the buddha nature of falling skies

Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye edited by Kaz Tanahashi: Treeness

Zahozhou was asked by a monk, “Does the cypress tree have buddha nature?”

Zhazhou answered, “It does.”

The monk said, “When does it become buddha?”

Zhazhou said, “When the sky falls to the ground.”

The monk said, “When does that happen?”

Zhazhou said: “When the cypress tree becomes buddha.”

This gives me a new appreciation of feeling like the sky is falling.  And since I  know the sky falls constantly, it must mean there is buddha nature constantly manifesting even in my fear-drenched world.  However, I don’t think that’s the real connection between the sky falling and the cypress tree becoming a buddha.

The resolution is in synchronous nature of Zhaozhou’s words: “When the sky falls to the ground” and “When the cypress tree become buddha.”

transmission of fetching water

Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye edited by Kaz Tanahashi: Miracles

Layman Pang said “Miracles are nothing other than fetching water and carrying firewood.”

Dogen, writing on miracles, points out that we conflate the extraordinary with the ordinary.  Miracles happen “three thousand times in the morning and eight hundred times in the evening.”  We can only attain the way through the power of miracles.  But the miracle is not what we tend to think it is.  At one level, it is the everyday-ness of getting on with life, meeting each moment and responding to what is required.  At a deeper level, it is the thread of our history, the true transmission from time immemorial.

(F)etching water is a great miracle.  The custom of fetching water and carrying firewood has not declined, as people have not ignored it.  It has come down from ancient times to today, and it has been transmitted from there to here.  Thus, miracles have not declined even for a moment.  Such are great miracles, which are no small matter.

I’m always amazed when I think of my practice as something new, something I have to “do” because I’ve been “doing” it for some years now.  The real miracle is that living a life of practice has not been ignored, it has come down to us from ancient times, silently and without fanfare.

practice like a mountain

A week of playing with Dogen, the breath, and the brush.

Starting with the daunting 1171-page Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, edited by Kaz Tanahashi (Shambhala Pub 2010).  Dogen used the image of the mountain powerfully through his writings and the most familiar to us is likely the Mountains and Waters Sutra (pp. 154-164).  Another use of mountains is in an undated fascicle:

An ancient buddha said, “Mountains, rivers, and earth are born at the same moment with each person.  All buddhas of the past, present, and future are practicing together with each person.”

If we look at mountains, rivers, and earth when a person is born, this person’s birth does not seem to be bringing forth additional mountains, rivers, and earth on top of the existing ones.  Yet, the ancient buddha’s words should not be a mistake.  How should we understand this?

Dogen tends to remind me not to take things literally.  Or maybe it’s a reminder to not stop at the literal.  He goes on to say that we have no way of knowing our own beginning or ending – or anyone else’s.  Similarly, we don’t know the beginnings or endings of “mountains, rivers, and the earth.”  And here’s the hook: this not-knowing doesn’t keep us from “see(ing) the place and walk(ing) there.”  And so it is with practice, with living and with dying.

the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva

Sprout discovers The Thing.  It doesn’t fill him with as much fear as the Five Fears that assail bodhisattvas.  I found this a fascinating tidbit about bodhisattvas in Red Pine’s commentary (and there are innumerable delicious morsels in his translation of the Heart Sutra).

First a bit a backtracking.  The problem with studying, learning, and  writing is the time for consolidation isn’t always available.  After Rohatsu in December, I committed to taking on the various commentaries on the Heart Sutra and have been delighted by some I didn’t know about.  Coincidentally (or not), a copy of Red Pine’s translation arrived from Counterpoint Press and that just sealed the deal to dive into the sutra.  (I have Ken McLeod’s contribution on the shelf but may not get to it until later this year!)

Second, a bit of history.  The first book on the Prajnaparamita I tackled was Lex Hixon’s Mother of All Buddhas.  The outcome was the same as I would have had as a fair-to-middling Elementary School student trying to read about Quantum Physics.  Then came Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, The Heart of Understanding from which I extracted the magical nature of the mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.  That seemed to suffice with regular chanting of his translation of the sutra and admonishment to simply let it seep into my bones.  Unfortunately (or not), I’m not much given to blind belief and kept returning to and becoming discouraged by Hixon’s tome.

Over time, I think I fell into the common experience that the Heart Sutra is one part faith healing, one part penetrable only by advanced scholars, one part confounding of terms and language, one part apostolic creed, one part…  You get the idea.  It seemed to be the elephant many blind wise persons were trying to describe to equally blind audiences.

Before you buy my version of the elephant, do listen to Kaz Tanahashi’s commentary on the Prajnaparamita.  The recordings are from Rohatsu at Upaya Zen Center and are in the first 20 minutes of each dharma talk.  Listen to rest of the talks too but Kaz’s description of the origins and the intent of the sutra are invaluable to clarifying this tangle that arose out of scriptural, doctrinal, and cultural contacts.

Now to Red Pine.  This translation and commentary is painstakingly written and expresses the tangled history with luminous clarity.  You can read various tidbits from it in the previous posts of this week.   However, what really stands out for me is the way Red Pine puts into perspective the historical backdrop and the doctrinal intent of the sutra – with a dollop of rollicking Buddhist mythology.  As he walks through the sutra, we learn about the intentional way it is set up to deconstruct (as a deconstruction itself!) the teachings of the ancients which lay stuck in objectifying experience.  He takes us through to the meaning of being a bodhisattva and the challenges.  That was worth the price of admission.  And finally, there is a lovely flourish that draws the circle of going inwards into practice so we can emerge from the womb of the Prajnaparamita as buddhas (hence the sutra’s epithet, Mother of All Buddhas).

