Sunday, 23 December 2012

Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice - Part 3: Lakes, Rivers and Sunlight

"The eternal lamp represents perfect awareness. Likening the illumination of awareness to that of a lamp, those who seek liberation see their body as the lamp, their mind as its wick, the addition of discipline as its oil, and the power of wisdom as its flame. By lighting this lamp of perfect awareness they dispel all darkness and delusion. And by passing this Dharma on to others they’re able to use one lamp to light thousands of lamps. And because these lamps likewise light countless other lamps, their light lasts forever." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Breakthrough Sermon.

In Part 1 the symbolic use of water and fire within mindfulness meditation traditions was referenced with an emphasis on ocean metaphors. In Part 2, teachings based around the properties of fire and alchemy - how transformations take place within heated vessels filled with water were discussed. In this third and last part,  mindfulness meditation teachings presenting the element of fire as an illuminator and the element of water as lakes and rivers will be looked at.

Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), referred to the training ground for the Buddhas as a blazing fire, p294:
"The training ground for the turning of the Wheel of the Dharma by all the Buddhas in the three temporal worlds is undoubtedly within the Blazing Fire: within the Blazing Fire is undoubtedly the training ground for Buddhas."
A little later Dogen further states, p312:
"The Blazing Fire expresses both the Buddha and the Dharma. The Buddha and the Dharma both express the Blazing Fire."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001), equates this blazing fire to our focused consciousness which can bring us a breakthrough in our practice, p27:
"In Buddhist meditation, we practice concentration, bringing everything into sharp, clear focus. This practice is called one-pointedness of mind (ekagrata). The object of our concentration— the queen bee around which our swarming thoughts can gather—may be our breathing, a leaf, a pebble, a flower, or the object of our meditative focus. In the practice, we are given methods to help us concentrate the energy of our mind consciousness, to not let it become distracted. This practice is like putting a spotlight on the object of our concentration, just as when a singer or dancer is performing on stage and the spotlight is focused only on her. We focus our minds intently on the object of our concentration. When we use a lens to focus sunlight on one point, its energy is concentrated so effectively that we can burn a hole in a piece of cloth. In the same way, we focus our mind consciousness on one point in order to get a breakthrough."


Zen Master Dogen spoke of a breakthrough during practice as a flaming blue lotus, in Shobogenzo, p553:
"the moment when the blue lotus bursts into bloom is like being in the midst of a fire at the time of fire [Footnote: The blue lotus refers to the blossoming of the spiritual flower of one’s training and enlightenment, not to an actual plant.]. The fire’s sparks and flames all converge at the point where the blue lotus bursts into bloom at the very moment when it bursts into bloom. If it were not the time and place of the blue lotus’s blossoming, not even a single spark of fire would emerge, not even a single spark of fire would come to life. You need to know that there are hundreds of thousands of blue lotuses in a single spark of fire: they blossom forth throughout boundless space and throughout the earth. They blossomed forth in the past and they blossom forth in the present. When you witness the time and place of the fire emerging, you are witnessing the blossoming of the blue lotus. Do not let the time and place of the blue lotus pass you by, but be a witness to its blossoming.

An enlightened one of long ago once said in a poem, “The blue lotus blooms amidst the fire.” Thus it is that the blue lotus invariably blossoms forth in the midst of the fire. If you wish to know where ‘being in the midst of the fire’ is, it is the very place where the blue lotus blossoms forth."
A lotus pond outside Angkor Wat Temple. Photo taken by the author during a visit to Cambodia in 2009.
This idea of our spiritual practice being like a lotus growing in a lake or pond is a very ancient one. The lotus symbolically emerges from within the dark, murky water into the sunlight above in the same way a person can grow into a wise, elightened sage.

Like a lotus, however, it seems we must begin from within the depths of the lake. Without an understanding of what potential tranquility and nourishment is held within and around us, we will not be able to 'blossom'. Mindfulness meditation teacher, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, goes into detail about 'lake meditation' practice in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p143:
"In the lake meditation, we sit with the intention to hold in awareness and acceptance all the qualities of mind and body, just as the lake sits held, cradled, contained by the earth, reflecting sun, moon, stars, trees, rocks, clouds, sky, birds, light, caressed by the air and wind, which bring out and highlight its sparkle, its vitality, its essence."
As one sits like a lake, one's mind can settle into peaceful acceptance. American Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this process in her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p98-99:
"The ancient words say, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mind settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”
Five Flower Lake, China.
A couple of pages later she describes the potential outcome, p101:
"The self-centered self becomes more transparent, clearer, so that we can settle right through it. As the mud settles and the water becomes clearer, we can see the jewel—almost as if we were in tropical waters and could look into the depths and see the colored fish and plants."
The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) gives advice on practicing the lake meditation method as follows, p129:
"You’re both the deep, still lake underneath, and the ripples on the surface. [...] Allow yourself to feel your own tranquillity and serenity underneath the turbulent surface. [...]... allow the continual change that persistently unfolds around and in the lake to be part of the natural process of nature, and even embrace the beauty of it in yourself... [...] Enjoy the vision of the lake as it effortlessly reflects the sun and sky, birds and bees, plants and animals during the day, and the exquisite pale moon and twinkling stars at night, in the dark, cool sky – ever present, always changing, and yet always the same."
A lake in a park in Sanya, Hainan Island, China, taken by the author in 2009. In the morning and evening, this lake is surrounded by Chinese people doing exercise and mindful activities.
As part of the beauty of nature in and around the lake, the metaphorical lotus flower beginning to emerge from the water can be experienced by an unfolding of emotional tranquility. These positive feelings are described relative to the lake meditation in Meditation for Dummies (2006) as follows, p85:
"With increased one-pointedness comes an experience of inner harmony and stillness, as the sediment in the turbulent lake of your mind gradually settles, leaving the water clean and clear. This experience is generally accompanied by feelings of calm and relaxation — and occasionally by other pleasurable feelings like love, joy, happiness, and bliss"
However, there will always be some movement of the water. Dr. Kabat-Zinn mentions this feature in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p31:
"There are always waves on the water. Sometimes they are big, sometimes they are small, and sometimes they are almost imperceptible. The water's waves are churned up by winds, which come and go and vary in direction and intensity, just as do the winds of stress and change in our lives, which stir up waves in our minds. People who don't understand meditation think that it is some kind of special inner manipulation which will magically shut off these waves so that the mind's surface will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil. But just as you can't put a glass plate on the water to calm the waves, so you can't artificially suppress the waves of your mind, and it is not too smart to try. It will only create more tension and inner struggle, not calmness. That doesn't mean that calmness is unattainable. It's just that it cannot be attained by misguided attempts to suppress the mind's natural activity."

