Dropping off Body-Mind, and the Pregnant Pillars

Taigen Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas - Febuary 9, 2002

For the last couple of years I have been translating Dogen's Extensive Record, Eihei Koroku, together with Shohaku Okumura. This is a very long collection of writings by Zen Master Dogen from the last part of his life, after he moved away from the capital up into the mountains to Eiheiji, the temple he founded, and where he trained the monks who continued his lineage. We are nearing the end of a long section of 531 mostly short Dharma Hall Discourses. I want to share with you one we translated last Wednesday from 1252, a year before he died [# 501].

Dogen says:
"Body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort, but when a temple pillar becomes pregnant, how do we discern their absence? The thick cloud matting spread over the mountain peaks is still, and above the heights the round moon shines in all directions. It stands alone, eminent, not relying on anything. The lofty buddha body does not fall into various kinds. Therefore, an ancient worthy said, 'The sage empties out his heart. The ten thousand things are nothing other than my own production. Only a sage can understand the ten thousand things and make them into oneself.' At this very moment how is it? Do you want to understand this clearly?

After a pause Dogen said: The moon moves following the boat, with the ocean vast. Spring turns following the sun, with the sunflowers red.

We have been adding little names at the beginning of each Dharma Hall Discourse, and we are calling this one, "Moonlight Over the Pregnant Temple Pillars."

Dogen starts off by talking about body and mind dropped off. It is funny that he says, "Body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort." Dropping off body and mind is an important technical phrase for Dogen, in Japanese shinjin datsuraku. Body and mind dropped away is a name Dogen uses for zazen. For him zazen is simply dropping off body and mind. It is also his name for annuttara samyak sambodhi, "Complete unsurpassed perfect enlightenment". This body and mind dropped off is the subject of this short Dharma Hall Discourse by Dogen.


In some sense, "Body and mind dropped off" refers to the letting go of our ancient, twisted karmic attachment to this limited body and mind. We are conditioned to try to acquire objects to embellish, enhance, or improve this body and mind. So just dropping off body and mind is to abandon that effort of acquisitiveness, and is a statement of the ultimate for Dogen.

The traditional story behind this phrase goes that when he was training with his teacher in a monastery in China in 1227, some twenty-five years before this talk, Dogen was sitting in the monks' hall late one night and his teacher, Tiantong Rujing, was walking behind the meditating monks, and the person sitting next to Dogen was sleeping. Rujing took off his slipper and hit the sleeping monk, saying, "You are supposed to be dropping off body and mind, why are you engaged in just sleeping, instead of just sitting?" Supposedly Dogen was greatly awakened upon hearing this. He thereupon went to Rujing's room and offered incense, saying that he had dropped body and mind. When Rujing immediately approved him, Dogen is said to have asked that he not be confirmed so quickly. Rujing said that this was dropping off dropped off. So if you drop off body and mind, please let go of that too.

Modern scholars question whether this incident really happened, because they cannot find any record of Dogen's teacher talking about "Body and mind dropped off." But an earlier teacher in this lineage, Hongzhi Zhengjue (some of whose writings I translated in Cultivating the Empty Field), does talk about it. At any rate, this phrase, "Dropping away body and mind," is very important for Dogen as the ultimate goal, and the true essence of our zazen practice.

Dogen begins this Dharma Hall Discourse by saying that, "Body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort." He is following the style of Soto Zen to start from the very top of the mountain. Then we have to spend years sometimes filling in the background. So here he is saying that the ultimate attainment is only the beginning of practice.

"When a temple pillar becomes pregnant, how do we discern the absence of body and mind?" How can we see that body and mind has dropped off when the temple pillars become pregnant? This kind of phrase about the temple pillar getting pregnant sounds like one of those mysterious Zen phrases. There is a story about somebody asking Yunmen what is the meaning of the buddha dharma, and he said to go ask the temple pillars. I am sure those pillars had heard many dharma talks.

