The Far Side of the Moon.

May 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

butterfly moon

In Genjokoan, Zen Master Dogen wrote:

“Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”

Although these words may sound daunting, Dogen is really just giving us some practical advice on meditation or practice-enlightenment.

When we first take up meditation we find that our attention easily wanders after thoughts and sensation. As we progress, we find ourselves looking for some experience called enlightenment. Later, we see that every meditation is accompanied by a thought that we call myself or “I”. All of these are part of what Dogen calls “conveying oneself toward all things” because in each we are moving outwardly to seek the self in thought and experience.

When we finally realize that the subject of practice is not found in things we begin to abandon the outward search. We do not follow our thoughts so much when they beckon. We do not heed our cognizing mind when it tells us the solution lays this way or that. Thought and experience do not end but instead of running after them we begin to just watch as they arise and fall. To paraphrase Dogen, all things come through the self yet no thing is mistaken for that Self which just watches.

In a recent post I likened this realization to sitting in a field looking up at a full moon knowing that, although you can’t see it, its far side is always there. Likewise, the Self is here, right now. It’s you! Yet in your very search for it you move away from it.

It may seem paradoxical but the value of practice lies in its ability to lead you to a place where you give up your search for enlightenment or Buddhahood. You just sit, expecting nothing, looking for nothing, not seeing self as anything. It is then that enlightenment unfolds of it’s own accord and the meaning is made clear of, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”


Dogen’s Backward Step

May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Moonwalking Monk

Zen Master Dogen wrote in the Fukanzazengi:

“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness you should practice suchness without delay.”

In this quote Dogen expounds a basic premise of Buddhism that ultimate reality is neither known nor can be expressed through words, speech or the intellect. Though this is so, Dogen does not say that words or the intellect must be abandoned or cast aside. Rather, he tells us that we must “learn the backward step” which means that this backward step is something that must be intelligible at least to some extent to the intellect.

We would err if we took Dogen’s backward step to mean that in meditation we are to step back from something to see it more clearly or gain some greater intellectual understanding. Dogen has already stated that practice is not conceptual so the backward step must not be framed as an attempt to experience or know something.

Dogen’s meaning may be better understood in terms of stepping back to take a rest or break. This strips the backward step of any goal-oriented intention and presents it as something done for it’s own sake. This interpretation is more in keeping with the Zen practice of “just sitting” although, as Dogen says, it is not “just sitting and doing nothing”.

In the last post I referred to the far side of the moon that can never be seen directly from Earth; yet is there, nonetheless. What the Buddhist refers to as no self, or suchness, is the far side of the self. It can never be known intellectually or through experience; yet nonetheless is.  And like the far side of the moon that is not other than the moon, there is no separation between self and no self.  In Zen, this is the fingertip that can never touch itself and the knife that can never cut itself.

Properly understood this means that meditation is ultimately a matter of just sitting wherein we do not look for any understanding or subtle object to experience. Our usual intellectual activity cannot help us here. In fact, trying to know takes our attention out and away from what we want to know. So we do our best to just be still and resist the urge to turn the far side of our self into an object, thought or idea.

In this way we take the backward step. Body and mind will drop away, as Dogen writes, “of themselves.” No self sits and the moon illuminates the landscape while we cultivate the empty field.

I contemplate the moon through the night.

May 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

Sitting in a field under the moon

Just two days past I sat in a field and contemplated the full moon. Its light illuminated the spring grass and turned the field bright white. Even my raised finger appeared to glow. Such is the magic of moonlight.

As I sat the white dew descended. Beams of moonlight came and went with each passing cloud. Or was it the moon itself that floated past the clouds and across the infinite sky?

Under this moon floats all of humanity. Under this brilliant disk Buddha, Christ and Lao Tsu gave sermons. It permeates everything with its presence yet one side is never seen. Its form is emptiness.

The moon illuminates everything yet there remains something mysterious and forever undefined. We cannot capture this mystery so we just sit and let form be form and emptiness be emptiness. In this way we bask in the moonlight and drink up the moonbeams.

Where Am I?

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