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Taigen Leighton
Green Gulch Farm – May 18, 2003

Note: All Dogen quotes from The Extensive Record of Eihei Dogen, translated by Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, forthcoming from Wisdom Publications, © 2003.

It’s wonderful to be sitting together in the Green Gulch zendo on a beautiful spring morning. Before I begin my Dharma talk today, I thought I should confess to you all a personal problem I have. That is my own greed, that most of the time when I give a dharma talk, and today as well, there’s much more that I want to talk about than I can possibly say in the allotted time. But actually the truth of the Dharma is that even if I were to talk all day and all night till tomorrow morning, these words could not possibly come close to reaching the wonder of just sitting here together on a spring day in the Green Gulch zendo. And even if someone much more eloquent than I were to try to do so, the wonder of just being here is beyond any words.

Having said that, I want to start with a teaching from Eihei Dogen, a Japanese monk who founded this branch of Zen in 13th century Japan. This is from a writing called Dogen’s Extensive Record, which I just finished translating together with Shohaku Okumura after three and a half years. Most of this writing is from Dogen’s later years at Eiheiji when he was training his monks. But the little piece that I want to talk about a bit today is from his earlier teaching in Kyoto. It’s about the oneness of enlightenment, practice, and expression, from a hogo or dharma words, which were letters he wrote to his Zen students.

He starts: “With the whole body just as it is, who would get stuck in any place? With the entire body familiar, how could we find our way back to a source? Already beyond the single phrase, how could we be troubled by different vehicles? When you open your hand, it is just right. When your body is activated it immediately appears.”

The tradition of zazen, or sitting meditation, that we do here is actually about just being present in this life, in this body, in this mind, and becoming very familiar with how it is to be this person. “With the entire body familiar, how could we find our way back to a source?” This practice is about accepting our reality just as it is, right now. And actually the main teaching that we give here is considered–in other systems of Buddhist meditation and thought–the highest, most advanced, most developed kind of meditation. We just dive in at the top. It may seem so simple that it feels difficult. Or it may seem puzzling. But it is just about being familiar with the entire body: This body on our cushion; this body in this zendo; this body of Green Gulch; and of the waves down the valley on Muir Beach.

A little further along he says: “Truly, the point of the singular transmission between Buddha ancestors, the essential meaning of the direct understanding beyond words, does not adhere to the situation of the koans (the old teaching stories) of the previous wise ones, or their entry-ways to enlightenment. It does not exist within the commentaries and assessments with words and phrases, in the exchange of questions and answers, in the understandings with intellectual views and mental calculations of thought, in conversations about mysteries and wonders, or in explanations of mind and nature.”

Even though there may be many wonderful phrases and understandings expressed, the emphasis in our practice and teaching and expression is just how to take care of this situation today. How do we take care of our everyday activities? How do we allow this practice-realization-expression to find its voice and body and mind and its love in our everyday ordinary world?

So he says: “Only when one releases the handles from all these teachings, without retaining what has been glimpsed, is it perfectly complete right here, and can fill the eyes. Behind the head, the path of genuine intimacy opens wide; in front of the face, not knowing is a good friend.”

We may have all kinds of wonderful understandings, but our best friend is just not-knowing. Our best friend is this openness of not knowing how to proceed; not knowing exactly what the world is; not knowing who we are, even. Many of you may have come here for some understanding. And of course being smart monkeys we like understanding and want to understand. And that’s okay. But actually, the practice and expression of enlightenment, the enlightenment of practice and expression, is right here, before and after and outside of whatever we think we understand, no matter how good our understanding might be.

Dogen says this even more strongly in a different dharma word, in a letter to one of his nun disciples, Ryonen. Just in case any of you have questions about this, you should know that Dogen also had many women disciples. Ryonen, in particular, he praised, and said her practice was quite wonderful. He ends one of his letters we have to her by saying: “Without begrudging any effort in nurturing the way, for you I will demonstrate the precise meaning of the ultimate truth of Buddha. It is: if you do not hold onto a single phrase or half a verse, a bit of talk or a small expression, in this lump of red flesh you will have some accord with the clear, cool ground. If you hold on to a single word or half a phrase of the Buddha ancestors’ sayings or the teaching stories from the ancestral gate, they will become dangerous poisons. If you want to understand this mountain monk’s activity, do not remember these comments. Truly avoid being caught up in thinking.”

