Saturday, December 01, 2012

ARTICLE - Knowing Your Own Walking

Adapted from a talk I gave on my Ordination Course in Spring 2000, extensively revised and expanded in 2012


The walking of the Blue Mountain is swifter than the wind,

but human beings in the mountains do not sense it or know it.
Being in the mountains describes the opening of flowers in the real world.
People out of the mountains never sense it and never know it
people who have no eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know,
do not see and do not hear this concrete fact.
If we doubt the walking of the mountains,
we also do not yet know our own walking.
It is not that we do not have our own walking,
but we do not yet know and have not yet clarified our own walking.
When we know our own walking,
then we will surely also know the walking of the Blue Mountains.” 1

These words draw you ineluctably into the sensations and sense of a colourful allegorical world, one that goes beyond conventions. The simple language, though holding its real meaning at a discreet distance, somehow manages to speak straight to the heart. It by~passes normal communication and goes directly to that place within ,half buried and unfocused, but central to our being, that finds itself exhilarated at simply reading these words. For me, it’s as if this is something I’d always wanted to know, have always wanted to hear is being echoed back to me. Only recently have I perceived that this indivisibility of self from external world, is what I yearn for. It provides me with confidence that through ‘knowing my own walking’ I will eventually align myself with something more universal and interdependent.  Once I do know my own walking I’ll also know the walking of the Blue Mountains, and be whatever an ‘awakened one’ is.

In this essay I want to explore this ‘knowing your own walking’ and find out what that might mean to a spiritual practitioner. I’m going to approach it from a number of different viewpoints. The first, is a purely practical view ~ how exactly do we walk?  The second, a psychological view ~ how walking embodies character. The third, a metaphorical view - how do you walk the spiritual life? The fourth, a mythical and symbolic view ~ how  ‘knowing your own walking’ could be the same as Enlightenment?

But perhaps before I begin, some background information is called for. The words of this paragraph are taken from Sansuigo ~The Sutra of Mountains and Water, by Eihei Dogen. It appears in The Shobogenzo, the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. a work crammed full with such fluent, florid and frequently dense spiritual exposition. Often unrelenting in the contradictory paradoxical reality it describes, it can be a hard read. Each chapter is a transcript of a full length talk Dogen gave to his monks. Originally The Shobogenzo’s composition was on a small scale, of twelve chapters arranged in a linear sequence according to their centrality to Dogen’s philosophy. This schema during his life expanded to seventy five chapters. He was near completing a hundred chapter version, when he died in 1253. The ninety five chapter version we currently have, was published four hundred years later. It’s a hotchpotch drawing on Dogen’s original versions and unfinished transcripts,that forms a chronological compendium of his written full length talks. The Sutra of Mountains and Waters forms its fourteenth chapter.

Dogen was writing in 13th century Japan, an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In this period all the main strands of Japanese Zen Buddhism ~ Pure Land, Rinzai, Soto and Nichiren, were founded. Dogen as the primary founder of Soto Zen, was to set the template for all future Soto practitioners through his writings and practice. His writing has three styles that he deftly interweaves. In one, he will explore ordinary mundane experience and presents practical advice about the most effective way to practice the spiritual life within it. Delivering this with great clarity and straightforward exposition. The Shobogenzo Zuimonki ,often referred to as The Primer of Soto Zen, is the purest example of this first style.

The next style, though seeming to have a practical intent, takes the everydayness of spiritual life as representing an actually embodying and acting out of the transcendental principle. Larger meanings and symbolisms are hence implied from the most common place of work and actions. Everything we do is simultaneously an urge for realisation and a manifestation of that realisation. He combs through Relative Reality to highlight the signs, symbols and signifiers of Absolute Reality lying within it.  An example of this style is one of Dogen's most widely studied essays the Tenzo Kyokun ~ The Instructions to The Zen Cook.

Finally there’s are the full blown poetic explorations and evocations of reality as seen by an awakened mind. Dogen begins these with a traditional Koan, and then proceeds to play with its linguistic paradoxes, via word play that teases and stretches, often to breaking point, its possibilities imaginatively and symbolically. The overall effect this gives, is a vividly felt sense for what a fully realised state may be like. We are presented with an Enlightened perspective that looks askance at the pitfalls and limitations of our relative experience. This is the style he adopts throughout most of The Shobogenzo, that if you can stick with it, begins to make the world and perception it describes, rattle and resonate within you. He’s communicating the nature of reality as if seen through the True Dharma Eye. The effect of this can feel hugely overwhelming. Its as if one’s whole being is being slammed spread-eagled against a wall,and you’re being prodded and searched.  I can be reading a Chapter from the Shobogenzo, and though what I’m reading seems to be a horribly tangled word puzzle that makes no rational sense at all, I can feel full of adrenalin, with my heart pumping as though this very exhilaration is frightening me, and I’m getting ready to run away from it.

These differing writing styles would appear to have been written for slightly different audiences, as they appear to speak to different levels of spiritual awareness or experience. The first, encourages us to become more aware of what our experience actually is. The second, to see that experience more and more from a Dharmic perspective. The third, to perceive that experience and the fully realised state as a purely tactical distinction.  That our mundane experience in Samsara and the True Nature of Reality in Nirvana, are not necessarily incompatible opposites.

The Mountains and Waters Sutra is an evocative example of this latter style of discourse.

The walking of the Blue Mountain is swifter than the wind,
but human beings in the mountains do not sense it or know it.
Being in the mountains describes the opening of flowers in the real world.
People out of the mountains never sense it and never know it
people who have no eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know,
do not see and do not hear this concrete fact.
If we doubt the walking of the mountains,
we also do not yet know our own walking.
It is not that we do not have our own walking,
but we do not yet know and have not yet clarified our own walking.
When we know our own walking,
then we will surely also know the walking of the Blue Mountains.” 1

1 ~ From Page 168, The  Mountains and Waters Sutra, the shobogenzo, Trans. Nishijima & Cross, Pub. Windbell.


