Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part 2

One night when Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he was enlightened upon hearing the sound of the valley stream. He composed the following verse, which he presented to Changzong:

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?

Seeing this verse, Changzong approved his understanding. Changzong, also called Zen Master Zhaojiao, was a dharma heir of Huanglong, Zen Master Huinan, who was a dharma heir of Chuyuan, Zen Master Ciming. Another time when Dongpo met with Liaoyuan, Zen Master Foyin, Liaoyuan transmitted the buddha precepts to him with a dharma robe, which Dongpo later wore when practicing. Dongpo presented Liaoyuan  with a jeweled belt. People talked about this exchange as something extraordinary.

Here Dogen is showing us a bit of how teachers worked with lay students in this era.  Apparently, Dongpo worked with multiple teachers and even before he had this breakthrough, he had received some kind of lay transmission from Zen Master Foyin, and he even received an okesa and a jeweled belt.  Clearly, Dongpo was an extraordinary practitioner.

The valley sounds of Dongpo would refresh practitioners of later generations. How sad for those who miss the dharma of the manifested buddha body! How are mountain colors seen and valley sounds heard otherwise? Are mountain colors and valley sounds one phrase or half a phrase? Are they eighty-four thousand verses of scripture? You may regret that mountains and waters conceal sounds and colors, but you may also rejoice that the moment of enlightenment emerges through mountains and waters.

This insight of Dongpo is something that even today, 800 years down the road, we are studying and can take inspiration from.  The ‘manifested Buddha body’ is also known as the Nirmana-kaya – it’s the physical form that a Buddha assumes in this world in order to teach people effectively.  The Nirmana-kaya is the medium through which dharma teaching occurs.  We normally think of this as the form of a person, but I think here Dogen is taking a broader view of the Nirmana-kaya.  In this case, the valley sounds and mountain colors are themselves the medium that teaches the dharma, and Dogen is lamenting those who can’t see that.  Dogen is then asking: if you don’t experience mountain sounds and valley colors as the Nirmana-kaya, the body of Buddha, are you really even experiencing them at all?  Is the experience of mountain colors and valley sounds a complete experience, or is it only part of the way to awakening?  He asks, are they indeed the teachings of the Buddha?  Finally here, Dogen tells us that yes, it may be difficult to see how the mountains and waters are expressing the Dharma, but as he often points out, even if we don’t get it with our intellect, it is still true, and we still benefit from it, regardless.  So even that faith is an occasion for rejoicing.

The tongue of the Buddha does not take a break. The colors are beyond coming and going. Are the sounds and colors intimate when they are apparent, or are they intimate when they are obscured? Are they one whole expression or half an expression? During past springs and autumns, Dongpo had not seen or heard the mountains and waters. He saw and heard them for the first time that night.

The mountain colors and valley sounds are continuous in their expression of the Dharma, even if we aren’t paying attention.  The question of intimacy and obscurity reminds me of another Zen story:

In China, there was a teacher named Dizang (J.: Rakan) who had a student named Fayan (J.: Hogen). Dizang saw Fayan all dressed in his traveling clothes, with his straw sandals and his staff, and a pack on his back, and Dizang said, “Where are you going?” Fayan answered, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

This passage is getting at an important point: Dongpo’s realization was not an intellectual idea about emptiness and mountains and valleys.  It was a moment of experiencing valley sounds and mountain colors, not thinking, “Oh boy, this is great!  I love sitting here and listening to the valley sounds.  I bet this is what the Buddha meant when he talked about emptiness!”

Which is more intimate, which something is clearly seen and available to our intellect to evaluate, or maybe when something is partially obscured and that we can only intuit?  In the latter case our intellect may not have much to hold onto, but maybe we experience it in a deeper way.

Bodhisattvas who study the way, open your minds to mountains flowing and to water not flowing, Dongpo had this awakening soon after he heard Changzong talk about insentient beings speaking dharma. Although Dongpo did not leap when he heard Changzong’s words, towering billows flew into the sky upon his hearing the sounds of the valley. Was it the valley sounds or the tide of awakening that jolted Dongpo?

The idea that insentient beings can communicate, that they can even speak the Dharma, was a popular idea in China during this time.  The idea was that all things, plants, animals, rocks, have Buddha nature or are even a manifestation of the Buddha’s mind.  In this view, nothing is alien or other in the world.  Everything is part of the same mental entity.  An attentive listener, like Dongpo, can hear this language of insentient beings.  Dongpo had heard this teaching from Changzong, but that wasn’t enough to wake him up.  There was something in that moment of meditating in the mountains, some combination of Dognpo’s own inherent wakefulness and the sounds of the valley that came together to generate a transcendent insight.

I suspect that Changzong’s voices of insentient beings speaking dharma are resounding even now, still blended with the sounds of the night’s stream. Who can fathom this water? Is it a bucketful or does it fill whole oceans? In the end let me ask you: Was it Dongpo who was awakened or the mountains and waters that were awakened? Who today sees right away with a clear eye the long, broad tongue and the unconditioned body of the Buddha?

What a beautiful expression – of course the insentient beings are still speaking the dharma today, it’s in the sound of the Rio Grande, it’s in the sound of the cars driving by, in the sounds of the geese flying overhead.  Are we able to hear the teaching of insentient beings?

