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Dogen on Truth Part 2 – Third talk of St. Dorothy Sesshin 2008

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/21/2008
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Dogen on Truth Part 2 – Third talk of St. Dorothy’s Sesshin 2008. This talk os based on Dogen’s writing of “Dotoku” or “Expressing the Truth” as found in the Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross 3 volume translation.

Dogen on Truth Part (2 of 2)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 21, 2008

Abridged and edited by Rysuen Barbara Byrum

Life is so unspeakably complex and elegant and so radically simple, and language and thought are such blunt instruments. Language and thought are so unspeakably complex and elegant, and so radically simple – if we only could only appreciate them and set them in their proper balance. Skin, flesh, bones, and marrow – everything is deep beyond depth, and everything is right here on the surface. Right in front of our noses, every single day, ultimate reality is unfolding itself. We don't have to go very far to look.

In these few days of sesshin we've been trying to appreciate Dogen's teachings – trying to understand what Dogen is telling us. And about now I'm wondering if we have understood anything at all. Or, if we are, what is it that we are understanding? Or is understanding actually possible? Do we even know what we mean by understanding in the first place? These are the things that I am wondering about these days.

Maybe to understand is actually a feeling of understanding. Maybe that's what understanding is – a feeling of understanding. And what do we understand? Maybe we don't know anything! Probably that's right. Probably we don't understand anything. Nothing at all. But it is undeniable that we feel a sense of understanding. And we feel a sense of having being understood. Understanding and having been understood. We would be foolish to think that we could verify that we understood anything at all. Or maybe we have understood plenty of things, and they're all wrong. But actually that wouldn't really matter, because the feeling of understanding, the feeling of being sheltered, the feeling of being understood and appreciated, is unmistakable, and there is no denying this. This is of the nature of certainty – that we feel understanding.

It would probably be good to imagine that we're not actually understanding a word of Dogen at all. And, really, how could we possibly think that we could understand Dogen, over this unspeakable abyss of eight or nine centuries? In a whole world of culture and language, how could we possibly understand what Dogen felt and what he meant by what he wrote?

James is reading Hee-jin Kim's great book on Dogen, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, and he was quoting for me a passage from Kim, interpreting Dogen and the idea of meaninglessness. I think that's exactly right. Part of what Dogen wants to communicate to us is the meaninglessness of meaning. Meaning, if it really matters at all, must also be beyond meaning – just as we learned yesterday, to our astonishment, that expressing the truth absolutely requires nonexpression of the truth. And as we were also discussing yesterday, real speaking requires the ability to be silent, and true doing requires the ability to non-do.

Sometimes in his writings, Dogen dismantles the truth. He purposely takes it apart. The human truth, the Zen truth, the Buddhist truth – he reduces it, basically, to a pile of indecipherable words, on purpose. Every now and then we experience this as we read him. That makes us realize, as we get through our anger and our frustration and our feelings that we're stupid, how dependent we are on meaning and understanding and knowing. It's shocking to realize how dependent we are on these things. We see that knowing supports our self-clinging and our Frankenstein-like self-consciousness. Knowing strengthens our sense of security, even though we are full of anxiety all the time.

So meaninglessness is the meaning of meaning. It's painful only when we're looking for some two dimensional meaning to hang our hat on. But when we really feel meaning's power to transform us, then we feel meaning's meaninglessness, and we are absolutely inspired by it. Freed by it. And then finally we can relax. We know that there's nothing to worry about, and we can begin to feel our lives deeply and fully – to feel the feeling of our understanding.

So with this in mind, we will go back and read a little bit more of Dōtoku, Expressing the Truth. As we've been discussing in the seminar, we have been learning something about Dogen's technique of using a couple of stories, having a theme, using a couple of Zen stories, and then interpreting them in exactly the way that they were not understood before. He precedes all with a kind of introduction, in which he discusses the theme and sets the tone for the story. So yesterday we went over the introduction, and now we can read the two stories, and then read Dogen's comments on them. So, here's the first story:

Great master Shinsai of Jōshū preaches to the assembly, "If you spend a lifetime not leaving the monastery, sitting in stillness without speaking for ten years or for five years, no one will be able to call you a mute. Afterwards you might be beyond the buddhas."

