Learning and teaching
Everyday Buddhism

December 2014

This is an enlarged and updated version of an earlier text written for this section of the website. It has been prompted by new approaches and clarifications arising from retreats I have taught since then. The original text was intended as a kind of do-it-yourself manual both for would-be participants on my retreats (four or five day events) and for other interested readers. It also provides a foundation and introduction for other essays and papers on this site. These retreats have become something of a new and multi-faceted approach to the teaching of Buddhist practice, beyond their central concern with “Everyday Buddhism” and as spelt out in more detail in my paper “New Departures in Dharma Teaching and Practice”. With the advance of my prostate cancer I am no longer able to continue with my annual retreat programme at the half dozen or so hospitable centres available to me. So this seemed an opportunity to explain where I had got to, and to leave behind some kind of record.

Buddhist retreats traditionally consist of a talk by the teacher explaining some concept or practice, perhaps with anecdotal illustrations, and concluding with a question and answer session. The whole will commonly be reinforced by meditation sessions and perhaps one-to-one interviews. However, I believe that these ideas need to be more grounded in each student’s life experience if they are to become an embodied and effective practice.

As a first step I invite each student to reflect – on and off the cushion – how the idea (for example “suchness”) is, or might be, emotionally experienced in their lives, and particularly in the more discomfiting and grievous episodes. Later in the day they are invited to share their experience in groups of four or five, the discussion being regulated by a “speaking stone”. They also work in pairs in which each takes it in turn always to ask the same question of the other and nothing more. “Tell me, so-and-so, how does it feel”?. The feeling refers to whatever of life’s discomfitures the student is currently deepening in her emotional awareness. Or it may be the more general question “how does it feel to be you ?” This exercise can sometimes produce striking openings, though much depends on the skill and sensitivity of the questioner. The whole process is reinforced by intensive personal interviews, followed by further individual practice on or off the cushion. It takes place against a background of energetic group physical exercises characterised by awareness of the other and, incidentally, a lot of fun and tumbling about. From the first hours of the retreat I aim to build up a strong sense of fellowship and mutual confidence as an important emotional lubricant.

In the foregoing I have been inspired by the influential Zen teacher Norman Fischer:-

These days, as I continue to teach Zen outside the traditional context of monastic life, I am trying to see what will work to bring ordinary people in the ordinary world to the sort of deeper, fuller living that Zen promises. I have found that it is of crucial importance for people to be able to express themselves fully… In recent years it has become clear to me that students need to do more than absorb teaching and ask clarifying questions. They need to speak to their hearts … Expression is healing. It opens us, propelling us forth into our lives. It’s not so much a matter of ideas or even of feelings, for expression is more than a cognitive or emotional act. Yet somehow the simple act of speaking truly, out loud and to others, inspires us finally to point our prow out to sea as we set forth onward for the journey. (“Sailing Home”, Free Press, 2008, p43).

This kind of teaching is absent from the teaching most post-modern Western Students receive and I believe has seriously limited the effectiveness of much Buddhist teaching in the West. It is unlikely to work for most students with an Asian background and education who inhabit a rather different culture of personal relationship. In the West the adhesion to Asian cultural norms has cast a long shadow over what we teachers are trying to achieve.

This paper is a “manual” in that I have included at each stage “do-it-yourself” exercises to enable readers working on their own to make some trial of the methods I describe and to go more deeply and personally into what they have been reading.

“Everyday Buddhism” is not a new kind of Buddhism, but is hospitable to most Buddhist traditions and, indeed, to other inner path spiritualities. The Zen slant in these pages is no more than a reflection of my own practice, which has been particularly inspired by the thirteenth century master Eihei Dogen.

The self as the focus of study and meditation is central to everyday Buddhism in virtually all Buddhist traditions. To become familiar with one’s unique emotional furniture and to trace the trajectory of one’s lifelong but futile struggle to sustain a secure and enduring sense of self is the major diagnostic task outlined below.

1 Understanding this Self of Yours

Please take some time to reflect on the kind of “stories” which you need to tell yourself about yourself, what sort of person you are.

When I have used the above exercise on retreats the great majority of participants have referred to a strong sense of lack, of personal inadequacy in shaping their dominant story. Each was surprised and moved to discover that they shared much the same feelings with everybody else. From our first experience of meditation, when we go in search of a still mind, we discover that our self feels threatened by that stillness. It struggles to maintain a strong sense of presence, even if this is reduced to endlessly ruminating over matters of no significance. Our self needs to feel active and doing, to feel a secure and enduring self identity.

At birth each of us is dealt a different hand in the extent and character of our self-neediness: we are each born with a different start in life. This depends on heredity and karmic rebirth (if you believe it), but also in our very first months of life and maybe even our experience in the birth canal. D.W. Winnicot, the pioneering paediatrician, maintained that many people suffer because of failure to receive sufficient parental support and affirmation in infancy. This is needful, because in the earliest stages of emotional development, before the development of something that could be called an autonomous ego, very severe anxieties may be experienced. Without an adequate parental environment in these early years some people feel, deep down, a strong sense of existential lack. In adulthood, self centred, they clamour for attention and emotional recognition (love?) and may become punitive if they do not get their way. This may be so acute as to translate into a psychotic condition, with clear bodily manifestations. (See D.W.Winnicott “Babies and their Mothers”, 1988, pp.36-38, and also the Buddhist psychologist, Mark Epstein, “The Trauma of Everyday Life”, Penguin, 2013, pp.29, 46).

At the other end of the spectrum are those relatively few who appear to have been born at ease with themselves and others. These are the easy people to work with, since they do not burn with the smoke of a self-centred agenda which obscures the task in hand and has to be negotiated before it can be readily addressed. The majority lie somewhere between these two extremes. Given favourable conditions they may get by in life for the most part Finally there are the relative few who undertake a spiritual search, perhaps because just getting by is not good enough or even tolerable. I recall it was Jung who observed that to commit seriously to a spiritual practice it was necessary to be something of a neurotic.

What is the origin of this sense of existential inadequacy which marks our human condition ? Let us go back to Buddhist basics. First there are the Three Signs of Being: Impermanence, Insubstantiality (of the self and of all phenomena), and Suffering. In the face of these the fearful self struggles somehow to find a solid and enduring identity, and a freedom from the pain caused by the lack of it. These struggles, cumulated down the centuries, have kept our world ablaze, as the Buddha exclaimed in his famous Fire Sermon: “All is burning …burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.”

The Buddha and all the great Buddhist teachers have focussed attention on the self – your very own self – as lying at the heart of Buddhist practice – the Great Way, which leads to liberation from suffering and a self profoundly at ease with itself and all that is other. “To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things”, proclaimed Master Dogen. (It is unprofitable here to get entangled in the ancient debate as to what sense there is and is not a self. It is more helpful to understand the self as a process, as explained in the skandha theory of Buddhist psychology).

Note that Buddhism is not a spiritual anaesthetic for the pain of a broken leg or a broken heart. Buddha did not teach the way out of pain but the way out of dukkha, rather misleadingly translated as “suffering”. In the Sigalavada Sutta he explains that when misfortune strikes we commonly experience what we feel to be a single sensation – “pain”. In fact there are two feelings: first there is physical or emotional pain, but, secondly, there is also how we respond to that pain. For example it is well known that by changing our emotional response to a physical pain we can modify its acuteness. There are many common examples of the working of the two arrows, as in a hospital ward where all the patients broadly speaking experience the same pain, but the range of responses may vary widely, from abject depression to a cheerful concern for others.

Can you recall any experience of this kind from your own life?

The two arrows are important to bear in mind in emotional awareness practice since it is our distanced and conscious awareness of our response to the painful experience that is crucial, as opposed to being heedlessly engulfed by the sensation itself.

