119 - Brightening the Mind: Refusing to be Tyrannized by Negative States
121 – The Practical Value of Awakening to the Absolute Aspect of Reality

In this episode I finish up our study of 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s essay, “Bodaisatta Shishobo,” or what I’m calling the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings,” with a discussion of “identity action,” or “being in the same boat” with living beings. Even if you’re not a big fan of Zen texts, or of Dogen, I hope you’ll stick around because this episode is on the importance of a bodhisattva – the importance of any of us – making a practice of seeing ourselves as “being in the same boat” with other beings. Can you imagine how different our societies would be if we all tried to do this?

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
A Brief Definition of “DOJI,” or “Identity Action”
Nondifference from Self, Nondifference from Others
Lute, Song and Wine: Breaking Down Barriers
Identity Action Means Action, and Shifting Relationships
Greatness Comes from Not Excluding

The practice of “being in the same boat,” as presented in Dogen’s “Bodaisatta Shishobo” is variously translated as “identity action” and “cooperation.” I’ll explain more about the Japanese term and possible translations in a moment. First, to quickly review: In Episode 105 I gave you an overview of Dogen’s essay and briefly defined the bodhisattva’s four “embracing actions, which are practicing nongreed, loving words, beneficial action, and identity action. In Episode 106 I went line by line through the part of Dogen’s essay about nongreed, or giving. In Episode 112 I did the same analysis for the part of the essay about loving words, and in Episode 115 I covered beneficial action.

Today I’ll finish up my discussion of Dogen’s essay, the last section of which is on identity action. As I mentioned in previous episodes, Unless I indicate otherwise, I’ll be quoting from the translation by Lew Richmond and Kaz Tanahashi, which can be found Tanahashi’s book Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo.

A Brief Definition of “DOJI,” or “Identity Action”

The fourth way “bodhisattvas embrace living beings,” according to Dogen’s essay, is “DOJI” in Japanese. This embracing action is a little harder to translate than giving, kind speech, and beneficial action. According to the detailed footnotes in the translation by Nishijima and Cross, “DO” means same, and “JI” means “thing,” “matter,” or “task.”[i] They suggest a number of different translations of DOJI, saying it literally means “identity of task,” but could be translated as “identity of purpose,” “sharing the same aim,” or even the colloquial expression “being in the same boat.”

As I mentioned in a previous episode, I love the description of a bodhisattva’s essential action as “being in the same boat” with living beings. Translating DOJI as a phrase like this is a little awkward, but I feel it best hits the mark in terms of meaning. When Bodaisatta-Shishobo is translated, DOJI is often called either “cooperation” – which I don’t feel quite conveys enough intimacy and connection – or “identity action,” which might be accurate but isn’t a phrase we use in English and therefore its meaning is rather obscure. When it’s not too awkward to do so, I’ll refer to the fourth embracing action as “being in the same boat,” or “sharing the same aim,” although the translation I’m reading from says, “identity action.”

Nondifference from Self, Nondifference from Others

Dogen says:

“Identity action” means nondifference. It is nondifference from self, nondifference from others. For example, in the human world the Tathagata took the form of a human being. From this we know that he did the same in other realms. When we know identity action, self and others are one.[ii]

Instead of the translation “nondifference,” Nishijima and Cross use “not being contrary.” In their footnote they explain that the Japanese word being translated is “FUI,” meaning “different” or “contrary,” in direct contrast to the word “DO,” or “same,” in the term DOJI.[i]

As is typical in Buddhism, being in the same boat as other beings is phrased in terms of what we don’t do – that is, we don’t create or dwell on difference, we refrain from being contrary. The emphasis is on something we don’t do, rather than on some kind of positive effort, such as, “strive to feel at one with other beings.” To be in the same boat with living beings means letting go of our sense of separateness from them, including our sense of competitiveness and the delusion that our long-term well-being can come at the expense of others. Alternatively, if our practice were to summon a feeling of “being at one with others,” it might become an ideal for us to strive for and compare ourselves to. An ideal encourages us to imagine what oneness and connection would feel like – it must be very special! But in reality, our nondifference with beings is just the actual state of affairs. Sometimes it might feel special, sometimes we might not feel much at all. All we have to do is let go of the sense of difference we create in our own minds: I versus you. Us versus them. Good people versus bad.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. What about the fact that the world can be a tough place, and people sometimes try to take advantage of you? What about people who aren’t acting at all like they’re in the same boat with you, but seem to be racing along in a yacht while your rowboat has a leak? Isn’t it crazy to let go of our opposition to these situations and the people in them – to “not be contrary,” or to practice “nondifference?”

