In his essay, “Mountain and Rivers Sutra,” 13th Century Zen Master Dogen expresses something different from other Zen teachings of his day. He takes other teachers to task.
“Others have it wrong,” he says, “They are not seeing the wholeness of reality. They are seeing it only partially.” Dogen learned this from his Chinese teacher Rujing. He is not making it up.
The main difference from other medieval Zen teachings is that, for Dogen, Zen training is not a process with the goal of enlightenment. The Zen path does not go from ignorance to knowledge, from unenlightenment to enlightenment. Dogen saw Zen training as a practice, a way of living life fully every day. For Dogen, enlightenment is present in every single moment. It is not a special moment where you suddenly have an “aha” experience that you have been seeking. It is simply whole-hearted participation in every moment, without anything left out. To Dogen, Zen practice is enlightenment and it’s happening right now. It isn’t something that happens later.
We are already enlightened, we just don’t know it. And because we don’t know it we live in way that is destructive and that cuts us off from true intimacy. We come by this alienation honestly. It’s in our education, our culture, our society and our families. It’s normal to have made the mistake of trying to add something to what is already here, but it is still a mistake.
In other words Dogen believed that we have not appreciated what life actually is. Zen practice is nothing more than appreciating life as it is, and then living it fully every moment. But the culture of self-improvement conditions us to look for something we don’t already know or understand, to look beyond this moment for something that we don’t already possess. Because of this tendency, we are always looking at things with desire and expectation.
But Dogen says “No. Right now, step inside our life and let go of all conceptual frameworks that alienate us from ourselves and each another. Just enter life right now. Feel the awesome presence of our senses, our bodies, our minds/hearts, and emotions. Feel how, right now, our human experience is literally awesome, and don’t look for something more to complete what is already complete.” But we don’t’ believe this and are always looking for something more that what we have - something that is missing.
This summarizes the unique approach to Zen that Dogen clearly expressed in “Mountains and River Sutra.” He is not saying that there is no path and no destination; but he is saying that the destination is at every point along the way. We are not marching through time to get to a destination because there is both path and destination in every moment.
Suggested Practice: For the next two weeks, each time you first leave your house, stop for a moment, raise you eyes to the mountains that surround Creston and wonder at their perfection.
For the next year, I will be posting the "Zen's Eye View" columns that I write for our local newspaper, The Creston Advance in this blog. I post two weeks after publication.
Traditional Zen Teaching
I’ve had a month-long break from writing this column and am now ready to start again. I thank you, my loyal readers, for your patience. Many of you have stopped me on the street or in the line-up at the grocery store to ask why my columns have been discontinued. I have been on holiday. My next series of columns will be based in an essay written by Eihei Dogen, a medieval Japanese Zen master who is the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism and taken from the teachings of Norman Fisher on this Sutra. The Creston Zendo, which is now called, Sakura-ji, is a Soto Zen temple in the Silent Thunder Order.
This series of columns will be a little different from the ones I've written in the past. Rather than offering practical advice in a specific way, in this series I will be quoting paragraphs from one of Dogen’ s essays and commenting on their meaning. This is the traditional way of teaching Zen. I will continue to suggest practices at the end of each column, but it may not always be clear how they relate to the column itself.
The text that I will be using is one of 93 essays of Dogen that have been collected in a work called, The Shobogenzo. “Shobogenzo” means, “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” In other words, the essays in the Shobogenzo are Dogen’s attempt to express the reality of the enlightened mind. They are not easy to read because they are full of references to the Zen teachings of the past. Dogen was very well versed in the ancient teachings and referred to them often as he attempted to translate them into a language that his contemporaries would understand. Now, I will be trying to translate Dogen’s medieval essays into a language understandable to we who live in the 21st Century. This undertaking is a humbling experience, but I will do the best I can. The commentary, as I have said, has been inspired by the teachings of Norman Fisher.
Because we live in an area where we are so connected to the mountains and rivers, I have chosen the essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra.” The word “sutra” usually refers to words that the Buddha actually spoke in fifth century BC, when he was alive. His words were transcribed into written documents by his students and passed on through the generations of Buddhist practitioners. In this essay, Dogen, as he often does, uses words in a way that differs from their usual use. In the title of his essay, ”sutra” does not refer to the words of the historical Buddha. Neither is Dogen saying that his essay is a “sutra.” He is making the astonishing statement that the sounds of the mountains and rivers are themselves a sutra; that they perfectly express the essence of the teachings of the historical Buddha. The essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” explains his position that mountains and rivers are teaching us.
Suggested Practice: Take some time to go for a walk, preferably on a mountain trail; listen to the sounds that arise in awareness. As you walk, notice when your mind wanders to the past or future and gently coax your attention back to awareness of sound. Don’t label or analyze; just listen.
