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Dogen’s Continuous Practice 5

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/23/2010
Location: Samish Island
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Norman gives the fifth in a six part series on “Dogen’s Continuous Practice” 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 Talk 5

Samish Island

June 23, 2010

Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Daci, Master Huanzhong, said, “Speaking ten feet does not compare to practicing one foot. Speaking one foot does not compare with practicing one inch.”

Dogen comments:

It may appear that Daci was warning the people of his day not to ignore continuous practice in the buddha way. However, he was not saying that speaking of ten feet was of no value, but rather that the practice of one foot has greater power. The comparison between speech and practice is not limited to one foot or ten feet. It is also like Mount Sumeru and a poppy seed. Sumeru reveals its entire size. A poppy seed reveals its entire size. The great moment [point] of continuous practice is like this. This is not speaking to himself but speaking to Huanzhong [Boundless World].

Daci and Huanzhong are the same person. So it’s a pun, because Huanzhong means “boundless world.” These are the words of boundless world, stainless continuous practice, boundless continuous practice. In other words, we compare a foot to an inch and a mile to a foot, and it seems like a mile is more important, longer, better. Yet everything is in the foot, and everything is in the mile; the seed, the poppy seed and the mountain include everything. So don’t think these are expressions of comparison.

Dongshan, Great Master Wuben, said, “Speak what cannot be practiced. Practice what cannot be spoken.”

These are words spoken by the high ancestor. It means that practice clarifies the way to speech and there is a way that speech approaches practice. This being so, you practice all day while speaking all day. You practice what cannot be practiced and you speak what cannot be spoken.

Yunju, Great Master Hongjue, investigating Dongshan’s words seven or eight ways, said, “At the time of speaking, there is no road of practice. At the time of practice, there is no path of speaking.”

His words show that there is neither practicing nor speaking. At the time of speaking, you do not leave the monastery for your lifetime. At the time of practicing, you wash the [your] head and request Xuefeng to shave it. You should not waste the time of speaking or the time of practicing.

So sorry folks, I can’t help it, but that’s the next section of the text! (Laughter)

Yesterday we were talking about the issue of speech and speechlessness, about not speaking and never leaving the monastery. In Zen, the question of expressing practice, manifesting practice in the world, is not like an extra, additional question. For Zen, that is the question. That is the heart of continuous practice.

Continuous practice is continuous expression, continuous manifestation. Our effort and intention in practice is not to transcend the world and achieve peace or understand some dharma outside of the world. The effort and the intention is to see the world of birth and death fully, and to live the life of birth and death together with everyone. That’s really the essence of Zen practice. And that’s why Dogen keeps coming back over and over again to this question of speech and speaking, and why the Zen Masters he’s quoting also talk about this. Speech means how we enter the world and express our life.

So in Zen, entering the monastery and never leaving doesn’t mean leaving the world behind. It means truly embracing the world in all its dimensions. Continuous practice is unstained; continuous practice is boundless, undefiled, pure. It’s without definition, without borders, without limits. So there is no world to escape from, and there is no monastery to enter.

Dogen was a very unusual Zen Master, maybe the only Zen Master until modern times who actually spoke and wrote at length. And he certainly understood his activity in that way. He wasn’t speaking about practice. His speaking and writing was practice.

Dogen goes on from there:

Buddha ancestors have said since ancient times, “Living for one hundred years without encountering a buddha does not compare to living for one day and arousing the determination for the way.”

These are not merely the words of one or two buddhas; they have been spoken and practiced by all buddhas. Within the cycles of birth and death for myriad kalpas, one day of continuous practice is a bright jewel in the banded hair, the ancient mirror of all-inclusive birth and all-inclusive death. It is a day of rejoicing. The power of continuous practice is itself rejoicing.

So I hope you can feel the joy in just living the life of continuous practice as we are doing these days [in sesshin]. It definitely doesn’t look like joy, the way we are conditioned to see joy. But it is a joyful thing. It’s hard to imagine more joy than the joy of continuous practice.

When the power of your continuous practice is not sufficient and you have not received the bones and marrow of buddha ancestors, you are not valuing the body-mind of buddha ancestors, nor are you taking joy in the face of buddha ancestors. Although the face, bones, and marrow of buddha ancestors are beyond going and not going, beyond coming and not coming, they are always transmitted through one day’s continuous practice. Therefore, each day is valuable. A hundred years lived in vain is a regrettable passage of time, a remorseful life as a living corpse. But even if you run around as a servant of sound and form for a hundred years [in other words a slave of your human life], if you attain one day of continuous practice, you not only attain the practice of one hundred years, but you awaken others for a hundred years [in that one day]. The living body of this one day is a living body to revere, a form to revere. If you live for one day merged with the activity of the buddhas, this one day is considered as excellent as many kalpas of lifetimes.

Even when you are uncertain, do not use this one day wastefully. It is a rare treasure to value. Do not compare it to an enormous jewel. Do not compare it to a dragon’s bright pearl. Old sages valued this one day more than their one living bodies. Reflect on this quietly. A dragon’s pearl can be found. An enormous jewel may be acquired. But this one day out of a hundred years, cannot be retrieved once it is lost. What skillful means can retrieve a day that has passed? No historical documents have ever recorded any such means.

