Beyond Belief

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 sixth in a series on Dogen’s Zen, inspired by Brad Warner’s new book paraphrasing fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  This series has got to end sometime but hasn’t ended yet.  Earlier articles are here, here, here, here, and here.  My review of the book is here.]

Just before the film critic Roger Ebert died, he had a religious vision.  His wife describes it this way.

“That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: ‘This is all an elaborate hoax.’ I asked him, ‘What’s a hoax?’ And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.”[1]

Like the human mind, for instance.

I still remember being on a retreat with my first teacher, Larry Rosenberg, when he said that, when we begin practice, the mind seems small, and full of thinking.  As we continue we find that the mind is larger than we thought, and that thinking only occupies a small part of it.  “We find that the mind is vast,” Larry said.  “Actually, it’s infinite.”

Sometimes when Larry talked about mind, it sounded as if there were just one great Mind, and that we were all part of it or, in a sense, all had it.  When we sat we tapped into this vast mind, which included our small self but also everything else.  It reminded me of my favorite Zen Koan, Ordinary Mind is the Way.

“Joshu asked Nansen, ‘What is the way?’  ‘Ordinary mind is the Way,’ Nansen replied.  ‘Shall I try to seek after it?’ Joshu asked.  ‘If you try for it, you will become separated from it,’ responded Nansen.  ‘How can I know the way unless I try for it?’ persisted Joshu.  Nansen said, ‘The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.  Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion.  When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space.  How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?’  With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.’[2]

Joshu was eighteen at the time.  He lived, according to the story, until he was 119.  (I thought my mother lived a long time).  At the age of 60 he went on a long slow pilgrimage.  He didn’t start teaching until he was 80.

I think that all of practice is expressed in that single story.

Thus we arrive at Dogen’s teaching on time, one of his most famous essays, entitled Uji and often translated The Time Being.  It’s not a long piece, but it’s also not, to say the least, an easy read.  (Warner refers to it as Psychedelic Dogen.)  Here is a passage toward the beginning that seems to echo these other passages (this is Warner’s paraphrase).

“When we arrive at real understanding there is just one concrete thing here and now.  It’s beyond our comprehension and beyond the comprehension of anyone or anything else.  It’s even beyond nonunderstanding.

“Because there is nothing but this moment, all moments of existence-time are the whole of existence-time, and everything that exists is made out of time.  The whole of time exists at just this moment.  Let’s stop and think about whether there’s any place to which time could have leaked away from this very moment.”

Tanahashi renders the passage this way (in his more literal translation):

“Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses [all things] throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth.  The study of this is the beginning of practice.

“When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and beyond understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and beyond understanding of grass.  Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is.  Grass being, form being, are both time.”

“Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world.  Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

Each grass and each form itself is the entire earth.  Each moment is all being.

Dogen is famous for his statement that practice and enlightennment are one thing (try telling that to me after the first time I sat, all of about ten minutes, my back aching, my legs screaming with pain, my mind saying, Get me outta here.  That was my first class with Larry Rosenberg)[3], but if this is his view of time, that statement makes simple sense.  Practice and enlightenment are one thing, just like everything else is one thing, and there’s no need to worry about where you are in the overall process.  Any marker you find will be one you made up.

Warner in his commentary says that all Dogen is really trying to say in Uji—in his complicated and convoluted way—is that time and existence are one thing.  Other people said the same thing.  He mentions (on the high cultural end) Martin Heidigger and (on the low culture end) Dustin Hoffman in the movie I Heart Huckabees.  That’s an interesting philosophical idea, but it also has practical truth: this moment is all of existence not just when you’re sitting zazen in deep samadhi, but also when you’re getting ready for a colonoscopy, or getting a root canal.  As Warner puts it:

“At every moment of every day, no matter how I feel about the situation, whether it’s mind-blowingly thrilling or completely brain-numbing, I am the totality of the universe experiencing the fullness of itself.  Even if I don’t notice it.”

Warner goes on to further philosophical implications later on in the chapter, citing his paraphrase of another statement from Dogen.  “The self lays itself out to look at itself.  That’s how you should understand time.”  Buddhism famously says there is “no self,” but Warner points out the true meaning of that teaching: “We only mean that there is no fixed and limited entity that remains unchanging while life and time go on around it.”  Everything is part of that large thing.  Warner goes on to talk about it.

“Dogen’s understanding of life is that the universe is a living thing.  In the Western tradition sometimes we use the word God to express that same idea.  In order to understand himself, God arrays his own features before himself and experiences them as if they were other than him.  Yet ultimately God remains indivisible.  This is one way of looking at it. . . .

“The universe and the self are one and the same.  Time is another name for this thing.  So is the ‘present moment.’  You are not a person living in a time and a place.  You are the person and the time and the place all rolled into one.”

It is of course controversial to use the word God in a Buddhist context, though Brad isn’t the only one to ever do that and has already written a whole book on the subject.  The other day at a discussion in our zendo when the subject came up someone was quick to say, “I don’t believe in God,” but God is just a word and, if we could go back to Nansen for a minute, I don’t think it’s a matter of belief, or of knowing, another word believers often use.  When we sit over time we come to experience something larger than ourselves, and you can call it whatever you want, or call it nothing.  That doesn’t make it any less real.  “This practice keeps getting deeper” is the one thing Larry Rosenberg says to me every time I talk to him.  Deeper and wider and higher.  There’s no end to that, is my understanding of this piece by Dogen and of all of his writing.  Endings are something humans create.


[2] Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records.  Translated by Katsuki Sekida.  p. 73.

[3] After we left that class, my wife—who is, to say the least, more spiritually advanced than I—turned to me and said, “Wasn’t that wonderful?”  Yes, I replied.