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Dogen's Bendowa (Part 3 of 3)

Zazen as the essence of Zen practice

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 06, 2001
Location: Mountain Rain Zendo
In topic: Dogen
Drawing on Dogen’s teaching, Zoketsu describes zazen as the essence of Zen practice, beyond just the practice of sitting, discussing Dogen’s promise of zazen as the manifestation of the ultimate reality.
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Dogen's Bendowa (Part 3 of 3)

Zazen as the essence of Zen practice

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 6, 2001

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

So I would like to continue and finish reading through the Bendowa with you.  The tenth question is an involved and complicated question, but what it amounts to is that the questioner is quoting an old Zen master, who says that the body is temporary but the mind is permanent.  "Isn't that the teaching of Buddha?  Isn't that the way we should understand?" he asks.  But Dogen says that is not the way you should understand.  He says,      

You should know that in buddha-dharma it is always being said that body and mind are not separate, nature and characteristics are not two.  [Like some essential nature, and then characteristics on top of that.  There is only one reality: mind/body, birth/death.]  In fact, the teaching about permanence says that all things are permanent, without dividing body and mind.  The teaching about cessation says that all things cease, without separating nature and characteristics. 

So, actually, there is a teaching in Buddhism about permanence - it's just that there is nothing outside of that permanence.  In other words, permanence and impermanence are seen to be two sides of the same coin.  When we think of something that is permanent, we might also think of something that is changing and not permanent.  For example, God is permanent, soul is permanent, but body is impermanent, and world is impermanent.  The permanence of impermanence - the permanence that leaves nothing out - exists in dharma. 

How can you say body perishes but mind is permanent?  Is it not against the authentic principle? Nirvana is not explained outside of birth and death. 

If you think that something is permanent and something is not permanent, then you think nirvana is something beyond birth and death.  Nirvana is right here and now, within the impermanent suffering.   

Even if you understand that mind is permanent apart from the body, and mistakenly assume that the Buddha's wisdom is separate from birth-and-death, this mind of understanding or recognizing still arises and perishes and is not permanent. Is it not ephemeral?

You should know that the so-called "dharma gate of the whole reality of mind-nature" in buddha-dharma                includes the entire phenomenal world without dividing nature from characteristics or birth and death.

It's a mistake to think that that birth and life is something, and death is something else.  It's odd to say, but that's the way we look at it: life is temporary, but death is permanent.  Death is an eternal condition, but life is something ephemeral.  That's not the way to look at it.  Death and life are completely bound up together.  There isn't any separating them.  It is one reality. 

All things and all phenomena are just one mind - nothing is excluded or unrelated.

I thought that was an interesting point.  Body-mind is one thing.  Actually, when we sit, we sit with the body.  We're mostly paying attention to the body, right?  The breath and the posture of the body are actually the best way to work on the mind.  That's the best way to soften and evoke the power and potential of the mind, because the mind and body are not two different things.  There is no mind floating in the sky, without body. 

What is the body?  We think the body as this discrete package in which we are somehow contained.  But if you sit closely enough, paying attention to the body, you see that you can't find the body anywhere.  There's a sensation, a feeling, a pain, pleasure; yes, it's coming and going, but where is that?  That's taking place in the mind.  So actually there isn't any body without the mind, and there isn't any mind without the body.  There isn't any body that is discrete and separate from phenomena arising.  The world is one reality.  Life and death - one reality.  If we want to live, we have to be ready to die.  If we want to face death, we have to know how to live. 

Moving on to other subjects.  I thought this would be an interesting question for us.  It is a very important passage to our practice.

Should zazen be practiced by lay men and women?  Or should it be practiced by home-leavers alone?

Home-leavers means monks.  And then Dogen replies:

The ancestors say, "In understanding buddha-dharma, men and women, noble and common people, are not to be distinguished." 

And then the questioner follows up and says:

Home-leavers are free from various involvements and do not have hindrances in zazen in pursuit of the way.  How can the laity, who are variously occupied, practice single-mindedly and accord with buddha-dharma which is unconstructed?

