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The Standard of Sitting-Zen Recommended for Everyone

A commentary by / Un commentaire de
Mike Chodo Cross

Mike Chodo Cross was born in Birmingham in 1959, and graduated from Sheffield University. With Gudo Nishijima, he is the co-translator into English of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo in four volumes. He now divides his time between England and France. Together with his wife Chie, who is also an Alexander Technique teacher and Zen practitioner, he runs the Middle Way Re-education Centre in Aylesbury, England. At a small country retreat on the edge of La Foret Des Andaines in northern France, he indulges selfishly in sitting-Zen, amid sounds of a valley stream and abundant singing of birds.

Mike Cross

Diplômé de l'université de Shieffeld, Mike Chôdô Cross est né à Birmingham en 1959. Il a traduit en anglais avec Gudô Nishijima le Shôbôgenzô de Maître Dôgen en quatre volumes. Il partage maintenant son temps entre l'Angleterre et la France. En compagnie de sa femme Chie, qui enseigne également la technique Alexander et pratique le zen, il dirige le Middle Way Re-education Centre à Aylesbury en Angleterre. Dans un petit refuge en lisière de la forêt des Andaines dans le nord de la France, il se contente de s'asseoir en zen entre le murmure de l'eau de la vallée et la voix des oiseaux.


[English Translation]
[Comments 1]
[Comments 2]
[Comments 3]
[Comments 4]
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Comments (1st part)

The "fu" of "Fukan-zazengi" expresses universality. Master Dogen wrote this exhortation to practice sitting-Zen not only for Japanese monks of his own time (1200-1254), but for all human beings of all times. This is why people who love sitting-Zen regard Fukan-zazengi as Master Dogen's most important written legacy.

Now, when we research it, the truth originally is all around: why rely upon practice and experience?

The beating of the heart is the truth, the singing of birds is the truth. The universal force of gravity is the truth, and the natural response to gravity of a human organism on planet earth is also the truth. In us and all around us, these truths are always being realized. We need not try to get anything.

The vehicle for the fundamental exists naturally: where is the need to expend effort?

The regulatory function of postural reflexes is fundamental. The regulatory function of the autonomic nervous system is fundamental. The regulatory function of the information receptors in each body cell is fundamental. These functions work naturally to restore balance. Trying doesn't help them to work. We need not try to get anywhere.

Furthermore, the whole body far transcends dust and dirt: who could believe in the means of sweeping and polishing?

We need not try to get rid of anything.

In general, we never depart from the place where we should be: of what use, then, are the tiptoes of training?

Again, there is nowhere to get to. The truth is the integral state of natural balance-- the state in which the postural reflexes, the autonomic nervous system, and the molecular information network which integrates the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, are all working naturally. Trying to make these systems work only gets in the way.

However, if there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, heaven and earth are far apart,

If a person sits with his head in the clouds, thinking the above thoughts, while gravity wreaks havoc on his body, there is a gap.

and if a trace of disagreement arises, we lose the mind in confusion.

If, in our intellect and in reality, we are pursuing different agendas, confusion is liable to result. When belief in our own intellect causes us to lie to ourself, to remain blind to our own unconscious motives, confusion is liable to result. A person who truly loves sitting-Zen will naturally tend towards a simple life, a life of integrity, in which the word fits the action, and the action fits the word.

Even if, proud of our understanding and richly endowed with realizations, we obtain special states of insight, attain the truth, clarify the mind, manifest a zeal that pierces the sky, and ramble through those remote spheres that are entered with the head; we have almost completely lost the vigorous path of getting the body out.

A boy is standing on the edge of a diving board by a swimming pool, feeling afraid and considering his options. Then he jumps in. In his jumping in, he transcends what he has been feeling and what he has been thinking. In jumping in, he gets his body out.

Getting the body out means stepping out of the prison of feeling and thinking and experiencing the essence of being; it means stepping out of the prison of "body" and "mind," and experiencing ones real existence as an integral human being. Going further, getting the body out means stepping out of the prison of automatic reaction, and truly acting.

Our friend with his head in the clouds has lost the path of getting the body out of the area of thinking. Another example is the Zen practitioner who is stuck in the rigid, military-style posture which feels right to him; he lacks the path of getting the body out of the area of feeling. Even the person who finds release in movement--the sportsman, athlete, martial artist, dancer, musician, rider, et cetera--while able, in his enjoyment of action, to get the body partially out of the area of thinking and feeling, is still liable to be trapped in the prison of automatic reaction. In cricket, for example, the fielding side's attempt to trap a batsman is based on the expectation that the batsman will react in a predictable way. Similarly, in the martial arts, a feint works by eliciting an automatic defensive reaction from the opponent. Only those who approach the ideal of a master batsman, or a master martial artist, are more or less able to choose their response to every situation.

The experience of how difficult it is to get the body out of the prison of automatic reaction makes it difficult to be proud of oneself--that may be one reason why sport can be such a great leveller in our world. A person with the intellectual pride that Master Dogen describes here has not understand how difficult it is to get the body out of the area of automatic reaction and into the area of true, free action.

Moreover, remembering the natural sage of Jetavana park, we can [still] see the traces of his six years of upright sitting. We can still hear rumours of the transmitter of the mind-seal at Shaolin, spending nine years facing the wall. The ancient saints were like that already: how could people today fail to practice wholeheartedly?