Our old friend John Muir could definitely hear the teaching of the insentient beings in Yosemite, and I will leave you with his words from Tuolumne Meadows:

“The foreground was . . . aflame with autumn colors, brown and purple and gold, ripe in the mellow sunshine; contrasting brightly with the deep, cobalt blue of the sky, and the black and gray, and pure, spiritual white of the rocks and glaciers. Down through the midst, the young Tuolumne was seen pouring from its crystal fountains, now resting in glassy pools as if changing back again into ice, now leaping in white cascades as if turning to snow; gliding right and left between granite bosses, then sweeping on through the smooth, meadowy levels of the valley, swaying pensively from side to side with calm, stately gestures past dipping willows and sedges, and around groves of arrowy pine; and throughout its whole eventful course, whether flowing fast or slow, singing loud or low, ever filling the landscape with spiritual animation, and manifesting the grandeur of its sources in every movement and tone.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part 1

Tonight I’d like to begin discussing one of Dogen’s famous fascicles from Shobogenzo, Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, sometimes translated as Sound of the Valley Streams, Colors of the Mountains.  It’s one of the essays that has been used as a foundation for thinking about a Buddhist response to our current environmental crisis, but it’s also a beautiful ode to the feeling we get when we encounter the natural world, the feeling of awe and inspiration.

This essay was written in 1240, which is sort of mid-career for Dogen.  Tonight I just want to focus on the first couple of sections.  In the opening, Dogen invokes the spirit of our ancestors, those who have practiced before us, to inspire us to take up the practice:

In the transmission of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment by numberless buddha ancestors, various practices have arisen. Study such examples as ancient practitioners crushing their bones and Huike chopping off his arm. Embody in yourself the dedication of a boy spreading his hair on muddy ground for the Buddha to walk on.  Slipping out of your old skin, not constrained by past views, you manifest immediately what has been dormant for boundless eons. As this  very moment manifests,”I” don’t know,”who” doesn’t know, “you” have no expectations, and “the buddha eye” sees beyond seeing. This experience is beyond the realm of human thinking.

Dogen is one of the most intensely literary of all Buddhist teachers.  Every sentence, almost every word, is ringing with references to Chinese literature, to Buddhist history and teachings.  It can make studying Dogen a bit cumbersome, but it’s also a central part of his power.  In this opening section, Dogen is using a very traditional mode of invoking authority, by invoking the ancient worthies.  He is referring to specific stories of practitioners who made practice their absolutely central concern, practitioners who showed their dedication by, for example, chopping off their arm to show their sincerity.

There are many ways we understand authority.  Today, we tend to put a lot of authority on experts in a given field. Scientists who study an issue are often invoked as authorities.  It wasn’t always this way.  Traditionally, in the west, the bible or torah was the source of authority, or the king or the pope.  In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment shifted the ground of authority in the west away from traditional sources and pointed to reason as the source of authority.  This was the beginning of our modern use of science as a source of authority, although as we know, there is still a strong current in our society that continues to reject science and maintain that the bible is the source of authority.

In Dogen’s time, in East Asia, the main source of authority was the appeal to ancestors.  The idea was very different from where we are today.  Today, we think that whatever’s current and modern is best, and that the ways of the past are backward and best left behind.  This is sort of the founding idea of America, really.  In Dogen’s time, the feeling was that the current society had really lost its way and things now are really bad.  In the past, people really had their heads screwed on straight, so we should look to their stories for inspiration and example. 

So in this opening passage, Dogen is pointing to the ancient worthies, but then basically telling us that we have this exact same capacity, it’s just that it’s dormant.  This capacity may be beyond our intellect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not available to us.

In Song China there was a man who called himself Layman Dongpo. He was originally named Shi of the Su family, and his initiatory name was Zidan, A literary genius, he studied the way of dragons and elephants in the ocean of awakening. He descended deep chasms and soared freely through clouds.

With this opening encouragement out of the way, Dogen now dives into the story that he will explore for the remainder of the essay.  Layman Dongpo was a real historical figure, sometimes known as Su Shih, a great Chinese public intellectual. He was born in 1037 and died in1101.  He was very active in Chinese politics and was widely known as a devout Buddhist.  He wrote more than 2500 poems, most of which are still with us today, and he wrote widely on such diverse topics as engineering and gastronomy.  The imagery used by Dogen here of soaring through clouds and descending into chasms evokes his connection with the natural world and shows his power as a practitioner.

One night when Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he was enlightened upon hearing the sound of the valley stream. He composed the following verse, which he presented to Changzong:

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?

This poem is the focus of the essay that follows.  The main idea here is that the Buddha’s teachings are embodied in the natural world.  The ‘long broad tongue’ is that of the Buddha, evoking his verbal expression of the teachings.  The metaphor is that the sounds we hear in a mountain valley are exactly the voice of the Buddha.  And the colors of the mountains are the absolute truth, the unconditioned body of the Buddha.  The ‘eighty-four thousand verses’ are the sutras, the teachings of the Buddha.

Clearly, Dongpo had a powerful, ecstatic experience of the natural world.  What was the content of this experience?  I think his poem tells us.

