Friday, 30 August 2013

Ego, Self, and Mindfulness

"It is one thing to have upside-down two-dimensional images on the backs of our retinas. It is quite another to see: to have a vivid experience of a world existing “out there” in three dimensions, beyond our own body, a world that seems real, and that we can sense, move in, and be conscious of, and even conjure up in the mind in great detail with our eyes closed. And within this conjuring, somehow, a sense of personhood is generated as well, a sense of a seer who is doing the seeing and perceiving what is to be seen, a knower who is knowing what is here to be known, at least to a degree. Yet it is all a conjuring, a construct of the mind, literally a fabrication, a synthesizing of a world out of sensory input, a synthesis based at least in part on processing vast arrays of sensory information through complex networks in the brain, the whole of the nervous system, and indeed, the whole of the body. This is truly a phenomenal accomplishment. It is a huge mystery, and an extraordinary, if usually entirely taken for granted, inheritance for each of us." - Mindfulness teacher and MBSR founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (2006), p317.
"In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p22.
"This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters, European Institute of Applied Buddhism Waldbrol, Germany, May 20, 2011.
The Cygnus Loop supernova shockwave.
When considering what we can observe about our universe and our role in it; it is vast, possibly without a boundary, and we are small, yet seamlessly dynamically and chemically connected with it, we quickly discover that the lines we draw between things - an exploding supernova and the rock which crystalizes out of it, planet Earth and the sun it rotates around, methane gas and proteins, mushrooms and mosses, humans and monkeys, etc. - are just fabricated conceptual impositions on a constantly changing, fluid environment which can be defined as one whole system.

Some things we rely on change more slowly than others, and humans have done their utmost to create a predictable and conservative physical enivironment in order to manage the changes in their lives - to the degree some things seem as if they are 'written in stone', or are 'universal truths'. Basic scientific observation and experimentation can show us that even stone erodes and crumbles into dust, and something conceptually 'true' is only an observation that is framed to satisfy a pre-concieved hypothesis - an idea never-the-less limited by being a mere map imprinted upon one's brain of a physical territory which exists outside of it.

True truth is just 'what is' - direct experience beyond evaluation; a world in which we act and "actions speak louder than words"; where conceptual language has no say. The ego-driven human mind does not like this approach, however, since everything becomes less predictable - less controllable.

By giving labels to things and separating them into categories, we control them and momentarily take away nature's frustrating habit of putting things in the 'wrong' places. This can be carried out within an office environment very effectively - filing cabinets containing folders, and pigeon holes for different departments and individuals - but beyond offices, libraries, and houses - when it comes to those things which lie beyond and predate human control, such habits become quite toxic.

Very quickly the boundary to the universe can become finite, although it has not been observed to be so, and the processes on the Earth can be seen as inherently hostile, even though they are a necessary part of what supports all life; protecting us from the cold space and intensely hot Sun beyond. Humans can be quick to accept that all life was created by a supernatural being, or that humans did not evolve from monkeys, even though there are significantly larger amounts of scientific evidence in support of alternative ideas.

One particularly powerful and popular idea that has appeared within every single culture in the world, while lacking much scientific evidence, is that of a human soul - a 'life essence' distinguished from the physical nature of a person - a kind of clever, decision-making ghost that arrives in the human organism at some point between conception and birth, and which departs from the body upon death.

The idea of a soul can comfort us because it can mean we are immortal - that we can cheat death by our 'true essence' - our personal intelligence - flying off elsewhere. However, a soul can also serve society in a darker way - it can be used to condemn people - to seal a prescribed fate in a way which limits their access to resources - in other words it allows us to indulge in selfishness.

Once there is an idea of a soul, by way of the unverifiable nature of souls, it is easily argued that one soul can be different from another. No matter someone's physical makeup or nurture, the nature of their soul is unchangeable, and once determined by prevailing cultural beliefs, a particular label given to someone's soul can stick to a person for life. A person's labelled soul defines how a culture interacts and responds to a person. It means that any mistake or bad decision made by a person instantly degrades the quality of their decision-making soul. In this way self-hating perfectionists are easily created, as they attempt to hide every mistake they make - mistakes which reveal some sort of innate impurity - a kind of original sin that pollutes everything a person does.

As we know, people talk of 'dark souls', 'lonely souls', 'merry old souls', and 'soulmates'. Soul culture is to be found in every society on the planet, and yet the scientific evidence all points to an opposite situation existing; that life can arise automatically from dead chemical solutions held within rocky substrates using the same basic reactive processes that allow crystals to 'grow' and emerge from mineral veins in caves.

In the modern West, most people do not believe a soul exists within, say, a 'fools gold' iron pyrite crystal, and yet they are still attracted to the idea of a soul existing within the pattern of organisation of the minerals within their own bodies. We even have examples of tiny animals, such as tardigrades, which can remain in suspended animation out in space without any protection for years, only to come alive again upon entering a suitable environment, or amoebas reacting to chemical gradients in their vicinity and changing their behaviour in very straight-forward biochemical ways. Alas, the natural world, with it's inherent beauty and innovation is not enough for us humans - we often need to impose an additional system on top.

Believing in souls, and different souls making important decisions, leads to a hierarchy of souls - sons of gods, angels, and saints, and, of course, evil-doers, demons, and devils. This has huge repercussions for resource distribution. An evil person will be further back in line than a saint when it comes to handing out rations and defining freedoms. We still see the condemnatory word "evil" applied to criminals in intellectual debates. It seems there is often an assumed belief in a soul underlying most intellectual interaction in the West. Stripping someone of a soul, even, can be taken as removing some divinely-granted gift or social standing from a person - in line with the Christian idea of having "sold one's soul to the devil".

According to some memes on the internet, ginger people do not have souls, and some people of the ginger persuasion have become rather angry at this notion. People want to have a soul - to feel superior to those lower down in the hierarchy; to indulge in an ego.

Mindfulness methodology would say, however, that not having a soul, and truly dropping belief in souls is a liberating act intimately linked with the realisation the legendary Buddha had while sitting beneath the bodhi tree. By treating a human being as fluid and changeable as the seasons - with forgiveness, charity, and compassion - maintains a civilised society which allows people the dignity of overcoming their weaknesses and feeling valued by their community - as a human being first. This requires an acceptance that people are not ultimately predictable organisms acting from an absolute personality. The DNA governing our behavioural potential is much more elegant than that.

Evolutionary psychologists are becoming more and more aware that humans, in their incredibly developed and adapted present existence, have survived through, and continue to survive within different social and ecological environments, and this is because their DNA adapted to become more adaptable depending on their momentary situation. A man, for example, has the potential to be a long-term mating partner with one woman in a monogamous relationship so that he can guarantee the children are his and that he sees them survive to reproduce, or, he has the potential to move around and mate with many different partners, not knowing which children are really his, and not knowing how many will survive to reproduce. Which potential of the man manifests (or gradation thereof) will depend on the social or ecological conditions he meets within his lifetime. If one is to practice defining men as respectable home-makers or cheating bastards then it is easy to see that neither label is suitable - the answer, as one hears within Zen schools, is that they are "Both, yet neither". Ultimately the man has no label - no soul, so self-nature which can be defined. He is ungraspable, fluid, behaviourally-dependent on the seasons, terrain, and society, and women are equally ungraspable in their true nature also - they can be both dedicated romantic partners or prostitutes, for example, and yet they are neither.

Mindfulness embraces this 'no self' dimension to humans at it's core as it encourages us to let go of a need to label and define everything, and to just be in this world beyond rigid concepts - beyond imbuing everything with 'self nature'. Today I may be a saint, but tomorrow I may be posessed by the devil - things and people change. This fluid, adaptable, water-like nature to every living thing is recognised as part of a perspective which works with the here-and-now - the prevailing conditions, in order to make the most of the potential each setting holds. In this way humans can be less restricted by irrational, unnecessary and antisocial conceptions, and get on with enjoying the real things in life. In this sense a leopard can change it's spots, as long as the prevailing social setting allows him to, and this can be a blessing or a curse, since he can let go of inclinations towards being 'red in tooth and claw', but also become the hunted. By opening to such change, however, even though things can get worse if one does not practice with all one's heart, there is always a chance for things to get better - something which cannot happen through the opposite approach of defining an arbitrary hierarchy of souls.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Esquire Article: Meditation Is Empirically Good for You

In the September 2013 issue of Esquire Magazine, the following article was included (as well as online) as part of their Anxiety Week, titled: Meditation Is Empirically Good for You.

