Are There Any Who Are Not Beginners?

Teachings by Master Dogen from Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation, a new collection of translations edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

By Kazuaki Tanahashi

Photo by Mando Gomez.

Teachings by Master Dogen from Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation, a new collection of translations edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

The essential way flows everywhere; how could it require practice or enlightenment? The essential teaching is fully available; how could effort be necessary? Furthermore, the entire mirror is free of dust; why take steps to polish it? Nothing is separate from this very place; why journey away?

And yet, if you miss the mark even by a strand of hair, you are as far apart from it as heaven from earth. If the slightest discrimination occurs, you will be lost in confusion. You may be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization, or you may have acquired outstanding wisdom and attained the way by clarifying the mind. However, even with high aspirations, if you wander about and get an initial glimpse of understanding, you may still lack the vital path that allows you to leap free of the body.

Observe the example of Shakyamuni Buddha at the Jeta Grove, who practiced upright sitting for six years even though he was gifted with intrinsic wisdom. Still celebrated is the Master Bodhidharma of Shaolin Temple, who sat facing the wall for nine years, although he had already received the mind seal. Ancient sages were like this; who nowadays does not need to practice as they did?

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.

From Fukanzazengi, “Recommending Zazen to All People,” translated by Edward Brown and Kazuaki Tanahashi.

Who are beginners? Are there any who are not beginners? When do you leave beginner’s mind? Know that in the definitive study of the buddhadharma, you engage in zazen and endeavor in the way. At the heart of the teaching is a practicing buddha who does not seek to become a buddha. As a practicing buddha does not become a buddha, the fundamental point is realized. The embodiment of buddha is not becoming a buddha. When you break through the snares and cages [of words and concepts], a sitting buddha does not hinder becoming a buddha. Thus right now, you have the ability to enter the realm of buddha and enter the realms of demons throughout the ages. Going forward and going backward, you personally have the freedom of overflowing ditches, overflowing valleys.

Mazu, Zen Master Daji Jiangxi, studied with Nanyue, Zen Master Dahui. After intimately receiving Nanyue’s mind seal, Mazu was continuously engaged in zazen. One day Nanyue went up to him and said, “Virtuous one, what’s your intention in doing zazen?

Quietly ponder this question. Was Nanyue asking if Mazu had the intention of going beyond zazen, if he had an intention outside of zazen, or if he had no intention at all? Was Nanyue asking what kind of intention emerges while doing zazen? Investigate this thoroughly.

You should cherish a true dragon instead of a carved one. However, you should know that both carved and true dragons have the ability to produce clouds and rain. Do not treasure or belittle what is far away, but be intimate with it. Do not treasure or belittle what is near, but be intimate with it. Do not make light of or a big deal of what you see with your eyes. Do not make light of or a big deal of what you hear with your ears. Rather, illuminate your eyes and ears.

Mazu said, “My intention is to become a buddha.”

You should clarify these words. What is the meaning of become a buddha? Does become a buddha mean being made buddha by another buddha, buddha making oneself buddha? Is this the emergence of one or two buddhas? Is the intention to become buddha dropping off, or is dropping off the intention to become buddha? Does this mean that however many ways there are to become buddha, to be immersed in this intention to become a buddha is the intention to become buddha?

Know that Mazu meant that zazen is invariably the intention to become buddha, and that zazen is invariably becoming buddha with intention. Intention is prior to becoming a buddha and after becoming a buddha. Intention is the very moment of becoming buddha.

From Zazengi, “The Point of Zazen,” translated by Michael Wenger and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Although Xuansha was a fisherman who had never read sutras, he focused on his intention to practice and was strongly determined. Xuefeng [his teacher] saw his practice excel in the community and regarded him as an outstanding student. The coarse cotton robe Xuansha wore all the time was worn and tattered, so he wore a paper robe under it. He sometimes added dried mugwort grasses to cover himself. He did not study with anyone other than Xuefeng. Thus, he acquired the capacity to inherit Xuefeng’s dharma.

Some years after attaining the way, Xuansha instructed his students, saying, The entire world of the ten directions is just one bright pearl.

Once a monk asked him, “I heard that you said, ‘The entire world of the ten directions is just one bright pearl.’ How can I understand this?”

Xuansha said, The entire world of the ten directions is just one bright pearl. What do you do with your understanding?”

The next day Xuansha asked the monk, The entire world of the ten directions is just one bright pearl. How do you understand this?

