Positivity, Negativity or Equanimity?

I’ll make a statement to kick off:

We live in times where black and white thinking is common, and where thought is polarised.

I’ll raise a question:

Can polarised thinking ever be entirely accurate?

A long while ago when I used to do small group personal development facilitation, I was more than a little surprised at the levels of negativity in young capable Ph.D. students. These were able to find holes and faults in just about anything, there was also a high level of cynicism. They were young, smart, healthy and yet they were largely negative. They had loads of reasons why not and not many why to. From one particularly negative group I got my favourite piece of feedback:

“Alan’s ability to find a positive from and in any situation began to get a tad irritating.”

This cloud of negativity seems to be the human default. It seems people prefer to complain about everything. Many moan about prices, lock-down, the government, the weather. Not many of the moaners live in Gaza in the sights of Israeli jets, nor in a Syrian refugee camp, or in Dafur. This negativity saps the will to joy. Few realise just how good they have it, they take so very much for granted. People feel entitled and somehow owed by the universe or society, they believe in the notion of “rights”. Ask a starving refugee what non-binary gender means…it would prefer a bowl of rice.

If one has the negativity virus then one needs a positivity antidote. But one might be careful not to overdose otherwise one ends up in hyper over hyped bullshit land.

I used to advise Ph.D. students doing job applications to be a little more American in their approach but not to go too far as that would not be palatable to British tastes.

To be overly positive can set oneself up to fail, because over positive is idealistic. When ideals are not met one can crash and burn. It is easy to see the positivity-negativity yo-yo in action. We have oscillating quasi bipolar behaviours.

What then is the answer? To gently strive for a balanced objective and non-partisan perception. A perception not coloured by emotions or prejudices, a perception not overly up or down, a state of equanimity.

“Just like this.” Is a notion in Zen but it does not pertain only to Zen, it is accepting reality as actually is. Strangely to my eyes humanity often struggles with the simplicity of reality and rarely has emotional equanimity. Humans are hooked on what I call the heroin of complexity. Humans have a lot of preferences and when these are not met, they get to whinge, moan and complain. It would be rare for someone who likes to complain to imagine that the luxury they are complaining about might be taken away. Balanced perception would recognise that they are pretty damn “lucky”, a bit of frustration is a whole lot better than starvation.

The mid-point between polar perceptions is often more accurate, there are shades of grey. The world is more nuanced than the adamantly held and professed views of many.

It Is Not Mind, It Is Not Buddha, It Is Not Things

A monk asked Nansen: “Is there a teaching no master ever preached before?”

Nansen said: “Yes, there is.”

“What is it?” asked the monk.

Nansen replied: “It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things.”

Mumon’s comment: Old Nansen gave away his treasure-words. He must have been greatly upset.

Nansen was too kind and lost his treasure.
Truly, words have no power
Even though the mountain becomes the sea,
Words cannot open another’s mind

Dhyāna “Haiku”

primroses and daisies
wait the passing snow
and then smile

a Fletcher finds
for himself
the feathers in the Dao

silent peaceful roads,
bare hedgerows
six rooks sing in a tree!

a reed in the Dao
bends attentively
a heron looks East

I am a grain
I am nothing
and yet, I am a beginning.

ghosts whisper
their ancient stories
scaring the living

night in her slippers
sneaks along the lanes
getting closer

a candle sways softly
a forgotten tune,
it sheds a waxy tear

the naked willow
combs her hair
and considers

a gnarled old oak
staunch and dependable
waits table

bluebell champagne,
no need of ice

tapestry spiders
catching tears

walk on cornflakes
with toes
the Milky Way

each blade
on parade
shaving the dew

panther sun
in cloudy whiskers

on vulture peak
I held
his flower

a collared dove
feels not a chain
and coos

unhurried twigs
the blackbird

a white feather
surfs the breeze
on its own

dragon’s breath
patterns in silk

the holly wafts
scarlet berries
and coy blushes

pink shirts
the boardroom collars,
flamingos in a pond

a pile of washing
ready to hang,

how skinny
the end of day shadows
give them rice!!

wanting to be chaste
and again

hair in the plughole
piss on the floor
no more farting!

the knot of not
has you,
so very tired

more twinkling
a firmament
of eyes

in a colander
spaghetti words

dawn chorus
a smoker coughs

behind the sofa
under the cushions
two-pound coins!!

