Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Exoskeletons and Endoskeletons

Today, once again, we are going, using lessons from nature, to examine the ideas of the Gurdjieff work, and esoteric spiritual work in general: this time, in comparison to more conventional religious practice.

So, here's the question: What exactly is the difference, if any, between a work such as the Fourth Way and what we might call "conventional" religion?

If we examine the way that organisms exist-- what their being is, so to speak, "mounted" on-- we see that all organisms have support structures called skeletons. Even cells themselves have skeletons. It is all but impossible to organize life at all without a structural support to mount it on.

In the macroscopic biological world, there are two major kinds of skeletons: exoskeletons and endoskeletons.

Arthropods in general, and insects in particular, have exoskeletons. These are hard support structures that form a shell around the insect, protecting it from the outside world and giving it a complete, if limited, structure within which to exist. Some arthropods such as crabs have evolved the ability to molt (shed) their exoskeletons and thus grow larger. Insects, however, do not retain an ability of this kind once they reach their adult form, even though they may shed exoskeletons during their larval stages and in metamorphosis. Exoskeletons are an "outside- in" arrangement. They are, in the most literal sense of the words, superficial and external: what you see on the surface is exactly what you get.

But make no mistake about it. Despite their limitations, exoskeletons appear around us in a wide range of alluring and fantastic shapes. Within their range, they are supremely adaptive. Every one is a remarkable marvel of natural engineering.

And, as anyone who studies arthropods will tell you, they are both extremely beautiful, and very, very cool.

Mammals, birds, fish and other organisms with spinal columns have endoskeletons. These are internal structures that support the life of the creature. They work, so to speak, from the inside out.

Unlike exoskeletons, they are hidden. Only in death is the extraordinary beauty, integrity, and value of the endoskeleton revealed to the world.

We can liken the function of conventional religion to an exoskeleton. It forms a structure around man, gives him a set of rules to live within, explains just about everything, and makes it clear what he is supposed to do.

In addition, almost every religion, as practiced by its adherents, forms a defensive system against the outside world. Perhaps the greatest difficulty with religion is that it functions in this exclusionary manner. It holds the stranger -- those who do not adhere to the religion -- at arm's length, often excluding him-even with the use of force. So religion creates a fixed location- a kind of virtual fortress- within which Being can exist, and it actively excludes the outside world.

There is a terrific power in this paradigm. Just as ants have strength disproportionate to their size, so do religions.

The Fourth Way is a bit different. It's religion, but it's religion turned upside down. In this type of work, the support structure for Being is formed within. It automatically presumes the necessity for a vulnerability that religion does not admit. In other words, it insists on exposing the organism -- the spiritual embryo -- to all the influences of the outside world, without attempting to discriminate one from the other.

In the case of religion, discrimination takes place as a result of the outer structure, the exoskeleton. In the case of the Fourth Way, and other esoteric works, discrimination becomes the personal responsibility of the individual, because his endoskeleton does not protect him from outside influences.

Religion has a way of outsourcing responsibility in this sense. Once you know the rules in a religion, you always know pretty much what you should do. In the Fourth Way, it is necessary to constantly question everything and re-examine one's position, because there is no protection available from an external support structure.

In a certain sense, one has, by agreeing to this type of work, agreed to expose oneself to all of one's own fears.

In the Fourth Way, we agree to attempt to become aware of our exoskeleton and gradually shed it as we attempt to replace it with a more sophisticated, and more flexible, inner structure.

In the action of shedding this external structure-often called "ego" or "personality"- we make an agreement to submit to conditions. We make an agreement to let the world in a new way.

We make an agreement that we don't know anything.

It is not safe. We only have our own faith to lead us forward in the assumption that the risk is worth it.

Let's be fair: both types of support structure are necessary under certain conditions, both for organisms, and for spiritual works. Each one is valid, and each one carries within it enormous potentials. Nature would not produce both exoskeletons and endoskeletons if they did not each confer specific advantages. Hence, Gurdjieff's admonition to respect all religions.

There is one last thing I would like us to look at today-attempting to see this from the point of view of evolution on a greater scale.

Mother nature did her first experiments with creatures that have exoskeletons many millions of years ago. During the Carboniferous period, insects were very much larger than they are today. Dragonflies had wingspans 3 feet across. Over the course of their evolution, colonial insects such as wasps, ants, and bees evolved extraordinarily complex social structures. (Ants are actually descended from wasps, but that is another question.)

Some of you will no doubt recall P. D. Ouspensky's observation that insects were a failed experiment in the Earth's effort to evolve higher forms of consciousness.

Why do you think that happened?

The reason that insects failed was because they lacked flexibility.

In the end, their social structures were just as stiff as their exoskeletons, utterly ruled by a rigid, mechanical set of habits. Studies of ants, for example, have shown that their individual behavioral capabilities are remarkably simple. To this day scientists marvel at how very complex behavioral responses emerge from a community of creatures with such a limited range of abilities. (This property is called emergence. Emergence is the "universal organizing principle" that produces consciousness itself.)

If a man cannot expand his horizons and improve his flexibility, he will ultimately achieve no more than an insect can achieve. The choice is up to us. We need to work together in community as human beings to break down these exoskeletons-- our belief systems, our egos and personalities-- that separate us, and nourish our endoskeletons, which is the only support structure worthy of being called a truly human support system. This is the effort of a man attempting to shed the exoskeleton of his quotation marks.

This question of a vulnerability and flexibility, which nature offers us so readily and so generously, is right in front of us at all times. It relates directly to the question of compassion.

The compassionate man, unlike an insect, lets the world into his heart and seeks a response using all of his parts. Of course it's dangerous; as we attempt to practice in this manner, we will get hurt again and again.

But what did Jesus Christ tell us about this? He advised us to turn the other cheek. We must keep trying to grow this inner structure that supports our lives, even if it means suffering in a way that we needn't tolerate when we rely on our shell.

If we want to grow an inner structure, we must offer ourselves to our lives instead of using our barriers to shut them out.

In this effort, we might perhaps try to understand both nature, and nurture, this way:

Always feed the hand that bites you.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Monday, July 30, 2007

within conditions


How much time do I spend every day protecting myself from all that stuff out there?

Every single one of us, I think, inhabits a fortress of our own devising. We grow shells as hard and thick as we are able, and wear them so comfortably that we forget they exist. Turtles are unable to conceive of life without their shells: their entire way of being depends on the protective outer layer. In actual fact, the shell defines the turtle. Take it away, and it's not a turtle any more.

We're pretty much the same way. A man's Being is determined by how tough his protective layers are, and just how much of reality can seep in between the cracks. ...If you peeled off my protective layer, I'm not sure I'd be what we call a man any more. That might be a good thing... or not.

We don't know.

The one big difference between turtles and men is that in the man's case the "shell" of his personality prevents him from truly inhabiting his conditions, whereas in the turtle's case it facilitates it.

Just about everything the turtle's shell evolved to deal with is permanent: a product of the ecological niche it inhabits. We can't say that about man, however; our own conditions are constantly variable, and the shells we grow to protect our psyche don't expand our flexibility of response, they limit it. From both an evolutionary and a psychological/spiritual point of view, our own "shells" are counter-adaptive: that is, our closed mindset actually prevents us from responding appropriately to outer conditions. (Read, for example, Jared Diamond's book Collapse for insights into how oddly and obviously rigid mindsets probably limited and ultimately doomed some early Norse settlements.)

So why are we so devoted to the parts of ourselves that shut out reality? Probably because they are so familiar, so habitual, and feel soooo comfortable that we're ok with them- even when it becomes patehtically apparent that we're not in relationship with our lives. We'd rather have our shells than risk any pain. In a dog eat dog world, even stupid safety seems to be better than no safety.

