Once I started learning enough about Buddhism to distinguish the different types, I found I liked reading about Soto Zen the most. I generally sit facing a wall instead of the inside of a room, opposite of what I was taught to do at the Rinzai place where I learned to sit. It expresses a sort of internal conflict about sensory deprivation.
On the one hand, it’s easier to focus if you limit what’s in your visual field. The flat surface brings out visual snow, as well. On the other hand, it’s an admission that sensory deprivation is important, so why not just close your eyes? But we keep our eyes open in zazen because it symbolizes things like the unity of samsara and nirvana, and the idea isn’t to hide from the world in your fragile happy place.
I must say, though, that spending an hour in a float tank worked wonders.
I’ve generally stuck to “just sitting.” No counting. Maybe 25% of attention focused on the breathing and letting my mind cycle back and forth between open awareness, getting absorbed in thoughts, and snapping out of it. The main difficulty is suppressing the need to stim or move my legs, since I’m also sitting a lot in front of my computer. Sometimes I need to pace. There’s a masochistic, endurance-building aspect to staying completely still. I’ve avoided meditating in groups because it sucks to move or sniffle or fart and everybody’s annoyed at you for bringing their bliss moment down to earth.
I’ve always felt that having a pretty unstructured way of sitting is fine, because over time you end up spending some time on emotional stuff, spending time building concentration, spending some time on body awareness, getting absorbed in mental imagery, etc. Your subconscious needs to chew on things and the sitting just makes space for that to happen.
I have a sequence of stretches picked up from different places that I often do before sitting, but I wouldn’t call it “yoga.”
Sitting with my eyes open almost all of the time has meant that mental imagery is neglected. I’ve enjoyed meditation for the improved executive function and the help feeling calm. I haven’t been doing much to deliberately calm myself, though. A deliberately passive form of practicing. It’s an altered state, but visionary stuff isn’t going on. Zen is boring.
Cloudy waters becoming still and the dirt settles out and it becomes like a mirror.
This style of practice comes from the Caodong school, Soto’s Chinese precursor. Hongzhi preached “silent illumination” around the 1000s/1100s. This poem sums it up:
Guidepost of Silent Illumination by Hongzhi Zhengjue
Silent and serene,
bright clarity appears before you.
When you reflect it you become vast,
where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted.
Spiritually solitary and shining,
inner illumination restores wonder,
Dew in the moonlight,
a river of stars,
clouds enveloping the peaks.
In darkness it is most bright,
while hidden all the more manifest.
The crane dreams in the wintery mists.
The autumn waters flow far in the distance.
Endless kalpas are totally empty,
all things are completely the same.
When wonder exists in serenity,
all achievement is forgotten in illumination.
What is this wonder?
Alertly seeing through confusion
Is the way of silent illumination
and the origin of subtle radiance.
Vision penetrating into subtle radiance
is weaving gold on a jade loom.
Upright and inclined yield to each other;
light and dark are interdependent.
Not depending on sense faculty and object,
at the right time they interact.
Drink the medicine of good views.
Beat the poison-smeared drum.
When they interact,
killing and giving life are up to you.
Through the gate the self emerges
and the branches bear fruit.
Only silence is the supreme speech,
only illumination the universal response.
Responding without falling into achievement,
speaking without involving listeners.
The ten thousand forms majestically glisten and expound the dharma.
All objects certify it, every one in dialogue.
Dialoguing and certifying, they respond appropriately to each other;
But if illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears.
Certifying and dialoguing, they respond to to each other appropriately;
But if serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted dharma.
When silent illumination is fulfilled,
the lotus blossoms,
the dreamer awakens,
A hundred streams flow into the ocean,
a thousand ranges face the highest peak.
Like geese preferring milk,
like bees gathering nectar,
When silent illumination reaches the ultimate,
I offer my teaching.
The teaching of silent illumination penetrates
from the highest down to the foundation.
The body being shunyata,
the arms in mudra,
From beginning to end the changing appearances
and then thousand differences share one pattern.
Mr. Ho offered jade [to the Emperor];
[Minister] Xiangru pointed to its flaws.
Facing changes has its principles,
the great function is without striving.
The ruler stays in the kingdom,
the general goes beyond the frontiers.
Our school’s affair hits the mark straight and true.
Transmit it to all directions without desiring to gain credit.