In 1986, Laurie Anderson’s epic six hour performance piece United States Part 1-4 was performed over two consecutive nights at the Dominion Theatre in London.  I was living in London at the time, and had seen a one off small compilation show six months before, so I  eagerly shelled out to see the full blown performance. United States Parts 1-4, is a long elegiac and quirky love letter to modern humanity about how alienated we can be from nature, sense and our own humanity. Ironically it highlights how ‘disunited’ rather than ‘united’ our states of mind and being have become. It’s composed of an episodic sequence of songs, musical interludes, storytelling, vignettes and monologues. Though a strongly definable narrative thread is absent, it paints a comprehensive, colourful picture, through a collage of humourous, melancholic and often touching tapestry of moods. Presented with characteristic visual flair and verbal wit that Laurie Anderson has since become renowned for.

At one point the stage was blacked out and is suddenly lit by a single overhead spotlight. A circle of bright light shone directly down onto the black floor of the stage. Anderson, in a black skinny suit and tie, had become a shadowy indistinct figure walking around the periphery of this intense white circle. Though barely seen, the light caught and hinted at bits of her body, of an elbow, a foot, a shadow, as she walked slowly around skirting the circle’s circumference. That was what we are seeing. What we were hearing was a steady gentle sawing sound, of a roughly scratched out rhythm played on a violin, made into a tape loop. Audibly hovering in the background was a transcendent oscillating sound that came in and out of hearing. Anderson then spoke these words at a deliberate and slow pace, keeping them in even step with her own steps.
‘I wanted you
and I was looking for you
but I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
and I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you

You are walking,
and you don’t always realise it
but you are always falling.
With each step
you fall forward slightly
and then catch yourself
from falling
Over and over
you are falling
and then catch yourself
from falling
And this is how
you can be walking
and falling
at the same time’ 1

There was a dreamy timeless air of suspension about it, as if earthly reality had suddenly become an ethereal thing of no substance. A shimmer of mist. The words were like the language of a ghost whispered to an unborn baby ~ ‘you know, this is what its like to be born, this is what its like to be in the world, this is what its like to walk.’ Even in the act of walking we are always on the edge of falling, of complete collapse. It’s not only babies who toddle and fall.  We might imagine ourselves as striding purposefully forward. Though this may just mean we have become more adept at preventing ourselves from toppling over. This proficiency disguises how precarious our steps are, on the verge of a fatal misjudgement at any moment.

Whether we successfully walk erect or not, depends on so many other things also being in place and fully functioning. The condition and style of our lives is intricately bound up with our mobility. In ways we scarcely realise until we are confined to bed, become crippled or are at the point of death. Life can then be all about whether we will be able to walk, ever again.

Imagine if you will another stage, in another theatre. A metaphorical stage. It has a bare stage stripped of all furniture, props or scenery. Just a plain black painted stage. On it is an actor walking to and fro, from stage left to right and then back from stage right to left. Somewhere in this empty echoing auditorium sits a Director. A quiet and largely unseen presence. The Stage, the Actor and the Director are all part of a play about humanity. The Stage is Samsara, The Actor is our Body and the Director the consciousness and Karma that interprets and directs.

So here’s an Actor strutting up and down upon this Stage. Lets take a closer look at how he actually walks, the physical mechanics of his walking.  To walk requires a whole complex of mental and physical checks and balances. Muscles and bones yield or take the strain, they adjust and absorb the buffetings of uneven terrain, of gravity and skeletal vibration. Hips, torso, shoulders  and arms sway as we walk, acting as a counterbalance to our forward momentum, which might otherwise propel us face down on the floor. Our feet are these miraculous structures of intricate bones wrapped in muscle. Springing our bodies forward whilst simultaneously cushioning the impact of each stride and step. The socket hinges of ankles and knees, the sway of shoulders, the swinging of arms, the tensing and relaxing of thigh and calf muscles, all smoothly interact with the shifts in our bodies weight, enabling fluidity of movement. All the while we maintain an upright posture, a solid foundational structure that holds our fragile heads steady and erect.

Only if you use a film camera whilst you walk do you see through the wildly lurching camera angles the perceptual distortions that walking causes. Were it not for the efficiency with which your bodies bones and muscles absorb vibration, this is what you would be seeing. It would make walking a risky thing to do. Your eyes, are each held suspended in their own cavities by thin strands of muscle and fluid, that minimise direct contact with skull bones and hence vibration. Your brain does a lot of synthesizing of perceptual information from left and right eyes, to produce and maintain the singularity and constancy of your vision. So that even when running we can maintain focus, so we can see where we are going. This means our sight doesn’t become blurred as soon as we move. Even our ears perform a role in this. Sound gives a sense of position and direction. The labyrinth in the inner ear, senses changes in our rotational motion, whilst the otoliths sense our linear motion, which help to sustain our balance as we walk. Without all this synthesising of sensory input, walking in a straight line and directing our movement in space whilst not impossible, would certainly be more treacherous and accident prone. These processes actually iron out all the inconvenient and distracting information. Such as having a projecting nose between two eyes, two eyes inches apart from each other, or making adjustments for perceptual movement and shake, a bit like a steadicam. This is all contributes to an illusory sense of stability to our self and world, through creating this continuity of perception. By only seeing what is necessary, our perception is biased even before we interpret and make any judgements about what we are seeing. What we see then, is always a mixture of fact and fiction.

So, our body and its senses are built to maintain smoothness of movement as we walk, a relatively vibration free vision. Imagine how painful it would be if we felt the full impact of every step we took. Only when we get older and the bodies ability to self-repair, process sensory input and absorb impacts becomes more impaired, does walking become a painful, tiring thing to accomplish. Until then, we rarely need to think about walking. Most of the time we can walk around automatically, hardly needing to consciously watch our step. If we want to go shopping, we go shopping, and off we go. To walk, is a function that has to be partially blinkered to the mechanics of its own walking. This is a practical convenience, for otherwise our mind would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of assessments and decisions needing to be made, minute by minute.

