Rohatsu Sesshin Talk Number 5
by Josho Pat Phelan
Dogen said, "you hear the sound of the dharma.... with the body first and the mind last." I think the idea that we study the Way, or practice, first with the body and second with the mind is characteristic of Dogen’s Zen. When we practice, there is a shift from working in our usual mind-set of logical thinking and rationality which originates from our mental world, to trying to abide in our body. A similar shift, from our heads to our bodies, occurs when learning to swim, ride a bicycle or to drive a car. We have an idea of what we want to do and we have heard instructions for how to do it and when we try to replicate those instructions, the activity doesn’t really "work" until our reflexes, balance, and a bodily sense of it kicks in. This isn’t so different from learning to practice zazen. In zazen and practice in general, we try to shift away from our mental world into a more physical grounding and intelligence. In Darlene Cohen’s book, Turning Suffering Inside Out, she wrote, "On the most existential level, your body is your penetration into reality; it is the only way you can experience the transparency and interconnectedness of all the things." She said, "Sensation and thought are neurologically incompatible at the same moment. You can do one or the other." So, an antidote to thinking is simply awareness of our physical presence and sensations.
This reminds me of Yogi Berra saying, "You can’t think and hit at the same time." I find that when I start thinking during the sutra chanting service, it’s pretty easy for me to get lost and not know what to do next. The people ringing the bells or leading the chanting or cuing the bows, have to stay present with the ceremony moment by moment or confusion and disorientation can ensue. If you haven’t experienced this yet, just wait. One day, at the beginning of early morning zazen, I went to the altar as usual, but when I turned around and was returning to the back of the bowing mat, I noticed that the doan had a strange expression on his face. I realized that, although I had gone up to the altar, I hadn’t offered incense because I was thinking about something else -- I couldn’t believe it.
Service, and the forms in general, are a good vehicle for staying
present with what we are doing without the need to think about it.
Thinking about what comes next actually separates us from the activity
of the present and increases the chances of a miss. When I first began
ringing the bells, and when I made mistakes or the bells were out of
sync, I realized that there was no time out for regrets or judgments. If
I took time to review my mistake, I would miss what was occurring in the
new present, and being out of sync would continue endlessly. Service
gives us a way to practice being present with a simple activity, in a
safe place, where we can allow ourselves to take a break from our usual
mental approach, without there being any grave consequences when we
do slip up. Traditionally service is taught by going through it,
doing it, over and over, without any written instructions, so that the
method sinks into our muscles allowing our mind to become unified with
our feet and muscles and the chanting itself.
Today I want to return to the dialogue, referred to in the "Fukanzazengi," between Huai-rang and Ma-Tsu about polishing a tile. After the initial exchange which compares sitting zazen in order to get enlightened to polishing a tile in order to make it into a mirror, Huai-rang asked, "If the cart won’t go do you hit the cart or do you hit the ox?" This brings up the relationship between body and mind. The longer I sit, the more strongly I feel the importance of the body to this practice and I don’t mean that the body is important because we need it to work so we can sit cross-legged and meditate. It is important because the body, including the information held in our muscles and joints as well as the wisdom of our physical presence, is necessary to get beyond the confines of the thinking mind and access the totality of our being. For many of us it takes awhile to trust this practice deeply enough so that we can put down the strategizing, tracking mind that tries to keep us oriented, so we’re comfortable with the slower and more subtle activity of our physical presence.
The Dhammapada is an early collection of Buddha’s teachings arranged by topic, and it presents the relationship between mind and body like this:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts. If a person speaks or acts with an unwholesome thought, pain follows as surely as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the cart. All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts. If a person speaks or acts with a wholesome thought, happiness follows like a shadow that never leaves.
This passage expresses the traditional Buddhist teaching that all physical and verbal actions are preceded by a mental impulse, a very brief intention to act. Before we move – before we stand up or sit down, or walk, or fluff our zafu, or get angry, or say something – we intend it even though we may not be consciously aware of the intention since this process can be very brief and subtle. When our intentions and impulses are on automatic pilot, we are driven by our karma and habit energy. In order to have a choice about our actions, we have to be conscious of our impulses before acting on them.
I think a useful question to examine is, do we practice with our body or with our mind? Or, instead of separating the "we that practices" from "what it practices with," we can simplify this to: what practices, body or mind? What awakens to enlightenment, what is enlightened, body or mind? In Buddhism, "mind" refers to the whole realm of consciousness, to our thoughts and feelings, to our will and dreams, to emotions, psychological states, to silence. Ma-Tsu said "This very mind, just this is Buddha." Other masters said this very body is Buddha. Can you differentiate your body from your mind? Can you tell where one ends and the other begins?
For example, when you are sick or pregnant, filled with sexual desire or craving, is it a physical or mental experience? I remember hearing a story about a young monk who lived long ago and who was strongly determined to meditate. However, when he practiced meditation, his experience never matched his expectation – he had persistent sexual fantasies which he was unable to control or stop. Being so strongly determined to make his meditation work, one day he decided to get to the source of his difficulty, so he cut off his sexual organs. What is the source of our sickness, the source of our delusion, and what is the medicine? When you feel dread or anxiety or fear, or warmth and well-being, where is it? Is it in your body or your mind?
