Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dongshan's Five Ranks

There is some disagreements over the 5 Ranks of Dongshan within the Soto School.  Some people say that it is too much of a developmental step-ladder and loses the “nowness” and immediacy of “each moment is enlightenment”.  In my lineage, the labeling of a “kensho” is looked down upon because we usually end up clinging to it, fixating on it, trying to reproduce it, etc., and indeed, we lose the point of enlightenment all together.  Dogen writes about the 5 ranks, saying we shouldn’t use them, and yet underlying his many writings, there they are!  Similarly, Dogen doesn’t like the organized, ascending approach of Rinzai koan training, yet, everywhere in the Shobogenzo, he unpacks koans.  That being said, Dongshan is the founder of the Soto School, and a great ancestor, and before we can throw something out, we have to know what that something is.

This past spring and at June sesshin at Hokyoji, I studied and lectured on the ranks and found them very informative and quite beautiful.  What I found most interesting is that the first rank is an insight into Nagarjuna’s emptiness where there is no reference system and no perceptions.  No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind.  The dropping off of body and mind.  Ha! That’s the first rank when often people misperceive that as the last stage.  There is a great teaching enfolded in the ranks.  Insight into non-perception or non-thinking is the beginning of understanding enlightenment.  It is not the end.  What I also found fascinating was that the 10th ox-herding picture, “Returning to the marketplace”, or “returning to delusion” is subtly deciphered in the last 3 ranks.  What is living in unity?  What is mutuality and non-hindrance between form and emptiness.  What is a truly mature human being?

I will try very briefly to summarize Dongshan’s 5 ranks in the hopes that it will inspire and teach about the subtlety of the merging of difference and unity.  I am using Daido Loori’s translations and many of his teachings.

1st Rank – The apparent (form or relative) within the Real (emptiness or absolute)

At the dead of night with no moon
Meeting yet not knowing each other
You have a vague memory of knowing something.

This is an experience of entrance into the realm of non-perceptions, non-thinking and dissolving of reference systems.  A taste of emptiness.  This corresponds to the 8th Ox-herding picture – a circle with nothing in it.

2nd Rank – The Real (emptiness) within the Apparent (form)

At dawn the old women finds the ancient mirror
Immediate and intimate
But nothing particular
There is no need to search for your own face.

This corresponds to the 9th ox-herding picture – seeing form, completely freshly and vividly, with intimacy and immediacy, as our minds come back into focus after experiencing “no-thing”.  It is a rush of consciousness and seeing the world completely anew.   We see all forms through the eyes of emptiness and exacting clarity.  Form is seen in equality with no differentiation.

The shadow of the 1st and 2nd ranks is the very green, immature, enlightened person with the stink of Zen.  Zen sickness, sometimes this is called.  Because our insights are all so new and intoxicating, people with new insight may come off as arrogant, judgmental and self-righteous.  We need to mature our understanding at this point. As Dogen points out: “You are playing in the entranceway, but you are still short of the vital path of emancipation.”  In the first two ranks, the practitioner is still quite focused on their individualized self and still compartmentalizing in duality; sometimes being in form, sometimes being in emptiness.

3rd Rank – Coming from within the Real

In emptiness is the way found
Pure and clear
Don’t mention the name of the emperor
You have the universe under your sway.

I really liked the way Daido Loori-roshi explained this.  We start to go back and forth over and over between emptiness and form, silence and noise, stillness and activity.  As we repetitively go back and forth, we begin to see their mutuality and our view begins to integrate.  We start to have a mental pliancy that can go back and forth without fixation.  As we develop maturity, we begin to see unity in differentiation and can begin to manifest our understanding in activity and in the relative world.  We can function well in the relative world, rooted in the absolute.  Awareness is now cleaned up of self-referencing.  Immediacy becomes awareness, which is non-biased, pliant, and with no preferences.

This is also the birth of compassion.  Self and other lose their differences and we learn about compassion in relationship to the activity in the world.  We move into seeing ourselves in the nature of the 10,000 things.

4.  Arrival at mutual integration

            Two swords are crossed
The spirits of the warrior
Like a lotus flower shining in the fire
Soar high penetrating through Space.

Many of us know this state.  The state of being a Bodhisattva in the world, working to free all beings.  It is a state of being inside of a fire.  It has the intensity of sword fighters, not in their militancy, but in the heightened awareness.  We feel the suffering of the world of samsara, and don’t turn back.  This requires the courage of a warrior.  As we return to the relative world, we burn in the suffering, going into greater and greater difficult situations to help.  Jizo Bodhisattva jangling his staff to open the doors of hell and entering.  The shining lotus flower needs the burning fire to exist and the practitioner has accepted being covered in the mud of the human realm.  There is a true freedom in that and no need to have a duality of form and emptiness.  Just this is it!