Walking is how we get to what we want. Walking is an action that helps us not only reach,but define what our goals should be, it supports our sense of purpose. The generation of a large number of cravings and volitions, would send us straight into a frustrated hell if we couldn’t walk to where we needed to go to fulfill them. Without walking external ambitions become more limited. Walking takes us more rapidly around the Wheel of Life, that only old age, disease and death can slow down or put a stop to. Each moment as our body moves, its senses and surrounding circumstantial changes. Walking itself, with each stride, demonstrates the process of impermanence, of prattiya samutpada. Each step, in a simultaneous, seamless flow, is  the death of one set of conditions and circumstances and the birth of an entirely new set.  The interactions and rubbing of cartilage on bone gradually wears itself away. Blood re-oxygenates, new blood cells are created, muscles stretch, tear and repair, energy is created and used and created again, and we eat to fuel all this. Add into the pot all the external stimuli that change, the internal stimuli that change, then our physical and mental state of being seems less and less to belong solely to us. Our walking is less singular and linear, but more multi-faceted and interactive.

With each step forward we do fall forward slightly, walking into a new self as the old self falls away. A new Vidyavajra appears as the old Vidyavajra disappears. This was what one sensed as Laurie Anderson walked around the edge of that bright circle of light. That something about our lives is always permanently in the shadows, always just about to be lit up, to be born, to be walked into. There are undoubtedly elements of our experience that remain relatively constant over time. Many of these are evaluations of perception. These evaluations I make of my sensory input have a stability and consistency to them, that is me the perceiver.  But all the same it’s not a completely fixed Vidyavajra that’s doing this perceiving, or this  walking. It is an ever fluctuating concoction of physical and mental events held flimsily together under the conceptual banner of being ‘Vidyavajra.’  It’s because we invest so heavily in this Self Belief, that we end up suffering so much in the world.   Holding an illusion of a static reality when everything around us tells us its transient, changeable, unpredictable, defines the quintessential relationship of humanity with its experience of reality ~ that it is unsatisfactory.

Walking is an action that is Self directed. Through it the Self is given form and movement ~ I walk ~ I run ~ I fall down ~ I get up ~ I go ~ I come back.  Walking is movement as the Self -expressed.  The Buddha, if traditional accounts are to be believed, could walk and still convey calmness, a sense of stillness whilst in movement. When the Buddha first meets Angulimala for instance, Angulimala tries to catch up with the Buddha, in order to murder him and add his fingers to his collection. The more energy he exerts, the more effort he puts into pursuing the Buddha, fails to bring the Buddha any closer. The Buddha remains still, whilst he also seems to be walking forward. Without such a calm sense of Self, a Self that is not perpetually agitated by a need for self-definition, stillness will elude us.

Walking Meditation helps us become more aware of the bodily process of walking itself, and this can ground and eventually quieten down everything, until we are ‘just present.’ The body moving mindfully has no other purpose than a gentle awareness of movement and conditions, and the changes in movement and conditions. Walking up and down from left to right, and right to left, like our Actor on the Stage, but without any need to preen, perform or pretend. Mindful walking holds out the possibility for us of our walking becoming an expression of a greater stillness.  

So being able to walk is impermanent, and hence precarious, because its dependent on circumstances beyond our full control. The self determination present in the motivations for our walking is deluded. We rarely walk in accordance with the reality of the situation. We often remain unaware of the physical and motivational mechanisms by which we walk. If we really want to transcend selfish limitations, to discover some inner stillness then there’s no better place to start than understanding how and why are we walking.

1 ~ Walking and Falling, from Laurie Anderson’s performance piece ~  United States Parts 1~4


‘All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.
this drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes?
What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could take one sip of an answer.
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home
This poetry, I never know what I’m going to say
I don’t plan it.
when I’m outside the saying of it
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.1

Our Actor is still walking backwards and forwards across the Stage. Who knows what he must really be thinking or feeling. Though perhaps he may be asking himself one of those ‘who is it’ questions that Rumi raises in this poem. Who is it that is walking?

If someone asked you to walk as you normally would, to walk naturally, to just be yourself, your manner of walking couldn’t help but be slightly stiff and self conscious. Could we be sure exactly how to do that? To walk naturally. To walk, to be yourself, instantly raises the question, exactly who and what is that.? Whatever we did would tend to be an adopted version of how we thought we walked, or perhaps walking as we’d like to walk, as someone more confident, attractive, cool or self assured. In our lives there are a whole gamut of walk on roles that we can, and do play, which are built on how we want to appear in a specific context or company. So this walking is the very opposite of natural. We lose the ability to walk as ourselves simply by being asked to walk as ourselves. We really don’t know who we are from one moment to another. For what makes something natural is a lack of self consciousness. How you walk, your manner of walking, is without thinking and self-awareness.

The actor Sir Alec Guinness, created characters by first finding the characters shoes, and then discovering how that character would walk in them. Everything else, their behaviour, psychology and motivations manifested themselves and was built up around just those two elements, the shoes and the walk. If you look at the type of shoes and even the clothes that you are currently wearing, they have all been chosen because they represent or say something about you. Whether, fashionable or anti-fashion, bright or drab, clean or dirty, formal or casual, neat or sloppy, all speak about yourself, how you feel yourself to be, how you want others to see you, or how you may want to be, but are not yet. Clothes portray publicly our motivations, ethos, ideals, aspirations and pretensions. How we wear these clothes changes the way we feel about ourselves, adapts the way we walk. To a degree we adjust our bearing and posture to fit them. Even how we walk will be changed subtly by whether we are wearing brogues, sandals or trainers, high heels or court slippers.  Everything we wear is both an affectation and a genuine form of self expression.

