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 (http://the-middle-way.org/subpage8.html) 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


What if what you actually need to do is hatch a chicken not make an omlette??? It could explain a lot!

"We become conscious by inhibiting unconscious behaviour"

Something in this sentence smells wrong. It's the word inhibit that is an issue. It suggests a conscious act to repress and I don't think that is what you mean and I certainly don't think that is what happens....

12:56 PM  
Blogger HezB said...

Hi Mike,

Thank you. Your explanation of the 'leg raising' lesson is an excellent insight into the attitude of AT (I was considering approaching it for a while, but after some research and consultation decided to learn Tai Chi as a way of approaching posture).

What would you say to someone like me who thinks that such carry-on as you explain seems like anal gazing taken to an extreme?

Best Regards,


3:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

I am glad, mike doe, that you raised this objection to the word "inhibit," which is a common objection. The wrong smell may lie in the nose of the smeller. The problem, in other words, is not in the word "inhibit," but in the Freudian and other barnacles that people attach to the word.

What Marjory taught me, in the first instance, was just how to inhibit, how to stop off at source my wrong reactions, by totally annihilating the idea of gaining the end of moving my leg. By repressing the hell out of the end-gaining idea, only then could I be free to hear the bird song, and only then could I be free to move the leg with ease.

The first seeds of me hearing the bird song with Marjory were sowed nearly 30 years ago during competition karate, in which I learned to inhibit the idea of punching my opponent. I learned to inhibit the idea, and inhibit the idea, and inhibit the idea, until eventually the opponent left himself open, at which moment, on a good day, a counterpunch would do itself. In this way, competition karate gave me a glimpse of something I didn't understand at the time, but wanted to understand. With Alexander work I have gradually come to understand it a little more clearly.

What FM Alexander meant by inhibition has got nothing to do with suppressing sexual desire. FM thought that a lot of the problems of the world were due to women being left unsatisfied in bed by men whose powers of inhibition were under-developed. Inhibition of end-gaining ideas is the key to reaching what Alexander called "the plane of conscious control," on which level a person is free to realize whatever desires he likes.

The third noble truth is just the truth of inhibition. Nirodha means inhibition -- inhibition of the end-gaining which, in combination with faulty sensory processing, is at the root of suffering.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Good question, Harry.

In response to the view you have put forward, I might reply in verse:





3:55 PM  
Blogger HezB said...

Hi Mike.

I'm not sure Tai Chi is about 'right posture', or wanking for that matter, at all. Although, like all walks of life I'm sure it has its wankers (in fact, I know it does)... its really about not getting your face smashed in by some wanker (or not getting it smashed in in response to calling someone a wanker). But we both know that there is more to it than that. In other words; it seems to me more practical... assuming its normal human behavior not to want your face smashed in by a wanker that is?

I have had some back trouble in the past. Tai Chi has helped this a lot. Again, practical: Which level of hell should I look forward to rotting in? (as long as its not 'Bad Back Hell' then bring it on, Baby!)

Isn't 'non-painful' posture a valid 'right' posture? I'm sure there's a lot of idealised 'right posturing' in Tai chi and other martial arts, but I've been lucky in finding common sense teachers who practice that a person must work with the condition of their bodies and minds first and foremost. You learn form to forget about it, to practice it without practicing, to move naturally and instinctively, goalessly: this is not a new idea/ teaching by any means.



4:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:51 PM  
Blogger HezB said...

Was that an AT self defence move then, Mike?

Not very graceful.



5:08 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

I wasn't happy with my response, so I deleted it.

If I try to express myself more gracefully:

From my reading of Fukan-zazengi, Master Dogen's teaching is about inhibition of end-gaining, and the emergence of true consciousness -- not in approaching right posture and learning instinctive movement.

To remain clear in regard to the mutual exclusivity of the two approaches, even if others are not clear, is each person's job.

To be impatient about the end-gaining attitude of others is always a reflection of uninhibited endgaining in me.

All the best

6:04 PM  
Blogger HezB said...

"To be impatient about the end-gaining attitude of others is always a reflection of uninhibited endgaining in me."


Yeah, I got used to that and now you seem perfectly 'Mike-ful' the way you are. And now I expect that you'll offer an equally perfect disagreement to that?

Either way: we love ya, Mike.

And you know damn well that all consciousness is true.



6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


my understanding of the word inhibit arises from an engineering/physics background. I attach no connotations to it. Certainly none of the freudian ones. I consider it to be a technical word.

My understandign of nirodha was that it means literally "extinction" or "extinguish" as in what you do with an oil lamp which ISTR is where the word originates.

So when as I understand it you are talking about inhibition you are talking about moving from doing to non-doing and it comes down to semantics.

I also think that you are using the terms conscious and unconscious not in the pure psychology sense but more in the sense that Master Dogen would talk about Awake and Asleep.

Would it be fair to say that what you are actually doing is attempting to inhibit the ego - to move it out of the way - so that you act from fully who you are.

From your many descriptions of AT I receive the distinct impression that it is actaully re-describing such things as "the samadhi of accepting and using the self"

The difference between forcing the body to move and the body moving itself as a wholly integrated and effortless action.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the 3rd NT I understand the Nirodha it refers to be the extinction of the ego or the soul if you will.

Since it is this (the ego) which is the cause of suffering, of the splitting into dualities of likes and dislikes of this and that, of self and other.

In Zazen it is ultimately the Ego that falls away (albeit temporarily) which gives the experience of "body and mind dropping off" and in AT I think you are learning the same thing through the directions of a teacher?

6:57 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you for these stimulating comments/questions. I will address them in the next post.

8:51 AM  

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