Dogen’s Zazen Instructions, part 2

Carrying on with our investigation of Dogen’s five-part approach to zazen, let’s move to the second kind of instruction he proposes. He says, “Sometimes, within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing for you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.”

gate1Another wonderful series of phrases to hear and be encouraged by. We of course are not exactly practicing in a formal monastery, but we do in fact have extraordinary wrought iron gates festooned with animal spirits and regional motifs, and there are lovely gardens here in this little adobe office park compound. Talking to someone with extensive experience in other Buddhist traditions, he remarked that when he encountered our way here at first he was a bit concerned, shall we say, by our apparently stuffy formality. He said he was reassured when I opened my mouth to speak that what I was talking about sounded like good friendly practical advice and recognizable Buddhist teaching. I am glad to hear that!

I know for myself that internally, I aim toward not being too tight, or too loose with the forms. You can look at any seasoned practitioner, and they inhabit these forms with a kind of ease and grace. Some may incorporate more forms or less, but in any case, our Dogen/Suzuki way is very much involved with these formal expressions of basic etiquette. It’s not the only way, but it is definitely an important aspect of our way. The Japanese have been known for masterful expressions of this kind of etiquette geared toward mindfulness (ikebana, tea ceremony and what not), and much of this understanding has been said to relate to their encounter with the Zen tradition.

But as Dogen points out, we play and sport freely with these forms. The point is not to become a Zen drudge or a paragon of renunciation. While many people may experience frustration at there being any rules at all, many others who are drawn to our way for its formalism come face to face with their perfectionistic tendencies, and have to learn to literally lighten up. Sometimes perfectionists can be real floor stompers; I have been known to resemble this remark.

So this business is indeed practical. This is an important point, really. Nothing we do here is for purely aesthetic purposes. It may sometimes be beautiful, but that is more of a by-product. When the Buddha started his community, he didn’t get a bunch of rules from a burning bush, or set out to create a new gorgeous ritual edifice. All the hundreds of vows monks take in some of the older traditions were reasoned developments, practical instructions to help monks stay out of trouble and focused on their studies and practice. Our way is like this too; we fold robes in certain ways and bow at certain times together so that we can put our preferences down for a minute and just let go into group activity. Such basic stuff, but this really is where our training occurs. The verbal teachings are crucial, but no more and possibly less important than experiencing the actual practice with our whole body and whole heart.

gate2We should keep a gently playful attitude. It is easy to lose, and maybe difficult to regain sometimes. But we can do it. Dogen reassures us of this. So, while this business of spiritual penetration is itself the great matter of life and death, we are told to be light of heart about it. You are hereby cordially invited by Buddhas and ancestors to have fun in your practice, and with your discipline.


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