OK, so much for the neat dissertation derived from the photograph (which was taken on the banks of the Hudson River at the mouth of the Sparkill at the last full moon in June, when the river's turtles emerge to lay their eggs.)

Getting past the theory, what's in it for us?

Toss the shell! Wherever we are, it's worth it to try to remember at that moment that we are within these conditions.

That's a tricky thing. After all, our inherent unconsciousness militates against an awareness of that kind. Only an alliance with the organism itself can help support a greater level of sensation of now.

And just what, you may ask, is that all about? What is an alliance with the organism?

It's all about seeking and sensing that inner gravity that our solar-system-in-formation produces. Grounding ourselves within the experience of this body, this moment.

In my own experience, we must perpetually seek the immediacy of the situation: sense our bodies, feel our emotions, think about where we are and what is taking place. If we get just a little bit closer to the body, we may begin to see how terribly automatic all our supposedly clever responses are: how reflexively our ego congratulates us for our insensitivity; how blind we are to the needs of others.

If we stick our necks out of the shells a little bit, well, yes, we still have shells--but we may gradually begin to realize that there's a whole world out there.

And within that world, everything arises within, and depends, on relationships--which flow inwards, like Alph the sacred river, into this vessel, into caverns measureless to man...

...the aim being, Insh'Allah, to make sure our own inner rivers will not reach sunless seas.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


We went up to Ithaca this weekend to see my daughter at Cornell. This morning I found myself awake at 6 a.m. in a very expensive but exceedingly modest motel room bed, staring up into the darkness and thinking about atmosphere.

All of you who are familiar with this blog will know that I often come back to the idea that everything we need to know regarding the possibilities of inner development can be gleaned from studying, and attempting to understand, nature. This is, I believe, why one of Gurdjieff's five "Oblogolnian strivings" was the study of the laws of world-creation and world-maintenance. Dogen is no different- he believes that every arising we encounter, no matter what it is, fully expresses the dharma--that is, all Truth is entire contained within and expressed by every element of nature.

Back to atmosphere.

We all form inner atmospheres as we grow older. This atmosphere is composed of "elements"- impressions- that have fallen into the gravity well of our being and remained, more or less, on the surface of our various "inner planets," or centers.

In the Gurdjieff work we call these collective "surface elements" of man's being personality.

Every planet in the actual (outer) solar system has a "personality." Jupiter, for example, acquired a dense atmosphere composed mostly of hydrogen. Mars has a thin atmosphere; earth a thicker one; and so on. In each case, what can take place on the surface of the planet- its ability to support organic life, for example--is determined by the atmosphere. So atmosphere determines the potential for growth.

In the same way, what we acquire and incorporate into our personality over the course of a lifetime helps to determine what can take place beneath the outer layers of our various inner atmospheres. Personality is just as much a part of the whole being as is essence, and ego--and, even more importantly, it becomes a vital determinant factor in regard to the question of what can come in. If personality forms one way, a man may be able to acquire much more new material than if it forms in another. We have all seen this. In a real sense it has something to do with the initial, or exoteric, and even the mesoteric question of being "open" or "closed."

Now, every center in man contributes to the assembly of what we call personality. Thus, every center's "atmosphere" plays a role in the overall composition of the system.

As we get older, the coating of personality over the centers and their parts becomes more dense. Eventually some of the material--impressions--we would like to take into our various inner planets begins to burn up as it enters the atmosphere.

The impressions urgently ought to be reaching deeper into the system, falling on and even penetrating the surface of the inner planets or centers, and contributing to their development by bringing vital new elements to them. Elements which would contribute to an inner alchemy that unites the planets around a "sun" and creates a complete inner solar system.

They don't.

The problem is that we haven't taken impressions in deep enough all along. They have consequently formed a thick "rejecting layer" around our inner parts.

Now, of course, all of this is analogy and there is a great deal of further conceptualization and pondering that could be done on this subject. All I am doing here is sketching the idea out so that readers can try to take it out into the world and examine it in real-life circumstances. In addition, it is probably best to try not to become quite too literal about it, because that would create a rigidity that might sabotage some of the potential intuitive insights available in this concept.

In the past I've referred to this chemical problem within us as the "rejecting part." I always assumed, upon observing it in myself, that the part in me that rejects things from outside--which is fear-based, no doubt, and probably regulated largely by chief feature-- is essentially psychological in nature. It is only recently that the question of what it means physically and what it means chemically have occurred to me.

So where does this take us?

Fear has a chemical and a physical basis related to the composition of our inner solar system.

We urgently need to allow things to enter us more deeply. What is it that prevents it? Can we have an effect on it?

I think we need to see our atmosphere a bit more clearly, and begin to take more responsibility for it.

May your inner leaves find good air to breathe.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Garuda in the flesh- method in silence

Over the past week, one of the symbolic images I have contemplated in a relationship to the nature of our organism is Garuda.

Garuda is the mount -- the vehicle-- of Vishnu, the supreme God, or absolute reality, of the Hindu religion. Looked at from another angle, he would be the means by which Vishnu descends to Earth. Garuda has huge wings, the fierce sharp beak of a raptor, and awesome talons. He is said to be so huge he can block out the sun, that is, obscure the light from above.

Another interesting note is that in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he is the son of Garuda.

In an esoteric sense, Garuda is the human being, that is, this fleshy organism we inhabit. Take a look at the potential comparisons.

First of all, the human body is a vehicle through which the higher can descend to this level, if inner connections are correct.

Secondly, this body is a hungry, fierce animal driven by passions. When I look at my own statue of Garuda, I always feel that it expresses something quite direct about the nature of the human being as an animal--"red in tooth and claw," as the saying goes. I am like this: Hungry, desirous, lustful.

And dangerous.

Thirdly, Krishna-- Christ-- tells us he is the son of Garuda. If we are willing to accept my interpretation of Garuda as the human being, we have a direct inference here that Krishna, like Christ, said he was the son of man.

It all makes a certain kind of sense, doesn't it?

Our own incarnation in flesh confuses us. Of course it's true, we absolutely require this life within this organic body in order to learn what we are. It is, as Dogen says in the Shobogenzo, a tool of the Bodhi, that is, a tool of awakened consciousness. Nonetheless, we identify with the flesh. Separated from the unity from which we spring, we desperately attempt to reconnect ourselves by action through the vehicle, that is, the body, instead of understanding that the vehicle is meant only to take us towards our destination.

It is somewhat like this: we are all particles of consciousness that need to take a journey, get into the car, and then forget that there is a destination. The car is so fascinating that suddenly it is all about the car, rather than the journey. We get so wrapped up in our relationship with the vehicle that we forget it is supposed to take us somewhere. Our identification with it blocks out the sun: the light from above no longer reaches us.

And let's face it: it is a very exciting thing being a fierce, ravenous beast.

This is why I live my life interested in sex, money, and food, and why the strongest stimulus I know is fear. All of these things are products of my inner automotive industry, an industry dedicated to the wasteful consumption of resources, mostly in the interests of vanity. As Carlos Castaneda suggested in "The Art of Dreaming," I like it here so much, I forget why I came. The only way I can change this is if I change my perspective from a focus on destinations to a focus on journeys.

One of the reasons that Gurdjieff asked us to see and to understand that we were machines, I believe, was that he was hoping we would see we are in a vehicle. We all live within the body of Garuda: wings represent the extraordinary potential that we have in relationship to the higher: lithe limbs, fearsome beak and claws represent the lower nature that our inner potential must encounter, inhabit, and master in order to make the birth of something new possible.

What needs to be made whole in life is not our relationship with the body, and with each other's bodies, but rather a relationship with each other's Being, which is a product of consciousness, not flesh. Because our carnality is so compellingly obvious, we seek each other through the flesh, and we seek our lives through the flesh. But just imagine: living within this tiny little vehicle, sitting in one place, doing no travel, what happens?