The first paragraph of the online version of the article stated:
"You can do it at home — in fact you probably should. And here's the hard evidence as to why:"
 It then listed the following benefits with supporting evidence and details:
  • Stronger Immune System

  • Cheaper Health Care

  • Improved Sleep

  • Lower Blood Pressure

  • Healthier Heart

  • Good Genes

Monday, 19 August 2013

Mindfulness and Relationships

"Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships." - Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p6.
"If you are not in touch with yourself, it is very unlikely that your connections with others will be satisfactory in the long run. The more centered you are yourself, the easier it will be for you to be centered in your relationships, to appreciate connectedness with others, and to be able to fine-tune it. This is a very fruitful area of application of the meditation practice..." - Mindfulness MBSR Founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p222-223.
" we endeavor to practice with relationships, we begin to see that they are our best way to grow. In them we can see what our mind, our body, our senses, and our thoughts really are. Why are relationships such excellent practice? Why do they help us to go into what we might call the slow death of the ego? Because, aside from our formal sitting, there is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us see where we’re stuck and what we’re holding on to. As long as our buttons are pushed, we have a great chance to learn and grow. So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy—it often doesn’t—but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p88-89.
"I was talking to a student about my relationship with my wife. I often complain, but I don’t think I can live without her. That is, to tell the truth, what I really feel." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p179.
"Living together is an art. Even with a lot of goodwill, we can still make the other person very unhappy. Mindfulness is the paintbrush in the art of happiness. When we are mindful, we are more artful and happiness blooms." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), p102.
"Never cling to what is dear and what is not dear. 
Not seeing what is dear and seeing what is not dear, are both painful.
Hence hold nothing dear, for separation from what is dear is bad. 
There are no bonds for those to whom nothing is dear or not dear.
Whoever has virtue and insight, and cultivates with Dharma realizes the Truths and fulfils his own duties — all people hold dear to him." - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Chapter 16: Affection, Pleasing, Sorrow, Attachments (209-217)
"The bodhisattva* Nāgārjuna once said the following: [...] “Both lay people and monastics can reach the Other Shore, but even so, each way has its difficult and its easy aspects. Those in lay life have all manner of duties and occupations. If they should wish to concentrate on pursuing wholeheartedly the Path to full awakening, then their family duties will fall by the wayside, and if they should wholeheartedly fulfill the responsibilities of family life, then matters that pertain to pursuit of the Way will be abandoned. They would need to be able to practice the Dharma without selecting one way and abandoning the other. And this is what I would describe as ‘taking on what is difficult’. In leaving lay life behind, we sever ourselves from pursuing worldly profits and from indulging in dislikes and wrangling, as we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to practicing the Way, which is what I would describe as ‘taking on what is easy’. Also, there is the noise and bustle of a home, with its many affairs and many duties, all of which are the roots of entanglements and the storehouse of wrongdoings. This is what is described as ‘taking on what is extremely difficult’." - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p904-905.

Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), writes the following of the situation facing those who enter long-term relationships in the West, p94:
"The U.S. divorce rate is around fifty percent, and for nonmarried but committed partners, the rates are similar or higher"
Directly before this he states:
"When we commit to a partner, either in a marriage ceremony or in a private way, usually it is because we believe we can be and want to be faithful to our partner for the whole of our lives. That is a challenge that requires consistent strong practice. Many of us don’t have any models of loyalty and faithfulness around us."
This leaves at least half of couples in a hopeless situation - very likely triggering cold, business-like approaches to marriage and raising a family. As American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck states in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p96:
"...all weak relationships reflect the fact that somebody wants something for himself or herself."
Although such selfish intentions can remain hidden for periods of time - bleached by the bright rays of sensual love, such relationships cannot function effectively for very long. As Joko Beck describes from personal experience, p72:
"As the months go by the dream collapses under pressure, and we find that we can’t maintain our pretty pictures of ourselves or of our partners. Of course we’d like to keep the ideal picture we have of ourselves. I’d like to believe that I’m a fine mother: patient, understanding, wise. (If only my children would agree with me, it would be nice!) But still, this nonsense of emotion-thought dominates our lives. Particularly in romantic love, emotion-thought gets really out of hand. I expect of my partner that he should fulfill my idealized picture of myself. And when he ceases to do that (as he will before long) then I say, “The honeymoon’s over. What’s wrong with him? He’s doing all the things I can’t stand.” And I wonder why I am so miserable. My partner no longer suits me, he doesn’t reflect my dream picture of myself, he doesn’t promote my comfort and pleasure. None of that emotional demand has anything to do with love. As the pictures break down — and they always will in a close relationship — such “love” turns into hostility and arguments."
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity (2011) that from such difficulty the seeds of separation and divorce sprout, only for us to begin to repeat the same process again with a new partner, p29:
"It’s common practice, when we encounter difficulty and suffering with our partner or spouse, to think we need to separate or divorce. By getting away from the other person, we think we’ll have freedom. We think that person is the cause of our suffering. But the truth is that even though we may feel freer right after the divorce or separation, we often get entangled immediately with someone else. We may stick to this new person, but we end up acting just like we did with the last one. We are the victims of our own habits. The way we think, speak, and act has not changed. What we did to cause suffering to the first person, we now do to cause suffering to someone new, and we create a second hell."
And all of this is our own making, p51:
"It’s not other people who confine us; we confine ourselves. If we feel trapped, it’s due to our own actions. No one is forcing us to tie ourselves up. We take the net of love and we wrap ourselves in it."
So ultimately we only have ourselves - our habitual appetites and behaviours - to blame for our self-confinement, as mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn also states in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p222:
"Practice anger and isolation in a relationship for forty years, and you wind up imprisoned in anger and isolation. No big surprise.[...] Ultimately, it is our mindlessness that imprisons us. We get better and better at being out of touch with the full range of our possibilities, and more and more stuck in our cultivated-over-a-lifetime habits of not-seeing, but only reacting and blaming."
Some couples think that having a baby together will somehow dissolve their isolation from one another, but as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, it does not work, p37:
"Even if two people have a baby together, they are still separate. Each of us remains in isolation. It’s not by living together, or by having sexual relations, or even by having children together that we can dispel this feeling of isolation."
This feeling of isolation, having been present before one meets one's partner, is not clear at the beginning of a relationship, however - there is a 'honeymoon period' filled with lots of joy and excitement revolving around indulgence in sensual love, p93:
"In the beginning of a relationship, you’re very passionate."
This is until that state has clouded one's perception to the point that suffocating attachment has inevitably crept in and tipped the balance towards aversion, p12:
"Love can be our greatest joy or — when it gets confused with craving and attachment — our greatest suffering"
This is not something most people are unfamiliar with, of course. As Thich Nhat Hanh, a celibate monk, says in Fidelity, p45:
"Most of us have tasted the suffering of sexual craving."
And he acknowledges the biological roots of this craving, p17:
"Every living thing wants to continue into the future. This is true of humans, as well as of all other animals. Sex and sexual reproduction are part of life."
In addition to coming together romantically for sexual reproduction or for nurturing of life in general, however, there is also another dimension I heard Thich Nhat Hanh talk about in 2010 when I stayed at Plum Village - that of satisfying a need to recreate the intimacy and affection one enjoyed as an infant. This movement from seamless integration with a larger whole, to one of separation and maturation - from the womb to the outside world - creates a longing for a return to a similar comfortable, protected, provided-for wholeness via a human intermediary. It could possibly be the origin of every spiritual path - seeking Oneness with the universe, Union with a Creator, or True Love. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this situation in Fidelty, p22:
"As newborns, we could distinguish the smell of our mother or the person taking care of us. We knew the sound of her voice. We came to love that smell and that sound. That’s the first, original love, born from our need; it’s completely natural. When we grow up and look for a partner, the original desire to survive is still there in many of us. We think that without someone else, we can’t survive. We might be looking for a partner, but the child in us is looking for that feeling of safety and comfort we had when our parent or caregiver arrived."
One may hear romantic partners speak to each other in a 'baby voice', or call each other "baby" or "babe" - an apparent reinforcing of the child-like neediness that can manifest in a romantic relationship. What can start out as a mutual agreement to love one another unconditionally can very easily become distorted into a situation where two people are attempting to manipulate one another into fulfilling their own selfish needs - attempting to satisfy juvenile appetites left over from when they were vulnerable children. This immature 'thumb-sucking' - seeking to satisfy a sensual craving rooted in a left-over need for existential security from a parent-figure, coupled with the psychological gratification associated with the reproductive impulse, and the pleasures which accompany sexual gratification, can create a situation tainted with suffocating possessiveness, rather than liberating empowerment, and thus deep suffering, as Thich Nhat Hanh says in Fidelity, p21:
"Every human being wants to love and be loved. This is very natural. But often love, desire, need, and fear get wrapped up all together. There are so many songs with the words, “I love you; I need you.” Such lyrics imply that loving and craving are the same thing, and that the other person is just there to fulfill our needs. We might feel we can’t survive without the other person. When we say, “Darling, I can’t live without you. I need you,” we think we’re speaking the language of love. We even feel it’s a compliment to the other person. But that need is actually a continuation of the original fear and desire that have been with us since we were small children."
And suddenly one can find oneself 'netted' like a fish raised out of the nourishing water; gasping for our lives - we experience this as 'lovesickness'; a current which washes over everything we perceive, p86:
"In sensual love, volition can look like a kind of sickness called “lovesickness.” We are addicted to the shadow of a figure, and we cannot forget him or her. When we are caught in the net of sensual desire, all our longings and our perceptions are dyed the color of sensual love. When walking we think about it; when sitting we think about it. Watching the moon we also remember it; watching a cloud we remember it again. The mind of sensual desire is a current; it’s not a block or a clod of earth. The current sweeps our thoughts, perceptions, and everyday actions along with it."
This is not to say that nothing positive remains; of course there are noble intentions somewhere in the mix, and yet as Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen, we need to identify which parts are genuine and which parts are merely emotionally-driven, p72:
"In that relationship there’s always some genuine love and some false love. How much of our love is genuine depends on how we practice with false love, which breeds in the emotion-thought of expectations, hopes, and conditioning. When emotion-thought is not seen as empty, we expect that our relationship should make us feel good. As long as the relationship feeds our pictures of how things are supposed to be, we think it’s a great relationship."
Thich Nhat Hanh goes into more detail on how our internal images of how our relationships should be - often based on selfish needs - bring about unnecessary suffering, in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001), p58:
"When we fall in love, for example, we usually fall in love with an image we have of our beloved. We cannot eat, sleep, or do anything because this image in us is so strong. Our beloved is beautiful to us, but our image of him may actually be far from the reality. We don’t realize that the object of our perception is not the reality-in-itself but an image we have created. After we marry and live with our beloved for two or three years, we realize that the image that we held on to and stayed awake at night thinking about was largely false. The object of our perception, our image of our beloved, belongs to the second mode of perception, the mode of representations. Our consciousness manifests an image of the object and we love that image. The image we love may have nothing to do with the person-in-himself. It is like taking a photograph of a photograph."
The addiction to this image happens very subtly as the various sensual desires it gratifies; the mind seeking procreation, the tactile nervous system, the desire to be 'mothered', all intermingle and create a seemingly tangible and perfect sensual whole that becomes one's master. Thich Nhat calls this big, seemingly perfect tangle of powerful sensual addiction an "internal knot", in Understanding Our Mind, p363:
"Addiction is an internal knot. We do not start out being addicted to drugs, alcohol, or an unwholesome relationship. The knot is tied gradually. If internal knots announced themselves with a loud noise when they formed, we would know immediately that they were there. But we can’t discern the moment when we became addicted to drugs or alcohol. We don’t know exactly when we became infatuated with someone who is not good for us. The process of the formation of an internal knot happens stealthily."
And the image created by the knot we hold onto controls us in powerful ways, as he writes in Fidelity, p18:
"When we’re trapped by sensual love, we spend our time worrying that the other person will leave or betray us."
As time goes on, however, the power of that image diminishes somewhat, p93:
"The first year of a committed relationship already reveals how difficult it is. When you first commit to someone, you have a beautiful image of them, and you commit to that image rather than the person. When you live with the person twenty-four hours a day, you begin to discover the reality of the other person doesn’t quite correspond with the image you have of him or her."
As one wrestles with one's 'post-honeymoon' situation - the reality which was hiding behind the bright rays of sensual love all along - one finds that one's partner can very quickly become like a private stranger, and one feels no shame in looking elsewhere. Thich Nhat Hanh has the following to say on this in Fidelity, p93:
"...passion may only last a short time—maybe six months, a year, or two years. Then, if you’re not skillful, if you don’t practice mindfulness, concentration, and insight, suffering will be born in you and in the other person. When you see someone else, you might think you’d be happier with them. In Vietnam, there is a saying: “Standing on top of one mountain and gazing at the top of another, you think you’d rather be standing on the other mountain.”"
Having made important promises and declared deep romantic feelings, however, can mean one's social integrity and reputation can be heavily undermined if one is to break away from the commitments one has made to a family. When under such pressures, Thich Nhat Hanh says that we can survive in relationships grounded in love; that our commitments can be honored if we send down deep, healthy roots to weather the inevitable storms, p95:
"To keep our commitment to our partner and to weather the most difficult storms, we need strong roots."
And the strength of such roots depends on how well we can transform, or uproot, our unhealthy habits, p29:
"If we aren’t yet able to transform... habit energy, we will come out of the prison of one relationship only to fall into the prison of another."
Our unhealthy habits are rooted in our unaccepted internal pain and emotional reactiveness - our sympathetic nervous system or adrenaline response which causes us to fight/freeze/flee when faced with certain responsibilities. Therefore it is within this internal landscape unifying mind and body where the work of dealing with habits in the context of one's relationship begins. Mindfulness teaches one to approach oneself first with the kind of love and care one wishes to direct towards one's partner, p77:
"...self-love is crucial for loving another person. A successful relationship depends on us recognizing our own painful feelings and emotions inside — not fighting them, but accepting, embracing, and transforming them to get relief."
This compassionate, all-accepting 'true love', if harnessed effectively, heals oneself as an individual as well as one's relationship simultaneously. Here is Fidelity on this phenomenon, p81:
"In true love, there is no distinction between the one who loves and the one who is loved. Your suffering is my own suffering. My happiness is your happiness. Lover and beloved are one. There’s no longer any barrier. True love has this element of the abolishing of self. Happiness is no longer an individual matter. Suffering is also no longer an individual matter. There’s no distinction between us. In true love, you don’t exclude anyone. If your love is true love, it will benefit not only humans, but also animals, plants, and minerals. When you love one person, it’s an opportunity for you to love everyone, all beings. Then you are going in a good direction, and that is true love. But if you love someone and you get caught up in suffering and attachment, then you get cut off from others. That’s not true love."
