In Bendowa, Master Dogen is asked a series of questions.
In answer four, he appears to make a naive statement about the relationship between theory and practice. In effect, he says we shouldn’t concern ourselves about the superiority or inferiority of teachings, but should only concern ourselves with whether practice is authentic or not.
But how is that possible? Don’t we necessarily have to have some idea of what practice is about before we practice?
We can begin to grapple with the statement if we consider two things: the nature of faith in buddhism and the difference between living and dead language.
First, faith. Following Stephen Batchelor, I would say that faith isn’t about making a series of propositions which one believes, but rather that faith is the courage to bracket all our beliefs, put them to one side, and try as best we can to give ourselves to our experience. That’s why words like ‘inconceivable’ are used.
It doesn’t mean that the truths of buddhism are very hard to understand, it means that the spectrum of experience which is being pointed at is outside the jurisdiction of the mind, and its tendency to ceaselessly fabricate. It is pra-jna, pre knowing, prior to conceptualisation. Our sincere effort to language truth is truth, which cannot be caught, only felt.
Second, language. I would say that dead language is the mind trying to grasp the world and itself conceptually, from the standpoint of ‘me’. Because it proceeds from ‘me’, the world is ‘myriad things’; nouns, not verbs. States, not expressions. Imagining Nirvana as a place or state we can reach and remain, rather than an in the moment not-doing.
In living language, the primary dichotomy of self and world is broken, since language – and everything else – is an aspect of dependent origination, which in turn is seen as dynamic expression stepping forward and backward, not a structure of cause and effect. Each expression, each this-now occupies its own dharma position, and at the same time, is the whole of dependent origination, and because of this, the expressive power of each this-now is infinite. One facet of that expressive power is language.
So, in authentic practice in the sense meant by Dogen, although we are drawn to practice by possibly superficial and unexamined notions of what practice is, if we practice from the position of faith, not us but practice, speaks.