Surely this is not possible.  We often think, "I am so busy, and so much is going on.  I'm struggling to practice a little bit, but compared to these other guys, they're really doing it.  They are really able to do it, but we, because of the difficulties of our situation, can't seem to get out of here, so we're stuck.  We're doing our best here, but can we really do it?"  Dogen answers,

Buddha ancestors, out of their kindness, have opened the wide gate of compassion in order to let all sentient beings enter into realization.  Who among humans and heavenly beings cannot enter?  If you investigate olden times, the examples are many. 

And then he lists a number of examples - emperors and ministers, who carried out their duties faithfully in the world and also realized the way of the buddha ancestors. 

This just depends on whether you have the willingness or not.  It does not matter whether you are a lay person or home-leaver. 

He says it does not matter one bit whether you are a home-leaver or a lay person.  It's just those who come to this practice and do it, regardless of their station.  And this is the beautiful part: 

Those who regard worldly affairs as a hindrance to buddha-dharma only think that there is no buddha-dharma in the secular world, and do not understand that there is no secular world in the buddha-dharma.

Did you get that?  It's a little hard to understand.  I had to read this several times this weekend.  That's how Dogen writes - switching phrases around, always reversing like that in a funny way.  "Those who regard worldly affairs as a hindrance to buddha-dharma only think that there is no buddha-dharma in the secular world."  So the world is a mess.  There's no holiness in the world.  Everybody's going too fast.  We say, "I have to go over here to the faraway place to practice where it's peaceful, because there's no place to practice in the world, because it's hopeless.  That's why I am running to this far away place, where it's peaceful, and I can practice." 

Those who think that way don't "understand that there is no secular world in the buddha-dharma."  In other words, there's only buddha-dharma.  The secular world that we think is something other than buddha-dharma doesn't actually exist.  So we're all living in a monastery.  We're all practicing thoroughly as monks, whether we know it or not.  Maybe most of the people in the world, of course, don't feel that way at all.  Nevertheless, it is also true for them.  Because, think about it.  Could the truth only be in certain corners of the world?  Only over here?  The truth of existence is only in Thailand?  It makes no sense to think like that.  "In Thailand there's the truth, but over here the truth is absent, because of the stock market or something." [Laughter]

The truth of existence - that dharma is always arising in existence - is the dharma.  So we have to recognize that when we think we're caught in the midst of the world and the dharma is elsewhere, that what we're really caught in is our own thinking, our own concepts.  In reality, whatever you are or think you are doing, is just your cover story.  It's just your particular story, your particular description of dharma.  It's your particular way of explaining how you practice dharma.  In the end, and I think that we have to look at it that way, everything in our lives is the stuff of the way.  It's the stuff we need to practice the way.  Our problems, our difficulties, our limitations - all the things that we think are preventing us from practicing sufficiently - are actually the stuff that we need.  Those are our bells and gongs and robes and whistles for practice.  Because there is no world.   There is only dharma.  There is only the truth of existence - arising, abiding, and passing away - equally manifesting in each one of us, in every place and time, without exception.  That's the dharma, the pattern of life.   Arising and passing away, everywhere.  So whatever our situation is, we have to realize that's what it is.  And it really is that.  We get caught, knotted up on the surface of things, forgetting that everything is just a manifestation of that one source. 

So it really doesn't matter.   According to karma, one is a monastic or a home person, according to the situation, according to the circumstances.  So there are differences in circumstances, but whatever your circumstances are, you use those circumstances as your world of buddha-dharma. 

Recently, there was a high official of Great Song [dynasty in China], Minister Feng, who was advanced in the ancestors' way.  He once wrote a poem concerning himself: "I enjoy zazen between my official duties, and seldom sleep lying on a bed. [Staying up all night doing zazen.]  Although I appear to be a minister, I'm known as a Buddhist elder throughout the country."