Dogen is saying, don’t remember what I’m saying. It’s kind of funny. Sometimes, kind of as a game, I’ll ask a Zen student who I’ve heard has gone to a Dharma talk, “What did the teacher talk about?” And many times they will say they don’t remember. Even very good Zen students will say that. Or they may remember something about what the topic was but won’t remember anything else.

I tried it as I drove in this morning and there was a very good Zen student at the bottom of the driveway, and I asked her, and she remembered very well the Dharma talk from last week, and could tell me a lot about it. That was wonderful too. It is okay if you remember.

But actually Dogen has given you a problem, and now I have too. Because if you remember that you don’t need to remember these words, then you’re remembering these words. And if you don’t remember that you don’t need to remember these words, then you might remember them and make them into a poison. So I’m sorry, but you have a problem.

But the point of this Dharma talk, or any Dharma talk — much better Dharma talks than this — is not the words themselves. It’s your listening and sharing and hearing. But it’s all right if you remember them; Zen students don’t need to be stupid. Sometimes it helps, but it’s not a requirement.

I remember from almost twenty-five years ago a practice discussion I had with our current abbess, Linda Cutts, which was very helpful to me, and I confess that I did remember it. She said to me that you don’t need to remember this teaching, in terms of not needing to remember your insights in zazen, the teachings that come from your own zazen. She said that when you are informed by the teaching it is in your form, and when you need it, it will be there. So to be informed by this Dharma talk, or any Dharma talk, or Dogen’s wonderful words, is to allow this practice expression into your body and mind. It is not primarily about your thinking. If you remember some of it, that’s fine. And if you don’t remember some of it, that’s fine too. But when it is needed, this Dharma is here.

Dogen says in the first letter: “Within this true Dharma there is practice, teaching, and enlightenment. This practice is the effort of our zazen.”

So it does take some effort just to get to the meditation hall, to get to your cushion, to sit upright, to keep your eyes open, to breathe, and to return to being present and upright in this body and mind. This practice is the effort of zazen.

And he adds: “It is customary that such practice is not abandoned even after reaching buddhahood, so that it is still practiced by Buddha.”

Even after he became the Buddha, 2500 years ago in northern India, the Buddha continued to do this meditation practice. In fact, when he became enlightened, that was not the end of Buddhism; that was just the beginning.

Dogen goes on to say: “Teaching and enlightenment should be examined in the same way. This zazen was transmitted from Buddha to Buddha, directly pointed out by ancestors, and only transmitted by legitimate successors. Even when others hear of its name, it is not the same as the zazen of Buddha ancestors. This is because the principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment.”

I think we easily tend to think that this practice eventually may be something like, if I wait long enough, I’ll be enlightened. If I put enough hours into sitting on this cushion, or enough lifetimes, some day, somewhere, when you least expect it, there it will be, the big Enlightenment.

So he says: “The principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment.”

In many branches of Buddhism you may hear about practicing and eventually reaching enlightenment. But here Dogen criticizes that. He says, for example, some people practice like having crossed over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that upon crossing the ocean one should discard the raft. That’s very sensible, right? Maybe some of you have heard this simile of the raft, that once we reach the other shore we don’t need the raft any more. But actually Dogen says to please carry the raft with you, as you trudge up into the mountains.

The zazen of our Buddha ancestors is not like waiting for enlightenment, but is simply Buddha’s practice.

So this practice we do is not practice to get something, some so-called enlightenment somewhere else, in some other time, in some other state of mind. This is not practice to get higher, or reach some other state of consciousness or being. This is actually the practice of our enlightenment and realization right now. And enlightenment and realization, naturally, leads to practice. There is no enlightenment that is not actually put into practice. Then it would just be some idea of enlightenment; it wouldn’t be the actual enlightenment. So each of you is practicing your realization right now. Each of you is realizing your practice right now. This is simply Buddha’s practice.

