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Dogen's Continuous Practice 2

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jun 20, 2010
Location: Samish Island
In topic: Dogen
Norman gives the second talk in a six part series on "Dogen's Continuous Practice" at the Samish Island 2010 Sesshin. This work is also referred to as "gyoji" in Japanese and is a fascicle of Dogen's "Shobogenzo"
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Dogen’s Continuous Practice Talk 2

June 20, 2010

Zoketsu Norman Fischer 

Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager 


I am continuing to read from Dogen’s Continuous Practice

Accordingly, by the continuous practice of all buddhas and ancestors, your practice is actualized and your great road opens up. By your continuous practice, the continuous practice of all buddhas is actualized and the great road of all buddhas opens up. Your continuous practice creates the circle of the way. By this practice, buddha ancestors abide as buddha, not-abide as buddha, have buddha mind and attain buddha without cutting off.

So this is something that dawns on us as we continue to practice. At first, one shows up and it seems as if your practice is about you. It’s about your life. You’re the one who’s doing it, and it’s your practice. I think that’s what it feels like to all of us at first. But after a while of going on with practice, you begin to notice that actually you are not doing your practice; you are practicing with others. It’s not about your practice, it’s the practice you are doing with others, and after a while it begins to dawn on you that you are also doing the practice for others. You begin to notice that others inspire you and encourage you, and their practice is really part of who you are now and part of what you value in practice.  

And still later – and this is what Dogen is speaking about here – the circle of practice extends even further, and you see that it is an extension of the practice of the sages of the past. It becomes clear to you that when we say the word “Buddha” or “Dogen” or “Suzuki Roshi” or “all the sages of the past,” we’re not really talking just about historical figures whose wisdom and teachings we appreciate. It begins to feel more personal than that. It begins to feel as if they are here with us. It begins to feel as if their lives are present in our lives.

We feel a sense of gratitude that it’s thanks to them that we are gradually becoming who we are most truly meant to be. Little by little, we’re becoming that person, and it’s thanks to them, and their lives within us, that this is happening. This is why it makes sense that we express our gratitude to them in every service. Buddha, Bodhidharma and Suzuki Roshi brought the dharma from four countries, and it’s thanks to them that we are becoming who we have always needed to be.

As Dogen goes on to say, the opposite of this truth also comes into view, that the practice of the ancient sages depends on us. The Buddha depends on us for his practice. His practice, Suzuki Roshi’s practice and Dogen’s practice literally don’t exist without our effort. Our activity of the present illuminates the past and creates the past. Without the present, there is no past. Just as without the past there is no present. The past is not an object, a thing that exists somewhere. So the past is changing and coming alive according to the present effort.

Our lineage papers express this profound fact. If you open one of these papers up, you will see Buddha at the top. From the Buddha, all the different sages of the past flow through India, China and Japan. Ninety-two names, ninety-two generations, that come down to me and then you. When you receive the Precepts, your name is in this lineage. There is line that connects your name back to the top to the Buddha.

So that means that you are a student of the Buddha, but also the Buddha is a student of you. You are actually the Buddha’s teacher. The Buddha is completely depending on you for his life, as are the other ninety-two generations, myself included, all depending on you for our life. The completion of the Buddha’s destiny and of all the masters of the past will only come through your life’s energy and effort and its effects.

Because of this practice, there are the sun, the moon, and the stars. Because of this practice, there are the great earth and the open sky. Because of this practice, there are body, mind, and their environs [the human world]. Because of this practice, there are the four great elements and the five skandhas. Continuous practice is not necessarily something people in the world love, but it should be the true place of return for everyone. Because of the continuous practice of all the buddhas of the past, present and future, all buddhas of the past, present and future are actualized.

