Saturday, May 30, 2009

PRACTICE 2 - Dotoku, Sendaba & Buddha Nature

Some of the fruits from my recent study of Dogen's religious philosophy

"I await the time when I do not speak and then hear immediately"
Dotoku is the central concept that all Dogen's philosophy subsequently develops out from. He does this by fully exploiting, then expanding further, the linguistic ambiguities inherent to Chinese characters, where they can mean two things simultaneously. Essentially dotoku means both - attainment of the Way & the means to the attainment of the Way- the actuality & the possibility simultaneously. This idea Dogen adopts and then takes it off into territory, that sometimes is only implied in the early Buddhist sutras. Dotoku provides the essential underpinning for his contention that Practice and Enlightenment are 'intimate', are one with each other.

We can become accustomed to seeing practice only as a self-initiated endeavour that will help us realise Enlightenment, practices that at some point we'll need to abandon. So its hard to shift perspective from this, to seeing the action of practice as being initiated by Enlightenment, urging itself to be made manifest through our practice. The danger in this view is that it can be taken too literally - it isn't meant to imply that we are already Enlightened. The emergence of the Enlightened state is still entirely dependant on conditions. For Dogen we express, in accordance with the degree of our faith, vigour and application to our practice, the Enlightened state through that practice. Likewise, all things which we think of as 'standing in for' as representations of this ineffability, are not just symbols of them, but manifestations of the symbolised itself eg - the
vajra - the 'adamantine' symbol for the energy that cuts through to the true nature of reality - isn't according to this view only something that represents this energy, it is a manifestation of it.


"You experience and penetrate the inaudible when words are uttered"
Sendaba is a word that has an infinite variety of possibilities for meaning and expression. It is traditional in Buddhist doctrine to see language as a rather inadiquate means for transmitting the truth of the Dharma. The emptiness of sunyata, of our self, language, ideas and concepts, is fundamental. But, rather than seeing language as being limited by its emptiness in its ability to express the ineffable, Dogen turns this assumption on its head and says that linguistic expression of the ineffable is sendaba - infinite -as infinite as the means through which the Enlightened state can be manifested - through words, sutras, mantras, symbols, sraddha, nature, dreams, myth, philosophy, illusion and the creative imagination. Through all these things the ineffable can become 'intimate' with us, because they are all essentially sunyata - empty - without a defined, and therefore fixed, meaning. But what makes this sense of them grow and develop in this 'intimacy' is wholehearted action - 'the mustering of the whole body-mind' - 'the total exertion of a single thing, is one with that of all things' This means that intention, volition and action is vital for creating the conditions for this 'intimacy' to arise in our consciousness. Enlightenment/Buddha-nature is not a passive, but an active state


"Buddha- nature and becoming a Buddha always occur simultaneously"
Buddha-nature cannot in Dogen's scheme of things be divorced from this 'intimate' wholehearted exertion. This is seen as a form of 'actional understanding', that any positive spiritual action can have a consequence in making Buddha-nature arise and be more manifest. So Dogen's view of Buddha-nature is not that it is either eternally present, nor provisional, but that it is realisable through the devoutness of our actions. This means that Buddha-nature has to be 'intimately' connected with - prattitya samutpada - conditioned arising -as truly seeing the nature of the latter is, according to Dogen, an expression of the former. In this, Dogen was parting from the contemporary Japanese view of 'original enlightenment' as some sort of permanent, and therefore eternal force.

I've been seeing this relationship as being similar to that between a light bulb and a light switch. A light bulb is designed to be able to manifest light, but it needs to be switched on. In this sense you could say it has potential for light, but does not yet possess it. It is probably more helpful to say that a light bulb has the capability for manifesting light, but it is only able to do so if certain conditions are in place. Primarily, that there is a means of creating the energy, a means to connect that energy to the bulb. a means of creating and fixing a switch to that connection, someone to turn the switch on, and once switched on, a working light bulb through which the energy can manifest as light. If all these conditions are present then the light bulb maybe said to be capable of being lit. This metaphor outlines
the relationship to Buddha-nature to us - we have the capability for the realisation of Buddha-nature - but if we don't create the conditions for it to through practice, it simply will not fully manifest.

DIARY 107 - Weebles Wobble - but they don't fall down!


