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Dogen on Truth – Second talk of St. Dorothy Sesshin 2008

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 10/20/2008
In Topics: Dogen Studies

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


Dogen on Truth (1 of 2)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 20, 2008

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

So I thought I would take some days during the sesshin to read with you this fascicle of Dogen's called Dotoku. This is the Nishijima translation, and I'm limited to this one, because I didn't bring any others. Dogen translates Dotoku as "Expressing the truth." Here is Nishijima's footnote to the two characters that form the title of this fascicle:

Two meanings of do [Pronounced do in Japanese and dau in Chinese. Same character, but different pronunciations, and the same meaning in both languages] are relevant in this compound. One, "to speak" or "to express something with or without words." [So the word do in Japanese also has the meaning of "to speak." The word for "way" or "truth" also means "to speak or express," but with or without words.] And two, it means "the way" or "the truth." The other character, toku, also has two meanings. One, "to be able to do something," or "to be possible." And two, "to grasp, to get, to attain, attainment, and by extension, attainment of the truth itself." As an expression in Buddhism, dotoku means, "Expressing the truth, saying what one has got," or "speaking attainment."

This is one of the things I am always talking about. There isn't this thing called "dharma," or "Buddhism," or the "truth" – this thing out there, that exists, somehow floating somewhere, which we then make manifest. It doesn't exist other than being made manifest. So that's why it is so important that we manifest and express the teachings. If we think of the teachings as something outside ourselves that we're trying to get and understand, and if we don't realize that it is something that we have to be and express, and that it is through our expression and our being it that it comes alive, then we're really missing the point.

So there is no do without toku. There is no truth without expressing the truth. That's the sense of the title. Dogen writes,

The buddhas and the ancestors are the expression of the truth. [So they are that. There's nothing that they do, beyond being what they are. Their whole life, the whole manifestation of their lives, is that expression.] Therefore, when Buddhist ancestors are deciding who is a Buddhist ancestor, they're always asking, "Do you express the truth or not?"

The buddha ancestors' job is to raise this question by their activity – to call us into question and ask us to express the truth. That's how they help us. Their lives are the expression of the truth, and their specific commitment is to raise this question for us. Do we express the truth or not?

They ask this question with the mind. They ask it with the body. They ask it with a staff and a whisk. [We might say they ask it with an orioki bowl and spoon, or a bell, or a striker, or a spatula in a pot in the kitchen.]

In other words, when we are asked whether or not we express the truth, we think of this as a cognitive thing. Somebody comes up and asks us whether we express the truth, and we're supposed to come up with the answer to that, as if we were in school. But this is a different thing. Yes, the buddha ancestors ask it with the mind, but they also ask it with the body, and they ask it with a pot and a spatula. It is a question being asked as we move through the kitchen.

They also ask it with outdoor pillars and stone lanterns. [Or we could say we also receive this question from the trees and the hills and the leaves on the path and the buildings.] In other buddha ancestors the question is lacking, and the expression of truth is lacking, because the reality is lacking.

So I guess you could take that in two ways.One way is: too bad for the other people who don't know what we know – they're missing out. Or, you could take it that everybody is included. Who is not included in the category of buddha ancestors? Everybody is included.

Such expression of the truth is not accomplished by following other people, and it's not a faculty of our own ability either. [How does it come about, then? If we don't follow others, and it's not a matter of imitating others, and we can't do it ourselves, then how does it come about?] It is simply that where there is the buddha ancestors' pursuit of the ultimate, there is the buddha ancestors' expression of the truth.

In other words, it's not others who show us. It's not our own ability that brings it forward. It is engaging in the process of following the Way, the path of practice of the ancients – which means everybody – that this expression of truth will arise.

In the past they have trained inside that very state of expressing the truth and have experienced it to the end.

The ancients have engaged fully in this way, so much so, that it disappeared. It dissolved. And this is the wonderful thing about practice – it disappears. After awhile there isn't any practice anymore. And that's wholehearted effort. As long as there is some practice to do, there's more effort to be made to let go and to come to the end of practice. So practicing fully is to come to the end of practice, so that practice disappears, and there's nothing – just living and dying. "Practice" is just some extra word that somebody puts on top of that, because we seem to need it from time to time, but actually there's nothing there. So these buddha ancestors trained inside this, and they came to the end of it. And they're still making effort. And they're still pursuing the truth inside that state. So the buddha ancestors are still exerting their effort all the time. Having come to the end of effort, having come to the end of practice, they continue going on.

When buddha ancestors, through making effort to be buddha ancestors, intuit and affirm a buddha ancestor's expression of the truth, this expression of the truth naturally becomes three years, eight years, thirty years, or forty years of effort, in which it expresses its truth with all its energy.

