Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the body, my body, in particular, trees and ceremony. I am going to try to share how I see these things relating.
Buddha means "awakened one" the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, says that from the Sanskrit root "budh" has the meaning "to awaken," or "to open up" as does a flower. So you could say Buddhism is awake-ism or opening-up-ism. Looking up the definition of the suffix "ism" online I found that ism "has the quality of enlargement, and it carries you from the particular to the general." As a Zen student when I think of moving from the particular to general of being awake, I think of the particular as moments of zazen to the general of every moment of life.
We read and think and study a lot in Zen which I believe is necessary for us. At the same time, at it's core, Zen is a body practice. Zazen is the act of embodying the teaching of Buddha. The prefix "em" is used to form verbs from adjectives and nouns. What we are talking about all the time is being awake; to be awake with body and mind. Talking about it and being it are not the same thing. Our main practice is to sit down with our body and mind upright, and "to open up as does a flower.'"
We are taught that what Buddha Siddhartha Gautama shared with us was not his own innovation. It was the rediscovery of timeless truths. Buddha called it an ancient path. We reference this in the Bodhisattva Ceremony and other important ceremonies when we first pay homage to the Seven Buddhas before Buddha.
According to Okumura Roshi the Lotus Sutra says that the teaching the Buddha wanted to transmit to all living beings is Shōhō Jissō, the true character of all things, the true form of all beings. What we are to wake up to is the indescribable true reality of life. What is that? Well, if we could say it wouldn't be indescribable would it? We still talk about it all the same though. We use words like co-dependent arising of all phenomena. We talk about impermanence and the interdependent non-self nature of everything; we use shorthand for all this with words like shunyata or emptiness, or nyoze which means "like this" or suchness.
In Okumura Roshi's commentary on Dogen Zenji's Mountains and Waters Sutra, he says, "I think Dogen's understanding is that what buddhas and ancestors transmit is the reality of suchness — not the teaching of suchness but the reality itself." Reality is manifested as physical form. Form is how we know reality — it is not something hidden inside form or somewhere out there — form is emptiness emptiness is form. The Mountains and Waters Sutra, or San Sui Kyo, is one of the very first Zen teachings I ever read. It begins, "Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the Empty Eon, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose they are emancipation-realization." Okumura Roshi says that in Japanese, the term "mountains and waters" refers to natural scenery and that the title means nature is Buddhist truth itself.The first time I read the Mountains and Waters Sutra, I was so moved I cried. Most people I know tend to see human beings as the high point of evolution — the smartest most evolved beings. This has always struck me as incredibly arrogant — we don't actually know how other living being experience the world. I think we make a lot of assumptions. As some of the newest beings on the planet, and being young compared to some other beings, it makes more sense to me that we can learn a lot about how to live from other beings. We can learn from the way nature embodies truth.
Throughout my childhood, one of my closest and most consistent friends was a large birch tree in front yard of childhood home. You may find this a bit odd, but this being was a great companion to me. A kind of friend, a regular part of my play, a place of refuge. I would play and day dream among the branches. I would climb so high I would sway in the breezes and be able to see far beyond my neighborhood. I would quietly sneak through the front door at night to sit in this tree in the dark. No matter what my emotional state was, this being was present and open to me. I found solace and experienced joy with this tree. It was constantly slowly changing, and also completely consistent and dependable, completely upright, and open. The tree did not turn away and did not grasp. No matter how wildly the branches at the top swayed in the wind, the trunk stood firm and unmoving.
To be upright and open, steady and stable, while bending as needed, not turning away and not grasping — I see all these qualities as the qualities I make effort towards, moment after moment, with my body and mind in zazen. To find a teaching that stated that nature itself is Buddhist truth — the truth of being awake — of opening up, was like finding home. I had never found this expressed by a person until Dogen.
You could argue well that Dogen discussed natural scenery because that's what was all around him, but what about cityscapes now? What about litter and decay, the guy yelling on the corner — do they express suchness? I would argue they do if we see them as suchness. We are surrounded by the suchness of the world, the true form of things as they are — as it is. We are surrounded by reality itself. An unsurpassed penetrating and perfect Dharma is rarely met with not because it is rare, but because we rarely meet it.