I am sure you have all spent some time in the mountains, and it’s not hard to remember the sound of the valleys.  If you think about it, a valley doesn’t have a single sound in the way that a bird or a frog has a distinct sound; instead, the sound of a valley is made up of many different components: the tricking of water in a stream, the wind passing through the trees and making the leaves rustle and the branches creak, all of the animal sounds – crickets, birds, frogs.  All of these things, and more, come together to create the sound of a valley.  This is a pretty good understanding of emptiness – what we call ‘valley sounds’ are made up of a myriad of interconnected sounds that generate the distinct sense of spaciousness and dynamic activity that we associate with the sound of valley.  There is no single thing we can identify as the sound of a valley.

So to say that the valley sounds are the sounds of the Buddha teaching the dharma is not a big leap.  To the extent that the Buddha taught about interdependence, recognizing valley sounds as embodying this teaching is pretty good.  The same line of reasoning holds for recognizing the color of the mountains as emptiness:  from afar, we may see the mountains as a mottled gray-green, but we  know that this color comes from the rocks, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the quality of light.  Mountain colors are indeed empty of inherent existence.

You can imagine that Dongpo was spending the night in a mountain hermitage, maybe devoting himself to a night of meditation, and it’s not hard to imagine him having this insight, not as an intellectual idea, but as a real, felt experience.  This is a pretty good example of the kind of awakening experience we can access.  Many of you have probably had a similar experience in the mountains or in other wilderness settings.

 I think this story resonates with our current feelings about the natural world, that the natural world expresses something profound and true and good.  And we feel that it would be better if our society as a whole could pay attention to this.

 This feeling about the natural world has not always been the norm.  In the Buddha’s time, the natural world was not seen as benevolent or peaceful or healing.  In ancient India, and in the European tradition until quite recently, the natural world was considered dangerous and ugly.  The mountains are where the witches lived, where the snakes and tigers lived.  The Buddha did not speak about the natural world as a place of healing.  The original sutras mostly invoke the natural world as an example of a place of danger.  It was only after Buddhism moved to China and absorbed Taoist influences that this new idea of the natural world was adopted.

 In the west, the natural world was, and to a great extent remains, a place to be subdued and brought under our control for our own financial gain.  But of course there is a strong tradition in the west of experiencing the natural world in the way that Dongpo describes.  Perhaps no one better exemplifies this than the great John Muir.  In his classic ‘Mountains of California’, his description of a Sierran meadow sounds evokes a similar feeling as that of Dongpo:

 With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake, feeling yourself contained in one of Nature’s most sacred chambers, withdrawn from the sterner influences of the mountains, secure from all intrusion, secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm, terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar. The resiny pines are types of health and steadfastness; the robins feeding on the sod belong to the same species you have known since childhood; and surely these daisies, larkspurs, and goldenrods are the very friend-flowers of the old home garden. Bees hum as in a harvest noon, butterflies waver above the flowers, and like them you lave in the vital sunshine, too richly and homogenously joy-filled to be capable of partial thought. You are all eye, sifted through and through with light and beauty.

 So much of John Muir’s writing is like this – that the natural world is at once sacred and familiar.  Its joys are as easily accessed as going for a hike, if only our eyes are opened to the light and beauty around us.

As we continue to explore this fascicle, I’d like to continue exploring the parallels between Dogen’s understanding of the natural world as a locus of awakening and our modern, often contradictory views about the natural world.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Delighting in the Presence of the Skin Bag: Keizan Titus’ talk 10/20/14

So I have been taking another dip recently into the Lankavatara Sutra. Before being supplanted by the Diamond Sutra by the 6th Ancestor of our tradition, this Sutra reputedly was the most prized. No one less than the founder himself, Bodhidharma, reportedly told his heirs that this book contained everything they needed to understand. Of course, you could say that about many books even within the Buddhist tradition itself, which has never had just one canonical text. Nevertheless, the Lanka comes highly recommended.

I read texts like this increasingly slowly as I practice more, or at least as I just get “a little older; a little more confused”. I will read a few lines or even just a phrase, and find myself unable to read on. I am drawn to just close the text and sit with it, or sleep on it. So was the case the other day with a particular line. I wanted to share it with the sangha this week.

After a preamble that sets a pretty cosmic scene (as these Mahayana sutras are wont to do), the text states: “To this the lord of three realms [the Buddha] replied, “Ruler of the Yakshas/to this jeweled peak/the teachers of the path have come/out of compassion for you they have taught/the way of self-realization/ and on the jewel-adorned peak/so shall you teach in future/For this is where practitioners dwell/ who delight in that which is present.”

It was that last line that especially grabbed me, but the whole passage is rich. I thought that it touched on some fundamental points. We are being made aware of what has been sacrificed and what we owe those who have worked to make wisdom teachings available in our time and place. Next, we are informed that we shall successfully inherit this task in future. Then we have a concrete instruction for what this might look like, how this impossible task might be performed. The first part says we practice, and we dwell. Second, the quality of that effort is not one of Sisyphean existential drudgery, but rather delight. And finally, what we delight in is presence.

