Dogen’s Five Part Approach to Zazen

dogen4I’m planning to take a series of talks to discuss a chapter in Taigen Dan Leighton’s book Zen Questions. Taigen in turn is discussing a passage from Dogen regarding his five approaches to zazen. Tonight I plan to give a general overview, and address the first approach.

The Eihei Koroku is one of the two primary collections of Dogen’s teachings. The Shobogenzo is the more famous, and we have discussed it before. It is Dogen’s 95-fascicle magnum opus, which includes his most famous longer essays. The Eihei Koroku is a compendium of hundreds of short Dharma talks to his students in the training temple. They tend to be more pithy, succinct, and often quite funny or poignant; they can certainly be enigmatic. The following is numbered 266, and was delivered in 1248.

Sometimes I, Eihei, enter the ultimate state and offer profound discussion, simply wishing for you all to be steadily intimate in your mind field.

Sometimes, within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.

Sometimes I spring quickly leaving no trace, simply wish you all to drop off body and mind.

Sometimes I enter the Samadhi of self fulfillment (jijuyu zanmai,) simply wishing you all to trust what your hands can hold.

Suppose someone suddenly came forth and asked a mountain monk, “What would go beyond these kinds of teaching?”

I would simply say to him: Scrubbed clean by the dawn wind, the night mist clears. Dimply seen, the blue mountains form a single line.”

So you might notice there are five approaches here he is delineating regarding transmitting the teaching to his students. I also notice immediately how they involve supportive, nourishing attitudes, prayers if you will, for his students. That overall is certainly the most important point, or quality; sometimes it’s called grandmotherly kindness.

He distinguishes 5 approaches here; the number five shows up regularly in Zen. Five ranks, five mountains, five houses, five schools…in Chinese cosmology there are five elements, and we could go on. In other places, Dogen has much longer, and in some cases shorter lists. So I don’t think five has an intrinsic importance, but as is so often the case, I don’t think its coincidental. Dogen is ever upholding the tradition by playing with its idioms and forms – poetically “sporting with them freely.”

Tonight let’s concentrate on the first line: Sometimes I, Eihei, enter the ultimate state and offer profound discussion, simply wishing for you all to be steadily intimate in your mind field.

I think it might be more helpful to actually begin with the second part here, skipping over what “entering the ultimate state” might mean for a minute. I think it is important that we not get caught by that first line until we understand the direction of his idea. We have to get the gist of it. This is important with Dogen and other Zen texts, because I think we can get an overall feeling or gestalt that supersedes the confusion that often can set in when our rationality gets going. Lines from Dogen remain elusive. Even when we seem to get it, later our understanding may disappear again, or change meanings in obvious or even in subtle ways.

That might be what he is pointing to, actually. With a very deep perspective (from the ultimate state), Dogen says that he offers guidance to encourage us to be “steadily intimate with our mind field.” Our mind field can seem like a mine-field: dangerous and unpredictable. It is actually quite challenging to remain steadily intimate with that vast and complex mystery. What even is a mind field, anyway? Dogen is encouraging us to check it out, right now.

It is encouraging just to encounter such pointing-out instructions. We hear words like “steadiness,” and “intimacy,” and about something called a “field of mind,” which can feel like a much better verbal formulation for the activity occurring within and around us than some of the other, more prevalent alternatives. Exposed over time to such ideas, they begin to take root and slowly transform our lives, hearts, and minds. With what aim? Well, we can look to the last lines of Dogen’s talk here and their poetic evocation of a freer heart mind. That is our direction: a more flexible, fluid, and responsive emotional, intellectual, and spiritual practice of being. Sitting together, as well as studying the words of our spiritual forbears and ancestors, is largely our way of accomplishing this, that we in time become able to weave more steadily and intimately into our lives and worlds.