Whether the practice of DOJI is crazy or not depends on what we really mean by it, and what the actual results of the practice are. Being in the same boat with other beings doesn’t mean letting them treat you like a doormat. It doesn’t mean letting people push you out of the boat to lighten the load. Being in the same boat with other beings means recognizing that, fundamentally, we all share the same aim – namely, to seek happiness and avoid suffering. According to Buddhism, the deepest, truest, lasting happiness comes through spiritual practice, and learning to let go of the craving that causes dukkha, or dissatisfaction. It’s ignorance that causes us to seek lasting happiness in temporary, conditional sources, or in ways that cause harm to self and other. In other words, the drive for happiness itself is pure, and is even what spurs us on to practice. We just have lots of deluded and harmful ways of pursuing happiness, and lots of confusion about what real happiness is.

Dogen says, “When we know identity action, self and others are one.” What this means in practice is working to let go of our judgment of people we encounter, and of the ways they’re going about seeking happiness. If we’re lucky, what’s revealed is a measure of sympathy or empathy for people. We may disagree with their opinions or actions, but at the core of even the worst person is a desire to be happy – safe, taken care of, and loved. People may hide that tender and vulnerable core fiercely, or have extremely warped ideas about what safety, care, and love mean. There are some people with whom it is very difficult to practice “nondifference.” When we manage to do it, however, the results are surprisingly positive. Contrary to letting people get away with negative and harmful actions, when we see ourselves as sharing the same aim with them, we’re less reactive and more patient. Rather than conflicting with people, which generally only entrenches them further in their position, the bodhisattva practice of identity action may open up an avenue of real communication and possibility. How might we help someone see a better way to achieve and maintain their happiness?

What does Dogen mean by us practicing nondifference from ourselves? His statement is probably about us similarly setting aside judgment of ourselves, and recognizing that fundamentally we just want to be happy and avoid suffering, too. We’ve made lots of mistakes and continue to struggle with ignorance and attachment, but we’re doing our best. We may not be meeting our own ideals, but perfectly meeting our ideals isn’t actually the best we can do because it’s impossible. What we’re doing is already our best, even if it’s sometimes selfish or lazy. In some moments, selfless service is the best we can do, while at other moments, lounging on the couch eating chips is the best we can do. This isn’t an excuse to be lazy, it’s an invitation to take responsibility for ourselves, while giving ourselves a break now and then – the same break we hopefully give to other, ordinary beings.

Finally, in this section, Dogen talks about Shakyamuni Buddha taking the form of a human being, and how in other realms the Buddha has taken the form of whatever beings he or she was trying to reach. Contemplate, for a moment, the implications of the Buddha being fundamentally no different from you. That is, perhaps he had some insight you don’t yet have, and had cultivated some qualities that are still a little weak in your character, but he knew exactly where you were coming from because he’d been there himself. The Buddha’s ability to teach and lead you depends entirely on his ability to be in the same boat with you, to “walk a mile in your shoes,” so to speak, so he could understand what it was you needed to hear. Finally, Shakyamuni had sympathy for us, as opposed to a sense of superiority to us, or even contempt for our deluded ways.

Lute, Song and Wine: Breaking Down Barriers

Dogen continues:

Lute, song, and wine are one with human beings, devas, and spirit beings. Human beings are one with lute, song, and wine. Lute, song, and wine are one with lute, song, and wine. Human beings are one with human beings; devas are one with devas; spirit beings are one with spirit beings. To understand this is to understand identity action.

