Dogen's Continuous Practice
Talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer June 27, 2010
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
In Zen practice a lot of people find that the way we talk about the practice is very strange and paradoxical, because, in general, the understanding of Zen practice is that there is no practice, although on a day like today, we bow, we chant a sutra, we offer incense, and we sit on a cushion in a particular way. In other words, we have very specific forms that we do that you could say are the practice, but the actual understanding of all of these things is they are just one way of articulating our life. Our life is actually the practice. We chant a sutra, but the attitude actually is that there is nothing more holy in the sutra than there is in the sound of the ocean outside.
Life - real life, lived fully and engaged in with a whole heart - is the practice. That is the way we understand it. We don't think of Zen practice or religious practice as some special, extra, holy something added on top of life. It is just a way to help us appreciate the fact that life is practice. At first we naturally think we're trying to get it all right; but after awhile, most of us do come to feel that life is the practice. At first sitting on a cushion in zazen might seem pretty different from the activity of daily life; but after awhile, we don't really see it that way. Basically we see that zazen is the same as our everyday activity, which also includes breathing, being aware, sometimes not being aware, thinking, sometimes not thinking, being embodied. That's what we do every day in all our activity, and that's also what we focus on in zazen. So when you really come down to it, there's not so much difference.
In Zen the hope is not that we are going to get really good at all these forms - that we are going to be Olympic level meditators, having more robes, and bowing, and looking better bowing. Our hope, I think, for our practice is that we would get to the point where there would be no gap at all between our deepest goodness and our most sacred aspirations, and the way we come across and act in ordinary events every day. However imperfectly we manifest it, we hope to someday be able to do that, and we really understand it that way.
I am saying all this as background to this essay of Dogen's called Continuous Practice. That's what he means by continuous practice. Living our lives like that, with full engagement, with our whole hearts, all the time. That's the theme of this essay. I will read you the opening paragraph:
On the great road of Buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous, and sustained. It forms the circle of the Way, and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment's gap. Continuous practice is the circle of the Way. This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth, the entire sky, in ten directions. Although not noticed by others, or by you, it is so.
So that is the very lofty and beautiful opening paragraph. He uses the phrase, "The great road of the Buddhas." So this tells you that as Dogen understands practice, it is not a destination or a skill. It is a road. It is a way. It is a feeling by which we lead our lives. There is no standard and no template for a human life. Every life arises on the ground of its own conditions. My life doesn't look like your life, and your life doesn't look like mine. But we both have the question, "How do I truly live this life? How do I truly live what I've been given?" That question - that we all answer in our own way, for our own conditions - is the great road.
For Dogen, what's really important is that that great road has been trod in the past by the great sages. He calls them Buddha Ancestors, but it means all the great, wise people of the past - all the wise ones who have discovered the way to live a true, human life - who walked the great road and devoted themselves to walking it continually. There is nothing more wonderful, nothing more significant, for a human life than this great road. It is, as he said, continuous, sustained, and it forms, he says, "The circle of the Way, which is never cut off."
The great road is also reckoned as a circle, because it is not going anywhere, as from point A to point B. We're not getting somewhere or improving on a linear continuum. We're going in a circle! The great thing about a circle is that with every step you take, you are always coming back home. It's the paradox of a circular path that with every step you take, you are literally leaving home and then returning home. Isn't that really the truth? Life comes from nothing, and it returns to nothing. There is no beginning and no ending, though from our small, human view there seems to be a beginning and an ending. In fact, the circle of our larger life is never ending, never cut-off. No matter what we do or don't do, we are always part of this great circle of life.
Then he says,
Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment's gap.
This is Dogen's great insight, his greatest and most characteristic teaching. He is talking about the convention in Buddhism that says that first you start out with the aspiration or motivation to practice. You begin practice when the great aspiration to practice the Way arises in you. The aspiration comes to each of us in one way or another, maybe through a dramatic crisis in our life - a lot of really strong suffering. Sometimes it comes through more run-of-the-mill and vague dissatisfaction with our lives. Sometimes it comes by just some chance encounter, like we took a wrong turn, and we ended up at Tassajara, and, "Oh, that's interesting. I wonder what that's like?" [Laughter] One way or the other, we give rise to the aspiration to practice, and then we practice. This initial aspiration is always considered as something very precious and very much to be prized, because it's the beginning of this endless, circular road.
