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Zen Practice: Sitting in Silence with the Pain of the World

What is Zen practice all about? It is following our heart to the path of true freedom, the wisdom of seeing things as they are, which leads us to compassion. We are helped by countless people who have gone before us. We look to Shakyamuni Buddha and his own awakening experience for a hallmark of our own aspiration to live an awakened life. The long line of ancestors named in the Zen lineages also lies before us as models.

Here I take the 13th century Zen master Dogen as our launching pad for looking at ourselves and our own practice and seeking the awakened Way that our hearts are longing for.

Let us first remain in silence for a minute, breathing in solidarity with the world in pain. We in that spirit, seeking alleviation from the pain and to understand how we can be instruments of healing for the events that concern us from all over the world. There are incidents of violence we are barraged with in the media, and the term “terrorist attack” is often used. We are in a world where millions of refugees are driven out of their homes and are seeking a new way of life, in different parts of the world. There is so much more to enumerate along these lines, and let us remain in solidarity with all those in pain, breathing with the world in pain, and allow the Breath to open our eyes and point to us how we can live our own lives in ways that are directed not at aggravating the violence and pain, but rather toward healing.

Zen master Dogen lived in 13th century Japan. Before him were all the ancestors in China and India. They are the bearers of the lamp of Zen which we can be to light our lives. What does Dogen mean for us? He is a giant figure in history who shines out as an example of how to live our lives, like Shakyamuni Buddha and the other ancestors. We notice how these people shine out and we say “that's how I want to live my life.”

Let me first refer to his awakening experience from the Transmission Of Light. This gives us a sense of a concrete set of guidelines on how we traverse our own path.

The 51st ancestor Master Eihei Gen (or Dōgen, whose name means the source of the way) went to study with Master Rujing Once, during late night zazen, Rujing told the monks, “Studying Zen is the falling away of body and mind. Hearing this, Dōgen was suddenly greatly awakened, He went at once to the abbot's room and burned incense. Rujin asked him, “Why are you burning incense?” Dōgen answered “Body and mind have fallen away.” Rujing said, “Body and mind have fallen away, fallen away body and mind.” Dōgen said, “This is a temporary ability, you must not approve me without reason.” Rujin replied, “I am not approving you without reason.” Dōgen asked, “Why are you not approving me without reason?” Rujig said, “body and mind have fallen away.” Dōgen bowed. Rujing said, “ fallen away, fallen away!”Then Rujing's attendant said, “It is no small thing for a foreigner to experience this realm.” Rujing said, “How many here have gotten it? Liberated, he is mild and peaceful and the thunder roars.”

The verse:

Clear and bright, neither inside nor outside;

How can there be any body and mind to fall away?

The question for us is, what did Dōgen experience as described in this account? We will have to look at his background, to what led him to Zen practice. He was 5 years old when his father died and then soon after his mother died also. So in this shock of losing his parents – as we know, a child depends his parents for forming his own self image growing up as a human being, and this was taken away from Dogen from an early age- - he experienced the fact of impermanence . All of us encounter this reality at some point, and this spurs us to ask “what's life all about, knowing that death will come to me someday?” That's the first point for us to consider: Dōgen's realization that everything is impermanent, I could die at any time. So the one fact we can bank on is this: I will die. The good news is, I don’t know when. So the question confronts me: how can I live the rest of my life from this point on, so that when death comes, I can say, “I can die in peace, have no regrets.” First and foremost, that is what Dōgen’s childhood experience of impermanence invites us to experience for ourselves

When we were walking during our slow meditation walk this morning, I invited you to take each step fully, with full attention to each step. As you walk, step by step, throw out the idea of “self” conscious of this act of walking, and just walk. If that “self” is really set aside and thrown away, the boundless universe enters our horizon, and we can live and breathe freely in that boundless universe. That's what Dōgen was seeking as he sought “enlightenment.” Even at a young age he was an earnest practitioner, but he could find no teacher to help him. So he asked permission from the authorities to go across the ocean, to China, where Buddhism was thriving at the time. That is where his experience came to him, while he was practicing at the monastery of the Abbot Rujing.

His experience was triggered by this teaching: “The practice of Zen is this: Body and Mind falls away.” That's a hint for us also. What's this practice all about? “Body and mind falls away.” Let the little self be thrown away, and let the heart be open to that infinite and boundless horizon---do not let the little self doesn't block your view to what things really are. We are invited to be there, fully present with each breath, so there is no trace of the little “I-me-mine” trying to “gain” anything, to compare things, grasp something or other. That's what we are invited to let go of--- this little “self” that is always scheming to grasp something else out of its sense of lack and of insecurity.

