Monday, March 2, 2015


‘All things in moderation,’ so the saying goes. Like all so-called truisms this one is not at all true in some respects. For example, even moderation as respects the doing of things that are inherently dangerous or otherwise unsafe is definitely not a good thing.

Buddhism is a philosophy of living according to the ‘middle way’ or ‘middle path.’ The historical Buddha advocated a lifestyle that was neither unduly ascetic or unduly immoderate and indulgent. The middle way permeates all Buddhist thought. Thus, the Buddha neither affirmed the ‘self’ nor denied its existence. Instead, he advocated the need to surrender and thus eradicate the self. 

When the Zen monk Joshu was asked whether a dog had Buddha nature Josh replied, ‘Mu.’ Mu ( in Chinese) means ‘no’ but not exactly no. You see, mu is used when a question is incapable of being answered with a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that is, when both of those ‘answers’ would be erroneous or otherwise inadequate. 

The middle way seeks to afford the practitioner with an understanding of life that transcends seemingly opposite statements about existence, and with insight into life and, in particular, into the the true nature of things. Seemingly opposite statements as to such matters as belief and disbelief, existence and non-existence, self and non-self, and all other positive and negative statements and assertions) are all part and parcel of a single continuous spectrum with affirmation at one end and negation at the other. For example, both belief and disbelief in God are in fact the exercise of the one and the same function, that is, mental faculty or mindset. Truth---that is, life, reality and meaning---lies beyond both affirmation and negation. All such thinking is conditioned. It is never the truth. That is why it is written in the Zen writings:

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.

So, what exactly is the true nature of things? It is this---all things are ‘empty,’ meaning that every thing lacks a permanent and unchanging identity. All is impermanent, inconstant, transient, identityless and conditioned. Nothing is independent of all other things. Things arise dependent on conditions and cease when those same conditions cease. That is all of life. And how does one know that to be the case? Through the practice of mindfulness. That is certainly one way of coming to both know and understand the emptiness of all things. Yes, mu is indeed the answer---and the sensible alternative to all dualistic thinking.

Here’s a delightful story that illustrates the application of the middle way to the practice of meditation and, relevantly, mindfulness which is simply the practice of the presence (both physical and psychological) of being choicelessly aware of the action of the moment from one moment to the next.

Sona, a monk who had been a very accomplished and well-known veena player, engaged in extremely strenuous meditations to achieve enlightenment. He subjected his body to tremendous pain but he was unable to achieve the desired enlightenment. The Buddha said to Sona, ‘How did you get the best sound out of your veena? Was it when the strings of the veena were very tight or when they were very loose?’ Sona replied, ‘Neither. It was when the strings had just the right tension---that is, when they were neither too taut nor too slack.’ The Buddha said, ‘So it is with meditation, indeed with all the activities of the mind.’

In mindfulness there is both bare attention and choiceless awareness. Those words ‘bare’ and ‘attention’ and extremely important. ‘Bare’ attention involves no strain; there is simply a bare registering of the facts of what is seen, heard, felt, etc. ‘Choiceless’ awareness is an awareness without judgment, analysis, interpretation, comparison, etc. It is the total awareness of an undivided and unconditioned mind with there being no judgment, condemnation or selectiveness as respects the content of one’s awareness. Instead, there is simply 'unadorned observation,' that is, you simply see and observe what is present in each experience of the moment as present, and additionally what is absent as absent---without any self-identification and without attachment to any ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘mine’ on your part. 

There is a popular maxim, ‘Keep it simple,’ and that idea makes great sense. Don’t complicate your practice of mindfulness. Sit still. Relax the body, which is always the very best way to relax the mind. (That’s the law of indirectness.) Be alert, but simply alert to the bare facts of the perceived content of your awareness. Remain choicelessly aware of what is happening in and around you. Avoid strain. Practise the principle of non-resistance, for whatever we resist will persist. 

Above all, be neither too taut nor too slack. Let there be both an alert relaxation and a relaxed alertness as respects both your body and your mind.

Acknowledgment. Joshu's Dog illustration courtesy and copyright Mark T Morse and The Gateless Gate. All rights reserved.


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