Steadfast in the Midst of Samsara

Shinshu Roberts examines the suffering inherent in the bodhisattva path, what Dogen referred to as being “the blue lotus in the flame.”

Shinshu Roberts
10 April 2020
Self-Immolation, 2012 by Tashi Norbu.

In 1243, Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth-century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in his evocative Kuge (“Flowers of Emptiness”) that “the time and place that the blue lotus flowers open and spread are in the midst of fire and in the time of fire” (Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo). Dogen lived in a time of political uncertainty, violent weather, and cultural change. Perhaps these difficulties inspired Dogen to take up the poetic image of a blue lotus—associated with practice–realization—blooming within the fire of samsara.

We often think our practice requires leaving behind or transcending our difficulties. Yet the blue lotus blooming, representing a bodhisattva awakened, is dependent upon fire in order to flower. A blue lotus (Skt., utpala) symbolizes both wisdom (by association with Manjushri) and compassion (an attribute of Avalokiteshvara). Most of us are familiar with the image of a lotus in muddy water, which essentially points to the same thing. But here we have a powerfully dynamic image: fire and response.

Logically we can understand that, without suffering, there would be no need for the compassion, wisdom, and skillful means of bodhisattva practice. This is a difficult teaching. It requires us to stay and investigate that which is troublesome and inconvenient in our world. Yet, it is only under these circumstances that our own buddhanature can bloom and bring forth the full flowering of realization. Over and over again, we renew our bodhisattva vow in the midst of this samsaric life. Who else can enact this practice but each of us?

Each of us must find a vow that speaks to our specific needs.

Whenever we encounter a difficult situation, relationship, or contrary opinion, we must rely upon our vow to encourage and benefit all beings. Before that vow can form, though, we must first define for ourselves what it is we most care about. My teacher once asked me, “What is your deepest wish for your practice?” I responded, “To be compassionate.” This was not an abstract wish to dispense some kind of fairy dust of goodness; it sprang from a sense of my own abject failure at dealing with anger. Although my vow to develop compassion seemed universal on its surface, it reflected a deep desire to connect with my anger and to transform it. Each of us must find a vow that speaks to our specific needs. When we do this, we invoke our deepest intention, which will encourage us to sit in the midst of the fire of our own difficulties and act in response to our individual inner desire to practice this vow at this moment.

We can begin to understand how to do this by remembering it is only within the context of our difficulties that we awaken. If this were not so, we would not have any reason to wake up, to enact skillful means, or to benefit and support one another.

Dogen further wrote in Kuge that “all sparks and flames exist at the place and at the time that blue lotus flowers open and spread. Beyond the time and place of blue lotus flowers, not a single spark is born, and not a single spark has vivid life.” In each moment that we remember to enact our deepest desire to be of help, a spark is born. Beginning with the smallest of sparks, our bodhisattva life blooms, becoming a fire that illuminates our understanding. At first, our sparks may be fleeting, but their source is universal buddha-nature, which nourishes our effort and sustains our bodhisattva vow. We ignite the fuel of the bodhisattva’s compassionate wish, which in turn feeds the flame of alchemic transformation; in the midst of samsara, we make the effort to change the rough ore of delusion into gold.

This cannot happen, however, unless we are willing to remain steadfast in the face of our difficulties. This can be uncomfortable. But as Dogen wrote, this practice “exist[s] at the place and at the time” of the opening and spreading of understanding—that’s right here, right now. What other time or place gives us the opportunity to practice? This present moment is the immediacy and intimacy of each activity of our life. Nothing is left out. No moment or action is disposable.

Putting this into practice is hard work. Caught up in our desires and fears, it is difficult to put wisdom and compassion into action. Yet, what other life do we have? What other aspiration should we have than to benefit all beings?

Our life in this samsaric world is enacted in Shakyamuni’s particular buddha field; it is only within this context that we learn how to respond to the afflictions of our delusional minds. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Vimalakirti, a prominent lay follower of the Buddha recognized as a bodhisattva, sends an emissary to the land of a buddha called Accumulation of Fragrances. In that buddha field, everything smells wonderful. In fact, all who perceive the aroma directly receive the teachings and awaken. In that world, because a whiff of scent is all that is required, practitioners needn’t expend much effort to attain realization.

Vimalakirti sends his representative to request that leftovers from meals in that land be magically transported back to our world—essentially, a takeout lunch for Vimalakirti’s students back home. The bodhisattva explains that he is from Shakyamuni Buddha’s saha (Jpn., shaba) world, the realm of human beings. The Buddha of Accumulation of Fragrances then describes to his assembly Shakyamuni’s unenviable job of healing a corrupt age and awakening those who live in such a difficult time and place.

The students of Accumulation of Fragrances are intrigued by this amazing and exotic place and request to visit the saha world. Accumulation of Fragrances cautions his followers not to be arrogant when they go. He tells them to drop their fragrance bodies and take on more humanlike appearances.

