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The Standard of Sitting-Zen Recommended for Everyone

A commentary by / Un commentaire de
Mike Chodo Cross

Comments (4th part)

Broadly then, in this world and in other worlds, in India and in China, all similarly maintain the Buddha-posture, and solely indulge in the fundamental custom: we simply devote ourselves to sitting, and are caught by the still state.

"The ineffable" sounds more vague, while "the Buddha-posture" sounds more concrete; but in fact the Buddha-posture is ineffable, and practice of the ineffable is the Buddha-posture. If the Buddha-posture were a forced military-style posture, or an overly relaxed slump, its transmission could be received by reading a book. Because the Buddha-posture resides ineffably in the middle way, its transmission has been received in one line, from teacher to student through ninety generations, from the Buddha in India through Master Bodhidharma in India and China through Master Dogen in China and Japan to Gudo Nishijima in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Words used in the work of FM Alexander, such as "let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen," are in my opinion as close as we can get to expressing the Buddha-posture in words. Alexander himself acknowledged in regard to these phrases that "I think them inadequate, but with a teacher present to demonstrate in person what he means by them, they serve their purpose."

With regard to the still state, the eminent Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow has spoken of "a conditon of stillness without fixity." Stillness in sitting-Zen does not mean absence of physical movement. The vital functions of respiration, circulation and digestion are just movement--albeit unconsciously motivated movement. The still state of sitting-Zen, called samadhi in Sanskrit, has been explained by Gudo Nishijima as balance of the antagonistically-acting parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. It is our natural state, and so it is not always necessary for us to pursue it. Rather, when we are enjoying sitting-Zen, the balanced state sometimes catches us, and we don't feel like moving out of the lotus posture. At those propitious times, the best times of our life, the stillness is like a warm bath--"easy to get into, difficult to get out of."

Although there are myriad distinctions and thousands of differences, we should just pursue the truth through Zen balance.

There are many gates to balance: acupuncture, Bach flower remedies, chiropractic...every therapy in the book, and every activity from archery to yachting, before one arrives finally at Z for Zen.

For Master Dogen, Zen means sitting-Zen. He might not have approved of conceptions such as Zen in the art of archery, Zen in the martial arts, Zen in the art of running, et cetera. Archery, martial arts, and running have their own value, but Zen is sitting-Zen, original and best. Thus, in Shobogenzo, Master Dogen praises sitting in the lotus posture as the samadhi which is king of samadhis, i.e., the balanced state which is king of balanced states.

Why should we abandon our own sitting platform, to come and go without purpose through the dusty borders of foreign lands?

This alludes to a story in the 4th chapter of the Lotus Sutra: a youth runs away from his father and wanders abroad for many years, in which time his father becomes wealthy and well-connected. Finally the son's travels bring him, starving, weak and miserable, in search of low-paying menial work, to the house of his father. Seeing his father sitting on a lion seat, like a king, the son is afraid that the powerful man before him might bind him into slavery rather than hire him as a labourer. So he runs away again. The father sends out some lowly intermediaries to hire the son to move rubbish. Then, using skillful means, the father gradually promotes his son. After several years of gradual promotion, the son is not alarmed to hear him say, "You are as if you were my son." Thereafter the father gathers together a great assembly and announces that the son is indeed his own son, who shall inherit his father's seat.

Now that we have met it, the practice of sitting-Zen is where we belong. If, failing to recognize this, we omit to devote ourselves to the daily practice of sitting-Zen, we are like the son running away from his true inheritance.

If we misplace one step we pass over the moment of the present.

"Back in the back" is a phrase used among Alexander teachers to describe a condition in which the backbone remains strong and integrated, staying back relative to the head and the knees. Staying back in the back means, for example. not letting the neck bones collapse forward and down under the weight of the head, and not letting the legs pull the pelvis and lumbar spine forward and down towards the legs. A dog, when it is back in its back, wags its tail; it is not wagged by its tail. When we are back in our back, we are fully present, and no step is ever misplaced.

Conversely, when our head is pulling back and down into the past, while the chest is thrusting forward into the future, then every step is liable to further disintegrate the back, like the tail wagging the dog.

As Buddhists, in order not to pass over the here and now, we come back to open and relaxed sitting in the lotus posture--being a human being, back in the back, present in the present.

Open and relaxed sitting like this provides a standard for walking the Buddhist walk, the walk of freedom. When I first set eyes on Gudo Nishijima in the spring of 1982, he was walking towards the station where we were due to meet, along a crowded pavement. Like most of the other Japanese pedestrians, he was wearing a business suit, and in those days his head was not shaved. Yet I spotted him at once as the Zen master to whom I had just spoken on the phone. How? There was something in his walk. At that time I had never heard about staying back in the back, but I noticed a certain random quality to the placing of the feet. It seemed to tell me that this was a person who was living in the moment.

We have already received the essential pivot which is the human body: let us not pass time in vain.

To have been born with a human body affords us the opportunity of truly being a human being. Not a body, not a mind, but a whole human being, integrated by what the pioneering physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington called, "The Integrative Action of the Nervous System." His book of that title was first published in 1906.

By that time, FM Alexander was already established in London, teaching his practical method for improving integration. Forty years later, in discussing the relation between willed movement and reflex action, Sherrington paid the following tribute to Alexander: "Mr Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psycho-physical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment -- not least of the head and neck."

Considering that Sherrington was talking this talk of integration, and Alexander was walking this walk of integration, one hundred years ago, it is difficult not to feel that we in the west have wasted an awful lot of time during the past century. The teaching of integration has been here in our midst, but now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we see evidence of disintegration all around us.

In education, for example, ever greater emphasis is put on achievement of results, without proper consideration of the means whereby a child naturally develops. Thus, in education, in science, in politics, and in business, as in the sphere of individual action, the tail wags the dog.