5.  Unity Attained

Falling into neither form nor emptiness
Who can join the master
While others strive to rise above the common level
He unites with everything.
Sitting quietly by the fire.
            (another translation:  and sits in the ashes.)

He or she unites with everything.  All signs of “specialness” or preferences of any kind have dropped off.  This is the ripe plum, the matured, mellow practitioner.  As Dogen writes: “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort”.  It seems that the burning of the 4th rank has subsided and the practitioner sits in the ashes, accepting the 10,000 things as Buddha, just as they are.  Unity attained.  Not having to reject anything, she sits quietly by the fire.  Peace in the middle of the unpredictability of life.

I’d like to emphasize that these ranks aren’t linear and progressive.  They are dharma positions in the expression of enlightenment.  We can move around in them like movement of a wheel or a mandala.  Each one contains all the others and no one position is fixed.  Perhaps, now that we know them, we should forget them.  We can return to Dongshan’s teaching:  “Just this is it”.  Form and emptiness, mutually beneficial and non-hindering.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Right Effort and Letting Go

In practice, we are always dealing with the tone and depth of our awareness.  First, of course, is the question: are we aware of what’s going on at all?  In the beginning, this requires quite a bit of effort to bring the mind to the present.  We need to have reminders everywhere and different types of techniques, to keep our mindfulness on target, which is Now! 

Our ordinary minds are quite wild.  They are:
1.     Distractable with thoughts, emotions and sensory distractions
2.     Discontinuous, jumping around, not continuously present
3.     Reactive – reacting through the screen of our like and dislikes which elaborate into attachment (grasping) and aversion (hating)

In the beginning it requires quite a bit of focus to corral our wandering-in-circles mind.  But even within that effort there is a balance.  Our Practice needs a balanced tone of not-too-tight and not-too-loose.  Practicing with this balance, has you working on the edge of your capabilities.  This is the expression of Right Effort.

We can use a metaphor of a rocket ship taking off to describe learning to concentrate the mind.  In the beginning, to get the space craft off the ground and out of gravity there has to be a tremendous effort and energy expended.  They even have auxiliary boosters that happen at different times in the ascent to sustain the effort against gravity.  The “gravity” in meditation is the very strong habituated mind that keeps on proliferating.  On and On.  In order to interrupt this strong flow of mind habit, we have to make a great effort to interrupt it and bring the attention back to the object of meditation.  Over and over.

However, once the ship is out of the gravitational pull of earth, you can’t use the same force.  If you do, who knows where you’ll end up in the universe?  There’s no force pulling against you.  When you are out of the pull of gravity and you want to dock the ship into the space station, for example, you would use very subtle, very slight beeps of energy to make the slightest adjustment in positioning.  This is very similar to the adjustments made in the subtle levels of concentration.

At some point as your concentration practice develops, you need to ease off and relax into concentration.  If you continue with “trying and efforting”, you are actually reinforcing  the “I” that you want to see released.  So, Right Effort at this point, becomes non-effort.  Letting go or relaxing into what is, with no preferences at all.  Our longing for something other than what is, produces our suffering.

 You can experiment with this letting go of control (especially in meditation) by investigating the phrase, “Don’t produce or suppress”.  If you don’t try to make something happen or suppress something from happening, you end up being able to stay, simply and clearly with what is.

But if you relax too much, all of a sudden - no concentration.  The mind is just roaming around as usual, flooded with thought.   Right Effort in our practice, in all our practice whether on the cushion or in activity, is investigating each situation to determine the amount of energy required.  Am I too loose or too tight?  Should I ease up or intensify my effort?

This subtle modulation of effort continues throughout our day and our life.  Through this practice we build an awareness that has a vivid, sustainable tone.  This tone of awareness, neither too tight or too loose, can ride us through the waves of our life.  As Reb Anderson once said, “Practice is learning how to surf.”  To learn to surf you need to know when to let go and when to hold on. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Worry and Fear

Worry and fear can alter our perceptions until we lose all sense of reality, twisting neutral situations into nightmares.  Because most worry focuses on the future, if we can learn to stay in the present, living one day or one moment at a time, we take positive steps towards warding off the effects of fear.
                                                                        Courage to Change

For me, learning to guard my mind from worrying about the future and learning to trust in a greater reality is one of my main, on-going, steadfast practices.  It is the basis of my spiritual stability.  It is a freedom to be able to let go of my thoughts and bring my mind back to the activities of this moment.  I practice this in zazen but it is also the practice that permeates my days.  It is a simple practice and hard to do.

