Monday, February 25, 2008

Biology and body-sensation

After nearly 2 years of steady reading, I have finally completed Dogen's Shobogenzo. This immense compendium of Buddhist thought seems to me to have no counterpart; Dogen has plumbed the depths of his practice in ways that ultimately defy efforts at conventional analysis.

To call Dogen's material difficult or demanding would be pointless; no matter how deep the ocean, as soon as the water is over your head, you have to swim.

Dogen asks us to swim, to discover the waters within us that feed our work, which have limitless depths and limitless breadth. He calls on us to continually rediscover a work that is without limitations, without presumptions, without definitions.

One of the phrases that haunts me from this staggering piece of work is, "we have acquired these bodies difficult to acquire."

Let's admit it to ourselves, no one thinks of their body this way. Who thinks their body was difficult to acquire? As far as we can tell, here we are. We just ended up here. No effort whatsoever seems to have been made on our part.

Dogen's remark pulls the rug out from under those assumptions. From his perspective, just ending up here within this struggling aggregate of cells already required a special kind of effort. We don't need to argue about whether this implies that we were reincarnated or not; all we need to understand for the time being is that he is asking us to respect the condition we find ourselves in. He is asking us to respect our biology; respect the fact that we are part of the planet (see quotes from yesterday;) respect our organism.

The idea of respect for our organism seems novel in a day and age where the organism is just about taken for granted. Outside of the select community of athletes, dancers, and practitioners of tai chi, judo, and so on, no one respects their organism very much until it breaks down. The routine is to abuse the organism, by taking drugs, drinking alcohol,engaging in silly stunts that damage it, injecting it with steroids, and so on. Few seem to suspect that this body we live in can be an enormous ally in the effort to deepen our inner work.

There are understandings from medieval practices (mortification of the flesh) and yoga practices (the way of the fakir) that suggest the body may be part of the path. Unfortunately, these practices suggest that harming the body, denying the body, causing it pain and literal suffering, are the way towards wholeness. That may well produce something, but -- as Mr. Gurdjieff advised Ouspensky -- it is a stupid something.

We need to work with more intelligence than that if we want to advance at anything better than a snail's pace.

Respect for the body involves taking a more nurturing attitude towards it, cultivating a relationship with sensation, and discovering what this delicate and extraordinary machine can do for us if we help it to get the right kind of food. As we do this, at every step and in every moment, we begin to understand that we are dealing with a temporary situation. The body is mortal. It will die. Hence the Dogen's admonition to "practice as though extinguishing flames from around the head."

We don't have that much time. One of our collective delusions is in believing that there is always more time. There isn't. We have just so much time to complete the work that is necessary in this body.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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