See, cover story.  "I look like a minister, I know, but I'm not.  I'm not a minister.  I'm really a Buddhist elder.  I take care of my official duties, but I'm always doing zazen."  Now, I think it's okay to sleep a little bit too.  But that's what he said.  Maybe he was exaggerating.  I don't know.  

Although he was busy in his official duties, he attained the way because he had a deep intention towards the buddha way. Considering someone like him, you should reflect on yourself and illuminate the present with the past.  [Be inspired by his example and let it shine into your life.]      

Then someone asks,

In buddha-dharma, if you comprehend the meaning of "Mind itself is buddha" [which is true], that will be sufficient without chanting of sutras or practicing the buddha way.  To know that buddha-dharma originally lies in the self is the completion of attaining the way.  Other than this, you need not seek from anyone else.  Why should you be troubled with practicing zazen and pursuing the way?

Good question!  Dogen says,

This statement is entirely groundless.  If what you say is true, then everyone who has a mind would immediately understand the meaning of buddha-dharma.  You should know that buddha-dharma is to be studied by giving up the view of self and other.

Now let me illuminate this explanation with an excellent case of an old master:

          Once a monk called director Xuanze was in the assembly of Zen master Fayan. 

          Fayan asked him,"Director Xuanze, how long have you been in my community?"

          Xuanze said, "I have been studying with you for three years."

The master said, "You are a latecomer.  Why don't you ask me about buddha-dharma?"

 Xuanze said, "I cannot deceive you, sir.  When I was studying with Zen master Qingfeng, I mastered the place of ease and joy in buddha-dharma."

In other words, "The reason I haven't asked you anything, teacher, is that I already figured it out, and I didn't mention this to you, but I actually studied for awhile with Zen master so-and-so over there.  I'm here, but I really don't need any teaching from you, so thank you very much." 

Fayan said, "With what words did you enter this understanding?"

And this is kind of interesting, implying that you enter the understanding with words, which is actually very common in the stories and phrases.  Dharma phrases or dharma words are actually used as devices to reach understanding.  So this is interesting.  You could say there are three things here.  One is "no words."  The other is "ordinary words" - discursive words based on thinking and logical, accumulated knowledge.  And the third is "dharma words" - words that are not words of accumulation of knowledge, but are words that through contemplation we come to understanding.  Believe me; some of you have such words in your heart.  Maybe you heard once a word in a dharma talk, or maybe you once read a word in a Zen book, or maybe another book that had nothing to do with Zen.  The word went deep inside of you and became revolutionary in your life.   So he asked, "What words did you experience that you are reporting to me?"

Xuanze said, "When I asked Qingfeng, ‘What is the self of a Zen student?' he said, ‘The fire god is here to look for fire.'" [That's the phrase that awakened him.]

 Fayan said, "That is a good statement.  But I'm afraid you did not understand it."

 Xuanze said, "The fire god belongs to fire. [And is fire.] So I understood that the fire looks for fire and self looks for self."

In other words, the fire god is searching for fire.  It's like the story in the Lotus Sutra, where a man has a jewel sewn inside his clothing, and he is running around everywhere looking for the jewel, but it is inside his clothing, and he doesn't know that.  Or like saying, that which we seek in our practice is causing us to look in the first place.  We wouldn't be looking for awakening, if it wasn't awakening pushing us to look for it.  Right?  That's why we're all here.  We're here because it's dharma that's got us.  That's why we're sitting in our seat here.  It's dharma that arose up in us and made us - whether or not we knew that was what it was - it was dharma that brought us here.  So, therefore, the fire god, who is already fire, is looking for fire.  The self is already the buddha, so it pushes us here. 

"So that's what I understood.  I had my doubts, but what's wrong with that?" Xuanze is saying.  "That's what I understood.  Do you have a problem with that?"        

The master said, "Indeed you did not understand.  If buddha-dharma were like that, it would not have been transmitted untilnow."

