Q. Unless I've misunderstood, the teachings on Pure Awareness point to its essence being Sunyata. It's not a thing, an object. Therefore it can't conflict with other practices, as they are objects, upayas used to lead one and help one into Pure Awareness or Sunyata. So if you have something that you feel is too big to sit with directly, you can use a more conceptual practice such as Metta to act as a divider between 'you' and the 'something', deal with it, and then drop the Metta when it's served its purpose,along with the dualism, and return to the directexperienceall within the context of Pure Awareness. Please correct me on any shortcomings in the above. Now my question is, that when I have been taught Shikantaza (Just Sitting), to place any emphasis, use any upaya, make any judgment, is to cease Shikantaza. 'Make the slightest distinction and Heaven and Earth are set miles apart'. So is Shikantaza or Just Sitting then an object, a thing, because unless I'm mistaken that statement would come into conflict withPure Awareness' ability to incorporate upayas. Obviously the aforementioned Pure Awareness can incorporate Shikantaza, butis Shikantaza simply another name for Pure Awareness? Can it incorporate the use of other meditation techniques in order to deal with seemingly unapproachable problems,or is Shikantaza in itself apart from Sunyata, is it nothing more than a way in, another upaya, or object?

A. Your overview seems to me to be correct. From my understanding pure awareness in its true sense is no different to Shikantaza. It is as simple and as direct as it appears. Totally uncluttered with any kind of upaya. But let's be realistic, and indeed pragmatic, as Master Rinzai must have been when he introduced the koan (question) system of meditation into his Zen teachings. From my understanding he too practised 'just sitting' but realised that the mind could easily become dull and disinterested when there was 'nothing to do' during long days of meditation. So when he began to teach he constructed the koan system to assist his disciples with this potential impasse. The system encouraged his disciples to make use of a koan that became a (transcendental) insight tool that they took to their cushion, as well as to the rest of their life - but whose 'answer' was beyond the conceptual world of dualistic thinking. He used many of these upayas, which would systematically undermine his students' fixed experience of 'reality'. So despite apparently setting 'heaven and earth miles apart', he too was a man with the true spirit of Zen, in the same way that Dogen was. I think it is very important that we in the West, and especially those of us without a mature teacher to guide us, are realistic with the type of practice that you talk of. Yes, in its pure form there is nothing to do but just 'be'. But there is every likelihood that most of us westerners will never truly be able to pull that off in a consistent way because we will be continually waylaid by the heavy karma most of us seem to be carrying around. Therefore we may wander away from the 'true path' because we have been taken over by our burden yet again through some powerful attachment that we just can't shake off.We may well then need to use a skilful means to get back on it. What is crucial is that during these brief times when we divert, we always retain, through awareness, openness to and inclusiveness of life's experiences, which is the hallmark and spirit of the infinite path. This cannot be emphasised strongly enough. If we are always with this spirit we will not actually be off the path in any serious and damaging way, but just briefly attending to a small difficulty along the way.

Q . Firstly, thank you for posting the downloads on your website. To say I have benefited from them is an understatement. They have helped return me to Buddhism and with a fresh perspective that I expect will be very beneficial. As to my question: There appears to be a deep philosophical conflict between much counselling therapy in the West and Buddhism in regard to the approach to the self. Are there circumstances where you think therapy can be helpful along the way, perhaps for people with strong and unrealistically negative views of themselves?

