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Dogen’s Continuous Practice 6

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/24/2010
Location: Samish Island
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Norman gives the sixth and last talk in a 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 6

June 24, 2010

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

It does seem clear that in Continuous Practice, Dogen is exhorting us to be fully committed and devoted to practice – not just as something that is good for us or as something that will produce the positive results we seek. He wants us to be devoted to practice for its own sake. And he’s trying to encourage us to imitate the sages of old and somehow equal them in our determination and resolve and focus.

What is behind this? How do we hold this and how do we understand it beyond the surface of it? How do we live it?

What Dogen is speaking about in Continuous Practice is an attitude. This is interesting to think about. What is an attitude? An attitude is literally a stance, a position, a posture of the body and mind that expresses an action or an emotion. In other words, an attitude is a posture for the feeling of life and the way that we approach life.

Our basic attitude in living is our basic stance or posture: the way we hold ourselves and the way we hold the variety of emotions and actions that pass through us in a lifetime. You could say it’s an orientation toward life. So when you think of it this way, you begin to appreciate why for Dogen zazen is so important. He doesn’t see it as a technique, or as an exercise, or even as religious observance. Zazen is literally an attitude. Zazen expresses human dignity and endurance. It expresses composure and patience. It expresses a full acceptance of whatever comes. So it’s not a discipline; it’s not something external or imposed. It is an expression of our deepest human aspiration. It is a gesture of the heart.

Our attitude of continuous practice can be steady and firm, even when we are in a crisis, even when we’re off balance, even when it seems like we have lost our way. Continuous practice can be there in us as an underlying attitude of confidence and strength, as a steadiness and groundedness for our life.

All of us already have an underlying attitude. Mostly we don’t even know what our basic attitude is. We know lots of things about our lives. We’re all very self-aware, but we may not really know what our basic attitude is. Maybe what we think of as our basic attitude is something that’s actually carefully and sneakily constructed to mask our basic attitude.

But there is one thing that I think that we can probably assume and count on. Our basic attitude, whatever it may be, is at its foundation based on pain and suffering. Even if our life is quite fortunate, this is usually the case. As the Buddha says, “All conditioned existence is radically unsatisfactory at its basis.” And so we deny and we resist and we avoid and we cope.

Continuous practice is a fundamental shift in our basic attitude. Instead of leaning forward into our lives or recoiling backwards, we soften and open. We receive everything that happens as a gift, even when we don’t like it. And we respond fully and openly with our human expression and action. Continuous practice is always kind and loving, because when we receive the gift of life, our response is full of kindness and love. It is a willingness to say “yes” with softness to every moment. It is not to hide or fight with time, but to accept time’s preciousness and inherent warmth.

When Dogen talks about the ancient worthies and all their hard practice activity, I think this is really what he is pointing to. Though each story is different, each story is exactly the same in its commitment to continuous practice. Dogen loves and respects these lives. They’re inspiring for his own life. This love and regard for what is most noble and beautiful in the human spirit is what he is trying to convey to us.

So now I am going to read you the end of Dogen’s fascicle Continuous Practice. Dogen says:

Nowadays, when you join the assemblies of various masters who maintain the way, and you want to receive instructions, it is hard to find an opportunity. Not merely twenty or thirty skin bags, but one hundred or one thousand faces all desire to return to the true source.

In other words, you go to the monastery, and you find there’s not only twenty or thirty people hanging around the monastery. There are maybe a thousand people, all wanting to go and visit the teacher. So it could be hard to get into dokusan!

The day of the masters’ guiding hand ends at sunset. The evening of pounding rice goes quickly. At the time when the masters expound dharma, you may lack eyes and ears; your seeing and hearing may be blocked.

So you might be there and actually none of it goes in. Then when you’re ready to hear, maybe your teacher is gone or the teacher dies.

When you are ready, your teacher’s time may come to an end. While senior reverend masters clap their hands in laughter, those of you who are newly ordained and low in seniority may have difficulty even joining the assembly at the end of the mat.

There are too many people ahead of you.

There are those who do and those who do not enter the inner chambers. There are those who do and those who do not hear the essential words of their teachers. The passage of time is faster than an arrow. Life is more fragile than a dewdrop. Even when you have teachers, you may not be able to study with them. When you want to study with teachers, you may not be able to study with them. I have personally seen and heard of such cases.

Although great teachers all have the power to know people, it is rare to have a good relationship with a teacher and become intimate while cultivating the way. When Xuefeng visited Dongshan and Touzi, he must have had a hard time. We can all sympathize with the dharma aspiration of his continuous practice. Those who don’t study or practice will be filled with regret.

And on that cheery note, Dogen ends his text.

So when you go back and review the whole text that we’ve been studying, it’s kind of interesting. Dogen begins his fascicle on Continuing Practice by saying some important general words, but then he starts in on stories of the ancients. He starts with Buddha and Mahakashyapa and the Indian ancestors, who all did continuous practice, working very, very hard doing the ascetic practice of letting go of everything.

Then he starts to talk about the Chinese ancestors and we noted that he began to speak about how those Chinese ancestors expressed and did not express the way – how they spoke and were both speechless and not speechless. How expressing and engaging their lives of continuous practice through encounter and dialogue was of the essence of their continuous practice.

And now he ends his writing, but for the first time, he begins. He talks about and exhorts us to study with a teacher. To remember how precious and important this is, and how rare and precious it is to study with a teacher. Nowadays meditation is really popular. Lots of people see the virtue of meditation and realize that it would really be a good idea to do meditation practice or some other form of spiritual endeavor. Among these probably millions and millions of people, there are even a few of them who actually might want to study Zen.

And among all the ones that would even want to study Zen, very few of them will be able to practice intimately with a teacher. As Dogen says, it could actually be hard to find someone you could even see and practice with.

Some people say that to practice Zen you have to have a teacher. But I would never say that, because I know that many people practice effectively by going to various places, practicing on their own, receiving various teachings, reading books, listening to talks on line, and so on. It really makes a big difference for their lives, and this is really good and it is sufficient. You know there are no standards and rules. Every standard and rule exists exactly because of the many exceptions. That is only one rule: there are exceptions. Everything goes according to conditions. The way is to embrace the conditions – the inner conditions and the outer conditions that make up our lives. Through fully encountering our conditions, we will find our way to continuous practice. If your life includes conditions that lead you to an intimate connection with a teacher, as Dogen says, this is really wonderful; this is very auspicious.

Teachers don’t teach us anything. At least that’s the way we look at it in Zen practice. It’s not that teachers know something that we don’t know. It’s not that teachers are enlightened and we’re not enlightened. This is not the point at all. And yet, Dogen says here at the end of his essay, for our life of continuous practice we really need our teacher. And this is because true intimacy with ourselves is to finally give up resentment of ourselves and finally come to the place where we can really gently love ourselves. This means that we can love and trust others, and we know that we are living in a loving and trusting universe. That requires that we fully share our lives with a person who has been sanctioned by the Buddha ancestors to share his or her life with us, within the sacred container of the dharma. This is a willingness to fully share our life in the Way, until we see that our life is nothing other than sharing and has never been anything other than sharing. This willingness to share our life is continuous practice. It’s not always so easy. In fact, it never is easy. Because the more intimate we become with ourselves, the more we see our own confusion and self-clinging.

Well, I will try to think of something to talk about tomorrow (laughter). We ran out of continuous practice (more laughter). Those of you coming to dokusan between now and then will have suggestions, I am sure.

Thank you.

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