If only one partner walks this path, however, the difficulties of living within a relationship will not apparently ever be overcome. Dedication to the path of true love is necessary for both partners, as Thich Nhat Hanh states, p19:
"Once you have a spiritual path, you have a home. Once you can deal with your emotions and handle the difficulties of your daily life, then you have something to offer to another person. The other person has to do the same thing. Both people have to heal on their own so they feel at ease in themselves; then they can become a home for each other. Otherwise, all that we share in physical intimacy is our loneliness and suffering."
This approach makes romantic partners into more than mere lovers; they become spiritual partners of sorts, p95:
"A true spiritual partner is one who encourages you to look deep inside yourself for the beauty and love you’ve been seeking."
Since such spiritual discipline and dedication often requires favourable environmental and interpersonal conditions, some romantic relationships inevitably finish prematurely, as Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen, p100:
"All relationships can teach us something; and some of them, sadly, must come to an end. There may come a time when the best way to serve the true self is to move on."
Until such a catastrophe occurs, however, partners can work on healing their dying relationship by approaching themselves and each other in a more skilful, realistic, and selfless way. Joko Beck suggests aiming for a practical, functional, resilient, yet open quality inspired by the necessary conditions all life needs to flourish - flexible yet strong, like a bamboo stem or cell membrane, or, as she describes, a structure which can withstand storms, in Everyday Zen, p97:
"I’ve heard about a way of designing houses at the beach, where big storms can flood houses: when they are flooded, the middle of the house collapses and the water, instead of taking down the whole house, just rushes through the middle and leaves the house standing. A good relationship is something like that. It has a flexible structure and a way of absorbing shocks and stresses so that it can keep its integrity, and continue to function. But when a relationship is mostly “I want,” the structure will be rigid. When it is rigid, it can’t take pressure from life and so it can’t serve life very well. Life likes people to be flexible so it can use them for what it seeks to accomplish."
Part of such an accommodating, flexible structure to a relationship is the practice of communicating mindfully - with an awareness of when emotion is colouring proceedings, and knowing when to skilfully withdraw when anger or unhealthy appetites are dominating expression, rather than grounded, heart-felt reflection. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of this in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005) as follows, p375:
"Relationships can heal just like bodies and minds can heal. Fundamentally, this is done through love, kindness and acceptance. But in order to promote healing in relationships or to develop the effective communication such healing depends on, you will have to cultivate an awareness of the energy of relationships, including the domains of minds and bodies, thoughts, feelings, speech, likes and dislikes, motives and goals -- not only other people's but also your own - as they unfold from moment to moment in the present. If you hope to heal or resolve the stress associated with your interactions with other people, whoever they may be... mindfulness of communication becomes of paramount importance."
Once an intention to be mindfully communicative and resilient has been shouldered by both partners within a relationship, then it seems the real daily practice can begin - of dissolving emotional reactiveness to the inevitable pain accompanying toxic sensual craving, with the benefit of mutual encouragement. This must necessarily begin with oneself, as Thich Nhat Hanh states in Fidelity, p51:
"If you don’t know how to handle a painful feeling in you, how can you help another person to do so?"
As one becomes more competent at accepting one's own pain, one simultaneously heals one's partner, as Joko Beck writes in her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p269:
"When I heal my pain, without any thought at all I heal yours, too. Practice is about discovering that my pain is our pain."
This mindfulness practice is, Thich Nhat Hanh says, in Understanding Our Mind, the greatest gift a partner can ever offer, p345:
"The greatest gift that we can offer to our beloved is our true presence. Practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, and breathing mindfully to be present for your beloved. When she suffers, practice conscious breathing and say to her, “Darling, I know that you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” If you suffer, you have to practice breathing in and out and say, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” When you love someone, there must also be trust. If you suffer, you should be able to go to those you love and tell them that you suffer and need their help. In true love, there is no room for pride or arrogance. Go to him and tell him that you suffer and need his help. If you cannot, something is wrong in your relationship. It is important to practice this. Without true presence, how can you love and care for one another? You generate the energy of mindfulness in order to be truly present. The most beautiful declaration of love is, “Darling, I am here for you.” When you pronounce this mantra, there will be a transformation in both of you. This is the practice of mindfulness."
And this gift needs to be given with a sentiment of nothing less than pure charity - pure selflessness, in order to have the greatest impact upon both partners' lives, as Joko Beck explains in Everyday Zen, p93-94:
"The only thing that works (if we really practice) is a desire not to have something for myself but to support all life, including individual relationships. Now you may say, “Well, that sounds nice, I’ll do that!” But nobody really wants to do that. We don’t want to support others. To truly support somebody means that you give them everything and expect nothing. You might give them your time, your work, your money, anything. “If you need it, I’ll give it to you.” Love expects nothing. Instead of that we have these games: “I am going to communicate so our relationship will be better,” which really means, “I’m going to communicate so you’ll see what I want.” The underlying expectation we bring to those games insures that relationships won’t work. If we really see that, then a few of us will begin to understand the next step, of seeing another way of being. We may get a glimpse of it now and then: “Yes, I can do this for you, I can support your life and I expect nothing. Nothing.”"
This does not mean that one mindlessly gives oneself away to one's relationship - instead one sees one's practice within one's relationship in the context of a broader, shared 'true self' that permeates all humanity, and even within Nature and the universe; within the Dao. Joko has the following to say on this in Everyday Zen, with particular emphasis on serving a Master of sorts beyond the realm of sensual love and human procreation, p99:
"In any situation our devotion should be not to the other person per se, but to the true self. Of course the other person embodies the true self, yet there is a distinction. If we are involved in a group, our relationship is not to the group, but to the true self of the group. By the “true self” I’m not talking about some mystical ghost that floats above. True self is nothing at all; and yet it’s the only thing that should dominate our life; it is the only Master. Doing zazen [formal seated mindfulness meditation], or sitting sesshin [mindfulness meditation reatreat], is for the purpose of better understanding our true self. If we don’t understand it, then we will be confused forever by problems and won’t know what to do. The only thing to be served is not a teacher, not a center, not a job, not a mate, not a child, but our true self."
This "true self", or Dao; 'what is', can be engaged with at any moment, in order to take the most effective course of action, and that course of action is spontaneous, non-verbal; beyond philosophical reflection on love and life - all the while delivering more joy. Here is Joko Beck again in Everyday Zen, p100:
"No one can tell me what is best; no one knows except my true self. It doesn’t matter what my mother says about it, or what my aunt says about it; in a certain sense it doesn’t even matter what I say about it. As one teacher says, “Your life is none of your business.” But our practice is definitely our business. And that practice is to learn what it means to serve that which we cannot see, touch, taste or smell. Essentially the true self is no-thing, and yet it is our Master. And when I say it’s no-thing, I don’t mean nothing in the ordinary sense; the Master is not a thing, yet it’s the only thing. When we’re married, we’re not married to each other, but to the true self."
In this way mindfulness practice demands recognition of 'what is' - what is really happening within a relationship - within our seamless minds and bodies, and for us to practice embracing any difficulty, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1999), p37:
"If we are in a difficult relationship, we recognize, "This is a difficult relationship." Our practice is to be with our suffering and take good care of it."
It is necessary to do this over and over again - continually, since, as Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen, no relationship will ever be perfect, even if both partners are practicing mindfulness for their whole lives together, p72-73:
"...if we’re in a close relationship, from time to time we’re going to be in pain, because no relationship will ever suit us completely. There’s no one we will ever live with who will please us in all the ways we want to be pleased. So how can we deal with this disappointment? Always we must practice getting closer and closer to experiencing our pain, our disappointment, our shattered hopes, our broken pictures. And that experiencing is ultimately nonverbal. We must observe the thought content until it is neutral enough that we can enter the direct and nonverbal experience of the disappointment and suffering. When we experience the suffering directly, the melting of the false emotion can begin, and true compassion can emerge."
As couples grow in this way together, their understanding of one another also grows - they become truly known to one another - and so become closer and closer as they simultaneously grow closer to their own individual (and yet shared) 'true selves', thus dispelling the loneliness which undermines long-term commitment. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, p37:
"We can transform this feeling of loneliness only when we truly understand ourselves and our loved ones.[...] We can only dispel our mutual isolation when we practice mindfulness and are able to truly come home to ourselves and each other."
This constant awareness of one's inner landscape means the tension associated with unhealthy attachment is dissolved before it can harden into a knot which blinds one - something Thich Nhat Hanh refers to in Understanding Our Mind, p363:
"If we are guarding the six senses, soon as we have a feeling of attachment, we will be aware of it. We know that we have a sweet feeling of attachment when we hold a glass of wine or a cigarette, or toward a person we should not be so close to. We know where this pleasant feeling is going to take us. With mindfulness — the recognition of what is happening as it is happening — the internal knot of attachment will not be able to form without our noticing it until it is too late." 
By not tangling ourselves into knots, a restrictive net is not woven around and within us, and we love others in a more liberating way, as stated in Fidelity, p10:
"Love can bring us happiness and peace as long as we love in such a way that we don’t make a net to confine ourselves and others. We can tell the correct way to love because, when we love correctly, we don’t create more suffering."
This compassionate, healing love even expands out from one's relationship to all sentient beings in one's environment, p81:
"Cultivating the four elements of true love — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity — is the secret to nourishing deep and healthy relationships. When you practice with these elements regularly, you can handle the difficulties in your relationships and transform the suffering you feel inside.You become like a Buddha. You love everyone and every species. Your presence in the world becomes very important, because your presence is the presence of love."
In this sense, a romantic couple practicing loving one another mindfully exist as a facet of life in harmony with life itself - as a larger organism constructed from smaller symbiotic organisms existing beyond the needs and wants of the individuals involved. Joko Beck points this out in Everyday Zen, p95-96:
" gets in working with it as a channel. A good relationship gives life more power. If two people are strong together, then life has a more powerful channel than it has with two single people. It’s almost as though a third and larger channel has been formed. That is what life is looking for. It doesn’t care about whether you are “happy” in your relationship. What it is looking for is a channel, and it wants that channel to be powerful. If it’s not powerful life would just as soon discard it. Life doesn’t care about your relationship. It is looking for channels for its power so it can function maximally. That functioning is what you are all about; all this drama about you and him or her is of no interest to life. Life is looking for a channel and, like a strong wind, it will beat on a relationship to test it. If the relationship can’t take the testing, then either the relationship needs to grow in strength so that it can take it, or it may need to dissolve so something new and fresh can emerge from the ruins. Whether it crashes or not is less important than what is learned."
And when such a couple exist within a mindful community containing other mindful couples, then they may harness mindfulness in it's strongest manifestation, as Thich Nhat Hanh states in Fidelity, p99:
"When the three roots of faith, practice, and community support have fed us deeply, then we will be solid both alone and in our relationships. We will not just survive; we will flourish. No violent storm can throw us."
For the modern world this is not easy to find, if at all, and yet even just two people - whether in a relationship or not - can form a community (a Sangha) stable enough to mutually support rewarding mindfulness practices, p45:
"Even if you are just two people, if you nourish each other’s joy and mindfulness, then you have a Sangha, a mindful community. If your family only has two people, that is the smallest Sangha. If you have a child, you have three Sangha members."
With dedicated and focused practice, something truly tangible and rewarding can be achieved. Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen, p73:
"The more we practice over the years, the more an open and loving mind develops. When that development is complete (which means that there is nothing on the face of the earth that we judge), that is the enlightened and compassionate state. The price we must pay for it is lifelong practice with our attachment to emotion-thought, the barrier to love and compassion."

