More practice advice from Zen master Dogen
This week we're looking at the second half of Gakudo-Yojinshu, 'Advice on studying the way', written by the great Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen in the 13th century. (You can find the first half of the text, and a bit of background about Dogen, in last week's article.)
(As with last week, I'm going to pick out the key points, but if you want to read the whole text, you can find some translations here - scroll down for the text. I'll use the Brown/Tanahashi translation for the headlines, and offer the Nishijima translation for the alternative readings.)
6. What you should know for practising Zen.
(Alternatively: What we should know in practising Zazen.)
Dogen starts this lengthy section by emphasising that Zen practice is not quick or easy, and you shouldn't expect it to be that way. The ancestors of the past made tremendous sacrifices to practise as diligently as they could for our benefit, and we should expect our own practice to be similar.
If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll have seen me say the exact opposite - that beginners should find something they find relatively easy as a way in - perhaps an approach which is enjoyable, interesting, or seems to come naturally. So am I saying Dogen is wrong? Heck no - in a Dharma battle between the greatest Soto Zen master in history and me, I know who's going to win. But I still stand by what I wrote.
Dogen was writing for monastic practitioners, encouraging them to work hard and use their time well. The students I tend to encounter already have full lives, jobs, families, complex domestic situations and all the rest of it, and so it's a big deal even to come to a single class and think about trying out meditation, let alone find twenty minutes a day for an on-going practice. The key thing in the early stages is to build the habit of practice until it becomes clear that this is something that's going to be useful in our lives, after which the motivation to continue develops more naturally and we can start to look at cranking things up a bit.
After delivering his opening salvo, Dogen then changes tack to something much more encouraging. He notes that success in Zen practice is not a matter of bone-crushing austerities, not a matter of being highly intelligent or well-read, not a matter of being philosophically inclined, not a matter of being young or old, not dependent on good health, and not limited only to men (he specifically cites the example of an excellent 13-year-old female practitioner). Rather, the practice is available to anyone willing to dedicate themselves to it and put in the practice hours on the cushion.
Finally, he offers a typically Zen warning against relying too much on the thinking mind: 'Students should know that the buddha way lies outside thinking, analysis, prophecy, introspection, knowledge, and wise explanation. If the buddha way were in these activities, why would you not have realized the buddha way by now, since from birth you have perpetually been in the midst of these activities? Students of the way should not employ thinking, analysis, or any such thing. Though thinking and other activities perpetually beset you, if you examine them as you go your clarity will be like a mirror. The way to enter the gate is mastered only by a teacher who has attained dharma; it cannot be reached by priests who have studied letters.'
7. Those who long to leave the world and practise buddha-dharma should study Zen.
(Alternatively: Any person who hungers to practise Buddhism and to transcend secular society should, without fail, practice Zazen.)
This section is largely a polemic about how great Zen Buddhism is and how sad it is that there are dark corners of the world where people still follow other teachings and traditions. These things crop up throughout Buddhist history, but I've never found them particularly interesting - clearly I'm a big fan of Zen myself, but I also have a lot of respect for the world's many other great contemplative traditions, and wouldn't want to throw them out just because they aren't 'Zen' enough for me.
8. The conduct of Zen monks.
(Alternatively: About the conduct of Buddhist priests and nuns who practise Zazen.)
From the title of this section, you might think it would have something to do with the monastic precepts, or one of Dogen's famous lists of incredibly detailed, precise instructions governing every activity taken throughout the day in his monastery. Actually, though, most of this section is a compilation of Zen stories, in highly condensed form, pointing to the many occasions in the Zen records of great masters waking up.
He then concludes with another practice instruction. As an aside, Dogen, and the Soto lineage in general, is overwhelmingly associated with shikantaza, a just sitting practice, and it's sometimes thought that meditative inquiry and investigation has no place in Soto Zen. From the following passage, I think it's clear that that's not the case at all:
'Please try releasing your hold [on conceptuality], and releasing your hold, observe: What is body-and-mind? What is conduct? What is birth-and-death? What is buddha-dharma? What are the laws of the world? What, in the end, are mountains, rivers, earth, human beings, animals, and houses? When you observe thoroughly, it follows that the two aspects of motion and stillness do not arise at all. Though motion and stillness do not arise, things are not fixed. People do not realize this; those who lose track of it are many. You who study the way will come to awakening in the course of study. Even when you complete the way, you should not stop. This is my prayer indeed.'
9. You should practise throughout the way.
(Alternatively: Direct yourself at the truth and practise it.)
In this section, Dogen sketches an outline of how the path unfolds. He suggests that beginners should sit and 'sever the root of thinking' (in other words, connect with direct experience rather than thinking about your experience) - he goes as far as to say that 'If once, in sitting, you sever the root of thinking, in eight or nine cases out of ten you will immediately attain understanding of the way.' Once you've developed the knack of sitting without being constantly bound up in intellectual activity, then continue to sit that way, 'let[ting] body and mind drop away and let[ting] go of delusion and enlightenment'. The more you do this, the more you become immersed in the way, and 'for those who are immersed in the way, all traces of enlightenment perish'.
In Zen practice, kensho is just the beginning of awakening. It's necessary to continue to practise, deepening your insight into who you really are and integrating it fully into your life. This process of sudden awakening followed by gradual cultivation is described in several of the classic Zen maps, such as the Ox-herding Pictures and Tozan's Five Ranks. In all cases, the final goal is not some kind of transcendent condition where you float several feet above the ground shooting rainbows in all directions, but actually that you become completely and utterly ordinary, but at the same time completely and utterly in accordance with the way. Hence 'all traces of enlightenment perish' - while we're still attached to the sense of ourselves as 'an awakened person (look at me!)', there's still much further to go. So we don't stop after kensho - as Daizan likes to say, we don't just get out the deckchairs and wait to die. We keep going, working in the world for the benefit of those around us, letting go of every last trace of our enlightenment.
10. Immediately hitting the mark.
(Alternatively: Taking a direct hit here and now.)
For this final section, I'm just going to let Dogen speak for himself.
'There are two ways to penetrate body and mind: studying with a master to hear the teaching, and devotedly sitting zazen. Listening to the teaching opens up your conscious mind, while sitting zazen is concerned with practice-enlightenment. Therefore, if you neglect either of these when entering the buddha way, you cannot hit the mark.
'Everyone has a body-and-mind. In activity and appearance its function is either leading or following, courageous or cowardly. To realize buddha immediately with this body-and-mind is to hit the mark. Without changing your usual body-and-mind, just to follow buddha's realization is called "immediate," is called "hitting the mark."
'To follow buddha completely means you do not have your old views. To hit the mark completely means you have no new nest in which to settle.'
So there you have it. You've heard the teaching - now go and sit zazen, and hit the mark right now!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.