In order to flow in harmony with the natural movement of the water, we can look for a more dynamic metaphor in rivers. Thich Nhat Hanh relates our bodies to rivers in many of his books. In The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998) he writes p176:
"Learn to look at your body as a river in which every cell is a drop of water. In every moment, cells are born and cells die. Birth and death support each other."
More detail on this perspective is given in Peace is Every Step (2005), p39:
"In us, there is a river of feelings, in which every drop of water is a different feeling, and each feeling relies on all the others for its existence. To observe it, we just sit on the bank of the river and identify each feeling as it surfaces, flows by, and disappears."
In The Sun My Heart (1988), Thich Nhat Hanh warns against attempting to go against the current, p7:
"Our thoughts and feelings flow like a river. If we try to stop the flow of a river, we will meet the resistance of the water. It is better to flow with it, and then we may be able to guide it in ways we want it to go. We must not attempt to halt it."


In The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), he speaks of emulating the flowing waterplants living within the river, p35:
"Be like the waterplants which flow with the current, while beneath the surface of the water the riverbed remains motionless. Hold on to nothing but your breath and the half smile."
Earlier in the same book, he uses a river metaphor to describe the ideal quality of one's breath during meditation, p20:
"Your breath should be light, even, and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand. Your breath should be very quiet, so quiet that a person sitting next to you cannot hear it. Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a watersnake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse."
Finally, in The Sun, My Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh introduces the sun's role shining down upon the river of our perceptions - as our awareness, p9-10:
"The river of our perceptions continues to flow, but now, in the sunlight of awareness, it flows peacefully, and we are serene. The relation between the river of perceptions and the sun of awareness is not the same as that of an actual river and the actual sun. Whether it is midnight or noon, whether the sun is absent or its penetrating rays are beaming down, the waters of the Mississippi River continue to flow, more or less the same. But when the sun of awareness shines on the river of our perceptions, the mind is transformed. Both river and sun are of the same nature."

The sun shining down on the water links to the idea of Zen enlightenment; that there is a formidable, bright  potential to our being which can be witnessed and which liberates a person from all suffering. The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma wrote of this sunlight in his Breakthrough Sermon:
"The Sutra of Ten Stages says, "in the body of mortals is the indestructible buddha-nature. Like the sun, its light fills endless space, But once veiled by the dark clouds of the five shades, it’s like a light inside a jar, hidden from view."
"If you can simply concentrate your mind’s Inner Light and behold its outer illumination, you’ll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections, and doors to the truth, Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away, Realization is now."

Reading all of these teachings, it seems we can gain some deep guidance for mindfulness meditation practice. However, as the above teachers would likely advise, we must not cling onto these words as truth. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this situation in Understanding Our Mind, p180:
"Objects of knowledge are like water that has become ice and prevents the river from flowing. We need knowledge, but we have to use it intelligently. When we think that our present knowledge is paramount, our way ahead is blocked. Our knowledge has become an obstacle."
In order to practice properly, one needs to go beyond the limited guiding words of teachers and into the realm of pure awareness where there are no true boundaries between phenomena. Thich Nhat Hanh presents this perspective relative to the nature of water in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p149:
"To see the wondrous nature of water, you need to look beyond the sign (appearance) of the water, and see that it is made of non-water elements. If you think that water is only water, that it cannot be the sun, the earth, or the flower, you are not correct. When you can see that the water is the sun, the earth, and the flower, that just by looking at the sun or the earth you can see the water, this is "the signlessness of signs."

Letting go of all divisive constructs of the mind was also reinforced by Bodhidharma. He related one example in his Wake-up Sermon using water and fish as follows:
"The mind gives birth to the Buddha. But although the Buddha comes from the mind, the mind doesn’t come from the Buddha, just as fish come from water, but water doesn’t come from fish. Whoever wants to see a fish sees the water before he sees the fish. And whoever wants to see a Buddha sees the mind before he sees the Buddha. Once you’ve seen the fish, You forget about the water. And once you’ve seen the Buddha, you forget about the mind. If you don’t forget about the mind, the mind will confuse you, just as the water will confuse you if you don’t forget about it."
And so with those last words from the founder of Zen, we complete our journey through the use of fire and water metaphors in mindfulness practice.

A Japanese painting of a Zen monk warming his buttocks on a fire containing a burning wooden Buddha effigy. The blazing fire of practice is expected to eventually burn up the practice itself.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Chinese Calligraphy: Writing the Heart (Prajñāpāramitā) Sutra Title

"...the heart sutra, which is one of my favorite texts in the Zen tradition... said, "There's no place to go. There's nothing to do. And there's nothing to attain." So when you sit in that way or when you cultivate mindfulness in everyday life in that way, it's not like you become some kind of shirker or lazy good-for-nothing. It's that you're actually rotating consciousness so that you're not caught by the usual things that will just hold us in a certain kind of conventional framework that does not allow us to be free to be who are already are." - Mindfulness Teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Podcast Interview: Insights at the Edge with Tami Simon.
"The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha's teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and it does so without being superficial or commonplace." - Red Pine, The Heart Sutra (2004), p5
"This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra [Heart Sutra]." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p41
"prajña paramita, the perfection of understanding. This is the highest kind of understanding, free from all knowledge, concepts, ideas, and views. Prajña is the substance of Buddhahood in us. It is the kind of understanding that has the power to carry us to the other shore of freedom, emancipation, and peace. In Mahayana Buddhism, prajña paramita is described as the Mother of All Buddhas. Everything that is good, beautiful, and true is born from our mother, prajña paramita. She is in us; we only need to touch her to help her manifest herself. Right View is prajña paramita." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), p210.

The Heart Sutra carved on bamboo strips.
The Heart Sutra, dating back to around the 7th Century AD, encourages us to let go of conceptual understanding and give up on all views -to give up even the idea of wisdom itself. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this in his book The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, p5:
"Perfect Understanding is prajnaparamita. The word "wisdom" is usually used to translate prajna, but I think that wisdom is somehow not able to convey the meaning. Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding. In Buddhism knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for understanding. If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won't want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of understanding."
A statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva sat in meditation posture.

