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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Dōgen's Points of Practice

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Dōgen's Points of Practice

  • Sunday, February 04, 2024

Nomon Tim continues his reflections on the life and teachings of Eihei Dōgen, specifically Dōgen's Points of Practice from Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki.

Stream audio:

Stream video:

Tim's talk notes:

From Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki

Four themes:

1) aspiration p. 139. 3-11 & urgency (not intelligence) is the important thing p. 149 3-16

2) impermanence p. 140. 3-11

3) generosity / ethics / no gaining idea p165-6 4-3

4) take care of the community p. 113 3-2

END WITH - it's hard to decide what to do, consult others but follow your heart - Myozen's story p. 243-249

Shobogenzo Zuimonki intro - Ejo's notes, presumably to himself, found posthumously and published by Ejo's students.

From Dogen's "middle period" teaching at Koshoji monastery outside Kyoto. A serious monastery but more interconnected with the world of the capital.

Literal translation of Zui-mon-ki "jottings heard and recorded". Most common English title Record of Things Heard but I believe the best translation to be the most recent one by Shokahu Okamura Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki.

Sense of intimacy with Dogen as a person. Maybe as it was recorded by Ejo who is clearly very fond of Dogen, maybe as Dogen was (mostly) younger here than when most of the regular Shobogenzo (kana Shobogenzo, not to be confused with the shinji Shobogenzo - collection of koans but usually what's meant by "Shobogenzo"). Maybe as more lay people would have been around.

Koshoji burned down long ago. There's a new version but in a different location now.

A few themes in these teachings:

• importance of our aspiration - not about "doing it right" but about the spirit we bring to it, difficult for us - I have some many questions in dokusan about doing it right. I aspire to do better reminding people the details of technique are less important that the spirit we bring to this.

• staying very close to impermanence - we're hear for just an instant as the famous poem in the Diamond Sutra says:

“So I say to you –

This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;

Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

• being generous and ethical

• having no gaining idea (sound familiar? Suzuki Roshi studied Dogen deeply)

• take care of the community (an emphasis that served Soto Zen very well)

A few sections to enjoy:



One day a student asked, "Although I have been spending months and years aspiring to learn the Way, I have not yet had any realization. Many of the ancient masters said that the Buddha Way does not depend on intelligence nor require wide knowledge or sharp-wittedness. Therefor, I do not think I should disparage myself for my inferior capacity and lack of wisdom. Is there something about this that had been handed down in the tradition that I should keep in mind?"

So a student with some confidence he's on the right track even though he feels like he hasn't realized anything profound. And yet clearly some doubt about this remains, " Is there something about this that had been handed down in the tradition that I should keep in mind?"

Dogen instructed: You are right. Attaining the Way does not require intelligence or talent, nor does it depend on quick-wittedness. Nonetheless, in the genuine study of the Way, it is a mistake to encourage a student to become like the blind, deaf, or ignorant. Because having a wide knowledge or great talent is not required, we should not disparage ourselves because or our inferior capacity. True practice of the Way should be easy.

Easy! A sense of ease should be here. However another time in Zuimonki Ejo records him saying practice can be very difficult too:

(end of 2-18)

Although some people depart from their homes and give up family or property, there are those who have not yet given up their bodies. They think that they should not do anything physically painful and avoid practicing anything that may cause sickness, even though they know it to be the Buddha Way.

Like all good Dharma teachers Dogen's teachings were responsive to who he was speaking to and always, over time, bringing up both sides. Practice can seem easy, it can seem hard. Even very hard, but either way it's our aspiration, our "yes I can even though I don't really know what I'm doing" spirit, that moves us more deeply in alignment with the heart of Buddha.

What's your aspiration? Why do you practice? Dogen's first big point here is that's more importance than skill or brilliance. Another time he praises one of Buddha's early students who couldn't remember a thing from the teachings.

(from 3-16)

While the Tathāgatha was in the world, there was a monk who name was Cūdapanthaka. Although it was difficult for him to remember and recite even a single verse, because his aspiration was so earnest he attained verification without one summer practice period.

A connected thing here is that the impulse to put yourself down or compare yourself to someone else as knowing more or being "better at this" is a result of not understanding this point about aspiration. Stop putting yourself down or telling yourself you should know more or someone else has something you need.

