Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Final Paragrah -- Wait For It!

The final paragraph of Shobogenzo chapter 72, Zanmai-o-zanmai, has only three and a half lines of text. So this bit of a translation effort is nearly at its end. If I finish today or tomorrow, before Thursday 1st May, I might then publish to the internet "The Samadhi That is King of Samadhis, Nishijima-Cross translation, revised by Mike Cross, April 2008," and thus I might arrive at a kind of resolution to a conflict that has been troubling me deeply. Maybe this nagging pain in my guts will then clear up. That possibility exists in my brain, at least.

But wait.

I have learnt from experience, particularly in the context of Alexander work, that nearly at the end is a place where things are very liable to go wrong.

As we approach what we conceive to be the end of something, our attention is liable to stray from the path to the perceived destination, from the work of polishing a tile to the idea of making a mirror, from attending to the means to grasping for the end, from the action of bending the knees to the seeking of a chair with the bum. I am afraid that this tendency is just part of the human condition, and neither certified Zen Masters nor qualified teachers of the FM Alexander Technique are immune from it.

Quad Erat Demonstrandum, Ad Nauseam

Marjory Barlow taught me a way of working on the self in which there is no expectation of finally eliminating this "end-gaining" tendency. The point was rather to see all our wrong tendencies as our raw material, our best friend. Thus, instead of trying to be right, we dare to be wrong. Instead of trying to be right, we investigate how, in combination with unreliable feeling, the end-gaining tendency causes us to go wrong. We practise opposing the end-gaining tendency, by learning how to stop and think, and thus we begin to glimpse the possibility of conscious action, as opposed to instinctive reaction.

The word ZA, sitting, appears many times throughout the present chapter, and we tend to think we know what Master Dogen, Master Nagarjuna, and Gautama Buddha, meant when they spoke of "sitting."

In maybe a similar way, the so-called Einstein of the Ear, Alfred Tomatis, spoke often of "listening." We think that we know what it is to listen, but Tomatis said that in his experience an act of listening was something very rare: "The ear is an apparatus which we use for balance. It is also the passive receptor of sound. But you may reach the level of listening. Listening is really wanting to take information and listen to it. It is very rare. I am convinced that there are exceptions, and that is why all the monks are people who know how to listen."

Similarly, again, FM Alexander pointed to conscious action as a plane to be reached. People who conceive of Alexander work as a kind of bodywork, to do with posture, generally fail to understand why Alexander described his work as the most mental thing there is. Alexander saw that we cannot reach the plane of conscious action just by reacting instinctively, relying on unconscious means.

Before I came to Alexander work, I was more confident that I understood what Master Dogen meant by the practice of just sitting, SHIKAN-TAZA. The truth may be that when I felt I knew what SHIKAN-TAZA was, all I was experiencing, without even knowing it, was my own unconscious reaction to the stimulus "Just sit!" The truth may be that at that time, notwithstanding my hope that I might have penetrated more or less to the centre of just sitting, I had not even scratched the surface of the egg.

So, let me not fall into the trap of failing to pay due attention to the translation of the remaining three and a half lines. As Marjory often used to say to me, "It always pays to wait!"

Full lotus sitting is the supreme, deep, and subtle Dharma:

Hard to meet in millions of aeons.

I now have been reading about it, and might be able to make it my own.

Instead of rushing to the end of the translation, let me stay with the wish to understand what Master Dogen really means.

The final sentence of the final paragraph contains four Chinese characters read as HA-BI-SHU-TO, literally "grasping the tail and getting the head," i.e. from beginning to end, through and through, out and out. It is part of Master Dogen's parting exhortation that we should devote ourselves to full lotus sitting fully -- not half-heartedly, but all the way.

After reciting the verse to open the sutras this morning, I read aloud the final paragraph in Japanese, before a great assembly of none -- until my wife came in with a cup of tea and made me feel foolish, sitting there preaching loudly to myself.

Then I started to think again about the meaning of HA-BI-SHU-TO. In the more than ten years since I last worked on the translation of this chapter, through Alexander work, through working towards what Ray Evans called "understanding of the human condition," I have come to see the task of helping others primarily as a problem of developmental re-education. This field of work is sometimes bottom-up -- for example, beginning with very slow movements to retrain the vestibular system. And it is sometimes top-down -- for example, starting from the playing of games, or from efforts to make people aware of basic misconceptions which are unconsciously influencing their behaviour.

If I translated HA-BI-SHU-TO as "through and through, bottom-up and top-down" would that be a literal translation that is true to what Master Dogen really meant? Or would that be me cluttering up the text through a bias of my own that is not originally there? Would I then stand guilty as accused of making a translation, "based on AT theory"?

Again, in asking these questions am I trying to be right, and therefore getting in the way of something spontaneous that might otherwise happen?

Probably I should wait another ten years, at least. Probably I should wait another ten years at least, not writing anything more off the top of a demon's head, but rather using my human inner ear for its deepest and highest purpose -- just listening, just sitting.

Probably I should. But very probably I won't.


Anonymous said...

Is ZA the non end-gaining mind?

Mike Cross said...

Your question is very good.

Or, to say it less judgementally, I love your question.

Master Dogen said we should investigate thousands and tens of thousands of questions like that.

For example: Is sitting a kind of engineering the void?

The answer to that might be a very definite: No! Pulling in this and pushing down that is not NYORAI SHINJITSU GI, the real meaning of the Tathagata.

So what is sitting? What is sitting that, even though we cannot engineer it, we are pointed to by Dogen, Nagarjuna, and Gautama?

What is ZA? What is sitting?

Is it the non end-gaining mind?

No, it is always not that.

Will said...
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Will said...
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Mike Cross said...

Hi Will,

Sometimes we re-discover that, prior to our physical effort to do it, and prior to our mental effort not to do what is not it, something is already there, which is neither a physical posture nor non-endgaining mind. I think this is why Master Dogen wrote of the transmission of sitting from the seven ancient buddhas -- it was not a transmission that Gautama Buddha initiated; rather, it was something he received.

Many people, especially people who consider themselves to belong to the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism, think and say that they are practising just sitting, but the truth may be that a moment of true sitting is something very rarely practised -- like the blooming of an udumbara flower.

Even to ask, or be asked, a question about it may be something quite rare.

Your question, Will, about the illusion of non-movement experienced by a person on a bicycle who has poisoned his brain, has got absolutely nothing to do at all with the sitting we are discussing now. No relevance whatsoever.

Will said...
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Mike Cross said...

You are very welcome.

It is because I can't hear what a wrong note is that I am unable to sing in tune.

In a similar way, it is because I am not sufficiently clear about what sitting is not, that it eludes me.

We can't know what it is. But we can learn what it is not. We can learn to know: It is not that.