Thursday, 20 March 2008


SUNAWACHI means just, at once, immediately. SHO means rectify, straighten out. SHIN means the body, the person, the actual self. TANZA means sit up, sit erect.

So the instruction which is at the centre of Master Dogen's instructions for sitting-zen, SUNAWACHI SHOSHIN TANZA, means "Just sit up straight."

Failing to translate these words according to Master Dogen's true intention has been, for more than half of my 48 years, the greatest and most fundamental wrongness in my life -- all other mistakes have been twigs and leaves. If being wrong is the best friend I have got, these were the words that introduced me to my best friend: SUNAWACHI SHOSHIN TANZA, "Just sit up straight."

Some stupid people in the world of education refuse to see dyslexia (from the Greek dys- difficulty + lexia, reading) as a vestibular problem. They sometimes describe it as a "cognitive deficit." But dyslexic children -- at least the dyslexic children we have helped over the years at the Middle Way Re-education Centre -- invariably have underlying dysfunction deep in their vestibular system.

Some children with deep vestibular dysfunction, paradoxically, are hyperlexic. This phenomenon probably has something to do with the capacity of higher parts of the brain to compensate for underlying weaknesses. So some children we see, while they struggle with basic balance and coordination, for example, use vocabulary you would expect from much older children.

Compensation produces paradoxical results. Einstein, for example, may have been a bit dyslexic. Or maybe he was a lot dyslexic. Again, the most powerful punch I have ever witnessed belonged to a teacher from Okinawa who was encouraged to take up karate-do because he was so weak and sickly as a child.

Nobody ever accused me of having a cognitive deficit when I was growing up -- at the age of five or six, my reading was more advanced than other children in my own year and also in the year above. I was often accused of having no common sense, though, and of tending to take things too far. At one parents' evening, when I was eight, a certain Miss Whittle told my parents: "Michael is very bright, but his behaviour is disgusting." Tell it like it is, Miss W.

Later on my precociousness was dimmed, partly as a result of skipping a year between primary and secondary school, and possibly also as a result of taking at an early age to the bottle -- from the age of 13 I started making home-brew beer and drinking it in large quantities with my mate from over the road. No longer ahead of the game at reading, I certainly got ahead of the game at drinking.

But back in primary school, where the foundations for over-confidence in my own intellectual ability were laid, I was generally top of the class. Miss Higgins, whose class I attended aged nine, used to give us a problem to solve every morning. The first one to solve it would be noted and at the end of the week a little present -- a boiled sweet or something -- would be given to the champion for that week. Miss Higgins, who I liked a lot better than the younger, mini-skirted Miss Whittle, made a rule that I was only allowed to win every other week.

From this and similar experiences, I picked up confidence in my ability to work out, to think out, solutions to practical problems -- providing that (1) the parameters to the particular problem had been clearly set for me, that (2) I had been given all the information needed to solve the problem, and that (3) I was motivated to solve it.

For a few years at least, those three conditions were all met in my work under Gudo to translate Shobogenzo into English -- before, that is, certain jealous individuals, as if from a Shakespearian tragedy, intervened to poison the process and knock out condition (3).

Sorry if I seem to dwell on this poisoning metaphor, but for me it represents something of a realization.

From the autumn of 1987 to the spring of 1988 I lived non-stop in the Ida Zazen Dojo in Moto-yawata, for the first six months since its establishment. By that time my problem-solving brain had already deduced from the information presented in Shobogenzo that Master Dogen's teaching all boiled down to sitting-zen, and the essential instruction for sitting-zen was just to sit up straight. That deduction still seems to me to be true -- nothing has falsified it yet. Where I have gone so badly wrong, where my lack of common sense has come into play, is in my efforts to translate the words "sit up straight" into action.