In Dogen's tradition of Soto Zen the most direct way to arrive at the falling away of body and mind is “just sitting”---this is called Shikantanza. This is by no means to take a mere passive stance to things. Allow that sitting to be a dynamic spiritual activity that brings you to that stillness where there is no “self” sitting anymore. But, you think, and say to yourself, or you say to the teacher in dokusan, “but that is not what happens when we sit!”

So what do we do? Let's take that as the starting point and return home to the here and now, to each breath. If our mind is always trying to figure out something or other then we are not living what Zen is all about. Zen is to be here, now.

So it is a matter of sitting in stillness and allowing the gateway of the boundless horizon to open for us. In the words of Dogen's Master Rujing - “the practice of zen means body and mind falls away.” When Dogen heard this – his own “body and mind” fell away. (In Japanese it is just “bodymind.”) Even from our birth we identify with the little self, this bodymind complex that is insecure, and wants to hold on to things, wants to be in power. And that's how we see ourselves as “against the world,” and so we find that we are in a world of conflict, within ourselves, with one another. In that light the kinds of things that are happening in the world continue to happen. Violence, conflict, suffering, happen because of this little self that keeps butting in and trying to become the center of the universe. Zen practice invites us: Let that fall away. Let's continue in this practice, and not fall by the wayside. We may feel frustrated at times, sitting long, getting tired. But let us “nevertheless, persist.”

When Dogen heard those words ---“Bodymind falls away”---he truly experienced that. So he went to his master and offered incense and offered thanks. But when asked, “why are you doing this?” Dōgen said “I have just experienced body and mind falling away.” And the master noticed he was offering in a different way from before, and he saw the light in his eyes and he could see from the light in him that something was different, and that he had arrived at that place of peace. So Rujing said, “Body and mind have fallen away. Fallen away body and mind.” And at that, Dōgen experienced another level of depth of understanding.

In short, the boundaries and barriers that divide “me” from the whole universe have fallen away, and I am able to see myself as truly, factually, experientially, one with all. Removing and taking away the boundary between “self” and “other” - that's the level that Dōgen experienced. When Shakyamuni awakened he is said to have exclaimed, “I and all sentient beings have awakened simultaneously.” This saying indicates that there was no longer any barrier between self and other in Shakyamuni’s experience. “Enlightenment” is about the removal of this barrier. We can then celebrate our oneness with one another, with the entire universe. That was the first level Dogen experienced. Then his master said further “body and mind have fallen away. Fallen away body and mind.” That was the second level Dogen experienced. He now arrived at a place of total freedom.

Then Dogen said, “please don't confirm me lightly”. Now Rujing responds, “fallen away fallen away.” Even the thought that now anything is fallen away is thrown out. So what is left? Bowing in gratitude. Closing the door. Going back to home. The day to day tasks that Dōgen lived for the rest of his life.

Let us look at that. What now, after bodymind falls away? And after that, “fallen away bodymind?” And now, “Fallen away, fallen away?” What now? Now that my attachments have left me, what now? What remains is the wondrous reality of getting up in the morning, going to work, whatever the day calls for in a new and total freedom. Not with a sense of “my-self, against the world” anymore, but just breathing and feeling the pulse of the world as pulsing through my own veins.

So it's a way of life whereby it is no longer “I” that lives, but the Life of the universe flows through me. There is no need to attach an “I” in anything I think, say, or do.

Our life is lived in that boundless compassion we frequently chant about. In the concrete nitty-gritty of this world of flesh and bones, in the painful reality of our daily life, we are invited to enter the realm of boundless compassion.

So the question becomes 'How can I live my life in that total freedom?' How can we help one another as sangha, a community of practice, moving forward in that direction as we also do our own inner work, liberating ourselves from our delusions, so that we can contribute to liberating the world from its sufferings? Another way of putting it is, How can we support one another in our outer work as we engage in our inner work?

That is what the verse tells us – “how can there be body mind that falls away?” This question impels us to move toward a deepening where there is no inside or outside, and invites us to go forth and let our light shine in the world. There's a lot more that could be said but let's take this invitation to sit at the gateway, here and now, and allow the gateway to open out to infinity, to that realm of boundless compassion. Sitting with the pain of the world, we are opened to that realm of boundless compassion, and find empowerment to live in ways that we may address the issues before us in the light of this compassion, each one within our own respective capacities.

Ruben Habito

Maria Kannon Zen Center

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