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331. Becoming singing

Master Dogen wrote chapter 40 of the Shobogenzo Dotoku (expression) towards the end of 1242; right in the middle of his most productive and expressive period of writing. The chapter begins:

All Buddhas and Ancestors are expressions. Thus, when Buddha ancestors intend to select Buddha ancestors, they always ask, “Do you have your expression?” This question is asked with the mind and with the body. It is asked with a walking stick or a whisk. It is asked with a pillar or a lantern. Those who are not Buddha ancestors do not ask this and do not answer this, since they are not in the position to do so. Such an expression is not obtained by following others or by the power of oneself. Where there is a thorough inquiry of a good ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.

Master Dogen – Shobogenzo Dotoku

The word ‘dotoku’ has two parts to it. The first part ‘do’ means ‘way’, or ‘to say’, and the second part ‘toku’ means ‘to attain’ or ‘to be able to’. 

Dogen makes ample use of the richness of these two kanji to recast buddhist practice. He does this by changing our idea of what practice is. So, rather than an idea that we are, as it were, struggling through this storm, in order to get to the other shore of imagined tranquility, rather we are to see ourselves and all being as ‘expression’.

When we hear the word ‘expression’ we normally think of either making a statement whereby something is asserted or, through a special talent for writing, painting, music or whatever, this person is able to produce something unique to this person. So we think of expression as being an attribute of the self. 

Dogen’s meaning is entirely different. From his perspective, whether we can see through the fog of the self or not, everything is illuminated. From his perspective, whether we can hear through the static of the self or not, everything is singing.

If we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this fog;  if we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this static, then even what we understand to be obstruction, even what we understand to be delusion, is in itself expression. Released from the grip of the self: the calculus of gain and loss;  the static, the fog becomes singing

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330. Not from the perspective of the self

Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, his universal recommendation of Zazen, closely follows an earlier text by the Chinese master Chang-lu Tsung-tse. However, there are several important differences. One difference in particular is that, in the earlier text, there is the following passage:

“Do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced and unsettled.”

Chang-lu Tsung-tse

That passage doesn’t appear in the Fukanzazengi. Obviously, Dogen was aware of that passage, so why isn’t it there? 

Chang-lu’s instruction has some modern-day echoes in terrible instructions that some people give in Zen about tucking in the chin, pushing up with the top of the head, and stretching the back of the neck. They are terrible for two reasons. Firstly, they simply create tension in the back of the neck. They give, perhaps, a feeling of uplift but what they actually create is tension. Although his instruction is in negative terms, it leaves effort (“strain”) there, you just shouldn’t overdo it.

There is a second reason, and a more significant one. When we put ourselves in the Zazen posture, putting ourselves in that posture is an act of will, an act of the self. But once we are in the posture we are no longer practising from the perspective of the self. We say, poetically perhaps, that we are practising from the perspective of the Buddha. In other words, we are sitting with all beings, within all Being.

 This is actually a very important point. We are so within a culture of individualism and self-improvement that we don’t notice it. It surrounds us like the ocean surrounds fish. People will habitually think of meditation as a way to get something for themselves: you get your mind calm, you become a kinder person, you become more compassionate. Sometimes, people with this perspective are more honest – they would say you become enlightened, you become spiritually evolved, your consciousness is enhanced. Drivel, obviously, but honest.

What we are doing in Zazen is simply letting everything be. We are not relying on our voluntary muscles – the muscles that are moving our hands or moving our neck; we are relying on our postural muscles, our deep muscles. It is those muscles and the engagement of those muscles through correct posture which creates a natural feeling of uplift in the body. It is a feeling of uplift that we can certainly feel in our neck and our head but which originates deep in our torso. It is not an uplift which is voluntarily created by us, it is simply something that happens when we put ourselves in the correct position and let the self be -temporarily- displaced.

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327. The Pearl of the mind

Amongst his voluminous writings, the Fukanzazengi, Dōgen’s Universal Recommendation of Zazen, is probably his most important.  