And of course these are deep habits, the first step is to notice the suffering they bring.


Impermanence, change, fluidity, emptiness - our minds often feel threatened by this fundamental nature of who it is. I was reading a an interview this morning with a neuroscientist who said that the mind uses memories to try to create some sense of stability about who we are in an unstable world: I'm this kind of person and I can strengthen that belief because I remember this and that happening and who I was in that situation. I'm that guy.

How we relate to impermanence is a core ingredient in suffering and freedom from suffering. And it's ties into aspiration and intention. When we're more open to impermanence our deeper aspirations may flow. And in Dogen's case the sensible thing is to practice.

(from 3-11)

Once we have aroused such an aspiration, we should think solely of the impermanence of the world. This is not a matter o fusing some method of meditative contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating something in our minds that does not exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes. We need not wait for some teaching from others, some proof from some passage of scripture, or some principle. Born in the morning and dead in the evening, a person we saw yesterday is no longer here today; this is what we see with our eyes and heart with our ears….During our lifetime, though we may experience pleasure, sorrow, love from our families, and hatred for our enemies, if we can untie the entanglements of our thinking, we can spend our lives without being bothered by such thing. We simply think of the Buddha Way and seek joy for all living beings. For aged people who lives are already more than half over, this is true all the more: How many years remain? How can we slacken in our study of the Way?

This makes me think of important deaths and transitions - ones I experienced directly and ones I saw through the eyes of someone else. I think of Norman's long, long time friend and Dharma companion Alan Lew. They met in college I think and moved out to California together in 1970. They trained in Zen together at Berkeley Zen Center. Alan was also Jewish and he ended up making that his primary practice, becoming a rabbi. And of course Norman ends up becoming a Zen Priest and even the Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. Through it all they stayed very close and ended up collaborating on creating a Jewish meditation center - teaching together and exploring so much together and with many other people. I'm sure their friendship had a feeling of being so solid and so deeply rooted. And of course the mind denies impermanence in situations like this. Of course they each knew they would die but the mind says "later, later". Then one day we're on retreat with Norman in Vancouver, I think it was, maybe Norman and Alan were in their late 50's like I am now, and he gets word. Alan went out for a job that morning and was found dead by the side of the road. Probably a brain aneurism.

There's a lot I could say about how Norman processed this and shared with us. It shook him to the core and helped him see his own mortality of course but the main thing I remember from that time is he had this strong inspiration to become more compassionate. Of course we loved Norman and thought him very compassionate already but he felt like Alan had been much more loving and open and connected to others and he needed to practice being more that way as part of how he'd honor Alan for the rest of his days. It was, and is, so touching.

And of course we just cremated one member, Michael Kelberrer, and I was just visiting with Edie Norton who's on hospice. She's doing okay but is pretty much home all the time now and on oxygen and very limited in her energy. Her mind is as sharp as ever and she's being as conscious as she can be in how she meets the changes of aging. But there we were preparing for our jukai in November - we were picking someone's name together who is quite close to Edie - fully expecting Edie wouldn't be alive by then. It was interesting it didn't feel too sad actually. Just real.

How do you meet impermanence? How do you try to avoid impermanence?

True Generosity (no gaining idea)

Dogen brings up generosity a lot in Zuimonki too. Dana paramita - the perfection of giving. And this he very naturally connects to the idea of having no gaining idea which Suzuki Roshi appreciated so deeply. The karmic fruit of generosity and humility is kind of the process inside this thought too.

In this passage he starts with an example of lay life and then translates that into monastic life. We are kind of both lay people and monks in how we approach practice.


Among the laity, I see that people who have good fortune and have enabled their families to prosper are all honest and work for the benefit of others. This means they maintain their family prosperity, and their descendants will not die out in later generations.

Those who are dishonest or who harm others may seem to temporarily receive good fortune and be able to maintain their livelihood for a while, but in the end their prosperity will decline. Even if such people seem to spend their lifetimes without trouble, their descendants will know misfortune. [interesting that he doesn't talk about the future lives of the dishonest people]

Further: when we do good things for others, if we do so because of our desire to be well thought of, or to ingratiate ourselves with others, even though this is better than doing harmful things, such actions do not truly benefit others because we are thinking of the benefit to ourselves.