With all of our fantastic power, we can blow up whole countries, we can invade, we can pillage, we can build, we can invent. But nobody has figured out how to make one second that has passed come back. In other words, the one thing that is so precious, that no amount of money can buy, is ours every day. How can we not ultimately value it?

Not to waste time is to contain the passage of days and months within your skin bag without leaking.

In other words, if you do continuous practice, you include all of time in your own skin bag.

Thus, sages and wise ones in olden times valued each moment, each day, and each month more than their own eyeballs or the nation’s land. To waste the passage of time is to be confused and stained in the floating world of name and gain. Not to miss the passage of time is to be in the way for the sake of the way.

What is time? Time is the most valuable thing, and it’s all that we have. Do we value it? Do we embrace it?

Once you have clarity, do not neglect a single day. Wholeheartedly practice for the sake of the way and speak for the sake of the way. We know that buddha ancestors of old did not neglect each day’s endeavor. Reflect on this every day. Sit near a bright window and reflect on this, on mellow and flower-filled days. Sit in a plain building and remember this on a solitary rainy evening. Why [how]do the moments of time steal your endeavor [life]? They not only steal one day but steal the merit of many kalpas. What kind of enemy is the passage of time? How regrettable! Your loss of time would all be because of your negligence of practice. If you were not intimate with yourself, you would resent yourself.

We’re hard on ourselves because we resent ourselves, because we’re not close enough to know our selves. To love our selves is to embrace the time of our lives. And this is our practice, to be intimate with this passing moment of this precious life.

Next, Dogen tells us about Nanyue Huairang, who was a disciple of the Sixth Ancestor. Dogen references a famous dialogue between Nanyue Huairang and the Sixth Ancestor. He actually doesn’t tell it in Continuous Practice; he only refers to it. So this may be the most important story in all of the tradition for Dogen. Contemplating this story gave Dogen his insight, which is the center of his whole teaching and is the center of this essay on continuous practice. The powerful insight is this: we are not practicing to gain enlightenment; practicing is enlightenment itself, and awakening is the practice itself. Continuous practice is all inclusive, limitless and boundless. Dogen felt deeply this idea and stressed it his whole life.

So, here’s the story:

When Nanyue Huairang first came to the Sixth Ancestor, the Sixth Ancestor asked him, “Where are you from?” (Always a trick Zen question, “Where are you from?”) Nanyue said, “Mount Zang.” Huineng said to him, “What is it that thus comes?” In other words, he’s asking him, Okay so here you are, presenting yourself to practice here, so tell me, who are you really? What is your real nature? Why were you born in this world, what are you here for? Why do you have to die? What is this human life that you are living? Tell me please. Big, big question, no? Huge question. Impossible question. But also, a very personal question. Our question. Are we ever not living that question? What is my life? What am I doing here? What’s the work of this lifetime? We can go for a long time without thinking about it or engaging it, but there it is, always.

So Nanyue replies, “Speaking about it won’t hit the mark.” Of course, we do speak; this is our human activity. Speaking touches the whole of our lives, and yet speaking about it, as if we could explain it and understand it, does not hit the mark. We are speechless, standing in the mystery of birth and death and time. Even when we talk, we are speechless. That is what Nanyue Huairang is saying.

Huineng appreciates the answer and takes him very seriously, but he wants to probe a little further. So he says, “Well, does this depend on practice and realization, on practice and enlightenment?” It’s a good question: Does it depend on practice and enlightenment? If our life is boundless and mysterious and empty, is there practice, is there awakening? Are these things necessary? Do we need to do all this? Nanyue then says, and this is the line that Dogen deeply contemplated, “It’s not that there is no practice and enlightenment; it’s just that they cannot be defiled.” That’s where Dogen gets the idea that continuous practice is unstained, undefiled. And hearing this Huineng says, “This purity of heart has been guarded by all the buddhas. You are like this, and I am like this. And we’re all like this.”

So this is over and over Dogen’s constant point. We have to practice; we have to engage our lives fully. But it’s not because there’s something wrong with us, that we need improvement, or that we need to get enlightened, or that we need to do something we’re not now doing. Practice is simply the full expression of our humanness. To practice is to simply acknowledge the depth of who we really are. To practice is to affirm the mystery of who we really are. We ultimately practice not out of a lack or need, but as an expression of our fullness.

It’s not enough to have good values and good feelings and good beliefs; when threatened in ultimate ways, all that goes out the window, and we become defensive and aggressive. We need more than that. That’s why we practice, the continuous practice, day by day by day, over a lifetime of training the mind to reach an unconditional happiness, that’s more than a feeling, more than a belief, more than an idea. It’s in the body.

As Huineng said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” To be unified in your living, not divided. Purity of heart is to undertake the vow to devote yourself to limitless, stainless, boundless, continuous practice day and night, without stint.

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