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Taigen Leighton
Udumbara Sangha – May 30, 2004

I have been speaking during this sesshin about an essay by Soto Zen founder Dogen (1200-1253) called “The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas” (Gyobutsu Igi), which I translated with Kaz Tanahashi, in his new book of Dogen translations, Beyond Thinking. I want to talk about how we actually take on this practice of awesome presence. Dogen says, “Know that buddhas in the buddha way do not wait for awakening.” We are not doing this practice for the sake of some future experience or understanding. We are practicing the awakening that is already right here on your cushion or chair. This is a ceremony or celebration to express and perform the wondrous reality of this fundamental awakening that brought you here, that inspired you to take on this strange activity of just sitting, facing the wall, facing your own heart/mind. This is not a practice for the sake of something that will happen later on. Later on is right now. Your ancient twisted karma is right now. This present presencing we are doing includes the entire world. All of time and space is right here in the room on your cushion. In each inhale, in each exhale, in each thought moment are three thousand worlds.

Then Dogen speaks our mantra for this sesshin. “Active buddhas alone fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha.” Fully experience your own experience. Fully engage and express and perform and walk the walk of your own experience, right now, as you sit on your cushion, as you get up from your cushion to do walking meditation, as you get up from sesshin to leave and perform the ceremony of your everyday activities in your ordinary life. Fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha.

This is a vital process. Believe it or not, we are actually alive. The people on the next cushion and the people across the room and the people you work with and your family and friends and people you interact with are all actually alive. There is a vital process that is happening right now, and keeps on happening. Our practice is simply to “fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha.” When you realize Buddha, please, keep going, don’t stop. The Buddha did not give up his practice when he was awakened. In fact he continued waking up his awakening every day for the rest of his life, and the rest of our life, and he is still awakening, right now.

This happens through this awesome presence, which might also be translated as dignified bearing. This is about learning the dignified manners of the practicing or active Buddhas all around us, and within us. Because active Buddhas manifest dignified presence in every situation, they bring forth this dignified manner with their body. This is not some idea. This is not abstract, not philosophy, but something that we actually do in our experience. It is a kind of dance, or a kind of singing. It is just turning cartwheels in each moment, just sitting up straight. It is just being upright in your standing and in your lying down, as well as your walking and sitting.

“Thus their transformative function flows out in their speech, reaching throughout time, space, buddhas, and activities.” We are not waiting for something in the future, as this is a vital process. We are sitting in the middle of the transformative function of the workings of buddhas. Everything is being transformed, digested, and spit out in each moment. Each moment there is this transformation. Everything is alive and changing, far beyond what we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think with our limited human apparatus. And yet it depends on us. This transformative function happens because of your dignified presence. This transformative function happens with all of us together, right now, today.

There is a kind of craft to this. If you take on this practice in an everyday kind of way, offer the everyday activities of your life to practice, and take advantage of the opportunities of the situation of this world with all of its difficulties, sadnesses, and all its frustrations and confusion, then you can bring to life your life and your everyday activities. This is the transformative function. We are not going to fix the world according to our ideas of what it should be, but our ideas of what it should be are part of the transformative function, too. So things happen all the time. Birds sing, people drink tea. The world is in the midst of transformation right now, as is your body and mind and heart.

Continuing a little further, Dogen says, “Who would regard this apparition of blossoms in the sky as taking up a mistake and settling in with a mistake.” Can you do that in the midst of the flowers falling from the sky, falling from the roof, and falling from the floor right now? “Stepping forward misses, stepping backward misses, taking one step misses, taking two steps misses, and so there are mistakes upon mistakes.” So this transformative function, this awesome dignified presence is not a matter of doing the forms perfectly or being a perfect Zen student, whatever you might imagine that is; or of being right according to some idea of right that you might have heard somewhere. It is simply mistake upon mistake. It is actually a vital process, we are actually alive.

“You should thoroughly understand that in the awesome presence, and in the presence of awe, the great way is wide open.” We can actually enact this presence and openness in this world, and sometimes it hurts. Just because we are living in the world of the majestic presence and dignity of practicing buddhas does not mean that there are no tragedies, sadness, loss, confusion, frustration, craving, anger, wars, and corruption. That is exactly why we practice. And because of such practice, the awesome presence of active Buddhas right now is beyond obstruction. “Totally encompassed by buddhas,” Dogen says, “practicing buddhas are free from obstruction as they penetrate the vital path of being splattered by mud and soaked in water.”

