Wednesday, October 31, 2007

BODAI: Awakening

The characters read in Japanese as BODAI, representing the Sanskri word bodhi which was used to represent the awakening or enlightenment of the buddha Gautama, appears twice in the later version of Fukan-zazengi.

“[Sitting-zen] is the practice and experience that gets to the bottom of bodhi.”

“Accord with the bodhi of the buddhas.”

People tend to think that what FM Alexander discovered -- because it can be very useful for a person with a bad back -- was a physical technique to do with holding oneself in the right posture. But as one investigates Alexander’s discoveries more deeply, one begins to see for oneself why Alexander spoke of “conscious control,” saying that it was “primarily a plane to be reached.”

Last night was a cold night here in France and the electrics in my caravan weren’t working, and so I couldn’t warm my bed up with the electric blanket. Consquently, I couldn’t get to sleep for an hour or so, and then shortly after I dropped off I woke up needing to take a piss. But after that I seemed to enter into a state akin to hibernation. Having awakened from this and done a couple of sittings, I am struck afresh by the realization that what Alexander discovered has to do with awakening, has to do with enlightenment.

Before I started Alexander work I had a kind of confidence that what I invariably called “Zazen” (preferring the more authentic-sounding Japanese term) was just enlightenment. It was intellectual confidence, religious confidence, confidence borrowed from a confidence trickster.

The doing of Zazen that I thought must be enlightenment, I now see without (I hope) any lingering denial, was not enlightenment. In thinking that it might be enlightenment, I was indulging in wishful thinking, and telling myself a lie that I almost completely believed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

FUKAN: For Universal Release

a big fish


into the vast, vast ocean of moonfulness

is what?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

MOZO (4): Doing Zazen

In his original instructions for sitting-zen (see link on right of this page), Master Dogen wrote NEN OKOREBA SUNAWACHI KAKUSEYO, “When an idea arises, just wake up.”

Just wake up. Just become conscious.

What this means in practice, I came to understand, was that when I noticed I was thinking something, I should just go back to adjusting my posture, holding the body straight and pulling the chin in slightly to make the neck bones straight vertically and thereby imparting a gentle stretch along the muscles of the back of the neck.

Doing Zazen like this, sitting immovably in the full lotus posture, like a Buddha-statue, with head shaved and body clad in the traditional robe, with incense burning at a traditionally arranged altar to Manjusri Bodhisattva, with offerings of flowers/leaves and water, in a spotlessly clean dojo: doing Zazen like this is, as I understand it, is the essence of Soto Zen.

This is how I was taught to practise sitting-zen, and this is how, at the deepest of levels, I still tend to practise -- as if playing statues, failing to get the point of Time’s Arrow.

A few teachers of the FM Alexander Technique have endeavored to demonstrate to me the existence of another way, a way of greater ease. To enter into it requires me as a first step to give up, or inhibit, the idea to which I habitually react by statuesque fixing. Sounds easy? Try it!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

MOZO (3): Not Meeting the Criterion

Yesterday on a shopping trip to La Ferte Mace, I prepaid for 20 litres of heating fuel, and took my ticket and jerry can to the pump. To save the woman at the pump the trouble of bending down I held the can up to the nozzle for her. Then, as the can started filling up, I let it drop very slightly. Not much, but just enough for the nozzle to come out and spray diesel fuel all over my trousers. My wife, who had been surveying the scene in silence, helpfully observed that she had wondered why, from the beginning, I hadn’t just put the jerry can on the ground and let the woman at the pump get on with her job.

Although this week we are sleeping in very peaceful surroundings I woke this morning, not unusually, long before dawn, worrying. Notwithstanding my professed desire to live a simple life, sometimes I make decisions that complicate things unnecessarily. Indeed, sometimes it seems that my effort to simplify things is the very thing that has caused arrangements to become complicated. So I wake up in the middle of the night, feeling worried.

If only the 2nd law of thermodynamics would cease operating for an hour or two, so that all noisy engines would whir to a halt, the next tax year would never come, heating fuel would be unnecessary -- no disturbances of any kind could threaten the stillness. If only everything were fixed for a while, then I, sitting immovably as a Buddha-statue in the centre of it all, could truly be like a dragon finding water. A likely story.

Posh Brits have a particular way of spinning things, using understatement (“spot of bother, old girl -- just pranged the old motor and had both legs amputated”) and overstatement (“a morning of unmitigated catastrophe, darling -- the bins haven’t been collected and my hairdresser has got flu.”) Although I am not posh, I might be liable to a bit of that tendency to spin things -- going on endlessly about fake elephantery as a roundabout way of trying to manifest myself as the true dragon. That is how fake elephantery works -- the deeper it goes, the cleverer it gets.

I remember an episode in the kitchen of the Zen Center in San Francisco when I was staying there in 1984. I made some self-deprecating remark to the American cook who took my remark at face value. When she innocently passed on to somebody else the information that I was totally incompetent at practical matters, I was shocked. She hadn’t understood that what I was actually trying to express, in my upside-down British manner, was my deep belief that I was potentially the true bees knees in all matters Zen, including chopping vegetables.

When all spinning is said and done, however, there remains a simple criterion, a Zen gold standard, for fake elephantery or true dragonhood. The criterion is, in accepting and using the self, stillness.

In the second half of Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu bon, where Master Dogen praises the virtue of sitting-zen practice, he places great emphasis on stillness, the power of stillness, the energy of stillness.

This is why Gudo places such great emphasis on balance of the autonomic nervous system, by which theory he would like to define stillness.

But reflecting on my own efforts to nail Samadhi down with a physiological explanation -- in terms of primitive reflexes, antigravity reflexes, the vestibular system et cetera -- I began to see, or at least I began to be caused to see by Marjory Barlow and Nelly Ben-Or, that those efforts on my part belong to something other than the practice of stillness. Those efforts have been a bit of fixity on my part, a bit of imitating an imitation elephant.

What truly causes us to become open to stillness, Marjory showed me in practice, was what FM called “thinking in activity.” Marjory distinguished between this kind of thinking and the other kind of thinking which comes easier to me -- abstract thinking, thinking about. Neuro-physiological explanation, for Marjory, belonged firmly in the latter camp.

Never in a million years would Marjory have put herself forward as a Zen master. She practised sitting-zen, wearing a robe that my wife and I sewed for her. But she was a truly modest person. When I presented the robe to her she said, “Oh no! I am not worthy!” And she meant it.

Towards the end of one lesson, Marjory said to me: “You are an inveterate worrier, aren’t you?” “I know,” she added, “because I am too.”

Again, this wasn’t self-deprecating rhetoric on Marjory’s part. She was a worrier. As a baby she never crawled -- that probably had something to do with it. Even a life in Alexander work hadn’t turned Marjory into a fire-breathing non-worrier.

Usually I used to bike down the A41 to Marjory’s flat in Hampstead but on one dismal winter’s morning I thought better of it and took the train and tube. Eventually I arrived at Marjory’s flat where she was teaching one of her teachers’ groups, and so she couldn’t see me -- she had got the dates mixed up. “That’s OK, Marjory,” I said, “Don’t worry.” “Oh,” she retorted in a feisty voice that belied her almost ninety years, “but I DO worry!”

I am not saying that Marjory was the true dragon. I don’t think she was the true dragon. But she most certainly was not a fake elephant. She was an inveterate worrier who knew herself to be such. Her life was devoted not to sitting-zen but to teaching the true principles discovered, or rediscovered, by her uncle. She was not a Zen dragon. But she was a truly excellent teacher.

I am not the true dragon either. I also am an inveterate worrier. But I think, if I have been able to express on this blog anything of the original truth of Fukan-zazengi, it is very largely due to Marjory’s influence.

