No Back or Front, No Inside or Outside (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 3)

This is the third in a six-part series on Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1 and Part 2. (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast, #23.)

water picAfter “Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses,” Keizan continues with this:

Who is this? Its name is unknown; it cannot be called “body”, it cannot be called “mind”. Trying to think of it, the thought vanishes. Trying to speak of it, words die.

It is like a fool, an idiot. It is as high as a mountain, deep as the ocean. Without peak or depths, its brilliance is unthinkable, it shows itself silently. Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.

“Who is this?” What a great way to start anything. “It cannot be called ‘body,’ it cannot be called ‘mind.'”

It’s a common refrain in the Buddhist world that the fundamental delusion is “I,” that that’s where everything begins, this idea that there’s a “me.” And that this “me” is separate from you. That’s usually how we talk about it: that I think I’m here and that you think you’re there.

And according to Buddhist teachings, that is delusional. But if we look closely at that delusion, we see there’s something even more fundamental. It’s not just that I think I’m me and that I’m distinct; it’s that I think “I” am somehow separate from the rest of me. Where do you locate “I”?

Now, if a bee stings you, maybe you have a brief moment of clarity and consider that maybe, just maybe, “I” is the back of your hand, or maybe “I” is your knee. But if we’re walking down the street on an ordinary day, “I” is just this pink wrinkled mass, and we’re carrying it around in our head. It has these little windows that look out onto the world, and it drives this “vehicle” that has tools like hands and feet. That’s “I.” If you’re really honest with yourself, you probably imagine that if there was an accident and you lost your hand, well, that would be sad but you would still be you. If I lost my arm, I would still be me. If she had a heart transplant, she would still be her. But if my brain were damaged? Then maybe I wouldn’t be me anymore. We have a very limited idea of where we are located, of what it is that is this identity.

Keizan says, it’s not body and it’s not mind.

Trying to think of it, the thought vanishes.

He’s describing the idea that a thing can’t perform its own function on itself. If “I” am something bigger than my brain, then this same “I” can’t turn and look inward. The whole organism has to do it. It’s like doing a flip.

Trying to speak of it, words die.

“I” can try to speak about myself, and in doing so, I assert that the speaker is not the same as what’s being spoken of. There’s a gap. Keizan is saying there is no gap. You can’t step outside. You can’t take that step outside of who you are. He’s inviting us instead to really occupy that space—whatever that is (and soon, he’s going to say that that space is immeasurably huge). He adds:

It is like a fool, an idiot.

This idea of the fool comes up a lot—at least in Zen literature—and often it’s used as a pairing against the scholar or the academic, the idea being that the scholar is dissecting Buddhism, whereas the fool might be actually practicing Buddhism, even if he or she doesn’t really get all the particular doctrinal nuances of it. That’s one way to look at this. But “fool” and “idiot” are also used is to describe someone or some functioning that isn’t self-reflective. The intelligent person sits on a hilltop and contemplates her own existence. This is navel-gazing—we look at our bellybuttons and we say Who am I? What is this? What is this all about? The fool, in this version of “fool,” isn’t doing that. The fool isn’t trying to draw lines between inside and outside. The fool isn’t trying to dissect the self. The fool is just moving about freely, unhindered, unburdened by these questions that seem so important.

It is as high as a mountain, deep as the ocean.

But then immediately he says:

Without peak or depths…

So it’s as high as that and it’s as deep as that, but it doesn’t have height and it doesn’t have depth.

… its brilliance is unthinkable, it shows itself silently. Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.

In Shobogenzo Bussho (“Buddhanature”), Dogen performs all sorts of verbal acrobatics to talk about something that is everything. He says it’s this and this and this, and then he says it’s not this and it’s not this and it’s not this. What he’s pointing to when he speaks of buddhanature is something that is synonymous with reality. Not separate from it. It’s not a flavor, it’s not a layer, it’s not an essence at the center. It goes all the way through to the center and all the way out.

Here, Keizan is taking a different approach. Instead of talking about buddhanature, which feels very abstract, he’s talking about your mind and your body, and he’s saying: this is that. Your mind, he’s saying, is without borders. Your body is without borders. Don’t imagine yourself to be small. Don’t imagine yourself to be distinct. Don’t imagine yourself to be separate.

We’re being asked to see something—and he’s saying this, flat out—that cannot be seen. Because the “I” can’t look at itself. We do try! But it’s like an eyeball trying to look at itself.

This one is without compare—he has completely died. Eyes clear, she stands nowhere.

She has no location.

Where is there any dust? What can obstruct such a one?

Dust is used a lot, because there can only ever be dust on something. Something can only be impure if it’s separate from something else. But if something is the ground of everything, then there’s nothing that can make it dirty—and nothing that can make it clean. It’s like walking on a path and saying, “Oh, this path is filthy.” Yes, but it’s filthy all the way down. That’s all you’ve got. You can just as easily say that it’s pristine, because dirt has no other way.

Clear water has no back or front, space has no inside or outside.