Back to the teaser: what are the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva?

We fear survival – what if I give all and that generosity depletes me?

We fear criticism – what if we are censured, undermined by the dis-ingenuousness of others?

We fear death – what if we back away from that ultimate sacrifice, of giving up our life for another, for all others?

We fear a bad existence – what if the teachings are not available just as we come into being and need them to guide us?

We fear speaking before others – what if we fail in relaying the urgency of practice if we are all to realize being buddhas?

This is the holding back in the early stages of bodhisattva-hood.  When we cannot extend our practice beyond these fears, it gives birth to a refusal time and again to engage in this very life that is our own.

first line of defense

Try telling an orally fixated kitten that you too like to lick your bowl clean.  It’s a Zen thing, I explained.  Clean your bowl!  As you can see, he’s not impressed.  I’m fascinated by Sprout’s practice of defending himself.  My lacerations will heal soon and the sting does little to deter me from testing out what actually triggers his grab-and-slash reflexes.  So far I’ve sorted out that it has little to do with territory (but he has yet to meet the other two cats) or food (ample and free-range).  It does have much to do with that vulnerable underbelly.

Form.  The first of the Five Skandhas and the one that stands as the exemplar of the boundlessness, the unknowability of the other four.  Red Pine in his commentary (1) says that it represents our obsession with the material.  It is “our first line of defense in contesting attacks on the validity of our existence…” and we need to believe it exists.  We try to define ourselves in terms of the structure, shape, and extension into space and time of our body.  Oh and, how we fail.

Red Pine goes on to say we disregard the other four skandhas at our own peril.  We risk entrenching form as the only path to understanding emptiness and forget the intricate role all five play with each other.  One of the things that always fascinated me about this section of the Heart Sutra is the dropping out of “sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness” from the recitation.  It worries me that we don’t chant them with the same thundering detail as we do with form.  It elevates form as something to truly be wary of and without attention, our stance to the other four becomes one of benign neglect.  And, truth be told, becoming caught in believing the solidity of sensations, perceptions, memory, and consciousness is more cause for worry than form by itself.

Let me put it this way: when the body fails us, we may have a sense of assault on our image, identity, potential, and so on.  However the power of the delusion that we are identified by our form lies not in the body but in what we sense in it (pain!), perceive of it (Oh this is never going to end!), memories we have of it (the last time I was laid up forever!), and consciousness of the experience with it (why me!?).

So repeat regularly:

Feelings are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as feelings
Perceptions are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as perceptions
Mental formations are the same  as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as mental formations
Discernment is the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as discernment. (2)


(1) Heart Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine
(2) Skandha terms from Heart Sutra version translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Joan Halifax Roshi © 2003 

buddha, ltd

Do not try to become a buddha.  How could being a buddha be limited to sitting or not sitting?*

It’s difficult not to feel the pressure of time multiplied by dreams of what was to be.  These days I hear a little voice, more frequently than is comfortable, whispering, “It’s too late.”  Too late for this dream to be realized, too late for that wish to be fulfilled.  It’s not the frantic rabbity sense of “too late” but more a slothful, sluggish drag-my-butt sense of a compressed future.  I can be quite rational about this urgency (or lack thereof) when it relates to the to-do list of career or social eddies.  However, in matters of practice, it is a turbo-charged driveness that isn’t always useful.

And then I’m reminded that buddha or buddha-limited, sitting up-straight is the only option.  In fact, not just sitting up-straight but being upright is non-negotiable.

I think I’ll start a new organization: buddha, limited.  Anyone want to join as CEO?

*Dogen, Recommending Zazen to All People.  In Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.), Enlightenment Unfolds: The essential teachings of Zen Master Dogen.

like the dragon gaining water

Happy New Year!  It’s been a lovely week of connections which reminded me of the value of sinking into time and space intimately.  It’s also been a very reflective period and I’ve been thinking about how the path through 2012 is going to begin for me.    And, without even trying, here it is: a keystroke, a letter, a sequence of symbols that make a word and then a sentence.  I make no claims that 2012 will have any more clarity or less pretense to comprehension than did 2011.  However, I do find myself  exploring what it means to connect with the intimate truth of my life.

Ok, so I’m not even sure what that means but I have been diving deep into conversations about my tendency to speak to the truth of whatever I am connected with – be it a relationship, a situation, a mess unfolding.  And yes, I do understand that “truth” can be relative but “the intimate truth” of our experience is not.  It is that undeniable moment when we are aligned with our values and fired by the passion of our commitment to live fully.  

Well, it should be undeniable, shouldn’t it?  But that moment of knowing who I am often shape-shifts around who I think I am in the minds of others.  It becomes infused with a fog of fear I then need to step through, asking of me a depth of courage and clarity of realization that to stay lost in the projections of others is a dangerous thing in word and deed.

If all of that is too confusing, simply remember this: it is the year of the water dragon.  Nagas (dragons) are intimate with water; it is their truth, what makes them realized.   So too, I hope we will gain the water like a dragon diving deep into its true home.

As Dogen taught in Recommending Zazen to All People*, there is no learning this.

It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease.  It is the practice-realization of complete enlightenment.  Realize the fundamental point free from the binding of nets and baskets.  Once you experience it, you are like a dragon swimming in the water or a tiger reposing in the mountains.  Know that the true dharma emerges of itself, clearing away hindrances and distractions.

*Tanahashi, Kazuaki (ed.), Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen.