Norman gives the fourth talk at the Mar de Jade April 2013 Sesshin on Dogen’s Guidelines for Study of the Way (Part 3) as found in Moon in a Dewdrop by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
Dogen’s Guidelines for Study of the Way Part 3
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 8, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
This morning, we were studying the third and fourth points of Guidelines for Study of the Way. Point three: “In the buddha way, always enter enlightenment through practice.” In his discussion, Dogen emphasizes the importance of practice, not for something else, but for its own sake. He says that practice already includes enlightenment and goes beyond enlightenment.
Point four: “You should not practice Buddha’s teaching with the idea of gain.”
Even compassion can be used for gain, if we stick to the idea of compassion and take credit for how compassionate we are. Compassion is the basis for all of the teachings, but compassion comes freely and naturally, without trying to do something, without trying to gain something, and without any idea of compassion.
We are now up to the fifth of the ten points: “You should seek a true teacher to practice Zen and study the way.”
A teacher of old said, “If the beginning is not right, myriad practice will be useless.” How true these words are! Practice of the way depends on whether the guiding teacher is true or not.
The disciple is like wood, and the teacher resembles a craftsman. Even if the wood is really good, without a skilled craftsman, you won’t see the beauty in it. Even if the wood is good, without a skilled craftsman, its extraordinary beauty is not revealed. Even if the wood is bent, placed in skilled hands its splendid merits immediately appear. By this you should know that realization is genuine or false depending on whether the teacher is true or incompetent.
But in our country from ancient times [he is writing this in 1234 in Japan], there have not been any true teachers. How do we know that this is so? We can guess by studying their sayings, just as we can scoop up stream water and find out about its source.
In our country from ancient times, various teachers have written books, and they have instructed disciples, and they have offered teachings. Their words are are immature, their discourse has not yet ripened. They have not yet understood the way. They only transmitted words and phrases or taught the chanting of Buddha’s name. They count on peoples’ treasure day and night, not having a penny themselves.
Previous teachers are responsible for this. They taught people to seek [something called] enlightenment [or spiritual awakening or truth or wisdom or Buddhism] outside the mind; or to seek rebirth in a better land. Confusion starts from this.
In other words, they never taught people to find their hearts right here where they are. They told people to seek outside their own mind, outside this moment of their experience. This has created confusion. Even if you have good medicine, if you don’t know how to use the medicine, you might get sick, just as if you took poison.
In our country, from ancient times it seems as if no-one has given good medicine. No-one knows how to control the poisonous effects of medicine. Because of this, it is difficult to penetrate birth and death [and it is nearly impossible to overcome sickness, old age, and death.]
What is interesting here is that Dogen is not saying that the other teachings were wrong. He is not complaining about the things said in the past by these teachers. Maybe all those teachings were perfectly good medicine, but the teachers didn’t know how to administer the medicine so that it didn’t become poisonous. So nobody could understand their life, and nobody could overcome old age and death.
In classical Buddhism this was the goal: to practice so that you could overcome sickness, old age, and death. Of course, the way you do that is by fully embracing every moment of your life. When you completely embrace every moment of your life, there is no sickness, old age, and death. There is only what happens, and you learn how to accept and practice with whatever happens.
Then Dogen continues complaining:
All this is the teacher’s fault, not at all the fault of the disciple’s. The reason is that those who are teachers let people neglect the root and go out on limbs.
The root is this moment here – this breath, this awareness of the body right now, this thought, this perception, and this feeling, whatever it is, good or bad. When we step into this moment and really live it, we cut through our ideas and confusion and just step back and enter our life.
Before they establish true understanding, they are absorbed only in their own thinking, and they unwittingly cause others to enter a realm of confusion. What a pity! Those who are teachers do not yet understand this confusion. [If the teachers don’t know that this is confusion, how are the students going to learn?]
How sad! In this small, remote country, buddha-dharma has not yet spread wisely. If you want to study the unsurpassed buddha way, you have to travel a great distance to call on the masters in Song China, and you have to reflect deeply on the vital road outside thought.
We have to find a foundation for our life underneath the thoughts and feelings. You have probably noticed that you can’t sit down and think, “No more thinking,” and then no thoughts come. Even if you swear that thoughts aren’t going to come, they come anyway. You can’t stop them.
So we want to find a foundation beneath the thoughts. When we don’t find a foundation, the thoughts are flying, and we are flying all around with the thoughts. We believe all our thoughts, as crazy as they are. We believe them all! Even if we realize that they are crazy thoughts, we believe them enough that we wish they would go away. If you have thoughts, and you don’t like them, and if you don’t like them, and you wish that they would go away, it means that you believe in them.