There’s all kinds of imagery, now that I think about it. But notice how it feels to read that.
Around the same time, Dahui was pushing koan practice in a new way. there were always koans, but it was new to focus on the syllable “mu” until your head explodes. This type of thing later went along with the Rinzai school in Japan.
Another one of the Five Houses of Chan was the Wei-Yang school, notable for circles. From Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters:
Yang-shan was particularly known for his use of circles in transmitting enlightenment, and circles were also used extensively by his contemporary Tung-shan, who developed a system of “five ranks” that was illustrated by patterns of full, half, and new moons (darkened, half-darkened, and empty circles). According to traditional accounts, Yang-shan was enlightened by receiving knowledge of ninety-seven circles that had specific information written in characters and other kinds of markings placed inside that gave the circles a particular meaning and esoteric significance. Circular symbols in the form of mandalas occur throughout Buddhist history and also have a resonance with the practice of circumambulation by monks walking around a Buddha icon. In China, the use of circles was reinforced by the powerful poetic image of the moon as well as yin-yang symbolism (note the references to Lao-tsu in the capping verse commentary). Yang-shan’s emphasis on circles is seen in another dialogue in which the master has had his eyes closed and a monk came and stood quietly beside him. Yang-shan opened his eyes and drew a circle on the ground, and inside it he wrote the character for water, leaving the monk speechless.
Until recently, I’d never made a connection between ensos in Zen and mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism. And I’d never made a connection between Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism.
I’m currently reading Secret Drugs of Buddhism, which is making a surprisingly convincing case that Shiva has a blue throat because psychedelic mushroom stems can turn blue when bruised. Apparently psilocybin mushrooms and amanitas are both native to the area (and Hawaiian baby woodrose!). Some of the Vajrayana initiation rites may have involved drinking the guru’s urine, because that’s what Siberian shamans do with amanitas. It puts Tibetan Buddhism in a whole new light for me to see it as a blend of Buddhism and shamanism. Like, my left and right forearms have tattoos cave art and an enso. It’s like the missing link that explains why the Tahoma One Drop Zen center hosted sweat lodges on the down-low, and this all has something to do with the cult of the sky deer.
The vibrations from the mantras are skillful means, directly. It points directly, outside the teachings, just like Zen.
I propose that so many Hindu and Buddhist deities have a lot of arms because it’s tracers and after-images from tripping. You visualize your guru as a dancing sky goddess with six arms. OMG sex when you’re tripping.
This would imply that civil disobedience is a product of the mushroom’s wisdom, via the Transcendentalist movement reading the Upanishads. Soma is truly the nectar of enlightenment.
I used to love Clan of the Cave Bear (I read all 4 books that existed at the time, and my mom took the trouble to go through and white out all of the sexual references before giving the books to me):
A convoluted train of thought recently got me interested in Tibetan Buddhist “severance” practices, called Chod. I got myself a collection of related texts.
A problem for me in therapy is reconciling Buddhism with knowledge of slave ships, the Holocaust, and Donald Trump. Chod has helped me with that. It was an interesting coincidence that it originated around the same time the silent illumination stuff was going on in China.
I guess Chan absorbed its shamanic stuff from Taoism, and that looked different in Tibet. This is from a liturgy by Machik Lapdron, the main teacher of severance:
Precious guru, please bless me for the sake of all sentient beings. Please cause special experiences and realization to arise in my being. Please make all of my negativities, obscurations, sufferings, and obstacles subside.
It does have the flavor of a shamanic initiation. The spirits…
Without an objective appearance of actual things, when you are gripped by a malicious mood, have mental desire without an object, languish through lack of instructions, feel a sense of your own superiority, indulge in a jealous temperament, or engage gods and demons in your mind, even though there is no actual tangible appearance, these [states] harm and interrupt the mind and are therefore devils that occur without being tangible.
Later practices explained by Taranatha:
Meditate on the guru and Machik inseparable and the five kinds of dakinis with their entourages. During the guru yoga, guru-Machik inseparable dissolves into you and you imagine that you have become the dakini of timeless awareness, blazing with the ferocious fire of timeless awareness, dancing with various wrathful stances, and resounding like thunder with various wrathful mantras. At this point you need to have the pride of actually being Machik and, without ever harboring ill will towards the demons and spirits, understand that they are all an illusory dream, blending more and more your mind with the essence of whatever arises. [Say phat and only do the blending of space and awareness. If turmoil and apparitions rise up,] run and jump with phat and utter all the wrathful mantras you know. Then, back in the place that you left, rest in the evenness of emptiness alone.
