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Dogen's Guidelines for Study of the Way Part 1 - Talk 2 Mar de Jade April 2013

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 07, 2013
Location: Mar de Jade
In topic: Dogen
Norman gives the second talk at the Mar de Jade April 2013 Sesshin on Dogen's Guidelines for Study of the Way (Part 1) as found in Moon in a Dewdrop by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
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Dogen's Guidelines for Study of the Way Part 1 - Talk 2 Mar de Jade April 2013

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 7, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager


This afternoon I was wondering, “I wonder what it is like when you are dead?”  Did you ever wonder that?  I think it was because in one moment I was very quiet, and for a moment I wondered, “Maybe I am dead.” Then I thought, “No, I don’t think I am dead.  I am still alive.” That’s when I wondered what it would feel like to be dead, because when you are dead, it does seem like it would be very quiet.  And we imagine that it would be very dark.  Don’t you think that when you are dead, it would be dark?  I think it’s dark, because there isn’t anything in the dark.  There is only nothing.  I imagine that being dead feels like nothing, and nothing feels like darkness.  I don’t know why, but it seems that way. But maybe not.  Maybe being dead is full of light and color and all kinds of interesting things.  But to me it doesn’t seem like that. 


What is nothing, anyway?  Who could say what nothing is?  As soon as you say it is something, it is not nothing anymore.  Even if it is darkness, that is already something.  Whatever it is, when you are dead, you aren’t there anymore to know that you are dead.  I guess that’s what dead is; you’re not there anymore.  But who could imagine such a thing?  Because when you imagine being dead, you always imagine yourself being dead.  You are there being dead, but you can’t be dead, because wherever you are, death can’t be there.  Wherever death is, you can’t be there. 


I realize that this doesn’t make much sense.  Maybe you are wondering why am I talking about this.  What does it have to do with meditation?  What does it have to do, after all, with your life, which is your main concern?  And yet, the fact that you have been born and that you will die is the most important point about your life.  That and your name.  That’s what they will write on your tombstone. 


This point is so important about our lives, and yet nobody has any idea about death. Nobody dies, and the whole thing doesn’t make any sense.  The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.  Of course, all religions have teachings about death and what happens after death.  Some religions say that you go to heaven and sit beside God, who is sitting on a throne.  Or, perhaps, you go to hell, where you suffer a lot.  Usually hell involves a lot of fire and heat, but, sometimes, freezing cold.  I think that in Dante’s Inferno, the Devil is frozen in a lake, right in the middle of Hell.  If I remember correctly, the Devil is gigantic. 


As we know, Christians have teachings about heaven and hell, but so do Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims too.  The Jews are a little lukewarm about heaven and hell.  They are kind of non-committal about it, but Christians and Muslims are very committed to it.  In their teachings, heaven and hell go on forever into eternity, which is either a very, very long time, or a very, very short time, or both simultaneously.  The Buddhist heavens and hells also last a very long time, but they are not eternal; they are temporary.  You may have noticed that you don’t have to wait until you die to go to hell.  Sometimes when you are alive, you trip and fall into hell, but it doesn’t last forever. Soon you are somewhere else with a new set of problems. 


It can’t be an accident that so many serious religions speak about heaven and hell.  Nowadays we have science, so we know that there are no heavens and hells in the locations that the religions promised that they would be. Still, there must be some important reason why heaven and hell are taught in all the religions.  It can’t just be an accident, and people are not entirely superstitious and foolish.  So I will leave my investigation of these matters there.  I think that we have discussed it enough already, and, anyway, one of these days, we will all find out!  Isn’t that something to look forward to… or not? 


Tonight I would like to begin studying with you another Dogen text.  It is called,in Japanese Gakudo yojin-shu, Guidelines for Studying the Way.  In this text, Dogen enumerates ten important points for practice.  Then he talks about each one in turn.  He wrote this text in his early thirties, just when he came back from China to Japan, and he was concerned in this text how to explain how to practice Zen to Japanese people at a time when this practice was new to them.  He wants to carefully lay out all the important points.  It would be good for us to study it too, because Zen is new to us as well.  Since it is a long text, it will take several talks to go through it. 