This reminded me that a member of the sangha recently cheerfully balked at a term from one of our main service (chanting) texts, the Song of the Grass Hut (a poem from our direct ancestor, Shitou). The whole couplet is, “If you want to know the undying person in the hut/simply don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.” Skin bag was the offending term, and I agree. It’s not very polite! And in a fundamental sense maybe its not even super accurate, since this implies a kind of cut-off, inert sort of quality. The whole poem is talking about a solo practitioner; a hermit. So I think it is possible that this all could be misunderstood to over emphasize a sort of “self-reliance”. We probably have to watch out for this; some of us, anyway.

But I feel this couplet contains both a problem, and its solution, right in it. “If we want to know the undying person” indicates that great longing that takes us beyond ourselves. That great prayer, or vow, to awaken, to be better, to be kinder, to be more real. We want to know the “undying person”: that self that is not so contingent, so erratic, so fallible, so out of touch, so afraid, so unskilled, so full of craving, confusion, ignorance. We often have to get to know that person very well, unfortunately!

In the search for that other, “immortal” self – which some have called the Sage, some the Beloved, some God, some Mother, some Buddha or Great Mind or True Self, take your pick, or find your own – it is possible to feel that this work can’t be accomplished by this very person that we each are. Nevertheless, we are told to simply not separate from the body, and in this and many other places in the teachings, we are told we have already accomplished our Buddha Way, in some time or place, which is not fundamentally separate from right here, right now.

So we are perfect Buddhas, right now. And as our great teacher Shogaku Shunryu said, we can also use a little improvement. We realize we are not maybe that present sometimes, when we ought to be, or want to be. This brought to mind for me the modern psychological label for one way this process of splitting might be described: “disassociation.” We dis-associate. “Dis” is an old word once used for “Hell.” We associate in a hell-ish manner, perhaps? That language is strong, and I think all can agree this is certainly possible. But I think here we’re also talking about something that can be quite subtle. It likely starts so, at least.

So, we are instructed to just come keep coming back, to the breath, to the cushion, to the moment, to presence. I think we need to carefully investigate what real presence is, and what we are, just this particular skin bag here and now. How is it feeling? How is it responding? What is its vibe? Does something need tuning up? And can we trust that if we let go and just sit there, maybe that tuning will happen, or be made more possible? Can we be more present, more in tune?

But I think we’re familiar with people who are maybe forcing things a bit, or times when we have. Maybe they (or we) look together, but then snap one day. People can seem ok, but be sitting on a lot of uninspected baggage. Life has a way of revealing that situation to us, and it’s a good thing if we can be responsive; develop our response-ability. This means learning how to listen, and be flexible.

Zazen should be practiced in such a way that it is facilitating this, I think. If our sitting is just a practice in disassociating (and the teachers warn us of this) then we need to see this. Teachers can be helpful, and so can the sangha. It is important to sit with other people, just energetically maybe. We can take strength, and give support. This kind of direct giving and receiving is in itself a great cure for dis-associating.

If we look at the causes of disassociation, there nearly always is some sort of trauma at its root. These traumas can come from early in our life, or even from something subtle not so long ago that got stuck somehow in our systems. Processing such things can be difficult and subtle work requiring different modalities for body and mind, different places maybe, or even people. But it is likely that sitting quietly on a regular basis, allowing delight in presence, practicing not separating from this skin bag here and now, can be of some general help for almost everyone. This is why we are here, working together to make this available and an integrated part of our own practice of living

Remembering Buddha

In my last talk, I spoke about zazen, self-power, and other power (in Japanese, tariki and jiriki respectively.) I specifically mentioned Dogen’s seminally crucial phrase, jijuyu zanmei, as a gateway to explore this idea, or feeling, or practice; or actually, properly speaking, this fundamental reality. Jijuyu Zanmai can be translated in many ways but it could mean something like “the practice of self-actualization”, to employ language perhaps more familiar from some other traditions.

The idea of self here is really the key, in different respects. This self (ji) is not a self as opposed to an other (ta), but rather a ji that includes ta; a ta that includes ji. And as Dogen elsewhere states, it’s a self that must be dropped off or simply forgotten to be truly and thoroughly investigated, or expressed. Dogen promoted zazen as a particularly…elegant method (of no method) for doing so.

This week I wished to expand a bit more on this topic, especially since my teacher Taigen pointed me toward a talk he himself gave, that was recorded a couple of years back. He talked about Zazen as Nembutsu Practice. I think we are both great appreciators of Shinran Shonin, the Pure Land Buddhist ancestor and slight precursor of Dogen. Like Dogen, he was an accomplished and veteran Buddhist monk when he came to his great awakening. Shinran came to a profound realization of his total ineffectiveness, true hopelessness, in the face of his own and others’ confusion, ignorance, and endless craving. As a result, he took radical refuge in the vow of the great Amida Buddha, in whose vast compassion all beings are granted solace and the promise of salvation from the otherwise impossibly grinding endurance demanded by this Saha world. We might understand this as devotion, and a great prayer for peace and grace – for self and other.

