Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Club: "The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata" by Daniel Odier

I am a fan of Daniel Odier’s book Desire, as well as his work with the tantric text the Spanda-karika, but I found his chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind a bit weak, and I honestly have little to say about it! Frankly, I was a bit turned off by what seems to me a bit of the all too typical Zen sectarianism that I find distasteful and less than accurate.

While it is true that the Japanese Zen tradition tends toward a more choreographed ritualistic practice (even in their koan practice which has been formalized into a fairly strict curriculum not found in any of the other Zen cultural traditions), my limited exposure to Chinese Ch’an tells me that such formalism is not completely absent there either!

There is a rhetoric of immediacy or spontaneity that permeates throughout the Zen traditions, along with a kind of iconoclastic propaganda that has led to many mis-perceptions in those outside the tradition. Odier refers to both the Zen master who used the wooden statue for a fire, and to the old Zen exhortation to “Kill the Buddha!” I heard the Chinese Ch’an Master, Sheng-yen, once speak about the western Buddhist scholar who, upon seeing a Zen Master prostrate before a Buddha statue, proclaim, “I spit upon the Buddha.” The Zen Master simply responded, “You spit, I bow.”

In any event, I think it would have been helpful if Odier had defined – and perhaps offered more instruction in – what he calls “Spatial Breathing.” To my mind, what Odier is writing about is the necessity of relaxing the body in order to free the mind. There is no Buddhist tradition that suggests one sit with rigidity; in fact, the Japanese Zen Masters I know refer to such rigid sitting as “Stone-Buddha Syndrome.”

In Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, we are told that asana, the seated posture for meditation must be stable and easeful, and that it is done with the relaxation of effort. Then a state of integration or coalescence arises which leads to the over-coming of oppression by the pairs of opposites such as hot and cold; pleasure and pain etc.

Going beyond attachment to concepts and notions about the Path, we enter the limitless space of awareness. What Odier seems to be speaking about, ultimately, we saw already as the subject of Roshi O’Hara’s piece on “dropping the body and mind.”

I would love to hear from any of you reading along with me as to what you make of this chapter. Perhaps some of you got something more from it than I, but overall, I find this the weakest essay of the three we’ve read so far.


  1. I too was disappointed by this chapter. It seemed vague, or I didn't get what he was trying to say. But I did like this: "In every path, there is a fatal virus which is the Path itself as we conceptualize it. This is a fatal trap that prevents the breath from flowing freely through space." I found the use of the virus metaphor interesting, as well as the choice and repetition of the word "fatal". Is he saying that our ideas about what we are doing in our practice limit it and thereby become the path to liberation? This is what I am working with in my practice, the habit of seeking some understanding or confirmation of the teaching, or in general seeking something beyond what is right here now.

  2. I also liked, "In every path, there is a fatal virus which is the Path itself as we conceptualize it. This is a fatal trap that prevents the breath from flowing freely through space." It reminds me of the Buddha's injunction to let go of the raft once one has made use of it. The path after all is the finger pointing at the moon and at some point we have to experience the moon for ourselves.

    It's interesting that Daniel has used this quote because what came across very clearly in his writing is his concepts about the Chan path and other forms of Buddhism. It read as very opinionated. I found it provocative, though I do admire the audacity of making such sweeping statements as 'We integrate art and beauty into the path unlike the rather puritanical Indian Buddhism' I wonder how those who practice Indian Buddhism would feel about this. How can Daniel be so certain about what he knows about other forms of Buddhism?

    I am interested in reading about the Chan tradition, it sounds like a beautiful practice with it's emphasis on spontaneity, the resonant body and the emphasis on all of life being part of the practice but not at the cost of other forms of practise. Can Chan stand alone, on it’s own merits?

    This part of the chapter spoke to me…..'to liberate the breath, we have to abandon all concepts and beliefs about the path.' Hmmm... I have been reflecting for a while on how the breath is life and how our many attempts to control the breath can show us the ways in which we try to control our wider lives. Letting go of concepts and beliefs.... speaks to me of surrendering ideas about the way life (the breath) 'should' be and opening to the way it is.

  3. you know i am confused please clear my misconceptions about wrote "there is no Buddhist tradition that suggests one sit with rigidity; in fact, the Japanese Zen Masters I know refer to such rigid sitting as “Stone-Buddha Syndrome.” I have been to temples where i have heard some of the monks disparage people from moving, and actually go up to them and tap them when they move?

    i too enjoyed description of meditation, the ease of the posture, the almost casual way of breathing and being with oneself until yes as you point out the "dropping of the body and mind"

    do not all practices see the buddha in everything? do we not see the dharma also in everything? i am thinking of Thay's poem about garbage turning into a flower ...
    "Some of them went so far as to physically destroy the images and statues" aren't there many practices in which deities are not worshipped?

    this was a great intro to this practice, and i am left wanting to know more about the emphasis on spontaneity and fluidity, since that is what i am so attracted to (the fluidity) in meditation.