So it's as if he were talking to us. Some of us here have been inspired by this and have been making effort three years. Some of us eight years. Some of us thirty years. Some of us nearly forty years. It becomes that as time goes on, and time becomes the agency of practice. The expression of the truth turns into three years or eight years or thirty years.

During this time, however many tens of years it is, there is no discontinuation of expressing the truth.

This is what I was talking about before – the importance of continuity. In our practice this is perhaps the most emphasized aspect – continuity of practice, being there every moment with your life. And, of course, Dogen means this in the widest possible sense. Even when you lose track of it, the continuity is still going on. You might have forgotten about it, but the buddha ancestors have not forgotten about it. Your life is still held in this container of dharma. It is very mysterious and very beautiful.

This is why it never surprises me when somebody comes along and says, "Twenty five years ago I went to the Zen Center, and I saw you there. I forgot about it all this time, and now it is time to come back." There are many different versions of this story. I realized that even for someone who reads one word in the dharma book, or encounters one moment of practice, the continuity never ends. Even if from their point of view they think they haven't been doing it for a long time, in the bigger picture of things, there is endless continuity. And, of course, effort and practice is to be aware of that continuity and to manifest it, so that we can be a light that illuminates others. And then they have continuity too. No matter how many years it is, there is no discontinuation of expressing the truth.

Then, when the truth is experienced to the end, insight at that time must be true.

So that's the test of true insight. It's not that it conforms with some pre-existing idea, but rather that it is the activity of experiencing practice to the end. Experiencing practice wholeheartedly, to the point where practice as an extra thing has fallen away, and there is just whole hearted engagement. So full engagement means insight will be true. Even if insight differs from person to person, and time to time, with full engagement comes true insight.

Because it confirms as true the insights of former times, the fact is beyond doubt that the present state is the expression of truth.

So I think that when you really engage in the practice fully, experiencing it to the end, you realize and confirm for yourself the teachings. The insights of the ancients seem to you to be quite contemporary and make perfect sense. They don't seem outside of you. So you see the identity between the insights of former times and the present moment. You see how all of it is an expression of the truth.

The present expression of the truth is furnished with the insights of former times, and the insights of former times were furnished with the present expression of the truth.

When Dogen talked about the buddha ancestors, this was very alive for him – these people were standing next to him. They were part of his life, just as he is part of our life. He's useless without us. We have to illuminate him, otherwise Dogen makes no sense. And this is what we do for one another. Our lives illuminate each other. Lives from the past illuminate the present, and the life of the present illuminates the past. We redeem our parents and our grandparents and our ancestors through our present activity. And their activity, and the nobility of their struggling and suffering, gives us our life now. We don't really appreciate our life until we see all of them in us. Then we are really living our life. And then we are saving them, just as they, in their times, saved their ancestors as well. That's what Dogen is saying here.

When we give meaning to our own lives through spiritual engagement, we're giving meaning to the past. We're bringing the past alive in the present and honoring it.

So we're not just reading Dogen; we have a relationship. Sometimes maybe we're pissed off at him, and years go by, and we say, "Heck with him. I don't like him anymore. He's so troublesome, bothersome. Forget about him." Years go by, and Dogen is doing his thing, somewhere in the ancient past. Dogen is not just sitting there, doing nothing. He may be dead, but he is in full development all the time. So next time we go back to him, we see that he has improved quite a bit! [Laughter]

So these are active, ongoing relationships, just as Dogen had a very active and ongoing relationship with his predecessors in the dharma. We're grappling with one another, as we do with our friends. It's not always smooth and easy, but it's always real.

It is for this reason that expression of the truth exists now, and insight exists now. [Because of the whole past and the engagement of the past.] Expression of the truth now, and insights of former times are a single track, ten thousand miles long.

Actually, I'm astonished by this saying. It is actually a single iron rail ten thousand miles long. Suzuki Roshi also used this saying. Here Dogen's using it, and it sounds like a railroad track. But there were no railroads in the thirteenth century, and he is quoting this from ancient Chinese sources. Where did they get this idea of a single iron track ten thousand miles? Iron, I think, implying strength and endurance and power.

So this is the power. This is the source of our strength. We all know that just by ourselves we're not that strong. Any one of us is not that strong, and even all together we have a lot more strength, but even all together, we're not that strong. But when any one of us, and all of us together, really give ourselves to our lives and just be what we are, then we realize we are in solidarity with the whole of humanity from the whole ancient past. Then there's real strength. Then we really have the strength to endure anything, and we can just go forward. This is also an image of continuity, right? One iron rail, going on for ten thousand miles. We have that spirit of continuing our practice with strength, no matter what happens.

Effort now continues to be directed by the expression of the truth itself and by insight itself.

In other words, it's not that we're making effort in a frustrating way. "Oh, I'm not getting this right and I want to get this. How come they can get this, and I can't? What's the matter with me?" We're not making that sort of effort anymore. We're making the kind of effort that is directed by the expression of the truth itself. So there's a kind of serenity and matter-of-fact joy in ongoing effort in practice, because the effort itself is inspired by the expression of the truth.