2 The Needy Self at the Heart of Buddhist Practice

That great twentieth century sage Krishnamurti once strode onto the stage before a large and expectant audience. He raised his arm and displayed the gap in his open hand between his thumb and his index finger. “Ladies and gentlemen, all the miseries of the world are to be found in that gap!” He displayed the misery created by desire and aversion -- desire which can never be adequately satisfied to bring peace to the needy self, and aversion to what can never be adequately evaded. Or, as the Zen saying has it, we are all fleas on the hot griddle of life: the fleas that jump must fall and the fleas that fall must jump. Each of us has evolved our own unique pattern of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours to shape our lives in an attempt somehow to adapt to this predicament. Our griefs, afflictions and discomfitures range from losing our dearest, losing the respect of friends and co-workers, to losing our bunch of keys or getting tooth ache.

However, before we each explore and open in full awareness to our unique needy self two explanations will be helpful.

Neediness choice vs objective choice As we deepen our emotional awareness we are better able to distinguish between those objective choices which are simply necessary to living our lives, and choices which are driven by the existential neediness to which Krishnamurti refers. The former constitute a simple duality between this and that. The latter dualisms are made more to sustain and affirm our sense of self-identity than to reflect objective differences.There is, of course, no clear distinction between these two kinds of choice; in most case there is something of both motivations. However, as our emotional awareness develops our understanding and discrimination between the two sharpens.

Consider a meeting of a committee whose members must make decisions about the questions posed by an agenda. Hopefully there will be at least two or three members who are not so swayed by a subjective neediness to the extent that their objective assessments are significantly distorted. But there will usually be others who bring their own personal “agenda” to the table. They may feel a strong need to stamp their own decisions on the meeting (and like to hear their voice doing it). Or they may need to be liked and well regarded by other members, or perhaps their precarious self just wants to go along with the majority. A group whose work is dominated by the personal agenda of its members may become dysfunctional – brought to a standstill by what are called “personality problems”.

Again, there are those who are distressed by the suffering in the world and commit themselves to some social activism movement. But there will usually be other motivations at work, such as a desire to make their life meaningful, or the secure feeling of belonging to a righteous movement.

Can you recall an episode in your own life where your decisions and choices were influenced by a subtle self need which you may not have fully recognised at the time ?

The tech fix mentality and culture. Our modernist culture is marked by a great number of discomfitures which can be more or less remedied “out there”, by the immense scientific and technical resources we have developed and deployed. If you have tooth ache a painless dental remedy is only a phone call away. If depressed, a medication may soon restore you to your usual good cheer. In short, we can now get more of this that we want, and less of that which we don’t want, than ever before. Previously our hope lay in changing the experience of our affliction (the second arrow) through spiritual belief and practice. Hence the contemporary waning of religions of divine deliverance.

Nonetheless a wide range of unfixable discomfitures (like death) remain. And more fundamentally, the insatiable need for an invincible sense of self cannot be remedied by any techfix, though consciousness changing drugs may be able to do so for a time.

3 “Our Lifelong and Unwinnable Lawsuit with Reality” (Hubert Benoit)

You are now in a position to actualise Krishnamurti’s dramatic gesture in terms of your own life, and to reflect on how it has been shaped by a neediness to acquire emotionally, cognitively, physically and behaviourally whatever might strengthen your sense of a strong self-identity, and, contrariwise, to evade everything that might threaten to undermine its solidity and permanence. Thus David Brandon refers to swallowing a long kebab of roles, actions and thoughts which only temporarily fill my emptiness. For the self is insatiable, and herein lies the origin of dukkha (“suffering”), arising from this seemingly endless frustrating evasion.

Please reflect on what Benoit’s poignant metaphor might mean in terms of your own life. It is as if two old friends were to meet up after a long absence and ask each other: “Well, how has it gone for you?” I maintain that a profound exploration of our needy selves is an essential and fundamental task underlying our spiritual enquiry. Herein lies “The Great Matter” of Zen Buddhism, from which the work of existential liberation can fruitfully proceed.

So, as an ongoing practice, please jot down and build up your existential autobiography, in whatever way suits you. This work may be undertaken off the meditation cushion at any suitable time and place. However, it will be most fruitful on the cushion, when the mind has been allowed to fall calm and there is some clarity beyond chatter and rumination.

What have been the underlying needinesses that have driven your life ? Please focus on the inner experience, whilst at the same time noting the objective conditions which may have affected you. Avoid overmuch intellectual analysis, preferring a loose, playful and meditative kind of enquiry.

Pay attention not only to the emotional impulsions driving your life. Our emotional needs can powerfully shape our cognitive landscape, ranging from what we think about ourselves to the many different “stories” we tell ourselves about the world (with plenty of gratuitous help from our culture and, above all, the mass media). The Buddha gave considerable prominence to the role of such “views” in the shaping of each self.

Now consider all of the foregoing -- emotional, cognitive and behavioural – in the different spheres of your life – family, intimate relationships, the place of friends and friendship, your career, workplace and the like; and your choice of leisure activities and what might lie behind it. Finally, characterise your overall life style, and reflect on why it is as it is.

How have your inner life and its outward manifestations unfolded over the years? Have there been any particularly instructive and revealing episodes?

When affliction strikes we seek somehow to avoid it, each with our favourite evasions. For some it is escape into denial, anger, self-pity or blame – “It’s all your fault!” Denial may be masked by somehow rationalising our misfortune, to take the sting out of it, concentrating our attention on the circumstances “out there” and the resources of our fix-it culture.

Finally, there is a wide choice of evasions and distractions available which are habitual and readily addictive. What are yours? Busyness is perhaps the dominant one in our culture – certainly for the professional middle classes. I DO, therefore I AM. Twitter, Facebook and other busyness made attractive by iPods, tablets and computers have vastly increased the opportunities for this obsession. We then complain that we have too much to do and too little time to do it in – but what would we do without it? Shopping (consumerism) must run a close second, and then there is the vast and variegated industry of recreational sex. Finally, in every culture there are consciousness changing addictions. Indeed, with good health, more than a bit of luck, and a skilful combination of evasions and addictions, a person can get through life tolerably well without having to bother about the spiritual search (which anyway can itself become something of an addiction).

4 Our Authentic Self

The foregoing is surely, however, only a grave half-truth as an explanation of personality and behaviour. Please pause and ask yourself what is missing.

What of spontaneous kindly laughter, perhaps? Or the no less selfless and spontaneous anger at ill-treatment of another? And in our impulse to help another in distress we are surely not invariably and solely moved by self-interest – as David Brandon put it in his classic book “Zen and the Art of Helping”, “the only way I can let you know I need your help is to insist on helping you”. Or when Chekhov warned that if you see someone coming towards you with the fixed determination to help you or do you good, make off in all haste in the opposite direction.

And yet the helper may, no less, be moved by a compassionate fellow-feeling, rather than by a hungry need to inflate the self, feeling important and superior to the one who appears to need our help. And, above all, to feel virtuous. This aspect of the self is variously known as the Buddha Nature, Big Mind, Original Mind, and tathatagarbha in Sanskrit. These terms are reminders of whom we really are at heart, when freed of our fearful needy self, when freed of ill-will and aggressiveness. These are manifestations of the delusion from which our practice is designed to free us, so that more and more we live our lives authentically.

Note that the foregoing is not an expression of two selves, top dog versus bottom dog, or even two “sides” of the self – the kind of dualistic thinking from which the practice is designed to free us. These are rather to be thought of as two tendencies, and which is uppermost will depend on maturity of practice and, especially, external factors such as upbringing.