Yet, it’s an anomaly because, while Dōgen is celebrated for his originality, his Fukanzazengi is, in large part, a copy of an earlier text by Chinese Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse; ‘A written manual on Zen meditation’. Chang-lu wrote this about 130 or so years before Dōgen. 

(It’s not unique for Dōgen’s to respond to the writings of another. He rewrote the Zazenshin poem of Hongzhi to emphasize dynamism over tranquility. There’s also some parallels between his death poem and Hongzhi’s death poem).

What Dōgen does in the Fukanzazengi is to take the original text, miss out the starting paragraph and put in four introductory paragraphs of his own. And at the end he also adds a number of paragraphs. But the central part of the text strongly resembles Chang-lu’s text.

There’s some instructions which Dogen misses out. For instance, Chang-lu admonishes: “do not strain your body upward too far lest it cause your breathing to be forced  and unsettled”.  He also tells the practitioner to press their tongue against their hard palate. 

Neither of those passages appear in Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi. 

The most striking difference however  is right in the middle of Chang-lu’s text, where there is the following passage:

“Therefore it is said: to seek a pearl we should still the waves.

If we disturb the water it will be hard to get.

When the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear”.

Master Chang-lu Tsung-tse;

That passage doesn’t appear in Dōgen’s text. 

Chang-lu is using a familiar Buddhist metaphor within which the water represents the mind. The wind is the wind of delusion which makes the water choppy. When the water is choppy it cannot accurately reflect anything. It’s like the personal karmic mind, lost in confusion. The true nature of the mind is obscured.  However when the  water is calm, the true mind can show itself. It can clearly and tranquilly reflect the moon, like a mirror.

With Chang-lu we also get the further subsidiary metaphor of the pearl. When the water is still, when the mind is quiet, the depth of the water/mind is apparent, revealing at the greatest depth the pearl of the mind, which we might take as a reference to Buddha nature.

In his poetry, translated into English by Steven Heine, Dōgen radicalizes this image. For him the wind and the waves are not negative.  The aim of practice is not to eradicate the wind and hence calm the water. 

For example, in one of his poems ( entitled, significantly, ‘Shobogenzo’) he uses the image of a small boat drifting amidst the waves.

In the heart of the night

The moonlight framing

A small boat drifting,

Tossed not by the waves

Nor swayed by the breeze

Master Dogen’s poem, “Shobogenzo”

 The  small boat is presumably the individual practitioner. The boat is undisturbed by the wind and the waves because the boat is empty of a person

The wind and the waves, instead of being equated with delusion, are now equated with a dynamic vision of interdependence. 

We can see his transformation of this metaphor most clearly in another of his poems, ‘A special transmission outside the teaching’:

The dharma, like an oyster

 washed atop a high cliff 

even waves crashing against 

the reefy coast, like words,

may reach but cannot wash it away. 

Master Dogen’s poem, “A special transmission outside the teaching”

We can see here that Dōgen further radicalizes Chang-lu’s image, bringing to the surface very interesting questions regarding the relationship between language and practice—and many other things.

He takes us from a rather clichéd image of tranquility, a metaphor in grave risk of petrification, to a point where the radicalised image breaks free of specific symbolic interpretation, and is restored to its creative expressive potential. 

And that makes it possible for us to make new responses. For example, when I read this poem it seemed to me that the cliff was the practitioner in Zazen. A cliff  is, as it were, part of the universal body of all beings but it lacks a head. Or rather, it’s part of this body because it lacks a (personal) head. Except in this case, it does have a head—the oyster. We don’t practice from the perspective of the self. We, as it were, lose our head. But we don’t become mindless.

That was simply my  perspective at that moment. It might not be yours. And may not remain mine. The point is that once the image is radicalized, then an infinity of perspectives become possible; feeding back into the dynamism, creativity and limitless expression of the revitalized metaphor.

My response to this poem:

In Zazen we are a high cliff

white as bone.

The ocean’s push

is a baby’s hand.

The dharma is written everywhere 

like white ink on white paper.   

