Ceremonial descriptions and illustrations

If you struggle with some of the aspects of ceremonial here are a few photos with descriptions to hopefully help you.

Bowing:

Understanding bowing is key to going deeper into an appreciation and understanding of Buddhist practice. To fully bow is to truly let go of whatever we are holding on to.

Going clockwise from the top left we a picture of a seated bow. This is mostly used during the evening service ceremony where we recite Rules fo Meditation. Whether we are on a cushion, bench or chair the movement is the same by bending forward at the waist as far as we can and raising our hands, with palms up, after the ting of the signal gong.

Next we have what is called a monjin which is used mostly for the gratitude bows at the end of ceremonies. Turning towards the altar and putting our hands together in gassho bow from the waist as described in the previous picture.

Finally we have the full bow. This is where we kneel on the ground, if we can, bend forward and raise our hands. If we can’t do this it is fine to do a standing bow which is similar to the monjin but we raise the hands rather than stay in gassho.

Candle Offering:

We often offer a candle instead of incense here at the Priory. An offering of light is the offering up of the dharma of enlightenment in much the same way that the incense of the dharma spreads out and infuses all places and things.

You may wish to offer a candle before a meditation period or maybe offer merit privately on an altar. If you are a chaplain you will need to hand over the candle to the celebrant so that he can offer it. If so here is a handy guide to how to do this. To hand the candle to the celebrant have it in the palm of your hand so that it is easy for them to take it. This will help with fumbling, awkward manouvering and less likelihood of dropping it, see top two pictures. The bottom two pictures show how to offer the candle up. The right hand photo shows that when we hold it up it is not advisable to hold it to the forehead as your hair may singe or indeed catch fire. Then hold it out as you quietly say the Three Homages, which are Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dharma, Homage to the Sangha. Then place the candle on the altar. Pleaqse make sure that lit candles are placed safely so that that can’t be knocked off or set any materials , like the altar curtains, alight. Please extinguish if the candle is to be left unattended i.e. when leaving the room after the ceremony etc.

 

The arrows of Mara

Quote

I’d like to start with a short quote that I came across recently.

You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.’

I’ve found this quote to be a way into this talk. We can do something about our troubles – they don’t have to take us over. When the Buddha was sitting under the tree, Mara’s armies attacked him quite fiercely, throwing everything at him. A long time ago, I remember, I thought of him sitting there, with almost a force field around him so that everything was deflected, but I was quite wrong- that’s not the way to deal with these things. It’s to let them through, not to push them away, not to hold them off, to not see them as enemies but to let everything just pass through you, and this is what the arrows did – they passed through and turned into flowers. That which we perceive as attacking us is converted.

As the Buddha got up after awakening, the first teaching he gave was the Four Noble Truths, and the first of those as we know, is that suffering exists. So we can’t prevent the birds of suffering, we can’t prevent the birds of sadness from flying over our heads. We, too, are subject to the laws of karma but the wise man isn’t bound by them, and in doing so, we join the birds in the sense that we don’t omit them. So we accept sadness, we acknowledge sadness, so when we sit and things arise for us we just let them arise. There’s no problem in the arising of sadness , this is natural, this is what is natural for us. To do something about it at that stage, to twist it, to turn it around is a false move. The Buddha realised this as he was sitting under the tree. To push back at Mara was a false move. The fact that things arise doesn’t mean that they will always arise. This is also key – how often do we think, ‘Well, nothing’s changed. This is never going to change, this is who I am, I’ve always got this trait,’ It won’t always arise. It continues to arise because we perpetuate it – we don’t even know we’re doing it sometimes. We reinforce behaviours, we believe something’s been banished and yet it still arises. It’s arising because we’re doing something with it, so it gathers strength and comes around again.

So when we sit, when the Buddha sat, he observed the settling of the mind. When we sit, the mind settles, and it’s not separate from the body, so we talk about mind-body. A lot of the trouble comes, a lot of the unsettledness of sitting is when we’re stuck in the mind and we’ve divorced it from the body. So, notice the settling of the body and mind when we sit, and see where the mind places itself, usually further down in the body. Sinking to the floor our thoughts find quiet. This activity then re-aligns itself from the head into the body. This is harmony – body and mind working together as one. When it’s all sinking, we are able to sit still. The Buddha was assailed on all sides; he had to sit very still. He sat, as Dogen said, in the mountain-still state, and when we do this we can see through the perceived reality of life. Those things we perceive to be true, we perceive them as ‘other’. We grasp onto these illusions , we form a character and a personality. We show a face to the world, and it plays out through us. Some of this we need to do, we do need to be active in the world. We do need to be a human being with everything that encompasses. And yet again, a wise man is not enslaved by it; these too, are not fixed things .