There are always aspects of who we are in public that is a caricature of ourselves. It’s you, but you writ larger. Quentin Crisp, whose natural effeminacy was ridiculed and made fun of in public, describes how he took charge of his traits and transformed his whole character and behaviour thereafter::~

‘ The time comes for everybody,
when he has to do deliberately
what he used to do by mistake,
this is the only way
by which you can get ‘the joke’
onto your own terms.’ 2

Sometimes, in some social situations we can find it much easier to be a semblance of, rather than fully ourselves. We all develop specific ways of relating in different contexts and with different people. These facets of our public persona can diverge significantly from who we actually are, but we put them on because it makes things socially easier to manage. Which is why we all love to seek out the places and people where we can relax and ‘be ourselves’, and can be very disapproving or mistrustful of people who appear too false or fake in public. So, though we all use social masks, there has to be some degree of congruence and consistency with the person we sense is underneath the artifice.

In terms of writing our characters large, there’s the example of Pop Stars, who can sometimes lose a sense of who they are to their popular image. An increasing divergence can emerge between the sense of their true self and their idolised posters. They become these alienated archetypes or inflated parodies of what they think their fans want from them.  A classic example would be Elvis Presley. He changed over the decades from the classic rock n roll rebel image, in tight jeans and leather jacket, itself a creation of his manager. To a bloated drug addled Las Vegas act, in rhinestone covered jumpsuit costumes, shortly before his death. For some this sense of personal discontinuity can become impossible to manage, and they seek solace in drugs or alcohol, leading to breakdowns or at worst a death wish or suicide. Their popular image and how they are perceived becomes a trap, difficult to escape or walk away from without losing the reason for their popularity.

Amy Winehouse, was very much loved, by both her fans and family. Her vulnerability seemed to prompt her frankness and unsparing honesty, that seemed inseparable from her musical talent. This was partly why she struck a chord with people. We seemed to like and admire her for it. Not only her voice, but she felt truthful, and presented a paradoxical appearance of defiant robustness. Underneath the solid sense of valuing who she was, was fatally flawed. She felt like she was one of us. Even as we watched this tragedy unfold under media scrutiny, right before our eyes. Vicariously we felt an identification with the tangled mess that her life turned into, and willed her to pull through it. This might have given people hope that they too might overcome their own adversities. In such circumstances I imagine, we too would find it hard to keep hold of, and know the character of, our own walking.

There are individuals who never seem to fully inhabit their bodies or their emotional world. They appear physically stiff externally, their movements clumsy. They always appear to be walking head in the clouds, bobbing along on the balls of their feet. For whatever reason, their upbringing, awkwardness with social convention, extreme anxiety, or a mismatch between their gender and their sexuality, they are not fully in their bodies. Other individuals appear to have seemingly limitless physical ability, dexterity and control, they appear to have grown into, and fully fit their bodies. Whether introvert or extrovert, confident or shy, our mental posture is revealed by our physical posture. It is ‘bodied forth’ by the very act of walking, whilst pacing through our surrounding environment.  I think of it in terms of the Mr Men ( or Women ) ~ Mr Busy, Mr Bossy, Mr Silly, Mr Angry, Mr Greedy, Mr Wise, Mr Happy etc  These may be transient states, but through the regularity with which they occur, they can come to represent who we are to others and to ourselves. We communicate our current mental states, and our habitual mental demeanours, mostly through what we say, but also through how we walk.

During my ordination retreat, Surata, the Order member leading the retreat, asked us to be more mindful of how we left the Shrine Room, to try doing so in ‘triple slow time’, as he put it.  The purpose of this was entirely practical, so we didn’t disturb with unnecessary noise those who chose to sit on after a puja or meditation. The intention in making us more aware, was to turn this necessity into a practice. I found this a fascinating thing to observe. I saw two things, how people chose to walk slowly, and the length of time it was maintained before people returned to ‘their own pace.’

Everyone, it has to be said walked considerately. But some walked so slowly and eccentrically, that they seemed in danger of falling over. For others, a pronounced slow walk assumed an almost cartoonish level of caricature.  On leaving, some would wait until they got to the other side of the Shrine Room exit, and via the act of putting on their own shoes would be straight back to ‘their own pace,’ walking off as Mr Busy, or whatever.  Others waited until they reached the Kitchen, a hundred yards or so from the Shrine Room, or varying degrees of distance between the Shrine Room and their hut, before resuming walking at ‘their own pace’. That phrase, ‘their own pace’ is an interesting one. It does seem to denote, that our way of walking and the speed at which we walk, is something we take ownership of and possess. Walking at ‘our own pace’ involves us in no physical or psychological effort or strain. It’s only when our way of habitually expressing ourselves is restricted in some way do we not like it. We find it oppressive or causes petty resentments to arise.

So, walking can express externally, our internal sense of ourselves, it embodies and portrays our character to the world. Not feeling able to do so produces insecurity, anger or resentment. To no longer feel at liberty to be who we are is imprisoning. We act from out of our self view. If this were brought into awareness it could be quite a productive space for a Buddhist to find themselves in. It creates in our everyday experience a territory where we can creatively transform those habitual or superficial tendencies, which we are only subliminally or theoretically aware of.

An actor’s job is to make conscious to himself and to the audience, those conscious and unconscious ways of being, in order to define and better portray the character they are playing.  They need to understand how their character would walk in the world.  For Buddhists, it is in a sense not that different, to become more aware of what our predominant habits and characteristics are, and modify or change them if it seems appropriate. Our consciousness determines being, and then our being determines character, embodied through walking.  Our body is what walks, talks and thinks. So our walking, is our consciousness, our being, our character in movement.

