February 12, 2015

Acting beyond Buddhas

It is difficult, but important not to be an idealistic Buddhist. It is important to be a realistic Buddhist. An idealistic Buddhist basically sees things dualistically and is less interested in the truth as such than he or she is interested in some Buddhist ideals. Buddhist ideals are important as they help us to learn what Buddhism is, but we should not get stuck on the idealistic level of understanding what Buddhism is. So even if master Dogen writes about patriarchs, buddhas, great realization, and brightness, we should learn from our real teachers, who have transcended the idealistic aspect of Buddhism, that the great Buddhist ideals must be found in our real everyday life, in our real actions and not in our thinking or intellectual understanding alone.   

I have made this mistake many a time - although I have been practicing zazen for more than 20 years, my narrow mind has told me many times that something great is different from me, that some kind of buddhas are far away from me, that some great realization is not within my everyday life and that the expression of Buddhist truth is something only experienced teachers can manifest. But this is only the delusion of one's limited mind and is not true Buddhist teaching. On the other hand, if I say that I am a buddha, if I say that I can express the truth, and I have had great realization, that is just another side of the same fake coin and is not what buddhas and patriarchs teach or express. So both being sceptical about one's buddha nature and bragging one's capabilities and claiming that one can express the truth completely are mistakes and lack the genuine character of a realistic person.  

In the past I mistakenly assumed that master Dogen divided his disciples into two separate groups - those who can express the truth and those who cannot express the truth. But that was my lack of understanding. It seemed to me that master Dogen liked to test his disciples and expected them to express the truth clearly before him and other monks.  The thing is I did not read these records thoroughly. At one such occasion master Dogen asks his disciples to come forth and manifest the truth and says that if they are not capable of this, his staff will laugh at them.  This is exactly where my understanding ended. But later I read this again and noticed that master Dogen adds: "If I say that you cannot express the truth, my eyebrows will fall off."  In other words, master Dogen refused to make the mistake of deciding whether someone's action is definitely expression of the truth or not. 

My teacher has been pointing out the importance of our everyday action ever since I met him and probably long before I met him. How could we not express the truth completely if we completely do something at the present moment? No amount of intellectual understanding will make up for our simple actions like making tea, getting dressed, finding the keys, making phone calls, etc. The intellectual understanding of Buddhism may be a virus that will make a gap between our mind and our body, between ideals and actions, and will prevent us from "getting the body out" - quoting Fukanzazengi. Such intellectual understanding will prevent us from liberating the actions from sticky ideas and theories. The paradox is that the right attitude toward Buddhist philosophy and sincere efforts to understand the essential points of Buddhism may help us liberate the body and mind and see what the life of buddhas is in the present moment.  

So as I had mistakenly thought that master Dogen had demanded his disciples that they express the truth in certain situations, although master Dogen never said his disciples didn't express the truth when eating or going to the toilet.  I asked my teacher some time ago, why modern Buddhist teachers, the followers of master Dogen's teaching, don't test their students any more, in a similar fashion as master Dogen did. My teacher explained that it is not necessary to imitate the ways of medieval Japanese monks and teachers. Then I asked Gabriele Linnebach, also a dharma heir of late Nishijima roshi, and she explained, among other things, that doing, acting and living is foremost, that practice in the present is the most important thing. 

In Shogobenzo, chapter called Dotoku, where master Dogen explains the problem of expressing the truth, he tells the story of master Seppo who once heard about an excellent hut-master living in the mountains. Master Seppo decided to visit this hut-master and test him. "Express the truth and I will not shave your head," said master Seppo to the hut-master whose hair was long. An ordinary person will expect the hut-master to succeed or fail this test, just like I tended to understand until recently. But the hut-master, to my surprise and later joy, comes forward and is ready to have his head shaved. Master Dogen explains how this excellent action transcends our limited understanding of what expressing the truth is. After all, the hut-master just comes forward and acts. He is not entangled in Buddhist ideals or sceptical thoughts about his Buddhist abilities. He just comes forward and allows master Seppo to shave his head. Now master Dogen really admires what happens next. One would expect master Seppo to drop his razor and laugh, says master Dogen, but instead master Seppo, a true Buddhist patriarch, goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs, and just shaves the hut-master's head. 

From this story and master Dogen's delicate explanations of its true meaning, we can learn that our simple every day actions, beyond understanding and not understanding, beyond buddhas and ordinary beings, beyond being great or small, are beautiful, rare flowers of dharma. Simple, everyday actions, without being trapped by good words or bad words, without bragging about one's experience or capabilities, or running away in shame, make our lives worth buddhas' attention. To express the truth is definitely important for anyone who is sincerely interested in Dharma. But once we are bold enough to step over the line of intellectual limits, we can act freely and express ourselves freely. We can enjoy the freedom with which true beings act, and we can see the freedom of children, animals, plants and all nature, that can never not express what is true about them. So once we decide to speak about Buddhist theories and ideals, it should not prevent us from living our real life and it should not prevent others from getting dressed, eating meals or going to bed. And we should recognize the lack of truth in the words of idealists and recognize the authentic, true actions of those who have opened their bodies and minds to what is right here.      


Unknown said...

great piece- very grounding!

roman said...

Thank you, Paul.