Tomorrow begins my retreat at Upaya Zen Center with Kazuaki Tanahashi. The retreat is titled Dogen’s Circle of the Way.
Before Kaz invited me to lead this retreat with him I had not been very familiar with the phrase “Circle of the Way.” I’d probably heard it around Tassajara but I’d never paid the phrase a whole lot of attention. It seemed like one of those catchphrases the San Francisco Zen Center has developed. When you have a small group of people dedicated to a frankly unpopular practice, they tend to create their own shorthand. All subcultures do this. Sometimes it’s a way of establishing a cultural identity that contrasts with the larger culture. Sometimes it’s just because they’re sick of restating the same thing over and over. Most often it’s a bit of both.
Whenever you’re having a bad day at Tassajara someone will tell you, “It’s a practice opportunity!” I just want to smack those people. If you talk about being treated unfairly around anyone there they’ll admonish you by saying, “That’s comparing mind!” That kind of stuff gets real annoying real fast.
And since they read Dogen all the time, they’ve got a lot of shorthand for the things Dogen writes about. Hearing these shorthand renderings of Dogen’s ideas isn’t as annoying as being belittled by clichés when you just need to unload, but I tend to let them go a lot of the time without making any real effort to figure out what they are.
I sometimes have to translate their Dogen shorthand into other Dogen shorthand I’m more familiar with. It turns out that the translation of “Circle of the Way” into Nishijima Roshi’s shorthand for Dogen’s ideas is “Continuous Practice.”
It’s a very essential idea in Dogen’s teaching. It may, in fact, be the thing that makes Dogen’s Zen fundamentally different from almost every other form of meditation practice that I’m aware of, and what makes Dogen’s approach to Zen the most practical way of approaching meditation for contemporary people. Here’s Kaz’s take on it. Now I’ll give you mine.
When I say it’s the thing that makes Dogen’s way the most practical I’m not talking here about matters of posture or about rituals or any of that superficial stuff. Posture is important and rituals are significant. But what Kaz calls the Circle of the Way represents something much more fundamental than that. And it’s applicable to all sorts of activities besides seated meditation.
Until Dogen met his teacher Tendo Nyojo, he had been taught that zazen was a means to an end, a way of attaining a specific goal. You do zazen in order to become enlightened.
That’s the way most meditation is taught. You want stress reduction? Do this! You want peace of mind? Do this!
But it’s not just meditation that’s taught this way. Nearly every activity we do in life is divided into ends and means. You do your job to get a paycheck. You jog to lose weight. You practice violin to play at Carnegie Hall. You write books to become a famous author. The list goes on and on.
The problem is that we often do not attain our goals. Maybe our paycheck is less than we deserve, or we never get to play at Carnegie Hall, or we don’t lose that weight as fast as we want, maybe we become a well-known author but not a famous one and we don’t make any money, etc. This causes us a lot of disappointment. It often is enough to make us give up whatever it is we’re doing well before its benefits become evident.
Many, many people give up meditation practice for this reason. I can’t tell you how many times someone has forwarded me a very eloquently written essay by someone about what an obvious waste of time meditation is. This one by John Horgan is a great example. Horgan was disappointed by Zen practice and he explains why in terms that are very hard to refute. But I’d say he was just doing it for the wrong reasons. And the wrong reasons for doing Zen practice are any reasons for doing Zen practice.
Tendo Nyojo told Dogen that zazen practice is enlightenment itself. There is no separation between the activity and the goal. This doesn’t just go for Zen practice. It goes for everything.
There’s a very good piece by Alan Watts about this idea. He compares the absurd idea of doing something in order to reach a goal to a composer who creates music that is all about the ending of a performance. The South Park guys did a great animation of it.
The idea of practice/enlightenment isn’t just a thing to make Zennies feel good about how boring and useless our practice usually seems. It’s a revolutionary way of living your life. The notion of goalless practice can be applied to absolutely anything we do in life and will make that thing a whole lot better.
There are lots of ways of phrasing this idea. One of my favorites happens to be a little gross. But because it’s gross it tends to be easy to memorize, and it’s this: You don’t eat in order to take a shit.
We all know that. But in other areas we apply goals to what we’re doing and make ourselves miserable by doing so. We become like men who think sex is all about orgasm so they rush through the good stuff. We miss our lives chasing after the future.
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You can see the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings):
• March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY
• March 15, 2014 Brooklyn, NY
• April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA