One day a student asked: “I have spent months and years in earnest study, but I have yet to gain enlightenment. Many of the old masters say that the Way does not depend on intelligence and cleverness, and that there is no need for knowledge and talent. As I understand it, even though my capacity is inferior, I need not feel badly for myself. Are there not any old sayings or cautionary words that I should know about?”
Dogen replied: “Yes, there are. True study of the Way does not rely on knowledge and genius or cleverness and brilliance. Because study has no use for wide learning and high intelligence, even those with inferior capacities can participate. True study of the Way is an easy thing.
Even in the monasteries of China, only one or two out of several hundred, or even a thousand, disciples under a great Ch’an master actually gained true enlightenment. Therefore, old sayings and cautionary words are needed. As I see it now, it is a matter of gaining the desire to practice. A person who gives rise to a real desire and puts his utmost efforts into study will surely gain enlightenment. Essentially, one must devote all attention to this effort and enter into practice with all due speed. More specifically, the following points must be kept in mind:
“In the first place, there must be a keen and sincere desire to seek the Way. For example, someone who wishes to steal a precious jewel, to attack a formidable enemy, or to make the acquaintance of a beautiful woman must, at all times, watch intently for the opportunity, adjusting to changing events and shifting circumstances. Anything sought for with such intensity will surely be gained. If the desire to search for the Way becomes as intense as this, whether you concentrate on doing zazen alone, investigate a koan by an old master, interview a Zen teacher, or practice with sincere devotion, you will succeed no matter how high you must shoot or no matter how deep you must plumb.
“Without arousing this wholehearted will for the Buddha Way, how can anyone succeed in this most important task of cutting the endless round of birth and death? Those who have this drive, even if they have little knowledge or are of inferior capacity, even if they are stupid or evil, will without fail gain enlightenment.
“Next, to arouse such a mind, one must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world. This realization is not achieved by some temporary method of contemplation. It is not creating something out of nothing and then thinking about it. Impermanence is a fact before our eyes. Do not wait for the teachings from others, the words of the scriptures, and for the principles of enlightenment. We are born in the morning and die in the evening; the person we saw yesterday is no longer with us today. These facts we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. You see and hear impermanence in terms of another person, but try weighing it with your own body.
“Even though you live to be seventy or eighty, you die in accordance with the inevitability of death. How will you ever come to terms with the worries, joys, intimacies, and conflicts that concern you in this life? With faith in Buddhism, seek the true happiness of nirvana. How can those who are old or who have passed the halfway mark in their lives relax in their studies when there is no way of telling how many years are left?”
Think of those who gained enlightenment upon hearing the sound of bamboo when struck by a tile or seeing blossoms in bloom. Does the bamboo distinguish the clever or dull, the deluded or enlightened; does the flower differentiate between shallow and deep, the wise and stupid? Though flowers bloom year after year, not everyone who sees them gains enlightenment. Bamboo always gives off sounds, but not all who hear them become enlightened. It is only by virtue of long study and much practice that we gain an affinity with what we have labored for and gain enlightenment and clarity of mind.
The most important point in the study of the Way is zazen. Many people in China gained enlightenment solely through the strength of zazen. Some who were so ignorant that they could not answer a single question exceeded the learned who had studied many years solely through the efficacy of their single-minded devotion to zazen. Therefore, students must concentrate on zazen alone and not bother about other things. The Way of the Buddhas and Ancestors is zazen alone. Follow nothing else.
At that time Ejo asked: “When we combine zazen with the reading of the texts, we can understand about one point in a hundred or a thousand upon examining the Zen sayings and koans. But in zazen alone there is no indication of even this much. Must we devote ourselves to zazen even then?”
Dogen answered: “Although a slight understanding seems to emerge from examining a koan, it causes the Way of the Buddhas and Ancestors to become even more distant. If you devote your time to doing zazen without wanting to know anything and without seeking enlightenment, this is itself the Ancestral Way. Although the old Masters urged both the reading of the scriptures and the practice of zazen, they clearly emphasized zazen. Some gained enlightenment through the koan, but the merit that brought enlightenment came from the zazen. Truly the merit is in the zazen.”
The basic point to understand in the study of the Way is that you must cast aside your deep-rooted attachments. If you rectify the body in terms of the four attitudes of dignity, the mind rectifies itself. Students, even if you gain enlightenment, do not stop practicing, thinking that you have attained the ultimate. The Buddha Way is endless. Once enlightened you must practice all the more.
Excerpted from The Roaring Stream - A New Zen Reader
Edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker 1996
One of the challenges to a life of practice is to protect and nourish the Mind that seeks the Way. In the beginning it is easy to have the intensity of Beginner’s Mind; everything is so fresh, so vital, so exotic sounding. Here, though, a student is questioning Dogen about his lack of attaining enlightenment, a feeling many in practice experience from time to time.
Dogen answers by assuring him that anything you devote your energy to with intensity and sincere desire will over time bear fruits for your labor. Later on he answers more directly by stating: “If you devote your time to doing zazen without wanting to know anything and without seeking enlightenment, this is itself the Ancestral Way.”
At some point in training sitting is just enough in and of itself; the “goals” of practice take more of a back seat. Meditation is just sitting in the lap of the universe and expressing your nature.
All of us have our own genjo koans, or life questions that help to keep practice vital. To settle for answers to unanswerable questions dulls the mind and practice. To live with our questions each day, to see them in our lives, and to see them evolve into new questions keeps the practice “keen and sincere.”
May your Way Be Clear,
Elana, Monkess for Daily Zen