1 ~  Who says words with my mouth, from The Essential  Rumi, Trans. Colman Barks, Pub. Penguin.
2 ~ From ~ How to have a life style by Quentin Crisp ~ Publisher Cecil Woolf


So far I’ve been looking at walking in quite a simple down to earth manner. But, as we move on, the territory we are traversing is shifting slowly away from the matter of fact and inching toward metaphor. Approaching walking as a metaphor for how we practice the Spiritual Life. We’ve already made a few tentative steps in this direction, but now we appear on the edge of plunging right into it. For through needing to know and understand our own walking, we have to clarify and become clear about exactly what it is we are seeking, why we want it and who we believe we currently are.

In 1973, I was fifteen, and had just completed my final year at North Axholme Comprehensive School. During the Summer Holidays three friends and I had decided we would walk the Pennine Way.  After our O’level exams were finished, there was plenty of free time for us to plan, map out the route and prepare by buying ourselves all the necessary kit. We’d all done quite a bit of hill walking on field trips, so we weren’t novices, but still this was to be the longest walk any of us had ever attempted. One of our Father’s drove us over to Edale in Derbyshire, and we arrived in the late afternoon.

As the sun set, the sky began clouding over with dark grey heavy looking rain clouds. We needed to find a campsite pretty sharpish, and get our tents up before dusk, dark or a downpour descended. Unfortunately, as our tents were going up, down came the semi-dark of dusk accompanied by the rain. We weren’t unduly worried about this, we’d got our tents erect and maybe by morning the rain would have cleared. It rained all through the night, and was continuing to drizzle even as dawn broke. However inadvisable it may be to pack up a tent when its still wet, this is what we did. We decided not to wait til the weather cleared up before starting our first stretch of the Pennine Way.

If any of you are familiar with Kinder Scout, you’ll know its a largely featureless peat moor above Edale. This is where the Pennine Way begins. So with our Wainwright walking guides in our hands, we climbed the path up to the moors above us. Repeated rambling, even by the Seventies, had produced severe erosion.  The heather which used to grow across the moor and hold its surface together, had retreated into isolated clumps or hillocks, between which were deep black peat gullies. People walking the Pennine Way, then chose to walk along the gullies because it was easier, thus making the erosion worse and worse over time. However, when it rains, those gullies became channels for streams of water or at best a sludgy ditch or bog. Should you have the misfortune to fall into one of these bogs, you quickly end buried up to your crotch in an energy sapping quagmire. This was what we were walking unknowingly towards on that day in the Summer of 73!

Once we reached the moor, we found it was covered in a layer of thick impenetrable fog, so we could barely see above a hundred yards either side of us. If we’d known that this was how it would be for the next few days, then perhaps we might have turned back. At the time we chose to navigate ourselves across Kinder Scout by our compass skills alone. The walking was extremely tough, constantly trying to jump over gullies, constantly extracting our feet from the sucking glue of black peat, constantly aware we could be too near the edge of the moor if we’d miscalculated where we were. As a result,we only covered half of the distance we expected to on our first day. Finding somewhere dry to put up our wet tents off the moor was not easy either.

The next day the rain and fog continued. Our tents, all the clothes we stood up in and most of what we carried in our rucksacks, were either damp or completely soaked through.   As that second miserable day drew to an end, some of us began showing the tell tale signs of exhaustion and exposure. Before we walked off the moor and reached the next village, we’d already decided to call it a day, and ring home for help.  The Summer of our Pennine Walk adventure, was aborted before it had really got going.

I’d like to use this personal experience, and try to relate it to what best practice in the spiritual life might be. The first thing to say is, we need to be sure the goals we set ourselves are achievable and worthwhile ones. Walking the Pennine Way, though challenging and admirable, is unlikely to completely transform our lives. Yet, like the spiritual life, if one wants to achieve it, one has to want to achieve it despite everything else that might happen around us that may deflect our sense of purpose. If walking the Pennine Way had been such a goal for us, then we would have found a way to continue. We were teenagers, still relatively inexperienced in the ways and vagaries of operating in the world. We could have found a way to dry ourselves out, give ourselves a few days to recover and recoup our energies before carrying on, but we didn’t.  The next day, as it turned out, the circumstances of the weather changed. It was bright, sunny with cloudless skies and remained so for several weeks thereafter. By then, however, we’d been picked up and safely returned to our parents. Though we were obviously disappointed, we were back in the comfort and relative security of home. There are always obstacles on the spiritual path, if we trip up at the first hazard and fail to get back on our feet and on track, then we will have achieved nothing. We have to maintain contact with our determination, a sense of direction and purpose to reach the goals we set ourselves.

The second thing, is that everything is dependent upon conditions, that is the essence of prattitya-samutpada the Buddha’s central teaching. In favourable conditions we can make good spiritual progress, if we recognise them as such, that is. Favourable conditions cannot in themselves guarantee progress. We can easily be mislead into a false sense of security by the comfort of the familiar, by following the well worn paths that everyone else has walked across a moor. What happens when it rains and the secure dry paths become hard to find, where progress becomes difficult, intransigent, even painful?  If we stop trying when faced with such adversity then we’ll just sink into, and get bogged down in, the quagmire that is the world of Samsara.  

Following well worn paths keeps us on the Wheel of Life, going round and round the same spiritual territory, like a goldfish in a bowl. To be fair, it is very easy to fall into the pot holes on well worn paths. So seeking the comfort and security of people and possessions, is something we may all find ourselves doing for support and respite in times of severe instability and loss.We are walking, walking towards old age, sickness and death, because our walking has not yet to become sufficiently transformative.

Our Actor on the Stage, needs other actors around in order to perform well, needs a stage set and needs props. The word ‘props’ is a shortening of the word properties, those things that the character in a play is meant to own or use. A prop more generally is something that holds something up, preventing it falling over. On the Stage it’s ‘propping’ up the illusion of reality that the Actor and Director are trying to simulate. Likewise, other people and our possessions can prop up our view of reality and our Self. Without them we feel that our sense of ourselves, the play of the world and reality might well just topple over ~ and we might be right, but not quite in the way we imagine.

