Norman gives the fifth talk to the Mar de Jade April 2013 sesshin on Dogen’s Guidelines of the Way (part 4) as found in Moon in a Dewdrop by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
Dogen’s Guidelines for Study of the Way Talk 4 – Mar de Jade April 2013
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | April 8, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Emily Spielman and Barbara Byrum
Last night we left off at the beginning of point six:”What you should know for practicing Zen.” Dogen was telling us that you have to be really serious about your practice, and that you have to make a big effort. He says that the people who say that there is no use doing all this – that you should only take up things that are easy – are wrong
We also spoke about the theory in those days, in Japan, that it was a bad age for dharma. They thought that practice was impossible, and all you could do was pray for help and hope for a better rebirth. Actually, when you think about it, this attitude is very common everywhere: the idea that spiritual transformation is too difficult for ordinary people; it’s only for unusual people – for monks or priests, or single people without family ties, or for people who live in monasteries; the idea that people who have regular lives and families and complications can’t do this. We think, There is really is no point in even trying. Maybe the best we can do is to go to church once in a while – maybe on Christmas or Easter – and leave it at that. And because practice is impossible, maybe we can pray for help, pray that we’ll go to heaven.
In Buddhism, until recently, there was an idea that if you really wanted to be serious in your practice, you had to be a monk or a priest. It’s only in recent times that ordinary people like us started doing the same practice that monks do, this practice that we’re doing now and that Dogen urges us to do. In fact, even now in many Asian countries, it’s still rare that regular people do this. It’s still mostly monks and nuns.
It does seem like we can actually do this and that our lives really can transform. I know this is true, because you told me how your lives have transformed. People in the other Everyday Zen groups also told me this. So I have a great confidence that this is really possible for ordinary people like us. We can still go on being just the same as we always were, with the same problems and the same crazy life. But also, we can be different. We can have more calmness and more patience. We can have much more love and appreciation for the possibilities for this precious life that we have been given.
So we can have the same life, but a very, very different feeling for what that life is. And that makes all the difference. Although we don’t have to cut off our arm or our fingers, and we don’t have to leave home and leave our family like the Buddha did, we do, in our own way, have to make a steady effort over a long period of time. Not just one or two retreats, but sustained effort. This is because the root of our human problems is really deep. It’s so deep that we’re not going to be able to think our way out of it, or somehow get out of it with will power.
The root is right there in every single act of perception, in every single feeling, and in every single thought. As soon as you see something with your eyes, hear something with your ears, feel something with your heart, or think something in your mind, the grasping is there, the self-protection is there. It is there immediately before you even know or see it. The old, painful habit of the cutting yourself off from life is right there. Before you even know it, you have covered the entire universe with your smallness and your pain.
This is why it’s so important to practice coming back to presence and letting go. To release that grasping so that we can let the world of our heart – which is the same as the whole world outside of us – open up. And we have to do this again and again and again until it becomes clear to us just how painful it is to grasp. We have to do it again and again and again, until we develop the courage to let ourselves go and fully enter the world, until we trust our life as it really is.
In a moment we’ll read Dogen’s words telling us to do this very thing. As he says, practice is hard not because you have to cut off your fingers, or because you have to get up early in the morning and you can’t talk, or because it’s hard to sit when your legs hurt. It’s hard because it is so difficult to give yourself to your true self; it takes a lot of courage. We’re so used to our pain that we think it’s us. We’re scared to give it up.If someone came and said, I’ll take your pain. Don’t worry, just give it all to me, we would say, Are you kidding me? No way! I’m not giving this up. This is me. Even though we find it painful, we don’t want to give it up.
So it takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of training. And we have to stay with it and not give in to our many, many distractions and the story we keep telling ourselves about how we really can’t do this. Because it’s not true. We can do it.
People of the present say you should practice what is easy to practice. These words are quite mistaken. If this alone is what you regard as practice, then even lying down will be wearisome.
It’s true, if you think about it. If you only want to do what’s easy, this escalates. Pretty soon you say, Why should I go to all of this trouble of getting out of bed in the morning? Putting my feet on the floor, standing up.Oh, man, that is so hard. Standing up. Walking across the room, brushing my teeth. I did that already yesterday. I’m not doing that today. It’s true.If you only do what’s easy, your life becomes more and more difficult. On the other hand, if you are willing to do what’s difficult, face whatever’s there, no matter what it is, with energy, then everything becomes easy, and nothing in your life becomes burdensome.
