Friday, July 25, 2008

Right Action







I went to a talk in Tokyo last Saturday by my Zen teacher, Gudo Nishijima. Nishijima used to give regular lectures on Buddhism in Japanese and English at a number of places in Tokyo and other parts of Japan until he went into semi-retirement about five years ago. He stopped giving talks completely for a while, but some of his students asked him back to give one talk each month in Tokyo. His students in Osaka heard about it and asked him to give a talk each month in Osaka too. From what I saw on Saturday, he looked happy to be teaching again.


There were around 25-30 people there on Saturday. Mostly his Japanese students, with me and a couple of other non-Japanese guys there too. Here’s a summary of the talk, or as much of it as I could take notes on. Sorry if this post is a bit disjointed.


The talk was mostly about “action at the present moment.” He spoke about the difference between our action and our thinking and sense perception. In everyday life we tend to assume that the thoughts we have in our head are actually true in the real world. But that’s not necessarily the case. Even though we can think lots of things in our brain, those things don’t always turn out to be true in reality. An obvious example is when you think something is going to turn out one way, but it turns out differently. If you want to take it a bit further, if you look back at ancient times, people used to have a lot of strange ideas about the world, like the world was flat or the sun rotated around the earth, but science proved that reality was different to the way people thought it was.


It’s kind of a similar situation with sense perception. When we look at something or hear something, we get sense stimuli in our brain. But those stimuli aren’t always accurate. We sometimes find out later that the sense stimuli in our brain didn’t reflect the actual situation too well. Of course, the objects that we look at are real, but the sense stimuli in our brain are different from the actual objects themselves. The stimuli are our way of interpreting the objects that we look at or touch or whatever. In some cases our sense organs just aren’t equipped to pick up the total situation of what’s happening. So sometimes we just perceive things partially, not completely. You can get an idea of this if you compare your hearing function with a dog’s hearing function, or your sense of smell with a dog’s sense of smell. Compared to a dog, our sense perception equipment isn’t too great.


That’s kind of related to why Buddhism says our real life is based on action. Thinking and sense perception support our actions, but the most important thing is just to act. If you want to do something or change some situation in reality, you have to act. Just thinking about something or noticing sense perceptions of something won’t make any real difference in reality.


So is life based on thinking or sense perception, or is life based on action?


Buddhism says our life is not just based on thinking or on perception. It says our life is based on what we do at the present moment. In other words life is based on action.


So what’s the connection between practicing Zazen and action?


When we do Zazen we enter what Nishijima refers to as “the balanced state”. The balanced state is a state where our body and mind are balanced with each other. If you’ve never done Zazen, an example of the balanced state might be how you feel when you’ve just done some kind of sport. After doing some sport, you probably won’t be thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly. It’s kind of like that when you do Zazen. And when we’re not thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly we can act naturally.


In Buddhism, this kind of natural action when our body and mind are balanced is very important. Because Buddhism says that natural action is “right” action. Nishijima calls it “action in accordance with the universal law” or “action in accordance with the rule of the universe”. Another word Buddhists use for “universal law” is “Dharma”. So if we practice Zazen everyday, our action should tend to be in accordance with the natural laws in the universe.


One important thing about “right action” is that it brings good or neutral consequences or effects. In other words, if you do a right action, you won’t be faced with bad effects as a result later on. And if you keep doing “right action” for a while, life starts to gradually get smoother. Because you no longer have to deal with some kind of bad or problematic situations as the result of some "wrong" action you did previously. And if you don’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with “bad stuff”, you can enjoy your life more and maybe enjoy your Zazen a bit more too.


So that’s the connection between Zazen and action. If you do Zazen regularly you might notice life starting to get a bit smoother or at least involving less hassle. The situation won’t be perfect of course, because even though we do Zazen there’ll bound to be times when we mess up for one reason or another. But overall things should improve.


At this point someone asked about the meaning of “the middle way”, which is what Buddhism is sometimes called. Nishijima’s answer was that “the middle way” is the middle between body and mind.