The Heart Sutra text, translated by Red Pine in his book The Heart Sutra, reads as follows, p2:
"The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,
looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness
not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form,
no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;
no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feelingand no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;
no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.”
Here is a video of the above text being sung in Mandarin Chinese:


Even though the Heart Sutra was written in Sanskrit - an Indian language, there is a popular theory that the Heart Sutra was first constructed in Chinese, and then back-translated into the traditional Indian language for Buddhist scriptures. The Buddhism scholar Jan Nattier wrote in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol 15:2.1992, p172-173:
"the Sanskrit Heart Sutra offers us exactly the kind of synonym-shift that we would expect if it were a back-translation from the Chinese.[...] while the sequence of ideas found in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra matches that of the Sanskrit Large Sutra exactly, virtually every word in these two texts... is different. Such a striking similarity in content, combined with an equally striking difference in vocabulary, can only 'be explained as the result of a back-translation - that is, by the translation of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra from the Chinese."
I have been learning how to write the Heart Sutra in the ancient cursive zhāngcǎo (章草) Chinese calligraphy script with Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang. Here is a video of the title written out on practice paper by myself:

 This is the practice sheet written in the above video:

The Heart Sutra title written in old cursive Chinese calligraphy by the author.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Guardian News: Adjust Your Defaults

In his Life & style series of articles, Oliver Burkeman wrote a great piece about changing habits in The Guardian Online newspaper, Friday 7 December 2012, titled: This column will change your life: adjust your defaults.

Here are some of the quotes which I found especially useful in terms of mindfulness practice:
"...two studies widely reported a few weeks back: one suggested that, after the age of 25, every hour spent sitting watching TV knocks almost 22 minutes off your life – twice the impact of one cigarette. The other found that the average adult spends 50-70% of the day sitting down, with the most sedentary among us at vastly greater risk of disease and early death."
"It becomes easier to resist the siren call of the web and social media, for example, if you come to see "not being online" as the default state, and "being online" as the active, chosen one – something you sporadically choose to do, then stop doing. It's also the spirit behind the idea the productivity blogger Thanh Pham calls "clearing to neutral": the habit, after any activity, of clearing up the equipment involved – dirty pans, work files – so they're ready for next time. Gradually, tidiness becomes the default, mess the anomaly, and the good habit happens without thinking or effort. My latest experiment is a default bedtime of 10.30pm. I'm not sticking to it religiously, but that's not the point: it's what I revert to when there is no good reason to do otherwise."
There is even a mention of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Meditation:
"This idea goes deeper: "adjusting your defaults" is one way that the meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines the goal of mindfulness meditation. Being lost in thought is the default state for most of us; adjusting your defaults involves not ceasing to think, but rather making "present-moment awareness" the default, with thinking as the activity you choose to do when it's useful. He doesn't pretend this is easy. But it is a shift in perspective worth contemplating"

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice - Part 2: Fire and Alchemy

"When you light the fire of wisdom, you warm the pure water of the precepts and bathe the true Buddha nature within you." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Breakthrough Sermon.

In Part 1 I discussed various mindfulness teachings on the positive role of the water element in mindfulness practice. This time I am going to present various metaphorical examples from mindfulness teachers using the fire element and how it interacts with the water element.

Indonesian Buddhist monks obtaining fire from the undying Mrapen flame, Java.
In Manggarmas Village, Godong District, Grobogan regency, Central Java Province, Indonesia, there is a flame that never goes out - even when storms ravage the islands. It is a natural geological phenomenon consisting of flammable gas escaping from the Earth's surface which was set alight (most likely by accident) more than 400 years ago. The locals call it the Mrapen and it is used during ceremonies as a symbol of humanity's undying spirit. Beyond symbolic uses, however, fire has been a practical tool for humans for thousands of years. Discovering how to make fire significantly changed human societies, but we did not always have to make it - it could be taken from active volcanic areas.

A Tanna guide showing how to take fire from a volcano, Vanuatu Islands.
Another by-product of volcanic activity bringing natural heat to the surface of the Earth is hot springs. These  pools even today continue to provide us with a resource to enjoy in various ways, and it is this kind of basic elemental interaction between fire and water which has inspired so many mindfulness teachers to produce teachings using these two opposite natural forces as metaphors.

Japanese Macaque monkeys taking refuge in a hot spring in sub-zero temperatures.
Reducing the various aspects of nature down to a handful of elemental forces was a feature of classical Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophy. Buddhism engaged in such a practice, as is outlined by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), p69:
"The third method the Buddha offered for practicing mindfulness of the body in the body is to see the elements that it is made of: earth, water, fire, and air. "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me. Breathing out, I smile to the earth element in me." "Earth element" refers to things that are solid. When we see the earth element inside and outside of us, we realize that there is really no boundary between us and the rest of the universe. Next, we recognize the water element inside and outside of us. "Breathing in, I am aware of the element of water in my body." We meditate on the fact that our body is more than seventy percent water. After that, we recognize the fire element, which means heat, inside and outside of us. For life to be possible, there must be heat. Practicing this, we see over and over that the elements inside and outside our body belong to the same reality, and we are no longer confined by our body. We are everywhere."

Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki speaks of water in his book Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p53:
"In the darkness the branching streams flow everywhere, like water. Even when you are not aware of water, there is water. Water is inside our physical body and in plants too; there is water all over. In the same way the pure source is everywhere."
It seems it is in the nature of water to contain everything within it - even fire, and maybe it is this receptiveness of water to fire which lies at the root of some of the most useful mindfulness meditation metaphors. Suzuki goes on to illustrate the role of fire relative to water thus, p85:
"The nature of fire is to purify. [...] The nature of water is to contain things. Wherever you go there is water; water contains everything. This is opposite to the usual way of thinking about water. Instead of saying there is water in the trunk of the tree, we say that water contains the trunk of the tree as well as the leaves and branches. So water is something vast in which everything, including ourselves, exists."

It is also in the nature of water to move downwards, and for fire to move upwards, and these two opposite directions seem to create a kind of antagonistic tension - like a burning, dynamic fire of awareness in our minds high in our being, and a lake of still cool water lower in our being - as if both elements are stretching the spine straight as one sits in mindful meditation.