In other words, no, no.  That explanation is not right.  Well, Xuanze was distressed and he left. "I'm getting out of here."  This often happens in the stories, you know.  It's a very typical thing.  He left, and on his way out, going some miles away, hiking on a trail, he thinks to himself:

The master is a renowned teacher in this country, a great leader of five hundred monks.  His criticism of my fault might have some point."  He went back to Fayan, apologized, and he said, "What is the self of the Zen student?"

 Fayan said, "The fire god is here to look for fire." [In other words, the same answer.  He tells him exactly the same thing, word for word.]

 Upon hearing this statement, Xuanze had a great realization of buddha-dharma.

So, what can we understand from that?  Is it a trick?  Does he just want to humiliate him or something?  I don't think so, and you'll see in a minute, when I read Dogen's short comment on this.  Xuanze's understanding in the beginning was fine.  He did understand, but the problem was that he thought it was about understanding.  He thought it was about understanding something. 

Most of what we think is so stupid that we don't think about what we think, because if we do think about what we thought, we would realize how stupid it was, and we would stop thinking it.  But mostly we think, "Somewhere, elsewhere, or later, or over there, or within someone else, or just outside my reach - there it is.  It's all going to be perfect.  It's all going to be right."   We think some understanding will dawn on us, but no matter where we are, it is always that far away.  When we get to "there," it will also be just that far away.  So it's kind of a crazy thought, but we persist in that thought, because it's our habit to feel as if we are looking for something, but something is never sufficient.  So what we need to be looking for is nothing.   

So understanding is perfectly good.  We have to have understanding.  It's not that understanding is irrelevant; it's just that understanding is not sufficient.  What we really need is nothing.  We need letting go of all understanding, and just practice.  Just be willing to practice. 

Sometimes you find, practically speaking, people in the dharma who have a really good understanding.  They pretty much understand everything that you want to understand, and I don't mean just intellectually.  But their body and soul and bones haven't settled into the practice.  They haven't made the practice the pattern of their lives.  So even though they understand perfectly well, it doesn't make that much difference.  So what if they understand?  Big deal!  A lot of people understand a lot of things.  Right?  You should understand, but that's not enough.  You really have to become the practice. 

Somebody once said to me, "I've been doing this for so many years, and I think I'll quit.  So I'm quitting.  But then I realized that I can't quit."  And I said, "Why not?  You can quit.  Why don't you quit?"  And they said, "I can't quit.  It's become me.  I can't quit being myself."  Well, that's how it goes. 

So this is what we mean.  Somebody can have a beautiful understanding of the dharma, and somebody else could have no understanding at all, but that person whose body and mind are immersed in the way is closer to Buddha's heart than the person who understands very well.  He can give brilliant lectures, but so what?  So what?  Dogen says,

In this way, we know that mere understanding of "Self itself is buddha," [Which is a true thing; which is a profound thing.  It's not a trivial thing.  It is profound.] is not knowing buddha-dharma.  If the understanding of "Self itself is buddha" were buddha-dharma, Fayan would not have given such criticism or guidance.  You should just inquire about the rules of practice as soon as you meet a master, single-mindedly practice zazen, and pursue the way, without leaving a half understanding in your mind.  [In other words, just forget about understanding, and just practice the way with a teacher.  Find out how to do it, and just do it.]  Then the excellent art of buddha-dharma will not be in vain.

So, I think that's good for us too.  Not to worry about something we are going to get - whether it is understanding or illumination or experience.  All those things are important.  I don't mean to denigrate them.  It's just that those are not the things that fundamentally settle us in the buddha-dharma.  Those are helps and aids and watersheds on the way.  But they are not the way.  The way is to practice whole-heartedly - with love, with openness.  And to put into practice in everyday life what we find on our cushion, so that our zazen is not just on the cushion, but extends everywhere and all the time - in all our relationships and in all our activities.  The way to practice is to feel that there is nothing else but continually doing that, all the way up to the last moment of life. 

That's the way that Dogen is speaking about in Bendowa