Having accumulated long months and years of holding onto this effort, we then get free of the past years and months of effort.

It's as if the effort of the past can be very burdensom, because maybe now we are blinded by what we've experienced before and what we think we know. But the result of the effort inspired by expression of the way is that we are free of the past, even as we manifest the whole of the past in our activity in the present.

While we are endeavoring to get free, the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are all equally intuiting and affirming freedom.

So we're trying to get free. We're making this effort. We're not complacent. We're really struggling and striving and making effort to get free. And while we're doing that, and even though we are striving for it, we're manifesting it at the same time. It's there already, at the same time. This reference to skin, flesh, bones, and marrow basically stand for levels of depth. If you can imagine the skin, flesh, bones, marrow – a hierarchy of depth. So all levels of our living, not only at the spiritual levels, but also the material levels and ordinary, everyday levels are simultaneously operative. At all levels of our living, we're always making efforts to understand, to do the right thing, and in the very effort to understand and do the right thing, on all these levels of our lives, truth is being manifest already. In other words, we think we are striving for truth, but in the very striving, the truth is there.

Landscapes, mountains, and rivers are all intuiting and affirming freedom together.

Now Dogen widens the picture and makes it clear that he is talking about something beyond our intellectual efforts or what we consider to be our spiritual efforts. The whole world is involved. In other words, the whole manifested world is this process, and we share in it, and although we have our own human way, which involves intention and thought and language, it's a bigger question than that. The whole of reality is engaged in this as well.

At this time, while we are aiming to arrive at freedom as the ultimate treasure object, this intention to arrive itself is real manifestation. So right in the moment of getting free there is the expression of truth, which is realized without expectation.

So our very intention to continue to practice, which arrives in us by virtue of our past effort, and from which we are eventually freed, is already itself a manifestation. And so, in our moments of freedom, which come one after the other, we are expressing truth, even though we don't think we're expressing truth. This expression of truth is realized without expectation. So much of our own suffering and self-consciousness has to do with our expectation, which has to do with our self-judgment. Here he is saying that having this heartfelt intention to go on in living and practicing in this way is already manifesting the expression of truth without any expectation, without any self-consciousness, and without the need to be or do anything.

It is beyond the power of the mind, and beyond the power of the body, but naturally there is expression of the truth.

In other words, we can't do this. Our mind can't do it, and our body can't do it. It's beyond us, and yet it's there in our living. We don't see this in ourselves, but we can see it in others. We can see the beauty of others, even in their struggles, even in their suffering. Everybody is frustrated because we want it to be within our power. We want it to be in the power of our mind and our body, but it is beyond that, and so we struggle, and that very struggle is the expression of the truth. We just have the intention, and we make the effort.

When expression of the truth is already happening to us, it does not feel unusual or strange. [Nothing special. No big deal. It doesn't feel unusual or strange when we are manifesting it.] At the same time, when we are able to express this expression of the truth, we leave unexpressed the non-expression of the truth.

So this has all been sounding pretty good so far. We're getting hyped up about this "Yeah, yeah, the expression of truth. Expression of truth. This is good. I like this. I'm an expression of the truth, even if I don't try. It's in the body and in the mind even though it's beyond the body and the mind. I like this. This is good." But we've left something out. We haven't expressed the nonexpression of the truth, so we have to look further. We were getting excited and attached about the expression of the truth, but now we have to look a little further.

Even if we have recognized expressing the truth as expressing the truth, if we have not experienced to the end the state of not expressing the truth, as the state of not expressing the truth, ours are never the real features of the buddha ancestors, nor the bones and marrow of a buddha ancestor.

The point here is that we have to let go. In other words, in order to really express the truth, we have to be bothwilling to express the truth and fully and also completely willing not to express the truth. Because if we get hung up on expressing the truth, we won't be expressing the truth. We have to fully accept and embrace both sides of this equation. And that's really the truth, when you think about it. To really speak, you have to know how to be silent. If you're jabbering all the time, you're saying a lot, but you're not really speaking. A person who speaks words that matter is a person who knows how to keep silent. And also, if we want to act in the world, we must learn how to do non-action. Doesn't that make sense?

You could say, and I think it's the truth, that all week long we're learning by sitting here and doing absolutely nothing. We're learning how to be very effective in the things that we do in the world to help others in this lifetime. That's what Dogen is saying. If you really want to help, you have to know how not to help. You have to know how to leave alone. If you only know how to help, in the end, it's not really help enough.

So who would have thought of that? But Dogen brings this up. Even if you've recognized expression of the truth as expression of the truth, if you haven't recognized non-expression of the truth as non-expression of truth, then you don't really know the way of the buddha ancestors. So, isn't that wonderful?

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