Early in my practice I thought the point of zazen was to calm my body and experience through the bodily sensations, without adding thoughts, so that I could experience what is "out there," "as it really is," so that I could experience the Truth, or reality. I didn't recognize though, the critical role my body plays in creating my experience of what I call truth. The co-dependent arising of my ears, with vibrations reaching those ears combined with the life force that is awareness creating what I experience as sound. The sound I experience from those vibrations and what my cat or a dog, or a bee experiences from those vibrations is not the same. Which one of us is experiencing the True Reality? Is there one reality known in many ways, or are there many realities? Dogen asked these questions in the Mountains and Waters Sutra.
In discussing the Moutains and Waters Sutra, Okumura Roshi explained that Yogacara seems to be telling us "that only consciousness exists, and each being sees its own version of water according to its own conditioned consciousness. For Yogacara teachers, nothing exists outside consciousness." He went on to explain that Dogen, however, says that "the self and the world are working together within a relationship of interdependent origination." "The relationship creates the view. As always Dogen asks us to ponder this deeply as he deconstructs any concepts we might cling to." That the self and world together create the view feels important to me. It is an indescribable co-arising of reality between this relative body and the entire body of existence.
I spend time outside near trees almost everyday. When I feel sorrowful, unstable, or off kilter, I find being near trees healing. Old trees especially help my problems feel small. After the attack on the capitol, January 6, I felt compelled to go looking for an old tree. I found the oldest on Duke Campus, around 300 years old. That tree has been standing, open, not turning away and not grasping, since before people called this place the United States. Being near it helped me to be able to stand more upright. I experience a wisdom there in the physical presence of that living being, continuously standing upright and opening to what is. I believe manifesting that same type of wisdom is what we are doing, or returning to in zazen. It is the reality of emptiness/suchness/interdependent co-arising/ etc. — what no words really reach.
Some folks refer to zazen as the ritual enactment of the Buddha's enlightenment. According to Taigen Leighton, "...zazen has been seen as a ceremonial, ritual enactment and expression of awakened awareness." At first this description bothered me. Isn't what I am doing in zazen real?Is it only a ceremonial enactment of something else that someone else did? Then I thought of the first line of San Sui Kyo, "Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient buddha way." We don't have buddha nature we are buddha nature, so we put forth effort to embody it. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, is part Anishinabe, the native people of the Great Lakes region. Her elders teach that ceremonies are the way to "remember to remember." In zazen I am putting forth effort to remember over and over, to return to being fully present in this moment, the only one that exists. So if I think of ceremony as "remembering to remember" then zazen as a ceremonial ritual expression makes sense to me.
I think it is common in our culture, to see body and mind as separate. When we first begin to mediate we often think in terms of sitting in a certain position with the body to then do something else specific with the mind. It is pretty deeply ingrained for many of us to think of this body as separate from what we perceive as outside of it, without recognizing how our body contributes to what we perceive, and to see this body as a container for something else that makes us who we are, and that this something else operates the body, is the controller — or the part where who we are resides. In his writings, Dogen consistently puts body and mind together as one word, shinjin, body/mind. Our bodies hold or store knowledge and wisdom. Our bodies store emotional memories, they store muscle memory for accomplishing tasks, our bodies accomplish a lot without direct conscious control — the heart beating, temperature regulating, etc.
In zazen we let go of thought and continuously return our attention to our full presence. As we let go of thought over and over, zazen allows the mind to experience being open and spacious. Zazen also gives the physical body the experience of being upright and open moment after moment so that being upright and open becomes part of our physical intelligence. I see it as being like an athlete practicing a movement until it comes automatically, or like someone who plays a fretless instrument practicing reaching back with their finger to hit a certain place on the string for a specific note over and over, until that finger knows exactly where to go every time the person wants to play that note. Zazen allows for the muscle memory of upright openness and nonjudgmental awareness to become part of our being. The body memory in part is how Buddhism, awake-ism, goes from particular to general; from the cushion into daily life.
I have noticed that if I bring my attention to more of my body throughout the day, I realize more of my being is engaged in upright awareness than I thought. Awareness is not all about the thinking part of body/mind. Over and over I can take a moment to notice how many parts of my body are just being awake, just upright and open. What are my feet doing? They are resting and ready. What about my elbows, my spine, my neck? These aspects of my being don't need my thinking mind's awareness to be awake and ready to respond. My brain can check in and discover how many aspects of the body are upright and aware. If the brain notices the curved spine, the tense neck, the bouncing agitated knee, then the knee, neck, spine find upright awareness again. All these aspects of the body have their own intelligence within them and ability to respond without the thinking analyzing mind.
