Common Ground

A friend writes:Clear Lake from Glen Haven

My recent insights lead me to reaffirm that it is truly the mind that moves. However, that mind is not separate or singular, or even one pointed. It’s beyond conceptualizations.

Maybe my friend and I can find common ground in our understanding of the practice of seated meditation, regardless of the nature of “the mind that moves”.

I think we have to acknowledge, though, that there’s often a difference in the understanding of the practice between East and West, as Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler pointed out in his “Two Shores of Zen”:

I have labored for years to open out my meditation—which is, after all “just sitting”—away from reliance on heavy-handed internal or external concentration objects, and toward a more subtle, broad, open awareness. Roshi-sama is said to be a master of this wide practice of shikantaza, the objectless meditation characteristic of the Soto school. But he insists, again and again, weeping at my deafness, shouting at my stubbornness, that hara focus is precisely shikantaza.

… “Shikantaza not here,” he insisted in elementary English, pointing to his head. “Not here,” he continued, pointing to his heart. “Only point here!” He drove his fist into his lower belly, the energy center that the Japanese call hara.

(“Two Shores of Zen:  An American Monk’s Japan”, Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler, pg 4-5)

I have described in previous posts an objectless meditation based on Gautama’s “laying hold of one-pointedness of mind”, but I can also describe a practice that takes the center of balance of the body as the object of attention.  I can describe such a practice because the analogies Gautama gave for the states of concentration can be applied to keep attention focused on the center of balance, even as that center shifts in the course of the movement of breath.

Here’s Gautama’s analogy for the first state of concentration:

… just as a handy bathman or attendant might strew bath-powder in some copper basin and, gradually sprinkling water, knead it together so that the bath-ball gathered up the moisture, became enveloped in moisture and saturated both in and out, but did not ooze moisture; even so, (a person) steeps, drenches, fills, and suffuses this body with zest and ease, born of solitude, so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this lone-born zest and ease.

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19, see also MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)

I’ve described a feeling I have at the place of awareness, in terms of Gautama’s analogy:

If I were kneading soap powder into a ball in a copper vessel, I would have one hand kneading soap and one hand on the vessel. The press of the hand kneading soap would find something of an opposite pressure from the hand holding the vessel, even if the bottom of the vessel were resting on the ground.

More particularly:

… the exercise becomes in part the distinction of the direction of turn that I’m feeling at the location of awareness… that distinction allows the appropriate counter from everything that surrounds the place of awareness.

I would say that gravity and handedness (I’m right-handed) is the source of my feeling of outward force at the location of awareness, and the activity of the muscles of posture in response to the stretch of ligaments is the source of the counter.

Omori Sogen, a Rinzai Zen teacher, spoke about centrifugal and centripetal forces connected with seated meditation:

Thus, by means of the equilibrium of the centrifugal and the centripetal force, the whole body is brought to a state of zero and spiritual power will pervade the whole body intensely.

(“An Introduction to Zen Training”, Omori Sogen, pg 61)

Gautama described the second of the initial concentrations as like a pool of water:

… imagine a pool with a spring, but no water-inlet on the east side or the west side or on the north or on the south, and suppose the (rain-) deva supply not proper rains from time to time–cool waters would still well up from that pool, and that pool would be steeped, drenched, filled and suffused with the cold water so that not a drop but would be pervaded by the cold water; in just the same way… (one) steeps (their) body with zest and ease…

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19)

Sogen wrote:

In the Yagyu-ryu (a school of swordsmanship), there is a secret teaching called “Seikosui”. Yagyu Toshinaga, a master of the Yagyu-ryu, taught that it was especially important to concentrate vital energy and power in the front of the body around the navel and at the back of the body in the koshi (pelvic) area when taking a stance. In other words, he means to fill the whole body with spiritual energy. In his “Nikon no Shimei” (“Mission of Japan”), Hida Haramitsu writes:

“The strength of the hara alone is insufficient, the strength of the koshi alone is not sufficient, either. We should balance the power of the hara and the koshi and maintain equilibrium of the seated body by bringing the center of the body’s weight in line with the center of the triangular base of the seated body.”

