January 21, 2014

Venerating Those Above and Pitying Those Below

In his Shobogenzo Shoji chapter about Life and Death, master Dogen gives some instructions to people as for doing the right things within Buddhist practice. And he recommends that we "venerate those above and pity those below". I am using the best translation of Shobogenzo I know of, which is the translation by recently late Gudo Nishijima and Mike Cross. Other translations say for example "respect those who are spiritually above you and have pity on those who are spiritually less advanced than you". This sounds even more suspicious, as if master Dogen believed in some hierarchy in Buddhist circles, that is masters spiritually being above their disciples, who are spiritually weak. But I think master Dogen means something else.

"Venerate those above" could mean "respect and learn from those who live the truth, which means people who are honest and sincere, experienced, be it a cook, a cleaning lady at the train station or a taxi driver, a Chinese Zen master or a beginner, whose heart is pure and curious and wants to learn the Way". All those people are above us! But not above us as if we, me or you, were always crawling along the ground, unable to raise to standards of buddhas. Above us, meaning once we drop under our standard of buddhas, under the standard of our ability to wake up now. Even if it is sometimes difficult to raise above our delusions and dreams, we can be optimistic and raise to the level of buddhas whenever we just wake up from our dreams and plunge into a simple action here and now. Then we are free from levels high or low and free from Buddhist instructions. But if we struggle to return to the standards of buddhas, we should venerate those who have just woken up, for example a beginner who has just come to practice zazen and study the Way with pure heart and intentions. Such people are above those who temporarily lost their ability to wake up and consider themselves hopelessly deluded or forever enlightened. True Buddhist teachers always try to wake up from such silly ideas and are always willing to learn from those who came for the first time and whose mind is completely open and unobstructed by narrow categories. Even master Shunryu Suzuki teaches that beginner's mind should be our highest ideal. It is really difficult to be a true beginner, especially after many years of practice, to be someone without attachment to various ideas and various spiritual experiences. Of course, master Dogen also suggests that we should learn from excellent Buddhist teachers of all times, but these excellent Buddhist teachers of all times always express the maturity and wisdom of someone who has never even heard about Buddhist teachings and just do something in the present moment wholeheartedly. We should respect those who are willing to put down all kinds of past achievements and fame and simply do something beyond ranks, such as raise a pot or put down a plate. Those are called buddhas according to master Dogen and we should venerate such buddhas as they are not attached to their buddhahood and freely express the meaning of buddhas and freely leave behind the bubbles bleeding from all kinds of Buddhist teachings. We should also venerate our own ability to wake up and should not underestimate the buddha in our zazen posture and the buddha in our everyday life. We should therefore venerate the self which we leave behind and replace with a fresh action in this moment. It is also impossible to venerate something separate and forget the whole. Even if we venerate master So-and-so, or Buddha Shakyamuni, we actually venerate the first principle of the universe, something which is the source of this vivid situation. When we venerate something as if it was isolated from this vivid situation, we venerate some kind of dream, but when we venerate those who have woken up, we venerate tables, chairs, cups, benches and everyone and everything which has just woken up to the real condition of things.

"Pity those below" could also mean care about, reflect, think about, or do not ignore those who have temporarily lost their awakening, whose mind has closed for a while, and they got stuck in ideas and feeling inferior or superior. But it also means pity those realms of your own, which caused you to sink into levels of fools. In other words, we should brush teeth, wash hair, clean the kitchen, but also look after the state of our body and mind, which is not different from "pity those below". Pity those below is not a maintained emotion, but a vivid action, here and now, a vivid action and waking up to the standards of buddhas. It is not feeling superior just like when we brush teeth, we don't consider dirt as something low, but we just brush teeth. When we clean the kitchen, we don't consider the mess before cleaning as something inferior but we just clean the mess. So pity those below is just taking an action and setting things anew. We should not feel superior to mess, dirt, or those who are deluded for a while. When master Dogen criticized different people for their mistakes in Buddhism, he pitied them, but rather then whining he just took the action of writing and teaching what Buddhism is and is not, he didn't feel superior or inferior, when pitying those, who had made a mistake. "Those below" are not below as if we were spiritually higher, those below are below their own true standards and when we are below, we are also below our true standards. When we clarify the meaning of below and above, we can see things in the West and see things in the East. There is no reason to be confused by different points of views and we can walk on straight and alive. We help those who lost direction and ask for help those who have found the direction.

After all we should not try to be spiritually more advanced than the ground beneath our feet or spiritually less advanced than the sky above. We should only go where spiritual steps mean one step from this room to another step to that room. Doing so, we can forget for a while about venerating those above and pitying those below. Master Dogen never wanted to obstruct our own lively steps with his teaching, he always wanted to encourage our steps beyond high and low. So when we just walk, those who are below can learn from us and find their true level and those who are above us can also learn from our simple action and find their true standards.