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Face to Face

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/22/2006
Location: Deer Run Zendo
In Topics: Dogen Studies

Talk on Dogen’s work entitled Face to Face from Moon from the book Moon in a Dewdrop.

Talk on Dogen's work entitled "Face-to-Face"

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | February 22, 2006


Transcribed and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum

Let me say a few words by way of introduction of Dogen's Face-to-Face TransmissionMenju. What I believe from studying Dogen for a really long time, through many seasons of my life and practice, is that Dogen emphasizes lineage in Buddhism in a way that other teachers do not. Lineage is usually thought about as heritage and hierarchy. The teaching is handed down from above, and we venerate it and know that it is authentic because of that. But for Dogen, I think, that's not what is important about lineage. That's important too, but the real juice of it for him is contained in this fascicle, Face-to-Face Transmission – the actual face-to-face meeting.

I would say, and we can all say now, that the "I-You" encounter in Buber's I and Thou is an analogue for that face-to-face meeting between master and disciple. For Dogen the relationship must be personal, it must be immediate, and it must be an encounter. The encounter is important – not the teachings, not the rituals. It is that encounter that makes the teaching worthwhile and makes the ritual worthwhile. It's that encounter that enlivens everything. It is why transmission is so important.

If you think about so many aspects of Dogen's thought in the light of that, it really begins to make sense. He's always complaining about Buddhist teachers who privilege particular experiences over just the fact of encounter. Or teachers who privilege knowledge and understanding over this encounter. He's always bringing us back to this encounter, which is not, as Buber says, an "experience." We have nothing. There's no attainment. There's nothing to hold on to. There's just the encounter in which we both disappear in some way.

So this fascicle is called Face-to-Face Transmission. We could say "I-You transmission," but I'm fascinated, actually, by the fact that he is so specific about the idea of face-to-face. He uses the word "face," and the idea of the face – one face facing another face – is such an important part of what this fascicle is about. When you think about it, a face is the most expressive part of what a person is. Our whole body is expressive, but, really, you have to admit that the face is more expressive. The eyes, they say, are the windows into the soul. You look at someone's eyes, and there is so much there, so much depth in that look. The person's whole experience, moment by moment, is flashing across the face in subtle ways. A face is so incredibly alive and expressive and personal. The face is a seat of a person, and in a way, if you want to meet someone's personality, we meet them face to face. In a sense, the quality of the person that we are is expressed in our face. Face-to-Face Transmission implies all these things.

So let's just read it. Maybe we'll be able to read the whole thing. Maybe we'll skip some. We'll see how it goes.

Once Shakyamuni Buddha, on Vulture Peak in India, in the midst of a vast assembly of beings, held up an udumbara flower and winked. Venerable Mahakashyapa smiled. Then Shakyamuni Buddha said, "I have the treasury of the true dharma eye, the inconceivable mind of nirvana. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa."

As most of you probably know, this is the story, according to Zen, of the first transmission in Buddhism, from the Buddha to his disciple Mahakashyapa. And as most of you probably also know, this phrase, "the treasury of the true dharma eye" in Japanese is Shobogenzo – the title of Dogen's great work in which this chapter appears. Shobogenzo – "The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye." Many other Zen teachers besides Dogen wrote works with that title: "The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye." They wanted to speak about and write about this essential teaching that is transmitted throughout the Zen lineage.

It is a dharma eye – in other words, a way of seeing. This is the Zen equivalent of the sutras. This teaching is saying, "I am not transmitting to you doctrines or sutras or articles of belief. I'm not transmitting to you meditation techniques or rituals or ways of doing things. I'm transmitting to you my eye – a treasure storehouse – a way of seeing the world. A way of understanding the world not intellectually, but viscerally." And I think it also implies a way of being in the world based on that seeing.

"This I entrust to Mahakashyapa." So this way of seeing is being entrusted. There is a certain kind of trusting relationship. Of course, the most striking thing about it is that no words are exchanged. There are no instructions. There are no secret handshakes. Buddha just winks, or some expression comes onto the Buddha's face – we don't know. But there were no words – just an expression on the Buddha's face. And Mahakashyapa smiled in response, recognizing the sense of what the Buddha's face was expressing. Everybody in the assembly saw the Buddha's face in the same way, but only Mahakashyapa, in smiling, really took it in. It penetrated Mahakashyapa. So without words, without anything exchanged, there was this moment of recognition.

