Ages and Stages

Astasahasrika_Prajnaparamita_Dharmacakra_DiscourseAstasahasrika Prajnaparamita Dharmacakra Discourse

[The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. ]

I was reading in a recent Buddhist magazine a brief overview of the Four Noble Truths, and I really got a lot out of it. I think my understanding of those truths has developed recently, which is cool to see, and I have found my way back to finding them more truly touching. For a long time they felt cold or something, or I did toward them. But there have been tons of teachings I have been responding to, so it wasn’t as if this coldness from the Noble Truths was a stopping block. We all know this experience, that we respond to different things at different times. I’ve been getting back into jazz lately, for instance, sort of backwards through afrobeat and Erykah Badu, who I’ve had in heavy rotation for sometime now. Reading Dr. Cornell West etc. A lot of great Zen teaching there – my teacher even has Coltrane in his dokusan room, so that is where we are coming from. I played A Love Supreme for my art students today. They didn’t get it. But they will!

So we find teaching under our feet, and in our hearts and minds, in our loves and friendships. But then there is practice, which is the glue, or the solvent, depending. This would make dogmatism, complexity, esotericism, occultism, or curriculum-based training something of a charade. Theater can be helpful too, but we are generally aiming toward a non-dual thing here. So, in our tradition, for good or ill we don’t emphasize stages and ranks or special practices. Sometimes it gets said that we “start on the top of the mountain.”

I used to think I knew what that meant, but I think I appreciate not knowing anymore. Whew! I can let go of that one too. We are valley dragons, after all, so maybe we end up in the valley. Anyway, I can still see a point there. I think I would say that I appreciate our way (in as much as we have one as opposed another) as being very, very open. As long as you sit there for a little bit, and stick with it for awhile checking out a consistent habit, I think there is an expectation that each person will find their own way. It’s kind of radical Montessori-style meditation, meaning I hope that it’s tailored and sensitive to the needs of the student – or in this case the practitioner.

I think as Modern people maybe this is a really good way for us. We are awash in ego-challenging information, and tons of it, virtually non-stop. That can be stressful, but it can also initiate growth and evolution. I might say spiritual evolution, but I think that is really easy to misinterpret, so maybe better not to say. My point is that I personally like having a practice that allows for personal tailoring, with a clear intention or direction. As long as you just sit there, and aim toward a relaxed settled attention to what is happening, you can visualize, you can count breaths, use a mantra, dream, circulate chi, do kegels, pray your ass off, it is ok. It’s hard to accept this when we are practicing in the midst of fire, that its ok, whatever is happening there. Or maybe more importantly, not happening.

So we don’t give you the four noble truths on day one, and say chant this every day for three months and then come back, maybe take a test, and we will give you the next bit. Maybe some people would like that, and I am sure someone is doing that out there. Our whole point is that we aim toward creating a space where for 35 minutes a week you can sit in upright noble silence, and find there what you will. Supplemented of course with dedicated daily home practice. With a faith that this is in itself a noble, awesome activity, without doubt. That is also nothing special whatsoever.


Theory and Practice

One of the challenging things about studying Dogen – or any of the formal writings from our tradition – is that it only gives us a one-sided view of the practice.  These formal expressions don’t tell us what monks really practiced in the monasteries, what their teachers really taught them about the practical aspects of the practice, or what they taught newcomers to the practice, or how they talked to each other informally about the practice.  I wanted to bring this up because I have often wondered about the basic Buddhist meditation instructions of following the breath, of counting the breath, and how they relate to Soto Zen.  As far as I can tell (and I may be missing something), Dogen’s writings nowhere mention these basic meditation practices.  Instead, we are told that zazen is simply the ‘dharma gate of repose and bliss’ and that we should ‘drop off body and mind’.  For sure, these are beautiful and inspiring words, but they don’t offer a lot of practical guidance about what we do when we sit on the cushion.  So I wonder – is this what Dogen taught his monks?  Did he ever teach them to follow the breath?  What did the monks talk to each other about informally about their practice?  In our current Soto Zen practice, most teachers do in fact teach following the breath or counting the breath.

This dichotomy between theory and practice comes up in many contexts and traditions and it doesn’t mean that the practitioners are hypocrites for not necessarily practicing in strict accordance with their guiding texts.  Instead, I think there is a useful dialogue to be had between our understanding of the formal teachings and our practical lived experience of practice.  Without such a dialogue, we may think we are somehow practicing incorrectly, but in fact I think practitioners have been engaged in these conversations from the very beginning and across all faith traditions.

It’s not that the theoretical side is wrong and the practical side is right, or that our merit as practitioners is measured by the gap between the two.  Instead, these two aspects support each other.  Without some framing tradition for our practice, our energies tend to be scattered about, but without the concrete experience, these texts are just floating around as ideas.

So I am interested in hearing from you about what you actually do during zazen, and how you relate that to the traditional teachings.


A few words about Buddha’s Robe

I’d like to talk a little about the great robe – the o-kesa – in our tradition.

I’m a little hesitant to approach this subject, because it feels very advanced somehow. It’s like a secret teaching hiding in plain sight. Here some of us are wearing these things, and I sometimes wonder what people must make of it. I wonder what I make of it! The ancestors tell us the robe is really important, but maybe not for the reasons we might think. Or not-think.

