Maintaining Our Dharma Position


I want to talk about maintaining our “Dharma Position,” a phrase from Dogen’s Genjokoan that we’ve touched on recently. What can this mean?

There can be numbers of ways to interpret it. In zazen, we practice just sitting still and settling. Dogen said that all Buddhas and ancestors discovered the importance of this, that zazen is the primary gate of ease and joy. In a simple, direct way, we already recognize that being still and actually being present with what arises there is occupying our position, and we see the need for this.

This simple practice can appear to lead us into tangled thickets. Some traditions including Zen can be interpreted to teach that somehow we have to defeat the idea of a separate self, that the goal is some kind of “merging with the infinite” and killing off the ego, or something like this. In some psychological circles, there is a threat described upon entering the wisdom road of a “pre/trans fallacy”; meaning, we can mistake reverting to a womb-like pre-consciousness for being nakedly present with what is. We can also mistake being “nakedly present with what is” with just being narcissistic or insensitive to the integrity of other creatures and the whole. We constantly find ourselves negotiating situations like this. How can we possibly “do” it all? In short, especially if we are here engaging in this practice, we realize we can’t.

In zazen, for a few minutes we release from (let’s call it) the “left-brain”’s compulsive need to adjust, fix, cope, judge, compare, strategize, and do. We draw back our projections; we turn around our light, and shine within. Our vow and our refuge prayer is the recognition that at all levels relatively speaking we are small, fallible, and fundamentally insecure. Zazen is our courageous expression of the vital basic goodness that keeps on flowering despite the vagaries and whims of our thoughts and moods, our perceived strength or weakness. It is in this way an “other power”, a devotional practice. It’s a kind of total prayer, beyond even our idea of what we think we need or want.

So Dharma Position can just be respectful presence. As Joe has been talking about recently, “emptiness” is the recognition of impermanence and inter-being; “suchness” is gently but actively occupying our own Dharma Position. What I want to touch on briefly is when we slip, and how we right ourselves, particularly interacting with others. This is often where it gets most tricky. People can sit a lot of zazen and still be pretty insensitive or unskillful in different ways. A capacity to sit still (or achieve in any realm) is no predictor of wisdom or functional compassion, and no measure with which to judge or be judged. And judgment itself can get us into trouble.

I have fallen in love with the term, “taking care of my side of the street.” Maybe this is a practical way to think about Dharma Position. A couple weeks ago, I got a couple of emails from someone who has come to zazen here and heard me share just a couple of times. We haven’t spoken; we don’t know each other. However, he informed me that for mine (and the sangha’s) benefit, he had a number of suggestions for me to incorporate not just into into my speech, but also my thoughts, my feelings, and even my personality in order for me to be by his estimation a Better Buddhist.

There are some problems here, and most of us can probably hazard theories as to what those are. While it’s not as if he didn’t potentially have something helpful to contribute, I think we can say he failed to take care of his side of the street; he didn’t maintain his position. How do I know this? Simply because it’s clear he’d spent considerable time and energy assessing my position, necessarily only from his position, and without asking any questions took it upon himself to fix me. I think every single human over the age of 5 can relate to this, having likely experienced both ends of this scenario. Haven’t we all tried to fix someone, or experienced an unwanted attempt at being fixed?

Now, we need to help each other. But maybe first, we call over and ask if help is desired. We see that if we sweep our sidewalk, and rake our drive, and clean our windows it becomes more possible for others to give rise to the idea that they might tidy up a bit as well. And if we have a car in the yard, and some chickens, well that’s good too.

Joe and I wear the most gear, we flap our gums the most, so we naturally end up with a bit of a target on our backs. In a monastery, people wear all these robes and shave their heads so personal eccentricity is minimized. Here, the robe wearers might look to some people like Futsacutsas of the Kaminstram (an old burlesque phrase): muckity mucks who know a thing or two, see. That periodically uncomfortable pressure is something that we have chosen for now to negotiate as a part of our own practice. That’s just our “karma.” With direction from my teacher, I see my own function as a robe-wearer to simply help make a place for zazen to be available – that’s the bottom line.

The robe wearers here are not scholars or experts. We aren’t psychologists or gurus. I am an artist with anarchistic leanings, Joe is a lefty Dead-head scientist, and we’re both just people who love Dogen’s presentation of zazen. Zazen is a simple practice. It’s not hard to create the space. We put out the cushions, we put up the picture of Suzuki roshi and light a candle to establish our direction, we assume our Dharma Positions, and everyone makes zazen available to everyone else. One person this way or that is not a deal breaker, me or anyone.

From a basic sort of standpoint, there’s really no problem anywhere in the whole universe. I am addressing this communication issue only because it is an expedient means to explore how we each can support zazen, and as such I feel real gratitude for it. If you are sitting here judging how me, Joe, or anyone else is sharing or expressing themselves (bowing, sitting, chanting, or speaking), the teachings are pretty clear that you are not actually supporting zazen. You are simply delaying entry into an appreciation of your own life. You are actually abandoning yourself.

Time spent judging others is pretty much wasted time; “scratching your left foot when your right foot is itching” was how my first Zen teacher used to put it. What we really want, in this room and maybe in this life, is to cultivate appreciation. Dogen described this appreciative mind of Zazen as three-fold: Joyful Heart-Mind, Parental Heart-Mind, and Magnanimous Heart-Mind. This doesn’t mean we lose our wits, or expect to gush love over everyone we meet. These both can be failures to maintain our position, to stay on our side of the street. Having healthy boundaries is maintaining our position and supporting zazen. Zazen mind is appreciation mind. Appreciation mind is a sober mind, focused on taking good care its side of the street, or say, its cushion.

We get so many opportunities to investigate ourselves practicing with other people, interacting with other people, and non-interacting with other people, as in zazen. I think a zazen-like approach to interacting with others is, first and foremost, to increase our capacity to accept ourselves. That actually could be the whole thing. If we accept ourselves completely, then we naturally will know when to avoid or extract ourselves from certain people or situations, how to interact with others, how to respect their boundaries and respect our own.

However, most of us have sustained some damage along the way, and whether through nature or nurture have some habitual tendencies that cause us to suffer unnecessarily, and to cause suffering. Circumstances can get complex, and things change. We struggle at times to accept ourselves, and others. So we need to be quite careful with each other and with ourselves, without being too precious. We need to risk a little, and we need to retreat a little, and develop a mental/emotional posture that can help us make those moves on time, with help from good friends who share this direction. We also continue to develop skills. I am working myself on doing three specific things, communication-wise: asking more questions, detaching from stories, and making simple requests.

I almost guarantee to the degree we are concerned with fixing other people, we are neglecting something in ourselves. That’s the trade off; personally, it can be quite a heavy price to pay. We can even drag people down with us, or be dragged down. Healthy families, communities, even cultures can dissolve because of the failure of individuals to maintain really quite simple, healthy boundaries. I feel good about our loose little community, because people are just being sincere and semi-consistent and supportive of each other. Integrity is being respected and supported; we get a taste of that here, and see what we can pay forward. I mostly only see people thankful for the chance to come to this relatively safe space and have a place to practice appreciation and non-judgment. I want this for you, and I want this for me. I feel really quite supported in my own practice inquiry, and request your ongoing support for the individuals that comprise the sangha, including (first and foremost) your own truest self.



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