cows sunbathe
and a bonnet

small blue eggs
at the bus stop
over easy

the rooster
flapping his wings
so profound

preening parrot
objects his cage
he will not leave

the fog embraces
with silence

the compass
of hush
in all the quarters

Zen Sayings

Sitting Quietly


“Sitting quietly, doing nothing,

Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 134, 222)



“The blue mountains are of themselves blue mountains;

“The white clouds are of themselves white clouds.” Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 134, 222)

Mountains are Mountains

The famous saying of Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin (Seigen Ishin):

老僧三十年前未參禪時、見山是山、見水是水、及至後夾親見知識、有箇入處、見山不是山、見水不是水、而今得箇體歇處、依然見山秪是山、見水秪是水 (The Way of Zen 220 k)

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters. 13

13 Ch’uan Teng Lu, 22. (The Way of Zen 126)

“Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.” (Essays in Zen Buddhism – First Series 24)

Eternity in an hour

萬古長空    An eternity of endless space:

一朝風月    A day of wind and moon. (The Golden Age of Zen 246, 322 n.2)

“One of the most frequently reiterated couplets in Chinese Zen literature” (The Golden Age of Zen 246)


天地同根    Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,

萬物一體    The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.

Zen Master Sêng-chao/Sõjõ (僧肇 384-414)

“Nan-ch’uan and his lay disciple Lu Hsuan (陸亘). Lu was reciting Seng-chao’s saying:

天地與我同根      Heaven and earth come from the same root as myself:

萬物與我爲一      All things and I belong to one Whole.

However, he did not really understand the full purport of it. Nan-ch’uan pointed at the peonies in the courtyard, saying, ‘The worldlings look at these bush of flowers as in a dream.” Lu did not see the point.” (The Golden Age of Zen 285)

陸大夫向師道、「肇法師、也甚奇怪、解道”天地與我同根、萬物與我爲一”」師指庭前牡丹花曰、「大夫、時人見此一花株如夢相似」 (The Golden Age of Zen 324 n.92)

“While Rikkõ, a high government official of the T’ang dynasty, had a talk with his Zen master Nansen, the official quoted a saying of Sõjõ, a noted monk scholar of an earlier dynasty:

Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,

The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance

and continued, ‘Is not this a most remarkable statement?’ / Nansen called the attention of the visitor to the flowering plant in the garden and said, ‘People of the world look at these flowers as if they were in a dream.’ ” (The Essentials of Zen Buddhism 483-4)


Merge your mind with cosmic space, integrate your actions with myriad forms.

Ch’an master Hung-chih Cheng-chüeh (宏智正覺 Wanshi Shõkaku, 1091-1157)

(Transmission of Light xi)



“Entering the forest he moves not the grass;

Entering the water he makes not a ripple.” Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 152, 224)

Everyday Mind

争如著衣喫飲、此外更無佛祖 “There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food. Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patriarchs.” Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 152, 224)

Seeking the Same Thing

From the K’un-lun mountains eastward the (Taoist) term “Great Oneness” is used. From Kashmir westward the (Buddhist) term sambodhi is used. Whether one looks longingly toward “non-being” (wu) or cultivates “emptiness” (sunyata), the principle involved is the same. 4

4 Quoted by Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 2, p. 240, from Seng-yu, Ch’u San-tsang Chi-chi, 9. (The Way of Zen 82)

Ocean of Pure Reality

清淨眞如海 Ocean of pure Reality,

湛然體常住 Its substance, in fathomless quiescence, exists eternally.

Ch’an master Fo-kuang Ju-man (佛光如滿 Bukkõ Nyoman)

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 64)

Great Unity


There is one thing: above, it supports Heaven; below, it upholds Earth. It is black like lacquer, always actively functioning.

Ch’an master Tung-shan Ling-chia (洞山良价 Tõsan Ryõkai, 807-869)

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 74)

Man of Tao


Like the clear stillness of autumn water—pure and without activity; in its tranquil depths are no obstructions. Such an one is called a man of Tao, also, a man who has nothing further to do.

Wei-shan Ling-yu (溈山靈祐 Isan Reiyû)

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 66)



“When you forget the good and the non-good, the worldly life and the religious life, and all other dharmas, and permit no thoughts relating to them to arise, and you abandon body and mind—then there is complete freedom. When the mind is like wood or stone, there is nothing to be discriminated.” Pai-chang Huai-hai (百丈懷海 Hyakujõ Ekai, 720-814)

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 63)

Speech and Silence


“Speech is blasphemy, silence a lie. Above speech and silence there is a way out.”