Buddhism understands that these well worn paths of habit, superficiality and vagueness don’t have to be followed, we can, and indeed should be creating entirely new paths for ourselves. New horizons, as yet un-envisaged, open up the moment we take a deliberate act to change ourselves, to broaden our conscious awareness. The uniqueness of our consciousness means each path to Enlightenment will be likewise unique.  The Buddha’s teachings are like directional indicators towards where the truth might be found. They tell you little about how Enlightenment itself will occur for us, or how it will feel.  On Kinder Scout in the denseness of the fog, we had to rely on previous maps of the territory, the advice of Alfred Wainwright in his books and our compasses for a sense of the right direction to be walking in.  It is always good when walking to follow the maps and guides, for us to read and reflect on the Dharma. Also to pay heed to the guidance of those more experienced than you, the testimony of the wise around you. To bear the example of the lives and practice of the Enlightened teachers from the past in mind. These are our best guides, those who have walked this path before you, and those who may be slightly ahead of you. We need to stay open and receptive to hearing from that dimension of spiritual experience. Though in the end there will be only us, using our experience and acquired wisdom to achieve it.  We need to clarify what our own way of practicing, of walking the spiritual life will be like.

When Bhante Sangharakshita was in India he met Swami Ramdas, he asked him a very pertinent question. Why was it some people after years of practice seem to have made little or no progress? His reply said he thought it was because of two things; they were unsure what the goal was, and consequently were unsure how to get there. The Buddha, his disciples, the Enlightened teachers from the past or present, nor Sangharakshita himself can make the path and fruit of practice any more clearer. So clarity of transmission, of reading or understanding the Dharma is not the problem here. It is in really hearing, really seeing, really reflecting upon the implications of it, then acting accordingly. Our perceptions, however, are perhaps still too blind or confused, our psyche’s too unintegrated, our energies too scattered and jangled by life to allow the Dharma to sink in deep enough.

Clarifying all these dimensions of our experience, so we become a more whole and integrated human being, as Sangharakshita says, is a prerequisite for really practicing and making progress in the spiritual life.  Partially blinded by the fog wind and rain of Kinder Scout, our progress across the moor was indeed very slow. Encumbered by circumstances, and to some extent our own naivety in not foreseeing what the consequences of our decisions would be. By not perceiving the dangers and pitfalls of what was ahead, it showed up how much we still needed the experience and hands on guidance of the wise.

A dictionary definition of clarify is ~ to make or become clearer, to be free from impurities, to make transparent, to purify. Spiritual clarification would then seem to be about purification of perceptions. To move from an obscured to an unobscured vision of reality.
Like modern day Alchemists, we are attempting to transform a human being into an Enlightened being.  Medieval Alchemists purified their basic matter primarily by use of Fire. To make Fire useful requires three conditions, a source of fuel, a source of ignition and a way to contain, intensify and direct it. For fuel we have our defilements and impurities, for matches we have our strength of vision and sraddha, to contain, intensify and direct it we have our virya our wisdom,our will and determination to succeed. Dogen emphasises the necessity to keep stoked the fires of determination:~

‘ At the outset, arouse the determination to hear the Way
and follow the Buddha mind for just this one day, even if you should die...
those who cannot rouse this determination,
even though they seem to have escaped from the world to study the Way,
worry about their clothes in Summer and Winter and about what means of livelihood they will have tomorrow or next year.
Those who approach Buddhism in this manner
will not be able to understand it,
even if they study for endless kalpas. 1

Alchemists burn and contain their material in a crucible. For a spiritual practitioner keeping the temperature high in the crucible, is the practise. This is done by daily recommitting ourselves to simplifying our life, to maintain focus and deepen the effectiveness of whatever our practice is. This all requires determination, which is crucial:~

‘In the swift march of transiency, birth and death are vital matters. During this short life, if you want to practice and study, just practise and study Buddhism. Writing prose and poetry is, in the long run, useless, thus, it should be given up. When studying and practising Buddhism, do not take up too many outside things. Be sure to keep away from the scriptural teachings of the ects of esoteric and exoteric Buddhism. Even the Records of the Zen Patriarchs should not be studied on too wide a scale. The dull inferior person finds it hard to concentrate even on one thing. How much more difficult is it for him to do many things at the same time and still keep his mind and thoughts in harmony... Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up immediately. Just focus your mind on one thing, absorb the old examples, study the actions of former Zen Masters, and penetrate deeply into a single form of practise.’2

So Dogen is recommending we simplify our desires and our practice, to enable us to better focus on the one vital thing, that vital thing being Enlightenment.  So the first thing we do is;define who we are. The second thing we do is;clarify our vision of what we want to become. The third and final thing is; to simplify our practice of how we will get there. Our Western lifestyles are built around a complex web of aspirations and multiplicity of choices, which are not easy to cut ourselves off from, let alone simplify. Often the only option seems to cut ourselves off from it, by retreating into self imposed solitary confinement.  This avoids our desires, rather than simplifies them. A large part of our culture and media, we have no choice about whether we take it in or not ~ it ambushes us round every street corner and shopping mall. Sangharakshita suggests we ‘reduce input’ to exercise choice where we do have it. Cutting down on the amount of newspapers we read, how much Radio we listen to, or TV we watch. Be more circumspect about the type of Films and Theatre we view. These all have an effect on our mental or emotional states, not always detrimental, but quite often existentially manipulative.

