Dogen’s Five-Part Harmony

‘To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.’
This section of the Genjo Koan gets a lot of play on the zen circuit. Most often just the first phrase, or the first two phrases are quoted, which I guess can be called expedient means: they are striking and memorable expressions.
Recently the first pair came to mind during the beginners’ sitting that I lead at Zen Center earlier in the month. A woman asked a question about dealing with trauma: was spending time on recovery and healing a bad idea as it was just reinforcing a sense of self? Using Dogen to frame the answer, I said that the first step is to know what it is you are dealing with. If you have not spent time investigating, and where it is necessary, working to come to terms with, to resolve and heal the wounded parts that we all carry around in our human brokenness, you cannot truly let the self go. And then, since I had earlier mentioned the koan with Joshu and the cypress tree, I also talked about how that story points us towards being actualised by myriad things.
This kind of investigation always seems easier when we are in nature. I think of how I interacted with trees at Tassajara in my later stays there, allowing their stately living presence to energise me as I watched them respond to the seasons and grow towards the light in league with those surrounding them. Recently at Wilbur, having taken a book on Dogen with me – I found myself not agreeing with some of how Francis Cook characterised Dogen’s message – I got to thinking of the last two lines as well as I sat in the plunge with rain falling all around, gazing at the water and the big pine tree.
Through Dogen’s expressions, I have come to trust that everything is manifesting enlightened activity; it seems a shame not to join in. No trace of realisation remains means that when you are not telling any self-bound stories about being actualised, the process is free to continue from moment to moment. When we let go of the self, this body and mind, and the stories it holds onto, we meet it.
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The pine tree by the pool, at a moment when it was not raining last weekend.

Dogen

‘Students of the Way should neither read the scriptures of other Buddhist teachings nor study non-Buddhist texts. If you do read, examine the writings of Zen. Other works should be put aside for a while.
Zen monks are fond of literature these days, finding it an aid to writing verses and tracts. This is a mistake. Even if you cannot compose verse, just write what is in your heart. Grammatical niceties do not matter if you just express the teachings of the Buddha. Those who lack the mind that seeks the Way may complain that someone’s writing is bad. Yet no matter how elegant their prose or how exquisite their poetry might be, they are merely toying with words and cannot gain the Truth. I have loved literature since I was young and even now recall beautiful phrases from non-Buddhist works. I have been tempted to take up such books as the Wen-hsuan, but I have come to feel that it would be a waste of time and am inclined to think that such reading should be cast aside completely.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2,8).

I love this collection of Dogen’s short talks from his early days of running a monastery in Japan. They are less formal than the fascicles of the main Shobogenzo, and more straightforward in their encouragement; I try to picture his assembly of confused but sincere beginners and how they would respond to such words. Interestingly, looking up the Wen-hsuan (sticking to the spelling in the translation), I discover that it was compiled by the son of Emperor Wu of Liang, and we all know how he responded when he met a master (never thought I would be linking to Reddit…)

Reasons to be Cheerful

‘Ummon addressed the assembly and said, “I am not asking you about the days before the fifteenth of the month. But what about after the fifteenth? Come and give me a word about those days.” And he himself gave the answer for them: “Every day is a good day.”‘(The Blue Cliff Record, case 6)

I was sitting in the bath after the last Roaming Zen, and Ian Dury’s classic song came to mind (it is worth listening closely to the words closely, even if some of the English slang might be impenetrable); I won’t go so far to claim it as a Buddhist song, though I have thought that about the Jam’s That’s Entertainment (this version has the dense lyrics helpfully spelled out), which I performed at a Tassajara skit night back in the day, and which also crossed my mind as we roamed alongside Stow Lake with its plentiful ducks and other water birds.
The attendees on the roam were regulars, and we were eager to get going in the warm, low afternoon sun, so I dispensed with my usual little pep-talk at the beginning. I had been wondering what to say; it would have been something about taking the opportunity to let go of thoughts, and to trust in the experience of the sense in each moment, meeting and letting go, warm sun and cold shade, quiet hollows and crowded thoroughfares.
As with the Michael Stone post of last week, this kind of quiet reflection should not be forgone even – especially – when times are tough. The important guideline for any activist or worker in compassion is to avoid burnout, and one way to do that is to continue to find moments of beauty and tranquility wherever we can, not to ignore the reasons to be cheerful when we find them. Days don’t have to be good to be good days.

