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Taigen Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas – March 9, 2002

This morning I am going to talk about zazen as the practice of suchness, or thusness, in terms of some stories in the tradition of Soto Zen, or actually, in this case, the Chinese Soto school called Caodong [pronounced tsow-dong]. The basic story is about Dongshan (807-869), the founder of Soto Zen in China, who is the author of “The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” that we sometimes chant. We have been studying this chant Wednesday mornings in San Rafael. And we have been going through the lineage from the Sixth Ancestor to Dongshan Wednesday evenings in San Francisco. This is in some way a follow-up, but also getting to the essence of these stories. When Dongshan was ready to leave his teacher, Yunyan, Dongshan asked, “Later on, if someone asks me if I can depict your reality, or your teaching, how shall I reply?” This is a funny question because it might also be read as, “What if someone asks me if I have your picture?” Back then they passed on pictures of the teachers as a sign of transmission. But also, the question really means: If someone asks, how shall I describe your reality, your dharma, your teaching? Yunyan paused, and then said, “Just this is it.” What I wish to talk about this morning is Yunyan’s, “Just this is it.”

When he heard that, Dongshan sank into thought. And Yunyan said, “You are in charge of this great matter. You must be most thoroughgoing.” So in the beginning of “The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” it says, “Now you have it, preserve it well.” This is the same phrase. “The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” begins, “The dharma of suchness, or thusness, is intimately transmitted by Buddhas and ancestors. Now you have it. Preserve it well.” Take care of it. Our practice is not about getting something new, but about taking care of something that we already have. Now that you have heard this, you have it. Our practice is: how do we take care of this -and this -and just this.

Dongshan left Yunyan and was still perplexed; he didn’t quite get it. As he proceeded he was wading across a stream,and seeing his reflection in the water, he had some understanding. He looked down in the stream and saw, and then he wrote this poem: “Just don’t seek from others or you’ll be far estranged from yourself. Now I go on alone, but everywhere I meet it. It now is me; I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.” From this comes the line in “The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” that goes, “You are not it. It actually is you.”

Dongshan’s first poem might be translated a few different ways. Another version begins: “Earnestly avoid seeking without lest it recede far from you.” So our basic practice is to turn the light within. We just sit, aware of our breathing, and of our posture, and we feel the tension in our chest, or in our lower back, or in our shoulders. We feel our breathing in our legs and in our abdomen; in our nose and mouth. In this way we turn attention within.

This version of Dongshan’s poem continues: “Today I walk on (or practice) alone. But everywhere I meet him.” The pronoun “it” used here could also be written as “him.” It is also about Dongshan’s teacher, and also about ‘just this.’ It continues, “He is now no other than me, but I am now not him. It must be understood in this way in order to merge with suchness.”
This basic story about “Just this” is very important in our practice. We should deeply consider that “Just this is it.” Later on when he became a teacher with his own community, Dongshan was doing the monthly memorial service for his teacher Yunyan. He presented offerings before the image of Yunyan and he told this story. And a monk came forward and asked, “When Yunyan said, ‘Just this is it,’ what did he mean?”
Dongshan said, “At that time I nearly misunderstood my late teacher’s meaning.”

The monk then asked, “Did Yunyan himself know It Is, or not?”
And Dongshan responded, “If he did not know It Is, how could he be able to say this? If he did know It Is, how would he be willing to say this?”

So, in a way, to say, “Just this is it” is too much. I apologize to all of you for telling you about this. I am sorry. I have poisoned you with this information, which you already knew very deeply before I repeated it. Another time a monk asked Dongshan why he honored Yunyan as his teacher. (Yunyan was pretty much unknown in his time, and Dongshan had also studied with famous teachers). And Dongshan said about Yunyan, “I only value that he didn’t explain everything for me.”

I also want to read a little commentary on this story in one of his very last teachings from Dogen (1200-1253), who brought the Soto lineage to Japan. It does not add so much to the original story, but it is another way of telling it. One day in his fifty-third year, Dogen said, “I can remember, great teacher Dongshan when making offerings to the portrait of his teacher Yunyan, related the story about portraying Yunyan’s reality. A monk asked, ‘What was the meaning of Yunyan’s saying, Just this is it?’

