The three fancy vehicles are a con

October 13, 2009

The days go by – every day the same routine; every day different states of mind, different troubles or joys, peace or not. Reb has a strange routine for his dharma talks. First he gives the talk but if anyone interrupts or asks a question – whether during the talk or afterwards – that person has to go up onto the low stage and sit on a cushion right next to Reb and address the whole hall of 60 or 70 people. This has extraordinary effects on the people who go up there.

One day a man struggles to understand Reb’s lecture and begins talking about the Creator. No, says Reb. In Buddhism, unlike in the monotheistic religions, there is no creator, he explains. The universe is self-moving. “This means we can play with the scientists” he concludes, which delights me. How wonderful it is to find a practice like this that does not entail believing things that are scientifically rubbish.  I keep sitting, keep working.

The three fancy vehicles are a con, we learn. When the children find their way out of the burning house there is instead one grand carriage drawn by a great white bullock that flies as fast as the wind; the one Buddha vehicle. Aha. And the gateway is oneself. Or another way of putting it is that everything is both the burning house and the way out of the burning house. Even the outside is really the burning house and the way out; being out is really only knowing that you are in the burning house. I suppose that flying like the wind on that great one vehicle is also really being inside the burning house. I begin to see everything around as the burning house, as the world of delusion.

“We seem to be sitting here, silent and still” says Reb. He urges us to sit wholeheartedly with body and mind. Indeed we must do everything we do wholeheartedly with body and mind. I had never thought of sitting meditation as something you do with the body but obviously it is. Being wholehearted about what you do now seems to me to be the opposite of having pride. As I sit the pointless conversations with myself sometimes start up but now I can see them too as more pride; things I want to tell other people – more pride, reasons why I did things in the past – more pride. It is amazing to me how pride there is!

In one session I go up to the platform and, like others, find the experience daunting (not like giving lectures to hundreds of people which I’m perfectly used to!). I tell Reb that I have seen all sorts of little examples of pride and almost feel ready to face the bigger prides – not just the little ones here on retreat that can’t hurt anyone, like being annoyed with people during kinhin. He is quite sharp with me and tells me not to judge pride as small, medium or large, or to decide in advance which will be easy or hard, or which will hurt people and which won’t. “People are easily hurt”, he says. “Right here being annoyed about kinhin all by yourself can hurt people”. I see his point – we are easily hurt, aren’t we!

We are easily hurt in this burning house; this world of delusion.

(I’ve got one final post to add about the retreat – troubles with a ceremony)


More from Reb’s retreat

September 28, 2009

Here are some more thoughts from the notes I wrote after Reb’s retreat last month.

In the early mornings, up at 5.30, meditating by 6, we sit in silence and suddenly Reb’s voice is there. Clearly and slowly, in his soft American voice he says (as closely as I can remember it)

 “The early morning breeze has secrets to tell
Silent and still.
You have to say what you really want
Silent and still.
Beings are moving back and forth at the threshold where the two worlds meet
The door is round and open
Silent and still.”

The early morning rooks and blackbirds are starting up. All 60 or so of us keep sitting, silent and still? Not really – rampaging through thoughts all too often, still being horrified by all that pride, but sometimes silent and still.

The mornings are easy. There are only a few half-hour sits with the morning service (I cross my fingers in all the religious bits), the work period outside weeding and digging under the trees, and then Reb’s long talk and question session. It’s the afternoons that are tough. From 2 p.m. until 5.30 there is relentless sitting and kinhin with no break. I make it through every day, missing only one 10 minute kinhin to get a fast cup of tea and go to the loo. Lots of people miss several of the half hours I notice. Ah there comes the pride. I am so much better than them. I don’t miss any. And yet the funniest thing is happening. Now that I am noticing and labelling the pride it seems to lose its power. Oh – there it is in a new form – and whatever it is seems to fizzle out as I stare at it.

Last year I was SO annoyed by the people who walked too fast or too slowly in the kinhin, or didn’t start walking quickly again when the end bell sounded. This time I am not annoyed at all. They still do the same thing but I laugh at myself for feeling superior and thus getting into all that ridiculous anger. It’s only slow walking! And the same is true with the people who clatter their plates when Reb has told us to eat silently.