Making effort to notice how much of my body is upright open and awake at any moment guides my mind. It helps the mind not grasp itself and feel like it is the controller. According to Miyazaki Zenji who was at one time the abbot of Eiheiji, "Body and mind are one. Thus, if you straighten your body, your mind is straight."
I have been experimenting with how much I can let go of my idea of self. I have been experimenting with viewing my body like a hive of bees or a flock of birds, functioning harmoniously without a self controlling all the others. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, when considering a flock of birds flying in formation, "You don't need someone to hold the birds and keep them flying in one formation. You don't need a self to create the formation. The birds just do it." If you want to see amazing images of flocks of birds functioning as one body, look up "Starling Murmuration" on YouTube.
If I am having trouble noticing this, or am getting caught in my thoughts, I can "remember to remember" through ceremony. I can engage in any activity, no matter how mundane, as ceremony. If I am focusing on the movements of the body, I can quiet the thinking mind. When I dive into approaching my activity as ceremony there is a deep vivid richness in engaging in the world this way. This richness supports me in a way that feels similar to the way I felt supported by that tree as a child.
When you practice at a Zen center or in a monastery, there are many specific forms. Enter the zendo with the left foot. Bow with the hands at nose height, a hand width away from the nose, shoulders down, arms open. When serving food keep the fingers together, the thumbs under the handles of the pot, bend at the waist. It's all actually arbitrary really, we just agreed to do it this way. It is ceremony; it is a way to remember to remember, to be awake, to open like a flower.
Sometimes I find words helpful for moving my busy mind towards a wordless awareness. In the book Practices at a Zen Monastery there are many details for how to do things in a specific, ritualized way, and there are verses to accompany various activities. For example when bathing, "With all beings I wash body and mind, free from dust, pure and shining, within and without."
When using the toilet, "As we use the toilet, may all sentient beings eliminate defilement, removing greed, hate and delusion." But we don't have to say specific things. We can just decide in any moment that we will engage in our activity as ceremony. No one even has to know. You could even try it right now with some random looking movement. Thiemo Blank, at Green Gulch Farm, had us do an experiment like that in a recent Dharma talk he gave that I was able to watch on Zoom.
A thought that occurred to me is that when I feel joyful moving through the world, it feels like dancing. So we can also approach mundane activity like dance. I looked up the definition of dance, and it "consists of purposefully selected sequences of human movement." You don't have to be a professional dancer to enjoy dancing. It doesn't necessarily have to be graceful or take a specific form to be done with our whole body/mind. This is comforting to me as my body ages and I no longer move as I use to.
Dogen says, "The entire world of the ten directions is nothing but the true human body." What is the entire world? I am sure I don't know. It is mysterious. I can only honestly approach this with "don't know mind."
According to Dogen in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, "Sitting itself is the practice of the Buddha. Sitting itself is non-doing. It is nothing but the true form of the Self. Apart from sitting, there is nothing to seek as the Buddha Dharma." What is a tree doing other than being the true form of itself?
Is a tree engaging in ceremony? I don't think a tree has to remember to remember to be fully present. I don't think trees have to wake up from illusions, (but I really don't know).
Uchiyama Roshi said, "Enlightenment is nothing but awakening from illusions and returning to the reality of life." We can engage in the ceremony of "remembering to remember," to be awake and open, until more and more activity just becomes the activity.
Miyazaki Zenji said, "Dogen's zazen means all aspects of life are Zen. Zen is not something particularly special, as many think. Zen means to be one with what is. If you walk, walking is Zen. If you speak, speaking is Zen." The more we pay attention to what is actually happening in each moment, the more we can know about that moment. With more awareness of the moment we are in, we are more likely to make an appropriate response, a response that recognizes the entire world of the ten directions as nothing but the true human body.
We can think about and analyze all this, as I often do, and there are also other ways forward: quiet, body-centered ways forward, and playful, intuitive, poetic ways forward, that leave the indescribable, un-described. We can focus on opening and embodying awake-ness.
Dogen said, "The old plum tree is within the human world and the heavenly world. The old plum tree manifests both human and heavenly worlds in its treeness."
Thank you very much.
© 2021 Zenki Kathleen Batson