This talk was inspired by an artist I just met who is sewing the small robe “vestment” (rakusu) some people are wearing, as “art”. As an artist myself, and as a robe-wearer, I have real questions about converting the robe into what we might call an “aesthetic object.” The robe is a functional thing, but it goes beyond how and what we normally think of as functioning. It certainly goes beyond any idea of art. It’s not that it’s possible to be sacrilegious in making a facsimile of the robe. It’s just that it seems a bit senseless, (quite understandably) a little ill-informed, potentially a little disrespectful. The fact that she (as a European American non-Buddhist) is also having someone write haiku on these dozens of rakusu gets into issues of cultural appropriation and whatnot, and the whole thing is actually quite nuanced and complex. When she brought this up to me, I felt like I was suddenly plunked in the middle of the ocean in a small boat. I take this with what I feel is an appropriate gravity and seriousness – both the tradition, and her calling as an artist to do this thing. I still have questions. But we needn’t lose our seat in a fundamentalist reaction.


Zenkei Blanche Hartman, sewing teacher at SFZC

I practiced for many years in a Buddhist tradition that, like most Buddhist traditions, had the robe in more or less the same arrangement as our robes, but with something of a different spirit. For instance, we did not sew our own robes. If for some reason we had taken precepts and didn’t have our robes with us, we could simply borrow a “temple” robe. There were usually a few hanging in the closet. A group of experienced Soto practitioners hearing about this for the first time would probably emanate a collective gasp in shock! If anything, our tradition can go to the other extreme, of making the robe into something a bit precious at times. Which is actually ok, too. Both are ok, but there are good teachings in our robe tradition that point beyond these attitudes (of attachment or indifference) – and that after all is the point.

So, we sew our robes completely by hand. And with each stitch we say a mantra, or prayer. We are usually taught to say “Namu ki-e Butsu” with each stitch sewed, which is Japanese for taking refuge in Buddha. I’ve said that, but I’ve said other mantras too, just going with the spirit of sewing as I found it. I think “I take refuge in Buddha”, since we mostly speak English, is an excellent mantra. I really love sewing. I think it is one of my favorite practices in our tradition, if we get to pick those.

Dogen said that the robe is itself the very body of Buddha; not other than zazen. He wrote what I just keep finding to be a really compelling essay on the robe, called the Kesa Kudoku. I read it somewhat regularly, and (mostly) just feel “yes, that is how it is.” He breaks down these ideas about things just being inert matter that we manipulate for our own ends. So no, the robe is not just a “symbol” of Buddha. Properly understood, it is Buddha herself. And of course, still just some cloth. This has to be an intuitive, even emotional understanding, not an intellectual thing.

Buddha outlined what kinds of cloth were good for this important garment; you can imagine perhaps silk brocade, or fine linen. Actually, the list starts off I think with “shit-wiping cloth” and sort of goes down hill from there. Leather was permitted if you couldn’t find cloth (in Mongolia for instance). “Rat-chewed” and “corpse-cleaning” are some of the other better cloths listed for the robe. They were all cleaned and trimmed and died ochre of course, essentially sewn into a quilt, as designed by Ananda per Buddha’s instructions to resemble the rice paddies around them. So much teaching here, I can’t even start to get into it.

As “Modern Americans”, we may feel quite far from an intimate understanding of what all this could possibly mean. “It’s just a symbolic blanket, right?” “Sure…” we say, “but not exactly.” Most of us here keep coming back. None of us appear at a glance to be religious fanatics. No one is clamoring to get their hands on one of these things the priests are wearing; we’re not going online to buy our kit and set up shop as teachers (which happens, sadly). Yet we come and we sit, and appreciate the rhythms of practice, the etiquette, our modest, simple forms. Something already intuits what the robe is, or might mean, or do or be.

Dogen has this wonderful list of all the possible designs of a robe: five panels, 7, 9, 21, 28, 84, and then he goes up to like 84,000. What is he talking about? It’s like that Willy Wonka elevator; it just keeps going up until we break through the glass ceiling of our conventional view. I think what he is saying here is that we are each a panel in this robe, and we are each made up of panels within panels. Endless panels in this one great Buddha robe. So it is important to realize that those of us wearing robes of various numbers of panels have simply found ourselves in the position of helping to facilitate zazen for the community. That’s it. Without zazen there is no community – hence, no robe and no priest.


Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part V

Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen, “How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?” Changsha said, “How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?”

Saying that the self returns to the self is not contradicted by saying that the self is mountains, rivers, and the great earth.  Langye Huijue, Great Master Guangzhao, was a dharma descendant of Nanyue. Once Zhixuan, a lecturer on scriptures, asked Langye, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Langye responded, “If originally unconditioned, how do mountains, rivers, and the great earth suddenly emerge?”

Now we know. Mountains, rivers, and the great earth, which are originally unconditioned, should not be mistaken for mountains, rivers, and the great earth. The sutra master had never heard this, so he did not understand mountains, rivers, and the great earth as just mountains, rivers, and the great earth.