It’s interesting to me that there’s advice about how to deal with your antsiness and just move and get it out of your system. The idea of Chod is to turn all adversities into aspects of practice. The texts talk about lots of different obstacles to practice and how to handle them. Here, Machik explains why “even this one practice is wholly sufficient”::
Thus the first meditation on compassion and love is the preparation; casting out the food and resting in the abiding nature is the main practice; and the dedication is the conclusion. In this way, compassion and love serve as the antidote to anger. They pacify the male spirits and the disease of intense pain. Casting out the body as food becomes the antidote of passion, pacifying the shaking disease and female spirits. Resting in the abiding nature serves as the antidote for stupidity, pacifying naga spirits, and the disease of drowsiness. Moreover, casting out the body as food is the perfection of generosity; giving it away for the sake of sentient beings is morality; giving it away without hatred is patience; giving it away again and again is diligence; giving it away without distraction is meditative stability; and resting afterward in the abiding nature of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom.
I’m starting to really think Machik Lapdron might have been autistic, but I’m still awaiting a biography in the mail. This is what she has to say about the practical difficulties of sitting (among many other things):
As for the signs of dullness due to elements, when the body feels heavy and the consciousness unclear, it is a sign of the dullness of earth. If consciousness is unclear and there is shivering, it is a sign of the dullness of water. When consciousness is unclear and you feel ravenous and anxious to go, it is a sign of the dullness of wind. If you are unaware of the sluggish mind and hot and sweaty, it is a sign of the dullness of fire. So whichever of the four elements cause dullness, stand up quickly, straighten the body, put your legs together, and place your palms together at the top of your head…
Second, the signs of dullness from hungry ghosts are that mind naturally will not abide due to great drowsiness, due to muddled consciousness, or else because your heart is just not in it. In that case, pray to the guru, go for refuge, and give your body and sickness and all thoughts to the demons. Strip naked and go running and jumping in scary places. Twist, rub, contract and stretch the body, and do whatever comes to mind. Afterward, with body and mind gently powerful, consciousness becomes relaxed. This is how to redress dullness.
The general idea of how you’re supposed to sit and just be has a lot in common with silent illumination, but the imagery is different. I don’t see huge doctrinal inconsistencies with Zen, as pertains to the main teachings and practices. However, this conveys a very different experience of nature (Konchok Bang):
Mountain ravines; valleys in great drought; glistening deserts; places in the shadow of mountain peaks; rocky peaks; charnel grounds; empty valleys; empty houses; lone trees; springs with nine, seven, five, or three outlets; springs, trickles, puddles, and so forth; wherever the sun does not penetrate–in short, any place that is scary is a haunted place. There, a spring with nine outlets is a dwelling place for naga outcastes, seven for priestly caste, five for warrior caste, and three for merchant and commoner castes. Minor nagas dwell in water that is untouched by the sun. Pestilent spirits live by single juniper trees and bushes on the banks of lakes, and in all scary waters. Earth lords dwell in areas where there are things like boulders, tigers, snakes, toads, birds, and boars. Great pestilent naga earth lords stay where there are things like rock faces, mountain hollows, frogs, scorpions, bears, yaks, camels, and water buffalo. Tsen spirits live among cliff faces tht are like short swords, and spurs and fissures in the rock face and lands with cliff cracks like braids. Dense forests are places of devils. Oath breakers, teurang, and sinmo spirits live in overhangs, narrow defiles, crevice caves, and rock caves. Serak spirits, and male and female knife demons dwell in the highland ruins, empty nomad camps, and market streets. Mamos, death lords, and the masters of life force live in graveyards with crypts, tsen spirit houses, the remains of the dead, and the remains of those killed by warriors in battle. Gyalpo spirits and life-force master Pekar, and so on, live in shrine homes, storeroom homes, old monastery buildings, dilapidated practice houses, and isolated places.
I was raised without Halloween. I’ve never understood dressing up in costumes. Personifying my mental states into gods and demons, heavens and hells isn’t natural to me. I don’t feel like I have an “inner child,” and it wouldn’t feel right to suspend disbelief and talk to an empty chair. I wonder if that’s autism-related.