There are many of these kinds of phrases in Zen, such as, "When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up to dance," or, "A dragon howls in a withered tree." It is winter now in a lot of the country, but today here in Bolinas it is already spring. In winter the plums are the first to blossom, so Dogen also says, "The plum blossoms on the same withered branch as last year." There was also a famous teacher whose zendo was called the Dead Stump Hall, because his students sat still like dead tree stumps. So Dogen is talking here about body and mind dropped off as the beginning of our effort when he asks, "When the temple pillars gets pregnant then how do we discern their absence?" Our practice is to sit facing the wall, maybe counting our breath, inhaling, exhaling, still like a dead tree stump. We turn within, let go, and put aside worldly affairs and concerns for forty minutes, or for a day. or perhaps for a week or a practice period. And of course these concerns jump up behind us and chatter away. But when we really can just let go, in what is sometimes called the Great Death, then eventually our true life may emerge. The dragon howls in a withered tree. The stone woman gets up to dance. The temple pillars become pregnant. In spring the buds prepare an outburst, just like last year. So ultimately, beyond dropping body and mind, Zen is about finding and reclaiming our true life, our true vitality, our true energy, which is not separate from anything, totally connected with the whole world. This is actually what we are doing here.

Body and mind may be dropped off, but that does not mean that we have no awareness; quite the opposite. When body and mind have dropped away, how do we discern their absence? So this Great Death is sometimes confused with having no thoughts or feelings as the goal, and then we hear about this heretical new American school of "Lobotomy Zen." This is Not recommended. You do not have to become stupid to be a Zen student, although it is alright if you happen to be stupid. You do not have to be smart either. But Zen is not about getting rid of your thoughts and feelings. It is simply about letting them totally drop away. Then how do we discern their absence? How can we know it if we have dropped body and mind?

Dogen explains, saying, "The thick cloud matting spread over the mountain peaks is still, and above the heights the round moon shines in all directions." Have any of you ever been up in the mountains so high that you can look down and see the cloud covering below? Maybe the moon appears. It doesn't matter really whether the moon is full or crescent. "It stands alone, eminent, not relying on anything. The lofty Buddha body does not fall into various kinds." It is interesting that he does not call it the Buddha mind or Buddha awareness; it is the lofty Buddha body. This is a kind of body, still part of the world of form. It enters into the world of form, and yet it does not fall into the particularities of the phenomenal world. Dogen says that this Buddha body does not go into all the various kinds of things.

Then Dogen quotes Sengzhao, who he calls an ancient worthy. Sengzhao was a great early Chinese Buddhist scholar, teacher, and sage in the fifth century, before Bodhidharma. Sengzhao was a student and assistant of the great translator Kumarajiva. Kumarajiva translated most of the Buddhist sutras that are studied in East Asia. There were other great translators, but Kumarajiva translated almost everything, including the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and other Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Kumarajiva was from Central Asia and was brought to China, where the Emperor made him translate all these sutras. In addition to supplying him with good Chinese scholars to help him produce fine Chinese translations of the Indian sutras, the Emperor tried an experiment in eugenics, and actually forced Kumarajiva to have a harem and engage his superior genetic ability to produce other new translators. I do not know if any of his progeny ever were noted for any translations. Anyway, Sengzhao was one of Kumarajiva's assistants, and also himself a great scholar who later wrote important commentaries.

Dogen quotes from Sengzhao, who said, "The sage empties out his heart." This character could be read as mind as well as heart. It literally means to cherish. In a way it is the mind, but not like the head; it could also be read as, "To hold in your bosom." But we have translated this as, "The sage empties out his heart. The ten thousand things are nothing other than my own production." In some ways we create the world, inhale after exhale after inhale. The world that we see is what we produce. But it is not that we create the world only by ourselves, because there is also the world that exists as a mutual co-production of all beings. Maybe it would be more accurate to say, "The ten thousand things are nothing other than our own production." But here Sengzhao explicitly calls it "my" own production.