I find this really inspiring. The sun, moon and the stars depend on our continuous practice. This is his most important teaching: “Continuous practice is unstained, undivided, not limited physically or conceptually and yet fully expressed by the physical and conceptual world.” So it’s not that there is a causal connection in a conventional way between our sitting sesshin and the sun and the moon and stars staying up in the sky. The sun, moon and the stars are already themselves continuous practice. This great round of being is already itself continuous practice. Whether we do sesshin or not, continuous practice goes on.

The effect of such sustained practice is sometimes not hidden. Therefore, you aspire to practice. The effect is sometimes not apparent. Therefore, you may not see, hear, or know it. You should understand that although it is not revealed, it is not hidden.

Dogen is talking very specifically about something that is essential in all religious practice: as human beings we face a truth that is by its nature inaccessible to us. So then, you might think, the whole thing is irrelevant. What would be the point in trying to understand or know what is incomprehensible and unknowable? What would be the point? Why not just set all that aside and go ahead and live your life?

But also, as Dogen says here, it is not hidden and not irrelevant. In fact, one could say there is nothing less hidden and nothing more relevant. None of us know what death is, for example, and none of us ever will.  At the moment when what we call death is present, we will exactly be absent. And yet, the strategy of avoiding death and all considerations of death is not a good strategy. It’s thanks to death that we live. Life depends on death. Even though we can’t really understand these things, we feel them as experiential facts. If we pay attention in our living, we realize, that we cannot avoid them. Sooner or later we have to figure out how to situate ourselves within this. So we aspire to practice. As he says, it’s not hidden.

Continuous practice that actualizes itself is no other than your continuous practice right now. The now of this practice is not originally possessed by the self. The now of this practice does not come and go; enter and depart. [Even] the word “now” does not exist before continuous practice. The moment when it is actualized is called now. [In other words there is no now. There is only continuous practice. We call this moment now.] This being so, your continuous practice of this day is a seed of all buddhas and the practice of all buddhas. All buddhas are actualized and sustained by your continuous practice.

What really matters is the continuous practice that is happening right now in your life. It’s all very simple and concrete, if also conceptually ungraspable.

Let’s see if we can, in this moment, step back from my words and from Dogen’s words and just enter the next inhale and exhale – the moment of the presence of being alive, the next moment of continuous practice.

(a few moments of silence)

So that’s all there is to it. It’s not a big deal, but at the same time, you cannot understand it. It’s as concrete as your body and your breath. There is no past; there is no future; there is only continuous practice.

By not sustaining your continuous practice, you would be excluding buddhas, not nurturing buddhas, excluding continuous practice, not being born and dying simultaneously with all the buddhas, and not studying and practicing with all the buddhas. Blossoms opening and leaves falling now is the actualization of continuous practice. Polishing a mirror or breaking a mirror is no other than this continuous practice.

We do have an awesome responsibility. All the Buddhas are depending on us to take up the practice, so we have to do it. But it’s not a matter of “the pressure is on,” because we always do it anyway. “Blossoms opening and leaves falling” is Dogen’s beautiful, Japanese way of describing ordinary life, which is wonderful and beautiful. Wonderful and beautiful things happen every day if we pay attention. And also, if we pay attention, there is some sadness; there is some loss. Blossoms open and leaves fall. There is yesterday, today and tomorrow. There is love, and there is hate; there is good, and there is bad. The profound practice that we call living in time is just another name for continuous practice.

Even if you might try to ignore it [continuous practice], to hide a crooked intention and escape from it, this ignoring would also be continuous practice.

You can’t get away from it. This is Dogen’s way, something which you see so often in Dogen. He shows the breadth and depth of his understanding, his powerful compassion and his tremendous forgiveness.

The human world is full of crooked intentions. And it’s not just other people who have crooked intentions; we have plenty of crooked intentions. We see it inside of us and everywhere we look: greedy actions, violent actions, deceitful actions, actions blinded by narrowness and self-interest. And then there are those few souls, so profoundly twisted by hurtful action and woundedness, that they actually have tremendous energy to do bad things. They delight in it, and they can’t stop.