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284. Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 24: An expression never before expounded

‘In the entire universe, in the ten directions there is no dharma at all that has not yet been expounded by all Buddhas in the three times. Therefore all Buddha’s say, “In the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expect the dharma without differentiations”. This great assembly present before me also is practicing the way in the manner of all Buddhas. Each movement, each stillness is not other than the dharma of all Buddhas, so do not act carelessly or casually, Although this is the case I have an expression that has not yet been expounded by any Buddha. Everyone, do you want to discern it?’

After a pause Dogen said, ‘ in the same manner that all Buddhas in the three times expound the dharma, so now I also will expound the dharma without differentiations.’

The passage that Dogen cites and then repeats is a direct quote from the Lotus Sutra.

 To understand this dharma discourse it’s helpful that we understand the several uses of the word ‘dharma’. It originally meant teaching, as in the Buddha’s teaching. ‘Dharmas’ are all the individual things within experience: fences, walls, mountains, thoughts, dreams and so on. And because the Buddha’s teaching is about reality, a very creative combining took place of these two senses of the word, on the already fertile soil of chinese culture. It came to be thought that all beings (dharmas)  proclaim the dharma. Or, more precisely that everything (all dharmas) is the dharma. 

Thus, the movements of Dogen’s monks while they were listening to him, or their stillness were all expressions of the dharma. 

Which leaves the question: in what sense was Dogen’s simple repetition of a phrase from the Lotus Sutra a new expression?

It was new because everything’s new.

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283. A Person in the Mountains Should Love the Mountains

In volume 9 of Dogen’s Eihei Kōroku, at paragraph 25, there’s a poem (derived from the poem “Mount Lu” by Su Shi),

A person in the mountains should love the mountains.

 With going and coming, the mountains are his body.

 The mountains are the body but the body is not the self.

 So where can one find any senses or their objects?

Dogen, Eihei Kōroku

Dogen isn’t talking literally about mountains, or not just. In this poem the mountain signifies everything – the whole of dependent origination. And quintessentially for Dogen he’s always in some sense alluding to our experience in Zazen.

When we talk about dependent origination, the exemplar is our thoughts and emotions, which we usually regard as encumbrances, something to get rid of. But we’re mistaken. The instruction is often given that when thoughts arise in Zazen we should neither love them or hate them but just allow them to come and go freely.

I don’t think that’s an entirely helpful instruction. Certainly we shouldn’t try and push thoughts and emotions away and we shouldn’t attach to them. But I think primarily we should not attempt to fix these butterflies on the needle of our certainty. If we do, they are like ghosts caught in the suddenly appearing echo chamber of the self. They cannot manifest, or change, or live. Nor us.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.

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273. Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

One of Dogen’s best known texts is the Fukanzazengi , his universal recommendation of zazen; his instructions about how to do Zazen.

What many people don’t know is that his text is an almost exact copy of a text which was written about a hundred years before, Chang-Lu Tsung-Tse’s Manual of Zen Meditation. What Dogen does is add a chunky section at the beginning and end. What is interesting and innovative is what he’s added and what he’s omitted. Specifically he doesn’t incorporate a passage in the early work which reads “when the water of meditation is clear, the pearl of the mind will appear of itself”.

The idea of the mind in meditation being comparable to water has got quite a vintage. So in the Surangama Sutra for example we are told that in still water the moon will reflect itself clearly – the moon being a symbol for enlightenment – and we can also see how this still water clearly and accurately reflecting everything without becoming caught up is of a piece with another metaphor which is very popular in Zen, the Mirror.

This image of the pearl that Tsung-Tse is using in his text is similar in function, but instead of the clear  water enabling a perfect reflection of above to be made, the clear water enables us to look down clearly and see the pearl of our practice. 

It’s noteworthy in Dogen’s writings – particularly his poetry –  that he really radicalises and changes fundamentally this image that our mind should be like still water.

So for example in his poem Shobogenzo, he writes, “The Dharma, like an oyster, washed atop a high cliff, even waves crashing against it, like words, may reach but cannot wash it away”.

In that poem, he takes the hackneyed image of water and radicalises it’s turbulence to the extent that it actually throws the pearl clear out of the water and onto a high cliff.

