Norman speaks on Dogen’s “Continuous Practice”. This work is also referred to as “gyoji” in Japanese and is a fascicle of Dogen’s “Shobogenzo”
Dogen’s Continuous Practice
Zoketsu Norman Fischer June 27, 2010
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
A lot of people find the way we talk about Zen practice very strange and paradoxical. In general, the understanding of Zen practice is that there is no practice, although we bow, we chant a sutra, we offer incense, and we sit on a cushion in a particular way. We have very specific forms that we do that are the practice, but in actual understanding, these things are just one way of articulating our life. Our life is actually the practice. We chant a sutra, but with the attitude that there is nothing more holy in the sutra than there is in the sound of the ocean outside.
Life – real life – lived fully with a whole heart is the practice. We don’t think of Zen practice or religious practice as some special, extra, holy: something added on top of life. The forms are just a way to help us appreciate the fact that life is practice. At first, sitting on a cushion in zazen might seem pretty different from the activity of daily life, but after a while, we don’t really see it that way. We eventually see that zazen is the same as our everyday activity, which also includes breathing, being aware, sometimes not being aware, thinking, sometimes not thinking, being embodied. That’s what we do every day in all our activity, and that’s also what we focus on in zazen. So when you really come down to it, there’s not so much difference.
In Zen, the hope is not that we are going to get really good at all these forms or that we are going to be Olympic-level meditators, wearing robes, and looking better bowing. Our hope for our practice is that we will get to the point where there is no gap at all between our deepest goodness and our most sacred aspirations and the way we come across and act in ordinary events every day. However imperfectly we manifest it, we hope someday to be able to do that.
I am saying all this by way of background to an essay by Eihei Dogen called Continuous Practice. By continuous practice, Dogen means living our lives with full engagement, with our whole hearts. That’s his theme in this essay. Dogen opens the essay,
On the great road of Buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous, and sustained. It forms the circle of the Way, and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap. Continuous practice is the circle of the Way. This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth, the entire sky, in ten directions. Although not noticed by others, or by you, it is so.
This is the very lofty and beautiful opening paragraph. In using the phrase, “the great road of Buddhas ancestors,” Dogen says that practice is not a destination or a skill; it is a road, a way, the feeling by which we lead our lives. There is no standard or template for a human life. Every life arises on the ground of its own conditions. My life doesn’t look like your life, and your life doesn’t look like mine. But we both have the question, How do I truly live this life? How do I truly live what I’ve been given? That question, which we all answer in our own way, is the great road.
For Dogen, what’s really important is that that great road has been tread in the past by the great sages. He calls them Buddha ancestors, but he means all the great, wise people of the past, who have discovered the way to live a true human life, who have walked the great road and devoted themselves to walking it continually. There is nothing more wonderful, nothing more significant for a human life than this great road. It is, as he says, continuous, sustained, and forms “the circle of the Way, which is never cut off.”
The great road is also reckoned as a circle, because it is not going from point A to point B. We’re not getting somewhere or improving on a linear continuum. We’re going in a circle! The great thing about a circle is that with every step you take, you are always coming back home. It is the paradox of a circular path that every step you take, you are literally leaving home and then returning home. Life comes from nothing, and it returns to nothing. There is no beginning and no ending, though from our small, human view there seems to be a beginning and an ending. In fact, the circle of our larger life is never ending, never cut-off. No matter what we do or don’t do, we are always part of this great circle of life.
Dogen continues, “Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.” This is Dogen’s great insight, his greatest and most characteristic teaching. He is talking about the convention in Buddhism that says that you start out with the aspiration or motivation to practice. You begin practice when the great aspiration to practice the Way arises in you. The aspiration comes to each of us in one way or another, maybe through a dramatic crisis in our life or a lot of really strong suffering. Sometimes it comes through more run-of-the-mill and vague dissatisfaction with our lives. One way or the other, aspiration to practice arises, and then we practice. This initial aspiration is always considered as something very precious and very much to be prized.
There is a traditional view in Buddhism that after the initial aspiration, we go on to practice, and then after a while, we eventually achieve enlightenment – a transformation that makes us radically different. Then, according to these teachings, after we practice for some time, we get to nirvana. We achieve complete peace and letting go, and there is nothing more to do.
Dogen says, in fact, that’s not how it is. That view of enlightenment is too small-minded, too narrow an understanding of how this works. “Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.” All these stages happen at the same time, he says. So with the initial aspiration, however unclear it may seem at the time, all the rest is already there. Nirvana is already there. This is what Dogen means by continuous practice, this circle of the way. There is no advancing; there is no hierarchy of understanding or experience. To think so is to miss the most important point about continuous practice. Whether you are in deep samadhi on the fifth day of sesshin at Puget Sound, or downtown at a busy meeting, if you enter that moment of your life with full commitment and full letting go, that is aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, without anything left out. Practice is continuous and perfectly available on every moment. It might not feel that way to us at first, but it will. Eventually, we see that throughout various conditions, throughout various states of mind, practice is continuous.
Dogen continues, “This being so, continuous practice is unstained.” In later translations the word “unstained” is translated as “undivided,” because that is what unstained means in dharma. It means “without divisions, without discriminations, not forced by you or others.” This is a very subtle and important point. Although I am now talking about it, and you are now listening to me and thinking about these things, continuous practice cannot be identified with the concept of “continuous practice.” This concept would then become a standard, some kind of measuring stick, which would inevitably become imposed on you, and if somebody else didn’t impose it upon you, you would impose it on yourself.
Continuous practice is unstained and undivided. This is a very radical and thoroughgoing thought of Dogen. Think about it. There are no marks, no boundaries, no definitions of continuous practice, because continuous practice is exactly life itself. Whatever you or anyone else would impose from outside could only stain and divide your perfect life of continuous practice. Life is pure, and it is whole, so there is nothing to force.