I-tuan (義端) one of Nan-ch’uan’s great disciples (The Golden Age of Zen 250, 322 n.13)


説不處用無盡      What is inexpressible is inexhaustible in its use.

A Chinese Zen master (The Golden Age of Zen 253, 322 n.19)



I would rather sink to the bottom of the sea for endless eons than seek liberation through all the saints of the universe. Shih-t’ou (石頭) (The Golden Age of Zen 270, 323 n.57)


丈夫自有衝天志  The full-grown man aspires to pierce through the heavens:

莫向如夾行處行  Let him not walk in the footsteps of the Buddha!

Ts’ui-yen (翠巖可眞) (The Golden Age of Zen 270, 323 n.59)

Bodhidharma’s Definition of Zen

Four Sacred Verses of Bodhidharma (Daruma no Shiseiku 達磨四聖句)

教外別傳    Kyõge betsuden    A special transmission outside the scriptures;

不立文字    Furyû monji          No dependence upon words and letters;

直指人心    Jikishi ninshin                Direct pointing at the soul of man;

見性成佛    Kenshõ jõbutsu     Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.

Bodhidharma (Essays in Zen Buddhism – First Series 176)

Accomplishing Beforehand

“When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy.” Zen master Yuan-tong

(The Tao of Abundance 100)

Begin at the Top

If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top. Zen saying

Every Day is a Good Day


“Everyday is a good day.” (Nichi nichi kore kõjitsu.)

Yün-men (Unmon) Hekiganroku case 6

No Work, No Eating


“A day without work, a day without eating.”

“When there’s no work for a day, there’s no eating for a day.” (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 62)

Ichijitsu nasazareba, ichijitsu kuwarazu. (一日作さざれば、一日食わらず。)

Pai-chang Huai-hai (百丈懷海 Hyakujõ Ekai, 720-814)

Living Dead

許多死漢、送一個活漢 What a long procession of dead bodies follows the wake of a single living person! Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (趙州從諗Jõshû Jûshin)

“At the funeral of one of his monks, as the Abbot joined the procession, he remarked, ‘What a long procession of dead bodies follows the wake of a single living person!’ ” (The Golden Age of Zen 145, 309 n.47)

Mind is Buddha

Asked “What is buddha?” (如何[是]佛) Ma-tsu replied “This very mind, this is Buddha.” (即心即佛 or 即心是佛. Sokushin sokubutsu.)

Mumonkan case 30 (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 53)

No Mind No Buddha

Asked “What is buddha?” (如何[是]佛) Ma-tsu replied “Neither mind nor Buddha.” (非心非佛. Hishin, hibutsu.)

Mumonkan case 33 (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 53)

This Very Mind is Buddha

自心是佛 Jishin zebutsu. “Your own mind—this is Buddha.” Ma-tsu

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 55)

No Mind No Buddha Not a Thing

不是心不是佛不是物 “This is not mind, this is not Buddha, this is not a thing.” (Fuzeshin, fuzebutsu, fuzemotsu.) Nan-chüan (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 55)

No Clinging

不着不求 “No clinging, no seeking.” (Fujaku, fugu.) Pai-chang (Hyakujõ)

(The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 62)

All Dharmas are Mind-Created

故三界唯心 “Therefore the Three Realms are only mind” (Yue ni sangai yuishin) Ma-tsu Tao-i (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 54)

法界一相 Ultimate reality has a unified form. (Fa-chieh i-hsiang./Hokkai issõ.) Buddha

(Early Ch’an in China and Tibet 107)

Great Tao

不二大道 “The non-dual Great Tao.” (Funi Daidõ) Chao-chou Ts’ung-shên (趙州 Jõshû Jûshin) (The Development of Chinese Zen After the Sixth Patriarch 61)

No Delusive Thoughts

幕妄想 “Away with your delusive thoughts!” “Don’t be deluded!” (Maku mõzõ!)

Ch’an master Wu-ye (Mugõ, 760-821) (Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy 65)

Whatever the master was asked, he replied “Maku mõzõ!”

(I’m not sure about the first character 幕, it may be incorrect.)