This is the meaning of transmitting the treasury of the true dharma eye face to face from buddha to buddha, from ancestor to ancestor.

So what is the meaning? This is it! There is nothing to be explained. There's nothing complicated. This is the meaning already – the Buddha's face recognized Mahakashyapa's face. They didn't even have to say, "Oh, I recognize you." It was there already. In other words, the transmission occurred without words.

So, there's no sutra. There's no doctrine. There's no understanding. There isn't even any particular experience that someone is supposed to have that certifies their Zen understanding. And exactly because there is no sutra and no specific knowledge, the only way that it could possibly be transmitted is face to face, in the mutuality of this encounter – through this trusting and entrusting mutual relationship. And we'll see at the end that Dogen insists that it has to be – really and truly – face to face, person to person. But it's beyond a personal relationship. It's a relationship that leaps off the personality to what is cosmic in each one of us. That's the operative point: Every person's manifestation of that is going to be different.

There really isn't a "correct" understanding. There is each person's expression of an understanding that can't be expressed in any other way except through him or her. And what makes this not just anarchy – where everybody gets to say whatever they want, and there's no control over it? What makes it the dharma? Face-to-face transmission. That's what seals it. The willingness and the capacity to enter into this relationship, which is personal and beyond personal, seals the understanding.

So in the lineage there have been many completely different kinds of understanding expressed. You could read one teacher and then read another teacher, and they can be saying quite different things. But what holds it all together is this willingness and capacity to enter into the relationship of face-to-face transmission. Real encounter. And as we know from our own lives, it is not necessarily easy to do that. It requires a level of trust and a sense of renunciation and letting go and contextualizing our ego into something larger than ourselves. The only way we can meet another is if we can do that.

I first offered incense and bowed formally to my late master, old buddha Tiantong, in the abbott's room on the first day, fifth month, of the first year of Baoqing of Great Song. He also saw me for the first time. Upon this occasion, he transmitted dharma, finger to finger, face to face, and said to me, "The dharma gate of face-to-face transmission from buddha to buddha, ancestor to ancestor, is realized now."

Dogen is reporting a biographical fact here. For Dogen this is the equivalent of Buddha and Mahakashyapa and the flower. When Tiantong says to Dogen, "The dharma gate of face-to-face transmission from buddha to buddha, ancestor to ancestor, is realized now," it would be the same as Shakyamuni saying, "I now entrust you with the Shobogenzo."

It's kind of interesting, because we actually don't know what he means here when he says, "I saw him for the first time, and he saw me for the first time." It's not exactly clear. Does it mean literally that the first time Dogen laid eyes on Tiantong, and the first time Tiantong laid eyes on Dogen, that there was this mutual recognition? It might mean that, because sometimes there could be face-to-face transmission on an initial meeting. There could be a recognition. It also could mean that this was the time they really saw each other. They may have met before, but this was the moment they really were face-to-face.

This itself is holding up a flower on Vulture Peak, or attaining the marrow at Mt. Song. [This refers to Bodhidharma]. Or it is transmitting the robe at Mt. Huangmei, or the face-to-face transmission at Mt. Dong [which refers to Dongshan, the founder of the Soto lineage. In other words, he's saying, "My meeting with my teacher was just like these other meetings."] This is buddha ancestors transmitting the treasury of the eye face to face. It occurs only in our teaching. Other people have not even dreamed of it.

Dogen is saying that there were a lot of people in China and Japan, and elsewhere, who didn't think that transmission needed to involve a face-to-face relationship. There were many people who received transmission in dreams or in trances or long distance. There were Japanese monastics who received transmission from Chinese teachers by exchanging letters. So it was very common. We're all so used to our lineage that to us it seems axiomatic: "Of course, how could you have a transmission and receive teaching from a teacher you never saw?" But it was not axiomatic, and Dogen is really making this point by saying that this is about relationship. And relationship happens in the ordinary, everyday realm of person to person, not only in the spiritual realm.

