The Lankavatara Sutra says our existence is like a dream. It reprises the end of the Diamond Sutra, where our existence is likened to a dream, a bubble, a flash of lightning, a dawn star, a phantom.

Dream is the most pervasive trope in Buddhism, and for good reason.

It is hard to see the Buddha's enlightenment story as anything other than a kind of awakening dream.

When we dream, awake or asleep, and when we then leave the dream, it is not that we are awakened to truth. But rather, that we are awakened to delusion.

And in the morning when we wake from a dream, there is a moment when perhaps we don't know where we are, or who we are, or what we are. And then, almost instantaneously, we enter the dream of the self, the dream of the everyday world. 

Between these dream bubbles, the ocean.





Why do we sit facing the wall? We could say we're re-enacting Bodhidharma, but what are we re-enacting?

In the customary telling, after his encounter with the Emperor, Bodhidharma went to Shaolin temple and faced the wall for nine years.

The Chinese phrase is pi kuan, which is usually rendered as ‘wall contemplation’. It doesn’t occur before Bodhidharma.

But given that he was not contemplating the wall, what does this mean, other than‘contemplation like a wall’, or, more radically, ‘the wall contemplates’? Whatever the actual location of Bodhidharma was, the primary meaning of the phrase has always been understood to be metaphorical, not literal.

In contemplation from the perspective of a person, we are likely to have the idea of present insufficiency and future gain. We may imagine that if all the inner and outer noise abated, Emptiness, Suchness might appear.

Contemplation from the perspective of the wall is entirely different. The wall is facing the person and facing the world, and all of it is a vivid, alive whole. Emptiness is immediately there. There is nothing to be eradicated, and nothing to gain. The wall is immovably grounded in great faith. We could equally say he spent nine years facing the ground, or the mountain, or vast space.






At the Winter Retreat we talked about the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. Tathagata means 'thus come' or 'thus gone', and refers to the Buddha, and Garbha means womb, or embryo.

The Sutra gives expression to the idea in Chinese Buddhism that everything has Buddha nature; which Dogen later reformulated as everything is Buddha nature. 

It uses eight similes to describe Buddha nature, six of which are to do with concealment.

Thus: a precious statue concealed in rags, gold concealed in dirt, hidden treasure underneath a house, and others.

The two anomalies are, first, a seed which grows into a huge tree, and second the simile after which the Sutra is named, a humble person carrying in embryo a great person. But which is great: the embryo or the womb? If we regard practice from an individualistic perspective, we obviously want to say the embryo, because how would it be meaningful to say that what is great is the womb?

Unless we broaden our gaze. We can then see it as a description of our practice together. We are within, and we uphold, this Buddha space. Both.





All the Zen lineages trace their ancestry back to the sixth ancestor Huineng, who, so the story goes, obtained a secret transmission from the fifth anscestor Hongren. In the story, Hongren asks his monks to write a poem about zazen. His chief disciple, Shenxiu, was the only one who responded. Huineng criticised the poem. In response, Hongren recognised Huineng as his true successor, and gave him transmission.

This is the poem, as often translated into English:

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind the bright mirror
At all times we should polish it
And not let dust collect

However, the original Chinese reads something like:

Body is bodhi tree
Mind like clear mirror stand
At all times diligently polish
Do not let dust settle

When we first hear the poem in its normal translation, we imagine that Shenxiu is talking about your body and your mind, and that your mind is like a bright mirror which needs to be kept clear of the dust of thoughts by the effort of Zazen. That ties in with an individualistic, mindful, psychological sense of what zazen is.

Except, the poem doesn't actually say that.

Let's consider the actual text.

The body is the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment. So it is associated with that, obviously. But also, it is an unusual tree because it's hollow.  So it's also a symbol of interdependence.

Is this the personal body, or not? Or both? Or neither?

When we hear that the mind is like a mirror, we form an image of a mirror, on a stand, in a room, that we polish through our effort, and so keep bright. But where in this image is the bodhi tree? Is it in the room, with the mirror, or not? And shouldn't the (personal)  body be the stand of the mirror? And what is the stand anyway, and how does it relate to the mirror/mind?

The original text doesn't make clear who or what is being polished. The translations do, and it seems clear why. What would we be polishing, if not a mirror? It's obvious, isn't it?

But obviousness is the co-conspirator of deception.

If we rephrase it as something like "with vigorous effort, the dust does not settle anywhere", we may start to get somewhere.

If dust appears in vast space, moved here and there by the vigorous life of the air, both illuminated by light, there's no problem. The problem arises when the dust settles. Not because it becomes anything different, but because space is eradicated. There's just dust, and the dust becomes fixed. And what it comes to rest on becomes fixed too, as 'me', 'objective world', 'mirror', and so on.



"The path of all buddhas and ancestors arises before the first forms emerge; it cannot be spoken of using conventional views"

This is the first sentence of Chapter 39 of the Shobogenzo. What are we to make of it?

One of the first places the Glasgow Group practiced was an unkempt room in the International Flat, near the University. Nancy did an Introductory Day there in 1991. It was a bright cold winter day. Light flooded through the window, illuminating the dust in the air.

Dogen said that zazen was dropping off body and mind. He claimed he got this formulation from his teacher, Nyojo. But scholars have recently thought what Nyojo - a Chinese master - actually said to the monks practicing zazen was "you should drop off mind dust", and Dogen's creative genius reformulated it, because 'dust' and 'body' are homonyms in Japanese, but not Chinese.

What would we make of someone who was fascinated by the dust: how it moved, where it came from, the patterns it made, and so on, endlessly? If we were to say to this person that the movement of the dust was just the movement of the air, like objects bobbing on water, would it change him? And if it didn't, wouldn't we think we think he was a simpleton?

And isn't the dust of our thoughts, illuminated by practice,  absolutely like this? Non practitioners imagine that they spring out of nothing, but they don't. And isn't that fertile 'no-thing', that greater space, within and around and beyond, the path? The presence or absence of dust is neither here nor there. The light illuminates the space. And with it, the dust.



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