No matter how much we stuff into the car, it is only just so big. It can't hold what we need; it was never built for that in the first place. The more and more stuff we pack into it, the less room we have to move around.

We end up fat, bored, cruel and unhappy.

This brings me back to yesterday's post in which I asked questions about compassion. Compassion is not an element of the flesh, but of the soul. Conscience, the Ursprung (this is a German word meaning "ultimate source") of compassion, is, according to Gurdjieff, the only undamaged part of man's Being.

Does all of this mean that we must surrender the passions of the flesh? Or are we meant to master them by embracing them and understanding them as a part of what we are?

Both paths exist within various traditions. For myself, I would say that I cannot know what I am through a denial of my lower nature. I am here in order, in part, to experience what this is. In other words, it is not the existence or lack of carnal passions that determines my level of being, but my relationship to them. They are here to help me.

This brings me to a final question about methods of working. In the Gurdjieff work, it is no secret that we often ask a group of people who are engaged in a task to, for example, refrain from speaking much.

I have pondered this. This exercise seems all wrong to me.

One can get any idiot-- even a dog-- to be quiet for a while. I think the whole point must be not to refrain from speaking, but to assign ourselves the task of speaking only when we are aware of ourselves. Our task should be to speak all we want, as long as we exercise awareness while speaking. This task, if put in front of all those who speak, would change everything considerably.

If such a task were taken properly, it would require much more of us. It reminds me of Dogen's adage, often encountered in the "Eihei Koroku,"

"I respectfully ask you to take good care."

We cannot observe our habits by refusing to engage in them. Rather, the point is to go ahead and engage in them-- but with a more conscious effort accompanying them.

After all, one can hardly find out what a radio sounds like by turning it off.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


This is a picture of Genevieve, who arrived on this planet--and in our house-- a few weeks ago. We took her mom in a few months before she was born because she was living at a women's shelter, and my wife and I felt that was Not the Greatest Place to Have a Baby.

Anyway, welcome, Genevieve. Much tree-planting and well-digging lies ahead of you.

Returning from my spiritual retreat, I find myself emerged in a rich ocean of new impressions, experiences, and understandings.

It will probably take some time to process all of this; today, I am going to try to avoid the temptation of reaching for what is most readily available, and instead enter into an attempt to discuss something I saw during meditation yesterday.

We are all within childhood on this planet. We do not understand it this way; we grow old, give birth to children, get white hair--in short, we believe we enter what we call adulthood.

Nonetheless, religious traditions continued to refer us back to the idea that we are children of something higher. Certainly this idea is embedded deeply in the Lord's prayer, since it begins with the words "our Father."

I don't think we understand this idea very deeply. Our experience of this life does not, somehow, affect us as a child's experience of life, even though I believe the potential to do so is always there. Children are soft and permeable; over the course of a lifetime, in all of us, something hardens, and we no longer receive our lives the way a child receives its life. We believe that we have grown up, and--generally speaking -- that our adulthood represents an achievement of some kind.

The whole point of being here is to receive our life, but we stop doing it. Instead of receiving it, we try to take it. We live entire lifetimes at this stage of grabbing and snatching at everything around us.

If we enter adulthood at all in this life, it is at the point of death. Even then, numerous traditions suggest that it takes many deaths to become an adult. So everything we attempt in this life, every step we take, every breath we breathe in, and every exchange we have with another person, no matter how much younger or older they are than us, is just a part of childhood.

We are all just children.

Perhaps part of self remembering is remembering that. For as long as we think we are grown up, as long as we presume an authority conferred upon us by experience and age, we indulge in the sin of arrogance.

Here's my sense of it:

If age brings anything real, the first thing it should bring is humility, as we see how small we are, how far short we fall of any real sense of Being and responsibility, and how much more effort it will take us in order to reach anything that could be called a "man" without the quotation marks.

Mr. Gurdjieff did his best to remind us of that over and over in his magnum opus,"Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson." He repeatedly explains to Hassein how severely the reason of man has deteriorated-- we have forgotten the source of our arising.

He points out that most people, at the end of their lives, reach a moment where they suddenly begin to see reality more clearly, but by then it is too late. It is as though our childhood is almost over-- and we abruptly realize it-- but it is too late to obtain the education we were supposed to have as children.

And no wonder -- why bother to obtain an education if you think you are already grown up? ...It reminds me of all the dreams I used to have where it was the end of the school year, exams were coming up, but I had failed to attend any of the classes. (This never actually happened to me, as I was a very diligent, if inexcusably rambunctious, student.)

If we look at the way we behave, the way we treat each other, don't we all still act like misbehaving children most of the time -- willful, disrespectful, grasping, impatient, cruel, unthinking? Aren't all the religions and disciplines on the planet actually systems to help us try and grow up?

I need to ponder this question more. I think if I saw, organically, within the depths of my being and with all of my parts that I am still, at the age of 51, in childhood, it would be a big understanding. It is one thing to grasp this intellectually. Grasping it emotionally and physically carries a demand that produces a remorse almost too great to bear. Perhaps that is why we all avoid this question so carefully.

I cannot resist adding one other observation which I had this morning in regard to the way we treat each other. It is not exactly on the subject of childhood, however, I think it relates.

I attempt to ask myself a real question, a living question -- am I compassionate? Do I have enough compassion?

What does compassion mean? If I don't act from love, what am I acting from? If every action I take is not informed by love, by a deep, respectful love of others, then where does it come from?
Do I want it to come from some other place?

...And isn't that a frightening thought?

The way this question presented itself in me this morning was in the following conceptualization:

Honor every effort in another as though everything in their effort came from your own wish.

I am glad to be back, even though leaving the retreat was difficult... God's blessings to every one of you.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Friday, July 20, 2007


Nature has a way of gathering things together.

Several billion years ago, it appears a group of prokaryotes (primitive cells) were colonized by proteobacteria. Each one of them apparently benefited from the relationship. We do not know exactly how this took place, but eventually the bacteria became so closely linked to the functions of the cells they lived in that they became a part of the cell, rather than a separate entity.

Biologists call these sections of the cell mitochondria. They have their own DNA, which is inherited only from the mother's gene line.

Mutually interdependent relationships of this kind abound on the planet. Sometimes, symbiotic relationships become so close that it is difficult to distinguish whether the two completely different organisms are actually a separate entity, or whether, because of their absolute dependence on each other, they should for all intents and purposes be considered a single creature. One good example are the various species of tropical rain forest ants that live in Acacia trees. The trees have hollow stems for the ants to live in, and produce sugars for the ants to eat. in exchange, the ants keep the tree almost entirely free of parasites. Take the ants away from the tree, and the tree cannot survive--insects eat it up just like that. Take the tree away from the ants, and the colony is helpless -- it expires.

The analogy consistently holds true on larger scales. For example, it is nearly impossible to entertain the idea of flowering plants without considering their pollinators, the majority of which are insects of one kind or another. The evolutionary paths of the bee and the sunflower diverged billions of years ago, but they are connected. Both carry DNA, and if it's inspected in enough detail, we'll be certain to find some strands that are all but identical. (Read Richard Dawkin's The Ancestor's tale. Despite his rigid defense of atheism, the book is of great value--proving even narrow-minded people aren't all bad.)

In another example, we could consider the symbiosis between fungi and blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, which give class to the entire and spectacular range of organisms called lichens, which specialize in inhabiting environments that are inimical to other life forms.

So why the biology lesson? It's simple enough. Everything on this planet -- in fact, everything everywhere -- is built on relationships. Everything needs everything else. It's all part of one single thing (Lovelock's "Gaia.")

This concept offers the possibility of investigating our understanding of consciousness and experience differently.

For example, I am staring at a mineral specimen on my desk right now. It consists of mica with plates of aquamarine beryl. This specimen is an absolute lawful result of the way our universe is arranged, just as I am.