For Dogen it isn’t just ’reducing input’ but also reducing ‘output’, that we are doing too much. Particularly if the things we end up doing, don’t positively enhance or support our Going For Refuge. So it may be worth checking yourself out by asking ~ Is this activity beneficial? ~ Could this be brought within a more Dharmic framework? ~ What exactly is it I get from doing this activity? Dogen is clear why its important we ask ourselves questions of this sort;

‘People in this world often try to study many things at the same time and as a result, do nothing well. They should instead learn one thing so well that they can do it even in front of a crowd. Buddhism which transcends the ordinary world, is a doctrine that from the beginningless beginning has never been easily learned. This is still so today. Our capacity for study is also limited. In the endlessly high and wide sphere of Buddhism, if we try to learn many aspects, we cannot master even one. Even if he devotes himself to one thing only a person with inferior capacity finds it difficult to get much done in one lifetime. Students must concentrate on one thing alone’3

Even the world of Dharma, the available practices and published texts, is vast these days, filled with tempting juicy morsels to get one’s teeth into. To stuff your face in the Dharma Cake Shop of sticky buns and confected delights, until we reach the point of indigestion or bursting. It can be very easy to con ourselves into believing that because its the Holy Dharma we are consuming, this makes our greed OK, that it sanctifies our gluttony. Its not necessarily breadth of experience, but depth of perception that leads to insight. We need to keep the path ahead clear of clutter, the things that might obscure or cause us to misconceive the way ahead.  The view ahead needs to be simple and essential, in order to do that we need to eschew whatever is superfluous, whatever its provenance. As the Zen Master Youn Chia said

‘Get at the root, do not worry about the twigs’

We have limited time available, limited understanding, limited capacity and we do not know how close that ultimate limitation, death, is.  It would seem we need to put limits even on our Dharmic reading. Sangharakshita has suggested that whilst we should understand the historic breadth of Buddhist thought, we should focus our study in depth on only a few books. Texts that we read and re-read and become greatly familiar with. Any subsidiary reading being that which will broaden our understanding of these core texts. As he put it;

‘We should have a broad vision and a narrow practice’

In just this small area, of reading the Dharma both Dogen and Sangharakshita extol the benefits of narrowing the range in order to simplify the focus in the practice of study. Why might this be beneficial? I think this might lead to three things:~

1 ~ To more concentrated and focused effort.
2 ~ To greater depth of understanding.
3 ~ To less confusion about what we are doing, and why.

In Edward de Bono’s book called Simplicity, he lays out a few principles and the benefits that would arise if we made simplicity a priority.  That simplicity is not just a happy accident, but something we have to lay the ground and create the conditions for. De Bono believes people are often suspicious of simple solutions fearing that they will be simple minded, simplistic, or that it can’t quite be that simple can it? To some extent we are in love with the complexity of our life styles. It provides a rational reason for our confusion or gives us a feeling of superiority because we understand how this tangle of wires works. We can even fall into this in the way we talk about or present the Dharma, indulging ourselves in the obscurity of its magnificent complexity.

De Bono provides us with some useful aphorisms regarding simplicity:~

‘Clarity is simplicity of perception’

‘In order to make something simple you have to know your subject very well indeed’

Simplicity before understanding is simplistic,
simplicity after understanding is simple’ 4

So to put these more in terms of practice, we need to simplify our perceptions of it, knowing our subject well, means knowing ourselves and the Dharma well. To paraphrase that last aphorism ‘Simplicity before Enlightenment is simplistic, simplicity after Enlightenment is simple’. Our un-enlightened perceptions will be incomplete, lack coherence or be mistaken, they will tend towards making things more complex than they need be. True simplicity would arise with complete awareness and vision of Reality.

So lets look at the Spiritual Life in the simplest way possible ~ The Threefold Way of Sila, samadhi and Prajna ( Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom )  I think its not unreasonable to suggest that most of us are not consistent or rigorous enough in our daily practice of ethics.  This is primarily a matter of awareness, awareness of the degree to which we are currently unethical. Most unskillfulness passes by unseen by us, unless it’s pointed out by someone else.  Only when we are aware of our unskilful thoughts, speech or behaviours can we experience the shame and remorse for our shortcomings that will lead us to resolve to change. If we remain largely unaware of our faults, we are also unlikely to be unaware of our skilful virtuous behaviour either. So it can work in both directions, like a two way mirror, unaware of what has already changed for the good, or what is not good and still needs changing.

Our practice of ethics, though essentially about increased sensitivity and self-awareness, benefits immensely from being in the context of a spiritual community or Sangha.  Having a good ‘spiritual friend’ to whom one can confide, check out ones perceptions or even confess one’s faults or unskillfulness to. Without giving oneself a hard time, it is good to be able to simply admit one’s errors. It can be both sobering and inspiring to oneself and to others. It’s possible then to bring ethical practice into one’s friendships and into the workplace. Though you may need to be careful how public you make this in a non-Buddhist working context. This kind of ethical practice needs to be reciprocal and requires that your values are in some way supported and shared.

By moving on to Meditation, we don’t necessarily move away from ethics. For both the Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana are ethical  practices, to cultivate skilful mental states. Its impossible to be truly ethical externally without transforming ourselves ethically internally. For in our practice of the precepts we are working to change our bodily behaviour, in our manner of speech and in the quality of our thoughts.  Due to our Western Christianised culture, we tend to focus on the negative, the things we do wrong or are trying not to do, for which we might unduly berate ourselves. It is probably more important for Western Buddhists to develop a healthy practice of the positive precepts, the things we are trying to cultivate inspite of our momentary lapses.

This is why Mindfulness and Metta as ethical practices are such valuable tools.  Metta Bhavana is a positive act, cultivating intentions that soften the harder unkind edges of how we relate to ourselves and others. The practice when effective, instills an atmosphere that has to inform our future actions. When this doesn’t occur, we may be caught in a ‘feel good bhavana’ that momentarily makes us feel better about someone, but we soon resume our harbouring of ill will or resentment, unacted upon.  Yet, emotions are rarely transformed overnight.  We have to remain kind and patient, whilst being determined, consistent and sincere our practice.  Persist rather than resist.