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Stow Lake a few years ago. It hasn’t changed much.

Dogen

‘Long ago a monk asked a master, “When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?” The master replied, “Don’t try to control them.” What he means is that in whatever way objects come, do not try to change them. Whatever comes is the buddha dharma, not objects at all. Do not understand the master’s reply as merely a brilliant admonition, but realize that it is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled.’ (Shobogenzo Yuibutsu Yobutsu)

I was drawn to this quote while I was writing my post-election pieces; it is a koan that I often refer to, as I see how much people’s desire to control externals causes suffering. Instead, I counsel equanimity. In the end, I shelved the quote and thought I should try to identify the collection it came from – which was hard to do in the continued absence of my laptop, which has all my notes from my koan class this summer (now I have got it up and running again, I can say that it was Isan, quoted in the Shinji Shobogenzo – 1, 14).

As it happened, at a recent priest meeting at Zen Center, Steve Weintraub, who was presenting on the difference between practice discussion and psychotherapy, mentioned it. The context made it even more interesting: he was underlining how psychotherapy holds that we are operating with an unconscious mind as well as the conscious, something which was beyond the realm of the zen traditional understanding. As I was listening, I started to muse whether what is commonly referred to as the inconceivable or the formless was the zen way of signaling the unconscious.

Going Beyond

‘A monk said to Tozan,”Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?” The monk said, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?” Tozan said, “When cold, let the cold kill you; when hot, let the hot kill you.”‘ (Blue Cliff Record, case 43)

There are many different ways I can tell my life story, but in most of them, the fact that I found English winters increasingly hard to handle would be an important element. The extended trip that I took which brought me out to San Francisco for the first time, in November 1999, on my way to Australia and then South Africa, was the latest in a string of winter vacations that I started taking as soon as I earned enough money to do so. That particular trip changed the course of my life, and I am happy to be typing this on a warm, sunny and bright day in the same city, seventeen years later. 

I sometimes wonder about how the family history I am best acquainted with might play a part in this. Among my father’s Cornish forebears, there were at least two generations when only one of the many children lived long enough to reproduce,  the rest succumbing largely to consumption, and my great-great-grandfather probably owed his life to the fact that he spent several years in Australia as a young man, in a drier and warmer climate than his native one.  On my recent vist home, even though the weather was kind, I had the sense of people preparing to close down and go inward for the long grey months ahead, and was glad not to be having to endure that. On my last mornings, I was already starting to feel the cold, as I started to last week here in California; my step-mother drily recommended that I get out and move around more.

The most extreme climate I have lived in is unquestionably Tassajara; the hottest day I can recall topped out at 112, a notch warmer than the indoor plunge at the bath-house, and there were spells where it was below 20 for several consecutive mornings. Often, inside the many unheated cabins, it would be below freezing, though the worst experience for me was at the beginning of my first winter, where we had a cold snap, but the zendo heating was not functioning. I wore eight layers of clothes to sit through the mornings, and feared that it would be the same for the next five months, which happily turned out not to be true. Conversely, the hardest part of being there in the summer last year was being obliged to wear my four layers of priest robes in the evening, when the temperature in the zendo would be in the 90s; any other time, the dry heat functioned as a deep relaxation for me, which I can perhaps best explain by the fact that such heat is associated in my mind with being abroad.

All of which makes the above koan an interesting  one for me to sit with. I have a sense, through zazen, of the place beyond hot and cold, which is also the place beyond good and bad, beyond self and other, but I certainly don’t live there.