Changing Perspective

By: Sensei Paolo Taigo Spongia – IOGKF Italy Chief Instructor and Newsletter Zen representative.

Sensei Spongia has once again given us a unique perspective on the world through the eyes of Zen. In this article Sensei Spongia discusses the importance of changing our perspective and view in how we look at aspects of our life and the value this can give us…

"Not two or three, but one is life.

It is a sin to cultivate a false view.

Do not just think of not doing any harm or doing good, it is not enough:

we are subject to Karma anyhow,

there is no excuse for those who don't see what is right."

A few days ago I sat in my little garden and, as I was looking for shade, I moved the chair in a corner of the garden where, probably, I had never sat before. From this new perspective, the familiar garden began to speak a new and unexpected  language and I started noticing details that had never, until now, caught my attention.

The verse that opens this article is taken from the first Chapter of the Shūshōgi (important Zen Sōtō text that gathers, as a compendium, the Teachings of Dōgen Zenji: 1200 - 1253), entitled Sōjō.

Sōjō's translation can also be rendered with: 'change of perspective'. Constantly changing perspective is the basis of any respectful practice.

To change perspective one needs to have the courage to abandon his own position, a position he has gained perhaps with many efforts, using 'teeth and nails' to reach it. The abandonment of our own position puts us in a state of disorientation after which our view the world is enriched with new elements and insights.


The regular training in Zen monasteries, provides that a monk should, little by little, assume all the responsibilities in the monastery, from maintenance man to cook (the ‘Tenzo’ a very important role, please read:’Tenzo Kyokun’: http://www.amazon.com/How-Cook-Your-Life- Enlightenment/dp/1590302915/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1289297012&sr=8-1) from teacher to administrator...

A monk must learn to switch from one task to another, carrying them out with quickness, intuition, efficiency and, last but not least, with a calm and serene mind.

It is exactly this malleability and effectiveness that so-called managers are looking to 'steal' in Zen monasteries.

Unfortunately, listening to a lecture, reading a few books and 'looking at what others do' is not enough to understand and learn: a full development of those qualities can only take place through direct experience, 'working in the shop' as apprentices.

The reality is so multidimensional that our senses and, above all, our thoughts, will always perceive a tiny fraction of it.

So facing experiences and allowing yourself to be exposed to constant change of perspective makes it possible to shape a broad and intuitive vision of reality that allows to perceive what is not apparent to the senses, to understand the ‘dark side of the moon’.

“He who is capable of a total perception can see all dharma, therefore, he can see only one dharma like a speck of dust, and know through it the whole world.”
(Shōbōgenzō cap. 31 Shoakumakusa)

In Japan it is also said to 'perceive the kuki of each situation'.

You'll recognize in the term Kuki the characters 'empty', (kara) and 'energy', (ki).

To perceive the Kuki of a situation, (perception that allows us to grasp the present opportunity in every situation and act in an effective and harmonious way with the surroundings), we can't just be based on our senses nor on rational thought (which is considered in Eastern culture nothing more than a 6th sense, regarded as fallible and limited, perhaps even more than the other senses). The unity of our body-mind must respond like a tuning fork to the vibration of the moment.

This intuitive ability (so important in martial arts and in the so-called self-defense, as in every sphere of human life) is acquired and refined through practice and in particular through the experience of this 'change of perspective' that the practice has to offer.

A true teacher should always lead the student to 'give up his position' at times and - if needed - also with apparently brutal methods. A teacher knows well how fundamentalist a student can become if he or she has not reached the depths of the art. He or she knows well how convenient but dangerous it is to 'sit' on our own acquisitions, and just as well, how far from the way this inability to change perspective can lead.

A few days ago during Zazen at dawn I asked a student to ring, for the first time, the bell during the brief ceremony of the morning.

The initial loss of the student facing a task, which in that moment was totally new to him, got transformed immediately by the need to act, with determination.

Being in the role of someone who 'calls the bell to sound' forces us to live the ritual from a completely different angle, forcing the senses to awaken to new stimulus, to pay attention to details that we cannot grasp if not from that corner of view.

This applies to sounding the bell and the moppan (woodden instrument in Zen Dōjō), as well as to holding the Kyosaku (the ‘awakening stick’ that helps against drowsiness and distraction).

Each of these roles enforces a change of perspective, as clearly he knows who - from his comfortable zafu (Zazen cushion) - found himself with a Kyosaku in his hands, watching the erect posture of those sitting in the Dōjō, or playing the wood to invite to Zazen.

Equally important is the need for constant change of perspective in the practice of Karate-Dō.

Not missing the opportunity to face new and challenging experiences of practice, taking on responsibilities in the Dōjō, moving from the role of ‘end user’, ‘final consumer’ to the role of those who are in service, putting yourself in a position to pass on what you have learned, with all the problems that arise from it, are all behaviors that involve a radical change in perspective and prevent the stagnation and regression of the practice.

With these changes of perspective, the angle from which we look at the Dōjō, the place of our exercise, as well as to our own practice, will change radically, as it has happened to me in my garden. We will begin to grasp nuances and details that will give us new opportunities for developing our practice and understanding.

How many beautiful gardens can unfold before our eyes with only a change of perspective in our vision?