This is a fictitious interview. This time Ken, a completely made up character, came to ask me questions. He is like someone who has many different doubts about Buddhism, but doesn't want to give up his efforts to understand the meaning of this philosophy and this practice. I hope Ken will not give up and while practicing zazen every day, he will soon realize that to practice the way Dogen practiced is authentic Buddhist practice and reveals the true self completely.
Recently I have read some of your articles about Buddhism and it seems everything is already finished, we are buddhas, awakened, everything is done, no problem. But look around, we all suffer more or less and no matter how hard we practice we have all kinds of problems. So how can you write that it is all finished, nothing to achieve, we are buddhas already and so on?
We have a lot of problems. That's true. It is not easy to be alive. It is not easy to practice zazen every day, go to work, raise children, etc. I have never said it is easy. But to practice zazen and study Buddhism is a gate to freedom, complete freedom. The thing is it is not the kind of freedom you imagine. It is not give me a break I am free and do what I want, anytime. It is the freedom to drop all ideas and problems and difficulties in this instant. As our life is only an instant after instant, we could say the only thing that matters is how you act in this instant, how you feel now. You don't have to worry how you felt yesterday or how you may feel tomorrow.
But now I often feel sad or disturbed or angry. So when now I feel sad, how can I be happy now?
When we aren't in the present moment, it is difficult to be completely satisfied. I am not saying that practicing zazen solves all our problems. I am not saying that reading Dogen or practicing zazen means you have no problem any more. It is just that Dharma opens the door of freedom to act in the present beyond subject and object. Most of your problems are images, basically all your problems are images that you consider some kind of external things you have to deal with. An image of a tree is not a tree. An image of love is not love. An image of dying is not dying. An image of the truth is not the truth. You play with images in your head as if you had to deal with a big pile of coal someone put in your bedroom. How heavy are thoughts, worries, ideas? Not so heavy. A pile of coal would be a problem. Paradoxically, when we have to do something physical, the harder work it is, the less imaginary problems we carry in our heads. When we have to carry a heavy bucket of water across the yard, we don't worry so much about what our boss said yesterday. But when we sit around comfortably at home, nothing much to do, it is worse than a big pile of coal in our bedroom. We feel so heavy sometimes that we cannot stand it. Someone please give me a hand with this heavy load of emotions!
Anyway, does twenty years of zazen cleans our head? Has it cleaned your head?
No way. I get my head all stuffed with all kinds of nonsense. Quite often.
So what do you do about it?
I practice zazen, that's one thing. Another thing is that at work, when I am busy teaching the wild teenagers, I have no time to worry about my problems. Then when I drive home, it is a lot of traffic, again, no time to worry. It is only when there is nothing to do when I begin to feel strange, or lonely or sad etc. It is dangerous to have nothing to do. In summer I love to go cycling, or do all kinds of activities. There are times when I feel free and happy for several days and sometimes I feel heavy for a few days but zazen and physical activities always work, always liberate me. There are lots of times during the day when I feel absolutely free unless I am going through some temporary crisis.
Do you feel you have advanced in Buddhism? You have written that there is no progress, you somehow suggest that enlightenment is no problem and there is nothing to achieve. But would it be honest if you said you have not made any progress? Wouldn't it be just some cliche?
I have changed, that's for sure. But wouldn't I develop my personality as an adult man even without Buddhism? I think I would. So what is the difference, anyway. But of course, in the process of practicing, day after day, year after year, going to retreats, meeting teachers, you definitely learn from people, situations, books, talks, conflicts, failures, happy moments, sad moments... you learn and learn. But it is not like making progress. It is not becoming better and better.
But don't you think you have learned something valuable from Mike? What did you write about Buddhism before you met Mike?
I can't imagine what I would do without Mike. I was struggling a lot before I met Mike, I mean with the Buddhist teachers I had before Mike. It was very frustrating. And what I wrote before I met Mike, I mostly just repeated beautiful ideas from different Buddhist books. I wasn't really lying because to me zazen the complete Buddhist practice and I knew Dogen was pointing to something priceless, and I tried to write about that but Mike put me on track, he gave me the only possible direction for me in Buddhism. Without him I would be a kind of stray dog looking for a teacher until now.
What is the most important thing you learned from Mike?
