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Awake or Asleep

May 20, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Awake or asleep
in a grass hut,
I pray
to bring others across
before myself.

Every now and then I will come across a phrase or a poem that goes right to the heart of the matter. When I do, I often write it down on a scrap piece of paper and attach it to my computer or leave it close by so that it stays in my mind as a “new context” for my practice. Reading this short poem of Dogen’s I felt that the Way of the bodhisattva had not been so succinctly stated by anyone else. As I reflected on the fifteen words in five lines I saw the entirety of Mahayana practice.

The first thing that came to mind was how my dreams have changed to reflect what I have been doing in my Zen practice. Yes, some of my dreams are just ordinary accounts of ordinary things, but many of them are filled with something else, something just out of my reach. This “something” I would call the “cutting edge” of my practice. And so it is no surprise to me that my dreams over the past few weeks have been filled with images of the Zen Guest House where I will be volunteering as hospice caregiver. (My first day is this Wednesday).

And it is no surprise that Dogen would say that his bodhisattva vow to free the numberless beings of the universe was active even in his sleep. I would say that if our practice does not yet inform our sleep and our dreams, we need to keep that impression as a question. Our dreams are more honest accounts of who and what we are than the stories we tell ourselves in our waking lives. I can’t recall ever lying or making something up in my dreams. The images may not make sense, but they always seem real and if we reflect on them we see that they are really telling us something true about ourselves, something that the “ego” may not yet be ready to acknowledge.

And so, awake or asleep, our vow to free everyone before ourselves must take precedence. It must completely saturate our bodies and minds. When we sit we may not be able to find a “self” or an “I” but we should be able to find this vow as the very ground of our being. In fact, there is no “self” or “other;” everything is interconnected. So, the deepest meaning of “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them,” is that we must let go of everything until all we are left with is the activity of “freeing.” If we look closely we see that “freeing” is an expression of loving kindness, compassion, and love.

And so, our practice is to make sure that whatever we are doing is a full expression of the teachings of the buddhas and ancestors. Our practice not only changes our behavior in our daily lives, it also changes deeper levels of ourselves that are expressed in our dreams. Our practice should infiltrate and transform every layer of our being. If it does, we will help others “to cross over” just by the way we say “hello” or the way that we walk down the street.


From → Zen Buddhism

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