American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book Everyday Zen (1997), mentions harnessing one's fiery attention in order to cut through unhealthy conditioned behaviours, p32:
"Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can. None of us is very willing to use it; but when we do—even for a few minutes—some cutting and burning takes place." 
Bodhidharma; the Indian/Persian travelling Buddhist monk who is often considered the first true Zen teacher, spoke alternatively, in his Breakthrough Sermon, of the Dharma [teachings] being like a fire housed within practitioner's body which is acting like a furnace:
"Those who seek enlightenment regard their bodies as the furnace, the Dharma as the fire, wisdom as the craftsmanship, and the three sets of precepts and six paramitas as the mold. They smelt and refine the true buddha-nature within themselves and pour it into the mold formed by the rules of discipline."
The 'cosmic flame mudra' often used in seated Zen meditation.
This intensive burning, dissolving, and purifying of one's essence is described by various teachers in similar ways to Bodhidharma. Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p33-34:
"the main purpose of doing sesshin [prolonged sitting practice] is this burning out of thoughts by the fire of attention, so that our lives can be dispassionate and fundamentally unaffected by outward circumstances. [...] ...the breathing deepens and, when the fire really burns, there’s nothing it can’t consume. When the fire gets hot enough, there is no self, because now the fire is consuming everything; there is no separation between self and other."
Shunryu Suzuki talks of this process relative to our tendency to become attached to things, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p63
"we should not become attached to what we have done in some special sense. What we call "attachment" is just these traces of our thought and activity. In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice."
The Hindu God Shiva dancing within intense flames.
Thich Nhat Hanh places an emphasis on the transformative potential of the burning process of our 'spiritual fire' in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching when he illustrates the Buddha's disciple Shariputra demonstrating his understanding to his teacher, p200:
"[Shariptra said to the Buddha:] "I have practiced to be more like fire. Fire burns everything, the pure as well as the impure, the beautiful as well as the distasteful, without grasping or aversion. If you throw flowers or silk into it, it burns. If you throw old cloth and other foul-smelling things into it, the fire will accept and burn everything. It does not discriminate. Why? Because fire can receive, consume, and burn everything offered to it. I have tried to practice like fire. I am able to burn the things that are negative in order to transform them."
This transformation via fire is presented in more detail in the same book, p138:
"If I burn this sheet of paper, will I reduce it to nonbeing? No, it will just be transformed into smoke, heat, and ash. If we put the "continuation" of this sheet of paper into the garden, later, while practicing walking meditation, we may see a little flower and recognize it as the rebirth of the sheet of paper. The smoke will become part of a cloud in the sky, also to continue the adventure."
The transformation from useless to useful by skillfully harnessing fire has long been a theme in Chinese culture. The Monkey King character, from the old Chinese story Journey to the West, has red bloodshot eyes after having been cooked in LaoZi's eight-way trigram crucible in an attempt to turn him into an elixir of immortality (since he had stolen and consumed LaoZi's special immortality pills). This very popular story is based upon the historical phenomenon of Chinese Buddhist monks travelling westward to India to obtain purer Buddhist teachings.

The Monkey King with red eyes irritated by the smoke from LaoZi's crucible, from the story Journey to the West.
The idea of transformation occurring via a heated pot can go all the way back to when humans first began cooking using pottery. Boiling food in water is one of the most simple and effective methods of cooking. Bodhidharma related the process of wisdom penetrating the world to water being heated in a container in his Breakthrough Sermon:
"wisdom... penetrates subject and object, just as fire warms water."
There is also a physical release that comes from boiling a pot of water - the water is made lighter as it evaporates into the air. The author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) writes of this process in relation to meditation, p86:
"You might say that meditating is like lifting the lid on a boiling pot of soup — you create space for the water to evaporate and relieve the pressure that has been building up inside."

Mindfulness teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn uses a similar analogy in The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), although he writes of bubbles moving up through the heated water, p156:
"As mindfulness develops, we can more and more observe thoughts and emotions as if they were bubbles rising from the bottom of a pot of boiling water; we simply watch as they burst at the surface."
In China the use of heated crucibles to change the physical makeup of objects went beyond the mere preparation of food, however - it formed the metaphorical and metaphysical premises underlying the practice of ancient Chinese alchemy.

It seems likely that these Daoist alchemical metaphysical and chemical practices involving the body were interwoven with, and were applied metaphorically to, Buddhist teachings during the formation of Zen in ancient China around 1500 years ago. However, since metaphysical complexity is not something mindfulness teachers have found useful, the transformative 'alchemical' potential of mainstream effective mindfulness practice has apparently remained, metaphorically, within the domain of cooking food.

A Chinese alchemist.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), of the transformation of food, when boiled in water, as being a useful metaphor to illustrate the effect of mindfulness meditation within our lives, p62:
"the objects of meditation must be realities that have real roots in yourselves - not just subjects of philosophical speculation. Each should be like a kind of food that must be cooked for a long time over a hot fire. We put it in a pot, cover it, and light the fire. The pot is ourselves and the heat used to cook is the power of concentration. The fuel comes from the continuous practice of mindfulness. Without enough heat the food will never be cooked. But once cooked, the food reveals its true nature and helps lead us to liberation."
He goes into more detail regarding the above metaphor and how exactly transformation takes place in our lives in Peace is Every Step (2005), p62-63:
"We cannot eat raw potatoes, but we don’t throw them away just because they are raw. We know we can cook them. So, we put them into a pot of water, put a lid on, and put the pot on the fire. The fire is mindfulness, the practice of breathing consciously and focusing on our anger. The lid symbolizes our concentration, because it prevents the heat from going out of the pot. When we are practicing breathing in and out, looking into our anger, we need some concentration in order for our practice to be strong. Therefore, we turn away from all distractions and focus on the problem. If we go out into nature, among the trees and flowers, the practice is easier. As soon as we put the pot on the fire, a change occurs. The water begins to warm up. Ten minutes later, it boils, but we have to keep the fire going a while longer in order to cook our potatoes. As we practice being aware of our breathing and our anger, a transformation is already occurring. After half an hour, we lift the lid and smell something different. We know that we can eat our  potatoes now. Anger has been transformed into another kind of energy—understanding and compassion."
Soup cooked in a bamboo section placed on a wood fire.
This 'cooking process', independent of our efforts to have a regular discipline which enables us to sit down in mindfulness often enough, is effortless - it happens automatically. Kabat-Zinn mentions this aspect in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p94:
"Awareness itself does the cooking, as long as it is sustained. You just let the fragments stir while you hold them in awareness. Whatever comes up in mind or body goes into the pot, becomes part of the soup."
And so we have a harmonious interaction between the antagonistic elements of fire and water  - working together in harmony to transform and soften us as if we were a raw potato in a steamer, or a worn-out stiff-legged traveller recovering in a hot spring.

