Time is Passing 2: An introduction to Dogen

(7 Day Intensive at Centre of Gravity, 180 Sudbury Street, Toronto, Spring, 2011. Talks by Michael Stone, notes by MH (with errancies, mishearings, conjectures.) This is talk 2 of 8 on Dogen’s text Time is Passing), written in 13th century Japan.)

The text is called Uji. It has different meanings, but mostly it means “at a certain time.” Or “for the time being.” And it’s been translated into English as “being time,” which is awfully close to Martin Heidegger who also wrote a text of the same name. Heidegger is probably the most important philosopher after 1940. Dogen precedes Heidegger by a long time, and there are many scholars who think that Heidegger was inspired by Dogen because at the time Heidigger was writing Being and Time he had become friends with D.T. Suzuki, who was one of the most important Japanese scholars to bring Zen to North America. Mostly teaching in New York City, his students included John Cage and Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg and Martha Graham, most of the people who developed what was then called minimal art in New York. We won’t go too far down that line.

Until my research lately into the Shobogenzo I always thought that Dogen’s text was called Being Time, which sounds so elevated and philosophical, to “be time.” But I’ve recently learned, preparing for these talks, that it isn’t called “Being Time” but “For the Time Being.” Which I think is an important detail. It’s not a philosophy text, it’s a text that you become for a time, as opposed to this kind of elite or high level trait that one reaches, that eventually one becomes time. It’s more of a colloquial term in Japanese, apparently a term that’s used all the time, so it’s not a holy or sacred or philosophical term. It’s a common term that just means for the time being. I would say it doesn’t mean only that either, it also means this time right now. This moment. What does it mean to be here in this moment? Underneath meaning. How can you have meaning underneath meaning? This is what Dogen is getting at. All of us have came here to this room to experience this. You have commitments in your life that you’ve stepped away from, you have jobs… not everyone has jobs, but maybe you have a job so you can be here from Monday to Friday. Can you use this time to be here, or do you find it’s hard to arrive here? Maybe you’re still in a different version of your life. Uji means now, now, now, now. One of my teachers is Enkyo Roshi, and when I first learned Uji from her she described it as “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” Sometimes it’s possible, sometimes it’s not. Which I really like. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I like the no, the part of us that says, “I don’t want to be here.” To become aware of the part that doesn’t want to be here, is to be here. This is the paradox. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And then you’re aware of sometimes no and then you’re here.

So I think in a way we’re all here to do the same thing, to be in community and practice together. I often think that sangha is like a cup, an invisible cup. It doesn’t matter whether it’s full or empty or half full, the point is that there’s invisible form there. Often people ask, “What is Centre of Gravity? What’s in the cup?” And I don’t know, exactly. But we have these forms to create this invisible cup. The most important thing is the cup actually. The way we sit here together, the way you bow when you come in, the way you support someone else by cleaning the bathroom, by finishing your pee at the right time, by arranging the shoes and putting the cushions away properly, by coming whenever you can to participate – all this makes the cup. And then the cup allows you to see your life. And it also lets you see other lives, not just your own.

This room, can you can see this room, sometimes it takes a time of settling just to be able to see the space you’re in. Faces. To look around. Have you looked around? There’s more faces than this one, you know. To see each other’s faces. At lunch time were you able to see each other’s faces? The best way to remember people is to be able to look into their face. Aren’t faces amazing? Can you look around and see some other faces? And notice when you look at other faces if you allow people to see your face or if you’re giving them a face. Especially shy people like 3/4 of you. To be able to see another face, and to see it with your face. Richard Freeman always used to say, “Yoga is freedom from your face.” Especially when you put on a face. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and put on a face. My grandmother used to do this. I used to sleep at my grandmother’s house, and she had a make-up room. She would wake up early in the morning and spend about 35 minutes just putting on her face. That’s what she called it. “I’m putting on my face.” I thought that was the strangest thing ever. But I liked looking into the mirrors because they made your pores appear really big. And then I remember being horrified thinking, “She wakes up and looks at her big pores? And then covers them up.”

I thought I’d start with a few quotes by Dogen. This is a poem he wrote called In Seclusion before he wrote Uji. He was also a poet.