For most of us, just becoming kinder and wiser is a long term project. So attaining Prajna,  Transcendental Wisdom, where we would fully see the consequences of all actions of body, speech and mind, would mean we’d have attained Insight.  Not just in this life, but all previous lives, not just of your life, but everyones life. This third aspect of the Threefold Way, interweaves with ethical and meditation practice.  It’s not a linear process, but an interdependent, cumulative and simultaneous cycle. We can cultivate ethical and meditative conditions that may lead to Insight, or we can cultivate greater clarity in our understanding of the Dharma and the truths it contains, and reach Insight  that way.

So there is some need to read, study and reflect on the Dharma, to see that its teachings  work, to see it transform our perceptions of the world, to see everything as if through Dharmic Eyes. Core Dharma, such as Conditioned Co-Production, The Three Laksanas and Four Noble Truths, when reflected upon can cultivate a cumulative series of insights which may eventually become Insight.  These small insights, work away like sandpaper upon wood, eventually wearing things down to the heartwood, that the Buddha talked of:~

‘So this holy life, does not have gain,honour and renown for its benefit,
or the attainment of virtue for its benefit,
or the attainment of concentration for its benefit,
or knowledge and vision for its benefit.
But it is the unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life,
its heartwood and its end.’ 5

To undermine our confidence in the permanence of our Self, is what Dogen refers to as ‘Actualising the Fundamental Point’ That fundamental point is that out view of the Self, the duality of the Self and Other, is a fiction.  When seen and actualised, the impact of this Insight demolishes all other views that depend and are supported by it. Everything collapses like a stack of cards. This is what brings the ‘unshakeable deliverance of mind’ when we are relieved of all imaginary burdens.

‘To study the Buddha way is to study oneself.
To study oneself is to forget oneself,
To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas.
To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others.
The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly’6

So  there are many aspects we need to be aware of and be clear about:~ where we are currently walking ~ where we think our walking is heading ~ where the energy of our walking is best applied ~ to recognise the limitations in our current walking ~ to clarify and simplify our walking ~ reducing anything that dilutes or obstructs the impact of our walking ~ to focus on basic Dharma and walk it to ever greater depth  ~ to walk in the direction of Transcendental Insight - to walk at one with the Blue Mountains.

1~  From Page 41,The Primer of Soto Zen  by Dogen, Translated by Reiho Masunaga, Publisher University of Hawaii Press
2 ~ From Page 13 & 8, ,The Primer of Soto Zen  by Dogen, Translated by Reiho Masunaga, Publisher University of Hawaii Press
3 ~ From Pages 15-16 The Primer of Soto Zen, by Dogen, Translated by Reiho Masunaga, Publisher University of Hawaii Press
4 ~ From Pages 264, 72 & 68  of Simplicity by Edward de Bono, Pub Penguin
5 ~ From Page 297,The Culasaropama Sutta, The Majjhima Nikaya, Trans.Nanamoli & Bodhi. Pub. Wisdom.
6 ~ From The Moon In The Dewdrop, Page 70, The Genjo Koan, by Dogen. Trans.Tanahashi, Pub Element


Through simple concentrated effort we will gain Insight into conditioned reality. The records of Enlightened Masters all attest to this. For our Actor on the stage, it would be like suddenly being presented with an entirely different Role and Script. The Script he had before, was one they’d been acting out for a lifetime, or more who knows? Why the actor does certain things, what they mean, what happened before he came on Stage and what happens once he leaves it. That Script was the script of Samsara.  The new Script is  completely informed by Yathabuta~jnana~darsana ~ Knowledge and Vision of things as they really are. Finally we know what all the walking was about, we ‘know our own walking’ and as Dogen concludes
‘when we know our own walking,
then we will surely also know the walking of the Blue Mountains’ 1

Those mysterious Blue Mountains symbolise the Buddha Dharma, they are the clear blue Truth of Reality. Once we know the Truth about the Self, we also will know the Truth about Reality.

Dogen concludes The Mountains and Waters Sutra in typical elliptical fashion. Strongly indicating what the blue Mountains contain, what they represent, that they are everywhere, in everything. The Blue Mountains are hidden, but they are in no way secret:~

‘There are mountains contained in treasure,
there are mountains contained in marshes,
there are mountains contained in space,
there are mountains contained in mountains,
and there is learning in practice in which mountains are contained in containment.

An eternal Buddha says ‘Mountains are mountains, water is water.’
These words do not say that ‘mountains’ are ‘mountains’
they say that mountains are mountains.
This being so, we should master the mountains in practice.
When we are mastering the mountains in practice, that is effort in the mountains. Mountains and water like this naturally produce sages and produce saints.’ 1

All things that we previously thought we used to believe we knew, would no longer have meaning in quite the same way that we understood them previously. We’d enter an entirely different way of relating which is the state of Enlightenment,

‘the traces of enlightenment come to an end,
and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly.’ 2

I’ll conclude by allowing the poet Rumi to describe it in a more florid but beautiful way:~

‘Praise to the emptiness that blanks out existence.
existence:this place made for our love for that emptiness!
Yet somehow comes emptiness, this existence goes.

Praise to that happening, over and over !
for years I pulled my own existence out of emptiness.
Then one swoop, one swing of the arm, that work is over.
Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,
free of mountainous wanting.
The here-and-now mountain is a tiny piece of straw blown off into emptiness.

These words I’m saying so much begin to lose meaning:
existence, emptiness, mountain, straw, words and what they try to say
swept out the window, down the slant of the roof. 3


1 ~ From The Mountains & Waters Sutra, The Shobogenzo, by Dogen, Trans. Nishijima & Cross, Pub. Windbell.
2 ~ From The Moon In The Dewdrop, Page 70, The Genjo Koan, by Dogen. Trans.Tanahashi, Pub Element
3 ~ From The world which is made of our love for emptiness, Page 21, The Essential Rumi, Trans. Coleman Barks Pub. Penguin..


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