Since coming back to Cambridge, it has been far from easy to settle back into my usual routine. I all too easily dropped into 'busy mode' - too much shopping, dashing around, and generally being on the go for too prolonged a period. By the end of that Saturday I was shattered. Whether I objectively had a lot to do is hard to say. The rest of the week continued to be characterised by a sense of being overwhelmed, as if I was asking too much of myself - this may have been so. It was my last week working in Customer Services, which put a real strain on my ability to apply myself to the situation. By Tuesday I found myself exercising so much willpower to get through the day, that I spent all the following evening in an anxious panic, unable stop myself from being busy. Consequently I was spark awake most of the night. This is not how I usually find returning from retreat, I usually manage it much more evenly paced and smoother than this. I've been strained and sleepless for a lot of it.

On reflection perhaps it would have been better if on my return I'd started immediately in a new team, rather than reminding myself how stressed I get by the old one. In future I need to be more conscious that what I think I'll find easy to do, from the perspective of a month ago, I might not actually find that easy to do when the actual moment is upon me. It seems hard for me to imagine with out the immediate context of the present moment being there, how I'm actually going to feel. An classic example emerged this week. A month ago I said I'd be willing to be a back-up person for when Customer Services are severely under resourced. However this week, when I was asked if I'd help them out in a fortnights time, my response was a very alarming feeling of despair at the thought of this, mixed with regret that I'd said this, with a stoical sense of duty, that perhaps I should override my feelings ( yet again ) and honour my initial promise. I have, however, said I can't, at least on this occasion, help. I've made no future promise. I just need to experience myself out of that context for a while, before plunging back into its 'hell realms' like Bodhisattva Kshitigatbha. I think I've given enough of myself to that situation for the time being, I felt no guilt about saying no, only relief.

Thankfully, this week has now come to an end. Normal service has been resumed. I decided in the end that the only thing to do in order to restore correct perspective and a more balanced effort to the situation was - more practice. So that's what I did, and the sense of being psychically disjointed, with neither the retreat or my return coming together into a satisfying integrated whole, did finally calm down. So this has not been one of my best weeks, but by no means one of my worst either.

DIARY 106 - I'm not a Bodhisattva - Yet !


It's been a week since I got back from my retreat, and it already feels as if it were a month ago. The retreat itself was quite challenging. The Bodhicaryavatara material does not indulge or accommodate any niceties of taste, feeling or decorum. It goes straight for the jugular of our fundamental selfish natures. This is a core problem for any would be Bodhisattva, who's said to have denied themselves full enlightenment until all sentient beings have also been saved. It's as though one has been riding on the backs of the four horseman of the apocalypse only to get thrown off at the end. You have to face the fact of how far away you are from being a Bodhisattva. So far, in fact, you're unable to see yourself becoming one at all.

The beginning of the retreat was slightly marred by waking with a strong headache and nausea on three consecutive mornings. Was it tension released by the change in context, poor sleep posture, trying too hard in meditation or being unused to the higher level of meditation practice? In the end it proved to be neither of these, it was oxygen starvation overnight. The two of us sleeping in the dorm were recycling the same air, with ever depleting levels of oxygen - easily resolved by opening a window.

Consequently, during the initial days, I struggled with the study. Old low self-esteem in study demons came out of the wood work for a revisit, after a number of years absence. Oxygen starvation removed as a contributory causal factor, I soon perked up. I am never the most verbose contributor in a study group, but what I do say is invariable considered, can be right on the spot, or at least clearly and succinctly expressed. Speed of response is rarely my strong point, but provided I seize the opportune moment to speak, I can be a useful contributor to any study discussion.

My meditation gradually deepened as the retreat progressed. I stayed on for four full days after the retreat, utilising the time well. My practice began to slip regularly into Access Concentration, and more than occasionally teetered into 1st Dhyana, which was most gratifying after many years of nadir. The recent increase in my level of practice pre-retreat must have laid good conditions for this fruitful outcome. I also did two to three hours of personal study every day, on a chapter from Mystical Realist by Hee Jin Kim, that describes and explores the basic concepts and models in Dogen's religious approach. This I found extremely productive study material. I got a specific grip on something I'd only previously had a general grasp of. (I'll do a seperate posting about this )

Saturday, May 02, 2009

PRACTICE 1 - Ethical Practice, Dhyana & Sahdana

I've been continuing the preparatory study for the Bodhicaryavatara retreat, reading and making notes on Sangharakshita's book - The Bodhisattva Ideal. Much of the territory is so familiar that one can find oneself taking for granted that you know what it all means. Just occasionally there's some refreshingly eye opening insight that makes one review or take a more active interest. This week I was reading about the qualities and depths of dhyana possible through meditation. Though I'm conversant with these in theory, I'm not conversant with them from my actual meditative experience. Sangharakshita states that if we were without mental obstacles, resting in dhyana would become our natural everyday state. I've previously understood that not getting into dhyana was never solely a result of an imperfect meditation technique, but also about the imperfections in ones ethics too. I've tended to focus my major ethical effort on what is most easily noticeable to myself and others -my external ethical practice. In The Bodhisattva Ideal, he makes it clear that whether one regularly courses in the dhyanas or not, is dependent on the relative health of ones body and mind - how at ease one is within oneself - that this is fundamentally an issue of internal ethical well-being.