In amongst these metaphors, however, there is a lack of organic life in the mix - an apparently essential and more tangible source of inspiration for us as living organisms - and so next we will move to the role of fire as illuminator and nourisher, and water as a welcoming host to life - the sun above the lakes and ponds.... in part 3.


Monday, 3 December 2012

HanShan Monk Flute Melody (寒山僧踪)

"The mountains are so cold
not just now but every year
crowded ridges breathe in snow
sunless forests breathe out mist
nothing grows until Grain Ears
leaves fall before Autumn Begins
a lost traveler here
looks in vain for the sky" - Zen Hermit Hanshan (9th Century AD), The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (by Red Pine, 2000), p39

HanShan - Cold Mountain, China.

Hanshan was a Zen hermit who lived on a cold mountain range - the very place he took his name from, within the Tiāntái Mountains on the coast south of Shanghai and Hangzhou, China. He wrote poems on buildings and rocks during the Tang Dynasty; China's golden cultural era (618-907 AD).

During this period Zen practices were deeply established, and related arts flourished in many forms. There is a xiāo flute and 7 string Chinese zither piece dedicated to Hanshan the hermit. I am unsure as to when this melody, as well as lyrics, were created and given their title, however the song is very nice to play on the flute, so I have been practicing this a lot lately.

Here is a video of myself playing the first half of the song on my xiāo flute (the second half is pretty similar and the whole tune normally has a zither solo at the beginning, end, and in between the two flute parts):

Hanshan remains famous as a happy-go-lucky, detached, yet grounded character who turns our attention to nature as a resource for practice. Hanshan puts across his faith in nature and his expression when he writes in The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (by Red Pine,1983), p303:
"Whoever has Cold Mountain's poems
is better off than those with sutras
write them upon your screen
and read them from time to time"
Having grown up in relatively meagre conditions on a 'cold mountain' myself, I feel much of what he says speaks to my heart. The feeling expressed when he writes the following reminds me of wet mornings walking a quarter of a mile up a mountain lane in the Welsh countryside most days of the year (Porter, 1983), p30:
"Who takes the cold mountain road
takes a road that never ends
the streams are long and piled with rocks
the gorges wide and choked with grass
the moss is slick without any rain
the pines sing without the wind
who can get past the tangles of the world
and sit with me in the clouds?"

A Chinese painting of the Zen Hermit Hanshan.
The 'Hanshan Monk' song has been used on this apparent zen tourism style video available in China, but can give an example of the lyrics accompanying the melody, the area around HanShan mountain, and the connection of the song with Buddhism:

HanShan Temple, in SuZhou, China, is named after the hermit HanShan, and is famous for a poem written by the Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji called "A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge" (楓橋夜泊). It forms part of the Primary School curriculum in China, and goes as follows:
"While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell."


Music and poetry has apparently always played a role in Chinese Zen Buddhism. Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen speaks of his Chinese Zen Master, Tiāntóng Rújìng 天童如淨, in his book Shobogenzo as follows (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007) p763:
"within the Monks’ Hall the wooden han is now taken and struck, reverberating to the clouds, while in the Buddha Hall the bamboo shō [free reed musical instrument] is now blown, reverberating to the bottom of the water. At just such times, my late Master might inadvertently begin to recite a melodious poem about plum blossoms, such as the following:

When Gautama lost his worldly eyes,
Only a single branch of plum blossoms appeared amidst the snow.
Now everywhere new branches have sprung up
And, laughing, I delight in the spring wind’s scattering petals in wild disarray.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice - Part 1: Introduction & The Ocean

"to picture the Tao in the world imagine rivers and the sea" - LaoZi, DaoDeJing, 32.5

Quantum physics shows us that we can reduce everything in existence down to patterns of flowing energy - apparently set in motion by the Big Bang, or perhaps having always been in motion. This flowing energy  'condenses' in certain places to form all the variety of phenomena we see - the stars, clouds, mountains, oceans, and ourselves. The ancient Chinese Daoists considered this massive, ungraspable system - the universe in it's entirety -  the Dao.

Fragment of the Nine Dragon Scroll, China 1244 CE.
Although we humans have left the underwater environments in which our early ancestors thrived, we remain restricted to fluid atmospheres - we breathe and move through the air flowing around and within us in a similar way to how a shrimp breathes and moves through flowing water. Beyond the labels of 'air' and 'water', however, on the quantum energy level, shrimp and humans both move (or 'swim') through the flowing, energetic essence of the universe. In this sense, all organisms can be thought of as 'swimmers in the Dao'. The Chinese Chán (Zen) Buddhist master Xūyún (1840-1959) told the story of a lay Zen practitioner apparently using this idea when he wrote:
"Layman Pang had submerged himself in the sutras and one day he found that he, too, was in over his head. He hadn't learned to swim yet. On that day, he stormed out of his monastery-hut and, in abject frustration complained to his wife, "Difficult! Difficult! Difficult! Trying to grasp so many facts is like trying to store sesame seeds in the leaves of a tree top!"
His wife retorted, "Easy! Easy! Easy! You've been studying words, but I study the grass and find the Buddha Self reflected in every drop of dew."
Now, Layman Pang's daughter, Ling Zhao, was listening to this verbal splashing, so she went swimming by. "Two old people foolishly chattering!" she called."
A traditional Chinese ink painting of shrimp.
The idea of continuing activity in a focused and mindful way is one of the strongest themes at the heart of mindfulness practice. American Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck,  in the first few pages of her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), draws our attention to our transient, flowing nature thus, p3-4:
"We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life. In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river of life forms living things—a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants—then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow.[...] What we can best do for ourselves and for life is to keep the water in our whirlpool rushing and clear so that it is just flowing in and flowing out. When it gets all clogged up, we create troubles—mental, physical, spiritual. We serve other whirlpools best if the water that enters ours is free to rush through and move on easily and quickly to whatever else needs to be stirred. [...] By being protective and anxious, clinging to our assets, we clog up our lives. Water that should be rushing in and out, so it can serve, becomes stagnant. A whirlpool that puts up a dam around itself and shuts itself off from the river becomes stagnant and loses its vitality."
A Whirlpool Galaxy.
Interestingly, this comparison between all phenomena and the mechanisms of water was apparently at the core of the world-view belonging to the first famous Greek philosopher; Thales of Miletus.

