Moving from the Source

Konocti from Lucerne HarborIn an article titled “Moving from the Source: Riffs on True Embodiment”, Corey Hess wrote:

There is so much talk of embodiment these days. But from my experience, embodiment must include the source of what is embodied. …true embodiment means moving from the source of movement, the source of experience.

…There is our body, and something animating our body. What is that? And how can exploring that make it grow? How can examining it clarify it? (1)

I would agree that “embodiment means moving from the source of movement, the source of experience”, but whether that source can really be explored or examined I think is open to debate.

Kobun said, “sometimes zazen gets up and walks around” (2). That’s an example of something animating the body, but as far as I can tell exploring that something doesn’t necessarily make it grow, nor does examining it clarify it. I have personally come to the conclusion that the action Kobun referred to originates with “the inconceivable”, as Dogen wrote in “Genjo Koan”:

Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. (3)

When “zazen gets up and walks around”, the action takes place without any intention to act–it’s completely out of the blue, and the source of the action is not apparent.

I will say that over the years, I’ve discovered that action without any intention can also follow from something I believe with all my heart. If the initial impulse to act on a heart-felt belief is restrained, the heart-felt belief can wind up moving me from the same place as “the inconceivable”, without any intention.

For the most part, it seems more straightforward not to restrain an impulse to act from heart-felt belief, but rather to simply “eat when hungry, sleep when tired”. That’s presuming “the inconceivable” doesn’t intervene (sometimes it does).

As far as sitting zazen is concerned, the science that I believe in seems to play as big a part as “the inconceivable” in the action of the posture. Lately, the science I believe in revolves around the movement of breath, the location of awareness, and the counterbalance of the location of awareness (originating in the senses).

Kobun said that if a person sits all day, they really only have a good sitting once or twice (4). For me, the good sitting is the one where my heart-felt belief and “the inconceivable” trade off as the source of the sitting, and I basically just have to keep my wits about me.

At the close of “Genjo Koan”, Dogen provided a case study from the literature, presumably to illustrate the immediate actualization of “the inconceivable”:

Mayu, Zen master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?”

“Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent,” Mayu replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.”

“What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. Mayu just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. (3)

Like the zazen that “gets up and walks around”, Mayu’s fanning was nothing of his own doing.

Centuries earlier, the Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa wrote about how “the air element” could be the source of action by the body:

The air element that courses through all the limbs and has the characteristic of moving and distending, being founded upon earth, held together by water, and maintained by fire, distends this body. And this body, being distended by the latter kind of air, does not collapse, but stands erect, and being propelled by the other (motile) air, it shows intimation and it flexes and extends and it wriggles the hands and feet, doing so in the postures comprising of walking, standing, sitting and lying down. So this mechanism of elements carries on like a magic trick… (5)

Mayu’s gesture in holding a fan and his movement in fanning himself were simply “the air element” and “the other (motile) air” in action.

My own experience of “the air element” came after reading some of the classical teachings of Gautama the Buddha. In his lectures, Gautama frequently emphasized the distinction of inhalation from exhalation and exhalation from inhalation (6). In my case, I simply continued to make the distinction from morning through mid-afternoon, at which point “the air element” flexed and extended my body out of a chair and into “the posture comprising of walking”.

I suspect that years of experimentation with hypnosis helped set the stage for my experience, but there was no conscious suggestion, no will or intention to rise and walk when I did. You can imagine my surprise, and why I felt driven to examine and explain how such action could take place, even as the experience became a regular part of my life.

I would say that Dogen, Buddhaghosa, and Gautama all sought to clarify the circumstances of action that takes place without the exercise of will. In particular, each of them made a connection between action without a “doer” (7) and the air around and within us. Dogen wrote about the actualization of the inconceivable, and shared the case of the wind “reaching everywhere”. Buddhaghosa wrote about movement of the body like a “magic trick”, and “the air element”. Gautama spoke of “the ceasing of (‘determinate thought in’) action (by body)”, and “the infinity of ether”. (8).

I myself believe that “action (by body)” without “determinate thought” originates from beyond the conscious range of the senses, and enters into the counterbalance of the location of awareness with the movement of breath. That doesn’t so much speak to the source of the action, as it does to the feeling of place I have when such action occurs.

I stay open to things beyond the conscious range of the senses by extending “a mind of friendliness”, as Gautama advised:

(One) dwells, having suffused the first quarter (of the world) with friendliness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; just so above, below, across; (one) dwells having suffused the whole world everywhere, in every way, with a mind of friendliness that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence. (One) dwells having suffused the first quarter (likewise the second, etc.) with a mind of compassion… sympathetic joy… equanimity that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence. (9)

According to Gautama, “the excellence of the heart’s release” through the extension of the mind of compassion is the induction of the state of “the infinity of ether” (10).

I can say that there does seem to be a connection between the extension of a mind of friendliness (or compassion) and action without intention. It’s a lot like Kobun’s description of sitting shikantaza:

…Sitting shikantaza is the place itself, and things. …When you sit, the cushion sits with you. If you wear glasses, the glasses sit with you. Clothing sits with you. House sits with you. People who are moving around outside all sit with you. They don’t take the sitting posture! (11)

The extension of the mind of friendship makes it possible for “people who are moving around outside” to enter into the action of my sitting, as part of the counterbalance of the location of awareness in the movement of breath. On the day zazen got up and walked around, my sincere intention was the benefit of all beings, and I’m convinced that intention was vital to the experience.

Corey suggested that “something animating our body” should be explored and examined. I’ll concede that exploration and examination is going to happen once zazen gets up and walks around, but more times than not “the source of movement, the source of experience” is not revealed (sometimes it becomes apparent after the fact, but that’s another story).

Corey emphasized “true embodiment”, and “moving from the source”. I’m finding it increasingly necessary to extend out to “people on the other side of the wall”, but as far as truly moving from the source, I’d have to say that most of the time I’m just keeping my head above water.


1) Corey Hess, from his post Jan. 29th 2020 on his site “”:
2) Kobun Chino Otogawa, lecture I heard at S.F. Zen Center,1980’s
3) Dogen, “Genjo Koan” tr. Tanahashi/Aitken
4) “Aspects of Sitting Meditation”, “Gaining”
5) Buddhaghosa, “Visuddhimagga” XI, 92; tr. Bhikku Nanamoli, Buddhist Publication Society pg 360
6) SN V 311-312, Pali Text Society SN V pg 275; see also AN III 303, Pali Text Society III pg 218
7) “(For one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body.” (MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society III pg 68)
8) “…I say that determinate thought is action. When one determines, one acts by deed, word, or thought” (AN III 415, Vol III pg 294); “the ceasing of action” SN IV 145, iv pg 85; tr. Horner “infinite ether” MN I 399. Vol II pg 68, see also tr. Woodward “infinity of space” SN V 118-119, Pali Text Society SN V pg 101
9) MN I 38, Pali Text Society I pg 48
10) SN V 118-120, Pali Text Society V pg 101-102 (space vs. ether, see 7 above)
11) “Shikantaza”

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