• Home
  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Dōgen's Heart of the Way

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : Dōgen's Heart of the Way

  • Thursday, May 16, 2024

Nomon Tim offers a reflection on Dōgen's essay Doshi, or Heart of the Way, and encourages each of us to find our heart of practice.

Stream audio:

Stream video:

Tim's talk notes:

We're focusing more this year on our famous founder in Japan in the 1200's - Eihei Dōgen.

Raizelah helps us dive deeply into a famous essay of his called Genjo Koan and Chris and I have sprinkled a few Dogen-y talks about. Time to roll up our sleeves from now through summer and get deep into Dōgen and his teachings. As we usually do in the summer we'll enjoy a series of talks by all of our teachers. And of course we have our ongoing Reading Dōgen group on Tuesday nights ongoing.

Dōgen can be very difficult to understand. He deliberately uses language to challenge our usual conceptual views of who we are and how the world works. In particular the way we tend to divide everything up into opposites - dualistic thinking - this and that, good and bad, tall and short. To help us see these are fragile constructions of mind that crumble at a touch. Often he does this through koans and other stories of the ancestors which in their original forms are already designed to do that and Dōgen supercharges them by turning them upside down and inside out in all kinds of ways.

His practical approach to all of this is pretty much just sit. Just practice. Just be with intense curiosity and openness. A major duality he is concerned with is the duality implied by enlightenment itself. If we're striving to be an enlightened being we're making ourselves into unenlightened beings. What violence to ourselves and the dharma we do thinking in that way. So he coined a term "shushō-ittō" which literally means "practice and verification are one" practice-enlightenment all one word or practice-verification. That the practice doesn't lead to something the practice is completely it. Nothing needs to be added.

So his writing seeks to shake us out of such ideas as practice leads to enlightenment so it can be hard to unscramble and while I've read through a fair bit of his masterwork Shobogenzo I have to admit I haven't studied all that deeply or taught Dōgen much. It is a bit intimidating but also that I don't want to just confound people here so then I hit this impossible burden of trying to make Dōgen make sense.

But I'm on it. It's worth it. Hard work sometimes.

AND…I was delighted that Dōgen also offers a soft landing too. One of his essays called Doshin - the heart of the way - is surprisingly brief and straight forward so I thought I'd share that tonight. Doshin wasn't dated but we assume it was written later in his life. We also don't know if he intended it to be included in the final Shobogenzo or not. You can study a tangle of scholarship on how many chapters he meant to include and in what order.

It's just 3 pages in English translation so here we go:

In seeking the buddha way, make the heart of the way primary. Those who know how the heart of the way should be are rare. Inquire of those who clearly know it.

There are those in the world who have a heart of the way but in fact lack the true heart of the way. There are also those who have a true heart of the way but are not known by others. Thus, it is hard to know whether one does or does not have the heart of the way.

Above all, do not listen to and trust those who are unwholesome. Also, do not make your desires primary, but make the dharma expounded by the Buddha primary. Keep well in mind, day and night, how the heart of the way ought to be. Wish and pray by all means to realize genuine enlightenment in this world.

So it's about our hearts! And wish and prayer and devotion are included in Dōgen Zen. There are also chapters of course where he says don't bother with chanting and praying.

And pay attention to who you give company with. Feel into their heart of the way. And you might also meet people who have this true heart of the way who are quiet about it. Maybe they don't see it in themselves either.

In this declining world, there is a general lack of those who have the true heart of the way. However, for the time being, keep your mind on impermanence; do not forget that this world is transient and that human life is precarious. But do not be preoccupied with reflecting on the impermanence of the world. We should always take the dharma seriously and our own bodies, our own lives, lightly. We should not begrudge our bodies or our lives for the sake of the dharma.

The declining world was part of a theory in Buddhism that each Buddha is in the world for a certain amount of time - sometimes that looks like a human lifetime, other times a much vaster stretch of time - and after their gone people will continue understanding for a while. Until we ignorant humans start to forget and lose our way. In Dōgen's time most people were sure it was a dark time of forgetting the Buddha's teaching. This seems to mostly have been a motivator for Dōgen.

