Norman gives the fourth talk in a six part series on “Dogen’s Continuous Practice” given at the Samish Island 2010 Sesshin. This work is also referred to as “gyoji” in Japanese and is a fascicle of Dogen’s “Shobogenzo”
Dogen’s Continuous Practice
June 22, 2010
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum, and Cynthia Schrager
Continuing with our reading of Continuous Practice, Dogen next gives us the biography of Huineng, the sixth ancestor. Huineng is not an important person in the monastery. He is relegated to the storeroom, where he pounds and grinds rice. But he’s singled out for receiving transmission secretly in the middle of the night from Hongren. Then Huineng leaves and goes on wondering for some years before he emerges in the world as the famous sixth ancestor. There is one interesting detail: Dogen says that the whole time that Huineng was wandering around, he carried the grinding stone on his back. Dogen says that even later, when Huineng did emerge as the famous sixth ancestor, “He did not neglect the grinding stone.”
After the biography of Huineng, Dogen talks about other important Masters: Matzu, Yunyan, Daowu, Yungju, Baizhang and several others. Briefly he recounts a few stories of their lives. As you read along, he is now talking about the Chinese ancestors. The point of the stories and the structure of the stories change a little bit. Instead of emphasizing only their ascetic efforts and their fierce determination, Dogen begins mentioning some dialogues of these ancient worthies – some teaching stories and encounters that they had in word and deed.
So this, Dogen is implying, is also continuous practice. Expressing, sharing and creating the way is the way itself for Zen practice. There’s not some specific secret to be understood; the effort to understand and the effort to express our life become the way.
I thought today I would start with one of Dogen’s dialogues: the story of Changqing Da’ an. I’ll start in the middle of Dogen’s text:
Changqing Da’an was called the Second Guishan. He said, “I lived on Mount Gui for twenty years. I ate Mount Gui’s rice and shit Mount Gui’s shit. I was not studying the words of Ancestor Guishan [Ling-you] but was just taming a water buffalo, wandering around all day long.”
And then Dogen comments on this:
Know that raising a single water buffalo is the sustained practice of living on Mount Gui for twenty years. Ancestor Guishan had studied in the assembly of Baizhang. Quietly think about and remember Changquig’s activities of those twenty years. There are many who study Guishan’s words, but the continuous practice of not studying the words of Ancestor Guishan is rare.
As I think we all well know, taming a water buffalo is a metaphor for continuous practice, our practice of Zen. The water buffalo stands for our mind and our heart. To us, perhaps, a water buffalo is pretty exotic, but actually the whole point of the water buffalo is that it is the most common thing in the world. In those days, and even now, in the countryside, in the villages and the farms of Asia, nothing is more common than the water buffalo. It plows the fields, hauls the grain and shits the fuel needed for cooking and heating the houses. So every day they depended on the water buffalo. But if you don’t tame the water buffalo, it can run amok. It can become stubborn and refuse to do the work that you need it to do; or worse, it can become a little unruly and trample down your house.
So training your water buffalo is necessary, careful, painstaking work. Now the buffalo is a domestic animal that wants to be trained. That’s its nature. It’s actually bred to be trained; nevertheless, it is not automatically trained. You still have to do the work. It takes time; it takes a lot of patience, a lot of diligent repetition, but once the water buffalo is trained, then we can just wander all day long. We can drink wine with the farmers and take a nap in the fields, and that will still be continuous practice.
Dogen says that studying the words of Guishan is not as good as not studying the words of Guishan. “Studying the words of Guishan” means conforming to standards, externalizing yourself, externalizing your practice. “Not studying the words of Guishan” means truly taking the words of Guishan into your heart and finding your own path of continuous practice.
Next I’ll read a page or so of Dogen’s biography of Zhaozhou:
Zhaozhou, Priest Congsen, who would later become Great Master Zhenji of the Guanyin Monastery, first aroused the way-seeking mind at the age of sixty-one.
It’s odd that Dogen says this, because as we know, Zhaozhou began practicing as a boy and found his teacher when he was quite young. Zhaozhou’s teacher died after he spent forty years with him. He was age sixty-one at that time. So Dogen says that Zhaozhou’s actual practice began then.
He traveled around, carrying a water gourd and a staff with metal rings on top [a monk’s traveling staff]. He kept telling himself, “I will inquire about dharma of anyone who excels me, even a seven-year-old child. I will teach dharma to anyone who has less understanding, even a hundred-year-old.”
Thus he studied and understood Nanquan’s way [and his words]. It was an endeavor of twenty years. Finally, when he was eighty years old, he became abbot of the Guanyin Monastery, east of the city of Zhao Province (Zhaozhou). After that, he guided humans and devas for forty years.
Zhaozhou did not write a single letter of request to donors. The monks’ hall was small and without front or back platforms. Once, a leg of a sitting platform [Zhaozhou’s teaching chair] broke. He replaced it with a charred stick from the fireplace, tying it on with a rope, and used it for many years. When an officer asked for permission to get a new leg, he did not allow it. Follow the spirit of this old buddha.