Before I met Mike, I knew, theoretically, the truth is beyond words and it is direct and clear and such things. I practiced zazen without looking for enlightenment, that is true. On the one hand, zazen was something ultimate, completely satisfying. On the other hand, that experience didn't fit the teaching I heard from my teachers. I felt I hadn't met the right teacher, someone who would say things and do things as one harmonious thing, without playing any Buddhist games. Only Mike was the guy who didn't play any Buddhist games, before him, it was Brad Warner, but I hadn't met Brad before I met Mike. Mike in his daily life actions expressed that Dogen's philosophy could really be applied in our life, it was the first time I could see someone do it. I felt very embarrassed. I was that useless, impractical, absent-minded guy who had read about Buddhism and stuff. But I existed more in my head than in reality, Buddhism was something I'd carried around in my mind and hadn't actually done it. And Mike pointed to the solid ground, metaphorically, you know, don't fly around like a balloon, it's right here. We know we should not confuse Buddhism with theories, we all know it, right, but are we willing to drop theories for now and do something really? I couldn't until I met Mike. And now I am still learning to go back to reality over and over again. Thanks to Mike's sometimes stern, sometimes kind instructions, I can at least enjoy my hot bath. I don't care what my mind tells me, I just enjoy the hot bath. That's what Mike taught me to do.
As for Mike, he doesn't want to be someone's idol. Has he become your idol?
Mike helps everyone to be real by acting just like an ordinary human being. He doesn't pretend he is perfect. After meeting one idealistic or pretentious teacher after another, it's such a relief to let oneself have problems! Let's be generous and let's have problems, please. We need them! But then, in every instant we can choose whether we want to go back to reality or create even more problems in our heads by worrying that we are not as peaceful as we hoped we would be in our Buddhist life. Sometimes there are just problems and that's OK. It is important to leave them alone. Just like when a wasp sits on your nose. Leave it and it flies away. Try to chase it and it will give you a sting. Do we try to become more peaceful when we practice zazen? No. Does it work? Yes. When you just do something, you can notice that your problems slowly disappear. Stop working on becoming a great person. Being a buddha hundred or thousand times a day is enough. Let's be modest. I mean we don't even realize how happy we are most of the time, doing all kinds of ordinary things every day... So why should we look for some kind of Buddhist state out of this ordinary state when we are just doing something feeling alright? That's when our Buddha nature is revealed. So Mike should not be an idol. It is better to drink tea with him and have a chat. And you can learn what Buddhism is from him. But if you make Mike an idol, it will be something stuck between you and the truth. Just like a book about Buddhism that you have to put down to realize something in your life, you have to leave Mike alone from time to time and be yourself. I am not talking about becoming special and say you don't need Mike's wisdom or experience any more. I just mean you have to symbolically leave him sooner or later so you can be yourself completely. Even then you can still learn from him and continue the student-teacher relationship. But the student-teacher relationship is not something fixed and rigid. Sometimes your teacher can learn from you and sometimes you learn from him. It is not about trying to be a great person. It is necessary to see that your teacher, no matter how great his character and wisdom is, is still only an ordinary person. That is the most important aspect of the whole student-teacher relationship. To find that the ordinary side of your teacher is the Buddhist side and the Buddhist side is just a shirt or coat you take off when you go to bed. So you learn how to be completely ordinary and without any traces of Buddhist greatness.
But master Dogen said that there are eight ways how to become great. So why should we aim to become ordinary?
To become ordinary is not ordinary in terms of being stupid just like everyone else. Truly ordinary means truly awake, truly buddha. A truly ordinary person can walk across the street without feeling mediocre or superior. A truly ordinary person can make tea and drink it without feeling special or strange. But master Dogen encouraged people to practice habits that help us be truly ordinary. For master Dogen truly ordinary is great. Great is truly ordinary. It depends which word you like better. After all, we don't have to try to become ordinary or special or great. When we practice zazen, we can be just ourselves. We don't have to impress anyone.
I think that's the paradox of it, the greatest people in the world don't seem to try to impress anyone. And the worst people will do anything to impress. When they think nobody is impressed, they will grab a shotgun and shoot a few people or start a war.
Yes, so we should really try hard to focus on what we are doing and not on how to impress others. When I write an essay for my blog, I sometimes stop and think: Is this really sincere, does it come from your heart directly or are you just being pretentious? I don't want to write something that is pretentious, you know, but sometimes it is difficult to notice that what I am writing is not genuine, not out from my heart.
So what is it that we can gradually learn in Buddhism, or is it nothing we can learn?
Well, for example, sincerity, that's nothing you gradually attain, it is more about how you practice day after day and notice that being sincere just like you were ten or twenty years ago is the right thing to do. It is like organizing stuff in your bedroom and you come across a pair of socks and go.. hmm, I haven't seen these for ages, I think they are great socks! You've had them in your chest of drawers all the time, but you haven't noticed.
So do we make progress or not?