Are we actually different entities? The response to that is not anywhere near so obvious as it appears to be.

If we shrank ourselves down to the atomic level, we would not see any clear-cut lines of demarcation between my body and the minerals. True, the density of the atoms would vary as one moved out of my body into the gaseous medium of the air, and back into the mineral specimen--but that's about it. From the atomic perspective, everything that arises exists within a kind of "quantum soup." It is indeed all part of one thing-- literally, an ocean of energy.

This concept probably bugs people who don't like all that "new age" energy stuff, but there it is, inescapable from the point of view of physics.

It is in the nature of our own consciousness, at this level, to perceive divisions, but perceived divisions are always a consequence of levels and of scale. We might have a bit more sympathy for both ourselves and everything around us if we realized that we are all part of one creation.

Everything depends on everything else for its arising and its existence. Mr. Gurdjieff attempted to refer to this by explaining it through the "law of reciprocal feeding," where everything feeds everything else.

We all search for meaning in life. Meaning is acquired only through relationship. As we live our lives, if we consistently investigate the meaning of relationship with in life, we find that all the food that creates what we are lies within this single vast sea of exchange.

I find that the deepest path to understanding what we are and what our place is lies in inhabiting the environment that we find ourselves within. By this, I mean attempting to stay connected to the organic sense of our own being, that is, the understanding that we inhabit these organs called bodies, and are in relationship with other organisms. In order to do that, it is necessary to develop a certain kind of new, and larger, connection to sensation.

It may not be everything, but it is a place to begin. Once we know, through sensation, that we inhabit this life, or we can begin to seek meaning within relationship.

We need each other, we need the struggle that arises between us. We need the effort that we make to overcome our differences. This is true in both an inner and an outer sense.

I'm off this weekend for a five day retreat. ZYG blog postings will resume next Thursday or thereabouts.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dogen and Gurdjieff: More planetary allegories

This morning, as my wife Neal and I were walking the famous dog Isabel, we came across this spider web, suspended in mist and sunrise on the banks of the pond in Sparkill.

The mist was thick with sunshine; the water and light softened the iron girders of the bridge over the river, until the structure completely surrendered the impression of permanence. In that moment, the bridge became no more substantial than spider silk:

two structures made by animals...

both temporary.

Yesterday we touched on some of what Dogen covers in the Shobogenzo-- Book 2, chapter 28, --"Butsu Kojo No Ji"- "The Matter of the Ascendant State of Buddha."

Let's return to that text today to discuss another excerpt:

"Zen master Koso of Chimon-zan mountain on one occasion is asked by a monk, "What is the matter of the ascendant state of Buddha?" The Master says, "the head of the staff hoists up the sun and the moon."

To comment: "The staff being inextricably bound to the sun and the moon is the matter of the ascendant state of Buddha. When we learn the sun and moon in practice as a staff, the whole cosmos fades away: this is the matter of the ascendant state of Buddha. It is not that the sun and moon are a staff. The [concreteness of the] head of the staff is the whole staff." (Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, Book 2, P.97.)

Is all of this chapter just an excursion into theory? Or might this be a reference to a more specific kind of inner work, regarding the formation of an inner solar system?

Let's take a look at that in the context of the diagram that relates the centers to the ray of creation.

If you click on the link and refer to the diagram, you will see that the moon represents the root chakra, or, position one on the enneagram. This is the location at the base of the spine in man- note "re."

The Sun corresponds to the heart, or position five in the enneagram -- the note "sol." In the physical arrangement of man's organism, that point lies in the center of the spine. This point is the esoteric heart.

The top of the spine--located approximately in the area of the medulla oblongata-- corresponds to the note la, or the throat chakra. These are the three centers which are specifically located within the spine-1, 5, 7 on the enneagram- all the odd numbers of the multiplications.

If we choose to view it from Dogen's perspective, this last center is the "head of the staff." It hoists up the sun and the moon- that is, the top of the spine connects the sun and the moon to the position of what would be called "all suns" in the ray of creation.

So--perhaps Dogen is intimating a work of connecting top, bottom, and center of the spine with each other. Is he furthermore suggesting that the action of air, a material that enters at that position of throat, is the critical factor that binds the action together?

In my opinion, we can be reasonably certain Dogen is speaking of the actual practice of forming a connection within the spine here. First of all, he says it is a practice, and second of all, using the staff as a symbol leads us almost inevitably to the possibility that he is speaking of the spine. In fact, if you read Dogen with this in mind, you will see that there is a great deal said about staffs in his exposition of Buddhism. Much of it invites inferences of this kind if one is willing to begin from the presumption that he is not talking about a set of theoretical dogmas, or a walking stick.

"The concreteness of the head of the staff is the whole staff." Let's pause to digest that, and consider the possibility that it is a careful, intentional attention to breathing- the deliberate ingestion of prana--that helps form a more whole connection within the centers aligned along the spine. Measure this, if you will, in relationship to Gurdjieff's explanation of the role of air in the chemical factory.

Once again, we discover potentially intimate connections between Gurdjieff's teachings of men as creatures engaged in the act of creating an inner solar system, the yoga practices of working with energy in the spine--which are a largely unpublished, but definite, aspect of the Gurdjieff work-- and Dogen's discussions of suns and planets, staffs, and practice.

I'll be the first to confess, there's a lot going on here. There are those who would argue one can read anything one wants to into texts as complex as the Shobogenzo or Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub."

It is in the multiple points of contact, however, that a dog begins to sniff the bone, and we may begin to discern a weave that does more than just woof.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

senses and consciousness

In "Butsu Kojo No Ji" - the "Matter of the Ascendant State of Buddha"--Dogen comments, among other things, about the existence and utility of the "six senses" and the "seven consciousnesses."

Of course Buddhist philosophy has technically straightforward explanations of what these terms mean. It's tempting to view this with amusement, since most of what Dogen says about Buddhism consists of statements about how we don't actually know what anything means.

And of course he's right about that. We all make up stories. They sound good, but every time they slap up against reality, there is a large crashing sound and Humpty Dumpty falls to the ground.

I now proceed, with an appropriately joyful amusement, to make up yet another story.

In this particular story, the "six senses" does not just refer to the standard taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. In fact the translators/authors (formidable scholars, to be sure!) who were interpreting the six senses as ordinary senses had to cheat and add one -- I forget now just which one, and the book is at home, not in front of me here at work --in order to make the numbers come out right.

...It may have been money, since that seems to be the "sensory tool" human beings most often use to measure things.

Anyway, the reason that the numbers were not coming out right is because the six senses are not, in any sense, the ordinary senses. In their esoteric meaning, these senses relate to the six centers belonging to the realm of man's work, that is, the iterations of 142857. AKA the six inner flowers, or chakras.

Each one of these inner organs is in fact a sensory tool, a part used to perceive. We learned of this idea yesterday when we reviewed Gurdjieff's allegory of the Society of Akhldanns. Each inner flower represents an entity which has the specific task of feeding itself with understandings based on study of the inner condition. So there are your six senses for you.

All of these sensory organs need to work together for the whole picture to be seen.
Hence the needful "divisions" of the Society of Akhldanns, and the completed Octave in the form of the enneagram.

Dogen's mention of the seven states of consciousness brings us to another question. The six inner flowers each have a consciousness of their own. That is to say, each center is an entity unto itself, or, as Mr. Gurdjieff would explain it, a "mind."

In fact, a man has six separated minds that join together in a single system within his body.

The seventh "mind," which man comes into contact with at the top of his head, or seventh chakra, is the entry point of a higher mind. That seventh, "final" consciousness feeds the material in to this level which is necessary for the conscious shocks that allow the complete functioning of the octave.

Viewing this from within the context of Gurdjieff's system, man numbers one through six relate to degrees or types of work with the six inner flowers that are available to man within the confines of his own being on this level.