Now in many schools of Buddhism there are wonderful techniques, and a whole meditation technology, which it’s sometimes helpful to know. It is helpful to know how to follow your breath, or count breaths, or settle your mind, even to recite mantras in zazen, or to sit in the middle of the ancient stories. And I would say it’s fine to use those supports, that is also Buddha’s practice. If you would like to do some of those particular techniques, you can do them as Buddhist practice. They are all part of Buddhist practice. But they are not about practicing something in order to get something else. I know this is really counter-intuitive. We all come to practice because we have some problem. We all want to feel better, we all want stress reduction, or to feel some sense of how to deal with our loss, or confusion, or frustration, or greed, or rage, whatever. And of course meditation does help those circumstances. But it’s not that we meditate in order to accomplish that. Just your thought of practice already is Buddha’s practice.

Dogen says: “We could say that the situation of Buddha’s house is the oneness in which the essence, practice, and expounding are one and the same. The essence is enlightenment; expounding is the teaching; and practice is cultivation. Even up to now, these have all been studied together. We should know that practice is the practice of enlightenment and expounding.”

This Chinese character that I’m calling “expounding” here also means just “to express.” So in some sense, as a Dharma teacher sitting up here I am officially, institutionally expounding the Dharma. But actually the same character can be used for expounding and expressing, and each of you, right now, is expressing your practice realization. In the way you’re sitting, in the way you’re thinking, in your breathing you are expressing your practice realization right now. You are always doing this. So it is not that it is automatic, but, yes, right now you are expressing your practice realization. The enlightenment of your practice is being expressed. This is actually the way it is. This is the reality of all things.

So he says: “The practice is the practice of enlightenment, and expounding (or expressing) is to expound the enlightenment and the practice; and the enlightenment is the enlightenment of expressing and practice.”

There is no enlightenment that’s not expressed.
Elsewhere, in another letter known to some of you as Genjokoan, Dogen says (to paraphrase): Deluded people have delusions about enlightenment. Enlightened people are enlightened about their delusions.

So this enlightenment that you are expressing right now, which is the enlightenment of your practice right now, is not some idea about enlightenment that you might have. And actually, if you have ideas about enlightenment, you should realize and practice and express your ideas about enlightenment. But they are not the enlightenment that you are expressing and practicing. This is very natural that we have these ideas. It is okay to be a human being. In fact, here we are.

So Dogen says: “If practice is not the practice of expressing and is not the practice of enlightenment, how can we say that it is the practice of buddha dharma? If our expression is not the expression of practice and is not the expression of enlightenment, it is difficult to call it true expression. And if enlightenment is not the enlightenment that’s practiced, and is not the enlightenment that’s expressed, how can we name it the enlightenment of the buddha dharma? Just know that buddha dharma is one in the beginning, middle and end. It is good in the beginning, middle, and end. It is nothing in the beginning, middle, and end. And it is empty in the beginning, middle, and end.”

In this sense of our expression as the expression of our practice realization, it is always going on, but that does not mean just passive acceptance of whatever is happening. We actually do have to express it to express it. This is the practice realization, and the Buddha, that you are expressing right now. How you are listening, how your back is; your posture as you sit there; your eyes closed or open–that is your expression right now. And actually it is up to us to express it. There is a responsibility to express our practice and our awakening and realization right now.

Dogen says: “This single matter never comes from the forceful activity of people, but from the beginning is the expression and activity of Dharma (or of reality, or truth).”

“This single matter” refers to a line in the Lotus Sutra which says that the single matter of Buddhas appearing in the world– and we could say the single matter of Buddha’s practice and Buddha’s expression appearing in the world– is simply to become aware of and assist suffering beings into their own path towards awakening. This means helping beings into their own path to helping others into their own path to helping others. This is the point.

So this practice-enlightenment-expression begins with our awareness of suffering, awakening to the First Noble Truth. Things are not the way we think they should be. Again and again we have to come back to recognizing the pain of the world and of ourselves and of our friends, and hear that, listen to it, realize it. This is the starting point of this practice-expression-realization.

When we are aware of it, then we naturally respond. In Buddhism the name of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is “the one who hears the sounds and cries of the world.” In Buddhism, compassion first of all means just to listen. Compassion is about hearing the suffering of the world. To listen to our own pain, our own weariness, our own confusion, our own frustrations, and then to see that and hear that in our friends and families and the people we come in close contact with. And first, just to listen. Then, it is to hear it further in the world around us, and to be open to this truth of the sadness and cruelty of the world.

