Persons of Suchness: How Does it Feel, Being in these Times?Taigen Leighton
San Francisco Zen Center - March 26, 2005
This morning I will begin by saying a little bit about Dogen's Extensive Record, a book I recently translated with Shohaku Okumura. Some of you know of Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto branch of Zen in Japan, a Japanese monk who in the thirteenth century went to China and brought back the lineage that we practice here. Those of you who have read Dogen probably know him from his other massive work, the Shobogenzo (True Dharma Eye Treasury), which has longer essays, with more expanded, philosophical and poetic discussions of particular themes, koans, or images. Most of his other work, Dogen's Extensive Record that I'm talking about today, has very short talks that he gave in the Dharma hall, sitting up on the altar while all the students were standing. This book also includes one section of longer talks and another of ninety koans or old stories with his verse commentaries, and then a collection of his Chinese poetry. It includes most of what we know of Dogen's mature teaching after he left the capital of Kyoto in the middle of his teaching career, and moved up to found Eiheiji, a kind of monastic commune up in the mountains. It is still there. Even though these short talks are formal, paradoxically they are more revealing of Dogen's personality and his training style. It shows how he trained the students who were with him at Eiheiji, and who established Soto Zen in Japan after Dogen died, early, at age 53. This work shows his sense of humor, his warmth, his personality, as well as his training style.
I will focus today on just one of these short Dharma hall discourses. But first I will briefly mention another very short one as a sample of his style (no. 306, p. 285). One day, after he had moved to Eiheiji, Dogen said, "Dropping off body and mind is good practice." That is kind of funny, because this is his common description of zazen, or sitting meditation, but also of ultimate enlightenment. He starts from there.
"Dropping off body and mind is good practice. Make a vigorous effort to pierce your nostrils. Karmic consciousness is endless, with nothing fundamental to rely on, including not others, not self, not sentient beings, and not causes or conditions. Although this is so, eating breakfast comes first."
That is the whole dharma hall discourse, and gives you a sense of his bringing Buddhist philosophy back to practical, everyday matters. The point of this practice is not some exalted state of mind or new state of being, but to actually find our way to meet our practice in our circumstances, in this body and mind, in the situation we are in.
The talk I want to focus on this morning is one of the older ones, from before he left Kyoto (no. 38, p. 105). Shohaku and I gave little titles to these talks, this one is called "The Difficulty of Such a Thing." I will read the whole talk first as it is not very long. Then I will comment on it, and discuss it in various ways.
"Studying the way has been difficult to accomplish for a thousand ages. How difficult is this? Ordinary people cannot be compared to the seven wise and seven holy ones. The seven wise and seven holy ones cannot be compared to the ten holy and three wise ones. The ten holy and three wise ones cannot see the great way of all buddhas, even in a dream. Seeing in this way, one person immediately said, 'If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person.' Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing?'
Can you say such a thing or not? If you can say this, you attain the skin and marrow. If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow. Put aside for now whether you can say this or not, and whether you attain skin and marrow or not. How is this suchness? Vipasyin Buddha early on kept this in mind, and up until now has not grasped this mystery."
That is the entire talk. Then Dogen got down and left the Dharma hall. I want to talk and unpack this a little bit, and show what it has to do with our practice, here and now.
First of all he says, "Studying the way has been difficult to accomplish for a thousand ages." Those of you who come here to Beginner's Mind Temple and learn about zazen and enter into this practice may likely feel this. To study the way has been difficult to accomplish, not just now, but for a thousand ages. How do we find our way of studying the way, of finding our life, of expressing our wholehearted total being, our love and mind, and awareness and kindness, in this life? How do we study the way? It has been difficult to accomplish for a thousand ages.
Then Dogen lays it on. He asks, "How difficult is this?" He says, "Ordinary people cannot be compared to the seven wise and seven holy ones." The seven wise and seven holy ones is a phrase for sages from the practice in the early Buddhist teaching, the Arhat way. In those early practices of self-purification, ordinary people cannot compare to those sages. Then he says that these seven wise and seven holy ones cannot be compared to the ten holy and three wise ones. That latter is also a stock phrase for people on the Bodhisattva way. The Bodhisattva practice refers to the branch of Buddhism sometimes called Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, and it means practicing in the world, for the sake of liberating not just oneself but all beings, based on seeing that we are all totally connected, that our practice affects, and is affected by, everybody else in the world. This kind of universal liberation is the goal of the Bodhisattva way. As soon as we enter into practice here, as soon as you enter this room, you are involved in the Bodhisattva way. There are various descriptions in the early Mahayana sutras about stages of development of Bodhisattva practice. Dogen here says that the seven wise and seven holy ones from the early self-purifying practice cannot be compared to the stages of the Bodhisattva practice.
