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Genjokoan 2017 - Talk 5

By Norman Fischer | Feb 01, 2017
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: Dogen
Norman gives the fifth talk in the Genjokoan 2017 series to the Dharma Seminar.
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Genjo Koan Talk 5

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

February 1, 2017 

Transcribed by Anne Johnson. Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager. 

Let us return to Section 8 in Nishiari Bokusan’s commentary. It’s such an important passage that we can’t look at it too often.

Dogen Zenji says:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In early Buddhism, Atman or self is refuted. The Buddha taught non-Atman, non-self. So it’s somewhat perverse of Zen to use the term self in a positive way. But Zen uses the word self in a different way. There are many expressions in Zen: true self, original self or original face, true person. So he says “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”

NIshiari Bokusan comments:

This is related to the previous line, “When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.” Dogen Zenji’s intention is to demonstrate the daily course of practice-enlightenment. Here again there is the dynamic interplay between the self and the myriad dharmas.

To study the self is to forget about the self. If you really want to study the self, you plunge the self into its surroundings. Then the self is forgotten and made real by everything else. And when that happens, attachment to self, self-worry, self-obsession, self-protection melt away, and everything arises and passes away without any obstructions. The daily course of practice-enlightenment, then, is to give yourself to every activity. Whether it’s standing or walking or listening or speaking, you just plunge into the activity. In that way, you are studying the self by forgetting the self through merging with everything around you.

Nishiari Bokusan says:

It is essential in the practice to “fully experience one dharma.” In whatever practice, it is good to solidly master one dharma. When we fully experience the self, it is not betrayed by myriad dharmas. When we fully experience myriad dharmas, the self drops off spontaneously.

The expression “body and mind drop away” always struck me as a drastic expression, conjuring up psychedelic images of floating in space. But I think dropping away means not clinging to the self, not identifying with it, so that body and mind can have some freedom, some lightness and ease.

In Zen monasteries every activity is practiced in that way. Monks are always cleaning and wiping down the wood, wiping the floor and dusting everything.  This is a practice of being super present with everything you do. Classical Zen training is associated with manual labor.

I know when I plan my day, I don’t think of housework as taking time, because we don’t even pay attention too much. But in classical Zen training, that’s all you do! You cook the meal and clean up. And it’s easier to practice what he is saying here in the case of housework, but you could practice it when you are reading a book, or when you are speaking, or when you are solving complex problems. That’s what Nishiari Bokusan means. That’s how to study the self: to plunge into activity and let everything around you be who you are.

If you surrender [to your activity] and throw your entire body into the Buddha’s house, today’s practice of walking, abiding, sitting, and lying down is done from the side of Buddha.

This is another description of forgetting the self. You throw your body and mind into the house of Buddha. Most of our activity, quite unconsciously, is about How am I doing? Am I looking good or doing well? Getting what I want? That would be the opposite of throwing the activity into the Buddha’s house, where we are plunging into the activity to be present in the activity. So even when we are just walking, could we plunge into the Buddha’s house?

Nishiari Bokusan says, “The intimacy of practice lies here.” Our self-evaluation and self-concern is actually distancing. We are setting up a barrier. The sky is talking to us. The earth is talking to us. It would be the most intimate and wondrous experience, but we put up a barrier. How’s it going? How am I doing? Am I not looking good? Is it not going well? All that everyday experience is a barrier to the intimacy of practice.  

The intimacy of practice lies here. Only then does the self stand alone, at one. When having a meal, you thoroughly become a meal, forgetting yourself in the meal. At the time of zazen you do zazen single-mindedly. This is to forget the self.

Only when we practice each moment of time as the entire time and each dharma as the entire dharma do you know the intimacy of the self and myriad dharmas.

Dogen says,  

When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.

This is a contrast between how it is in the beginning when you first start practice, and what  happens when you merge with the teaching and practice in accord with it.

Nishiari Bokusan comments:

When the self is in the midst of the original path, without confusion, and without topsy-turvy views, without increase or decrease, and without mistakes, there is not one thing that is lacking. To seek for enlightenment outside of this is already being far away from the environs of dharma.

What makes you far away, Dogen says, is that “you imagine you are far away.” You come to practice, and you think that there is something that can be obtained. The actual place of practice is not seeking anything. It is just plunging into your life, just being your life. As soon as you arouse the idea of seeking for something, you are thousands of miles away.

This might seem like a problem, because if we didn’t seek for something, we wouldn’t do the practice. And if we do the practice without urgency, then how are we going to have full commitment to the practice?

Nishiari Bokusan says:

But we should be aware of the tendencies of beginners to say, “It’s not good to seek for dharma, so I will not pursue it.” Don’t make this mistake. Dogen Zenji says this from the viewpoint of the original thusness of dharma. It is not possible to perfectly fit with dharma at the beginning of our practice. So not seeking dharma is out of the question. You must endeavor with urgency.