When they arrive, the bodhisattvas from the Land of Fragrances are shocked by the degenerate state of the Buddha’s saha world. “What’s up?” they ask Vimalakirti. They wonder, is this really Shakyamuni’s buddha field? It’s nothing like the buddha field of Accumulation of Fragrances, their home. Vimalakirti tells them that, in the saha world, people are ignorant, stubborn, hard to teach, and foolish. Furthermore, they engage in lies and slander and are greedy, jealous, and angry. “Oh my!” exclaim the scandalized bodhisattvas.

But Vimalakirti goes on to explain that these very characteristics bring forth all of the good qualities in Shakyamuni’s students. Shakya-muni, he tells them, has to take a rather blunt and strict stance to get through to his disciples, but this practice results in compassion, wisdom, and skillful means. Once awakened, these bodhisattvas are firm in their vows, and they make great effort to enact compassionate means. When confronted with the needy, they respond with generosity; when confronted with evil, they respond with morality; when faced with anger, they are patient; when faced with foolishness, they respond with wisdom. These bodhisattvas’ response to suffering makes them strong in practice, committed to compassion, and wise in their ability to sit in the midst of samsara. They are the blue lotuses blooming in fire.

We are the very same bodhisattvas; we too bloom in fire. Without the fire, blooming cannot happen—without difficulty, we cannot respond with realized action. That is the boon, the generosity, and the wonder of Shakyamuni’s saha buddha field.

In the Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record) Dogen wrote,
“A lotus in flames implies practice in the midst of worldly desires…
[a blue lotus] blossoming…is yet another image of something rare and precious, like the transmission of true practice” (Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record). It is indeed rare and precious when we can express and transmit true practice in our daily lives. But now, amidst such political and social turmoil, that is our mandate. Each skillful response on our part is “the transmission of true practice.”

The blooming lotus is simultaneously the bodhisattva supporting the world and the whole world coming forward to support the bodhisattva. It is a primary teaching of Dogen’s that we don’t do this practice alone. We are dependent on the effort of every being and thing, and in this way we are supported in ways we cannot see or know. All around us, the world is making its effort to meet ours, just as we meet its effort. We are in this together with all beings throughout time and space, making the world. In Uji (“Being–Time”), Dogen described this mutuality as “the world worlding the world.”

Although we may feel alone, we have many allies—not just other people but also the trees, animals, insects, and all beings. As Dogen writes in Bussho (“Buddhanature”), everything, both hidden and apparent, is sentient and is in the act of presencing with us, and we with them. It is the effort of all beings that enables our world to come into being. It is also the effort to bring forth enlightened action. This altruistic cooperation is the world worlding the world.

As bodhisattvas who sit in the middle of the fire, this worlding is our practice. It may not seem, as we witness environmental destruction and governmental dystopia, as though the whole world is making the effort with us. Nevertheless, we must do our best not to become discouraged or defeated. Sometimes this requires a leap of faith. It is the nature of Shakyamuni’s world that we will find ourselves beset with problems. Is this not the reason for our efforts? Is this not why we bring forth practice–realization? Each of us must ask, how can I respond with equanimity, wisdom, and compassion in every situation? We can find the strength to respond to the call of practice–realization through vow and sangha; for this reason, we must surround ourselves with people who share our interest in finding peaceful and inclusive ways to untangle the acrimony of our times.

If we think we can change the world once and for all, I fear we are in for disillusionment, frustration, and anger.

I suggest we give up the idea that we are going to be able to put out this fire. If we think we can change the world once and for all, I fear we are in for disillusionment, frustration, and anger. We are the fire, and the fire is us. We are the blue lotus, and the blue lotus is us. It is our practice and our realization. It is “the time and place.” We were born into Shakyamuni’s buddha field—the circumstances may change, but this saha world will keep rolling along, warts and all.

Our effort, then, must include zazen both on and off the cushion. We sit formal on-the-cushion zazen because it is the activity of a buddha sitting in the midst of life. We sit earnestly, making effort and simultaneously according ourselves with, and relaxing into, what is. We do our best to keep coming back to this moment, this world, as it is right now. Our instruction is to “just sit” in the middle of what is. This means listening to the birds, hearing cars go by on the road, and sometimes experiencing silence. Yet, regardless of what we hear outside or what we hear inside (our minds), we keep coming back patiently, steadily, and compassionately. We practice our vow of not getting caught in judgment and discouragement (or elation) by instead presencing ourselves through the activity of zazen, actively listening to life’s voice.

Zazen is more, however, than just the formal activity of sitting in meditation; it is also the embodiment of our interconnection. This is zazen as our daily life, of being in the world of harmony and discord. Don’t we all know the annoyance of someone else’s unskillful driving and the joy of another’s compassion toward our own mistakes? Zazen, whether on the cushion or out in the world, is not a passive activity. Zazen is the give and take of life’s intimacy, which can often take a lot of effort on our part. How can I practice patience right now when I am so angry? Can I face my fear and frustration? Is it possible to listen to someone with whom I wholeheartedly disagree and yet empathize with their difficulties? How do we find common ground when we do not share a similar worldview? All of these questions are the spark and fire of our bodhisattva vow.

In our daily lives, we often encounter situations that invite us to drop our own likes and dislikes and take into account the needs of someone else. Likes and dislikes are not inherently problematic—the problem is that they can so easily interfere with our ability to encounter the totality of a situation and respond inclusively, rather than selfishly.