It is like a river. First, it is a spring. Then a stream. Then a river. And then it flows into the ocean. Which part of the river is better? Which part is more advanced? Buddhism doesn't teach us to flow into the ocean, to finish something. It teaches us to be just the kind of river or stream we actually are today. There is a baby buddha, a kid buddha, a teenage buddha, a young woman buddha, an old man buddha, a Buddhist teacher buddha, a Buddhist student buddha, a dentist buddha, a taxi driver buddha, all kinds of buddhas in all kinds of positions and situations. There is not a single drop of the river that is excluded from the enlightened world.
But we people have goals, it is natural, even master Dogen had a goal and achieved something.
Yes, we people want to flow into the ocean as soon as possible. We want to die. How can you want to make progress in Buddhism without saying you want to die as soon as possible? Do you think zazen today is not as good as zazen in ten years? Do you think in ten years you will be more important than today? What master Dogen achieved - and yes, it was very important that he achieved that and it is something we should sincerely pursue - master Dogen discovered the simple truth of everyday practice and everyday experience. (We should never underestimate the value of such ordinary experience as it is the true goal of our Buddhist life - and it took master Dogen quite time to find this goal - and at the same time, we should not overestimate the value of someone else's experience, no matter how famous that master is or was). It is a paradox, but master Dogen's example should help us find our own master Dogen right here, in our heart, our true self, it cannot be found anywhere else, actually, it cannot be found in Shobogenzo, the book, or in the Sotoshu headquarters. So although we revere the legacy of master Dogen, we should revere our own Buddha nature the same! By acting sincerely and wholeheartedly and by finding the meaning of Buddhist teaching here, in this simple experience now. So the spring, stream, river and the ocean are all the complete expressions of Buddhist teaching. They all accomplish the final Buddhist task to be exactly themselves right now. On the other hand, master Dogen encouraged Buddhists to pursue the truth. We should have a goal, after all, in Buddhism. To pursue the truth. That means to practice zazen and live our everyday life as something that is the goal of Buddhism itself, without looking for anything special.
But Buddhist teachers can teach a lot of people and through their conduct they can help others and be role models. Shouldn't we strive to be at least similar and have such qualities?
We already have such qualities and already are role models and teach others when we don't worry about our image or compare ourselves to others. One of the greatest Buddhist teachers I have ever met was my grandmother. She got up early in the morning, she washed, prepared breakfast, then cooked and baked all morning, then we ate lunch, then she worked in the garden all the afternoon, doing the laundry somehow too, washed the stairs in the house, cooked dinner, fixed some clothes after dinner and at eight she sat down and said: "Oh well, I am so tired this evening." But she was so happy! I could see her happiness in her eyes. Then we watched a show on TV or played a board game and then went to sleep. I remember I felt - and I was a kid - I felt intuitively that such a life made perfect sense just like that. Maybe it helped me find Zen later when I was in my early twenties. It was great education to see someone act all day and see how completely satisfied they are based on their active, everyday life and their sincere attitude toward all the work.
We also need someone who explains the meaning of life, your grandma just showed real action in life, but didn't explain anything.
We are lucky when we can meet someone who has realized the truth in action, someone who can be active beyond words most of the day and then sit down and tell us about Dogen. I sometimes think I should act more and think less, but actually, my job involves a lot of action and energy. There is no time to dream or mumble about abstract philosophical problems when there are fifteen students waiting for your instructions or help. Or some of them not waiting for anything, enjoying their disturbing chat with their classmate. So I have a very "Zen" job,a very active job. I think we all have some kind of Zen job. What about the parents next door? It is just that we don't notice that life is basically action here and now and that we can find complete satisfaction in such actions over and over again. And it is not just feeling good being active, we also all have to help one another. If there is nobody who can look after the kids, they will go and buy drugs and later shoot someone. That's why a hardworking mother or father deserve as much respect as a Zen master, provided the Zen master is not a pretentious fool. We should realize how priceless all efforts of cleaners, plumbers, pilots, flight attendants, chefs, cab drivers, police officers, and even some honest politicians and honest businesspeople are. Everyone who acts sincerely here and now, makes the universe the right place for us, the best place for us. Although there is so much suffering and greed and lies and chaos in the world, look around you, living in Europe or North America, most things are done pretty well, the situation is not like we are all dying in decay, hungry, cold, confused and in pain... and this is only thanks to all buddhas, all the people who help this world function in a more or less balanced way. I still believe that most people in our planet, today, in this instant, are more or less fine, and thousands or millions are really, really happy right now without even noticing. Because it is natural for a human being, even for a dog, a bird, a fly, to act like Buddha, and act in a way that gives that being complete satisfaction. Deep inside, we are like seagulls, free and satisfied, balanced, perfect Buddhas. But our faces seem worried. Seagulls' faces are not worried, although their lives are as difficult as ours, and as short as ours.
