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Thread: Mindfulness and form

  1. #1

    Mindfulness and form

    Dear Forum members:

    In response to Jundo’s recent talks on mindfulness, I’d like to raise the issue of mindfulness in relation to form, particularly the conventional forms of Zen practice.

    Here at Alfred University, I teach an honors course in Buddhist meditation. During the first week of the course, I instruct students to use two hands whenever they are drinking from a cup. A week later, they report on what they’ve experienced.

    Many students report that by using two hands, they’ve become more aware of what they are drinking. “I realized that I really hate cranberry juice,” one student said. “And I’ve been drinking it all my life.”

    That is an example of mindfulness, acquired through training and practice. Yet if someone were to have observed that student drinking mindfully with both hands, her actions might have been mistaken for a kind of ritual or esoteric practice. In other words, mindfulness might have been mistaken for form.

    But the opposite can also happen. Form can be mistaken for mindfulness. During my stay at one Zen monastery, I observed a resident monk who had the forms down pat, but outside the zendo he showed very few signs of mindfulness. On the contrary, he seemed unaware of his own states of mind, particularly his compulsive need for control and its harmful effects on other people. In many other instances, I’ve observed a similar disconnection between formal practice and mindful awareness.

    In the sittings that I lead in our local sangha, I incorporate some elements of form, including bowing and chanting. But the population of the sangha has been fluid over the years, and the degree of formality has varied, partly in response to the proclivities of those in attendance. It’s sometimes said that the forms support mindfulness, but if so, in what ways do they do that? And when do they become a surrogate for mindfulness, or a hindrance to its development?

    I’d be grateful to know how others have addressed this issue.

    Gassho,

    Ben

  2. #2

    Re: Mindfulness and form

    Hi Ben,

    Quote Originally Posted by Shiju
    It’s sometimes said that the forms support mindfulness, but if so, in what ways do they do that? And when do they become a surrogate for mindfulness, or a hindrance to its development?
    From my own personal experience, mindfulness seems to come naturally if the form isn't habitual or isn't something I can do perfectly without thinking about it. However, if the form is some activity which I've done over and over and over, at some point it becomes a habit and can be carried out with the body perfectly -- whilst the mind is somewhere else lightyears away. It then requires more concentration on the task at hand to maintain that mindfulness, and I think that's the point at which form can become a hindrance to mindfulness, if we're not careful. I guess it pretty much comes down to S. Suzuki's advice to keep a beginner's mind.

    Immediately after participating in the Treeleaf retreat we had recently, I somehow had the idea to bow in gassho to everything I touched before and after doing so, i.e. door handle, cup, spoon, refrigerator, light switch, etc. I did this for about 20 minutes, which left me with a strong feeling of gratitude for these simple everyday objects I typically just take for granted. However, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to maintain that sense of mindfulness if I made a habit of that practice. (Not to mention the practical difficulties of doing so...)

    Gassho
    Ken

  3. #3

    Re: Mindfulness and form

    Quote Originally Posted by Shiju
    . During the first week of the course, I instruct students to use two hands whenever they are drinking from a cup. A week later, they report on what they’ve experienced.

    Many students report that by using two hands, they’ve become more aware of what they are drinking. ...

    During my stay at one Zen monastery, I observed a resident monk who had the forms down pat, but outside the zendo he showed very few signs of mindfulness. On the contrary, he seemed unaware of his own states of mind, particularly his compulsive need for control and its harmful effects on other people. In many other instances, I’ve observed a similar disconnection between formal practice and mindful awareness.
    Hi Guys,

    One the of the points I tried to emphasize in the talks on "Right Mindfulness' is that there is not only one kind of 'mindfulness' in our Buddhist Practice, but various kinds of Mindfulness. I think that many Zen students, and even many teachers, somehow miss this point (The Tibetans and Vipassana folks may know it better than we do, because they have a different flavor of meditation to feel out the corners of every permutation of 'mindfulness'. Yet, somehow, in the Zen world, that point often gets missed).

    So, for example, what is typically meant by many folks in the Zen world when they speak of "mindfulness" is something like the 'tea ceremony', i.e., 'being present in the moment', being one with the action we are performing in this instant, being 'totally here'. However, that is only one kind of 'mindfulness', and there is a whole toy box of 'mindfulness, e.g., learning to recognize how greed and anger and fear and the other sensations and thoughts and emotions arise within us and to be mindful of the process as it occurs in a given life situation, learning to see impermanence in all things including the impermanence of our own bodies, learning to see beyond the outward form of objects with apparent separate 'selfhood', thus learning to be mindful of the interconnection of things, etc. etc. Some overlap a bit, but some are really separate mental skills I believe.

    That may help explain why the described monk could be very mindful within the performance of forms and rituals (being "mindful" and present in the moment within the forms of some ceremony), but had not so developed mindfulness and of his own turbulent inner states of mind and the harmful effects of his actions on others.).

