We’ve been talking about this writing of Zen Master Dogen’s called the Bendowa. The Bendowa is an essay, and it’s followed by, what we would call today, a Q and A. Eighteen questions and answers. We’re getting close to the end of the essay, so I thought I would just read a couple selections from the last part of the essay.
Dogen’s writing can be difficult to understand. In part, he’s writing about things he himself says are an expressible. Words are not going to be sufficient. He knows that and he’s doing his best. He’s relatively fearless in that regard. And I think that’s why we still refer to his works. That’s why they have value – that fearlessness.
This section begins like this: “There is the path through which unsurpassed awakening of all things returns to the person in zazen, in sitting meditation, and whereby, that person and the enlightenment of all things intimately and imperceptibly assist each other.” A bit farther down he on, “At this time, because earth, grasses, trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the Dharma realm in ten directions carry out buddha work. Therefore, everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning and are all imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of Buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.” But then he says, “However, these various mutual influences do not mix into the perception of this person sitting because they take place within stillness without any fabrication and they are enlightenment itself. If practice and enlightenment were separate, as people commonly believe, it would be possible for them to perceive each other.” We’re trying to come to grips with that in some way. Dogen is always talking about you and your practice. He’s always addressing the individual. This is always on that level. But he seems to be mixing up stuff. I mean, he’s talking about zazen and what’s going on there and seemingly trying to help us establish and attitude toward this practice. But then he starts talking about pebbles and tiles and water movement and things that seem to be sort of out there, outside. So he seems to be mixing up the inside and the outside. Which reminded me of one of my favorite little selections from Shunryu Suzuki’s book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” which I referred to at the beginning of the sitting, where he talks about breathing. Of course, attention to the breath is a basic part of meditation practice. Suzuki talks about when you breathe in, the air from the outside comes inside, and when you breathe out the air from the inside goes outside. The image I love is this little swinging door in your throat and just picturing the swinging door swinging one way and then the other way as you breathe in and out. But he says, “Actually, the air inside and the air outside are all just air. They’re all one air. They’re not separate.” What we call “I” is just this swinging door moving back and forth. So again, Shunryu Suzuki is trying to talk about things that are essentially inexpressible. Dogen’s passages reminded me of that image. Inside and outside.
And another passage that comes to mind is the very beginning of the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada is a compilation of the earliest recorded sayings of the historical Buddha. So this goes back, I mean we think Dogen was a long time ago, but the Buddha lived 1700 years earlier, before Dogen. Dogen was only 800 years ago so Dogen’s a lot closer to us. It starts off like this: “All experience is preceded by mind. Led by mind. Made by mind.” We all kind of know this but it’s easy to forget that all of our experience, all that we perceive is filtered through mind. We can’t really perceive anything out there without it passing through that filter. I think, to me we’ve all had the experience of having something happen that’s traumatic or that puts you in a bad frame of mind. Maybe you get mugged and robbed on the street. There for a while, the world seems like a dark and threatening place. It changes everything. You perceive people differently. Perceive yourself differently. As someone more separate. As someone more in need of protection. Whereas, if you have an experience where somebody does something nice for you, that changes things the other way. Everything seems a bit more colorful and lively. Or if you’re in love, everything just kind of transforms. Things are just better. More colorful. More alive.
And then in a more concrete way, the way our mind perceives things can have a very direct effect on what’s out there. At least over time. For example, it’s going to be 122 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona today. We’re getting off relatively easy here in Missouri. I don’t think anyone, well, very few people would argue that we don’t have anything to do with that. So this historical perception of humans that the ocean and the atmosphere are just limitless repositories for our waste, changes things out there.
Those readings brought to mind, at least for me, some of these connections between inside and outside and how, when that swinging door is stuck and we feel closed off then it’s associated with suffering, alienation. I think we’re all familiar with those feelings. But the free movement of that swinging door – I believe is what Dogen is encouraging us to cultivate in practice.
Now, there are some other sections that go on talking about grasses and trees, along similar lines. But Dogen finishes the essay part of the Bendowa with this short paragraph:
“You should know that even if all the Buddhas in ten directions, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River, together engage the full power of the Buddha wisdom, they could never reach the limit or measure or comprehend the virtue of one person’s zazen.” Which speaks to a theme in Dogen’s writing which is recurrent, that of the primacy of your practice, and how yes, there maybe all of these wise men and women over the ages that seem to dwarf us in our attempts. But none of that is as important as sitting down, adjusting your posture, making an effort, focusing on breath, not grasping and not pushing away. That’s how Dogen concludes that portion of the Bendowa. Maybe we’ll go over some of the questions and answers in future Saturdays. I wonder if there are any comments or suggestion related or unrelated to what we’ve been talking about.