Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Heart Sutra

Michael Thaler, being awake to unreality, truly endeavoured to see and to portray life as it was, lens cap off, stripped of the pretence with which people, in our small and pathetic search for meaning, would like to imbue it. The following is an interpretive translation of the Heart Sutra, translated specifically with Michael in mind and dedicated to his memory.

The Heart Sutra of the Transcendent Accomplishment of Unobstructed Seeing

When Bodhisattva Viewing Freely went deeply, one foot after the other, to the far shore of unobstructed seeing, he reflected that reduction of human existence to five separate elements is totally futile. He has gone beyond all suffering and evil. Nancy, dear! The forms and colours he edited are nothing but emptiness, and emptiness is nothing but those forms and colours -- the photos are emptiness itself, and emptiness is just the photos. The same applies not only to form and colour but also to the other four elements: feeling, ideas, patterns of doing, and consciousness. Nancy, dear! All these things that really exist are manifesting themselves as they are -- bare, raw, empty, devoid of meaning. They are neither arising nor ceasing, neither tainted nor pure, neither growing nor diminishing. Because they are devoid of meaning, there is no separate element of form, and no feeling, ideation, doing, or consciousness. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or sense centre. There are no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile or kinaesthetic sensations. No vision nor any other sensory sphere: no sphere of proprioceptive consciousness. No ignorance nor ending of ignorance nor any other causal process: no aging and death and no end to aging and death. No suffering, accumulation, cessation, or Way. No wisdom and no attainment. Because there is nothing to attain, the bodhisattva relies on the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing. Therefore his heart and mind is free of attachment. Because he is without attachment, he is without fear. He has left far behind all his former dreams, which were upside down, and finally arrived at the peace of nirvana. The buddhas of the three times rely on the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing and so they attain the supreme integral truth of full awakening. So remember: the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing, prajna-paramita, is a great and mystical invocation. It is a great and luminous invocation. It is an invocation which is supreme, but without prejudice or bias -- it is equality without equal. It can clear away all discontent. It is truly real, not empty. Therefore we invoke the spell of the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing -- prajna-paramita. We invoke it as follows:

Gate. Gate. Paragate. Parasangate. Bodhi svaha!

Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Gone completely beyond.
Praise be to the awakening of a buddha!

The Heart Sutra of Unobstructed Seeing

Friday, February 08, 2008

Om. Manipadme! Hummmmmm.

Michael Thaler; March 23, 1962-January 15, 2008.

The photo was posted on Michael's blog One Foot in Front of the Other by Michael's sister, who took care of him in his final days.

Yesterday I emailed Professor Richard Gombrich, Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and formerly Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, to ask if he would kindly clarify for me the grammar of 'mani padme' in the mantra 'om mani padme hum.'

Professor Gombrich was kind enough to email straight back and say that it is probable, if it follows the pattern of many other mantras, that mani padme is a feminine vocative, addressing a goddess.

Last night, my sleep, or my dreams, were full of 'om mani padme hum.'

Then this morning, I found myself at the computer tapping out the following comment on One Foot in Front of the Other:

Hello Sister,

The padme in Om mani padme hum is said to be the female vocative form of padma, which means lotus, as in padmasana, the lotus posture. Mani means jewel. So manipadme is thought to be vocative form of “Jewel-Lotus,” who might be a female bodhisattva. (Bodhisattva = a being devoted to awakening as that of the Buddha.)

Who is the Jewel in the Lotus? She might be a wise midwife, a loving mother. Sometimes in Japan she is said to appear, in response to the cries of men in the world, as a gorgeous lover with a warm embrace. For the sick or dying, she might be a caring and compassionate nurse.

Om. Manipadme! Hum.

The opening syllable, 'om' or 'aum,' may be understood as beginning with the vowel sound 'a' -- the same vowel sound chosen by FM Alexander for his 'whispered ah' exercise, which is an exercise in non-doing, an exercise in openning.