Know that without mountain colors and valley sounds, [Shakyamuni Buddhas] taking up the flower and [Huike’s] attaining the marrow would not have taken place. Because of tiie power of valley sounds and mountain colors, the Buddha with the great earth and sentient beings simultaneously attains the way, and countless buddhas become enlightened upon seeing the morning star. Such skin bags are earlier sages whose aspiration for seeking dharma is profound. People today should be inspired by predecessors like these. Authentic study, free of concern for fame and gain, should be based on such aspiration.

Tonight we are continuing our study of Dogen’s ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors’.  In this section, Dogen is playing with the use of mountains and rivers as a metaphor for emptiness.  It’s a seemingly confusing passage, but I think it’s not that difficult really, although it’s a bit easier to focus on the overall meaning rather than a word-by-word interpretation.

On the one hand, we have actual mountains and rivers: we have the actual Sandia mountains, made of granite and water and trees and snakes; we have the actual Rio Grande, made of water and sandy banks and fish and birds.  Of course, when we look closely at either the Sandias or the Rio Grande, we can see that both are always changing – the sandy banks change after a flood, the water is always changing, and even the granite of the Sandias is slowly eroding.  But we’re not confused, we don’t usually say that the Rio Grande literally consists of everything in the universe.  We know what the Rio Grande is, we know what the Sandias are.

But on the other hand, we know, from studying Dogen, that the Sandias and the Rio Grande really do include everything – without the water evaporating from the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t have snowed in the Rio Grande headwaters and there wouldn’t be water in the river; without the sun, the water wouldn’t have evaporated; the late afternoon sunlight on the Sandias is red because of the scattering by particles in the atmosphere, and the Sandias themselves depend on the falling of rain and the moving of water in the rivers for their formation.  It goes on and on – it really is true that the Sandias and the Rio Grande are interdependent.  They are part of one seamless unity.  They are an instance of emptiness.  It’s really true.

In this passage, we see the teachers shifting back and forth between these two ways of seeing the mountains and rivers.  There really are mountains and rivers and the Earth, and they really are empty.  If we aren’t careful we can get stuck on one side or the other.  Before we come to practice, this all seems like gibberish – there are mountains and there are rivers, conventionally understood.  But after we practice for a while, we might get stuck in thinking that it’s all just one thing, but I think this passage is pointing toward another interpretation of the Middle Way – mountains and rivers really are just the same conventional mountains and rivers we have always known, but they are also empty.  Our practice is to simply rest in this truth, sometimes called the ‘two truths’.

In the last paragraph, Dogen refers to some traditional stories to tell us that it’s because of these truths that the Buddha was able to attain awakening and transmit the teaching to Mahakasyapa and that Huike was able to receive the teaching from Bodhidharma.

He shifts gears now and in the next passage, exhorting us to practice with sincerity, not for fame and gain.  This is a classic teaching from Dogen.

In this remote nation in recent days those who genuinely seek buddha dharma are rare—it is not that there are none. Many people leave their households, appearing free from worldly matters, but in fact they use the buddha way to seek fame and gain. What a pity! How sad that they waste their time in unilluminated trades! When will they break away and attain the way? If they meet a true teacher, how will they recognize the true dragon?

Rujing, my late master, Old Buddha, called such people “pitiful fellows.” Because of unwholesome causes in previous lives, they do not seek dharma for the sake of dharma. In this life, they are suspicious of the true dragon when they see it, and are put off by genuine dharma when they encounter it. As their body, mind, flesh, and bones are not ready to follow dharma, they are unable to receive it.

Because the lineage of the ancestral school started long ago, the aspiration for enlightenment has become a distant dream. How pitiful that people do not know about or see treasure even though they were born on a mountain of treasure!  Where can they find dharma treasure?

As soon as you arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, even if you transmigrate in the six realms and four forms of birth, transmigration itself will be your vow for enlightenment. Although you may have wasted time so far, you should vow immediately, before this present life ends:

Together with all sentient beings, may I hear the true dharma from this birth throughout future births. When I hear the true dharma, I will not doubt or distrust it. When I encounter the true dharma, I will relinquish ordinary affairs and uphold the buddha dharma. Thus, may I realize the way together with the great earth

and all sentient beings.

This vow is the ground for genuine aspiration. Do not slacken in this determination.

This last section is pretty easy to understand – Dogen is encouraging us not to be suspicious of the ‘true dragon’, a real teacher or the real teaching.  He is also telling us that it’s not too late – even if you’ve been wandering around in samsara, that very wandering can be your vow of awakening.  Then he encourages us to take a very clear vow.

I remember reading this passage during my years at Zen Center, when I was really thinking a lot about ordaining, and I sort of gasped when I read this vow, because I strongly felt that I had in fact already taken this vow.  There was something about it that really grabbed me, and even though it took me a few more years before I ordained, there’s something about this passage that continues to inspire me.

I will leave you again with the inspiring words of John Muir, who has a few things to say about how we can come to see that we are, as Dogen said, born on a mountain of treasure, but do not see it or know it:

Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty.

So please continue to join us as we sit among the clouds on mountain-tops and at the bottom of the sea among the dulse and coral.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Beyond Doing and Not-Doing

The late Zen teacher Myo-On Maurine Stuart had a saying that I read years ago and that has stuck with me: “The thing that you can do or not do won’t do.” I think there is something helpful here for us to consider.