So, Mara was the Buddha’s restless mind; Well, Mara attacks us because there’s still something there to be attacked. So, when we sit and we’re troubled, it’s the unresolved karmic residue that comes to the surface. We deal with it by not doing anything with it. This is one of the big apparent paradoxes of practice. We are so attuned to having to do something about something we try to take over and do it. We don’t need to do it. This tempts us to believe that there is a reality in impermanance. We see it as real, tangible and give it permanance and yet like any other thing it just passes. So when we sit and see things or have thoughts about our life as in a mirror we see clearly, it seems. Yet these are images of the drifting wandering world.

So these thoughts appear to be just as things are, but they are just thoughts. Nevertheless we believe them because it is what we know and because we already know it we recognise it. So our view of the world is shown back to us and it’s possible to believe it. It’s the way we think so that is what is being shown to us. We therefore have trouble seeing through the images, thoughts and emotions which latch on to us and we act from that place. The trouble is everything is always moving. When the Buddha got up from under the Bodhi tree he picked up his bowl and started to wander forth the first people he came across were the five Rishis who he had practised ascetism with previously. The Rishis practised by pushing their bodies and minds to extreme limits as a way of transcending the limits of this earthly body. The Buddha parted from them as he had realised that this wasn’t the way to seek the end of suffering. Their bodies emaciated, twisted, burnt and skewered they asked him if he had found a better way to encounter the true spirit as they saw in him a change from the person they had last met and wondered what it is that he has seen and experienced. The Buddha having found the middle way just passed on. He knew that to stay in the extremes was only to allow suffering to arise again and again. When we stay in the opposites, in duality we are reinforcing old behaviours.

In 1879 Edwin Arnold published a long poem called the Light of Asia which describes the Buddha’s life. In it there is a section which I would like to quote which speaks on this.

Onward he passed

Exceeding sorrowful, seeing how men

Fear so to die they are afraid to fear,

Lust so to live they dare not love their life,

But plague it with fierce penances, belike

To please the Gods who grudge pleasure to man;”

So if we fear to die we live our lives in fear. If we fear to live we live in fear. If we lust to live we do not love our life. Our mind comes up with fierce penances and we beleaguer ourselves with them. We are constantly in the opposites. Harmony isn’t a case of balance. Finding ourselves falling on one side we don’t have to err on the other side to balance our lives out.

We need to fully live this life the best way we can. Feel the sensations and know the fears and rejoice in the breathing. If we give vent to anger, frustration and other emotions that cause hurt it is released only for it to return. The world is rarely to our liking and the behaviour of others can test our peace of mind and outside influences are readily blamed for our unhappiness and discontent. Karma if left unattended is unlikely to be converted. So when we allow ourselves to be feel threatened see that we are just introducing and continuing behaviours that are unhelpful for ourselves and others.

A recent topic of debate here at the Priory has been that of the use of the will. The question has arisen of me that I say that essentially in zazen we do nothing and that also there is the use of the will. I am asked ‘so how can we use the will if I don’t do anything?’Well if we don’t turn towards that which causes suffering it will continue to ferment and stew creating more suffering. So it bubbles away and stews and just creates more. Suffering arises in the mind, ferments in the mind and develops in the mind. This is all part of the use of the will here. We therefore learn that to turn towards that which appears is to have the chance to see through it and not give it a chance to grow. The mountain still state allows us to let the arrows of Mara’s bowmen to penetrate and go straight through. This is showing us yet again that we are not bound by karma although subject to its laws. As with fear we can allow ourselves to know it and let it pass through. We see it as an arrow and we know it is an arrow but as it has no substance and we are empty what is there to stop it passing through. This is the use of the will which is the turning towards what we need to see. We are willing to look so the will is the willing to look. It goes from being on our shoulder shadowing us and comes to the front. We might not be able to name it and we might not even recognise it yet we need to see it and then it can go. So we acknowledge and embrace the fear by enfolding it. If it stays on our shoulder faceless and threatening we can never turn enough to see it. Bring it to the front. When talking about the Paramitas Dogen commented that while practicing the six virtues and attempting to lose delusion there is the practice of nothing. He says that this is the practicing of the dharma. From this we can see that the turning towards is the practicing of nothing at all. The Buddha saw the Morning Star and the Morning Star was the just doing and in the just doing Mara receded.

