Thursday, March 27, 2008

Notes on Zazen

I came across some notes I took about practicing zazen from a talk at one of Nishijima Roshi's Zazen retreats. I decided to post them here to organize them a bit. It's also part of my effort to blog more often.

In the talk Nishijima talked about zazen from four aspects. I'm going to write about the first one, "
not thinking", today. Probably nothing new here for anybody familiar with Zazen, but here goes.

(1) 非思量 Hishiryou
Hishiryou is an expression in Japanese Buddhism that translates as "not thinking". It literally means "denial of thinking". Nishijima described it as "transcending thinking and non-thinking".

There's a well-known zen story (a koan) in which a monk sees his teacher sitting in zazen. The monk asks his teacher "what are you thinking when you're sitting in zazen?"
The teacher replies "I am thinking the concrete state of non-thinking."
The monk asks him "How can you think about non-thinking?"
The teacher replies "It is different from thinking."

The point in the story about the monk and his teacher is that essentially zazen is different from thinking. Sometimes when we hear the word "meditation" we assume it involves thinking about something. That's not the case with zazen. Basically you don't want to think about anything at all. If your thoughts stop completely that's just fine. Just look at the wall. So the teacher in the story says that "zazen is different from thinking".

But when you sit down on your cushion and start doing zazen you can be pretty sure you'll be thinking lots of stuff. So what to do? Well, you might have heard this before but, when thoughts come up just let them go. Don't focus on your thoughts so much. Just let them come and go and come and go. Nishijima's advice is that if you find yourself thinking about something during zazen, just straighten your spine and concentrate on sitting with a straight posture. That might happen several times during one zazen period, but that's normal and just keep going. Thoughts come up, just let them go, straighten your spine, and after a while more thoughts come up and so on. That basically is the way it works. If you sit fairly regularly you might notice that the pace of your thoughts slows down
after a while, or that's there's a change in the thoughts that come up.

So why do thoughts come up when we sit in zazen? Isn't it supposed to be some kind of real calm and blissed out state?

Nishijima's idea on this is that we usually suppress a lot of our thoughts in
our day-to-day life. It may be because we're too busy to think about things properly or just don't want to deal with certain things. Whatever the reason, those thoughts and ideas get pushed down into our subconscious. But when we do zazen, all we have to do is just sit there with our posture straight. It's real simple. So at that time some of them thoughts that we've being suppressing start to appear. And when they appear, we should just let them go. Don't try to stop them coming up, but just let them go when they do. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more where they came from.

Nishijima gave a nice analogy for this thing about thoughts during zazen. He said it's kind of like a pot on a stove that's simmering away with its lid on. Once someone takes the lid off the pot, all sorts of steam and things start to rise up.

I noticed this thing about suppressed thoughts myself when I first did zazen at a one-day retreat years ago in Japan. Once I'd been sitting for a few minutes all sorts of thoughts started to come into my head. I felt like I could even see strange shapes on the wall paper. Then after a while my thoughts settled down a bit and I started to feel pain in my legs. By the end of the day, though, I felt a lot more active and I noticed zazen definitely had some kind of effect. Ever since then I try to practice zazen everyday.

Ok. So now go try some zazen and see if you
get to think the "state of non-thinking". Although, to be honest, in my own case I usually end up with the stuff out of the pot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Is The Stars?

I watched a documentary called “Master of the Universe” the other night on Channel 4. It was the second part of a two-part documentary about the British physicist Stephen Hawking, who's famous for the big bang theory (I missed the first part - think we were watching South Park). It described how he’s trying to work out a theory of everything. It also had bits about some ups and downs in his private life since he wrote “A Brief History of Time”. There were also interviews with other really clever-looking physicist types. The physicists basically reckon the universe started out as some sort of single
superforce. But the superforce was split into the four known natural forces at the time of the big bang: electromagnetic, strong force, weak force and gravity. Those four forces should all be equal for the theory of everything to work, but for some reason gravity is weaker than the other forces. They’re trying to figure out why.

One reason this show interested me is that Buddhism never goes against anything that science can prove. So if science can prove that there are donuts in space, then Buddhism agrees. But Buddhism does say that even though what science has proved is true, science still hasn’t found the truth about lots of things – that there’s plenty of stuff science just hasn’t stumbled on yet.

One of the things they were talking about is “string theory”. It's considered one of the great breakthroughs. Now I honestly haven’t a clue how it’s meant to work, but the part that caught my attention was when they started talking about different dimensions. They figure the universe may consist of 11 different dimensions, but us humans are only familiar with four of them, up-down, left-right, back-forth, and time. One of the physicists said that basically we’re like fish swimming around in a fish tank. We think that what we notice in the fish tank is all there is, but there's probably much more to it than we’ve managed to figure out.

Anyway, one reason the 11 dimensions caught my attention is that I’ve heard my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima talk about an extra dimension sometimes. I don't know if it's connected to what the string theory says, but basically Buddhism says that we’re all connected in some way, but we don’t usually notice. Some physicists may someday come up with ideas like that too, although probably best not to hold your breath.

But the part that interested me most was right at the end when Stephen Hawkins was talking about the big picture who made the universe and all that. I’d always thought that the big bang theory meant that the universe wasn’t here before the big bang. It kind of interested me because Buddhism’s idea is that the universe has always existed – which is a bit of a strange one too. Anyway, it turns out Stephen Hawking thinks the universe always existed too, and that it keeps appearing and disappearing or something like that. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but whatever it was it sounded an awful lot like Buddhism’s idea about the universe.

On the face of it, scientists talking about black holes and parallel universes and things seems completely different to Buddhism. But actually they’re not. Scientists try to explain the universe based on scientific knowledge, while Buddhism tries to explain the universe based on what Buddhists experience in daily life. Buddhist meditation is a big part of that, because it helps you become aware of things you may not notice otherwise. And judging from that documentary on Stephen Hawking, it seemed to me like Buddhism and science aren’t too far away from each other after all.

But Buddhism goes a bit further than science. Buddhism comes out and says the universe is the truth itself. Buddhism says the universe is not just matter, but also has a kind of mystical side to it too. That's something that going to be very hard for science to prove.

When I first heard Gudo Nishijima talk about Buddhism being the "truth", I honestly couldn’t believe him. I didn’t think there was anything we could call the “truth”. Eventually I realized I was wrong. Buddhism does contain the truth. And if you ask Gudo Nishijima he'll tell you that there's only one truth. If you practice zazen for a while you'll start to get glimpses of it. It’s different to anything they teach in science class. But it’s there nonetheless. But don’t just take my word for it.