February 26, 2020

The Minimalist Zen of Kodo Sawaki

I have just read an interview with Kodo Sawaki about his life and practice. I always wanted to hear or read this interview but so far it has been only available in Japanese.  Of course, what he says in the interview is not very different from the quotes you can find in Homeless Kodo, a book of short sayings by Kodo Sawaki, but to read this interview helps me to see why he said the things he said, and where his minimalistic approach to dharma comes from. 

From his point of view, and immediately we have a big problem, because Kodo Sawaki says clearly in the interview that there are no points of view in dharma, so from his point of view, there is no point of view in dharma. To make it more logical, Sawaki understood dharma as a state of things where there are no points of view. This is how my teacher transmitted dharma to me - no points of view, just this very thing right here. So to find this superminimalistic approach to Buddhism in the interview with Kodo Sawaki is no surprise to me, and I have been teaching, wait a minute, I have always tried, after zazen, to convey something that simple, during my talks and when nothing seemed to work, I just rang the bowl we use for beginning and ending zazen.

But we all know, that even Kodo Sawaki, and my teacher and all kinds of teachers, talk, or talked, as in the case of Sawaki or master Dogen, about all kinds of things when explaining dharma. But always, it seems, Kodo Sawaki or master Dogen or my teacher, would, at last, point back to the place where there is no point of view. Kodo Sawaki in the interview even says that we should not try to attain satori. We have been discussing - directly or indirectly, openly or not so openly -  this no satori zen for ages within Dogen Sangha. Kodo Sawaki says in the interview that it is more important to just practice than to look for the truth. Then how can people who practice zazen deal with their innate interest in understanding the truth, or even, attaining the truth? And what kind of realization did master Dogen write about and taught? I think Kodo Sawaki, when telling us to forget about satori, tells us just exactly what master Dogen tried to teach, ie. tell us to get over realization, get over wanting to understand, attain, get, master, and while transcending this "I" that wants to attain something, just practice wholeheartedly, live wholeheartedly. How difficult is that?

Well, I think there are two things to look at. To do something physical, wholeheartedly, that doesn't seem to be the problem with many people, all kinds of people, within Buddhism or without, within a religion or without. We have all seen people work hard and sincerely, completely doing a job, I have seen hundreds of people like that. I see that at retreats, too. But we are talking about people who have little idea how valuable a simple, complete action is. There are also many people, who do scientific work, intellectual, academic work, sincerely and wholeheartedly. That is not a problem, either. But again, how many people really understand the value of such simple, sincere attitude? What master Dogen, and Kodo Sawaki suggest, when it comes to attaining the truth, I think they suggest that if we can see the utmost value, the ultimate value in practicing zazen itself, studying dharma itself, teaching dharma itself, cooking itself, going to bed itself, and when we get over the unnecessary complications of our intellect and just do things, manually or intellectually, we have got over the problem of attaining the truth and actually have attained the truth without saying so, because saying so would be like drawing horns to a rabbit.

So basically, Kodo Sawaki, in a seemingly cold, severe, indifferent way tries to tell us that whatever our limited self thinks about others and oneself, about dharma and other teachings, about life and death, about enlightenment and delusion, about practice an realization, whatever I , the very limited I, one of the stupidest people there are, say about whatever in the world, or write about something, based on my limited views, that has as a matter of fact, no value  in dharma. Which doesn't mean talking about our personal experience is not valuable. Just opinions based on thinking mean nothing face to face to dharma. What I am trying to write here is supposed to be based on that which is not my personal opinion. And no one's personal opinion, in fact.  In other words, Kodo Sawaki suggests that we look at ourselves and laugh. And quickly, he tells us, not only that, not only realize how limited the small self, the small ego is, rather we should immediately put on okesa - or at least something clean and appropriate -  and practice the practice of buddhas and ancestors. So Kodo Sawaki encourages us to forget about our silly ideas and become buddhas immediately by wearing okesa, looking dignified, sit down, clean and balanced, respectfully, sit down, stop talking and just practice that which is not within words or ideas. Just practice that dignity of buddhas, who have nothing to say, but a lot to do.

This world around us, is very strange, and complicated and often silly. And we often find the same mess inside our brains. Kodo Sawaki suggests that we close the door, forget about this strange world, inside and outside, and just practice that which is out of this world, and in accord with the simplest thing there is, dharma.

Maybe we tend to think that what Sawaki suggests is a good idea, but it is really not an idea. It is something that is right here, something to be done completely. It is very difficult to be so simple and beyond that rigid self, beyond this world and beyond oneself, but I am afraid that if we really want to practice the simplicity, the simple truth Kodo Sawaki teaches, we have to realize that our ego -the limited self - is not a good guide. No matter how often it will take over our body and mind, there is an opportunity to let go, wear okesa, or whatever you find dignified, practice a dignified form, and attain that which is impossible to talk about but is possible to do. The most optimistic about this all to me is that ultimately, none of us is someone we should look down to, and no one is someone we should look up to. We just need some help from people who have transcended the self, and found the simplicity of dharma in their lives, no matter how often these people act strangely and do strange things. (Not that it is always OK). This is not about becoming a great person. This is about transcending a person and acting out what is necessary to act out every day.

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