We do not engage this practice in some beautiful, ethereal, heavenly, mountain-top realm. Right in the middle of the mud and water is where we practice our dignified presence, where we engage the transformative function, and where we can make a big difference. Your practice is very important, and does make a big difference. I’m talking to you. Right now, this year, is very important to the whole history of the future of the human species. We are living in one of those very pivotal times. We have a wonderful opportunity, each of us, to make a big difference in the world, just by your kindness, thoughtfulness, awareness, and consideration. Pay attention and do not be afraid to be afraid; do not be afraid to speak your truth. We are completely in the mud and water. Please pay attention; take on this wonderful opportunity we have to make a huge difference to the whole world. Please enjoy the mud and water, but do not imagine that it is not mud and water. Out of this mud and water the lotus grows.

In this essay Dogen further says, “The teaching of birth and death, body and mind, is the circle of the way, and is actualized at once. Thoroughly practicing, thoroughly clarifying, it is not forced.” There is some effort involved in sitting upright for forty minutes, and some effort involved in just getting here. Some of you have come from a distance, have traveled freeways and crossed state lines to get here. Some effort is involved in just being yourself, but it is not forced when we practice this dignified presence. You do not have to be somebody other than who you are. You do not have to reach some higher state of consciousness, or higher state of being. You do not have to crawl through the desert on your knees. You just have to be who you are, and express the dignified presence of the awareness and awakening that brought you here. It is not forced.

Dogen says, “It is just like recognizing the shadow of deluded thought and turning the light to shine within.” So please, study your delusions. Do not turn away from the shadows. This is what buddhas do. Deluded people have delusions about enlightenment and awakening and majestic buddhas. Practicing buddhas, active buddhas, actually are awakened about their delusions. Do not be afraid of your fear, or your craziness. It is not possible to be truly sane in this corrupt, crazed society. If you were sane that would be really crazy. Please study your own difficulties. Please study your own grasping and anger and frustration and confusion. That is what buddhas do. That is the dignified presence of active buddhas. Please study your own addictions and your own shadows and difficulties. “It is just like recognizing the shadow of deluded thought and then turning the light to shine within,” is the basic zazen instruction. As Dogen says it in his “Universal Recommendation for Zazen” (Fukanzazengi), “Take the backward step and turn your light inwardly to illuminate the self.” What we do sitting on our cushion is to study the self. Of course studying the self is forgetting the self, but do not try to forget the self. Do not try to run away from yourself, or become somebody other than the person on your cushion right now. Everything you need is right here, now, in this skin bag. Just turn the light to shine within, and don’t turn away. Take another breath, and then exhale. Be willing to be the person you are and face the wall of yourself. This is the practice of active buddhas.

Dogen continues, “Thoroughly practicing, thoroughly clarifying, it is not forced, it is just like recognizing the shadow of deluded thought and turning the light to shine within. The clarity of clarity beyond clarity prevails in the activity of buddhas. This is totally surrendering to practice.” This is the main thing I want to talk about today, that the clarify of clarity beyond clarity prevails in the activity of buddhas. This is totally surrendering to practice.

Many of you are very intelligent and have very refined understandings of the workings of all kinds of things: human psychology, philosophy, art, industry, business. Each of you has your own gift. But this practice, this awesome dignified presence, is about finding the clarity of clarity beyond clarity, the understanding beyond understanding. Anything I say about this will be a mistake. I trust that as active buddhas listening to the Dharma, you will find your way to use this, even though each of my words is a mistake upon a mistake. This clarity of clarity beyond clarity prevails in the activity of buddhas. There is a clarity that is beyond your idea of clarity. Clarity could also be translated as understanding. The same character also means brightness, so it is the brilliance of your brilliance beyond brilliance, the understanding that goes beyond anything we can understand. Many things are happening right here in this room that we will never see or hear or understand.

Do not imagine that reality is just what you think it is. This is not just some ancient Eastern esoteric mystical philosophy. According to modern physics and string theory there are dimensions of reality happening all around us of which we are not aware. And yet there is a clarity beyond clarity. This is the true clarity for active Buddhas. There is a clarity that maybe could be called faith. But it is not faith in something outside. It is not faith in self-power or something inside, either. It is not about some belief system, but about actually being the dignified presence you are right now. Sesshin supports this. Maybe it helps to sit sesshin after sesshin. It does help to practice every day, even for fifteen or twenty minutes. Please try and sit at home in between formal practice with sangha. Even ten minutes of just being present, awesomely, in this dignified upright clarity beyond clarity may help to develop and unfold this clarity beyond clarity. Continue practicing day after day, month after month, lifetime after lifetime. And still it is all right here, right now, in your skin bag.

