Wednesday, January 12, 2011

in the bodies of wild foxes

It's been several years since I cracked open my copy of the Shobogenzo as translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, published by Dogen Sangha.

Dogen, a contemporary of both Rumi and Meister Eckhart--albeit on the other side of the planet-- was undoubtedly among the most profound thinkers Zen Buddhism ever produced. Nonetheless his works seemed to be largely forgotten, especially by Western philosophers and spiritual seekers, despite the extraordinary insights he presented.

In volume 4, we encounter chapter 89, Shinjin-Inga, or, "Deep belief in cause and effect."

It's always difficult to interpret Dogen. He is writing, more often than not, from a level we do not understand, and within the context of a rich spiritual tradition unfamiliar to Western minds. Nonetheless, we can find points of contact that will interest any spiritual seeker.

Dogen's contention was that cause-and-effect are very real. He unequivocally states, “In general, the truth of cause and effect is vividly apparent and is not a personal matter: those who commit evil fall down, and those who practice good rise up, without a thousandth or a hundredth of discrepancy"(p.171)

We're not presented with some ethereal spirituality here; it is a world of consequences. The idea that everything merges into the void (another idea Dogen rejects) or that there is no good or bad doesn't enter into it. It is not a completely relativistic universe, where we cannot measure merit or value. Any number of philosophies and religions have arisen during what we call the “new age” which claim to negate cause-and-effect, but–as this particular chapter so eloquently demonstrates–to negate cause and effect is to invite calamity.

We are presented, and other words, with a cosmology of consequences that bears a relationship to Socratic ideals of a higher good, as well as Gurdjieffian ideas–perhaps most tellingly, Jeanne DeSalzmann's statement that nothing is ever static–everything is always going up, or down. And, she reminded J. G. Bennett (as recounted in Idiots In Paris) "bad results" may be obtained.

Gurdjieff himself made no bones about it: those who don't make an effort in their lives, a material effort, are destined for a place where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This question I raised yesterday of justice and punishment spills over into the question of cause and effect. We are material beings–expressions, no doubt, of energy, which has the potential to vibrate at a higher or lower level. Our very materiality itself is a reality, not a fantasy or work of the imagination, as some Hindu ideologies would have it. And it is only our materiality that makes us available to the expression of the good or the bad, the higher or lower.

It's not all relative.

Dogen understood that a man must continually question both his inner state and his motives: "Do not be unclear about cause and effect." This is, in fact, the phrase that releases the cursed Zen student who was trapped in the body of a wild fox for 500 lifetimes.

In a way, we are all that Zen student, who told his pupils that people in a state of great practice do not fall into cause and effect. Believing (mostly through the ego) that we are somehow exempt from higher laws–others, of course, must obey them, but we are somehow special–we fail to see that it is impossible to escape from cause-and-effect. We thus find ourselves in the bodies of wild foxes.

What is the truth of this moment? If I want to clarify cause and effect, I must see how I am now, and what it produces. I am immediately and irrevocably responsible. Every moment where I manifest that I don't take responsibility, I am still held accountable.

As I was explaining in my last post, the stark reality of that inevitable accountability, which devolves upon a man or woman at the moment of his or her death, is a sobering draught.

If we truly, uncompromisingly engage in life, this doesn't have to be a depressing weight that drags us down. Under the right conditions, it can be a source of inspiration– or even a spark that lights the soul on fire.

May our prayers be heard.

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