I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen Zazenkai on April 3, 2021. A video follows the text.
Once, a certain nun asked:
“Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma. As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say we go against the buddha-dharma. What do you think?”
“That is not the correct view. Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are. However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home. This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma. There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home. A layman who has the mind of a monk or a nun who has left home will be released from samsara. A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults. Their attitudes should be quite different. It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely. I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important.”
In my last talk, we looked at this passage in terms of the intention—the mindset and heart-set—Dōgen is encouraging all of us to have, monks and laypeople alike. The nun to whom Dōgen was responding implies that she enjoys some special spiritual status merely because she lives in a monastery, wears religious garb, has shaven her head, prays frequently, and begs for her food.
Dōgen, as you’ll recall, is the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, and this nun presumably would have been living at his monastery. The Zuimonki, the text in which we find this exchange, is a collection of brief talks and instructions Dōgen gave to the monks and nuns there.
Dōgen makes clear that one can do all the things the nun is doing in his monastery without having a genuine aspiration for the Way, and also that one can have a genuine aspiration for the Way without doing all of those things, or doing them all day, every day. Attaining the Way is not about going through the motions. It’s not performative. We attain nothing by doing the things Zen practitioners do—meditation, observing the precepts, and so on—unless we do them with the mindset and heart-set about which Dōgen speaks.
In fact, that mindset and heart-set ultimately require that we drop the idea of attainment altogether. We must drop our self-aggrandizement projects—our projects that are about elevating or enhancing the self—as well as our self-protection projects—our projects that are about avoiding things we believe dimmish the self. This doesn’t mean we should abandon all personal wishes and projects, and that we shouldn’t protect them when they are threatened. We can and should—we must—have our unique personal projects. The world needs us—and what else would each of us be doing here, anyway? It also doesn’t mean we can’t object to mistreatment.
But we’re not seeking the Way if our projects are primarily about elevating or protecting the self; if our goal is to find a safe, exalted place for oneself, expecting to stay there forever. That is a false notion of refuge.
Dōgen’s monastery exists—and, yes, it still exists today—and other monasteries throughout the world exist, in part, because they are pressure cookers for exposing and dismantling our self-enhancement and self-protection projects, and for cutting through our delusion—our ignorance of the true nature of existence. Monasteries are environments purpose-made to nurture, forge, test, and refine a genuine aspiration for the Way.
Dōgen makes clear both that a genuine aspiration for the Way is the key ingredient of Zen practice—the yeast of our practice, if you will—and that we do not need to live in a monastery to have it. Eight hundred years later, we’re finally seeing that notion spread widely through the Lay Zen movement, not unlike what happened during the Christian Reformation. Whether we live in a monastery or an apartment building, however, a genuine aspiration for the Way is about a total shift in one’s disposition.
We focused on the “aspiration” half of the phrase “aspiration for the Way” in my last talk. Today our focus is on the other half of this phrase: “the Way.” What are we aspiring for, or to?
Dōgen says, “[i]t is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult]. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”
The world Dōgen encourages us to abandon is not our physical environment or existence; it is not our present life circumstance. Nor is Dōgen telling us that there is some ethereal, spiritual realm we can enter—that we can peel apart the fabric of existence and slip into another realm, like an actor walking through a slit in the green screen on a movie set that had made us think there was a mountain range in the background.
It’s the Passover and Easter season, so I’ll borrow a biblical metaphor—this one from the Christian scriptures. Dōgen is talking about Saint Paul’s experience reported in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read, “And immediately something like fish scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized” (9:18). In Zen, we would call this kenshō: seeing into our own true nature; experiencing it firsthand. An example from Jewish scripture might be Moses’s encounter with the burning bush. Attaining the Way involves a radical reorientation and renewal of our experience of the world and of ourselves. A disruption of our prior way of knowing and being.
Before this shift, we perceive and orient to experience as a subject in a realm full of objects; things and other beings. It’s a wooden building block view of the world, in which other things and beings are instrumentalized for our own needs and purposes, even when our actions appear to be benevolent. Everything else is a wooden toy block with a brightly-painted letter on it. “A” for apple, “B” for bachelor’s degree, “C” for child, “J” for job, “S” for spouse, and so on. We’re like an oversized infant grasping for some blocks and stacking them ever higher, all the more glory to me, while casting other blocks aside. It’s a world of discrete objects and agents acting on one another. Most everyone else also is orienting to the world in this way, of course.
