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

Advertisements

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.