The first point is “You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.”  I am sure that we have talked about this many times.  In Sanskrit it is called bodhicitta. This is the moment when you realize that must take charge of your life and do spiritual practice.  That you can’t put it off anymore, and really it is important.  It’s more than just a passing thought.  We have many passing thoughts. Like that. This thought is different.  It’s one that leads us to strong commitment and action.  When this thought arises in a person’s mind, it means that for sure, eventually, they will become a buddha.  This is always the beginning of the story for every buddha, when the thought of enlightenment comes into the buddha’s heart.  Likewise for us it is like this in the beginning, when we realize that we must do something, and eventually it leads to commitment and vow. 


So Dogen begins by saying,


The thought of enlightenment has many names, but they all refer to one and the same mind.


Then he quotes the great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna,


The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.


This thought comes into you when you realize how unreliable and shaky is the ordinary world of birth and death.  When you realize that life is impossible, it’s not just you.  Maybe for a long time we might think that everything should be fine, but it’s just me.  “I keep having bad luck, or because I had bad parents, I keep messing up, and things don’t go right for me.  If I can just get it right and make the right kind of effort and get a little more luck, then everything will be fine.  Probably everybody else is doing just fine.  I am the only one who is having this kind of problems.”


You might think this way for quite a long time.  Or maybe you don’t think about it at all, and you just struggle through your life.  But one day you realize, “It’s not just me. It’s not just my problem.  Everybody has this problem, because the ordinary world of birth and death really is unreliable.”  There really is no way to get conditions just perfect for your life.  When we realize that, that is when the thought of enlightenment comes into our mind, when we realize that the path of spiritual practice is another way of life.


Dogen says,


Thus if we maintain this mind, this mind can become the thought of enlightenment.


A lot of times we have that thought, but then we think, “That can’t be right,” or we try to cover it up and distract ourselves with something else.  But Dogen says that this is a true thought, and you should cherish and strengthen it and develop it.  I think that maybe we are afraid that if we think like this, we will become depressed, and we will be in despair.  We will think that life is impossible and completely unreliable, and we won’t be able to do anything.  But Dogen says,


If you cherish this thought and develop it, it will lead to the thought of enlightenment and a strong commitment for the spiritual path.


          Indeed, when you understand discontinuity, the notion of self does not arise. 


What this means is that when you realize that every moment comes and every moment goes, that impermanence is a radical fact of every moment.  When you realize that, you have a sense of awe.  You can no longer attach to yourself as you did before. 


          Ideas of name and gain do not arise. 


What he means here is that when you see impermanence, you can no longer chase after all the things you were chasing after in your life before.  You can no longer cling to yourself, and cling to all the things that you think belong to you and that you want.  When you let go of that holding on, then your problems dissolve.  So he wants us to understand how that holding on to ourselves and all the things that we think we have, things we think we want, how destructive that is to our lives. 


Fearing the passing of the sunlight [in other words when we realize that time passes swiftly], we are going to practice the way as if our hair is on fire.


There is a quality of urgency here, because when we do the practice, we can overcome this kind of fire.  

When you think about how brief this life is, you want to practice just like the Buddha, who raised his foot.


This refers to a story about the Buddha.  It is a long story, but once the Buddha raised up his foot, and he held his foot up for quite a long time.  In other words, he kept being persistent with something difficult.  He didn’t give up.  He just kept on. 


When you hear a beautiful song sung by a goddess or a mystical bird [these are special creatures in Japanese and Buddhist mythology, who sing beautiful songs], let it be just like the evening breeze brushing against your cheek.


In other words, appreciate it, but don’t grasp it.  Let it go. Let it just brush by your cheek. 


