Monday, October 29, 2012


When I was about 5 or 6 I was given a delightful book entitled The Red Balloon. A photo of the cover of my, by now well-read and well-worn, copy of the book is pictured left. The book (text in English, minus the pictures, here), which tells the story of a  young boy and his best friend---a bright red balloon which appears to have a 'life' all of its own---has become a modern day children's classic since it was first published in Paris in 1956 (in French, as Le ballon rouge).

The book contains the most wonderful photos of 1950s Paris---see these 'then' and 'now' photos---and a most whimsical story. Later, I saw the film---a full copy of which can be found here---on which the book was based and from which the photographs in the book (stills from the film, directed by Albert Lamorisse) had been taken. I have loved the book and the film ever since. As a kid I would spend literally hours just looking, again and again, at the photos of the street scenes of the Ménilmontant section of Paris where much of the film was shot. I was simply transfixed by the cobblestones, the narrow alleys, the long flights of stairs, the dilapidated but still formidable old buildings of postwar Paris,  and the typically Parisian shops and street signs.

At a recent retreat I facilitated I had an opportunity to screen and watch the film again. (I have seen it countless times over the years.) The film so beautifully captures both the innocence of childhood as well as our innate potential for cruelty.

So much has been written over the years about the book and the film. For some, the red balloon represents the reincarnating ego or, at the very least, the human soul---and its immortality or indestructibility. Certainly, the waste ground where the final battle takes place has a Golgotha-like feel about it, including a resurrection and ascension of sorts which follows the destruction of the red balloon. That (last) part of the film always reduces me to tears---every time I watch it.

Yes, when we die to self---as well as the past---from moment to moment we are born anew, and we discover a whole new life. It's called living mindfully.

Pascal, the young boy in the film (played by the director’s son Pascal Lamorisse), is a living study in mindfulness and mindful living. Even his initial discovery of the red balloon---he spots it before we, the audience, are privileged to see it---is the result of choiceless awareness and bare attention. His every movement and action is deliberate and purposeful, and he remains ‘awake’ at all times. His responses to changing circumstances---even when faced with threats and open hostility---is appropriate and proportionate.

Children are much better at living mindfully than adults. That is undeniably the case. Perhaps the main reason that is the case is this---the process of growing up is essentially one of conditioning or programming. We are told---ordinarily by so-called adults or grown-ups---what to think, what to believe, how to act, and so on.

The result? A chronic and progressive, and even terminal, inability to think and act spontaneously in a free, unfettered and unconditioned manner.

We---that is, all of us---need to undergo a radical transformation. We need to totally 'de-condition' ourselves. Indeed, we need to let go of all our conditioned thinking---including all inculcated beliefs and ideas about how life ‘should’ be or supposedly is. You see, unless and until we start to live mindfully, we shall never attain enlightenment.

Living mindfully is living non-mechanically. In order to do that, we must dispense with all so-called 'methods' and 'techniques,' for the (hopefully) obvious reason that methods and techniques are nothing more than tools by which some people programme others.

Here's a Zen story I like. A disciple says to the Master, 'I have been four months with you, and you have still given me no method or technique.' The Master says, 'A method? What on earth would you want a method for?' The disciple says, 'To attain inner freedom.' The Master roars with laughter, and then says, 'You need great skill indeed to set yourself free by means of the trap called a method.' So, my friends, please forget all about methods and techniques. You don't need them. Indeed, they will never---I repeat, never---bring you freedom or enlightenment. Just wake up---and stay awake. That's all that is required.

Now, rest assured that mindfulness is not a method or technique as those words are ordinarily understood. Mindful living is living naturally---that is, spontaneously, and without programming (whether by self or others) of any sort. Mindless living is living artificially---that is, in a conditioned, programmed and mechanical fashion. Whenever we are trying to conform to the beliefs or expectations of others, we are living mindlessly.

So, what are we to do? Well, we need to become more like children---in the sense described in this post---if we are to live in a more enlightened fashion. No wonder Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Mt 18:3) [NIV]. As I see it, those who live mindfully have entered and dwell in the kingdom of heaven---especially if they also exercise loving kindness and compassion.