These talks are inspired by Norman Fischer.
Imagine, if you will, sitting still for 30 minutes doing nothing but observing how images of the past, plans for the future, the emotions that rise and pass through awareness, and the stories we tell ourselves about those emotions. All this mental activity, appears and disappears in your mind like clouds appear and disappear in the sky. Imagine noticing what arises in your mind without evaluating it, letting it go and then bringing your attention back to your sitting posture, to your breath. When sitting, the sage knows, I am sitting.
Imagine standing up, stretching, and then walking or trotting along a forest trail where the sun speckles the path with light and a redheaded woodpecker tap-a-tap taps on a crusty old pine. Imagine noticing what arises in your mind while walking, and letting it go to bring your awareness back to the motion of hips swinging, weight shifting, the alignment of your spine. When walking, the sage knows, I am walking.
Now imagine coming back from that walk to sit down in a dimly lit room where incense is burning, opening a spiral notebook and letting your pen go, without stopping, as fast as you can, without going back to dot an “i” or cross a “t”, for three ten-minute sessions in a row. Topic, “hot and cold”, 10 minutes, go. Imagine noticing your inner critic, your inner editor, begin to nag you about what you are writing, letting those voices go and then returning your attention to your grip on the pen, the movement of your wrist, the words that are spilling across the page.. When writing, the sage knows, I am writing.
It doesn't sound like much, I know; but this Zen writing practice is magical. The writing that flows in those thirty minutes erupts from a place that is far below the messages of pop culture, family dynamics, education and an array of other social conditioning. Writing Practice (sitting, walking and writing together in silence), takes us below the ideas that others have instilled in us: ideas about who we are and about what we want to do with this minuscule flash of human life. In writing practice, we meet our true selves, unfettered by conditioning.
Writing Practice also releases talent, which is something like a water table that is always there, under habitual thinking. Once we tap into that talent through writing practice, it flows through us. That’s when the magic starts; when we open ourselves to a unique expression of our completely unique selves so sparkling original language can flow effortlessly from an inexhaustible source, through our pen and on to the page. Some have called this “the awakening of the muse.”
Zen meditation is like eating and exercise; you don’t have to like it for it to benefit you. If you eat nourishing foods you support the health of your body whether you enjoyed the food or not; if you exercise regularly, your strength and endurance increase whether you felt uplifted and energized by workout or not. Even if you fidget and wiggle when you meditate, a half hour on the cushion will enhance your state of mind and body. You do not have to have a “good” meditation; nor does your meditation have to produce any insight. Zazen will still result in increased patience, kindness, generosity and discipline. And yet resistance to practice is common.
When the honeymoon period with meditation is over resistance often arises is in the form of boredom. Boredom is actually a stage of development in sitting practice because it is often the excuse we use to decide that sitting is a waste of time; that we can be developing our spiritual lives in a much more dynamic and interesting way. But what if you just sit with the boredom, watch it arise and pass?
Zen Master Suzuki tells the story of teaching a nine year old girl to meditate. After five minutes, she asked, “Is that it?” “Yes,” he answered, “that’s it.” “You just sit here like this?” “Yes,” he answered, “You just sit here like this.” “That’s boring.” The little girl immediately found something more exciting. But we aren’t children. We meditate because we know it’s good for us, and that it will, in the end, bring us enjoyment that is not dependent on pleasure. Boredom in meditation happens when you imagine that your enlightenment is not being realized.
It is crucial to recognize that when you are in a bored state of mind, you are still being controlled by conditioning. However, if you just say, “Okay, so I’m bored. I’ll just sit and be bored,” you are challenging your conditioning. If you are bored with sitting for six months but sit anyway, you have already changed your relationship with your conditioning.
Part of the work of sitting practice is to be watchful for the ways in which our conditioned minds stop us from making the shift from struggling with our resistance to simply sitting. Meditation opens the possibility of wise discernment that allows you to act out of something deeper than conditioning. Our egocentric nature is endlessly creative when it comes to preventing us from true freedom of thought. Over and over again, resistance will arise. Don’t stop meditating, because pretty soon, all resistance will be futile and you will walk through the gateless gate to a new life where sitting does sitting and where you have, in a very permanent way, created a natural space for the deeper parts of your mind to blossom into enlightenment.