If you see this beautiful face [and here he gives the names of the most famous beautiful women in Chinese and Japanese history], let it be like the morning dew coming into your sight. When you see the morning dew, it has already melted away, and it is gone.  Freedom from beautiful sounds and beautiful forms naturally arises when we practice. 


So we enjoy something passing, just as everything is passing, but we don’t grasp it.  Because when you try to grasp something that is passing, you can’t stop it from passing, you suffer a lot.


If you ever hear of stories from the past and the present, of people who have a small viewpoint and a lot of trouble, it is because they are grasping and clinging to themselves, and they have missed the Buddha way for their life.  What a terrible and regrettable thing this is for them. 


He is saying to think about it.  You have seen this with your own eyes.  Think about it, and apply it to your own life.  (By the way, maybe it is clear at this point that I am paraphrasing, so that I don’t drive Laura crazy with the more complicated vocabulary of the book.  Hopefully this isn’t too far from what Dogen is actually saying.)


Suppose you could expound great teachings, and you were a true master, but you had not given up the clinging, and you had not given up looking for your own advantage, then you could not call this the thought of enlightenment.  There are plenty of people like this.  Some say, “The thought of enlightenment is supreme, perfect enlightenment already.”  Even when they themselves are attached to their own advantage, they tell you, “Don’t be attached to your own advantage.”  Some people say, “The thought of enlightenment is the understanding that everything is included in all moments of your life.”  Some of them say, “The thought of enlightenment means that everything is empty and nothing has substance.”  Some of them say, “The thought of enlightenment is like entering the Buddha house.” 


In other words, they say all kinds of things about the lofty thought of enlightenment, but because they haven’t let go of their self-grasping and seeking their own advantage, they don’t know what they are talking about. 


So look at your own mind, and try to see in your own mind this feeling of grasping and needing something for yourself.  Does this thought in your mind feel like emptiness?  Does it feel like the Buddha realms?  Does it feel like everything in the universe is included in these thoughts?  No, it doesn’t feel like that at all!  It feels very small and very confining, full of anxiety, full of unhappiness.  There is nothing in that thought or in that kind of mind that you could call “the thought of enlightenment.”  So you can observe in your own mind and see that that’s true.


From ancient times, great sages have realized the truth.  Many of them lived ordinary lives just like you and me, without being distorted by this grasping and needing self advantage all the time.  Because of this, even in the midst of ordinary life, they could be free. 


The thought of enlightenment is the mind that sees into impermanence.  That is the most important thing.  This is completely different from the ordinary mind of confused people.  All the lofty thoughts about “empty” and “Buddha realms” and “everything included” all has its place.  You can enjoy all of those profound things some day, but first you have to have the thought of enlightenment.  First, you have to feel in your heart the truth of impermanence.  You have to see through your grasping and your clinging to self advantage. 


Even though it doesn’t go away [because it doesn’t go away until you are really a buddha], now you understand what it is, and you are no longer committing yourself to it.


That’s the difference: you are not committing yourself to it anymore.  You are committed to going beyond it, and that commitment is clear.  That is the thought of enlightenment, when that commitment is clear.  Then all that other great stuff comes.  But the people who are talking all this great stuff, but don’t have the thought of enlightenment, forget it.  So Dogen says not to be mistaken by all this. 


Think about this: If you don’t have self-concern and self-worry and self-cherishing and self-interest, what do you have?  Love.  Right?  Love is the opposite of need for me.  When you remove all these grasping, then naturally it means that your concern is wide.  Your concern is for others.  So when the thought of enlightenment comes in you, it is the thought of love. 


Now that we are practicing in sesshin, we should forget ourselves.  Of course, in ordinary life, you can’t entirely forget yourself, because among the many people that you love, you have to love yourself.  After all, you are a person too.  If you don’t love yourself and take care of yourself, how are you going to love all the other ones?  But now that we are in sesshin, we can forget about ourselves entirely.  We don’t have to make any decisions, and somebody is feeding us, and everything is taken care of, and there is absolutely nothing to worry about.