Here’s another thing I derive from The Red Balloon. What is ours by 'right' of consciousness (that is, the fruits of our mindfulness practice) can never be taken away or destroyed---at least not for so long as we are alive---provided we live, and continue to live, mindfully and also exercise loving kindness and compassion. Yes, nothing is permanent, and everything is constantly changing its form, but that which we attain as a result of living mindfully and lovingly can never be taken away from us. We ourselves can, of course, forfeit or lose what is rightfully ours by inattention, carelessness and mindless or selfish living---but not otherwise.

Monday, October 22, 2012


This post is dedicated in loving memory to
my father Henry Victor Ellis-Jones (1919-1985),
a true gentleman who always gave of himself selflessly to others

The famous Japanese Zen master and teacher Dōgen Zenji (pictured above), who founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, had this to say about enlightenment:

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.

As Dōgen saw it, enlightenment was practice---true spiritual practice, and specifically, zazen, or sitting meditation. Enlightenment, as the present writer sees it, is not something which, having been gained or achieved, is yours forever. Enlightenment does not mean you never get angry again, or lapse in other ways. Enlightenment means living mindfully,  knowing what is spiritually ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ respectively, and knowing ‘the way home.’ As respects the latter, Dōgen  wrote:

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

What is spiritually ‘right’ is that which is at-one with whatever is. Whenever you are choicelessly aware and accepting of life unfolding from one moment to the next---that is, when you are immovable---you are in an enlightened (mindful) state of consciousness. Whenever you resist and oppose what is, whenever you judge others or events, you are anything but enlightened. It’s as simple as that. Dōgen said, 'If you can't find the truth [enlightenment] right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?' Also, being enlightened means doing away with self-delusion---indeed, doing away with all illusions, beliefs and dogmas. All of those things prevent you from living fully in the now. I like these words of Seng-T'san:  'Do not seek the truth, stop having an opinion.' An enlightened person is truly free---free from self-bondage, free from self-will run riot, free from beliefs, dogma and superstition, and free from the past and all conditioning. If you---like millions of so-called religious people---are seeking some supposed 'reality,' whether in this life or in some supposed life to come, ‘promised’ or preached by others, you are definitely not in an enlightened state of consciousness. Enlightenment, in two words, means this---'Wake up!' And it helps to stay awake, too. From moment to moment.

Photo taken by the author at Yakuo-in Buddhist Temple
(officially known as Takaosan Yakuoin Yukiji Temple),
Mount Takao, Japan, October 11, 2012.
The temple, one of the Daihonzan temples of the Chizan School of the Shingon sect,
is said to have been built in 744 by Gyoki Bosatsu under decree from Emperor Shomu.

Enlightenment is, as Dōgen points out, ‘like the moon reflected on the water.’ It is an immovable state of mind, in which one does not react to changing circumstances. Enlightenment ‘does not divide’; rather, it unites that which is in you, as you. Enlightenment is not even something you ‘achieve’ or ‘gain,’ whatever those words mean. Enlightenment happens freely, and more-or-less instantaneously and of its own accord, when you remove the obstacles to its manifestation. First and foremost among those obstacles is self-will---indeed, the very notion of ‘self’ itself.

My late father, Henry Victor [‘Harry’] Ellis-Jones (pictured left), who was an accountant and a company secretary, was a most decent man---a man of great honesty, integrity and principle. All who knew him in business and personal life would attest to that fact. Dad was not a formally religious man. He respected those who were religious---as well as those who weren't---but you couldn't really say that he was a respecter of religious belief per se. Well, not those religious beliefs that he regarded as superstitious or irrational. In his final years his two closest friends (one of them a lawyer) were devout Roman Catholics, but he would often say to me that he couldn't understand how these two otherwise intelligent men could believe a number of Catholic dogmas that he thought were downright silly.

Dad was, I think, an agnostic, but he tended to regard himself as a fellow traveller with Christianity at least as respects its moral and ethical content and the man Jesus. The fact that Dad wasn't into formal, organized religion was probably one of the main reasons for his basic decency and uprightness. I truly mean that. Nevertheless, he understood the problem of sin or selfishness. He would often quote his wartime padre who, in a response to a question from another Australian soldier in the same platoon---the question being, ‘What is sin?’---said this: ‘Sin is rooted in selfishness. Sin has “I” in the middle of it.’

