Practice Without Scattering Flowers

walking monks

I’d like to introduce a “case” if you will from our founding ancestor Dogen. This is from the Eihei Koroku, the compendium of his short practice discussions mostly given to the monks living and practicing with him in the temple he founded, in the 13th c. These talks were translated by our guiding teacher Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, and Rev. Shohaku Okamura.

The talk goes like this:

In ancient times, someone was high up in a tower and saw two monks walking by. Two heavenly beings were sweeping the road and scattered flowers behind the monks. When the monks returned, two demons shouted and spit at the monks, and swept away their footprints. The person observing this finally descended from the tower and asked the two monks what happened.  The two monks said, “When we were going, we were discussing the principles of Buddhas. When we were returning, we were in engaged in random talk. That is the reason.” Realizing this deeply, the two monks were repentant and continued on their way.

Listen, although this story concerns the two monks coarse realms of consciousness, if we examine it minutely, this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.

An ancient said, “Although it was like this, it was exactly because those heavenly beings scattered flowers on the road that the demonic spirits could see the two monks.”

If there had been no road upon which the heavenly beings could scatter flowers, and there was no means for the demonic spirits to observe them, then what could have happened? Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand this? Nobody in previous generations has discussed this, but I will now speak about it:

After a pause Dogen said: Buddhas do not appear in the world by depending on the sixteen especially excellent meditation methods, which generate the spiritual powers. Even when ordinary people with sharp capacity practice these kinds of meditation, the cessation of outflows does not occur. When tathagathas expound the teaching, the cessation of outflows does occur.

A complex talk I think. But I love the immediacy of the image, and so I chose this because when we have a strong image like this I think we can carry it away with us for contemplation later. The image can float up for consideration maybe when it feels applicable.

So in essence, we have a dissection, dissolution, and even involution of our conventional dualistic view. The story can be read as a pretty straightforward morality tale, and that seems like the original intent. Monks talk about Buddha, and angels descend and rejoice in their goodness; when they talk about mundane matters, demons follow them around spitting. So the monks “repent” and likely vow to be more studious and diligent. I think we can all relate to this – we want to be good people, good citizens, and good zen practitioners – even maybe good Buddhists.

But Dogen begins to indicate how this is not the true Zen way, or at least its not a complete understanding. He says about this story, “this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.”

I like this use here of the word “sentimental.” We must remember that in Buddhist psychology, “thoughts” and “feelings” are seen as equal, along with all manner of sensations. Of course, even science shows us that thoughts generate feelings, and vice versa, which concretely shapes our experience of our bodies, and vice versa. We are complex happenings, and these distinctions are all provisional. Our problems often seem to involve getting stuck in the sensations, in the divisions, and in the appearance of external-seeming conditions before our eyes and other sense organs. And especially caught in notions about them being “good” or “bad.”

When Dogen says “if such thoughts do not arise” we might think he means that we should therefore somehow find a way to not think. Many other “Zen” teachers have said as much. You may have noticed this is easier said than done. Our brains think. Dogen nowhere says that they shouldn’t. But he does say that we are not simply our thoughts. There is a fully functioning reality (that we are already uninterruptedly participating in) beyond our mere dualistic, linear thinking.

This reality, he says explicitly, is not found through “meditation”, of any kind (even “the sixteen especially excellent” methods!) Once again we are reminded how our zazen practice is not “meditation.” We are not freed from our “outflows” by anything we can “do or not do.” Someone asked about “outflows,” and this is a good question. I think we can substitute the word “projections,” as used in a modern psychological sense. Like when Carl Jung said that when you fall in “love at first sight,” one should be highly on guard, because what is almost invariably occurring is a massive projection of one’s inner anima or animus (one’s inner psychological male or female counterpart) onto this other person, who is simply acting as a screen for the light of your own “outflow.” That is maybe a helpful way to consider one aspect of this.

Freedom, release or relief, from this process – which we desire in order to fulfill our genuine aspiration and vow to experience reality, including other people, on their own terms beyond our self-clinging and desires and projections – is found only in “hearing tathagathas expound the Dharma.” Ok; so what are these tathagathas, and what is the teaching they expound? The word literally means “Thus Come Ones,” or realized beings we call Buddhas. In a real sense, they are our actual teachers and spiritual friends with whom we gather to practice and receive instructions. But in a deeper sense, it is the birdsong outside the window right now, or the traffic on the other side of the building. It is the sensation of the floor beneath us, the cool of the air conditioned air emanating out of the vents. It is our direct undeniable experience of these things, that no one can take away from us. In each of these sensations, we are “thus come.” And all things are similarly “thus come.”

In zazen, we practice “dropping off body and mind.” It’s like pushing in the clutch – the projection machinery continues to perhaps churn, but we choose to not actively engage it. It’s like those old projectors in school where you could turn out the bulb, but the fan kept whirring and the spools kept turning. But our attention is no longer fixed on the magical display that was just being projected. In time, our relationship to the display begins to shift. We don’t cling so much to it. We maybe still laugh or cry, but more for the release and genuine humanness of laughing or crying, hopefully not so much because we are freaking out about the show. But that will happen too, and even that’s ok.



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