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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Meeting Dogen

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Meeting Dogen

  • Thursday, January 11, 2024

Nomon Tim reflects on the life of Eihei Dogen, offering stories from his illustrious life.

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This is my first formal talk in 2024 and I'm excited to announce that we've decided to focus the teachings this year on Dogen. I'm sure we've all heard of Dogen. For one thing we have our wonderful weekly "reading Dogen" group that meets for an hour on Tuesday evenings and is steadily reading their way through his master work Shobogenzo - 3 years in, I think Chris said they are about 1/3 of the way through. And he wrote lots of other things beyond Shobogenzo too. Tonight I want to give a little overview of Dogen's life. Story night for Dogen studies.

Eihei Dogen is seen as the founding teacher of the Sōtō school and that makes historical sense as well as religious sense as he was one of a few important Japanese monks who went to China in the 13th century to see how they were doing Chan - their pronunciation of Zen. For Dogen, this was a pivotal time and he had an important experience of the practice settling into his bones there. Getting back home to Japan he set out to share what he'd learned. In his own way as we inevitably do. Like in my case I'm mostly sharing what I learned from Norman but doing it in my own Nomon Tim kind of way. We can't help putting our spin on things to some extent. Dharma isn't a neutral expression of some facts, it's a lived experience expressed through our lives.

Dogen Zenji - "zenji" is an honorific meaning Zen Master - was a really, really interesting guy. Tonight I want to give the first of what might be two or three talks on his life inspired by a few new-to-me Dogen books. It's good we're recording this though as I don't really give talks during practice period so it'll be a little while until part two!

So young Dogen was incredibly intelligent. Supposedly he was reading Chinese poetry by 4 years of age and was reading difficult Buddhist writings like the Abhidharma and Vasubandhu by 9 years old. A very literary, smart little guy.

And at the same time a powerful seeker of truth beyond words. A key part of his story is about loss. His mother died when he was young - just 7 years old - and gazing at the incense smoke during her funeral he had a profound experience of the impermanence of everything.

I feel like I'm experiencing the impermanence of life a lot lately. Michael Kelberer just died. Edie Norton is at the moment doing okay but has entered hospice. A woman who studies mindfulness with me Maggie Weisberg who is quite dear to me - she is 99 years old actually - is in hospital with a bad infection. They got the infection under control but in the process her kidneys were damaged. And the impermanence of life comes up around younger people too. We've been working a bit with my child who seems to have taken up smoking cigarettes. Hopefully she'll stop again - very upsetting to all her parents. And she will do what she does. As we all do.

Anyway Dogen was definitely part of an aristocratic family and could have grown up to be a court official of some kind. Instead he left home to become a monk with the powerful Tendai Buddhist church - the dominant form of Buddhism at the time.

For all of his writing he wrote very little about his own life and he didn't leave behind any reflections on why he wanted to leave lay life and ordain. Biographies written later say it was the wish of his mother - or perhaps his own realization at her funeral. But he left to become ordained soon before his 12th birthday which is when an important "coming of age" ritual happens which I assume makes it harder to leave it all behind. Imagine making a decision like that when you were 11. 5th grade or so.

And he could have stayed in Tendai Buddhism and probably would have become a major leader but he wasn't satisfied  with what he learned there either. For one thing, I learned recently, he was disgusted by a suggestion from a teacher there that if he studied hard he'd have a good shot at becoming a well-known teacher who would gain fame and fortune and even become a teacher to the emperor.

Dogen wrote so very much, but like I said in his own writing he doesn't say much about himself or his story. But in his early years of teaching in Japan one of his students, Ejō, wrote down a bunch of informal talks he gave - some in the middle of the night. And from this record, called Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki - translated as "The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye" -  we get some sense of what Dogen was like. I'm finally getting to studying this and it's pretty wonderful.

Here's where he tells the students about being groomed to be a great meditation teacher in the Tendai church:

[Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki (Okamura translation) p. 203-204]

So a wonderful iconic monk devoted to truth, deep practice and humility. And everything that's written hundreds of years later about a great historic figure is for sure subject to a certain degree of… enthusiasm.