In those first six months of the Zazen Dojo, for example, I tried -- with great intensity, great seriousness, great rigidity -- to sit up as straight and for as long as possible, for five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten hours a day. The more difficult life at the Dojo seemed to get, the more intense, serious, and rigid I got in my effort to sit up straight. My health began to deteriorate, as did my relations with the other members of the Dojo, who I had presumed to lead in practice. After one incident, during which I shouted loudly at another member of the Dojo, Gudo summoned us both to his office, and asked me to apologize, which I did. After that he offered to transmit the Dharma to me. As far as I know, it was the first time he offered to transmit the Dharma to anybody. I suppose he could see the extent to which I was struggling, and wanted to help me. From my side, I didn't have the confidence to accept. It was not like nowadays when everybody and his dog seems to be receiving the Dharma. To receive the Dharma, at that time, seemed to me to be such a big deal that I couldn't conceive of myself being up to the task of receiving it. In particular, I was worried about whether or not I could remain celibate. Gudo himself had given up sexual relations with his wife before receiving the Dharma, so I assumed it was a prerequisite.

While I was struggling at the Dojo, Gudo recommended me not to leave. He told me that he had built the Dojo for me, and reminded me of Master Dogen's teaching of FURI-SORIN, not leaving the monastery. But in the end it was obvious to all that I had to go. The majority of other members of the Dojo wanted me to go, and eventually I went. For a couple of weeks my old friend and mentor David Essoyan put me up with his young family in his flat in Tokyo, then I went to Thailand and spent a couple of weeks at Wat Pah Nanachat, and a few weeks coming and going at a big Wat in Bangkok whose name eludes me now. Then I went back to England for a couple of weeks. Then the wheel of samsara turned decisively, and I moved from the realm of hungry ghost into the asura realm. I determined to go back to Japan and throw myself in earnest into the Shobogenzo translation.

When I got back to Tokyo, Gudo gave me a letter he had written and taken in vain to the Thai embassy in Tokyo. Worried that the life of a Thai monk would suit me, he expressed in the letter his hope that we would work together in earnest on the Shobogenzo translation, and asked me for five years. The letter didn't make any difference, as I had already made up my mind what I was going to do.

From that time, the early summer of 1988 through till around the time in 1997 when Yoko Luetchford visited Gudo at his office and reported my alleged plot to use the Shobogenzo translation to identify Buddhism and AT, Gudo paid me a monthly 'scholarship' of 50,000 yen. That money meant a lot to me, not only financially but also emotionally. When the scholarship suddenly stopped in 1997, while I was doing my Alexander teacher training in England while still working on the revision of Shobogenzo Book 4, I couldn't understand why. Around the same time I received a strange letter from Gudo expressing his hope that I would "come back to Buddhism." Since I knew perfectly well in my own mind that nothing had changed in my devotion to sitting-zen, four times a day, as usual, I didn't really worry about this strange letter.

Then in the summer of 1997, Jeremy Pearson, on a trip back to England from Japan, visited me in Aylesbury. We got talking about the meaning of BUTSU KOJO NO JI, the matter of buddha ascending beyond, and I told Jeremy how Alexander work had caused me to look for a more dynamic translation of the phrase -- i.e. "the continuing upwardness of buddha." Then Jeremy casually dropped the bomb. "Oh, I changed that."

When I phoned Michael Luetchford to enquire what the hell had happened, Luetchford told me, "I am the publisher. I can do what I want." The scheming Sanzo, it seemed to me then, had waited his moment, and turned me over.

After that I stopped work on Shobogenzo. My wife shed buckets of tears. Why shouldn't she? Anybody who knew the sacrifices I asked her to make so that I could work on the Shobogenzo translation would not be surprised that she shed tears. I, however, didn't shed a tear. My perception was that war had been declared, and it was a war I had the means to win, by sitting in the full lotus posture, and translating into action the essential instruction for that sitting: SUNAWACHI SHOSHIN TANZA -- Just sit up straight.