For the most part our motives may be mixed and problematic. Beware of our capacity for self deception – the lust to be good, kind, righteous and unselfish, with the ultimate assurance of being a strong and admired self. For most of us most of the time our underlying motives may be hard to distinguish, though this becomes easier as we become more familiar with our emotional selves.

I recall an interview with a young man employed by a computer company who was in doubt about seeking a particular promotion. On the one hand he was moved by the knowledge that he had a particular skill in getting people to work together (which was a problem for the company), which he could do much to alleviate from a more senior position, making for a happier and more satisfied workforce. On the other hand he realised that he was by no means indifferent to the higher status and pay which would follow promotion. In the end he trusted his intuition and went for the promotion. Often we cannot be sure that we are being moved by our authentic self, but it is worth remembering that being able to act boldly in circumstances of doubt and uncertainty is itself a mark of the authentic self, which does not anxiously cling to being sure of getting it right.

In emotional awareness practice most writers are agreed that there is no better field of practice than an intimate relationship (though not necessarily an erotic one) – and especially a long term one. Once the initial passion has died down we may reflect on how far that attraction depends on our needy self needing the other, and how far the authentic self is moved by a spirit of loving generosity. It is around these polarities that the relationship will develop, for better or worse.

Periodic experiences of our authentic self – with varying intensities of authenticity, resemble those brief experiences which we call insights, or openings, which appear from somewhere else than our needy self, from a “Big Mind”. A vivid example is the creative writer or artist visited by her Muse, or a physical activity, where the body is infused by an energy or skill greater than usual. Likewise we may experience our authentic skill on some days, rather than those more common days when the needy self is struggling against its “unwinnable lawsuit”. We feel more at ease, calm and relaxed, even though there may be no obvious explanation such as a good night’s sleep, but when the needy self has temporarily given up.

An emotion is not in itself necessarily good or bad. The anger we feel at the ill-treatment of another is surely a “righteous” response to a particular situation. This is different from the anger experienced when we feel affronted, diminished or otherwise denied in our self-identity. Secondly, it would be a mistake to assume there are two selves at war within us. There is only one self, when moved to a delusive rage or any other negative this is the same self that also has the potential to behave selflessly. Thus it is said that “the passions are our Buddha Nature”. Thich Nhat Hanh explains as follows:

Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness because it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it; simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. If you destroy anger you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara [the Evil One] are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.

It will now be necessary to amend, perhaps quite strongly, the autobiographical profile of your needy self assembled in the previous exercise. For a start, you might select some situation in your life which is important to you, such as a relationship, and meditate and reflect on how far your feelings, thoughts and behaviours in this situation come forth from the delusive, needy aspect of your self and how far from the selfless, other-centred aspect. This you will probably find difficult. What is valuable here, however, is the exploration itself, rather than coming up with some kind of apportionment.

5 A Note on Morality and the Will

Morality – in the sense of how we treat others – lies at the behavioural heart of Buddhism, as in other world religions. Straightway we are enjoined to cultivate a variety of ethical precepts and “perfections” (paramitas). In Buddhism these are to be understood as intentions and endeavours rather than “commandments”. However, the needy and fearful self is essentially self-ish, valuing its status in the high regard of others, to be seen assuredly as good, kind, and in the right, displaying its virtues often with masterly self-deception. However, its only resource in achieving this is the exercise of self-will and the attempted subjugation of at least the more manifest kinds of self indulgence. For top dog to keep bottom dog down may require quite a brutal exercise of repressive will-power – the mortification of the flesh, and much else which dries out the marrow in our bones.

Simone Weil, a perceptive twentieth century mystic, warns us that in spiritual practice there are only two safe uses of will power. The first is to make emergency stops (“Just don’t do it!”) and the second is to sustain our spiritual practice – though not to drive it.

Ultimately to the extent we live an authentic self we naturally and spontaneously manifest an authentic morality. An authentic self is not some distant dream but an any-day potential and possibility. But some mindful intent and prompting is helpful. For example, on my retreats I employ a simple liturgy which includes the following quotation from Zen Master Dogen:

Let go of and forget your body and mind; throw your life into the abode of the Buddha. When you do this without relying on your own power, you become released from life and death and become a Buddha. Do not immerse yourself in mental and emotional struggles. Refrain from committing evil. Neither be attached to life or to death. Be compassionate towards all beings. Honour that which is superior, but do not withhold sympathy from that which is inferior. Do not harbour rancour or greed. Do not be overly concerned with trivial matters, nor grieve over difficulties in your life. This is the Buddha. Do not search for the Buddha anywhere else (from the Shoji, trans. Kosho Uchiyama)

Relevant to all this is a well known meditation (commonly guided) in which the meditator seeks to feel loving-kindness (metta) first to those close to her, then to those to whom she is indifferent, and finally to those towards whom she feels antagonistic. Many, though by no means all, claim that this “works well” for them. However, I do have a reservation that the feelings aroused must to some extent be behavioural and hence superficial, as compared with those which arise unprompted and spontaneously from our authentic self. Certainly meditation can be more effective where the guide invites the meditator to open in awareness to any resistance or forcing of the feelings evoked.

The position of situational versus literal ethics may be of interest. Most ethical problems, whether personal or public, tend to be tangled and complex, with the most beneficial course of action uncertain. (Just sitting on the fence also implies a decision). It is therefore necessary to accept that sometimes the wrong course of action may be determined, perhaps with disastrous results. This prospect requires courage on the part of the situational decision maker. But the small self, the needy self, values above all feeling right, and clings to literal interpretations of the ethical precepts. I am reminded of an anecdote in which one precept must be broken if another is to be upheld. To the huntsman, “The fox went that way” (which it did not), then the first precept against killing is upheld. But since a Noble Lie (as Plato would call it) has been told, because in fact the fox went this way, the fourth precept, against deceit, has been broken.

Literal decision making may give the decision maker a gratifying sense of rightness, but, in difficult situations, at the cost of the well-being of those affected. Consider the dilemma facing a peace keeping force in the anarchic situation of some broken-backed state, where drug-crazed boy soldiers are running wild in an orgy of ethnic cleansing. Some kind of order must be established before any attempt at mediation or reconciliation is possible. To this end military intervention will be essential, and it will be difficult to avoid loss of life, but will almost certainly avert a humanitarian disaster.

I have the impression that most, if not all, prominent teachers are inclined to a situationist ethic – certainly in the West. Nor is this a problem which has arisen in the context of contemporary Buddhism. Back in the thirteenth century the great Zen Master Eihei Dogen wrote perceptively, as set out in Hee-Jin Kim’s excellent Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist (Wisdom, 2004, pp. 221-229), from which the following is taken.

[For Dogen] the moral values of good, evil and neutral do not exist in themselves or for themselves with any independent metaphysical status, because they were nothing more than the temporary configurations resulting from infinitely complex interactions of conditions.” (224). Dogen: The human mind is neither good nor evil. Good and evil arise with circumstances…(223); What is good and what is bad are difficult to determine (221); Good is understood differently in different worlds (222). Thus “a perennial question in Dogen’s thought was What particular course of action am I to choose here and now in this particular situation? Dogen himself was acutely aware of the enormous difficulties in answering the question” (222). And so “although ‘not to commit evil’ was the moral as well as the transmoral, sensibility that was intrinsic to enlightenment… this did not imply denial of the human propensity for failure and guilt … that is why we must constantly repent and be forgiven” (225-6).

6 Making Gold out of Straw: The Practice of Emotional Awareness

We are now in a position to move from the Buddha’s diagnosis of the typical human condition to beginning the practice which can liberate us from it.

