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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Fukanzazengi pt 2

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Fukanzazengi pt 2

  • Thursday, March 28, 2024

Nomon Tim continues his exploration of the teachings of Eihei Dogen, and offers a reflection on the Fukanzazengi in this first post-practice period talk. Part 2 of 2. 

Unfortunately this talk was not recorded. Watch Part 1 here.

Tim's talk notes:

To review a little Dōgen's opens his famous text on zazen, the Fukanzazengi like this. I'll direct you to each paragraph and give a one liner about it just for fun. A few of the paragraphs in our translation are actually two topics so I'll break them up a little

"The Way is basically perfect…" on the one hand we already have everything we need and the world is just as it is

"And yet, if there is the slightest discrepency…" but on the other hand, there there's a big "and yet" - and yet we don't have confidence in the awakened nature of all things. We get lost in all kinds of things.

This paragraph should probably break into two with "Suppose one gains pride of understanding…". And yes, he says, great job finding practice - you're probably all fired up and feeling how deeply you're getting into this thing, and yet - another and yet for us - you're barely begun and it'd be a big confused mistake to thing you know much of anything about practice and how it all works.

"Need I mention the Buddha…" Back to earth with you, remember the great practitioners of the ages and be patient.

"Since this was the case with saints of old…" Now that you've let go of your high flying ideas, you still need to practice. And you practice in a whole different way, here's what to do and what not to do:

"You should therefore cease from practice…" and learn the backwards step that turns your light inwardly. We explored that last week a bit. And happens naturally then is…

"Body of mind and themselves will drop away…"

This opening, we think, was all original to Dōgen - his framing of what this thing called zazen is about.

Now the next part is quite straight forward and, it turns out, a straight copy from the 11th century meditation manual from the Chinese teacher Zongze. I did a little geeking out last week about how Zongze's manual was the first written piece we know of for 500 years of so of Zen practice in China which is strange and interesting, but once it came out it got popular - at least a 100 years later in Dōgen's day it did and he and other teachers started writing this stuff down.

To practice Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching.

Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

How to position your mind - release from preferences and goals - and how to position your body - very precisely. [lotus not needed, mudra matters]

So we're all set now, let's begin.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.

[demonstrate rocking - finding balance with gravity]

Then we have this cryptic business of thinking not-thinking by non-thinking. And it's a quite good translation: in the Japanese it's also two different prefixes that mean "not" or "no".

This is pointing to something beyond concepts and thoughts on the one hand. Let it all go. Feel the gaps. Be curious about the feeling behind this busy net of think think think we drape overselves all the time. Feel your freedom or at least feel how trapped you are which also helps you understand that not being trapped is a possibility too.

And there's a simple way to think about this: what we usually do with our mind that can think is we do thinking. We think thinking. So he's inviting us to flip things around instead of thinking thinking, think non-thinking. Let go of thinking see through thinking, penetrate thinking and see how it's empty like smoke. None of that stuff your thinking about is real in the way your mind is making it to be. We make our ephemeral thoughts into something that seems so real and solid, so exciting, so threatening, so interesting, whatever it is. Can we see that they're just thoughts? Can we feel that through and through? That's think not-thinking.

But here's something interesting. Remember I told you last week there are different versions of Fukanzazengi. One we believe he wrote right after he got back from Japan which is the story of this text: I went to China, I learned something really important, he it is. But actually there's a revised version that he made a lot of changes to and that's what got popular - that's what's in our chant books: this later revised version.

In the original version here's what this part says:

Once you have settled into your posture, you should regulate your breathing. Whenever a thought occurs, be aware of it; as soon as you are aware of it, it will vanish. If you remain for a long period forgetful of objects, you will naturally become unified. This is the essential art of zazen. Zazen is the dharma gate of great ease and joy.

And that turns up to be quite close to the 11th century manual by Zongze. The core line about thoughts occuring, being aware and letting them vanish and doing that for a long time is word for word.