So you don't think some people have some special value for the society.
People? No. Seagulls, yes. Master Dogen taught about the wisdom of pebbles and fences and mountains. All those Chinese masters only discovered the brilliant wisdom of fish, birds, flies, whisks and similar things, they discovered the reality. So they were not as great as the simple actions they carried out to express the truth. But people tend to believe words, and neglect the truth itself.
But isn't wisdom more important than manual work? More important in this difficult world than business, finances, markets?
No. Manual work is wisdom in action. And we are living in the world where we cannot exist without money so someone has to deal with money. Honestly deal with money. We need Buddhist teachers who will point to the wisdom found in the action - be it a parent's action, a banker's action, or a cleaner's action. That's where the wisdom of Buddha's teaching really is. So a true Buddhist teacher is someone who says: "Go back to work. You have already found the right place for yourself, so don't look for something special."
I remember at one retreat in Scotland, I was serving food and I brought a dish to Mike and I asked whether he wanted this much or less and made the whole thing incredibly complicated. And Mike suddenly cut it saying: "Just put it down!" And I learned a lesson from that, a great lesson. Instead of discussing everything forever and to no avail, we should just realize what is necessary to do right now. Even if it is necessary to discuss Buddhism sometimes, the most important thing in our everyday life is that we just do something really. Just put the plate down on the table. That's where all those discussions should point to, otherwise they are plain useless. One simple action solves everything. True wisdom is not in words, it is in a simple action, doing something now.
What is your opinion of those people who claim that they have attained perfectly peaceful mind and wisdom?
That is interesting but that is not as good as the Buddhist state. The Buddhist state means that we don't depend on our mind or body. Mike always says that the Buddhist state is the balance of body and mind, and I agree but I'd like to say also, without trying to correct Mike, that the balance of body and mind means that we are free of body and mind. That means there is nothing individually particular, including peace or clarity that we should possess in that state, and there is nothing individually physical that we should feel in that state. It is a state where an individual disappears in the unity with the real world. That state is not my state or your state, essentially, but a state of reality which gulps down all bodies and minds of all beings everywhere. In that state everyone disappears and reality here and now is revealed by itself. A person whose mind became perfectly peaceful and clear is an interesting circus act. Such a person will impress thousands of silly people for whom their own limited mind is more important than the brilliance of truth itself. A mind of one saint is still just one lousy mind, no matter how enlightened. It may be a nice mind, but it is not mine. On the other hand Buddha Shakyamuni's mind is not just his, it is the universal mind! You have it, I have it, she has it, the spider has it. The mind of Buddha is this universe - in other words, it has absolutely no limits. The true buddha nature doesn't depend on the quality of our mind, it only depends on itself so it is not external or internal, nobody can destroy it, nobody can attain it, nobody can lose it, nobody can discover it. It is our true self and the self of the whole universe at the same time. It is more than free as it is free from trying to be free, it is more than open as it has never been closed, it is more than bright as it has never been next to something dark and it is more than wise as it has never encountered ignorance. The problem with those peaceful people is that they cannot give you that peace freely and completely, as it is about their limited mind. Buddha's peace is already yours! So the Buddha has made you a buddha right when you were born. Now it is up to you whether you can enjoy it or not. Can you live it or not? Can you see you are completely a buddha from the start?
That's great. So why practice zazen? Obviously, this Buddha mind is here for everyone and it is impossible to miss it. Those who miss it only imagine they have missed it.
Zazen perfectly expresses this universal mind that doesn't depend on anything. It doesn't even depend on Buddha, Buddhism, or zazen. But without zazen it is almost impossible to let go of our narrow mind and limited body and discover that which was never lost. Just sitting stupidly, just sitting now, doing nothing special, thinking about nothing special, that is the secret of Buddha Shakyamuni's teaching. That is the flower turning in his hand. The more we move or think, the further away we are from the true meaning of our life that in fact has as much meaning as the ocean waves or clouds in the sky. So when we practice zazen, which to most people seems absolutely useless, at last we do something that shows the true nature of our life. Zazen is the first stop on our path to the truth and the last stop on our path to the truth. But the truth is here and now so it is not about going anywhere. It is about going somewhere never being anywhere but here and now. When Dogen completed his great task of life practice, he just realized that he could never get anywhere else but here and now. To practice zazen without a goal is like reality confirming reality here and now. Are you here? Yes, I am here. Is this real? Yes, this is real. Is this happening just now or do I have to wait? No, no need to wait for anything, it is happening just now. That's zazen. It is like saying yes, yes, yes, over and over again, yes, this is true. But words cannot express that. The action of zazen itself beyond words expresses that completely.