Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday October 27, 2009. I started using Dragon Naturally Speaking for transcribing recorded talks, and it really is amazing.

If you would like to listen to this talk on a podcast, simply click the title of the post or you can click HERE.

Who are you? Without opening your mouth... without referring to something else, some act that has happened in the past, right now, is there anybody that can answer this question, that can respond? Who are you? (Ven. Doshu strikes the ground) Ah...Doshu...that's one!

Each of us, when we're asked this question immediately we begin to think, "who am I?" I had an interesting experience as I was sitting just in the corner there, paying attention. The plant light was behind me, so in my field of vision was this black shape with big ears... "Me"... "this is "me" making the shadow". A few minutes into the sit, the light shut off and I disappeared.

Each of us, when we think of ourselves, take ourselves as being something that's fixed. Something that's solid. Something that's permanent. We buy the story that we tell ourselves. We grasp it entirely and cling onto it. Failing to recognize that this thing, this "I", this person that we identify ourselves as, is entirely dependent on everything else in this world.

Think about it. Is it possible to talk about who you are without reference, without talking about something else, something that's happened in the past, some direction that you're headed in the future, some relationship that you have? When we're looking for the self as an object, there is no way that we can find it.

What are we doing when we're sitting here practicing? People come for all kinds of different reasons. Things are getting stressful, things are, my mind is very busy, and maybe my doctor told me I needed to meditate or something like this. The practice that we're engaged in, in Zen meditation, is paying attention to this moment.

I often use this term "this moment" and I think that sometimes people take "this moment" as being a place, something that's fixed. But when I'm talking about this moment, I'm talking about something which is not solid, which is not a place. It's an activity. The activity of this moment, which is unfolding before us all the time, new. Which is being born, and dying, in each moment.

And so when we come to practice, we take it as "I" (being a solid fixed thing), coming to experience "this moment" (which is a solid fixed thing). So when I ask this question, "Who are you? Without opening your mouth, who are you?", there is no place for you to stand. There is nowhere for you to point. There is nowhere for you to look, except into the activity of this moment, into what it is that you're doing right now.

There is no "You" in the past, there is no "You" in the future. You have no life outside of the unfolding activity of this moment. So, if we look at things in two dimensions, if we look at things as being flat; subject-object, we can talk about this practice that we're engaged in as "ME" doing "SOMETHING". As this definite "I" engaging in an objective practice, "I'm sitting looking at the floor". This is a very simple, a very confused way of understanding what is taking place.

What we are asked in this activity of zazen, Zen meditation, is to let go into... to dissolve into the experience of the unfolding activity of this moment. The activity of sitting is not an objective activity that "you" are doing. This idea of "YOU" and "ACTIVITY" is a false one. Without you, where is the activity? Without the activity that's unfolding in this moment before you, without this practice of sitting, where are "you"?

These things that we call lives, are nothing other than the unfolding activity of this moment. Moment, after moment. These aren't discrete little frames, like a movie, but rather a flow, like a body of water... moving. There is no catching it back. There is no doing it over. There is only this moment as it unfolds. But, for most of us, as we go through our lives, we are constantly trying to fixate. We're constantly looking for a place to rest ourselves. Looking for a place to stop. Looking for a place to look around. Looking for a finish line, a place where we can put up our heels and rest.

As we engage in this activity of living, the activity of this moment we're constantly looking around for something else to do. Constantly distracted, constantly dissatisfied with this activity that's unfolding right before us. Right within us. Right through us. Not paying attention to this activity, we have expectations, we make assumptions, we think, "wouldn't it be wonderful IF", and all of this exists in the realm of our imagination. It isn't what's going on. It isn't what's unfolding right under our noses.

So this practice that we're engaged in, is not the practice of "me" coming to "sit" with a "bunch of other people". It's not the practice of "me" going to engage in some religion, or some spiritual practice. And it's certainly not "me" going to go and improve "myself" by engaging in this "practice".