I move a little more slowly too. I am always rushing everywhere and realise that that too is a kind of pride – I can do everything faster than you can so there! So I enjoy going more slowly (still probably rushing quite a lot) and feeling all the people around me as all those beings we can love – whether we like or dislike them – and how can I really like or dislike people when we are all in silence and all working hard without looking at each other.

“When our minds dwell in delusion we are turned by the Dharma flower: when our minds dwell in enlightenment we turn the Dharma flower” says Reb, “Fully appreciating this teaching is the Dharma flower turning the Dharma flower.” Ah – so this is the point of the retreat “Dharma Flower turning Dharma Flower”

This flower is in fact the entire universe, he says, so when we are deluded the universe turns us and vice versa. I am confused by this. It feels to me as though I am always struggling to control the universe – isn’t that a deluded me trying to turn it? Yet I know enough just to wait and see how these difficult idea clarify as we go along.

Reb’s Retreat

September 21, 2009

I promised to report back from my recent retreat so here goes.

The retreat was Reb Anderson’s annual week long Zen retreat at Gaia House in south Devon. I was there last year, and previously went on other retreats of his elsewhere. This year, unlike last, I arrived early to make sure of getting a gardening job. Isn’t that pathetic! I am used to retreats (e.g. at John’s in Wales) where no choice is given in anything, which is a relief from normal life, but if there’s going to be choice then I’m going to choose, and I was glad I did; getting outside and doing physical work for an hour a day makes the sitting much easier. In his talk the first evening Reb asked “Who is proud?” I slowly put up my hand, as did a few others. “No, he said “I want a more whole-hearted, or whole-bodied, response” So I jumped to my feet. Pride is not something I have thought about much or thought I had any problem with but somehow something clicked, and for the rest of the retreat I saw my own pride everywhere. The topic for the retreat was “Dharma Flower turning Dharma Flower”, a saying from Dogen’s commentary on the Lotus Sutra. In his daily lectures Reb shared with us his love of the Lotus Sutra. “You must love it” he insisted “You don’t need to like it, you may dislike it, but you can still love it”. When he added that the same is true for the Bible and the Koran there were a few sharp intakes of breath (mine as loud as any) but I think he would say the same about everything – indeed he did say that last year – you can love all beings while liking some and disliking others. After all, we are doing this practice for the sake of all beings – not just sentient beings, people and animals and so on, but all thoughts, images, objects – everything that we turn into a thing. So we heard stories and parables and were introduced to all sorts of difficult ideas about vehicles, flowers that are the whole universe and just sitting that is Buddhas meeting Buddhas face to face. Perhaps most memorable was the parable of the burning house from Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra. A man owns a huge, expensive but decaying mansion and inside are all his many children, playing with their precious toys. When the mansion catches fire there is only one tiny gate out. The man knows that he could lift all his many children and carry them but they would never all fit through the tiny gate together. So instead he lures them out with promises of even better toys – carriages pulled by deer, goats and oxen. Or in Reb’s version they are lured with fantastic computers that never crash. This burning house is our lives of delusion. We are all living in the burning house but too preoccupied with our email, jobs, troubles, toys, relationships and other things to notice that it is on fire.

I have been acutely aware of living in the burning house ever since …

More to come ….

When are you ?

August 28, 2009

Isn’t this a peculiar question ! ? Just three words – each of them a simple and obvious word. How can anyone spend an  entire week trying to do nothing but ask this question and observe what happens?

Well that’s what I did and Chapter 7 is about my struggles and confusions over “When are you?”

I must apologise. I had it in mind that I would put up a new chapter (shortened version of each) towards the end of each month. I did quite well until last month. I was sure I had done it but looking now I see I missed July. Ah well, perhaps it was because my birthday is at the end of July (pathetic excuse).  I have no excuse.  But here is Chapter 7 . I look forward to hearing how you get on with this question.

Meanwhile I am off on retreat again. This time I’m going to Gaia House for a week of Zen practice with master Reb Anderson. The retreat is called “Dharma flower turning Dharma flower” (???).  As ever I am part looking forward to it and part dreading it. I’ve so much work to do, the garden is lovely and needs work on it, I don’t want to sit indoors for a week and meditate all day ……

I’ll report back.

June 22, 2009

I’ve just put Chapter 6 up on my site. 

This tells the story of a koan retreat at Maenllwyd.  In January 2002 John Crook ran the first of what has now become one of his regular kinds of retreats – a koan retreat. On the first morning we were all given a list of several koans and hua-tous (stories) and were told to choose one to work on for the whole of a week. This was wonderful for me – as you have gathered I love working on difficult qustions and up there in the mountains seemed the perfect place to be doing it.

