The way is originally perfect and all pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The true vehicle is selfsufficient. What need is there for special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.
“The Way is originally perfect and all pervading…and yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth.” We might say that this teaching from Master Dogen contains the whole of the buddhadharma. Enlightenment and delusion, nirvana and dukkha, perfection and imperfection— with the slightest deviation, the difference between heaven and earth arises. Yet even then, the Way is originally perfect and all pervading.
We practice because we have a deep sense that somehow we are outside what’s true; practice occurs in the moment we feel we have lost contact with this all-pervading perfection. But have we? This is the struggle. It’s like being in the middle of the ocean but perceiving it as dry—we’re soaked all the way through, and yet all we see is dry land. In just this way we can imagine the path to be like a razor’s edge: the slightest deviation and we’ve fallen off. If we lose ourselves in one moment, then we’ve fallen irrevocably back into delusion. But what if the path was 100,000 miles wide and everything, everyone, and every place was included? All of it: the highs and the lows, the floods and droughts, the boulders and the open fields, the storms and the bright, sunny days. Although we might have a sense of movement forward as we walked along, when we looked to one side and the other, we would see that there’s nothing but path. The Way is like this.
When Dogen Asks, “how could the Way be contingent on practice and realization?” he is asking that question from the seat of practice and realization. This is a person who had a great love affair with zazen; he called it the one true practice. He spent all his life teaching zazen as a whole way of being and living, not limited to sitting on the cushion. And so from the midst of a life devoted to practice, he questioned the need for special effort, for brushing the dust away, for traveling to study the dharma. “The true vehicle is self-sufficient”—there’s nothing outside of it.
What are the implications of being self-sufficient? Why does Dogen ask, “What need is there for special effort?” Clearly he himself exerted great effort in his own journey, which took him far from home during his travels to China. As we study the dharma, we encounter our habit energies, mental formations, underlying tendencies and the great power these aspects of our consciousness have. We begin to see that our old tricks are, indeed, old tricks. We use them but they don’t really work. In fact, the closer we look, the more we see how counter to liberation they are. For quite some time, though, we still employ them, and our familiar cycles of suffering persist. Yet all the while, like a drumbeat, like a mantra, we meet this essential teaching, The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading.
Many Of The Teachings Are encouraging us to cultivate faith in this inherent perfection, not as a good compliment to practice, but as the essential thing. And yet even as we are genuinely cultivating such faith, we can easily still be holding back, preserving those habit energies that, though binding, are familiar. Our perceived sense of a separate self may still be intact, even while the more obvious forms of suffering it creates are diminishing. We begin to consider the possibility that things are not as they appear, that we ourselves are not inherently flawed. The Way is originally perfect and all pervading can now begin to be seen, not as some distant dream about others, but as pointing to some basic truth about ourselves.
Dogen says, “Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the Way and clarifying mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens. You are playing in the entrance, but you are still short of the vital path of emancipation.” Dogen’s image is so rich. “Playing in the entrance way” is both comforting and chilling, delightful and treacherous. We practice so diligently, work so steadily, just to arrive at the entrance way. The door is open, the way ahead is clear. Yet we hesitate. We linger, enjoying the view from here, reluctant to leap. We can arrive at the threshold where the habitual grasping at, and belief in, the permanent self is ready to be seen through— and we hesitate. Or, having seen the self as fundamentally empty, we take this as the conclusion of the Path. The desiring mind is tenacious in establishing a strategy to gain liberation while retaining something to call its own. We’re still seeing practice—and emptiness—as something to be gained.
So How Do We Get To The place where there are no more strategies? To the place where, best of all, we lose our taste for them? How could this self-sufficient vehicle be contingent upon practice and realization? Being self-sufficient, the dharma doesn’t need you or me. The dharma doesn’t need monasteries, temples, zazen, or study. Then what’s the point of all this? Because you and I need these things. We need them because as long as there is a hairsbreadth deviation, there is liking and disliking, there is confusion. And so we practice.
Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall are celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?
In other words, even these enlightened men and women were sitting on this bodhi seat. Why? Because the Way is not contingent on practice and realization. Dogen says,
Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.
How? Sitting on that seat where the Way is perfect and all-pervading and the one who sits is perfect and all-pervading. Trust deeply that on this seat, each moment of practice does not enhance your own nature; each moment of forgetting, of wan- dering does not diminish it. This is the great self-sufficiency.
“To turn the light around and shine it inward.” This phrase is beloved in the Zen tradition—it’s so simple and direct. How persistently our light is turned outside, looking for something else. But the teaching is clear that we need to put away all that we know, all our intellectual reflection, all our investigation through words and phrases, all our beloved stories, all our unresolved conversations—to let them drop away of themselves. Dogen says that then your original face will manifest. Clearly we cannot dispense with whole-hearted practice; yet neither can we ourselves drop away body and mind. What, then, is the activity of practice?
