When I came back home on a rainy day,
A cleaning rag was waiting for me in the entrance hall.
“I’m a cleaning rag, ” it said, with a friendly look,
Though it hadn’t wanted to become one.
Until quite recently it had been a shirt.
It was as soft as my skin.
Maybe in America or somewhere
It had been a cotton flower,
Smiling in the sun and the wind.
(Quoted in Zen Seeds)
‘If you talk about a person’s cleverness or stupidity, it shows that you have yet to arouse the determination to study Buddhism. When an ordinary person falls off a horse, many things rush to their mind even before they hit the ground. In any way, when any great threat to life and limb occurs, everybody devotes their full thought and knowledge in an effort to escape from harm. At such times, nobody, whether they be clever or stupid, thinks any different from anybody else.
Therefore, if you can spur and arouse your determination with the thought that you might die tonight or tomorrow, or that at any time you might meet with some terrible misfortune, you can expect to gain enlightenment. A dull person, if they earnestly give rise to the determination, will gain enlightenment faster than someone who is merely intelligent and eloquent. During the Buddha’s lifetime, Ksudrapanthaka had trouble reading even a single line of verse, yet since he sought the Way intently, he gained enlightenment during one period of retreat. You are alive only right now. Anyone can gain enlightenment if they study Buddhism earnestly, vowing that they must awaken before death cuts off their fleeting life. ‘ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)
It was reading Zen Seeds that brought my attention to the analogy of someone falling of a horse. Shundo Aoyama comments, ‘in that brief moment before they hit the ground, all their ability and learning is useless, and there is no time to think, no time for daydreams or self-reproach.’
While I normally render quotes intact, even when they go against my preferences for English spelling, in this case I changed from the default ‘he’ to a neutral ‘they’, as the passage seemed particularly clunky in the original. I also wondered about the ‘gain enlightenment’: having just read Realizing Genjokoan, where Shohaku maintains that Dogen did not talk about enlightenment – at least in the way that Rinzai teachers did – it seemed out of place, but then these talks were very early in his teaching career, and it also points to the essential limitations of translation.
‘Each of the two views, both dual and nondual, enhances and informs the other. If we look at our differentiated, relative world from the realm of nondual awareness, each object in the relative world is rendered unique by the possibility of its disappearing into undifferentiated reality. One Zen master said that when he took his teacup down from the shelf, filled it with tea, and drank from it, he very consciously handled it with great reverence and love. In his mind’s eye, he could see it broken already, and so it assumed a preciousness and matchlessness that made it unlike any other teacup. This is seeing things as different from one another, while at the same time understanding and accepting that in the realm of direct experience, whatever arises shall eventually pass away.’ (The One Who is not Busy)
I think this follows on very nicely from yesterday’s quote by Suzuki Roshi. This is my favourite cup; which was given to me by a lovely couple in Canada ten years ago, and has associations of similarly patterned pieces from my childhood (it helps that it is called Cornish kitchen ware). I am happy it has survived with me for so long.
‘If you can just appreciate each thing, one by one, then you will have pure gratitude. Even though you observe just one flower, that one flower includes everything. It is not just a flower. It is the absolute, it is Buddha himself. We see it in that way. But at the same time, that which exists is just a flower, and there is no one to see it and nothing to be seen. That is the feeling we should have in our practice and in our everyday activity. Then, whatever work you do, you will have a continuous feeling of pure gratitude.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)
I don’t think I could claim to have a continuous feeling of pure gratitude, but I do try to follow this way when I take photographs.
Going offline is not very taxing for me. I have done it for months at a stretch at Tassajara; last summer when I was living there, since I was among those doing the town trips, I would head into civilisation once or twice a month for provisions, and I would check my email, but often very little else.
At Wilbur last weekend, none of the people I asked were missing their phones. There was a general relief about being away from all the distraction – even if one or two people seemed to be finding it hard to slow down and drink in the silence – and it gave people some spaciousness to enjoy their sitting. I did get asked, as I usually do when I am teaching at Tassajara, how to take that spacious feeling back into their busy lives. I usually say something along the lines of developing our sitting practice so that it is robust enough to move away from the quiet of the cushion to the higher pace of other parts of our lives; trusting – without any cast-iron guarantees – that sitting does bring us benefits as we move through the world.
This time, I stayed until Monday morning. It was very interesting to observe how the energy of the place changed as most people set off back home on Sunday afternoon. The day had been hot but windy, and the wind had brought much smoke from the rampaging Clayton Fire in the next county, as well as gently falling ash. I felt curious to know how the Soberanes Fire was moving if the weather was hotter down by Tassajara as well. Someone had just written to me from the monastery asking what my prediction might be for when it would arrive. Memories of 2008, where the fire took its time approaching, then came rushing in all of a sudden. There was also a little pang in knowing that I was missing the first weekend of the English Premier League football season, and I was keen to see the dramas and upsets when I got back.