The 'm' of 'om' and the 'm' of 'ma' come together in a hum -- mm, or mmmmm -- offering the opportunity to feel oneself resonating within. When we hum, if we are open within ourselves and the neck is lengthened so that the larynx is in relatively close proximity to the neck vertebrae, we can feel/hear the resonating cavities of the bony skeleton, resonating. There is what Paul Madaule calls "a bone-conducted audio-vocal feedback loop" from the larynx, through the skeleton, up to the bony casing of the inner ears. 'Mmmmm' offers us the opportunity to practice/experience this rapid bone-conducted loop from larynx to inner ear.

With the 'ma' of 'mani,' the challenge is to keep in touch with the bodily feeling of resonating, the kinaesthetic feel of one's voice -- 'mmmmm' -- while again projecting out the vowel sound 'aaaa,' the air-conducted sound of which one can hear resounding around the room, depending on the room's acoustics.

Paul Madaule, in an "Ear-Voice Connection" workshop I attended with him in Chester in 2001, encouraged us to play in the gap between two feedback loops -- the more immediate loop of inner, bone-conducted sound, and the secondary air-conducted loop which makes use of outer acoustics. Paul encouraged us to think of the bone-conducted sound as being like an orchestra and the air-conducted sound as being like a soloist. The game was to open up a gap between the soloist and the orchestra, in such a way that the soloist does not lose, does not get disconnected from, the orchesta.

The greater is the gap, the greater is the latitude to play -- to play, for example, with intention; or to consider the meaning of words.

'Mani' means jewel, a symbol of value.

'Padma' means lotus, a thing of beauty that grows out of mud, through water, and into light. To me the growth of the lotus symbolizes the kind of developmental work by means of which a human being may grow out of the purely instinctive behaviour exhibited by animals and by infants. Dropping off unconscious habits and conceptions, like a lotus emerging from muddy water, a person may be able to learn to perform an act like walking -- putting one foot in front of the other -- consciously. A person may be able to learn an act like sitting upright as a backward step of turning light and shining. Or a person may not be able to learn those things. A person may find in the end that those things, in their sheer and utter simplicity, are just too bloody difficult to learn. Thus a bloke of 48 years and 14 stones, after 26 years of sitting-zen and 15 years of Alexander work, may spit out his dummy in frustration and throw his toys out of the pram.

Anyway, the conjunction of mani and padme, to me, is suggestive of the real value that I know from experience that there can be in developmental work -- in the work, for example, of Paul Madaule.

Hum is the sound of closing, of drawing together, of integration.

Om mani padme hum.
Ommmmani padme hummmm.
Ommmmani padme hummmmmm.

Those sounds are good sounds for getting in touch with what Paul Madaule calls the ear-voice connection, through two feedback loops -- via bone conducted and air conducted sound.

There are some sites on the web in which it is argued that the mantra 'om mani padme him' is only sounds; that the mantra does not have meaning that can be translated into English. When I read that a few weeks ago, I immediately began to doubt it.

This morning when I wrote to Michael's sister, "Om. Manipadme! Hum", I bloody well meant it. On whose behalf I meant it, I do not know. But there was meaning in it.


Monday, January 14, 2008

One Breath After Another -- News of Michael's Progress

On the post of last Tuesday, supposing that Michael Thaler ( might have popped his clogs already, I invited tributes or non-tributes to Michael.

Last night Bill said...
Well, for starters, he's still with us, albeit barely (I saw him Thursday). Certainly not up to blogging..

Anonymous said...

Please let Michael know that all us anonymous blog commenters are still out here wishing him well!

Thanks :-)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Non-Tribute to Michael Thaler (Abdication of Responsibilities)

Michael Thaler has not posted on his blog since Thursday 03 January, and has not moderated any comments since that time. One senses that his learning of the backward step, in this world, has reached its conclusion.

Michael appreciated what I wrote, and the appreciation was mutual. Michael had a certain ability -- albeit still underdeveloped -- to see through the superficial. He had the will, at least, to look at life with the lens cap off. When I became discouraged with this blogging experiment, Michael encouraged me, on line and off line to carry on with it. One Foot in Front of the Other was what he preached and what he practiced. By no means a quitter. A man of integrity.

