167 - If You're Not Making Mistakes, You're Not Practicing
169 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1

In Zen we say practice is nothing other than your everyday activity. If we view the Dharma as something special – a particular activity we treat as more sacred, or a state we hope to attain that will be of an entirely different nature than the mundane existence we currently endure – we’re missing the point. At the same time, if we think practice is nothing other than just continuing our half-awake, habitual way of living, we’re also missing the point! What is the nature of our life and practice? Zen Master Dogen explores this koan in his essay “Kajo,” or “Everyday Activity.”

 

 

Quicklinks to Outline Headings:
Why Study Dogen?
Kajo, or Everyday Activity
Dogen’s Essay on Everyday Activity
Everyday Tea and Rice: The Staples of Everyday Living
Everyday Activity – Is That It? Is This All There Is to Practice?
Looking for An Answer: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
Grounded In Your Own Experience of Everyday Activity
The Homely Fare of Everyday Life
Not Squandering the Strength of the Buddhas and Ancestors

Why Study Dogen?

Recently, I was feeling the need for challenge, focus, spice: Study something, in particular something challenging, not immediately accessible or obvious or applicable to my life, but something in our tradition presented as worth reading or listening to.

This is the usefulness of a course – having to study something challenging you might not have otherwise chosen…

I felt like diving into a Dogen fascicle (13th century monk, founder of Soto Zen in Japan…) – not just cherry-picking passages from various places that happen to fit into some point I’m making…

I’ll get as far as I can, but don’t want to rush it! In this episode I get through about the first page of Dogen’s essay, which at about 5 pages is one of his shorter ones. I’ll return to discussing the rest of the essay at a later date.

Kajo, or Everyday Activity

I’ll be using both Kaz Tanahashi’s translation and Nishijima and Cross… Also translation published and available as pdf (https://shastaabbey.org/pdf/shobo/062kajo.pdf) from Shasta Abbey, translated by Rev. Hubert Nearman[i]

Tanahashi says in glossary, KA means house, home, family, and JO means common, usual, normal, regular.

Nishijima and Cross explain JO means “usual” or “everyday.”

Nearman says, “Kajō literally means ‘what is habitual (jō) in one’s home life (ka)’. Throughout the discourse Dōgen speaks of sahan, literally ‘tea and cooked rice’, as the staples of everyday living.” Nearman also says that, “Taking tea and eating rice is a metaphor for partaking of the Dharma which spiritually nourishes us.”

We might be ready to read this fascicle and think “Dharma” every time we read “tea and rice,” as if this some kind of code. However, Dogen almost never uses metaphors in a such straightforward way (this thing stands in for that thing, so we can conclude he’s never just talking about tea and rice in this chapter, for example).

This is why Nishijima and Cross say of Kajo:

“People are often prone to think that religious matters should be different from daily life, being more sacred than and superior to daily life. But according to Buddhist theory, Buddhist life is nothing other than our daily life. Without daily life there can never be Buddhism. In China it was said that wearing clothes and eating meals are just Buddhism. In this chapter, master Dogen explains the meaning of Kajo, everyday life, on the basis of Buddhism.”

As we dive in, we should remain open to multiple levels of meaning… ready to having our minds and hearts stretched and opened… whatever we go in thinking about the relationship between Zen and our “everyday life” is about to be expanded, softened…

Dogen’s Essay on Everyday Activity

Note about relating to Dogen’s writings like poetry…

So Dogen sets this up:

IN THE DOMAIN of buddha ancestors, drinking tea and eating rice are everyday activity. Drinking tea and eating rice have been transmitted for a long time and are present right now. Thus, the buddha ancestors’ vital activity of drinking tea and eating rice comes to us.

Zen as a lineage tradition: Something verified in each generation and passed down person to person is legitimate Dharma… so referring to the lineage and how long it is = this is important, this is legit.

This “activity of drinking tea and eating rice” – whatever it is – is vital to the way of the buddha ancestors (people who have attained what we want to attain… liberation, peace, ease, compassion, etc.). Listen up!

Then Dogen shares a traditional Zen story, or koan:

Priest Daokai, who would later become abbot of Mount Dayang, asked Touzi [Toe-dz-i], “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”

 

Touzi said, “Tell me, when the emperor issues a decree in his territory, does he depend upon [ancient] Emperors Yu, Tang, Yao, or Shun?”