This view isn’t wrong, exactly. It’s one truth; it’s part of the truth. We run into trouble, however, if it’s all we see. In Buddhist thought, this view is regarded as the Lower Truth, or Lower Reality. If the Lower Truth is our one-and-only-truth, we’re trapped in samsara—endless cycles of self-aggrandizing grasping for blocks and self-protective pushing blocks away, all of which just sustains and compounds needless suffering; our own and others’.
The Higher Truth is emptiness and its correlates: impermanence, interdependence, and no-self. Nothing is fixed or permanent. Everything is dependently co-arising; everything is comprised of and contingent upon everything else. And so all concepts, like self and wooden block, subject and object, ultimately are empty.
Dōgen is encouraging us to earnestly seek the Higher Truth; not as a philosophical idea, as it may seem I am presenting it here, but as our lived experience. The Higher Truth is in our bones; it is our bones. We must seek it there; know and feel it there. “Don’t let your mind slacken,” Dōgen says. Cultivate this aspiration. Orient your whole life toward this.
By the way, one issue I have with the contemporary mindfulness movement is that it emphasizes attention much more than intention. In personal and spiritual maturity, they are essentially the same thing. Early in our journey, however, intention—our aspiration for the Way, having the mind and heart of a home-leaver—is the key thing.
We may get a sudden, powerful insight into our true nature, as Paul did. Sometimes a transformative realization comes quickly. But, as you’ve also heard me say many times before, even if one has such an experience, this knowing in one’s bones almost always develops slowly, over years of practice, if we maintain a genuine aspiration for the Way.
As we absorb the Higher Truth, the fixed sense of subject and object we once had dissolves. Apples are still apples, and children are still children, but now we see all in a new light, and we are much less likely to crassly instrumentalize other things and people, however subtly, and supposedly benevolently or justifiably, we had done so—though, sadly, we are not immune, as sexual misconduct and other improprieties by some contemporary Zen teachers remind us.
From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no Way to attain; or, put differently, we have already attained it and can’t drift from it. From the perspective of the Lower Truth, however, we can lose our way when our aspiration flags, or when we’re deluding ourselves about our aspiration for the Way and how we’re expressing it—and this sometimes happens even to seasoned practitioners. The aspiration to awaken Dōgen encourages us to develop is something he also would encourage us to continually maintain.
Actually, to be fair both to the nun to whom Dōgen responded and to ourselves, most everyone who comes to Zen practice comes with gaining ideas—with self-aggrandizement and self-protection projects, however subtle, that they’re pursuing through practice. In fact, one element of Shakyamuni Buddha’s brilliance as a teacher was to start from our experience of suffering. That’s certainly where his journey began, according to traditional accounts of his life. Who doesn’t suffer, and who doesn’t want to alleviate one’s own suffering?
Unlike many other religions or philosophies, however, Buddhism illuminates how our default ways of trying to escape our suffering—grasping for more of what we think will produce a personal paradise, pushing away what we think prevents us from getting there, relying on dogmatic beliefs, and so forth—tend not to provide lasting relief. Zen offers a different, very practical path to walk. It does so with awareness that we may set foot on that path with distorted ideas about how to end our suffering, and that we may continue to pursue these doomed projects for some time.
The Way to which we aspire is total realization of, and non-resistance to, the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, including this self I’m always talking about. But, again, attaining the Way—one phrase Dōgen uses for what we in the West have come to call enlightenment in Buddhism—is not about grasping this as an idea. It’s ultimately more about forgetting it as an idea. Enlightenment in this sense—Zen’s notion of enlightenment—has little to do with the Enlightenment in the modern West, which tends to elevate rational thought above all other ways of knowing and being. Zen’s notion of enlightenment is not opposed to rational thought in the least, but it is much more expansive, and it is wisely conscious of the myriad ways over-reliance on discursive cognition can trip us up.