Those are Jōshū's words. That's the story. Dogen comments:

So when we are "ten years or five years in a monastery," passing through the frosts and flowers again and again, and when we consider the effort spent in pursuit of the truth, that is "a lifetime not leaving the monastery"; the "sitting in stillness," which has cut all interference off by sitting, has been innumerable instances of expressing the truth.

So sitting in a monastery and not saying a word basically for your whole life is "innumerable instances of expressing the truth."

Walking, sitting, and lying down, "without leaving the monastery" may be countless instances of "no one being able to call you a mute." [Meaning constantly speaking. No one will be able to say you haven't been speaking all the time, if you sit for your whole lifetime in a monastery and don't say anything.] But we do not know where "a lifetime" comes from; if we cause that lifetime not to leave the monastery, it will be "not leaving the monastery."

And then there's my favorite line in the whole thing. Dogen says,

But what kind of path through the sky is there between "a lifetime" and "a monastery?"

Isn't that a wonderful thing to say? "What kind of path through the sky is there between a lifetime and a monastery?" I think you appreciate in sesshin that so many things we think we're finding out about ourselves are different in the next moment, and we can't say anymore what's going on. We realize all the time that life is really lived in silence, even when we think we're speaking. Even when we think we're doing something, there's a deep stream of silence flowing underneath. "What kind of path through the sky is there between a lifetime and a monastery?"

Sometimes people ask me, "Wasn't it really a hard transition from living all those years in a semi-monastic life? Without money, without any ordinary things? Wasn't it like a really jarring transition?" And the secret is – and I'll tell you now – the secret is I never actually left the monastery. I've never really been able to see the difference between the monastery and Penn Station at rush hour in New York City. It's pretty much the same thing. Of course, on the surface there is plenty of difference, but when you come down to it, it is pretty much the same thing.

So what kind of path through the sky is there between a lifetime and a monastery?

We should solely intuit and affirm "sitting in stillness." Do not hate "not speaking." "Not speaking" is the expression of the truth, being right from head to tail. "Sitting in stillness" is "a lifetime" or two lifetimes: it is not just one or two periods of zazen. [Every period is a lifetime.] If you experience five years or ten years sitting in silence without speaking, even the buddhas will be unable to think light of you. Truly, even the eyes of Buddha will not be able to glimpse you, and even the power of Buddha will not be able to sway, this sitting in stillness without speaking – because "you will be beyond even the buddhas." Jōshū is saying that it is beyond even the buddhas to describe as "mute" or to describe as "non-mute," that which "sitting in stillness" without speaking expresses.

So, "a lifetime without leaving the monastery" is a lifetime without leaving the expression of the truth. [So, life is expressing the truth, whether we are speaking or not speaking. Expressing the truth is a lifetime without leaving the monastery.] Sitting in stillness without speaking for ten years or five years is the expression of the truth for ten years or for five years; it is a lifetime without leaving nonexpression of the truth; and it is being unable to say anything for ten years or five years. [It's both, as we learned yesterday. Both must be included.] It is sitting away hundred thousands of buddhas. ["What are you doing?" "Oh, I'm sitting a bunch of buddhas away. I'm sitting the buddhas away."] And, it is hundred thousands of buddhas sitting away "you."

When you sit on your cushion, buddhas are sitting you away. And sometimes it feels like that, gradually being worn down by the buddhas, until there's nothing left! Pulverized.

In summary, the buddhas expressing the truth is a lifetime without leaving the monastery. Even mutes [even those who always remain in silence] can have a state of expressing the truth. Do not learn [don't think, in other words] that mutes lack expression of the truth. Those who have expressions of the truth are sometimes no different from mutes.