Here’s an example of one of Dogen’s more poetic passages that seems pretty mysterious at first. What’s going on here? Looking at Nishijima and Cross’ translation helps a little, as they say “harps, poems, and sake make friends with people, make friends with celestial gods, make from with earthly spirits.” Throughout the passage, wherever Lew Richmond and Kaz Tanahashi say “are one with,” Nishijima and Cross say, “make friends with,” and their footnote explains “harps, poems, and sake” were identified in a Chinese Taoist text as being “[a hermit’s] three friends.”[iii]

I don’t know the meaning behind the Taoist statement about harps, poems, and sake being a “hermit’s three friends,” but you don’t hear about bodhisattvas partaking of these things very often, if ever, in Buddhist texts. In the Buddha’s time, intoxicants and music and self-expression were viewed as distractions and impediments to serious practice. Things had softened up a little by the time Zen arose, and then in Japan in Dogen’s time, but not a whole lot (although austere religious poetry had become acceptable). In any case, I don’t think Dogen is literally recommending lute, song, and wine as an essential part of a bodhisattva’s identity action. Rather, I think he’s pointing toward what lute, song, and wine usually do for us – namely, break down barriers between people and help them connect. Even a hermit, as she imbibes some sake, plays some music, or recites some poetry, may find her heart softening, and her mind turning toward other beings.

Human beings created harps, poems, and sake to have exactly the effect of blurring differences and creating connection, and that effect is only manifested when there are human beings to experience it, so these heart-opening tools are can’t be separated from people. This is why, I think, this section is one of Dogen’s maddening lists where he moves a bunch of nouns around and around a particular verb phrase. A verbs B, B verbs A, A verbs C, C verbs A, C verbs C… and so on. If you let Dogen play with your mind like dough, twisting it into this shape and then that, you may find it getting more flexible. Instead of being stuck in a linear cause-and-effect pattern, we may start to see an assembly of players with a web of interrelationships.

In any case, if I had to humbly paraphrase this section, I’d say, “Human beings have many ways of creating heartfelt, sincere connections with one another, and with nature, and with the divine. These ways of connecting arose because our connection wants to be expressed and experienced. So, you might say, when we try to connect, we point toward the reality of our sameness. Or that our sameness caused ways of connecting to be created. To see beings reaching out to one another in their loneliness means to understand being in the same boat with other beings.”

Identity Action Means Action, and Shifting Relationships

I’m going to offer the next section of Dogen’s essay using the translation from Nishijima and Cross, because at least for these few sentences I really prefer it.

Dogen continues:

“The task [of cooperation]” means, for example, concrete behavior, a dignified attitude, and a real situation. There may be a principle of, after letting others identify with us, then letting ourselves identify with others. [The relations between] self and others are, depending on the occasion, without limit.[i]

The “task” defined in this section is the “JI” of “DOJI,” or identity action. This is a very important part of Dogen’s essay, because it points out that the bodhisattva’s way of embracing living beings isn’t just about a feeling. This isn’t about a bodhisattva holding warm thoughts about beings in her heart, but about acting from a place of conviction that she shares the same aim with them. As Dogen says, the task means “concrete behavior” and a “real situation.”

What about the “dignified attitude” necessary for identity action? This begs the question of what an undignified attitude might look like as you sought to act in a sympathetic and helpful way on behalf of beings. Lots of sentiment, perhaps? Drama? A need to call attention to your selfless bodhisattva service? An insistence that things work out a particular way? In contrast, as I imagine what a dignified attitude looks like in this circumstance, I picture being able to connect with the beings around me in a way that doesn’t even tip them off to my aspiration to see myself “in the same boat” with them.

Then Dogen says sometimes we may let others identify with us, and sometimes we let ourselves identify with others. Attempting to paraphrase, I would say, “When you’re in the same boat with other beings, sometimes you will help them, and sometimes they will help you. The whole point of being in the same boat is letting go of superior and inferior, and then compassionately collaborating in order to get where we all want to go.”

Greatness Comes from Not Excluding

Dogen continues:

The Guanzi says, “The ocean does not exclude water; that is why it is large. The mountain does not exclude soil; that is why it is high. A wise lord does not exclude people; that is why he has many subjects.”

That the ocean does not exclude water is identity action. Water does not exclude the ocean either. This being so, water comes together to form the ocean. Soil piles up to form mountains.