My father was an enlightened man. Despite many problems and difficulties, and some very big losses in his personal life (including his mother's suicide, when Dad was still a young man, and the equally untimely loss of my mother, Dad's wife, to cancer), he remained immovable in the sense described above. As already mentioned, he also understood the problem of sin or selfishness---without having to learn it at church---and he lived his life self-lessly. Indeed, not only was he totally unselfish, he had no sense of a separate or independent ‘self’ at all. He would have made a good Buddhist (ha!), but it was more than sufficient that he was a fine human being. I never had a chance to discuss the subject-matter of this post with him, and he probably would have viewed this whole discussion a total waste of time, yet my father knew and understood the true meaning of enlightenment. He was a man who knew what it meant to 'wake up' and stay awake.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Recently I spent a week or so in Japan, meeting up again with some very dear Japanese friends of mine with whom I have been associated in a certain Buddhist denomination.

As was the case on my trip to Japan last year, I was once again the constant recipient of much love and great kindness.

Last year---as well as on this most recent occasion---I met up with a remarkable 86-year old Japanese man, Isao [pictured left, with daughter Sonomi], and his lovely wife Takeko.

Isao, a former school teacher, said this to me on my most recent trip to Japan:

'I am going to be 87 years [old] and even though I have sickness I’m happy because I appreciate everything, especially family, sickness, even death, too, I can appreciate through long experience of praying for others all the time. And I respect all religions, too. … Every day I try to appreciate my family and everything, and try to appreciate each moment and to pray for all people and animals and everything else. ...'

Each day Isao, a haijin (that is, a haiku poet or master), writes at least one piece of haiku. Whilst we were having tea together in a coffee shop, on my last day in Japan, he suddenly called for a piece of writing paper on which to inscribe a piece of haiku which had just come to him---in the magic of the moment.

This is the poem Isao wrote, quick as a flash, at the coffee shop:

The poem, translated into English, goes something like this:

With the influence of the wind
Each flower of cosmos will come
Out by each different way.

Beautiful sentiment.

Haiku is both a form of Japanese poetry as well as a spiritual practice that has managed to find its way into numerous religious and spiritual traditions including ChristianityHaiku is also a way of living mindfully, letting---please note that important operative word---the very livingness of life, in all its concrete directness and immediacy, to write itself. A ku is said to be the shortest sequence or set of words equal or corresponding to a complete thought. The word hai means playful or amusing, and also rambling (here, in the sense of writing as one feels inclined). Haiku describes, with choiceless (that is, non-judgmental and non-analytical [hence, very few adjectives, adverbs and other modifiying words]) awareness, the here-and-now---that is, that which is truly real.

Haiku---called hokku in the 17th century (and also called haikai)---was 'invented' by Buddhist monks who quite ingeniously combined, among other things, Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist thought in order to arrive at a means whereby words---despite their inherent limitations---could get as close as possible to saying what is truly real. One famous Japanese haiku poet Bashō (1644-1694), who found the sacred, the holy or the divine in nature, captured the very heart and essence of haiku and mindful living---the two are really one and the same---in these wonderful oft-quoted words:

'Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one---when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if the object and yourself are separate---then your poetry is not true poetry but a semblance of the real thing.'

As a form of Japanese poetry---and a very short form at that, always using a bare minimum of words---haiku is typically characterised (at least in its more traditional form) by four ordinarily readily discernible features, all four of which combine to ensure that any haiku records a direct and immediate experience of life:

·        first, the use of 17 on (also known as morae [‘beats’]) [NOTE: not syllables, but more like phonetic ‘sound units’] in a 3-part structure consisting of 3 phrases of 5, 7 and 5 on respectively, traditionally (but not necessarily in all cases) printed in a single vertical line;
·       secondly, the inclusion of a kiru (‘cutting’), often taking the form of a sometimes jarring juxtaposition [cf the polarities and contradictions of 'real' life] of the highly realistic (as opposed to impressionistic and metaphoric) descriptions of two distinct and ego-less [i.e. no 'I's' or 'me's'] images or ideas (ordinarily directly drawn from the world of nature as their subject), with the presence of a kireji (a 'pause' or ‘cutting' word, letter or syllable, distinguishing the two images or ideas) between them, which may mark the end of any one of the three phrases;
·        thirdly, the inclusion of a kigo (a seasonal word or reference, ordinarily being the subject of the poem), usually drawn from a saijiki (an extensive but defined list of seasonal words); and
·       fourthly, the frequent use of free grammatical structure.
I should mention that more modern Japanese haiku are less likely to follow the tradition of 17 on or to take nature as their subject, but the use of juxtaposition as described above generally continues.