Then he says that the ten holy and the three wise ones in the Bodhisattva practice cannot see the great way of all Buddhas, even in a dream. Buddhas are totally enlightened ones. Dogen here is setting us up by talking about the difficulty of practice. I would say that the difficulty of practice is not about getting your legs into some funny position, or sitting still for forty minutes, but just so sustain this practice, to allow the transformation that happens when we are willing to face ourselves, to unfold in our lives and in our world. But even accomplishing all the stages of the Bodhisattvas, Dogen says, you cannot see the great way of the Buddhas, even in a dream. Then he says that seeing in this way, one immediately spoke; this is a quote from an old teacher in our lineage named Yunju Daoying (d. 902). In the mornings when we chant the names of the ancestors going back to Shakyamuni Buddha, through the Chinese ancestors, through Dogen, to Suzuki Roshi who founded this temple, we refer to Yunju Daoying in Japanese, as Ungo Doyo Daiosho. He was the student of the founder of Soto Zen in China, Dongshan Liangjie (807-869; Tozan Ryokai in Japanese).
Yunju Daoying said, "If you want to attain such a thing, you should be such a person. Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing?" This is the style of our tradition. He's talking about this thing we sometimes call suchness. Sometimes we give it other names, such as Buddha nature, or interconnectedness. There are various ways to talk about it. But here in this talk, Dogen is emphasizing the aspect of suchness. This could be translated a little differently: "If you want to attain the matter of suchness, you should be a person of suchness. Already being a person of suchness, why worry about this matter of suchness?"
Our practice is just to sit upright and face the wall, and face ourselves. We inhale and exhale, and allow body and mind to settle, inhale after exhale, period after period, week after week, lifetime after lifetime. And at each point, at each moment, there is available to us this matter of suchness. Right now, each of you already is a person of suchness. At any moment suchness is here. This is related to what the early Buddhists call bare attention. Just be present, and see a short breath as a short breath, feel a deep breath as a deep breath. We sit with our eyes open, to be open to the world of suchness. We sit with our ears open, to hear the sounds of footsteps in the hall and a door opening. Just be present, and actually face the situation of this body and mind, the situation of suchness, right now. Already just the fact that you are in this room right now proves that you are a person of suchness, even if this is your first time here.
Though it is always available, there are all these systems of stages in the Arhat path and the Bodhisattva path, and there are Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It takes a while for us to be willing to admit that we are people of suchness. It takes a while to be willing to face ourselves, and the world, and the situation right now. Part of what happens as we sit facing the wall, facing ourselves, facing our breathing, facing the racing of our thoughts and feelings, is that we succumb to the unhelpful lessons of our culture. Becoming intoxicated, we become diverted from suchness. Maybe this is true of all human cultures, but certainly in our commercialized, consumerist culture with lots of fancy kinds of entertainment, it is easy to be diverted from suchness, to run away from ourselves, to not want to face the thoughts and feelings that arise, and to not want to be present with the suchness of this, and of this. In the middle of hearing the trucks drive by and the birds singing, thoughts and feelings come up, and because we are human beings, most of us, we have greed and anger and confusion and frustration and sadness and loss and fear and all of those human things that the world provides us.
If you want to attain such a thing you should be such a person. There is an encouragement here to be a person of suchness, to be willing to stop and sit and face your life as it is. It is okay to be the person you are, this body and mind, right now, this morning. It really is; this is what all the Buddhas say. Already being such a person, why worry about such a thing?
I want to come back to that because I have a little bit of a problem with how our great ancestor Yunju Daoying says this. But yes, why worry about this thing called suchness? It is here. By coming back again and again and facing it and facing our wall, we get to feel it. And all of you have some sense of it. All of you have some taste or glimpse of it, or you would not be here. But it is hard to see. It is like trying to see our own eyeballs, it is that close, and that available. So we do not have to worry about this matter of suchness.
Dogen goes on from there. He asks, "Can you say such a thing or not?" This old saying is from Yunju Daoying who lived twelve hundred years ago, but we are still repeating his statement. Can you say such a thing or not, Dogen asks. "If you can say this, you attain the skin and marrow." This is a reference to the founder of Zen in China, Bodhidharma, who said to two of his disciples, you have my marrow, and you have my bones. But then he said to another disciple, you have my skin. It is not about how deep is our experience of suchness, but simply, can you say such a thing? Can you speak of this situation, this morning, here, now? Dogen says, "If you can say this, you attain the skin and marrow. If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow." We think about suchness, or Buddha nature, or enlightenment, as lofty philosophical goals. We spend most of our time as humans trying to get more of this, or less of that, or accomplish things. Our life in the world is about that, even if it is aimed at good things, such as getting more spiritually developed. We are trained to get better grades, or get better jobs, or better whatevers. This is our life in the world.
