Monthly Archives: May 2021

Still watchful after all these years

Christian contemplative life holds dear a sense of watchfulness: there are Psalms and other scriptures that speak of watchmen on the walls, watchmen who wait for the morning, and so on (Psalm 130:6; Isaiah 21:11; Ezekiel 3:17, among many others), and the concept has its place in most traditions of Christian contemplative practice. This is not quite the same thing as Buddhist concepts of attention or concentration – there is a sense of waiting alertness, of “keeping watch” that I don’t read in most Buddhist texts.

Watchfulness, too, brings with it a sense of stillness, of poised attentiveness that reminds me of the old Zen tradition of asking, “What is this?” As Daishin Morgan says, “To ask, ‘What is this?’ can also be expressed as ‘just look’.”

To be still is grace; and inside that gift is gratitude. True stillness is nothing less, really, than open awareness: a place into which come sense data, the movements of the mind, traces of feeling, memory. The mirror remains unclouded. Stillness allows that to be seen, opens to light.

I am, as an aside perhaps, profoundly grateful to the emerging secular dharma. The knowledge that there is a growing community of practice that does not depend upon religious traditions, or on the acceptance of either dogma or the teacher/disciple relationship (however open it may be to learning from whatever source proves nourishing) is something I missed in my early dharma investigations in the 1970s. Growing up as I did outside of formal religion has left me much more comfortable outside of its traditions, whether Christian or  Buddhist. From here, where I am, I can simply ask the question “what is this?” without needing to look for an answer that fits.

Paying attention, keeping watch – the heart too is open in stillness, and that is a solitude, a place apart from which compassion can extend, for which I am increasingly grateful – more so as the long days of this springtime pass into early summer.

Resting in the ground

Practice often seems an arduous thing. We all too easily fall into a default attitude of stress, as though our practice seat were something like a gym or an examination hall, as though there were something to prove. And indeed there is a sense of discipline (which in fact is sometimes used as an alternative term for practice) required, but there is another side altogether to our regular sitting that is too often missed.

Awakening is not something to achieve, not a goal to reach or a structure to build. It is no more than a wiping of the mirror, a clearing of the breath of anxious grasping and hunger.

Our continuing life is a response to conditions, as well as being simply itself. Even grass and trees respond to conditions, even a rock and the whole earth are constantly responding. That response depends upon the conditions. Just so with our own minds. To rest in things as they are gives rise to a response, just as an in-breath gives rise to an out-breath. The key thing about awakening the mind that seeks the way is that this response will arise from a genuine acceptance of the conditions, and that includes one’s own limitations, such that the response is what conditions call for. This is very ordinary and it is the action of saving all beings before saving yourself, because the response is no longer driven by fears and desires. The energy to respond is life released from the inhibition of fear and desire.

Morgan, Daishin. Buddha Recognizes Buddha . Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition.

At times nothing more is required than to rest in the ground of all that is, to be held in the gentle, unbreakable grasp of isness. Morgan continues (ibid.)

This kind of response is the action of a Buddha. In practice that is a person who gives without being concerned about achieving anything or being recognized, although they may appreciate these things if they come along. The ability to respond selflessly can never be the possession of any self. Giving oneself like this is faith. Faith, giving and the realization of one’s connectedness do not arise in a sequence. There is a simultaneity of all of these things that are just the nature of reality. There is no path to this reality, we can only precipitate ourselves into this that we already are.

This self-gift in faith is a place of rest deeper than any other. Faith like this is not belief in something, some proposition or other requiring assent: it is nothing more than allowing what is to be. Whether just sitting, or in the resilient grasp of the Nembutsu, it is no more than that.

Who Am I?

​Our generation’s short time is falling away. We’re moving into new terrain. There is a measure of effort involved in coming to some equanimity with the implications of our own aging.

There are the aches and the sags, as we are no longer at the peak of our physical strength and agility. We need, also, to find peace in the new landscape of superfluity, as we no longer are at the peak of our engagement in the world.