… we should expand the area ranging from the coccyx to the area right behind the navel in such a way as to push out the lower abdomen, while at the same time contracting the muscles of the anus.

… It may be the least trouble to say as a general precaution that strength should be allowed to come to fullness naturally as one becomes proficient in sitting. We should sit so that our energy increases of itself and brims over instead of putting physical pressure on the lower abdomen by force.

(“An Introduction to Zen Training: A Translation of Sanzen Nyumon”, Omori Sogen, tr. Dogen Hosokawa and Roy Yoshimoto, Tuttle Publishing, pg 59, parentheticals added)

For me, I cannot experience anything of what Sogen described without combining the relaxation of particular muscles with the exercise of calm in the stretch of particular ligaments.  The idea for me is not to exercise strength, but to let the stretch of ligaments generate the activity of muscles that contract in alternation to maintain the balance.  It may be that the muscles I’m engaged to relax are on either side of the centerline in the lower abdomen, and it may be that stretch in the ligaments of the lower spine, sacrum and tail bone necessitates continued calm.

The occasional sensation of fullness in the lower abdominal cavity brought about by relaxation and calm corresponds well with Gautama’s description of a pool kept full by an internal spring, and also with Sogen sensei’s “brims over”.

Gautama’s description of the third concentration was:

… free from the fervor of zest, (one) enters and abides in the third musing; (one) steeps and drenches and fills and suffuses this body with a zestless ease so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded by this zestless ease. … just as in a pond of blue, white, and red water-lillies, the plants are born in water, grow in water, come not out of the water, but, sunk in the depths, find nourishment, and from tip to root are steeped, drenched, filled and suffused with cold water so that not a part of them is not pervaded by cold water; even so, (one) steeps (one’s) body in zestless ease.

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19)

I can rephrase an explanation I made previously (with “the center of balance” in place of “the base of consciousness”):

… the center of balance can shift to a location that reflects involuntary activity in the limbs and in the jaw and skull. The feeling for activity in the legs, the arms, and the skull is indeed like an awareness of three varieties of one plant grown entirely below a waterline.

Lately I find the “turtle-nose snake” case in the “Blue Cliff Record” helpful in feeling my jaw and skull in the balance of the body. Ch’an teacher Yuanwu offered the case (I’ll include only the first line here), and added a commentary:

‘Hsueh Feng taught the assembly saying, “On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake. All of you people must take a good look.”’

… When Hsueh Feng speaks this way, ‘On South Mountain there’s a turtle-nosed snake,’ tell me, where is it?

My late teacher Wu Tsu said, “With this turtle-nosed snake, you must have the ability not to get your hands or legs bitten. Hold him tight by the back of the neck with one quick grab. Then you can join hands and walk along with me.”

(The Blue Cliff Record, tr. Cleary Cleary, “Twenty-second Case: Hsueh Feng’s Turtle-Nosed Snake”, p 144)

The nose that came to mind when I read the case was a sea turtle’s nose—basically a pair of holes in a skull.

I find that awareness of the air moving through the holes in the skull behind the nose contributes both the dynamic of inhalation or exhalation and the balance of the head to the location of the center of balance.

Wu Tsu’s “join hands and walk with me”, I take to be a reference to an interaction between the placement of the arms and legs and the center of balance.  Regarding “one quick grab”, I wrote:

I’m bound to be bitten by Wu Tsu, if I take his advice to mean there’s something I should do.  It’s about realizing a cessation of “doing”, but I think I might run into him, in the stretch of ligaments.

The third meditative state is also characterized as follows:

… by the fading out of rapture, [one] abides with equanimity, attentive and clearly conscious, and [one] experiences in [one’s] person that happiness of which (it is said):  “Joyful lives [the person] who has equanimity and is mindful”.