Ideas come and go that I ought to publish a photo of Michael, make some kind of internet shrine and perform some kind of internet ceremony -- maybe a sound recording of NEGAWAKUWA KONO KUDO O MOTTE AMANEKU ISSAI NI OYOBOSHI, WARERA TO SHUJO TO MINA TOMO NI BUTSUDO O JOZEN KOTO O, "May the merit of this [this commentary on Fukan-zazengi; this morning's sitting; this wayfarer's effort] spread far and wide, so that we and living beings may all realize together the truth of Buddha."

But no, I don't need to do that. Ceremonies for the dead and suchlike are not my job. Leave that to professional Soto Zen monks and others in the world of showbizz.

My job is not to burn incense, not to scatter petals or holy water. It is never my duty to behave as self or others expect. Anybody who that doesn't suit can fuck off my blog and do what Michael himself wanted to do in the end -- join a "Zen Buddhist community." In spite of his will to look at life with the lens cap off, I wonder if Michael saw through the inherent lie of Soto Zen in the end, or not. To be honest, I think not. In that sense, it was a shame he didn't devote himself more wholeheartedly to sitting-zen practice itself, while he still could.

There is no need for ceremonies, prostrations, talk of three treasures, and all the rest of it. The real task is only one, and when it is allowed to do so it continues to observe itself, four times a day, through births, through sickness, through aging, and through death -- and not for the sake of comforting any living person or bringing honour to any dead one.

Having said all the above, if there is anything anybody would like to write in appreciation of Michael Thaler, please feel free to add your own twopennyworth here.

I invite you to give up all idea of saying anything appropriate. Please, if you wish to say something, follow my example of not saying anything at all appropriate. And yet say something.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Samadhi for the Birds

Not yet knowing stillness in movement

A buzzard floats like a buzzard.

Stillness in stillness

Does not move a withered old tree.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Time to Cut the Crap


Last summer I was asked to contribute something in the way of an obituary for Marjory Barlow, the niece of FM Alexander who devoted a large part of her life to keeping alive the principles of his work.

Marjory used to say, "It is the most serious thing you can do, this work, but you mustn't take it seriously."

This is not simply an encouragement to dance gaily around playing silly buggers. It is a two-sided teaching. The first clause also should not be overlooked.

My first response to the request to write a piece about Marjory's life was that I wasn't the person to write it, that there were many better qualified people who learned from and worked with Marjory through many more phases of her life, who knew her better as a person than I did. At the same time, I felt that there might be something that I would like to try to say. For several months I left it at that. Then just before Christmas the editor in question reminded me that she was still waiting for me to submit something. So over Christmas I tried to put down in words as succinctly as possible the legacy that I felt Marjory had endeavored to pass on through the course of thirty or forty lessons she gave me in the final years of her life. I am glad that I was given this difficult challenge.

For one thing, whenever I have written anything for publication hitherto about Alexander's teaching, it has been difficult for me to look at Alexander work except through the lens of its relevance to sitting-zen -- my thing. But this time I tried my best not to do this. I just tried to crystallize my own understanding of what it was that Marjory herself encouraged me to practise, which was a definite way of working on the self.

I didn't originally intend what I wrote for publication on this blog, but I am going to publish it now, largely as a response to reading this morning Michael Thaler's latest posting on his blog ("Fatigue").

Michael's posts remind us what Master Dogen meant by comparing human life to a dewdrop on a blade of grass. To waste time on stupid discussion might be a sin. Michael's blog is a kick up the arse to perform the non-thinking somersault. That non-thinking somersault might begin by me totally giving up the idea of joining hands and bowing -- and yet joining hands and bowing.

In that spirit, I am going to publish below what I have written already, for a non-Buddhist Alexander audience. I have tried previously on this blog to clarify the connection I see between Marjory's teaching and the teaching of Fukan-zazengi. I am not going to get into that kind of discussion now. As Michael Thaler is sternly reminding us, post by post, life is too short.

