Thursday, January 4, 2007

horizontal and vertical

There's a passage in Dogen's Shobogenzo I liked a lot when first I read it:

"[Someone asks] "...What can a person who has already clarified the Budhha's right Dharma expect to gain from Zazen?"

I say: We do not tell our dreams before a fool, and it is difficult to put oars into the hands of a mountaineer; nevertheless I must bestow the teaching." (Bendowa, P. 11, Nishijima &Cross, Dogen Sangha, 1994)

At first I thought this reply was quite humorous. "Ha, ha," I gloated. "What an idiot this guy is to ask the master such a question."

As if I'd know any better. Eh?

After thinking it over for a few weeks it suddenly occurred to me that Dogen's reply- of which I have cited only the very first line- contains an unexpected depth.

He may perhaps be indicating, in a uniquely clever way, that the questioner is clumsy and lacks understanding. That does not really matter. More importantly, in this one simple line, he is expounding an extensive commentary on our nature and what is needed in our work.

What are mountaineers like?

Mountaineers climb heights. They are brave and well meaning people, perhaps, but they are concerned primarily with the vertical- always looking upwards, reaching for the higher. They don't feel like where they are is adequate; only a higher point with a greater view will do. They are desirous and willfull and grasping; ambitious in the face of challenges, arrogant about their own abilities; confident of their superiority, urgent to prove their mettle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They take unnecessary risks for no obvious reason. They have, to be perfectly blunt, pretty huge egos- in many cases, approximately bigger than Mount Everest, as it happens.

Maybe they feel this is the only way to create a value for themselves; I don't know. For those who are interested, the journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer has written several fine, questioning books about this type, including "Into The Wild" and "Into Thin Air."

I think the overall point is that when our gaze is always directed upwards we fail to see what is around us. Like yesterday's blog, that's the story of my whole darned life.

With a single wry comment, Dogen points us instead to the oarsman, whose work is fundamentally and irrevocably horizontal. The work of the horizontal is broad and tangible; the oarsman spreads out his effort though the entire span of the level he lives in and is crossing.

He's not reaching for heaven. The oarsman is diligent and ordinary; under most circumstances, no one is going to see him as amazing for rowing across a lake. Rowing isn't glamorous or heroic, charismatic or amazing.

It's just practical.

If this isn't a picture of work in life, I don't know what is. Dogen says elsewhere we cannot separate practice and experience; they are one. Our experience of life is our practice. Our practice is our experience of this life.

The oarsman inhabits his environment. The mountaineer tries to conquer it. Perhaps if we look inward- and around us- instead of upwards, we may catch a physical glimpse of ourselves in ordinary life:

An oarsman afloat between heaven and earth, seeking the place of the heart.

I will leave you all to ponder on that further . I have to descend vertically from the blogging loft to deal with the more horizontal aspects of dinner.

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