But Dogen says, "If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow." This attainment is not the usual kind of attainment that we think of, where we accomplish things through hard work, or being good, or going to lots of Zen lectures. He is saying, put aside for now whether you can say this or not, and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not. Can you do that? Can you just be the person who is sitting on your cushion or chair right now? Put aside whether or not you understand what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter, actually. This matter of attaining the matter of suchness is not about understanding something. Of course we have active monkey minds, and we want to understand. And it is possible to think about this and study suchness in various ways. We have a library downstairs, and a bookstore down the hall. There are many texts you can read about this matter of suchness. And yet, right now, here it is: your body and mind, your skinbag, right now. Put aside for now whether you can say this or not, and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not. That is hard to do. It is hard to put aside our questioning of whether we get it or not. It is hard to put aside all of our evaluations, since the way the human mind works is through making assessments and comparisons and categories. We can try and figure our where we are on some scale of stages, such as what our income is, or how deep our samadhi is. Our mind does that. Dogen just says, put aside all that kind of thinking for now.
We emphasize breathing, posture and breathing, just to be present and upright in front of suchness, facing suchness, listening to suchness, feeling the breathing of suchness.
Then Dogen says, "How is this suchness?" This is the most important sentence to me in the whole Dharma hall discourse. "How is this suchness?" How is it? How are you doing this morning? Are you enjoying your inhale and exhale? How is it to be present in this, in this, and in this?
So in our practice, in the meditation we do, and as we express that when we get up from our formal meditation also, we just emphasize, "How is this suchness?" How is it right now? We pay attention to this. I recommend as a mantra during zazen, or in between periods of zazen, a saying by my favorite American dharma poet, Bob Dylan. As you are sitting, as you are walking, or as you are standing or lying down, just ask, "How does it feeel?" This is like saying, how is this suchness? How does it feel, right now? Maybe there is an ache in your knee or your hip or your shoulders. Maybe there is an ache in your heart, some sadness that is bothering you, some problem. Or maybe you are having difficulties with some person. How does it feel? Pay attention. How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, no direction home? How does it feel? How is this suchness, right now?
This kind of attention, developing this kind of attention, and being willing to be present in such an intimate way, can be scary. We need to take breaks from suchness sometimes. Sometimes you need to go for a walk, or go to the movies, go watch a romantic comedy or an action thriller, depending on what you like. Still, suchness is there, right in the middle of that action thriller and your response to it. Even then you can ask, how does it feel right in the middle of this car chase? This is to be present with suchness and to sustain that, to sustain our practice of attending to suchness, attending to the way our life is right here and now, in this world, this time and place.
Dogen says, to conclude his Dharma hall discourse, "How is this suchness?" Then he throws in this wild card. He says, "Vipasyin Buddha early on kept this in mind, and up until now has not grasped this mystery." You may have heard of Shakyamuni Buddha who lived in northern India 2500 years ago. Historically this person Siddhartha Gautama awakened and became Shakyamuni Buddha, and that was the beginning of Buddhism in human history as far as we know. But in Mahayana Buddhism we say there were many buddhas before Buddha. Before him this possibility of awakening, this willingness to just meet suchness, was already available. It is always here. So there are many buddhas actually. We have a list of names of seven of them ending with Shakyamuni who go back into pre-history, previous ages. I'm not sure how to put it in modern terms. Maybe there were dinosaur buddhas, I don't know. According to modern string theory in physics there were big bangs before the present big bang. So maybe it was in some other parallel universe. Anyway, there are many worlds, many Buddha fields in all directions. Vipasyin Buddha (in our morning chant we call him in Japanese, Bibashi Butsu Daiosho) was the first of these ancient buddhas before Buddha.
Speaking of this matter of suchness, this question or practice of "How is this suchness?" Dogen says, "Even early on Vipasyin Buddha kept this in mind." Always this is what buddhas study. And yet, even up until now, Vipasyin Buddha has not grasped this mystery. How is this suchness? How does it feel to be the person on your cushion or chair right now? Even an ancient Buddha who's been a Buddha for many ages cannot grasp this mystery. We cannot get hold of it. This matter of suchness is available to us right now we have all glimpsed it or tasted it and yet we cannot grasp it, or get hold of it. We cannot write it up in outline form or draw a picture of it and put it on the wall and bow down to it and say, "There it is." We cannot do that. Even Vipasyin Buddha has not grasped this matter of suchness, even now.
