Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: Fukan Zazen Gi

Fukan Zazen Gi

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa during the years 1993-1995
I really enjoy sitting here with you at Naropa. We come from many different backgrounds and practice traditions and some of you have never practiced meditation before. Of course, in this practice, we are all beginners. And yet, as we sit here we sit as one body. There is no difference in our practice as we sit together. We are all practicing together.

Since we are such a small group, I would like to get to know you a little better and know a little bit about your individual practices. If its all right with you I’d like to go around the room and if you could say your name and what your practice is it will help us all to see the diversity of our oneness in practice. To start with I am in the tradition of Soto Zen, a Japanese lineage of Zen Buddhism. Although our posture is usually the same allowing for differences in physical capabilities especially of us Westerners who are not used to sitting cross-legged on the floor, there can be differences in the practice of looking inward. Sometimes we sit facing the wall and sometimes we sit facing each other. Our teachers may give us a variety of different practices depending on our personality characteristics that will help us to turn inward and let our true nature manifest. Sometimes we count our breaths, sometimes we just follow the breath. Some teachers work with koans and some don’t. A koan is a simple statement or story that sounds paradoxical and can’t be understood with our intellect. We must go to a deeper intuitive level to solve the riddle of a koan. Sometimes our teacher will give us the practice of shikantaza which is just sitting. Just being totally present in this very moment. This is a very difficult practice and is usually not given to a beginner. So my practice is zazen in the tradition of my lineage. I’d like to hear from you. What is your practice tradition?

Last week I spoke a little bit about Dogen Zenji, the founder of the school of Soto Zen in Japan. How he understood the Buddha’s teaching that just as we are, we are enlightened. We are complete just as we are, nothing is lacking. So why do we have to practice? Why is sitting so important? enlightenment is never apart from right where we are. Always, wherever you go, whatever you do…….. there you are, and you are complete and perfect just as you are.

Today, I’d like to look at the next two paragraphs. They read:

Yet, if there is the slightest deviation, you will be as far from the Way as heaven is from earth.
If adverse or favorable conditions arise to even a small degree, you will lose your mind in confusion.
Even if you are proud of your understanding, are enlightened in abundance, and obtain the power of wisdom to glimpse the ground of buddhahood; even if you gain the Way, clarify the mind, resolve to pierce heaven, that is only strolling on the border of the Buddha Way.
You are still lacking the vivid way of emancipation.Moreover, consider Sakyamuni-Buddha who was enlightened from birth; to this day you can see the traces of his sitting in straight posture for six years.
And Bodhidharma who transmitted the mind-seal; even now you can hear of the fame of his facing the wall for nine years.
These ancient sages practiced in this way.
How can we people of today refrain from practice!

Therefore, cease studying words and following letters.
Learn to withdraw, turning the light inwards, illuminating the Self.
Doing so, your body and mind will drop off naturally, and original-Self will manifest.
If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately.

“Yet if there is the slightest deviation, you will be as far from the Way as heaven is from earth.” Dogen Zenji was always writing from two perspectives. What we call the Absolute and the Relative. We could call it the intrinsic and the experiential. Intrinsically we are perfect just as we are; when its cold we put on a sweater, when its hot we take it off, if we’re hungry we eat, if we’re tired we go to sleep. and it’s true of cats and dogs and birds and rivers and mountains as well. Dogs bark, birds chirp, rivers flow. Winter comes, spring comes, clouds form, rain falls. Whether we know it or not we are all part of the Way. We are in the midst of it. Not only that, we are the Way, just as we are! So how can we deviate?

Dogen says, “And yet, if there is the slightest deviation, you will be as far from the Way as heaven is from earth.” That brings us to the relative or experiential point of view. Here we are seeing things with our every day rational thinking mind. If we look at this sentence from the experiential point of view then it is obvious that if we don’t practice correctly, then we miss the point completely.

So intrinsically we are complete just as we are. Nothing is lacking. Two weeks ago we had a multi-faith retreat here at Naropa where we practiced together under the direction of 2 Jewish rabbis for 2 days, a Jesuit priest and a Catholic sister for 2 days, and 2 Buddhist teachers for 2 days. Rabbi Tirzeh Firestone gave an interpretation of the first line of the 23rd Psalm as “Lord, My Beloved, Nothing is lacking.” Nothing is lacking. That is a wonderful re-thinking of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” each of us in our individuality is whole and complete just as we are. This is a very strong affirmation of life just as it is.

But on the experiential level we don’t realize it. We keep saying to ourselves if only I was brighter… smarter… worked harder… understood more……… then I might be better. The point of our practice is not to become something other than what we already are, such as a Buddha or a saint, or an enlightened person. Instead it is to become aware of the fact that we are intrinsically and originally the Way itself. If we practice to become something else it’s like trying to put another head on top of the head we already have.

So then, how do we realize that just as we are, our life is complete and free? That’s point of our practice.