Face-to-face transmission means between buddhas' and ancestors' faces; when Shakyamuni Buddha was in the assembly of Kashyapa Buddha, he received it from Kashyapa Buddha and has continued this transmission. [In past lives Shakyamuni Buddha was a disciple of Kashyapa, a mythical buddha. It's a coincidence that Shakyamuni's disciple was also named Kashyapa. He is referring here to two different Kashyapas.] There are no buddhas without face-to-face transmission from the buddha face. Shakyamuni Buddha, by seeing Mahakashyapa, face to face intimately entrusted him with it. Ananda or Rahula are not equal to Mahakashyapa, who received the intimate entrustment. Nor are all the great bodhisattvas, who are unable to sit in Mahakashyapa's seat.

I think the point here is not that Mahakashyapa is a better person or smarter. The point is – just as we learn from Buber – that the face-to-face relationship is exclusive. When there is a face to face relationship, nothing else in the world exists but that one face – facing a face. So he's saying that in the face to face transmission between Buddha and Mahakashyapa, the others weren't part of it at this moment, even though the others later themselves received face to face transmission from someone else.

The World-honored One and Mahakashyapa sat together on the same seat and wore the same robe.

In other words, they became the same person: I-You. They entered one another in a reciprocal relationship.

This occurred only once in Buddha's life. Thus venerable Mahakashyapa received the World-honored One's transmission directly face to face, mind to mind, body to body, and eye to eye. Mahakashyapa respectfully regarded Shakyamuni Buddha while making offerings and bowing formally. Thousands of times Mahakashyapa had pounded his bones and crushed his body [which is the Zen way of saying that again and again and again he went to his cushion; again and again and again he practiced; again and again and again he examined who he was and challenged his desires and his preferences, his needs, and his egotistical impulses]. His face was no longer his own.

That's great, don't you think? So you have to practice until your face is no longer your own. Or, of course, you can say the opposite: You practice so much that your face is completely and uniquely your own. Because you get down to the nub of what you are, apart from all your fantastical notions and dreams about what you are. So your face is completely and uniquely your own. Another way of exactly saying the same thing is: "Your face is no longer your own." When your face is no longer your own, then you can receive the Buddha's face by means of face-to-face transmission.

So our work on the cushion hones us down enough and makes it possible to be most truly who we are. We become free of all of the baggage of who we are. In that state we then have the capacity to meet the Buddha face-to-face and receive the Buddha's face by means of face-to-face transmission.

Shakyamuni Buddha saw venerable Mahakashyapa in person. Venerable Mahakashyapa saw venerable Ananda in person [and Ananda was his disciple, so Mahakashyapa had face-to-face transmission with Ananda], and venerable Ananda bowed formally to venerable Mahakashyapa's buddha face. This is face-to-face transmission.

Dogen is saying that the practice of face-to-face transmission is bowing. The disciple bows to the teacher – offers a bow of veneration.

Thus, the authentic teachers of all generations have continued face-to-face transmission, disciple seeing teacherteacher seeing disciple. [Seeing one another. Really and truly seeing one another. That means on all levels – seeing one another's karmic life. Seeing warts and all, so to speak, and also seeing each other's cosmic life – complete seeing.] An ancestor, a teacher, or disciple cannot be a buddha or an ancestor without having face-to-face transmission.

It is like pouring water into the ocean and spreading it endlessly, or like transmitting the lamp and allowing it to shine forever. In thousands of millions of transmissions, the trunk and branches are one [ . . . ]

In other words, in every instance of face-to-face transmission, the essential buddha-dharma is present. And you always have to remember in a text like this that this is not just referring to the narrow sense of the transmission between the teacher and disciple in Zen, but it is also referring to the transmission that happens on the moment of any encounter when there is real meeting. It's a mutuality of meeting, just as Buber said.

breaking an eggshell by pecking from the inside and outside at once.

Which is a famous image in Zen – the relationship between teacher and student. We're all encased in the eggshell of our egotistical confusion. We're pecking from one side and the teacher is pecking from the other side. Then in perfect harmony, just exactly together, we break through.

