‘Do not take up the buddha measure to measure and analyze the great way. The buddha measure is one step, just like an open blossom. Do not hold out the mind measure to grope for and deliberate about the awesome presence. The mind measure is a single face, like the world.’ (Shobogenzo Gyobutsu Iigi)


An Ancient Said

Two-thirds of a lifetime has swiftly gone.
On the spiritual foundation not a single speck has been polished.
While indulging, life randomly passes day after day.
If you are called but do not turn around, what can be done?

This poem is found towards the end of the Tenzokyokun, and Dogen does not attribute it beyond the three words I used for the title. It has always been a striking poem for me, speaking of the urgency of the great matter.
Earlier in the week it occurred to me that today was the anniversary of my first arrival in San Francisco, eighteen years ago now, on my way from New York, heading towards Sydney; here just a week, not imagining I would return, let alone spend a portion of my life here. That portion has now amounted to a third of my life (the other two-thirds can be evenly divided into my childhood-and-school years, and my college-and-London years). As I dwelt on that, I had the further thought that it would be plausible to estimate that I am currently two-thirds of the way through my life. Swiftly gone indeed.


‘Each person naturally receives his allotted share in his life. He need not think of it, he need not search for it; the allotted portion is there. Even if you rush about in search of riches, what happens when death suddenly comes? Students should clear their minds of these non-essential things and concentrate on studying the Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

I may have posted this quote before; certainly I often think about what he says here, and several other times in the talks collected in the Zuimonki. Generally, it is worth bearing in mind that he is addressing his young – and perhaps inexperienced – monks, who might still be coveting more than a bare minimum of food and clothing (the items Dogen is referring to).

A recent article in the New Yorker (the kind of  joined-up thinking that encourages me to maintain my subscription) brought these phrases to mind again. Particularly, in discussing the life of our hunter-gatherer forebears, this paragraph stood out:

‘It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was twenty-three hundred a day, close to the recommended amount. At the time these figures were first established, a comparable week in the United States involved forty hours of work and thirty-six of domestic labor. Ju/’hoansi do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop. They exhibit what Suzman calls “an unyielding confidence” that their environment will provide for their needs.’


‘Truly, the point of the singular transmission between buddha ancestors, the essential meaning of the direct understanding beyond words, does not adhere to the situations of the koans of the previous wise ones, or the entryways to enlightenment of the ancient worthies. It does not exist in the commentaries and assessments with words and phrases, in the exchanges of questions and answers, in the understandings with intellectual views, in the mental calculations of thought, in conversations about mysteries and wonders, or in explanations of mind and nature. Only when one releases these handles, without retaining what has been glimpsed, is it perfectly complete right here, and can fill the eyes. Behind the head, the path of genuine intimacy opens wide; in front of the face, not knowing is a good friend.’ (Extensive Record, vol 8, 11)


‘Speaking a lot creates masses of complications, talking too little has not power. Not speaking a lot, and not talking too little, how will you say it?
After a pause Dogen said: Enter the grass and transmit the wind.’ (Extensive Record 28)


Dogen drew a circle in the air with his whisk, held up the whisk, and said: If I hold this up, you call it buddhas appearing in the world. If I put it down, you call it the ancestral teacher coming from the west. If I draw a circle, you call it what is protected and cared for by the buddhas and ancestral teachers. When I do not hold it up, put it down, or draw a circle, how do you assess this? Even if you can assess it, you should laugh at both the view of the unconditioned and at the livelihood in the demon’s cave. Although it is like this, students of Eihei, there is another excellent place. Great assembly, do you want to see that excellent place?
Again Dogen held up his whisk, and after a pause said: Great assembly, do you understand? If you understand, the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature. If you do not understand, my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata. Great assembly, what is the meaning of “the Dharma body of all buddhas enters my nature”, and of “my nature in the same way joins together with the Tathagata”?
After a pause Dogen said: In the early morning eat gruel, at lunchtime rice. In the early evening do zazen, and at night sleep.’ (Extensive Record, 518)

I did not understand so well the function of the whisk and how it can manifest the teaching in the way that Dogen is talking about here, until I saw Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi offering lessons in how to use the whisk ahead of the Mountain Seat Ceremony at Zen Center in 2012. When I went looking for the pictures, I also found photos of him with ceremonial cymbals, inkins, a piece of paper, and a statue of Bodhidharma, all held and met with the same sense of complete presence and concentration. I think this is what Dogen was also doing.

Hoitsu whisk 3.jpgHoitsu kaisando 2.jpg


‘In the entire universe in ten directions there is no Dharma at all that has not yet been expounded by all buddhas in the three times. Therefore all buddhas say, “In the same manner that all buddhas in the three times expound the Dharma, so now I also will expound 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.’ (Extensive Record, 24)

Dogen is up to his old tricks again. He sounds like a broken record. What if one of his great assembly had called out that they didn’t want to hear it?