Our practice is simply to sit upright and to let the thoughts and feelings that naturally arise pass through the clear awareness of our mind without getting too stuck. When we see traditional images of the Buddha sitting in the noble cross-legged, upright posture, or when we see our fellow practitioners sitting so still during a long retreat, we may think that emotions are a hindrance to our practice, that they are somehow in the way, and that our real practice can happen only after we clear away the tangled mess of our emotions. I think this point of view was especially prevalent in the early years of western Buddhism, when the Asian teachers, like Suzuki-Roshi, were thought to be so much more developed than we were. Today we have a lot of western teachers who seem to be pretty normal people, and we know that they have emotions just like the rest of us, so we hold this idea a little more lightly, but I think at some level – maybe pretty subtly – many of us still view emotions as a problem.
Many of Dogen’s teachings in the Shobogenzo seem to be quite technical and certainly not very sentimental. Sometimes, Dogen may seem like the quintessential example of someone for whom personal emotions play little role in the spiritual life. But in fact, Dogen began practicing as a personal reaction to his mother’s death when he was 8 years old. According to the traditional story, young Dogen keenly felt the reality of impermanence and gave rise to the way-seeking mind as he watched the smoke from the incense rise into the air during his mother’s funeral.
Dogen is of course justifiably well known for his writings that make up the Shobogenzo, but he was also a prolific poet, and he was especially gifted at the Japanese form called waka, a type of poem that consists of 31 syllables. In his waka, Dogen reveals another side, one that is more personal and one that expresses an important link between our personal response to impermanence and practice. These poems have been beautifully translated by Steven Heine, whose commentary serves as the basis for my talk. Here’s an example of one of Dogen’s waka that expresses the simple poignancy of the passing of time:
Rising, as the mountain
Peaks and valleys deepen –
The twilight sound of the cicada
Singing of a day
Already gone by
The Japanese word for cicada is higurashi and is closely related to the word for the setting sun, higure, so this feeling of transience is embedded in the sound of the cicada. You know this feeling, don’t you? When you hear that sound of cicada, you feel that it’s the end of the day. For me, there’s something about the reference to the day already gone by that is just so tender and sad with a sense, maybe, of some regret at the passage of time. We all know this feeling, and Dogen presents it here with little adornment, just a clear expression of what is.
If that poem evokes what Heine refers to as the negative aspect of transience, this next one evokes the positive aspect, which is how we use these emotions as an inspiration for our practice:
Contemplating the clear moon
Reflecting a mind empty as the open sky –
Drawn by its beauty
I lose myself in the shadows it casts
In traditional Japanese Buddhist imagery, the moon represents awakening, so there’s this interesting sense here of being drawn to the beauty of the moon, which is an emotional response, but then losing oneself in its shadow. What is the shadow? We think of the shadow as darkness, maybe our own personal darkness, maybe the darkness of delusion, but of course there can be no shadow without light, so delusion and awakening, bondage and liberation, light and dark are intimately interconnected.
This reminds me of Dogen’s famous formula from Genjo Koan: to study the Buddha way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. We are drawn to practice by our personal experience of selfhood, by our sadness, our fear, our longing, but then through practice, we transcend ourselves or lose ourselves or forget ourselves. So emotions generate all this turmoil for us, but they also generate the inspiration for us to practice and ultimately to be released from suffering. But even in that release, we continue to be drawn to the moon, and to lose ourselves in its shadow over and over again.
The Japanese poet Teika was a contemporary of Dogen and is considered the greatest master of the waka form. In this poem, he describes the power of the mind to either remain stuck in delusion or to become liberated:
Why blame the moon?
For whether gazing on its beauty
Or whether it brings consolation,
Depends on the mind alone
I find this poem to be very inspiring. It de-emphasizes external conditions and places the emphasis on our minds and on our practice. The moon doesn’t care if we weep or if we are consoled when we look at it; there’s no objectively correct response to gazing at the moon. But through practice, we have the capacity to cultivate the mind and to transcend our self-imposed attachments. It’s very empowering. We can do this!
Finally, here is another waka by Dogen that is appropriate for this time of year and shows the other side of the poignancy in the first poem:
Although white snowflakes
Are endlessly falling
In the deepest mountain valleys,
The clear song of the warbler
Reveals that spring has already come
While transience necessarily entails endless loss, it also entails endless transformation. So, in each moment of loss, there is also a moment of hope.