In 1989 Charlotte Joko Beck, a teacher who had broken away from a traditional Zen master, published a book entitled “Everyday Zen” (though it is no less applicable to other Buddhist traditions). This proved to be a landmark book, which initiated the Everyday Buddhism movement in the West offering an alternative to the traditional Asian monastic tradition of practice. This is a practice, on and off the cushion, of deep emotional awareness, as far as possible in the body, of the great and small discomfitures and griefs typically experienced by Westerners in the course of their busy and stressful lives. Such a practice comes head-on against our deeply ingrained habit of evasion. So the first problem which needs to be surmounted is to appreciate the potential value of developing a positive response to our misfortunes.

“May all sorrows ripen in me”

So proclaimed the great bodhisattva Shantideva. An ongoing endeavour in the practice of all Buddhist traditions and, indeed, of most inner-path spiritualities, has been to ingrain in ourselves a positive attitude to all the misfortunes visited upon us. Thus, in the Tibetan tradition: ”Grant that I may be given appropriate difficulties and sufferings on this journey so that my heart may be truly awakened.”

Here is Hubert Benoit’s forceful explanation: “If an humiliating experience turns up, offering me a marvellous chance of initiation, at once my mind strives to conjure up what appears to me to be in danger. It does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a transitory respite, but also the certainty of further distress. In short, I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; foot by foot I fight to defend the very source of my unhappiness.”

This, by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi, is particularly eloquent:

“This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honourably;

he may be clearing you out

for a new delight.”

Such dynamic acceptance lies at the heart of all existential liberation.

How to Cultivate Emotional Awareness

As a steady round-the-clock practice, select some ongoing difficulty, affliction or pain in your life. It may range from some persistent irritation (like the domestic untidiness of your partner) to something much deeper (like a haunting sense of guilt). But avoid taking on an affliction which, for the present, may be too emotionally overwhelming. Susan Murphy, a remarkable Australian Zen Master, urges as follows:

What is the sharpest fact in your life right now ? Take a moment to consider your most haunting terror, your most persistent aggravation or relentless criticism of yourself, or a deep pain you have taken upon yourself. Feel it in your body. That terror, aggravation, shame or sadness is your dearest enemy… All your creative power for the Way is to be found right there… So turning that way is turning toward your true freedom… Such is the blessing to be found in a curse.

As a preliminary exploration, why not try the following?

Think of a difficulty, affliction or pain in your life. As you sense this affliction, how does it feel, and how affect your body? Holding the feeling carefully, begin to ask yourself these questions, listening inwardly for their answers.

1 How have I emotionally responded to this affliction so far, and how have I suffered from my response and reaction to it?

2 What does this problem ask me to let go of?

3 What difficulties, if any, am I having with becoming deeply aware of my emotional response to this affliction?

The essence of emotional awareness practice is to become intimately aware of how the pain feels – and particularly how it feels in the body. This is a psycho-somatic practice. Bring your attention to where the feeling is seated, as in the flushed face, the increased heart beat, the tightened belly, the clenched fists of anger. Breath your awareness into that space (itself a healing practice).What colour is it? (I have always felt self-pity to be blue).And even, is there a distinctive smell about it?

There are many different ways to go deep into how it feels. When the mind quietens on your cushion, there is the gentle enquiry to yourself (or to a partner, changing roles every five or ten minutes): “Tell me, how does it feel?” Different approaches seem to suit different practitioners, according to personality and inclination. Keeping a journal dedicated to the practice works well for some.

Here is a forthright advocacy from Pema Chodron, one of the many distinguished teachers and writers on emotional awareness.

If you grab every opportunity to work with your mind – at home, at school, at work – you’ll end up with more chances to work with strong emotions than in one hour of sitting on your cushion with some vague idea of ‘meditation’. In fact, your practice of working directly with your mind moment to moment will be much more powerful, because it will really change your mainstream. When you recognise an emotion with mindfulness, and penetrate it with some recognition of the nature of mind, that process is self-transforming. There’s nothing more you need to do. When you can work with your mind in this way, you will clearly see its effect, not just in you, but in your environment – on your family and on your community.

Joko Beck’s book, “Everyday Zen”, is subtitled “Love and Work”, and she maintains that our typical work situations offer a field for our emotional awareness practice second in value only to our intimate relationships of various kinds. It’s one thing to do a job which we like to do and can do well. It’s quite another matter if we don’t like doing it, do it badly, and with someone we dislike. And how do we respond to criticism? Everyday work situations can have enough fire in them to have us inwardly screaming at the unfairness of it all.

A graphic and moving description of emotional awareness in practice will be found in Darlene Cohen’s book “Turning Suffering Inside Out: a Zen Response to Living with Emotional and Physical Pain”. She writes:

People sometimes ask me where my own healing energy comes from. How in the midst of this pain, this implacable slow crippling, can I encourage myself and other people? My answer is that my healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. It comes from the shadow. I dip down into that muck again and again and am flooded with its healing energy. Despite the renewal and vitality I get from facing my deepest fears, I don’t go willingly when they call. I’ve been around that wheel a million times: first, I feel the despair, but I deny it for a few days; then, its tugs become more insistent in proportion to my resistance; finally, it overwhelms me and pulls me down, kicking and screaming all the way. It’s clear I am caught, so at last I give up this reunion with the dark aspect of my adjustment to pain and loss. Immediately, the release begins: first peace, then the flood of vitality and healing energy.

7 Meditation and Acquisitiveness

Please take time to reflect on what your current practice (if any) amounts to…

In the interviews I have conducted on retreats in a variety of different centres with newcomers I often begin by inquiring what their practice is. The reply is usually “meditation”. And usually what this amounts to is periodic sitting with the aim of inducing “a peaceful mind”. Beyond that, off the cushion, the practice commonly is described as “awareness” or “mindfulness”. On closer enquiry this is at the level of “mindful dish-washing” and other relative superficialities of everyday life. Though not to be despised these go nowhere deep enough to turn around an ingrained consciousness. In addition, the student typically attends a week-long meditation retreat once or twice a year. This indeed settles the mind, but a few months later she usually claims to be back in much the same state of mind as before.

Nonetheless, periodic sitting meditation is an invaluable resource if well rooted in the totality of the practitioner’s life. As the mind quietens, like the ruffled surface of a lake, it becomes possible to discern the monsters that breed at the lower depths – but we do need to look deeply. We need to bear in mind in meditation the need to make some distinction, however minimal, between the two dimensions of samatha (mind calming, serenity) and vipassana (inquiry, illumination). Even in the practice of “just sitting” (“silent illumination”, shikantaza), where these two dimensions seem most closely combined there needs to be some explicit awareness of each. Thus the great twelfth century Chan master Hongzhi observed that “if illumination neglects serenity then aggressiveness appears … If serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted Dharma.” Ajahn Chah, a celebrated teacher in the Thai forest monastery tradition, remarked that some of us are more skilled in one, others in the other, but he reassured his students not to be anxious about this, since a weakness in one dimension could be compensated by a strength in the other. Which way round are you? But note that an adequate competence does need to be cultivated in both modes.

Meditation is a bodily yoga. The basic position is important, whether on chair or cushion. The vertebrae should stack up on a slightly forward tilted pelvis; chin in, eyes (lidded if possible) at forty-five degrees. Gently locked in place, this can be a very relaxed sitting position. In its long struggle to feel secure the self can embody a lot of tenseness. So, to settle down, turn your awareness to areas of tension, dropping the shoulders, letting out the belly, allowing the breathing to be natural, and so on.

It is usually best to begin with an all-body awareness check, and then give some time for the mind to settle down into bare awareness of just whatever is being experienced. Awareness of the body can provide an anchor for attention and stronger attention foci are available, of which awareness of, and counting, the breaths are the most common. As the mind quietens some gentle enquiry can be ventured. This should resemble the playful cast of an angler’s rod, and should avoid falling into any kind of analysis. The self, if not quietened enough, is all too ready to get back and take charge! One helpful emotional awareness practice is gently to enquire “How does it feel?”

