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."

 http://www.landscape-and-garden.com/water-garden/images/water-plants.jpg

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, SoundsTrue.com 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:

video

 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):


video

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:

video


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.
"