Mudra: The Authentic Seal of Awareness

This posterized photo is the hand gesture of the Buddhist practice of awareness. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called it the cosmic mudra.

I have always understood the definition of gesture to be a motion of the hand or hands. I have resisted using the term when I demonstrate and describe the mudra during meditation instruction, because there is no movement expected once the hands are placed. Instead, I describe the mudra as a hand position.

Looking up the word gesture, I see now that its archaic definition refers to carriage corresponding to the state of mind. This discovery brings a smile, though awareness is not a state of mind. Awareness is openness; life not crimped by held assumptions.

Awareness is first, original; the base and whole of experience. Assumptions are interpretations of this direct experience.

An obsolete definition of gesture refers to the position or attitude [of the hands] especially in prayer, a tip-off to the word’s religious roots. Is Buddhism a religion? That’s a topic for a future post. Meditation is far from the popular understanding of prayer (to ask, entreat, or implore). If prayer is to live as open response (“how can I help?” rather than “please, may I have?”) then this obsolete definition brings a smile, as well. Mudra; the expression of open response.

The cosmic mudra hand gesture is stationary, but expresses the life of wholeness, openness, spontaneity, fluidity. To fill this hand gesture with awareness is authentic practice. Our peonies burst into full bloom today. To flower, to open, to respond to sunlight, is the mudra of peony. A flower does not put partial effort into its aliveness. To fulfill the life of the zazen posture—including the cosmic mudra—is the authentic seal of awareness.

© 2012 Bev Forsman and Letters from Emptiness. If you share this material, please include direction to the original content. Thank you.


What to Make of Taking Life

Last week I had the inspiration to write about a subtlety of meaning in a phrase. I wanted to convey an unconventional but all-or-nothing understanding of the first Buddhist Precept: A follower of the Way does not take life.

I wrote and edited for an hour, stalling out with over clarification. I could not get to my main point. So involved was I, in covering all the off-shoots that would provide ballast, that the work lost all life. I had taken the life right out of it.

So, I tried again the next day—a new approach, hopefully learning from my missteps of the day before. Major loss of life again.

Writing is such a difficult task because of the self-editing that occurs as the pencil is drawn along the page or the fingers pause repeatedly on the keyboard. Everyone who writes knows there seems to be so much at stake. The piece must be clear. It must flow. It must be informative. It must be interesting. Clever. Concise. Grammatically correct. Add or subtract a few attributes depending upon your purpose, your topic, your audience. Hold these ideas as present-time judgment, and the writing is not real, not fluid, not alive.

This can be obvious in the writing process, but what about the self-editing that is hiding in our everyday activities? How concerned with ourselves are we as we navigate the world? Do we try to steer and shape conversations? Do we offer help to others with insistence that we know what’s best for them? When we pass along information, do we shave off a bit of truth or embellish with a bit of me-ness? Paying attention to our actions we can become familiar with our editing-for-the-benefit-of-ego behavior. We discover that we take life as soon as we attach to ego. Attaching to ego is to take life.

We all know to the bone, the pain of realizing we’ve hurt someone. This knowing and feeling the pain of ego-driven action can bring about transformation. If ego doesn’t step right back in to make excuses, the responsibility of all actions becomes crystal clear. The ego has dissolved and a natural shift in behavior occurs. A spontaneity to tend to the life of all beings blooms.

We live in the world of relationship whether ego-centric or not. With armor of ego, our actions could be called taking of life. With open interest, open listening, ego does not manifest and limit appropriate response. Compassion transforms from our idea of compassion, to responsive compassion. There is no ego (to be) at risk. Aliveness is at risk. A follower of the Way does not take life.

Ultimately life cannot be taken. Life would have to be a thing, have a particular location, and be separate from us. True life (what is that? breathe, look, listen). True life is not a thing and cannot be taken by a persistent, separate entity known as me. However, life understood that way, is exactly as if taken away. When following the Way there is no taking life.

What is the Way? The Way is not a path. The Way is thorough, complete immersion in this activity. So complete is the participation that ego, ego-agenda, and ego-action have completely ceased. Ego is a fabrication, and this is known without doubt. The Way is life life-ing.*

*Life life-ing a phrase used by Dainin Katagiri.

© 2012 Bev Forsman and Letters from Emptiness. If you share this material, please include direction to the original content. Thank you.