The stuff on severing conceptual thought reminds me a lot of Huang-Po (teacher of Lin-ji/Rinzai).
It’s the same Mahayana Buddhism as Zen, but the imagery comes from a shamanic healer woman instead of a Chinese aristocrat having a nice walk.
Once you have gone to haunted places, if there are no apparitions or signs of warmth at all, your practice will be weak and the spirits will not be raised. This is stagnation. The method to raise the is to corner them with meditative absorption. If that does not raise them, strip naked, wear flayed human skin, blow a human thighbone, rattle a damaru, and call out to the Indian, Chinese, Nepalese, and other gods and demons by name, saying “I’m doing Severance, so everyone gather here.” First complete the accumulation of merit by giving a white torma and then a red torma; then, separating your mind from your body, give the removed flesh and blood. Complete the accumulation of wisdom by resting the mind without support in the way of space. Then even when a shimmering apparition does occur one time, abruptly and decisively cut through it and an exceptional experiential realization will arise.
To treat siu, take [the affected] to a haunted place and completely give over the flesh and blood to the harm-doers. The mind will be blessed in emptiness. If there is sickness, corner it with absorption. Wash the clothes in water and scatter them on rocks and wood and so forth. Burn pelllets [from the body of] the small child and smudge the child with the smoke, curing him or her with fire. Smear on leper brains. Give [the child] the mouth excretions of a leper to drink. Wrap the child in something like felt clothing that is [still] warm from a leper. Healing is certain. If you cannot take [the child] to the haunted place, accomplish it by bringing the wood and stones and so forth from the place and attaching them [to the child]…
To make it rain, at a spring where there are definitely nagas, give basuki and torma of the three whites and three sweets, and the rain will be brought forth. If it does not come, pour burned leper blood, leper brains, underwear, and so on into the spring and it will come…
If enemies come to destroy the doctrine, write their clan and personal names in their filthy [clothes, etc.] and put it into an ox horn and bury it in the haunted place. Call on [the yidam, etc] as witness to destroy [them] by this action…
To make it hail, wrap various toxic blood in the loincloth of a widow and hide it in a haunted place. Then intense cornering absorption will make it hail for sure. To protect from hail, do the visualization within the state of emptiness.
I didn’t really understand that the deities are a skillful means thing. They come from your mind, and they remind you of important things.
In Severance, the evidence of having severed is freedom from fear. Evidence of termination is that apparitions subside by themselves. Evidence of turning away is fleeing in fear and terror. Don’t turn away; be like a door frame. Don’t flee, even in fear and terror. Suppress them like a spike, bend them down, and apply effort. That is the supreme esoteric instruction.
Buddhism has a lot in common with phenomenology/existentialism. Atheism and right mind are the esoteric truth of Buddhism. An important aspect of Buddhism is that there are different levels of understanding. I guess I didn’t get before that the literal deities are there for people that need them, because it makes people think about the right stuff.
The secrecy stuff in Vajrayana turns me off, but it puts it in a new light to think of it as a shamanism thing. It reduces to “would you feel comfortable eating mushrooms and meditating with this person?”
c. Recipients Granted Instructions
i. Worthy Recipients
My words are the intended meaning, the quintessence of the intentions of the victors of the three times. This instruction on the profound meaning is for those who are of noble type and abide in the sacred, are gentle by nature and graceful in conduct, sensible and fearful of birth and death, who follow not for the sake of words but for the meaning, not for the sake of appearances but for practice, are not attached to things, not meditating on emptiness, not sparing one’s life for the sake of the sacred, and who have dedication in the profound path. It is intelligent disciples such as this that you awareness-holders who come after me, having extracted the pith of the intent without remainder, should set to meditation; they are the worthy lineage holders, the intimate children of your minds.
ii. Unworthy Recipients
Those who are not sensible, are not afraid of birth and death, are conventional, do not hold the sacred, have a presumptuous mind, do not practice but are judgmental, hide their own flaws while examing others’ flaws, lack purpose and see only themselves, deliver deception and are bound by clinging, are filled with desire and oppressed by pride, want the quintessence but shun the container, gain qualities by picking low-hanging fruit, cut the ties of relationships with obsequious flattery, proclaim family secrets in the marketplace, wave dirty rags on the tips of victory banners, who lay out the precious jewels, and hide the precious drops as treasure–do not give the teachings to such as those; keep them securely hidden and secret.