First I just want to point out that if we look at our Women Ancestors chant, we will find Stuart toward the end of that list. She made a significant contribution to bringing the Zen tradition to the U.S. She was an artist; an accomplished concert pianist. And significantly in our historically patriarchal tradition, she was a woman. I often like to remind myself that we in the modern world have some things to offer this ancient tradition that is giving us so much – like feminism for instance, and science, and democracy. It’s good to remember, so we don’t think we should be medieval Japanese, or merely subject to some fixed tradition. That is not Zen.

So, what is she talking about here? From a conventional standpoint, her statement is nonsense. Worse, it could be read as a sort of zen provocation, to be responded to with a clever retort. This happens.

But I think she gets at the feeling we start to arrive into, when “shit gets real” as the saying goes. When things get hard, really hard for us, we are forced sometimes to go beyond our limited ideas of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. When we begin to open into that feeling of helplessness, we simultaneously find ourselves drawn to appeal to some greater power. We can call this power zazen.

Twelve Step programs talk about this. The first three steps describe realizing the problem of suffering, recognizing the insufficiency of controlling everything, and turning to a higher power of one’s understanding. I find the parallels with our own tradition inspiring.

In our way we take refuge in the higher powers of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha is things as it is – fundamentally complex (and fundamentally good) beyond comprehension or control. Dharma is our heart/mind responding to conditions with uprightness. And Sangha is coming together like this to support each other, and face the challenges of being an enlightening being in an enlightening society. All of these capacities (if we are truly honest) are beyond us, as we inevitably experience ourselves in a contracted, alienated way.

Sitting on our own is important. I suggest everyone sit every day, including me. Taigen just celebrated 40 years of sitting everyday, but he’s like us. He sometimes is scheduled, and sometimes he fits it in when he can. Remember, you can do zazen for a minute, for just one breath. But 30 minutes is good too. Sitting alone is good; but just sitting alone without sitting with others on some sort of regular basis I have come to genuinely think might be worse than useless (and I’ve heard ancestors say this is in fact so). Practicing alone can reinforce some problematic tendencies, if done to excess or without guidance, and we remain cut off and prone to our mind’s predilection to avoid and deny the harder stuff. We can’t do it alone.

So, going beyond the thing that you can do or not do is in fact the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha. It may not look like how you think it should look. This is why we listen to the ancestors when they caution us to avoid setting up standards of our own. Which may seem to contradict the teaching that we must go beyond Buddha. These conundrums point us toward a place of surrendering the illusion of total control, which I feel is close to the heart of our zazen practice.


Covered in Acceptance

Continuing in our investigation of Dogen’s “Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas”[Gyobutsu Iigi], I wish to concentrate on this passage:

“…an old Buddha [Hongzhi Zhengjao] said, “Reach over to grasp what’s there, and bring its workings right here.”

            When you take on sustaining this, all things, bodies, actions, and buddhas become intimate with you. These actions, things, bodies, and buddhas are simply immersed [covered] in acceptance. Because they are simply immersed in acceptance, through acceptance they are simply dropped off [released].”

This I think is an exceptionally rich and beautiful passage, that encapsulates a certain essence of Dogen’s teaching.

Dogen quotes an influential Soto ancestor from a century or so earlier, Hongzhi. He’s long been a favorite of mine, a real source of inspiration that I discovered almost 20 years ago in a wonderful translation by Taigen Dan Leighton – who many years later would of course become my teacher. I recommend everyone seek Hongzhi out – bring his workings right here! He is perhaps most famous in our tradition for his koan compilation, The Book of Serenity.

I love this phrase from Hongzhi. Once again, we have this potential contrast from a cliché idea of so-called meditation, where we sit placidly, even blankly, letting our worldly or personal concerns, or even our personality, sort of evaporate or something. Good luck with that! Actually, to some degree that may occur. But whatever that is it perhaps is not actually Buddhism. That is not the heart of Zen.

We often remain caught in our world between this idea of “doing” and “not doing”. On the other side of the meditation divide, many people – fewer lately perhaps, but still, a lot of people – think that sitting still is some kind of drag on the Gross National Product. We have those who think that meditation is a tool for achieving some special state that will insulate them from problems, and we have others who think that if they stop doing things for one second, their universe may implode. Maybe you know people like this. Maybe some of them have shown up on your cushion at some point this evening.

Hongzhi’s quote points to this kind of not-doing doing. It is an active, vital process, zazen. We allow problems to find us, and we sit there with them. We allow their workings to manifest, and we investigate. Not just with our rational mind, but with our whole body and our whole heart. Hongzhi indicates how active buddhas manifest, and function. It’s not psychoanalysis; but he alludes to how it’s maybe not not psychoanalysis, either. Zazen can be an envisioning practice; we can utilize our creative and intuitive capacities to better understand others, the world, and ourselves in order to be happier, healthier, and more efficacious in our vow to be of use and of help.

