Saturday, February 15, 2014

Turn About

Hello All,
My practice over the last 25 years has been shikantaza or, as it is sometimes called, silent illumination. I, however, still also sit with koan. I do not understand them as Leighton does—objects of the mind ‘used’ for a particular purpose. I sit with koan exactly the same way I sit with pattering rain, cooing mourning doves, gun blasts from the gravel pit and the rustling and wrestling of the person sitting across from me. I know some koan groups use koan as barriers, as something to break through to something else. I know, at times, groups use koan with great masculine musculature and focus fierce energy on resolving them. This hasn’t been my path or way and I never quite understood the path of making koan into objects. Koan are expressions of the non-dual mind although we make them into riddles, puzzles, upsets, goals, skillful means etc. You have often heard me say, “Do not make your practice into an object.” Mu, for instance, is not an object, in fact, it is not even a subject. We sit with open hands and hearts allowing to arise what does and fall away what will. At some point in zazen (of course, at every point) there isn’t any arising or falling away…there is only—-what? This is how I sit with koan. I memorize whichever one I am sitting with and then when I sit down, I rock back and forth, forward and back a couple times until I feel comfortable enough. I then count my breath to 10 for 1 or 2 cycles, and then I just sit. Sometimes wind, sometimes sadness, sometimes croaking, sometimes koan. I do nothing more than this and nothing less.

Of course, in the early days of practice, we do make breath counting into something but that is our misunderstanding as beginners. We also can make koan and kensho into something but again, that is our misunderstanding. Kensho simply means seeing into (self) nature. These days, I might say, seeing through (the one who sees) the way Chao-chou saw through the old woman…maybe at the very same moment she was seeing through him?

When sitting with the eye that sees through, primacy is not given to anything over anything else. This is why, as we read Cultivating the Empty Field, we should be aware of the mistaken notion of turning about to look within. Leighton insists on this translation because of his own misperceptions. In fact, the truer understanding of turning about is evoked in Hakuin’s great Song, “Turn about to bear witness to self nature that is no-nature”. Turning within gives a primacy to thoughts, feelings and sensations. At the conclusion of Leighton’s preface, he says that Hongzhi uses poetic, literary language (another mistaken notion of the translator, it is koan language) evoking nature because we are indeed the clouds, moon and mountains. That being the case, why give primacy to turning within to note, analyze, or be aware of thoughts? Why not hold them the very same way that we hold all phenomena? We are each thing. We are no-thing at all. So why turn within—within what? We are porous, we are permeable. We begin and end where; with our outer skin, the heat we exude, our energy, our breadth?  Everywhere we look, each thing we hear, whatever we think (feel, sense) is us—-“wherever I go I meet it, but it is not me.” I’d say just turn about—and whatever meets you whether thought, incense fragrance, feeling, rain patter, wind blowing is the momentary awareness of ourselves in that form, in that moment.

A few moments ago, I brought up Chao-chou. Leighton said (pg. 18, 2nd & 3rd paragraph), that Chao-chou’s Wash Your Bowls is an example of ‘sincere mindful conduct of ordinary  everyday life.’ If Zen were only involved with eating breakfast, washing the bowls, drying and putting them away my grandmother and yours would have been Zen masters. There is a part of zen training which is simply doing what is before you but we also need to see through what is right before us…& before eye, before nose, before ear, tongue, body, mind. Zen is also before thought, feeling, sensation and this side/ aspect/ reality/ truth  of zen is repeatedly missed by Leighton’s practice-only point of view.

All this being said, I am deeply grateful for this book. Hongzhi is a master and it is a grand thing to be able to walk in his words. He wanders with great ease and joy through the great circle of wonder. Many years ago, Jana brought snippets of this book to dokusan and we would marvel at the clarity, depth, insight and succinct language of this Zen master. I can understand why Dogen referred to him with great reverence. He and his friend Da-hui clearly cast a golden spell on this period of Zen and zazen and that spell was wedded to this life right here, to these tasks, to this moment whether male or female, monastic or lay. I am much obliged to Leighton and feel bad about my seemingly disparaging remarks but I would feel even worse if I didn’t say what I know to be so.


Note to self: Carlos pg.111 Swampland. THANKS


  1. Attendees:

    Thank you so much sharpening our attention with this post. We spent a bit of time on this distinction between ‘turning within’ and ‘turning around’. In some respects, and we think this is your take on this, ‘turning within’ points towards a mindfulness on steroids, self absorption. We see 'turning within' and 'turning about' are not too much different. Caution should be used. 'Turning about' can present us with our small self just as 'turning within' can. My ‘within’ is really, really, really big and includes the wondrous vast luminous space. Either way (within or about), "to forget oneself is being enlightened by all things”.

    Once again we talked about our ‘Zen muscle’. How do we develop it? If we don’t then wooden zen. Sometimes our practice feels like 2 steps forward 1 step backward and sometimes it feels like 1 step forward for every 2 steps backward. It seems to require effort and energy to sustain let alone advance. Advance to what one wonders? Being more fun at parties?

    We heard a little funny story about a lady who farted loudly during a meditation retreat. She was letting her ‘within’ become her ‘about’. Ha Ha

    Some think we as a society have become overcome with inward personal introspection today. We discussed this and speculated that things probably weren’t too different in “olden days”. We surely don’t think Taigen Leighton means this type of thing when he refers to ’turning within’.

    Will ask about ‘body-mind’ and just what ‘body-mind’ was. Other than a combination of my body with my mind, nobody could explain.

    “wherever I go I meet it, but it is not me.”

  2. Thanks Jack. I was trying - not very well I fear - to explain to a sincere coworker, who is beginning to practice sitting, that zen practice was not about 'going within'. If it were, how dull that would be. The creative mind holds wonders but the surface chatter....

    It's taken me 20 years of zazen and life to unlearn the forced and muscular theatrics of my early koan practice. I am, from time to time, relieved.

  3. Koan seems to contain investigations into deeper recognition. Stillness and emptiness of self is not enough. So many unconscious interpretations linger that draw me far away from the true wonder of intimacy. Turning about to bear witness...this is the leaving of the home shores of old interpretations that are cozy but false, holding me in the prison of mental patterns that cause a separation into self. Turning about is opening the prajna eye, allowing this intuitive wisdom to delve into the reality that lies before me. This is the land of the koan...questions that arise naturally if I only watch from this wisdom eye, not knowing... waiting...for old interpretations to fall away, and fresh insight to spark...into simple zones like time and this greater Self. I can see the absence of individual self, but what then? The bridge to intimacy is still uncrossed. The koan is the vehicle for crossing this bridge, opening that eye, recognizing beyond stale interpretations that hold me a prisoner in this separation. Recognizing that it is fear that maintains this positioning, fear of losing the stance of the individual self. A voice comes and says, Let your heart become free, let the world become your home, enter the unknowing...this is where intimacy is found.

  4. To "turn about to look within" makes inside and outside. Just to "turn about" has no inside and no outside. Our inside turns about, our outside turns about, the moon and the clouds turn about, so too the patter of rain.


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