In this regard he directs attention towards observing the strength or weakness of the five hindrances in meditation as good ethical indicators. ( The hindrances are - restlessness & anxiety - doubt & indecision - sloth & torpor - desire for sense experience - ill will.) I've not explictly seen the five hindrances in quite this way. I've used them primarily as a tool for analysing or monitoring my awareness and experience, as a means to cultivate positive mental states, which it has to be said, are inherently ethical ones. However, I think I've seen the increased ethical awareness and sensitivity as being a by-product of this positive mental state, not a foundation for it. Perhaps it is both cause and outcome.

I believe I have a reasonable self awareness of the ethical consequences of my outward actions and speech. Though it is all too easy to see ethics as entirely this externalised thing. To work on oneself ethically by not harming others through my actions or speech, is no bad thing in itself, though it is only partially facing the issue, dealing with symptoms, not causes. I have known individuals to place an inordinate, if not self-righteous, amounts of effort on their external ethics, whilst it is self-evident that its their internal mental states that require the real ethical attention. Something felt like it was being masked or evaded by this strong outward focus. That said, it is undoubtedly harder to notice the tone and quality of ones internal dialogue, or to raise ones awareness of the 'ethics of the private moment.' It's also much more uncomfortable to turn the spotlight inwards rather than outwards. Whilst external ethical practice is an essential starting point, one cannot rest on the laurels of outward ethical practice alone. Sangharakshita is clear that if you want to abide regularly in dhyana, then a broadly based effort on external ethics, needs to be accompanied by a focused effort on the ethics of thoughts and internal dialogue within ones own mind. At some point, you do have to face what are the causes of it all.

I've made two small re-adjustments or re-visioning as a result of reading this. The first concerns the five mental hindrances as unethical states. These can be quite persistent, and via there tone or consequence, they are unskillful states to indulge in - being neither wholesome nor pure of taint. More consciously working from the perspective of ethics might contribute to improving the health of my mental landscape. One of the traditional antidotes to the hindrances is to consider the consequences in allowing an unskillful state to continue. So there has always been an ethical implication or imperative there, were I to have noticed it.

The second adjustment concerns the Shakyamuni Sahdana practice (a devotional visualisation) that I do. I've imagined this practice as a coming into imaginative relationship with an Enlightened state of consciousness - somewhere vaguely out there. Working with this sense of an Other Power, to be able to draw down from it for inspiration, is important. Though I'm beginning to see being drawn towards this externalised Other Power is reciprocated internally - with a greater sense of Self Power also being cultivated. Visualising Shakyamuni Buddha helps me grow more intimate with a sense of Buddhahood or Buddha Nature within myself. Yet, lying between me and Shakyamuni's grace, somewhat like a veil, is the health of my ethics, where the hindrances are the obscuring screen. The clarity with which one sees a picture on a computer, if looked at in detail, is dependent on the number of pixels. Similarly the imperfections in my ethical practice, when looked at closely, pixelate the screen, disrupting my ability to envisage and connect with the transcendental in myself and the world.

DIARY 105 - Entertaining Friends

The watershed for handing on my responsibility has been reached, crossed and I didn't even get my feet wet. My team came round to Abbey House for breakfast out in the garden,the first outdoor breakfast of the year. It was a delightful sunny May Day, our walled garden was at its best. There was a brief house tour, followed by rejoicing in my merits and a handover ceremony during a seven fold Puja. I'd made a special shrine, shopped and prepared the breakfast table. The whole event went swimmingly, and if I was not noticible moved by it, I did feel something was set down or resolved through the devotional ritual. At one point I sensed that Richard Tebbit was somehow there in a ghostly capacity. As yet, I'm not quite at the point of being able to completely let go of Customer Services. There are some residual tensions entangled around my feet still. Anyway, I'm off on retreat next Friday, so, hopefully, this will enable me to draw it more to a close in my psyche than at present.

