Our basic habit is to turn away from what is difficult. When we encounter something that is difficult, our first line of defense is to try to change the situation. If it’s a problem with a person, we may try to mollify them, or we may simply remove ourselves and avoid the person. If it’s a problem with physical pain, then we of course want to heal. We want the pain to go away. If it’s a problem with ourselves, maybe depression, we can simply try to distract ourselves or numb the pain with drugs or alcohol. Most of us are in fact quite good at this and can lead lives with relatively few difficulties on average. After a while, though, something comes up that thwarts this strategy. Chronic pain and illness, long-term depression, persistent difficulties with people in our lives, broken relationships. We may find that our strategies simply don’t work on some problems, or we may find that a life of distraction and avoidance is shallow and impoverished.
When we begin a meditation practice, we do something that’s really pretty extraordinary. Instead of turning away from the difficulty, we turn toward it. Instead of trying to avoid the problem, we look at it closely, with some precision and curiosity and openness and gentleness. By bringing our attention to the present moment, no matter what’s happening in that moment, we come into contact with something that is fundamental to our life, something that brings real vitality to our lives. It’s not always pleasurable, but it’s real, and we may discover that it’s better to live our real lives than it is to lead a partial life. And in this way, we see that what is, whatever the actual situation at hand, is the foundation of our lives. What else could it possibly be? The present moment is something you can rely on, and you gain the confidence to be with the difficulties because you know that they won’t knock you over.
Simply being present with whatever is going on actually addresses the root of our problem. It’s like this: you have a problem. Maybe a co-worker who is really difficult, or terrible, chronic pain, or, worse, a loved one who is dying. These are real problems, and there may not be much we can do to change the situation. But so often, our response to the situation becomes an additional problem. We get wrapped up in office dramas, we feel so angry or frustrated at our bodies for not healing, or we panic when a loved one needs us. So now we have two problems: the original situation, and our response to it. By simply being present, though, we can easily avoid the second problem. And it is in this way that our practice is really directed at the root of suffering, which is clinging or aversion.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines radical like this:
(1) Characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or innovative in outlook, conception, design, etc.
(2) Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life, vital; spec. designating the humour or moisture once thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality;
(3) Relating to or forming the root, basis, or foundation of something; original, primary.
(4) Directed against the root or cause of disease, esp. towards the eradication of tumour or infection; curative, as opposed to palliative; spec. (of a surgical operation) involving extensive resection of tissue, esp. in order to remove a primary tumour and sites of actual or potential local spread and metastasis. Freq. in radical cure.
(5) going to the root or origin; touching upon or affecting what is essential and fundamental; thorough, far-reaching.
So, in every sense of the word, zazen is a truly radical practice. It is a departure from our usual way of being in the world, and it brings us into contact with what is fundamental to our vitality. It directly addresses the root cause of suffering. And being present with this moment is going to the root, it touches upon what is essential, and fundamental.
Now, what I am describing here isn’t a matter of intellectual understanding. There aren’t really stages or gradations of attainment. There’s just practice, just this moment, and each moment of practice is complete and perfect. There’s no possibility of some sort of partial understanding or imperfect practice. Practice is in this sense absolute. There are no qualifying words that we can attach to it.
As some of you know, I will be spending the next three months at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, our lineage’s monastery in the mountains of Big Sur in California, for a formal monastic training period led by Sojun Mel Weitsman and Myogen Steve Stucky. During this practice period, we will be studying ‘Denkoroku: The Transmission of the Light’ by Keizan Zenji, who was a couple of generations after Dogen. The Denkoroku is a series of stories in which the teaching is transmitted from teacher to student, from Shakyamuni Buddha up to Keizan. The spirit of these stories is that the teaching is passed ‘warm hand to warm hand’ up until the present day. It’s a lovely idea. We know now that much of the list of ancestors is apocryphal. These stories probably didn’t literally happen, but it does seem clear that the practice has indeed been handed down from the time of Shakyamuni to today in an unbroken chain.
One famous example of a transmission story is from Bodhidharma, the legendary ancestor who brought Buddhism from India to China, to his disciple Huike, and it’s told here:
The Twenty-eighth Ancestor (Bodhidharma) addressed his followers, saying, “The time is coming. Why don’t you say what you’ve attained?”
At that time, the follower Daofu said, “My present view is, without being attached to the written word or being detached from the written word, one still engages in the function of the way.”
The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my skin.”
The nun Zongchi said, “My present understanding is, it’s like Ânanda seeing the land of the Buddha Akshobhya: seen once, it isn’t seen again.”
The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my flesh.”
Daoyu said, “The four great [elements] are originally empty; the five aggregates are nonexistent. My view is that there’s not a single dharma to attain.”
The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my bones.”
Finally, Huike, after making three bows, stood in his place.
The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my marrow.”
Consequently, [Bodhidharma] made him the Second Ancestor, transmitting the dharma and transmitting the robe.
The conventional interpretation of the story is that while all of Bodhidharma’s students had good understanding, Zongchi’s understanding is a little better than Daofu’s, and Daoyu’s understanding is a little better than Zongchi’s, and Huike’s understanding is the best of them all, so this is why Bodhidharma gives him transmission. Traditionally, the dharma is transmitted to one disciple.
Dogen, as always, turns this story around, and argues that no one’s understanding is deeper or shallower than anyone else’s. No one’s practice is shallow or deep. There is only practice. He describes this in his fascicle Katto, or ‘Twining Vines’, written in the year 1243. Here’s an excerpt of a translation by Carl Bielefeldt:
We should study this. The saying of the First Ancestor, “You’ve got my skin, flesh, bones, and marrow,” is the saying of an ancestor. His four followers have all got it, have all heard it . . . Those without the correct transmission think that, since the understandings of the four disciples are familiar and remote, so the “skin, flesh, bones, and marrow” spoken of by the Ancestor differ from shallow to deep. They think “skin and flesh” are more remote than “bones and marrow” and say that the Second Ancestor received the seal, “you’ve got my marrow,” because his understanding was superior. Those who talk like this have never studied the buddhas and ancestors, and lack the correct transmission of the words of the Ancestor.
We should understand that, in the words of the Ancestor, “skin, flesh, bones, and marrow,” there is no shallow or deep. Even if there are superior and inferior in the understandings, the words of the Ancestor are just “got my.” The point is that both the indication “got my marrow” and the indication “got my bones” have no adequacy and inadequacy in “for the person, engaging the person,” “picking up grass, falling into grass.” They are, for example, like “holding up a flower”; they are like “transmitting the robe.” What is said to the four is equal from the beginning. While the words of the Ancestor are equal, the four understandings are not necessarily equal. While the four understandings may be “in pieces,” the words of the Ancestor are just the words of the Ancestor.
We should realize that, even in speaking to the Second Ancestor, he could say, “you’ve got my skin.” Even though [he were to say], “you’ve got my skin,” he would have transmitted the treasury of the eye of the true dharma [to Huike] as the second ancestor. “Got my skin” and “got my marrow” do not depend on superiority or inferiority.
Again, in speaking to Daofu, Daoyu and Zongchi, he could have said, “You’ve got my marrow.” Although [he said,] “my skin,” he could transmit the dharma [to them]. For the body and mind of the Ancestral Master, skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are all the Ancestral Master. It is not that the marrow is intimate and the skin is remote.
I have come to see that behind Dogen’s rather dense way of teaching is an incredibly open and expansive vision of practice. The liberation of our way is always available to everyone, truly without exception. Your practice is complete practice. Your understanding is complete understanding. When you make your effort in zazen, that effort, right there, immediately, is complete effort. Do you believe that?