Transcribed from a talk given after the Festival of the Buddha’s Enlightenment

Poem extract from The Light Asia Windhorse publications

A short piece on zazen

This short piece of writing is intended for those of you new to this practice.

I follow the practice of Soto Zen Buddhism. The twin pillars of this are meditation and the Precepts. The Precepts are the active aspect of practice. Meditation (zazen) is the bedrock from which everything flows. A good way into understanding this is the beginning of the Scripture of Great Wisdom, which goes,

‘When one with deepest wisdom of the heart, which is beyond discriminative thought’.

Zazen is the letting go, without judgement, of that which arises in our minds. Doing this regularly allows us to see a deeper truth to the one our minds generally conjure up. We see that when we follow these discriminatory thoughts they can drive us in ways that aren’t helpful, and form behavioural loops which are difficult to get out of. Meditation is a way to see through these repeating patterns and show that it is possible to have peace and contentment in our lives. We return to our spiritual home, a place which we had left but never quite forgot.

Ceremonial Instruction

INTRODUCTION

This class is designed to allow first timers, as well as those wishing to brush up their skills, some background into what ceremonial essentially is, and how that can help us in our daily practice. How can we practice meditation in daily life? If we can grasp what it is we are doing the actual practical side of it falls into place and enables us to be more adept because it is not an isolated skill.

Those elements of practice that mean we can listen more deeply and let go of those opinions which hinder our ability to follow, are studied, and we can see their importance in allowing ourselves to be less hide bound and stiff. Do we follow the form or the teaching is in evidence, and we can learn to follow more deeply the inner call.

Ceremonial is a living experience which subtly changes each time we do it. We are all part of the ceremony and are not mere observers. If we can enter fully into it then we can go deeper in our practice, and see how we can draw on that in our daily life. It is our willingness to offer that allows us all to step forward into the unknown and trust something deeper than ourselves.

Whether your job is precenting or chaplaining, you are learning to assist and follow the celebrant as well as your heart. When we are working together harmoniously it really shows letting go in practice and is a joy to experience.

SHORT MORNING SERVICE

Precenting;

Starts with two sets of three bows. Celebrant steps onto bowing seat. Start ring down as they bow. Seven steady evenly spaced hits of the signal gong, leading to the ring down. Two sets of one hit ending with one set of two hits. Repeat. As celebrant starts to rise from floor start second set. Repeat.

Watching celebrant, when they are ready, i.e. settled, strike large gong for incense offering. As they step aside and bow hit gong once more and then again as they bow on bowing seat.

Go straight into intoning Scripture of Great Wisdom , (on F ), and lead the singing. After intoning strike gong for incense offering, only striking gong again as celebrant walks onto bowing seat and makes monjin. Carry on with the scripture until you need to strike the gong for the second incense offering. There is a second asterisk, but don’t follow this but hit the gong again when the celebrant stands back on the seat and makes monjin.

At end of scripture go straight in to offertory, (on F), then Ancestral Line. The AncestraL Line is intoned on one note and shouldn’t have a discernible gap between names. Take a breath when you need one but preferably during Daiosho rather than the name.

Go straight into short offertory and three homages. This is followed by six bows as before and three gratitude bows. Wait for celebrant to be ready then as he starts to bow hit gong, then as he steps back and bows strike gong and once again. Celebrant goes straight to Founders Shrine alone. After Founders Ceremony celebrant starts to leave room stopping to bow to Precentor,(and chaplain, if there is one), you return bow, celebrant leaves. You lead bows in all directions to finish off. 3 Strikes of signal gong , bowing left, right and centre.

Chaplaining;

Start by standing below the bowing seat to the left, holding an unlit stick of incense or lit candle, (ask the celebrant what they would like). During the bows stay still without joining in bows.

When the large gong is struck go up on your toes holding the incense or candle out with stretched arms making a circling motion away and back to your body. When you are back off of your toes side step to the right twice then proceed up the side of the bowing seat with arms outstretched, keeping behind the celebrant. When you reach the altar go up on your toes as before and hand the incense/candle to the celebrant. Having done so side step, bow then return to starting place, go up on toes again. Then do your six bows in situ. Stay in place to assist celebrant i.e. give them chair if needed for Ancestral Line etc.

Assistant chaplain;

Do same as chaplain except on other side. When crossing over chaplain goes in front of Assistant chaplain.

EVENING SERVICE

Precenting;

The differences for precenting evening service are that the incense offering comes first. 3 bows follow and the scripture is spoken. All else is the same. There is no Founders ceremony following the ceremony.