This is one perspective and a great gift we receive from the Mahayana, the Buddhist movement or development that flowered in East Asia a few centuries after the historical Buddha is supposed to have lived in India. And it is the mother tradition or soil from which the Zen, Pure Land, and many other Dharma manifestations were shaped and born.

As Taigen beautifully outlined, we can view our zazen as not different than the Pure Land practice of nembutsu, which actually means “re-mind-ing Buddha” or “re-member-ing Buddha.” For the Pure Land folks, in practice this often means the recitation of the name of the Buddha they most revere – Amida. For Nichiren sects, they praise through repetition the name of a great textual manifestation of enlightened wisdom often called the Lotus Sutra (saying nam myoho renge kyo in Japanese, or namas saddharma pundarika sutra in Sanskrit – a mantra I sometimes employ myself).

These are fine practices the founder of our tradition, Eihei Dogen, was well aware of. However, it must be said that Dogen at times pretty emphatically rejected these practices in favor of zazen, which he said was the instantaneous and complete manifestation of Buddha-Mudra with one’s whole body and mind. A mudra is often thought of as a hand gesture, but Dogen’s take is obviously much more encompassing, and I think exceedingly compelling.

Dogen’s zazen was not the zazen practiced or understood by his contemporaries, or perhaps even by some people today. Dogen’s zazen may feel or look at times like a sort of heroic effort of a personal, egoic self to come to terms with itself and the world. But Dogen deeply understood that, in effect, if that’s all zazen was, it was simply not Buddha Dharma. In other words, meditating good is not necessarily a spiritual thing.

Dogen transmitted to us an understanding of zazen, or upright sitting, as totally transcending any limitation that one might place on it: self/other, body/mind, conscious/unconscious, deluded/awakened, good/bad. I think it is safe to say he was devoted to zazen as an especially beautiful way to engage that thing that is beyond all our petty “-isms and schisms”: the habitual distinctions that drive us personally to distraction, and our living planetary home to the potential verge of quite literal destruction.

Is it possible to experience and know if our zazen is truly displaying Buddha Mudra with our whole body and mind? We ask this question, and we must ask this question. But Dogen told us that the answer is to be found in no other place than in zazen itself (which is in no way limited to simply sitting down or being still) and in this current moment (which is fundamentally beyond all our efforts at total cognition). Despite this limitlessness, his exhortations to just sit, sit, and sit, attending moment by moment without expectation, continue to echo down to us 800 years later. And those of us attracted to this practice (of no practice) keep individually discovering, over and over, that he may have been on to something.

Vow, Self Power, and Other Power

Since co-founding Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in March, Taisan and I (Keizan) have alternated giving short talks on Monday nights following zazen. In the style of his teacher, he typically prepares his remarks in written form before hand, which he then more or less reads directly (and can subsequently easily post here); in the style of my teacher, I typically have a few notes, and speak mostly extemporaneously. While I have been recording our talks and hope at some point to begin posting these, in the meantime I will begin trying to at least draw up a brief summary of my remarks, so that the burden of providing content for our site is not falling on Taisan alone.

In the last few weeks, Taisan and I have been speaking directly to the role of “Vow” in our Soto way of practice. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I think to the heart of Buddha’s Way. Taisan has been reading from Shohaku Okumura-roshi’s “Living by Vow” and speaking to this. I have read from the Avatamsaka Sutra, and attempted hopefully to place Zen explicitly in a larger perspective of Mahayana understanding and historical context. This last week, I read the opening passage from Dogen’s Bendowa, or “The Wholehearted Way”, purported to be his first Dharma treatise written in Japanese.

In particular, I wished to introduce the idea of jijuyu zanmai to our sangha members unfamiliar with it, and place this idea, or rather practice, clearly within the context of Buddha’s Vow. Jijuyu zanmai is as far as I know a phrase unique at the time of this treatise to Dogen’s teaching. A phrase of profound subtlety, it has been translated in many ways, but means something along the lines of “self-actualizing samadhi” or “self-fulfilling samadhi” or perhaps as the 20th c. Zen teacher Uchiyama-roshi puts it, “the practice of the self realizing the self as the self.” In the spirit of Dogen’s love of word-play, we might adjust the grammar and say “the self realizing the Self as the self” or even “the Self realizing the self as the Self”, underscoring the Self/self distinction sometimes made in various yogic traditions. But as even this phrase indicates, ours is a totally non-dual practice and understanding, and we mustn’t get too caught up in an idea of a “self” realizing a “Self”, or vice versa.

I am a fan of the founder of the Jodo Shinshu tradition and Dogen’s contemporary, Shinran Shonin. Of course, the practice of Shin Buddhism is simply the recitation of the name of Amida Buddha, and the practice of taking refuge within this cosmic Buddha’s infinite vow of compassion to save all beings from suffering. Shinran’s primary insight was to realize that all efforts of a egoistic self to realize some transcendent Self were doomed to failure due to the utter pervasiveness of egotistical grasping in the human heart/mind. The only way to find relief from this pernicious influence of the ego is to take refuge in the Vow of that which encompasses, and resolves, everything. A thousand texts have been written on this subject, and I can’t do it justice here.

I simply wish to underscore how our zazen practice is similarly non-dualistic, and imbedded within the context of vows so vast and encompassing that they remain virtually incomprehensible to the human mind, and yet deeply stirring and meaningful to our all-too human hearts.