"Buddha". This word "Buddha" means "the one who is awake". "Budh" - to wake up. This practice is not about adding something more into what it is that you've already got. It's not about grasping something that is outside of you.

Wake up! That's what this practice is!

Waking up to the dynamic activity of this moment that's unfolding, being born and dying, again, and again, and again. Not separate from us. It's not taking place so that "we" can "witness" it, but this very thing that we call a "self", together with the activity of this moment, is being born and dying over, and over, and over again. This isn't something that we have to grasp. It's not something that we have to find "out there". This activity is unfolding, always.

All we have to do is, for a moment, to let go of thinking about, for a moment, let go of this concept... this idea of of a "me", of a "myself", of an "I" that stands separate from this world, from this environment, from these people, this experience that I'm having. To let it drop away, and to experience at once, "I" and "all things" being born together. "I" and "all things" dissolving, dying into one... together.

Each activity that we engage in, in Zen practice, is aimed at this same realization, the same experience. Awakening. We begin with a practice which is the simplest thing that we can possibly come up with. Just sit.

We can look at sitting and say, "Boy, there's sure nothing going on there. Not much is happening there".

It's all happening there! What isn't happening as we sit?

What happens as we sit is that we're in a position where we can most easily drop away our fixation with self. Drop away our idea of "me" and "this experience". If we sit still, if we simply practice breathing, if we practice this activity of being born, and dying through the activity of our breath, this notion, this conviction that we have that we are separate from the activity of this moment, is able to drop away.

In the activity of walking it becomes a little bit more challenging, but, no different. If we get stuck on "me"; "am I doing it right?", we have this gap. "I'm" doing "something". But at once, if we let go of our fixation with ourselves, that separation drops away and we can experience what it is to be manifesting the activity of this moment, the activity of the cosmos, as walking.

Our practice isn't aimed, as I say every week, at being successful and accomplished Zen meditators. This is the training, Zen training, and its function is that as we go out into the world, as we go out and engage in our practice of being nurses, or artists, or musicians, or business people, or accountants, that as we engage in our work, as we engage in our play, as we engage in our relationships, and interactions with this world, we don't do this in a way in which "I" am "doing". Subject-object.

Dropping away this deluded concept of a separate self, we manifest the complete activity of this moment "as". As caring, as art, as music, as transaction, as calculation. There is no subject, there is no object. It is the manifestation of the activity of this universe.

Inevitably the self is born. Inevitably again we attach, we fixate to this idea of "I am", and we can look at what it is that has happened in the past. We can say, "Oh... that was good... Oh... that was beautiful... Oh... that was really a mess", but having had this experience of falling into, having had this experience of dropping away subject and object, when the self forms, we understand it for what it is. A concept. A reflective capacity of mind, and we don't take it as something being solid, and fixed, lasting, or permanent.

We don't take this idea of inside and outside, subject-object and distance between them, as being the nature of our experience. It is one pole, and the other is complete unification.

So, until I see you next time, I would really like everybody to really stop once in a while as we go through our day, as we're making music, as we're doing our work, as we're engaged in our studies, or making our art. Stop and ask, "In this moment who am I? Without opening my mouth, without making reference to the ghosts of the past, who am "I".

Friday, October 23, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given October 20, 2009

It's wonderful to be back here in Victoria. I certainly enjoy the time I spend down in North Carolina but I'm always happy to get back to the island. I wanted to talk a bit about...I always say that, I always start the Tuesday talk with, "I want to talk a bit about"... these fifteen minute talks it’s all I can get is a bit about anything. So tonight I want to talk about form.