And see how transient and impermanent everything is - a core reflection in all Buddhisms and ultimately the path to healing and letting go, if with plenty of fear and challenge along the way. But he says don't get too hung up on that either.

And give yourself completely to the Dharma. Devotion is a core practice even for Dōgen.

Now there's a long section on chanting and devoting your heart to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and you do this continuously from one life to the next.

Then, deeply respect the three treasures—buddhha, dharma, and sangha. Vow to respect and dedicate yourself to the three treasures even if your life or body changes. Asleep or awake, think of the merit of the three treasures. Asleep or awake, chant the three treasures.

When you leave this life, and before you enter the next life, there is a place called an intermediary realm. You stay there for seven days. You should resolve to keep chanting the names of the three treasures without ceasing while you are there.

After seven days, you die into another intermediary realm and remain there for no more than seven days. At this time you can see and hear without hindrance, like someone with a celestial eye.

Resolve to encourage yourself to keep chanting the names of the three treasures without ceasing: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.”

After passing through the intermediary realm, when you approach your parents to be conceived, resolve to maintain authentic wisdom. Keep chanting refuge in the three treasures in your mother’s womb. Do not neglect chanting while you are being born.

And as we develop the six faculties, we should wish to make offerings to, recite, and take refuge in the three treasures.

When your life ends, your eyesight will suddenly become dark. Know that this is the end of your life, and be determined to chant, “I take refuge in the Buddha.” Then, all buddhas in the ten directions will show compassion to you. Even if, due to conditions, you are bound to an unwholesome realm, you will be able to be born in the deva realm or in the presence of the Buddha. Bow and listen to the Buddha.

After darkness arises in your eyes, continue to chant refuge in the three treasures until you enter the intermediary realm and further.

Thus, keep chanting, birth after birth, world after world, until you reach enlightenment, the buddha fruit. This is the way all buddhas and bodhisattvas have practiced. It is the way to deeply realize dharma. It is an embodiment of the buddha way. Resolve not to involve yourself with thoughts other than this.

We might see our closing chant "Buddham saranam gachami…" as a nice little ritual, a lovely song, a coming together as a community, and it is all that but it's also the practice that propels you through multiple lifetimes as a disciple of Buddha.

A scholarly commentary on this essay reminded me that most other Japanese Buddhist teachers of his day would emphasize chanting "namu amida butsu" to request rebirth in the pure lands of Amida Buddha - a really lovely and peaceful place - but Dōgen didn't feel that way. Just keep chanting the 3 refuges and return to this burning world so you can help beings.

He only mentions a few 7-day intermediary states between death and birth but there are said to be 7 of those stages giving us the total of 49 days that we actively mourn and remember and encourage someone who's died. It's because they're still moving through those stages - which the Tibetans call the bardos - the Japanese turns out to be chū'u.

And then Dōgen recommends a couple of very hands on practical things to do in practice:

Work to create a buddha image in your lifetime. Once it is created, dedicate three types of offerings: a mat, sugar water, and candles. Purify them and offer them to the image.

Also, create copies of the Lotus Sutra in your lifetime. Write it or make a print of it and maintain it. Place it on your head and then bow to it. Offer flowers, incense, candles, food, drink, and clothing. Be sure your head is clean before you place the sutra on it.

Another commentary I read said that well what's odd about this little text of Dōgen is how conventional it is. Most other Buddhist teachers of his day would recommend these kinds of practices and Dōgen himself often recommends against regular Buddhist devotional practices - even though we know he did them at his monastery - perhaps his usual line is to encourage us not to be too precious about it all or think it's going to have some particular outcome outside of the practice of them.

But then he closes with a very Dōgen emphasis. Sit zazen:

Do zazen regularly with your kashaya on. There is a precedent for attaining the way in the second next lifetime as the result of wearing a kashaya in this lifetime. It is the robe of all buddhas in the past, present, and future. Its merit is immeasurable. Zazen is not a method of the three realms. It is the method of buddha ancestors.