Who is This

不識 [I] know not. (Fushiki.) Bodhidharma

No Merit At All

廓然無聖 Vast emptiness, nothing holy! (Kakunen mushõ.) Bodhidharma


身心脱落 “Body and mind dropped off.” (Shen-hsin t’o-lo./Shinjin datsuraku.) Dõgen

Dõgen’s words describing his enlightenment (This is not a saying)

(Zen Buddhism: A History vol. 2, 107 n.24)

身心脱落 “Body and mind dropped away.” (Zen Master Dogen 32)

身心脱落 (Casting off [both] body and mind.)

Hui-neng’s Enlightenment and Diamond Sutra

Fifth Patriarch Hung-jen (弘忍 Gunin or Kõnin, 601-674) signed Hui-neng to go to his chamber at the third watch in the evening.

“When the two were face to face in the stillness of the night, the Patriarch expounded the Diamond Sutra to his disciple. When he came to the sentence: “Keep your mind alive and free without abiding in anything or anywhere,” Hui-neng was suddenly and thoroughly enlightened” (The Golden Age of Zen 62)

應無所住而生其心 “Keep your mind alive and free without abiding in anything or anywhere.”

Diamond Sûtra (Vajracchedikâ [Prajña Paramita] Sûtra) (The Golden Age of Zen 300 n.6)

“To awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere” (Essays in Zen Buddhism – Second Series 32)


Note on Sources

1. Zenrin Kushû 禪林句集 “Ch’an lin lei chü in twenty fasciculi compiled in the year 1307. The title means ‘Zen materials (literally, woods) classified and collected’. The book is now very rare.” (Essays in Zen Buddhism – Second Series 253 n.1)

Also see Watts, The Way of Zen 117 n.4; Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History vol. 2, 47 n.113

Extracted from the Sacred Text Archive

Different Types of Meditation

I’ll introduce the various different types of meditation that I have experimented with and make some comments about them.


I mentioned that as a child I used to gaze at distant objects and become utterly absorbed by them, no thought involved. It is possible to while away great swathes of time in this manner. It is related a little to combing the shadows or gazing at shadows. If one concentrates hard on the shadow of say a leaf, or a tree or pretty much anything one starts to open and experience what can be termed the second attention. This differs from ordinary reality and can be quite spooky at first. In particular if one does gazing at dusk or dawn, some surprising stuff can be observed. Dusk and dawn can be thought of as the gap between worlds. You never know what you may / may not encounter whilst in the second attention at these junctures, this is particularly true when one is far away from concentrations of human beings. It is possible to enter the second attention for extended periods of time. I used to do this when hiking solo in the countryside.

Focusing on an object.

People rarely look and observe with commitment or intensity unless it is their job. I bet art restorers have a fantastic attention to detail. One can train the mind to focus by focussing on an object which may be static or dynamic. This might be a painting, a candle, or a fire.  Anyone who has really concentrated on a fire say in a log burner, for a long time knows how utterly absorbing and transcendental it can be. It can be mesmerizing or engaging. Fire meditations can lead one to strange places. Again, one can focus on the shadows of a candle.

Moving Meditations

These include martial arts and possibly asana. I am not at all supple, so I don’t know about the latter. My first experience of Zen and seiza came at a karate dojo. Where most sessions would end with a ten-minute meditation sat. We also did special breathing exercises in hourglass stance. After having done 1000 high level kicks, meditating in seiza, when the sensei is prowling with a shinai to whack you with if your posture sags, is quite an experience. One can find empty mind easily after extreme exercise. As one progresses in martial arts one is increasingly present in the moment, in the zone, and there is a martial state of mind which is hyper attuned to movement and flow. This differs in flavour between arts, yet to my limited experience there is commonality. Many of these states are generative of ki/qi/chi/prana.

Sound Meditations

Do you really listen to music totally and with every fibre of your being?

If you do you will know that listening to music is a highly meditative thing. Why is there plain song chant, mantra chanting and myriad other forms of music? Because there is nothing quite like certain types of music for speaking direct the soul, not all types but more than you might think. As an art form, the pinnacle of live opera in a cathedral such as The Royal Opera House or a mass in a Cathedral is hard to beat. It touches something deep inside. And if you are a participant as opposed to a recipient the collective ritual is evocative.