Water seems insufficient to cater for all the general aspects of the universe, however, in the sense that the flowing energy of the universe can manifest as intense heat - our Sun is a perfect example of that. Heat is not a property that water is ever considered to have without having made contact with some other force or element. Our bodies, although mostly made of water, are warm-blooded, and the neurons in our brain 'fire' with electrical activity. The antagonistic elemental force which appears to heat and boil the 'waters of the Dao' is therefore fire. Together, the elements of fire and water - often referenced within Daoism as embodying yang and yin respectively - famously interact to create the dynamic universe.
Harnessing fire apparently revolutionized and fundamentally changed the way humans lived. A recent news article: Scientists find clue to human evolution's burning question (2012) states:
"Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, has argued that the invention of cooking split the ancestors of humans from the evolutionary path that went on to include modern gorillas and chimpanzees. Cooking allowed our ancestors to develop bigger brains and, in his hypothesis, is the key reason modern humans emerged. The controlled use of fire, according to Wrangham, was a more important milestone in human evolution than the invention of agriculture or eating meat."
Fire may not only have brought us warmth, light, cooked vegetables, and new weapons, however. Mindfulness teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), posits, p356:
"Sitting around fires at night, their only sources of heat and light, had a way of slowing people down-it was calming as well as warming. Staring into the flames and the embers, the mind could focus on the fire, always different, yet always the same. People could watch it moment by moment and night after night, month after month, year after year, through the seasons and see time stand still in the fire. Perhaps the ritual of sitting around fires was mankind's first experience of meditation."

Fire, within us, however, has often not had such positive connotations. The 'burning' of the passions like an intense fiery hell is something everyone seems to be familiar with. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), writes, p79:
"The fire of anger burns in us day and night and causes us to suffer — even more than the one at whom we are angry. When anger is absent, we feel light and free."
In another of his books, Understanding Our Mind (2001), Thich Nhat Hanh talks of how it is ourselves who light these fires, p3:
"Early Buddhist texts talk about these three realms of samsaric existence as being like a “house on fire.” The three realms are burning, and it is we who light the fire through the false perceptions of our consciousness. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to transform the suffering of these realms and stages."
Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) being attacked by the flames of Mara as he sat meditating.
Once we are adept at skillfully transforming this intense suffering into peaceful joy - to the point we do it subconsciously, then any unnecessary painful burning inside us is extinguished, while any necessary burning pain is accepted as a managable part of life. Thich Nhat Hanh relates this in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p140:
"Nirvana means pacifying, silencing, or extinguishing the fire of suffering."
We must understand how this fire within us is kindled and flares up, and once we know it's nature, we are no longer perturbed by it - outside or inside, and we can avoid pouring any extra fuel on destructive habits which may be burning out of control.

It seems this peace a human being can make with the intense burning of being - some of it inescapable - can reach incredibly deep levels. This is a photograph of the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burning himself alive in demonstration while meditating in1963:

Making peace with the necessary fires which blaze up in and around us requires a deep trust in nature - that everything is natural and in harmony with the universe, and that there is a positive side to any seemingly destructive event outside of our control. As Charolotte Joko Beck writes in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p110:
"Destruction is necessary. A good forest fire is necessary. The way we interfere with forest fires may not be a good thing. Without destruction, there could be no new life; and the wonder of life, the constant change, could not be. We must live and die. And this process is perfection itself."
It is not only fire which is destructive of course; water can be incredibly damaging - for example in the form of a Tsunami, or even as an erosive force. Dr Kabat-Zinn, in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), writes, p142:
"We know that the water principle is every bit as elemental as rock, and that its nature is stronger than rock in the sense that water wears down rock."

In the same way that a human can experience aging and sickness, family members dying, childbirth, and many other natural and necessary challenging phenomena as a burning pain, it seems the thoughts and desires we experience can be like the turbulent waves on the surface of the sea. Again; the way mindfulness teachers have taught us to deal with this situation is not to extinguish the suffering through mental effort, but to accept what is necessary and find the peaceful potential hidden within it. As the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) states, p36:
"you can picture life as an ocean, with the constant ups and downs you experience as the waves that churn and roil on the water’s surface. When you meditate, you dive beneath the surface to a quiet place where the water is calmer and more consistent."
In the book Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), this theme is also present, p71:
"The waves aren’t bad – they’re just part of the ocean. Going further down, the waves of doing rest on the still waters of being... Being is your sense of who you are. Being is characterised as a state of acceptance, a willingness to be with whatever is. Being is tranquil, still and grounding."

The waves will never stop as they are a natural feature of our existence. Thich Nhat Hanh describes this situation in Understanding Our Mind, p147:
"five consciousnesses are based on the sixth consciousness, mind consciousness. They manifest either separately or together with mind consciousness like waves rising up from the ocean. Mind consciousness is like water and the five sense consciousnesses are like waves upon the water."
This is further supported in more simple language in the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995) by Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, p35:
"Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water.. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one."

The essence of the practice relating to these 'ocean waves' seems to be put most clearly by Dr. Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living, p52-53:
"In meditation the breath functions as an anchor for our attention. Tuning to it anywhere we feel it in the body allows us to drop below the surface agitations of the mind into relaxation, calmness, and stability. The agitation is still at the surface just as the waves are on the surface of the water. But we are out of the wind and protected from their buffeting action and their tension-producing effects when we shift our attention to the breath for a moment or two. This is an extremely effective way of locating a peaceful center within yourself. It enhances the overall stability of your mind."

As one practices this simple yet difficult method, one's acceptance of the necessary pains of life can increase, and transformation can take place.