After we begin, we go on to practice, and this takes awhile, and then we eventually achieve enlightenment - a transformation that makes us different. Radically different. I think the real characteristic of this transformation is that with our awakening it is now impossible for us to go backwards. We can't walk backwards anymore. The only thing that we can do is go forwards in our practice, now with a feeling of benefitting other people. Then, after that goes on for some time, we get to nirvana, when we achieve complete peace and letting go, and there is nothing more to do. I am tracing for you the traditional process. This is the path. This is the circular road that cannot be cut off, and the path one goes on for awhile in this way. One famous text says, "How long do you go on in that way? Ten to the 25th power lifetimes." That's how long it takes to complete this circular journey. So - awhile.
So that is the background. But Dogen is saying that's not how it is. That is way too small-minded, too narrow an understanding of how this works. "Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment's gap." All these stages happen at the same time, he says. So with the initial aspiration, however unclear it may seem at the time, all the rest is already there. Nirvana is already there. This is what Dogen means by continuous practice, this circle of the way. There is no advancing; there is no hierarchy of understanding, of experience. To think so is to miss the most important point about continuous practice. Whether you are in deep samadhi on the fifth day of sesshin on Puget Sound, or downtown at a busy meeting, if you enter that moment of your life with full commitment and full letting go, that is aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, without anything left out. Practice is continuous and perfectly available on every moment. It might not feel that way to us at first, but it will eventually, throughout various conditions, throughout various states of mind. Practice is continuous.
Then he says,
This being so, continuous practice is unstained. [In later translations the word "unstained" is translated as "undivided," because that is what unstained means in dharma. It means "without divisions, without discriminations, not forced by you or others."]
So this is a very subtle and important point. Continuous practice - though I am now talking about it, and you are now listening to me and thinking about these things - cannot be identified with a concept of "continuous practice." It would then become a standard, some kind of measuring stick, which would inevitably become imposed upon you. If somebody else didn't impose it upon you, you would impose it on yourself.
I think that everybody here is an American. Right? Americans generally don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to be oppressed by others. We don't like to follow rules or to have people tell us that we have to do it this way or that way. We don't like others to define us or judge us, although sometimes in religion we allow that. In fact, we even look for it. "Would you please tell me how I should be? Would you please tell me what to do? And then by your authority, I will be sanctioned, and I will know that I am a good person." Sometimes that's how religious life works, right? As independent-minded as we are, we sometimes seek out that kind of oppression.
But, as he says, continuous practice cannot be imposed by others. And it also cannot be imposed by ourselves, because as bad as it might be to be oppressed by others, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it's probably far worse to be oppressed by ourselves. You could always, potentially, get away from the others; but you can be plagued by yourself wherever you go! It's possible that we ourselves are the worst possible taskmasters.
Continuous practice is unstained and undivided. This is a very radical and thoroughgoing thought from Dogen. Think about it. There are no marks, no boundaries, no definitions of continuous practice, because continuous practice is exactly life itself. But it's even more than that. Continuous practice includes death. It includes non-existence too. Whatever you or anyone else would impose from outside will only stain and divide your perfect life of continuous practice. Life is pure, and it is whole, so there is nothing to force here.
When you sit in zazen, as soon as you force yourself, as soon as you try to shove your mind this way or that way, you see that it doesn't work. It just makes things painful. What you need to do on your cushion is the opposite of that. You need to enter this moment and let go of all impositions that come from fear and confusion. You need to take a breath and relax into the present conditions. The whole essence of practicing zazen is forcing nothing. Life, at every point, has its own imperatives, regardless of what you or anyone else has to say about it. Because life is always a much larger category than anything that we think about life. So we know our thoughts and ideas as thoughts and ideas. They come and go. When you sit in zazen, you try not to let your thoughts and ideas tyrannize you. Sometimes you cannot prevent that, and if you can't, at least you know what's going on, and you don't have to be quite as fooled by it as you were before. That's what is so great about zazen. It's such a simple, clear, human situation. There is hardly anything to worry about, except this moment of your life. Zazen makes it very easy for us to finally see this point with clarity.
Then Dogen says,
The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others.
So once you get the hang of all this, and you are simply willing to enter into a moment of sitting in zazen, letting go of your resistances and impositions and your concepts of what is supposed to happen, just giving yourself to the moment of your life, your life and the lives of others are always confirmed. Always. The world of right or wrong, of course, exists on a practical level. There is no living without discrimination and choice and preference. But containing all of that is the larger scope of life itself, existence itself. The feeling of this one, eternal moment of our lives. This is not preference - good, bad, right, wrong.
Giving yourself to this moment of your life is completely good. Completely right. Always, utterly confirmed. You are confirmed, and others are confirmed equally in that moment. All the others. Not some of the others, like "the good Zen others." All the others! What is, is. What happens, happens. This is not a complicated thing. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward, and pretty immense, if you pay attention to it. Always something to be grateful for. Here we are! We did not produce this moment of being alive. We do not have that much talent. We do not have that much power. By being, we are being confirmed.