And therein lay the problem. I had the right idea, I have the right idea, but in my attempts to translate the idea into action, what happens? I am tripped up by trying to be right, which ties me to reliance on a dysfunctional vestibular system. What feels straight to me, what feels right to me, is wrong. So, by trying to be right, I make myself even more wrong.

In trying to live up to Gudo's expectations for me, of being champion of Dogen Sangha, his rightful successor, the most excellent Buddhist master in the world, I have become an outcast from Dogen Sangha, a Zen bastard, Mr Wrong, a voice in the wilderness.

In so becoming, what have I learned? In so having become, what have I got to offer?

In a comments to a previous post, I mentioned my love of human (as opposed to celestial) beings. My brother pointed out that while I may love human beings in theory, in practice I am generally happiest when there are none around. Back on my own again in France, I realize what my brother said is true. I prefer to express my love for human beings from afar. When among human beings, I generally find them to be a pain in the arse. That being so, thank God for Google, thank God for this vehicle which allows my voice in the wilderness to be heard. Thank God for this chance for me to let others know what, without any shadow of a doubt, I have learned:

The most important teaching of Master Dogen is sitting-zen, and the most important teaching within his teaching of sitting-zen is just to sit up straight. This much I have clearly understood, for more than 25 years. The other thing I have clearly understood, only in recent years, is that trying to sit up straight, relying on a dodgy vestibular system, is the very thing that causes me to go wrong.

Quad Erat Demonstrandum.


HezB said...


That really is very interesting reading. Much more interesting, and insightful, than much of the wonderfully correct, or tantalizingly ambiguous, Buddhist fodder that I've come across.

Thank-you very much, Mr. Wrong.



Anonymous said...

As the months go by there seems to be less and less anger in what you write. It seems to be more and more dispassionate.

Where the truth lies I do not know.

To me it seems like you are learning to sit up straight and are less and less trying to sit up straight.

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Harry.

I have tried my utmost -- I still tend to try my utmost -- to be wonderfully correct, but in the end Samsara is all I really know.

When I presume to know more, it is only me temporarily passing through the realm of celestial beings, on my way back to hell.

It seems to me that sitting up straight in the full lotus posture, without the fixing that generally characterizes religious (and indeed Alexandrian) observance, is not an alternative to Samsara. It is rather a happening that can arise, spontaneously, as if by magic, out of Samsara, and only out of Samsara -- hence Nagarjuna's teaching of pratitya-samutpada.

Yes, the Zen Buddhist world is rife with rigid trying to be right. "Keep the spine straight vertically." "Stretch your neck vigorously." "Tuck in the chin; neck bones straight." "Proper posture required." Et cetera. Et cetera. And I am part of that nonsense. That is the soil from which I have sprung.

Yesterday on "In Our Time" on Radio 4, I heard that Socrates saw that everybody with pretensions to know the truth, was a fool. He thought that he was the biggest fool of all. But he was the fool that knew he was a fool.

I see a parallel between that and Master Dogen's "Ordinary people are deluded about enlightenment. Buddhas are enlightened about delusion."

Gudo taught me to look for the basis of delusion not primarily in psychology, but in physiology. Everything that I have written here about the vestibular system is down to Gudo, really. I sought the truth in the field of "vestibular re-education," because that was the field in which Gudo's teaching pointed me. That was the irony: by steadfastly pursuing the truth in the way that my master demonstrated to me, I caused him to become suspicious of me, and those suspicions were exploited, with deadly accuracy and exquisite timing -- all a nice manifestation of the wheel of Samsara turning.

The Bodhirucci Sanzos of this world try to explain pratitya-samutpada as if it were some primitive theory of causation. Bull shit. Pratitya-samutpada is sitting up straight in the full lotus posture.

Mike Cross said...

A view, Mike Doe, is a view.

Learning is learning.

In the sphere of sitting upright in the full lotus posture, views and learning are of no use: they are a handicap.

Unlearning is unlearning -- views spontaneously dropping off, a backward step.