Zazen is often referred to as the mountain still state.  And what is a cliff, other than a sundered mountain. And for the cliff, the surging universal life touches its heart rather than swirls around its form.

Our white cliff of bone, practicing Zazen, is sometimes touched by emptiness and sometimes touched by the whole surging weight of this ocean of everything. 

We can see that the metaphor of the water and the waves has taken on a fundamentally different meaning, so specifically it’s gone from the personal to the universal. The original meaning of the metaphor is – my mind quietens down, the waves abate, so I am able to see the pearl. I can clearly and dispassionately reflect the moon up in the sky.

Because Dogen radicalises the image, the water is no longer seen in those personal terms but rather is seen in as the whole activity of everything. 

And practice is seen to be not my practice but our practice; the activity and expression of all beings.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.

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255. Dragons see palaces

Kusen 255 collaboration ‘Inter’ by Blair Thomson

(heavy rain is falling)

In the Mountains and Waters Sutra, Dogen says that when human beings see water, fish and dragons see palaces. He doesn’t say that the fish and dragons are mistaken. He also says that although human beings see mountains as still, they are always walking.

Within this ocean, are there palaces, or not? Within this mountain, is there movement, or not?

This being moment is completely manifested, like a mountain. It isn’t dependent on past and future. This being moment is completely liberated within interconnectedness. It flows in all directions, like the ocean: from past to future, from future to past, from present to present. This manifestation and liberation is our life.

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Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)

Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue. Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom. Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh – how are my hands and the Buddha’s hands similar? Practising Zazen to make a Buddha is putting our jagged karmic stones at the site of awakening – why is it like this?

(After a pause) When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse number 453. (Adapted)

Commentary:

He is plainly talking about our practice. The tile is our karma – a chaotic concatenation of selves which we become all too aware of when we start sitting. And understandably wish to be free of. Even though it’s just noise.

The mirror is Buddha, and we imagine that through practice we can make the tile a mirror. Yet he didn’t say that. He never said that. Paint a Buddha face on the tile if you wish, but it will never go.

In our sincere and wholehearted practice a true person appears. Sometimes, this person is like vast space. And the noise doesn’t matter, at all.

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Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

“Having questions and answers, we smear everything with shit and piss. Not having questions and answers, thunder and lightning crash. The great Earth in ten directions is leveled and all of space is torn open, not allowed to enter from outside, not allowed to leave from inside.

A gavel strikes the sounding block and the ten thousand affairs are completed.

At such a time how is it?

(After a pause, Dogen said) time and again everything exists within a painting. Even allowing for what falls apart snow falls at midnight.”

Master Dogen’s dharma discourse number 441.

This discourse, delivered in the last part of his life, in all its vigour and iconoclasm seems quintessentially Dogen, but in fact, prior to the pause, Dogen is directly quoting the words of his Master, Tendo Nyojo.

By this time his master had been dead for more than a decade and he had not seen him for more than 15 years.

Are the words Nyojo’s or Dogen’s, both, or neither?

It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach with great vigour, and to do so for the rest of their days.

Yet the personal vigour of a teacher – even a great teacher like Dogen – is puny. Yet it is as if sometimes the entire lineage – not just the visible lineage, but the lineage of all times – and the entire universe seen and unseen is all congregated around this person, and given voice.

Whether you believe it or not, you are like this, I am like this and, to live without doubt, it is necessary only once.

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244. A fire engulfing your head

Dogen said that we should practice zazen like a person trying to extinguish a fire engulfing their head.

A lazy or stupid teacher might parrot this at his unfortunate students. I certainly have. The intention is to impart a sense of urgency. But it’s false. We need to pay attention to the actual words, the actual image.

First, why is it engulfing only the head? Because it is the fire of the self. It can’t be extinguished by the puny efforts of the self.

Second, the person is trying. He doesn’t succeed. There isn’t an end point. It is a continual effort. It is dropping off body and mind.

Third, the effort is made by the vigorous activity of the body. But whose body?

Which person? The person of all being. The body of all things.

It is not your effort, because that would be feeble. It is the effort of the whole Universe, like the pouring of a vast and endless river through an infinity of dharma gates.