Last week my spouse and I dined with some friends: one of whom is an artist. During the appetizers we talked about the moment when small self disappears into the act of creating, and indeed, into the object of creation itself: a painting, a bowl, a new song, or a poem. My friend felt that these moments of creation arise from visitations of a muse, who brings inspiration on her own schedule. I said that it is possible to prepare the mind for the moment of creation through sitting meditation, and that these moments of creativity emerge when we no longer cling to the stability and comfort of what we already know. By sitting and watching our thoughts, sensations, memories and wishes for the future arise and pass, we train our minds to discern when we have softened mental rigidity, stepped out of our conditioning, and entered the realm of limitless possibility.
My best writing happens when I have no idea where the pen will lead. Usually it takes a couple of minutes of moving pen across the page before I drop below inner chatter and land where language is so compressed that words transcend their mundane meanings and take on the glow of truth. In the beginning of a five-day retreat, much of the writing practice that I hear from students is an attempt to “figure things out.” But later in the week, when boredom with habitual thought patterns becomes unbearable, the writing practice drops below that constant internal chatter. Startling combinations of images and concepts begin to emerge: a new insight into habitual psychic pain or pleasure pops up. Art, poetry and music germinate in the fertile void.
Zen writing practice, like sports practice and guitar practice, is an endless repetition of routine. When I started practice I believed that I could master the basics and move on to something else, something less mundane than sitting, walking, writing, working, eating and sleeping. The opposite has happened. Even washing dishes, dusting shelves and sweeping floors have become an art form. Meditation frees us from the human tendency to exhaust ourselves, and our planet, with our relentless drive to seek, secure and consume pleasure and to avoid discomfort at all cost. The human mind is bigger than that. When we live below our conditioned beliefs and preferences, we can relax and enjoy our lives. If we are artists, writers or musicians, we can experience every stroke of the brush, every turn of the pen, every riff of the guitar as a primary act of creation.
A training term at the Creston Zen Center offers lay students an opportunity to immerse oneself in the disciplined atmosphere of Zen training in the midst of family, job, and other normal responsibilities. Under the guidance of Kuya Minogue and her senior students, trainees participate in all the aspects of traditional Zen training, including: commitment to a combined at-home and in-zendo schedule of zazen (sitting meditation), zen chanting, samu (work meditation); attendance at a weekly class in which they will study the teachings and traditional formats of Zen training, dharma talks and other special guidance through one-one interviews with Kuya, the resident teacher. Students are also asked to participate in three weekend and one week-long retreat.
In my recent previous dhaama talks I have presented the first six of eight practices of awakening that Buddha taught on his deathbed: 1) have few desires; 2) know how much is enough; 3) enjoy serenity; 4) make diligent effort 5) remember to be mindful, and 6) Practice meditation. I repeat these practices to help with the fifth practice of awakening, “Don’t forget to be mindful.” In order be mindful of the practices of awakening, we have to memorize them.
The seventh awakening is to cultivate wisdom. It is to listen to the teachings of the eight great awakenings, to contemplate their meaning and how they can apply to daily life. Wisdom is to practice these teachings, and as a result to realize great awakening. The Buddha said, “Monks, if you have wisdom, you are free from greed. You will always reflect on yourself and avoid mistakes. You will attain liberation through these eight practices of which I speak. Indeed, wisdom is a reliable vessel to bring you across the ocean of old age, sickness, and death. It is a bright lamp that brings light into the darkness of ignorance. It is an excellent medicine for all who are sick. It is a sharp ax to cut down the tree of delusion. Thus, you can deepen awakening through the wisdom of listening, contemplation, and practice. If you are illuminated by wisdom, you can see deeper then what your physical eyes can see. You will have clear insight. This is called ‘to cultivate wisdom.’”
In Buddhism, the word for wisdom is prajna, and it is often translated as “wisdom beyond wisdom.” This is to remind us that when we speak of wisdom we are not speaking of the ordinary knowledge that we gather through collecting information, organizing it, analyzing it and evaluating it. These are the skills of a limited human intellect. Prajna is greater than intellectual knowledge or anything we have been taught. It is also greater than the psychological insights we sometimes get.
To cultivate wisdom is to cultivate realization of the truth that all of life is interconnected and that the only sensible course of action is to do no harm, to do only good and to do good for others. Any other act of body speech and mind is rooted in ignorance, the opposite of wisdom, and diminishes all of life.
Wisdom is not adopting a belief or religious creed and then allowing that belief or creed to harden our point of view with inflexibility and rigidity. Wisdom allows us to see the truth of each moment and then flickers with that truth like a flame flickers in a rising breeze. Wisdom cuts away the blinders that prevent us from realizing true enlightenment.
Suggested Practice: Spend the next couple of weeks contemplating your core beliefs. When you identify a longstanding belief, ask yourself, “Did this belief reveal itself to me through wisdom beyond wisdom, or did someone or something condition my mind into believing this?