The second paragraph says,
Accordingly, by the continuous practice of all buddhas and ancestors, your practice is actualized, and your great road opens up. Because of your continuous practice, the continuous practice of all buddhas is actualized, and the great road opens up for them because of you. Your continuous practice creates the circle of the Way. By this practice, the buddha ancestors abide as Buddha, non-abide as Buddha, have attained Buddha mind and attain Buddha, without cutting off.
So, again, this is something that we gradually do come to appreciate as we continue on with our practice. At first it seems that our spiritual practice is about us. "I'm the one who got interested in this. I'm the one who came to do it. It's me on the cushion and my thoughts. I'm the one who is changing. This is my practice." That is how it feels, and that is completely reasonable and genuine. But after awhile it dawns on you that this is not only about me. I'm practicing with other people and for other people. Other people really help me. They really inspire me, and they give me strength. "My practice is not just about me, and these other guys happen to be around. Somehow they are influencing me, and I am influencing them. And they are caring about me, and I am caring about them. That begins to be part of the process for me, and I need to practice with them, and they need to practice with me."
That's what happens as a natural consequence of continuing to practice. Still later, the circle of the Way extends even further. We see that it is not just us and our Everyday Zen sangha friends who are doing the practice. You begin to get it - and, again, this is not an article of faith or belief; this is something that you begin to feel from the inside - that our practice depends on, and is a reflection of, an extension of, the practice of the buddha ancestors.
The Buddha, Dogen, Suzuki Roshi - these are not historical figures of the past, whose teachings we appreciate. After awhile, it actually feels like they are right here. It begins to feel as if we are living their lives in our lives, and that makes our lives feel different. We begin to realize that thanks to them - I mean, this is so strange, but this is what it feels like - we are becoming who we were always meant to be, but never could become! Thanks to them, we could become who we really are meant to be. That's how it starts to feel, and then it makes sense that we would chant the sutra, and we would say, "We dedicate this sutra to Buddha and Bodhidharma and Eihei Dogen and Suzuki Roshi, and all the people who transmitted the teaching from here and there." At first it seems that all religions do this. There is a lot of piety, but after awhile, it is actually meaningful to you. "Thank you, Mr. Dogen! Thank you Mr. Buddha, because it's thanks to you - and the life that I am living that is your life - that I can be free of my smallness and really live my life."
Then Dogen says,
The opposite thing comes into view also. The practice of the ancient sages depends on us.
Think about it. The Buddha's practice, Dogen's practice, Suzuki Roshi's practice is all meaningless without us. Their practice literally does not exist without us. Our activity of the present illuminates the past. It actually creates the past. Without the present, there is no past, just as without the past, there is no present. The past is not objective. It is not an object that exists somewhere that you could go and find. "Where is the past? Is it over here, over there, under the ocean? It is somewhere high up in the sky? Where do they keep it?" Well, it's an absurdity to talk like that, because we all know that the past is not an object that is kept somewhere. The past is always in relation to the present and the future, and it's changing according to the present and the future.
The buddhas and ancestors depend on us. We create their practice. Our lineage papers that we give at ordination and initiation ceremonies express this. If you open up the paper, you see that the Buddha is at the top, and from the Buddha, all the sages come - ninety-two generations down to the present generation - and my name appears, and then your name appears on that paper as the ninety-third generation. Then there is a little line that connects your name to Buddha. If you trace the line, it goes from the bottom of the page, and then it sneaks around and goes all the way back up to the top of the page, and then it comes down to Buddha. So the Buddha is your disciple. That's what it means. Buddha is your student. You are the Buddha's teacher. The Buddha is completely dependent on you for the Buddha's life. The completion and fulfillment of the Buddha's destiny will only come with your life's energy and its effects.
Your continuous practice creates the circle of the Way. By this practice, Buddha ancestors abide as Buddha, don't abide as Buddha, have Buddha mind, become Buddha over and over, and on and on, and it is never cut off. [And all of this depends on us and on our continuous practice of the present.]
So continuous practice is unstained. It doesn't need us to be continuous practice, but if suffering is to be reduced, our practice is necessary. So we have to do zazen in order to remember continuous practice and to come to love it. It is, as Dogen says, the true place of refuge for everyone. He doesn't mean here that everyone should be doing zazen. No, because the truth is that this kind of practice we are doing will never be something that most of the people in the world will do. It will always be something that a few people will do. But that place in the heart that knows continuous practice, and loves it, and will let go of narrowness and selfishness. That place in the heart that feels confirmed and met and comforted by reality at every point, in all times; that place in our heart that we all have, even though we have desperately lost track of it, that place in the heart is the true place of refuge for everyone.