He wasn't really satisfied by what he was learning at the Enryaku-ji monastery at the top of Mt Hiei - the mountain stronghold of Tendai Buddhism. At one point though he was talking to a Tendai teacher he did respect who encouraged him to learn what he could from that tradition. Again in the Record of Things Heard we have him recalling that teacher telling him:

"the mind of awakening is studying the Dharma gates such as 'the three thousand worlds in a single moment of thought' and keeping them in one's mind. This is called 'the mind of awakening.' To meaninglessly wander around in confusion with a bamboo hat hanging around one's neck is called an act under the demonic influence of a tengu."

The teaching 'the three thousand worlds in a single moment of thought'  is a famous part of Tendei - a realization of the Chinese master Zhii based on his studies of the Lotus Sutra. And tengu are these weird bird-like spirits. Invoking restlessness here.

And so young Dogen stayed a few more years on Mt Hiei learning what he could. Could advice for all us: stick it out for a while, learn what you can. And yet you don't have to get stuck wherever forever.

At the time there were a few temples in Japan devoted to the new religion of Zen. One of them, Kennin-ji, was in Kyoto just down the hill from where he was. Probably at the age of seventeen he left Mt Hiei to study Zen with the 2nd abbot of Kennin-ji a monk named Myozen. They practiced there together for six years before deciding to go to China to go back to the source of Zen.

These six years don't get thought about or talked about much I don't think. What a life changing thing it would be for any of us to be a Zen monk from age 17 to 23. Life changing. I guess I did this in a much more low key way. First encountering Zen formally soon after turning 18. Entering residential training at 20 (where Raizelah and I first met!) and dipping back into it at 23 as well. But I was coming and going, still in touch with family and friends, still doing my regular life but with these additional deep dives into Zen. Dogen was living in the deep dive the whole time.

The teacher of Myozen - Dogen's first Zen teacher there in Japan - is a more important historical character. He went to China twice - in the 1160's and 1180's - and for similar reasons: dissatisfied with the practice on Mt Hiei. Dogen often gets all the credit for being the first Japanese Zen teacher but actually Eisai went before him. Several of Eisai's students had also already gone to China before Dogen and Myozen went in 1223 and brought back stories and advice about how to do that. It's so hard for us to remember in our modern connected ago how much less information there was on everything and often what you had was years or decades old by the time you learned it.

It was reasonably dangerous sailing across the China sea in the little wooden sailboats of the time. Both the risk of the boat not making it and there were lots of shipboard diseases. Dogen speaks about this in Record of Things Heard also turning his experience of getting sick during the journey into a practice inspired by a koan from one of the great Chinese masters:

[Zuikmoni 6-16  p. 255]

Finally arriving in China, Myozen was able to start practicing at a Chinese monastery right away but Dogen was stuck on the ship for 3 months. Imagine how impatient you might have been if you had this long standing dream to go somewhere - say trekking in the Himalayas - and after you landed the authorities made you wait in a hotel for 3 months. And actually that did happen to people a bit during Covid didn't it. Quarantined for a few weeks anyway.

We don't know why that happened to Dogen. It might have been because his didn't have the full Vinaya ordinations - he just had the bodhisattva precepts ordination like we do here - and that was required of Chinese monks. But if that's the case there's no record of Dogen receiving additional ordinations but somehow he was let off the boat eventually.

But even stuck on the boat he was impressed by a visiting Chan monk - the tenzo, head cook, of one of the big monasteries came to buy mushrooms at the docks and they had an important conversation that's Dogen wrote about later in his Instructions to the Cook, Tenzo Kyokan, which our cooks study to this day.

And so Dogen joined Myozen at last at the monastery on Mt. Tiantong. His ultimate teacher wasn't teaching there yet and Dogen was again unsatisfied it seems. After coming all the way to China! Then he wandered around and did meet important examples of the depth of practice he appreciated.

Here a story he told about these days where he admires simple practice in deliberate poverty.