Naturally, this means you’ll be lonely.
Cut the ties. Identify the faults. Reveal the flaws. Blending them in your mind without concern, relax and rest. Behave like a crazy person–crying, laughing, wailing, and such–and you will become right. Stay marginalized from human society. Do that without keeping anything in the desiring mind and rest flawlessly without concern.
Keep your stims to yourself in public, though. Now is not the time to strip naked, put on your flayed human skin, and blow through your human thighbone trumpet. Social skills.
Also, when you need to stay in a place where many people gather or when you need to travel, persisting in spiritual practice in front of people is generally proscribed, and in particular shouting wrathful mantras [such as] phat is inelegant. So it is important to keep phat to a whisper and never deviate from your mode of practice.
Oh, the weariness…Sever it.
Initially, you will not rise above cyclic existence if you are attached to enjoyments and household activities. The antidote to that is generosity and ethical discipline. The cause of reverting from an elevated state is being disheartened by the counterproductive practices of sentient beings and weariness with applying oneself to virtue for a long time. The antidote to that is practice and diligence. The cause of wasting it while not reverting is complete distraction and crazy wisdom. The antidote to that is meditative stability and wisdom. The four timeless awarenessess subsequent to the perfection of wisdom are (1) method, which is to dedicate all roots of virtue in common with everyone; (2) aspiration, which is to make various aspirations and accomplish them; (3) strength, which is never to interrupt the continuity of the perfection of the strength of meditation and discernment; and (4) timeless awareness, which is to engage in the awareness of the [first] six and to mature sentient beings.
This makes it sound a bit like a masochism fest, but that’s not exactly right. “Abandon distracting places and cultivate meditative stability in isolated places.” Don’t make everything into hard mode:
A word about the required occasions for those [practices]: At first, go to practice peaceful severance in a retreat place with good, auspicious characteristics, where there are gentle local spirits sympathetic to dharma. It’s very difficult to apply the practice in action if right from the start you do wrathful severance and stay in rough places and go to the abodes of malicious demons and spirits. Even if you can make your way there, it sets up bad interdependent connections with your dharma lineage, spiritual companions, and so forth.
I thought it was interesting that somewhere listed sickness and swelling in particular as obstacles to practice, now that we know what we know about inflammation.
It seems like Zen gets right to the point, but the whole idea is not to give much instruction and to let you struggle with it and figure it out for yourself. The Vajrayana stuff is more stuctured, and that could be helpful, but I’ve never liked guided meditation. I want to hear my own wordless voice, not someone else’s. The symbols and associations won’t be the same for me a lot of the time.
It was interesting to me that a lot of the Chod stuff is about the struggle to sit in all its aspects. You can drive yourself neurotic worrying about whether you’re visualizing the right thing in the right sequence. It’s interesting to see an attitude that’s a lot like Zen’s, whatever comes up is fine, in the context of so much structure and esotericism. So much secrecy surrounding “empowerments” and what exactly is in such-and-such deity’s third right arm, but it’s all just your empty mind at the “secret” level. Superstitions arose about the details and the number of repetitions, but the distinctions are ultimately meaningless.
It’s true that the ultimate goals of Buddhism have to do with the “preliminary” practices like being nice to people. The deity visualizations are social visualizations. I got really interested in the Buddha-nature of the insentient. I wonder if that’s an expression of autism and people vs. objects.
I wonder how much is datura.
I think some of the feeling of profundity comes from the fact that the symbols are so overloaded. It’s the fact of having so many meanings going on at the same time, some of them contradictory. This is also the idea of “oracular interpretation” in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Things like that make good objects of contemplation.
The blending of literal and purely symbolic interpretations is also interesting to me. It implies a way of relating to people and their “woo,” because the lamas have been putting up with that stuff from beginners since forever. And then abusing their positions of power…
I can see how tripping for the first time would make your guru seem like an emanation of all the Buddhas of previous aeons, but sometimes you’re just really high and drinking someone’s urine because they’re hoarding the shrooms.
Interesting note about “vajra” (lightning). Secret Drugs of Buddhism talks a lot about the folk belief that lightning is where mushrooms come from…