This has always been a reality in our human world, and it won’t work to cover it up with Buddhist compassion and loving kindness and pretend that it’s not there. It’s there. It’s shocking. It’s dismaying. But Dogen is saying that we accept it with no condemnation. There is no putting these things outside of us. It is all, without exception, continuous practice and not different from us.

In Buddhism, there is no concept of an independently existing evil force. There is only the continuous practice of body, speech and mind, and the actions and consequences that flow from this. So we do what we must do to protect ourselves and to protect others, and to reign in bad conduct, whether it’s our own bad conduct or the bad conduct of our society. But the spirit of this is not a spirit of condemnation. It’s a spirit of continuous practice.

To go off here and there looking for continuous practice appears similar to  the aspiration for [continuous practice]. But it is like leaving behind the treasure at the home of your true parent and wandering poor [and confused] in another land. Wandering through wind and water at the risk of your life, you should not discard the treasure of your own parents. While you were searching in this way, the dharma treasure would be missed. This being so, continuous practice should not slacken even for a moment.

Since continuous practice is only in the place where you are, there is no real need to run off here and there looking for it. While running off in search of continuous practice may seem as if we’re trying to fulfill our aspiration to practice, in fact the opposite is true.  So we could make the true statement that sesshin is completely useless. It’s superfluous. There is no need to go to all this trouble, because continuous practice is always as close as the next breath.

Unfortunately, although this may be true, we don’t know this. And because we don’t really know it, even though we can hear it and can understand the concept, when we look at our way of living, we’re not living as if this were true. But according to what Dogen is saying here, we do live it. We do live it anyway. It’s just that we don’t know that we’re living it.

So, in other words, even though everything is actually fine and there is no problem, it seems that we do need to straighten out. Most of us would agree that Yes, somehow or other, things might be fine, but I do need to straighten out somehow. So maybe we could say that the reason why we come to sesshin and go through all this is so that we could actually learn that sesshin really is useless. That is why we are here. I think one learns this. I am certainly quite aware of the fact that sesshin is totally useless, but I think it takes a while to learn this. I would say somewhere between twelve and twenty sesshins. Somewhere in there you get the idea, Oh this is really completely useless. It took me all this time to find that out.

Now what happens once you find this out? Once you find it out, you either stop coming to sesshin and just enjoy your life without all this trouble. People do that, and people having found this out, are living their lives quite differently. Or, more likely, you keep on coming to useless sesshins, because you find that sesshin is beautiful, and you want to come. We come to sesshin for the beauty of it.

Dogen says, don’t disregard the treasure of your own parents, running around looking for something. When he speaks of the treasure of your own parents, he means your own human heritage that comes to you from your parents, your culture, your language, and most especially your human body and mind, which are gifts to you from your parents. That’s how you access continuous practice. The body is so very, very wise. Even with all of its aches and pains, the body is wise. We can trust the body and trust the breath as our guide. Body and breath will show you the way to the specialness and the beauty and the depth of your own continuous practice.

He ends by saying that “Continuous practice should not slacken even for a moment.” So the good news, or the bad news depending on your point of view, is that you really don’t have to go to sesshin, because continuous practice is everywhere, even at the movies. And the bad news, or the good news depending on your point of view, is even if you do go to sesshin, that’s not enough. You don’t take care of your continuous practice by coming to sesshin, making a really big effort, and then going home and forgetting about it and going on with your life.

Continuous practice should not slacken even for a moment.” I often say in sesshin that we will have no breaks. That means that even the breaks are part of the sesshin. Every moment, even when you are lying down to sleep at night, is your practice. Please continue your practice all the time. Remain present and aware even when you are sleeping. And when sesshin is over, it’s not over at all. It goes on and on and on. There is no break from life. You will get your break soon enough. In the meantime, no breaks. There’s no break from continuous practice. There’s no break from the responsibility of being a human being.