Chaplaining;

No difference essentially, to Short morning service.

FESTIVALS

Precenting;

The main things to concentrate on for Festivals is leading singing which few present maybe familiar with and also singing (or speaking ) the offertory alone.

Gongs etc. are the same as in other ceremonies. Incense offering first, then a longish gap before secong gong when celebrant side steps. Depending on Festival, numbers of bows can differ but usually 3. There are tings to indicate when circumambulation starts.

You will asked well in advance if you can and wish to do it. Therefore can rehearse well before hand. There is always a rehearsal before we start so any last minute questions can be gone over then.

Chaplaining;

The essentials are the same as other ceremonies. The main differences are that the chaplain will also help with the food offering, and put a pure leaf in their mouth for this part.

Assistant chaplain;

if there is an assistant chaplain, they will assist also with food offering and mirror the chaplain.

VESPERS

To sing vespers the main thing to know is that it is sung slightly slower than for the morning. Not funereal but slightly slower. At the end the Makura Om gets less loud and sort of fades away at the end.

OFFERING INCENSE FOR MEDITATION

The same as for ceremonial. Stand to side of centre of altar when offering candle/incense. Return to starting point. No need to go up on toes as it is not a ceremony and you won’t be handing to celebrant.

This class is designed to allow first timers, as well as those wishing to brush up their skills, some background into what ceremonial essentially is, and how that can help us in our daily practice. How can we practice meditation in daily life? If we can grasp what it is we are doing the actual practical side of it falls into place and enables us to be more adept because it is not an isolated skill.

Those elements of practice that mean we can listen more deeply and let go of those opinions which hinder our ability to follow, are studied, and we can see their importance in allowing ourselves to be less hide bound and stiff. Do we follow the form or the teaching is in evidence, and we can learn to follow more deeply the inner call.

Ceremonial is a living experience which subtly changes each time we do it. We are all part of the ceremony and are not mere observers. If we can enter fully into it then we can go deeper in our practice, and see how we can draw on that in our daily life. It is our willingness to offer that allows us all to step forward into the unknown and trust something deeper than ourselves.

Whether your job is precenting or chaplaining, you are learning to assist and follow the celebrant as well as your heart. When we are working together harmoniously it really shows letting go in practice and is a joy to experience.

SHORT MORNING SERVICE

Precenting;

Starts with two sets of three bows. Celebrant steps onto bowing seat. Start ring down as they bow. Seven steady evenly spaced hits of the signal gong, leading to the ring down. Two sets of one hit ending with one set of two hits. Repeat. As celebrant starts to rise from floor start second set. Repeat.

Watching celebrant, when they are ready, i.e. settled, strike large gong for incense offering. As they step aside and bow hit gong once more and then again as they bow on bowing seat.

Go straight into intoning Scripture of Great Wisdom , (on F ), and lead the singing. After intoning strike gong for incense offering, only striking gong again as celebrant walks onto bowing seat and makes monjin. Carry on with the scripture until you need to strike the gong for the second incense offering. There is a second asterisk, but don’t follow this but hit the gong again when the celebrant stands back on the seat and makes monjin.

At end of scripture go straight in to offertory, (on F), then Ancestral Line. The AncestraL Line is intoned on one note and shouldn’t have a discernible gap between names. Take a breath when you need one but preferably during Daiosho rather than the name.

Go straight into short offertory and three homages. This is followed by six bows as before and three gratitude bows. Wait for celebrant to be ready then as he starts to bow hit gong, then as he steps back and bows strike gong and once again. Celebrant goes straight to Founders Shrine alone. After Founders Ceremony celebrant starts to leave room stopping to bow to Precentor,(and chaplain, if there is one), you return bow, celebrant leaves. You lead bows in all directions to finish off. 3 Strikes of signal gong , bowing left, right and centre.

Chaplaining;

Start by standing below the bowing seat to the left, holding an unlit stick of incense or lit candle, (ask the celebrant what they would like). During the bows stay still without joining in bows.

When the large gong is struck go up on your toes holding the incense or candle out with stretched arms making a circling motion away and back to your body. When you are back off of your toes side step to the right twice then proceed up the side of the bowing seat with arms outstretched, keeping behind the celebrant. When you reach the altar go up on your toes as before and hand the incense/candle to the celebrant. Having done so side step, bow then return to starting place, go up on toes again. Then do your six bows in situ. Stay in place to assist celebrant i.e. give them chair if needed for Ancestral Line etc.