Here’s a good example of the literary form, translated into English, from the original lines penned by one of Japan’s greatest exponents of the form, the poet and painter Buson (1716-1784) [pictured below right]:

Ears of my old age;
The summer rains
Falling down the rain-pipe.

As a spiritual practice---and a way of life---haiku is the creative and experiential essence of the practice of mindfulness, with all its concrete directness and immediacy. As such, haiku superbly captures the extraordinary in the ordinary and sometimes mundane events and things of everyday life, and the writing of haiku helps to sharpen one's direct, unmediated and uninterrupted awareness of life unfolding naturally---please note that word---from moment to moment. 

Buson, mentioned above, is my favourite traditional haiku poet, for as I see it there has been no one better at capturing---for all time---the directness and immediacy of things-as-they-happen, and, perhaps more significantly, things-as-they-change, from one moment to the next. A good, well-written haiku cuts or pierces through the heart of reality, preserving for all time, but forever re-presenting, the actuality of some specific, perhaps now long-gone moment in spacetime.

Arguably, haiku---which is meant to be heard more than it is to be read--- is best written right after experiencing the event or happening the subject of the poem, with the juxtaposed images being directly observed everyday objects or occurrences, but that does not necessarily have to be the case. Also, as my friend Isao mentioned to me in Japan, haiku should be written having in mind the anticipated effect or impact on the reader. At least that is how he sees it.

Take, for example, this haiku of Buson, which, quite typically, contains two descriptive juxtaposed images (separated by a cut or kire) with a dramatic and sometimes totally unexpected ‘conclusion’:

The slanting sun:
The shadow of a hill with a deer on it
Enters the temple gate.

… and this one as well:

The coolness:
The voice of the bell
As it leaves the bell!

There are no firm rules for writing haiku in English. Strictly speaking, any writing of haiku in English is nothing more than an English imitation of a haiku. Certainly, there is no strict syllable (or the like) count as is found in traditional Japanese haiku---the Japanese monosyllabic phonetic system is clearly an advantage over the English system (at least for creating a sense of heightened directness and immediacy)---and there are no seasonal words as such in English, but many (but by no means all) writers of haiku in English limit themselves to 3 (or sometimes fewer) lines---roughly replicating the Japanese 3-part structure---of up to (but not necessarily) 17 syllables and generally include a cut or kire (sometimes in the form of a punctuation mark such as a dash or ellipsis, or an implied break, because English has no direct equivalent for the kireji) to contrast two distinct but often interconnected images. The important thing, it is said, is to try to replicate, or at least imitate, the ‘spirit’ of Japanese haiku. Brevity, directness, and immediacy are the hallmarks.

I promised Isao that I would write and send him some haiku in English. Here is my first, perhaps feeble, attempt:

The hot morning sun;
Romeo the ginger cat
Hisses at the dog.

Yes, he (Romeo) really did---just a moment or so ago.


Monday, October 8, 2012


In my most recent post I quoted from The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master, by the Japanese Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet and master of the tea ceremony Takuan Sōhō (pictured left, as well as below right).

Sōhō is remembered for a number of good reasons, one of the more important ones being this---he fused the art of swordsmanship with Zen ritual, inspiring many swordsmen of the Tokugawa (or Edo) period (1603–1868). Most importantly, Sōhō had a number of Samurai students to whom he taught the art of swordsmanship primarily through the means of meditation. In particular, he taught swordsmen how to enter into a seemingly timeless state where they could be aware of what was happening in more-or-less slow motion such that they could then respond to any exigency with complete and unerring accuracy.

I urge you to read the The Unfettered Mind, copies of which can be found online on various sites. You may not have any interest in martial arts, Zen, or Eastern spirituality generally, but if you are in any way interested in self-development and self-improvement you will find much that is valuable in the book.

Now, much of the book is devoted to stressing the importance of what is referred to by Sōhō as a ‘non-stopping’, ‘correct’, ‘right’, ‘immovable’ mind of ‘No-Mind’. Such a mind is clear and tranquil, and moves about anywhere. It is a flexible, mindful mind.

