Saturday, 29 March 2008

SHIN NO KEKKAFUZA: Bodily Full Lotus Sitting

This and the next two posts are not intended as a contribution to the body-mind problem in philosophy. I am reporting back on a 25-year endeavour, filled from beginning to end with trouble and strife, to respond in everyday life to Master Dogen's exhortation to practise -- bodily, mentally, and as body and mind dropping off -- full lotus sitting.

In Shobogenzo chapter 72, Zanmai-o-zanmai, The Samadhi That Is King of Samadhis, Master Dogen writes: SHIN no KEKKAFUZA su beshi.

In the Nishijima-Cross translation of 1997, the sentence is translated "Sit in the full lotus posture with the body."

I first read Gudo Nishijima's own translation of the chapter Zanmai-o-zanmai in 1982 or 1983, and the chapter made a terrific impact on me.

In 1986 I read the original Japanese text of the chapter for the first time. That was a very exciting and rewarding moment.

SHIN no KEKKAFUZA su beshi has five Chinese characters, read as SHIN (body), KEK (full), KA-FU (cross-legged) and ZA (sitting). No and subeshi are written in Japanese kana. The word no is a joining particle, and subeshi means "should do."

SHIN no KEKKAFUZA su beshi.
"We should practise physical full cross-legged sitting."

Notice that there is originally no word corresponding to the English word "posture." Originally the imperative is not to sit in a posture; the imperative is more dynamic: the imperative is to practise sitting; in short, to sit.

So that might be the first mistake I made in translation. I introduced the problematic concept of "posture" when in Master Dogen's original text there is no such concept at all.

The understanding around posture that I had before was based on what I now regard as an erroneous view: namely, that there is such a thing, in sitting-zen, as "right posture."

In the post previous to this, I mentioned Raymond Dart and the so-called "Dart double spirals." When a person's sitting lacks symmetry, undue tightness in one or both of these myofascial spirals is generally implicated (as also an immature asymmetrical tonic neck reflex is often implicated) in the asymmetry. A structural integration practitioner named Thomas Myers, building on the work of Raymond Dart, wrote as follows in his book Anatomy Trains:

It is very important to note here that there is no virtue involved in having a symmetrical, balanced structure. Everyone has a story, and without doubt the most interesting and accomplished people I have had the pleasure and challenge to work with have had strongly asymmetrical structures. In contrast, some people with naturally balanced structures face few internal contradictions, and as a result can be bland and less involved. Assisting someone with a strongly challenged structure out of their pattern toward a more balanced pattern does not make them less interesting, though perhaps it will allow them to be more peaceful or less neurotic or to carry less pain. Just, at this juncture, let us be clear that we are not assigning any ultimate moral advantage to being straight and balanced. Each person's story, with so many factors involved, has to unfold and resolve, unfold and resolve, again and again over the arc of a life. It is our privilege as structural therapists to be present for, and midwives to, the birth of additional meaning within the individual's story.

Homage to midwives everywhere, who know the value that lies in developmental processes...
Om. She of the Jewel in the Lotus! Hum.
Om mani padme hum.

I quote and praise the above paragraph not because the bodyworker Thomas Myers is espousing a view that I believe to be true, but rather because the human being Thomas Myers seems to be expressing, on the basis of his experience of trying to help others, the dropping off an old view. The old view is a view about right, symmetrical posture as some static thing that it might be valuable for a human being to achieve -- as if time might then stand still, as if the 2nd law might then cease to operate. To hold that old, static, posture-affirming view has also been my mistake.

Another big mistake I make is to assume that I know what Master Dogen meant by SHIN no ZA, bodily sitting.

I used to feel confident, as a rugby player, and as a martial artist, as somebody who was accustomed to laying his body on the line, that I understood well what Master Dogen meant when he wrote of sitting as a physical act, sitting with the body. But the understanding that I held before of Master Dogen's words SHIN no ZA, "bodily sitting," I now no longer hold with the confidence that I used to have.

I tend to assume that my body, like the bodies of others, is something bulky, heavy, massive, and that in order to get this body up off the sofa or up off the floor, an effort of doing is necessary. Weighed down by the conception of a heavy body, the physical act of sitting upright becomes something akin to weightlifting -- the making of a physical effort to defy gravity.

