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.



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