Friday, February 15, 2008

Cause and effect


In nearing the end of my extensive reading of Dogen's materials, I have just come across two of the most extraordinary chapters in his Shobogenzo, which for me once again underline the striking depth of understanding he attained.

Chapter 89 of the Shobogenzo (Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, book 4) is entitled "Shinjin-Iga," or, "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect."

One more time, in this chapter, Dogen recites the classic tale of the Zen Master who stated that people in a state of great practice did not fall into cause-and-effect, and was consequently born for 500 lifetimes into the body of a wild fox. This story has many interpretations, but in Dogen's expositions he continually returns to one specific point.

We are all subject to law. Our actions do have consequences. Seeking to attain a state where this is no longer true is a deeply erroneous concept.

In tackling cause and effect, the chapter deals with other subjects as well. Those of you interested in past lives and reincarnation may find this to be of interest (page 167):

"There are those among human beings, or among foxes, or among other beings, who innately possess the power to see a while back into former states, but it is not the seed of clear understanding: it is an effect felt from bad conduct. The world honored one has broadly expanded this principle for human beings and gods; not to know it is the utmost negligence in study. It is pitiful. Even knowing a thousand lives or 10,000 lives does not always produce the Buddha's teaching."

Gurdjieff appears, generally speaking, to have had equal disdain for the value of remembering past lives. (I have heard, on the other hand, firsthand accounts reporting that G. said the concept of reincarnation is essentially true ...at least insofar as humans are able to understand such things. To be specific, he used the words "it's something like that.")

In this chapter, Dogen repeatedly cites examples where conduct--that is, the failure to practice-- results in people being born into some new form of hell. Taken as a whole, it's quite clear that he says we cannot stand still: we are always moving either upward, or downward. These words convey the very same observation that Jeanne DeSalzmann used to introduce one of the Gurdjieff movements films. She and Dogen would, I believe, have found much to agree on in this matter.

Furthermore, a state in which we empty ourselves of everything is not desirable either. On page 169, we find the following:

"Master Gengaku produces 'The Song of Experiencing the Truth," in which he says; 'Emptiness' run wild negates cause and effect; and, in a morass of looseness, invites misfortune and mistakes." Clearly we should know, the negation of cause and effect is the invitation of misfortune and mistakes... to say there is no cause and effect is just non-Buddhism."

It's necessary to read the entire chapter -- which is brief -- in order to absorb the full impact of Dogen's observations about the immutability of law, the inexorable conditions under which we must work, and the dangers of a lack of rigor. He cites, in other examples, instances of accomplished masters believing they have attained a high level, when in fact all they have done is succumb to delusions and vanity which prevent them from making more efforts. In Dogen's ideal practitioner, there is always questioning, there is always the understanding that there is a lack, there is always an investment in seeing our humanity. Mr. Gurdjieff would have appreciated his message.

I meditated on this chapter this morning during my setting, and it struck me that the material helped me to understand something that has puzzled me for many years. As some of you know, I use the Lord's prayer as the opening for my morning meditation every single day, which means that I have invoked it many thousands of times. I've repeatedly studied each sentence and even word individually in an inner and outer sense in order to attempt to understand it.

I can safely report that the prayer continues to reveal new understandings even after many years of study.

The phrase "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" has always puzzled me. The temptation -- if you will excuse the reference -- is to believe in its apparent moralism. I think, now, that it rather refers to practice, and that what Dogen was talking about is directly related to this line in the prayer. To be led into temptation is to fall into the traps that Dogen outlines in "Deep Belief in Cause and Effect," and to be delivered from evil is to be spared the hell that we send ourself to if we fail to understand where we are and what we are doing. (cause and effect.)

Once again, I come away from the reading and the meditation with a deeply held understanding -- which consists of an emotional state, as well as an inner sensation and the intelligent effort to collect the meaning -- that the paramount task before us is to become human.

We must invest in our humanity, experience our humanity, live both within and outside of our humanity, accepting unconditionally the fact that we are human. It is somewhere within this deeply organic practice that we gain the transparency I spoke of yesterday, in which our awareness discovers its original nature, which is not tied to the materiality we so earnestly believe in.

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