Even though we cannot understand, see, or hear it, we have some relationship to it. In some way we can fully experience it, even though it is far beyond our experience. This clarity of clarity beyond clarity prevails. Maybe instead of my talking about it I will give some other sayings that might point to it, some other fingers pointing to the moon. Dogen continues: “To understand the principle of totally surrendering to practice, you should thoroughly investigate mind and heart. In the steadfastness of thorough investigation, all phenomena are the unadorned clarity of mind.” Every single thing that happens is intimately related to your mind/heart. “All phenomena are the unadorned clarity of mind. You know and understand that the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness are merely elaborate divisions of mind. Although your knowing and understanding are part of all phenomena, you actualize the home village of the self.”

It is not that you should get rid of your understanding and your intellectual knowing. It is fine to work on trying to understand more, but that is not the clarity beyond clarity. However, it is still a part of all phenomena, a little piece of the clarity beyond clarity. You do not need to get rid of your thinking in zazen or any other time. Your thinking is just your thinking, just like the bird singing is just the bird singing. Please do not follow the heretical American school of Lobotomy Zen. Please allow your thinking to be your thinking, allow your gassho to be your gassho, allow your posture to be the dignified presence of your posture, allow your cushions and chairs to be your cushions and chairs, as you realize that although your knowing and understanding are part of all phenomena, actually you are “actualizing the home village of the self. This is no other than your everyday, ordinary activity. This being so, the continuous effort to grasp the point in phrases and to seek eloquence beyond words is to take hold beyond taking hold, and to let go beyond letting go.”

Please actualize the home village of the self. Where is it that is your true home? Where is your home village? Even when you wander across state lines, please actualize the home village of the self. The home village of the self is not about your small ego self. But it is not separate from that either; that is included. All phenomena are the unadorned clarity of mind. Let go beyond letting go and actualize the home village of the self. This is just another way of saying to take refuge in Buddha. Come back home to the home village of the self, the ordinary simple activities of taking out the trash, doing the laundry, washing the dishes. Take good care of the home village of the self.

This reminds me of a saying in one of my favorite koans in the Blue Cliff Record collection, case 61. In the main case, a teacher asks, “Are there any patch-robed monks who can live together and die together?” In one of the additional throw-off lines the commentator Yuanwu says, “He has his own mountain spirit realm.” Realizing that you have your own mountain spirit realm, you actualize the home village of the self. This is exactly the clarity of clarity beyond clarity. Maybe you have your own prairie spirit realm, or your own lakeside spirit realm. Settle in there. Find your own way to be at home in this home village of the self. Express the dignified presence of completely inhabiting the home village of the self, in your own mountain spirit realm. Take on working in the mud and water of the home village of the self.

I overheard another old Zen saying this morning. Someone said, “The ride home always seems shorter.” This home realm of the self is very close to the mountain spirit realm. The ride home always seems shorter, very close. Turn the light to shine within. All these fancy Zen words are about something that is very close, so close that you cannot see it. It is like trying to see your own eyeballs. The ride home always seems shorter.

The practice of clarity beyond clarity is about realizing the vastness and awesomeness of the presence of active Buddhas right in the middle of ordinary stuff. In this essay Dogen quotes his Chinese Soto Zen predecessor Hongzhi (1091-1157), who said, “Take what is there and bring it here.” Whatever wonderful visions you have of the home village of the self, bring them right back here to the next breath, to the next step, to taking out the trash, doing the laundry, and washing the dishes. This is what faith means in Buddhism. This is trusting your own mountain spirit realm, meeting the heart. This is the long-term work that can help cure our corrupt, violent, vicious society. Find your own home in the home village of yourself. And then speak your truth. Sit upright. Just take the next breath. Thoroughly practicing, thoroughly clarifying, it is not forced. And yet it depends completely on you.

Here is something else from Hongzhi, who Dogen quotes about taking what is there and bringing it here. In my book of translations of Hongzhi, Cultivating the Empty Field, Hongzhi says, “In clarity the wonder exists, the spiritual energy shining on its own. It cannot be grasped and so cannot be called being.” We cannot get a hold of it so we cannot say exactly that it exists. But “it cannot be rubbed away” either. You can’t get rid of it, “so it cannot be called nonbeing.” You cannot say that this spiritual energy is not here. It ripples through the room. Maybe you cannot see it, but it is present, in your experience, right now. “Beyond the mind of deliberation and discussion, depart from the remains of the shadowy images. Emptying one’s self of self-existence is wondrous. This wonder is enacted with a spirit that can be invoked. The moon mind with its cloud body is revealed straightforwardly in every direction without resorting to signs or symbols.” So all these words and images and all the Zen poetry and painting is wonderful, helping light the way. It is part of the path of the vital process of Buddha going beyond Buddha. And yet we do not need to resort to signs or symbols. It is even closer than that.