[Zuikmoni 1-4, p.37 starting with "I personally met a monk from Sichuan…"]

and another time he received a lesson to realize the way deeply for himself as the basis of teaching - that it wasn't just about learning a bunch of stuff to bring back to Japan:

[Zuikmoni 3-7, p. 129]

A few months later, he made it back to Mt. Tiantong and then his Japanese teacher Myozen suddenly died! Imagine being in a totally foreign land and your one friend from home suddenly dies. Not just your friend but your teacher who is often a powerful father or mother figure.

One thing we don't know is how well Dogen really could communicate with Chinese people. Very very few of them would of spoken any Japanese as there had been so little exchange at that point. While the Japanese like most of the Southeast Asian cultures did borrow Chinese characters and revered China as the source of great learning and civilization they had their own ways of pronouncing those characters and Japanese has a different structure and tonality than Chinese. And we know Dogen was incredibly well read - he could read Chinese decently well how could he have spoken it well. I wonder how much of the communication he did was actually by sitting down with brushes and a piece of rice paper between them and writing characters plus a complex game of charades.

A group of us are off to Japan in a few months as you know. And we'll visit the Japanese places I mentioned. We'll go up on top of Mt Hiei to Enrakuji Monastery where Dogen ordained. Last time we peered into a small building where they did the ordinations - the great ordination platform of Hiei-san. And we'll go visit Kenninji the first Zen temple in the Kyoto area where Dogen studied.

Maybe another time we'll see these sites he saw in China - who knows.

The last thing I'll bring up tonight is a huge pivotal moment in the story. The abbots of these large state-sponsored monasteries would rotate and the old guy, Wuchi Liaopai, rotated out and a new one named Rujing rotated in. And actually they were from different schools of Chan. Wuchi was from the Linji line that because Rinzai in Japan and Rujing from the Caodong line which, you guessed it, became Soto in Japan. A monastery wasn't exclusively one school or another. Sectarianism isn't always the rule.

Rujing was just a perfect fit for Dogen and apparently Dogen was a perfect fit for Rujing. A fairy tale student-teacher relationship unfolded almost immediately. According to Dogen writing much later Rujing set aside the usual protocol where monks would see the abbot very rarely in dokusan and invited Dogen to come to his rooms any time.

And in Record of Things Heard he talks about Rujing several times, here's a kind of sweet passage where he brings up having a big heart as a teacher even if you have to correct someone and how he learned that from Rujing

[Zuikmoni 2-5 p. 75]

And another passage where we find out a bit about where he learned how central zazen practice is:

[Zuikmoni 3-19, p. 157 with "Dogen also said"]

In the end he was in China for 3 or 4 years - not that long in a way but again what if you or I went off to Tassajara or Great Vow or a training monastery in Japan for 3 or 4 years, that would be a big thing wouldn't it? Still that's always struck me as a little odd. He made it to the mother land and found a great teacher, why leave? The traditional story is that he had a big enlightenment story and felt ready to go home and share the Dharma and I guess that works too.

Oddly, more impermanence of life, soon after he left Mt. Tiantong, his teacher Rujing also died! I wonder if he felt a bit cursed. On the other hand life expectancy was lower then for sure. The average lifespan in China at the time was about 30 but I suspect a lot of that low average is from really high rates of child mortality. If you did make it to 3 or 4 years old I wonder what you chanes were of making it to 50 or 60 or more. And many famous mythical Zen teachers from old China lives much longer - into their 80's and 90's - one famous teacher was said to have STARTED teaching when he turned 120.  My friend Koshin down on Vashon Island, his teacher lived to be 107. But he was a far from perfect teacher and that's a whole 'nother story.

Much in this story about determination, conviction, and drive. Learning what you can where you are but not being satisfied for so-so. How has determination and drive arisen in your life. How did you know when to move on and when to stick with it? Sometimes of course we stick with things far too long, is that a danger here? Has it been for you?

Let's have a triads discussion with timed turns. I also want to keep practicing this form. For our teachers to practice getting the timing right - I often slip a little there - and for all of us to practice this deep area of holding this form of formal speaking and listening. Remember that you take turns the bell rings to start and stop your time of sharing. The others deeply listen and don't interrupt or ask questions. If you seem to run out of something to say pause and drop in, maybe something else will emerge. Allow yourself to discover something in course of speaking rather than giving a little prepared speech.


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