“Dongshan said, ‘At that time I nearly misunderstood my late teacher’s meaning.’
“The monk said, ‘It’s not yet clear. Did Yunyan know It Is, or not?’
“Dongshan said, ‘If he did not know It Is, how could he have understood to speak thus? If he did know It Is, how would he be willing to speak thus?'”

Then, after a pause, Dogen said, “How could he have understood to speak thus? A bright star appears and the great thousand worlds are bright. How could he have been willing to speak thus? Chickenfoot Mountain opens and Mahakashyapa is aged.” So Chickenfoot Mountain refers to the mountain in northern India where the first Zen ancestor after Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahakashyapa, supposedly is sitting in the mountain, waiting for the next Buddha Maitreya. When Maitreya comes, Mahakashyapa will come out of the mountain, and give Shakyamuni’s robe and bowl to Maitreya. That is what is going on at Chickenfoot Mountain. So Dogen says, “How would he be willing to speak thus? Chickenfoot Mountain opens and Mahakashyapa is aged.” Perhaps Dogen is implying that Mahakashyapa is getting old. Many have been awaiting Maitreya, so maybe it was high time for somebody to reveal “Just This,” as Yunyan did.

Dogen continues, “The ancient mirror is round and bright, illuminating upright and inclined.” Here we dive into the Soto Zen expression of deepest Buddhist philosophy. This “Ancient mirror” is the same mirror we chant about in “The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi.” The ancient mirror is always here. The ancient mirror is in our hands when we sit zazen. The ancient mirror is on the wall in front of you as you sit. The ancient mirror is just as wide as your sitting cushion. The ancient mirror is not somewhere else.

When Dogen says, “The ancient mirror is round and bright, illuminating upright and inclined,” he is referring to the two sides of our practice. “Upright and inclined” is actually a useful way to talk about them. But we can also call them the universal and the particular, or the ultimate and the phenomenal. Sometimes they are called absolute and relative, or host and guest. So in our zazen we study uprightness. We sit and feel how it is to be present and upright in this body and mind. And then we get up, and sometimes we feel like we are a little bent over. But fundamentally this is about the relationship of emptiness, the ultimate, or truth, on the one hand, with compassion. Our practice is a balance of wisdom and compassion. There is a Tibetan book called Kindly Bent to Ease Us, the title of which captures the feeling of this “inclined.” So from experience of the upright, from experience of the truth, we enter into this skinbag, the situation of this limited body and mind, here in March, 2002 in Bolinas, the Bay Area, or wherever you are right now. In the phenomenal world, the world of the inclined, we are willing to be completely deluded. We are even willing to actually just be a human being, as nauseating as that is sometimes.

What Dogen says here is actually paraphrasing the verse commentary by Hongzhi in The Book of Serenity. Following Hongzhi, Dogen says, “The ancient mirror is round and bright, illuminating upright and inclined. The mysterious mechanism revolves on high, both naturally arriving within together.” So the “mysterious mechanism” we could describe as the wondrous working of reality; the wondrous workings of “Just this is it.” And it is a great mystery, a mystery that is working right now. It is in operation, in the world, in our life, in the blossoming of the buds on the trees out front.

Hongzhi and Dogen say that the mysterious mechanism, or the wondrous opportunity, or the wondrous workings, revolve on high, both naturally arriving within together. So that which is both the inclined and upright is the emptiness of all things, or the sameness of all things, understood as completely together with the particulars. This is referring to the Soto traditional teaching of the five degrees or ranks, which I will not go into in detail here. But the way that these two sides of our reality and of our practice work together has five aspects. The fifth is that they are both present working together, and there is actually no difference between them. Nirvana is right in samsara. We can express the truth of this upright sitting right in our everyday activity. This is what our practice is about. And it is especially so for us, living in the world, immersed in the usual mess of greed, hate, and delusion. Yet we can knowingly enter into that from this possibility of uprightness, from our experience of “Just this is it.” Then our experience and willingness makes a real difference in the world of phenomena. Dogen goes on to say, “For many kalpas their family style continues. The voice of father and son is boundlessly radiant.” Of course now in American Zen this voice is also of mother and daughter, but Dongshan and Yunyan both happen to be male.