Everything this self of ours does is aimed at aggrandising and enhancing its sense of identity and purpose. We may therefore need to revise the whole conceptual vocabulary of what we are up to in the meditation hall, to dissipate the miasma of expectation which too often clouds it. (For more on this see Unlearning Meditation).

It is particularly important not to see our meditation as an anxious struggle to will away thoughts as pernicious intruders disrupting “authentic” meditation, like swotting mosquitoes. To do so actually strengthens our goal-oriented sense of purpose. So long as we are aware of our day dreaming it ceases to be day dreaming. Moreover some thoughts which arise may have something useful to say, such as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and, more generally, to deepen awareness of the presence of the anxious self, crying out for attention and recognition.

If it is not locked into the emotional ups and downs of everyday life, sitting meditation can become something of a fetish, an obsession, for modern-day Westerners, especially in Zen, inspired by the round-the-clock spiritual athletics of monastic specialists. Indeed, the whole problem of practice arguably amounts to freeing oneself from the ingrained and deluded mentalities which are unknowingly brought to the practice. It is this that Chogyam Trungpa referred to in his invaluable book “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” Understandably the beginner sees spiritual practice much as if she were, for example, learning to play a musical instrument. Central is the need to master some kind of technique (meditation). This requires a sustained effort, guided by a teacher, and extending over a period of time, and costing time and money. This prospect appeals strongly to our go-getting individualistic culture. Our spiritual practice readily becomes a specialism, with only limited transferability to our everyday life – a condition referred to as ”spiritual bypassing” This readily breeds “spiritual inflation”, particularly in an institutionalised hierarchy buttressed by the authority of a “master”.

The acquisitive spirit may sometimes actually be reinforced by the teacher with metaphors like “breaking down the Dharma gate” or “climbing a glass mountain”. Presumably this is designed to build up the student’s frustration to breaking point, so that she realises the absurdity of her acquisitive mentality. What is in fact a sudden release of tension can produce an insight for which large claims may be made. Such an approach, which I endured myself for several years, with hindsight I would certainly not endorse,

Contrariwise there are many warnings from Zen teachers, ancient and modern, about the essential need for one’s practice to be cleansed of any trace of acquisitiveness. Thus, Master Dogen:

If you wish to practice the way of the Buddha … you should expect nothing, seek nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood (Zuimonki)

And from Shunryu Suzuki:

Whether you practice zazen{sitting mediation} or not , you have the Buddha nature. Because you practice it there is enlightenment in your practice. The point we emphasize is not the stage we attain, but the strong confidence in our original nature and the sincerity of our practice ….According to Bodhidharma’s understanding, practice based on any gaining idea is just a repetition of your karma. Forgetting this point, many late Zen masters have emphasized some stage to be obtained. We do not slight the idea of attaining enlightenment, but the important thing is this moment, not some day in the future. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 99-101).

The question remains however (and it was one which deeply concerned Master Dogen), that if the acquisitive urge is reduced to no more than an instructive example of needy self behaving as is to be expected, and simply noted and ignored, then how is the practitioner to be adequately motivated?

In my experience some reflection on our authentic self can be valuable here. If we have some intimation that, already, and manifested for least some of the time, we are already “enlightened” we can approach our meditation with curiosity (rather then anxiety) and with a blend of playfulness and spaciousness. There is then no such thing as a “failed” meditation (and certainly not a successful one), only a failure to meditate at all. He or she who can accept themselves – wholeheartedly and with relief – as a meditation failure has made a great stride forward in their practice. Part of this, of course, is that they continue their sitting and learn from it.

The great Chan poem “Faith in the Heart” (Xin-xin-ming).offers much encouragement to this radically different approach to our practice, as in these two passages:

The Great Way is calm and large hearted:

for it, nothing is difficult, nothing hard,

small and partial views are uncertain and insecure;

sometimes assertive, sometimes vacillating.

When you are not attached to anything,

all things are as they are (Arthur Waley, translator)

More encouraging still (and included in my home-made retreat liturgy) is the following as translated by Alan Watts)..

Follow your nature and accord with the Way;

saunter along and stop worrying.

If your thoughts are tied you spoil what is genuine.

Do not be antagonistic to the senses;

when you are not it turns out to be complete awakening.

The wise person does not strive;

the ignorant tie themselves up.

if you work on your mind with your mind

how can you avoid a complete confusion ?

The practice is thus a paradox – as is all that really matters in any spiritual endeavour, C.G.Jung reminds us. It is, as a favourite Zen koan has it, a “gateless gate”. On the one hand, there does appear to be a gate. The practice really does require perhaps years of hard work, as time passes. But at the same time there really is no gate at all which we need to pass through. My favourite analogy is a learning-to-swim metaphor. At first, we follow the instructions, with arms, legs and breathing. But we are disconcerted simply to find ourselves struggling and sinking, again and again. After a while I gave up on this and resigned myself to playing in the shallow end. And then, one day, I found myself floating, and from there it was a short and easy transition to swimming.

8 Suchness, Faith and Liberation

Our concern is to awaken fully to our authentic self, to be wholeheartedly at ease with ourselves and with others, moved by a spirit of wisdom and compassion. Up to now we have been concerned with “the practice”, with the needy this versus that of Krishnamurti, growing into Hubert Benoit’s lifetime unwinnable lawsuit with reality.

Our attention now shifts to consider the fruit of all this. How does a crucial change in our consciousness occur? What is it that drives it?

In the Zen literature this shift is commonly associated with the sudden experience of kensho (translated as “enlightenment”).“Body and mind are dropped off” and perhaps for several hours the sense of a separate self disappears. There is the frequent assumption that the adept thus enters a permanent state of enlightenment. Yet it seems scarcely credible that such a substantial change in consciousness could be effected by a single insight, however profound. In this paper I use the term “enlightenment” only to signify a state of mind, not an event.

It appears, moreover, to be a relatively rare event, certainly as far as Westerners are concerned: It strikes regardless of how well practised is the beneficiary, and not necessarily only in Buddhism or indeed on any spiritual path at all. The following remarks by Dr John Crook, a Chan master of long experience, are noteworthy.

I am beginning to see that we Westerners need a different emphasis from that generated by D.T. Suzuki influential in the West for his emphasis on kensho. In brief, we need to seek wisdom more than enlightenment… I mean that although enlightenment experiences can provide the opening insights of Dharma, few of us can attain them – simply because the natural egotism of the Westerner gets in the way …One can, however, train in wisdom. Meditation practice, retreat experiences, self-confrontation and encounters with teachers, the problems of life and our quest to manage ourselves all yield wisdom if one cultivates mindfulness of their meaning… Whether one can cultivate a selfless mindfulness and compassion or not – that is what matters. Whether such understanding can be used in wise judgements in worldly affairs – that, too, is what matters. (“Chan comes West” 39-40).

A much more common insight is that of so-called unity consciousness, where we experience ourselves as a part of, and at one with, the universe, opening out from our acute-angled self-centred vision. Dogen described this as follows: “When the self advances, the ten thousand things retire; when the self retires, the ten thousand things advance”. Typically we believe that we need to disperse the clouds that cover the sun of enlightenment, not realising that this is the reverse of the truth, and it is the sun constantly trying to get through to us if only we would let it.

Thus Dogen maintained that all the things “out there” are continuously attempting to enlighten us, but we remain stubbornly within the “mind forged manacles” (as Blake described it) of our narrow, self-protective consciousness. But there may be occasions when, if we happen to be more in our spacious, authentic self, when, of a sudden, a tree, say, breaks in upon us with its sheer presence, and we are held in awe.