I’m guessing from this passage in Bodaisatta Shishobo that we’re supposed to aspire to be great. That’s certainly compatible with the bodhisattva vows, which include the vows “beings are numberless, I vow to save them all,” and “the Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.” Us regular folks usually have more modest aspirations than complete buddhahood, but the Buddhist path asks us to be as great as we can possibly be in this lifetime.

What is greatness? According to Dogen, greatness comes from not excluding. Again, we have our aspiration presented in terms of what we don’t do, rather than what we try to do. What would it mean for the ocean to exclude water, for the mountain to exclude soil, for the lord to exclude people? To answer that question, all we have to do is imagine ourselves in the place of these great manifestations. Naturally, if we were the ocean, we might be inclined to think dismissively of the little stream that empties on to the beach and snakes across the sand before it meets our waves. We are almost unimaginably wide and deep! We have tides, and planet-wide currents! We are the most prominent aspect of earth visible from space! What is this little stream? We don’t need it!

But of course, the ocean is made up of water that flows or falls from all manners of water bodies. Water is water is water, and it all flows eventually to the sea, only to rise again in the clouds. It would be ridiculous for an ocean to conceive of itself as separate, and as personally possessing its grandeur as an object of pride. It would be pathetically laughable to hear a mountain bragging about its height and denigrating lowly soil and rock. And yet, this is exactly what we’re doing when we get inflated with self-importance and see our agenda and status as separate from that of other living beings.

Dogen continues:

My understanding is that because the ocean itself does not exclude the ocean, it is the ocean and it is large. Because mountains do not exclude mountains, they are mountains and they are high. Because a wise lord does not weary of people, his people assemble. “People” means the nation. “A wise lord” means ruler of the nation. A ruler is not supposed to weary of people. “Not to weary of people” does not mean to give no reward or punishment. Although a ruler gives reward and punishment, he does not weary of people. In ancient times, when people were less complicated, there was neither legal reward nor punishment in the country. The concept of reward and punishment was different. Even at present, there should be some people who seek the way without expecting a reward. This is beyond the understanding of ignorant people. Because a wise lord understands this, he does not weary of people.

People form a nation and seek a wise lord, but as they do not completely know the reason why a wise lord is wise, they only hope to be supported by the wise lord. They do not notice that they are the ones who support the wise lord. In this way, the principle of identity action is applied to both a wise lord and all people. This being so, identity action is a vow of bodhisattvas.

With a gentle expression, practice identity action for all people.

It’s particularly easy to imagine the potential attitude of a ruler with respect to his subjects. What an endless burden the common people are, always making demands, ignorant of what it takes to govern! When one can’t simply force them to behave, one has to resort to deceiving, cajoling and manipulating them for their own good. If only people weren’t people! But then, a ruler is only a ruler, or a member of a government is only a government official, because there are a people to be governed. Rulers and governments mean absolutely nothing by themselves, although their wealth and power can lead them to think they have some inherent importance and privilege. So even though the role of the ruler and the role of an ordinary citizen are different, they still share the same aim – namely, the well-being of the nation and its people. As soon as the ruler forgets this, the whole system breaks down – as we’re currently witnessing in so many places across the world right now.

What does “not excluding” mean in our daily practice? I guess I think about my efforts to achieve my goals and ideals, and how often I see myself as willfully wrestling the things and people I encounter into a particular outcome. Instead, I could relate to the things and people I’m trying to benefit as being inseparable from the process of helping, and recognize how a positive outcome will only be achieved though cooperation, or nondifference. I don’t become a great bodhisattva because I’ve managed to save a whole bunch of beings, my bodhisattvahood is made possible by a whole bunch of beings who help save themselves, and save me at the same time. Put in a more down-to-earth way, you might say our aspirations are not achieved in spite of the world, but through it.

 


Endnotes

[i] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994. Footnotes, Volume 3, pg 33.
[ii] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010.
[iii] Ibid

 

119 - Brightening the Mind: Refusing to be Tyrannized by Negative States
121 – The Practical Value of Awakening to the Absolute Aspect of Reality
Share
Share