In Dogen’s work the Shobogenzo Zuimonki, he asked, "Is the Way attained through mind or body? As long as we only think about the buddha-dharma with our minds, the Way will never be grasped... When we let go of our minds and cast aside our views and understanding, the Way will be actualized. ...Kyogen realized the Way when he heard the sound of a tile hitting a bamboo. [He] attained the Way through [his] body. Therefore, when we completely cast aside our thoughts and views and simply sit, we will become intimate with the Way. For this reason, the Way is doubtlessly attained through the body. This is why I encourage you to practice zazen wholeheartedly."
Kyogen’s enlightenment story was one of Dogen’s favorites. Kyogen was a disciple of Kuei-shan or Isan and he was described as being unusually bright and learned. One day Kuei-shan called Kyogen in and said, "I do not want to hear what you have learned from scriptures or the result of your accumulated studies... Just give me the essential word about your Self before you were born, before you knew either east or west." In other words, show me your self which is beyond your usual self-identity, beyond your intellect, emotions and strategies, outside discriminating consciousness.
At this unexpected question, Kyogen was at a loss and couldn’t say anything. He searched for an appropriate response, but each time he went to Kuei-shan and presented an answer, Kuei-shan rejected it. Exhausted, he came to Kuei-shan begging, "Please teach ‘it’ to me." Kuei-shan said, "Even if I might show ‘it’ to you, it is my word and has nothing to do with your answer. There is no one answer. The point of the question wasn’t so much to elicit an answer, but to nudge Kyogen’s efforts to practice in a different direction: from understanding with his mind, to understanding with his whole being. Kyogen, driven to despair, burned his books and notes from years of study and gave up his training, leaving Kuei-shan’s monastery in tears. He went to the grave of the National Teacher, Nan’yo Echu, and became a nameless grave sweeper. One day while Kyogen was sweeping the area around the National Teacher’s grave, a loose pebble flew up and hit a bamboo. At that moment, the sound of the pebble hitting the bamboo opened Kyogen up to the universe, and he awakened. We might say that he heard the sound of the inanimate expounding the dharma. Dogen considered this an example of being enlightened through the body.
Going back to Huai-rang’s question, "If the cart won’t go, do you hit the cart or do you hit the ox?" The cart is commonly considered a metaphor for the body, and the ox a metaphor for the mind. Of course, in our usual world when we want the cart to go, we hit the ox. As you know, we could hit the cart all day and the cart won’t move. Like the passage from the Dhammapada, the traditional meaning of this has to do with the causal relationship between mind and body, between our intentions and our activity.
Dogen commented on this exchange in his teaching fascicle "Zazenshin"saying that he "recommended beating the cart... " He said, "In the [ordinary] world, there is no method of beating the cart; but though ordinary people have no such method, we know that on the path of Buddha there is a method of beating the cart, and this is the very essence of Buddhist study." Dogen took the traditional Buddhist teaching that the mind is the source of our experience, that the mind itself is Buddha, and he turned it around by teaching that the Way is attained through the body.
He taught what I think of as the radical non-duality of body and mind. For Dogen, the ability to understand or actualize practice involved our whole being, our whole body and whole mind, which he termed "body-mind." He wrote, "...because the body necessarily fills the mind and the mind inevitably penetrates the body, we call this the permeation of body-mind. That is to say, this is the entire world and all directions, the whole body and the whole mind. This is none other than joy of a very special kind." Experiencing the unification of body and mind is a kind of samadhi, which Dogen calls "joy of a special kind." This joyful unity can be experienced both in zazen as well as everyday activity.
We cannot separate what our body is doing, or even our posture, from our state of mind and visa versa. One of my teachers used to say, "I can tell what someone’s understanding is by the way they light incense and bow," meaning that our consciousness is expressed directly through our activity. Our understanding is naturally manifested in the way we do things, so our activity throughout the day is a direct expression of our realized or embodied understanding. We may think we understand a teaching or have insight, but a good indication of how deeply we understand, is how we behave and move. This reveals how deeply insight has penetrated from thinking into our body, into our muscles and cells. The scholar Hee-jin Kim wrote that "For Dogen, the body wasn’t a hindrance to realization; it was the very vehicle through which enlightenment is realized."
Uchiyama Roshi said, "...doing correct zazen means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it. It is easy to say, aim at the correct posture with your flesh and bones and leave everything up to that, but it is actually not so simple to do.... Doing zazen is to be full of life aiming at ... a correct zazen posture..."
I think many of us take our body for granted, until we have pain or some kind of physical limitation or crisis. Going back to the earlier question, "What is body? What is mind?" And how do we put them together to construct our world, and what is our experience like without concepts and labels? When we take away words, ideas, our story, what is left? Someone said that when he was able to interrupt his stream of thought and just be with vast openness, he could feel the warm compassion and acceptance of trees. When we take away our expectations, our hopes and fears, when we take away our story, what is left? Who is left? What is this body and mind when it has no labels or categories, before knowing either east or west, and how can we awaken to it as liberation and joy?
When Mrs. Suzuki, Suzuki Roshi’s widow, injured her knees, Darlene Cohen said that she heard Mrs. Suzuki talking to her knees, "Oh, little knees, all these seventy-three years you have helped me so much, supporting me when I walked, holding me when I taught Tea, carrying me up all the stairs in my life. Now, little knees, I will take care of you!" How do we treat our body as Buddha? How do we care for it as a vehicle for practice, as an embodiment of truth?
© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan 2010