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Dogen's Guidelines for Study of the Way Part 5 - Talk 7 Mar de Jade April 2013

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 10, 2013
Location: Mar de Jade
In topic: Dogen
Norman gives the seventh talk of the Mar de Jade April 2013 Sesshin on Dogen's Guidelines for Study of the Way (Part 5) as found in Moon in a Dewdrop by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
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Study of the Way – talk 5

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum an Cynthia Schrager


 I have been thinking about what Dogen says about listening to the words of a teacher. When we first hear dharma words, they might sound strange. It doesn’t sound like what we believe, what we know, or what we are used to. We might not agree, and we might not even like it. Somehow the words echo something inside of us, so we don’t reject them altogether, but, also, we should not believe them.

 The Buddha was very clear on this point. There is a famous early sutra of the Buddha in which he says, Don’t believe me. See for yourself. So when you hear dharma words, you investigate for yourself. But you don’t just investigate with your critical mind and your thinking. Also, you investigate with your body and with your breath and with your whole life. You investigate with the things that happen to you in your life. Then, when you hear the dharma words, then you can really see them, and the truth in them hits you immediately. So many Zen stories say that so-and-so said such-and-such, and then the disciple heard these words and was awakened. What this means is that the disciple investigated for a long time, and then the words became the disciple’s own words.

 Here is the part that I think is very funny: when you hear the dharma words, it feels like you always knew them. It doesn’t feel like you just learned something new.  It feels like you are remembering something. You are remembering something that you always knew, but that you had forgotten. That is something that is really beautiful, something that echoes from the past in you in these words.

 Now we are up to the seventh point in Study of the Way:

 Those who long to leave the world and practice buddha-dharma should study zen.

Among all the different ways there are in the world, the buddha-dharma is the best.  That is why people love it and come to practice it.

When the Buddha lived in the world there were neither two teachers nor two masters.

 Remember when the Buddha was a little baby, he said, “I alone am the world-honored one.” He said this when he was born. So, there was only one Buddha.

The buddha guided people from his own awakening.  He held up a flower. Mahakashyapa saw the flower and smiled. That is the first transmission of the Buddha teaching from awakening to his first disciple.

 That is a really famous story in Zen: the first transmission of dharma from one to another. Mahakashyapa, who saw the flower, transmitted it to another person, then to ninety-two generations, and then to the present generation. Of course, Dogen didn’t know about ninety-two generations.

 Ever since this first transmission, there have been twenty-eight generations in India, the six generations in China, up to the Sixth Ancestor pounding the rice.

 After the Sixth Ancestor in China, there was transmission from many people to different lineages and generations. Dogen is writing as the first generation in Japan.

 All of this is a direct passing on of this awakening of the Buddha, without any gaps.

It is very important and central to the Zen way of practice that the mind of the Buddha is handed on from person to person. It is not some big truth in the sky, some big, abstract truth.  It is a truth between people, person-to-person, face-to-face, hand-to-hand – through human relationships.

When the dharma is passed on, there is perfect harmony in this relationship, even though it is between imperfect people, who recognize each other’s imperfections, but love each other and trust each other anyway. When you come to the place where you trust one other human being, not trusting the person exactly, but trusting the awakening that is the person’s life, then you trust yourself. I mean, you really trust yourself, which is not an easy thing to do. When you really trust yourself, then you trust everyone. Everyone. Even the untrustworthy ones. You trust them to be untrustworthy, and you love them anyway. There are no fighting and no problems.

Because it has been passed on like this, person-to-person, generation-to-generation in this way, everyone recognizes the virtue of dharma and pays respect to it. If you see the dharma, you should really love it. But don’t be like Master She, when he saw the dragon.

 This is a funny story in the Chinese classics. Master She loved dragons. He had a collection of paintings of dragons, he had little dragon statues everywhere, probably his official seal had a dragon on it, probably he had dragon teacups. Hearing how much he loved dragons, a dragon appeared at Master She’s window. He stuck his head through his window. Master She freaked out and fainted. 

So don’t be like that, Dogen says. Don’t be a big fan of buddha-dharma and have buddha-dharma teacups and buddha-dharma paintings. When you see the buddha-dharma, practice it and don’t faint.