Why would we do such a practice?
We are almost at the end of Dogen's dharma hall discourse, and the beginning of my dharma talk. If you want to attain this matter of suchness, you must be a person of suchness. But already, you are a person of suchness. Can we say such a thing or not? How is this suchness? This is our style of practice. We start at the top of the mountain. Then we have to fill in all the pathways up to the top. Yunju Daoying says, "Already being a person of suchness, why worry about such a thing?" We do not need to worry, actually. Suchness is right here.
And yet, I want to add to this that we have a responsibility. Being a person of suchness does not mean, as we might misunderstand it to mean, that because here we are in suchness everything is fine just as it is. Well, of course, everything is fine just as it is. And because of that we have a lot of work to do. This is the aspect of the precepts. This is the side of our actual engagement in and practice of suchness. The practice of suchness includes how we engage our life, this body and mind, this world, this place and time. How do we express suchness? We cannot get hold of suchness; we cannot grasp or understand it. Even if you have a very sophisticated understanding of it without grasping it, still that is not the point. And that is not so important. The point of our practice is that we have something to express. We have this possibility of meeting suchness, of not running away from ourselves, of not being afraid to be the person you are on your cushion or chair, right now. And then we must share this.
Suzuki Roshi talked about finding our balance against a background of perfect balance. We all know that in this place and time probably each of us and certainly our world and the culture around us is very much out of balance. Yet at each moment there is such a thing, there is this possibility of just being upright and present, and enjoying our breathing, and settling in to our inner dignity, right now. We must express that, each in our own way. There is no one right way to express suchness. And yet, already, you are a person of suchness.
Dogen's bringing in of Vipasyin Buddha here is kind of strange to me. Why is Dogen talking about this matter of suchness in terms of Vipasyin Buddha, the Buddha before the buddhas before Buddha? I cannot help but think that some part of this relates to the idea that was very prevalent in Asian culture, but I think is also in our culture, of looking back to the ancients. None of us can practice as well as Suzuki Roshi, much less Dogen. We have that feeling. We always may think that things are really bad now. Things are getting worse. It is very possible to think that.
I want to read from a commentary on Dogen by a very fine spiritual writer named Annie Dillard. She has a book called For the Time Being. Those of you who know Dogen's writings will recognize that, consciously or unconsciously, she is commenting on Dogen. One of Dogen's most famous essays is called "Time Being." And here is this book, For the Time Being, in which Annie Dillard quotes quite a lot of Christian and Hasidic teachers. She has a bunch of stories about Teilhard du Chardin who was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist. But she also references some Buddhist teachings. So I think she must have heard about Dogen's essay, even though she does not mention it explicitly.
I will read a few of the interesting things that Annie Dillard says about these times. "The good times, and the heroic people are all gone. Everyone knows this. Everyone always has." The mournings of the wise recur as a comic refrain down the vaults of recorded time" In the Talmud, a rabbi asks, 'The ancient saints used to tarry for a while, pray a while, and tarry a while after their prayer. When did they have time to study Torah? When did they have time to do their work?' Another rabbi answers, quoting yet earlier rabbis about the men of old, 'Because they were saints, their Torah study was blessed and their work was blessed.'"
Then Annie Dillard quotes Saint Augustine almost sixteen centuries ago. He "looked back three centuries at the apostles and their millennialism and said, 'Those were last days then, how much more so now!'" And then she quotes a number of others, including an unnamed eleventh century Chinese Buddhist master who complained, "Nowadays, we see students who sit diligently but do not awaken." How heartbreaking! She also quotes the Korean master Chinul of the twelfth century who "referred sadly to 'people in this age of derelict religion.'" Saint Theresa of Avila wrote to her brother in 1570, "There is so much worldliness nowadays that I simply hate having possessions." In the late 1700s a Hasidic rabbi said, "Nowadays, men's souls are orphaned and their times decayed."
She goes on like this. A nineteenth century Hasidic master said, "Nowadays, in these generations, the great teachers and prophets are dead, and all we have are 'lesser lights.'" John Ruskin, "as he aged judged that nature itself was collapsing. The weather had actually come unhinged." He predicted global warming. After a rainy year he said that the weather itself was "defiled and foul." Annie Dillard aptly ends this section with, "In our times, says a twentieth-century Hasidic rabbi, we are in a coma."