Emptiness Meditations

This is the complete and utter stilling of any thought process or fleeting emotion, seeking that point of utter inner silence before any single nascent thought has even begun to stir. There is the point before mind, the void, in which no-thing stirs, no-flicker of idea, no germ of discussion, not an iota of opine, nor a flickering emotion. Total silence, sans bruit. The point before mind is empty, yet it too is impermanent for there must be in time an influx. Time stops but time must restart, that is Dao, flow cannot be held at bay. There in that point before mind one can quite literally see a tiny foetus of thought begin to impregnate the silence and one Knows that one is the thinker and not the thought. When one attains the point before mind one literally stops the world.

Constructive Thought Form Building or Imagination

I have done two of these Toltec Dreaming Practice and The Master in the Heart. One visualises a yellow rose, the other a golden lotus. We have occident and orient. One evokes the lightning strike of energy down, one builds the Antahkarana up. Unlike emptiness practice these raja yoga techniques are constructive, literally building by the focussed and intelligent use of “mind”.

The Zen and the Art of Laser Alignment / Peeling Mangoes / Laying Flooring / Cooking Dinner….

Total absorption in the action, becoming at one with the action and not rushing, having no goal orientation, just doing. No internal dialogue, the eternity of now.

There is scene in the film Fearless where the main protagonist tries to compete in planting rice, in rushing he makes a mess of it and his blind carer has to go out the next day and replant what he has planted. This is the antheses of Zen and the Art of..

His mind was in win-space and not present.

Hmnn, I am pretty sure that I could expand on these…

Daydreaming or Meditation?

I’ll start by referring back to the previous post on Dhyāna. Trying to classify quantized states of awareness using a pseudo-intellectual framework is to fail and from a Zen point of view, badly. Already one is hooked into comparison mind which is not a state of awareness rather a process of comparison.

I’ll make a bold statement; awareness is a continuum and cannot be quantized or quantified no matter how much you might like to do so! If you like intellectual masturbation, the concept of defining states of awareness might give you a boner or make you damp. Enlightenment it is not! It is at best an intellectual exercise wherein the nit pickers of the world can argue the toss with each other.

Retrospect has suggested to me that I began meditation at an early age, it was partially due to me having to spend large amounts of time on my own waiting for people. It was also due to me staring in a relaxed manner into the distance and sitting in near silence with my maternal grandfather on benches as he puffed on his stinky pipe and looked out across the Rhondda valley. Gazing into the distance at scenery and simply absorbing it is a fine way to calm the mind. It is not taking in every detail and having internal dialogue, it is absorbing, being in the moment and to an extent at one with the scenery.

Whenever I was caught doing this gazing thing, I was “accused” of daydreaming. I have to admit that I did do this to check out from the noise of a largely extrovert family, from time to time, it turned the volume off and there was the silence inner despite the cacophony outer.

“He is off daydreaming again…”

“ahh, peace, no noise…”

So much is written in bated breath perhaps about the zen cushion, the abstemious monks meditating, the yogis doing extreme body piercing, the rubber asana yoga people, and there is discussion as to who is the best. This “top trumps” mentality misses the point. There is no TripAdvisor guide as to which is the best path to nirvana, besides who in reality could make a cogent comment based on personal experience?

Do you know what my test would be, it goes something like this:

Could you in the middle of a painful messy divorce, with a grant application deadline looming, maintain the point of no mind from Brixton tube station to Victoria at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning in a crowded tube train?

This is the weird thing for me, there is a disconnect. Meditation is not something one does for 20 mins a day down at the dharma centre, the yoga club, the church. It needs to happen in real life context like a tube train journey into work. Until one can do it under non-ideal conditions, one does not have control.

And here is the funny bit. There is a lot of prejudice against smokers. I quit about six months ago. I was accustomed to sit, stare into space and chuff on a tab. What people saw was some vile geezer smoking. Doesn’t he know that smoking will kill him? What a vile disgusting habit! Tut, tut, tut.

What I was doing was gazing direct into infinity.

Hooked by Greed, Anger and Delusion?

Currently I am re-reading “The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma” translated by Red Pine and from which the following extract is taken.

The whole “greed is good” mantram is being waived about apropos of vaccine hoarding. “Charity begins at home”, whatever. Boris is claiming that greed is a good thing, selfishness is OK. Aren’t we clever?

The three poisons are greed , anger and delusion, many people are hooked to these.

Are you a “greed is good” kind of being?

This morning I found a fishing lure hanging from our boundary wire. Someone is after “our” trout who was in that pool last summer.

People are lured, tempted, by greed , anger and delusion. They find them very difficult to let go of.