Tuesday night, we had guests round for dinner in the community. Our community numbers have often been very sparse of late since David and Carl left for Ghuyaloka. So it was good to have a full table again, the conversation was full of jokes, and lively,convivial banter. After the meal I came up to my room. I suddenly felt a aching sense of really being alone, and not really wanting to be. In the aftermath of being in such convivial company, I felt David's absence not just from the occasion of the meal, but also from around me, immensely. It's the first time since he left for the ordination course, that I've felt so strongly overwhelmed emotionally by how much I am actually missing him. Next Tuesday will mark the first month since he left, so he's already a quarter of the way through his course. Only twelve more weeks to go!

FEATURE 26 - A Poet Laureate for the Noughties

So the first female Poet Laureate has been chosen. I hope Carol Anne Duffy fares better in the post than Andrew Motion, who appeared to receive a bit of a critical mauling. Though he dutifully fulfilled his brief to write doggerel for royal occasions, he also tried to carve out a new role for the Laureate as a spokesman who could actively promote and proselytise on behalf of poetry in general. I would imagine he, like many Laureates before him ( and they have always been a 'him' previously ) wanted to break out of the restrictions inherent to this royally appointed position. In desperate need of redefinition, the role of Poet Laureate can easily choke,rather than release the poetic stream. Motion, wisely and laudably, attempted to stimulate public interest and to re-inject poetry back into the popular cultural mainstream. That he was the first Laureate to attempt to do this may turn out to be his one enduring legacy. It's unlikely to be for his poetry.

Unfortunately for Motion, he is not eccentric or loveable in the way John Betjamin was. He isn't a populist poet either, in style or content. His appearence is like a design consultant, or a jobbing actor. He has an intellectually measured, imaginatively refined voice, there is little that strikes you as passionate or able to move ones heart in his verses. The tone easily becomes emotionally neutered in some way. Like many a Poet Laureate before him, he's failed to blossom as a poet whilst occupying the position, quite the opposite. The appointment may be a poisoned chalice, only given to poets once they are past there best, or that somehow it effectively poisons or strangles the muse before your eyes... and ears. Motion is also a man, which fails to win you many brownie points these days, only a sort of grudging attention surrounded with suspicion about the Poet Laureate being an all male, and therefore automatically suspect, preserve. Thankfully the back of this accusation has now been broken. But still, its not a good time for any man of vision to be in a position of authority, unless you are Barak Obama of course.

Carol Anne Duffy as a woman, better fits the prevailing zeitgeist. She is that rare poet who is both lauded by critics and popular with the Womans Hour/Guardian reader set. She is also, from the start, a much more emotionally accessible poet than Motion. Stylistically versatile, she's able to strike chords of wit and empathy in her predominantly female audience, establishing herself with a distinctive voice, in both subject matter and emotional tone. She is by no means a writer of light jovial verse in the vein of Pan Ayres, she's able to plumb the psychological depths, but does so without being consumed by them, which was Sylvia Plaths fate. Ayres and Plath were woman born into an entirely different era, where women had to constantly make light of their lot, or collapse under the psychic weight of accumulated frustration. Duffy is part of a more recent generation of female poets who've moved out of the Apollonian shadow of masculine imagery, and forged a strongly developed vein of the Dionysian and the feminine at the cutting edge of contemporary poetry, and society in general.

Because she's the first woman appointed to the position, she'll probably get a much easier ride than any male occupant would. Her gender will keep the questioning critical voices at bay, for awhile - why, whether occupied by a male or a female, do we need a Poet Laureate in the first place, what, in the 21st Century could be its purpose, and how could it ever be made relevant? Her newly incumbant presence, also continues the ongoing re-shaping of societies perceptions and prejudices, to re-carve the dominant artistic perspective in a more feminine friendly image. Perhaps only someone whose gender, culture or race makes them a de-facto establishment outsider, will be able to successfully redefine the position of Poet Laureate in our collective imagination. This sort of transformation of an institution is something a White Anglo-Saxon Male, either is not allowed to do, or is simply unable to do in these multi-cultural times. The W.A.S.M is, after all, the all pervasive dark oppressor, the arche enemy of egalitarianism. In the 'noughties' if there are new strong and distinctive male poetic voices out there, it is getting increasingly harder to hear them. Women in the past were unable to access or set the cultural agenda because of male dominance of its creed and colour. Those tables seem already to be turning, or have already turned, presenting a deaf ear to the masculine. The voice of the Apollonian beast, if not gagged, has become a mere whisper of its former self. It appears you'll not hear its like again, at least for some time.