The monk said, The entire world of the ten directions is just one bright pearl. What do you do with your understanding?”

Xuansha said, “I know that you have worked out a way to get through the demon’s cave on the black mountain.”

Xuansha first spoke the words the entire world in the ten directions is just one bright pearl. The meaning is that the entire world in the ten directions is neither vast nor minute, neither square nor round. It is not neutral, not active, and not obvious. Because it is not birth and death coming or going, it is birth and death coming and going. Thus, past days have already left here and the present moment starts from here. When we investigate the entire world in the ten directions, who can see it as bits and pieces, who can talk about it as ceaseless activity?

The entire world in the ten directions means that you ceaselessly chase things and make them into the self, and you chase the self and make it into things. When emotions arise, wisdom is pushed aside. By seeing this separation, teacher and student turn their heads and exchange their faces, unroll the great matter and harmonize their understanding. Because you chase the self and make it into things, the entire world of the ten directions is ceaseless. Because you move ahead, you do more than distantly see the essential matter.

One bright pearl is not yet a name but an expression of understanding. Although there have been people who thought it was only a name, one bright pearl directly experiences ten thousand years. While the entire past has not yet departed, the entire present is just now arriving. Here is the now of the body and here is the now of the mind. This is the bright pearl; it is not limited to grass and trees here and there, or even to mountains and rivers in the universe.

How can I understand this? These words appear to be the monk’s expression of ignorance, but the great function emerges right here, actualizing the great principle. Step forward and penetrate one foot of water, one foot of wave—ten feet of pearl, ten feet of illumination.

In expressing his understanding, Xuansha said, The entire world in the ten directions is just one bright pearl. What do you do with your understanding? These words are an expression that buddhas inherit from buddhas, ancestors inherit from ancestors, and Xuansha inherits from Xuansha. If you do not want to inherit this expression, there may be a way not to do so. But even if you totally avoid it for a while, this expression arises all-inclusively right now.

From Ikka Myogji “One Bright Pearl,” translated by Edward Brown and Kazuaki Tanahashi

The primary point of awareness for those who practice the way is to be free from the idea of the self. To be free from the idea of the self means not to be attached to the self. Without being free from the self, the way of buddha ancestors cannot be attained, even if you master the words of ancient teachers and continue sitting like iron or stone for a thousand lifetimes in myriad eons. Further, mastering the expedient and complete teachings or exoteric and esoteric teachings without being free from attachment to the self would be like counting another’s wealth without owning half a penny for oneself.

Practitioners of the way, I implore you, sit still and dispassionately contemplate the ephemeral nature of the body. The body, including hair and skin, is created from a drop from each of the parents. After the last breath is taken, the body is scattered over mountains and fields and turns into dirt. So, why attach to the body? If we examine the body in the light of dharma, what among the assembling and disassembling of the eighteen sense realms can be determined as the self ? Both within and outside scriptures, the ungraspable ephemeral nature of the body is used as a pointer for practice of the way. When you understand this, the true buddha way becomes evident.

An excerpt from the informal talks collected by Ejo in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, “The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Record of Things Heard,” translated by Michael Wenger and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Those who have way-seeking mind and wish to abandon fame and profit should enter. Those who are halfhearted and lack sincerity should not enter. If the entry is a mistake, after some consideration one may be asked to leave.

When the way-seeking mind is aroused inwardly, there is immediate freedom from fame and profit. In the vastness of billion of worlds, true heirs of dharma are rare. In spite of the long history of our country, you should make the present moment the true source, having compassion for later generations by giving emphasis to the present.

The assembly of students in the hall should blend like milk and water to support the activity of the way. Although now for some period you are guest or host, later you will be buddha ancestors equally throughout time. Therefore, you should not forget the feeling of gratitude. It is rare to meet one another and to practice what is rare to practice. This is called the body and mind of buddhadharma. You will certainly become a buddha ancestor.

You have left your home and birthplace. You depend on clouds and you depend on water. The support of you and your practice given by this assembly of students surpasses that which was given by your father and mother. Your father and mother are temporarily close to you in birth and death, but this assembly of students is your companion in the way of enlightenment for all time.

From Juundo Shiki, “Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall,” translated by Reb Anderson and Kazuaki Tanahashi

To try foolishly to reach the buddha way by the practice of chanting myriad times is just like trying to go to the southern country of Yue with your spear heading towards the north, or to fit a square post into a round hole. To look at letters but be ignorant of the way of practice is just like a physician forgetting how to prescribe medicine; what use can it be? People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever. Even worse off are those who, deluded by name and gain, cannot give up such practices, because their greed for gain is so deep. There were such people in the past. Are there not even more today? What a pity, indeed!