Dogen then points out what the quality of this effort begins, in time, to look like. It is sustained. It took me many years to begin to develop a more sustainable practice. When I was younger, I recognized the importance of sustainability, at all levels. For instance I was very interested in sustainable agriculture, the kind of thing Wes Jackson has been investigating in Kansas for decades. But I am not a farmer. I’m an artist, and Zen person. So what is sustainable effort for us, we urban house-holding practitioners? It is a living question, that we are checking out together. Our tradition in fact teaches that sustainability is actually much more important than having some special experience on your cushion. I think showing up weekly as many of us are doing is a great foundation, hopefully seasoned with a bit of daily practice and an occasional intensive. It is vital I feel to recognize and embrace that we aren’t monastics, so our practice can’t look like it did in Buddha’s time, or even Dogen’s. It’s going to have a different sustainable vision.

So Dogen says that when you find this sustainable quality, you will find that your life is immersed in acceptance. How lovely is that? That’s what we’re really seeking. Peace of mind with ourselves and things as they are. Serenity. It is possible. This is the direction of every religious or spiritual path, and every human life. We desire sustainable sanity, acceptance, and patience with ourselves and others.

The final twist Dogen puts on this is once again another key to his teaching. He employs the phrase “dropping off”, which we’ve touched on before. It was that phrase that led Dogen to his deepest awakening into the true nature of zen. I think “releasing” or released is a helpful alternate translation. When we settle into a deeper sense of ourselves, we accept and love ourselves, and that begins to extend to others; there is an aspect of release. We are able to let go of our compulsive need to control everything, which causes so much suffering for ourselves and others.

At some level, in some context, we can all be control freaks, we are all addictive, we can all be compulsive, OCD if you will, even without a diagnosis. We have to see this. We have to bring the workings of our grasping, our dysfunctions, in really close, get intimate with them. Paradoxically, it is only through this intimacy that we can then accept, and then release these patterns of grasping, and in that releasing, find a deeper inner calm and peace. Covered in and protected by acceptance, we can let go…and let God, as the saying goes – which we can call Tao, Buddha, or even Dharma or Sangha. In turn or all at once.

Peace has to become our greatest priority; peace arising out of real insight and real acceptance. This is what Dogen I think is talking about here. This is our zazen practice.


Gyobutsu Iigi, continued…

Gyobutsu Iigi, continued

Well, we are slowly working our way through this 14 page text. After 2 talks now, we are inching onto the third page. This is maybe a good Soto Zen pace.

This next section is really quite thorny. But Dogen does introduce here one of the central if not the central teaching in our ancestral way, and that is the idea of “practice-enlightenment.” I wish to just concentrate on introducing this, especially as it might be a new idea to some of us.

From Dogen’s perspective, most Buddhist or religious teaching that he had encountered before meeting his true heart teacher suffered fundamentally from some dualistic idea, no matter how subtle or how obvious. For instance, if you think Buddha exists solely outside of you at some remove, this is a problem. If you think you have attained Buddha, and no longer feel as if you are on a path investigating “the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha,” this likewise can be a problem.

I think as Buddhism and many other yogic traditions are being introduced into our materialistic paradigm, they are finding themselves prone to certain misunderstandings more or less particular to our time and place. Though he’s hardly the only one to point it out, Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was especially eloquent and adamant in his warnings that “spiritual materialism” is the greatest threat Dharma faces in the modern world. He understood our tendency to superficially grasp things, and to perhaps move along when faced with deeper challenges to our self-idea. We don’t get to the heart of our grasping, our deep and abiding stuckness in limited conceptions of the self, from which stems so much suffering for ourselves and others.

So I think we can look out and see that there is this flowering of interest in meditation, “mindfulness”, yoga, and the like. And all of this can’t help but to be a good thing. But there are pitfalls on the path, and I can from personal experience relate that encountering good clear teaching is not so common.

So this teaching of “practice-enlightenment” is good medicine. I think it is in fact essential. Dogen certainly said as much. I find I am often reflecting on the question of what is essential on our path. Today, driving down 12th St, just by the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center in fact, I had the thought “sitting quietly upright (zazen) is essential; the teaching of the emptiness of all dharmas is essential; taking refuge is essential; and practice-enlightenment is essential.” I could add other things (precepts, the okesa, etc), but maybe they stem from these, I don’t know; I’d maybe have to think about that one some more.

So I think we all completely and fully already understand this point, because we are all here and not for the first time. We just sat for 35 minutes (our first night extending our time a bit, by request), and we fully experienced the vital process of going beyond any idea of what zazen might be, and just investigated what was occurring on our cushion in the moment. My first Zen teacher, Seung Sahn, used to preface many responses to questions with “you already understand!” I think this is so true; but sometimes we ask because we need to hear it from another mouth.

We deeply understand that coming together and sitting and bowing and reciting sutras and carving out some space to honor awakeness is in itself a good, noble, wholesome business. It is the path, and the goal. We know that if it were to supposedly occur somewhere else, sometime else, that this is would simply be another dualistic problem in itself, when in fact we come to sit to wholly resolve those dualisms in our surrendering to presence.