Water can purify and make way for new growth, and so can fire if one skillfully harnesses these respective elements in one's practice. Water seems to have an advantage over fire for us, however, due to it's ability to be handled without bringin harm, and it's nature to accept anything within it's being. These properties of water are highlighted in a story where the Buddha's disciple Shariputra demonstrated his understanding, in Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of Buddha's Teachings, p200:
"[Shariputra said to the Buddha:] I have learned the lesson you offered to Rahula to practice like water. Whether someone pours a fragrant substance or an unclean substance into the water, the water receives them all equally without grasping or aversion. Water is immense and flowing and has the capacity to receive, contain, transform, and purify all these things." 

Understanding these teachings as a metaphor is not enough, however, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Sun My Heart (1988), we must come to truly realize and know the watery Dao which incorporates our being so that we can live consciously connected to it at all times, p133:
"Most people view themselves as waves and forget that they are also water. They are used to living in birth-and-death, and they forget about no-birth-and-no-death. A wave also lives the life of water, and we also live the life of no-birth-no-death. We only need to know that we are living the life of no-birth-nodeath. All is in the word "know." To know is to realize. Realization is mindfulness. All the work of meditation is aimed at awakening us in order to know one and only one thing: birth and death can never touch us in any way whatsoever."
As we continue to practice being more water-like in our mindful lives, we can begin to see new growth appearing, as if our water has encouraged seeds of hidden joy within us to germinate and take root. Thich Nhat Hanh uses this metaphor in Understanding Our Mind, p44/42:
"Mindfulness is the water that nourishes the bodhi seed, the seed of awakening. If in our daily lives we practice mindfulness in order to look deeply at things, one day Right View will bloom like a flower permanently and not just from time to time in our mind consciousness." 
"In order to grow, mindfulness needs nourishment. We all have seeds of mindfulness, loving kindness, understanding, and joy in us. These seeds can become beautiful flowers if we can learn how to transform the garbage of our hatred, discrimination, despair, and anger."
Transformation cannot happen in water alone, however - for that to happen we need to add something more reactive to the mix, and so next we will turn to the teachings on the positive role of the fire element in mindfulness practice  ....   in Part 2.

Sunset from Ta Keo Temple - taken by the author during a visit to Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia, 2009.

Monday, 19 November 2012

From heart to hand: A traditional Chinese concept

"It is believed that, since calligraphy is a highly individualized art, writing offers a glimpse of the heart." - Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press. 2009), p181
"If our heart is light and open, unfettered by internal formations, the world is beautiful. True mind conditions the world of suchness and happiness, because it is not caught in attachment." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p40.
"In Eastern language, the word for mind and heart is often the same word, which is heartfulness. ... Heartfulness is giving attention to anything that you can perceive with a sense of warmth" - Shamash Alidina, Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p60.

In my previous post, The Dao of Chinese Insight Calligraphy, I mentioned that the Chinese considered heart and mind to be one thingXīn (心).
A 17th Century Japanese Zen Calligraphy piece - the large character is the word for heart/mind; Xīn (心).
There is an ancient Chinese 4 character idiom (Chengyu 成语) about the manifestation of the human heart  inspired by the Daoist Classic JuangZi, which goes as follows:
"得心应手" (dé xīn yìng shǒu) - "From heart to hand"
My Insight Calligraphy teacher here in Beijing, Paul Wang, told me today that this idiom comes from JuangZi, Chapter 13: The Way of Heaven, where a Duke demands a demonstration of a wood-worker's wisdom. The wood-worker says: 
"When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won't take hold. But if they're too hard, it bites in and won't budge. Not too gentle, not too hard - you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can't put it into words, and yet there's a knack to it somehow."
The inscription on this Chinese calligraphy brush reads: "From heart to hand" - a Chinese idiom inspired by the Daoist Classic text JuangZi.
Paul said that the idiom is used to describe the state of understanding one thing very well in the sense that one can manifest it's essence very skillfully. This emphasis on skill allowing the positive contents of a person's heart to be expressed appears to have an intimate relationship with mindfulness practice. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh includes in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), in the Sutra Section: The Foundation of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta), how the Buddha compared the skill of a wood-turner to a monk being mindful of his breath, p112-113:
"Just as a skillful turner or turner's apprentice, making a long turn, knows "I am making a long turn," or making a short turn, knows, "I am making a short turn," just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows "I am breathing in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, knows "I am breathing out a long breath"
The art of Chinese calligraphy writing has a long-standing relationship with this idea of honing deep skills - creative skills which have the potential to spontaneously render the heart in a true and highly expressive way. As Wendan Li, author of  Chinese Writing & Calligraphy, writes, p17:
"the complex internal structure of Chinese characters and the unique writing instruments have allowed ample space in multiple dimensions for Chinese calligraphy to develop into a fine art whose core is deeply personal, heartfelt expression."
A little later, Li states what seems to be the ideal of the calligrapher accomplishing his task, p27:
"the artist pours out heart and soul onto a piece of paper."

A Chinese Calligraphy piece of the character for heart/mind - Xīn (心).
The importance of being able to manifest and render the human heart in society seemed to be considered the most noble of practices in ancient China - to the point that artistry and morality became intimately entwined. Wendan Li illustrates such a situation when he speaks of a master calligrapher of the Tang dynasty, Liǔ Gōngquán 柳公权 (778–865), p135:
"he was a devout Buddhist. His Buddhist practice surely influenced his philosophy of both life and calligraphy, particularly his emphasis on the necessity of forming a strong moral character as a basis for artistic creation. Once, when asked by Emperor Muzong of the Tang how to write upright characters, Liu responded that it depends on the mind of the writer. When a person sets the purpose of his life upright, he will be able to write upright characters. Since then, Liu’s saying “An upright mind for an upright brush” (心正笔正 xīn-zhèng-bıˇ-zhèng) has been central to the Chinese emphasis on forming a strong moral character as the basis for artistic creation."
Here is a video of myself painting the Chinese character Xīn (心) in the ancient cursive zhāngcǎo (章草) script:

A comparison of Xīn (心) written by the author (left, from the above video) with his teacher's, Paul Wang (right). Chinese ancient cursive zhāngcǎo calligraphy script. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Transforming Unhealthy Habits into Peaceful Enjoyment