The opposite type of mind---a mind which is 'afflicted' and 'lost'---is an ‘existent’, ‘confused’ ‘abiding’, ‘stopping’, ‘occupied’, ‘one-sided’, 'arrested' and ‘lost’ mind. Such a mind suffers from 'bias in one place,' having congealed and settled in one place. It is a rigid, mindless mind.

Here are some gems of wisdom from the book:

‘It is essential that the mind not be detained.’

'In not remaining in one place, the Right mind is like water. The Confused Mind is like ice, and ice is unable to wash hands or head. When ice is melted, it becomes water and flows everywhere, and it can wash the hands, the feet or anything else.'

‘The Right Mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self.’

‘The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely.’

‘Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable. This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it. When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.’

‘The non-stopping mind is moved by neither colour nor smell.’

‘The mind that stops or is moved by something and sent into confusion---this is the affliction of the abiding place, and this is the common man.’

‘Therefore, one should engender the mind without a place for it to stop.’

‘The mind of attachment arises from the stopping mind.’

‘The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.’

Calligraphy by Takuan Sōhō

Sōhō gives several illuminating examples of a ‘correct’ mind.

Take this one for example. ‘It is like a ball riding a swift-moving current: we respect the mind that flows on like this and does not stop for an instant in any place.’

Then, there’s this graphic illustration:

To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent. This is what stopping means.

Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if  you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent.

What about this one?

The meaning of the word seriousness is in holding the mind in check and not sending it off somewhere, thinking that if one did let it go, it would become confused. At this level there is a tightening up of the mind and not an iota of negligence is allowed.

This is like a baby sparrow being caught by a cat. To prevent a recurrence, a string is then always tightened around the cat, and it is never let go.

If my mind is treated like a tied-up cat, it will not be free and will likely not be able to function as it should. If the cat is well-trained, the string is untied, and it is allowed to go wherever it pleases. Then, even if the two are together, the cat will not seize the sparrow. Acting along these lines is the meaning of the phrase "engendering the mind with no place for it to abide."

Letting go of my mind and ignoring it like the cat, though it may go where it pleases, this will be using the mind in the way of not having it stop.

And this ...

To make a scarecrow for the mountain fields, one fashions a human figure and puts in its hands a bow and arrow. The birds and beasts see this and flee. Although this figure has absolutely no mind, if the deer become frightened and run away, insofar as it has fulfilled its function, it has not been created in vain.

This is an example of the behaviour of the people who have reached the depths of any Way. While hands, feet and body may move, the mind does not stop any place at all, and one does not know where it is. Being in a state of No-Thought-No-Mind, one has come to the level of the scarecrow of the mountain fields.

Sōhō quotes an ‘old poem’:

To think, 'I will not think'--
This, too, is something in one's thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

So, in order to be free of a ‘mind of attachment’, observe but don’t stay, look but don’t stop, be aware but don’t analyse, judge or condemn. In the words of Sōhō, ‘Make it a secret principle in either seeing or hearing not to detain the mind in one place.’

We always have a choice---at any moment. We can act mindfully---or mindlessly. One ‘way’ is correct. The other ‘way’ is not. The rightness and wrongness of each ‘way’ can be empirically tested by its consequences. It is as simple as that.

And the one thing that, more than any other thing, results in a 'stopping' or 'confused' mind is this---a misbelief that we are the innumerable false selves (the hundreds and thousands of 'I's' and 'me's') that wax and wane in our consciousness. Until we let go completely of this false self---and recognise that 'it' is not the real person each of us is---our mind will continue to 'stop' and be 'occupied' in useless, self-defeating ways.

There are many ‘ways’ but only one ‘Way’ as such, according to Sōhō:

While hands, feet and body may move, the mind does not stop any place at all, and one does not know where it is. Being in a state of No-Thought-No-Mind, one has come to the level of the scarecrow of the mountain fields.

There is no 'way' to that Way of No-Thought-No-Mind. The Way itself happens of its own accord---effortlessly---when we just let it happen.

Let it happen---now!

Note. I am Zen-ing off to Japan in a few hours for a week or so. I will be back with you soon. In gassho, IEJ.