Norman gives his first talk to the Mountain Rain Zen Community on Dogen’s “Dotoku” “Expression”.
Dogen’s Dotoku “Expression”
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
April 30, 2016
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
This morning I would like to read with you an essay by Dogen called Dotoku, which is translated here as “Expression” or “Expressions.” This translation is by Kaz Tanahashi, with Peter Levitt from Salt Spring. The fascicle is chapter 40 in the Shobogenzo.
All Buddhas and ancestors are expressions. Thus when buddha ancestors intend to select buddha ancestors they always ask: “Do you have your expression?”
“Buddha ancestors” is actually a special term in Zen practice. In Buddhism, in general, buddhas and bodhisattvas are beyond being ordinary human beings; they are special enlightened beings. But in Zen, “buddha ancestors” are ordinary human beings with various flaws and quirks and problems. So this is the specialty of Zen: ordinary human beings with quirks and issues and problems are buddha ancestors and bodhisattvas.
When someone who is a Zen buddha ancestor meets another person who is going to be a Zen buddha ancestor, they say to each other, “Do you have your expression?” As it says here, buddhas and ancestors are expressions. Other translations say, “Buddhas and ancestors speak the dharma.” The word dotoku can mean being an expression. One’s life, one’s appearance in this life, is an expression. When someone comes to see me, before they say anything, they have already expressed themselves. Right? You are expressing yourself by appearing in this world. It is an eloquent expression, isn’t it? A tree or a cloud is an eloquent expressions of dharma.
These opening sentences of Dotoku tell you that to be an expression of the dharma is something essential and highly valued.
Dogen goes on: “This question is asked with the mind and with the body. It is asked with a walking stick or a whisk. It’s asked with a pillar or a lantern.” These words refer to Zen stories in which dharma is expressed with a pillar or a lantern or a whisk.
“Those who are not buddha ancestors do not ask this and do not answer this, since they are not in a position to do so.” Dogen is saying that this is a particular value and style of our tradition: to express dharma using one’s body, one’s mind and everything that there is at hand.
“Such expression is not obtained by following others, or by the power of oneself. Where there is a thorough inquiry of a buddha ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.” In our practice we do not try to hear what teachers have said in the past and follow their teachings. Our practice has to be our own unique life. But on the other hand, if it’s our own unique life, that’s not it either.
What do we mean by our own life? We mean, My life. I’m unique! Our life is unique, but also it’s not unique. We are just who we are, but we are also beyond who we are. If we really want to appreciate who we are as unique expressions of dharma, then we have to appreciate we are beyond who we are. Who we think we are is a very small person, from this family, with these limitations, with these habits. But we are an expression of something much more. So we can’t follow others, nor can we just make up our lives out of our own heads. Buddha expression is beyond both those possibilities.
“When there is a thorough inquiry of a buddha ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.” The way we express our practice is by following the practice with a spirit of investigation. This is one of Dogen’s favorite phrases, “investigate this!” Don’t take anything for granted. Pay attention and question. What is this? What is this moment? What is this life? Who is this person? Let’s not just assume something.
Within the expression, those in the past practiced and became thoroughly realized; you in the present pursue and endeavor in the way. When you pursue a buddha ancestor as a buddha ancestor, and understand the buddha ancestor’s expression, this expression spontaneously becomes the practice of three years, eight, or forty years. It makes an utmost effort, creates an expression.
So we continue the practice, without thinking we know what it is, without following teachings as if they made sense. We do our practice with our whole heart, with an attitude of inquiry and openness. Then practice spontaneously erupts into living in time, being in time. Our life becomes our expression of practice and the expression of all the buddha ancestors in the past. Before you know it, three, five, eight or forty years go by in a flash. And I can tell you that this does happen!
Usually Dogen sets his main theme in the opening of the text. He is telling us that expression of dharma is our particular path. It is not a path of enlightenment or perfection or improvement. It is a path of simply expressing our lives. Expressing ourselves. An expression, as we will see as the text unfolds, implies expressing to, expressing with. You don’t make an expression in the sky. Expression is received by another. An expression is made in concert with another. So as we’ll see, Dogen says this is a unique aspect of our particular practice. We practice expression of dharma, and that expression of dharma is always occurring in concert with each other. It is communication; it is interaction.
Then, even for decades, there is not a single gap in expression. Thus, the understanding at the moment of thorough realization should be authentic. As this understanding is recognized as authentic, what is expressed now is beyond doubt.
We live fully aligned with our lives; fully aligned with ourselves; fully aligned with one another in time. That is what he means by authentic. When we live in that way, there is no doubt about our life—life just is life.
I think we all experience being doubtful. Is this really supposed to be my life? Should I have another life? Should I have her life? Maybe her life is the one I should be having? Did I make a mistake somewhere back there and now here I am twenty years later in this pickle? We really are doubtful about our life. But what he is saying is that when we practice in this way, we know in this moment that this is the only life. There is no other life. There is no doubt about it. This moment is absolutely true. How could it be otherwise? But we don’t know that until we practice the way Dogen is suggesting, authentically giving ourselves to each moment. Then there is no gap whatsoever in expression.