Underlying all such experiences there is, I believe, a “wearing out of the sandal of samsara (suffering)”. We become more deeply aware of the futility of Hubert Benoit’s lifelong and unwinnable lawsuit with reality, and one day it dawns upon us, with a huge sense of release, simply to give up this wanting life to be this and not that. This profound sense of acceptance is a watershed experience in all spiritual awakening. But acceptance is, however, a deeply misleading word. For this is quite the opposite of some shoulder shrugging and defeated sense of resignation. Even “equanimity” fails to convey its heartfelt sense of liberation. This is said to be where “the real practice” begins. The great contemporary Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki was explicit about this: “If you have great faith and great acceptance there is no need to worry about enlightenment. This may come along sometime as an optional extra; it doesn’t matter.” I can still recall my shock several decades ago, when profoundly attached to gaining the prize of enlightenment, I discovered that the great Zen Master Dogen had proclaimed that Zen Buddhism is the Buddhism of faith. Yet faith is another misleading term. It refers here to the inexplicable certainty that somehow things are basically okay, felt with the force of insight, “All things are well, and all manner of things shall be well” as T S Eliot proclaimed in “The Four Quartets”, echoing the mystics down the ages. It contrasts with the previous stage of belief, where our Buddhism is only upheld by the rational consideration that it appears to confirm our own experience of life.

The “acceptance” to which I refer above is the acceptance of how things are, their suchness or just-how-it-isness. Something still may be good or its may be bad, but we no longer take it personally. It’s just how things are. Such suchness (tathata) may be taken as synonymous with “emptiness” in Mahayana philosophy. It offers a useful experiential entry point to that elusive concept.

Before exploring further, however we must take note of those exceptional experiences where rock bottom despair and hopelessness force us to abandon our habitual wanting that things should be different than they are. “Father, father, why hast thou forsaken me?” was Christ’s cry from the cross. For countless despairing people their despair has turned into an exhilarating acceptance when they finally hit rock bottom – the implacable suchness of just how it is. From Easterhouse, a huge squalid housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, Jeremy Seabrook reports the following example.

Cathy McCormack, a passionate woman in her thirties, is committed to the kind of radical change which is believed, in more fashionable areas, to have been struck from the agenda. She speaks with an energy and authority which comes from having known despair during the seven years that she and her husband Tony have been out of work “I was so broken by it that I felt there was no point in living. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again. Then one day something happened. It was a kind of awakening: almost a spiritual experience.” Cathy realised that nothing was ever going to happen, that no one was going to rescue them. “I understood that my life is here in this place, and that no fantasy of escape would help. This is where the wains must grow up and make their lives; here we must perish together.”

Inspired by a new energy Cathy returned to the struggle, the movement began to gain ground, and in due course the flats were demolished and the family rehoused.

This is the archetype of the” broken hearted warrior”, inspired and empowered beyond conventional hope and expectation. This is the joy of self truly at ease, the slow opening to wisdom ripened over many years of practice, whatever might have been the momentary insights, great and small, along the way which have assisted the embedding of that ease. Yet neither is it some kind of spiritual terminus: “The Buddha is still practising with us” as is said in Zen

For those who dwell in faith Blakes’s windows of perception are cleansed and they are released into a new spaciousness beyond the confines of the securely armoured self. In his delightful introduction to koan work, “Bring me the Rhinoceros” John Tarrant tells the story of a Zen master who asks his disciple to bring him his rare and valuable rhinoceros fan Alas!, it has been broken. “Then bring me the rhinoceros” exclaims the master. In that time a rhinoceros must have seemed a huge and semi-mythical beast. Here it is an analogy for our Big Mind, released into a previously unimaginable empowerment of possibilities for the life we might make for our self.

Many live, or attempt to live, their lives, by analogy, in a settled urban zone of secure predictabilities, where the buses leave for the station every hour on the hour. But for many there lies a more spacious world of music, art, literature, athletics, dreams, and erotic passions. Most of this countryside, however, is still well signposted, with its rights of way. Beyond it lies, again, a trackless wild-ness, where we can no longer be sure where we are and the teachers may be “crazy clouds” like Ikkyu and Chogyam Trungpa. – and the contamination of ego in scandal may present a threat. And finally there is the Buddhist collective subconscious, alayavijnana, with its saints and monsters. Of this Jack Kornfield, in his book “The Wise Heart: Buddhist Psychology for the West”, shares with us some of his profound and startling meditation experience.

Spaciousness releases us into playfulness, one of the most important – and delightful – of the Zen “perfections”. Be wary of those earnest and serious folk whose self-preoccupations have dried out their playfulness. In this playfulness there is the vividness of a new found clarity, a joy which transcends mere happiness, and a new-found energy.

9 Everyday Suchness

In this section we shall explore the implications of suchness for how we live our everyday lives.

First, recall some situation in your life where you typically feel “if only it were different”. Like, “if only I’d married somebody else”; “If only I hadn’t landed myself in this dead-end job”. Assume that leaving the situation would be worse than sticking with it. Try easing yourself into how it might feel to drop the gnawing desire that things should be different. How would it feel to accept wholeheartedly that, for “better” or “worse” this in fact is just how it is?

The following examples may help in sensing how suchness feels.

Of a significant person in our life, David Brandon wrote:”If only I could throw away my urge to trace my patterns in your heart.” What we feel is whom we see and what we feel about them. We see them in our light, not their’s. If we see them in their suchness, of a sudden out of the corner of our eye, it can be a startling experience. Thus did Zen Master Dogen explain “Every creature covers the ground it stands on; no more nor no less, it never falls short of its completeness”. To relate to the other in their suchness (instead of only what we like about them) is surely the essence of true love.

And what of our self, with all its weaknesses and inadequacies? Loving oneself can surely be the most difficult of all loves – and the precondition for truly loving others. How much better to be able to laugh with her or him at the next foolishness or failure, instead of trading blame and reproach. Here one’s self as one’s closest lifelong friend and companion, in this poem by Derek Walcott:

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you have ignored.

Seen above a Chan temple arch in Hong Kong: “There is no time; what is memory?” It stopped me in my tracks. Please consider what it means to you.

Time and the passage of time is another area where a sense of suchness can transform our experience. Our needy self struggles to solidify and control a threatening sense of the passage of time. Our letters, photographs, memories, diaries, and dreams, however, can exist nowhere but now, in the present. Our past is, in that sense, an illusion. Our future is a complete unknown, though our plans and diaries give the illusion of controlling it. And as to the present, it is gone no sooner than it arrives. Indeed, time itself has no tangible existence other than in the experience of being (which is itself impossible outside time). These ramifications have been explored with great subtlety by Master Dogen in a masterly essay “Being Time” (Uji).

Returning more explicitly to suchness, imagine a group of people of varying ages. There is nothing illusory about these differences in age, as witnessed by the wear of their bodies. But if we observe them in their suchness, beyond the this of youth and the that of age, there are neither young nor old; each is just as they are.

So it is with summer and winter. True, the first is hot and the latter cold. But if we don’t put such comparative distinctions to them each is no more than how it feels, its suchness. Formally speaking, we have here two paradoxical truths. But when we become habituated at moving from duality to suchness and back, and living in both, life becomes for us more spacious and playful. This is particularly so when we are struck by the second arrow of discomfiture, as described earlier. There are many koans and anecdotes to help us live lightly in this way. What do you make of this one? High in the mountains there is an old pond: shallow or deep, no one has seen to the bottom? Eschew grinding down your logical teeth; instead, enjoy the wondrous, playful spaciousness of that old pond. And, next time misfortune strikes, could it just be a case of “sun-faced Buddha; moon-faced Buddha”?

