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Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation

Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation

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by Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi

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Spiritual practice is not some kind of striving to produce enlightenment, but an expression of the enlightenment already inherent in all things: Such is the Zen teaching of Dogen Zenji (1200–1253) whose profound writings have been studied and revered for more than seven hundred years, influencing practitioners far beyond his native Japan and the Soto


Spiritual practice is not some kind of striving to produce enlightenment, but an expression of the enlightenment already inherent in all things: Such is the Zen teaching of Dogen Zenji (1200–1253) whose profound writings have been studied and revered for more than seven hundred years, influencing practitioners far beyond his native Japan and the Soto school he is credited with founding. In focusing on Dogen's most practical words of instruction and encouragement for Zen students, this new collection highlights the timelessness of his teaching and shows it to be as applicable to anyone today as it was in the great teacher's own time. Selections include Dogen's famous meditation instructions; his advice on the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation; guidelines for community life; and some of his most inspirational talks. Also included are a bibliography and an extensive glossary.

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Introduction by Norman Fischer

The year 2000 marked the 800th anniversary of Dogen's birth, a good time to appreciate the crucial contribution this great teacher has made not only to
Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism, or even to Zen Buddhism in general, but also to religious practice the world over. The last half of the twentieth century has been perhaps the strongest time for Dogen's work: In Japan and in the West he has been studied as never before, and his thought has been influential not only for a Soto School that is now thoroughly international, but also in a wider philosophical discussion, in which he is often compared with Heidegger,
Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and others.

Dogen's thought has proven useful and germane to many postmodern discussions in fields like metaphysics, epistemology, and language theory. When I began practicing
Zen in 1970 and encountered Dogen's writing for the first time, he was very little known and understood in the West. Although much of his writing has yet to be brought into European languages, several English translations of his masterwork
(from which many of the pieces in this volume come), as well as other materials, are now available, and Western Zen practice centers based on his work have been established. With all this, I think we can say that serious study of Dogen in the West is well underway.

It seems natural then at this moment to take stock of where we stand with Dogen,
both in Japan and in the West. Who is Dogen? What is his teaching? Why is he important? For those of us who have been practicing Zen for many years,
studying and trying to put into practice Dogen's ideas, a new spirit is emerging. There is a greater willingness to view Dogen critically, to see the problems as well as the tremendous and sublime depths, and to recognize that the religion he founded has had its ups and downs. In Japan the Soto establishment has in recent years made a strong effort to reach out to the wider world. It has forthrightly apologized for past mistakes (supporting
Japanese militarism before and during World War II and going along with the
Japanese anti-Chinese racist policies of that period), and, more than this, it has engaged in its own internal debate about how and why these mistakes were made. In many ways the Japanese Soto church has made sincere efforts to accept non-Japanese practitioners not simply as colonial subjects of their religion,
but also as robust and authentic practitioners in their own right, who may have something to contribute to a wider-ranging study of the master. All of this was unimaginable twenty-five years ago.

Zen practitioners are beginning to grow also, retaining a good deal of the initial wonder and adoration of Dogen, but tempering them with a critical eye.
It is true that Dogen's writings are lofty, difficult, and profound, great treasures of world religious thought. And yet, we are now beginning to admit that Dogen's thought is also at times cranky, narrow-minded, elitist,
fundamentalist, occasionally violent in its expression. We are beginning to admit that no human being, Dogen included, is perfect, unchanging, or always right, and that no person or institution remains unaffected by the social and political conditions that form the context for what happens to it.

Dogen was a religious reformer and innovator, he was also, deeply, a traditionalist. A traditionalist religious view is more often than not narrow-minded, authoritarian, and rule-bound, more likely to cut off real and vibrant life than to foster it. We need only study the record of any religious establishment to confirm this—from jihad to the Crusades, religion's effect on the human world has often been disastrous. And even when religion has fostered relatively peaceful times, it has often left scars of guilt and inner anguish on its most loyal adherents. Because of these tendencies, the last few hundred years have been understandably hard on traditionalist religion. The modern secular psychological and scientific viewpoint, which has taken religion as something old-fashioned and counterproductive to real human values, has been a source of liberation for many people.