 

As Daokai was about to open his mouth, Touzi covered it with his whisk. “While you were thinking, you’ve already received thirty blows.”

 

Daokai was then awakened. He bowed deeply and began to leave.

 

Touzi said, “Wait, reverend.”

 

Daokai did not turn around, and Touzi said, “Have you reached the ground of no-doubt?”

 

Daokai covered his ears with his hands and left.

 

From this, clearly understand that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are their everyday tea and rice. Ordinary coarse tea and plain rice are buddhas’ thoughts, ancestors’ phrases. Because buddha ancestors prepare tea and rice, tea and rice maintain buddha ancestors. Accordingly, they need no powers other than this tea and rice, and they have no need to use powers as buddha ancestors.

 

Investigate and study the expression Does he depend upon Emperors Yu, Tang, Yao, or Shun? Leap over the summit of the question Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching? Try to see whether leaping is possible or not.

Everyday Tea and Rice: The Staples of Everyday Living

If you’re like me, part of you shuts down when you hear this inscrutable koan talk. It’s true it isn’t immediately accessible most of the time, but it can be worth exploring (as Dogen says, “investigate and study the expression…”) Might get impatient, but usually worth the time and effort… and usually also something that couldn’t be conveyed as effectively with straightforward prose explanation.

“It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice.”

Thoughts and words of buddha ancestors = the Buddhist and Zen teachings and practices we have found so useful and inspiring as we live our lives. The Dharma. Okay, so far so good.

Everyday tea and rice = as Nearman says, the staples of everyday living. For us it might be coffee and pasta. And not just what we eat: Water, heat, clothing, money to pay the bills…

Exploration: What does it mean when we say the Dharma is a staple of everyday living?

    1. It’s necessary. Many of us would agree, it’s necessary for us to live a halfway decent life.
    2. The need for the Dharma is built into us, is inherent in our make-up, like the need for food and shelter. Isn’t that an interesting idea? That our spiritual needs are not a weakness or a virtue, but similar to our need for food.
    3. The Dharma is our basic, sustaining spiritual food, not something extra, like dessert.

Is there something more subtle being said? Our everyday activities are something we take for granted, we tend to dismiss as not being special, as not being particularly worth our attention, perhaps, unless we happen to find them pleasurable.

If the Dharma is fundamentally not different from these activities, is it that the flavor of specialness we attribute to our “practice” activities is in error, or is it that our everyday activities are actually much more special than we realize? Probably both.

That’s just the first line of the koan!

Everyday Activity – Is That It? Is This All There Is to Practice?

Next one: Priest Daokai has come to ask the teacher Touzi a question: “It is said that the thoughts and words of buddha ancestors are everyday tea and rice. Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching?”

Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching? What is Daokai wondering about? Questions in Zen literature are not intellectual exercises. They aren’t a smart student wandering around showing off, testing teachers to see how knowledgeable or witty they are (or if they try this, they’re going to have their arrogance challenged in unexpected ways).

Try to put ourselves in Daokai’s place. We’ve been taught this whole thing about the Dharma being basic spiritual sustenance for human beings, that we’re meant to take it in and practice it regularly, in way that becomes habitual, normal, everyday, just like the way we eat, clean, cook, and work. At least in Soto Zen, we’re asked to “just sit” and to have “no gaining idea.” Even in other traditions, any so-called insight you achieve is worthless unless you integrate into your everyday life.

I think I hear Daokai saying, “Is this it?!” Just let the Dharma become a mundane part of your life and stop hoping for anything special? What about the fact that we become numb to, disinterested in, stuff that gets too mundane? What about those peak moments we’ve experienced at certain moments of our life, when we get a larger perspective that temporarily sets us free and fills us with wonder and gratitude? Are they irrelevant, and reality is actually boring?

Looking for An Answer: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

How does Touzi answer?  “Tell me, when the emperor issues a decree in his territory, does he depend upon [ancient] Emperors Yu, Tang, Yao, or Shun?”