In the countries east of China, the net of [written] scriptural teachings covers the oceans and pervades the mountains. Although it pervades the mountains, it doesn’t have the spirit of the clouds. Although it covers the oceans, it lacks the spirit of the waves.

Clouds and waves stand for the actual dharma, the living dharma that is passed between people. This is in contrast to what you read in the scriptures, which might be perfectly good teaching, but is not alive. Yet, people get very attached to the written teachings. 

It is like holding up a fish eye and thinking it’s a jewel. It is like taking a pebble from Mt. Yan, thinking it is a diamond. (Mt Yan must be a place where stones look like jewels, but they are not.)

 Even worse, sometimes people cling to the written teachings and fall into a demon’s pit. (They have a hard time, because their practice is not living practice.)

 In a poor, distant country, like we here in Japan, mistaken teachings easily spread, and it is difficult for the true teaching to exist. Although in China there is true dharma, in our country and Korea, we do not really have the right teaching. Why is that? At least in Korea, they heard the name of the true teaching, but in our country, we have not heard the name of it yet. The reason is that in the past, Japanese teachers who went to China only brought back scriptures and not the true teachings. (Although they did a great job transmitting the scriptures of the buddha-dharma – and the scriptures are true – they forgot the actual living dharma itself.)

 It’s like having a beautifully written book about lunch, with all the recipes and even photographs of the food, but you don’t get to eat lunch! You just get the book. There is no nourishment in the book.

 This is really terrible. There is no benefit here. This is because they did not have the key to open the way. What a pity!

 When you first enter the gate and study Buddha’s way, listen to the teacher’s instructions and practice in the way you are instructed. When you do that, you will find out the secret. You will find the key. Here’s the key: dharma turns you, and you turn dharma. That’s the part they forgot. When you turn dharma, you are in the lead, and the dharma is following you. When dharma turns you, then the dharma is in the lead, and you are following the dharma. Without this key, you cannot figure out how to practice the way.

 So dharma actually works like that, but the people who only transmitted the text did not get that point. Dogen is saying that the people who transmitted the scriptures saw the dharma as something external to them. This is how we all look at it, right? The dharma is something external to us; it’s not ourselves; it’s something else. It’s something outside of us: a special teaching, a set of ideas, a meditation practice that we can learn, an experience that we can have. All of these things are outside of us.

 No, it is not outside of us. It’s not inside of us either. It is inside and outside. The dharma turns you, and you turn the dharma. In other words, you have to follow the dharma. You have to let the dharma shape your life. That means that, in a way, you have to give up your life and follow the dharma. Then also, dharma becomes yours, and you will express the dharma uniquely in your own way, through your own life. In that way, the dharma is following you. The dharma becomes changed and renewed because of your unique life and your unique expression. That’s how the dharma comes to life. The dharma cannot come to life in the clouds or in outer space. It comes to life in life. There is no life without living beings. There is no life in the sky. For its life, the dharma depends on living beings. It depends on us.

 People practicing Zen understand this key. That’s why everybody should practice Zen and nothing else.

 When Dogen says this – in other places he is very clear – he does not mean the Zen School. He does not mean that everybody should quit Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity and always join with Zen Buddhists. He doesn’t mean that.  What he means is this special way of understanding our life, the depth of our human life, which you can find in Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, or no religion – just a way of being in life. He is saying that in the Zen School, we recognize this and focus on this very explicitly.


Point 8: The Conduct of Zen Monks.

 Probably, in this text, Dogen is addressing monks and nuns. But when we read this, we understand that it is about us, because we are just as serious as monks and nuns about our practice. We even could be as serious!

 The conduct of Zen monks has been directly handed down by the buddhas for twenty-eight generations in India, six generations in China, without adding a single hair, without leaving out a single atom.


It is important here that he says “conduct.” He is not saying the teachings or the understanding, because for Dogen, it is important to practice the conduct of the buddhas and ancestors. The teachings and understanding go along with the conduct. By conduct he means precepts, traditions, rituals, practices and chanting. Even though Dogen has such a big understanding, he was, at the same time, transmitting very specific things.

 In the middle of the night, the robe was given to Huineng, the rice-pounder. Since then, it has spread widely. Right now, it is very strong in China.