We continue to acquire marvellous scientific knowledge of how the body integrates itself, but we haven't yet been inspired in large numbers to apply this knowledge to the integration of our own bodies.

But Master Dogen's intention here is not to incite us to evangelical social reform. Effort to get others to change their tail-wagging-dog ways is generally a waste of time. Not to pass time in vain is to come back to ourself.

We are maintaining and relying upon the pivotal essence which is the Buddha's truth: who could wish idly to enjoy sparks [that fly] from flint?

The pivotal essence which is the Buddha's truth is the traditional practice of sitting in the lotus posture. When we sit in the lotus posture, with our head and backbone working as one integrated unit, we give the nervous system the opportunity to do what it wants to do: to perform its integrative action. A moment spent sitting like this is never wasted. It puts us in touch with the eternity of the real Universe. It is not a spark flying from flint.

What is more, the body is like a dewdrop on a blade of grass. Life passes like a flash of lightning. Suddenly it is gone. In an instant it is lost.

Do not underestimate the power of a dewdrop on a blade of grass: it can reflect the whole of the moon and sky in one gulp. But it is fragile. It could fall at any moment and be absorbed back into the earth. The water may remain, but the reflecting dewdrop will be gone forever, and the white crescent moon may never shine as brightly again as it is shining in the vast blue sky of this particular spring morning.

I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not grow used to images and doubt the real dragon.

For Master Dogen, like the Buddha, nobility is conferred not by birth, but by what one does with one's life, and the most noble behaviour of all is to sit in the lotus posture. To sit in the lotus posture is to walk the Buddha's walk. Don't be content just to talk the talk. Don't be like the collector whose house was stuffed full of dragon paintings, dragon statues, and dragon poetry, but who could not believe it when a real dragon came to visit.

Apply yourself to the path which is directly indicated and straightforward.

In Chinese and Japanese, the path and the truth is represented by the same word: tao or do. It is transmitted and received not by talking the talk but by walking the walk. How can someone who says one thing and does another transmit the path which is directly indicated and straightforward? It is necessary to find a teacher who practices what he or she preaches.

Revere people who are beyond study and free of the intention to achieve.

Such a person is just one who practices what he preaches. Clearly understanding that Buddhism is neither materialism nor idealism, he preaches that there is nothing to get, nowhere to get to, and nothing to get rid of. He preaches this not only in his words but in the openness of his sitting posture. He has no hidden agenda, no secret intention to manipulate events externally or internally. Not only in his words but in the inward and outward openness of his sitting, he preaches that Buddhism is the straight realization of all concrete things and all mental phenomena.

Accord with the enlightened state of the buddhas.

This does not mean make effort to become a buddha. It means wake up to the integral reality of your own existence, not as a body, not as a mind, but as a human being. The essence of Master Dogen's teaching is that to experience this awakening, described by his teacher in China as "dropping off body and mind," it is only necessary to sit in the lotus posture.

Be a rightful heir to the balanced state of the ancestors.

In the Buddhist tradition there is value in ideas such as the four noble truths, and there is value in material objects such as the robe and certificate of transmission, but what is supremely valuable in the Buddhist tradition, the ultimate criterion for the authenticity of the tradition, is the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system. For enjoyment of this state, there is one and only original and true method of entry: upright sitting in the lotus posture.

If you practice the ineffable for a long time, you will be ineffable. The treasure-house will open naturally, and you will receive and use it as you like.

I have studied balance in sitting-Zen, in Alexander work, and in neuro-developmental therapy. I have tried to understand the role of the vestibular system in gravitational balance, and the role of the autonomic nervous system in emotional balance. But ultimately the balanced state cannot be pinned down. I do not know what it is. A weighing scale in balance has a certain unknowable or unpredictable quality, like the next footstep of an approaching Zen master.

Notwithstanding the ineffability of the balanced state, in each of my fields of experience, Zen, AT and NDT, practical work is predicated on the principle that if we practise balance, we become balanced. I think this is what Master Dogen is promising here: practise it and you will become it.

How long is a long time? Once during a sitting-Zen retreat at a temple in Japan, when we were discussing the meaning of transcending family life, Gudo Nishijima said to me quite forcefully: "We are not monks. We are not laymen. We are something ineffable." I had been his student for about five years at that time--not long. But amid the silence of the tea fields and ancient trees, it was as if we had been practising together for a long time. It may not be a question of hours and years, but rather of touching eternity, even if only for one moment of practice.

In this conversation, my teacher was not paying me a personal compliment. He was not saying, "Congratulations. You have become ineffable." He was exhorting me to recognize the reality of the situation: Sitting-Zen is just practice of the ineffable. Who are we to worry about what we are?

Nevertheless I do worry. Am I up to the job of transmitting the balanced state of the ancestors? I do not know. Sometimes sitting-Zen makes me feel full of myself, and I understand the words of Master Dogen to be a promise that, after 20 or so years of daily practice, I have fulfilled. Then, following some error of judgement or inappropriate reaction, self-doubt creeps in and I return to not knowing.

What I do know, what I do have confidence in, is that I am a human being, a fallible human being. As such, I belong to the intended audience of Fukan-zazengi, and I feel profound gratitude for the benevolence of Master Dogen to write Fukan-zazengi not for the chosen few, not just for the special ones, but for all human beings.

As a realization, the ultimate aim of Buddhism is not simple, is not easy, is not possible to express in words, and is not possible to nail down and possess. But as an aim, the ultimate aim of Buddhism is very simple and everyone may know it: What Master Dogen described as the treasure-house is our human self, our existence in the real world as a human being. The ultimate aim is simply to enjoy the balanced state of receiving and using this treasure of the self.

Mike Chodo Cross, Spring 2003.