We Habitually Try To Make something happen, to get what we came looking for, to obtain what we’re seeking. This feels so familiar and trustworthy because we’ve done it so many times throughout our lives. But we cannot meet the Way like this; we will fail. And our failing will cause us suffering. Dogen says, “Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest.” But he also says if you want to realize this nature, get to work on it. Does he contradict himself? No, he does not. It’s like trying to create silence; it can’t be done. Yet in the simple moment when we stop creating noise and activity, silence is naturally manifest.
Zazen offers us a refuge where we can learn to respond differently, where we can cultivate gentleness and fierceness. These qualities do not conflict. They need each other.
You yourself cannot drop away body and mind. The Buddha said, “Your body does not belong to you.” He said that it doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s just a collection of actions born out of intentions, spanning countless ages, that in this moment is to simply be experienced. That’s who we are. Realizing this helps dissolves any sense of substantiality, any notion of something to own or possess. And so we create favorable conditions in which to turn the light around, to see into this truth directly.
Dogen describes these conditions,
For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think “good” or “bad.” Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect and conscious- ness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?
Don’t try to be anything. Anything that you achieve will be limited.
Dogen goes on to offer instruction for zazen, and we can see how timeless and universal zazen is. He says to spread out a thick mat and put a cushion on it. Arrange your legs in the zazen posture. Tie your robes loosely and arrange them neatly. Place your right hand on your left leg, your left hand on your right palm, thumbs lightly touching. Straighten your body and sit upright.
Don’t be proud. Don’t be timid. Have confidence but don’t strive. Don’t strive ahead and don’t retreat. Sit upright like an awakened person; don’t waiver or be ambivalent. Align your head with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Look straight ahead and don’t be distracted. In looking straight ahead, know that the front and the back is all there. Let the tip of your tongue rest against the roof of your mouth. Let your teeth come together. Always keep your eyes open, always straight ahead, always alert. And breathe softly.
These instructions are so simple, really, and yet the ensuing struggle is not because practice is complicated, but because of the depth and breadth of our dis-ease, the difficulty of being in this body that does not belong to us, and that we may not have fully inhabited. It’s the dis-ease of turning the light inward and shining it brightly. But if we’re attentive, we see our struggle. And there’s a whisper in our ear: The Way is perfect and all pervading. It is self-sufficient. The struggle is not necessary.
Be Patient. Be Focused. Be Gentle. We all arrive in practice numb and hardened. The world is a pretty brutal place. We often respond to things out of a deep instinct to protect ourselves from harm and so we shut down or close off. Zazen offers us a refuge where we can learn to respond differently, where we can cultivate gentleness and fierceness. These qualities do not conflict. They need each other. It’s the fierceness of intention, our intention to be attentive, to see and gain understanding from what we see. The gentleness grounds us in our faith in our original perfection. We’re not fighting a battle, we’re opening our heart. We persevere, but with deep patience, releasing any attachment to goals or results. Releasing any attachment to the buddha we’ve designed in our mind.
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking—what kind of thinking is that? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.
Steady and immovable. This is not something that can be obtained by force. We cannot discover stability or silence, serenity or stillness, fierceness or patience or perseverance by force. The fact that force is our dominant mode only points to the nature of our suffering. So instead, allow your own mountain form to find its ground. Marry your body with the earth. Wed heaven and earth and be born as a mountain on this seat. Dogen spoke of sitting like this, saying,
The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized; traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know the true dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.
To think not thinking. To allow your mind to find its natural place. How do we apply ourselves when all we know of effort is forceful? How do we do it gently and unwaveringly? This is the essential art of zazen. It is not learned in a moment. It is not discovered in a month. It is learned in a moment. It is discovered each day of every month. Do you understand?
Thich Nhat Hanh Talks about the simile of the garden, how the gardener has to put the seed in the soil that she has prepared, then nourish it, protect it from the weeds and frost, tend to it. But then the earth has its work to do and the gardener has nothing to do with the work of the earth. This is an important point. We think we are in control, which means we think we need to control the whole thing. We get hooked on what we see and the results, thus our measuring and judging. We don’t trust there’s an aspect of the earth that has to be taken care of by the earth, that cannot, in fact, be done by you or me. There is an aspect of consciousness, of our nature, which we can’t touch and control. We do, however, have great influence, the power to crumble mountains and shift the direction of flowing rivers. This great spiritual power is our practice, realization, and manifestation of the perfect and all-pervading Way.
You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not pass your days and nights in vain. You are taking care of the essential activity of the buddha way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from a flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, the fortunes of life like a lightening-dart— emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.
This is the reality before our eyes. To live within this, to summon our patience, our fierce intention, our gentle heart, to be at peace within all of this—this is our practice. And so, finally, Dogen says,
Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not doubt the true dragon. Devote your energies to the way of direct pointing at the real. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.
Have respect for, and follow the examples of, those enlightened beings who have awakened to great wisdom, and understand that their nature is exactly your nature. Their body and mind is your body and mind.
Accord with the enlightenment of the buddhas; succeed to the samadhi of all the ancestors. Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a person. The treasure store will open of itself, and you may enjoy it freely.
The door is open. There’s no need to stay in the entrance way. Please step in, it’s your own chamber. This treasury, which is you yourself, opens of its own. May we all enjoy it freely.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the head of the Mountains and River Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.