Man number seven, who is the "pinnacle" of Mr. Gurdjieff's system, stands apart from men numbers one through six, because he has opened the gate to something much larger than anything Man number one through six can imagine. He is able to acquire all the material he needs to ensure the complete functioning of his Being.

All of this information is, I am sure, annoyingly theoretical to many people. What good does it do us? Spiritual seekers all pretend to agree that we should not work for results, but let's admit it -- everyone wants results. The only people who stop working for results are the ones that have them.

To those naysayers who eschew work on theory, I submit as follows.

Schools would not study theory if it was a waste of time. Mr. Gurdjieff, as it happens, mentioned that the way of the Yogi -- also known as Dhjana Yoga, or intellectual yoga -- was the most powerful of the three traditional ways, because a man who mastered that yoga would know everything he had to do to correct his deficiencies in the other two ways. (Dhjana yoga, when it crossed the Himalayas to China, became "Ch'an" Buddhism, and in the name morphed into "Zen" when it reached Japan.)

So using the mind to attempt to understand is not an idle or aimless task... as Mr. Gurdjieff pointed out, The Society of Akhldanns understood that man must "meditate unceasingly on questions not concerned with the manifestations required for ordinary being-existence." (Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson," P. 284, Arkana edition)

Where does the practical meet the theoretical?

We have to look inside ourselves carefully and try to discover what inner sensory tools we have. This is what sitting Zazen is all about- a detailed study of the inner organism, how it senses, the way in which it is connected.

Those who embark on this journey will discover that that investigation cannot be conducted with the mind alone. It leads us down pathways we did not know exist, to continents so deeply submerged that we did not suspect their presence. One hardly needs to refer the reader back to Mr. Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub" for more on that particular metaphor.

What are the six senses? What are the seven consciousnesses? Does life give birth to them, or do they give birth to life?

In the darkness --

in the early hours of the morning, when time is measured only by the haunting song of the woodland thrush--

I ponder these questions.

Since, like everyone else, I have to make up a story, it might as well be this one.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The society of Akhldanns, viewed as inner allegory

In Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," the story of the Society of Akhldanns is related in Chapter 23. There is an interesting allegorical meaning buried in the divisions of the society into different sections which we will explore together.

As I read this particular passage, it occurred to me that there was a potential correspondence between the seven divisions of the society and the seven centers, or chakras. (Those of you who are unfamiliar with my explorations of this particular subject are invited to read essay on the enneagram. It will be helpful in following the line of reasoning... among other things, the assignations of numbers and chakras won't make much sense if you haven't read the other piece.)

It's possible to interpret the divisions of the society of Akhldanns as an allegory depicting the work of the six centers whose effort falls into the multiplications (142857) --plus the seventh center, or seventh chakra, = note "Do."

The allegory appears to impart specific information about the type of investigative work each center is capable of engaging in.

Let's go through the quote section by section. I will offer a very brief commentary on each section. There is a lot of material here, and it could take years of study to truly understand what Mr. Gurdjieff is getting at, so bear with me and keep an open mind.

...All the quotes are taken from the first English edition of Beelzebub. In the new edition, this section is found beginning on page 273, through 275.

"The learned members of this first and perhaps last great terrestrial learned society were then divided into seven independent groups, or as it is otherwise said, 'sections', and each of these groups or sections received its definite designation.

"The members of the first group of the society Akhaldan were called 'Akhaldanfokhsovors', which meant that the beings belonging to that section studied the presence of their own planet as well as the reciprocal action of its separate parts."

According to my own interpretation of the enneagram, this first division would correspond to the number 1, or what is called the root chakra in traditional yoga. Hence, might we infer that a certain type of connection to the base of the spine is essential to beginning a study of our own planet and its activity?

"The members of the second section were called 'Akhaldanstrassovors' and this meant that the beings belonging to that section studied what are called the radiations of all the other planets of their solar system and the reciprocal action of these radiations."

This second division would correspond to the number 2, or sex center. Sex center produces the highest energy in man under ordinary conditions. What productive use might this energy be turned to if it were not abused? Is Mr. Gurdjieff hinting at a type of inner work we are unfamiliar with here? The allusion to the "planets of their solar system," when understood in the context of our own inner work, underscores the fact that we are all engaged in the formation of an inner solar system.

"The members of the third section were called "Akhaldanmetrosovors', which meant beings occupied with the study of that branch of knowledge similar to that branch of our general knowledge we call 'Silkoornano', and which partly corresponded to what your contemporary favorites call 'mathematics'."

The third division corresponds to the number four, or the solar plexus. I think it's fairly obvious, we can't infer that the solar plexus does algebra for us... except for those people who happen to have a good gut feeling for math. Nonetheless, mathematics is a precise and objective system, and a person whose reason resides within a system of this nature cannot reach incorrect conclusions, because they are strictly dictated by law. We could infer that a residence within the solar plexus -- which is a condition highly prized in Zen and in the Gurdjieff work -- offers a man the possibility to be more grounded and work from a more objective part of himself.

"The members of the fourth group were called 'Akhaldanpsychosovors', and by this name they then defined those members of the society Akhaldan who made their observations of the perceptions, experiencings, and manifestations of beings like themselves and verified their observations by statistics."

This division would correspond to the number five, or the heart. The description of the group's work seems to suggest both compassion and objectivity.

"The members of the fifth group were called 'Akhaldanharnosovors', which meant that they were occupied with the study of that branch of knowledge which combined those two branches of contemporary science there which your favorites call 'chemistry' and 'physics'."

Division number seven, or, the throat. Those of you familiar with with my other work on the subject will notice that this is the center that deals with the ingestion of air, which plays an absolutely central role in Mr. Gurdjieff's chemical factory. Coincidence? Seems doubtful.

"The members belonging to the sixth section were called 'Akhaldanmistessovors', that is to say, beings who studied every kind of fact arising outside of themselves, those actualized consciously from without and also those arising spontaneously, and which of them, and in what cases, are erroneously perceived by beings."

This is division number eight, represented by the third eye in the system of Chakras. To me, it's interesting that this division of the society is engaged in investigating how things are perceived or seen.

"And as regards the members of the seventh and last group, they were called 'Akhaldangezpoodjnisovors'; these members of the society Akhaldan devoted themselves to the study of those manifestations in the presences of the three-brained beings of their planet which proceeded in them not in consequence of various functionings issuing from different kinds of qualities of impulses engendered owing to data already present in them, but from cosmic actions coming from outside and not depending on them themselves."


This last passage more or less proved the point, at least to my own satisfaction ...when I began to read this section, it immediately dawned on me that Mr. Gurdjieff had buried an allegory about the chakras in the story of the society's divisions, and I skipped ahead to the description of this last division. I fully expected it to have something to do with influences coming from above-- that is, higher influences-- as the seventh chakra plays that role in my interpretation of the enneagram.

Lo and behold! It does. If that is a coincidence, I'll eat my hat.

Mr. Gurdjieff did not just give us a diagram with the enneagram. We now know that he also passed on descriptions of the specific work of each inner center.

This idea may serve some of us in future investigations of the organization of our inner solar systems.

Let us hope and wish, in any event, that it becomes more than just another interesting intellectual excursion.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Monday, July 16, 2007


I am not generally in the business of conducting this blog as a "forum," although the comments section certainly invites exchange. Nonetheless, one of the readers asked a question that's pretty interesting to me, so I'm going to quote it below and discuss it today.

"I am convinced that Buddhism believes that reality is an illusion. Not the reality as we perceive it, but the actual thing. This does not seem to me to be compatible with Gurdjieff."

After reading what amounts to well over a thousand pages of Dogen's observations about Buddhism, it would be difficult for me to say that I am "convinced" about anything. If there is anything that Dogen seems to insist on, it is the constant act of questioning everything.