Some bright spark will think and maybe comment along the lines of: “Mike: you are the true dragon. Only the true dragon declares himself not to be the true dragon.” But I am telling you: I am not the true dragon. It is not self-deprecating British spin, not rhetoric. I am bloody well not the true dragon. In general, I do not meet the criterion. Or, to put it probably a better way, the criterion doesn’t catch me. I am too busy end-gaining to give the criterion a chance to catch me.

In any case, if you have come to this blog looking for the true dragon, that may be a case of futile endgaining on your part. Do not hope to meet the real dragon. The great thing is not to be fooled by fake elephants.

That is my true field of expertise: fake elephantery. It is on that subject that I have really got something to say.

Regrettably, in our endgaining eagerness to meet the real dragon, sometimes we are almost totally fooled by a fake elephant. When that happens, and life subsequently becomes too complicated, it is nobody’s fault but our own.

Friday, October 26, 2007

MOZO (2): Lying to Myself

In the autumn of 1998, shortly after being conned, primarily by myself, into receiving the transmission of the Buddha-Dharma, I was sitting opposite at dinner a very experienced virtuoso of piano playing and Alexander teaching, a woman of magical hands, named Nelly Ben-Or. I cannot remember exactly what Buddhist subject I was pontificating about but Nelly stopped me in my tracks by saying “You are lying to yourself.”

It was one of this pivotal moments in life that you don’t easily forget. I knew that there was no side to what Nelly was saying. She was simply calling it as she saw it, and I knew what she was saying was true.

So in the years since then I have been struggling to work out how it was that, in the process leading to my receiving the Buddha-Dharma, I turned the Buddha’s truth into its exact opposite, becoming a Buddhist liar, a fake, a poser.

Why does a person lie to himself? What caused me to lie to myself? What was the original root cause of me imitating an imitation elephant?

The original root cause of going wrong, as becomes increasingly clear the more one plays Marjory’s game of not moving out a leg and yet moving it, is an idea. The original root cause is an end-gaining idea.

Of course, the original root cause is also what Alexander called unreliable sensory appreciation. If our coordination were perfect, we could go around end-gaining all over the place and everything would be just tickety-boo... But our coordination is not perfect. Our senses are not to be trusted. And that being so, we can safely say that the orginal root cause of going wrong is an end-gaining idea.

So what was the root idea that caused the habit to arise in me of not being true to myself?

As I have mentioned on this blog before, I think the original root idea that causes me to go wrong is the idea of my own unique specialness. It is this root idea that has made me vulnerable to anybody who led me to believe that they also thought I was The Special One.

This deeply rooted idea in myself may also be why, following the mirror principle, I am bothered by the old testament notion of a chosen people.

I remember once Marjory saying to me, “I am nobody. Who are you?”

She said it under the guise of quoting an Emily Dickinson poem, but actually she was just looking me in the eye and asking/telling me something.

Marjory had my number from the moment I walked through her door. I think she saw me as a typical case of the oldest-child syndrome, but with a few added barnacles to boot -- mainly Buddhist barnacles.

About 20 years ago, Gudo Nishijima told me that “If you can transcend family life, you will be the most excellent Buddhist master in the world.”

“The best in the world.” The Japanese like to discuss SEKAI-ICHI, “World no. 1.” DOGEN ZENJI -- NIHON-ICHI DAKARA SEKAI-ICHI, “Zen Mastaa Dogen -- nambaa 1 Zen mastaa in Japan, zerefore nambaa 1 Zen mastaa in za worudo!”

“Buddhist” is another dubious concept, as are all concepts ending in -ist.

And “master”: master of what? In Fukan-zazengi the virtue that is praised above all others is stillness. But
is stillness something that a person masters? Surely, it is the other way round, isn’t it? Isn’t it the stillness that catches a person?

What Gudo told me he told me in all sincerity, in all stupidity. Gudo was just being Gudo. Responsibity for my bad reaction to that stimulus rested with me. And my reaction to that stimulus was bad, has been bad, and continues to be bad.... except in those rare moments when I am able to give up the idea of being somebody special. Lying on Marjory’s teaching table not moving a leg, for example, I have experienced such a moment.

What I mean by bad reaction is, in the words which Alexander used to describe it, a tendency to stiffen the neck, pull the head into the body, shorten the spine, and arch and narrow the back, thereby restricting the breath. In other words, to experience bad reaction is to be caught in the horns of the original fear dilemna -- fear paralysis vs fight or flight. In other words it is the dialectic opposite of one’s original features emerging: it is fearful subjugation of one’s true self for the sake of an idea. It is not the liberated state of a dragon finding water; it is the fixed state of a person playing statues, a fake elephant.

Even if by obediently following the dictats of a so-called “Buddhist patriarch,” I had assumed the name and form of nambaa 1 Zen mastaa in za worudo, if that meant not being true to myself, what would be the point of that?

And yet, the idea of being annointed as the special one is not so easy to give up. Its roots go deep in me. Some part of me, a large part of me, would like to have remained in denial, continuing to keep a distance between what the Japanese call HONNE, the inner reality, vs TATEMAE, the principle one subscribes to officially, superficially, formally. I wouldn’t have minded, in short, continuing to do a bit of playing the fake elephant.

But that is just how Marjory and Nelly taught me not to be.

Only to the extent that I am able to give up the idea that puts me wrong, do I become free. Only to the extent that I am able to give up the idea that puts me wrong, can my body get itself out. That, in a nutshell, is the teaching that true teachers have endeavored to transmit to me. It is the secret of lying, sitting, standing, and walking in freedom. It is the secret of swimming without stress. It is the secret of sitting in the full lotus posture, bowing, breathing out, swaying, and just sitting truly at ease.

To give up my end-gaining idea is to be like a dragon that found water. But how to give it up, I honestly do not know. Whatever tactic I come up with, it always turn out to have been just another bit of fake elephantery.

In principle, the black dragon’s pearl exists just under my own chin. But in practice my process for the past ten years or so seems to have been one primarily of struggling to make friends with, and getting to know more deeply, a fake elephant.


“Noble school of people who learn from experience: after long ages studying under fake elephants, please do not doubt the true dragon.”

Thursday, October 25, 2007

MOZO: [To Meet] The Fake Elephant

MOZO: [To Meet} The Fake Elephant

MO: fake, imitation
ZO: image, statue; elephant

“Do not, after a long time studying under a fake elephant, doubt the true dragon,.”

A friend of mine who is also an Alexander teacher, Jeff Hall, has expressed on this blog a thoroughly outlandish view on the existence of mind outside of time and of space. And so, with grim determination, I have been thinking out an appropriate response to this strong stimulus.

Why the grim determination? Because of the hugeness, the immensity, the enormity of my monstrous Buddhist agenda. Because I, after 25 years of investigating Master Dogen’s view, after all these years of heroic self-sacrifice, am now the one whose turn it is to bestow his all-important view upon lesser mortals. At least, that is one line of thought. That is the means whereby I well and truly manifest myself as a fake elephant.

But to return to Jeff, he may seem from his comment to be a wishy-washy idealist who believes in mind over matter... but this appearance could be deceptive. Jeff has had a successful professional career to do with digging up large quantities of minerals and he now lives in a big detached house in a location inhabited, in the main, by people with loads of money. He is the kind of bloke who always gets a good deal, by putting himself in the shoes of the poor salesman trying to meet his quarterly targets. Jeff is not the sort of bloke easily to allow the wool to be pulled over his eyes. He understands well that, whereas views are cheap, money talks.

Jeff could be a modern-day King Asoka -- the kind of bloke that I would like to keep on my side, who I would like to offend as little as possible (unlike young musicians and other penniless and powerless types out there who I don’t mind offending at all).