A part of our feeling that we cannot be such a person is that we look around and may feel, " I can read these old words from Dogen, and I can hear what Suzuki Roshi said forty years ago, but what do we do now?" All through history people have been feeling that this time right now is really bad. And here in 2005 I can jump right in there. Now we have reckless extremist warlord rulers who are trying to develop usable nuclear weapons and spread nuclear weaponry. If their plans go through we will have oil companies drilling up and down the east and west coasts. They are working on this. I can say, this is the worst; this is really serious; this is a really bad time. I can say that, and yet, always people have said that. In Dogen's time there was famine. In Dogen's time there had been civil war. There were at times bodies littering the streets of Kyoto.
Always this is the worst time. And it is. I just came from the wonderful, horrible exhibit at the San Francisco Civic Center. I recommend you see it. It is called "Eyes Wide Open." There are combat boots laid out for each of the 1525 American soldiers who have so far died in Iraq. Then there are a great many other shoes for the Iraqi people who have died. Looking at this field of shoes shows what is going on in a way that numbers alone do not. Some of the people who live here sat out at the Civic Center all night last night, just observing this suchness.
Already you are people of suchness. No matter what horrible things are going on now, as they have always been, how can we be present and face what is going on, face our own fears, face the reality of our times, and the confusion in our own hearts and minds? How shall we face the greed and the tendency toward vengeance or confusion that each of us has? It is not enough to just say, as Yunju Daoying did, "Already being a person of suchness, why worry about such a thing?" I do not disagree. There is no need to worry; that's kind of extra. Yet we have a responsibility to express suchness, not just understand it. How we do that is a lifetime of practice, many lifetimes of practice. How can we express the kindness and clarity of our own heart? How can we be willing to face our own fear and sadness and confusion, and just be present and upright? And then how shall we respond to our massively corrupt, reckless government and to the problems of our world in whatever ways might be helpful? Each of us has our own particular ways of responding to the problems of our friends and family, to the problems of the world around us, to war and injustice. How is this suchness right now? How does it feel?
What this practice does, just sitting upright, facing ourselves, is to give us a tremendous power to be present, to be patient, but not passive. We must be patient, but ready; we must be responsive, and find our own way of responding. We must be kind, not let our love and ability to love be deterred by hating this group or that group, whether they are Iraqis, or Venezuelans, or Koreans, or Christians, or Buddhists, or neo-cons. This is not about some particular group of people. How do we respond with the fullness of our own suchness? This means taking another breath and be willing to be present. Already, each of you is a person of suchness. Already, each of you has this possibility available. As we settle into being present and facing ourselves and facing our world, our ability to be patient, and responsive, and responsible, unfolds and develops. But already being such a person, you do not need to worry about such a thing. Do not be afraid to be the person on your cushion or chair. Do not be afraid to face your own craziness in this crazy world. It is okay, we are people of suchness here.
How do we take care of this suchness? How does it feel? Suchness is not something that happens somewhere else, like on the wall that you are facing. Suchness is not something external. That we are people of suchness means that we are part of this suchness right now. Our response is part of the world of war and peace, the possibility of kindness, the possibility of being clear and attentive. Dogen was trying to point this out to us 800 years ago. Somehow this practice of suchness is still here. It is kind of wonderful. If you are worried, don't worry about being worried. It is appropriate to be worried. If you are afraid, please do not be afraid to be afraid. Just study, how does it feel? What is my own way of responding with calmness and settledness, feeling what I'm feeling, and responding to what is going on in the world, and in our lives. This is this practice of suchness that Yunju Daoying and Dongshan and Dogen were talking about.
It may seem that studying the way is difficult. Well, it is. It is difficult to just be yourself. But it has always been difficult, and there have always been difficult times, even though these are the worst of times, and they may get much worse before they get better. But here is also this opportunity to practice suchness, this opportunity to bring awareness to the world. In such difficult times every single thing you do to express kindness and clarity, and to express suchness, can make a big difference. So this is a very wonderful time to be practicing. It is a wonderful opportunity to just be expressing your suchness in this world, today, right now. It makes a big difference. We do not know the effects of each little expression of kindness, of awareness. If you can say this you attain the skin and marrow. If you cannot say this, still you attain the skin and marrow. Put aside for now whether you can say this or not, and whether you attain the skin and marrow or not. How is this suchness; how does it feel?
Please enjoy this suchness. Enjoy your breathing. Enjoy this wonderful opportunity to be alive and meet our life. And please offer your helpful response to our troubled world. We all need your help.