This is the paradox at the heart of this text and at the heart of the whole proposition of Dogen’s style of Zen. You come looking for something, and the very looking is the problem. Since there is nothing to look for, you logically think, I got what I came for, so I may as well leave. But no, tremendous effort is required, not only for a while, but forever. And that effort is what you are looking for in the first place.

Dogen says that practice is enlightenment and enlightenment – the goal that we are seeking – is the practice. And effort is necessary, but effort without desire. This is effort not coming from a feeling of lack or a feeling of incompletion, but coming from a place of appreciation and delight.

Now we’ll turn to Uchiyama Roshi’s commentary on Dogen. Dogen’s verse is:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

Uchiyama Roshi comments:

The self Dogen Zenji talks about is not ego in terms of egoism. This is the self as jinissai-jiko (all-interpenetrating self) that is the reality of life prior to separation into dichotomies such as self/other or subject/object.

Using this definition of self, that is, prior to dichotomies, what would it mean to study the self? By definition, any experience that we have is in the context of the dichotomy of self and other. We could say that there is a small, egotistical self, and the large self beyond dichotomies. Our egotistical self would be a vehicle for touching our bigger self. We are usually obsessed with our small self, but here it it is a question of using it as an avenue for the larger self.

Uchiyama’s next comment is a really profound and beautiful teaching:

Concretely speaking, we should accept everything as the contents of our “self.” We should meet everything as a part of ourselves. “To study the self” means to awaken to such a self. For instance, many people visit my house or write me letters. Many of these people talk or write about their troubles and anguish and ask for my advice. I never feel troubled by such requests. As soon as I am asked about such troubles, they become my own. I meet people and problems in such a way. As long as I have such an attitude, these problems are my own.

If I reject other people’s problems saying, “That’s not my business,” my life becomes poorer and poorer. Therefore, to meet everything, without exception as part of my life is most essential in the Buddha Way. This is what Dogen Zenji meant by saying, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”

That’s really astonishing and quite wonderful. When bodhisattvas help another, they are really helping themselves. So this is admittedly a tremendous challenge. Let’s not kid ourselves here. But this is the vision toward which the bodhisattva path is pointing us.

Dogen writes:

There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

Uchiyama Roshi uses the word “realization,” in this translation, but then he uses the word ungraspable. Why does he use the word realization? I think that Uchiyama Roshi uses it because it’s a fundamental point of practice that transformation occurs. Something actually happens. If you dismiss realization and say There is actually nothing to all of this, then you scratch your head wonder What is this whole edifice about?

No, there is something to it, but the something is inherently paradoxical. As soon as you reduce it to a state that is graspable, that’s not what it is. The transformation is by its nature intimate and internal. The only thing we can say is that practice has had a big impact on our lives. Somehow there is a feeling of transformation. It’s like writing a word on the blackboard and then immediately erasing it. Then you can see underneath the erasure some vestige of the word.

Dogen writes:

When we discover that the truth that is already being correctly [inherently] transmitted to us, we are ourselves at the moment of enlightenment.

Suzuki Roshi comments on Dogen’s teaching:

“When we discover that the truth has [has been] been transmitted inherently,” even before we are born, that is true enlightenment. And we find ourselves in transmitted, inherent Buddha-nature in our practice. That is enlightenment. So, when we discover that the truth has already been inherently transmitted is better. Correctly is not strong enough. Inherently [transmitted] is better. “Inherently transmitted to us”—even before we are born, it was transmitted to us, and when we realize that true nature in our practice, that is enlightenment. The moment we practice with our utmost effort, that is enlightenment.

This implies a profound respect for, almost a reverence for, the life that flows through all of us. That’s buddha-dharma. That’s the highest possible, most valuable thing. Suzuki Roshi is talking about the absolute value of our lives.

So that means that we are appreciating our humanness. And that means all of it, even the bad part of it – our passions, our attachments. As Dogen says in this text, “Deluded throughout delusion.” We appreciate that we are Buddha and everyone is Buddha.

This is a beautiful view of humanness, which is completely realistic, because it recognizes all the problems and attachments and suffering as buddha-dharma. We don’t think that bad things don’t happen. Bad things do happen. Just look around. So it’s not that we are naively thinking that bad things don’t happen. There is faith that even with all the attachment and the aversion and the violence, there is a beautiful love for our own life and the life of every other human being. We have faith in our own life and faith and respect for the life of others. This is a very positive and strengthening view.

I’m saying all this, because in this moment of potential discouragement and drama in the world around us, one could start shouting and really lose track of something like this, which is so true. We do need to remember that we are all in this together. That means without exception everybody is in this together. The only way we get out of it is together.