Out of this comes our responsibility. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to fix the world, and maybe that’s not even the point. But just from listening we can have a sense of this possibility of compassion.

When you enter a zendo and look at people sitting, you may think they are being very stoic or stern. But actually, to keep doing this practice, period after period, day after day, year after year, is a very passionate practice. It is passionate because it is compassionate. We are willing to be with our own passions and the passions of others, and this being together with the suffering and passion and confusion of others is what we call compassion. We are willing to be with this suffering, willing to listen to each other, because we know how wonderful it feels to actually be heard ourselves. When we are willing to then also hear others, this is the response of compassion in Buddhism.

This is not just passive expression. We do not just automatically have this practice-realization-expression. We have a responsibility.

But Dogen says: “This single matter never comes from the forceful activity of people.”
So our responsibility is not based on our ideas of how things should be.
He says: “From the beginning it is the expression and activity of Dharma, of the teaching of the truth.”
When we are realizing and practicing and expressing this, we actually have some response. Sometimes it means just being present and listening. With the songs of the birds or the cries of our friends, there is some way to respond.

He goes on: “We already know that there is teaching, practice, and enlightenment within Buddha Dharma. A single moment in a cultivated field always includes many times.” (We translated it that way, but literally he says: A single moment in a cultivated field never does not include every time.)

Just being present we are meeting our own past, and the past of our world and our friends, as well as our future. We are open to the processes of our response and our expression and our realization, and to our practice of this practice-realization-expression. Our response has an effect in the future, and in the present and the past, even though we do not understand that. But still, even if you don’t understand it, this is actually our responsibility.

The expression is already thus. It is already just this. We are already expressing ourselves and our practice and our realization right now. The practice is also just this, right here. And enlightenment is also thus. This is the way it is. There is no other enlightenment somewhere else, over in India or Japan or Tibet. Here we are, just sitting on a sunny spring morning in the Green Gulch zendo.

Dogen adds: “As such, we cannot control whether or not we ourselves can control the teaching, practice, and enlightenment.”
He doesn’t just say that we cannot control it, but that we can’t even control whether or not we control it. Maybe there are times when it’s almost as if your practice-realization-expression is controlling, and taking care of, all of the suffering of the world. This might be so. We don’t know. This is the level of this practice. This is the raft we carry as we walk in the mountains. Please take care of it.

Dogen ends by saying: “Wherever these penetrate, how could there not be buddha dharma?”
Again, there is always some expounding, some expression that you are doing in all of your movements, as you bend your head, as you rub your face, as you yawn, as you listen to the birds sing, there is this expression. So Zen students are passionate about expressing their practice realization, whether or not they know it.

This practice-realization-expression is about responding to suffering, to the pain of the world. It also is about enjoying the wonders of the world. We don’t have to be gloomy and depressed. But if that’s what you are, please express that, with realization and practice.

Responding to the sources of suffering in the world is just our enlightenment-practice-expression. We could also see it in terms of zazen and precepts. Our practice here is just to sit upright and study our delusions, be enlightened about our delusions. We realize how it is to be this person, right here. But then of course the bell rings, we get up from the cushion, and we go out and take care of our lives, and relate to the people around us. That’s also our practice-realization-expression. The precepts are about how we do that. They are guidelines to how we express our zazen mind, our expression of realization practice in everyday activity. Right in the way we meet with our friends and family, and are open to listening to them; in the way we try to express our own truth to each other, here is the single matter.

I would say that this happens in three realms. This happens within, just sitting on our cushion; it happens in our personal relationships, in our work life and our family life and with our friends; and it also happens in our relationship to the world around us, to our society. So just like we do not practice for some future enlightenment, but we practice as the expression of our enlightenment right now, similarly we do not wait for some future enlightenment to express the practice and enlightenment that we see right now. We must respond in some way. We have some responsibility to say something as we meet and listen to the world around us, and to our friends, and to our own pain and gladness.