“Radiating light everywhere, it responds appropriately to beings and enters the sense-dusts without confusion.” Please enter into the world of mud and water, enter into the world of confusion without confusion. Bring the clarity of clarity beyond clarity into meeting the next thing, taking the next step, taking the next breath, expressing your truth as you see it. Be fearless right in the middle of fear, calm right in the middle of outrage and anger. With the strong energy of kindness and consideration, point out when harm is happening without resorting to calling anybody an evildoer. “Radiating light everywhere it responds appropriately to beings and enters the sense-dusts without confusion. Overcoming every obstruction, it shines through every empty dharma,” or in all things. It is in all phenomena, in every single piece of our life.

“Letting go of discriminating conditioning, enter clean clear wisdom, and romp and play in samadhi. What could be wrong?” Please enjoy your life. Romp and play in samadhi. Enjoy your zazen. Sitting still and upright throughout the period until the bell rings, please be completely wild on your cushion. Allow everything to course through your blood. Feel the feelings you feel. Everything is right here, the whole world is in your heart. Bring your dignified presence to meet it, look at it, feeling how it feels. Because of this transformative function, you have the power to actually be present in the world just as it is, to meet each thing. Suzuki Roshi said, “The world is its own magic.” We cannot understand how wonderful, amazing, awesome, and dignified this practice is. And yet, here we are, fully experiencing it, each in our own way.

One of my favorite Zen koans, perhaps the single koan that all Zen students should know, is about two old Zen teachers in China a long time ago. One of them, named Zhaozhou (or Joshu in Japanese) got to be very old, but in this story he was not so old. One day Zhaozhou went to his teacher, named Nanquan (Nansen in Japanese), and asked this amazing, fundamental question, “What is the way?”

Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind (or everyday mind) is the way.” Can you believe it? Please try. Anyway, he said that ordinary mind, just everyday stuff is the way.

Zhaozhou was maybe the greatest Zen master of all time – if you can say that about anybody you can say it about Zhaozhou. There are so many koans and wonderful stories about him. Maybe he was the greatest Zen master of all time just because he lived to be 120. He had a lot of time to sit and reflect and turn the light within. But at this point, he was just one of those confused Zen students, and he heard that ordinary, everyday mind is the way. So then Zhaozhou asked, “How do I get there? How do I approach that?”

And Nanquan said, “Sorry, but the more you try to approach it, the further away you get.” So all of these sayings from Dogen about clarity beyond clarity, and fully experiencing the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha, are not about helping you to figure out how to get somewhere.

But Zhaozhou was very sharp and he heard that the more you try to get there the further away you get. So he asked, “Then how do I know if it is the way or not?” A good question: Am I doing it right? Is this it? Could just this be it? Is it possible that I am really sitting zazen? That I am really expressing the awesome dignified presence of the active Buddhas? Could it be this? With all these thoughts jabbering around, with that ache in my knee, with that voice saying: Where is the bell? When is he going to stop talking? What’s for lunch? Could this be it? How do I know if I’m doing it right? So Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “If trying to get there gets us further away from it, how do I know if this is the way or not?”

And Nanquan uttered a brilliant statement of clarity beyond clarity, “It is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is just a delusion. But not knowing is just vacancy. When you reach the true way, beyond doubt, it is vast and open as all of space.”

Here we are sitting in empty space. Sitting in the midst of this empty field of wonderful Udumbara petals all around us. Just take the next breath. Follow the schedule. When the bell rings get up. When the bell rings to go to the zendo, go to the zendo. Sesshin is this wonderful opportunity to really meet the mind, to really find that space beyond space, to get this little taste, or little sense, out of the corner of your eye, of the clarity of clarity beyond clarity. Don’t worry about whether you are really doing it or not. Still, please, take it on. Fully experience the vital process of the path of going beyond Buddha. It is as vast and open as the sky, and the sky is responding.

This is not something you can do through your own self-power. It is not something that happens thanks to somebody else. Nobody can do it for you. No perfect master somewhere is going to give you the answers to all your problems. Just sit, right in the middle of the clarity of clarity beyond clarity. Just be willing to meet your life as it is right now, today. Be willing to take the next breath. Be willing to feel what you feel, and be the active Buddha in your skin bag here and now. Thank you all very much for your awesome presence.