The Dignified Manner of Active Buddhas, part one

I recently visited Chicago, and my teacher Taigen Dan Leighton, to participate in our annual Rohatsu Sesshin, traditionally celebrated the first week in December in honor of the historical Buddha’s awakening. Throughout the week. Taigen discussed Eihei Dogen’s essay Gyobutsu Iigi. While Taigen himself had previously translated this title as “The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas,” he stated he wished to give it a different translation and hence a subtly different interpretation. He alternately translated it as something akin to “The Dignified Manner of Active Buddhas.” I wished to in the coming weeks also speak about this text, introduce some of Taigen’s ideas about it, and open it up for discussion and use in our practice here in New Mexico. In Chicago, I found myself excited to come back and share this wonderful teaching.

This week I will concentrate on just the first two paragraphs, reproduced here from Taigen and Kaz Tanahashi’s collaborative translation from a few years back:

“Buddhas invariably practice complete awesome presence (dignified manner); thus they are active buddhas. Active buddhas are neither reward-body buddhas, nor incarnate-body buddhas, neither self manifesting buddhas, nor buddhas manifesting for others. Active buddhas are neither originally enlightened, nor enlightened beginning at some time, neither naturally enlightened, nor without enlightenment. Such kinds of buddhas can never compare with active buddhas.

            “Know that buddhas in the buddha way do not wait for awakening. Only active buddhas fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha. This is something that those such as self manifesting buddhas have never seen even in a dream.”

Gyobutsu is translated here as “active buddha/s.” Gyo can also mean walking, moving; generally engaging in activity. This distinction itself is already instructive, in that perhaps we often equate Buddha with stillness, non-action, emptiness, and a sort of transcendence. In other words, buddha sits; she’s not doing anything. But here, buddha is sort of intrinsically active (or buddha’s are.)

Iigi indicates how this buddha activity manifests; how it looks or feels, perhaps. And we can see this immediately in the context of practice, and how our traditions inculcate or model for us this attitude or posture of iigi. So the meaning of this phrase lies perhaps somewhere between, or beyond, these two translations.

“Awesome presence” sounds pretty high-falutin. And buddha, or awakened presence, can certainly feel quite awesome, which is to say profound. But Taigen’s alternate translation of “dignified manner” gently brings it all back to earth a little. The threat here is that we can maybe interpret this dignity to be sort of stuffy or uptight – I think of the British upper classes as lampooned by Monty Python or something. This uptightness (in a Zen iteration) certainly happens among practitioners. Maybe things can look a little pretentious, sometimes. And that’s ok too – maybe even corrective.

But hopefully with some good instruction, good modeling, and some consistency over time, we get to a point with our forms and postures and basic zendo etiquette where we inhabit them with a kind of naturalness and gentleness that are sort of dignified and awesome, but in a very unpretentious and deeply human way. We aren’t aware of being dignified or awesome; rather, we just recognize that our Zen way is just a good way. Not the best way even, but good enough. If we take care of it, it takes care of us.

So Dogen then lists all these different sorts of buddhas, referencing categories of attainment found in various scriptures and versions of Dharma through Buddhist history. But he says none of these kinds of buddhas can compare with active buddhas. So clearly, these active buddhas are important to know about.

I love this next line: “Know that buddhas in the buddha way do not wait for awakening.” I am intimate with this feeling. I feel generally unprepared to talk to you about buddha. I sometimes feel completely unworthy to speak about zen. That said, I love talking with you about buddhadharma; my teacher has asked me to do so, and I like being given this homework. But it would be very easy for me to entertain the idea, “I have not attained complete perfect awakening, and am therefore unable to speak to you about Zen.” This idea however would contradict Dogen himself. And as another teacher in our tradition has said, sometimes “you have to say something.”

Dogen further clarifies that Active Buddhas (which as he’s just flat out stated are the ultimate buddhas), “fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha.” We all can apprehend this directly; we came here tonight, or we sit down each day in zazen, and we directly drop off our ideas of self or zen, and aim toward directly experiencing our life as it is in this moment. We release our idealistic notions of Buddha or zen, and we just sit. This is a quite vital process of going beyond any idea, and tasting reality for ourselves. Its active; its engaged. It’s not disassociated, it’s not an homage to another time and place, or being named Buddha.

Someone has asked about the historical distinction regarding “sudden” enlightenment schools versus the “gradual” path. As you can I think immediately recognize, once again, these distinctions are maybe not so useful, or even fundamentally meaningful. Of course we have sudden-seeming insights; but hopefully we have those in the context of long-term, committed practice on the path of going beyond buddha, be that in relationships, work, healing, parenting, or our formal zen discipline.

-Keizan Titus O’Brien

Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part IV

One spring day, after practicing for thirty years, Lingyun, who would later become Zen Master Zhiqin, walked into the mountains. While resting he saw peach blossoms in full bloom in a distant village and was suddenly awakened. He wrote this poem, which he presented to Guishan:

For thirty years I have looked for a sword master.

Many times leaves fell, new ones sprouted. One glimpse of peach blossoms—

now no more doubts, just this.

Guishan said, “One who enters with ripened conditions will never leave.” He approved Lingyun in this way.

We are continuing our close reading of Dogen’s wonderful ‘Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors’ this evening.  And in this section, Dogen presents another awakening story about how an external sound or sight, especially in a pristine natural setting, can bring forth awakening.  Little is known about Lingyun beyond his teachings, but Dogen wrote extensively about them, and especially about this story.

