed to Silence

“Listen closely… the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on. This is because the world is nothing but a dream and is just thought of and the everlasting eternity pays no attention to it.”   — Jack Kerouac

 “In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.” – Rumi

When I was younger, a good friend of mine spent a week walking in northern Finland.  After a few days he noticed that his mind quietened and thoughts and questions just seemed to stop.  There was nothing special he had done, although the physical exertion of walking might have been in some way responsible.  Rather, it was what was not happening.  His mind was no longer receiving so many new stimuli.  Sure, the scenery was constantly changing as he walked but the snowy hills and birch trees were sufficiently similar to not be jolting. Continue reading


In chapter 12 of Seeds of Contemplation, the Cistercian monk Father Thomas Merton wrote the following lines:

“You will never find interior solitude unless you make some conscious effort to deliver yourself from the desires and cares and the attachments of an existence in time and in the world…  It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.  No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who satisfies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person.”1 Continue reading

The Well Spring of Experience

Reading Katagiri Roshi’s book ‘Return to Silence’ recently, I was struck by the following passage:

“Whatever question you want to study, you cannot study it from your own shallow viewpoint.  Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endelessly coming up out of the earth.  The more you study something seriously, the more you will realize that everything is boundless.

From where does this spring water come?  Not from anyone’s small, individual territory.  The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep.  The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth.”

Although Buddhism does deal with issues such as what happens after death and cosmology, it differs from many other religions in placing the observation of experience and what we can actually perceive at the centre of its spiritual curriculum.  Meditation is the primary method for observing experience and while shamatha (calm abiding meditation), such as breath awareness, aims to still the mind, vipassana (insight) techniques build on that stillness of mind to look directly at the nature of what we see, feel, hear and think.
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Thoughts on The Heart Sutra

Most Buddhists know the brief prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) text, The Heart Sutra. Many can recite it by rote. Who among us really know what it is saying, though, especially on an experiential rather than intellectual level?

The Heart Sutra (THS) is part of my daily liturgy and some days it speaks to me. Other days it is a more or less uninpenitrable wall of words! Of late, though, I have been realising how it works, for me at least.

Some wise person (it might have been Descartes) once said that accepting everything or accepting nothing are similar states as they require no thought whatsoever. Likewise, in the sense of THS, accepting experience as either solid (eternalism) or empty (nihilism) are both unthinking states. By pointing this out (‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’) the sutra moves us away from either extreme, into the middle ground where experience is neither solid nor empty but both and neither. As the dharma teacher Ken McLeod (author of the commentary on THS ‘Arrow to the Heart’) often points out, by holding two ends of an extreme simultaneously we can then open to all points in between.

So, away from the edges of eternalism and nihilism, the mind still tries to grasp onto certainty, like a person adrift in the ocean reaches out for anything solid. In this case, the ocean is a sea of experience and, finding the groundless nature of reality, we look for any solid concepts with which to anchor ourself. Most of the rest of THS is about removing all these easy handholds with respect to ideas of skandhas, senses, four noble truths, twelve links of existence and even the notion of pristine awareness itself. It is like a swimming instructor removing any solid object from the student’s grasp when they try to grab hold. A more spiritual analogy is that in Greek Orthodox Christianity in which it is said ‘whatever you think God is, it is not that’.

With all of the easy options taken away from us, we are left with nowhere else to turn except the sea of experience itself. Experience, or God in the above example, must be perceived directly. For me, this is the purpose, beauty and function of The Heart Sutra. Your mileage may vary.

“One, seven, three, five –
The truth you look for cannot be grasped.
As night advances, a bright moon illuminates the whole ocean;
The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.
Looking for the moon, it is here, in this wave and the next.”

– Xuedou

In and out of control

When I was doing my PhD I developed a stomach ulcer as a result of all the pressure I was putting on myself to succeed.  Going to the university medical centre, the primary care physician/general practitioner there told me that the solution was to be less stressed.  Very helpful advice, no?  You would have thought that being a university health centre, providing information on stress management would have been a fairly high priority, competing with reducing the number of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries).  However, sadly the staff there seemed far more interested in being patronising, getting home early and (in the case of one doctor) feeling up their patients.  That is, however, another story.

If someone is feeling stressed, possibly the least helpful thing you can say to them is ‘relax’.  Similarly to my doctor telling me to be less stressed, this is focussing on the end result rather than the method needed to get there.  Suggesting a few deep breaths and feeling the ground beneath their feet is likely to be much more effective and actually achieve the result of relaxation.

In the early stages of my illness I found it very hard to cope with all of the changes in my body and a friend of mine suggested that I made a list of the things that I could control and the things I couldn’t and encouraged me to concentrate my energies on the things that were in my control.  These included, what I ate, how much activity I did, the health professionals I worked with and (to some degree) the attitude I adopted.  Getting well (the desired end result) was something that I could not directly affect but only through the methods I adopted.
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A Stitch in Time

Dharma books

Sewing book covers
hands stiffen in the cold air
so sharp the needle!

The first day I lived at a Buddhist centre I was admonished for reading a dharma book at the breakfast table, lest it get covered with jam. I was similarly reprimanded for taking a text into the toilet to read. While I don’t completely agree with arguments that dharma texts should be treated as something totally sacred and that their care is greater than the fact they should be read, I do understand that how we treat books of importance to us says something about our relationship to the contents.

One thing I definitely took away from there was the practice of covering favourite books with pieces of coloured fabric, and tied with ribbons. I like this, as it seems to be an offering to the book itself, and a way of indicating that it is important to you. Of course, a book can’t receive an offering, so the effect is in our own mind, but I similarly like the practice of making offerings to favourite trees and rivers to mark them out as special to me.
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Shrine cleaning and preliminary practices


This morning I have been cleaning my shrine and the whole area around it in preparation for a week of retreat beginning tomorrow to coincide with Losar, the Tibetan new year. Since the retreat will focus on kriya tantra practice, ritual cleanliness is more important than with more conventional meditation techniques (Alexander Berzin explains this in two excellent talks on kriya (action) tantra found at his website).

As a preparation for retreat this has, for me, achieved a dual purpose of allowing my mind to become more aware of what is to come, and also developing a clarity of purpose and focus. This second development was somewhat surprising to me, although I imagine that most of us are aware of a similar effect which comes with spring cleaning of any kind. Combining a spiritual focus with the cleaning work seems to make the mental clarity even more profound, and is something I will be seeking to utilise again.
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