I feel some responsibility speaking here this morning to say something about what’s going on in our society. It seems to me very clear that in our society there is now massive and shameless corruption in our national government and in many of our national institutions. There are so many examples of this, and I’m not going to go into many particulars other than starting to mention just a few. These include our national government’s new policy of strongly promoting the production of “usable” nuclear weapons. This really makes it more likely and more possible for us to have nuclear wars, but with these so-called “usable” smaller nuclear weapons, which of course are in violation of international law and treaties and will promote more production of nuclear weapons in many countries. At the same time, our educational system and our health care systems are collapsing. So many good teachers are being laid off all around us. Health care and basic health insurance costs are skyrocketing.

I confess that I personally struggle with how to talk about this. But I do feel I have to talk about it when I’m sitting up here in the Dharma seat. For me, I would be violating the precepts by not mentioning these things. To me it’s not at all about politics. It’s not about a particular party or particular politicians. We are all part of this, part of what our government does, part of how our society is.

But I believe that our expression of our practice realization right now, as Dogen talks about it, and our responding to the conditions of suffering, even without knowing all the answers, has something to offer. When we respond from this realization and practice, it’s not about our opinions. Of course we all have opinions. And we don’t have to have the same opinions. But how do we respond to what’s going on in the world around us, from our own sense of whatever it is that we realize in our practice, and from whatever it is that we practice as our realization right now?

Mostly I just want to encourage you all to try and become more aware, to be willing to face and listen to the sufferings of the world and our society around us, not to turn away. Sometimes we need to take a break when there is so much danger and cruelty and recklessness going on, but inasmuch as you can, try to become aware of what’s going on. And then express something when you have something to express. Share information with friends; respond as best you can. There are lots of ways to respond, and there is not one right way to respond. Just sitting, wishing well to people in Iraq, to people in Washington, and to both Israelis and Palestinians, might be a very effective way of responding. And there may be other ways, too. How can you respond to the suffering of our world and of our society? I don’t have the answer. If we had answers, there wouldn’t be these problems.

But also I feel like I should encourage you because right now in our society there is a great deal of fear. And maybe you came to Green Gulch on a Sunday morning to get away from that, so I’m sorry. I feel like I have to include that in what I say this morning.

When we are practicing awareness of our fears, we can respond in the middle of our fear. The world around us is encouraging fear, fears for our own livelihood, for our economy, and fears from terrorists. Or maybe you’re afraid of our own government. Whatever those fears are, we have to face them. That’s the first point. Our zazen is just about facing our fears, about being willing to sit upright in the middle of the situation we are in. Again, it does not necessarily mean fixing it. But we can actually be willing to admit and acknowledge and confess our fears. It’s possible. This is actually the expression of your practice realization right now. And then our practice is to look at that, and see what’s going on, and consider how we can express and share our truth with others. We also listen to others, and try not to get stuck on any one particular opinion. But hear what’s going on, and try to respond, whether that means listening to the radio, or reading things on the internet, or going to demonstrations, or writing letters to the editor. We each have our own way of responding. There is no one right way.

But this true practice-realization-expression is not something that I can do just by myself on my cushion. In this way of awakening practice in the bodhisattva tradition that Dogen teaches, we have to awaken together. Our practice-realization-expression is something we do together. So if you are sitting a period of zazen in the zendo and you shift a little bit, you might notice that other people might move too. And maybe that’s all right. But how we are and how we express our awareness and our practice, and how we practice our awareness and expression, is totally interconnected. We do not do this just for ourselves. We have to express our practice realization for the society around us in whatever way we can.

My faith is that this practice and teaching of the Buddha, of Dogen, and of Suzuki Roshi, is actually relevant to our world. It’s not just about taking care of me, or even taking care of me and my Zen friends. But actually, this practice and awareness and this way of expression has something to give to the society around us. We can respond and be helpful.

Speaking our truth, not from some opinion that we’re stuck on, but from our continuing exploration of our practice realization has tremendous power. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed or despair at what’s going on in the world around us. Our willingness to be ourselves, and be present in our fear, and continue to express our practice realization for the world around us actually does make a difference. Whether it will stop nuclear war I don’t know. But our responsibility to our practice and to our expression and to our awakening means that we can do this. And actually it’s more fun not to be afraid. Courage is not about not having any fear, but about being willing to just sit upright as the person you are, in this situation, in a world that’s dangerous. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to express our practice realization in a way that can make a big difference.