Assistant chaplain;

Do same as chaplain except on other side. When crossing over chaplain goes in front of Assistant chaplain.

EVENING SERVICE

Precenting;

The differences for precenting evening service are that the incense offering comes first. 3 bows follow and the scripture is spoken. All else is the same. There is no Founders ceremony following the ceremony.

Chaplaining;

No difference essentially, to Short morning service.

FESTIVALS

Precenting;

The main things to concentrate on for Festivals is leading singing which few present maybe familiar with and also singing (or speaking ) the offertory alone.

Gongs etc. are the same as in other ceremonies. Incense offering first, then a longish gap before secong gong when celebrant side steps. Depending on Festival, numbers of bows can differ but usually 3. There are tings to indicate when circumambulation starts.

You will asked well in advance if you can and wish to do it. Therefore can rehearse well before hand. There is always a rehearsal before we start so any last minute questions can be gone over then.

Chaplaining;

The essentials are the same as other ceremonies. The main differences are that the chaplain will also help with the food offering, and put a pure leaf in their mouth for this part.

Assistant chaplain;

if there is an assistant chaplain, they will assist also with food offering and mirror the chaplain.

VESPERS

To sing vespers the main thing to know is that it is sung slightly slower than for the morning. Not funereal but slightly slower. At the end the Makura Om gets less loud and sort of fades away at the end.

OFFERING INCENSE FOR MEDITATION

The same as for ceremonial. Stand to side of centre of altar when offering candle/incense. Return to starting point. No need to go up on toes as it is not a ceremony and you won’t be handing to celebrant.

The donkey in the well

One day a farmer’s donkey fell into the well. It began crying out, crying out for help. The farmer tried all he coulkd to work out how to retrieve the poor animal. He finally thought that as the animal was old, and the well needed covering up as it was dry he would kill two birds with one stone.

He went to get get help from his neighbours and they all started shovelling in earth to bury the donkey and fill the well.

What happened next surprised everyone. As the earth was shovelled in and started to cover the the beast, it calmy just shook the earth from it’s back and stepped on to the growing pile. As the farmers shovelled and the pile grew the donkey kept shaking off the dirt and stood atop the mound of earth. Eventually of course the earth and therefore the resiliant donkey rose to the top and easily stepped out of the well and trotted off.

There are two things here. First, unintentional consequences. The farmer wasn’t exactly acting in the best interest of the donkey. He misunderstood the role of cause and effect in the sense that he thought to solve his problem he couldn’t see beyond an action that came from a fixed point. The point being a sense of the permanent self.

The other thing here is that although starting out, so to speak, from a false position, asthe scene plays out we can adjust and learn. In other words see what is happening and then shovel with the intention of releasing the donkey.

One of the joys of training and being in training is to see how quickly we can see where something has gone off. ‘Normally’ when clashes happen or differences of opinion come up we can carry these around and stew for a long time. A very long time. In practicing we come to a much quicker realisation of where we are and can shift and move to be in line sooner. The joy is in not carrying the suffering but knowing to, and knowing how, to put it down.

The other element of the story is to see that whatever life throws at us we can literally shake it off and rise above it. We can feel weighed down and covered over by our emotions and feelings. It can all seem too much and in doing so fail to see that we are allowing outside conditions to drive us. The donkey was wise and saw that here was an opportunity. The intention behind the shovelling is immaterial to us turning our life around. The act of doing harm has an effect, but it doesn’t have to drive us.

The story doesn’t indicate at what point, if at all, the people saw what was happening and then joined in more positvely, let’s hope that’s case. Even so it still shows that one can work with those who are making life difficult, and when doing so the way appears.

When seen through the eye of compassion the donkey’s response was to see what it needed to do and not get bogged down in anxiety, or revengeful feelings. This shows us that the direct route is simpler and clearer. Compassion for the farmer, compassion for the situation and compassion for oneself.

When one finds oneself in a seemingly impossible position where there is no obvious way out and the world is then burying you alive, think of the donkey.

‘Dreaming of perfection’.

The Wild White Goose is the diary of Rev. Master Jiyu’s time in Japan. I would like to use the entry for 17th June as a starting point.

Rev. Haijime said something very sad; he said that human beings are really selfish animals, but that they want to dream of perfection. When they speak hatred and evil they are dreaming of perfection. He concluded that I should remember what he said to me when he saw me first, “Be very careful or we will break your heart.”