I want to say a little more about Just this specifically in terms of how to practice it in zazen. Again it is, “Just this is it.” However, it is pretty common for people to come to zazen and want to get something out of it. Indeed, zazen can be therapeutic in various ways. We can also have experiences of insight, or heightened awareness. Even flashy realization experiences do happen sometimes. But that is not really the heart of zazen, not for the zazen of the Buddhas and Ancestors as described by Dogen. It is alright if you benefit from zazen, it is alright if you feel better, it is alright if you have some flashy experience. That is not terrible; it’s alright. But it is not the point. In fact, if zazen helps you therapeutically, or if a therapist helps you therapeutically, or if your spouse helps you to be more fully in your life, that is wonderful. Please enjoy that. But zazen is about something else. It is about Just This.

In Sanskrit Just This is called tathata, (pronounced ta-ta-ta) a pretty funny word. I will not say it again, because you might start laughing. That is Just this. One of the things that happens, sometimes, in between all of the tapes that are jumping around in our mind, and all of the sounds from Bolinas or wherever you are, is that you are just here. So actually there is no such thing as good or bad zazen. You may think, that period was really good, or that period was terrible. You may have those delusions. But actually, just in your being there, Just This is actually there. And you may not realize it, you may not understand it, you may not know it, you may not feel it, but please do not get in the way of the one who does feel it.

How to practice this, how to actually face the wall, or whatever, is with eyes open, just facing and meeting what is in front of you. One way to do that, which you can do in this just sitting, in Just This, is actually to use “Just This Is It” as a mantra. I actually find mantras more helpful when I get off the cushion and am walking around and getting distracted by all of the wonderful craziness of the world, but you can also do it while you are sitting. Just this is it. If you use that as a mantra please say it silently so you will not disturb somebody else next to you. Just this is it. Or perhaps if you are musical you can just sing, “Let It Be.” Apparently the Beatles knew that Just This is it.

“Just this is it” is basically the same as saying, “I Take Refuge in Buddha.” When you take refuge in Buddha, you are also taking refuge in the sky, or one of the Buddhas that we hear and read about. But fundamentally, the true body of Buddha is Just This; really being present in reality as it is, uprightly as the person you are, without trying to run away from yourself. So in the practice of sewing Buddha’s robe for either lay or priest ordination, we chant in Japanese, “Namu kie Butsu.” It is like a mantra, and you can use it as a mantra, and with each stitch you say, “Namu kie butsu.” It means I take refuge in Buddha; or I give homage to Buddha; or I plunge into Buddha. But it is the same thing as saying, “Just this is it.” Can you trust reality and can you trust your life enough to just be here? Without throwing away anything, allow the whole world to just be here.

The New Yorker cartoonist, Gahan Wilson, draws these spooky kind of pictures, but he also does Zen pictures sometimes. In one of them two Zen monks are sitting next to each other, and one of them is asking, “Is this all there is?” And the other one says, “Just this is it.” So I am sorry, if you wanted something more than just this, you are in the wrong practice. There are other practices that will offer you more. Please go and find them if you want. But here, we do have just this.
So again, how do you practice with just this? A later teacher in the Chinese Soto tradition, Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), talks about it in very practical ways, in terms of how you see and hear and taste and feel just this as you are sitting. Here are a couple of things he says [from Cultivating the Empty Field]: “Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth, unconcerned by external conditions.” This is that turning within that we have to do as the first step of seeing just this. “Accordingly we are told to realize that not a single thing exists.” This refers to the great Chinese Sixth Ancestor Huineng, who said, “Not a single thing exists.” I will come back to that.

Hongzhi continues, “In this field birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner.” That is the inner experience of Just This. Then he says, “The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally mind and phenomena emerge and harmonize.” So to just see and to hear, but transcending mere colors and sounds, not getting caught up in some object outside yourself, is Hongzhi’s suggestion. Remember when Dongshan looked in the stream, he said, “Now I see it. Don’t seek outside, or you’ll be estranged from self. It now is me. Now I am not it.” That is another excellent mantra you can use, “I am not it. It actually is me.” Or, “I am not it. Truly it is me.” This is a good mantra to use in zazen. Perhaps that gets deeper into it in a way that is easier to feel the contours of than, “Just this is it.” With I am not it, but truly it is me, whatever comes up, accept it in that way.