When I was on pilgrimage a decade ago and in distress, one of the teachers I visited said, “Put your full focus on your practice and let the rest, all the problems, take care of themselves”.  When I find myself in a hard situation, I go back to this instruction.  I return myself to this moment and take refuge in total dynamic functioning

We can take refuge in total dynamic working.  What we know or see with our discursive minds is only a very partial picture of what is happening.  This partial picture is only seen through our own vantage point, our own eyes and self.  This is the ground of worrying.  We don’t see all the invisible connections and inter-being of all the parts.   The more we trust in interconnection, the more we can let go.  Do our best in the moment and then let go.  Make the decisions of the moment and trust in the universal perspective.

In my teaching life, I’ve noticed that one of the hardest things for people is to trust.  What are we trusting?  I think this is connected to the refuges; trusting in buddha, dharma and sangha.  Katagiri-roshi often said that the world is working in peace and harmony.  Underneath all the human-made troubles and predicaments, the natural world is working harmoniously.  There are even mathematical equations for the harmonious functioning of the world.  Through our practice we can connect with the larger sense of harmony and order in the world and trust it.  This harmony includes birth and death.  In facing and dealing with our fear of death, we calm down the source of our greatest worry.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Function freely according to the circumstances

We have just finished a great class on Engaged Buddhism at Clouds in Water Zen Center.  It has brought up for me again the many misunderstandings of Buddhism.  There is one idea that floats around that Zen is about the “Zen moment”.  This is popularly used in our culture; in novels, TV, and advertising. The Zen moment is quiet, calm and peaceful.  Add to that misunderstanding, the idea that non-attachment means withdrawal and a separation from the hubbub of life, and you have produced a view of Buddhism that is dualistic and attached to peace and emptiness.  But if you work with the Bodhisattva view of Buddhism, there is quite a different story.  In Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva view, our non-self-centered selves function for the benefit of the “other” and the “I” as mutually interpenetrated.  This view can produce a very socially engaged person indeed, working for the benefit of all.  In the vows we say, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all.”

Some people interpret Buddhism as trying to escape or transcend our life.  To the contrary, practitioners are trying to seize life and their particular life with robustness.   A non-dualistic view of practice takes care of the karmic story of each person’s set of circumstances and at the same time, connects with the great vastness of emptiness and unity.  The more we mature, these apparent “sides” of life become mutually inclusive and cannot be separated.  Learning to live in this way is the great journey of practice.

Escapism, I must say, was my first reason for coming to Zen.  I wanted a place that was quiet, non-relational, and supported my isolation and what I thought was peace. The Zen Center in the 70’s fit the bill.  Mostly, we didn’t talk to each other.  I sat forcefully to transcend my pain.  Thankfully, through my own perseverance over many years, and by the gift of a good teacher, I came to understand that my originally attraction to Zen and Buddhism was way off the mark.

If you understand Buddhism in a one-sided way, clinging to peace and the needs of our “self”, than naturally Buddhism doesn’t encourage social engagement in the civic arena.   If you understand non-duality in a way that obliterates the difference between good and evil, then you cannot function for the good in the samsaric world.  You are blocked by an idea of oneness.  These are misunderstandings.  Our human world has a desperate need for help and transformation.  A clear-headed, open hearted, spiritually rooted person can definitely help the world.

There is a great story about a celestial being asking Buddha- why, in his right mind, would he choose the human world to return to and to teach in; a world filled with so much suffering and despair.  He could have taught in happier realms.  But Buddha said (I’m paraphrasing), “Exactly! I chose to appear in a world with great need and with great potential for transformation”

In the end of the spiritual journey is the tenth ox-herding picture.  This is a picture of a free, loving, ordinary person living in the world with gift bestowing hands.  It is an archetypal image of an enlightened person coming back to the marketplace to help others.  This “other” mutually includes the “self”.  It takes a long time to understand Buddhism in this way.  It needs far more maturation then just an awakening in zazen.  We have to be very stable in our connection to the universal perspective which creates a kind of  ‘detachment’.  With this Right View, we can function in this world of suffering with productivity, ease and fluidity.

We gradually come to function in a way that brings the opposites together and allows us to meet every moment, person, situation as it is.  We can take care of ourselves and also give tirelessly to others.  We can find an inner detachment and strength in zazen, which makes it possible to go into harder and more difficult situations with non-reactivity.  Our clarity of mind and our ever-present awareness, can build and be continuous, so that we can respond to each circumstance appropriately.  We can function freely according to the circumstance. 

This type of person is unafraid of painful situation and can truly help bring more peace and stability to the world.  Thich Nhat Hanh often uses an example of the refugee boats in SE Asia.   One calm, centered, person can save the whole refugee boat when they faced their endless dangerous trials of weather and pirates et. al.  The refugee boats that made it through their journey were ones that had a calm, decisive leader.