The Jikijitsu seems to be interested in having some correction about form, tonight he wants to make sure that people are following the form, and I think that a lot of people who come to practice meditation are really surprised, they're really set back by the amount of form that's used here on a Tuesday night for Zen practice. We try to keep it actually, I have to mention, very light, in comparison to the formal practice we engage in at the Victoria Zen Centre. The form that we use here on Tuesday night is very soft, it's gentle. We're not very strict with it. But I want to talk a little bit about the value of form, the function of form, why we use so much form. There is a practical aspect of it, of course. The form that we use in our tradition arises out of monastic practice. It arises out of a practice, which strives to have a large number of people practicing together harmoniously, without a whole bunch of chatter.

So we have bells and clappers, gongs and drums, and sounding boards, and all kinds of musical instruments that lead us through the schedule of the day. Understanding that this day that we engage in, a day of practice together, is a song in which we all take part, I think, is a more difficult aspect of practice for people to realize. But for now, just understand that those markers, the percussion, they're just gentle reminders, or calls to awareness of what's coming next.

It's time to let go of the situation that we're in and move on to the next situation. More than that, the form offers us a container- a structure. We have a lot of form, so we actually have a course that we run through the Zen center called the “Introduction to Zen meditation” course. In this course, we go over the basic aspects of form that are used so that we don't have to spend so much time trying to figure out what's going on. But in a nutshell, what we have is a container. It's something that we can apply ourselves to. Something that we can relax into, or even more than that, it's something that we can completely surrender to, or let go into.

As we go through our lives, we live in these environments that are constantly changing, that are constantly dynamically coming up, and breaking apart. We never know what's going to happen next. Because we never know what's coming at us, we never know what we have to face, we hold on very tightly to who it is that we think we are. We hold on very tightly to the things that we value, the things that we think are important, the things that we want to protect, and defend. And at the same time, we defend ourselves against all of those things that we don't want to come into contact with. All of those things that make us uncomfortable, that we find unpleasant, that we think are bad, and this is our constant state as we go through our lives. Constantly grasping onto this thing that we call a "self", the things that we call mine, and we never have this opportunity to relax to let go.

Buddhism teaches us that this tendency that we have to cling on to this thing we call a "self" is at root, the source of all of our suffering. But it's not enough for us to posit this theory, this philosophy. Zen practice is aimed at experience. What happens when we, even for a moment, let go of this thing that we have such a white knuckle death grip on? What happens when this separation between what we call inside, and outside, drops away? What happens when the distance between subject, and object dissolves, and they unify? These are all great philosophical questions that we can sit and think about when we're meditating but, that's not Zen practice. Zen practice is the act of investigating the experience of what happens when we let go.

The way that we go about doing this is by engaging or embracing this form. When we're sitting, we can be engaged in this activity of sitting thinking, “I'm sitting. That's what I'm doing. I'm following my breath. That's what I'm doing”, but all of this operates in the realm of the mind. All of this is taking place in the conceptual framework “I am doing”. As we let go into the activity of our breathing, the breath arising, the breath dissolving, we find that we can enter into the activity of this moment, where it's not just “me” doing “something”. We experience our lives immersed in the activity, the unfolding, dynamic activity of this moment. It's not me sitting here, it's the activity of this universe, sitting. Not separate from anything, completely unified.

This isn't a state. This isn't something that we can hang onto. Even if we catch a glimpse of this, immediately, it breaks apart and we say “Oh... that was interesting, what was that all about?” The structure that we use, this form that we use, offers us a stable framework, a structure that we can apply our self to over and over again. That we can let go into that we can drop away this idea, this concept of “self” to experience what it is to be one with this moment. This isn't some special state. This isn't some unique and rarefied experience. This is actually our nature. This is an activity, an experience, which is happening all the time, in every activity that we do. But in our mundane lives, we miss it. So caught up with “myself”, so caught up with inside and outside, so caught up with what I need to do, what I need to get, what I need to avoid. We miss the profound beauty of simply being at one in this moment.