It is obvious that people who are fond of easy practice are not capable of the way.
In fact, the dharma spread and is now present in the world because our great teacher Shakyamuni practiced with difficulty and pain for immeasurable eons and finally attained this dharma.
We all know the story. Buddha went through a lot. According to the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha didn’t just do all of this in one lifetime.The Buddha already practiced many, many lifetimes in the past before his lifetime as the Buddha. So if this is how the dharma comes to us, then this tells us the kind of effort we have to make too.
Students who would like to study the way must not wish for easy practice. If you seek easy practice, you will for certain never reach the ground of truth or dig down to the place of treasure. Even teachers of old who had great capacity said that practice is difficult. You should know that the buddha way is vast and profound.
If the buddha way were originally easy to practice, then teachers of great capacity from olden times would not have said that practice is difficult and understanding is difficult. Compared with the people of old, those of today do not amount to even one hair from nine cows. [So they really knew how to give insults in those days. Maybe we could take this one up.Next time you’re mad at somebody, you can say you’re not even as good as one hair from nine cows.]
With their small capacity and shallow knowledge, even if people of today strive diligently and regard this as difficult and excellent practice, still it down not amount to even the easiest practice and easiest understanding of the teachers of old.
Dogen goes on to say that the way people practice is not like an ordinary teaching, let alone a Buddhist teaching. It’s not even as good as the practice of a famous demon practitioner! Even the practice of completely confused people doesn’t come up to that. It’s just a delusion. Even though these people think they’re attaining liberation, all they’re doing is building up more and more suffering.
So all this is just to say that practice is difficult, and we should take up what’s difficult.
On the other hand, we can see that breaking bones or crushing marrow is not difficult, but to harmonize the mind is most difficult. Again, the practice of prolonged austerities is not difficult, but to harmonize bodily activities is most difficult.
In other words, you know the hardest austerities are not so difficult. What’s difficult is harmonizing the body. When we hear practice is difficult, we think, Oh, you give up this, and you have to get up early, and you have to do this, and you have to do that, but that’s not what he is talking about. What’s difficult is harmonizing the body and harmonizing the mind.
“Harmonize” is a beautiful word. It means bringing a pleasing tone to music. And this is what it’s like for us: we have to hear the music of our life. Right now all we’re hearing is the noise – the crashing and the smashing and the screeching and the crying and the yelling. In the meantime, there is beautiful music going on right there in the middle of our lives. But we don’t know how to tune into it, because all of these other noises are loud.
To bring our mind into harmony means to be able to bring some peace to all of our thoughts. Believe it or not, there’s even music in our worst thoughts and feelings. But we’re so busy either attaching to them or trying to get rid of them that we can’t hear the music. Actually, there’s a music even in our suffering. But we’re so busy hating our suffering and denying it that we don’t hear the music.
We are sitting here so that we can hear the music. So that we can feel how beautiful it is just to take one breath and to bring enough peace to our hearts that we can hear the music inside.
Do you know that your whole life long you’ve been walking around in a state of distraction? Probably you haven’t paid any attention to walking, because when you first learned how to do it – when you didn’t think that it was possible and you really had to concentrate to stand and walk across the room – everybody cheered. At that time, walking was like a symphony, with so much harmony and beauty. You were elated. Now you flop around walking as if you didn’t even know you had a body, because most of your mind is absorbed with all of the noise of your living. But when you walk into the zendo, you’re like a baby again. At least that’s the idea, that’s the invitation:walk with harmony, bow with harmony, use your voice in chanting in harmony, be in harmony when you eat your meal. All of the time be in harmony with your body.Unite your awareness with your body. Lift up your cup with tenderness. Feel the harmony in the body.We forget to do this, and that’s what makes practice hard.
Do you think crushing bones is of value? Although many endured such practice, few of them attained dharma. Do you think people practicing austerities are to be respected? Although there have been many, few of them have realized the way, for they still have difficulty in harmonizing the mind.
Brilliance is not primary, understanding is not primary, conscious endeavor is not primary, introspection is not primary. Without using any of these, harmonize body-and-mind and enter the buddha way.
Old man Shakyamuni said, “Avilokiteshvara turns the stream inward and disregards knowing objects.”