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Mindfulness and Sexual Activity

"There are three kinds of intimacy: physical, emotional, and spiritual." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), p15.
"Sex, in itself, is... not good or bad. Everything owes its birth and life to the coming together of the natural energy of male and female. But some people make this attraction the precious treasure of their deluded minds." - Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen (1997), p72.
"One who does what should not be done, and fails to do what should be done, who gives up the quest and pursues the sensual pleasures, will envy the people who devote themselves in cultivation of Way." - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Chapter 16: Affection, Pleasing, Sorrow, Attachments (209-217). 

Calligraphy by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the book Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes the following of Plum Village; his monastery in France, p89:
"In Plum Village we have many young monks and nuns who have sexual energy like everyone else."
I felt I witnessed this first-hand during my stay there - teenage Vietnamese immigrant monks and nuns appeared to flirt in ways one would see in an average liberal highschool in any country. I was not surprised to hear that, even though the men and womens' respective self-contained 'hamlets' are separated by many fields, a young monk and nun had fallen in love and had left the monastery not so long before - people were still talking about it. Even in other monastery settings where men and women are even more strictly separated - to the point of no contact at all, it is apparently deeply naïve to assume that no sexual activity takes place - whether when individuals are alone, or whether it is homosexual activity.

This is easy enough to expect, since all living organisms have an instinct to perpetuate life via sexual activity of a sort, and humans are especially geared up to exist and enjoy interaction in large social groups in all that they do. Thich Nhat Hanh recognises this in Fidelity, p17:
"Every living thing wants to continue into the future. This is true of humans, as well as of all other animals. Sex and sexual reproduction are part of life. Sex can bring great pleasure and enrich a deep connection between two people. We shouldn’t be against sex, but we also shouldn’t confuse it with love. True love doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex. We can love perfectly without sex and we can have sex without love."
The fact that a person can have sex without love, coupled with the additional phenomenon that it is very easy to confuse sex with love, lays down the conditions for a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering to appear. People often experience significant levels of romantic emotional and physical intimacy with another person before they have the necessary skills to manage the deep attachment and further appetites that come with those powerful events. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the following first paragraph of the Buddhist teaching; Sutra on the Net of Sensual Love, to present this common scenario in Fidelity, p105:
"When the mind goes in the direction of sensual love, the tree of sexual love springs up and quickly sprouts buds. The mind becomes dispersed because the object of sensual love generates a violent fire in us. Those who look for sensual love are like monkeys jumping from branch to branch in search of fruits."
This "violent fire", otherwise known as lust, was apparently said by the Buddha to be one of the most difficult forms of desire to see through. Partners, or even any person found attractive, can become treated like an object of gratification - existing only for one's personal indulgence, and out of that a deeply unwholesome dimension easily emerges, as the Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn (1927-2004), writes in The Compass of Zen (1997), p72:
"...[people] just have sex with others for their own enjoyment: this is dirty. This is why we call someone “filthy” if they only have sex mindlessly, like an animal."
This appears to be something commonplace in modern times - even celebrated and encouraged in some domains. Feeling that there is no true consensus or practical philosophy of any meaningful depth on the subject, the matter is not challenged, and so cycles of desperate craving; suffering, are perpetuated. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this in Fidelity, p45:
"Most of us have tasted the suffering of sexual craving. We feel stuck in our relationship, in our work, and we think that satisfying our sensual desire will set us free. But it is this desire that is causing our worries and misfortunes. Worries and misfortunes are always there when we are ruled by sensual love. Even money and power will not protect us."
Lacking support and inspiration in other areas of life, a person can easily lose themselves in satisfying sexual desire, or any other craving; digging themselves deeper into hopless situations, again here is Fidelity, p37.
"All of us feel lonely and empty inside sometimes. When we have these feelings, we try to fill the vacuum by consuming food or alcohol, or by engaging in sexual activity. Yet, even while we are enjoying these things, the empty feeling not only persists but becomes deeper than before."
Fidelity places emphasis on how humans use casual sex as a temporary medicine for spiritual and emotional loneliness, p58:
"Sometimes we think that if we have sexual relations with someone else, we’ll feel less lonely. But the truth is that such sex doesn’t relieve the feeling of loneliness; it makes it worse."
One of the saddest aspects is that people quickly learn from such mistakes, and yet they repeat them all the same, since the craving caused by lust - desire out of control - is so strong, as is stated in Fidelity, p43:
"We have wisdom; we have understanding. We know that if we drink the poisonous water, we will die. But we drink it anyway. There are many of us like that, ready to die for something that seems very appealing. Yet there are so many sources that could satisfy our thirst without endangering us."
It is very easy for a person to conceptually detach their sexual misconduct from those who are involved, but as Thich Nhat Hanh states, there will always be an emotional dimension - humans are hard-wired for such emotionally-driven social interaction, p15:
"Physical intimacy can’t be separated from emotional intimacy; we always feel some emotional intimacy when we’re sexual, even if we profess not to."
When much suffering created by lust has become too intense - whether social guilt or suffocating attachment, throughout history many people have traditionally used celibacy - especially through monasticism - to channel their energies more appropriately.

Another approach was taken in Ancient India and China - that of 'sexual yoga' to channel sexual energies into reinforcing one's health. Whether this stemmed from observation and evidence of vaginal prolapse in older women (the 'use it or lose it' scenario), or from prostate and urinary issues in older men is apparently unknown.

Daoist practitioner Eva Wong, author of Taoism: An essential guide (2011), explains a traditional ancient Chinese Daoist approach as follows, p184-185:
"In the Paired Path, sexual techniques are used to accomplish alchemical transformations. The practice of Taoist sexual alchemy, rarely understood, has been sensationalized and abused. Sexual alchemy has been a part of Taoist internal alchemy since the times of Wei Po-yang in the second century CE. It is different from the “bedchamber techniques” that advise the correct management of one’s sexual and energetic resources. While the bedchamber techniques are methods for making the best use of sexual energy, sexual alchemy is designed to gather generative energy for the transmutation of ching into ch’i. Taoist sexual alchemy is a technique for cultivating health and longevity. It is not a pursuit of pleasure. Pragmatics, not ethics or pleasure, govern its practice. Even in the seventh century bce , it was known that the decay of health was associated with the loss of ching, or generative energy. Thus, medical treatises such as the Huang-ti nei-ching (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) counsels that the conservation of ching is the key to health and longevity. Herein lies the paradox of the role of sexual techniques in cultivating longevity. If sexual activity leads to the loss of generative energy and health, how can health be gained by using techniques that involve sex? The answer to this paradox lies in the act of sex itself. If sex is used to satisfy the desire for pleasure, it drains generative energy and is detrimental to health. On the other hand, if sex is used to gather energy from a partner to replenish one’s own generative energy, it can enhance longevity. How can one use sex to gather generative energy? The Taoist texts of sexual alchemy state that generative energy is produced in sexual arousal. However, if the arousal ends in ejaculation or orgasm, generative energy is dissipated from the body and lost. Thus, to conserve generative energy, one must be sexually aroused but not emit the procreative substance. In fact, in sexual alchemy, tremendous self-control needs to be exercised to turn the energy back into the body just before an ejaculation or an orgasm is about to occur. Moreover, sexual alchemy can be used to absorb generative energy from a partner."
It can be confusing to consider sexual arousal without pleasure, but it seems Wong is talking of the ultimate goal not being one of sensual pleasure - that sexual climax was not sought. She continues, p186:
"Although labeled as a “crooked path” by internal alchemists of the Singular Path, sexual alchemy had always been a part of the Taoist arts of longevity. Practiced by the early alchemists, it was seen as one of the many techniques of longevity. It was practiced by the Shang-ch’ing Taoists in their religious rituals and by internal alchemists of the Sung dynasty (for example, by Chang Po-tuan), who regarded it as a pragmatic way of gathering generative energy, especially for those who are no longer young and healthy. [...] In closing, it must be said that the practice of sexual alchemy is not without its risks. To do it properly, one needs the guidance of a teacher, and because traditionally these techniques have been practiced in secret, it is difficult to find a bona fide teacher. Moreover, to practice sexual alchemy, one must be totally free from sexual desire. Otherwise, the efforts of gathering energy will result in the loss of one’s own energy."
So beyond these difficult, secretive teacher-led practices; requiring one to eliminate sexual desire whilst allowing oneself to become aroused - an apparent oxymoron, it seems the alternative method of not falling prey to lust in ancient China was to head for a Buddhist monastery where there was a similar goal - that of understanding and 'managing' sexual desire.

In the ancient Zen Buddhist monasteries of the East, living was reduced to focusing on procuring four necessities for sustenance: shelter, clothing, food, and medicine. Sex was absoloutely prohibited, as Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) wrote in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p927:
"Now, what the Buddhas and Ancestors in India and China have authentically Transmitted is leaving home life behind in order to put the Dharma into practice. Those who spend their life without leaving the monastery even once are supplied with these four necessities so that they may put the Dharma into practice. This is what I call ‘practicing the four necessities’. Should someone alter this by trying to establish a fifth necessity [sex], you need to know that this is a false teaching. Who could accept it in good faith? Who could bear to hear such a thing? What the Buddhas and Ancestors have correctly Transmitted, that is the true Teaching."
This requirement was to remain famously difficult - and still is, it seems, especially when one considers the scandals associated with Buddhist institutions in modern times. Was it the case in more ancient times that such scandals were more easily covered up, or were they, in their scientific ignorance, more driven by blind faith and therefore more focused?