A person who receives the Dharma and lets other people know about it is, unavoidably, in a sense, whether he likes it or not, announcing that he is the real deal. Probably because he grasped this point, Jeff was the first person who ever dared to call me a “Zen Master” -- not in a cynical or sarcastic way but in open and inquiring way, with a wholly appropriate degree of skepticism.

Zen Master? Master of what? Master of fixing. Master of beating myself up. Master of holding rigidly to Buddhist dogmas about oneness of body and mind. Master of thinking I am right. Master of the Japanese-English dictionary. Master of playing statues.

But yes, I received the Dharma in 1998. Even though I received the Dharma from a bastard son of a king of masturbation, and even though my father in the Dharma appears in his dotage to have disowned me, I received the Dharma. So it might be inevitable that people should call me a Zen Master and look me in the eye as if to say: “Mr so-called Zen Master. Are you the real deal, or are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes?” Jeff was the first person to do that to me, in his no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point, let’s do business, kind of way.

Yesterday, while thinking out how to respond to Jeff’s expression of his outlandish view, my mind went back again to Marjory Barlow. When I walked into her teaching room in the summer of 1997, Marjory didn’t have any doubt whatsoever about whether I was the real deal or not. She knew, without doubt, that my directions (the so-called Alexander directions to let the neck be free, to let the head forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, to send the legs out of the pelvis, et cetera) were completely fake.

Marjory stood to my left with her hands on my head and neck and said, “Let.... No. You’re doing it.... Let the neck be free to let the head... No. You’re doing it.” And so on. Until, after several minutes of cold sweating, I totally gave up doing what I had thought was directing, and then she said, “Yes, that’s it!” And so I left her teaching room with my tail between my legs, but at the same time with a great sense of embarking on a totally new adventure. (This was after 2 years of full time Alexander teacher training.)

In subsequent lessons, Marjory did not teach me very much. She only taught me to continue not doing the Alexander directions while investigating in practice the arising and giving up of the idea of moving a leg, and, eventually, the action of moving a leg. She taught me, in short, in the action of moving out a leg while lying on my back, to inhibit what Alexander called our greatest evil -- fixing.

When I described myself to Marjory as an end-gainer, she didn’t stand for that. “Listen,” she told me, “there are two paths open to you. End-gaining or the means-whereby. You choose.”

Marjory’s initial interest in having lessons from her uncle, FM Alexander, was sparked by reading his books. She was fascinated by what he meant by consciousness in books such as “Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.”

But, I was reflecting during a long drive yesterday, I cannot remember Marjory, after 70 years allowing in herself the growth of consciousness, ever expressing to me even once a view about what mind or consciousness was.

Marjory’s work was totally focused on getting me to devote less energy to abstract thought and upholding of my Buddhist views, and more energy to the work that FM called “thinking in activity.”

Notwithstanding my massive Buddhist agenda, notwithstanding my strong tendency to play the fake elephant, Marjory endeavored with me in a way that seems to me now, looking back 10 years later, truly remarkable. Remarkable because her work was so indirect. I didn’t understand at the time that what she what she was doing was setting me on the path of growth of consciousness. But still I could somehow sense the truth of her work. That’s what gave me the confidence to receive the Dharma in 1998 -- because I had begun to realize that, for the first time, despite my habitual fakery, despite my strong tendency to play statues, despite my deep inclination to imitate an imitation elephant, I had been initiated into a true way of working.

If I express a view on who or what the true dragon is, that is only my view. But what I know without doubt, beyond any view, is that the guy in the mirror with the face of grim determination, who wishes to rigidly uphold a fixed set of views: that is the fake elephant.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

All Together Now (One by One)

My Alexander head of training between 1995 and 1998, the late Ray Evans, used to tell a story from World War I:

A captain in the trenches barks a message back down the line:


Several transmissions later, the message arrives at field HQ:


Over the years several requests have come in from people wanting to translate Shobogenzo directly from the Nishijima-Cross English translation into a person's own native tongue. For my part I have always refused to sanction this, attracting criticism from below and above that I am too stingy with the Dharma. But it took me four hard years before I twigged that there was no way for me to turn what Gudo had written into an authentic translation just by doing a re-writing job. To go back to the origin was the only way. To go back to the origin is the only way.

Most people, of course, don't feel inclined to go through the time-consuming process of a translation from the original. They feel that they haven't got the time, and would prefer to go directly for the result they want, regardless of whether the means are spotlessly true or not. End-gaining bastards! I hate the lot of you.

I hate you because I am you -- one who tends to see value in ends rather than in means. That is why I call myself a fraud. It is not false modesty. The grim-faced guy in the mirror constantly confronts me with my fraudulence. I preach non-endgaining, because I have understood intellectually that it is the secret. In the actual conduct of my life, however, no sooner has any little stimulus reached my consciousness than I have mobilized and sent to the front all the grim-faced armies, navies, and air-forces that constitute the only modus operandi that I know.

There is a chapter of the Lotus Sutra called ANRAKU-GYO, or "Living Life At Ease." The characters ANRAKU are these:

These are the characters ANRAKU in ANRAKU-no-HOMON, the Dharma-gate of ease, in Fukan-zazengi.

I am trying to draw your attention to what these characters mean, in terms of freedom from end-gaining. That man FM Alexander, I do not doubt, from having been in contact with people who knew him, was a true dragon who really woke people up to the problem of end-gaining. FM knew a thing or two about how to put people at ease. I do not doubt that he knew a thing or two about how to put people at ease.

But at ease is not how I have lived my own life. By the end of my 13-year stint in Japan I had practically ground myself to a standstill by my end-gaining. When I started my Alexander teacher training I was totally, in Ray's words, "tight and right." And I still bloody well am. I don't know what the Buddha meant by ease; I only know that I have a constant tendency to turn what the Buddha meant into its opposite.

Since buying our place in France I have experienced the odd moment. But it doesn't take long before I revert to type. Three or so years ago, I felt I was going quite well. But then, having invested so much emotionally in the Shobogenzo translation and in Alexander work, I found it too difficult not to throw my toys out of the pram in response to ... well, enough said already.

I have now got to the end of my character-by-character exposition of Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu-bon on my webpage at I hope it might be useful not only to English-speakers but also perhaps to any French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Catalan or maybe even Chinese sitters out there who might be inspired to translate Fukan-zazengi into (or back into) their own language.

Follow the links to Fukan-zazengi on the right of your screen, and if there are any questions, please ask them here.

Get working, fellow lazy end-gaining bastards: get back to the origin ... character by character by character. Good luck!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

SHONEN, JO: True Consciousness, Stillness

SHO-NEN true consciousness

JO stillness, samadhi

These teachings may be the conclusion of the Budddha's noble eightfold path -- number 7 and number 8. A bastard son of a king of masturbation, who spent 70 years looking into them is strongly of the following view: true consciousness means balance of the autonomic nervous system, and the power of samadhi is the harmonized energy of a person enjoying balance of the autonomic nervous system.

Thus, the Buddha's teaching is turned into its opposite. Not only is true consciousness reduced to a physiological phenomenon, but stillness is turned into fixity.

When true consciousness emerges, Master Dogen says, fear paralysis and panic cannot intervene.

If I react, as I do, with fear, passive or active, to whatever stimuli life throws at me, it is only a symptom that, by clinging on to body and life, to old views and to the end-gaining habit, I am preventing true consciousness from emerging.

Still, there is real meaning in these Chinese characters of Master Dogen's -- there is treasure to be hunted, and joy in the chase.

SHO-NEN true consciousness

JO stillness, samadhi

Friday, October 19, 2007

SHOSHIN-TANZA (4): Just Sit Upright

What these words SHOSHIN-TANZA can mean to me when I am actually sitting in the full lotus posture, on a good day, is the simplest thing in the world: Just sit upright.