Next, someone asked Nishijima what reality is. Nishijima used the example of the sun.
He said something like:
"The sun rose in the eastern sky yesterday.
The sun rises in the eastern sky today.
I guess that the sun will rise in the eastern sky tomorrow.
This is what reality is. "


Someone asked about the difference between “right action” and other kinds of action.
Nishijima said that right action occurs when our body and mind are balanced, when we’re in the “balanced state”. He said he also considers the “balanced state” to be balance in our autonomic nervous system. When we do Zazen, our body and mind enter a state of balance with each other, and right action occurs naturally. Other kinds of action are done when we are not in the balanced state. Sometimes those kinds of action have undesirable consequences or effects.


Someone asked if thinking is the same as action. Nishijima said there’s a difference. Action is done with the entire body, while thinking is done with our brain cells. He said living means that our body is moving, thinking means that our brain cells are moving.


Near the end, he was asked to talk a bit more about the difference between action and thinking and sense perception. He said:
"What we think is not reality,
what we perceive (the sense stimuli) is not reality,
what we do (our action) is reality."


Someone then asked about doing things like watching movies or listening to music in the balanced state. Nishijima said that the balanced state is our ordinary state, so we can enjoy art, music, movies and so on in that state.


That was about it.

Regards,

Peter

22 comments:

Regina said...

Dear Peter,

it is very interesting to learn that Nishijima Roshi still gives lectures. Do you know whether there is any between mid September until beginning of October in Tokyo or Osaka?
As I will participate in the Dogen Sangha retreat in Shizuoka and have some days left after this it would be a great chance to come to one of his talks as well.

Best regards
Regina

Peter said...

Hi Regina,

Thanks for your comment.

Nishijima Roshi is scheduled to give a lecture on September 20 in Tokyo. But the lecture will be to his Japanese students so I think most of it will be in Japanese. I think that’s also the first day of Dogen Sangha's retreat in Shizuoka, so it may not be suitable.

If you like, you could consider visiting Nishijima Roshi while you’re Japan. I think he'd be very happy to meet you. If you need any help contacting him, you can email me at procca@gol.com.

Best regards,

Peter

Lauren said...

Peter, Thanks so much for posting all that. It was very useful/clarifying for me. I actually stopped by your blog 'cause I wanted to ask a question. I post the same at Harry's blog. I would have posted at Brad's but it is so dominated by other stuff right now, I was afraid of getting lost in the chaff.

Actually my question seems to be along the lines of right-action or the balanced state.

=====paste

I sure hope this doesn't sound like a flippant question 'cause I'm genuinely struggling with this point.

As I see things now, it seems non-human animals already have "Buddha-nature" [always operate in the balanced state] (all "Mu" and canine references aside).

That is to say, the way animals interact with the "all" is direct and undifferentiated. They don't have a "self" concept, and are certainly (it seems) beyond judgment in the sense of right-wrong, good-bad, loved-hated, etc....

Is that a valid thesis of Soto Zen, or am I missing some fundamental point?

Perhaps animals are just outside the question of buddhist philosophy altogether?

Why do I care? Well its very challenging to imagine what a sentient being would behave like (what I would behave like) if they were all "correct" attachment -wise [i.e., always operated with right-action].

Dogs & cats particularly are very actively 'involved' with their surroundings (curious, cautious, territorial) I'm just wondering if this is all behavior that could be part of me if I ever got better hold of acting non-self-ishly [in a balanced way]

Looking forward to your thoughts.

-Lauren

Harry said...

Thanks for this, Peter. That seems like a nice, clear summary.

Regards,

Harry.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Peter,

Any chance that I can get you to come sit at our new Zendo in Tsukuba while you are in Japan? Ibaraki-ken misses you.

Gassho, Jundo

Peter said...

Hi Lauren,

Thanks very much for your question. It’s an interesting one.

The point you made about animals is a fairly valid thesis of Soto Zen. Animals don’t have a thinking function. They just follow their instincts, and in that way they behave according to the natural law. I don’t think animals are outside the question of Buddhist philosophy. Animals are a part of reality, and Buddhism is based on reality.