There appear to have been few teachers of repute in recent times who are willing to go into the details on the role of sex within traditional Eastern mindfulness practices. A lot seemed to depend upon the teacher, and whether a firm foundation and discipline could be installed at the beginning. Dōgen writes the following of beginners in Soto Zen in Japan, in Shobogenzo, p977:
"When bodhisattvas are beginners, many regress or wander off because they do not have a genuine Master. If they do not have a genuine Master, they do not hear the true Teaching, and if they do not hear the true Teaching, they are apt to deny causality, along with denying the end of suffering, the Three Treasures, and all thoughts and things in the three temporal worlds. Vainly craving the five fleeting desires of property, sexual involvement, food and drink, fame, and sleep in the present, they forget the merits of enlightenment in the future"
In the context of practicing mindfulness, however, sexual involvement does not mean that one cannot remain mindful, it is just more difficult, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains in Fidelity, p11:
"People often ask if it is difficult to be a celibate monk or nun, but to practice mindfulness as a monastic is in many ways easier than to practice as a layperson. To refrain from sexual activity altogether is much easier than to have a healthy sexual relationship. As monastics, we spend our time in practice and in nature. We don’t watch television, read romantic novels, or look at images in movies or magazines that give rise to sensual desire. Meanwhile, laypeople are always bombarded with images and music that feed sexual craving. To have all that stimulus and still have a healthy sexual relationship with mutual understanding and love, you need constant practice."
There have been, and still are, famous mindfulness teachers who have been married and had children - Shunryu Syzuki Roshi having been one of them, and among the laypeople who are said to have been 'successful' in their mindfulness practices, Layman Pang (740-808) is quite famous. This possibility of living a happy mindful life while still engaging in sexual activity - to some extent - is referred to by the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), in the text attributed to him called  The Bloodstream Sermon:
"People who see that their mind is the Buddha don’t need to shave their head" Laymen are Buddhas too. Unless they see their nature, people who shave their head are simply fanatics. [...] I only talk about seeing your nature. I don’t talk about sex simply because you don’t see your nature. Once you see your nature, sex is basically immaterial. It ends along with your delight in it. Even if some habits remain, they can’t harm you, because your nature is essentially pure. Despite dwelling in a material body of four elements, your nature is basically pure. It can’t be corrupted."
It may also be worth mentioning the following phenomenon in the Mahayana Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra (1st Century CE); there is mention of a prostitute called Vasumitra who uses skillful sexual interaction to teach the way of the Buddha(!). Here is a reference from Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd Ed) (2008), p136:
"Of particular interest is Vasumitra, the prostitute. She is nonetheless an advanced Bodhisattva. The doctrine of skill-in-means apparently knows no bounds. For some suffering sentient beings the best way to receive the teaching of the Buddha is through Vasumitra’s technique of embraces and kisses: ‘Some, with only an embrace, obtain renunciation of passion and attain the Bodhisattva meditation. . . . Some, with only a kiss . . .’. Religion, it seems, can be fun."
Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn also referred to this story in The Compass of Zen, p72:
"There are many other stories about the use of such skillful means. In itself, sex is not good or bad: the most important thing is, why do you do something? Is it only for yourself or for all beings?
And Thich Nhat Hanh supports this skillful approach in Fidelity when he says, p89:
"We can even use sexual energy to support us on the spiritual path. Digging up the root of sensual love doesn’t mean we eliminate our sexual energy. Instead insight and compassion allow us to handle our sexual energy with skill."
All this being the case, there is still not any apparent tried and tested 'formal' path for lay couples to adhere to beyond that which is written in books like Fidelity by Thich Nhat Hanh. Concerning Thich Nhat Hanh's noble efforts, many people may have objections to statements made by a celibate monk on how others can approach sexual activity. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck points to this problem in her book Everyday Zen (1997), pvii:
"Successful living means functioning well in love and work, declared Sigmund Freud. Yet most Zen teaching derives from a monastic tradition that is far removed from the ordinary world of romantic and sexual love, family and home life, ordinary jobs and careers."
Who knows, as time goes on, and secular mindfulness practice is more deeply developed and supported with modern scientific exploration, and the useful essence of Zen practice is separated from any impurities that were incorporated into it through simple 'ignorances of the times', maybe the kind of equanimity reported by MBSR teachers and Zen masters will be easily accessed while maintaining a degree of sexual activity - mindful sexual activity. There is nothing suggesting this cannot happen, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, p15:
"When spiritual intimacy is there, then physical and emotional intimacy can be healthy, healing, and pleasurable."
This necessity for "spiritual intimacy" between sexual partners appears to be a standard prerequisite for healthy sexual encounters, according to all mindfulness teachers who talk on the subject. The kind of spirituality they speak of, of course, is that which incorporates a mindfulness practice. Here are a few quotes echoing this view pulled from Thich Nhat Hanh's Fidelity:
"Spiritual awakening isn’t the exclusive provenance of celibacy. There are people who are celibate but who don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When people in intimate relationships have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, their relationships have an element of holiness. Sexual intimacy shouldn’t occur before there is communion, understanding, and sharing on the emotional and spiritual level." - p17.
"Sexuality should be accompanied by understanding and love. Without understanding and love, sex is empty." - p59.
"True love is made of loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha). True love brings joy and peace, and relieves suffering. [...] When you practice the four qualities of true love, your love is healing and transformative, and it has the element of holiness in it. Then sexual intimacy becomes something very beautiful. Love is a wonderful thing. It gives us the ability to offer joy and happiness, relieve suffering, and transcend all kinds of separation and barriers." - p75.
 Seung Sahn lends additional support to this in The Compass of Zen, p72:
"Men and women should be partners in life, not merely instruments of each other’s physical enjoyment. They should be good dharma friends. If they are helping each other understand their true selves, and are deeply committed to this in every way, having no thought for themselves, then having sex is no problem. It can also be a Dharma. The name for this is do ban, a “companion on the Path.” But this is extremely difficult practice for most people [...] The most important thing is, how do you consider sexual relations? The way you think about sex makes it either pure or impure."
The standard mindfulness teachings common to MBSR and Zen suggest that the way to deal with the potential "violent fire in us" is to accept it as a natural yet not functionally necessary part of our human makeup, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, p10:
"Mindfulness practice doesn’t sweep away or bring an end to sensual desire. To bring such a thing to an end would make us no longer human. We practice in order to have the capacity to deal with desire, to smile with desire, so that we may be free from it."
Recognising that without that potential burning fire of lust, our human DNA would not have made it to it's present state - that it remains as an evolutionary 'backup system' ready to perpetuate our genetic material should the necessary conditions for other human genetic survival strategies not manifest, then we can smile to our sexual desire when it is noticed; befriend it in peaceful recognition, and thus undermine any habitual triggering of the sympathetic nervous system which causes unhealthy, 'feral' lustful desire to become ignited. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of identifying our ancestral inheritance and identifying such habitual responses thus, p28:
"With the practice of mindfulness, we recognize the habitual nature of our desire. Mindfulness and concentration can help us look and find the roots of our actions. Our actions may have been inspired by something that happened yesterday, or they may have been inspired by something three hundred years old that has its roots in one of our ancestors."
As part of an interview titled Meditation Is not the Business of Monks Alone on, he says we can neutralize such habit energy as follows:
"We only need to breathe in, to breathe out mindfully, and say, "Hello, my old habit energy, I know you are there, I will take good care of you." That is enough in order to keep your habit energy not exactly in control but to embrace it, and not to let it leap away. Because in you, there is the energy of habit energy, but there is something else, there is the energy of mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness is holding tenderly the habit energy and taking care of it like a big sister taking care of the younger sister, and then, you'll be safe. And after, every time your habit energy is recognized and embraced tenderly like that, it will lose some of its strength. And the next time, when it appears, it will be a little bit weaker. And if you practice like that for a certain time, you'll be able to reduce that energy to a minimum. And you will not feel that it is stronger than you anymore."
He emphises the key role mindfulness practice has to play in noticing when habits arise in Fidelity, p28-29:
"When we’re able to smile at a provocation or direct our sexual energy towards something positive, we can be aware of our ability, appreciate it, and continue in this way. The key is to be aware of our actions. Our mindfulness will help us understand where our actions are coming from."
In amongst all this it can be seen that there is a big difference between feeling desire and suffering desire, and that the ancient Buddha would have had desire still present within him, p9:
"The Buddha had enough love, as well as enough mental responsibility and awakening, to be able to manage his sexual energy. We can do this as well"
Not being at the mercy of habitual responses, and being sensitive to all tension, he remained in skillful control of his being. This was because he had patiently watched the natural unfolding of his heart with tremendous focus, and thus had insight on his side. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, this is a powerful resource, p90:
"Awakening is a matter of insight. Once we have insight, although we still have the energy of sexual desire, we can manage it easily. The sutra talks about uprooting the energy of sexual desire. This doesn’t mean we harshly cut this down or completely eliminate it. When restless sexual desire arises, we pay attention to it with enough understanding and enough love that it dissipates and does not grow."
Until one gains adequate proficiency, however, dedicated training is necessary. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the following mindfulness training - specifically orientated towards managing sexual activity for the benefit of all other sentient beings, as a kind of personal mindfulness oath, p119:


Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—which are the four basic elements of true love—for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future."
Here is a poem attributed to Layman Pang (740-808):
"The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.
The present does not stay.
Don’t try to touch it.
From moment to moment.
The future has not come;
Don’t think about it
Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.
There are no commandments
To be kept;
There’s no filth to be cleansed.
With empty mind really
Penetrated, the dharmas
Have no life.
When you can be like this,
You’ve completed
The ultimate attainment."