The more I worry about translating those words perfectly into English, the more problematic they become.

Which phase do they belong to?

Bodily sitting in the full lotus posture?
Mentally sitting in the full lotus posture?
Sitting in the full lotus posture as body and mind dropping off?

Does SHOSHIN mean to straighten up the body on the basis of the feeling and the idea of straightness? Or does SHOSHIN mean to redeem the body from the realm of untrustworthy feelings and illusory ideas?

I take pride in my translation work. My translation work is my service to others, my rent on earth. But translation work stimulates questions. Words whose meaning was more simple before suddenly become problematic. And the stronger my desire to solve the problem, the more problematic the problem is.

When I wake up in the morning and sit in lotus, however, before I put on my translator's head, the meaning of SHOSHIN-TANZA is not so problematic. It is simply an exhortation to sit upright -- not deviating from the vertical direction, either leftwards or rightwards, either forwards or backwards. A child of three can understand it.

The phrase EKOHENSHO no TAIHO poses similar problems. It is a key phrase in Fukan-zazengi, and I love it. When I come to translate it, I struggle. But what it means in practice is perfectly simple: stop worrying about words, and learn the backward step of turning light around.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

SHOSHIN-TANZA (3): Cowardly Backtracking

What did Master Dogen really intend by this instruction SHOSHIN-TANZA? I don't know. I can't know. I can form a view about it, but the stronger the view I form, the further away than ever I am from dropping off all views.

Intensive translation of Master Dogen's teaching, of the kind I have been doing for the past couple of weeks on Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu-bon, is an open invitation to go wrong, to seek in the original text confirmation of one's own view, when it is just this view that is getting in the way of the translation doing itself. The more important the translator thinks his own view is and his own work is, the more emotion that he has invested in the process, the lousier the translation is likely to be.

Maybe when Master Dogen instructed SHOSHIN-TANZA his intention was, just as in the original Nishijima-Bailey translation, "Sit upright, holding the body straight." Maybe the true literal translation of SHOSHIN, as in the SZTP version, is "Straighten your body." I do not know. I cannot know for sure.

But one thing I do know. I know that my own reaction to the English instruction "hold the body straight" was well and truly wrong.

I had the truly chuckle-worthy idea that, by diligently trying to hold my body straight, I could make myself worthy of the epithet of "the most excellent Buddhist master in the world" (not my phrase). I had the idea that I could be not only one who was right -- which is enough of a delusion in itself -- but The One who is Most Right -- Mr. Rightness Itself. In short, Buddha.

Only after several years of Alexander work, did I really begin to see the point of dropping off this deeply (largely unconsciously) held view.

Alexander teachers in England showed me what I could not work out for myself in a month of Sundays in Japan: that the more deeply and completely I give up the idea of me being the one who is right, the more easily this body of mine rights itself.

This is not "Alexander theory." It is what I have actually experienced, what I continue to experience, what I continue to verify in my daily sitting-zen.

I continue to disturb myself by trying to let everybody know where and why I went wrong. But I can't stop doing it. However inept my expression of it is, I am expressing the only truth I truly know. The way Gudo taught me to sit, as if the righting or straightening of the body were something that should be pursued by direct means, was just plain wrong. For 13 years I sat following a completely wrong principle. That is all I know. My sitting was wrong. My sitting is still wrong. And at the root of the wrongness is the end-gaining idea of making myself right.

This is not "Alexander theory." It is something that Alexander teachers have guided me to investigate in my own experience, and to understand for myself.

I submit for your verification that the whole point of Fukan-zazengi is the giving up of end-gaining ideas, and so we should understand in this light the instruction SUNWACHI SHOSHIN-TANZA -- whether we translate it as "Just practice the upright sitting that rights the body" or as "Just sit upright, holding the body straight" or as something else.

Whatever translation is chosen, the universal truth that remains, it seems to me, is that it is not me who rights the body; it is not me who causes the body to grow. It cannot be me and my end-gaining ideas. It is upright sitting itself that rights the body. It is upright sitting itself that redeems the body. It is upright sitting itself that resurrects the body.

This is my strongly held view. I think it is important. Emotionally, I have a lot invested in it. I have a lot to drop off.

I would like to ask Master Dogen: "How can I drop off my own emotional view?"

Master Dogen's answer reverberates through the ages:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

SHOSHIN-TANZA (2): Resurrection by Sitting

Redeem the body by upright sitting.

Don't be a wanker like I was in Japan, trying to manipulate my body into something that a bastard son of a king of masturbation called "the right posture."

Bent and twisted though your outward form may be, don't add insult to injury by trying to make your body straight. Rather, redeem your body by learning to allow a lengthening direction to flow through it -- like sap that flows up through a tree, never stopping to ask what shape the trunk is in.

Redeem the body by upright sitting.

Resurrect the body by upright sitting.

SHOSHIN-TANZA: Not Self-Manipulation

The first two characters, SHO-SHIN, mean to right the body, to make the body more right, more true, more straight, more upright. The third and fourth characters, TAN-ZA, mean upright sitting.

SHOSHIN-TANZA means upright sitting which causes or allows the body to change for the better, to become more balanced, more true, more upright.

People today -- not only readers of this blog who don't practice sitting-zen but also leaders of Zen groups who devote their lives to seated meditation -- think that SHOSHIN-TANZA describes postural self-adjustment.

People assume that SHOSHIN means making the body right, or holding the body straight, by direct means i.e. by end-gaining.

Hence, in their translation of Fukan-zazengi in To Meet the Real Dragon, published in 1984, Gudo Nishijima and Jeff Bailey translated SHOSHIN-TANZA as "sit upright holding your body straight." For the translation of Fukan-zazengi in Shobogenzo Book One, published in 1994, trying to keep the translation as literal as possible, Gudo Nishijima and I went with "make the body right and sit up straight." The SZTP translation which heads the Google list of Fukan-zazengi translations and also, to its credit, tries to be a literal translation, has "straighten your body and sit upright."

It may be that all these translations are based on a wrong assumption.

People who have assumed that SHOSHIN means making the body right, or holding the body straight, by the direct means of postural self-adjustment, may turn out to have been well and truly wrong in their assumption. They may all turn out to have been well and truly wrong in their view, just as I was well and truly wrong in my view when I spent 13 years in Japan trying to make myself right by pulling in my chin -- just as I am well and truly wrong in any unquestioned view that, unbeknowns to myself, I am holding right now.

What causes an individual human person, for example me, Mike Cross, to grow in the right direction is not postural self-adjustment that stems from my idea of making myself right. On the absolute contrary, what helps me to grow up is upright sitting as the inhibition of the idea of making myself right.

What I mean here by "inhibition" is nothing too subtle. There is no need for experts on Freudian or Jungian psychology, or on mechanics and physics, to quibble about the nuances of the term. What I mean by inhibition is the eradication, the total repression, the utter annihilation, the complete abandonment, of my illusory idea of me being right.

Inhibition like this -- if it is true, and not inhibition in name only -- goes to the very source of wrong reaction and eradicates the root of wrong reaction. True inhibition, in other words, is the dropping off of all views, the dropping off of all end-gaining ideas. True inhibition removes the barriers from, and allows for, spontaneous upflow of energy and natural growth of true consciousness.

Japanese champions of sexual and postural self-manipulation -- I am thinking about the king of masturbation and his bastard son -- have advocated spine straightening and chin pulling because of not being sufficiently clear in regard to what true inhibition is.

To get the point of Fukan-zazengi is just to understand the true meaning of inhibition. The vital art of sitting-zen is nothing other than the practice of true inhibition. I endeavor to practice it -- I endeavor to sit upright as the total abandonment of the idea of making my body right -- not because I am a selfless, totally altruistic, ego-transcending saint. I endeavor to practice it because I want to be a target that is hit, because I want to get the ineffable.