And here he means people who talk a lot about truth and about dharma might as well be mute. They're just jabbering. They're not saying anything. And the person who says nothing might be expressing the truth more.

You could hear their silent voices, and we can listen to their silent words. How could one who is not silent hope to meet with the silent, or hope to converse with the silent one? Given that they are silent, how are we to meet them, and how are we to converse with them? Learning to practice like this, we should intuit and master the state of silence.

So that's the first story, and the second story is not too long, so I think we have time to do this. The second story is also an unusual story. You're beginning to discern a pattern here, in terms of Dogen's provocatively citing these stories that have to do with saying nothing, as he writes his essay about expressing the truth. So here's the other story.

In the order of Great Master Shinkaku of Seppō there was a monk who went to the edge of the mountain [meaning away from the monastery, far away, because the monasteries are referred to as mountains] and, tying together thatch, built a hut. Years went by, but he did not shave his head. Who can know what vitality there was inside the hut? [Meaning there was a great power in his practice.] Though circumstances in the mountains were desolate indeed. He made himself a wooden dipper, and he would go to the edge of a ravine to scoop water and drink. Truly, he must have been the sort who drinks the ravines.

There's a saying in Zen, "Drinking the whole river in a single gulp," meaning completely turning the whole world, right here where you are. This is high praise for the hermit monk. In the monastic life there is a constant conversation between the conformity of the daily round of monastic living, which by necessity is a highly conformist, ritualized way of life, versus the freedom this life is supposed to foster. There have always been hermits, who are completely nonconformist. So that's the situation here. This monk is completely nonconformist, living in his own rhythm and his own way, and apparently with great insight and Zen power.

As the days and months came and went like this, rumors of his customs [of his practice] secretly leaked out. Consequently, on one occasion a monk came to ask the master of the hut, "What is Bodhiharma's intention in coming from the west?" [The typical Zen question to test someone's understanding.] The hermit said, "The ravine is deep so the dipper's handle is long."

In other words, our silent life is immeasurably deep, and that is why the world is so complicated, and gives us so many, many useful problems. The monk was staggered by this profound answer. He rushed back to the mountain and told Seppō about this encounter, and Seppō said, "I'll have to go to see for myself, and I'll go test him myself." So Seppō sets off to see him, bringing with him an attendant, who is carrying a razor, because, remember, the monk didn't shave his head. It is the commitment of a monk to keep his head shaved, and it's very nonconformist not to keep your head shaved.

So he goes with a razor. He goes directly to the hut, and as soon as he sees the monk, he says to him, "Express the truth, or I will shave off your hair." Dogen comments:

We must understand "express the truth or I will shave off your hair" seems to say that not to have the head shaved would be to have expressed the truth. [After all, the monk is expressing himself in his life – his lifestyle.] What do you think? If this expression of the truth is an expression of the truth, this hermit might finally go unshaved. Those who have the power to hear this expression of the truth should listen, and should proclaim it to others who have the power to hear.

And then hearing this, the hermit washes his hair and comes before Seppō to have his head shaved. Dogen comments:

Has he come as the expression of the truth, or has he come as the nonexpression of the truth? Seppō shaves the head of the hermit at once.

And that's the story. So Dogen now gives a little comment to the story.

This episode is truly like an appearance of the udumbara flower. [A rare flower that only blooms every thousand years or so.] It is not only difficult to meet; it may be difficult even to hear. It is beyond the scope of bodhisattvas in the seven sacred stages or ten sacred stages and is not glimpsed by bodhisattvas in the three clever stages or seven clever stages.

In other words, this is a great story. It's Dogen's hyperbolic, medieval Japanese way of saying, "Wow, this is fantastic! Nobody could touch this."