We can quite easily misunderstand perfection. When seen through the eye of dualism, perfection, or I idea of it, becomes skewed. It’s more what we think it might be. It is seen through our personal prism. We can mistake seeing clearly for our wants and desires. Our sense of perfection can masquerade as a certainty of truth. When we believe that what we see is how it is, that is ‘dreaming of perfection’.

In the general run of things, to help us understand the world and by extension ourselves we turn to relying on on a set of known equations which by their very nature are limited. This leads to a mistaking of perfection for idealism. When we stick with the idealistic point of view and not understand the ever changing nature of the skandhas our hearts can be broken. In Buddhist practice it is said that the first thing to go is idealism. This was certainly in my own case. To hold on can lead to a sort of despair and possibly a distrust of the practice. We want practice and and our lives to play out in a certain way and when this is not the case we can turn away.

In the ‘Goose’ Rev. Master Jiyu goes through one heck of a lot. Her patience was tested to the extreme as was the trust in the Master/ disiple relationship. It is noticeable early on in the diaries that she looks outward, (understanderbly), and blames all sorts of things for the pain she is feeling. Slowly she sees that the cause is not to be found there. This insight doesn’t make it easier, yet she sees the need to look to her self if suffering is to lessen. When we find for ourselves what it is we truly are then we are closer to knowing the perfection that is being alluded to. To ‘speak hatred and evil and dream of perfection‘ is to believe that we are correct, misunderstand impermanance and act as if there is no cause and effect.

In a way I am writing about sincerity. When seen from this aspect the above sentence is clearer. I was once told that it is possible to be too sincere. This left me scratching my head at the time but later events helped me to see the wisdom in this. It can produce a blinkered way of training, which in turn is a closing down. We think and believe we are doing good but really have shut down and haven’t remained open to the possibilty of change. What is the refuge? If we can stay open it can truly reveal itself.

The diary entry and subsequent repeats in italics are from the ‘The Wild White Goose, the diary of a female Zen Priest’, by Rev. Roshi P.T.N.H. Jiyu – Kennett. Shasta Abbey Press.

 

A dragon for the Buddha

This is the first of an occassional set of Dharma articles which are intended to be short  teachings.

When I was a young monk in the early 2000s I was asked to finish off the side shrines after the re-decoration of the ceremony hall. Part of this was to paint a dragon on an incense stand that stood before the Achalanatha shrine. Having an art background this request involved a mixture of letting go and memory. I came up with a design which I took to Rev. Master Daishin, the Abbot, for discussion. As I was talking to him about the picture and the project I could feel past attachment getting in there and starting to muddy the waters. It was obvious that my sense of self was still mixed up in this. Was it good enough, can I explain myself clearly to him and also, very simply, is it enough. My previous experience of showing paintings in exhibitions was all mixed up in this. I found that I still related to what I did in the monastery in terms of what would it be like hanging in a gallery. To see this of course was invaluable and I was grateful be in a position where it was highlighted. The koan arising in daily life was never more pertinent. As Rev. Master listened to me get all tangled up he could see very clearly my dilemma. In his wise and compassionate way, which as the years rolled on I was to experience again and again, he looked at me and said, ‘ Remember, you are painting a dragon for the Buddha’. This short sentence exploded the whole thing open and the anxiety melted away. If you translate this into your own life and situations see that what we do is not separate to the dharma, To paint a dragon for the Buddha is eating rice and drinking tea. Painting is Dharma and Dharma is painting.

Achalanatha and distraction

This article is a version of the talk that was recently given by myself after the Achalanatha Festival.

Achalanatha has various  attributes. There is the sword, for cutting through delusion, a lasso which represents the Buddhist Precepts and a chain which ties him to the rock upon which he is standing. His body is blue and of course he stands admidst the roaring flames which don’t touch the body. All these things help show us elements of faith and if called upon allow us to work with that which comes to us.

Distraction seems to be at the top of many peoples agendas today. We can see the modern digital social network joined up world as a potential source of dissatisfaction. It has many benefits but also can pose just as many ,if not more, potential harmful aspects. This can be very helpful in starting to see how the mind jumps around and tries to grab what is always just out of reach. This isn’t new of course but does have the potential to throw us around a lot more if we allow it to. This is the nub. Allow it to.

What if we can be fully focused all the time? Is that even preferable? What response does that bring forth? If this being in the moment is forced, is seen as an ideal it can become hard and unyielding. Just being aware though can have a softer more pliant expression which is less self conscious.