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live." - British Philosopher Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (1930), p68.
"We see that we are violent, prejudiced, and selfish. We are all those things because a conditioned life based on false thinking leads to these states. Human beings are basically good, kind, and compassionate, but it takes hard digging to uncover that buried jewel." - Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen, Chapter: Beginning Zen Practice, p7.
"We have habits. We have good habits and we have bad habits, and the practice of Buddhist meditation is to recognize our habits, in the form of energies, and to transform them or nourish them." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk: Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies
What if humans lost all their accumulated culture? How would we survive? It seems we are well equipped with reflexive reactions which will take care of us - fight, flee, hunt, mate, etc. These instincts would allow us to protect and feed ourselves, as well as pass on our DNA. It also appears, however, that they can now get in the way of our more civilised intentions. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates in his Dharma talk; Taking Good Care of Our Habit Energies, p7:
"the habit of walking very quickly, running. That habit is rooted very deeply in our daily life. Maybe our ancestors used to walk very quickly and they have transmitted to us that way of walking. [...] there is a kind of energy pushing us to run, to run all our life, searching for a time, a place, when happiness is possible. So we understand why we get caught in that kind of habit, always running. We are determined to stop, to transform that habit, and we learn how to make steps that can allow us to touch life deeply in each moment."
In our modern, more enlightened world, just because one's hands curl into fists when one is angry, it does not mean one should hit somebody - if ever. In the same way, it seems our reflexive desires do not necessarily mean we need to engage in consumption or indulgence. When potentially destructive reflexive behaviours arise, we can work with them in order to maintain a positive direction. Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say, p8:
"the practice is to recognize the old habit, the negative habit, the bad habit, to recognize the energy of our habits and smile to them. And also to cultivate the new habit, the good habit, until the new habit begins to produce energy. When we have the new kind of energy, we don’t have to make any effort, we just enjoy listening to the bell, we just enjoy walking slowly, we just enjoy eating in silence, because we like it. We get the nourishment, the joy, of doing so. Suddenly, the practice becomes pleasant, joyful, nourishing."

A calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh rendered in wood and photographed by the author at Từ Hiếu Temple (where Thich Nhat Hanh began studying at age 16) near Huế, Vietnam.
It seems it is important to recognize the safety systems built into our biology in order to successfully navigate certain social and challenging environments. Mindfulness MBSR teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of our instinctive biology in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p369:
"...the deeply automatic impulse for fight-or-flight influences our behavior even when our lives are not in danger. When we feel that our interests or our social status is threatened, we are capable of reacting unconsciously to protect or defend our position before we know what we are doing. Usually this behavior compounds our problems by increasing the level of conflict. Or alternatively, we might act submissively.  When we do, it is often at the expense of our own views, feelings, and self-respect. But since we also have the ability to reflect, think, and be aware, we have a range of other options available to us that go well beyond our most unconscious and deeply ingrained instincts. But we need purposefully to cultivate these options. They don't just magically surface..."
Smiling to our biological instincts - knowing they are there to preserve human life if cultural catastrophes occur - apparently incorporates them into our being without repressing them, and makes us more whole. Kabat-Zinn, in his introduction to Full Catastrophe Living, says of this process, p11-12:
"We routinely and unknowingly waste enormous amounts of energy in reacting automatically and unconsciously to the outside world and to our own inner experiences. Cultivating mindfulness means learning to tap and focus our own wasted energies. In doing so, we learn to calm down enough to enter and dwell in states of deep relaxation."
What joyful activity can take place, then, when one's less civilised instincts are no longer being indulged? Is it all just walking slowly and eating in silence? It seems that, beyond the normal daily routines and formal mindful meditations, there are three main activities which can easily engage people during their free time, and these are:
  • cultivating other living organisms
  • cultivating artistic skills
  • cultivating community.

The author holding a papaya fruit on a tree surrounded by tomato plants in grow bags in his partner's parents garden in Sri Lanka, 2011.
It seems these activities take place in most peoples' lives in one way or another; caring for pets, photography, or supporting one's older family members could probably represent an example of each.

Of course these activities are not mindful practices in themselves, but when practiced with mindfulness, it seems they have the potential to generate peaceful enjoyment - especially if the products of cultivation are peaceful in themselves. For this reason I tend to choose to care for tropical fish over a dog, or play the flute over a drumkit. When socialising, I tend to go for walks in the countryside or sit in a teahouse, rather than spend time in a pub atmosphere.

A traditional Chinese painting of Chrysanthemums.
It seems there are many activities and phenomena which can be peacefully enjoyed without one's life turning into what could be imagined as a stark desert of lonely numbness. Even if there are few or no people practicing mindfulness in one's vicinity, there are always plants and animals waiting to join one. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step, p14:
"...everything around you is keeping your smile for you. You don’t need to feel isolated. You only have to open yourself to the support that is all around you, and in you. Like the friend who saw that her smile was being kept by the dandelion, you can breathe in awareness, and your smile will return."
A cat at Vietnamese Zen Community Plum Village, France, which sat with the author in the dining hall upon arrival in February 2010.
Ultimately it is our mindfulness practice that brings peaceful joy into our lives, and not our community, our nurturing of plants and animals, or honing of traditional artistic skills. Mindfulness practice does require one to nurture and cultivate mindfulness as a skill, however, and this becomes an art in itself; expressed through one's actions and behaviours. As the transcendentalist author David Henry Thoreau wrote in his book Walden:
"I know of no more encouraging fact
than the unquestionable ability of man
to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture,
or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful;
but it is far more glorious to carve and paint
the very atmosphere and medium though which we look. ...
To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts."
 Thich Nhat Hanh emphasises this position in his book Understanding Our Mind, when he writes, p366:
"If we are in a good environment, we get the “perfume” of the good environment. If we are in an unwholesome environment, we get the “perfume” of an unwholesome environment. Any action of body, speech, or mind can be the result of a habit energy. Some habit energies have taken thousands of years to form. Our heritage is not only what we have done in the past, but what we are doing in the present. Every word we speak and every act we perform will determine how we are. We know that if we want to come to a place of happiness and light, we must develop good habits. The best habit is the practice of mindfulness. If we live with a Sangha that practices mindfulness, we will get the perfume of mindfulness."

A lake walkway photographed by the author at Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's old monastery - Từ Hiếu Temple near Huế, Vietnam, Feb 2009.
Bertrand Russell says of quiet lives, in The Conquest of Happiness, p64:
"Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye."