Saturday, September 29, 2007

Back to Dogen

After a week or more of immersing myself in Trungpa--I'm almost done with Cutting Through Spiritual materialism- I got back to Dogen again this morning, and was once again struck by the extraordinary beauty with which he expounds the Dharma.

A week ago I had occasion to speak with a well-respected and incredibly intelligent man, who happens to be one of the Trustees of the Gurdjieff Foundation, about Dogen. This guy is really smart. He's with it, deeply, immersed in the work, and an extraordinarily incisive thinker.

Even he admits--insists, almost-- that Dogen is maddeningly difficult.

That shouldn't daunt us. The miracle of Dogen is that between the impossible passages, the onion-layers of seemingly impenetrable Buddhist dialectic, utterly magnificent gems are revealed. Gems that combine the sensibility of a poet's breath with an artist's eye; the irreverent wit of a wag with the incisive insights of a sage.

The chapter "Bukkyo"- "The Buddhist Sutras"--takes on a subject oft misunderstood and even dismissed among practitioners: the value of the sutras, the written word, the teachings.

Dogen doesn't bathe the stinking skin bag and then toss the philosophy out with the Buddhist bathwater. In his eyes, the study of the ideas--philosophy--is just as important as any other part of practice. The chapter is well worth reading for anyone who wants to encounter a cogent and passionate argument for the right place of intellectual teachings in the life of the spiritual adept.

The whole chapter--which is rather brief--deserves a read in its entirety. Here are two excerpts (as usual taken from Nishijima and Cross's Translation of the Shobogenzo, Dogen Sangha Press):

"Therefore the long, the short, the square, the round, the blue, the yellow, the red, and the white, which are arranged in dense profusion throughout the universe in ten directions, are all the characters of the sutras, and they are the concrete surface of the sutras. We see them as the tools of the great truth, as the Buddhist sutras. This sutra is able to spread out over the whole of Time and to spread through entire nations. It opens the gate of teaching people and does not forsake any human household over the whole earth. It opens the gate of teaching things and saves material beings throughout the earth. In teaching buddhas and teaching bodhisattvas, it becomes the whole earth and the whole universe. It opens the gate of expedient methods, it opens the gate of abiding in place, and, not forsaking one person or a half a person, it reveals true real form." (book 3, page 86)

"Nevertheless, for the last two hundred years or so in the great kingdom of Sung, certain unreliable stinking skin-bags have said, "We must not keep in mind even the sayings of ancestral masters. Still less should we ever read or rely on the teaching of the sutras. We should only make our bodies and minds like withered trees and dead ash, or like broken wooden dippers and bottomless tubs." People like this have vainly become a species of non-Buddhist or celestial demon. They seek to rely on what cannot be relied on, and as a result they have idly turned the Dharma of the Buddhist patriarchs into a mad and perverse teaching. It is pitiful and regrettable." Book 3, page 87.)

The first passage reminds me of Christ's message: the Buddha's teaching saves material beings throughout the earth. For Dogen, the words and phrases of the Buddha are no empty philosophy; they, like the rest of the life that flows into us, are a living force that offers the possibility of transformation and liberation.

My wife asked me the other night what words are good for in the practice of work. ...Nothing, perhaps; but without the words, what would we have? Let us respect the words we encounter; they, too, are part of Truth, and not to be lightly dismissed by beating the drum of silent practice. Within practice, as the words come and go, they, too, can be accepted.

The second passage, highlighted by Dogen's snottily delightful irreverence, serves to remind us that thinking has a place. It may not be the kind of thinking we usually do, but we should not discount it. It's necessary.

Let's leave it at that for today.

May your trees bear fruit and your wells yield water.

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