Thursday, February 11, 2010

Looking For Mind's True Nature

Time and again I am struck by the kindness of the mahamudra vipashyana teachings. In my first years of zen training, every morning at 5:00 am before sitting, we gave student talks based on Dogen's, Eihei Koroku. Periodically through the 100-day practice period, I would overflow in frustration with trying to understand Dogen and seek comfort by weaving Tibetan ideas into my student talks. I yearned for simplicity and clarity.

It's curious how distinctions between these two Buddhist lineages fade in and out of my mind. Sometimes they seem starkly different and sometimes boundaries blur. It's all good. Perhaps the bumps and bruises of my zen practice have healed. It was a rigorous practice. Rigorous to the point of exhaustion. It was as though exhausting the body and mind, applying one's self so whole-heartedly to sitting meditation, work practice, and sutra study, might somehow release this mysterious thing called enlightenment that was surely trapped somewhere inside. But my shoulders, black and blue from the kyosaku released nothing. They just sat there, straight, upright, unwavering, with visions of Shundo Aoyama as their guide. When my zen group imploded, there were some who said there had been a deficit of compassion in our practice, that we had pushed so hard we missed the target. But those years of practice are my own secret treasure. They tested and challenged me to grow and do more than I knew I was capable of. They brought me home to myself. I came dazed and fragmented and through zen practice the pieces came back together as one. And though the community was a messy soap opera of relationships, I am grateful for the experience of practicing in that time and place with that teacher and that particular group of students.

For some people, reading and understanding Dogen and koans appears to be a playful romp of the mind. Not me. I've always struggled with the idea of studying. Not much patience for that. So it's fairly quick and easy to exhaust my mind. Ha! Thank goodness for those bright intellects and their analytical abilities. Koan study particularly drove me bonkers. Why do we have to keep dinging around with this stuff. Can't we just get to the point!? My snarling impatience was persistent and direct. Let's just get to the heart of it— now! My teacher gave me the name Shingo, which translates— realizing the heartmind, realizing the marrow. The name belies my impatience and reveals his generous spirit. Mu, the first koan given to me by my teacher, has strangely become a part of me. That haunting sound, Muuuu still echos in my mind. And it brings a smile with it.

Dogen must have been quite an extrovert, considering the enormous quantity of writing and talks attributed to him. In my limited view, Dogen zen has the strong flavor of Confucious with it's emphasis on conduct, morals and ethics. While Dogen admonishes us to practice enlightenment, to work hard, to sit zazen like our hair's on fire (it always cracks me up to think of a bald guy saying practice like your hair's on fire), the Tibetans tell us to rest.

Rest in awareness. Look directly at the mind. I'm astonished by the detailed meditation instructions and especially by descriptions of the nature of mind along the way. They call this pointing out and I feel like a blithely wandering traveler, who suddenly discovers a compass. So accustomed to ambiguity, I'm wary of these new pointers. They are shockingly clear. Can this be!? Could it be so simple? All phenomena— thoughts, emotions, the senses, appearances— are tools on the path to lucid, vivid awareness. Rest. Balance. Look. Not too tight, not too loose, as my zen sewing teacher would say. This looking is as simple as the word implies. It does not entail analysis. Conceptual mind chatter becomes an object of awareness, a tool for meditation. Just as a runner builds strength and stamina with various training runs, we develop our capacity to flow in concert with our true nature, by alternating focused meditation techniques with relaxed open awareness. Meditate many times, short times, says Mingyur Rinpoche. So my new practice is mind training. And training requires persistence. And persistence now morphs into each fresh new curious moment— what is this?!

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing to you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God


  1. "Let's just get to the Heart of it!" - YES! Me too! "Flow in concert with your true nature..." and "rest in awareness." Clear, Clean and Simple... Don't you love it! :)

    And from another tradition:
    "You cannot escape Love. Everything is discharged and becomes That when the river returns to the Ocean. There is no escape from IT - it doesn't matter how IT is packaged..." (or how you choose to get there) :) Papaji

    I love the poem by Rilke! Touches my Heart...

    Heart Smiles to you!

  2. "rest in awareness" this is the piece that speaks directly to my heart...what I have been taught, what I struggle (ha, ha) to learn...and then don't struggle (when I really get it) then struggle again because this is the nature of the beast (mind)...learning through direct experience and then the next experience again and again.

    thanks for sharing the beautiful rilke poem too.

  3. Hi Kris...You left a nice comment on my webpage way back in February . I am also a coach at our local high school and have a past player named Kriss who I thought had left the comment (I need to pay more attention). Anyway, wanted to say "thank you" belatedly.

    John Brisson

  4. I seem to have developed tendonitis or some kind of over use injury in my left wrist and hand...making typing painful for I might not be blogging as much for a while... this includes commenting on your amazingly inspiring blog-and this is soooooo hard for me. (this is kind of a form message I've typed and am copying and pasting at all my favorite blog hangouts. Sorry it must seem completely random in relation to your post) I can still read your posts- I will be present to you in a quiet way-reading and viewing your words and images, and leaving a simple ☺
    to let you know I have dropped by and am thinking about you.

    Gentle steps,

  5. There is something about Zen and something about Tibetan Buddhism that are needed for the emerging Buddhism in the West. I'm still trying to figure it out on the surface, but you seem to be diving deep into it. :D

  6. Kris, I think it's not only limited to Buddhism nor Westerners. Anything that's ritualistic and ceremonial is too dramatic for my taste whichever culture or practice it's coming from. I've never needed ceremonies to get to where I want, but other people seem to need it. That's the understanding I've reached. The important lesson to learn is to transcend all these rituals and ceremonies, not only in practice but in thinking. They are just forms.

    (my reply to your comment in my blog)

  7. I admire you for all the work you have put in -- it definitely takes work to sit and observe the mind.