As you know, Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, acting with concern and love for others. Dogen is describing her practice here. Instead of going out and grasping outward, instead of letting the waters of our life flow outward, we turn the stream around and we look within. We stay with the breath and with the body, and we stop. When he says knowing objects, he means grabbing objects – which means even thinking that there is something to grab.
This is the teaching of the Heart Sutra that we chant twice a day. It’s the same as what’s being said here: No eyes, no ears, no tongue, and so on. Nothing to grasp. This is compassion, knowing that there is nothing to grasp. There is nothing outside, and there is nothing inside. Our life is one life, one with everything. So we can love everything and take in all of the suffering. This is our practice: turning the stream inward and not grasping after objects.
This is the meaning. Separation between the two aspects of activity and stillness simply does not arise. This is harmonizing.
There is no separation between activity and stillness. There is no such thing as now I’m meditating, I’m going within. Now I’m stopping meditating, and now I’m going back into the crazy world. This is a false idea. We are only living one life. There is only one life.
A great way to understand this is when we do our work. In the retreat, when we chop the vegetables or sweep the floor, it’s the same as the sitting.It might not seem the same as when you chop the vegetables in your own house, because you’re probably thinking, Oh no, I have to get the meal ready, and I’m busy. How come they’re always making me cook the meal? Why don’t they cook the meal? But in the retreat, it doesn’t feel like that. You’re doing nothing. You’re just waiting until the bell rings just like the rest of the day. Sweeping – what’s the difference? Breathing, sweeping – it’s all the same. Activity, stillness is the same. And everything is like that. There’s just entering the Buddha way. Moving the body, thoughts in the mind, breathing. When is it ever different from this?But we make it different. We don’t know how to harmonize the body and the mind. That’s what we have to do, and that’s the difficulty.
If anyone could enter the buddha way by means of brilliance or broad knowledge, then the senior monk Shenxiu would have been the one. If anyone of ordinary appearance or humble position were excluded from the buddha way, how could Huineng become the Sixth Ancestor? It is clear that the buddha’s way transmission lies outside brilliance and broad knowledge. Search and find out. Reflect and practice.
It’s simply there in you. Look for it. Find it. And practice.
Those two Chinese names, Shenxiu and Huineng, refer to a famous story in Zen. This is the story of the sixthancestorHuineng,whom we could say was the most important Zen person in China, and who set the tone for the feeling of the tradition. The story says that he was illiterate.He was a common worker; he chopped firewood. Once on the street, he heard someone reading a sutra, and right away he understood the teaching. So he went up to the mountain monastery, and the teacher said, Well, you’re only a worker. You don’t know anything. You’re not ready to meditate, so go into the room where they pound rice and just pound the rice. So that’s what he did. That was his whole practice. They never let him into the meditation hall.
In the same monastery there was a senior monk, Shenxiu, who was very wise and brilliant. When the teacher was ready to retire, he said that someone was going to take over for him. He would figure out who it was by having a poetry contest. (That makes sense doesn’t it?Of course! How else would you figure out who’s going to take over the monastery?) So they had a poetry contest.None of the monks even bothered to write a poem. They said,The head monk is obviously the one.Let him write the poem. We won’t even try. So the head monk wrote a brilliant poem about how to practice and how to purify the mind, and he posted it up on the wall. ThenHuinengin the rice house said, I heard about this contest. Maybe I’ll write a poem. He didn’t know any better. His poem said that there is no mind and there’s nothing to purify, and so there is no problem. He posted his poem on the wall. The teacher looked at the two poems, and he chose the rice pounder. So he went to the rice pounder, in the middle of the night, and he told him that he was his successor. He said, There’s only problem.No one in the monastery takes themselves seriously, so they’re not going to be able to recognize you. They’ll probably try to beat you up. So even though you’re my successor, you better go away somewhere else.But I’m giving you my robe and all of my signs of succession.Now run away and protect yourself.So he did.
That’s the story, and that’s what Dogen is saying here. This story tells us that it’s not about brilliance, and it’s not about all the things we think it’s about.It’s just about harmonizing body and mind, which you can do pounding rice, just as well as anything else.
Being old and decrepit does not exclude you. Being quite young and in your prime does not exclude you. Although Zhaozhou first studied when he was over sixty, he became a man of excellence in the ancestral lineage. Zheng’s daughter had already studied long by the time she was thirteen, and she was outstanding in the monastery. The power of buddha-dharma is revealed depending on whether or not there is effort, and is distinguished depending on whether or not it is practiced.