Friday, 2 August 2013

Everything is Already Perfect

"According to Eastern philosophy, as a witness you are perfect, whole and complete just as you are. You don’t feel as if you are because you identify with your thoughts and emotions, which are always changing. Ultimately you don’t need to do anything to attain this natural state, because you are this natural state all the time – right here and right now." - Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p14.
"Meditation is synonymous with the practice of non-doing. We aren't practicing to make things perfect or to do things perfectly. Rather, we practice to grasp and realize (make real for ourselves) the fact that things already are perfect, perfectly what they are. This has everything to do with holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing anything extra on it, perceiving its purity and the freshness of its potential to give rise to the next moment." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p45.
"Just as the blue sky is always above us, even when we cannot see it, so it is with our perfect Original Nature. Even when our mind-state is cloudy and our emotions are raining, our Original Nature is always there, shining brightly within us and all things." - American Zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays, How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p97-98.
"Something which comes out of nothingness is naturalness, like a seed or plant coming out of the ground. The seed has no idea of being some particular plant, but it has its own form and is in perfect harmony with the ground, with its surroundings. As it grows, in the course of time it expresses its nature. Nothing exists without form and color. Whatever it is, it has some form and color, and that form and color are in perfect harmony with other beings. And there is no trouble. That is what we mean by naturalness. For a plant or stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem. To be natural is something which we must work on." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p108.
"Meditation by its very nature provides healing of the deepest kind. The disease it helps heal is perhaps the most painful one of all — an epidemic human disorder known as separation (or, even worse, alienation) from our own being and from other beings and things. When you meditate, you heal this separation by gradually reconnecting in the here and now with your feelings, your sensate experience, and other aspects of yourself you may have previously disowned. That is, you become more whole! Most important, perhaps, you reconnect with your basic nature — pure being itself — which is complete and perfect just the way it is." - Meditation for Dummies (2006), p275.
"If not for Bodhidharma’s coming from the west, there’d be no Zen to be passed on. It was all for the sake of beings to individually realize their own self-nature and become buddhas, for beings to personally bring forth the entire Buddhadharma. Moreover, it was for the transformation of the universal spirit, whereby all beings are seen to be, in themselves, complete and perfect, and without the need to falsely seek anything outside of themselves." - Zen's Chinese Heritage: The masters and their teachings (2000), p424.
"Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p4.
Outside of being mindful, it seems we need to make our lives perfect - through proactively changing ourselves and the people around us. This dualistic perspective - that the perfection we have in our heads is not reflected outside ourselves; that there is some fundamental disconnection between our psychological existence and the world around it - is a self-made trap, and it revolves around a simple choice one makes regarding what is already perfect in the world.

In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect (2009), Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a former lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard, states the following, pxxi-xxii:
"The Perfectionist believes that a happy life comprises an uninterrupted stream of positive emotions. And because he, of course, aspires to be happy, he rejects painful emotions. He denies himself the permission to feel sad when a work opportunity is lost or to experience the deep pain that follows the dissolution of a meaningful relationship. The Optimalist, on the other hand, accepts that painful emotions are an inevitable part of being alive. He gives room for sadness and pain, allowing such feelings to deepen his overall experience of life—the unpleasant as well as the pleasant."
Even if we somehow obtained a powerful ability to make our environment as perfect as we imagine it should be, the impermanence of the world, and our inability to see everything existing at the same time would mean we would constantly have to adjust everything in real time, and we would likely be creating future work for ourselves as hidden variables react to, and against our manifested visions. American Zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays speaks of this in her book How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p148:
"There are few ideas more absurd than the notion, “If I could arrange things—and people—to be just as I want them, then I would be happy.” It is absurd for at least two reasons. First of all, even if we had the power to make everything in the world perfect for us, that perfection could only last a second because all the other people in the world have different ideas of how they would like things to be and are working to get them their way. Our “perfect” is not perfect to anyone else. Secondly, forcing perfection on the world is bound to fail because of the truth of impermanence — nothing lasts forever."
Embracing this logic, however, does nothing to quell the feeling that one's life is imperfect - the judging, the comparisons, etc., can keep flowing onwards and inwards. The real key lies in identifying what assumptions one has made about one's existence, and looking for possible readjustments. As the the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) writes, p82:
"The tendency of your mind to compare you to others (or to some impossible ideal) and to judge every little thing you do as imperfect or inadequate just keeps you anxious, frustrated, and upset. Generally, this tendency originates in your stories or life script, a deeply held cluster of often negative beliefs. After all, if you believe that you’re lovable and inherently perfect just the way you are, your mind has nothing to compare you with."
American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck illustrates the situation facing a person if they accept themselves as already perfect, in her book Everyday Zen (1997), as follows, p116:
"...suppose I have no objection to any of my needs or wants, or to any of your needs or wants — it’s all perfect as it is — then what needs to be adjusted?"
This does not mean we freeze in some kind of 'acceptance limbo zone' - our cells will continue metabolising intensely no matter what we do - hunger, tiredness, toilet needs, etc., will come and go, and we may respond to and satisfy those needs without any internal conflict. Basic human biological concerns have never rationally been considered imperfect, it seems; imperfections tend to be things we deem to be unnecessary to human existence. 

Existentially speaking, quantum physics tells us that the energy in our body is the same energy as that found in fire, water, air- everything around us. The energy that makes up our body and mind is just 'packaged' differently. When this perspective is coupled with biochemistry and biology, it allows us to model the history of our physical development - from billions of years ago before our planet even existed, to our modern developed human situation. We can model how the energy from exploding stars became packed in the form of different chemicals, which joined together to form DNA, which in turn selected various resources from it's environment to replicate itself. Our DNA then developed more and more complex methods of protecting and perpetuating itself until it finally arrived in this modern human state. In this sense we are part of something much larger and infinite which can be considered 'perfect' in itself - what the ancient Chinese called the Dao, and the Mahayana Buddhists apparently equated with Buddha Nature.

Becoming "one with the Dao", or witnessing Buddha Nature directly, was the goal of ancient Indian and Chinese Sages, and  traditionally required one to follow The Way - to live in recognition of the perfect Dao, and thus witness the perfection of everything. According to this approach, The Way is perfect because it is the path itself - witnessing the perfect Dao as one passes through -  a physical passing which is the Dao; one's dynamic existence. This simple yet subtly profound situation is referred to by the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), in the text attributed to him called  The Bloodstream Sermon, when he writes the following:
"The Way is basically perfect. It doesn’t require perfecting. The Way has no form or sound. It’s subtle and hard to perceive."
Elaborating on how the way to realizing the perfect state of everything is a state of mind, an ancient Chinese Zen master spoke to his students as follows, related in Zen's Chinese Heritage - The masters and their teachings (2000), p81:
"Zen master Xiqian entered the hall and addressed the monks, saying, “[...] You should each recognize your miraculous mind. Its essence is apart from temporary or everlasting. Its nature is without pollution or purity. It is clear and perfect. Common people and sages are the same. [This mind] reaches everywhere without limit. It is not constrained by the limits of consciousness."
The Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, presented a more dynamic view of the mind-body perfect existence in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p40:
"Your whole being is your pair of eyes of the True Dharma; your whole being is the embodiment of Truth; your whole being is a single line of Scripture; your whole being is luminosity; your whole being is your whole heart and mind. When your whole being exists, your whole being has no impediments: it is perfect in its completeness and is everturning, like the rumbling on of cart wheels."
Living in this way - with an awareness of the perfect Dao/Buddha Nature within and outside of oneself - as a background to all that one witnesses, can mean that every moment can be as beautiful and elegant as a whole universe. Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki illustrated this in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p32:
"Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance. So if you see things without realizing the background of Buddha nature, everything appears to be in the form of suffering. But if you understand the background of existence, you realize that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our life."
In this sense our material existence is akin to a perfect bed within which we may always sleep, and the way we live our lives is akin to how we position ourselves to sleep in that bed. We can recognize a bed is perfect, but whether we enjoy a good night's sleep in that bed depends on how we position ourselves, what and when we have eaten, what our minds are habitually doing, etc., etc. So everything is how it should be - the bed is perfect, but our experience of sleeping in it depends on what we do - in this sense we reap what we sow.