This is absolutely consistent with the Gurdjieff work as it is practiced today, at least within the formal confines of the Foundation itself.

I will immediately confess that I speak with forked tongue on this issue. On the one hand, I believe it is an excellent practice to question everything, and anyone who knows me personally will tell you I can be a big pain in the ass this way. In real life, as a consequence of this, I sometimes turn out to be politically incorrect in public and massively unpredictable ways, as my wife--to her great discomfort-- was reminded just this weekend. (I have noticed, by the way, that people hate it when someone actually questions everything. Generally speaking, what everybody -- including myself -- means by "questioning everything" is questioning everything except the things we hold sacred. These, unfortunately, are probably the things that need to be questioned the most, but we all make a religious practice of carefully turning our heads away from them, and finding many other important things to question instead.)

On the other hand, if we conduct this enterprise of constant questioning in a manner that suggests there are no answers, it is nonsense. As I have mentioned before, answers are responses, and everything in the universe is a response to some other thing.

So what is the Buddhist viewpoint on "reality?"

If I had to summarize, I would suggest that Buddhism does point to a "reality." The reality which it points to cannot be verbalized and defies intellectual analysis. From this point of view, everything that we currently experience in our ordinary state is not "real." Instead, it is a fragmentary view that utterly and categorically fails to understand the source from which it arises. I would say that, too, is consistent with Gurdjieff's world view.

This brings us to an interesting question. Is consciousness itself a delusional state, a fantasy that does not actually exist? If there is no "reality," then even our experience in itself is not real, and in the end, there is "nothing." This is not Buddhism; it would probably be called nihilism in the West.

Can there even be "nothing?"

Think that over for a while. What would it take for there to be "nothing?"

I remember a very intelligent, aggressive, and exploratory man-- who is a friend of a friend and has many years of experience in the Gurdjieff work-- who forwarded the premise, during a spirited and good-natured argument, that nothing actually exists. I believe he forwarded the suggestion more as a challenge than as a statement of fact.

My immediate, unhestitating response to him in this exchange was:

"But there is something!"

This stopped him cold, because he knew darned well there is no way around it:

there is something.

Let's face it, "something" is a lousy word. It gets hammered to death in exchanges. Nonetheless, it points us to the fact that there is an experience that we call consciousness. If there is nothing else, there is at least this, at least from our point of view. If it happens to be fragmentary and insufficient, that is only because it is not sufficiently developed within the organism in which it is expressed.

What, indeed, is "the actual thing?" Both Gurdjieff and Dogen (who we will use as our reference point for "Buddhism") point us to one fundamental cause of arising of which everything else -- everything we perceive-- is a fraction.

I would suggest, based on my own experience, that "the actual thing"-- reality itself, in so far as we are able to grasp it -- consists of an inversion of consciousness. In our ordinary state, that is, as we are now and as we usually are, our consciousness is directed outward. We start from this "point" which we call "I," and direct our attention outwards to everything else, which is "it," or, "all that stuff out there which is happening to me."

So, in this state, as my good friend Kathy loves to quip, it is "all about me."

True consciousness, which would consist of and result in an actual experience of a reality as it is, is inverted.

That is to say, everything starts from "out there" and comes in here to this point. So it is not "it" that belongs to "I," instead "I" belongs to "it." That is to say, this point here which is called Lee is an inseparable singularity of being belonging to all of everything. The entire universe and everything that exists is, in this sense, contained within every point of consciousness that arises in it.

The two signature realizations that have come to me over the last six years both point to this question in a rather direct manner. It is peculiar that this question about reality came up today, because I was just musing over these two essential understandings, which form the foundation of my work today.

The first realization is "We are vessels into which the world flows."

This viewpoint inverts and subverts the conventional understanding of reality: it's not about our mind grasping the world. It's about totality creating consciousness.

The second realization, which forms the lead commentary for this blog, is

"There is no "I". There is only Truth. The way to the truth is through the heart."

Our ordinary perception of "I" as we experience it now is fundamentally partial. For as long as we perceive reality through this partial perception, we do not perceive reality, and there is no "reality. " In this sense, I suppose we could argue that the reader who commented on Buddhism had it right. Reality as this mind, as this experience of "I" understands it, doesn't exist at all.

However, there is a reality--one single Truth-- that does exist. As I have said many times in the past, it is not anything we can think of, and it is not what we expect it to be.

Christ said in the Gospel of Thomas--I am paraphrasing here, so please forgive me if I don't get it exactly right --

"He who seeks will find. He who finds will be troubled. He who is troubled will be astonished."

If we can discover the Way, and begin to invert what we are and how we experience that,

...we truly will be astonished.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Communities in Relationship

This morning Neal and I were walking the famous dog Isabel when we saw the female wood duck who has taken up residence on the Sparkill pond.

During the winter, the pond is more or less dormant. As the ice thaws, a variety of animals begin to inhabit the waterway, beginning with migrating waterfowl of various kinds. By this time in the summer, the itinerants have passed through, and the stable summertime community has established itself. Among the waterfowl we see are little blue herons, great blue herons, kingfishers, green herons, egrets, black crowned night herons, mallards, and the wood ducks. There are also abundant turtles, bullfrogs, grass carp, muskrats, and myrid dragonflies and damselflies.

Of course, this list just scratches the surface.

The female wood duck has been raising a flocklet of chicks, who scatter in a peeping panic whenever we get near them in a canoe. More often than not, the chicks are off on their own browsing in the vegetation, and momma is soloing not too far away.

It's a reassuring to see the female morning after morning, day after day. She is a part of our neighborhood, a part of our community. All of the animals and plants that live around us are part of this community.

The community is built of levels. The small creatures are what make it possible for the large ones to live.

Do we ever think about this?

Modern life and civilization in general have had the unfortunate consequence of separating men from this understanding. One of the fastest ways to get an impression of how this works is to go to your local garden center. It's filled with contradictions. On the one hand, there is birdseed and there are bird feeders. On the other hand, everywhere you turn, there are huge piles of bags filled with chemicals designed to kill things.

They kill plants. They kill animals. They kill insects.

This display is pathological. Every time I go to Lowe's or Home Depot it makes me nuts. Where is the understanding of community here? Should we be spreading poison everywhere to kill weeds and insects just so things will look nice?

Somehow, I don't think so. All of the animals, plants, and insects around us are part of our community. If we kill them, we're killing part of ourselves. Agreed, a certain amount of weeding is necessary, and in some aggressive cases perhaps a small application of pesticide is in order. (I myself never use pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides of any kind in my garden, but that's me.)

Bottom line: to dump 50 pounds at a time of poison on your lawn to kill a few grubs is criminally irresponsible. To have to watch Ortho's commercials on how truly- joyfully- terrific it is to be in the business of biological genocide adds insult to injury. Why does everyone just accept this as normal?

I think we need to return to a different kind of respect for nature, one that is less groomed and less controlled. If we continued to treat the planet in this way, then eventually the conditions that sustain us will be eliminated. Any presumption on our part that we are exempt from the possibility of extinction is naive at best. A respect for the community we live in - not just of people, but of the animals, plants, and all other organisms -will go a long way towards helping us to preserve human life and human society.

This begins with perceiving the community.

We need to look to our individual personal communities in the same way. When we are angry, and negative, critical, or judgmental, it is usually because we're trying to "clean up" our personal environment so that it suits us better - so that it looks nicer to us. However, what we're doing is exactly the same as the people who are poisoning their front yard to make it look good. All of these activities are a kind of "spreading poison" that kills off the organisms-the conditions of our surrounding life- that we need to help support us.

If we percieve the fact that we are in community- which may well be painful, as it requires us to give up a little of that ego we all hold so dear- we can begin to discover what relationship with it would be. As I brought up last year, we all need to ask ourselves what we might have to give up in order to be part of a community.