Zhaozhou became abbot after receiving dharma transmission in his eighties. This was authentic transmission of the true dharma. People called him Old Buddha. Those who have not yet received true transmission of the dharma are lightweights compared with Zhaozhou. Those of you who are younger that eighty may be more active than Zhaozhou. But how can you younger lightweights be equal to him even in his old age? Keeping this in mind, strive in the path of continuous practice.
During the forty years Zhaozhou taught, he did not store worldly property. There was not a grain of rice in the monastery. So the monks would pick up chestnuts and acorns for food, and they would adjust the meal time to fit the situation. Indeed this was the spirit of the dragons and elephants of the past. You should long for such practice.
Zhaozhou once said to the assembly, “If you do not leave the monastery in your lifetime and do not speak for five or ten years, no one can call you speechless. Even buddhas would not know what to make of you.”
So that’s the dialogue of Zhaozhou that Dogen is reporting. And then he goes on to comment:
Zhaozhou expresses sustained practice in this way. You should know that not speak for five or ten years may have the appearance of being speechless, but because of the merit of do not leave the monastery and do not speak, it is not the same as being speechless. The buddha way is like this. One who is capable of speaking but doesn’t speak is not like an ordinary person who has not heard the voice of the way. Thus, unsurpassable continuous practiceis not leave the monastery. Not leave the monastery is total speech that is dropping off. Most people do not know, nor speak of, going beyond speechless. No one keeps them from speaking of it, but nevertheless they don’t speak of it. They do not discover or understand that to go beyond speechless is to express thusness. How regrettable!
So that’s his comment on Zhaozhou’s words. As you all know, I am very fond of Zhaozhou, and there are so many great stories about him that we always love to tell. This one is a little bit more obscure than most. And it’s a good one for sesshin—not leaving the monastery, not speaking—because we are more or less in the monastery this week and also we’re not speaking. So it’s a good story for us this week.
The rest of the time when we’re not here in sesshin, we’re yacking all the time to one another, which means we’re interacting with one another. As we all know, there are many, many problems that come from this troublesome, beautiful and completely unavoidable human practice of speaking with one another. And you know, as soon as we open our mouths, it gets complicated.
So we all know about speaking and how tough that is, and we’re all trying our best to figure out how to do it in this lifetime, but we don’t know that much about not speaking – the speech of not speaking that Zhaozhou is talking about here. Not leaving the monastery means not leaving your true home, this present moment of being alive, this present intimate moment of continuous practice, in which we’re refraining from what we usually do: longing and lusting after what we want and what we think we need.
Will you please love me and tell me how great I am? Will you approve of me? Will you save me?
We are always saying this to one another in so many words. Not leaving the monastery is returning home to what is fully given and is fully granted in our lives. In the monastery we don’t speak, and there is no need to speak. There are no questions, and there are no answers. But as I hope we are seeing this week, and as Dogen says, not speaking is not the same as being speechless, being silenced. Conventionally we are aware of this problem of not being allowed to speak, of being silenced, of having our expression cut off. It’s oppressive. We feel diminished. We have to speak our truth. And this is so in the conventional sphere of human action.
But in the monastery, silence is the most eloquent speech. We express ourselves fully when we stand or sit or lie down, when we serve tea, when we eat a meal or when we go to the toilet. The whole world and the whole of the past and the future express themselves through our activity. As he says, when we are capable of speaking but do not speak, we are engaging in what Dogen is here calling, “total speech that is dropping off,” what he is calling “going beyond speechlessness to express thusness.”
I’m trying really hard not to be mysterious here. Continuous practice just means that we are committed to humbly returning always to our human heart, the heart that is always sufficient and satisfied, always firm and dignified, always compassionate and loving, without neediness and without grabbiness. And we all have this heart. It comes in the package with body, mind and human consciousness. So it’s not a mystery.
In remaining silent, we eventually become capable of true speech. As Dogen says, “True speech that is dropping off.” Speech that comes from love and freedom. A speech that is true and kind and healing. And this is not something that we figure out how to do or learn how to do. It is something that becomes natural to us, each one of us, when we activate our continual practice.
And Dogen finishes this little story of Zhaozhou with these words,
Quietly engage in the sustained practice of not leave the monastery. Do not be swayed east or west by the winds of east or west. The spring breeze and the autumn moon of five or ten years, unbeknownst to us, have the ring of emancipation beyond sound and form. This voice is not known to the self, not understood by the self. Learn to treasure each moment of sustained practice. Do not assume that not to speak is useless. It is entering the monastery, leaving the monastery. The bird’s path is the forest. The entire world is the forest, the monastery.