Take the scenario of your phone beeping and pinging regularly with alerts. When it does that and catch us unawares what should we do, what do we do? Do we find ourselves jolted out of where we are and responding immediately? The sound of the alert is no different to the sound of anxiety in our heads. A sudden thought which grabs us and we are off in that direction leaving the place we have just been in. Like being ambushed and carried away. We are probably all familiar with something along those lines. As in meditation we are free not to respond, to not follow that movement away. When a thought arises in zazen do we say ourselves ‘I must get this’ or do we allow ourselves a moment to settle and come from a different space and place. It may be that it is good to respond yet that fraction of a moment when we can go in one direction or another is what I’m pointing to. So here we have Achalanatha not leaving his sitting place. The sitting place does not restrict movement yet it is the residing place of the non-dual. I am speaking of awareness of body and mind. This what cuts through tenacious attachments of body and mind

Much teaching is about following. When the bell rings follow. Is there a difference here. It seems to be saying the same thing, doesn’t it? Watch the difference though when we respond with the heart rather than a panicked head response. Looking here we can see that one  thing leads into another having its own own place. The other mode is  a pushing out of one thing and a levering in of another. We now start to see than when we are distracted, or more pointedly,  distracting ourselves, we don’t have to be run around in maybe the way we feel weare led to. If we sit down and watch the telly and it is good to do, that is different to hiding away in it with the hope that our problems are hidden for awhile.This adds to our uneasiness because we are turning away and not towards. Life is put on hold and that is unsustainable. Achalanatha shows how we can be in the flames one pointedly and not be burned. The flames ‘which have been created by clinging to name and form, -a self identity, – the five skandas and the six senses, – and the eight distractions‘. So we attach to a false sense of what and who we are. Identifying with what we see as a solid self rather than an everchanging amalgalm of thoughts and feelings. When we make the movement to turn towards we see that we have  what we need to climb Mount Sumeru. The Buddha sitting atop the altar is not separate from us. We bow to the altar because we are giving up ourselves and not denying the potential we have.

If any human being prone to entertaining despair, – beset by hopelessness, the person should meditate on the ever vigilante One, – and thus learn to stay rooted in the present moment’

The sections in italics are from ‘ In Praise of Achalanatha ‘, which part of the OBC liturgy, and was sung at the Achalanatha Fesival.

 

 

 

 

 

What is renunciation?

As a prince living in luxury, and his father keepng him away from anything that he thought might be distressing, the young Buddha was innocent to what we as humans will suffer. Eventually he was able to leave his seclusion and travelled, with his servant Channa, beyond the walls of his palace. Here he observed for the first time an old man, a sick man, a dead man and finally, a wandering ascetic. Each time he asked Channa what it was that he saw and received the reply that he too along with all others would be like the first three. Upon seeing the monk he determined to renounce his life and take the path of the renunciate and find the way to end suffering. He decided to leave his wealth, family, wife and child and take to the road.

What are we take from this story? To renounce, do we have to do similiar, leave all we have, and step into the unknown? Or can we ‘leave home’ in other ways, and is renunciation about something else?

I took the route of monastiscm, but for others that is not the way. We can still renounce because our relationship with life changes when we decide to undertake to practice and live by the Precepts. When we do this those areas of our life which we previously clung to as neccessary start to fall away. When we turn towards living from the heart, that which previously seemed important becomes less so. They start to fall away and lessen in significance. We don’t have to physically leave home, sell the house and car and give up our livelihood. Yet when we trust the heart we can draw on a deeper well of wisdom and see what it is that is that is more important for walking the path. Rather than seeing renunciation as a wilful act of getting rid of maybe see it as a trust in what is. To sit with and trust that all is well.

We start to give up that which wants to know. That which wants an answer or a full stop. We turn towards a way of living where each moment is enough. To enter into repose and look deeply into that which wants to add and fill up from an external supply. It doesn’t mean we don’t do anything, far from it, but it points to where we frantically are trying to fill a hole which truly doesn’t exist. To renounce is to have the courage to allow that which is unfolding to unfold, and not to put limits on our potentiality. However hard it may appear to bear, to judge our effort or deem what it is that is appropriate in zazen, (i.e. judge what arises), we are turning against renouncing. This we all can do. Whether we have grown our hair or shaved it off, we all have the potential to turn towards and not away from that which is showing itself.

To know we are all going to die, as do all things, is one thing, and not insignificant, yet to live from that place is another.

What is this life that is expressed. These shifting sands that have no substaniality to them. It is not that we live each moment as if it is our last, in a conscious way, yet underneath all we do and say there is a movement towards letting go of life and death, so that we can live fully and free. When we renounce the self, (which is always grabbing and clinging on, because it is frightened that if it lets go all is lost), we can live from a more expansive place of giving and just letting be our desires and needs.