The function of meditation, however, is not to meditate. Our goal, or the fruit of our practice is not to be able to successfully experience this state over and over again while we sit in a meditation hall. I've said this many, many times. The function of practice is that we become more and more able to realize this activity, to realize our true relationship with the world around us, to recognize that we are not separate from this world in which we live in our everyday lives. The practice that we engage in in Zen is systematic. We begin with something very simple, sitting. We engage in this practice in a room which is quiet, without distractions, where we're supported by the energy of other people sitting engaged in the same practice. In this environment it's easy to little bit, by little bit, let go of our mental busy-ness. Little bit, by little bit, to let go of difficult emotions and thought patterns that arise. Little bit, by little bit, to dissolve into the activity of this moment. At once, we can experience what it is to just sit.

The bell sounds and the clappers clap. We are asked to do walking meditation. Walking meditation is not a break. It's not a non-meditation practice. It is a continuation and expansion of the activity that we're engaged in while we sit. We are taking meditation into movement. As soon as we stand up however, we find that the self asserts itself again, we become "I". Things start to move, and we start to worry about “I”. “Am I going too fast? Am I going to slow? Is my step wide enough? Is my step too short? Is it too fast, too slow? I wonder what I'm going to do later…” and we lose the thread of it entirely. The practice of walking meditation is to let go, to let go of this idea of a separate self and to dissolve into the activity of the universe as walking. When we let go of our self concern, we find that walking is no problem at all. We're in step, we're close behind the person in front of us. There's no “I'm doing it right”, “I'm doing it wrong”, simply manifesting the activity of this moment as walking.

Some of the instructions were a little bit of faulty for the walking meditation. When we do walking meditation, you want to make sure that your right hand goes flat on your abdomen, just below your breastbone. Your forearms are parallel to the floor and your left hand is covering. When ever we're doing something in Zen meditation the left hand is always covering. So when we're sitting, the right hand is on the bottom with the left hand covering. The right hand is symbolic of our active, the plus, the "I am" self side. The left hand is symbolic, representative of the minus, dissolution, and no self, emptiness side. So when we're doing meditation, Zen meditation, when we sit, the right hand goes on the bottom with the left hand covering. When we do walking meditation, we don't just flip them up. The right hand again goes on the abdomen and the left hand is covering.

Chanting is no different. The practice is fundamentally no different than in sitting, as it is in walking. Again when it comes time to use our voice, the 'I" raises its head. This “I” that we want to protect, that we cherish, that we want to defend against destruction. And we start to say things like “Oh... am I doing this right? Am I to loud? Am I too quiet? What does this mean? What does it imply if I'm chanting it? What if someone saw me doing this? What is all this stuff about? “I, I, I…”, comes into it the simple activity of chanting a syllable, one syllable after the other, but we find that this tendency we have to grab the self, to shackle ourselves to it, interferes with the simple activity of making sound, so that rather than being able to make a clear and strong sound, our voice is filled with fear, our voice is filled with doubt and self concern.

So the practice as we chant, just as when we walk, just as when we sit, is to become aware of how we hold on to self and to practice letting it go. In the practice of letting it go, we have the opportunity to experience what it is to become unified. What it is to be one with the activity we're engaged with. What it is to manifest as this universe in sound. As I said at the very beginning, these are all lovely words. We can spend a lot of time talking about them, or thinking about them. But what we're here to do, what we're engaged in when we practice Zen is experience. So stop thinking about. Stop saying to yourselves, "Oh that sounds good, I want to try that". Do it! When it comes time for sitting, just sit. When it comes time for walking, just walk. When it comes time for chanting, just chant.

The manifestation of the state of zero, unification, is also not permanent. Soon enough, the self arises. The self will say, “That was interesting”. The self will say, “What a wonderful experience”. The self will say, “Wow, we've got to do that again sometime”. It's inevitable that the self will arise. So there is no need to be afraid. There's no need to hang on. There is no need to get stuck on protecting the self as you engage in each of these activities. Just practice letting go.

Listen to this talk on the Living Zen PODCAST