We don’t know why Lingyun went into the mountains, but it appears that this was after he had been practicing for a long time.  Perhaps, like in our other stories last week, his teacher saw that he needed to change the context of his practice.  As Guishan comments later, something had ripened in his practice so that he was ready for this experience.  It’s certainly not hard to imagine the sight of peach blossoms as an occasion for awakening.

His poem suggests some degree of frustration or difficulty.  The imagery of leaves falling and new ones sprouting suggests that Lingyun somehow couldn’t keep up with his own karma, his own habits of mind and body.  Just when he would maybe clear something up, gain some intuition, something else would come along that would, at least seemingly, set him back.  But once he saw the peach blossoms, there was no more doubt.

Dogen wrote about exactly this point in one of his waka poems: “Petals of the peach blossom / Unfolding in the spring breeze / Sweeping aside all doubts / Amid the distraction of / leaves and branches.

What are the ripened conditions that his teacher, Guishan, refers to?  This is the ripening of karma, the coming to fruition of the cumulutive acts of our minds and bodies.  An understanding of karma is one of the most important things we can develop as practitioners.  It is not some arcane principle, it is a very direct and important way that we can cultivate happiness in ourselves and others.

The modern Tibetan teacher Geshe Tashi Tsering wrote a very succinct summary of karma:  “Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining whether we engage with virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. Just as iron is powerlessly drawn to a magnet, our minds are powerlessly drawn to the object of our intentions. . .

How do we accumulate karmic seeds? Every physical and verbal action is preceded by mental activity. Goodwill motivates a kind gesture; ill will motivates nasty words. Ill will is the intention to cause mental, emotional or physical harm. Thus, before and during a bad action, ill will is present in our mind. The presence of ill will before and during this act has an impact and influence on the mind due to which a certain potential is left behind. This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors, including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention and whether the physical and verbal action is completed.

Seeds will remain in the mind until they ripen or are destroyed. Seeds left by negative mental events and actions can be destroyed by the four opponent or antidotal powers. The most important of these four powers are regret for the negative act and a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future. Seeds left by positive mental events and actions can be destroyed by anger.”

Now these seeds are a potential, they haven’t really had an effect until they ripen.  For karmic seeds to ripen, the right circumstances must be there.  Sometimes this plays out in a negative way when we put ourselves in the same situations over and over again.  It’s kind of a karmic loop that keeps planting the seeds.

But Guishan is referring to a happier occasion for the ripening of karma.  In this case, it was Lingyun’s 30 years of practice and then departing for the mountains and then the chance seeing of the peach blossoms.  The 30 years of sincere practice planted some very strong, very positive seeds, seeds of awareness, mindfulness, compassion.  But they couldn’t ripen in the monastery.  Instead, Lingyun had to go out into the mountains and the occasion of seeing the peach blossoms brought all of those positive seeds to fruition.  But make no mistake – he had to be ready for that moment, his whole 30 years of practice made him ready.  And Guishan is saying that once you’re ready for this transcendent awakening, it just takes the tiniest nudge to bring you there.  Gradual cultivation, sudden awakening.

Dogen continues:

Who does not enter with ripened causes? Who enters and then goes away?  This awakening is not limited to Lingyun. If mountain colors were not the unconditioned body, how could this awakening have occurred?  This is how he inherited dharma from Guishan.

This passage speaks to the principle of original awakening, the idea that we all possess the seeds of awakening, the seeds of goodness, within us from the start.  In other words, we couldn’t have even been born without having ripened causes.  It was the ripened causes that allowed our parents to meet and for us to take this human form when we did.  This awakening is our birthright – who doesn’t have it?  Who can escape it?

This wasn’t just Lingyun’s experience, it’s all of ours.  The unconditioned body is the dharmakaya, the basic principle of wakefulness that permeates everything; the ground of reality is this awakening, the dharmakaya.  It’s the cause for ripening our karmic seeds.  It’s a beautiful image – the mountain colors themselves, the valley sounds, the natural world around us, these provide the fundamental occasion for our awakening, not because we are special or because we deserve it, it’s just because we have been born here, on this planet.  It’s what we get by being born on this beautiful planet Earth.  But like Lingyun, we must make our best effort, we have to do our part, to manifest the awakening that is all around us, to embody it, and bring it from the realm of potentiality to the realm of actuality.  This is Dogen’s great teaching of practice-enlightenment.

This idea of the natural world as the fundamental ground of our awakening and as our birthright is so inspiring, and John Muir’s writings evokes this in his great “Mountains of California”, especially his imagery of the wind reaching everywhere.  It reminds me of Dogen:

“The mountain winds, like the dew and rain, sunshine and snow, are measured and bestowed with love on the forests to develop their strength and beauty. However restricted the scope of other forest influences, that of the winds is universal. The snow bends and trims the upper forests every winter, the lightning strikes a single tree here and there, while avalanches mow down thousands at a swoop as a gardener trims out a bed of flowers. But the winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean; the winds blessing the forests, the forests the winds, with ineffable beauty and harmony as the sure result.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part III

We continue our study tonight of Dogen’s Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors.  In the previous sections, Dogen introduced us to Layman Dongpo, who expressed his awakening in a beautiful poem about his experience meditating late one night:

Valley sounds are the long, broad tongue.