The Emperors Yu, Tang, Yao, or Shun are legendary Chinese emperors. If the emperor of Daokai and Touzi’s time could only issue a decree if seemed appropriate based on the decisions of his predecessors, can he be said to be an emperor, or a completely autonomous leader with no limits on his power?

Like an emperor hesitating as he ponders what the great legendary emperors would do, perhaps Daokai is hesitating, wondering what the “buddhas and ancestors” knew that he doesn’t know. What would they say? What is the right way to engage the Dharma? What is the right way to live?

Daokai tries to answer Touzi’s question about the emperor, but Touzi stops him, covering the student’s mouth with his ceremonial whisk. He says, “While you were thinking, you’ve already received thirty blows.”

Traditionally, a student receives blows when she or he does something wrong. On the other hand, in Zen we talk about aspiring to be a student “worthy of being beaten.” As we talked about a couple weeks ago, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not really trying! So Daokai should not slink away in shame… his question is sincere, and Touzi isn’t just pointing out his error, he’s trying to point to something fresh and new for Daokai to experience.

These physical interruptions of verbal dialogues (common in koan stories) may seem rather random or inscrutable or insulting, but think of how a physical act can bring you back into your body, into your own direct experience. You’re arguing your point but then your friend comes over and gives you a hug. You’re getting all anxious about something but someone puts a cup of tea in your hands and gently instructs you to take a sip.

Interestingly, when I gave this talk to my Zen community, someone pointed out that Touzi didn’t actually give the blows to Daokai, he just said the blows had happened while Daokai was thinking. My Sangha member suggested maybe Daokai essentially gave himself the blows, as he realized his own error.

Grounded In Your Own Experience of Everyday Activity

How can Daokai answer Touzi’s question in a way that demonstrates not an intellectual understanding, but taking the next step in his personal spiritual journey?

According to the koan story, as Touzi prevents Daokai from giving a verbal explanation of his understanding, “Daokai was then awakened.”

Let’s set aside limited ideas about awakening, here. Let’s not think Daokai then had a remarkable, transcendent experience, before which he was unenlightened and clueless, after which he was saintly and special and no longer troubled by life.

Instead, let’s contemplate what kind of awakening or opening Daokai might have had here.

I’m just guessing: Previously, Daokai was looking outside himself for affirmation. He knew the teachings, he knew the Dharma isn’t special but it is special, he knew that everything we’re looking for is right here but you still have to practice… not being able to figure it out, not being able to come to a conclusion, Daokai asks for help by going to Touzi. To step forward and be seen in your struggle takes great courage, and is necessary for learning.

I imagine Daokai wondering, as we wonder, “Am I missing something? How do I know if I’m doing enough? Surely I can delude myself that nothing more is required than me just going about my daily life, not making any special effort with respect to the Dharma. Surely the great way of the buddhas and ancestors had some special quality that’s lacking in my mundane, ordinary daily life?

Perhaps at the moment of awakening, Daokai thinks about waking up for his morning zazen that day… opening his eyes, stretching, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, sleepily shuffling along to his meditation cushion, lighting the candle on his altar… or maybe he comes home to his body, standing right there in the meditation hall, earnestly questioning a teacher, letting his way-seeking mind show, longing to know more…

And right there that mundane situation, that bit of unremarkable, imperfect, ungraspable bit of everyday activity, Daokai sees the Dharma revealed in its entirety. Yes, indeed, this is it. And yet… what is the nature of “this is it?” If it’s just a matter of stumbling around our lives without appreciation, the Dharma is missed.

The Homely Fare of Everyday Life

Then:

Daokai was then awakened. He bowed deeply and began to leave.

Touzi said, “Wait, reverend.”

Daokai did not turn around, and Touzi said, “Have you reached the ground of no-doubt?”

Daokai covered his ears with his hands and left.

Daokai doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, including Touzi. He knows what he knows, and it can never actually be expressed in words anyway. But a person at home with herself carries herself differently… I think Touzi can see Daokai’s burden is lighter.

Dogen comments (from the Nearman translation):

So, clearly, we should preserve and take care of the teaching that the thoughts and sayings of the Buddha’s Ancestors are the tea and rice of everyday life. The homely fare of everyday life is the thoughts of Buddhas and the sayings of Ancestors.

