Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Exercises in Mindfulness
The ideal practice for the Zen monk is to 'leave no trace'. This is a practice which develops both awareness and consideration for others and for the places through which the monk moves.
‘Unsui’ is the Japanese term for a monk (here meaning either female or male). The literal meaning is ‘Cloud, Water’ and comes from a Chinese poem‘ to drift like clouds and float like water.’
In fact, it can denote any practitioner of Zen and gives the flavour of how the Zen student should deport themselves.
A frequent admonition is to ‘leave no traces’ and refers to how the monk should ensure that when s/he leaves a place there should be no trace of presence left. What is meant by this?
I remember running several meditation classes and it is quite interesting how people get into a sort of nest building mode surrounding themselves with extra clothes, bottles of water plus additional cushions, none of which ever get used; they are just there! When they leave the seat, naturally they take their own belongings but will leave extra cushions for others to move back to their original place in the meditation room.
It is just a small example but telling, because it betrays a subtle form of selfishness that says to that cushion ‘You can look after me and take care of me but when I have finished with you then you are out of my mind and irrelevant!’ Of course, this is not a conscious thought but there is a blindness to the presence of objects in their own right and dismissal of their importance once I have no further use for them.
It is the same at home and at work, taking things and then leaving them out of place either for others to put away or to become lost. Once again, this is rarely done deliberately; it is just a blindness to things once I have no further use for them.
Such objects are excellent teachers in our mindfulness practice.
If we look around our own spaces, are things where they should be or have I been neglectful?
If we include all things in our environment in our mindfulness practice then we quickly develop a sense of relationship with them and there is a natural reciprocity and sense of belonging that arises.
Master Dogen wrote a tract for the cook in the Zen monastery on how to run the kitchen. It has become a classic for Zen training too as it is full of sound principles of Zen training.
At one point he says that when organising what’s on the shelves in the kitchen, to put the things that belong on the top shelf on the top shelf, and the things that belong on the bottom shelf on the bottom shelf.
This rather obvious piece of advice belies its profundity because at no point does he state exactly what it is that goes on the top and bottom shelves. This is because if we are in a relationship with things around us then they ‘tell’ us exactly where they can belong, and where they cannot belong.
So, mindfulness is not something that ‘I’ do with the objects of mindfulness as passive items to be ‘observed’ rather than existing in their own right. We relate to them using mindfulness, which in turn brings to us information about them and their nature.
This applies not only to physical objects but also to ourselves and our inner world . This gives a different sense to ‘my’ thoughts and feelings . I do not own them; rather we relate to them giving them space to exist in their own right without my usual judgements about them. In this way we make friends not only with our outer environment but our inner environment too.
In the end we find we have friendships all around us and that sense of loneliness and alienation that is talked so much about these days can disappear.
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