As usual with retreats things did not work out as I had expected. The intensity of practice, the other people around, the interviews with the “master” and all these things contribute to a very different kind of experience from working by myself at home. The emotional ups and downs are much tougher,  the insights can be dramatic, but the struggle is great and the pitfalls scary.

I look forward to your comments about this one.

If you’re interested in consciousness you might like to comment on what I thought I found out about it. Have you had simialr experiences? Do you think there is any validity to my claiming that I had really found out something about “the contents of cosnciousness”, or is introspection (for that’s all this is) forever doomed as a way of finding out general principles about the mind?

You might also like to comment on the interview. There are other interviews to come – some rather difficult, and I am always left wondering about them.

Buddhist Geeks

May 22, 2009

I’ll be putting up the next chapter soon, but meanwhile you might like to listen to an interview I did with Buddhist Geeks – what a great name! “Seriously Buddhist and seriously geeky” they claim. Anyway I enjoyed talking to them.

You can listen at

How does thought arise?

April 28, 2009

This question, “How does thought arise?” is a classic koan. It comes in many forms, and I’ve met it in various ways, as I expect many of you have.

In the book I describe two encounters with this question. The first is on a Mahamudra retreat at John Crook’s farmhouse in Wales. Here the question was embedded in a longer series of similar questions concerning the difference between the mind moving in thought and the mind resting in tranquillity. I struggle painfully with the question, trying to find an answer, thinking I have found one, realising I haven’t and so on. I describe the interviews I had with John and other events on the retreat.

The second is many years later when I returned to the question sitting on my own in my garden shed at home. The question seems rather different all those years later.

Before you read the chapter you might like to have a go at this question yourself. Where do thoughts come from? So often in meditation we find ourselves in the midst of a great long chain of thoughts. Where did it start?

Maybe you’ve worked with this question before and can share your experiences with the rest of us.

You can Listen to my ramblings on this question.

Then you’ll find most of Chapter 5 on my TenZen site.

Chapter 4 Where is this?

March 27, 2009

Where is this?


Ten Zen Questions is just out. I’m really pleased with how the book looks, and hope you readers are too. There’s a fun review in the Guardian, and I’ll post others as they come in at reviews.

Now to the fourth question. You will recall that I ended the previous question, Who is Asking the Question? with no satisfactory answer. Yet the process of asking such a self-referential and difficult question led to some wonderful experiences – polishing a set of bells with no sense of anyone polishing was something special, but … the question was still there.

By contrast, question 4 looks a little easier. Where is this?


I suggest that you take a little time to sit and calm your mind, and then have a go at the question yourself. What ‘this’ will you choose? Isn’t the answer obvious? When you’ve had a go the question, read chapter 4 and see what you think of my attempts.

I’m really enjoying the discussion that is going on here, so I look forward to more comments.

Who is asking the question ?

February 28, 2009

This is a wonderful question; a horrible question; but one that lurks within every other one of these Ten Zen Questions.

Before you read Chapter 3, you might like to have a go at it yourself. Settle down to sitting quietly and looking at the floor, or a nice flower, or whatever you like – or do an easy task like washing up or just walking – and ask yourself “Who is asking the question?”.

You can listen to me agonising about it if you like. 
And then you can read Chapter 3 and see how I got on.

What do you think? Where did the question take you? Have any of you experienced the “headless way” or tried any of the other things I describe there?

Oh, and by the way, the Psychology Today  blog is up and running. You might like to join in there too, or at least take a look. It will be very different from this one, though on the same topics. Advice welcomed!

Another 10 Zen blog?

February 23, 2009

It’s nearly time to post Chapter 3 and delve into another tricky question, but meantime here’s a simpler question for you all.

I have been invited by Psychology Today to join their bloggers and run a blog on 10ZQ, much like this one. My question is this … if I agree (and it seems like a good idea so far) should I keep this one going for all of you who have been joining in, to keep it small and intense, or should I shift wholesale over to Psychology Today? Would you follow if I did?

If you look at their site you will see it’s full of adverts, and has lots of alternative therapy threads, but it’s lively and attracts lots of people interested in psychology.

Let me know what you think. I’m happy to keep this more private one going if people would like it. Over to you.