To grasp this meaning is to be like a dragon that has found water, or like a tiger before a mountain stronghold.
In their natural element, the dragon and the tiger are totally without fear. When I was younger I saw the dragon and tiger as metaphors for martial virtues such as fighting spirit and physical strength, but on more mature reflection I see that these martial attributes sometimes represent a response to fear rather than an absence of it. I think it may be more true to see the dragon and tiger as symbols of quiet inner confidence. The fearlessness that sitting-Zen confers upon us arises not from the invincibility of a mighty warrior but rather from a human being's consummation of the longing to belong.
I was going to suggest that sitting-Zen confers on us the invincibility of a drop in the ocean, but that metaphor would miss something of the sense of individual dignity which is conveyed by the image of the dragon and tiger. Belonging does not negate individuality, and neither does individuality negate belonging. In sitting-Zen the Universe is realized, and if you grasp this meaning, whatever your peculiarities as an individual, you belong.
I think in particular of a late Buddhist friend of mine, Colin, a gay man who was much troubled by the perception that his family did not accept his sexuality. In retrospect, I wish that I had emphasized this aspect of Master Dogen's teaching to Colin while he was alive. Master Dogen is saying here that it doesn't matter what is your sexuality, race, disability, intellectuality or non-intellectuality: In sitting-Zen the Universe is realized, and if you grasp this meaning, you belong.
The physiological counterpart of this sense of belonging is balance. In recent years, work as an Alexander technique teacher and neuro-developmental therapist has afforded me glimpses into the profound mutual relation between balance and confidence--or, conversely, between imbalance and fear.
The Moro, or baby panic reflex, is a key to such understanding. It is most easily elicited through vestibular input--a midwife will sometimes let a new-born baby drop for a few inches to check that the reflex is present, as indeed the reflex should be present to aid the baby's survival and development in its first few months. After the first year of infancy, however, after the Moro reflex has reached maturity and been inhibited by the development of higher brain centres, it should no longer be possible to elicit the Moro reflex in normal circumstances. This is an accepted medical fact. What doctors generally do not recognize is in how many of us the Moro reflex fails to come to full maturity. Instead it remains partially aberrant, immature, uninhibited, causing undue reactions to any stimulus that we unconsciously perceive to be unexpected or threatening.
An immature Moro reflex will impair the functioning of not only the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance in the gravitational field, but also the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for emotional balance.
One of the developmental functions of the Moro reflex is to oppose an even more primitive fear reaction known as the fear paralysis response (FPR). In the animal world, the FPR my be observed in the frog that plays dead or the rabbit caught in a car's headlights. In normal circumstances, the FPR should not be seen in human beings outside the womb, although in people who have an immature Moro reflex a remnant of the FPR will often be observable--in response to perceived danger, they will sometimes turn red as the Moro takes over and then turn white as the FPR comes through. Again, it may be that free divers who are able to remain under water for extraordinary lengths of time are in some way accessing the FPR.
The FPR is associated with extreme dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system, with pallor, loss of muscle tone, and slowing of heart beat and respiration to conserve energy. The Moro, in contrast, is associated with extreme dominance of the sympathetic nervous system, with reddening of the skin, heightened muscle tone, and faster heart beat and respiration in preparation for rapid expenditure of energy for fight or flight.
Children who have retained these fear reflexes in immature form invariably suffer from both a tendency towards imbalance of the autonomic nervous system (labile emotions) and dysfunction of the vestibular system. But even if the fear reflexes are reasonably well integrated, if the child's sense of balance is imperfect, this vestibular imbalance alone will account for a tendency towards imbalance of the autonomic nervous system. Children who are insecure in their relation with gravity are emotionally insecure. The first thing that invariably changes with vestibular re-education, usually within the first few weeks, is that the child suddenly becomes more confident.
My work with such children, alongside Alexander work with supposedly normal adults, has led me to believe that such deep-seated physiological problems with fear and imbalance are present to some degree in almost all the people I meet here in the UK.
Is the aim of Zen practice to transcend these problems? Or is the aim of Zen practice to fix these problems? I think both. Here and now, the practice of sitting-Zen transcends these problems. Over many years, I believe that daily practice of upright sitting, including the practice of exhaling and swaying as Master Dogen describes, may contain all that we need to re-educate the vestibular system and bring primitive reflexes to maturity. For me, this remains a hypothesis: I do not consider myself to be the finished article by any means. The example of Gudo Nishijima may be taken in support of the hypothesis: I have never seen him in a condition of undue imbalance or fear. On the other hand, by his own admission his inherent nervous constitution has always been strong, and so whether his sixty years of Zen practice have had a remedial effect in terms of the integration of primitive reflexes, remains an open question.
Putting such long-term questions aside, what can be said with confidence is that, here and now, the inherent balance and stability of the lotus posture is conducive to a condition of relative fearlessness.
Remember, true reality is naturally manifesting itself before us, and gloom and distraction vanish at a stroke.
At the beginning of Shobogenzo, Master Dogen states that the criterion for the transmission of the Buddha's truth is the balanced state of receiving and using the self. Gudo Nishijima has interpreted that "receiving the self" expresses the energy-conserving function of the parasympathetic nervous system, while "using the self" expresses the energy-expending function of the sympathetic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system is unduly active--for example, when we are worrying about something or concentrating hard on some pressing task--reality takes on gloomy hue. When parasympathetic nervous predominates--for example, after a heavy meal--it is difficult to attend to reality.
