Zen Flesh, Vajra Heart, Buddha’s Bones


Image from Japan Dave (his pictures kick ass)

Is Zen similar to the higher teaching of the Vajrayana such as mahamudra?  While many practitioners of both schools may see more of the differences, I have found that the similarities become more and more apparent.  Both are devoted to a practice tradition rather than a scholarly one.  The practice tradition focuses more on the actual experience of daily practice rather than on a more scholastic or philosophical pursuits.  This does not discard a scholarly path but it tends to be more supplimental.  Practice just exists on a visceral level rather than a logical, philosophical one.  On a Dharma ladder, every rung is important and integral to the whole.

Advanced practitioners of both Zen and the Vajrayana are focused on the path spiritual introspection and meditation, where each aims to attain Enlightenment in this life, this year, this moment.  Gradual through steps or sudden through explosive realization, by reason alone we are not capable of this feat.  No one can talk or reason their way to the subtle truths.  But we can practice to it, through it and after it.

I used to picture the Zen practice of zazen similar to samatha; the ‘calm abiding’ form of mediation that is often seen as a predecasor to more complex forms.  While it seems very similar to zazen, samatha is only similar to the zazen practice of many beginners to the practice or those looking for pure physical and mental benefits from sitting.  This is often reguarded as “Bompu Zen” and while it should not be seen as a lesser practice, it does take quite a distinction from other more advanced or experience Zen practices.

Bompu zen, or “usual zen,” means engaging in a meditation practice in order to procure the same kinds of things that one has always been looking for; that is to say health and happiness, some sense of well-being. There is nothing wrong with wanting to develop a sense of health and well being. We are not saying that any of these approaches to practice are “wrong”; it is just that some of them are more limiting than others. To limit oneself when it is not necessary is like tying your own hands.

We can obtain health and well being through our practice. The sitting posture itself allows the body to be as it is. It allows the body to sit in such a way that the spinal cord is erect, but not stiff. The shoulders allow tension to fall away from them and the weight is evenly balanced. There is no pressure being placed upon any of the internal organs by scrunching them as we fall into some slouching posture, or as we try to draw ourselves in and hold our chest tight.

Since we practice with the body and with the mind, both body and mind gain great benefit from practice, simply because they can function freely. Our mind will become calmer. We become able to face whatever is arising for us without panicking, and without trying to hide from it. We begin to realize a sense of strength and confidence which is not based upon puffing ourselves up in any particular way, but is grounded in simply being as we are. ~ By Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi

Bompu Zen does not stand in stark contrast to the “higher” Zen practices.  But as one progresses through a lifetime of practice they find that practice is not based on trying to realize Enlightenment. It is based on a simple, wooden platform of practising without preconceptions. It is based in the moment. This is not something that is realized without effort.  To not need to look for the Buddha and simply realizing one’s own Nature as Buddha is easy to state through words and philosophy but more difficult to realize truly through experience.  I am not there yet.  I understand but do not realize.

When you look into space, seeing stops.
Likewise, when mind looks at mind,
The flow of thinking stops and you come to the deepest awakening.

Mists rise from the earth and vanish into space.
They go nowhere, nor do they stay.
Likewise, though thoughts arise,
Whenever you see your mind, the clouds of thinking clear.

Although you say space is empty,
You can’t say that space is “like this”.
Likewise, although mind is said to be sheer clarity,
There is nothing there: you can’t say “it’s like this”.

Thus, the nature of mind is inherently like space:
It includes everything you experience.

Stop all physical activity: sit naturally at ease.
Do not talk or speak: let sound be empty, like an echo.
Do not think about anything: look at experience beyond thought.

Your body has no core, hollow like bamboo.
Your mind goes beyond thought, open like space.
Let go of control and rest right there.

Mind without projection is mahamudra.
Train and develop this and you will come to the deepest awakening. ~ Tilopa’s “Pith Instructions on Mahamudra”

These instructions strike a similar beat in my Vajra heart as following verses cause my Zen flesh to quiver…

The Way is perfect like vast space
where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
that we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things
and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity
your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other
you will never know Oneness.  ~ Seng T’san’s “Inscription of Faith in Mind”
All us filthy crows still pick the same scraps of Dharma from the Buddha’s bones.  We just like to pretend that our rotton feast is better than our neighbor’s.

5 thoughts on “Zen Flesh, Vajra Heart, Buddha’s Bones

  1. The interesting thing is…the more progressive forms of the Theravada tradition (Thai Forest Tradition in particular) – although maybe not as poetic – also come down to the same nondual, practice-oriented, kernel expressed in Mahamudra/Dzogchen and Zen. See for example, The Ballad of Liberation from the Khandas by Ajahn Mun. Just this much truth can end the game. Knowing not-knowing: That’s the method for the heart. I think it’s a shame that there’s any “my form is better than your form” rhetoric. Different paths (with their different cultural overlay and jargon) for different types of people, and ultimately “Truth is a pathless land”. I read from all traditions but choose to practice in a loosely Theravada (choiceless or open awareness) way. And I’m very interested to see how this particular cultural form matures, with all the yana cross-pollination.Not sure if I can use HTML here so here’s the URL for the Ajahn Mun piece: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/mun/ballad.html

  2. Katherine, poetry is just verbal diarrhea. Clumsy attempts to frame the Absolute in language. The amazing work of many Theravadan monks provide me with a practical and grounded opportunity for understanding, without which I wonder if realization is even possible.In truth I barely touch the breast of Zen teachings and have only a superficial understanding of Theravadan practice so I really didn’t want to touch it in my meager little post. Although I will say that Access to Insight has always been a wonderful resource.Cheers,

  3. In its most fundamental experience, I see a great similarity to this in the “entrusting” of Shinran in jodo shinshu. Not grasping by self power, we find that we are, “grasped never to be abandoned” and live, practice, gratitude. We just sit (live) in the flow of wisdomignorance compassionsuffering. Not two. Not one. . .

  4. The union of self-power and other-power is an important aspect of Zen practice although the Zen mostly known in the West and in Japan tends to be polorized towards self-power rather than other-power. Meanwhile Ch’an masters tended to combine the two aspects of practice leading me to understand it as a difference in scope rather in kind.”This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land! And this very body, the body of Buddha.”Hakuin said it well, although he was one of the self-power hardliners.

  5. Enjoyed your post! Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which path or teaching one follows as long as the ‘oneness’ of things is seen. For when it is seen, the different views one might have had about a teaching or a particular path will disappear too…by themselves. It’s similar to your quote above: ‘…it is due to our choosing to accept or reject [our path, teaching, views, belief, etc.] that we do not see the true nature of things…” So what it comes down to in all spiritual teachings (all paths) is to ‘see’ this ‘oneness’ and it can only be seen eventually by letting go of everything one thinks he/she knows (the teachings).p.s. in ‘oneness’ everything makes sense, even poetry 😉

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