In Seclusion
All that’s visible springs from causes intimate to you
While walking, sitting, lying down
The body itself is the complete truth
If someone asks you the inner meaning of this
Inside the treasury of the dharma eye a single grain of dust

Everything that’s visible, everything that you can become aware of, springs from a cause that’s intimate to you, that’s not separate. The body itself is complete, this is it. In your eye, you have dharma vision. You can see how things are. And inside your eye there is a single grain of dust, dust is a metaphor for karma. Just a little bit of habit, just enough habit that you can see yourself as separate, and at the same time you can feel that everything that arises comes from a cause intimate to you.

Here’s one more passage before we jump into Uji. It comes from the beginning of the Shobogenzo where Dogen says that the Buddha is someone who has received one to one transmission. In other words: you can only become awake through intimate transmission. In other words the teachings don’t get passed down by a stamp or a robe or completing six series or standing on your head for two hours. The way the teaching gets passed is from one to one, heart to heart transmission. Your parent calls you and they’re not well. And you go see them, you go visit them, and right in that moment when you visit them… Maybe it’s father’s day. Does anyone here realize it was father’s day last week? Father’s day is really painful. I was in Victoria on the weekend, there were 60 people in the workshop and we did a meditation practice when he was the age you are right now. And you just stay with that. And then you visualize your father at any age before he had you. So maybe at like 10 years old. We spent ten minutes meditating on that. And then you visualize your father when he was born. How much hair he had. And it doesn’t matter if your father is alive, if you don’t know who your father was, you just kind of feel out this dad. It was really powerful for all of us to be able to find the person underneath our dads. And how do you do that? Through intimate one to one transmission. And it happens both ways. That’s how you pass the dharma. All these people taking teacher training, to teach people yoga… you can’t teach intimacy. You can teach techniques that give rise to the conditions of one to one transmission, but there’s no technique to make it happen. Or maybe there are. Maybe Marshall Rosenberg has figured it out.

Dogen says: “When the Buddhas, each having received one to one transmission of the splendid teachings, experience awakening, they possess a subtle method which is without intention.” Dogen’s not into intention. For those of you into setting an intention, Dogen doesn’t like this. Dogen feels that when you’re intimate with the causes that give rise to what’s going on you don’t need intention, intention actually takes something away. Just to fully be here needs no intention. So you could argue, if you were a cognitive psychologist that you were intending this, because it’s taking your intention and intentionally being there, but Dogen is saying something different. When your heart is open, when you’re actually present with another’s face, you don’t need intention. And that maybe being with someone and setting an intention actually pulls you away from being with them. It’s an interesting thing to explore.

The Other Side
Then he says: “The reason for this is that something is being transmitted from a Buddha to a Buddha.” For those of you studying The Lotus Sutra here is this term again. Dogen always uses this term from The Lotus Sutra. In most of his writings in the Shobogenzo he refers to this. Only a Buddha and a Buddha. He’s saying you can only be awake if there’s a Buddha and a Buddha. But it’s not from the other side. A lot of people are waiting for the Buddha to happen from the other side. It’s like I have this miserable life, my job sucks, I’m still trying to get my foot behind my head, when is the Buddha going to come? As if the door of awakening could be opened from the other side. But Dogen seems to be saying, “Ah, when you don’t have intention, and you’re fully there, then you see the other as a Buddha, and then you’re a Buddha.” This is the easier method of practice, I recommend it. Instead of trying to become a Buddha, just see another person as a Buddha. And then you’re a Buddha. Dogen is saying awakening can only be possible when there’s a Buddha and a Buddha. But if I’m waiting for the Buddha then I don’t see the Buddha. Has anyone here done this where you’re waiting for someone else to change? Have you ever been in a relationship like this? Only if they change will I be happy. Like your boss at work. When are they going to change? Like trying to make your parents change? Has anyone here ever tried to change their parents? No? Probably because people are from out of town. In Toronto people are really into this.

Then Dogen writes, “What is samadhi? Samadhi is receiving and using the self.” Receiving and using yourself is samadhi. How do you receive yourself? When someone else is a Buddha, you receive yourself. It’s so beautiful. When you see how someone else is awake, then you receive yourself. I would translate this maybe as, “When you can leave someone else alone, and see how they’re a Buddha, you receive yourself. You protect yourself.” As opposed to this idea of getting rid of yourself. And then he has a funny line, he says, “And this is standard. For enjoyment of samadhi just begin with sitting meditation, that’s an authentic gate.” To really enjoy, he talks about this a lot, when you sit to enjoy it. And when you really enjoy it, to really enjoy samadhi, integration, use sitting mediation, this is an authentic gate.

I thought I would give some introductory words from Dogen just to give a flavour of him.

Grant: Typically samadhi is presented as an absorption that happens in solitary.

Michael: He’s talking here about samadhi as the ability to give and receive which is action, right? But you can even say that in stillness and meditation practice you’re doing the same thing. As you give yourself over to sound, you’re receiving yourself. Never losing yourself, but never getting rigid in yourself. It’s so different from how we usually think of samadhi, as killing the self.

Lisa: How does this relate to kundalini energy?
Michael: Kundalini energy? I’m not sure. Historically or my opinion?
Lisa: Your opinion.
Michael: My opinion is that kundalini is a metaphor for awakening as it’s experienced in the body. So when you inhale and exhale and we cultivate shambhavi mudra, and we’re finishing our exhale and finishing our inhale, awakeness is described as an opening in the central axis. In some schools this is called the arising of the kundalini. They say there is a serpent sleeping in your pelvic floor coiled three and a half times, one time because of greed, one time for anger, and one time for confusion. And then there’s a half representing the possibility of waking up, it’s head is sticking up. It’s said that when you’re open and you start working with your capacity for greed, ill will and delusion, then you experience kundalini rising, which is the rising of the world, you wake up to the world. I think in the last couple of hundred years, especially in the last 40, in the West, we’ve interpreted that as actually a snake, that really lifts out of your pelvic floor and creates all kinds of tingling up your spine. All these kundalini practitioners are waiting for this to happen. Sometimes with good pranayama practice you do get tingling and different kinds of hot flashes and this gets interpreted as awakening, and I think it’s one of the biggest misinterpretations of kundalini, because you lose the fact that it’s trying to point towards something rather than be a thing in itself. Samadhi is kundalini, it’s just using a different language. Samadhi is whenever there’s a Buddha and a Buddha. But a Buddha can be any sentient being. A tree for instance. A blade of grass is a Buddha. What’s a Buddha for you today? Maybe you’re thinking of a Buddha as just a human, but maybe today a grain of rice is your Buddha, if you’ve really had one to one transmission with a grain of rice. Is that possible?

Dogen was 41 years old when he wrote Uji, which comes from a larger text called the Shobogenzo. The translation that we’re going to work with is by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Dan Welch. Kaz is an excellent translator for practitioners, very poetic and beautiful. Kaz is an elderly man, he’s about this tall, he has a really long grey beard, and Kaz is also an incredible calligrapher. Kaz painted the enso you see on the wall, hanging here on the wall. He asked, “What’s the theme?” I said, “Centre of gravity.” So this is the enso he painted. When you paint an enso it’s one stroke, one breath. Could you imagine someone in their 80s doing this, one stroke, one brush, with a brush that looks like a mop. Some of you, have any of you met Kaz? Carina and I met Kaz this year in Montreal, it was really wonderful, he’s a wonderful person. He translated the text we’re going to use, but it’s not my favourite translation. My favourite translation is very hard to find, it’s by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. Nishijima is a Japanese monk and scholar and he’s my favourite. Dogen sometimes writes in Chinese, and sometimes he’ll switch to Japanese. What Nishijima does that no one else does is that he puts the Japanese in italics, so you can tell when he’s writing in Chinese and when he’s writing in Japanese. Kaz just sort of skips that so it reads more easily. Dogen does this on purpose because he felt the teachings were much purer in China. So when he was on a roll with his writing, he wrote in Chinese. Just like the Chinese, when they wanted something to be more pure, they wrote in Sanskrit. Today when people want to do real yoga they want to go to India. Because it can’t be here. We always think that what they did in the past was somehow more true and spiritual, unlike the superficial and commercial life we lead here.

