Skip to main content

Fukanzazengi 2

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/22/2006
Location: Samish Island
In Topics: Dogen Studies, Meditation and Mindfulness

Second talk on Dogen’s Fukanzazengi focusing on Zazen


Fukanzazengi (2 of 3)

Second talk on Dogen's Fukanzazengi focusing on Zazen –

Zoketsu Norman Fischer


Abridged and transcribed by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum

What is going on? It's hard to say. What are you experiencing on your cushion? Hard to say. If I asked you, probably each one of you could say something, but surely you would understand that whatever it is you're saying, it would only be something that you are saying about something that isn't really described by your words. It wouldn't even be right to call it something. So, we're left with some confusion here about what it is we're experiencing, or whether we're experiencing anything at all.

It's commonplace in Western Buddhist circles – I don't think it was commonplace in Asian Buddhist circles, but in Western Buddhist circles, in our post-modern times, it's commonplace to say things like, "Let's not intellectualize. We're here to have direct experience on our cushions. We want direct experience – transformative experience." And so we're looking for a sort of experience that we probably think that we're not having. Or, if we do think we are having the right kind of experience, then we think that we're not having it often enough. Or, if we have it often enough, then we're thinking we're not having it deeply enough or truly enough. But I have a feeling that this whole way of looking at it is exactly looking in the wrong direction.

There are a lot of kinds of experiences. There are intellectual experiences, and, after all, intellectual experiences are experiences. Right? There are sensual experiences. There are emotional experiences, spiritual experiences, painful experiences, pleasant experiences, transcendent experiences – all kinds of experiences. Actually, when you think about it, living is nothing but having experiences one after the other. We could accumulate and collect experiences the way someone collects teapots or paintings or beach stones.

So having experiences is not anything special. It's quite commonplace and constant. Having experiences is really not so different from having money or many objects in our home. Some people like having lots of money in their bank account and lots of objects in their home, and they assign meaning to this. Other people prefer to travel here and there and have cultural experiences, and they assign meaning to that. Or some people, probably like you, like to go to meditation retreats and have meditation experiences. These are all different things we can do and accumulate, and they're all, more or less, of the same value. Life as a form of tourism.

Whatever we could accumulate, whatever we could collect – whether possessions or experiences – is limited. Dharma, or real awakening, is not knowledge or experience. It's a feeling of knowing the truth. So we can hear the teachings, we can chant them, we can analyze them, and we can experience them. All of this is really good, and practice includes all of this. But awakening is when we know the teachings are true, and when that knowing is so pervasive and so deeply felt by us that we can't help but naturally live in accord with them. When we do that, there is a lot less suffering, and there's a lot more compassion and love in our lives.

The teachings are not a special, precious kind of experience, or some special, precious kind of truth. They're just the natural order of things – the way things go, the way things are. And this isn't Zen or even Buddhism. Zen and Buddhism and the verbal expression of the teachings are just devices. If we practice Zen or Buddhism, and we don't know the truth of how things are and live that truth, then we're just practicing another religion. I think Buddha and the other great sages of the past – not only Buddhist sages, but sages in all traditions – were pointing us toward something more, and less, than this.

Something is definitely happening on the cushion, but it's not what we think it is. So this might be a useful little device for your meditation practice: Anything that you are thinking – whether it's horrible thoughts of anguish or thinking that this is going well – just tell yourself, "That's not it." Whatever it is, that's not it. Because whatever is happening on our cushions is beyond our capacity to know it. Though our intelligence and conscious knowing is involved, it's not that. What's happening to us on our cushions is that we're becoming, little by little, ever more connected to the teachings. They're going, little by little, deeper and deeper in, with each period of meditation. Our view of life and the action of living that flows from that view are slowly shifting and growing. Our faith in the practice and in the teachings and our commitment to them, is also – little by little by little – growing within us. All of this is going on very deeply in our hearts.

That's why sitting practice is so very important, because sitting practice is one of the few things that can touch us at that deep level of the heart, beyond what we can know. Sadly, there are people in this world who live whole lives from beginning to end without ever once being touched by this level of being.

All of this is what Dogen is trying to tell us in Fukanzazengi. So let's continue with the text. Maybe you remember that yesterday we left off at a very cliff-hanging moment. First Dogen told us that our life was perfect and sacred, no matter what we did or didn't do; and just when we were feeling pretty good about that, Dogen mentioned to us that if there was the slightest discrepancy, we're sunk. And there always is discrepancy. So that is where we take up Dogen today. He says,

Need I mention the Buddha who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still.

In other words, even though the Buddha was the Buddha, he had already practiced many, many, many lifetimes. He was, presumably, already a sage, and yet the Buddha practiced six years of upright sitting.

Or Bodhidharma's transmission of the mind-seal? The fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?

This is what Bodhidharma and the Buddha did about the human situation – the doubleness that we spoke about yesterday. They sat down right in the middle of it and practiced. This is how the Ancients responded. They took up the Way. They practiced. They sat. And this is what we have to do, too, in imitation of them, inspired by them, and, in a sense, cashing in on the spiritual energy of theirs that still exists in the present.

You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest.

When it says that you should cease from intellectual understanding, pursuing words, and following after speech, it doesn't just mean intellectual understanding. It means pursuing anything – any object that can be grasped; anything that can be accumulated and measured, including experiences, emotions, and insights. It means reaching out and grabbing something outwardly, looking for something that you don't have and trying to get hold of it. It even means trying to get hold of peace of mind or happiness, if peace of mind or happiness is conceived of as experiences or states of mind that we could get. This is what we're always doing in life – reaching out, groping forward, for something that's missing.