Just understand that when a master who has attained the way with a clear mind correctly transmits to a student who has merged himself with realization, then the inconceivable dharma of the Seven Buddhas, in its essence, is actualized and maintained. This cannot be known by monks who study words. Therefore, stop your doubt, practice zazen under a correct teacher, and actualize the self-fulfilling samadhi of all buddhas.

From Bendowa, “On the Endeavor of the Way,” translated by Lewis Richmond and Kazuaki Tanahashi

From top to bottom the summer practice period is buddha ancestors. It covers everything without an inch of land or a speck of earth left out. The summer practice period is an anchoring peg that is neither new nor old, that has never arrived and will never leave. It’s the size of your fist and takes the form of grabbing you by the nose. When the practice period is opened, the empty sky cracks apart and all of space is dissolved. When the practice period is closed, the earth explodes, leaving no place undisturbed.

When the koan of opening the summer practice period is taken up, it looks as if something has arrived. When the fishing nets and birds’ nests of the summer practice period are all thrown away, it looks as if something has left. However, those who participated intimately in the practice period have been covered with opening and closing all along. An inch of grass has not appeared for ten thousand miles, so you might say, “Give me back the meal money for these ninety days.

Priest Sixin of Mt. Huanglong said, “My pilgrimage of more than thirty years amounts to one ninety-day summer practice period, not a day more, not a day less.”

Thus, after a pilgrimage of more than thirty years, you develop an eye that sees summer itself as a ninety-day practice period. Even if you try to stretch it or contract it, the ninety days will always bounce back and be just ninety days. You yourself cannot leap over the boundary of ninety days, but if you use the ninety days as your hands and feet, you can make the leap. Although the ninety-day summer practice period serves as a support for us, the buddha ancestors did not create it on our behalf. They only handed it down to us from the past, heir to heir, authentically.

Thus, to experience a summer practice period is to experience all buddhas and all ancestors. To experience a summer practice period is to see buddhas and ancestors directly. Buddhas and ancestors have been produced by the summer practice period for a long, long time. Although the ninety-day summer practice period is only as long as your forehead, it is beyond time. One kalpa, ten kalpas, one hundred, one thousand, or innumerable kalpas cannot contain it. Although ordinary events can be contained within one thousand or innumerable kalpas, the ninety days contain one hundred, one thousand, or innumerable kalpas. Even if the innumerable kalpas experience the ninety days and see the buddhas, the ninety days are still free of innumerable kalpas. Thus, investigate that the ninety-day summer practice period is as long as an eyeball. The body and mind of the practice period is just like that.

From Ango, “Practice Period,” translated by Norman Fischer and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Although the everyday activities of active buddhas invariably allow buddhas to practice, active buddhas allow everyday activities to practice. This is to abandon your body for dharma, to abandon dharma for your body. This is to give up holding back your life, to hold on fully to your life. The awesome presence not only lets go of dharma for the sake of the dharma, but also lets go of the dharma for the sake of mind.

Do not forget that this letting go is immeasurable. Do not take up the buddha measure to measure and analyze the great way. The buddha measure is one corner, just like an open blossom. Do not hold out the mind measure to grope for and deliberate about the awesome presence. The mind measure is a single face, like the world. The measure of a single blade of grass is clearly the measure of the buddha ancestor mind—one blade that recognizes the whereabouts of active buddhas.

Even if you recognize that one mind measure encompasses innumerable buddha measures, when you try to measure the active buddhas’ appearance in motion and stillness of their visage, it is undoubtedly beyond measure. Because their conduct is beyond measure, measuring does not hit the mark, is not useful, and cannot be gauged.

From Gyobutsu Iigi, “Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas,” translated by Taigen Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi

All excerpts from Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation, by Zen Master Dogen; edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Published in April, 2004, by Shambhala Publications. © 2004 San Francisco Zen Center. Text from “On the Endeavor of the Way” and “Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall” appeared in Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, and are reprinted here by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 1985 San Francisco Zen Center

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Kazuaki Tanahashi is a Zen teacher, author, and translator of Buddhist texts, most notably of works by Dogen. He is also an accomplished artist and has taught Zen calligraphy extensively in different parts of this world.