Recently I've been thinking about whether we should purposely try to drop off body and mind or attain a state of dropping body and mind or whether we should attain some kind of samadhi when we practice zazen. Master Dogen mentions dropping off body and mind and samadhi from time to time. On the other hand master Dogen seems to teach that just practicing here and now is enough, no matter how we feel - confused, eager, impatient or whatever we feel. Just practicing is enlightenment and realization of the way. So it seems both is important, so which one is correct? Should we just practice zazen no matter how we feel or should we somehow cultivate zazen in order to attain the state of dropping off body and mind? This is what I have been thinking about.
In Eihei Koroku, a record of master Dogen's short talks, master Dogen says: "Dropping off body and mind is the beginning of our efforts." I see, so we should start with that ultimate thing! That's a very interesting point. Master Dogen says that we shouldn't hope to gradually improve our zazen and one day drop off body and mind and then we will attain something. No. He basically says: Start with the ultimate. And that explains the problem whether we should try to make our zazen something wonderful, step by step, improve zazen, so one day it will be some kind of wonderful samadhi, that kind of enlightenment that you could talk about when you come across the teaching that zazen and satori is one. Some people may admit that if their zazen is some kind of great samadhi, then it is enlightenment. But master Dogen basically says something else: Start with the ultimate, which explains what I have been wondering about recently. To start with the ultimate means that just when you sit down, at that very moment, immediately, drop off body and mind. That means, just sit, don't worry about enlightenment, don't worry about the depth of your zazen, don't worry about how you feel, or who you are, just sit, start with the ultimate, drop off body and mind right away.
It is like holding a knife: instead of thinking about how deep or shallow your state is, you just cut through the meat. You don't care if the knife is sharp or not, steel or not, you just cut. That's not different from dropping off body and mind. With this imperfect body and imperfect mind, and with doubts and confusion, just sit, just act, that's dropping off body and mind. Of course we have lots of ideas, Buddhist philosophy is complex and does cover a lot of issues and aspects. But all these theories should help us to always return to the ultimate, which is just reality here and now. Studying Buddhist philosophy and practicing zazen is not an idea that one day suddenly I will become enlightened, or that I will become enlightened gradually. Buddha Dharma, practicing zazen means that you have to give it all from the very beginning. That doesn't mean having to leave your family or practice zazen eight hours a day. It doesn't mean you have to make some fantastic efforts. To give it all just means that when you sit down and begin to practice zazen, at that moment, just let go of everything. And then an idea comes up, like I am not... you are....and she, and buddha... just let go of such ideas. Over and over again. And again. Zazen is a simple action here and now. Like this, you solve all your problems, you have realized what Buddhism is, you've dropped off body and mind and you have attained enlightenment. Just do it. So I am talking to myself: Just do it!
It is common to think: "Maybe I should try harder. I am not wise enough, not peaceful enough, what is wrong with my practice? I simply practice zazen, over and over again, so maybe I should practice in a way that would give me more balance, more strength, more confidence? What if the way I practice is not good enough? What if I have made my practice a routine without sincere efforts?" These are important questions. We should definitely practice sincerely. But the thing is that we completely realize the way when we just use that knife and cut the meat. When we do this, or whatever we do, completely. In that single moment, you do something completely. We are human, so we have positive and negative thoughts. We may have ideas about what is wise or deep and what is stupid and shallow. But we tend to underestimate or totally ignore the value of a simple action that we just simply carry out, sincerely carry out something mundane.
Yesterday I went to a party and I was thinking: "Why am I not more balanced and confident?" I thought I had to improve something in my life. Today I was looking for master Dogen's teaching about dropping off body and mind and I was thinking, if zazen is just sitting here and now, so what is dropping off body and mind, is that some kind of advanced state of zazen? No, later I found out that it is about beginning with dropping off body and mind, so no matter what we do, no matter how we feel, we can always drop off body and mind, which means we can always act in the present moment. If you feel strange at a party, you can still pour some wine and have a sip. You can go or you must go to the toilet. You can go home. You always have to act. So rather than thinking too much, we can focus on the single actions and find freedom there, freedom from our subjective thoughts and relax, just drop off everything, and do something.