 You cannot find this dharma by searching around. You can’t find it by thinking about it or willing for it to be so.

 In other words, the usual ways we have of understanding and studying and mastering things don’t work. When you really understand, knowledge disappears. When you really take it into your life, it goes beyond your life.

 Once a face was lost on Mt. Huangmei. Once someone lost an arm at Shaolin. When you attain the marrow and turn your mind around, your real life begins. When you make a prostration, instead of stepping outward, you step inward; you trip and fall into the realm of great ease.

 Here he is referring to many Zen stories: the lost face is Huineng; the lost arm refers to one of Huineng’s disciples; attaining the marrow is about a story of a disciple of Bodhidharma. In a way, we could skip all these details, but the reason I mention this is because for Dogen, these are just like the stories of the Bible for us. We grow up knowing these stories. In some cases, we wish we could forget them, but we grow up knowing them. When we read Dogen, we also come to know these stories. Because I have been studying Dogen for forty years, I read stories over and over again, and they become part of my culture.

 We need to think about this for ourselves. We will never be Chinese. The stories that formed us and gave us our culture will always be in us. It would be a mistake to forget those stories or escape them. It’s also important to realize that the dharma has stories and a culture that goes with it. Nowadays people say, Let’s forget about all that. Let’s just take the essential thing out of Buddhism. We can get that, and that is all we need.

 When you have the whole of a culture and all of the parts of it, it is an integrated whole. But you can’t be Chinese. You can’t be Japanese. So what are we going to do? We are, little by little, day by day, creating our own Buddhist culture where we live. In the end, we should not ignore the details about all these stories. In the end, we have to study Buddhism. At least, some of us do, so that somebody knows a little about the culture of Buddhism.

 Dogen just gave examples of people who fully lived the dharma. Then he says:

 However, in body and mind, nothing remains. There is nothing to attach to, and there is no way to stand still, and there is no way to stagnate. (Like clouds and waves: always moving, always changing, always living.)

 A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” Zhaozhou said, “No.” (In Japanese, “mu.”)

 I think “moo” is what the cows say in the United States, I don’t know what the cows say in Mexico. [Someone tells Norman that cows say “moo” in Mexico.) Oh! Cows also say “moo” in Mexico. Another time,when a person asked the same question, Zhaozhou says, “Yes.” This tells us that this mu doesn’t mean no. I think that most of you have heard that this is one of the main practices in Rinzai Zen, to sit and breathe this word to yourself. They use the Japanese word, even though they don’t speak Japanese. You could use the English or the Spanish word, “No.”

 You could ask the same questions like this, Am I alive? No. Then sit with that. Am I alive? No. Because you are alive, but also dead. That’s impermanence, no? You are born every moment you die. To understand this point is the main thing. That’s why it is such an important practice in Rinzai Zen. To feel deep in your heart that this is really true, that we are all alive and we are not.  And when we know that we are not alive, we can really be alive. Until we know that we are also not alive, we cannot really be alive yet, because we do not understand the truth of our life. We are here and not here at the same time. We come from nowhere and go back to nowhere. This is who we are. This is what that question is about.

 Beyond this one word, mu, there is nothing to measure and nothing to grasp. There is nothing to hold onto.


This is the same teaching as the Heart Sutra. We have eyes and no eyes; we have ears and no ears; we have perception and no perception. Everything is empty of anything to be grasped, which means that everything is absolutely free, without limits, open, spacious.  This is how we want to learn to live.

 Dogen says:


Please try to let go, because you are holding on to what you don’t have. That’s why it is so painful. So let go. When you let go, look at your life. What is your body? What is your mind? What is your conduct? What is birth? What is death? (It is written as one thing: birth/death.) What is buddha-dharma? What are the worldly laws? What are mountains? Rivers? The earth? Human beings? Animals? Houses? Let go and investigate all these things. When you really look, you see there is no motion and there is no stillness. Nothing is fixed. People don’t see this, and they lose track of themselves.

 All of you who study the way will, for sure, become awakened in the course of your study. (You will, guaranteed by Dogen.) Even when you do, don’t stop there. Keep going. This is what I pray.

 It is a beautiful prayer by Dogen. He cares so much that people see this.