When you sit in zazen, as soon as you try to shove your mind this way or that way, you see that it doesn’t work. It just makes things painful. What you need to do on your cushion is the opposite of that. You need to enter this moment and let go of all impositions that come from fear and confusion. You need to take a breath and relax into the present conditions. The whole essence of practicing zazen is forcing nothing.
Life, at every point, has its own imperatives, regardless of what you or anyone else has to say about it. So we know our thoughts and ideas as thoughts and ideas. They come and go. When you sit in zazen, you try not to let your thoughts and ideas tyrannize you. Sometimes you cannot prevent that, and if you can’t, at least you know what’s going on, and you don’t have to be quite as fooled by it as you were before. That’s what is so great about zazen. It’s such a simple, clear, human situation. There is hardly anything to worry about, except this moment of your life. Zazen makes it very easy for us to finally see this point with clarity.
Then Dogen says, “The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others.” Once you are simply willing to enter into a moment of sitting in zazen, letting go of your resistances and impositions and your concepts of what is supposed to happen, just giving yourself to the moment of your life, your life and the lives of others are always confirmed. Always. The world of right or wrong, of course, exists on a practical level. There is no living without discrimination and choice and preference. But containing all of that is the larger scope of life itself, existence itself. The feeling of this one, eternal moment of our lives. This is not preference – good, bad, right, wrong.
Giving yourself to this moment of your life is completely good, completely right. Always, utterly confirmed. You are confirmed, and others are confirmed equally in that moment. All the others. Not some of the others, like the “good Zen others.” All the others! What is, is. What happens, happens. This is not a complicated thing. It is simple, straightforward, and immense, if you pay attention to it. Always something to be grateful for. Here we are! We did not produce this moment of being alive. We do not have that much talent. We do not have that much power. By being, we are being confirmed.
The second paragraph of the essay says,
Accordingly, by the continuous practice of all buddhas and ancestors, your practice is actualized, and your great road opens up. Because of your continuous practice, the continuous practice of all buddhas is actualized, and the great road opens up for them because of you. Your continuous practice creates the circle of the Way. By this practice, the buddha ancestors abide as Buddha, non-abide as Buddha, have attained Buddha mind and attain Buddha, without cutting off.
This is something that we gradually come to appreciate as we continue on with our practice. At first it seems that our spiritual practice is about us: I’m the one who got interested in this. I’m the one who came to do it. It’s me on the cushion and my thoughts. I’m the one who is changing. This is my practice. That is how it feels, and that is completely reasonable and genuine. But after a while it dawns on you that this is not only about yourself. I’m practicing with other people and for other people. Other people really help me. They really inspire me, and they give me strength. My practice is not just about me, and these other guys happen to be around. Somehow they are influencing me, and I am influencing them. And they are caring about me, and I am caring about them.
That’s what happens as a natural consequence of continuing to practice. You begin to get it. This is not an article of faith or belief; this is something that you begin to feel from the inside. Our practice depends on, and is a reflection of, an extension of the practice of the buddha ancestors.
The Buddha, Dogen, and Suzuki Roshi are not historical figures of the past, whose teachings we appreciate. After a while, it actually feels like they are right here. It begins to feel as if we are living their lives in our lives, and that makes our lives feel different. We begin to realize that thanks to them – this is so strange, but this is what it feels like – we are becoming who we were always meant to be but never could become! Then it makes sense that after chanting a sutra, we dedicate the sutra to Buddha, Bodhidharma, Eihei Dogen and Suzuki Roshi – all the people who have transmitted the teaching. It is meaningful to you: Thank you, Mr. Dogen! Thank you Mr. Buddha! Thanks to you, and the life that I am living, I can be free of my smallness and really live my life.
The opposite thing comes into view also. The practice of the ancient sages depends on us.
Think about it. The Buddha’s practice, Dogen’s practice, Suzuki Roshi’s practice is all meaningless without us. Their practice literally does not exist without us. Our activity of the present illuminates the past. It actually creates the past. Without the present, there is no past, just as without the past, there is no present. The past is not objective. It is not an object that exists somewhere that you could go and find. The past is always in relation to the present and the future, and it’s changing according to the present and the future.
The buddhas and ancestors depend on us. We create their practice. Our lineage papers that we give at ordination and initiation ceremonies express this. If you open up the paper, you see that the Buddha is at the top, and from the Buddha, all the sages follow – ninety-two generations down to the present generation – and my name appears. Your name appears on that paper as the ninety-third generation. Then there is a little line that connects your name to Buddha. If you trace the line, it goes from the bottom of the page, then it sneaks around and goes all the way to the top of the page, and then it goes down to the Buddha. So the Buddha is your disciple. That’s what it means. Buddha is your student. You are the Buddha’s teacher. The Buddha is completely dependent on you for the Buddha’s life. The completion and fulfillment of the Buddha’s destiny will only come with your life’s energy and its effects.
Your continuous practice creates the circle of the Way. By this practice, Buddha ancestors abide as Buddha, don’t abide as Buddha, have Buddha mind, become Buddha over and over, and on and on, and it is never cut off.
Continuous practice is unstained. It doesn’t need us for it to be continuous practice, but if suffering is to be reduced, our practice is necessary. So we have to do zazen to remember continuous practice. It is, as Dogen says, the true place of refuge for everyone. He doesn’t mean here that everyone should be doing zazen. The truth is that this kind of practice will never be something that most of the people in the world will do. But that place in the heart that knows continuous practice and that loves it feels confirmed and met and comforted by reality at every point. At all times, that place in our heart is the true place of refuge for everyone.