In the state of natural balance, or state of zero, in which the antagonistically acting sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves cancel each other out, there is nothing other than reality. This is the fundamental teaching of Gudo Nishijima.
If we rise from sitting, we should move the body slowly.
I think that the use of the word "if", rather than "when," though a seemingly small matter, may provide a glimpse into Master Dogen's secret thoughts. It seems to betray a certain detachment in regard to what may lie beyond the present practice of sitting-Zen.
Rise with calm confidence. We should not be hurried or violent.
In general, we are prone to react too quickly, before a conscious decision has had a chance to be made. Slowing down gives more opportunity for awareness of the gap between stimulus and response, wherein freedom resides.
To demonstrate to yourself how slower movement is conducive to greater attention, first write your signature at normal speed, and then try to replicate your signature while writing as slowly as you can. You will find that at normal speed your signature emerges as an automatic response, requiring negligible attention. But to replicate your signature slowly requires you to attend to every moment of the process.
We see in the past that those who transcended the ordinary and transcended the sacred, and those who died while sitting or died while standing, relied totally on this power.
From here, Master Dogen sings the praises of sitting-Zen: it promotes a state of integration, in which dualistic distinctions like ordinary and sacred drop away; it promotes a state of balance, such that masters of the past have breathed their last breath in an upright posture.
Moreover, changing of the moment through the action of a finger, a pole, a needle, or a wooden clapper; and exact experience of the state through the manifestation of a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout, can never be understood by thinking and discrimination.
For most of us, the feeling of autonomy is an illusion. We feel we have the power to change things, but in reality we just react, like robots. In the action of just sitting, masters of the past found freedom from the prison of automatic reaction. Each expressed this freedom in his or her own way: Master Gutei, for example, answered philosophical questions simply by raising a finger. Master Baso was famous for the power of his voice, as was Gautama Buddha, whose voice was known as "the lion's roar." Because of the virtue of his practice of sitting-Zen, when Master Baso let out a roar he did so in the same state as Gautama Buddha. Such actions are unfathomable to the thinking brain.
How could they be known through mystical powers or practice and experience?
Of the mystical powers discussed, for example, in the Lotus Sutra, one is the power to know others' minds. But Master Dogen explains in Shobogenzo that, if we want to know the body-mind of a buddha, this kind of mystical power is useless. The body-mind of a buddha is realized in sitting here and now for the sake of sitting here and now; it is not realized by practice now for the sake of experiencing enlightenment in future.
They may be dignified behaviour beyond sound and form.
Dignified behaviour in the balanced state is something total, greater than the sum of its parts. Even if the most sophisticated audio-visual equipment in the world were used in the attempt to transmit the dignified behaviour of a Zen master, the attempt would fail. But when teacher and student are engaged in Buddhist practice in each other's presence, something which makes behaviour dignified is transmitted. Gudo Nishijima used the analogy of the sympathetic resonance of tuning forks.
How could they be anything other than a criterion that precedes knowing and seeing?
The criterion which is met by these instances of dignified behaviour is the natural state of integration and balance. It may be the state of autonomic balance of a baby in the womb, prior to any intellectual recognition, prior to the baby's opening of its eyes. Going back still further, it may be the state of a primitive single-celled organism like the tetrahymena, which, it turns out, produces insulin, and endorphins, and many of the other informational substances which work to integrate the body-mind of human beings and primitive bugs alike.
Therefore, we do not discuss intelligence as superior and stupidity as inferior. Let us not choose between clever persons and dimwits.
Relative intelligence is irrelevant because integration and balance are primarily a function of brain structures which are much more primitive than the neo-cortex, the thinking brain. For example, the cerebellar-vestibular system plays a vital role in integrating sensory input and regulating postural reflexes. The hypothalamus is vital in regulating the autonomic nervous system. The reticular activating system of the brain-stem is key to the regulation of wakefulness.
Even the most eminent neuroscientists do not yet have a clear understanding of how such deep brain structures co-operate with each other, and with the glands, spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes and other vital organs of the body's self-integrating information network. But what has already become clear is that these older, deeper structures are more vital--not only for basic human health but also for everyday activities in walking, standing, and sitting--than the thinking brain.
If we make effort devotedly, that is just wholehearted pursuit of the truth.
The great attraction of Master Dogen's teaching for me has always been that, while his philosophy is enormously wide and multifaceted, never simplistic, it always reduces down to this one simple teaching: just practice sitting-Zen. This struck me forcibly in my early attempts to make sense of Shobogenzo. Every chapter, while full of sentences that were unfathomable to me, always seemed to come to the same simple conclusion: just practice sitting-Zen.
Practice-and-experience is naturally untainted.
To sit for the sake of sitting is natural: remember the story of the young Sakyamuni sitting quietly under the rose-apple tree and spontaneously entering into experience of the balanced state. It was the memory of this experience which, twenty years later, led him to give up extreme ascetic practices and thereby realize the truth of the middle way.
The direction of effort becomes more balanced and constant.
People who are unconsciously held in the grasp of the dream of enlightenment are prone to veer erratically between undue optimism and extreme disappointment. Lacking the integrity and constancy of the middle way, they are prone to say one thing and do another. Sitting as the Buddha did, in the middle way, having given up the expectation of enlightenment, is conducive to practising what we preach and preaching what we practice. [...]
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