Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Saturday, 5 March 2016

How is True Mindfulness Connected with Emptiness?

How is true mindfulness (samyag-smṛṭi) connected with emptiness?

The Sanskrit samyag-smṛṭi which means true remembering, true mindfulness, or true awareness, was rendered into Chinese with these two characters, 正念pronounced in Japanese as SHO-NEN.

means true or right.
As a pictograph, combines the two elements , which means now, the present time, and which means heart or mind.

Dogen used the characters正念 in his first version of Fukan-zazengi, in the phrase 正念分明, which I translated a few years ago as “true consciousness is distinct and clear.”

In translating 正念 like this as “true consciousness,” I was mindful of my teacher's teaching that 正念 means, in his words, our consciousness when our our autonomic nervous system is balanced.

My late Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima felt very strongly that what Zen Master Dogen was expressing with the characters 正念 was just balance of the autonomic nervous system.

To the extent that I agreed with him in this matter, I was Gudo Nishijima's friend and loyal student, his blue-eyed boy even. To the extent that I disagreed, I was a non-Buddhist, a kind of demon, a fish he would rather not have caught.

So this for me has been more than an abstract philosophical question. It has been more of an existential question, more a matter of life and death:

How is samyag-smṛṭi, 正念, true mindfulness, connected with emptiness as the Buddha really taught it?

If we understand (a) that samyag-smṛṭi, 正念, true mindfulness is just the balanced state [of the autonomic nervous system], and (b) that emptiness, as the state of plus-minus zero, is also just the balanced state [of the autnomomic nervous system], there is thus established a very powerful connection between true mindfulness and emptiness. Following this track there is not so much a connection as complete identity. True mindfulness (samyag-smṛṭi) and emptiness (śunyatā) are two words for the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system.

But if we trust the Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasuttaṁ as a reliable record of what the Buddha said – and, on the basis of studying it and reflecting on it, I definitely do trust it – in that sutta the Buddha taught mindfulness as not so much a state as a practice.

I submit that, for example, in the section on in-and-out-breathing, true mindfulness as practice is connected with emptiness in the following four ways:

  • 1. Via the emptiness of not trying to be right

"While breathing in long, he knows “I am breathing in long”,
or, while breathing out long, knows “I am breathing out long”;
or, while breathing in short, knows “I am breathing in short”,
or, while breathing out short, knows “I am breathing out short.”

Knowing that a short in-breath is short, et cetera, means letting a short in-breath be short. In Alexander terms, the instruction is inhibitory. 

Then what, exactly, is inhibited? The ignorance of trying to be right. The idea that there is such a thing as being right. The tendency to intervene in a top-down manner to improve a situation and thus, ironically, by the law of unintended consequences, to make the situation worse. In short, what is to be inhibited is what Alexander called "end-gaining," or sometimes "fixing." 

Only when we understand this can our practice be empty of what Alexander called “end-gaining.” That said, even when we think we have understood already, there may be levels of depth of understanding of which we remain unaware. The end-gaining to be inhibited, in other words, is always liable to lie further back than we had hitherto realized. 

When it came to breathing, Gudo Nishijima and FM Alexander were ostensibly on the same page. Both understood that breathing was a natural process that, when conditions were right, could best be left to take care of itself. When it came to how to go about establishing those right conditions, however, Gudo Nishijima's conception of correct posture, and FM Alexander's teaching of letting the head go forward and up to let the back lengthen and widen, were chalk and cheese. Which is to say that Gudo Nishijima's approach to correct posture tended more in the direction of end-gaining, whereas FM Alexander's approach continued to be based on that emptiness which is the inhibition of end-gaining, i.e., that emptiness which is true freedom from trying to be right.

Gudo Nishijima understood well in theory the principle of not trying to be right – he heeded Master Dogen's instruction not to think good/bad, not to care right/wrong. But in practice he encouraged his students in sitting to try to be right.

Gudo Nishijima also emphasized – again heeding Master Dogen's teaching – the oneness of practice and theory. So it was a case of theory and practice being the same in theory, but not always in practice.

In making this criticism here, what am I up to? What is the point of endeavoring to demonstrate that my teacher's teaching was wrong? In making that criticism am I free of trying to be right? Or am I, deep down, still just trying to be right? 

Whichever is the case, I think that implicit in while breathing in short, he knows “I am breathing in short”, is recognition of the truth that trying to be right makes us wrong. 

So true mindfulness is connected with the emptiness of not trying to be right. 

In Marjory Barlow's words: "Let it all be wrong!" 

  • 2. Via the emptiness of the whole body reflecting

“Being thoroughly aware of [or with] the whole body, I will breathe in”: like this he trains;
“being thoroughly aware of [or with] the whole body, I will breathe out”: like this he trains. 