Because of wanting to get the ineffable, I have investigated Fukan-zazengi as deeply as possible -- even though that meant remaining for 13 years in a country densely populated by chauvinistic and stupid men. Because of wanting to get the ineffable, I used to get on my motorbike and ride down to Hampstead for lessons with Marjory Barlow. Because of wanting to get the ineffable, six years ago I bought a bit of land by the forest in France where I could selfishly indulge myself in sitting-zen, being ignored by birds, grass snakes, and red squirrels. I am, by common consent among my family members, a selfish bastard. In no way am I a bloody saint. But it may turn out, history may judge, that what I am saying now about the fundamental rule of sitting-zen, nobody has said for 750 years. That I am able to say it like this is mainly due to the input of two women -- Nelly Ben-Or and Marjory Barow.

So I recommend everybody who wants to read about what true inhibition is, what the vital art of sitting-zen is, to follow the link to Marjory Barlow's lecture on the teaching of FM Alexander.

What Marjory endeavored to teach me in her teaching room was just true inhibition. But the place of inhibition is always deeper within me than I am liable to realize. Marjory makes this clear in her account of FM Alexander's backward steps, deeper and deeper within himself, until he got to the root of his voice problem. This is where the subtlety comes in -- in excavating the last little vestiges of deeply buried end-gaining, in exposing the last traces of wanting to be the one who is right.

All this writing about inhibition has got nothing to do with what Marjory meant by practice of inhibition. What Marjory meant by inhibition was, for example, deciding not to move a leg... and yet, liberated from all anxiety about being right... allowing the leg to move.

The view of inhibition that I am expressing now is never true inhibition. True inhibition is sitting in the full lotus posture and bowing, or going for a walk, as the dropping off of my view.

The inhibition whose meaning I sleeplessly fret about in bed is not true inhibition. True inhibition is falling asleep.

Maha-kasyapa's face broke into a smile because his father, Gautama the Buddha, had nurtured Maha-kasyapa's growth as a gardener tends a plant, truly teaching him the truth of inhibition -- nirodha-satya. That is how Marjory was with me, and that is how I have endeavored to be with my own biological sons. I don't say that I have always succeeded, but I have endeavored to follow Marjory's principle -- inhibiting my own end-gaining ideas and allowing my sons to grow as they will.

In the original version of Fukan-zazengi Master Dogen writes of Gautama's twirling flower and Maha-kasyapa's face breaking into a smile. But the translation of those words that I do now, with resentment towards my unskilled and manipulative father in the Dharma, with my habitual grim-faced determination, is not true inhibition. True inhibition is a real face spontaneously breaking into a smile.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

SHONEN: True Presence

The meaning of the bottom character, NEN, embraces a very wide range of mental phenomena -- including not only countable ones such as ideas, worries, thoughts, wishes, desires, feelings, impulses, et cetera, but also uncountable ones such as attention, awareness, mindfulness, consciousness.

In the footnotes to the Shobogenzo translations published from 1994 onwards, a distinction was drawn between 1) NEN as an image in the mind, and 2) NEN as the image of reality. But now, as I go through Fukan-zazen-gi Shinpitsu-bon character by character ( this choice of words doesn't strike me as hitting the target. It is an explanation that arose out of my struggle with the viewpoint of realism. The explanation which follows now, follows from the struggle to drop off the viewpoint of realism.

The countable NEN, the NEN which when they arise and are woken up to, cease to exist, at least as I understand them now, are ideas. In particular, I understand NEN as end-gaining ideas. I understand them as the ideas that cause me to fix my jaw unconsciously, in my grim determination to accomplish MY IMPORTANT MISSION.

The IMPORTANT MISSION in view might be to clarify the true meaning of Fukan-zazengi, or it might be to get a pupil out of a chair in an Alexander lesson, or it might be unblock a drain. In general, my most important mission every day is to get in MY VERY IMPORTANT four sessions of sitting-zen, without stopping to count how many eggs are getting cracked in the making of the omelette. Whatever the all-important mission of the hour may be, the idea of accomplishing it results in me unconsciously fixing my jaw, along with various other joints.

Marjory Barlow taught me a world-shatteringly simple method for investigating the effect of end-gaining NEN. She taught me to lie on my back with my knees bent and see it as MY VITALLY IMPORTANT MISSION to lift a leg and straighten it out, with minimal disturbance to the head, neck and back -- with minimal fixing, minimal misdirection of energy; with maximum freedom, maximum ease. Marjory caused me to understand that the key to success was to give up the idea of moving the leg, in particular to give up the idea of being right in moving the leg.... and yet to move the leg.

Sometimes Marjory would sit beside me on a chair and just watch me struggling with this task, returning to the idea, giving up the idea, returning to the idea, and so on. When I returned to the idea, invariably she would notice me fixing in some way that I didn't know I was doing -- holding my breath, tightening under the armpits, fixing the hip-joints, tightening the wrists, et cetera, et cetera.

As a result of this practice of not moving a leg, on one memorable occasion in particular, I came into the moment of the present. It was as if I were in a space, for the first time in my life, in which I could hear the birds singing.

We become conscious, Marjory taught, by inhibiting unconscious behaviour.

In other words, we realize the 2nd kind of NEN by giving up the first kind of NEN.

We realize true awareness, true mindfulness, true consciousness by giving up end-gaining ideas.

The Buddha with his dying breaths exhorted us to be vigilant. To be vigilant in regard to what? To be vigilant, for example, in regard to end-gaining ideas.
End-gaining ideas are NEN Mark I. And vigilance might be a bit of NEN Mark II, true NEN.

In Shinpitsu-bon, the original edition, Master Dogen writes that when true NEN emerges, dullness and distraction cannot intervene. In Rufu-bon, the revised edition, he replaces NEN with HO -- when the true Law spontaneously emerges, dullness and distraction vanish at a stroke.

From this, we can understand that what Master Dogen wanted to express with the characters SHONEN was not only a mental phenomenon. Certainly not only an idea. But not only mental awareness or mindfulness either.

Master Dogen's words, I believe, are pointing in the same direction that Marjory's teaching led me -- towards consciousness itself, not only something mental, but a kind of spontaneously flowing energy, a kind of presence.

We become conscious by inhibiting unconscious behaviour.

When Hissing Sids out there read this, you may be tempted to react by forming a view about being present and having a bright idea about being present. You, as I invariably do when I go off to do my little performance at the Alexander teacher training school, will probably fall into the trap of end-gaining to be present.

To end-gain to be present is to put the cart before the horse. It is totally wrong. But that is OK. There is nothing to fear in being wrong. The secret is to be fearlessly present to what is causing us to go wrong. To look, in the immortal words of Patrick Macdonald, the bugger in the eye. To be present to the end-gaining idea.

That is what Marjory taught me and that is what, as I read it now, I hear the young Master Dogen shouting from the rooftops in Fukan-zazengi Shinpitsu-bon.

Through the inhibition of (NEN mk I) end-gaining ideas, (NEN mk II) true presence emerges.

Monday, October 15, 2007

SHOZA: Upright Sitting -- Pete's Question

Peter asked:

Hi Mike,
In the introduction to Shobogenzo you translate Sho as “right” or “true” so why do you translate Shoza as “upright sitting” and not true as in say “the true sitting practiced by the ancestors” or just “the sitting practiced by the buddhas”? Could the concept of “uprightness“ stimulate an attempt to achieve (conform to?) a preconceived moral (upright) and physical position, resulting in uptightness, whereas Master Dogen’s advice not to lean to the left, incline to the right, slouch forward, or arch backward allows the possibility of something not directly stated, something in the middle between the opposing positions, to happen? I’m really struggling with this one.
Interesting to see how the earth appears in the characters for sho, za, jo and ge.
Peter, a low and base snake in the grass.