Regarding humans, Buddhism says that the “balanced state” is the ordinary state of humans too. But humans are different to animals in that we have the ability to think. Our thinking ability is very important and has helped us to create civilization the way we have. But our thinking function can also disturb our natural balance. The reason we practice Zazen is to return to our ordinary state of natural balance. In that ordinary balanced state, our thinking becomes quiet. And if we practice Zazen regularly, we start to act without thinking too much. That kind of action without thinking about obtaining some reward from our action is I suppose "correct" attachment-wise.

So sometimes you’ll come across things in Zen Buddhism like the story where the student asks the Zen teacher what he’s thinking when he’s doing Zazen. In that story the teacher replies that he’s thinking about not thinking. Then the student asks him how is it possible to think about not thinking. The teacher replies that it’s different from thinking. This story kind of touches on the point you make about what a sentient being would behave like if they always operated with right action. Basically, when we’re balanced, right action happens naturally without thinking about it.

I agree that dogs & cats are very actively 'involved' with their surroundings. They are curious, cautious, and territorial to varying degrees. This is part of their natural instinct and helps them to survive. The animal world is a tough place and a lot of what goes on there is about survival. But at the same time most animals manage to live in harmony with each other and with nature. There’s a kind of balance there.

I don’t think you need to worry about how you’d behave if you get better hold of acting in a balanced way. I think the way we act when we’re balanced is our true self, so it’s nothing to be worried about. I suppose in some ways it's a kind of liberation.

Regards,

Peter

Lauren said...

Thanks for the perspective, Peter.

It seems to be a tricky business. I'm interested to know what "non-thinking" action might look like, and so a curiosity about my pets arises. But I am cautious of taking this too far. I don't want to behave as if I was non-thinking. I want to be non-thinking to the extent I am able, while at the same time throwing out all this thinking/non-think goal orientation.

Cheers,
-Lauren

Regina said...

Hi Peter,
Just a question: how long did you study together with Nishijima Roshi?
Regards
Regina

Peter said...

Hi Regina,

I began to study with Nishijima Roshi in 1996. I still kind of study with him, even though he doesn't give so many formal lectures.

Regards,
Peter

Harry said...

Hi Lauren,

I read a book recently where a teacher explained 'non-thinking' as simply 'the state of letting thoughts come and go'. That seemed nice and practical to me.

Peter, that is an interesting angle. The obvious thing to avoid is holding 'the balanced state' as an object of idealism itself as Lauren points out.

Another thing that springs to mind is that we are animals too. We can see this in some of our own responses to ceratin stimuli. Of course, unlike animals, we do have (or can develop) the facility to step back and observe our inclinations to respond rather than just irresistably commit to action. This sort of insight, I think, is something at the very heart of Buddhism and it is interesting that some Buddhism holds rebirth as an animal a result of indulging in desire, anger & ignorance.

But the sort of 'insight' practice associated with so many Buddhist traditions is not what you and Nishijima Roshi are talking about alone. I think this insight into the workings of our condition does arise in shikantaza but, as you point out, the practice is more of just settling into and expressing a more balanced state. Does that seem accurate?

Regards,

Harry.

Peter said...

Hi Harry,

Thanks for your comment.

I think the point you mention about 'the state of letting thoughts come and go' is certainly accurate. It does allow us to step back and observe the inclinations we have to respond rather than to just commit an action. It's an important point.

Nishijima Roshi approaches Zazen from another aspect. He sees it as a simple action. So if we notice thoughts arising while we’re doing Zazen, he recommends us to straighten our spine and return to looking at the wall again. This happens over and over while we’re doing Zazen: when we notice we’re thinking about something, he says to just straighten our spine and look at the wall.

I feel Nishijima’s approach brings us back to the present moment and the place where we’re sitting. It’s not just observing our thoughts coming and going, but noticing that we’re thinking, and then coming back to where we are and what we’re actually doing. In many ways it doesn't go beyond that, but it's one of the few occasions where we experience something like that.

By the way, I agree with your comment about not holding 'the balanced state' as an object of idealism itself. Sorry if I gave that impression. I don’t think the “balanced state” is something exclusive to Buddhism. I think people who do sports or other kinds of activity experience a balanced state. Even going for a walk can bring us back to a balanced state. I think that’s one reason people enjoy sports and going to health clubs and things.