So you are not the colors and sounds. They are you. This is the seeing and hearing that Hongzhi is talking about. He talks about this also when turning within and really looking within in sitting. He says, “Then you must know that there is a path in which to turn yourself around. When you do turn yourself around you have no different face that can be recognized. Even if you do not recognize your face, still nothing can hide it. This is penetrating from the topmost, all the way down to the bottom. When you have thoroughly investigated your roots back to the ultimate source, a thousand or ten thousand sages are no more than footprints on the trail.”
So I am talking about both sides today. And I usually talk about both sides together: The turning within and the stepping out into the world; because we are practicing in the world. If we were sitting together for three months in a monastery I might emphasize more this turning within, this investigating thoroughly your roots back to their source. So please allow yourself, when you are studying just this on your cushion, to deeply look into this. See how I am not it, but it actually is me. See it with each thought, with each sensation, exactly with each moment appearing and seeing and breathing.

Hongzhi says, “When you have thoroughly investigated your roots back to their ultimate source, a thousand or ten thousand sages are no more than footprints on the trail. In wonder return to the journey, avail yourself of the path and walk ahead. In light there is darkness; where it operates, no traces remain. With the hundred grass tips in the busy marketplace, graciously share yourself.” So this is our practice in our sangha. We are in the busy marketplace. We are all practicing in the world, more or less, in some way engaging in the difficulties of the world. But we need to have this rhythm in our life, of turning within, of seeing the upright, and then of sharing it. It is not some particular thing that you have to share, because even when you are working in downtown San Francisco in some cubicle in a highrise, still, right there, Just this is it. You are not it. But it is you. Truly.

Hongzhi says, “With a hundred grass tips in the busy marketplace graciously share yourself. Wide open and accessible, walking along, casually mount the sounds and straddle the colors while you transcend listening and surpass watching.” This may sound like the opposite of what he said before. But it is actually the same. Just be there, with the colors and sounds. Some sounds are pleasant; some sounds are annoying. Be present with that, but do not get caught by them. You are not it, but it actually is you.

This is the dynamic awareness of “Just this is it.” “Just this is it” is not some static Just this. Just this is alive. Our upright sitting is alive. Sometimes there is inhale, sometimes exhale. Sometimes there is the space after inhale, sometimes the space after exhale. Just this is always changing. And you are not it, but, honestly, it is you. And the practice of it is a dynamic practice. One of the problems in talking this way is that it sounds sort of passive. Like if I just accept everything as it is, then that will be it. But that is one of the classic four traps of spiritual practice: Just accepting things as they are, just to go with the flow, and then “whatever” is fine. But that will not get you anywhere. That is not the “Just this” Dongshan and Hongzhi are describing, because you are not it, but it actually is you.

In one of Dogen’s very last teachings he talks about this. This is the other side of “Just this is it.” Dogen says, “You should know that becoming a buddha is not something new or ancient.” When a buddha becomes a buddha it is not a brand new event. But it is also not an old thing. It is just this. So Dogen said, “You should know that becoming a buddha is not something new or ancient. How could practice realization be within any boundary?” So there is nothing that you can say about practice realization. There is nothing I can say about it. I come here to Bolinas every month and talk for a while, but please forgive me if anything I have said has interfered with your practice, or with just this. My job is to sit up here and babble about it, but please trust yourself.

Dogen continues, “Do not say that from the beginning not a single thing exists.” So here he is contradicting the Sixth Ancestor and Hongzhi and much of the Zen tradition. Dogen says, “Do not say that from the beginning not a single thing exists. The causes are complete and the results are fulfilled through time. Great assembly, please tell me, why is it like this?”

Just this. Again, Just this. And one side of our practice, the side of wisdom, of uprightness, and of sameness, is to see that from the beginning not a single thing exists, as the Sixth Ancestor said. There is no single thing that exists separately from everything else. There is no single thing that has independent substantial identity. I dare any of you to name it. If there is something that you can find that really exists, please let me know.