    Again, in our Soto Practice, we study all this ... just not during Zazen itself (in which we are not particularly mindful of anything or nothing, and are just sitting with "open awareness"). Perhaps we can say that all the "other stuff" that goes on in monastery life and our own practice in real life (Samu, Oryoki, Bowing, Ceremonies, just dealing with the other monks, the discomforts, the restrictions ... and the equivalent in daily life for non-monastery folks) are for our study of the various kinds of "mindfulness".

    Anyway, that is my perspective.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4
    I'm partial to sitting and getting on with it, but perhaps, if there is an imbalance in one's practice ie. study, or form is given more importance than sitting and working with our little tendencies, then this is probably going to cause imbalance in the person.


    G,W

  5. #5
    Well, Harry. I'll tell you what. I sit. I don't like to talk too much about it. I sit in the morning and sometimes in the evening. There. That's my practice. Dogen Smogen. You sound like one of the followers you preach about. Listen Mr. Know it all, maybe you should go sit some more.

    Where do you get from my statement that I am trying to install or resist anything? Maybe you should read it again. Sometimes you talk too much dude. I was suggesting that perhaps this is the case. I don't know for sure. I just know from my experience.

    Sorry if this post sounds harsh, but Harry you sound a little Holier than thou sometimes. I guess I should go sit.

    Gassho and later

    Will

  6. #6
    Hi Harry,

    Quote Originally Posted by HezB
    I remembered this yesterday on the way home from work. I 'just walked' for about a 1/4 of the way home. My body and mind felt full of ease/ or rather empty of dis-ease. It was quite slow, I must have looked weird.
    I can relate to that. Whenever I'm going somewhere, my usual walking pace is quite swift. I suppose it's a combination of the pace that's naturally comfortable for me mixed with a good dose of congenital impatience. Even if I'm not under pressure for time I tend to walk a bit too fast. However, if I catch myself rushing along for no good reason I'll consciously slow myself down. As you say, the abscence of that self-imposed hectic pace inevitably quiets the mind, which can be quite pleasant.

    Gassho
    Ken

  7. #7

    Re: Mindfulness and form

    [quote="Jundo"]
    I think that many Zen students, and even many teachers, somehow miss this point (The Tibetans and Vipassana folks may know it better than we do, because they have a different flavor of meditation to feel out the corners of every permutation of 'mindfulness'. Yet, somehow, in the Zen world, that point often gets missed).

    S

    A

    Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this topic.

    My own understanding of mindfulness is based partly on experience but also on my study of the Satipatthana Sutra, or the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the quality of mindfulness, as described in that sutra, is itself fairly constant. What varies is its object. As members of this forum probably know, the four main objects or "foundations" of mindfulness, as outlined in the Satipatthana Sutra, are the body, the feelings, mental states, and objects of mind. Among the "objects of mind" are the Seven Factors of Awakening, which are themselves divided into "arousing" factors such as viriya (energy) and "stabilizing" factors such as samadhi (concentration). Bringing mindfulness to those "factors" is at once a way of recognizing their presence or absence and a means of developing them in oneself. During the course of the day, the practitioner contemplates a particular factor, noting its relative strength or weakness. In so doing, he or she also cultivates that factor.

    I mention all this because I think Jundo is on the mark in saying that in the world of Japanese Zen, as distinguished from Theravadan practice, these dimensions of mindfulness are often overlooked. One of the things I value in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, as interpreted by Thich Nhat Hanh, is its openness to the Theravadan practices, particularly those prescribed in the Satipatthana and Anapansati sutras. As Thich Nhat Hanh's own example makes apparent, there is no inherent conflict between the Zen and Vipassana traditions--and much to be learned from their skillful integration.

    Gassho,

    Ben

  8. #8
    Nice thread.
    This one is a bit complex, I think. Maybe there are three aspects to this: mindfulness of form, 'mindlessness' or transcendence of form, and taking form for granted (with the accompanying wandering of mind). That sounds a lot more high-falutin than I would like but that is the way it breaks down. What leads me to this is that there are 'forms' for everything and when we are immersed and fully into their activity, I think we are in the 'zone'—where activity is the entire universe for us. There are also times when we have become accustomed to a form well enough that the familiarity leads to carelessness and we allow attention to wander. Thirdly, I think there are times when we are learning forms and they force us to be very mindful, but I would argue that we are no so much mindful of the form as we are the execution of the form a specific way (ie learning it and getting it 'right'). So, my perspective is that the total immersion experience is the ideal but that it requires us to become fluent with the form (which, of course, requires that we practice it with some aspiration of getting it 'right'). All of this leads me to think that each form creates various responses depending on the day and where one is in their practice. I don't know . . . this is a bit muddled in my head.