But now that the developed world is, to a large extent, free of the old religion,
and at the same time clearer about the limitations of the human species, the secular perspective is wearing thin. We are finding a new way to practice religion—not superficially, not rigidly, but flexibly and widely, lovingly not crabbily, with a gentle idealism that is not, as idealism all too often is,

One of the necessities of this new kind of religion is actual practice—daily practice. It is admirable and important to have the right ideas about our lives: to believe that goodness is possible and can be cultivated, to view compassion as the most important of human achievements, to want to be mindful not mindless, and so on. But these attitudes, wonderful as they are, aren't enough to carry us forward in the present world. We also need some concrete form of spiritual practice we can be committed to—an everyday practice that can be a strong basis for those beliefs and intentions and can help us to work with our daily conduct. By spiritual practice I mean activities that we actually do, that we take the time to do; activities that are, in a rational sense, useless, that are done merely for their own sake with no other goal of object; activities that are done with devotion and dedication to something larger than ourselves, and as much as possible without self-interest. Here is where Dogen's writings, particularly those included in this volume, which bear specifically on his understanding of meditation practice, can be immensely useful.

Zen practice, Dogen's practice, centers on zazen, sitting meditation. But zazen is not, as one might imagine, a concentration technique to still the mind and produce religious insight. Dogen's zazen is much simpler and far more profound than that—even, as the reader will soon see, close to ineffable. I have always marveled at Dogen's sense of zazen practice. It is, on the one hand, extremely lofty and difficult, maybe even impossible to do, the most advanced and demanding of all possible spiritual practices; and, at the same time, it is a practice so easy and so accessible that anyone, no matter what his or her beliefs, skills, or level of commitment may be, can do—almost can't avoid doing. As Dogen says, zazen is a form of meditation so basic it can't even be called meditation. It is simply the practice of being what we are, of allowing,
permitting, opening ourselves to ourselves. In doing that we enter directly the depth of our living—a depth that goes beyond our individual life and touches all life.

Dogen's zazen defies description or explanation. Though Soto Zen teachers sometimes offer practical suggestions about how to sit, they make it clear in their fuller discussions that zazen is no mere technique. Many have noted the paradoxical language (whose originator, as you will see, was Dogen himself)
with which zazen is typically described. This is not to mystify the student—
it's because there is no other way to speak of zazen accurately. The zazen that
Dogen is advocating is neither devotional nor experiential; it's not a form of concentration or relaxation, though it may or may not include any or all these things. It is simply sitting in the midst of what utterly is, with full participation.

Dogen speaks to this in the very first sentence of the very first text he wrote explaining zazen, "Recommending Zazen to All People." If it is true that enlightenment is everywhere complete already, within us and outside us (as
I suppose a theist would assert about God), then why would we need to do anything to bring it about? In fact, Dogen tells us, we do not. We practice zazen not to produce enlightenment but to express and manifest the enlightenment that is already there. As he says in "Rules for Zazen,"
zazen "is not conscious endeavor; it is not introspection." Still,
there is a simple way to go about it. In this text Dogen goes on to explain exactly how to practice zazen—down to what temperature to maintain in the room, what to sit on, what to wear, and exactly how to arrange the body in the correct posture. The text is about a page long. It tells you all you need to know. Zazen practice is not difficult. Anyone can do it, and instruction takes only a few moments. Yet even many lifetimes are not long enough for it to mature.