These words of the Buddha bring to my mind what Marjory Barlow would sometimes say to me after working for some time with me lying on my back with knees bent on her teaching table – “That's it. The whole body informed with thought.”

Gautama's Buddha sabbakāya and Marjory's “whole body” are the same words in two languages.

My teacher Gudo Nishijima, I am sure, would have objected to the expression “informed with thought.” His teaching was that the whole body in Zazen should be liberated both from feeling and from thinking.

But this objection would have been based on not understanding what Marjory meant by “with thought.” “With thought” didn't mean abstract or intellectual thinking. “With thought” meant with preventive direction, as expressed in verbal orders “Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen, while sending the knees up to the ceiling.”

In any case, when practice of true mindfulness is connected with the emptiness of the whole body reflecting, the point might be that what is absent, in that emptiness, is reliance on partial feelings, reliance on partial thoughts, and mal-coordination between body parts.

In theory, again, Gudo Nishijima always taught that in Zazen “we need not think anything, we need not feel anything...” But Gudo in practice, in his ineffable ignorance, encouraged his students to make a big effort to “keep the spine straight vertically,” which involved – for any student sincere/stupid enough to follow Gudo's teaching conscientiously – a severe mal-coordination of body parts. I know whereof I speak.

  • 3. Via the emptiness of non-doing

“Causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in”: like this he trains;
“causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe out”: like this he trains.

According to Margaret Goldie, an Alexander teacher who was particularly close to FM Alexander in his last days, FM Alexander would latterly say in his teaching, “choose to be quiet throughout the whole self.”

The emptiness that FM was thus expressing was an absence of “doing." 

Cf. Marjory Barlow's “the wrong inner patterns are the doing that has to be stopped.”

People misunderstand the Buddha's instruction as tantamount to saying, “Calming the breathing, I will breathe in,” so that practice of mindfulness is somehow tied up with breath control.

But if we study the Buddha's words as the Pali records them, the practice, or the training, is expressed by means of the quotation particle ti

"passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī" ti sikkhati,
“......................................................................”: like this........"
passambhayaṁ kāyasaṅkhāraṁ passasissāmī" ti sikkhati
“......................................................................”: like this........

So the practice or the training is in the remembering, or in the mindfulness, of what is contained within the quotation marks, like this: 
“causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in” 
“causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe out.”

What then, exactly, is expressed by “causing bodily doing to cease, I will breathe in” ?

I think what is expressed is a kind of resolution, or decision, or choice. Hence, in FM Alexander's words, choose to be quiet throughout the whole self.”

Here and now the practice is to be clear in that choice, and the breathing will (assasissāmī and passasissāmī are future tense) take care of itself.

My Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima was not without deep intuitive understanding of this principle. Thus when Zen Master Dogen in the opening sentence of Shobogenzo records  that the buddha-tathāgatas possess a subtle method which is supreme and free of doing (無為), Gudo translated 無為 as “natural.” And insofar as "natural" means free of artificial interference, "natural" is accurate enough. 

Again, in connection with the breathing, my Zen teacher was clear that our task was not to try to control it, but rather to leave it be, focusing not on breathing but rather on keeping the spine straight vertically.

Gudo thus understood that there was nothing we could do, by direct top-down intervention, to make our breathing more natural. Sadly, however, his wisdom concerning what is natural did not extend to the matter of “correct posture.” When it came to keeping the spine straight vertically, my teacher's teaching was that we should just do it, maintaining a certain tension in the muscles around the lumbar spine, and pulling in the chin so as to impart a stretch to the muscles at the back of the neck. Thus, in pursuit of the truth of freedom from doing -- latter-day Japanese Zen masters in their ineffable ignorance have taught -- we should do this, do that, and do the other.

  • 4. Via the emptiness of just sitting

And how, monks, does a monk dwell in the body contemplating the body?
Here, monks, a monk who has gone to the wilderness, or has gone to the root of a tree, or has gone to an empty place, sits. Folding his legs into the lotus posture, directing the body up, and thus establishing mindfulness to the fore, he, just being mindful breathes in, and just being mindful breathes out...

This paragraph is the beginning of the section on in-and-out-breathing in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasuttaṁ, but in a sense it might also express the ultimate end-point of practising mindfulness. Which is to say that the beginning and end of practising mindfulness, for a person who aspires to follow the Zen buddha-ancestors in just sitting, might be to fold one's legs into the lotus posture and keep directing the body up.... until such time as the body directs itself up.

“Stop doing the wrong thing,” FM Alexander used to say, “and the right thing does itself.”
“You are all perfect,” Marjory Barlow echoed, “apart from what you are doing.”

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