Sutra teachers and commentary teachers, and adherents of mystical powers and apparitions, cannot fathom it at all. "To meet the Buddha's appearance in the world" means to hear a story like this. Now, what might be the meaning of Seppō's "Express the truth and I will not shave your head." When people who have never expressed the truth hear this, those with ability may be startled and doubting, and those without ability will be dumbfounded. Seppō does not ask about "buddha," he does not discuss "the Way," he does not ask about "samadhi," and he does not discuss "dharani." Inquiry like this, while seeming to be a request, also seems to be an assertion.

In other words, Seppō, in his statement, is expressing the truth. "We should research this in detail." So whenever Dogen says that, he means sit with this as a koan. Really understand this for your own life.

The hermit, though, because of his genuineness, is aided and abetted by the expression of the truth [of Seppō] itself and is not dumbfounded. Showing the traditional style, he washes his head and comes forward. This is a Dharma standard at which not even the Buddha's own wisdom can arrive. It may be described as, "manifestation of the body," as "preaching of the Dharma," as "saving of the living," or as "washing the head and coming forward." Then, if Seppō were not the real person he is, he might have thrown down the razor and roared with laughter. [When he saw the monk coming forward, with his hair clean and ready for shaving, he might have roared out laughing.] But because Seppō has real power and is a real person, he just shaves the hermit's head at once. And truly, if Seppō and the hermit were not "buddhas alone, together with buddhas," it could not be like this. If they were not two buddhas together, it could not be like this. The black dragon's pearl is tirelessly guarded by the black dragon, but it rolls naturally into the hand of a person who knows how to take it. Let us remember [reviewing now] Seppō testing the hermit, the hermit seeing Seppō, expression of the truth, nonexpression of the truth, the hermit having his head shaved, and Seppō shaving his head. So, in conclusion, there are ways for good friends in the expression of the truth to pay unexpected visits. And between friends who are unable to say anything, although they do not expect recognition, the means are already present for their selves to be known. [In other words, through their saying nothing, and through their needing to say nothing, their communication is complete.] When there is learning in practice of knowing the self, there is the reality of expressing the truth. [In other words, expressing the truth does not need to be something extra or more than needs to be done.]

So I think this is a sweet story. I really like that story, and I remember hearing it many times, long ago.

So, as we learned, the expectation would be that this nonconformist hermit, when asked, "Express the truth, or I will shave your hair off," would express the truth. He would make an expression, and there are many Zen stories in which people do make an expression. The typical, ordinary Zen thing would be to make some powerful, individual expression of the truth. Dogen tells us that Seppō is expressing the truth himself, and the hermit monk expresses the truth through fully according with simple monastic decorum, rather than feeling he's got to express himself. He submerges himself as his expression. In other words, this is Dogen's wonderful paradox: How do you express the truth that transcends monastic decorum? Through monastic decorum. You express freely, without attachment to, without being stuck on. As an expression of freedom, you conform.

It might be a little deceptive, because when we hear a "shaved head," we might think this has to do with ordination vows, but it doesn't, because this monk is already ordained. It's just about custom and decorum. If, when the monk presented his head to be shaved, Seppō had laughed and thrown down the razor, then, as Dogen says, Seppō would not have gone far enough. He would have been making some personal expression; but to really own one's personal expression, one can go beyond it and simply express oneself through someone else's words – through a tradition, through a custom. So Seppō shaves the head, rather than laughing and being jolly, as would have happened in a conventional Zen story. So this is completely upside down. Dogen says that we can overthrow the monastic forms and express the dharma freely by simply taking up the monastic decorum, exactly as it is.

So, for all of us, the real trick here and the real lesson here is to be able to take up and put down, at the right time, whatever is appropriate to the situation. To express ourselves by being completely in tune with life as it is now, in this time and place. Sometimes it's about silence – it's about returning to a quiet mind, absolutely not talking, even when we meet a friend, and even when there's something to say. Sometimes it's like that. Like this week in sesshin. It's very simple and very quiet, and we express the truth with a wiping cloth and a setsu.

The point is, can we wholeheartedly pick up an appropriate response in a given situation, and put it down when life changes, so we are ready for every new joy and every new disaster?

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