Dogen Love
Maybe I’ll just say a few words about Dogen. Maybe I should say that I’m in love with Dogen. I’m completely in love with Dogen. Right from the first time I ever encountered Dogen. The first text I ever read was the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, and right away I knew this was my friend. What I love about Dogen is that his writing is so intuitive, when I read it I don’t need to analyze it. Do you feel this way when you love somebody? You don’t need to analyze them. I mean sometimes yes and sometimes no. But when you have a feeling for someone you’re not trying to unpack them. So we’re having a conversation, and when Dogen says something I just listen. You just get it. It’s like the intuitive part of you… for me it’s the part of my heart that is 13 years old, and feels totally cut off from the world. When I was 13 I had so much anxiety and felt like: How can I ever participate in the world. Has anyone ever had phases like this? When you’re thinking about death and impermanence and all your friends are trying to roll a joint? They’re going to become your friends soon but they’re not your friends yet. And I just felt completely cut off, and when I read Dogen I can feel that part of me is healing. He touches in me that part of myself that doesn’t need to reach with meaning. You read Dogen and it says what it says. You don’t need to figure out what it means. The Heart Sutra is like this for me too. When I chant The Heart Sutra I just want to say yes, yes, yes.

Dogen was born in 1203 in Kyoto, he spent most of his life in Kyoto except when he went to China. When he was three years old his father died. I don’t know why, from all the readings I read about Uji and Dogen’s obsession with time, that nobody mentions this. You have to go deep into his biography to find out this detail. When he was three years old his father died. It was a political family, so he was expected to go into politics, and then five years later when he was 8 years old, his mother died. So by the time he was 9 he had lost both of his parents. He was really aware of time, of impermanence. I don’t know if anyone here has had a parent die when they were younger than 10? To see both your parents die by the time you’re 10, this had a huge impact, so big that he left his family and became a monk in the Tendai school. The Tendai school was of course the most prominent Mahayana school at the time, and Dogen became a monk at the age of 13, which is actually pretty young to become a monk, even in those times, in that part of the world. Then Dogen was doing some training in Japan and suddenly he had a realization. He was studying The Lotus Sutra which had this idea of tathagata gharba, that everybody is a womb of the Buddha, even your nemesis. Does anyone here have a nemesis, an enemy, someone who tortures you? If you don’t have one you should get one, we can find you one. Politicians are a good way to start.

Why Practice?
Whenever he studied the exoteric or esoteric schools of the dharma, he heard this teaching: that everyone is inherently awake, and it made him wonder: why practice? He couldn’t rid himself of this question. If practice is transmitted between a Buddha and a Buddha, if everyone is inherently a Buddha, then why practice? Why would I practice? The most famous story of this is that Dogen’s on a boat, and apparently on the boats in Japan at the time a lot of the farmers would sell produce. So he’s on a boat and there is a mushroom seller and one of the tenzos or head cooks from a monastery was also on the boat to buy mushrooms. Dogen asked this cook, why are you buying mushrooms? Why are you cooking in a monastery? Why don’t you do the real practice which is to sit and to chant and to meditate and to study? And this old monk said to the young Dogen, well I don’t think you understand practice. I cook for the monks. Dogen just didn’t get it, because he was haunted by this question. Why practice? Have you ever had this in bed in the morning before coffee, thinking, oh it’s such a beautiful morning the flowers are out why get up? I should just lie here and appreciate the Buddhas in everything and three minutes later you’re neurotic.

So this is what Dogen was obsessed with, and just as a tangent, because I know that some of you are writers, this question is what brought two very well known and important figures in the last century to Zen, which is Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. They were really inspired by this question of Dogen’s, and they really helped to set up Zen, and Dogen in particular, in the west. This is what split the Beats, because the people in New York like Allen Ginsberg, or Jack Kerouac at the time, were not yet interested in actually practicing, they only liked the ideas of the dharma, and meanwhile Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder were going to Japan and learning Japanese and actually practicing in monasteries. This was a tension in the Beat movement when they became characterized as a Buddhist movement. Some of the Beats – for Allen Ginsberg it didn’t happen until later in his life – were not really practicing, whereas Gary Snyder was a serious practitioner, he actually moved to Japan and married a Japanese woman. Anyways, a little detail. Any questions or comments before we switch gears? I think these are important details to know. No comments or questions? Enkyo Roshi once told me that she had a professor at NYU who used to wait 13 minutes if nobody had a question. He would stare at the clock and wait for 13 minutes. People would just make up questions so they didn’t have to sit there for 13 minutes.