The natural sage of Jetavana park means the Buddha, who, it is said, from leaving his family at the age of 29 spent six years training himself in the lotus posture before beginning his teaching career at the age of 35. The transmitter of the mind-seal at Shaolin means Master Bodhidharma, who, according to Chinese legend, spent nine years just sitting facing a wall, in his effort to transmit the true practice of sitting-Zen from India into China.

So cease the intellectual work of studying sayings and chasing words.

The main thing is to walk the walk. To be able to talk a good talk is also a virtue, but it is never the main thing--and from the mouth of one who does not walk the talk it counts for nothing. In sitting-Zen we cease secondary concerns and come back to the main thing.

Learn the backward step of turning light around and reflecting it.

I firmly believe, from working with children who have what is known as attention deficit disorder, that the lack of attention they bring to schoolwork is caused primarily not by dysfunction of the thinking brain but by dysfunction at a much more primitive level.

Awareness in sitting-Zen also is primitive, but it is not a spotlight of attention concentrated on an object; it is more akin to the all-pervading brightness of the sun the morning. In sitting-Zen we un-concentrate our awareness, refusing to focus it on miscellaneous peripheral matters, bringing it back to the fundamental, integral reality of sitting. When we succeed in this, self-and-environment become suffused with the light of bare awareness.

One reason we experience sitting-Zen as a backward step may be because the most vital parts of the nervous system in sitting-Zen are the most ancient in evolutionary terms. The simple task of upright sitting and breathing, when performed with minimum effort, depends upon the most primitive structures and reflex pathways in the brain and spinal cord, and upon the balanced functioning of the autonomic nervous system in the body.

Going back still further, at the level of individual cells, the practice of sitting-Zen must promote integration and balance through the free flow of endorphins ("endogenous morphine") and other informational substances.

In her book Molecules of Emotion, Professor Candace Pert demonstrates that not only does the nervous system regulate the body but also, through the flow of these informational substances, the body regulates the nervous system.

It has been known since the early 20th century that the two components of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves are regulated directly by two neurotransmitters: acetylcholine and noradrenaline, respectively. What was not recognized until recently is the importance of other kinds of informational substances, such as slower-working hormones, and endorphins. "It turns out that in addition to the classical neurotransmitters, all of the known peptides, the information molecules, can be found abundantly in the autonomic nervous system, distributed in subtly different intricate patterns all the way down both sides of your spine."

Thus, "you brain is extremely well integrated with the rest of your body at a molecular level. Every one of the zones, or systems, of the network--the neural, the hormonal, the gastrointestinal, and the immune--is set up to communicate with one another, via peptides and messenger-specific peptide receptors."

In other words, it is not only that balance of the autonomic system in sitting-Zen causes individual body-cells to rejoice, but also that when an individual body-cell rejoices in sitting-Zen, that cell causes the autonomic nervous system to rejoice, by releasing endorphins.

These peptides, or information molecules, are "messengers carrying information to link the major systems of the body into one unit that we can call the body-mind."

Body and mind naturally drop off, and the original face appears.

Our original face is that of a human being, an individual, integral, indivisible human being who belongs to the Universe and to whom the Universe belongs.

If we want to attain the matter of the ineffable, we should urgently practice the matter of the ineffable.

The way that can be described is not the true way. A rigid military-style posture is easy to describe and easy to practice. A slump is easy to describe and easy to practice. Balanced upright sitting is impossible to describe adequately and is difficult to practice.

In general, a quiet room is good for experiencing Zen balance.

Quietness suggests lack of noise, not necessarily lack of sound. A quiet room, for example, might be filled with the sound of birds singing and water flowing. To find such a room is not always easy. Sound therapists have argued that noise pollution in modern industrialized societies is the cause of an unrecognized health crisis.

At the same time, the presence or absence of noise is not independent of the ear of the subject. For example, my master Gudo Nishijima is in his own words "strong to noise," whereas I am easily prone to be disturbed not only by modern sounds such as engines revving, but also by sounds with which humans have been living for millennia, such as dogs barking and children shouting excitedly.

The ear is the key organ for both hearing and balance. I suppose that my tendency to be disturbed by noise may have its basis in congenital dysfunction of the ear (deafness and balance problems run in both sides of my family).

Developmentally, the importance of the ear is indicated by the fact that it is the earliest of the sensory organs to establish a mature connection with the brain-stem--the vestibular, or VIIIth cranial, nerve is already myelinated at 6 months after conception. Many important primitive reflexes--notably the Moro (or baby panic reflex), tonic labyrinthine (or baby balance reflex), and the asymmetrical and symmetrical tonic neck reflexes--rely on appropriate vestibular input in order to come to maturity.

In sitting-Zen practice also, I think the ear is the key sensory organ, not only as the arbiter of head balance, but also in its role as integrator of the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile, and visual senses.

So, not only for those of us with imperfect ears, but for all of us, a quiet room is good. If circumstances become noisy, we are faced with the choice of enduring the noise until it passes, or attempting to change our circumstances.

Food and drink are taken in moderation.

In moderation means not too much. As always, however, the middle way is appropriate. I remember walking up a small hill in Tokyo with Gudo Nishijima while I was on a sparse vegetarian diet, and complaining of finding it hard going. He laughed and commented, "Without fuel, the engine does not work!" [...]

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