Zazen is a physical practice. We don't usually think of spiritual practice as physical, and yet, life, soul, spirit, mind don't exist in the sky, they exist in association with a body. In Dogen's way of practice, body and mind (or spirit, soul) are one thing, and so to sit—to actually and literally sit down—paying close attention to the body as process, unifying consciousness and breathing with that process until you can enter it wholeheartedly—is to return naturally to what you most truly are. You have been this all along, whether you sit or not. But when you sit in zazen, you return to it and embrace it completely.

suppose that the most widely quoted and misunderstood aspect of Dogen's zazen is the line that comes toward the end of this text: "[T]hink not thinking.
How do you think not thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen."
(Note that this term
can be rendered as "not thinking" or "nonthinking" or
"beyond thinking." In this book the latter two renderings have been used, sometimes together. As is often the case in translating Dogen, whose use of terminology is often purposely multifaceted, one English word for one term is not sufficient to give the full flavor of the meaning.) I spent many years pondering this line—and practicing with it. It has turned out to be not so difficult to understand and to practice as I had thought. To think not thinking doesn't mean to stop thinking or to try to stop thinking. In saying
not thinking," Dogen is talking about an alternative way to think—a way that is not enmeshed in desire and confusion but is rather fluid and free. Usually our thought is either dull and dim, or it is agitated. In both cases thought is being pushed by anxiety or desire. When we do zazen, we let go of all this,
letting thinking simply rise and fall, by returning to awareness of breathing and posture. Thinking may be going on, but there's no more pushing—it's just thinking going on, not "I am thinking." This kind of thinking is what
Dogen means by nonthinking, thinking beyond thinking. It is no problem.
Sometimes in zazen there may not be any thinking, or very little of it. This is fine also.

In the final line of this short text, in a deceptively simple sentence, Dogen expresses the secret essence of his notion of zazen, and of all spiritual practice: "Zazen is the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease; it is undivided practice-enlightenment."

great deal is said in these few words.

think the real fruits of spiritual practice do not become apparent right away.
If you do almost any kind of serious practice, even for a day or a weekend, you will see some powerful effects in your life. It is not at all unrealistic to think that someone can have a life-transforming experience in a short retreat or even in a morning at church. I have seen this happen many times. But the real fruits of spiritual practice grow over longer periods of time. As you go back day after day to your cushion, through times when you like it and times when you don't like it, times when it is very difficult to keep it up, times when your soul aches so badly you can't imagine sitting there for even a single moment more but you do it, and times when your mind is raging or your mind is so peaceful you can't believe there could ever be a troubled moment ever again—when you experience all of this year after year on your cushion, you begin to find a deep appreciation and satisfaction in your practice—and in your life. You feel as if your cushion is your home, your true spot, and that when you sit there, you are always all right. If you are a Buddhist, maybe you will say, "when I sit on my cushion I am sitting in the palm of Buddha's hand, and I feel this no matter what shape my mind is in"; and if you are a Christian, you might say, "when I sit on my cushion I can feel Jesus'
love flooding my heart." But whatever you say, I think that there will be a deep sense of satisfaction in your time of doing zazen, and not only then.
You will feel that satisfaction in your life because you will know that you have come into contact with what is most basic and fundamental in the human heart: with love, letting go, and silence, and the taste of these will pervade your life. Even when the day comes when you lose everything to death, all your possessions, your friends, your body, your mind, even then, you will have some serenity knowing that the big mind, the larger reality, will always be present and will carry whatever you are to become exactly to where it needs to go.

"undivided practice-enlightenment" Dogen means that our life is always whole. We have always been enlightened beings—this has always been the nature of our minds, the brightness of our consciousness. To really know this is to accept a deep responsibility, a joyful responsibility, for our living.
For Dogen "practice-enlightenment" is one continuous event. It's not that we practice now in order to become enlightened later. Rather, because we have always been enlightenment, we must practice, and our practice is the expression of that enlightenment that is endless and beginningless.

is a lofty word, but its reality is something quite ordinary. The enlightened person is simply the person who isn't selfish, who sees things as they really are, loves them, and acts out of that love. With zazen practice we see a world that is lovely, and that calls out to us to participate in it. We are glad to do it. We can't not do it.

