On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

April 09, 2009

Informal Talks

Dogen (1200-1253)

One day a student asked: “Although I have been studying the way for years, I haven’t been enlightened. The teachers of old have said: ‘Don’t depend on intelligence and learning.’ So I believe that even if I am slow and have little wisdom, I should not become discouraged. Is there anything to learn from the teachers of old about this?”

Dogen instructed: “You are right. Inherent intelligence or high capacity is not necessary. You should not depend on brilliance or smartness. Don’t exclude those who are very slow or less talented. It is a mistake, however, to say that for the true study you should be like a blind, deaf, or dumb person. The true study of the way should be easy. But even among hundreds and thousands of students in the assembly of the on teacher in Great Song China, those who genuinely attain the way and inherit dharma are only one or two. Therefore, we should keep the examples of the ancient masters in mind.

“I see that there are those who have the utmost aspiration and those who don’t. Those who have the utmost aspiration and study accordingly will not fail to attain the way. You should remember that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. The joyfully seeking mind is primary.

“Those who vow to steal a precious treasure, to defeat a powerful enemy, or to know a beautiful lady, will follow their intention and keep it in mind on each occasion under all circumstances while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. Nothing is left unachieved with such a commitment. If you seek the way with genuine intention, as you practice just sitting, as you work on koans about ancient teachers, or face the teacher, then you can shoot a bird however high in the sky or  catch a fish however deep in the water. But without arousing such a determined mind, how can you achieve the great matter of cutting off the transmigration of birth and death at the very moment the words ‘buddha way’ are uttered? Those who have such a determined mind will invariably be enlightened, whether or not they are less learned or are slow, whether or not they are dumb or unwholesome.

“Upon arousing this mind, you should reflect on the impermanence of the world. Impermanence is not something you merely visualize, or something you create and think about. Impermanence is the truth that is right in front of you. You need not study other people’s words or textual evidence on this matter. To be born in the morning and to die in the evening, not to see someone today whom you saw yesterday; the impermanence of life is in your eyes and ears. You should not see or hear it only in terms of others but apply it to your own self.

“Even if you hope to live for seventy or eighty years, in the end you are destined to die. You should regard your pleasure and sorrow, relationship, and attachment in worldly affairs as your enemy. To do so is the way to a fuller life. You should keep in mind the Buddha way alone and work for the bliss of nirvana. Especially those of you who are elderly or who are middle-aged, how many years do you have left? How can you be lax in your practice of the way?

“Yet this is not urgent enough. You should examine both the mundane world and the Buddha realm. Tomorrow, or even in the next morning, you might become gravely ill, lose your senses, and suffer from great pain. You might suddenly be killed by a demon, or a robber, or an enemy. Truly nothing is for certain. Therefore in this transient world where the time of death is unpredictable, scheming to live forever or wasting your time plotting against others is quite stupid.

“The Buddhas spoke this truth to sentient beings. Ancestors expounded solely on this matter. I also speak of impermanence, the swift passage of time, and the urgency of birth and death. Do not ever forget this truth. Realize that you have just today, just this moment. You should concentrate your mind on the study of the way without wasting your time. If you do this, your practice becomes easy. To discuss the superiority or inferiority of your nature, the brilliance and slowness of learning, is not necessary.”

Dogen (1200-1253)

Excerpted from Enlightenment Unfolds : The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen-Kazuaki Tanahashi

Dogen speaks clearly of the mind that seeks the way with clarity and how to maintain the intensity of practice over time.  We couldn’t ask for a world of more distraction than the one we currently inhabit.  To maintain our commitment to practice over 50 or 60 years requires that we find a way to refresh ourselves daily; there is no formula that works for everyone.  We each find our own life koans to keep us awake.  And we are not in monasteries where the routine is set up for us, responsibilities provided, and practice times reliable.  One cornerstone of waking up is meditation and finding the strength of commitment to the Way to return to our practice daily.

However far we “stray” it is always good to remember

The key to cultivating the Way is knowing that your own mind is originally pure, that it is neither created nor destroyed, and that it is free of discrimination.  The mind whose nature is perfectly pure is your true teacher and superior to any of the Buddhas of the ten directions you might call upon.


Here and now,


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