The only point is whether there is effort and whether one actually does the practice. That’s the only thing that matters. Anyone who is an expert in Buddhism, or an expert in anything else, should go study in a Zen monastery, because that’s where harmonizing the body and mind is learned. In other words, when we have a retreat or sesshin, we organize life just like it is in the monastery. There are many rules and regulations and silence, just like in a monastery.
Then Dogen gives examples from classical Chinese history of people who were great at this or that, but then went to Zen monasteries. The point is to be greatly accomplished in something in the world is a good thing, but it’s not the same as harmonizing body and mind.You still need to do that work.
To understand dharma and attain the way can only be the result of studying with a teacher. However, when practicing and inquiring of a teacher, listen to his words without matching them with your previous views. If you understand his words in terms of your own views, you will not be able to grasp his teaching.
This is an interesting and important point, isn’t it? If you go to see a teacher, and you hear the teacher, and what you hear is everything you already think, then what’s the point? If that’s what you already think, there is no use going. So the virtue of listening “without matching then with your previous views” is that you’re hearing things that you don’t think, or that you don’t even understand or agree with.Maybe you don’t like them. So you don’t reject those things because you don’t agree with them.
Now this is not the same as just accepting everything on faith. Because if you think about your own experience, you realize that sometimes you hear things, and they sound really strange to you, and it doesn’t make any sense to you, but something in you knows that this is worth exploring more.Sometimes you hear something, and you really don’t like it. You think this goes against everything you believe and feel about your life. But at the same time, you think that there’s something there, and you think,I’m not sure it’s a great idea for me to agree with myself. So I’ll go a little further and see. Maybe you’ve had that experience too. So that’s what he’s saying. The benefit comes from stretching beyond your viewpoint and your framework.
When you practice with a teacher and inquire about dharma, clear body and mind, still the eyes and ears, and just listen and accept without mixing in any other thoughts. Your body and mind will be one, a receptacle ready to be filled with water. Then you will certainly receive the teaching.
Just listen and accept the teaching. If you do that, then your body and mind will be one, because while you’re listening, you’re bringing stillness to your body and stillness to your mind. Your mind will be like a pitcher filled up with water, and then you will surely receive the teaching.
Nowadays, there are foolish people who memorize the words of texts or accumulate sayings and try to match these words with the teacher’s explanation. In this case, they have only their own views and old words, and have not yet merged with the teacher’s words. [They haven’t heard anything and they are really stuck on their own viewpoint.]
For some people, their own views are primary; they open a sutra, memorize a word or two, and consider this to be buddha-dharma. Later when they visit with an awakened teacher or a skilled master and hear the teaching, if it agrees with their own view, they consider the teaching right, and if it does not agree with their old, fixed standards, they consider his words wrong. They do not know how to abandon their mistaken tendencies, so how could they ascend and return to the true way?
In other words, they don’t know how to let go of their ideas. Sticking to their own ideas, they’ll just be deluded forever and ever.
Students of the way should not employ thinking, analysis, or any such thing. Though thinking and other activities perpetually beset you, if you examine them as you go, your clarity will be like a mirror. The way to enter the gate is mastered only by a teacher who has attained dharma; it cannot be reached by priests who have studied letters.
Dogen says that students should know that the buddha way lies outside thinking, outside analysis, outside prophecy, outside introspection, outside knowledge, and outside wise explanations. If the Buddha way were in these things, you would have realized it by now since these are the things we’ve always been doing: thinking and giving explanations.
Students of the way should not use thinking, analysis, or any of these things. Nevertheless, thinking and all of these other things are still going to be there. And what you should do is examine them as you go, and then your mind will be like a mirror.
Examine your thoughts and your feelings. Don’t let yourself be pushed around by your ideas. You know, we believe our thoughts and feelings are us. ¡Because we have this idea, we let our thoughts and ideas run our lives. We think we’re in charge. I follow my own way. I’m independent. I don’t listen to anybody. But actually, we’re victimized by our own thoughts and feelings. And where did they come from?They came from everywhere else but ourselves. They came from our parents and our friends and our culture; the craziness of the world around us; our fifth grade teacher.
Examine your thoughts and feelings. That means breathe, let go, and see what’s really going on. If your thoughts and feelings make sense, good. But if they don’t, have the courage to let go. That’s how you practice.