These are so obvious, but for me, every time I read them, I have to stop and think about them.

Completely clear, its own luminosity shines before form and emptiness were fabricated. Objects of mind and mind itself have no place to exist.

Keizan is describing something that has no reference point. We can’t locate it as north, south, east, or west. We can’t say it looks like this from the front or it looks like this from the back.

We have such an interesting notion of time. We say things like “since time began.” I don’t know—it isn’t really my field—but that makes no sense to me. Certain things have beginnings and certain things have endings. It’s not clear to me that time has a start. It’s not clear to me that time has an end. We try so desperately to try to parse time, to imagine that time is relative to a starting point and to an ending point. It’s one of the main functions of our minds. But if you were immortal, if you knew that you were never never never never going to die, your understanding of time would be completely different.

As we age, we experience time as going faster. That was first explained to me very simply: when you’re five, a year of your life is twenty percent of your life; it feels like it takes a long time to go through a year. When you’re ninety, a year of your life is getting close to one percent. So even though it’s the same year, you look up and it just went. But that also happens in part because you’re thinking, “I’m close… I’m ninety, I’m filling this glass of water and I’m almost at the top.” But if you knew that it would never be full, if you knew that it would never ever ever end, there would be no time going quickly, and there would be no time going slowly. You could experience it however you wanted. There would be no reference point. There would be no horizon line. You could just experience this moment as something full and long, and then you could blink and it would be as if a month had passed. There would be no fixed points any more. You would just always be now.

Keizan is describing something like that. He’s inviting us to imagine ourselves as having no fixed reference points: no birth, no death. No location. It’s really, really hard. There are traditions that really explore this, practices within Buddhism in which you actually try to move your consciousness—to your bellybutton, for example, and out of your brain, or to your kneecap. It’s a fun game. Just don’t do it while you’re driving.

Keizan is also attacking the idea of absolute and relative, which we talk about often in Buddhism. We say there’s absolute truth and there’s relative truth; we say there’s form and there’s emptiness. In the Heart Sutra, we say that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. But that’s actually not an acknowledgement of absolute and relative—it’s an argument against them. There’s one truth, and because you can’t step outside of it, that truth is essentially invisible as truth. When we say that there’s absolute truth and relative truth, that’s a game we play so that we can step out: if I stand over here, then truth looks like this, and if I stand over here, then truth looks like this. But again, that’s not truth. That’s just a narrative.

We do this with everything. We cut apart everything so that we can dissect it, so that we can look at it, so that we can say “I get what this part is, I get what this part is.” But it’s like trying to understand a cookie by understanding flour, and then by really understanding sugar, and then by really understanding an egg, that somehow, if you fully grasp these ingredients, you’ll get what a cookie is. We know that’s not true. They cannot be separate. It doesn’t work that way. No matter how much you know about each of the three, if you never eat a cookie, you’ll never get what a cookie is.

This has always already been so but it is still without a name.

Again, because it can’t name itself.

The great teacher, the Third Ancestor Sengcan temporarily called it “mind”, and the Venerable Nagarjuna once called it “body”.

He’s saying, yes, sometimes we talk about this thing as mind, and maybe sometimes we talk about this thing as body. But that’s provisional language.

Enlightened essence and form, giving rise to the bodies of all the Buddhas, it has no “more” and no “less” about it.

It cannot be measured in degrees. What I love about this is that we come to zazen with the idea that by sitting in zazen we’re going to somehow penetrate delusion, that we’re going to take up this practice and that will move us beyond delusion. And what he’s saying —these are his zazen instructions, by the way, and he still hasn’t said a single thing about what to do in zazen!—the first thing he’s saying is, “First, transcend delusion.”

This is a theme that comes up over and over again: zazen, in our deepest understanding of what zazen is, is not something separate. It’s not a place where we work something out. It’s fundamentally complete. And something that’s fundamentally complete, within this definition—it’s not even good enough to say that it’s vast. “Vast” still implies a container. It’s without limit.

So when he teaches zazen, he says start there! It’s a big idea. Start there! Sit down on a cushion and completely let go of your idea of me, and that, and big and small and forward and backward and front and back and up and down. Sit here at the center—not the center of something that has limits, but “the center” being the whole thing.

We have the teaching that “one inch buddha is one inch zazen.” That is to say, buddha is always buddha. There’s no size. There’s no small buddha, no big buddha. There is no small zazen, no big zazen. There is no one-minute or thirty minutes. Not really. If you think that doing forty-five minutes of zazen is success but five minutes of zazen is failure, then you’re misunderstanding what zazen is, in the same way that if we imagine that a long life is a successful one and a short one is a failure, we’re misunderstanding what life is. A thing can only be what it is. It can only ever be complete. And we only call it incomplete when we apply a measurement from the outside.

I love that this is the starting point. Throw out everything! Then I’ll talk to you about your posture.


One comment on “No Back or Front, No Inside or Outside (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 3)

  1. David Guy says:

    Great stuff. Really enjoying these.

    (And I just bought your wife’s book. Looking forward to that too.)

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