Deep Wisdom

Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master By Brad Warner.  New World Library.  306 pp.  $16.95.

[This is the fourth in a series on Dogen’s Zen, inspired by Brad Warner’s new book paraphrasing fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  Earlier articles are here and here and here.  My review of the book is here.]

High on the list of concepts I’ve spent my Zen life trying to understand is prajna, which occupies a prominent place in the Heart Sutra, the one we most often chant at our Zen Center.  So many times have I chanted it that I now have it memorized, though I never tried to do that.  Whole books have been written on it, one of which I’ve read.  It expresses the profound truths of Mahayana Buddhism in a single page.

I often find the Heart Sutra funny.  I find many Zen teachings funny, in ways that often seem inappropriate (if I can judge by the expressions of people around me.  Sometimes, at the end of a sesshin, we chant the Diamond Sutra in its entirety, and I admit I’m punchy from having sat for seven days, but I often laugh so hard I almost fall off my cushion.  The Diamond Sutra reads like a Marx Brothers movie).  The Heart Sutra starts by saying that nothing exists—no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue—because all dharmas are marked with emptiness, which means that they’re dependent on other things and ultimately ungraspable.  After chanting that we basically don’t have a body, the sutra moves on—hilariously; it’s a real howler—to say that the teachings of the Buddha don’t exist either.  It cites in particular the Four Noble Truths, the most basic and revered of all Buddhist teachings.  It also says, in its most discouraging—or perhaps most liberating—moment, that there is no attainment, as in, attaining enlightenment.  The sutra basically throws Theravada Buddhism out the window, the way my freshman roommate at college threw his typewriter out our fourth floor window, he was so discouraged with his writing.  Look out below.

In the absence of all these things a Bodhisatva depends on prajna paramita, and the mind is no hindrance and no fears exist.  That got my attention the first time I read it.  The difficulty I’ve dealt with most often on a meditation cushion is fear (what a shrink would probably called anxiety).  I’m definitely interested in something that makes fears cease to exist.

In his meditation instructions, the Fukanzazengi, Dogen describes the place that the mind should go as the place beyond thinking (that’s the way Tanahashi and others translate the Japanese term), and that’s always made sense to me.  There’s the thinking part of the mind, which theoretically could go silent (though it never does); there’s also a place beyond that that sees the thinking and the (theoretical) non-thinking.  When I first began to sit I caught just a small glimpse of that place, noticing the mind was thinking before immediately getting caught up in the thought process again.  Over time, that glimpse expands, until you realize not just that there’s a place in the mind beyond thinking, but that the thinking part of the mind is comparatively small.  There’s vast space around the thinking mind, all kinds of mind we haven’t experienced and have never used.

That’s where I locate prajna, which is often translated wisdom beyond wisdom.  There is that human concept that we call wisdom.  We can argue about what it is—Western philosophy seems to do that endlessly—but we all agree it exists.  There is the much more common thing called non-wisdom (otherwise known as stupidity).  Those are human qualities that the discursive mind can reason about and disagree on, and of course the discursive mind can also go back and forth on whether or not to do the thing (should I have that drink or not?  Make a pass at that woman or not?).  But there’s another part of us, beyond this duality, that just knows.  It knows what wisdom is.  It’s the part of us that tightens up when we’re doing the wrong thing (if we’re paying attention to that deeper part of ourselves, located in the body, we’ll feel it).  It’s subtle, and I’ve spent a fair amount of my life not paying attention to it.  That’s what I think of as prajna.

Brad Warner’s teacher Gudo Nishijima describes prajna as “a kind of intuitive ability that occurs in our body and mind, when our body and mind are in the state of balance and harmony” (that state of balance and harmony occurs during zazen, as he said previously).  Warner goes on to say, “So it is not intellectual wisdom, but a wisdom that includes both the physical and the mental and at the same time transcends the categories of either physical or mental.”  What I absolutely love about the teachings of Nishijima, and his most notable disciple Brad Warner, is the way they take ethereal difficult concepts and make them practical and down to earth.  Get your body and mind in balance and you experience prajna.

In the third fascicle of the Shobogenzo, the Maka Hanya Haramitsu, Dogen offers his explanation of the Heart Sutra, and basically says everything is prajna.  Not only are various aspects of the Buddha’s teachings prajna, but also the six elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space).  As Tanahashi translates, “The entire body is prajna.  The entire other is prajna.  The entire self is prajna.  The entire east, west, south, and north is prajna.”

It is when I read this chapter in Warner’s book that I finally understood Dogen’s statement (elsewhere in the Shobogenzo) that walls and tiles, pebbles and grasses preach the dharma.  There is a deep wisdom operating in the world, operating everywhere.  It’s in us as well.  When we’re in touch with it—not dithering around thinking, but in sync with our body—we’re in touch with that wisdom.  We understand how things operate.  And we know what to do.

That connection, that balanced state which Nishijima talks about so often, is not permanent.  It comes about through zazen, and doesn’t necessarily end the minute we get up from the cushion, but before too long the difficulties of the world take us out of that balanced state (don’t they?  Take a look at your own experience).  At the same time, it’s always available.  It’s always there.  It’s as close as the present moment.

As Warner says, “A wise person is someone who is in tune with the wisdom that already exists all around.”

We’re Buddhas when we’re in touch with that wisdom.  We’re deluded beings when we’re not.

That explains a phenomenon like Joshu Sasaki (or any number of wayward Zen masters), who seemed on the one hand to express great wisdom but on the other hand did a lot of harm through his sexual transgressions.  As Warner says, “A person can be a Buddha one minute and a jackass three minutes later.

“Buddhahood is something fragile and precious that must be cared for and maintained.”

Thus the necessity for a lifetime of practice.