I was struck by a contrast in the terminology of these contemporaneous Dharma giants. Shinran in his understanding came to reject entirely the idea of jiriki, or self-power, in favor of tariki, or other power, in this case the redeeming power of Amida’s compassionate vow. Interestingly, jijuyu likewise has a contrasting principle in tajuyu. The original characters for ta- and ji- in both formulations are the same: other- vs. self-. But the ji- in Dogen’s teaching, and in our Soto practice of zazen, is not a ji- or self separate from others or the world, but a self that includes ta-, or other.

This is an extremely important point in our Soto way of practice; maybe the central point. When we sit, or chant, or bow, or walk in the zendo, there is not a self who is “meditating” in order to gain anything. We instead are simply and inexorably drawn to enact a practice of awakening beings – be that recitation of the Name or crossing our legs in zazen posture or simply praying for peace in our hearts (there obviously is no denominational limit around the longing to drop away selfness and experience connection, making one path superior to another.) As our understanding deepens, no matter what may have initially inspired the “self-powered” effort to enter onto a path of practice, and what personal energy may seem to generate what we need to spur ourselves toward uprightness on the cushion, in time we begin to realize that what really fuels our practice is totally beyond the “self” – and yet simultaneously demands or inspires expression through this very self. In a way, the true satisfaction that we experience in zazen, or wearing the robe, or recitation of scripture, or any of the other forms of practice is in simply submitting to this call, or vow – a vow that expresses itself through yet goes beyond any small idea of self.

To Avow

To Avow

One of the most ancient ceremonies in Zen Buddhism is called ryaku fusatsu.  It is the ceremony in which we recommit ourselves to the Bodhisattva vow and to the ethical precepts.  We call it the Bodhisattva Full Moon Ceremony because it is traditionally done every full moon.  Ryaku means ‘simple’ or ‘abbreviated’, because the full ceremony is very complicated and is only done rarely even in the large Japanese temples.  Fusatsu means “to continue good practice”.  The ceremony is quite beautiful, even in the abbreviated forms we use in the US, and it begins with a very important part in which we avow our actions:

All my ancient twisted karma

From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion

Born through body, speech, and mind

I now fully avow.

The word that is here translated as ‘avow’ sometimes translated as ‘repentance’, but that is a word with a lot of negative cultural overtones, and avow captures the meaning perfectly.  In feudal times, to avow meant to acknowledge a person or patron or client as ours in some relation, or to affiliate oneself with another.  It also means “to own the deeds of an agent” or to “declare as a thing one can vouch for.”

So in this chant, we are acknowledging or owning or taking responsibility for the impact of our actions on others.  Our karma is our accumulated set of habits.  The first two lines point out that our karma is indeed very old and very complicated and that our greed, or clinging, or hatred, or aversion, and our delusion, or ignorance, didn’t just begin when we were born.  These three poisons are something that just comes along with the package of being a human being.  But the next two lines don’t let us off the hook.  This karma is made manifest in the world through the actions of our body, the words we use, and even the thoughts in our head.  And we take responsibility for that, for the part of this karma that we bring into the world.

It’s not that we are begging forgiveness from God, or that we are berating ourselves as being terrible people.  Instead, we just know, as deeply as we can, and acknowledge that our body, speech, and mind affects everyone around us and we are committing ourselves to really understanding how that works in our lives and how we can influence others in a positive way.

Our meditation practice brings us some calmness, sometimes called shamatha or simple mindfulness meditation.  To be calm is good, but it’s not enough.  It’s not enough to be a calm jerk.  We need to couple shamatha with vipassana or insight into our hearts and into how karma works in our lives.

I have found that long retreats are an especially good forum for cultivating this insight.  The difficulties that arise during such retreats, and how we relate to them, can be seen as a microcosm of how we relate to all of the difficulties in our lives outside of the zendo.  By paying close attention to the nature of these difficulties and how we respond to them, we can really learn how to avow our karma and engage with the world from a more humble, more open place.

Shohaku Okumura talks about this in his wonderful book, “Living by Vow”:  We live in the reality of our life whether or not we observe the precepts.  No one can escape from this reality.  Even when we are deluded, we live in reality as deluded human beings.  Ultimately, there is no separation between reality and delusion.  In other words, reality includes delusions.  Even though we live in the reality that is beyond discrimination, we have to discriminate in our day-to-day lives.  We have to decide what is good or bad.  Without discrimination, we can do nothing.  Even as we practice the Buddha’s teachings, we have to make choices.  This is the unavoidable reality of our concrete lives.  Even when we try to manifest the reality beyond discrimination, we have to discriminate and make choices about the best way to do so.  Avowal means that although I think this is the best thing to do in this situation, I recognize that it might be a mistake.

In other words, our practice doesn’t let us off the hook.  Even as we come to see our own delusion, our own greed, our own aversion, we still have to make decisions about how to live in the world and relate to others.  We’re not going to go live in a cave by ourselves, most likely.  We have to continue to work in the world and relate to our friends and families as best we can, even knowing that we are pretty confused.  Hopefully, as we get to know ourselves better through zazen, we can make better choices, but it is essential that we grow in humility.  Action, grounded in humility, is our way.