Just as Mr. Gurdjieff advised us to practice outer considering, so the Buddhists advise us to practice compassion and respect for others.

From my point of view, these practices are equally vital for all relationships, both of those within nature, and those within personal exchange.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Middle Way

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I have been engaged for the past year and more in an attempt to read the comprehensive works of Dogen. This is a fairly massive undertaking; it has immersed me in the world of Buddhist theory and terminology, and colored a great deal of how I am thinking and what I am writing.

At this time in my life, my practice is to get up at about 5 a.m., make a tiny but stunningly powerful cup of espresso, and read a few pages of the Shobogenzo before I sit. This ritual is consistent enough that it helps form a foundation for the day that follows. In some senses, the coffee, the reading, and the sitting form a post around which everything else in life rotates.

One of the things that has repeatedly struck me over the course of this effort is how consistent the effort is to interpret Dogen's work as a work of theory, and explain it in the context of Buddhist theory and terminology. This stands in stark contrast to my experience of Dogen's teaching as an effort to communicate practice. To me, almost everything Dogen speaks of is about practice of one kind or another. It may sound theoretical, but it repeatedly points us back to the active effort of questioning just what is going on here. The apparent density of ideas can be thinned out rather quickly if we are able to intimate the practice they refer to.

This brings me to today's subject, which is the subject of the "Middle Way."

The Buddha advised that the paths which suggested men go to extremes and push against the limits to attain spiritual mastery were flawed. Supposedly his insight was that a Middle Way was possible, a way in which effort was more balanced.

A good friend of mine who is also a regular reader of this blog once pointed out to me, with what I think was entirely justifiable cynicism, that Buddha himself certainly pushed to the limits in a pretty extreme manner before attaining enlightenment. I mean, just how many years did he sit under that tree? ...Most of us already know that sitting anywhere for more than 30 or 40 minutes represents a fairly major effort. In our ordinary state, sitting still in an office chair for five minutes is more than most of us can expect to be comfortable with.

The point of the Gurdjieff work is to undertake efforts in a more balanced manner. In this, we might argue, he was consistent with Buddha's insights. But we don't call it the Middle Way, we call it the Fourth Way.

In contemporary Buddhism and in Buddhism in general, the Middle Way is understood to be a way of moderation, and the tenets of Buddhist behavior emphasize reasonableness, moderation, and an effort to take a balanced approach to every undertaking. As with other practices, there are an enormous amount of external rituals and behaviors that delineate the requirements for the practitioner.

Everything ends up this way. No matter what the suggestion of the master is, the practice becomes external, because that is the only way we know how to understand things.

What, however, if the Middle Way was an inner practice?

This question can be carefully examined in light of Gurdjieff's enneagram and the multiplications that accompany it. The diagram contains detailed information about more than one Way within the iterations of 142857.

A long-term study of this subject may offer suggestions about what the Middle Way is when understood in terms of inner practice. I believe that this meaning is quite specific and not amenable to subjective interpretation.

One of the other surprising things to me about Dogen is that there are many passages in his Shobogenzo that intimate quite direct relationships between his own teaching and the teachings in the enneagram. At first I thought I was reading these inferences into the text because of my familiarity with Gurdjieff, but enough instances of this have arisen that I no longer think of it as coincidence. The school that Dogen learned from understood either the enneagram itself, or at the very least most of the basic principles contained within it.

The Middle Way is not a way of behaving in life. The Middle Way lies within the organism.

As we grow older, and our efforts deepen, everything slowly becomes much more inner. An inversion begins to take place. This is the same process as "thinning out" the density of Dogen's ideas: while retaining the ideas, as well as an appreciation of their structure and value, we learn to search deep inside ourselves.

There we discover that all of the ideas stem from one root source, just as everything real emanates from one single point that does not exist in space or in time as we currently understand it.

In the birth and growth of this understanding, it becomes more possible to abandon what we know and to stand naked in front of this moment: willing to receive it, hesitant to judge it, ready to respond to it.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mistaking the nature of things

We are all, as a rule, habitually mistaking the nature of things.

Unfortunately, we do not believe that this is the case. The apparently concrete and substantial nature of our surroundings, as we ordinarily perceive them, fixes in our minds the absolute conviction that we understand how things are. For example, we believe we understand that trees are trees, flowers are flowers, and mountains are mountains.

The source of arising of all that we perceive is so substantially different from, and alien to, the level of consciousness that we generally inhabit that we are, in fact, unable to know it or to describe it in words. Hence the repeated admonitions by Dogen that no matter what we think something is, it isn't. We must not think of enlightenment or no enlightenment, we must not think of realization or no realization--in fact, we must not think.

Instead we are asked to inhabit a state.

In a supreme twist of irony, we are left talking about silence and explaining that things should not be explained. If I had a nickel for every text I have ever read that goes on endlessly in words trying to explain how words cannot explain the truth, I would already be in retirement.

One of the refreshing things about Dogen is that he did not fall victim to this type of hypocrisy. He did not discount the value of words; nor did Gurdjieff. Au contraire, both of them insisted that it is possible to understand significant things by means of the intelligence, and by means of the words we use to communicate.

They both also insisted that what we would understand would be quite different than what we think we are going to understand.

Truth, in other words, has a tendency to absolutely confound expectations. Perhaps that is one of the first signs we have encountered it.

We must get rid of all our assumptions. In immediately abandoning everything that has come before, can we clear the way to grasp what is immediately before us, within this moment? Can our awareness be used as a sword to cut off the past, cut off the future? (See Christ's comments in Matthew, chapter 10, 34-40.)

For me, pondering this question this morning in contrast to both the experience of this morning and the thoughts of this morning, I see that Truth is a substance. It is the only substance, and everything that we see around us and encounter is just a reflection of that substance.

What do I mean by substance?

There is a scent, a perfume that penetrates and suffuses all of reality, which in some moments I catch a whiff of. There is a clarity that lies on the edge of perception which penetrates this thing called "I" and dissolves it completely.

Even though everything I perceive is real, nothing is real. Limitless acts of magic are taking place all around me at every moment.

How is that? This state arises from that one, and yet there is a separation between the two that cannot be readily explained.

The one certainty is that at every moment the two touch each other, I see for an instant how I constantly mistake the nature of things.

As is so often the case, I am forced to turn once again to an examination of the nature of breathing, and the way in which air connects us to a much finer substance within life.

I am still not sure that there is actually any other path to follow here.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Time out

A picture with direct personal significance- my wife Neal Harris with Betty Brown.

Neal- adventuresome soul that she is- married me five years ago. Betty brought me into the Gurdjieff work many more years ago. Both of them had the courage to "take me on" despite my forceful personality, strong opinions, and overbearing qualities. I feel a real gratitude for this. They are very special people to me and it's worth acknowledging here in this space.

Not long ago, Betty reminded me that we often don't tell those around us how much we value them.

If we don't speak of our relationships and how much they mean to us, others may never know we cared. Typically, one way or another someone kicks the bucket and we're left there wondering why we never said out loud how much we loved them or valued them. It takes a special effort to really be there with someone. I was with my parents for the last four days and I repeatedly saw how difficult it is to be in direct relationship, especially with them. There are a lifetime of habits dominating the exchange. How difficult to overcome that and see them for the people they are.

One thing I like about the Hindu tradition is that yogis typically keep and venerate portraits of their teachers. Respect for the lineage, the tradition, and the effort, as well as an unstinting recognition of the support and direction offered by our teachers, is a vital thing.

Perhaps it seems quite ordinary to offer a picture like this and make a comparison. To me, it isn't. As I grow older, it increasingly seems that every human being I encounter becomes a "guru" of one kind or another. The people I am in relationship with all teach me, whether I want them to or not. Every relationship is a learning experience, and every moment between two people is food.