In presence you find a foundation that is deeper than your thoughts. Just presence. Just the miracle of being here at all. When you find that wonder at the heart of your life, then it doesn’t matter what thoughts are there or not there. The thoughts are just like clouds in the sky: they come, they go. Who cares? Terrible thoughts, dark thoughts, beautiful thoughts – what is the difference? When you find the foundation, you are willing to let everything come and go. Whatever comes is good.
Dogen then says,
Until you have a true teacher, it is better not to study. Regardless of the teacher’s age or experience, a true teacher is someone who has simply apprehended the true teaching, and who has attained the authentic teacher’s seal of authentic realization. He does not put scriptures and doctrines first or understanding first. His capacity is outside any framework and his spirit freely penetrates the nodes in bamboo [will be free from concepts and entanglements in words. He is not concerned with self-views and does not stagnate in emotional feelings.
Emotion can flow freely in such a teacher without getting stuck. So emotion is good. We want to feel everything: good things, bad things – everything. But a good teacher does not get stuck in the emotions.
Did you ever notice how difficult it is when you get stuck in an emotion? It is like a fly on flypaper. The more you try to get out of it, the more you are stuck to it. So being stuck in emotions is really painful.
Thus, practice and understanding are in mutual accord. This is a true master.
For this teacher, the practice that he or she is doing, and the understanding that is expressed, is exactly the same. They are not saying one thing and practicing another. This is how you can tell a true master.
I think that we are better off than they were in Japan in 1234. I think there are good teachers in our times who fit Dogen’s criteria.. Dogen’s point is a little extreme:if you don’t have a true teacher, it is better not to study. I think it is better to study than not to study. And it is better to practice than not to practice. If there is no teacher that you can find, then practice anyway and wait until one shows up. And someone always will. It is not as if you need to live next door to the teacher. I think it is very possible to study with a teacher and only encounter the teacher from time to time. The important thing is commitment and sincerity. As Dogen has said here in many ways, it is not about learning something specific – a set of skills or something from books. It is a matter of a radical turning of the heart. This does take a true teacher, but you don’t have to hang around the person all the time.
The sixth point is “What you should know for practicing Zen.”
Practicing Zen, studying the way, is the great matter of a lifetime.
I find that phrase very inspiring: “The great matter of a lifetime.” In big temples they have a wooden block, and they hit it to bring people to the zendo. It makes a good sound, and you can hear it from far away. On the wooden block it always says, “Birth and death is the great matter.” When you think about it, this is the highest pursuit for a human being: to understand our life, to understand our death, and ask, Why are we here? What is the point of this life? Human beings are concerned with meaning and purpose and truth.
To seek these things is the fruit of a lifetime’s effort. Studying Zen is this, says Dogen. It is the great occupation of a whole lifetime. Of course, we can all do many things. We can think of all of them as part of our practice of Zen – the way we are in our families, the way we treat people in our life, the way we speak, the way we act. All these are the materials we use to understand the “great matter.”
Truly this is the greatest undertaking of a lifetime. So you should be careful with it, and don’t be in a rush – just keep going.
A master of old once cut off his arm and another cut off his fingers. These are excellent models from China.
This is an image of the seriousness of these people. Supposedly they really did this. We don’t know for sure, but I have met Japanese monastics – older people from another generation – who had a finger missing, because they cut it off to show the seriousness of their study. I don’t think that anyone should cut off their arm or their fingers! We have our own way of showing that we are serious.
Long ago, Shakyamuni Buddha abandoned his home and left his country. This is an excellent precedent for practicing the way.
I think that Dogen is making the point that practice is serious and requires a serious commitment.
People of the present say you should practice what is easy to practice.
Maybe I should give a footnote to this. Dogen lived in very dark and difficult times, when the social order was falling apart. The Buddhist scriptures say that one day Buddha’s teachings will fall apart, because the Buddha said that everything is impermanent. Someone asked, “What about the Buddha’s teaching? Is that impermanent too?” The Buddha said, “Yes, it is impermanent. It’s going to have a good period, and a not so good period, and then a terrible period, when everybody is confused, and nobody knows how to practice. Then it is going to disappear.” He said that. So everyone throughout history was trying to figure out which period they were in, because the Buddha didn’t give any dates! “Are we in the good period or the not so good period? Are we in the horrible, decadent period where you can’t even practice?”
The people in Japan in Dogen’s time figured out that this was the really bad, decadent period. So they said, “Forget about doing practice. It’s impossible. In this period nobody can do practice.” They were completely serious. What they said was, “What we need to do is not try to practice. What we need to do instead is chant the names of the buddhas and pray to buddhas. Pray to them that we will be re-born in a place that is better for practice, in a time that is better for practice.”
[recording cuts off]