Okumura goes on:

Our practice is not a means to get rid of delusive thoughts.  Being mindful of true reality is not a method to eliminate delusions.  In fact, when we sit in zazen, we sit squarely within the reality before the separation of delusion and enlightenment.  Delusion and enlightenment are both here.  Neither is negated or affirmed; neither is grasped.  We sit on the ground of letting go.  This is the meaning of Dogen Zenji’s expression “practice and enlightenment are one”.  There is no state to be attained other than our practice of letting go.  We practice within delusions and manifest enlightenment through sitting practice and day-to-day activities based on zazen.  These practices enable us to settle our whole existence on that ground.

Our practice is not a means to an end.  We’re not going to put an end to our delusions.  Instead, our practice becomes a foundation for our lives, a continuous reminder that we are, basically, confused human beings who can often make a mess of things, but that when we are grounded in practice, we can infuse our daily activities with this spirit of humility, awareness, and letting go.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Living by vow

Lately I have been reading this wonderful book by Shohaku Okumura, “Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential zen chants and texts”.  Shohaku trained with the great Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji Temple in Kyoto, and one of Uchiyama Roshi’s most important teachings is encapsulated in the title of the book. On the subject of living by vow, Shohaku writes, “. . . part of the definition of a bodhisattva is a person who lives by vow instead of living by karma. Karma means habit, preferences, or a ready-made system of values. As we grow up, we learn a system of values from the culture around us, which we use to evaluate the world and choose our actions. This is karma, and living by karma. In contrast, a bodhisattva lives by vow. Vow is like a magnet or compass that shows us the direction toward the Buddha.”

How do we decide on the right course of action in our lives? What guides us in our daily lives? For most of us, before we come to a spiritual practice like Zen, the foundation of our decision-making maybe comes from our family history, or our personal preferences, which are probably conditioned by our family history, or just by force of habit. This is living a life of what Buddhists call karma.

The word karma has sort of a bad reputation in our society because both because it is misunderstood and because it is used in different ways in different Asian traditions. In Zen, especially as we have come to understand it here in the west, karma doesn’t really have anything to do with past lives or with any sort of spiritual determinism. It’s really very concrete and specific. Our karma is the set of our accumulated habits. This is not just the things we usually think of as habits, like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes. We also have many habits of mind. Often these are things that got established in our families, the ways we related to our parents and our siblings. Maybe we are drawn to a partner who reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of one of our parents, or we find that we are playing out unresolved issues from our childhood over and over again in our adult relationships. This is karma, and for many of us, it is the material we work through in psychotherapy. Until we come to grips with our karma, most of us tend to be tossed around by these habits and maybe we don’t even understand why our lives aren’t working out the way we want them to.

Once we make our way to a meditation practice, we begin to see the power of living by vow, although we may not think of it in those terms. As Uchiyama Roshi explains, the practice of zazen is fundamentally a practice of vow and repentance. When we sit, we make a vow to simply be present and not respond to the karmic life that unfolds in front of us. As we see after sitting for even a few seconds, though, it’s actually an impossible vow. The structure of our minds is such that it’s really impossible to remain completely present. When we find that our minds have wandered, we simply and gently bring our attention back to our breath and our posture. This is repentance. It’s not some sort of dramatic beating ourselves up, like “Oh I’m such a terrible person! Please forgive me!” It’s just the recognition that we have, for the moment, missed the mark, and we recommit ourselves to this vow to simply be present.

Once we begin to break the karmic chains, once we are no longer so tossed around by our habits, what replaces them as our guideline for action in the world? Our vows. When we formally become Buddhists in the ceremony of jukai, we take the Bodhisattva vows and the precepts, which form a good basis for ethical and sane decision making.

Beings are numberless: I vow to save them

Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless: I vow to enter them

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable: I vow to become it

The precepts are sometimes worded as a vow, sometimes not, and they can be worded in either positive or negative ways, but at their simplest they are:

(1) I vow not to kill

(2) I vow not to take that which is not given

(3) I vow not to misuse sexuality

(4) I vow not to lie.

(5) I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.

(6) I vow not to slander

(7) I vow not to praise self at the expense of others

(8) I vow not to be possessive

(9) I vow not to harbor ill-will.

(10) I vow not to abuse the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

If the word vow seems to grandiose, maybe the word we can use is “intention”. Maybe that’s a bit more realistic. For some people, the idea of a vow entails a requirement that one may never fail, and then, if we do fail, we may feel disillusioned and disappointed in ourselves and maybe even give up. So don’t set yourself up for that, don’t be too dramatic about it. Shohaku writes, “A life led by vow is a life animated or inspired by vow, not one that is watched, scolded, or consoled by vow. The simple phrase living by vow emphasizes that the person and the vow are one thing. Our life itself is a vow.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Finding your place

As many of you know, I am a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico.  Every year, I spend a couple of weeks working at our field site in the northern Chilean Andes, at a place called the Chajnantor Plateau, located at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, where we are studying changes in Earth’s hydrological cycle.  It’s an extraordinary place, one of the very driest places on Earth’s surface, and it’s home to several astronomical observatories.  We’ve been working there for several years now, and we are starting to see the fruits of spending some extended time really focusing on getting to know this one place.