Meditation is Enlightenment
In my recent “Zen’s Eye View” columns I have presented the first five of eight practices of awakening that Buddha taught on his deathbed: 1) have few desires; 2) know how much is enough; 3) enjoy serenity; 4) make diligent effort and 5) remember to be mindful. I repeat these practices to help with the fifth practice of awakening, “Don’t forget to be mindful.” In order be mindful of the practices of awakening, we have to memorize them.
The sixth practice of awakening is to practice meditation so we can live our lives without confusion. We say “practice” meditation but we must remember that meditation is not a sport like hockey or a skill with a musical instrument. Once the mind has become stable, meditation is the root of a life style that is based in clarity, wisdom and compassion.
The Buddha said, “Monks, if you gather your mind, it will abide in stability. Then you will understand the birth and death of all things in the world. You will continue to endeavor in practicing various aspects of meditation. When you have stability, your mind will not be scattered. It is like a well-roofed house or a well-built embankment, which will help you to maintain the water of understanding and keep you from being drowned. This is called ‘stability in meditation.”
These days I often hear people confusing meditation with mindfulness. This is a mistake. Even though the two have some similarities, they are not the same. To say they are the same is to say that preparing the soil is identical to eating garden produce. Without soil there are no tomatoes. Without meditation, there is no mindfulness.
Ancient texts from China and Japan make it clear that meditation itself is awakening. It’s not something we do to acquire something else. Lowered blood pressure, clarity of mind and increased awareness are simply side benefits of meditation. But they are not reasons we meditate. When we sit in silent meditation, the old texts say, we are living the life of a buddha because we are doing what Buddha did and realizing what Buddha realized.
To meditate is to hear the voice of wisdom within ourselves. Body and mind become clear and we realize the unity of all things. The Buddha sat in meditation for six years, not because he was trying to attain enlightenment, but because he was living in enlightenment. The practice of meditation is not a method for the attainment of realization—it is realization itself because to maintain meditation is to be constantly alive, awake, and aware.
Suggested Practice: Set aside half an hour a day for sitting meditation. Sit with an erect spine either on a meditation cushion, a bench or a chair and allow all thoughts and feelings to arise and pass through your mind like clouds passing through an empty sky.
In my recent “Zen’s Eye View” posts I have presented the first four of the eight practices of awakening beings that Buddha taught on his deathbed: 1) have few desires; 2) know how much is enough, 3) enjoy serenity and 4) Make diligent effort. I repeat these practices each week in order to help with the fifth practice of awakening, “Don’t forget to remember to be mindful.” In order be mindful of the practices of awakening, we have to memorize them.
“Mindfulness” has been a catchword in medicine, psychology and, and even in golf. Everybody and their dog, regardless of their qualifications, are teaching what they call mindfulness. It is usually described in a vague sort of way as “being in the present moment.” Every health practitioner knows that mindfulness practices will lower blood pressure, help with overeating, assist with pain management, enhance recovery from addiction and even make you into a nicer person. These are good and reliable results of mindfulness training, but because of them mindfulness has become just another feel-better fad.
But true mindfulness is about more than feeling better. Mindfulness is a deep spiritual practice that is rooted in ancient Buddhist teachings. The Buddha said, “Monks, for living a fulfilling life and finding good help, there is nothing like remembering not to forget to be mindful. If you practice mindfulness, robbers of desire cannot enter you. Therefore, you should always maintain mindfulness in yourself. When your mindfulness is solid, you will not be harmed even if you go into the midst of the robbers of the five sense desires. It is like wearing armor and going into a battlefield, so there is nothing to be afraid of. It is called ‘not to forget mindfulness.”
Buddha knew the human mind well. He knew that when faced with a strong desire for something that brings temporary pleasure but that harms us, we forget to remember that in the long term going after these temporary pleasures will cause anguish. We get caught up in strong desire for salty/fatty foods or mood changing drugs, for example and lose mindfulness of the first two practices of awakening beings, “Have few desires.” and “Know how much is enough.” Giving into those desires rob us of physical, mental and spiritual well being.
Mindfulness is much more than “being in the present moment.” With true mindfulness we bring the spiritual practices of generosity, kindness, patience, calmness, wisdom and joyful effort into every one of our daily encounters. When we can do this, we fulfill the highest principle of Buddhist teachings, to work for the happiness of others. This is true mindfulness.
Suggested practice: Insert a mindfulness prompt into your day by setting a timer at 40-minute intervals. When the timer goes off, pause and be mindful of one of the first five practices of great awakening. Remember to have few desires, to know how much is enough, to enjoy serenity and to make diligent effort to realize your highest spiritual values.
Undo Kuya is resident Priest at the Creston Zen Centre. She has been training in Zen since 1986.