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New Year’s Eve: Family Instructions for the End of the Year by Dogen

December 29, 2012

by Stephen Damon

This informal meeting is [where are given] the family instructions of all buddhas and ancestors. This comes from the ancestral teacher [Bodhidharma] arriving from the west, and the Buddha Dharma entering the land of China. What we call family instructions is not to carry out anything that is not the activity of Buddha ancestors, and not to wear anything that is not the Dharma robes of Buddha ancestors. What we call activity is, having quickly abandoned fame and profit and forever casting away self-centeredness, and to value Dharma. A great precious jewel is not the [true] treasure, but cherish each moment. Without worrying about myriad affairs, engage the way with single-mindedness. Being like this, you will be the direct heir of the Buddha ancestors, and the guiding teacher of humans and heavenly beings. [edited]

Reading Dogen this morning, I see that the bloodline of buddhas and ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha through the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and American ancestors is more internal, more essential to who I am, than the “flesh and blood” of my grandparents and great grandparents. It is my family! As an expression of this, I was given a Dharma name when I was lay ordained and another when I was priest ordained.

Practicing Zen is a way of recognizing and honoring the hidden genealogy or lineage of our lives that has been sustained over the centuries by following rules, some of which are discussed by Dogen in this Dharma Hall discourse. He tells us not to do anything that does not express the dharma of Buddha ancestors. That is, everything that we do, whether it is talking to a friend or the checker at the supermarket must be a selfless expression of the truth. When we brush our teeth or take out the garbage, we must do it as if we are a Buddha—because we are a Buddha.

Dogen tells us not to wear anything that is not the Dharma robes of Buddha ancestors. He is not telling everyone to put on monastic or priest robes, but he is telling us to keep the spirit of the robe verse which expresses the heart of our practice:

How great, the robe of liberation!
A formless field of merit,
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching
We free all living beings

We must wrap the whole of our lives, our mind, heart, and body, in Buddha’s teaching. We must let the teaching saturate every cell of our being in order to be able to free all sentient beings.

If all this seems too high a standard we must at least try not to do anything that interferes with the expression of the Buddha dharma, i.e., the Buddhist vow to do no harm or ahimsa. Dogen tells us to abandon fame and profit and forever cast away self-centeredness. Another way of putting this is found in the Tibetan Buddhist practice of eschewing the Eight Worldly Concerns or Dharmas:

Getting what you want, and avoiding getting what you do not want
Wanting (instant) happiness, and not wanting unhappiness
Wanting fame, and not wanting to be unknown
Wanting praise, and not wanting blame.

So what are we to do now? How are we to live as “direct heirs” of the Buddha ancestors? The answer is so simple and so direct that we almost never acknowledge it. We need to let go of everything that we have accumulated and cherish each moment as an opportunity to practice according to the traditions of our “inner” family. We need to see each moment as the great totality of all existence. In his fascicle on time Dogen said, Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment…

While most of the world celebrates the New Year in high-spirited revelry, we can make the effort to remember our true family, and to “remember ourselves,” with deep sobriety and an intention to cherish the moment.

Happy New Year!

From → Zen Buddhism

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