Norman gives the second talk at the Mar de Jade April 2013 Sesshin on Dogen’s Guidelines for Study of the Way (Part 1) as found in Moon in a Dewdrop by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
Dogen’s Guidelines for Study of the Way ¡Part One
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 7, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Tonight I would like to begin studying another Eihei Dogen text, Gakudo yojin-shu, Guidelines for Studying the Way. In this text, Dogen enumerates important points for practice and then talks about each one in turn. He wrote this text in his early thirties, just when he came back from China to Japan. He wanted to explain how to practice Zen to Japanese people at a time when this practice was new to them. He wanted to carefully lay out all the important points.
The first point is: “You should arouse ‘the thought of enlightenment,'” called bodhicitta in Sanskrit. This is the moment when you realize that you must take charge of your life and do spiritual practice, that you can’t put it off anymore. It’s more than just a passing thought. We have many passing thoughts, but this thought is different. It’s one that leads us to strong commitment and action. When this thought arises in a person’s mind, it means that eventually they will become a buddha. This is always the beginning of the story for every buddha: the thought of enlightenment comes into his or her heart. It is the same for us in the beginning, when we realize that we must do something, and eventually it leads to commitment and vow.
Dogen begins by saying,
The thought of enlightenment has many names, but they all refer to one and the same mind.
Then he quotes the great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna,
The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment.
This thought comes to you when you realize how unreliable and shaky the ordinary world of birth and death is. Maybe for a long time we might think that everything should be fine, but just not for us. We might say, I keep having bad luck, because I had bad parents. I keep messing up, and things don’t go right for me. If I can just get it right and make the right kind of effort and get a little more luck, then everything will be fine. Probably everybody else is doing just fine. I am the only one who is having this kind of problem.
You might think this way for quite a long time. Or maybe you don’t think about it at all, and you just struggle through your life. But one day you realize, It’s not just me. It’s not just my problem. Everybody has this problem, because the ordinary world of birth and death really is unreliable. There really is no way to get conditions just perfect for your life. When we realize that, the thought of enlightenment comes into our mind. We realize that the path of spiritual practice is another way of life.
Thus if we maintain this mind, this mind can become the thought of enlightenment.
A lot of times we have that thought of enlightenment, but then we think, That can’t be right, or we try to cover it up and distract ourselves with something else. But Dogen says that this is a true thought, and you should cherish and strengthen it and develop it. I think that maybe we are afraid that if we think like this, we will become depressed, and we will be in despair. We will think that life is impossible and completely unreliable, and we won’t be able to do anything. But Dogen says,
If you cherish this thought and develop it, it will lead to the thought of enlightenment and a strong commitment for the spiritual path.
Indeed, when you understand discontinuity, the notion of self does not arise.
In other words, you realize that every moment comes and every moment goes, that impermanence is a radical fact of every moment. When you realize that, you have a sense of awe. You can no longer attach to yourself as you did before.
Ideas of name and gain do not arise.
When you see impermanence, you can no longer chase after all the things you were chasing after in your life before. You can no longer cling to yourself, and cling to all the things that you think belong to you and that you want. When you let go of that holding on, your problems dissolve. So he wants us to understand how destructive to our lives is the holding on to ourselves, and to all the things that we think we have, and to all the things we that think we want.
Fearing the passing of the sunlight [in other words when we realize that time passes swiftly], we are going to practice the way as if our hair is on fire.
There is a quality of urgency here, because when we do the practice, we can overcome this kind of fire.
When you think about how brief this life is, you want to practice just like the Buddha, who raised his foot.
This refers to a story about the Buddha. It is a long story, but once the Buddha raised up his foot, and he held his foot up for quite a long time. In other words, he kept being persistent with something difficult. He didn’t give up. He just kept on.
When you hear a beautiful song sung by a goddess or a mystical bird, [special creatures in Japanese and Buddhist mythology, who sing beautiful songs], let it be just like the evening breeze brushing against your cheek.
In other words, appreciate it, but don’t grasp it. Let it go. Let it just brush by your cheek.
If you see this beautiful face [and here he gives the names of the most famous beautiful women in Chinese and Japanese history], let it be like the morning dew coming into your sight. When you see the morning dew, it has already melted away, and it is gone. Freedom from beautiful sounds and beautiful forms naturally arises when we practice.
So we enjoy something passing, just as everything is passing, but we don’t grasp it. Because when you try to grasp something that is passing, and you can’t stop it from passing, you suffer a lot.
If you ever hear of stories from the past and the present, of people who have a small viewpoint and a lot of trouble, it is because they are grasping and clinging to themselves, and they have missed the Buddha way for their life. What a terrible and regrettable thing this is for them.
He is saying think about it: You have seen this with your own eyes. Think about it, and apply it to your own life.
Suppose you could expound great teachings, and you were a true master, but you had not given up the clinging, and you had not given up looking for your own advantage, then you could not call this the thought of enlightenment. There are plenty of people like this. Some say, “The thought of enlightenment is supreme, perfect enlightenment already.” Even when they themselves are attached to their own advantage, they tell you, “Don’t be attached to your own advantage.” Some people say, “The thought of enlightenment is the understanding that everything is included in all moments of your life.” Some of them say, “The thought of enlightenment means that everything is empty and nothing has substance.” Some of them say, “The thought of enlightenment is like entering the Buddha house.”