A. It is true that there is something of a conflict between the different views of the spiritual path and forms of therapy. I think if we first of all understood what constitutes the ‘spiritual path’, then this misunderstanding would be less likely to arise. From my understanding of the spiritual path, I would define it as a path of complete transformation of the whole of our mental and emotional make up – with this entire transformation taking place in direct relation to the sense of a self. For it is that sense of a self that appropriates and possesses our mental and emotional being in the first place and it is from this that we create and enter the world of samsara and unfulfilment. Buddhist practices work with the entirety of our mental and emotional state, which includes our acknowledgement that there is this sense of a self and that it carries great influence. The major characteristic of the spiritual path is that it does not chop any of these parts into pieces, but rather embraces the whole, and it constitutes a journey that could be described as complete surrender through wisdom. Dharma practice is a sort of ‘polishing’ process whereby, through ever-deepening insight, the influence of that sense of a self is polished away, until it is thoroughly cleansed and seen through. When that seeing reaches its final maturity, the delusion of self, for a short period of time at least, shows itself to have been from the very beginning nothing more than a figment of our own imagination. It is at this moment that awakening takes place, and the astonishing nature of reality is revealed. Whilst many therapies these days may refer to the whole of ourselves as a sort of reference point, often using established Buddhist concepts, they nevertheless have to leave that wholeness of being to target specific aspects of the emotional personality. After all, it is the emotional personality imbalances that have brought the patient to the therapist in the first place, isn’t it? There then takes place a clear and very different approach to that of Dharma practice, a one-to-one interaction with the patient specifically targeting the personality problem, and finding ways to change it. Therapy has a significant role to play among those with imbalances and anxieties so great that they cannot practise the Dharma in a correct way. If you feel you are outside the parameters necessary to be able to practise, then seek out a therapist. Hopefully, one day after treatment you will be able to step back into the fold and practise the Dharma again. Personally, I think very few of us Buddhists need therapy. What we do need is to learn how to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in a proper way and specifically take a teacher with the knowledge to encourage us to create a physical and emotional framework that will help support those perceived difficulties, and also, crucially, teach us how to work with these difficulties for ourselves. Through time, and a willingness to bear with the emotional forces you will inevitably experience, transformation will take place, and you will come through to be emotionally stronger and wiser. Strong negative self-views are common in us westerners, but true Dharma practice will work on that self-view burden; and should you need still further help, there are many meditation practices inherent in Buddhism to help support you.

Q . Often in my day-to-day life I have doubts that my practice is very effective. Though I do my best to practise, I worry that my city life is just too busy. However, each time I go on retreat I sense a deeper awareness of my body and a deeper connection with myself than the last retreat. It is then that I realise that something effective must be happening in my normal day-to-day life between retreats, and perhaps I need not be as concerned as I am. Is this sensible?

A. Because genuine change for the most part is unquantifiable be very careful about looking for it. I accept it is something that most of do and is natural to want to see change taking place. After all, this is why we practice, isn’t it? But before you start looking for change it’s a good idea to first get some notion how the natural unfolding of change actually takes place. From my experience I’d say that at least 90% of change is taking place on a sub-conscious level, and therefore pretty much beyond our ability to grasp it. The remaining 10% is left over for the conscious mind to see. And even the bit we think we see could be questionable especially if we want change to be taking place so much, we may well be seeing change when its not really there. Change is mysterious, and should really not be your concern. Change takes place quite naturally as our habitual karmic conditioning loses its power through practice. The energy that helps keep us trapped in our familiar habits reverts back into its original nature, and with that reversal a shift takes place in our basic makeup. It is because this shift takes place beyond our normal awareness, we don’t know it. If your practice is true then change will be taking place. Have faith that change is happening and don’t go looking for it. If you do the chances are you will not see it, for change is subtle and spread over long periods of time. If you think you should be seeing change you will inevitably be disappointed when you don’t and disillusionment will set in and your faith in the practice will falter. You don’t make change, so mind your own business and stick to the practice!

Q . I wonder whether you can clarify for me what exactly is meant by the Buddha's teaching on 'knowing oneself in all postures'. For example, I can mentally know that I'm sitting. Or I can tune into my physical experience, such as the sensations of the contact between my body and the chair, sounds coming to me. Or I can 'go inside' and have an inner feeling experience of myself in the moment, which takes the focus away from my senses, but seems to highlight a living presence within my form.

A. To have awareness of yourself in the moment is, I believe, what is meant here. To be aware is not to discriminate, but just to know. Be alive to yourself through awareness whether you are walking, sitting, standing or lying down. Nothing special, just know. Not to be wandering off in thoughts and unaware of what you are doing. There is nothing to do -just being alive and knowing it.