Thanks for the question, Peter. It gives me the chance to put down in words something I have been reflecting on these past few days.

I translated SHOZA as upright sitting because, at the particular moment of making that decision, I was blessed with the experience of having no other choice.

As a prefix, as I understand it now, SHO means to make right, to make straight, to make true, to make perpendicular. SHOZA means to make sitting upright; SHOSHIN-TANZA means to make the body upright in upright sitting, in short, to sit upright.

I am not saying that this is the only possible translation. It is just that any other possibility doesn't exist for me just now. Maybe in a few months or years time, I will look back and think that I missed the target, or that, due to my accumulated bad karma, I failed again to be a target that was hit.

On Friday I was talking with a concert violinist, formerly of the BBC orchestra, about what it might mean to do translation work as true practice, not as a means of boosting one's own prestige as a translator. Ron understood what I was trying to get at from his experience in music-making. He described the possibility of a musician reading what a great composer had put down when writing a score, and the musician simply communicating that -- nothing else but what the composer wrote.

Over the the past few days , for the first time in a long time, I have been doing some serious translation work. Most likely as a by-product of that 'serious' (for which read 'endgaining') effort, a couple of days ago I felt a renewed surge of anger and disgust towards Nishijima Roshi. In particular, I felt angry about his description of the Shobogenzo translation, two or three years ago, as "my personal job." He accused me of violating his "personal job." In truth, the translation ceased to become his personal job in 1988 when, in seeking my cooperation on the translation, he begged me for 5 years of my life. But Gudo's denial and delusion are his own problem. Why should I let those phenomena bother me?

When I reflected on why I was feeling this disgust and anger, it was obviously just another case of the mirror principle. The tendency that disgusts and angers me is one within myself.

It is a very human tendency to take pride in one's work but, if our professed aim is to drop off body and mind so that the original face may emerge, then that pride is something to be dropped off. Even if it is very difficult to drop it off, the true translation cannot truly emerge, in all its original splendour, unless the translator's ego truly drops off. When that happens, it is impossible for any excellent view that the translator has to be of any use whatsoever. The meaning of the original word is right there on the scroll, and right there in the Japanese-English character dictionary. There is no job for the translator to do, no decision for the translator to make, nothing to take pride in.

As far as Gudo Nishijima is concerned, he did a very nice translation of Shobogenzo into English that just required tidying up by a native English re-writer. But when I began to read Shobogenzo in the original Japanese, I realized that the problem was deeper than a linguistic problem. Gudo wasn't simply translating Shobogenzo; he was injecting his own interpretation into it at every step of the way, because he is just so filled to overflowing with his own brilliant view. The man has a very sharp philosophical mind and a very resilient translator's ego. For more than 20 years I have been looking into that particular mirror and feeling anger and disgust, and I am still looking into that mirror.

Again, seeing the effort I was putting into the translation on my webpage, and seeing the emerging result, my wife told me I should copyright it -- or else somebody other than us could publish it and make money out of it. My answer was that I don't want to do it as something in which there is something for me. But in stating my answer I was not without emotion, not without inner conflict. Something in me does want there to be something in it for me and my family.

Nowadays, whenever anybody tells me that they have bought a copy, or 4 copies, of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, something within me wonders who is getting all the money they are spending. The sense of wonder is not purely philosophical. When I ask myself: "Is somebody stealing my share of the royalties?", what is at work is not only an innocent desire to know the truth, but something else -- something to be dropped off, something that hasn't yet left home.

What you are struggling with in your own sitting practice, Peter, is not a different problem. Even before the word "upright," via your eyes and ears, has entered your brain, you have reacted to it wrongly. The problem is not in the original word. The problem is in the translation, in the process by which you react wrongly to a stimulus.

A monk from his early teens, the young Master Dogen went to China and got the point of sitting-zen. Coming back to Japan in his mid-20s, he did his best to express that point in words. I spent my teens indulging in various gross forms of crude end-gaining -- drinking, fighting, craving (with tissues at the ready) the experience of a passionate love affair even if it killed me, and the like. When I, with my bad karma and faulty sensory appreciation, read now the words that were written by the newly enlightened Master Dogen, my brain wants to translate those words into what I know. But what I know is never the point. The point is got in upright sitting as the dropping off of everything I know.

On the subject of snakes arising: Snakes in the grass pose no danger to a bloke who knows and loves snakes. But -- remember the parable of Steve Irwin -- that doesn't mean he will necessarily be safe if he goes off swimming with stingrays.

The struggle that confronts every Hissing Sid who reads this blog, not only Peter and me, is to drop off our wrong reaction to stimuli like "upright sitting," "right Dharma," "true Dharma." Master Dogen is giving us the straight Dharma -- Dharma on the rocks, undiluted -- and our challenge is to take it straight, not corrupting its taste with the artificial flavours that we already know.

There is a point to Fukan-zazen-gi. There is a point to get, only one point. The point to get is that sitting-zen is just the great Dharma-gate of ease. Ease in upright sitting is not something. Ease in upright sitting is a bit of nothing -- a bit of being released out of our web of wrong patterns of reaction. Ease in upright sitting is freedom from end-gaining.

If you read Master Dogen's words as they are, in their original splendour, this is what he is telling us. This is the point to be got. The more clearly we get the point, the less there should be for us to say. Master Dogen said it already.

Friday, October 12, 2007

IJUN: Going Against or Blindly Conforming

The top character, I, means to go against; the bottom character, JUN, means to follow unquestioningly, to conform.


"If the least tendency arises to go against or conform, the mind is lost in confusion."

After reading Pete's question yesterday on the meaning of IJUN, I had something of a worried evening and a sleepless night, feeling a bit like the king who has been perceived to be in the altogether. As day dawns this morning, I am as wrong as I have ever been, but am nonetheless struck by this literal translation and by this meaning, which seems to me now to be true. I may well turn out to be wrong again, but here is the context in which I understand the sentence:

Master Dogen begins Fukan-zazengi by stating and re-stating a thoroughly optimistic principle.

Now, what, as we are all learning from experience, are the twofold dangers that present themselves to us when we encounter a true principle? The first danger is hypocrisy -- a gap between our upholding of a principle in theory and how we actually behave in practice. The second danger is that, notwithstanding the original truth of the principle -- or, indeed, precisely because we perceive the principle to be so enlightened -- we unenlightened beings are liable to react to it instinctively in one of two wrong ways: by going against it (via the universal law that we tend to turn all things into their opposite), or by subscribing to it unquestioningly.

When we look for the cause of our hypocrisy, and the cause of our perverse disobedience or blind conformism, we may conclude that the common root cause resides in a human being's top few inches -- in the combination of our end-gaining and our unreliable sensory appreciation. When I am faced with something that I perceive to be important -- something, say, like the translation of Fukan-zazengi -- my intellectual and sensory faculties tend to make emergency demands on my energy. Thus, my energy is liable to become concentrated in my top few inches instead of feeding a glow in my pelvis and belly. And when that happens, in addition to suffering from sleepless nights, I am liable to become proud of my understanding, full of enlightenment et cetera, et cetera. If not the whole story of my life, this has certainly been a recurring theme, as I go round and round in circles, or round and round in spirals -- I don't know which.

Put out the flags! Just in Fukan-zazengi, we have already encountered the Buddha's true teaching, the totally optimistic Dharma which is good in the beginning, middle and end.