In other words, they say all kinds of things about the lofty thought of enlightenment, but because they haven’t let go of their self-grasping and seeking their own advantage, they don’t know what they are talking about.
So look at your own mind and try to see this feeling of grasping and needing something for yourself. Does this thought in your mind feel like emptiness? Does it feel like the Buddha realms? Does it feel like everything in the universe is included in these thoughts? No, it doesn’t feel like that at all! It feels very small and very confining, full of anxiety, full of unhappiness. There is nothing in that thought or in that kind of mind that you could call “the thought of enlightenment.” So you can observe in your own mind and see that that’s true.
From ancient times, great sages have realized the truth. Many of them lived ordinary lives just like you and me, without being distorted by this grasping and needing self advantage all the time. Because of this, even in the midst of ordinary life, they could be free.
The thought of enlightenment is the mind that sees into impermanence. That is the most important thing. This is completely different from the ordinary mind of confused people. All the lofty thoughts about “empty” and “Buddha realms” and “everything included” all have their place. You can enjoy all of those profound things some day, but first you have to have the thought of enlightenment. First, you have to feel in your heart the truth of impermanence. You have to see through your grasping and your clinging to self advantage.
Even though it doesn’t go away [because it doesn’t go away until you are really a buddha], now you understand what it is, and you are no longer committing yourself to it.
That’s the difference: you are not committing yourself to it anymore. You are committed to going beyond it, and that commitment is clear. That is the thought of enlightenment, when that commitment is clear. Then all that other great stuff comes. But the people who are talking all this great stuff, but don’t have the thought of enlightenment, forget it. So Dogen says not to be mistaken by all this.
If you don’t have self-concern and self-worry and self-cherishing and self-interest, what do you have? Love. Love is the opposite of need for me. When you remove all this grasping, then naturally it means that your concern is wide. Your concern is for others. So when the thought of enlightenment comes, it is the thought of love. Of course, in ordinary life, you can’t entirely forget yourself, because among the many people that you love, you have to love yourself. After all, you are a person too. If you don’t love yourself and take care of yourself, how are you going to love all the others?
So we can do what we have been doing: we can return to ourselves in zazen. Return to presence, return to body, and return to the breath. This is how we will develop the thought of enlightenment. Just keeping our eyes open, we will see that all of our problems come from grasping the self. We will see in our own experience how every time that we have some suffering, it comes from grasping for something for ourselves.
When the feeling of the self arises, sit quietly, and pay attention to it.
So this is a very important point. When you find your mind spinning around with unhappy concerns, problems that you really think that you have that are causing you suffering, at that time, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, Whose problem is this? What is really going on here? and you will see it in a new way.
Is your “self” in your mind, your thoughts, your awareness, your knowledge or your memories? I guarantee that if you look for yourself in those places, you won’t find it there. Maybe it is in your breath, which ties together your whole life. But what is your breath, after all? It is just coming and going. There is nothing there that is solid.
So what are you so worried about? What are you clinging to and grasping so much? When you are confused, you are clinging to absolutely nothing, and you are miserable. When you are awakened, you are free. You become attached to a self that is not there. You become attached to some solid life, but you can’t find some solid life. You forget to practice the Buddha way, which is the one thing that you should be doing! You let yourself be swept away by your confused mind, which is the one thing that you should not do. You avoid the truth, and you get mixed up in confusion. What a mess!
Then Dogen says:
Once you hear the teaching, you should practice the teaching without fail. Even if there is a loyal servant of the King, and the loyal servant offers some good advice, and the King accepts the advice, it can change the destiny of the whole nation. If a buddha gives good practice advice, and you take the advice, it will turn your whole mind around. A bad king is someone who does not listen to good advice from their servant.
We shouldn’t be that way. When we are offered some good teaching, we should step forward and make use of it. If you are stubborn, and you insist on your own point of view, and when you don’t listen to something that you know to be true, and as they say, “It goes in one ear and out the other,” then you will be floating along in birth and death. Often the waters of birth and death are very turbulent, but you will float along until you sink. If you don’t listen to good teachings, you can’t raise virtue in your life.
This is important not only for you and your life, but for all of us together.
I was thinking the other day that for a long time people believed in some kind of magical politics. When the right revolution happens, everything will be fine after that. When we elect the right president, everything will be good. It seems that now this is fairly unbelievable, isn’t it? We can’t really believe in this type of thing anymore. We can elect better presidents, and certainly we should, but I don’t think that there is going to be any magic.
So how are we going to have a world in which we can survive? Only when people become decent. When more and more people become wise and not so frightened and anxious that they can easily accept bad and corrupt leadership.
Your happiness and your wisdom and your letting go of your self-clinging, that causes you so much unhappiness, is not only for yourself. As more and more of us have the courage to open our hearts, the world will become better. It will certainly become better in our hearts. It will become better in our families, and, eventually, everywhere. It doesn’t need to be every single person on earth who opens his heart, only a certain number. I think around two billion! [Laughter] That’s all we need: two billion people, who have the courage of real love.
So even if you don’t want to make this effort for yourself because you are too lazy, do it for everybody else, because I think we need it.