From 1994 onwards Alexander work began to challenge my view of what kind, and how much, effort is required to keep a body upright. Alexander work began to challenge my old view, and then, in a similar way to what Master Dogen does to views in Shobogenzo, Alexander work proceeded to batter my old view into submission.

In order to investigate more deeply what Master Dogen meant by "bodily sitting," it might be necessary to investigate more deeply what Master Dogen meant by the dialectically opposite conception of "mental sitting." It is because it has been demonstrated to me, in the context of Alexander work, that I don't know how to sit mentally, that I begin also to doubt my habitual conception of what it is to sit bodily.

In these days of holistic hairdressing, the oneness of body and mind is a generally accepted concept -- just the kind of concept, in other words, that Master Dogen himself always took pains to batter into submission.

Because body and mind are one, there is no difference between physical sitting and mental sitting. There is only sitting itself which, viewed from one side is physical and viewed from the opposite side is mental. "Body" and "mind" are two faces of one coin.

Such is the unconsidered viewpoint, equally, of the holistic hairdressers and the so-called Zen masters of the present day.

Master Dogen did not subscribe to this viewpoint. He wrote that there is mental sitting that is not the same as physical sitting, and there is physical sitting that is not the same as mental sitting.

To clarify this teaching exactly -- not for body-mind philosophers but just for fellow devotees of sitting-zen --
might be the main purpose of my life.

The interpretation that I heard from Gudo of Master Dogen's teaching of physical sitting vs mental sitting, was this: "physical" means when the parasympathetic nervous system is in the ascendancy, i.e, when we are body-conscious (e.g. during a post-lunch dip in arousal), and "mental" means when the sympathetic nervous system is in the ascendancy, i.e. when we are mind-conscious (e.g. when our will has been aroused by excited discussion). Thus, the difference between physical sitting and mental sitting, like every other problem in Buddhist philosophy, can be reduced back to the state of the autonomic nervous system.

This was Gudo's view.

What can I say?

All I have to offer is understanding, albeit partial, of my own wrongness. In my everday life, despite my physical effort to sit upright in lotus four times per day, I wobble from extreme parasympathetic lethargy to extreme sympathetic anger. I roam constantly through the six samsaric realms. My vestibular system is more dysfunctional than most. Views that I have held about this, that, and the other, have all too often turned out to be mistaken. The trendy view on the oneness of body and mind, which for many years I also unthinkingly subscribed to, has turned out to be just another one of those mistaken views.

Master Dogen wrote: SHIN no KEKKAFUZA su beshi; "Practise bodily full lotus sitting."

In assuming that I knew in the past what Master Dogen meant, I was wrong. If I assume now that I know what Master Dogen meant, again, I am very liable to be wrong.


Anonymous said...

"The trendy view on the oneness of body and mind, which for many years I also unthinkingly subscribed to, has turned out to be just another one of those mistaken views"

It's not supposed to be a view!

But until it is true it is just a view.

When it's true it's no longer a view.

Losing a view will help you;
towards making it true.

An accidental rhyme...

Plato said...

Hi Mike!
Thank you fot the posts, it really helps me to clarify my mistakes in practicing sitting-zen.
I have a question
FM Alexander writes in the first chapter of "The use of the self": " is impossible to separate 'mental' and 'physical' processes in any form of human activity" It looks like a contradiction to what Master Dogen says! But is it? What do you think?

Mike Cross said...

Hi Plato,

Yes, FM Alexander wrote that -- he wrote of "psycho-physical unity" long before it became fashionable to talk and think in those terms.

But, in his practical hands-on work with people, FM used to describe his work as "the most mental thing there is."

Any presumptuous so and so can lay claim to their own realization of the oneness of body and mind, as not a view but their own real experience. But there are Alexander teachers, even those of many years standing, who cannot understand why FM Alexander described his work as the most mental thing there is. That's why Marjory Barlow fretted so much about how people were turning her uncle's work into a kind of bodywork.

My advice to you is not to worry yourself about the principle of oneness of body and mind. But try to understand, in practice, why FM Alexander called his work the most mental thing there is. Then Master Dogen's own seemingly paradoxical words will begin to make sense.

Good luck with that!