If we do beneficial things for other others [with humility] even if they do not notice, or we do beneficial things for future generations without considering benefit for ourselves then we are truly doing good things for others.

Then Dōgen pivots to monks, how extra important this is for them in their practice. And brings it to letting go of one's idea of self. Going behind self cherishing into freedom. This allows us to be truly generous and beneficial with others.

The ancient practice for practicing in this way is to renounce the world and cast aside the self. Only if we have truly thrown away the self will be have no desire to be well thought of by others. However if we think, "I do not care what others may think," and act unwholesomely or self indulgently, we go against the will of the Buddha.

We should not think gaining anything in return or our good reputations. We should do things knowing there is nothing to be gained and work for the sake of benefitting others. This is the primary point to bear in mind in order to achieve release from our ego-clinging.

To maintain this mind of not desiring gain, we must first of all be mindful of impermanence. One's lifetime is like a dream. Time passes swiftly. Our dew-like lives will disappear before the dawn. While we are alive for this short time, we must resolve to perform beneficial actions for others and follow the will of the Buddha.

What comes up for me around this is my long journey around livelihood. Don't take what I'm about to say the wrong way: I'm not trying to toot my horn but just to reflect on how I've somehow stumbled into something kind of approximating selfless service to others in my work and it's quite amazing to me how well the universe that supported that.

As you probably know the sitting group that became our sangha started just because I knew I needed the support others to keep up this Zen thing. I figured for sure I'd just loose the thread without a community. It didn't have to be big or fancy, just a few folks to sit together once a week. And right away that happened. I remember just one time when for a couple of weeks no one came, but my first wife was still sitting with us and when I said, "well maybe this just isn't going to work out" she encouraged me to hang in there. So full credit to Janet there.

And steadily over the years it's gotten to this. This growing and increasingly diverse community. Owning a building and being on the edge of committing to a major remodel of it. And we'll share this space with other folks and communities like we did the last four buildings we practiced in.

My focus has been to just keep showing up. I don't even know why I've been so determined. I just keep doing it. I've made plenty of mistakes with people for sure but I keep showing up. And I've never seen it as being about me even though somehow I've ended up in the middle. Sure I don't like it when people are upset with me and it pains me knowing that some people who seemed quite committed left because something about their chemistry with me didn't work for them. That hurts and I don't understand it.

And at the same time I don't understand why some people see their Dharma relationship with me as profoundly helpful and important. I just do my best to accept their gratitude and encourage them to keep practicing and keep practicing myself. Keep showing up.

Or course the mind gets focused on doing it right. There is skill involved here. Should I suggest this approach or that approach? Should I consult with this person individually before I send that group email? Should I talk about this theme or that theme? Should I get more training? And on and on. So I do keep adjusting and trying things and gradually I think I'm getting better at both listening to others but not letting the last person I talked to totally shift me to their way to thinking - I'm trying to remember to touch into what I deeply feel and think, and express that even if I'm worried it's not what they want to hear - that's a practice for me.

But I bring all of us this up because I think Dōgen's really right here. It's not about skill. It's about good intention. It's about selflessness. It's about wholesome action leading to wholesome results. It's not how we are trained: we are trained. There's an element of faith and trust in a deeper process than, "cool they loved doing the ritual that way, that's how we'll do it" even though that's a part of this.

It's showing up, doing my best, hoping for benefit for all, releasing from ego, it's okay if I don't come across as brilliant and perfect because I'm not. And somehow it all works out.

I could give much the same little talk about starting Mindfulness Northwest which is mostly how I support multiple families. Same process. It was hard, I worried if I was doing it right but I think in the end it's that I somehow touched into something that's all about benefiting others and the universe responds well. There are struggles there too - the pandemic and after have been a total bugger - but it's working out. We have enough support. We offer something deep and valuable and I've assembled a team of wonderful and unique people who work together with me to keep it thriving. When I look up and take a step back the whole thing is a complete miracle and it's from what Dōgen's talking about: aspiration, appreciating impermanence, and selfless service. No gaining idea. Gaining ideas come up, sure, every field has it's superstars and I'm not a mindfulness superstar, but I'm making an important contribution and receiving plenty of support. What a blessing.