    Bill

  9. #9

    Re: Mindfulness and form

    Quote Originally Posted by Shiju
    ... the four main objects or "foundations" of mindfulness, as outlined in the Satipatthana Sutra, are the body, the feelings, mental states, and objects of mind. Among the "objects of mind" are the Seven Factors of Awakening, which are themselves divided into "arousing" factors such as viriya (energy) and "stabilizing" factors such as samadhi (concentration). ...
    Hi Shiju,

    Yep. That was pretty much my point ... be mindful of inner stuff, outer stuff, that outer is inner and inner outer. But, boy, those old Sutras could be so formulaic and analytical! People in the old days seemed to like to make lists. Sometimes in making the list, I get the impression that they would give reality to sub-categories within sub-categories that came to exist merely because somebody put them on the list! I have never felt that so helpful. So, I keep it simple (Soto Zen generally avoids being overly analytical of the mechanics of what we do: Instead, "just do it") ...

    Be mindful of inner feelings and thoughts of the mind (which is the body-mind), what triggers them, how they arise, how they go. be mindful of outer stuff ... how things come and go, their interconnectedness, their lack of "self", how they trigger thoughts and emotions and, in turn, thought and emotions form the outside world, etc.

    I like to keep it simple and practical. You don't need a complex recipe for some of this stuff. You don't need a recipe to make chocolate milk.

    Shiju: Kind of like writing poetry and reading an old Indian manual about writing poetry?

    Quote Originally Posted by DontKnow
    Nice thread.
    This one is a bit complex, I think. Maybe there are three aspects to this: mindfulness of form, 'mindlessness' or transcendence of form, and taking form for granted (with the accompanying wandering of mind)
    That sounds right. I might say the same thing though: I would maybe not analyze it too much. We learn a new task, we are awkward at first, soon it becomes part of our body memory, we can pour ourselves into it, find the task the whole universe ... with time it may lose its freshness and the mind may wander. Yes.

    Now, just make your chocolate milk.

    Gassho, Jundo the Simple

  10. #10

    Re: Mindfulness and form

    Jundo wrote:

    People in the old days seemed to like to make lists. Sometimes in making the list, I get the impression that they would give reality to sub-categories within sub-categories that came to exist merely because somebody put them on the list! I have never felt that so helpful.

    * * *

    Thanks, Jundo. I too find all those lists rather exhausting. Was the Buddha an accountant in an earlier life? Or were the lists supposed to be mnemonic devices?

    To bring things back to the question of form, I think that the analogy with the making of poems might be instructive, if only by way of contrast. It seems to me that any serious poet can benefit from a thorough grounding in meter, rhythm, and other formal elements and an understanding of such fixed forms as the sestina and sonnet, even if he or she goes on to write in so-called open or organic form. We learn the forms in order to use, or modify, or subvert them in the act of writing. But in Zen practice, or at least in the etiquette of the zendo, it seems that the forms are to be learned, adhered to, and revered, and that modifications are seldom encouraged. The chants, mudras, bows and other forms are often beautiful in themselves. They foster humility and respect for the lineage.What I'm interested in exploring is how and to what extent they strengthen mindfulness.

    Gassho,

    Ben

  11. #11
    Warning: possibly slightly to the left of the topic of thread.

    Jundo wrote:

    "People in the old days seemed to like to make lists. Sometimes in making the list, I get the impression that they would give reality to sub-categories within sub-categories that came to exist merely because somebody put them on the list!"

    What a howler!!! Ain't it the truth!

    My ex-hubbie used to call me the "list Queen" cuz I'd do things like make a list of every last piece of clothing packed in my suitcase in order to make sure it all returned home with me! I just adore the lists that Buddhism comes up with.

    When I became a novice monk the first thing I did was secure a little notepad to make continual lists of all the things I needed to do/remember (which was considerable!) One day, the monk who was my Precepts teacher just up and took it out of my hands *while I was writing!!* I must have gone all 108 shades of red in my anger. She slipped the notepad into her pocket and just serenely looked at me and said, "If you do your meditation correctly you won't need this."

    I was livid for the rest of the day and didn't dare let anyone see me write a thing. Making lists seemed so helpful, logical, responsible!! And who was *she to insinuate that I wasn't doing my meditation correctly!! :x But, sometime in the middle of the night tossing around in my little space on the gaitan, I realized what she was pointing to: I was using the list making as a crutch, a point of laziness. With stuff written down and out of my head I could allow my thoughts to wander off in all manner of directions and not worry that I would miss taking care of my responsibilities in the monastery. I could be mindful for the few moments it took to write stuff down, then go off into mindlessness.

    It took a lot to break myself of the habit of lists but, I must say, I'm much better now. ops: I keep my lists to groceries and the occassional days when I have the 64,000 things to do with only 24 wee hours to do them.

    Gassho~

    *Lynn

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