Perhaps my most memorable time of the weekend was when I walked with my camera up to the Fountain of Life as the sun dropped in the sky, with murky colours I remember very clearly from smoky days at Tassajara, deep red reflections in the creek, subdued light on the hills. I sat in the little tub that has been built out there, for the brief period when the sun came below the clouds before it sank behind the valley side.
The Fountain of Life, which gushes every forty minutes or so – in fits and starts
The little tub which is filled with water from the Fountain of Life
‘When the abbot or any of the teachers is away from the temple for a week or so, the novices think nothing of it. But if there were no toilet paper, they would quickly feel its absence.’ (Zen Seeds)
This is my favourite line in the book, and says a lot about her modesty as the abbess of a temple. Those of us who live in community know how important practical details are, and as I have often related, my greatest fear as tenzo was running out of coffee. It did happen one morning, and I was grateful that I could run down to Safeway half a dozen blocks away for replenishment before anyone got too edgy.
‘The inhalation waves through you and the exhale washes over the pelvic floor, then leaves the body. You are born, you become a wave, and then you recede. But you are never separate from water. Waves have the quality of water in every movement. Waves and water cannot be separated. You are a wave and life is water. You may have unique characteristics, but you are not an independent entity. Everything that exists is whispered through our breath, courses through our bloodstream, and adheres to our changing cells.
In death there is this same kind of shift. One thing ceases and another thing starts. Of course we are not functioning any more as the wave in the water. We become the water completely. We move back into the elements. In death, we give completely, until we are not functioning relative to the whole; we are the whole.’ (Awake in the World)
The perfect circle of the mind-moon is alone.
Its light swallows ten-thousand things.
The light does not illuminate objects.
Neither do objects exist.
The light and objects both cease to exist.
What is this?
(Quoted in Shobogenzo Tsuki – Moon)
‘The common understanding of Buddha’s teaching is that since ignorance turns the lives of deluded beings into suffering, we should eliminate our ignorance so we can reach nirvana. If we simply accept that teaching and devote our lives to the practice of eliminating our ignorance and egocentric desires, we will find that it’s impossible to do. Not only is it impossible, but it actually creates another cycle of samsara. This happens because the desire to become free from delusion or egocentricity is one of the causes of our delusion and egocentricity. And the idea that there is nirvana or samsara existing separately from each other is a basic dualistic illusion; the desire to escape from this side of existence and enter another side is another expression of egocentric desire.
When we are truly in nirvana we awaken to the fact that nirvana and samsara are not two separate things. This is what Mahayana Buddhism teaches, especially through the Prajna Paramita Sutras; it teaches that samsara and nirvana are one. If we don’t find nirvana within samsara, there is no place we can find nirvana. If we don’t find peacefulness within our busy daily lives, there is no place we can find peacefulness. This is why the Heart Sutra “negates” the Buddha’s teaching; it attempts to release us from dichotomies created in our thoughts. If we understand Buddha’s teaching with our common-sense, calculating way of thinking, we create another kind of samsara.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)
Shohaku starts this wonderful book by examining the Heart Sutra and the role it plays in informing the Genjokoan, and as usual, he manages to distill complex ideas into simple language. You could also read this as a modern commentary on this passage of Dogen.
‘The boundary of the known is not clear; this is because the known [which appears limited] is born and practiced simultaneously with the complete penetration of the Buddha Dharma.’ (Genjokoan)
I know I have spoken before about the liberating possibilities of studying different translations – for all the limitations of words. Shohaku, as well as parsing kanji as part of his scholarship, offers in his book a different translation to Genjokoan to the one I am used to chanting, and this sentence brings a fresh illumination to the words.
And, to continue the thread from yesterday, this also points to how we need to let go of our reliance on knowing in order to be able to experience properly. A timely quote from reading Michael Stone: ‘There is no intimacy in maintaining a life that is always conceptual, always relating to things through our knowledge base. It is curiosity and desire that give rise to intimacy. So that’s why we practice.’
I have been noticing a wish in myself to find other ways to express the idea of understanding, since that tends to bring up for people the notion of intellectual grasping, which is really of no help. I think of different terms that might fit and their etymologies – understanding, withstanding (which would be ideal except for the etymological root in old English where with means against…), comprehension, realisation, actualisation.
We are so attuned in Western culture to privilege the mind and rationality. I had a friend at college who specialised in the reductio ad absurdum, and it was so exhausting to try to argue with him that I eventually stopped bothering; perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that he became a lawyer. There was something in him that found value in winning through logic. Internet forums are equally tiresome examples of this – though it is noticeable how logicians will get very emotional if other people don’t want to play their game, alternately defensive and aggressive, but generally with no showing of compassion. None of these things is wisdom.