Let’s say a friend invites you over for dinner and serves food you don’t like. Maybe it’s tofu. You aren’t allergic to it, but you really, really don’t like it. What do you do? Do you say, “Hey, I can’t stand tofu—why didn’t you ask me before I came? I’m not going to eat this!” Or, do you eat enough tofu to satisfy your host’s desire to make something nice for you? Most of us will do the latter because we were brought up to be polite, and being polite means that, when we are a guest, we do things we don’t necessarily enjoy, or we eat things we don’t necessarily like. This is also practice. It is the practice of allowing the situation to dictate our response. It is the practice of no-self, and that, too, is sitting in the midst of the fire of samsara.

In a wider context, because our natural state is buddhanature, we understand that practice is not separate from the world but grounded in participation in the world. This participation requires us to meet the world is as it is. Our bodhisattva vow encourages us to respond as collaborators with each and every kind of entity because we understand that we are one family in need of sustenance and respect. We know and accept that Thanksgiving dinner with our family can be a raucous and rich affair.

Being willing to sit in the midst of the fire of this feast is the expression of our realization. It is, as Dogen puts it, the dignified activity of a buddha, and it is both practice and realization rolled into one enactment. It is the blue lotus blooming in fire, awakening the bodhisattva’s true function in the world. Our hope is that our bodhisattva practice is strong enough to respond from the middle of this fire.

Still, something in us wants to reject this fire, we want to flee this uncomfortable world and throw the covers over our head. Dogen wrote in Shoji (“Birth and Death”), “Those who want to be free from birth and death should understand the meaning of these words. If you search for a buddha outside birth and death, it will be like trying to go to the southern country of Yue with your spear heading towards the north…Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana” (Kazuaki Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop).

We may groan at the implications of this teaching. We can’t escape this suffering by transcending or exiting this world, metaphorically or otherwise. It is hard to believe that this very life is nirvana. Nevertheless, we can’t look away. If we do, we move farther and farther from Buddha’s truth. If we look away, run, or hide, we cannot experience nirvana. Nirvana can only be found in the middle of the fire, in the middle of birth and death. Furthermore, this “nirvana” is probably not the conflict-free, suffering-free world we wish for.

We can only enter nirvana through the gate called birth and death, our life of problems. We think the way out of our problems is to squash them, ignore them, or run away from them, but Dogen says it doesn’t work that way. The only way our problems can be transformed from suffering to realization is by engaging the problem itself. We have to stay and stay until we understand.

As our understanding deepens, staying is not a problem. We continue to stay because we are the blue lotus awakened, now blooming in the fire of this samsaric world. Now there is birth-and-death-nirvana. We meet our life and we are affirmed by our life. We enact this process over and over again because each situation or encounter is always new. Each time, we become a little more skillful. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi is said to have taught, “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.” That’s it, moment after moment. You and all beings are buddhanature—and there is still work to be done. What does this look like on the ground? Dogen wrote in Kajo (“Everyday Life”) that it is just the activity of buddha ancestors, drinking tea and eating rice. It is the daily activity of taking care of business. It’s your everyday life: going to the store, preparing and eating meals. It is driving your car and raising your kids. This is the mystical power of the bodhisattva. It is nothing too sexy, nothing special. Yet, this is the same place, the same fire, in which blue lotuses bloom and function.

If we consider the issue of ecology, this means that we respond to what we can do that is right in front of us. We stop using single-use plastic, we recycle, we look for all the ways we can modify our own actions that will help. We give money or time, if we can, to organizations that are functioning in a wider field than our household. We vote and we stay the course. We have a difficult conversation with a neighbor who does not share our beliefs. And we continue, even as we read that it may be a lost cause. This is zazen as action. This is our bodhisattva vows enacted. The saha world is our zendo; our life is the cushion. Ultimately, the question we must ask ourselves is, “What or who will I be?” Am I striving to be the lotus in fire awakening in the saha world, able to respond with equanimity, wisdom, and skillful means, or am I a person who is angry, polarized, distraught, fatalistic, and fearful? Can I find stability in a world of problems as I work with and transform my own difficulties?

We don’t know what will happen to our world. Looking back, we see that the human condition has been continuously beset by bigotry, ignorance, greed, and discrimination. It has also been rescued from the brink of chaos by the sane and balanced responses of individuals and groups dedicated to a life that is inclusive and interconnected. This is the response of the lotus tempered by fire, born in fire. Dogen would say, “You should consider deeply the meaning of a blue lotus in fire.” This is our koan, our daily practice. It is our bodhisattva vow embodied.

Shinshu Roberts

Shinshu Roberts

Shinshu Roberts is cofounder of Ocean Gate Zen Center in Santa Cruz, California, and holds the appointment of Kokusaifukyoshi (international teacher) with the Soto Zen School in Japan. A student of Sojun Mel Weitsman, she trained at San Francisco Zen Center for seventeen years. She is the author of Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo Uji; her writings also appear in Record of the Hidden Lamp and Receiving the Marrow.