If you come to a teacher and you tell him or her that you would like to learn what Buddhism is, maybe you will say: "What am I supposed to do?" Actually, that teacher will say, first of all, you must wake up. I have never realized that it is like that. Whenever you come to a Buddhist temple or zen center, you always hear things like: First of all, take off your shoes, or first of all, have some tea. That means: First of all, wake up. You have to start with waking up. All this first of all, first of all, is not different from first of all, wake up. So start with the ultimate. So when you want to practice and study Buddhism, you always begin with the ultimate. If you come across a teacher who keeps talking about how you will gradually become enlightened or gradually become wise, and how you are not a buddha yet, make sure it is a true teacher. A true teacher can recognize your true self and point to it, a true teacher does not say you are not a buddha, they just give you a push so you stop dreaming. And the teacher will be a living example of someone who simply acts, no matter how busy he or she is thinking from time to time, but someone who simply drops off body and mind in the middle of a simple, direct action.
My teacher Mike Luetchford sometimes says that learning Buddhism is similar to learning a sport or craft. Is this a big contradiction? Before I said you start with awakening. So how can you gradually learn to be some kind of mature person? This is a paradox, but both is true. You do start with simple actions, simple awakenings, and for twenty years you may have lots of questions, but the difference after twenty years may be that some doubts have disappeared. Besides that, you may develop some kind of mature attitude, for example you stop believing in some advanced states of zazen or masters who are superhuman and make no mistakes. So you can gradually learn that Buddhism is not an idea or feeling or wonderful samadhi or interesting talks and impressing others, rather a very sloppy everyday life. Not sloppy in terms of sloppy actions, but sloppy in terms of being far from perfect. A life that has all kinds of problems and mistakes and pains. You can get used to this truth and find a strange kind of comfort there.
Anyway, somebody might wonder: Has master Dogen attained dropping body and mind after many many years of practice and questions and travels looking for a true teacher? It seems that when he said: "Body and mind dropped off," he meant that it took him decades. But he didn't say: "It took me decades to drop off body and mind." He just said "body and mind dropped off". Which doesn't mean he had never dropped off body and mind before. So why did ho go and tell his teacher? I think he had realized that a simple action of zazen (I mean zazen could be called a series of many simple actions of zazen) is not different from body and mind dropped off and that he had never failed to drop off body and mind when practicing zazen. But now he realized the importance of that simple experience and told his teacher. I don't think master Dogen meant to brag about something he attained after many years of hard practice. But maybe until then he never completely realized the meaning of a simple action of zazen.
You may be a cook and you may use a knife for years, and you may be an excellent cook. But you may have doubts: What is the meaning of cooking? And one day you realize that the meaning of cooking is this simple action here and now in the kitchen. While actually living, moment after moment, we often ask questions like what is the meaning of life, what is the truth, what is right and what is wrong? A cook, using this knife, over and over again, hardly ever asks, what is this knife, what am I doing, why am I cooking? Maybe some cooks do ask such questions. But most just keep cooking, keep acting, keep using the knife. So what we may realize after practicing zazen for some years, is that our sincere effort here and now is the ultimate thing in life. And this sincere effort, this simple action, is not different from dropping off body and mind, so in our simple, sincere efforts, we fulfill the ultimate task of a Buddhist life, something master Dogen was looking for in China. He wanted to know, what is the ultimate task of a Buddhist, and later he realized it was just living this life, no matter what, despite all kinds of problems.
There is no limit, no category, not a single person, not two people, not many people, not all sentient beings, when you drop off body and mind, it is the ultimate state of the whole universe. So it must be something ultimate. When you use a knife, and just do it, in that action, the subject, the object and everything else disappears. This action is complete and it is the complete action of the whole universe. Dropping off body and mind is not a state in the future, it is not a state in the past. It is not something you think about or feel. You may say that master Dogen noticed dropping off body and mind. Not his or somebody else's. The whole universe dropped off body and mind, and body and mind dropped off the whole universe. That is something beyond all kinds of levels of all kinds of samadhi. It is our life here and now, when we just do something, when we act simply and directly, when we put down the plate or when we move a chair.
When master Dogen returned to Japan, he said he came empty-handed. He had left China in China and brought Japan to Japan. So we can also act like that. When going to the kitchen, leave the living room behind and when coming to the living room, don't bring the kitchen with you. Although our lives may be very complicated and difficult, if we do not move kitchens to living rooms, our life will have a bright side. If we just practice zazen like children, not trying to attain a special state, our zazen practice will surely have a quality of buddhas.