Finally, let us return to the workplace. Suppose your boss has told you she wants a particular report from you on her desk by noon. But you know that you have much too little time to do adequate research and produce a report which adequately demonstrates your expertise. Momentarily, you may even revert to your old mentality of longing for that, rather then being restricted to this. However the suchness of the circumstances is unavoidable, and you take it lightly and clear-headedly. And so, whatever its inevitable limitations, the resulting report will doubtless be superior to one written in a frustrated sense of injustice.

10 Inclusive Buddhism

In all religious traditions there have been sages who remained trapped in the bliss of “all things being well.” They have never come down from the mountain into the market place. Buddhism in particular has been reproached for a mystical quietism, which is quite a common view of the religion. Even the great Chan scripture the Xin xin ming (“Trust in the Heart”) tends to be flawed in this respect – as in the half-truth “Profit and loss, good and bad, away with them once and for all.” Yet how can all manner of things be well when the world, as the Buddha proclaimed in his Fire Sermon is ablaze with greed, hatred and delusion? There is evidently a major paradox here – which has been laboriously termed “The Doctrine of the Two Truths.” Fortunately it can be readily enough understood, though feeling it and living it is another matter… The best explanation I know is that of R.H.Blyth, which I have adapted as follows:

Things may be hopeless

but not dispiriting;


but not hateful;


but not desirable;


but not rejected.

Note how the paired attributes are carefully chosen to distinguish between the typical responses of the fearful, needy and aggressive self on the right hand and on the other that of the authentic self at ease. The latter does not need to “take things personally”, as if it were still engaged in its unwinnable lawsuit. And if we are truly at ease with self and other, what else remains to be done but to be of service to others? This is the active compassion of the bodhisattvas, those mythic saints of Mahayana Buddhism, who could go down to hell to rescue all beings and yet treat it as if it were a fairground .without any the less feeling for those suffering there. It was in the same seriously playful spirit that Oscar Wilde warned that the world was in too great a mess to be taken seriously.

Note that we are still here with the suchness of just-how-it-is, freed of the self-centred anxiety of how dreadful (for us) it is. More subtly, here is the testament of Norman Fischer, a fine Zen teacher, on the suchness of bereavement:

I have experienced extreme sadness and loss, feeling the whole world weeping and dark with the fresh absence of someone I love. At the same time I have experienced some appreciation and equanimity, because loss, searing though it can be, is also beautiful, sad and beautiful. My tears, my sadness are beautiful because they are the consequence of love, and my grieving makes me love the world and life all the more. Every loss I have ever experienced, every personal and emotional teaching of impermanence that life has been kind enough to offer me, has deepened my ability to love

To suppose that we have arrived at the participative Buddhism of the bodhisattva towards the end of our survey of the Great Way could be seriously misleading. The same might be said of the ox herding (or bull taming) sequence of pictures used in Zen teaching to illustrate the successive stages of the Way. For here it is not until the end that the sage comes down from the mountain into the market, “with bliss bestowing hands”.

We have earlier emphasised that it we should try to sense something of our authentic self from the very beginning of our practice. And since this is the self of active compassion it cannot but be engaged selflessly with the world out there. And the emotional awareness practice exposes us to all the discomfitures and griefs we

encounter “out there”, which the small self tries to deny or evade. An Everyday Buddhism cannot be anything other than a wholly inclusive one, focussing relentlessly as it does upon our doings in the world. Thus as early as the thirteenth century Zen Master Dogen, one of the outstanding figures in the history of Buddhism, maintained that “Those who regard worldly affairs as an obstacle to their training do not realise that there is nothing such as worldly affairs to be distinguished from the Way” (Bendowa – “Wholehearted Practice”).. He would surely have been critical of what that pioneer Buddhist activist David Brandon mockingly called “manyana Buddhism” – the view that social action should be delayed until enlightenment has been attained.

Inclusive or participatory Buddhism covers a broad spectrum; all human life is there. There are those for whom to bring up a family – or just to survive – is itself a harsh engagement on the scant incomes of a cruelly unequal society. Again, increased longevity means that many, no sooner had their children become relatively independent than they must care for elderly relatives – and such caring can be very demanding and self-sacrificing. At the other end of the spectrum is the social activism of “engaged Buddhism”, about which I have written extensively (see my website).

For Dogen the world is alive with variant perceptions and possibilities, and hence the bodhisattva spirit of serious playfulness. The Korean scholar Hee-Jin Kim writes of Dogen’s emphasis on dotoku – active compassion as follows:

In Dogen’s view, things, events, relations were not just given, but were possibilities, projects and tasks that can be acted out, expressed, and understood as self-expressions and self-activities of the Buddha-nature [my italics - KJ]. This did not imply a complacent acceptance of the given situation but required man’s strenuous efforts to transform and transfigure it. Dogen’s thought involved this element of transformation, which has been more often than not grossly neglected or dismissed by Dogen students. (Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, p.183).

Also, the first line of the quotation reminds us that there are “no things as they really are”, only liberation from “I see what I am”. Neither is there a “Pure Consciousness”, a nirvana where there is security at last from the flux of impermanence and the pit of insubstantiality. On the contrary the bodhisattva finds true freedom in impermanence and insubstantiality and a world of infinite and wondrous possibilities.

The above contrasts with the narrow vision of the self which needs to find affirmation and reinforcement as a return for its good works out in the world – and especially a fetishism of results, as Christopher Titmuss called it. This was why the post-war Japanese peacemaker and activist Hisamatsu Shin’ichi devised for his followers the koan “If there is nothing you can do that is of any avail, what do you do?” This leads to what must surely be the ultimate koan for an inclusive Buddhism: “Nothing matters; Everything matters.”

I invite you to reflect on how far your own life is, if at all, participatory beyond personal concerns which give your needy self some pay-back, however subtle.

How far, in the light of suchness, can you explain the koan? Can you illustrate it from your own life ?

A Postscript

At the end of my retreats students ask me why mine is, for them, the first to deal at some length with a fully inclusive and participatory Buddhism, while others stopped short with some general reference to bodhisattvas?

There are historical reasons why Buddhism has traditionally been confined to individual existential concerns. Most of its traditions have been too economically dependent upon established authority to critique it and more inclined to endorse it. The bodhisattvas have arguably been more concerned in the long run, to “save all beings” rather than primarily remedying social ills.

Here, as elsewhere, Buddhist modernity has confined itself to the traditional Asian existential remit .Its historic tragedy has been its failure to emphasise a fully participative Buddhism, and in particular to explain how existential suffering translates into social and institutional suffering. The latter has been left to a handful of scholars like David Loy and myself. It is true that for many years there was indeed a flourishing, comprehensive and global socially engaged Buddhist movement, but two or three years ago it quite suddenly went into eclipse. It has been largely replaced by some single issue movements, more or less confined to originating sanghas, (like Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing) and, above all by the rise of a mindfulness movement which is certainly no substitute for it.

Thus a socially engaged Buddhism has not become part of public discourse in the West, nor is there any Buddhist think tank dedicated to it. It has not created a significant body of “steady state” men and women who could challenge the dominant assumption that our concerns are exclusively societal, rather than originating ultimately in the kind of people we typically are. Buddhism, like other inner path religions, has demonstrated that this is a remediable condition. But until it is significantly remedied all attempts, in the face of a deepening global crisis, to create radically different social order will fail as they have done in the past. Gary Snyder’s vision of a fusion of the existential (spiritual) revolution of the East with the social revolutionary tradition of the West has sadly come to nothing. But I hope that, at the least, if enough of us can embrace an Everyday Buddhism better adapted to modernity, we shall make a better job of struggling on.

11 A Note on the Mindfulness Movement

The above concerns inevitably raise some fundamental questions about the burgeoning mindfulness movement, particularly in that on most retreats there are usually participants involved in it. It is also remarkable for the many and conflicting views which Buddhists seem to have about it.