Regards,

Peter

Peter said...

Jundo,

Thanks for your message. I don't know if I'll be able to sit at your new Zendo while I'm in Japan, but thank you for your invitation.

Regards,

Peter

jundo cohen said...

Hi Peter,

That's okay. We can chat by email, or meet for lunch. I'll come into town.

Gassho, Jundo

Harry said...

"Nishijima Roshi approaches Zazen from another aspect. He sees it as a simple action. So if we notice thoughts arising while we’re doing Zazen, he recommends us to straighten our spine and return to looking at the wall again. This happens over and over while we’re doing Zazen: when we notice we’re thinking about something, he says to just straighten our spine and look at the wall."

Peter,

Yes, I find this very practical and helpful.

So much of what I read about Zen from Western sources seems so 'neo-psychoanalysis'. Its hardly surprising given that it is the prevalent mental culture coming from the dominant Western culture, but I don't think it is always helpful that Buddhism is considered a type of therapy. I think it is therapeutic, but not in the way it is often imagined to be.

I am certainly a bit prone to this analysis leaning, and I'm soon to study psychology, so I think I'd better try to consider the psychology of the wall a bit more in Zazen!

Regards,

Harry.

Regina said...

Hi Harry,

maybe the following article could be interesting for your further studies in psychology:
Avoiding the void by David Loy
http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ENG/loy8.htm

On page 159 there is a sentence I appreciated when reading:
No Buddhist could express it better. For psychoanalysis, such breakdown is a definition of psychosis. For Buddhism, it may describe enlightenment:.........

Regards
Regina

Harry said...

Thanks, Regina! I'll be at that article for a while.

Peter, I'm sure you are very busy, but I was wondering if you could say something on the subject of discipline.

Do you feel there should be an element of discipline in how a lay practitioner conducts themselves in the day-to-day world etc... or does anything else come to mind on this topic?

Hope all are well.

Regards,

Harry.

Peter said...

Hi Harry,

Thanks for your question. It’s a interesting one and relevant for me anyway.

At the beginning we need some discipline to get into the habit of doing Zazen regularly. This was the hardest part for me when I started doing Zazen. What often happened to me was that just when I was about to go and sit on the cushion I’d suddenly find something else that just had to be done before I did Zazen. Luckily for me, Nishijima always encouraged people to practice Zazen everyday, so that helped me stick with it.

About conducting ourselves in the day-to-day world, some kind of discipline or self-control is required sometimes. The Sanskrit words for the third noble truth are “nirodha satya”. As you probably know, “satya” means truth, while the word “nirodha” is usually translated as cessation or stopping. Another translation of “nirodha” is self-regulation or self-control. I think this indicates that we need to control the way we react or respond to things sometimes.

Doing Zazen everyday helps us control our action in a good way to some extent. But even though we do Zazen everyday, most of us still do silly things sometimes. In my case, I usually end up finding out the hard way about some stupid thing I did. It’s not so nice to learn the hard way, but when it happens I try to learn from it and not do the same thing again. So far it’s been a kind of continuous learning experience. I don’t know if someday I'll stop doing silly things, but I live in hope.

I think the 10 ox-herding pictures point to this thing about discipline or self-control.

By the way, sorry it took me a while to reply. Things got a bit out of control during the week.

Regards,

Peter

Harry said...

Thanks, Peter.

No problem with the delay... it was a great excuse for my continued lack of discipline! :-)

Regards to ye,

Harry.

Al Coleman said...

Peter,

I want to thank you again for this blog. Your responses to these questions are very clear and very practical.

Harry,

Thanks for your questions. You seem to ask many of the same things that are on my mind.

Harry said...

You boys over at Dogen Sangha HQ have gone very quiet.

Maybe we're all enlightened and there's nopthing more to do?

:-))

Regards,

H.

Peter said...

Harry,

I hope you're right! Just in case, though, I've posted something on the Heart Sutra.

Regards,

Peter

Harry said...

Thanks, Peter.

Don't you know by now that I'm never right! :-)

Regards to all,

Harry.

 
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