So we can do what we have been doing: we can return to ourselves.  Return to presence, return to body, and return to the breath.  This is how we will develop the thought of enlightenment.  Just keeping our eyes open, we will see that all of our problems come from grasping the self.  You will see in your own experience how every time that you have some suffering, it comes from grasping for something for yourself. 


When the feeling of the self arises, sit quietly, and pay attention to it.


So this is a very important point in sesshin.  When you find your mind spinning around with unhappy concerns, problems that you really think that you have that are causing you suffering, at that time, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Whose problem is this?  What is really going on here?” and you will see it in a new way. 


If you try to find yourself, you can’t.  Where is yourself inside your body or outside your body?  Your body, with all its hair and skin, where does it come from anyway?  It comes from your father and your mother.  It comes from an egg and a sperm, a tiny, little thing that amounts to almost nothing.  Can you find yourself in those little drops?  I don’t think so.  Neither does Dogen. 


Maybe it is in your mind and your thoughts and your awareness and your knowledge and your memories?  But I guarantee that if you look for yourself in those places, you won’t find it there either.  Maybe it is in your breath, which ties together your whole life.  But what is your breath, after all?  It is just coming and going.  There is nothing there that is solid. 


So what are you so worried about?  What are you so much clinging to and grasping so much?   When you are confused, you are clinging to absolutely nothing, and you are miserable.  When you are awakened, you are free.  You become attached to a self when it is not there. You become attached to some solid life, but you can’t find some solid life.  And you forget to practice the Buddha way, which is the one thing that you should be doing!  You let yourself be swept away by your confused mind, which is the one thing that you should not do.  You avoid the truth, and you get mixed up in confusion.  What a mess!


That’s what Dogen has to say about the first point, “Arouse the mind of enlightenment.”


The second point:


Once you hear the teaching, you should practice the teaching without fail.   Even if there is a loyal servant of the King, and the loyal servant offers some good advice, and the King accepts the advice, it can change the destiny of the whole nation.  If a buddha gives good practice advice, and you take the advice, it will turn your whole mind around.  A bad king is someone who does not listen to good advice from their servant. 


We shouldn’t be that way.  When we are offered some good teaching, we should step forward and make use of it.  If you are stubborn, and you insist on your own point of view, and when you don’t listen to something that you know to be true, and as they say, “It goes in one ear and out the other,” and you go on listening to your same old story, on and on and on, then you will be floating along in birth and death.  Often the waters of birth and death are very turbulent, but you will float along until you sink.  If you don’t listen to good teachings, you can’t raise virtue in your life. 


This is important not only for you and your life, but for all of us together. 


I was thinking the other day that for a long time people believed in some kind of magical politics.  “When the right revolution happens, everything will be fine after that.  When we elect the right president, everything will be good.”  It seems that now this is fairly unbelievable, isn’t it?  We can’t really believe in this type of thing anymore.  We can elect better presidents, and certainly we should, but I don’t think that there is going to be any magic. 


So how are we going to have a world that we can survive in?  Only when people become decent. More and more people become wise, and not so frightened and anxious, that they can easily be talked into doing very stupid things, or being talked into acquiescing into accepting bad and corrupt leadership.


Your happiness and your wisdom, and your letting go of your self-clinging that causes you so much unhappiness, is not only for yourself.  As more and more of us have the courage to open our hearts, the world will become better.  It will certainly become better in our hearts.  It will become better in our families, and, eventually, everywhere.  It doesn’t need to be every single person on earth who opens his heart, only a certain number.  I think around two billion!  That’s all we need: two billion people, who have the courage of real love. There probably already are maybe one billion. I just made that up, but there are a lot already, so all we need is a few more!  Maybe those of us sitting here are it; we will go over the line, when we do it.  I never thought of that before, but it could be. 


So even if you don’t want to make this effort for yourself because you are too lazy, do it for everybody else, because I think we need it.