The perceived imperfection in our lives is created by us - we determine our experiences as much as we determine whether a night's sleep is peaceful and rewarding or not. The irony in all this, which many people who suffer from insomnia experience, is, however, that by trying too hard to have a perfect night's sleep in one's perfect bed, one self-sabotages and does not sleep very well at all. It is only by letting go - going beyond ideas of perfection and realising that accepting whatever necessary situation comes - even imperfection - that one allows the innate perfection of the Dao to emerge by itself. The Dao cannot be controlled.

Have you ever tried to keep a perfect regular count of something, only for the process to be sabotaged and interrupted by oneself - almost as if one did it on purpose? Shunryu Suzuki spoke of an opposite exercise that ancient painters in the East had tried in order to control or emulate the natural, chaotic, yet beautiful essence of the Dao, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p32:
"Ancient painters used to practice putting dots on paper in artistic disorder. This is rather difficult. Even though you try to do it, usually what you do is arranged in some order. You think you can control it, but you cannot; it is almost impossible to arrange your dots out of order. It is the same with taking care of your everyday life. Even though you try to put people under some control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous."
I myself have encountered this phenomenon when practising traditional Chinese painting - trying to get the natural essence of a scene just right - like when placing 'moss spots' or small blades of grass; if I try to make it irregular it becomes a regular pattern, and vice versa. At the very core of a work of art which attempts to present the dynamic harmony of the universe - even in the leaves of a plant, or the branches of a tree, is the artist's conception and personal integration with the Dao - it becomes apparent in his skilled work as it filters through from heart to hand.

Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks of the perfect qualities of nature relative to artistic endeavours in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p58:
"When reality is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection, an almond tree that may be in your front yard reveals its nature in perfect wholeness. The almond tree is itself truth, reality, your own self. Of all the people who have passed by your yard, how many have really seen the almond tree? The heart of an artist may be more sensitive; hopefully he or she will be able to see the tree in a deeper way than many others. Because of a more open heart, a certain communion already exists between the artist and the tree."
This seemingly miraculous perfection of living organisms is also mentioned by mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p154:
"Never mind dogs. What about a bird, or a cat, or a tree, or a flower, or a rhinoceros?! They are all quite miraculous really. When you really look at one, you can hardly believe it exists; there it is, this perfect thing, just being what it is, complete in itself. Any imaginative child could have dreamed up a rhinoceros, or an elephant, or a giraffe. But they didn't get here as the product of a child's imagination. The universe is spinning these dreams. They come out of the universe, as do we. It doesn't hurt to keep this in mind on a daily basis. It would help us to be more mindful."
Thich Nhat Hanh also enourages one to use living objects as mindful anchors; in The Sun My Heart (1988), he writes the following, p110:
"If we use a leaf as the object of our concentration, we can see, through the leaf, the perfect oneness of mind and universe."
His methodology in this case is to recognise the seamless dynamic and physical connection each object, such as a tree, a leaf, or even a dead object like a piece of paper, has with everything else around it. With reference to a piece of paper, he teaches, in The Heart of Understanding (2010), p9:
"If we only look at the sheet of paper as an observer, standing outside, we cannot understand it completely. We have to penetrate it. We have to be a cloud, be the sunshine, and be the logger. If we can enter it and be everything that is in it, our understanding of the sheet of paper will be perfect. There is an Indian story about a grain of salt that wanted to know just how salty the ocean is, so it jumped in and became one with the water of the ocean. In this way, the grain of salt gained perfect understanding." 
Using this scientific and logical stance to connect oneself with the perfect state of the universe, one can accept the necessary pains of life more easily. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) recommends the following exercise to utilise this inherent perfection within us during formal seated mindfulness meditation practice, p115:
"Consciously expand your awareness from your belly to your whole body. Get a sense of your entire body breathing (which it is, through the skin). As the energy settles in your body, notice its effect. Accept yourself as perfect and complete just as you are, just in this moment, as much as you can."
This is the opposite of imposing a perfect imagined state upon oneself, there are no aspirations once one has arrived at the practice - there is just full immersion in 'what is'. As Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p87:
"Practice is not about having experiences, not about having giant realizations, not about getting somewhere or becoming something. We are perfect as we are. By “perfect” I mean simply that this is it. Practice is simply maintaining awareness — of our activities and also of the thoughts that separate us from our activities."
This already perfect state has been referred to by traditional Buddhists as a perfectly round moon, or a jewel which is uncovered through mindfulness practice, as related in Zen's Chinese Heritage, p368:
"Bao’en addressed the congregation, saying, “All of you monks fully possess an eternal perfect moon. Each  of you possesses a priceless jewel. Because the moon is obscured by fog its luster does not shine forth. Your wisdom is concealed within delusion, and although it is the truth, you haven’t realized it."
Joko Beck also uses this jewel metaphor to describe our innate perfection in Everyday Zen as follows, p190:
"...we must be careful that we don’t look for the jewel in the wrong place, outside of ourselves, failing to see that our life itself is the jewel—unpolished perhaps, but already perfect, complete and whole."
Mindfulness for Dummies presents a story which reflects the above 'perfect yet unpolished jewel' idea quite nicely - it is about a cracked pot which considered itself imperfect next to other pots, p21:
"The cracked pot noticed the most beautiful wild flowers and plants on its side of the path. The water bearer explained, ‘When I realised you were cracked, I decided to plant seeds on one side of the path, and every day, as you leak, you water that side of the path. If you weren’t cracked, these gorgeous flowers wouldn’t be here for all to enjoy.’ Sometimes you may think you’re not perfect, or your mindfulness practice is not perfect, but how do you know? This story goes to show even a cracked pot can be seen as perfect, just as it is. In the same way, you’re perfect just the way you are, with all your imperfections – that’s what makes you unique."
Ultimately the cracked pot was changed from 'broken' into useful by the water bearer transcending the pot's self-nature - the suffocating, traditional conception of what a pot is - and accepting it's limitations to the point that a new more novel utility was identified - a utility that the other pots were unsuited to.

When one looks back on limitations which were traditionally considered imperfections, one can see, with insight, that those limitations had utility. The telephone was invented due to Alexander Graham Bell trying to create a hearing aid for his deaf family members - his relatives' limitations became useful as a catalyst for the whole world to be able to communicate more efficiently. Even though we may not be aware of it, shortcomings and imperfections are useful, and therefore, as Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen, p14:
"At every point in our practice it’s perfect."
Being able to actually witness this eternal perfection in every moment is a huge challenge - the experience needs to be 'attained' through just sitting in empty non-seeking, self-compassionate acceptance of the present moment. Of course it takes lots of practice, but the reward is beyond compare. As Jon Kabat-Zinn's late Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn (1927-2004), writes in The Compass of Zen (1997):
"If you attain this experience of emptiness, then you see that everything is already complete; therefore, “True nature has no taint and is already a perfect sphere.” No matter what we ever do — good or bad — our original nature is always completely free of impurity and complete. There is no such thing here as original sin. Like a perfect sphere, our true nature has no beginning and no end. At this point, you see things exactly as they are. So, “Not attached to any thinking, just-like-this is Buddha.”"
In amongst all this talk, however, it is always useful to take stock of what is being said, and how those words are being related to by the listener - are they being taken as an accurate description of reality, or as mere signposts in a more detailed and complex landscape within which first-hand experience beyond concepts is the ultimate aspiration? In Nothing Special, Joko Beck warns us of the ever-present danger, in amongst all this perfection-speak, of taking conceptual signposting as the territory itself, p175:
"In Zen practice, we tend to toss around many fancy concepts: “Everything is perfect in being as it is.” “We’re all doing the best that we can.” “Things are all one.” “I’m one with him.” We can call this Zen bullshit, though other religions have their own versions. It’s not that the statements are false. The world is one. I am you. Everything is perfect in being as it is. Every human being on the planet is doing the best he or she can at this moment. True enough. But if we stop there, we have turned our practice into an exercise of concepts, and we’ve lost awareness of what’s going on with us right this second. Good practice always entails moving through our concepts." 
So it is never as simple as someone saying "Well, everything I do is perfect, as it is part of the perfect Dao, so I don't need to practice", because if such a person understood first-hand what that perfection of the Dao they were referring to was, then they would have already been practising. It would be akin to someone saying "Because I can label an experience, I know what that experience is" - it is an experiential bluff.

Mere intellectually recognition that the perfect structure of the universe is contained within one's physical being does not mean one is comfortable and one truly considers oneself and all things perfect - for that to happen, one has to literally feel it in the body. One knows and understands hunger because of a physical sensation. A person who has been blind from birth cannot understand what light is just from words alone.

One has to recognise the perfect bed in which one sleeps (the Dao), and place oneself in that bed in a way which ensures a perfect experience of nourishing sleep, and as most people know; that is something incredibly difficult to do day after day. Shunryu Suzuki uses a similar metaphor in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, where he uses an oven to represent  the perfect Dao, and we are the dough placed in the oven to make bread. The practice is adjusting the temperature, time, yeast, etc., to make perfect bread, p56-57:
"How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing. How we become enlightened was his main interest. The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character — how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice. [...] In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated mindfulness meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."