But then Dogen says, “The causes are complete and the results are fulfilled through time.” You do not actually exist in some ultimate absolute empty void space, in someplace where not a single thing exists. “Not a single thing exists” actually means that everything exists. So we actually take care of our life and our practice in the world. We do not stay on our cushion forever. We actually have to get up occasionally, sometimes, and go out and take care of the sounds outside, or go to the bathroom, or make a fool out of ourselves, cook dinner, talk to our friends and family, go to work to pay the bills. We consider what is going on in the world and try to see what we can do to respond. This is exactly the aspect in which, “The causes are complete and the results are fulfilled, through time.” So after saying, “Great assembly, please tell me, why is it like this?” Dogen paused and said, “Opening flowers will unfailingly bear the genuine fruit. Green leaves, meeting autumn, immediately turn red.”

We do exist in the world where there are so many things. “Just this is it,” and “You are not it; it actually is you,” is how we see the world, and how we bring the suchness of the world into the world. Such awareness is not passive. We do take care of our life, this body and mind, each other, and the world. We do actually respond to situations of the world, each in our own different way, in the particular way that it actually is you. This is very subtle. Just this is it. And again, Just this. Just This is what we study, sitting on our cushions, what we soak in. It is a kind of study, but not how we are usually taught to study. It is more like taking a bath, or listening to music in the background, or maybe like taking a walk or just lying in the sun. Just this is it. You are not it, but it actually is you.

There is no end to it, by the way, because Just This is alive. Just this is constantly changing. So even if you very thoroughly, deeply, have some great realization about just this, you need to keep paying attention. And how we pay attention is not just on our cushion. We get up and go out and do what we can to take care of the world, and to respond to the suffering that is the reality of the flowers and the fruits.


Question: How does Dogen’s “Dropping off body and mind” relate to this?

Response: This is another way of talking about dropping off body and mind. This is the same thing, because dropping off body and mind happens again and again and again. Dropping off body and mind is a verb. We drop off body and mind to this, we drop off body and mind with that, we drop off body and mind with this inhale, we drop off body and mind with this problem. Dropping off body and mind with this problem or that problem does not mean we ignore the problem. In fact, we fill ourselves completely into delusion. We throw ourselves into the precepts and into acting in the world, but with this dropped off body and mind, which is totally facing just this.
Actually, when we can bring ourselves to the problems of all of life in our own confusion, and loneliness, and fear, if we can bring ourselves to the problems of the world around us, or the problems of the people we see, then we can bring ourselves with, “I am not it, but it actually is me.” That is dropping off body and mind. Then you are right there with it, not adding anything. You are not it, but Just This is you. This is another way of talking about dropping off body and mind.

The other side is that in a certain sense we do accept everything just as it is. But our accepting of it is not passive. Our accepting of it is responsive. They are us. I also have mentioned Dogen saying, “If you bring yourself forth and experience myriad things, that’s delusion.” That is the side of you are not it. Our usual way of being in the world is to bring our ideas to everything, to try and figure things out, setting up some policy or some strategy to take care of this and that. We think we can set up some rules about it and live by that, and that would be very comforting. But actually, you are not it. The other side is, “It actually is you.” Dogen goes on to say, “When myriad things come forth and experience themselves, that is awakening.” How do we allow ourselves to be actually part of the world. Not cut off and isolated and separate from the colors and sounds, but just meeting everything. Let them be you. And then by accepting them in that way, then we do respond, and we do bring our best sense forward. But we must constantly check, this is me, this is me. And so as we respond we see the ways in which we learn how we are projecting some idea, our own condition or neurosis, on the world, as opposed to allowing the world to arise together with us as part of it. This is about how to dance in the world together with everything.

Just this is tricky. And we constantly make mistakes. Dogen said his life was one continuous mistake. That is what he meant. You do not have to do this practice, but you might try, right in your zazen, to say, “Just this is it,” or “I am not this, but this actually is me.” You can silently speak the words, or you can just say them with your eyes, or with your ears, or with your breath.