Mountain colors are no other than the unconditioned body.

Eighty-four thousand verses are heard through the night.

What can I say about this in the future?

Dogen went on to talk about this poem and its meaning.  In tonight’s section, Dogen moves on to talk about another student and their awakening experience.

Xiangyan Zhixian studied at the assembly of Guishan Lingyou, Zen Master Dayuan, on Mount Gui, Guishan said, “You are bright and knowledgeable. Say something about yourself before your parents were born, but don’t use words learned from commentaries,”

This is quite a challenge coming from a senior teacher – he’s asking the student to respond directly in the moment, not to rely on the texts that he may have read.

Xiangyan tried and tried but could not say anything. He pored through many books he had collected over the years but could not come up with anything. Deeply ashamed, he burned the books and said, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger. I will be just a cooking monk, not expecting to understand buddha dharma in this lifetime.”  A cooking monk means one who supports the assembly by cooking rice, an equivalent of a kitchen assistant in our country. He followed this vow for years.

Xiangyan tried to find something to say, but he couldn’t find anything in the texts, and he couldn’t find anything within himself, so he of course got rather frustrated at this!  The expression “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger” is a famous Zen expression and it’s meaning is clear – the dharma that we read about in the texts may be beautiful and inspiring, but ultimately, it’s not going feed our spiritual hunger.  Instead of trying to eat a painting of a rice cake, we need to eat a real rice cake, experience the dharma directly, in order to be satisfied.  It’s not that we don’t need paintings of rice cakes – indeed, in another essay, Dogen argues that the distinction between painted rice cakes and real rice cakes is immaterial – such painted rice cakes, the written teachings, the opportunity to learn from others, these are all true and important things.  But unless they are grounded in our own experience, they are ultimately not going to help us.

So Xiangyan sort of decides to step back from all of this – maybe he’s being overly dramatic by saying that he’ll never understand the dharma in this lifetime – but he’s not dropping out of practice.  Instead, he’s going to focus on serving the community and not worrying so much about his own attainment.  This is an excellent example for us.  Indeed, this is what a bodhisattva does.  They serve the community without regard for their own attainment.  Xiangyan is doing exactly what most teachers would recommend.

One day Xiangyan said to Guishan, “My mind is undifferentiated; I cannot speak. Can you speak for me. Master?”Guishan said,”l wouldn’t mind explaining it to you, but if I did, you would resent me in the future.”

You get the sense that Xiangyan was not quite at peace with his decision to back away from Guishan’s question.  We don’t know how much time has passed here, but it’s clear that Xiangyan is still wrestling with Guishan’s original question.  Guishan’s response is excellent – he’s being very direct.  He could just explain it to Xiangyan, but that wouldn’t really help him very much.  Xiangyan will need to keep wrestling with this question longer.

Sometime later, Xiangyan went to the memorial site of Nanyang Huizhong, National Teacher Dazheng, at Mount Wudang, and built himself a hut. For company, he planted some bamboo.

It sounds like some years have gone by, and maybe Xiangyan is no longer working in the kitchen and has instead gone to live on his own and just quietly continue his practice.

One day, while he was sweeping the path, a pebble flew up and struck a bamboo. At the unexpected sound, Xiangyan had thorough awakening. After bathing and cleansing himself, he faced Mount Gui, offered incense, prostrated himself, and said, “Master, if you had spoken for me at that time, this could not have happened. Your kindness is deeper than my parents’.”  

In other words, he gets it.  This sound of the pebble hitting the bamboo is just like the sound of the valley streams.  It points to emptiness, to interdependence, and this experience is what inspires Xiangyan.  He acknowledges the importance of Guishan’s teaching, his insistence that Xiangyan find this out for himself.  Sometimes the best teaching is just to encourage someone to find their own way.

Then he wrote a poem:

One stroke dissolves knowledge.

Struggle no longer needed.

I will follow the ancient path

not lapsing into quietude.

Noble conduct beyond sound and form—

no trace anywhere.

Those who have mastered the way

may call this an unsurpassable activity.

He presented this poem to Guishan, who said, “This fellow has gone through.”

This poem is analogous to Dongpo’s poem about the sound of the valley streams.  Here he is pointing to how the direct experience of hearing the pebble hitting the bamboo cuts through all of his ideas and thoughts about the teaching.  It’s a direct experience.  Now that he has had this experience, he commits himself to just continuing the practice.   That’s what we do.  We may have moments of transcendent insight, but then we return to the workplace and just continue our activity, transformed by our insight, but recognizing that the best way to express this inspiration is just to continue to live, to work, and to practice.

The great mountaineer and educator, Willi Unsoeld, who was on the first American team to climb Mount Everest and went on to help found the Evergreen State College in Washington, focused on experiencing the sacred in nature, the importance of risk in education and getting personal experience rather than relying on the experience of others.  About this need for direct experience, and what we do with it, he said:

Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of man might be realized.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, very relevant for our study of this text.  When we hear the sound of the valley streams and see the color of the mountains, our job is not to just retreat to the mountains, to the practice of quietude but instead it is to return to the city, refreshed and inspired, and able to continue in our bodhisattva activity.