As you study the texts that make up this book and continue with your meditation practice, I think you will find difficulty in explaining or understanding what you are reading or experiencing. Dogen's expression of zazen practice, of human life, takes us to the very edge of what we can say or know. For Dogen there is no linear path connecting ordinary life to enlightened life, no scale of depth in living or understanding from superficial to profound. Each moment of practice is already the last as well as the first, and even a beginner is already finished. As he says in "On the Endeavor of the Way":
"The zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time . . . . Each moment of zazen is equally wholeness of practice, equally wholeness of realization." In other words, in our daily zazen practice we entrust ourselves to the wholeness of our experience, to all of experience, moment by moment. We are not so much trying to calm down or improve as to give ourselves to the holiness that has always been at the center of our lives.

Although this is something we literally touch with our own bodies, as Dogen insists throughout his writing, it is not something we can know in the usual sense. We sense it, feel it, are it, as is true of everything else with which we come into contact throughout the course of our lives; and yet as soon as we think we know it as an object or an experience and begin to define or take credit for it, we lose track of it. In the same text Dogen says, "earth, grass,
trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles . . . all engage in buddha activity," and inspired by them and in concert with them, we express the depths of what's true, unfolding widely inside the "endless, unremitting, unthinkable,
unnameable buddha-dharma throughout the phenomenal world."

This is lofty indeed, and lest we get too excited about it and want to rush out with our good news to the world, Dogen reminds us that "it does not appear within perception . . . because it is unconstructedness in stillness; it is immediate realization." Unconstructed. Immediate. This is how we begin to make efforts in our lives, then, inspired by our practice of zazen: letting go of our assumptions and preconceptions and coming forth in our lives from a stronger place. Not that we can ever eliminate our assumptions and preconceptions, but rather, that seeing them come and go in daily practice, we know them for what they are and can once and for all break their spell over our minds and hearts.

Passages such as these bring us face to face with one of the most often mentioned aspects of Dogen's writing: its difficulty. We are speaking here not only of problems having to do with translation or cultural distance, but also with the sheer and inescapable fact that Dogen's writing, in places, is almost perversely opaque, to the point where one wonders whether he actually intends communication at all. For Dogen the central fact of our existence, and the source of its profundity as well as of the problems inherent in it, is that we are at once severely limited and, at the same time, limitless, and that these conditions depend on each other. In other words, as existent creatures we are bound by time and space, and yet also we have a foot in eternity, which is not a limitless span of time and space, but the true, imperceptible shape of each moment of our lives. Because this is Dogen's point over and over again, how can he not find himself immersed in linguistic spirals and verbal somersaults?

Underlying almost all Dogen has to say about meditation practice is this sensibility in regard to the paradoxical nature of time and space. As he says quite directly in "Ocean Mudra Samadhi": "Past moments and future moments do not arise in sequence. Past elements and future elements are not in alignment.
This is the meaning of ocean mudra samadhi." (Samadhi is meditative concentration.) We experience ourselves conventionally, in the world of our own perception and emotion, as sequential, as within the realm of time and space.
But the actual reality of time and space also must include nontime and nonspace, which is always present with us. To do zazen is to open ourselves to this reality.

For us, dying is the limit of time and space. Dying is present with us always, in the midst of every passing moment, although we usually do not think of it.
Dogen thinks of it, and in doing so, how can he not come up against the limits of language, which is bound by time and space? So, in the text "King of
Samadhis," for example, he cannot avoid expressions such as: "Know that the world of sitting practice is far different from other worlds. Clarify this for yourself, then activate the way-seeking mind, practice, enlightenment,
and nirvana of the buddha ancestors. Study the world at the very moment of sitting. Is it vertical or horizontal? At the very moment of sitting, what is sitting? Is it an acrobat's graceful somersault or the rapid darting of a fish?
Is it thinking or not thinking? Is it doing or not doing? Is it sitting within sitting? Is it sitting within body-mind? Is it sitting letting go of sitting within sitting, or letting go of sitting within body-mind? Investigate this in every possible way. Sit in the body's meditation posture. Sit in the mind's meditation posture. Sit in the meditation posture of letting go of body-mind."