Dogen Zenji says, “To study the Enlightened Way is to study the self. And to study the self is to forget the self.” To forget the self is not to create any separation between oneself and the Way. How do we create that separation?

What creates the separation is our identification with our limited ego-consciousness. there is nothing wrong with consciousness, it’s a plain and simple functioning of the body. It’s not a question of right or wrong. We’ve got to have it and it’s simply there. But our problem is that we identify too much with one part of our conscious functioning. We think we can figure everything out with our intelligence. We get into trouble when we put too much store in our thoughts, ideas and concepts.

Am I meditating the right way?
Am I making any progress?
Oh! this is a bad session, my mind is running away with me.
Ah! this is a good session, my mind is calm and peaceful.
Dogen says, “If adverse or favorable conditions arise to even a small degree, you will lose your mind in confusion.

In other words, when you start having ideas of liking or disliking, right or wrong, good or bad, enlightened or deluded, you lose your mind. In the Song of Zazen it says, “The Way is simple, just avoid picking and choosing.” Your mind is the Way. So you become separate from the Way.

Even if you are proud of your understanding, are enlightened in abundance, and obtain the power of wisdom to glimpse the ground of Buddhahood; even if you gain the Way, clarify the mind, resolve to pierce heaven, that is only strolling on the border of the Buddha Way.

Dogen is saying that even if you have a deep experience of your True Nature, you haven’t made it. It’s just the beginning. You’ve just reached the border of the Buddha Way. In Zen se talk about realization and actualization. realization is just the first step. If you get stuck there, you’ve fallen into an ocean of poison and can never liberate yourself. If you cling to your experience of realization it’s like yesterdays prize, its a dead thing. It’s like a 50 year old man going around clinging to his high school football trophy. Conceit and arrogance can come up about your accomplishment and it leads nowhere. It’s actualizing your realization in your everyday life that makes you one with the Buddha Way. To the extent that we become prematurely satisfied or conceited by our accomplishment, we tie ourselves up and become unfree.

Moreover, consider Sakyamuni-Buddha who was enlightened from birth; to this day you can see the traces of his sitting in straight posture for six years.

The Buddha as a young man was a prince, the finest youth in the country, excelling in all kinds of learning, literature and sports. Even with such extraordinary talents and background he had to sit for six years and before that he practiced severe asceticism almost to the point of death. If the Buddha himself had to go though so much difficulty, what does that say for us? We must practice hard.

Now this seems contradictory, for we already heard Dogen say that it’s not a matter of practice or enlightenment, but this brings us back to the two aspects of our practice. From the intrinsic point of view we are all Buddhas and there is no need for such a thing as practice or enlightenment, because that is our true nature anyway. But experientially, we do not realize it. to become aware of it experientially and know it fully is why we practice. And one of the characteristics of our human birth is that we all have a desire, sometimes more open sometimes more hidden, to find our True Nature, to directly experience our Buddha Nature. Which is why in Buddhism a human birth is considered to be very fortunate.

And Bodhidharma who transmitted the mind-seal;

The mind-seal can mean the seal of approval that each teacher gives to his successor. It is also a synonym for the Way. In that sense there is nothing to transmit. realization is itself the transmission, is itself the Way. The teacher just approves. you transmit yourself to yourself. How is it done? Realizing that this very body, this very mind, this very place is nothing but the Buddha. Generation after generation the teachers in each lineage have passed on this mind-seal. Generation after generation the student has struggled to realize True Nature and then been approved by the teacher. In Buddhism there is a great emphasis on right understanding and transmission of the mind-seal by a teacher who really knows what it is.

Even now you can hear of the fame of his facing the wall for nine years.
These ancient sages practiced in this way.
How can people of today refrain from practice!

Therefore, cease studying words and following letters.
Learn to withdraw, turning the light inwards, illuminating the Self.
Doing so, your body and mind will drop off naturally, and original-Self will manifest.
If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately.

In other words, don’t just be involved intellectually. Your intellectual activities just become an obstacle. Learn to withdraw and turn the light inwards. We are always looking outside ourselves for the answer. Dogen is saying to turn the light inward and really investigate the self. Examine and reflect upon yourself carefully and find out who your really are.

If you do this, if you sit in meditation and practice turning the light inward, by itself your body and mind will drop away and your True Nature will manifest. See, you don’t have to forcibly drop you body and mind. It does it by itself. you simply have to practice being present in this very moment.

If you wish to attain suchness, practice suchness immediately.

Suchness refers to enlightenment. If you want to attain enlightenment, then practice enlightenment immediately. And the practice of enlightenment is sitting meditation.

So if you sit here worrying about enlightenment or delusion, good or bad sitting periods, correct or incorrect posture, you’ve missed the point. You’ve wandered from the Way. It’s a very simple thing. Sit in a comfortable dignified posture with spine erect and focus your attention on the practice you have been given. Then you are doing practice-enlightenment. You are manifesting the Buddha Way, that is your own enlightened nature.