The mindfulness movement originated in the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well seasoned Buddhist as evident from his writings – and especially the splendidly titled “Full Catastrophe Living”. He is also an experienced clinician moved by the chronic unhappiness, verging on depression, of many of his patients. The bodily awareness programmes he conducted, and which depended much on the can-do spirit he inspired in his patients, proved remarkable successful, as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”. Kabat-Zinn was concerned not to frighten the horses (and not least his professional colleagues) by making any explicit reference to the Buddhist origins of his work. And ever since Buddhism has for the most part been kept at arms length from the movement – and probably wisely.

In the UK National Health Service it has been adopted as a proven and inexpensive “talking therapy” for reducing the percentage relapse of patients treated for depression. It has been reinforced by Behavioural Therapy. However I have the impression that this has been not a significant addition.

Mindfulness is now widespread, particularly in America, extending to a wide spectrum of professions, organisations and activities which find it significantly enhances their effectiveness. They extend to politics, big business, the commercial media and even the military

It reduces stress and, secondly, enhances attention, especially emotional self-awareness (though at a relatively superficial level compared to the practice described in this manual) – both in a society very needful of both.

It also doubtless leads some to enquire more deeply about the Buddhism from which it sprang, and to which it comes close to what has been termed “Buddhism lite”. This is a not particularly demanding lifestyle of a Buddhism found among the educated white middle class, akin to related fashions like yoga and veganism. The emphasis seems to be on shamatha, with the emphasis on stress relief and a more inwardly peaceful life. This is presumably the kind of Buddhism which the eminent sociologist Slavoj Zizek had in mind as “the opium of the middle classes”, following Marx’s religion as the opium of the people.

The mindfulness movement is thus essentially a therapeutic phenomenon contrasting with authentic traditional existential Buddhism, which is concerned with the human condition itself and with fundamental change in the kind of people whom we typically are. Buddhism goes down to the very roots of greed, aggression and ignorance which sustain so much in politics, big business and other centres of wealth and power in our society. Such a creed would hardly be welcome in Silicon Valley or the .U.S. Marine Corps.

Mindfulness is thus typically a technique devoid of the profound ethical concerns of authentic Buddhism. For the ultimate concern of the Great Way, as we have seen, is our active compassion for the well being of others – for all others – and an underlying awareness as to why we find this difficult.

An Overview of my Everyday Buddhism

Learning and practising Everyday Buddhism begins with some understanding and deepening awareness of Krishnamurti’s dramatic gesture and Benoit’s unwinnable lawsuit as illustrations of our needy self. This is based on an emotional awareness practice-in-the-body, both on and off the meditation cushion, of the ups-and-downs, the griefs and discomfitures of each our everyday lives. But from the start this needs to be combined with some sense of our authentic self, our underlying compassionate self. This lightens, and eventually eliminates, the urge to acquisitiveness and replaces it with a growing playful spaciousness. There is increasingly a liberative acceptance of things just as they are, in their suchness, a “faith” that somehow all is well with ourselves and the world. Beyond this lies a deepening of the inclusive and participative nature of mature Buddhism, which is in fact present from the very start of our practice of the Great Way.

All this can, in my experience, be effectively taught on a five day retreat, maintaining good cheer and high morale among the students, with plenty of fun. But there will, of course, be much less sitting meditation than on a conventional retreat which may contain little else. However, it may better suit a teacher’s personal style to focus on one or two particular topics, so long as the retreat participants are left also with some sense of the overall Great Way.

The essence of the retreat’s teaching has been wonderfully expressed by William Blake in his “Auguries of Innocence”:

Man was made for joy and woe;

and when this we rightly know

through the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,

a clothing for the soul divine.

Under every grief and pine

runs a joy with silken twine.

A Liturgy

I give below the daily liturgy with which I ended up after much experimentation. It is designed to highlight features of the retreat, and to be cheerfully accessible to retreat participants who may never have experienced this kind of thing before. I eventually jettisoned the Heart Sutra which is really much too sophisticated in its presentation for the kind of retreat on offer here. The Guanyin mantra requires a bit of practice; my colleague Hilary Richards has an audiotape.


1 - Opening Invocation








2Chant of Atonement

All evil karma ever committed by me since of old

on account of my beginingless greed, anger and ignorance

born of my body, mouth and thought

now I atone for it all

3 - Master Dogen’s Resolution (from the Shoji, trans. Kosho Uchiyama)

Let go of and forget your body and mind; throw your life into the abode of the Buddha. When you do this without relying on your own power, you become released from life and death and become a Buddha.

Do not immerse yourself in mental and emotional struggles. Refrain from committing evil. Neither be attached to life or to death. Be compassionate towards all beings. Honour that which is superior, but do not withhold sympathy from that which is inferior. Do not harbour rancour or greed. Do not be overly concerned with trivial matters, nor grieve over difficulties in your life. This is the Buddha. Do not search for the Buddha anywhere else.

4 -Guan Yin Mantra


5 -“Trust in the Heart” (“Xinxinming”); a passage on our authentic nature, as translated by Alan Watts.

Follow your nature and accord with the Way;

saunter along and stop worrying.

If your thoughts are tied you spoil what is genuine.

Do not be antagonistic to the senses;

when you are not it turns out to be complete awakening.

The wise person does not strive;

the ignorant tie themselves up.

If you work on your mind with your mind

how can you avoid a complete confusion ?

6 -The Precepts (Version by David Evans)

Recollecting Gautama Buddha and all his true heirs, we take refuge in this teaching and in those who follow it with us.

We seek to practice and promote:

Compassion for all living things;

Non-violence and justice in human affairs;

Truthfulness and goodwill in speech and writing;

And a middle way for all beyond privation and greed.

May we be mindful of the transience of life, the suffering in the world, and the triviality of self, now and when we go forth.

Completed by three deep bows, symbolising our laying down of the needy self.


Charlotte Joko BECK Nothing Special: Living Zen. Harper-Collins, 1993.

Ezra BAYDA Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life (Shambhala 2003) This, and the succession of other titles Bayda has written since then, are strongly recommended..

BRANDON, David Zen and the Art of Helping (Routledge & KP, 1976). A classic must-- never out of print !

Darlene COHEN Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with

Emotional and Physical Pain Shambhala, 2002.(Outstanding --quirky, outrageous, wise and unputdownable !)

JONES. Ken The New Social Face of Buddhism. (Wisdom, 2003)

Jack KORNFIELD Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You are. Shambhala, 2011 More advanced (but not to be missed) is his 400 page book The Wise Heart (Rider, 2008) – a veritable treasure house of. Buddhist practice.

David LOY Money, Sex and War: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom, 2008)

David LOY The World is Made of Stories (Wisdom, 2010) Wonderfully stimulating !

Susan MURPHY Upside-Down Zen – Finding the Marvellous in the Ordinary. Wisdom, 2006. Highly insightful and poetic approach which usefully complements Bayda and Kornfield.

Donald ROTHBERG The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Beacon Press, 2006. Powerful and closely written, with lots of useful exercises.

TARRANT, John Bring me the Rhinoceros (Shambhala, 2004). A delightful introduction to working with koans.

VAJRAGUPTA Buddhism: Tools for Living your Life. Windhorse, 2007 £10.99. British, aimed at beginners, but with a wide scope and lots of DiY exercises.

John WELWOOD, ed. Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path. Shambhala 1992. (35 extracts)

Please buy from your local independent bookshop. It is also worth bearing in mind that any of these books can be obtained for you by your local public library, so long as you are willing to wait and to pay a small charge. Please be ecologically and socially aware and avoid Amazon and the big chain bookshops!