These are not rhetorical questions; they are open questions, crucial questions. It is passages like this that have made me appreciate my practice and my life, hold myself always as open as I can to new possibilities of meaning and experience,
and, incidentally, never tire of going back again and again to reading Dogen.

It is a very curious thing that this wonderful wide-open practice that Dogen so eloquently advocates became in his life and in the centuries afterward identified with a rigid and formalistic style of severe monasticism (the third part of this volume, "Zazen in Community," contains important texts that reflect this). Many readers of Dogen, baffled by this, choose to ignore or dismiss this as historical baggage, but to do so is to miss an important point.

The monastic life is strong. It involves dedication and total participation. There are no breaks, no hiding places, no profane moments. The monastic life honors a rule whose essence is simple: Always think of others and always act with others in mind, for we have no life without others. Dogen sees monastic life as the template life of the awakened person—he sees it as the life of the historical
Buddha himself. In living the monastic life, we reenact ritually the Buddha's own life—our lives become his. The elaborately detailed rules and guidelines,
the formalized bows and words, the minutely described marking out of sacred space through ceremony, the solemn rules, and gestures of seniority—all these serve to make this ritual life concrete through all our daily acts. Although most of us will not live in this way even for short periods of time, we can recognize the point that such way of life illuminates—that we are all Buddha in essence—and that every moment of our lives is a timeless crucial moment.
And so we are challenged to live, making all our acts, large and small, buddha acts, because each and every one of our acts carries the moral, metaphysical,
and symbolic weight of absolute truth.

Dogen, monastic ritual is the way profound meditation practice can pervade our whole lives. This explains the elaborate rituals detailed so painstakingly in texts like "Guidelines for Practice of the Way" and "Practice
Period," which can so easily sound hopelessly arcane to the modern reader.
To translate them one virtually has to reconstruct maps of medieval Japanese monastic compounds, so detailed are they and so dependent on the physical layout of buildings and the texture of particular customs. How can such stuff be useful to us in our daily practice as twenty-first century people?

One of the great casualties of modern life is the sense of coherent community. We all need to feel we belong to each other somehow, and when we do not feel that,
our lives can feel broken, lonely, isolated, lacking in support, friendship,
and love. The traditional structures for community (extended families living in close proximity to one another, an economic and social system that allows people to stay close to home on a daily basis, an agrarian- or crafts-based village life) are almost gone in much of the Westernized developed world and are probably not going to come back.

I think it is possible for us to construct new forms of community that can replace or augment whatever remnants of this old community remain. Such new forms of community will require that we establish and maintain specific and sacred ways of doing things and of being together, ways that bind us closer and more profoundly than any casual or personal contact ever could. Although it is probably not possible or even desirable that we raise funds to construct detailed Japanese monastic establishments as Dogen describes them (as far as I
know, none of the Western Zen monastic enclosures, even the major ones, have attempted this), we certainly can, through a lived understanding of the essentials of the monastic lifestyle, find ways to participate fully with each other in a sacred way. Once we train in such ways of conduct, we can apply the insights we have gained from them to our whole lives. In my own case, having spent a number of years living monastically, I can bring the deep structure and feel of that life to my daily life in the ordinary world. This training has helped me a great deal to learn how to include others in what I do and to feel that I am joined by others, even in my solitary acts.

For monastic life is fundamentally a life of participation with everything, and of kindness. Monastic renunciation is, in essence, letting go of the self-centered life. As Dogen says in "Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall," we should all be together "like milk and water," as grateful to each other for our mutually supportive practice as we are to our parents for our very life. It is this sense of communal sharing in gratitude that characterizes the monk's life, and that stands behind all that may strike us as archaic in
Dogen's monastic writing. This inspired life of sharing and gratitude is also,
in the final analysis, the essence of Dogen's understanding of meditation practice.

Meet the Author

Dogen (1200–1253) is known as the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen sect.

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