In his essay Bendowa (A Talk About Pursuing the Truth) Dogen says:
Zazen, even if it is only one human being sitting for one moment, thus enters into mystical cooperation with all dharmas, and completely penetrates all times; and it therefore performs, within the limitless universe, the eternal work of the Buddha’s guiding influence in the past, future, and present. For everyone it is completely the same practice and the same experience. The practice is not confined to the sitting itself; it strikes space and resonates, [like] ringing that continues before and after a bell. How could [the practice] be limited to this place? All concrete things possess original practice as their original features; it is beyond comprehension. Remember, even if the countless buddhas in ten directions, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, tried with all their power and all their buddha-wisdom to calculate or comprehend the merit of one person’s zazen, they could not even get close. (Nishijima/Cross translation)
In my book Don’t Be a Jerk, I paraphrased this passage as:
The experience of zazen is eternal. It’s the same for everyone. We touch the deepest experience of all human beings throughout history when we allow ourselves to be truly quiet. If all the countless Buddhas throughout space and time used all their infinite Buddha wisdom to try to calculate the merit of one person sitting zazen they couldn’t even come close.
Embedded in here is the idea that if you understand just one thing completely, you understand everything.
This might be one of Dogen’s greatest insights. It informs everything about how we do zazen practice in the Soto style. It’s why we don’t use mantras or concentrate on koans or count our breaths or anything else. It’s the philosophical rationale for the practice of shikantaza or “just sitting.”
If you understand just one thing thoroughly, you understand everything.
For your object of study, why not choose the closest thing there is, the easiest one to look at, the one you’re already most familiar with? Why not look at yourself?
I’m no scientist, but I do love me some science documentaries on TV. One of the things I’ve taken away from all these documentaries is that the entire universe is made up of the same basic stuff and operates on the same basic principles.
There is a lot of variety, to be sure. There are big planets like Jupiter and little ones like Pluto. There are hot Jupiters and cold Jupiters. The force of gravity on a big planet is greater than it is on a small one.
But everything operates according to the same laws. Physicists talk about four basic forces that work within the universe; electromagnetism, gravity and the so-called “weak” and “strong” nuclear forces. But most physicists believe these are just different versions of the very same force.
Also, matter everywhere seems to be made of the same fundamental particles interacting in the same ways. Studying matter here on Earth can give you insight into how matter behaves anywhere else.
Dogen lived a very long time before any of these ideas came into being. People in his day had no clue as to how very similar everything was throughout the universe. Yet it’s something that Buddhists have been saying for a few thousand years.
Study one thing and you study it all.
This principle is called ippo-gujin in Japanese. Ippo means “one dharma” and gujin means “research to the very end.” (There should be little horizontal lines over the “o” in ippo and the “u” in gujin, but the blog program I’m using won’t let me add those.)
It sounds all fancy-schmancy when you put it that way. Some folks totally cream themselves the minute you start mentioning physics or throwing in old Asian words. Other people run screaming for the hills at the sound of anything remotely intellectual. But really, this principle is anything but fancy and not the least bit schmancy.
Our brains are made to seek out and identify the differences between things. That’s one of their biggest jobs. We use language to describe these differences so that when we ask for a fork we get a fork and not a spoon or — god forbid! — a spork. Those things are a nightmare.
Our brains aren’t made to comprehend the unity of all things. Even when they do, they do so by contrasting that unity with non-unity. That’s how the brain works and that’s how language works.
This is why, in Genjo Koan, Dogen says, “Do not assume that what is attained will inevitably become self-conscious and be recognized by the intellect. The experience of the ultimate state is realized at once. At the same time, its mysterious existence is not necessarily a manifest realization. Realization is the state of ambiguity itself.” That’s the Nishijima/Cross translation again. In Don’t Be a Jerk I turned this into, “Even when you realize everything, don’t imagine that you’ll intellectually understand it or even notice it. It’s beyond your knowledge.”
We can’t think this through. I mean we can turn it into a thought. But we can’t solve this riddle the way we solve lots of our problems, by pondering it until we get a sensible answer.
We can get it, though. We can sit with it and watch it manifest itself in everything we do and everything we are. Not in some vast, far away Mystical Land of Perfect Wisdom, but right here and right now in our dumb-old selves just as we are.
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
April 24, 2016 Rochester, New York Rochester Zen Center
April 28-May 1, 2016 Atlanta Georgia 4-Day Retreat at Red Clay Sangha
June 2, 2016 Los Angeles, CA The Last Bookstore 7:00pm
September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University
October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
MORE EUROPEAN DATES TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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