But also here we I should also acknowledge the role of privilege, I do try to remember that things tend to go better for me as a well educated white man in this society and the support of a family that has benefited from and unequal economic system. That's in all of this as well. People have been willing to listen to me in a way that perhaps someone else wouldn't have been listened to, I don't know.

But how has it gone for you? Are the things that have gone well gone well because of your intelligence and skill? Have they gone well because of aspiration and service to others? From your own will power or from the kindness of others?

Lastly, Dōgen does talk directly about serving the community. One of the really wonderful and personal things that comes up in Zuimonki is he tells his students at Koshoji about his teachers and memories of practice.

This section is about Kenninji, one of the first Zen temples in Kyoto and where he went after he left the Tendai Buddhism on Mt Hiei. The story is about the founding teacher there, Eisai, who journeyed to China 50 years before Dōgen did. An important figure in establishing Zen in Japan.


When the late superintendent of monks, Eisai, was residing at Kennin-ji a poor man came and said, "My family is so destitute that we've had no food to cook for several days. My wife and I and a few of our children might die from starvation. With your compassion, please help us."

At that time there was very little clothing, food or property in the temple at all. Although he turned it over in his mind, he could not think of a plan to help this family. At the time there was a small, thin, piece of copper to make the halo for a statue of the Medicine Buddha.

So Eisai took it, broke it, rolled it up, and gave it to the poor man, saying, "Exchange this copper for food and relieve your family from hunger." The layman was grateful.

But Eisai's disciples were surprised and disappointed saying, "That was the halo for the Buddha! You gave it to a layman. Is that not a violation of the precepts against making personal use of a Buddha treasure?"

Eisai replied, "Yes it certainly is. However when we think of the Buddha's intention, he would cut off and offer even his flesh, hands and fee to living beings. So this was in accord with the Buddha's intention. If because of this wrongdoing I have to fall into an evil rebirth, I would still rescue living beings from starvation."

And Dogen comments:

Today's students should reflect on the core of predecessor's heart. Do not forget this.

And today in this much more affluent society nearly a thousand years later, we're surrounded by poverty too. The homelessness in Bellingham is heartbreaking. I've made some simple and I think quite inadequate attempts to give to folks from time to time. But it's not enough. I feel like I have a long way to go in living up to Eisai's example.

And I wonder what ways we'll find as a sangha working from our new home to serve the broader community in such direct ways.

There is a very real contribution to maintaining the Buddha Way - I think we have to be careful not to lose track of that - but it's also not enough as this story points out so directly.

One time as Forest Street someone would sneak in towards the end of our evening zazen and was sleeping under a table we had set up with a table cloth that went down to the floor. Like a kids fort almost. We did figure this out after a few times and I remember the deep debate we had about what to do. There was an email chain about the Man Under the Table. Which somehow became the acronym MUTA. We never learned his name somehow which seems very strange now. Did we not ask? Would he not say? "How can we support MUTA and still feel safe in our building." He did want to practice, I remember he sat with us a few times. He'd move a lot and like most people who aren't housed he was pretty smelly. I remember a woman at the noon practice we had then not wanting to have him behind her but if he was in front of her that was okay.

I really don't know what we should do as a sangha in terms of direct service to the community. I do feel that our practice does support each of us individually in really important ways. We can serve much better if we're grounded and stable in ourselves and this helps that so deeply. But like Norman after the passing of his friend I wonder if I am fully in touch with my compassion here - is there a hiding in "by running a Buddhist community I am serving the world" - that doesn't help someone who's hungry and has nowhere to sleep on a cold winter night.

I'm going to leave that as an open question for now.

So four themes I've brought up from Dōgen's wonderfully direct and personal reflections as recorded by his student Ejo in Shogogenzo Zuimonki - The Record of Things Heard:

1) aspiration p. 139. 3-11 & urgency (not intelligence) is the important thing p. 149 3-16

2) impermanence p. 140. 3-11

3) generosity / ethics / no gaining idea p165-6 4-3

4) take care of the community p. 113 3-2

What comes up for you around these themes?

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