A lot more accessible, no?

And it brings up important questions for Dōgen geeks. Was he really bringing something new from his direct experience with his Chinese teacher Rujing? Or just reporting that what happens in China is just like Zongze says. Zongze's meditation manual was also available in Japan - I think it was around before he went to China and back but remember it wasn't like looking on Amazon or going to the library then. There would just be a few copies of such a text and they'd probably be carefully guarded in the back room of some monastery or other.

And the other big question is did Dōgen change his understanding of zazen over the years of his teaching or just decide to express this central way of working with your thoughts in a more mysterious and koan-ish way later? Another thing we know about late Dōgen is that after his teacher's collected works were written up by his Chinese students and a copy got to him - about 12 years after his return from China - he suddenly started writing a lot more about Rujing and using a lot more koan references which is exactly what the think not thinking line is.

Here's the whole case

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, “What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?” Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.” The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?” Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

We know Dōgen had this koan all along - it was in the collection of 300 koans he brought back to Japan with him.

Anyway I digress into scholastic madness a little maybe. The important thing here is bring the same deliberate spirit to how you sit down with your body to how you sit down in your thinking mind. Sometimes we space out a while, that's naturally, but just sitting there in park is not zazen.

But neither is sitting there trying to force your mind to STOP! Although there are schools of Zen who emphasize a much stronger effort. There's some zazen instructions from a 20th century Japanese teacher named Yasutani Roshi who taught in the US a bunch where he talks about if you're really sitting sweat should be pouring down your cheeks:

If you are truly doing shikantaza, in half an hour you will be sweating, even in winter in an unheated room, because of the heat generated by this intense concentration.

He recommends not sitting longer than 30 minutes as you'll be too exhausted and unable to concentrate. Kinhin in that school of Zen is about recovery before you sit down and start cranking up the concentration to 11 again.

Our way is more gentle but there is effort. We are paying attention. What are we paying attention to? Letting go. Like a catch and release fisherman. The net is out we are taking in what's happening. We are aware and open.

And this section ends the specifics and we're back to a kind of philosophical enthusiasm for how truly awesome zazen practice is.

This may inspire us to think about how little specific directions there are in this manual that's supposedly about how to sit zazen. Is this really it?

The answer is that the real instruction is oral and most of it is private. There are many supporting techniques you could take up to help you think not thinking. Following or counting the breath. Working with a question or a phrase. Opening to the sounds in the environment around you. And the famous system of koan introspection that the Rinzai school specializes in. But what to do when? And how often to switch around? How creative should we be? And how persistent should we be with one technique or another.

Me I did nothing but breath counting for about a decade. About half way through it all felt to mechanical and uninspiring to me - not that I was even that consistently able to "do it" but sometimes I could stay with it for quite a while. So I went to one of my teachers kinda half hoping for something new and maybe a little celebration that I was now good enough at breath counting that I could stop and do something else. But no, she said well if it's that mechanical why don't you count down from 10 to 1 instead of counting up from 1 to 10. That takes more deliberate focus. I was a bit disappointed but I did what I was told as you do as a good Zen student.

All this to say come see me or Chris or one of the other teachers and we'll explore zazen one on one. It's not like I have a step by step curriculum - we're a bit more formless than that - but I sometimes have a strong intuition to assign a practice. And then the thing is to stick with it for a while. And to report back.

So just to underline that: probably the reason this zazen instruction text is so brief in the actual instructions and why so few were written for most of the history of Chan - of Zen in China - is that the best instruction is direct from a teacher. And back then that's absolutely all that was available to you. We have shelves full of books, meditation apps, and all kinds of info now and we can find stuff out about dozens of different meditation traditions. That's great but it's also a bit problematic at the same time. There's a value the narrow path as well as the broad.

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that, from the first, dullness and distraction are struck aside.