Kashaya is Sanskrit for Okesa - this outer robe of ordained practitioners. Speaking of which there are two among us who have received permission from their teachers to sew the okesa. Maybe you've heard: Seishin will ordain with me and Raizelah will ordain with Chris Fortin. Possible both ordinations will happen in Fall 2025 or so.

So find your heart of practice. Hang out with other heartful practitioners. Contemplate the impermanent of everything but don't be obsessive about it. Get out there in this declining world and do some good. And all through your life and right through to lives to come express your devotion to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Chant the 3 refuges. Make Buddha statues. Copy the Lotus Sutra and venerate it. Put on your robe and sit zazen. No hard koans in this particular text but isn't it beautiful!

I mentioned in the Zoom Zen a few times I've been appreciating an 18th century descendant of Dōgen (and thus our ancestor): the monk-poet Ryokan. There's a lot to say about him - wonderful character - but for tonight just that he's really interesting in that he started out doing serious monastic practice for a dozen years in his 20's into 30's, then went on pilgrimage which is usual, but instead of returning to run a monastery somewhere he settled in a simple hut outside his home village and spent the rest of his life practicing on his own, writing poetry in exquisite calligraphy, playing with children, he did enjoy his wine it seems, and being a joyful free spirit.

Dogen's teachings were only then being rediscovered - his essays were treated more like sacred scrolls to venerate than texts to read after his death. We're not sure why but that's how it went. Ryokan wouldn't have had access to the full Shogogenzo but he had hand copied scrolls of a few of his key essays and he really loved them.  I'll close with his beautiful poem.

On a somber spring evening around midnight,

Rain mixed with snow sprinkled on the bamboos in the garden.

I wanted to ease my loneliness but it was quite impossible.

My hand reached behind me for the Record of Eihei Dogen.

Beneath the open window at my desk,

I offered incense, lit a lamp, and quietly read.

Body and mind dropping away is simply the upright truth.

In one thousand postures, ten thousand appearances, a dragon toys with the jewel.

His understanding beyond conditioned patterns cleans up the current corruptions;

The ancient great master’s style reflects the image of India.

I remember the old days when I lived in Entsu Monastery

And my late teacher lectured on the True Dharma Eye.

At that time there was an occasion to turn myself around,

So I requested permission to read it, and studied it intimately.

I keenly felt that until then I had depended merely on my own ability.

After that I left my teacher and wandered all over.

Between Dogen and myself what relationship is there?

Everywhere I went I devotedly practiced the true dharma eye.

Arriving at the depths and arriving at the vehicle—how many times?

Inside this teaching, other’s never any shortcoming.

Thus I thoroughly studied the master of all things.


Now when I take the Record of Eihei Dogen and examine it,

The tone does not harmonize well with usual beliefs.

Nobody has asked whether it is a jewel or a pebble.

For five hundred years it’s been covered with dust

just because no one has had an eye for recognizing dharma.

For whom was all his eloquence expounded?

Longing for ancient times and grieving for the present, my heart is exhausted.


One evening sitting by the lamp my tears wouldn’t stop,

and soaked into the records of the ancient Buddha Eihei.

In the morning the old man next door came to my thatched hut.

He asked me why the book was damp.

I wanted to speak but didn’t as I was deeply embarrassed;

My mind deeply distressed, it was impossible to give an explanation.

I dropped my head for a while, then found some words.

“Last nights’ rain leaked in and drenched my bookcase.” 

How do these teachings land for you? How does your dharma heart feel when you're in touch with it? How do you express your devotion to the 3 jewels? There are no right answers. Let's do timed speaking and listening tonight - such a deep practice. Please hold the silence with care except for when one of your trio is sharing. No need to comment. Deep expression, deep listening. Our dharma hearts beating together. 

www.RedCedarZen.org     360-389-3444     registrar@redcedarzen.org
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software