Adjusting our views of ourselves can take some time. Adjusting our views of our place in the world and of our further direction can also take some time. The contemplation of these necessary adjustments is meaningful. Our views determine our experience.

New questions emerge, often clamoring for attention. Who am I beyond the functions I’ve served? Who am I when the habits of a lifetime are stripped away? Who am I beyond the persona I’ve presented to the world and to myself? Who am I, bare?

It can be a bit sobering, sometimes even stunning, to realize that there is far less time before us than time behind us. There are fewer full moons whose light we can sit in than full moons whose light we have sat in before. There are fewer pale green springs and autumn’s falling leaves, fewer quiet blanketings of snow, fewer ion-charged moments before a fierce summer storm unleashes itself.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

The other night I awoke, overwhelmed by losses. I was suddenly aware not just of the loss of so many dear friends and more from sometimes years back, people who in some sense are always with me, but of the loss of “the functions I’ve served”, the things I’ve done, or meant to others. I use the word “overwhelmed” thoughtfully: the sensation was like being flattened by a wave, the same sense of one minute being safely swimming, and the next of being beneath tons of salty green, seemingly from nowhere, with all breath gone and the power of the undertow dragging at your back…

The next day I was cravenly tempted to try and claw back something from the passing years, to recover something from the outgoing tide. It took Susan’s insight and courage to bring me back, unwillingly, to some sense of the truth, to begin to see where the steady light of time has taken me.

All that is needed, really, is to let the tide do what tides do. The sea is faithful, and the open ground of the long waves beneath that steady light will hold the swimmer who will only float. We are frail and temporary things, appearances only, even to ourselves; it is the light that goes on, and our practice is only to dissolve in light.

Open Awareness

In Sōtō Zen there is a practice, Shikantaza, which is derived from a Chinese term in Caodong Buddhism, usually translated into English as “Silent Illumination”, or “Serene Reflection”. Mary Fowler, however, in a now out of print book translates it as “open awareness”, which seems to me a much better, less other-worldly translation.

Daishin Morgan:

Zazen or enlightenment os not about finding a particular state of mind, for all states of mind are fleeting and cannot be relied upon. When you know who is sitting, you know sitting Buddha. This expression is a bit strange; why not say sitting like a Buddha? I prefer to say sitting Buddha because there is nobody sitting like a Buddha; there is just sitting Buddha. That Buddha never stops sitting, but we must awaken to her presence–not that sitting Buddha is either male or female…

A theme I return to again and again is to just do the work that comes to you. Such an attitude is open-ended in the way that life itself is open. If you give yourself to the way, the way appears and that way is always changing.

Morgan, Daishin. Sitting Buddha. Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition

The openness here is the openness of just being: there is nothing to achieve, nothing to become. All that is necessary is to cease deceiving ourselves.

Faith and watching

In an extract published in Tricycle Magazine, from his 1998 book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor writes:

THE FORCE OF THE TERM “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know,” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.

For T H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modem science. Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”

Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”

But in order to practice, whatever method one follows, one must have faith: faith that something is possible, whether one calls it enlightenment, encounter with God, minding the Light, or something else. From within the Sōtō Zen tradition, Daishin Morgan writes:

Zazen is not an absence of thought, feeling, perception and volition, it is awakening to their emptiness. The same is true of purpose and the path. Some of the best advice is never to believe that you were lost in the first place, and never hesitate to do that which you know to be needed.

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle.

Morgan, Daishin. Buddha Recognizes Buddha . Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition.

Faith and language may be more closely related than we know. But in love, as Morgan points out, much of the difficulty does not so much resolve as dissolve. Quakerism is sometimes described as an “experimental faith”. Daishin Morgan’s words, “We have to discover through personal experience how… insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate” could almost be a restatement of that. It is the wholeness of love that contains all things.