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June 23, 2012

by Stephen Damon

This morning while reading Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, I came across a legendary account between Hui Neng, our sixth ancestor, and one of his disciples.  One day, Nanyue appeared before Hui Neng, who asked, “What is this that thus comes?” This is an unusual way of asking someone, “Who are you?” But Hui Neng wanted to ask who his visitor was without assuming some fixed “self” or “you.” By putting his question in the way that he did, he was asking his student to respond with the deepest part of himself.  Reading this story I realized that this is the question that I am in front of every time I take my seat in the morning. 

Nanyue was speechless, but the story says, he “never put this question aside” for eight years of intensive practice thereafter. Finally he returned to the sixth ancestor and responded, “To explain or demonstrate anything would miss the mark.”

The sixth ancestor asked whether, if so, there is practice and realization or not. Nanyue validated his eight years of study by responding, “It is not that there is no practice-realization, but only that it cannot be defiled.” The sixth ancestor affirmed that “this non-defilement” is exactly what all the buddhas and ancestors “protect and care for.”

The defilement that Hui Neng spoke about is the perspective that meditation practice is just a means, a step-by-step process of attaining enlightenment, viewed as an  abstraction separate from our activity and awareness. In Fukanzazengi,  Dogen says: The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.  It is the koan realized; traps and snares can never reach it. For Dogen, Zazen is the enactment of buddha awareness and physical presence, rather than a practice of developing a perfected, formulated understanding.  As Robert Thurman, says “When we think of the goal of Buddhism as enlightenment, we think of it mainly as an attainment of some kind of higher understanding. But Buddhahood is a physical transformation as much as a mental transcendence.”  Enlightenment is in this body at this time.

In Bendowa,  Dogen says: In Buddha-dharma, practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner’s whole-hearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. . . Since it is already the enlightenment of practice, enlightenment is endless; since it is the practice of enlightenment, practice is beginingless.

So, when we take our seats, either alone in our daily practice or with others during a formal meeting or retreat, we are simply doing the practice of the buddhas and ancestors. This practice is not to acquire something in some other time, or in another state of consciousness or being. It is actually a ritual enactment of enlightenment or realization right now.  And as such, it cannot be defiled.

A teacher of mine once said, “There is no such thing as bad Zazen.” At first, I didn’t believe him.  Surely, all the chaos of my monkey mind and the restlessness of my body were not good Zazen.  Surely, this was not enlightenment.  To be honest, I still find myself saying “good” or “bad” when describing my experience during an all-day sitting, but when I do, something inside me knows that the truth is deeper than that.  Something in me knows that “being” is neither good nor bad, it just is. When I go further I ask what, exactly, is Zazen?  Is it seeing what is arising? Is it the struggle to keep returning to myself? Or is it achieving a deep sense of calm?  I would say that Zazen is all this, and more. It is an ongoing practice that is constantly changing and adapting to the conditions of our lives.  It is enlightened activity.  As Dogen says,  Buddhas keep on becoming buddhas.

The next time you take your seat, you might try asking yourself, what is this that thus comes , and see how your body/mind responds without any expectations.  And please know that no matter what happens on your pillow you will not be able to defile the practice of the buddhas and ancestors.  No matter how much you take away from infinity, it is still infinite.



From → Zen Buddhism

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