  4. Matt: Yes, that is a great line! I think the point he is making is one that we've discussed in sangha. The path 'as conceptualized' is not really the path, right? It's simply a model. If we are caught in our conceptualization of the path, then it is/becomes the 'fatal virus.' At least that's how I read it. Thus, our ideas about the path become a stumbling block, keeping us from following the path of our lives.

    Rosie: Ch'an is the origin of Zen. The Chinese word "Chan'a" was the transliteration of the Pali word "jhana" and the Sanskrit word "dhyana," meaning meditation. It is often described as the fruit of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. From China, it moved to Vietnam where it is known as Thien, and to Korea where it is known as Seon. From Korea, it was brought to Japan where it is called Zen.

    ALL schools of Zen speak of and valorize "spontaneity," but I feel there should be a warning that it isn't quite the kind of 'spontaneity' celebrated in contemporary western culture. It is the 'spontaneity' that is cultivated through deep, formal practices. It's like the musician who must know her harmonic theory backwards and forwards before playing 'free.' And, keeping this in mind, we must not forget that the Buddha told us to jettison the raft only once we were truly on the other side of the river! I've seen all too many students think the point of the story was to let go of all forms of practice while they had barely left the shore! :-)

    Sara: In many/most Japanese-descended practice centers, there is a 'monitor' who will exhort anyone moving to 'be still.' But this is still a long way from the kind of rigidity that I am saying no school calls for. I've never been 'called out' by a monitor, but my body feels like its 'dancing' when I sit. This is the movement at the heart of stillness and the stillness at the heart of movement that is often spoken about.

    I think you've taken Body of Peace with me. Remember the principle of resiliency. Once the body is aligned with the vertical pull of gravity, we experience the softness of the body, the breath moving through the whole body, expanding and contracting.

    Holding rigid "as a stone Buddha" is when we force from outside the shape of the posture. Like shoe-horning a foot into a too-tight shoe! We don't make an asana of ourselves; our body manifests the asana.

    I hope this clarifies?

    frank jude

  5. I, also, found Daniel Odier's caution against attachment to form and preconceptions of how we think the path should look to be helpful. However, I was put off by his comparisons with "the more ritual forms of the Japanese tradition." This seems to be in contradiction with his later statement that "in the Chinese tradition, it is important to avoid rejecting anything" and his belief in a unified, all-embracing universe where everything has a place, continually balancing and re-balancing.


  6. Oooh, good point, Judith! AND, as I mentioned above, Chinese Chan is not without its own ritual forms! I remember walking while chanting the bodhisattva Quan Yin's name for 45 minutes in a very precise rhythm and pace, for instance, at one ceremony led by Sheng-yen.

    Yes, it IS true that perhaps the Japanese tradition is the more 'choreographed,' but that needn't preclude non-attachment to the form!

    poep sa

  7. As I read these essays, I try to see what is the practical application of what is being said, i.e. what can I apply to my practice? In this piece I was left with a sense of letting go a bit of my own attachment to the "form" of my practice. For instance, I allowed myself to meditate in the chair in the living room early one morning this week because it was so cold in the room where I usually sit. It all comes back to being mindful: noticing where I am attached to concepts or ritual or whatever and coming back to the breath. If I feel the like moving during sitting practice, just watching, being with my desire to move and noticing that it passes as opposed to sitting rigidly because I "shouldn't " move. Noticing impulses arising and passing away, noticing mental formations without judging. Or if I do move, getting back to the breath and not dwelling on it. I am not so interested in practicing in a certain style or sect as I am in becoming more conscious/mindful in my life. I am so grateful for the practice and the teachings!

    As for killing or spitting on the Buddha, it seems that the point is to not become attached to the teacher. (To not worship the finger pointing at the moon and miss the moon, as the story goes). whether one spits, kills, or bows, is not the bottom line about relationship? (and/or attachment?)

    deep bow, cybie

    p.s. Frank Jude, I will be with you next week for your workshop at Kripalu! Yippee! Bring baby pictures!

  8. Rosie, I really like your comment that how we attempt to control our breath is a lesson in how we attempt to control our wider lives. I am beginning to see how there is the teaching/form, and then there is how I relate to the teaching/form which is a teaching in itself. The constant form is a benchmark against which I measure and observe the impermanence of the self.