This time, in addition to doing our own work, we got to spend some time working with some of the many other scientists who work in the area.  For several years, we have been interacting with the cosmologists who have observatories on the Plateau, and we got to spend some more time with them this year.  They are studying the first 300,000 years after the big bang, trying to find evidence for a process called inflation, which is a hypothesized exponential expansion of the early universe.  They study this by looking for tiny ripples in what is called the cosmic microwave background, these echos of the Big Bang that they are measuring from the Chajnantor Plateau.

We also spent some time with some anthropologists who are studying pre-Hispanic irrigation practices in that part of the Chilean Atacama desert.  We saw some old ruins from the Atacaman people and some slightly younger ruins from when the Incas invaded.  It was extraordinary to see this sweep of history that occurred all before the arrival of Europeans.  You could see the individual adobe bricks from the Incan structures and we walked along the Inca Road that connected Cuzco all the way to Santiago.

Our own work is helping us to understand the ongoing changes in climate that are affecting our planet, but we also were looking at features from the last ice age, 21,000 years ago, when this region had large glaciers on it, and from the Miocene epoch, about 20 million years ago, when that part of the Andes was beginning to be tectonically uplifted.

It was remarkable to me that just by hanging out in this one place, we could learn about literally most of the history of the universe!  For some time, I have been feeling there would be real benefit in focusing on one particular place and really getting to know it across the broad expanse of time, and it felt like a validation of that as many threads of our work have started to come together.

During this time, I thought a lot about our Zen practice and often thought of a quote from Dogen’s Genjo Koan:  When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.  This is one of those great quotes from Dogen that summarizes the entirety of the practice in just a few words.  What he’s saying is that when we orient ourselves in space and time, when we really get to know a place, whether it’s a mountain or a watershed, a yoga studio or a zendo, or even just our zabuton or our own minds, when we really know that place right at this point and right at this time, that is the manifestation of our practice.  When we sit in zazen, we watch our thoughts and moods and different shades of feeling and study them in detail, just like we might get to know the ancient pathways of the Incas or the subtle ripples in the cosmic background radiation.  We really get to know them, and through that, we find this sense of place right where we are.

Most of the time, most of us are not connected to that sense of place in our own lives, in our own hearts.  Before we come to practice, we are tossed around on the turbulent seas of our own desires and our unseen and unknown impulses.  Simply put, we don’t know ourselves.  Eventually, if we’re lucky, a friend might suggest to us that a meditation practice might be helpful.  By this time, we may be desperate for some relief so we give it a try.  Bit by bit, over time, we start to map out the different pathways and ripples of our hearts.  We start to become known to ourselves, at least a little bit.  And with that knowledge comes the kind of orientation that Dogen speaks of, and we start to find some stability in our lives.  These are the real fruits of our practice.

This sense of place must also be at the heart of any Buddhist response to the world’s ecological crisis.  No one speaks more eloquently of this link than the great poet Gary Snyder.  In 1974, he wrote:  “[There can be] no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, [to] find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point.”

“That’s why I talk about watersheds,” he explains in an interview in Shambhala Sun from 1996. “Symbolically and literally they’re the mandalas of our lives. They provide the very idea of the watershed’s social enlargement, and quietly present an entry into the spiritual realm that nobody has to think of or recognize as being spiritual.  The watershed is our only local Buddha mandala, one that gives us all, human and non-human, a territory to interact in. That is the beginning of dharma citizenship: not membership in a social or national sphere, but in a larger community citizenship. In other words, a sangha; a local dharma community. All of that is in there, like Dogen when he says, ‘When you find your place, practice begins.’ There are several levels of meaning in what Dogen says. There’s the literal meaning, as in when you settle down somewhere. This means finding the right teaching, the right temple, the right village. Then you can get serious about your practice.  Underneath, there’s another level of implication: you have to understand that there are such things as places. That’s where Americans have yet to get to. They don’t understand that there are places. So I quote Dogen and people say, ‘What do you mean, you have to find your place? Anywhere is okay for dharma practice because it’s spiritual.’ Well, yes, but not just any place. It has to be a place that you’ve found yourself. It’s never abstract, always concrete.”

So this brings us back to our practice of zazen.  To find our place where we are, we come back to the zendo over and over again, week after week, year after year, and we just keep coming back to the breath over and over and over again.  In doing this, we get to know the landscape of our hearts in intimate detail.  Over time, we find this sense of place right in our own lives, wherever we are and whatever we are doing.  And that is actualizing the fundamental point.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Visiting Teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer talk, Mon 7/7 6:30pm

norman-fischer1On the heels of a visit from our other guiding teacher, auspiciously this week we host Rev. Zoketsu Norman Fischer. Rev. Zoketsu is the former long-time abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and a respected poet and author. Zoketsu is the founder and senior Dharma teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of sanghas with chapters in Canada, the United States and Mexico. He is the author of many books poetry, non-fiction, and Buddhist teaching, including Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, and Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons.

Zazen starts at 6:30, followed by a short service and Norman’s talk. Please join us!