So today- my thanks go out to Paul Sozansky, Kathy Neall, Germaine Frasier, Richard Lloyd, Gary Tacon, Livia Vanaver, Pat Heminger, Red Hawk, Chandrika, my fellow group members, the Seattle crew, the Arkansas gang, all the readers of this blog, and all the other people I live and work with.

Every one of you is a precious gem. Without all of you, I wouldn't be me, you wouldn't be you,

...and there would be no Being.

So. Thanks be to God for our relationships and our efforts together.

May your trees bear fruit and your wells yield water.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Getting there first

In Dogen's "Jinzu", or "Mystical power," he quotes Master Rinzai-Gigen as follows:

"Followers of the way! True Buddha has no set shape and true Dharma has no fixed form. You are only fashioning images and inventing situations on the basis of fantastic transformation. Though you may find what you seek, these things are all the ghosts of wild foxes-never the true state of Buddha, but only the views and opinions of non-Buddhists." (Nishijima and Cross' Shobogenzo, book 2, p. 66.)

This view is reminiscent of yesterday's post about movement, relationship and substance. It is also reminiscent of earlier posts about the way we continually script bogus personal mythologies.
The bulk of this chapter, however, is a discourse on the existence of mystical powers.

Mystical powers are a source of great fascination in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, and feature equally "special" roles in Yoga. What happens when a man develops? He attains exceedingly groovy powers: mind reading, the ability to travel on the astral plane, and other exotic things. In the modern west, we find a burgeoning new age health industry based on the magic of special diets and mythical inner healing powers.

Is there any real difference? Or are all such powers mere efforts to manipulate substance, rather than inhabit movement and relationship?

According to Dogen, such aims miss the mark. His contention is that a man who is truly developed does have mystical powers. But they consist of carrying water and lugging firewood.

The other magical powers-the ones that can be used to manipulate the world of substance- are "small" powers. To pursue this is to mistake a "vain outward chase for the conduct of coming home."

Coming home: Ordinary attention to ordinary life. Here is where the extraordinary dwells. In this kind of situation, a little bit of magic goes a long way.

Just today, a very difficult situation with my teenage daughter resolved itself by the judicious application of a bit of real attention, an honesty, and a flexibility within the moment that brought both of us to a moment of understanding that could not have been realized while in emotional reaction. It took some real effort on my part to get us there: she was angry, terribly upset, and perhaps justly so.

In situations like this, we must attempt to tether the exchange to a firm stump of wood, and not leak the essential water of our being out like a sieve. Today I was fortunate enough to be able to set my inner state apart from the explosive connotations of the situation and find a way to work.

How was that possible?

In order to attain equilibrium, one must begin with equilbrium. The secret lies within the tale of the Karapet of Tiflis in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub:

He got there first.

You have to have a little gold to make gold. If we don't work to reserve something for ourselves in our meditative practice, if we do not work to form what is needed to sustain us in ordinary life, we will always be taken by it. We need to learn how to keep a part of ourselves that is separated from reaction, yet invested in the moment.

And then, if we are not taken- that is a truly magical, truly transformational power, because then, within movement, and within relationship, we can offer ourselves to others in a new way.

May you carry sweet water, and lug dry firewood.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

movement, relationship, substance

The present moment seems to have collided with a set of more theoretical essays.
I was heartened while reading the Shobogenzo this morning to discover that Dogen emphasizes the need to understand the theoretical structure of Buddhist teachings in order to fulfill their practice. This is certainly consistent with Gurdjieff's ideas. Keeping that in mind, we'll proceed under the assumption that not all theory is bad, and that not all badness is theoretical.

In this life, experiencing consciousness through the vehicle of the body, we tend to form strong relationships to substances.

When I use the word substances, I mean material things. We perceive our environment as being composed of substances which evolve in causal relationships to each other. Most of mankind's civilization, and all of his technology, consists of manipulating substances and their relationships to one another. Most of the pursuits in life are about "getting the stuff" or "holding on to the stuff." Spiritual practice itself falls victim to this habit.

Substances are, however, not causal. In order to understand this we need to reach into the nether regions of physics, where we discover that everything is formed of energies, and that the arising of what we call physical reality begins at a point where momentum and location, fundamental properties of what we call matter, cannot be clearly distinguished from one another. In fact, it is only through the intervention of an observer that either property can become determinate.

Substance, in other words, arises from and is entirely dependent on movement and relationship. Physics calls locations where where movement and relationship collapse black holes. Such locations become irrevocably separated from reality as it is commonly defined. (To be a bit more accurate, perhaps the separation isn't irrevocable- Hawking claims that black holes which cease to accrete matter may eventually lose their mass through evaporation.)

Because we live in and experience a material world, we create fixed-point references for our experience, much like the fixed point ethical systems discussed in an earlier entry. That is to say, our understandings are immediately derived from the apparent material realities we perceive, and we draw all our assumptions about the nature of life and the universe from these quite specific reference points--never mind Plato's contention that all of what we perceive is just the projected shadow of its actual nature.

It might be reasonable to contend that nothing more is possible--is any other legitimate reference point available?

In fact, we can infer that other reference points are available. Known altered states of perception offer different "versions" of reality. This includes both chemically altered states and the altered perceptions of individuals with physical deficiencies (blindness, deafness etc.) which cause them to develop hyperacuity and synesthetic abilities in other senses (See, for example, the movie "Touch the Sound" about Evelyn Glennie, the clinically deaf percussionist.)

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of the potential for "extrasensory" perception (not to be taken in the psychic context) is the fact that sea urchins have, in their feet, which are their primary sensory organs, a specific protein molecule that in all other organisms with sight (which sea urchins utterly lack) is found in the eyes. The molecule itself obviously has perceptual usages which we do not fully understand. Even when this molecule isn't being used in the specific organ we usually find it in (the eye) it still fulfills a yet unknown role in the acqusition of perception.

So we do know that more can certainly be known-- perceptually--than what we know.

What we do not seem to know is that knowing and not knowing are of equal weight and value.

Any system of knowledge, that is, an organized accumulation of facts, consists of a fixed point reference system that limits the ability of the user to understand. A classic example of this is Alfred Wegener's discovery of plate tectonics, which explained that the surface of the planet itself was born of, and subject to, movement and relationship.

This theory lay outside the fixed-point accumulation of facts his peers subscribed to, and was vehemently rejected by just about every one of his contemporaries. The fact that he was correct didn't enter into it. His peers, you see, had subscribed to a fixed-point belief system. They labeled it "science," implying objectivity, but in hindsight we can see it was nothing of the sort. They knew a very great deal, but they did not understand what they knew.

It's often like that with scientists.

It is the distinction between knowledge and understanding that Gurdjieff stressed. Understanding may be construed as a dynamic approach to comprehension, arising from movement and relationship.

Indeed, we find that this is congruent with Dogen's approach in the Shobogenzo. Knowing and not knowing are fixed point states. Again and again, Zen emphasizes that fixed point states- dualities- are not at the heart of comprehension, or understanding. This point is driven home with monotonous regularity in Zen teachings.

"Knowing" and "not knowing" are fixed point comprehension: always unable to evolve dynamically in relationship to external conditions, which are constantly in movement. In Zen, responses to koans are inherently unpredictable not because they are trying to express some ineffable mystery, but because they are born of the moment in relationship. They fundamentally acknowledge movement and relationship as the root of causal reality; material existence must be seen, in a certain sense, as an ephemeral phenomenon.

In every instance what arises is merely an expression of the process of arising, which is where the heart of the understanding must be sought.

Consciousness has the innate ability to inhabit the movement and relationship. This is a different experience of life than to invest within the materiality.

Gurdjieff's movements, like sitting zazen, are efforts to bring the practitioner to the moment where materiality is stripped away and understanding returns to its root source, which is dynamic rather than fixed.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.