The Marjory Barlow I knew, in her eighties, taught a way of working on the self that is so simple, and she taught it so simply, that it might be difficult even for a man who has been educated to misunderstand it.

Quoting the words of her uncle FM Alexander that “this work is the most mental thing there is,” Marjory encouraged me to practise for myself a definite discipline, which involved primarily the giving up of an idea.

When I visited Marjory at her flat at 4b Wadham Gardens in Swiss Cottage, for my first lesson with her, in the summer of 1997, she soon introduced me to one idea in particular: the idea of moving one leg with minimal disturbance to the rest of the organism. I had not gone with any intention of lying with legs bent on Marjory’s teaching table and from there stretching out a leg and putting the extended leg down on the table (or "couch" as Marjory called it). The idea of moving a leg, the idea that invariably put me wrong, came from Marjory herself. By focusing my attention on this idea, which was not my own idea, and not a very grand idea, she enabled me to see in a more detached way how troublesome an idea can be.

With the express intention of putting me wrong, Marjory planted in my head the idea of lifting and extending a leg. She knew very well that the idea of performing this movement before her all-noticing eye would tend to cause me to stiffen my neck, hold in my ribs, pull in my shoulders, and unduly fix various other joints.

While deliberately putting me wrong, Marjory did her best to persuade me that, in the field of working on the self, being wrong is the best friend we have got. “There is no such animal as being right,” she would say. And "To be prepared to be wrong is the golden key." Marjory encouraged me to give up the idea of ever being right.

“When you feel you are wrong,” she used to say, “give your orders and go into movement without a care in the world. Let it come out in the wash!”

By “giving orders” or “sending directions” or “ordering” Marjory meant coming back to the following words or some variation of them: Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and back widen, while sending the knees [up to the ceiling]. Marjory often recalled that FM used to say: “Never let a day go by without coming back to those words.”

Marjory herself never seemed to tire of coming back to those words. She always spoke each order as if she were hearing it for the first time.

“Free your neck!” she said and then, if her eagle eyes or long slender fingers sensed that I was doing something in the effort to free my neck, she would let me know. “Head forward.... and UP!” she said, as if she really meant each word, and again, whenever necessary, “No! You’re doing it!” She exhorted me not to do anything but “to release the neck, to let the head go forward... and UP, to let the back lengthen... and WIDEN, releasing the hips and sending the knees up to the ceiling.” Marjory’s exhortations to release would tend to bring into play my old assumption that the process of coming undone, like any other change I wished to bring about, must depend on at least a bit of doing on my part. So, while presenting me with a strong stimulus to try to do something, Marjory at the same time encouraged me really and truly to give up the idea of doing anything. She encouraged me to totally give up the idea of being able to do an undoing.

“Again, free the neck. You can’t do it. Let the neck be free to let the head come out -- that’s where it wants to go. Let the spine lengthen, releasing along its whole extent. As the spine lengthens, the back WIDENS. FM used to say, ‘Get a bit of lengthening and then a bit of widening and then a bit more lengthening, and so on.’ We all go mad on the lengthening. The widening is every bit as important.”

“Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and UP, to let the back lengthen and WIDEN. And watch you don’t tighten your wrists. FM used to say, ‘Chase tension all around the body and it ends up in the wrists.’”

“Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, releasing right up into the armpit -- that is where a lot of trouble starts.”

“Neck free; head FORWARD and UP; spine to LENGTHEN, back to WIDEN; sending the left knee up to the ceiling, and sending the right knee up to the ceiling, as you move your right leg!”

This last instruction, to move the leg, was delivered in a kind of climactic way as if it were the one thing that at that moment Marjory wanted most in the world -- just to see her pupil making a good job of lifting the foot and stretching out the leg. But lesson by lesson, not because Marjory ever spelled it out for me, but because she patiently allowed me to work it out for myself, I came to understand that what Marjory really wanted to see was not a leg movement per se, but rather evidence of a more complete giving up of the idea of moving the leg. The more deeply and completely I gave up the idea of moving the leg, it gradually transpired, the better Marjory liked it.