Instead of that, Dogen says it's better to "[S]tep back. Step back. Turn your light inwardly rather than outwardly. Reverse your course. Change your impulse. Rather than getting something to enhance yourself, illuminate yourself – where you are."

This is more or less the instruction that we heard from Hongren yesterday, when he wrote, "Just sit with openness. Be the flow of the mind. Allow everything to come and go. Allow things just to come to rest, so that there's nothing to see, nothing to do, and nothing to think." Dogen tells us that body and mind of themselves will just simply and naturally drop away. And this, despite Dogen's colorful language, is not a dramatic experience, or even an experience at all. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your real nature – your simple, sacred, human perfection, that has always been there, and that has been covered over by your constant reaching and grasping – that sacred, simple, perfect, human nature will just shine through.

Then Dogen says,

If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.

And here again, I have a quibble with the translator. I think the translation is a little misleading. When it says, "you should practice suchness without delay," it sounds like Dogen is exhorting us, "Hurry up and get to it! "Don't waste time!" He may be saying that, but it's not quite what is meant here, I think. He's saying, "Practice suchness immediately." In other words, without mediation, without any technique, without grabbing something, or without any kind of gradual journey to a particular destination. When you take the backward step, you are immediately without mediation right at that moment. You are immediately suchness – Buddha – things as they are, life as it is. It's immediate. It's not gradual. It's not depending on various means that mediate the experience. It's radically just what we are. So if you want to practice suchness, practice suchness instantaneously – immediately, without effort, without step-by-step process.

So after saying all this, which is a lot to say in a few paragraphs, Dogen becomes very concrete and practical. He says to find a quiet room, find a good place. Don't eat too much; don't drink too much. Go away on a retreat someplace and put aside all your affairs. Don't think about doing things right or doing things wrong. Don't try to become a Buddha. Just sit. Spread out thick matting; put a cushion above it. Sit either in the full lotus or half lotus position. Ears in line with your shoulders; nose in line with your navel; tongue on the roof of your mouth. Shut your teeth and your lips. Keep your eyes softly open and downcast. Breathe gently through your nose. Inhale and exhale, rock back and forth, and so on and so forth. That's it.

And then he says,

Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

So that's the technique – that's the only technique that Dogen gives us in this text. That's the technique for taking the backward step – letting go of grasping mind, which is so endemic to our living.

In zazen we're not trying to think something in particular or to orient the mind in a particular direction. Nor is it necessary for us to somehow shut off thinking, which, though difficult, is actually not impossible when the mind is concentrating. Instead, he says think not-thinking, which is called non-thinking – a sort of thinking. It is very, very similar to the way we usually think, but there's a little, tiny difference. And that little, tiny difference makes a categorical difference, even though we could miss it. The difference is so small that it is hard to see, but once you see it, it makes all the difference.

In usual thinking, and most of the time we are not at all conscious of this, what drives the thinking is some hook, some catch to thinking. That hook and that catch is "I" or "Me." "I'm thinking." The thinking has to do with me. This fact inspires and conditions the thinking at all points, and that's all we know in our life. So Descartes, who never dreamed of anything like zazen, was right when he said, "I think therefore I am." That's exactly right: "I think therefore I am." And he could have added, "And therefore I suffer, and I screw up right and left, and I ultimately make everybody miserable."

So that's what characterizes ordinary thinking – that hook, that catch of "I," which is the most natural thing in the world. When we think not-thinking or non-thinking, the "I," that little catch, is naturally set aside, because instead of putting our energy into it, which we normally and automatically do, we are putting our energy into breathing posture. We're trusting that and developing that, and we're doing a little kind of brain surgery. We're gently removing "me" and "I," and we're replacing it with breathing and posture. Therefore, the thinking has a completely different force and energy. It might even be the same thoughts! The content could be almost the same, at least at first. But the sense of what the thinking is and its meaning and the energy behind it are utterly and completely different. Thoughts can arise and pass away without that hook or that catch. Each thought is free – it doesn't have to be in service of me or I. It doesn't have to be my thought. It just comes and goes.

At first non-thinking might not feel so different from thinking, but it is totally different, because fundamentally there is no suffering in it. Even if the thoughts that come and go are very negative – nasty, smelly, awful thoughts – if you just let them come and go without that hook, without that catch, there's really no suffering in the thoughts. Eventually, if you continue to practice non-thinking, there will be serenity and peace, and the kinds of thoughts that will arise will be different. Thoughts will just float up into the mind and float away, with no more trouble or anguish than a cloud floating by in the sky. Practicing in that way, the backward step occurs.

This is something that Dogen said one time after a morning dharma meeting:

Students of the Way, do not cling to your own understanding. Even if there is something you do understand, you should ask yourself whether there might be still something that is not completely resolved, or whether there may be something beyond what you understand that you should try to understand. So you should seek far and wide for those who know and also inquire into the words of sages of former times. Yet, do not cling even to the words of people of old. You should think that they also could be wrong. Even though you believe them, think whether there might be something beyond this, and turn to that and keep inquiring.

So we keep walking backwards. We don't know where we're going, but we're always looking forwards. Even though we're not walking forward and grabbing something, we're looking forward. Looking forward means living ordinary life, trying to understand our life, trying to understand the teachings, trying to fulfill our destiny as human beings. As we learn from Katagiri Roshi, "I have an irresistible desire to know." That's what a human being is. We're always facing forward. So there's no end to our effort to try to work out our destiny as human beings. There's no end to our effort to try to understand our life. That's what we're doing as we're slowly advancing backwards.

So we're quite lucky to have this time and this place and one another as companions in this very odd-ball life – stumbling backwards while we're walking forwards, trying with all our might to understand what we will never completely understand. What could be better than that?

Thank you.


Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.