This being so, there is an expression right now, an understanding right now. An expression right now and an understanding in the past are a single track, myriad miles.
This is an old Zen saying that says thatthe truth is a single track going on forever. I imagine a railroad track, even though I don’t know if they had railroads in ancient China. But in my mind you see a railroad track going on forever and ever. What the metaphor stands for is that there’s one track, just one track. But that one track goes on through different landscapes, different places, different cities. In the same way, we human beings are living one single human truth that is the same for each one of us; and yet, each one of us is completely different from each other. And each one of us is different every moment.
This one truth, this one expression, has a million different expressions that express the one expression. We in the present are expressing the whole of the past. It’s beautiful. Each person is expressing the whole of our human past. We think that our lives are only expressing the time we were born until the present, but every human being is expressing the whole of human life – which is full of terrible tragedies and ecstatic joys. So if you think your life is a little boring and not much is going on, think again.
The grip of this practice accumulates in months and years and lets go of the practice from the months and years in the past.
Even though all of the past is here now, we let go of the past. We don’t just repeat the past. We often have in our lives all kinds of screwy, neurotic patterns that are so compelling that we repeat them over and over again. Dogen is saying that the whole of the past is there, and yet, in that same moment we are letting go of our past.
“When it is about to drop away[dropping away is Dogen’s phrase, meaning to be free in our lives] the skin, flesh, bones and marrow also affirm the dropping away.” All the depths and superficialities of our lives affirm our freedom.
We often think of our practice as being about our inner life. But there is no inner life without an outer life. There couldn’t be an inner life without the mountains and the landscape and the skies. They are in our heads; are heads are in them. When we look at the mountains, we are literally seeing ourselves. When we see ourselves, we see the mountains. That’s why it is such an immense tragedy that we have trashed the planet. It’s worse than we think because the planet is ourselves. When we don’t take care of the planet, it means we don’t respect ourselves.
“When you intend to get to the dropping away as an ultimate treasure place, this intention is a manifestation of expression.” Whatever you think the intention is for sitting in retreat, the real intention is very radical. You want to awaken to your true human self. That is what we all want. That’s why we are here, whatever we think our reason is. When you have that intention, and when you follow it through by showing up to practice, this is a manifestation of the Buddha expression.
“So at this very moment an expression is actualized without being waited for.” You have to practice without expectation. Even though we all have many expectations, the real practice is beyond expectations. When we realize that, we’re happy because we are free. What does freedom mean? Freedom from expectations.
“Although this is not an effort of the mind or the body, a spontaneous expression arises.” Our life is literally beyond our life. If you understand your life, you realize that it is not what it looks like. It’s not what it seems to be. There is something beyond my life that is being expressed in my life. When you feel that, you feel really happy and free to be able to live this precious life as long as it lasts.
“When it is expressed, you won’t feel unfamiliar or suspicious.” I think that is a weird translation. The plain meaning is that even though you are living this immense, unknowable life, it just feels normal. It just feels like an ordinary life. It’s not exotic. It’s not special.
“And yet, when you express such an expression, you beyond-express a beyond-expression.”Dogen now reminds us that expression is also non-expression. There is nothing to it. There is no substance to it. There’s nothing to grasp; there’s nothing to get.
Even if you recognize that you express within an expression, if you do not thoroughly realize beyond-expression [non-expression] as beyond-expression [non-expression], it is not the face of a buddha ancestor, nor is it a buddha ancestor’s bones and marrow of the buddha ancestors.
As soon as you have an idea or a concept of what it is you are trying to do, or what practice accomplishes in your life, it’s going eventually to lead to suffering. You think, I got it! Everything is fine. And then later something happens, and you are twice as unhappy as you were before. Those kinds of concepts always lead to suffering. The Heart Sutra says all dharmas are empty,so let’s not grasp anything. That’s the whole point isn’t it? Just being our life without grasping.
In this way, how can the expression of bowing three times and standing in the original position [by Huike] be the same as an expression of those who view the skin, flesh, bones and marrow? The expression of those who view the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow [as separate from on another] cannot touch or include the expression of bowing three times and standing in the original position. An encounter of you with other as an encounter of separate beings remains an encounter of others with you as an encounter of separate beings.
There is a famous story in Zen about the skin, flesh, bones and marrow, and I will share this story with you to give some idea of what Dogen is saying. Bodhidharma was the first Zen ancestor in China, and he had a disciple named Huike. Dotoku is about sharing expression together. It’s about communication. This is the story of the perfect communication between Bodhidharma and Huike.
Bodhidharma says to his four disciples, I am going to pass on my dharma to you. What is your expression?
Bodhidharma asked, “Can each of you say something to demonstrate your understanding?”
Dao Fu stepped forward and said, “It is not bound by words and phrases, nor is it separate from words and phrases. This is the function of the Tao.”
Bodhidharma: “You have attained my skin.”
