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.