Dogen's Continuous Practice 3By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jun 21, 2010
Location: Samish Island
In topic: Dogen
Dogen’s Continuous Practice Talk 3
June 21, 2010
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum, and Cynthia Schrager
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You can tell a lot about a person or about a culture by looking at that person’s relationship to the past. Do they think of the past as yesterday’s old news, pretty irrelevant, gone and forgotten? Or, on the other hand, do they slavishly imitate the past and honor the past, as if only the past mattered and the present didn’t count?
It’s always an important human question, because we all live in the past, present and future. As Dogen says in this essay, continuous practice is the practice of past, present and future. This is one of the main points that Dogen makes in this essay Continuous Practice. We illuminate the past with our activity of the present, and our activity of the present is illuminated by the past. The past is impossible and unimaginable without the present. The present is impossible and unimaginable without the past.
So our challenge in the present is to redeem the past; in every moment of the present, we either do that or we fail to do that. According to what we do now in relation to the past, a future appears as a new present. This is living in time.
For Dogen, the past time of the buddhas and ancestors is very much alive in his daily activity as a monastic in 13th century Japan. It’s probably really hard for us to appreciate how it must have felt for Dogen to live with the Buddha and Dongshan and Rujing and Parshva and all the ancestors of the past. He must have felt their presence in the daily round of activity of the small monastery Koshoharinji outside the imperial capital outside of Kyoto, where he was living at the time when he wrote this essay. He was about 42 or 43 years old and had been practicing the way since he was a boy, so he must have deeply felt the ancestors’ presence every day. He must have felt like he was meeting them around every corner.
The world that we live in now is centered on today and tomorrow; it’s probably impossible for us to feel the texture of what it must have been like for Dogen, for whom the past was alive and contemporary. This feeling for the depth of all of time, especially the past, is probably the main point of the fascicle Continuous Practice. Having the past so present is to have a powerful sense of calmness and settledness, a tremendous sense of the depth of each moment, a sense of acceptance and receiving of time. I think it’s hard for us to appreciate what that would feel like, because we live so much for today and tomorrow, pushing time forward. Living so much for today and tomorrow automatically produces a level of anxiety that I think was not known to Dogen, because he lived in a different sense of time.
Dogen devotes many pages to brief biographies of the sages of the past – living companions in Dogen’s everyday life. This is what he means by continuous practice: encountering the profound wisdom of the past as the present moment.
I’m going to read some of the things he says about the sages. He begins, of course, with the Buddha, whom he calls “Our Great Father.” And yesterday was Father’s Day, so it’s very appropriate. Happy Father’s Day to Buddha!
Compassionate Father, Great Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, was engaged in continuous practice in the deep mountains from the time he was nineteen years old. At age thirty, after practicing continuously, he attained the way simultaneously with all sentient beings and the great earth.
As you know, this is the Zen spin on Buddha’s awakening. When Buddha is awakened, he realizes that it’s not just him. All sentient beings, in the past, present and future, including ourselves, as well as the great earth, are awakened.
Until he was eighty years old, his practice was sustained in mountains, forests, and monasteries. He did not return to the palace, nor did he claim any property. He wore the same robes and held the same bowls throughout his lifetime. From the time he began teaching he was not alone even for a day or for an hour. He did not reject offerings from humans and devas. He was patient with the criticism of people outside the way. Wearing the pure robes and begging for food, the Buddha’s lifetime of teaching was nothing but continuous practice.
As Dogen describes it, the life of the Buddha is not the life of an historical figure. It’s not the life of some person of the past. It’s a kind of archetype. It’s the pure archetype of continuous practice – total devotion to practice and completely sharing the life of practice with others, patiently, quietly, continuously, selflessly. That’s the Buddha’s life, the whole of it, beginning to end.
Next Dogen tells the story of Mahakashyapa, who was one of the eighteen great disciples of the Buddha. Mahakashyapa is really important in Zen, because Mahakashyapa is understood to be the first disciple in the Zen lineage that flows from Buddha. And as we will see in a moment, Mahakashyapa is a real hard-ass ascetic, a real tough guy. So that’s why Zen likes Mahakashyapa, because he’s very tough. So here’s the story of Mahakashyapa:
Mahakashyapa, the Eighth Ancestor [after Seven Original Buddhas], is Shakyamuni Buddha’s heir. Throughout his lifetime he was engaged without negligence in the twelve ascetic practices. (1) Not to accept invitations from people, to practice begging daily, and not to receive money as an alternate for food. 2) To stay on mountains and not in villages or towns. (3) Not to ask for or accept clothing, but instead to take clothing from the dead in cemeteries, and dye and sew the cloth for robes. (4) To take shelter under a tree in the field. (5) To have one meal a day, which is called sangha asanika. (6) Not to lie down day or night, but to practice walking meditation and sleep sitting up, which is called “sangha naishadika.”
It seems unbelievable, but they actually followed these practices, and I think it’s still done in places today. It’s hard to believe isn’t it? They would sleep, but sitting up. This was something Dogen took note of because he practiced it. It was practiced in Rujing’s monastery when he went to China, so he practiced like this when he was in the meditation hall.
(7) To own three robes and nothing more and not to lie down with a robe on. (8) To live in cemeteries rather than in monasteries or houses; to sit zazen and seek the way while gazing at skeletons.
This refers to the practice of going to cemeteries and charnel houses and contemplating impermanence by hanging around dead bodies, and reminding yourself that your own body was of this nature. Don’t waste time fooling around when death comes so soon. Don’t forget.
(9) To seek out a solitary place, with no desire to lie down with or to be close to others. (10) To eat fruit before the meal and not after. (11) To sit in an open space and not to desire to sleep under a tree or in a house. (12) Not to eat meat or cream and not to rub the body with flax oil.
Well, I do that one. I don’t rub the body with flax oil. You probably do that too. So that one’s pretty easy.
These are called the twelve ascetic practices. Venerable Mahakashyapa did not turn back or deviate from them throughout his lifetime. Even after authentically receiving the treasury of the Tathagata’s true dharma eye, he did not retire from these practices.
Once the Buddha said, “You are old now; you should eat like the rest of monks.”
Mahakashyapa said, “If I had not encountered the Tathagata, I would have remained a self-enlightened Buddha living in mountains and forests. Fortunately, I have met you. This is a beneficent gift of dharma. So I cannot forgo my ascetic practice and eat like the rest of the monks.”
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