This text is inspired by roshi Nishijima's (Kodo Sawaki's disciple) explanation of Dogen's philosophy. Until I found out about roshi Nishijima's teaching, it was difficult to read Dogen to me. I mostly understood only modern Zen masters explaining Dogen. ANyway, I hope the text is not just useless imitation of real Zen masters' teaching, but something based on my own experience, as well.
Most people are interested in materialistic matters. They want to eat, drink, sleep, want money or sex, then they have to buy a coffin, etc. This is the materialistic aspect of our lives. Of course, to reduce life to this level has nothing to do with wisdom or compassion.
Some people notice that life is not only materialistic and they look for wisdom, love, heaven, God. Some people start religions, create Gods, then the Gods create people who created Gods and other interesting things happen according to their religions. These people talk about hope, heaven or enlightenment, satori and how to attain it. They sometimes do nothing else than sit on the ground, without eating, drinking, and just pursue their idealistic goals. So this is the idealistic aspect of our life. To reduce our life to idealism, only to seek nirvana, heaven, higher level, ignoring the materialistic aspect, is not very wise after all...
So when people occasionally find out that idealism only leads to dreamlike living ignoring the basic needs of our body, they may look for a true teacher - someone who can solve the dualistic issue or dispute over materialism versus idealism. Some teachers hit people with a stick or they shout something. When we ask about enlightenment, they shout or hit us, when we ask about wisdom, they shout or hit us.
What is all this shouting and hitting about? It’s called action. A sudden action cuts away our idealistic thinking. It's a wake up call. Now, not all Zen masters use shouts and hits. Soto masters say, “Just sit”. But they don't want us to sit only to continue our idealistic mental party. So they say, “Just sit and concentrate on the present moment. Check your posture”. Like that Zen masters of this tradition help us cut off our idealistic way of thinking by making us concentrate on the present moment. Rather than shouting and hitting things, they recommend pursuing our everyday tasks with clear, simple mind.
They teach us to follow an ordinary daily regime, including zazen practice, so that we return to our normal, essential self. When you wake up practicing zazen in the present, you see through the mad cloud of your mind that you called “me” just a while ago and now you can be your true self again. Buddha is just a word. Satori is yet another word. It is everyday life that really matters. So zazen is not something special that is separate from our everyday life. Zazen is the basis of our everyday life, like a spine – it holds our everyday life together. But zazen is also one of the things we do. Another ordinary thing we do over and over again.
I’d like to say something more about action because it is action that wakes up our true self over and over again. For example - we have to eat - eating, no matter if we are materialists or idealists, we experience eating. So action can trigger our own experience of our true self - IF and only IF we forget both sides – materialism and idealism and JUST eat. Most people imagine something loud and quick, when they hear the word “action”. But every moment of our ordinary life is something enormous – as this place has really no limits - and incredibly quick, so every moment of our ordinary life is an extremely important action we have to take. So action is a tool that helps us wake up. But it is also awakening itself. Buddha Way means that a tool is not different from the aim. People usually do things in order to get something. Most Buddhists believe that certain kind of practice leads to enlightenment. But if we reach under the superficial understanding of Buddha’s teaching and reach the essence of Buddha’s teaching, we find out, that the wisdom that we have been looking for with such determination, is not so far away. We can find out that our very mind here and now is not different from the ultimate wisdom. In other words, our very mind here and now is basically the only source of wisdom we can ever find. But wisdom, according to Buddha Way, is not something to be looked for. It is something to be expressed here and now. So instead of looking for enlightenment, we express enlightenment through the most ordinary things we do every day. As there is nothing special outside our everyday experience, it is not necessary to practice in order to find something essential or understand something essential. If we truly believe in Buddha Way, we have no doubt that we are no separate from Buddha Way. So we practice only to practice, we eat only to eat, we drink only to drink and we sleep only to sleep. People who practice zazen to attain enlightenment are fooled, while people who practice zazen only to practice zazen are Buddhas. But it is important that this Buddha Way is expressed not only in zazen, but also in everything we do. There is no idealistic hunger for satori, nor materialistic hunger for luxury or abundance of sex. No worries about being rich or poor in the future, no worries about being stupid or enlightened in the future. Here and now there is no fear and no frustration.
There is a famous koan or we might also call it a conversation between Joshu and his disciple.
The disciple asks: What is the deepest truth?
Joshu replies: Have you had breakfast?
Joshu draws his disciple's idealistic mind to the every day reality. Somebody could object that Joshu's philosophy is completely materialistic. Isn't food a materialistic matter, after all? But Joshu doesn't stress the importance of every day life to reduce the every day life to materialistic matters. He doesn't want his disciple to ignore matters of wisdom and compassion. Instead he wants his disciple to express wisdom and compassion right away through his everyday activity. So Joshu is teaching us that through action here and now we cut off dualistic thinking, cut through the dilema of materialism versus idealism and become one with reality here and now.
Of course, action is not enough. There are millions of very active people in the world who have no idea what they are or what reality is. They make phone calls, play golf, go surfing, do business, work in factories, banks, drive cars, shoot, talk, yell, push buttons, and yet are not able to solve the ever-present problem of human beings - what are we doing here, why and how come we make each other so desperate so often? We could say that Buddhist attitude to this problem, to the problem of suffering and happiness, ignorance and wisdom, is represented exactly in Joshu's answer: Have you had breakfast yet?
In the world of ignorant people who only care about results and profits, Joshu's comment is nothing than a practical, materialistic remark. But in the context with his student's idealistic views, Joshu's answer is cutting through the madness of human mind. He is aware of sincere effort of his disciple and has no doubt that he didn't come to him to make money or become a fat guy. So he tells him to care about ordinary matters. When a sincere person who cares about well being of others eats breakfast, such a person expresses wisdom and compassion and fulfills the ideal of Buddha's teaching.