The nun Zong Chistepped up and said, “It is like a glorious glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha. Seen once, it need not be seen again.” [It is interesting to note that there is a woman Zen ancestor.]
Bodhidharma; “You have attained my flesh.”
Dao Yu said, “The four elements are all empty. The five skandhas are without actual existence. Not a single dharma can be grasped.”
Bodhidharma: “You have attained my bones.”
Finally, Huike came forth, bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight.
Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow.
This bowing and standing without saying anything is Huike’s expression. Throughout Zen history this story is read as if Huike were the winner of the contest, that his expression is the best and the others are somehow lesser. But Dogen is saying, No! That’s not right. Every expression of dharma is the true and full expression of dharma. Every expression is different. Everyone is true and full. We all take our position wherever it happens to be, and there is nothing lacking in any expression.
We all have our expression. It may look like there is a hierarchy of expression. Somebody coming to this talk might think: Oh, he’s talking; he’s the teacher. He’s expressing the dharma. Everyone else is listening. But that actually wouldn’t be the case. We’re all sitting here expressing the dharma together. Some of us are priests or lay people, with many years of experience. Some of us brand new. Each one of us in our various positions fully expresses the dharma. That is what happens when we practice. And even if we don’t practice we are still doing it.
You have expression beyond expression.
Dogen then tells a story about Zhaouzhou:
Zhaouzhou said, if you sit steadfastly without leaving the monastery for a lifetime, and do not speak for five or ten years, no one can call you speechless. After that, even buddhas will not equal you [will never be able to understand the power of your expression].
When Dogen says, “not leaving the monastery for a whole lifetime” he is talking about zazen, about sitting in silence. When we are sitting in silence, we might think we are not expressing ourselves. We might think, How can I express myself? But when we are sitting in silence, abandoning any expression, we are perhaps most eloquently expressing ourselves.
Dogen says, “What kind of invisible path is there between the lifetime and the monastery?”Our lives are invisible paths. When you sit down long enough in zazen, you sense the awesomeness of being alive. We take being alive for granted, right? We have all these problems and issues and things to solve and longings to be realized, but we don’t think to ourselves: If I weren’t alive I wouldn’t have any of these problems. So when we sit in zazen, we are casting off all our problems. Even though they come into our mind, they don’t apply. We are just sitting there in our life, feeling the invisible path that is human life.
“Just investigate steadfast sitting,” Just sit, with this spirit of looking. Dogen says:
What Zhauzhou meant is that the expression of beyond-expression in steadfast sitting is why buddhas cannot call the person speechless or beyond speechless.
This being so, what is expressed by buddha ancestors is not leaving the monastery for a lifetime. Even if you are speechless, you have expression. Do not assume that a speechless person cannot express.
It is not that one who can express is not speechless. A speechless person can also express. The speechless word is heard. Listen to the speechless voice.
Do not avoid non-expression (beyond-expression), because non-expression is expression from beginning to end. It’s not that the one who can express is not speechless. A speechless person is expressing herself.
The “speechless voice” is heard in zazen. You could say that’s a description of our practice in zazen. We’re sitting here listening to the speechless voice with the spirit of listening and investigation and really paying attention to the eloquent expression of the speechless voice.
Without being a speechless person how can you encounter a speechless person? How can you speak with someone who is speechless? When you are already a speechless person, how do you encounter with one? Investigate in this way and thoroughly study someone who is a speechless.
This means a Zen teacher is a speechless person, talking and not saying anything. Study that speechless person. Of course, that person is not somebody else right? Ultimately that person is one’s self, sitting on the cushion.
We study Buddhism and we practice meditation, but really it’s not about that. It’s about much more than that. It’s about living beyond living. It’s about connecting with one another beyond any sense of separation from one another. It’s about living in this world with one another and all the rocks and trees of this world with complete trust and complete faith that in every moment we will express ourselves and will receive the expression needed for this moment. Just be a regular person and understand that that regular person that you are expresses something beyond Buddhas.
Dogen is expressing what he considers to be the most fundamental truth about our practice. It’s the reason why we bow and we chant and we offer incense and we sit and we study the dharma and we rub shoulders with one other in sangha life. We have such a strong concept of the individual life and the individual consciousness – me and my life and what I need and my expression and my self-realization. It’s a very powerful thought in our world. Iam coming to practice because Ineed this. And, of course, thank goodness for that. That’s what brings us. That’s what gives us the incentive for a really long time to continue to practice.
But there is no such thing as enlightenment. There’s no such thing as realization, but you can let go of your separation. You can trustingly join together with everything and every moment of your life, and then you are free. Then you can have a real happiness, and the only thing you care about is meeting. Getting acquainted with every thought in your own mind, every sensation in your own body, every act of perception, every communication and meeting with another person.
It’s such a profound thing to be in the presence of another human being. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t need anything from one another. None of us could exist without the presence of other human beings in this world and the whole rest of the world. Our deeply felt and trusting connection to one another is our liberation. It’s our joy. And I think at some stage in our practice we recognize it’s also our obligation to take our place and do what we can do uniquely in loving benefit for each other.