In this way, day and night venerable Mahakashyapa closely attended Shakyamuni Buddha, and spent his whole life being intimately illuminated by the buddha face.

And this is really true. A face can be illuminated. People look completely different. If someone is happy and full of love, they look completely different than if they're in despair or weighed down by concerns. You know, faces really do light up. So, Mahakashyapa spent his whole life being lit up by the Buddha's face. Isn't that wonderful?

How long this has been happening is beyond comprehension.

So that's a clue that he is talking about something wider than just this historical moment of Mahakashyapa being illuminated by the Buddha. The whole world is illuminated by the Buddha's face, every time there is an encounter of one with another in this reciprocal relationship.

You should quietly and joyously reflect on this. Thus, venerable Mahakashyapa bowed formally to Shakyamuni Buddha's face. Shakyamuni Buddha's eyes were reflected in his eyes, and his eyes were reflected in Shakyamuni Buddha's eyes. [The most intimate thing.]

And so, in other words, at the moment that we really take something in, and really look at something, we are that thing. So just like here: Shakyamuni Buddha is actually in the eye – the image of Shakyamuni Buddha is literally in the eye of Mahakashyapa – and Mahakashyapa is literally in the eye of Shakyamuni Buddha.

This is the buddha eye; this is the buddha face. [To actually take in so that you become that whichyou are facing. You really take in the face. You give up your face, and you take in the face thatyou're facing.] It has been transmitted face to face without a generation's gap until now. This is face-to-face transmission.

All these authentic heirs are the buddha face; each of them has received face-to-face transmission from the original buddha face. [Now this is surprising, because on a historical, linear level, each one has received face-to-face transmission from their own teacher, but Shakyamuni Buddha died a long time ago. How could we say we are receiving face-to-face transmission from Shakyamuni Buddha? Well, in the face-to-face transmission that we are receiving from our teacher, he is saying, the glow of Shakyamuni's Buddha's face shines in the face of our teacher in some very real way and is transmitted in each instant.] Bowing formally to this right face-to-face transmission is bowing to the Seven Buddhas through Shakyamuni Buddha [the seven buddhas are the legendary buddhas that preceded Shakyamuni Buddha], and bowing and making offerings to venerable Mahakashyapa and the rest of the twenty-eight Indian buddha ancestors.

The face and eyeball of buddha ancestors are like this. To see these buddha ancestors is to see Shakyamuni Buddha and the others of the Seven Buddhas. Exactly at this moment buddha ancestors are intimately transmitting to one another.

A face-to-face transmitting buddha transmits to face-to-face transmitting buddha. It is transmitted from vine to vine without being cut. It is transmitted from eye to eye, with the eye open. It is transmitted from face to face, with the face revealed. Face-to-face transmission is given and received in the presence of the buddha face. Mind is taken up, transmitted and received by mind. Body is manifested and transmitted to body. Even in other regions or in other countries this is regarded as the original ancestor. [In other words, this moment of encounter – that's the original ancestor. The original ancestor is not a person who lived a long time ago. The Buddha is the essence of this capacity to encounter one another. That's what the Buddha is.] In China and eastward, there is face to face transmission only within the house of correctly transmitted buddha ancestors. Thus the correct eye that always sees the Buddha anew has been transmitted.

Even without knowing one word, or understanding half a phrase, the teacher sees the student within himself, and the student lowers the top of his head [The student lowers his head in reverence]; this is correct face-to-face transmission.

So now he is making it really explicit. This is not about having a particular kind of understanding, or being able to explain something in Buddhism, or knowing something. It's not about knowing something about the doctrines in Buddhism. Even if you don't know anything, and you can see the teacher and the teacher can see you, then this is face-to-face transmission. Mutual respect and mutual identity.

Dogen is saying that in our lineage we believe that face to face transmission is primary. Because without that encounter of mutual respect and mutual identity, what have we got? We've got a spiritual understanding, a spiritual knowledge, but if we can't roll up our sleeves in this world and meet one another, what have we got?

And what does our understanding amount to if we can't do that?

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