Knowing the Higher Truth in our bones is about realizing and living it in, and as, the Lower Truth. In the world of things and beings. Nirvana and samsara are one. This is returning to the marketplace with open hands: the final image in The Ten Ox Herding pictures, which provide a visual metaphor for the spiritual journey in Zen. We forget the Higher Truth, while living it as the Lower Truth.
To have a genuine aspiration for the Way is to have faith in, and orient to, the fundamental wholeness and integration of all things, oneself among them. We are distinct, but we are not separate. We and all phenomena are interpenetrating. Interwoven. Even these words imply too much separateness.
A heart that has attained the Way may want some things “for itself,” so to speak, but this won’t be about self-aggrandizement or self-protection. It’s about being at one with our own karma—another phrase we use for enlightenment. Responding to the cries and joys of the world in ways that make good use of one’s wholesome interests, talents, and potential.
The pioneering Western Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, who died a few years ago, offered his typewriter as an example of what I’m getting at here. Are he and the typewriter existing and paired in some ultimate, permanent sense? No. If you asked to borrow it, might he lend it to you? Yes. If you asked whether you could have it, however, the answer would be no. Aitken Roshi kept his typewriter not out of a selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-protective impulse, but because he needed it to write books that spread the Dharma and helped others experience the liberation he had experienced. Teaching Zen and writing Dharma books, he had attained the Way. He was at one with his own karma.
Being at one with our own karma may well feel good; if so, we should appreciate it. But don’t think you personally will gain merit by virtue of being at one with your own karma. We can’t know whether the nun in our text ultimately was at one with her karma living in Dōgen’s monastery, but the question she asks Dōgen is premised upon the assumption that she gains merit by living as a monastic.
Attaining the Way is simply about leaving home to discover home. As I said last time, across Buddhist regions, leaving home has meant going to live in a monastery, which traditional Buddhist cultures have regarded as the typical way to be “all in” on the path. But Dōgen refigures the phrase in this text, showing us that it’s really about a shift in our disposition, not our residence. Finding ourselves at home, and realizing we never left. For millennia, this is what people have left their physical homes to live in monasteries in order to discover. Isn’t it nice to know we can discover it right where we are?
Let me close by reading that key portion of our text again, and following it with another lovely quote I recently heard:
“It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely [is difficult]. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely.”
Impermanence is swift: faster than the speed of light. Impermanence is light. Impermanence is the solid ground of our being. We should remain constantly mindful of our impermanence. It sounds a bit macabre, perhaps, but this awareness brings the world to life.
We’re evoking mindfulness of our impermanence when we chant The Five Remembrances or the Evening Gatha. Other traditions have similar practices. To return again to Christianity, as tomorrow is Easter—Easter is an interesting word in the context of this talk, isn’t it?: Easter, from East, the direction from which the sun rises. In Christianity, we have the ethic and practice of momento mori, which is a reminder of the inevitability of death.
This word momento also is interesting. Here, it means recalling, or recollecting, but it’s obviously also related to the word moment. “Life-and-death,” all three of these words joined to one another by hyphens, “is the Great Matter,” capital G, capital M, Dōgen tells us. We walk the knife’s edge of life-and-death in this present moment, whether we’re aware of it or not. From the perspective of the Higher Truth, there is no birth and no death. From the perspective of the Lower Truth, life and death are urgent, and very real.
The ethic and practice of momento mori actually originates in classical Greek thought. One example of it in the Christian context would be medieval Christian monks keeping a human skull on their desks—often depicted in art with a worm crawling out of one eye socket. Some modern social scientific studies demonstrate how these reminders of our mortality—awareness of which most of us unconsciously try to avoid most of the time—make people temporarily more tolerant of and compassionate toward people with a different worldview or identity; people outside one’s own reference group. Imagine how the world might be if, rather than reflexively, unconsciously avoiding this awareness, it had seeped into the bone marrow of each and every one of us.
Here’s that final quote I promised: I recently heard a historian who studies the reasons we wage war repeat something a female soldier had said about a sensation she and many other soldiers apparently experience. This soldier said, “When you know you might die, everything is alive. Every leaf matters.“
I hope none of us ever has to go to war to fully grasp our impermanence. Zen practice invites us to realize it in the context of our everyday lives. When we do, everything is alive, and we know we are that leaf, and that we matter, and how.