Then Sengzhao says, "Only a sage can understand the ten thousand things and bring them into the self." This is a famous quote in Soto Zen, as it was important to the great Chinese teacher Shitou (Sekito in Japanese), the teacher who wrote "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" (Sandokai) and "The Song of the Grass Hut," both of which we sometimes chant. Case 91 in the Book of Serenity relates that Shitou was vastly awakened when he read this quote. Thomas Cleary's translation of the entire Sengzhao passage goes: "The ultimate man is empty and hollow; he has no form, yet of the myriad things there is none that is not his own making. Who can understand myriad things as oneself? Only a sage." Shitou's response, as he awakened while reading that, was to say, "A sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself." It is said that after that Shitou wrote the "Harmony of Difference and Sameness."

Shitou's response to this quote cited here by Dogen is that, "The sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself." So what Dogen, and Sengzhao, are talking about here is how we are related to the entire world. What is the relationship between us and this lofty moon, which does not depend on anything? What is our relationship to this energy that springs forth in spring? When spring arises we feel it in everything, in the flowers, the animals, and the grasses; but it is also in ourselves.

When you feel that connection with all things, however we each may feel it, then let go of needing it to be outside. Be willing to come back into the temple, or into your house; to wash the dishes or go to your job. It is okay to dance wildly in the mountains. But then please come back and hang out with the rest of us.

How do we see our connection to all beings? How do we see their connection to our own arising energy and vitality? How do we see the temple pillars getting pregnant in the light of all beings, under the light of the moon? Dogen's image of the clouds covering the mountain peaks with the moon above reminds me of those wonderful Japanese rock gardens, with a simple bed of raked gravel and a few rocks in some wonderfully asymmetric, syncopated arrangement, arising out of the gravel. This is about form and emptiness. How do we find our own true form in the middle of emptiness? How do we find our true life and vitality in the middle of our deadness, more dead even than despair (which can be pretty lively sometimes)? When we really just let go and feel like there is nothing left, if we can stay there and keep breathing and sitting for the last five or ten minutes, when it is really difficult and the bell hasn't rung yet, if we can just keep sitting, it is possible that the temple pillars may get pregnant.

"The sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself." This is dropping body and mind. We do not hold on to trying to change ourselves, or the world, to get some benefit from it. We see that, in fact, we are already deeply connected with everything, but that does not mean that we just kind of collapse. Actually we can be quite lively in that situation, as part of the ten thousand things. If we are connected with all things; if there is nothing that is not ourself, then we actually are dancing with everything. Excuse me for saying it so blatantly. This is the great Zen secret. Please forget I told you.

I will read the whole quote from Sengzhao [Tom Cleary's translation]. Sengzhao says, "The mysterious Way is in ineffable enlightenment, enlightenment is in merging with reality, merging with reality involves seeing existence and non-existence as equal, and when you see them equally, then others and self are not two. Therefore, heaven, earth, and I have the same root; the myriad things and I are one body." This is that Buddha body, shining above, not relying on anything. "Being the same as me, they are no longer existent or non-existent; if they were different from me, that would oppose communication. Therefore, neither going out nor being within, the Way subsists in between." Another way to say that is, the teaching, the dharma, reality, is a relationship. We are not the same and not different. But the energy that flows between us and all things, and between each of us, is where the Buddha body is, and where the Dharma is alive.

Interestingly, the Book of Serenity almost criticizes Shitou. The passage from Sengzhao was quoted by a government official named Lugeng, who was a student of the great teacher Nanquan. The commentator to the Book of Serenity says, "Lugeng quoted these lines as being wonderful. He hardly realized that this indeed is talking about a dream. Even so, even someone as great as Master Shitou was vastly awakened to the Way while reading Sengzhao." Then he goes on to talk about the quote. The Case or story to which this is a commentary is relevant, and has a somewhat different fundamental interpretation from Dogen's.

In the story Officer Lugeng said to Nanquan, "Teaching Master Sengzhao was quite extraordinary. He was able to say, 'Heaven and earth have the same root. Myriad things are one body.'" That is part of the long quote. Hearing this, Nanquan pointed to a peony in the garden and said, "People today see this flower as in a dream."