The closest Buddhist term to our English word "meditation" is bhavana which means "development," or "cultivating," "producing" - so loving kindness meditation would be meditation in that sense. But zazen is not that, it's not meditation that develops or cultivates or produces anything. It's the opposite: it's about non-production. Letting go.

Norman used to like to say that the great thing about zazen is it's useless. Our culture is the religion of usefulness - everything has to be useful and lead to something. Wonderful and it's gotten us into the tangle we're in. Zazen is the antidote. A wonderful form of non-usefulness.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength (of zazen).

Maintain your steadiness. Get up mindfully. it's wonderful in retreat when we get to practice sit-walk-sit-walk-sit - and feel into the depth of continuous practice.

In addition, the bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout, cannot be fully understood by discriminative thinking. Indeed, it cannot be fully known by the practicing or realizing of supernatural powers, either. It must be deportment beyond hearing and seeing--is it not a principle that is prior to knowledge and perceptions?

This is about the famous Zen enlightenment stories. Sometimes there's a moment - a sensory moment - when something shifts. That's wonderful he's saying but don't try to figure it out or seek it out. The "hossu" by the way is the priest's fly whisk that we use for special ceremonies.

This being the case, intelligence or lack of it does not matter: between the dull and the sharp-witted there is no distinction. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is negotiating the Way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward (in practice) is a matter of everydayness.

He's repeating himself from earlier and Dōgen was very deliberate in what he wrote so that means this is really important. And it's SO HARD for us to let go of our ideas of how inadequate we are isn't it? That's actually part of the practice: releasing some these ideas that are in us that we don't get it and we'll never get it and probably so-and-so does get it.

In general, this world, and other worlds as well, both in India and China, equally hold the Buddha-seal, and over all prevails the character of this school, which is simply devotion to sitting, total engagement in immobile sitting. Although it is said that there are as many minds as there are persons, still they all negotiate the way solely in zazen.

This part is actually about the political situation at the time. He's saying to folks in Japan that this is the real deal - it was practiced in India and China - and thus he's the real deal. There was some serious competition for resources and prestige. Plus the most powerful Buddhism of Dōgen's time in Japan was a group called the Tendai and they had a lot of political power and even had periods where they had monk goon squads - I am not making that up sadly - so they could march up and tear down your temple if you pissed off the Tendai as heretics and competition.

Why leave behind the seat that exists in your home and go aimlessly off to the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep, you go astray from the Way directly before you.

A wonderfully ironic comment from a guy who sailed across the sea in a little boat to get to the dusty realms of China. But it's also a wonderful encouragement to us. In Genjo Koan you might recall he says the same thing:

Here is the place, here the way unfolds.

Practice right here and now. Don’t think you need to be different from who you are, don't think you have to go somewhere far away or sign up for a really cool retreat somewhere. Practice. Here. Now.

You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning--emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.

We take being human for granted maybe - it's wonderful and kind of a pain in the ass. The Buddhist tradition has a a few pointers for us here: being human is an incredibly rare and precious opportunity [sea turtle and the ring in the ocean metaphor if time]. So we could do better appreciating that opportunity. Don't mess around.

Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not be suspicious of the true dragon. Devote your energies to a way that directly indicates the absolute. Revere the person of complete attainment who is beyond all human agency. Gain accord with the enlightenment of the buddhas; succeed to the legitimate lineage of the ancestors' samadhi. Constantly perform in such a manner and you are assured of being a person such as they. Your treasure-store will open of itself, and you will use it at will.

I love the "please" there - how sweet. And the encouragement. Keep practicing. Have faith. Trust your teachers. And keep practicing. And when body and mind drops away - or when you realize it's always dropping away - it's natural, it's organic, it's beautiful and you are free. Your treasure-store will open of itself, and you will use it at will.

So that's the Fukanzazengi. I succumbed to the temptation to finish the text before leaving for Japan and didn't leave much time for discussion t his week. What do you think of all that?

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