Really to give up the idea of moving the leg was not simply a matter of saying the word “No” to myself. It felt to me like a conscious regression towards an almost infantile state of utter helplessness, free of any idea of being right, or any idea of doing the Alexander directions, or any idea of making a movement. The deeper the regression into this state, the freer I became to move the leg, or not move it -- and, incidentally, the clearer the birdsong became outside Marjory’s window.

When eventually I did move the leg, but not before, Marjory would often say: “That’s it. It always pays to wait!” The praise came after the movement. The mental discipline of working on the self, for Marjory, evidently, was never a purely mental game. There had to be a real intention to move, and this intention had to be manifested, sooner or preferably later, in an actual bodily movement.

The definite way of working that Marjory taught me, in a nutshell, was, while lying on my back with my knees bent, totally to give up the idea of moving a leg... and yet move the leg.

Recently while browsing Lulie Westfeldt’s book, in the final chapter I came upon this passage:

"Alexander now asked himself, where did the trouble start? He went over very carefully in his mind what actually happened and decided that he had no control over what he did with his body once the idea of speaking had come into his head. It was the idea that caused the trouble and brought about a reversion to the old pattern in spite of all his intentions and desires. He then decided that the idea of speaking and the body pattern he had always used when speaking must be inseparably fused, and that to eliminate the old faulty pattern he would have to eliminate the idea of speaking. His problem was to get rid of the idea of speaking and yet speak!”

Yes. That was it. That was just the problem Marjory invited and encouraged me to address. She spelled out with beautiful clarity and simplicity how to practise giving up the idea of being right, giving up the idea of doing anything in the way of ordering, and giving up the idea of moving a leg -- and yet moving the leg.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Intellectually Giving Up vs Really Giving Up

Between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day we have a family tradition of "two-year sitting-zen." We sit together for fifteen minutes or so from about ten to midnight to about five past. Even if our sons don't sit at all from New Year to New Year, most years they like to keep this family tradition going.

This New Year's Eve I went to bed at 11.30 pm complaining that I didn't feel up to it. But after a quarter of an hour lying down, I came downstairs, fortified myself with a sip of calvados, and the four of us sat as usual. This little experience seemed to corroborate the principle that, just in giving up an idea of doing something, one can become more free to do it.

New Year's Day was mainly spent in bed -- I seem to have got flu. Today, January 2nd, my wife and I, together with two friends, were supposed to be going to France to practice a sitting-retreat together.

Not wanting to let the others down, I kept telling myself: give up the idea of going; give up the idea of going. In the background, I thought that if I really gave up the idea of going, I might find the strength just to get in the car and go.

To go or not to go? Unable to sleep, I got up around 5 am and sat for about ten minutes, and then went back to bed, with the idea still going round in my throbbing head: give up the idea of going, give up the idea of going... and then, maybe, just go!

But it wasn't any good. My body had its own agenda. By noon, it was too late to go, and so I really had given up the idea of going. I puked up a few times, sat for about fifteen minutes, and spent the afternoon asleep.

Having got up again just now and managed to sit for 40 minutes, the lesson I seem to have been taught, again, is the difference between intellectually giving up ideas of the "my will be done" variety, and really giving up those ideas.

I if had really and truly given up the idea of going, not after it was already too late to go but, say, when I was fretting in bed last night, might my body have beaten off the virus earlier, thereby enabling me to go?

I don't know the answer to that question. What I do see, with renewed clarity, is the fraudulence inherent in my preaching to others on this blog the idea of giving up an idea. Who am I fooling?

If we really and truly gave up the idea of becoming buddha, as Master Dogen instructs in Fukan-zazengi, who knows what natural miracles might happen? But for a bodhisattva was has established bodhicitta, the intellectual idea of enlightenment, to really and truly give up that idea may be no easy thing.