It seems that Nanquan was perhaps not necessarily criticizing Sengzhao, but still, questioning this lofty talk about only a sage understanding the ten thousand things and taking them into him or herself. Nanquan wondered how we can actually smell the flowers. How do we not get caught in some dream of awakening, or a mere dream of dropping off body and mind? Nanquan challenges us to really appreciate and engage this moment we are inhabiting, and the fragrance of this very world we are set in. I like this story and I like this little talk by Dogen, because they do not let us off the hook anywhere.

After that quote from Sengzhao, Dogen asks his monks, "At this very moment how is it? Do you want to understand this clearly?" Then after a pause, Dogen said, "The moon moves following the boat, with the ocean vast. Spring turns following the sun, with the sunflowers red."

It is not just that the moon shines over the ocean and we see the reflection of the moon everywhere, in the waves and in the stillness of the ocean, with the Pacific Ocean actually peaceful. But beyond that, the moon moves, following the boat. We see the moon depending on our form, depending on where we actually sit right now. Spring turns following the sun. It is still early February. Is it spring out? There are some wonderful flowers outside; did you see them? Spring turns following the sun, with the sunflower red.

So this little talk by Dogen is about how we find our deep life and vitality. Of course, if you try and grasp for it, that's not it. We have to be willing to just sit, right in the middle of this body, this mind, this life. And let go; really let go. And then let go again. And when we drop off body and mind, this is the beginning of our effort, according to Dogen. One of the things that I find very charming about Dogen's Zen is that he is constantly talking about going beyond. There is no end to it. You're never going to "get it." Don't worry about it. Let go of it. I think this is really wonderful, because Buddha is something that is actually alive not static, and extremely benevolent, and totally interconnected with all beings. The more different beings you happen to run into, the more it unfolds. It is not about getting something, or understanding anything; it doesn't matter if you understand a word I have said, or that Dogen says. But you should enjoy it, and play with it, and allow it to sing in your body and mind.

"The moon moves following the boat, with the ocean vast. Spring turns following the sun, with the sunflowers red."

This is a good talk to discuss as spring is coming. I just heard a bird. In most of this nation it is still cold and snowy. We don't really get to feel what that is like here in California, but that's all right.

"The thick cloud matting spread over the mountain peaks is still. Above the heights the round moon shines in all directions. It stands alone, eminent, not relying on anything. The lofty Buddha body does not fall into various kinds."


Excerpts from Questions and Responses:
Response to a question about Rujing hitting the monk, and the use of hitting by Zen teachers:

There were some teachers in China who used to pound on their students and tell them to wake up. One particular lineage in China included this wild guy named Deshan, quite a character, who did that. I guess he had some tough students. In Japan in the monasteries there are mostly young men, and I guess they are used to this kind of thing. But in Zen there is also Grandmother Zen, which we also have now in America. Some people need some tough daddy to get them into line, and some people need grandmothers. Whatever you need is what Zen tries to give you, whatever will help lead to just dropping body and mind.

I really felt when I lived in Japan that where I saw the Bodhisattva spirit most was in the old women on my street, the grandmothers who would come out in the morning and clean the street. They would hose it down and sweep, and say good morning to the kids going off to school, just being out there early. It was so sweet. But grandmothers can be tough too.

One of the strictest teachers I ever had was Suzuki Roshi's widow, Suzuki Sensei, when I studied chado "tea ceremony" with her briefly. She lived at the Zen Center. She could be very sweet, and she would invite people in for tea and conversation, but when she was teaching tea ceremony, she was fierce. A tiny bit of the wrong movement, and she would let you know very definitely. She was tough, but a wonderful person. She was training people the spirit of performing the simple act of making tea properly. But I do not know any stories of her actually hitting anyone.

This is the way they train people in Japan. Zen is a performance art. And we sit, expressing this body and mind dropped off. And in the training in Japan, not just for Zen monks, but also in many of the art forms- tea, the martial arts, flower arranging, calligraphy- the point is to perform each action beautifully. So the teacher's job is to correct the student, and to stop them when they go off a tiny bit. There are different ways of teaching. That is part of the Japanese tradition. It is harder to do that in America.