But hang on a bit. The inherent truth of the teaching does not provide any guarantee whatsoever that I will ever be able to get the true point of it. Rather, as a subconsciously controlled being (what FM Alexander called "a lowly evolved swine") I am always liable to react to the true teaching by either perversely going against it, or by blindly subscribing to it in name only.

So, beware even the slightest iconoclastic tendency to go against; and equally beware the sheepish tendency to blindly conform -- beware not only one tendency, but two: not only disobedience but also blind conformity; not only blind conformity but also disobedience.

Leave those flags in the cupboard for a while.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Space for Questions





Last year I promised MT that I would go through Fukan-zazengi in a systematic way. It occured to me yesterday that the best place to do this would be on my web-page at (If I try to do it on this blog, the characters will appear in reverse order.) And so, with my usual grim determination, I have made a start already.

But if there are any questions on what I have covered so far on this blog, or on any other aspect of either version of Fukan-zazengi, please fire away here. You can rest assured that I will do my best to get the answer right, with the kind of grim determination that can be mustered only by one who is desperately clinging on to his own body and life.

Are there any questions?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

ZAZEN NO YOJUTSU: Not Two Secrets of Sitting-Zen

“When an idea arises, just wake up. Just in the waking up to it, it ceases to exist. Taking plenty of time to forget involvements, spontaneously to become one piece: this is the secret of sitting-zen. What is called ‘sitting-zen’ is just the great Dharma-gate of ease.”

Or, as per Master Dogen's revised version:

"Sit still, 'Thinking that state of not thinking.' How can the state of not thinking be thought? Non-thinking. This is just the secret of sitting-zen. What is called 'sitting-zen' is not the Zen that is learned; it is just the Dharma-gate of ease."

These translations are my reward for being a good boy. I persist with the intellectual work of investigating Master Dogen's sayings and chasing his words, and I keep coming back to re-directing my light in the opposite direction, until body and mind spontaneously drop off and my original features appear. When my original features appear, I am not the translator of anything. The true translation does itself.

But what hits me as the true translation today might not be the same as what hits me as the true true translation tomorrow. And what hits me as the true translation today might not be what hits you as the true translation tomorrow, if you do the work for yourself.

Doing this work for yourself does not primarily mean doing the work of a brilliant academic, like a university scholar at the Buddhist Studies department who is progressively working through the BS, MSc, and Ph. D. process (Bull Shit, More of the Same Crap, Piled higher and Deeper). Doing this work primarily means learning the backward step of turning light around, until body and mind spontaneously drop off and the true translation does itself for you.

When the true translation does itself, that is not the end of anything. That is the beginning of further investigation into what the true translation means.

We have got two translations above that both strike me, at least for the moment, as totally true, spot on, each expressing the secret of sitting-zen. But there cannot be two secrets of sitting-zen. There is not one secret, expressed in the original version of Fukan-zazengi, that has to do with waking up to end-gaining ideas; and another secret, expressed in the revised version, that has to do with thinking and non-thinking.

Similarly, in Alexander work, there are not two golden keys.

FM Alexander's niece Marjory Barlow told me, with genuine compassion: "Listen, love. In this work, being prepared to be wrong is the golden key!"

Why is it the golden key? Because, in the field of working on the self, being prepared to be wrong is the antidote to end-gaining.

Again, Marjory often quoted her uncle's saying that "This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is."

So the secret is to think -- not to do, but to think. Why is thinking the secret? Because when I am ill at ease, when my original features have been replaced by the face of grim determination, the original root of my un-ease lies neither in the mechanisms of facial expression, nor in the postural mechanisms, nor even in the mechanisms of respiration. The original root of my end-gaining is in the mechanisms of view formation, of idea generation, of thinking. Thus the secret of Alexander work is not to do, but to think. To think not in one's old way, to think in a new way, that leads, when the thinker goes into movement, to undoing.

Waking up to end-gaining, practicing non-thinking, being prepared to be wrong, and thinking that leads to undoing: these are not four secrets. There are not four secrets of sitting-zen. There are not two secrets of sitting-zen.

So what is the one secret of sitting-zen?

I don't know. I really don't know. I know, I have learnt through exasperating experience, only that my habitual attitude of grim determination to find out conclusively what the secret it, is always not it.

To try to express it positively in my own words -- as if it were something graspable or something knowable -- always seems to turn out to have been a mistake.

The secret of sitting-zen, mystery that it is, seems to lend itself better to negative expression. Expressed negatively, the secret of sitting-zen has to do with the negation of end-gaining:

“When an idea arises, just wake up. Just in the waking up to it, it ceases to exist. Taking plenty of time to forget involvements, spontaneously to become one piece: this is the secret of sitting-zen. What is called ‘sitting-zen’ is just the great Dharma-gate of ease.”

What is ease, after all, except the movements and non-movements of one who is not blindly driven by the desire to gain an end?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ANRAKU NO HOMON: Pure Ease (with or without exuberance)

This summer by the seaside in France, I learned something afresh about ease as opposed to un-ease, from re-learning how to be in, how to breathe in, and how to swim in the sea. In that re-learning process I was aided by my wife, who is an Alexander and swimming teacher, and by a little book written by my brother Ian, called Swimming without Stress, Lessons for Land Lovers (available from

Whether or not anybody besides me is reading this blog, it doesn’t really matter. I feel at ease in writing it, and maybe it will provide a record. For 25 years I have been endeavoring to clarify my understanding of Fukan-zazengi, and it may be only natural that I should now be expressing just my own understanding of it, like this.

In a similar way, it seems to me that it was a natural thing for my brother to write his book. As he describes in his book, 20 years ago he was a terrible end-gainer in the water, obsessed by counting the seconds taken to swim every length. But the picture on the front cover of his book shows him totally at ease in the sea, practicing what he preaches as he releases his arm slowly out of his back and slowly out of the water in front crawl.

In the last 20 years, by working on himself, Ian has really learned something about ease in the water, and so nowadays he is at ease writing about it and teaching it. His evolution into a teacher of a true means-whereby has been natural and spontaneous, and -- ironically, since I have been instrumental in Ian’s process -- evidently a lot easier than the faltering steps I have taken in that direction, ever hindered by having too much emotion invested in my great heroic mission.

The pseudo-Zen shitbags of the present, in which group, following the mirror principle, I am duty bound to include myself, could not hold a flame to Master Dogen. Still, it seems that some among us wish to fill the internet with the sounds and images of our own weedy selves. True, Master Dogen is not available in video. But we have got his texts of Fukan-zazengi, both the revised version and the earlier version.

My investigations of these two texts, haphazard though they are, are bringing me, along with any reader of this blog who bothers to put in the effort, into direct contact not only with Master Dogen’s handwriting, but also with his innermost thought processes. But rather than plough and sift through what I am writing, I am afraid that people would rather watch a video of some modern-day Zen pseudo-roshi. That, my noble friends who learn through experience (SANGAKU NO KORYU), is just how it is.

Ian describes in his book how, when Mark Spitz won all his Olympic golds, people watched videos of Mark Spitz swimming underwater, and imitated his movements. Whereas, Ian argues, if people had really wanted to swim like Mark Spitz, they should have tried to understand his thought processes.

I find increasingly that I am not bothered whether anybody is reading this or not. To have received positive feedback from even one person whose view (or, more accurately, absence of his own view) I value, is plenty. I am writing what I feel I was destined to write, clarifying what I was born to clarify, and there is ease in that.

“When an idea arises, just wake up. Just in the waking up to it, it ceases to exist. Taking plenty of time to forget involvements, spontaneously to become one piece: this is just the secret of sitting-zen. What is called ‘sitting-zen’ is the great Dharma-gate of ease.”

DAI great
AN ease, peace, rest, relief, release
RAKU ease, comfort, relief, pleasure, enjoyment, happiness
HO Dharma, law
MON gate

"The great Dharma-gate of ease and happiness"

One of these days I am going to get fed up of hammering on endlessly about end-gaining....

But don't hold your breath!

I have already argued, in the posts of 31 August and 3 September, that with the phrase ANRAKU NO HOMON, "Dharma-gate of ease and joy," Master Dogen is emphasizing that sitting-zen is not end-gaining Zen. Sitting-zen, indeed, is the very antithesis of end-gaining Zen.

In the original version of Fukan-zazengi the phrase is not ANRAKU NO HOMON but DAI ANRAKU NO HOMON. The phrase begins with this character:

DAI means big, great.

So in the original version the phrase is:

DAI AN-RAKU [NO] HO-MON (5 characters)

Whereas in the later version the phrase is:

AN-RAKU [NO] HO-MON (4 characters)

Again, it is worth asking what thought processes led Master Dogen to make the change. Why did he drop the character that means "great"?

It may be that in his later years, Master Dogen became a bit more under-stated, a bit less exuberant. There is not one iota of difference, as far as I can tell, in the message Master Dogen is conveying in the two versions of Fukan-zazengi. But in the revised version there may be less inclination to over-egg the pudding.

When we begin to understand the difference between end-gaining (generally characterized by grim determination) and the means-whereby (generally characterized by ease and happiness) our natural altruistic tendency is to want to let everybody know about the means-whereby. And the stronger this altruistic desire is, the more liable we are to follow our desire in an end-gaining way -- without realizing, of course, that this is what we are doing. As Marjory Barlow told me as I tightened my throat in preparation to move a leg: "If you realized you were doing it, you wouldn't do it!"

The main job of an Alexander teacher, Marjory emphasized, is to teach the pupil how to work on himself. The big pitfall for the teacher is to go about this job of teaching the pupil in an end-gaining way. The teacher, in her concern for her pupil's wellbeing, can easily fall into the trap of not paying sufficient attention to what she herself is doing. Hence, on an Alexander teacher training course, there is a lot of emphasis on the trainee teacher learning how not to destroy herself in the process of teaching an Alexander pupil how to work towards a better integration of himself.

I think that when Master Dogen came in later years to revise Fukan-zazengi, Master Dogen more clearly recognized the importance, as Marjory Barlow also clearly recognized the importance, of not getting carried away.

In Shobogenzo Master Dogen refers often to Gautama holding up a flower and Maha-kasyapa spontaneously smiling. At the same time, Dogen quotes the teaching of his teacher, Tendo Nyojo, that we must sternly guard against getting carried away by the twirling flower.

When It came back to Japan from China in around 1227 and sat down to put Fukan-zazengi on paper, signing Itself NYU SO DENPO SHAMON DOGEN, “Dogen, a striver who entered China and received the transmission of the Law,” buddha sat down to put Fukan-zazengi on paper. Buddha sat down and picked up a writing brush, exuberantly.

It seems to me that, as buddha ascended further and further beyond buddha, a bit of exuberance naturally dropped off. Thus, in the revised version of Fukan-zazengi, the Dharma-gate of pure ease is expressed not with five characters, but with only four:

SHUSSHIN: Getting the Body Out

SHUTSU get out
SHIN body
Read in Japanese as SHUSSHIN, "getting the body out."

It is opposed to the subject of the previous post, NYUTO, "putting in the head."

The words NYUTO, "putting the head in," and SHUSSHIN, "getting the body out," appear in both the original and revised versions of Fukan-zazengi.

The orignal version, read in Japanese, is:
"We have the capacity to put the head in, but still lack the path of getting the body out."

The revised version is a bit longer:
"We ramble in remote spheres entered by the head, but almost completely lack the vigorous path of getting the body out."

Master Dogen is acknowledging the tendency some of us have to ramble intellectually in pursuit of the truth -- which is a kind of end-gaining. And, in direct opposition to this end-gaining tendency, Master Dogen points to the practical means whereby the body may be liberated from what is familiar, known, habitual.

Let nobody say that, in this age of degenerate Dharma, the path of getting the body out has been lost. Because FM Alexander re-discovered it for our time; Marjory Barlow demonstrated it to me; and I am having a wonderful time trying to gain the end of letting everybody know about it.

The four characters shown below are:

SHUTSU get out
SHIN body
SHI of
RO road, path

They are read in Japanese as SHUSSHIN NO RO, "the path of getting the body out."

Monday, October 01, 2007

NYUTO: Putting In the Head

NYU put in, poke in, enter
TO head

In the original version of Fukan-zazengi these two characters appear in the 6-character phrase read in Japanese as NYUTO NO RYO ARI TO IEDOMO “even if there is the capacity to put in the head," i.e. -- even if we have intellectual ability.

The corresponding phrase in the revised version has 9 characters read as NYUTO NO HENRYO NI SHOYO SU TO IEDOMO, “even if we ramble in remote spheres of putting in the head,” i.e. -- even if we go off at intellectual tangents.

"Being taught how to change our habitual thinking patterns takes time and effort and can be difficult, for change is what most people dislike, and what they tend to shy away from rather than welcome or seek out. Education about how to learn and not just what to learn may lead to increased knowledge. Excessive trust in thinking and reasoning might be an impediment on the path to truth and, in my experience, teaching intellectuals is not necessarily easier; they assume they know how to learn but often they do not, as they find it difficult to stop their reasoning to allow instead for a completely new and unknown experience to take place."

Patrick J. Macdonald, London, December 1986

The tendency, which I know well, to pursue the the truth intellectually is an offshoot of a more general tendency which I also know well -- but often, it turns out, not as well as I thought I did.

To pursue the truth with the head is end-gaining. To pursue the truth with the heart is end-gaining. To pursue the truth with the hands is end-gaining. Even to pursue the truth from the hara is a bit of end-gaining. Even to pursue the truth with self-consciousness of the whole body is a bit of end-gaining.

Whatever bit of my end-gaining self I pursue the truth with, it is always not that. And intellectual honesty in regard to my own end-gaining is not it either.

What is required on the path to truth, as Master Dogen saw it and as Patrick Macdonald also saw it, is not excessive reliance on intellectual faculties, and not any other kind of grimly determined end-gaining either, but a different kind of awareness altogether.

How to cultivate this different awareness, Marjory Barlow taught me with amazing clarity and simplicity.

She taught me, on receiving her command to move a leg, to totally relinquish my desire to do anything, in order to allow my neck to release, in order to allow every joint in my body to open up, in order to allow myself, in that state of greater freedom, to allow for a completely new and unknown experience of not moving a leg, or moving a leg, to take place.

Marjory taught me how, by performing the simplest of actions, to open myself up to the birdsong. What Marjory taught me was too bloody simple for words.

Hence FM Alexander’s protestation that “A child of three can understand this work. But give me a man who has been educated, and God help me!”

Master Dogen's ultimate teaching is, as I understand it, by means of accepting and using the whole self in the simple act of sitting, and by means of wholly forgetting the self in the simple act of sitting, to realize the complicated as the complicated.

We human beings, with our highly developed top 2-inches, are uniquely able to simplify the complicated -- hence, for example, Einstein's e = mc2.

And we human beings, with our highly developed top 2-inches, are uniquely able to complicate the simple.

That has been the primary thrust of my life. Top of the class at primary school, I passed an exam to receive an elitist secondary education that, it was emphasized to us, was a great privilege. Even at Oxford and Cambridge, I remember being told, King Edwards old boys had a reputation for being thinkers.

Go FORWARD, the school song, exhorted us, FORWARD for the school's renown. FORWARD where the knocks are hardest.

FORWARD is generally the direction in which the intellect leads us -- FORWARD, complicating the simple by putting in the head.