It was the Festival of Eihei Dogen at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey last Sunday. Dogen (1200- 1253) is the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist Tradition and his writings have been a spiritual revelation here in the west since some of the first translations became available in the 1950s.
When I first went to Throssel in the 1980s I was captivated by the style, subtlety and spiritual depth of Dogen’s talks, then translated by Rev Master Jiyu-Kennett. (I give some extracts later.)
On the first Sunday of every month there is a different festival at Throssel. The altar is adapted to the festival; this Sunday’s had a reproduction of a famous painting of Dogen at the front. During the ceremonial there are bows, a circumambulation of the hall while singing sutras and incense offerings at the altar. A monk weaves in and out of the moving congregation sprinkling water while another throws coloured lotus petals (made from fabric) which float down onto the carpet.
After the ceremonial and tea we had sitting and walking meditation.
During our meditation Reverend Master Leandra gave a talk in which she quoted from Dogen’s Gyoji (translated as Ceaseless Training). I can’t locate the particular extract now but know it had to do with acknowledging our circumstances fully and using them as our ‘training ground.’ This is a familiar theme with Dogen; no separation between training, ordinary life and enlightenment. (A modern-day Buddhist teacher who emphasises how to deal with the, often, ‘messy’ parts of our lives is Pema Chodron.)
In my previous blogs I have not mentioned that I have an ongoing struggle with depression. It is tempting for me to see this as an impediment, and even worse, to regard myself as at a disadvantage to other lay Buddhists who don’t have mental health difficulties. However, this is my particular circumstance; all I can really do is regard it as ‘a given’ and get on with trying to live by the Buddhist Precepts and continue meditation regularly! (At the same time I must be careful not to identify myself as a ‘depressive’ – the whole point of Buddhist practice is to allow us to drop off any fixed ‘identity’ and know the universal truth that the historical Buddha actualised. This deeper Reality is the birthright of every human being.)
Another point that the extract made was that ‘ceaseless training’ includes the times we fell off the straight and narrow or acted wilfully and caused harm to ourselves and others. How all-embracing this teaching is! At heart most of want to do the right thing; most people (whether they think of themselves as spiritual or not) know when they have caused harm and don’t want to repeat the same mistake. (For anyone reading this who feels despair or hopelessness and who isn’t a Buddhist and doesn’t follow any spiritual practice, I would encourage them to find out what spiritual groups may be in their locality. Often we first find a spiritual path when we are at our lowest and all else has failed; in other words, suffering, of one kind or another.)
I am now 70 years old, hence this extract from Gyoji! (It gives a flavour of Dogen’s style for anyone unfamiliar with him.) I should say that although I am in my seventh decade I feel I am only scratching the surface of Buddhist training.
Do not regret your reaching old age. It is difficult to know what this thing called life really is. Is a person ‘really living’ or ‘not really living’? Is a person ‘old’ or ‘not old’? The four perspectives are completely different; all the various types of perspectives are different as well. Just concentrate on your intention and make your utmost effort to pursue the Way. In your pursuit of the Way, train as if you were facing a life-and-death situation: it is not simply your pursuit of the Way within life-and-death. People today have become so foolish as to set aside their pursuit of the Way upon reaching the age of fifty or sixty, or upon reaching seventy or eighty. Although we are naturally aware of how long we have lived, this is simply the human mind energetically engaged in discriminating and has nothing to do with studying the Way. Do not concern yourself with being in the prime of life or having reached old age. Just be single-minded in exploring the Way thoroughly. . .
Elsewhere Dogen says we should train ‘as if out hair were on fire’! This is not to make training appear a grim, tenacious activity, merely to show that we need to make it the centre of our lives if we are serious about it. To not waste time.
Here are two more of my favourite extracts from Great Master Dogen’s writings:
When one awakens to True Wisdom it means that one is willing to save all living things before one has actually saved oneself: whether a being is a layman, priest, god or man, enjoying pleasure or suffering pain, he should awaken this desire as quickly as possible. However humble a person may appear to be, if this desire has been awakened, he is already the teacher of all mankind: a little girl of seven even may be the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the mother of True Compassion to all living things. One of the greatest teachings of Buddhism is its insistence upon the complete equality of the sexes.
However much one may drift in the six worlds and the four existences even they become a means for realising the desire for Buddhahood once it has been awakened: however much time we may have wasted up to now, there is still time to awaken this desire. Although our own merit for Buddhahood may be full ripe, it is our bounden duty to use all this merit for the purpose of enlightening every living thing: at all times, there have been those who put their own Buddhahood second to the necessity of working for the good of all other living things.
Trans Rev M Jiyu-Kennett
Genjo Koan – Actualising the Fundamental Point
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the
water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.
However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is
large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of
them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If
the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.
Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be
the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies.
Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it,
this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where
you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way
at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the
way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not
carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the
practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing
one practice is practising completely.
Trans Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi
I hope I have given a taste of Dogen’s teaching here. If you look at my previous posts there is a little more about the nitty-gritty of Zen training.
Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey (UK) – www.throssel.org.uk
Shasta Abbey (USA) – www.shastaabbey.org