I am going to take up the fascicle several pages later, where he’s summing up all he wants to say:
In the continuous practice of the way of buddha ancestors, do not be concerned about whether you are a great or a modest hermit, whether you are brilliant or dull. Just forsake name and gain forever and don’t be bound by myriad conditions. Do not waste the passing time. Brush off the fire on top of your head. Do not wait for great enlightenment, as great enlightenment is the tea and rice of daily activity. [So in other words, don’t wait for it, just open your eyes and it’s right there]. Do not wish for beyond enlightenment, as beyond is a jewel concealed by your hair.
If you have a home, leave your home. If you have beloved ones, leave them. If you have fame, abandon it. If you have gain, escape from it. If you have fields, get rid of them. If you have relatives, separate from them. If you don’t have name or gain, stay away from them. Why should you not remain free from them, while those who already have name and gain need to give them up? This is the single track of continuous practice.
To forsake name and gain in this lifetime and practice one thing thoroughly is the vast continuous practice of the Buddha’s timeless life. This continuous practice is bound to be sustained by continuous practice. Love and respect your body, mind and self that are engaged in continuous practice.
So that’s pretty strong. It’s pretty daunting. Maybe we’re up for most of this. Maybe a little fame and gain can’t be too bad. Just enough fame and gain, not too much. So, okay, that’s not so bad. But if you have a home, give up your home? I’m not so sure about that. If you have a beloved, give up your beloved? I’m don’t know about that one. Maybe when you hear these word of Dogen, right away you think, Oh, I didn’t sign up for that! I just thought I was coming to a retreat, but I’m hearing all these drastic things here. This is going a little bit too far. Thank you Mr. Dogen.
So at first it sounds like that. But let’s think about it a little bit more. Notice that he says, “Why should you not remain free of all this when those who already have all of this need to give them up?” Did you notice he said that?
Why would we recoil when someone rattles off this little litany: Give up your home! Give up your family! Give up your beloved! Why would that be so upsetting to us? The only reason that we would recoil at having to give up our home and our beloved and our fields and our fame and our possessions is if we thought we actually had these things—that we were enjoying them and thought we could continue to enjoy them.
But, he says, the truth is people who have name and gain and all these other things do need to give them up anyway. And if you look closely enough, you can actually see that at the moment that you have name and gain and home and beloved and relatives, at that moment, you are, in fact, already giving them up. Even while you think you have them, they are slipping through your fingers. We all know this, which is exactly why we are all holding on so tightly. That is why we freak out when someone says, Give it up! When any of these things in our lives, especially our reputation, our sense of being someone, is threatened, we dig in right away, because we know we don’t have these things to begin with. The threat is too much for us.
Holding on tightly to things that are slipping away doesn’t work. It causes us suffering. We know this. I think we can all accept the fact that we lose everything in the end. We can all agree to the reality of that. It may be more difficult to see the reality that we have already lost everything, that we never had anything in the first place. So it’s when we know this that we are happy to engage in the continuous practice that Dogen is talking about. And when we do that, we can really cherish things. That’s when we can really appreciate things.
If we have a home, it’s a source of pride and satisfaction, but it’s also a burden. Everybody who has a home knows that it’s wonderful, and it’s also a burden. A name and gain and our beloved and our relatives are the same. But if we have nothing but continuous practice, nothing but open hands to face each moment whatever it will bring, then we don’t have a home, and we can really appreciate our home. We don’t have any relatives, but we can really appreciate and take care of our relatives without entanglements.
Now, I don’t want to make this sound too sweet and nice, because Dogen is really talking about the need to abandon everything. Yet at the same time, he is certainly saying that abandoning everything is not what we think it is.
Later on, as you heard, he says, “Love and respect your body, mind and self that are engaged in this continuous practice.” So this is really important. The ultimate consequence of abandoning everything (that you never had to begin with) is recognizing your precious human life: your body, mind and self, that are engaged in continuous practice.
Now this is not ultimate selfishness and narcissism. He’s not talking about the conventional body, mind and self. He’s talking about this miraculous life that enables us to continue our practice. To fully appreciate our life and the gift of our life is to appreciate everything that arises in our life. That is continuous practice.
And a little bit later he says this:
It is not that buddha ancestors lacked family obligations and attachments, but they abandoned them. It is not that buddha ancestors were not bound by relationships, but they let them go. Even if you are bound by relationships, you cannot keep them. If you do not throw away family obligations and attachments, the family obligations and attachments will throw you away. If you want to cherish the family obligations and attachments then cherish them. To cherish the family obligations and attachments means to be free from them.
So let me be clear about what I am trying to say. I don’t mean to say that everyone here should feel this way or see life the way Dogen sees it here in his writing of Continuous Practice. As I said the other day, there are many worlds, many kinds of beings, many rules and structures, and each of us must understand our own place and our own way in this lifetime. Still, it is important to understand other ways. What Dogen is talking about here is true. No matter what our place, what our position, we can appreciate Dogen’s teaching and we can make use of it in our own way.
So, thank you very much for listening and we will continue tomorrow.