(MN I 399, Vol I pg 67, material in brackets paraphrases original)

The equanimity referred to is equanimity in the face of the multiplicity of the senses–that equanimity, said Gautama, is present in all four of the initial states of concentration.

For me, equanimity in the face of multiplicity requires awareness of the influence of contact in the senses on the center of balance, influence alongside that of the placement of the arms, legs, and jaw (or any part of the body). Even things beyond the conscious range of the senses may interact with the center of balance, and what I find necessary for equanimity is an openness to such interaction.

All of Gautama’s descriptions of the initial meditative states emphasize the extension of a feeling throughout the body.  The words “saturate”, “suffuse” and “steep” that Gautama used suggest the inclusion of the sense of gravity in the extension of feeling.

Gautama’s description of the fourth of the initial concentrations is a clear break from his descriptions of the earlier concentrations, because of his inclusion of the mind:

Again, a (person), putting away ease… enters and abides in the fourth musing; seated, (one) suffuses (one’s) body with purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind so that there is not one particle of the body that is not pervaded with purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind. … just as a (person) might sit with (their) head swathed in a clean cloth; even so (one) sits suffusing (their) body with purity…

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19)

The presence of mind can utilize the location of attention to maintain the balance of the body and coordinate activity in the movement of breath, without a particularly conscious effort to do so.  There can also come a moment when the movement of breath necessitates the placement of attention at a certain location in the body, or at a series of locations, with the ability to remain awake as the location of attention shifts retained through the exercise of presence.

That the location of attention can shift anywhere in the body as a function of the movement of breath, I take to be the suffusion of the body “with purity by the pureness of (one’s) mind”.

Gautama also provided a second analogy for the feeling of the fourth concentration, similar to the first but with cloth around the entire frame:

Just …as if a (person) were sitting so wrapt from head to foot in a clean white robe, that there were no spot in (their) entire frame not in contact with the clean white robe—just so… does (a person) sit there, so suffusing even his body with that sense of purification, of translucence, of heart, that there is no spot in his whole frame not suffused therewith.

(DN I 76, Pali Text Society Vol I pg 86; see also MN III 92-93, Pali Text Society pg 132-134)

I can’t say that I have experienced the feeling at the surface of the skin that “swathed in a clean cloth” would appear to describe, but I have experienced a sense of the involvement of the entire envelope of the skin in an evenness of stretch throughout the body.

Gautama often added a “fifth limb” of concentration, after he gave his description of the four initial states:

Again, the survey-sign is rightly grasped by (a person), rightly held by the attention, rightly reflected upon, rightly penetrated by insight. … just as someone might survey another, standing might survey another sitting, or sitting might survey another lying down; even so the survey-sign is rightly grasped by (a person), rightly held by the attention, rightly reflected upon, rightly penetrated by insight.

(AN III 25-28, Pali Text Society Vol. III pg 18-19)

To me, the survey-sign is a way to touch on the presence of mind that allows the movement of breath to place attention anywhere, in the course of daily life.

According to Gautama, “thought applied and sustained” continues in the first of the four initial concentrations, and again according to Gautama, particular thoughts with respect to the body, the feelings, the mind, and the mental state can become a way of living.  I summarized the particulars I return to in my last post:

… thought applied and sustained with regard to relaxation of the activity of the body, with regard to the exercise of calm in the stretch of ligaments, with regard to the detachment of mind, and with regard to the presence of mind.

I can sometimes experience thoughts applied and sustained as a rhythm, a rhythm anchored by the presence of mind as the movement of breath locates attention.  I can say that there’s a happiness associated with that rhythm.

Though we may have our differences about the nature of the mind that moves, I think my friend and I are not so far apart in practice:  letting go of volition is fundamentally beyond words.

But a good (person] reflects thus: ‘Lack of desire even for the attainment of the first meditation has been spoken of by [Gautama]; for whatever (one) imagines it to be, it is otherwise” [Similarly for the second, third, and fourth initial meditative states, and for the attainments of the first four further meditative states].

(MN III 42-45, Pali Text Society Vol III pg 92-94)

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