To follow the way of the Buddhas and Ancestors is learning how to listen and follow. Watch when our lives tighten up and we cling to the known form and can’t hear the teaching of the moment. To know release from this suffering is to see compassion arise for self and other. To know suffering and let go is to have empathy with others who must be suffering also. Whilst our suffering can be unique in its particulars we can only fully experience it if we know that it isn’t ours, but a common condition of being alive. If compassion is to be compassion then suffering can’t be owned in that way.

The Buddha showed that there can be an end to suffering, and that the end was living the eightfold path. the activity of our lives is the expression of this. The eightfold path like the precepts shows that how we live is the the direction to penetrate the cycle of suffering. As it says in the Shushogi, “the most important thing for Buddhists is to understand birth and death completely”. To renounce ways of being which carry on the cycle of suffering is the activity of the Buddhas and Ancestors.

A brilliant sea of clouds

Recently I completed the frieze above the altar at the priory. A clear blue sky with banked clouds. The following article comes from, and is based, around this.

Above the altar and the Buddha seated upon it is a clear blue sky with brilliant dignified clouds. Whilst perceiving the clouds as clouds, we know also that our life is the clarity within the clouds just as Manjusri isn’t separate to the beast he sits upon. Manjusri shows an acceptance of the beast and is not pushing it away. Acknowledgement and acceptance of the beast helps us to empathise with and know that it isn’t separate to true nature. The sun is always shining whether we perceive clouds or not. There is that which pure from the first, untainted, yet to deny the beast or the clouds is to miss the point. To awaken to this reality is to see that we ourselves create clouds in our own image. The cloud or the beast is not a threat. It can’t harm us, it has no substance. What we perceive is a reflection of accumulations. Past conditioning, which if believed, can drive us to see and behave from fear, anxiety, pride or whatever it is for you in any moment. Yet there is always space in between where we can see that all isn’t as solid as we may have thought. Putting ourselves to the centre of life and seeing everything from a single centred perspective tends to us directing everything we perceive from this spectrum.

When we see through this mist things are less clear. We assume and guess at what is ahead rather than look at what is there in front of us. We project problems and difficulties which are just reflections of the self. In turn this helps and assists the self to keep hardening rather than soften .Zazen shows that the light illumines in any case. Whatever ‘hell’ we see, is illuminated. Whatever world we feel we inhabit it always has a Buddha at it’s centre. We see the mind clouding and judging and simultaneously realising that this is not how it is. To intuitively realise this apparant paradox is to step forward, or more accurately, go deeper. Sitting is a natural activity and it shows us that no more is required in that moment to see. To return to our true home and sit in repose is to know that this moment is bright and illuminated and we need to look no further. Whether we can see is not the issue it is awakening to this reality and trusting that seeing is possible.

The clouds are not separate to the illumination. Above the altar there is a sea of dignity and brilliance. The sky is clear and the clouds are part of it. If we see the clouds as obscuring they will remain opaque. Clouds are just droplets of water. They come and go dependent upon conditions. Try to grasp a cloud in your hand and you can’t. The clear sky is within the cloud.

To live as best we can from the place of meditation we help ourselves in not judging and separating and to see and acknowledge that harm comes from suffering. When we create harm it is because we are clinging to something that we still feel needs defending. Something that we still see as fully part of ourselves, an extension of who we are. Letting go of body and mind completely is to know that there is nothing to cling to. It may be a glimpse in a moment, yet its impact can be revolutionary. To experience falling away is to know that this is supported. A falling into rather than out of. To trust the next step when we can’t see what that will bring is not beyond us.

None of this done alone. If it is awakened to apart from all things then it isn’t true or real. Awakening is awakening at one and the same time as all things. It isn’t our awakening, which is isolated. Awakening is being aware that all is awakened. When someone awakens we share that joy because it is not owned by anyone.

All the buddhas have completed their practice, become one with the Way, and attained enlightenment. How are we to understand the identity of ourselves and the buddhas? The practice and attainment of buddhahood must be one with the whole world and all sentient beings.’

Great Master Dogen; ‘Only Buddha together with Buddha’ Yuibutsu – yobutsu

Training and enlightenment are one. Zazen is enlightened action, enlightened action is to live from the precepts. There is nothing to gain. To be illumined by the light of zazen is to do zazen, and zazen is to do nothing, because we don’t do zazen, zazen does us.