Whattya Know?

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

“Do not suppose that what you attain becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your intellect.  Although actualized immediately, what is inconceivable may not be apparent.  it’s emergence is beyond your knowledge.”  Dogen, Genjokoan (Tanahashi)

It’s been a rich few weeks for me, reading Brad Warner’s new book—which opened up Dogen in a whole new way—and reflecting on various chapters.  Warner mentions that, having written a paraphrase for roughly a fourth of the Shobogenzo, he might be open to doing the rest, and I for one hope he does.  It’s made a huge difference for me (though I have also, with the inspiration of his book, forged ahead in the Tanahashi translation on my own).  There’s one last thing I’d like to look at, though it doesn’t apply to any one chapter of the book or fascicle by Dogen; it relates to some offhanded references at various places in the book.

The first is a paraphrase from the Mountain and Waters Sutra (which Warner, provocative as ever, calls the Beer and Doritos Sutra); the sutra talks about the way we think we know things—like water for instance—but we only know them from our point of view; water to humans is one thing, to spirits far above the earth it’s another, to fish it’s another.  The paraphrase mentions how stupid it is to think that the way things are for you is the same as they are for everyone.  And then it says—though I can’t find a line corresponding to this in any other translation, “We need to learn in practice that there may be lots of things forever beyond our human understanding, yet there is a state of universal truth that we can be a part of nevertheless.”  That was one of the most striking sentences in the whole book for me, and I do think it’s implied by Dogen.  But I can’t find a place where he actually says it.

In a chapter entitled Twirly Flowers Twirl Twirly Flowers, Dogen’s chapter on the Lotus Sutra, Warner is commenting on the chapter when he says—something which he has said elsewhere in his writing, even in this book—“So delusion can exist even in a supposedly ‘enlightened person.’  There is no permanent state of enlightenment, and there are no forever enlightened beings.”[1]  He elaborates on this statement for several pages, finally says that the key is our “understanding of nonunderstanding”:

“This is what the Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn calls ‘don’t know mind.’  It’s difficult to fully trust in our nonknowing.  To do so is to act from intuition rather than concrete understanding.  We’re trained not to do that.  But Buddhist practice emphasizes this kind of nonunderstanding.  Our knowledge is always incomplete, and our brains always misinterpret so much, that the only thing we can really trust is intuition.”

In the next chapter, Stop Trying to Grab My Mind!, Dogen and Warner elaborate further on this thought, as Dogen retells (and proceeds to beat to death) the story of the old woman who defeated the King of the Diamond Sutra.  This was a scholar, not a practitioner, who thought he knew the Diamond Sutra, and who was on his way to dispel someone else’s ignorance, when he encountered an old woman who sold rice cakes, which were known as “mind refreshers.” He bragged about his knowledge to her. And she responded by saying:

“I heard that the Diamond Sutra says, ‘You can’t grab the mind of the past, you can’t grab the mind of the present, you can’t grab the mind of the future.’  So what mind do you intend to refresh with my rice cakes?  If you can tell me, I’ll sell some to you.”

Thus the supposedly ignorant old lady defeated the King of the Diamond Sutra.  As always happens to blowhard scholars, if they listen to someone with ordinary sense.

The subject is knowing.  The subject is having knowledge.  People are fond of saying—supposedly wise people—that all we have is the present moment, but if we examine our experience, sitting with it moment by moment, it’s apparent that we no more have that than we have the past or the future.  We don’t “know” the past—compare your cherished memories of some grand event with someone else who was there—and we don’t “know” future (have a talk with all the people, myself included, who knew that you-know-who could not possibly win the Republican nomination), but when we try to grab the present we can’t do that either.  As soon as we have it it’s gone.  Or as Warner says, “I can’t know my own mind here and now because it’s too close.”  He continues.

“When you first start to come to terms with this it can feel overwhelming.  It certainly felt that way to me!  It felt like I was adrift in the ocean without a sail or an oar and without any land in sight, even if I did have a way to reach it.

“But work with it a little longer, and you begin to see that it is tremendously freeing.  Rather than being adrift in the ocean, you feel more like you’re floating through the sky.  It feels very open and beautiful.  This, I believe, is what those Buddhas of the past were trying to tell us.”

This all goes back to the koan I quoted in my last piece, the words that Nansen said to Joshu.  “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?”

I think this wish to know is the major bugaboo of human existence.  It certainly has been for me.  I know that my Redeemer livith, I know that God has a plan for my life, I know where I’m going after I die: people say such things with strong conviction, meaning I believe them very much, or something like that, but they don’t know them.  They can’t.  We want to know how things end.  We want to know how we come out.  “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” St. Paul famously said, and it’s one of the most beautiful statements in all of scripture, but when I hear it I want to say, Then what?  What will you do then?  What will you be?

If I could one name one major difference between Western and Eastern thought, between Dogen’s thought and that of earlier Buddhists (though I think all advanced Buddhist theory winds up where Dogen did) it would be this whole issue of finality, of knowing, of finally knowing.  If you are finally enlightened, what do you do?  If you die and go to heaven, what do you do?  If you finally understand the mystery, whattya got?  I think Dogen’s answer is that nothing is ever final and you don’t have anything.

Which is exactly, Warner says, what makes life wonderful.

One of the best statements on this subject is from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray, student of Chogyam Trungpa.  He had been asked about the idea of spiritual perfection.

“In Buddhism we call it buddha-nature, but buddha-nature isn’t simply an established state. It is a process of being in the river of spiritual maturation that goes on-&-on, never reaching a static point. Perfection, in this case, refers to fulfilling the journey of the human life. When are fully and completely with what it means to be human, we have let go of any attempt to pin ourselves down, solidify ourselves, or encrust ourselves at any stage. It is an unending, open process. When we have completely let go of any attempt to withdraw from life or freeze ourselves, that’s what I mean by perfection.[2]

[1] The loud clank you just heard is the sound of Websites shutting down all over the Internet where people claim to be permanently enlightened.  I agree with Warner on this matter, though I have profited from the teaching of some of these supposedly enlightened people.  Warner hammers a few more nails in their coffins further on. “To imagine yourself as fully awakened and as forever incapable of being deluded is the worst kind of delusion.”

[2] http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/07/spirituality-and-daily-life-an-interview-with-an-american-meditation-master/