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Each One Liberated

Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment
The Way is fundamentally complete and perfect, all pervasive; how could it be dependent upon cultivation and realization? The vehicle of the source is free; why expend effort? ...The great whole is not apart from here; why go someplace to practice?
— Fukanzazengi - Translation by Thomas Cleary

These words were written by Zen Master Eihei Dogen shortly after his return from four years of study in China, in a piece entitled "Universally Recommended Way of Zazen."  Yet I imagine that, for most of us, life does not feel "complete and perfect." This may be especially true when you think about yourself - your tendency to anger or anxiety, or the way you may feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the planet or the people around you, or simply your confusion about life. So, when encountering this teaching, you might wonder whether this is really relevant to your life. You might think that it's all well and good for Dogen to have said this, living in the 13th century when things were surely simpler. Or you might think, "It could be that way for Dogen and his students, but it certainly can't be that way for me."

  Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.


Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.

In fact, Dogen acknowledges this tendency we might have in the next line he wrote. 

Nevertheless the slightest discrepancy is as the distance between sky and earth; as soon as aversion and attraction arise, you lose your mind in confusion.

That is, as soon as you forget that all things are expressing the Way, then confusion sets in. Your mind is included in this Way. And even if you can accept this, even if you can take it in, even if you understand this deeply, Dogen has more to teach you.

Though you may boast of comprehension and wallow in understanding, having gotten a glimpse of insight, and though you find the Way and understand the mind, though you may roam freely within the bounds of initial entry, you are still lacking in the living road of emancipation.

Thus even an insight into your own mind isn't "realization of the Way." Even having a deep, wise understanding isn't liberation.

Lantau Island Buddha.jpg

So what is this "living road" or this vital path of liberation? Clearly it is a path that Dogen believed everyone could walk, everyone could fulfill. Shakyamuni Buddha, too, believed in the individual's innate capacity for liberation. It is a path that is informed by zazen. This we know from the title of the piece and from Dogen's example in his own life and in his guidance for his students. And yet there is an aspect of the vitality of life off the cushion as well. It is this latter aspect that I want to explore with you today. 

To illustrate, I want to turn for a moment to a dialogue that happened about 250 years or so before Dogen's writing. Perhaps we can see for ourselves what Dogen may have encountered on his trip, and see for ourselves whether this teaching can tell you about your own practice.

This is a koan about Zen Master Tong'an Changcha who is best know for a poem called the "Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth." He lived in China during the 10th Century and is said to have had this conversation with one of his students.

The monk asked ‘Returning to the source, returning to the origin, how is it?’
The Master replied, ‘Even if the cicada has broken out of its shell, it cannot help clinging to the cold branch.’
The monk asked, ‘What about a very strong willed, and powerful person?’
The Master answered, ‘The stone ox step by step goes into the deep pool. The paper horse, shout by shout, cries out in the fire.’
— From "Unfathomable Depths" - Translated by Daigaku Rumme and Heiko Narrog

There are many historical and poetic references in this dialogue, so let's have a look at their meaning.

The phrase "returning to the source" is one that is often used in Zen tradition. It is part of our dedication at a memorial service, and it is also mentioned in other teaching dialogues like this one. It is a reference to the "Sutra in 42 Sections" which was taken from India to China and translated in about 69 CE. In that section of the Sutra, the Buddha says "When you guard the mind and revere the Way, the Way is profound and vast." Guarding the mind usually implies two aspects of practice. One is guarding the mind by not overwhelming it with intoxicants, food, sex, overwork and so on. The other is guarding against a dualistic view, a view that creates a sense of separation. Both of these aspects can help to point us toward the vital path of liberation.

 Master Changcha's reply is fairly straightforward. He says that even the practitioner who has broken out of fixed views cannot help but cling to that state of coolness, cannot help but cling to their hard won insight. Having glimpsed a bit of the Way, one might want to cling to an idea of a fixed source. 

Hearing this the student is wise enough to see that one cannot stop there. He then asks about the one who persists even beyond that point, one with determination.

And here the Master's reply is much more poetic and subtle. To break it down a bit, oxen and cows usually have the meaning of a being that is free, not pushed and pulled about by circumstances. This is a carry over from the long standing East Indian tradition of allowing cows to roam. The stone ox is not only free to roam but cool, unmoved. In the Master's words, then, a practitioner who has gained some freedom and equanimity, but persists, moves step by step into the depths of insight, the deep pool.

The horse is a symbol for a fairly sophisticated person, as horses are usually compared to the more mundane donkeys. In this case, the paper horse is likely an allusion to a learned person, as paper relates to books and study. Thus, the sophisticated, learned practitioner who persists burns up their delusion in the fires of their effort. This path is not without its difficulties, described by the Master as "shouts" and "cries." We should know that practice will not be comfortable if it is going to be liberative.

Therefore, what Master Changcha is teaching his student is that each practitioner is liberated by the very things that make them what they are. Each being, if they persist in practice, will find that their very attributes are the ones that lead to liberation. The ox sinks of its own weight; the horse burns because it is made of paper. This is not a matter of how you relate to yourself. Rather it is a matter of studying those attributes of mind and body until you completely see through them, until you completely eliminate any sense of separation of self.

  Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan


Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan

To illustrate with a slightly more recent example, standing at Tassajara creek,  I once encountered a small fish that had jumped up on the rocks next to me. Seeing that it needed help, I tried to pick it up, but it squirmed and wiggled and wouldn't allow me to get a hold of it. In that moment I realized that I could only help it by allowing it to swim away. Scooping up a bit of water and splashing it in the right direction allowed the fish to slip easily back into the creek. That is, the fish could only be saved by enabling it to completely be fish. There was no other way to save the fish. The same is true for you and I and all other beings. We are freed not by receiving something that we don't already have, but only by being absolutely, completely what we are. And what we are is not the same as our idea of it, or someone else's idea of it. It is just that which we truly are.

So it is my hope that these stories and these ancient teachings can inspire you to be the practitioner who persists, to be the one who asks "How can this very mind and body be Buddha?" Because it is.