The Buddhas and Ancestors prepare the tea and rice, and the tea and rice help sustain and take care of the Buddhas and Ancestors. Since this is so, we, for our part, do not need to rely on anything apart from the potency of this tea and rice of Theirs. Simply, we do not squander the strength of the Buddhas and Ancestors that resides within the partaking of this tea and rice.

Nearman says in a footnote: ‘Homely fare’ (C. t’su-cha tan-fan), literally, ‘coarse tea and thin gruel’, is a conventional Chinese phrase used by a host as an apology for what is being offered to a guest.

“The homely fare of everyday life” – What an accurate and sympathetic phrase! We know what this means, don’t we? Sometimes life is exciting and makes sense, sometimes it’s a drag, sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s boring or confusing. Overall, it seems very mundane compared to fairy tales and movies and the stories of lives of saints and heroes.

And yet this homely fare is nothing other than the thoughts of Buddhas and the sayings of Ancestors… in other words, the homely fare of your real, gritty, unglamorous everyday life does not differ in nature from the inspiring and liberating teachings and practices of the Dharma. They are of the same fundamental nature, simultaneously empty and essential, as intimate as your own skin, and demanding wholehearted engagement.

Not Squandering the Strength of the Buddhas and Ancestors

I like to think that what is meant by Dogen’s words, “Simply, we do not squander the strength of the Buddhas and Ancestors that resides within the partaking of this tea and rice.” Engaging in ordinary everyday activity with the same attentiveness and care we give to explicitly “Dharma” activities, and engaging Dharma activities as if they are necessary to sustain our blood and bones, we make good use of this precious opportunity to practice – and opportunity we owe to so many amazing things and people.

Finally, just to wrap up this part of Dogen’s essay, Dogen writes:

Investigate and study the expression Does he depend upon Emperors Yu, Tang, Yao, or Shun? Leap over the summit of the question Besides this, are there any words or phrases for teaching? Try to see whether leaping is possible or not.

What do these words mean to you? Investigation and study in Zen is not about combing through old texts or online articles to find out about whether there were historical emperors Yu and Tang (although that can be fun). Leaping over the summit of a question isn’t furrowing our brow and trying to figure out some kind of literary code (although sometimes understanding the traditional use of language can unlock some meaning for us).

Ultimately, investigation, study, leaping, is about locating the matter inside your own gut. What is the nature of our practice, special or mundane? Is the Dharma of the Buddhas hiding inside your everyday activities but you usually can’t detect it? Can you awaken to the truth by giving up your search for anything outside of your everyday activities, including the Dharma? What differentiates an activity you undertake in order to continue your spiritual growth, like zazen or listening to the teachings, from an activity you do because you have to, or because it’s pleasurable? What makes us relate to the thoughts of Buddhas and the sayings of Ancestors as something special, as if they come from a superior realm to the one in which we live out our very imperfect life?

I don’t know, of course, whether this discussion has awakened any questions for you. For myself, I found that wrestling with the language and imagery in Dogen’s “Kajo” helped me notice how I tend to vacillate between two mind-sets. In the first, I think, “I’ve got this. My life, such as it is, is a pretty good blend of conscious effort and just taking care of my everyday activities. I try to be attentive most of the time, and this all I can (or should) expect.” The second mind-set says, “I’ve just gotten lulled into thinking I’m practicing, but I’m actually on autopilot and letting the precious moments of my life slip away. I regard much of each day as ‘homely fare’ and feel disconnected from my deepest aspirations. I need to turn up the heat on my practice by engaging with Dharma-with-a-capital-D.”

My life and practice feel most vital and true when I’m not caught in either of these mind-sets – neither thinking my ordinary every life is it, nor thinking something’s lacking. Instead, it feels like eating rice and drinking tea in the manner of the Buddhas is something done right here, right now, with fresh humility.

 


Endnote

[i] SHOBOGENZO: The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching by Eihei Dogen Translated by Reverend Master Hubert Nearman, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, California, 2007. https://shastaabbey.org/publications/

 

Photo Credit

Image by 大雄 陳 from Pixabay

 

167 - If You're Not Making Mistakes, You're Not Practicing
169 - Looking to Buddhism to Support Values and Beliefs We Already Hold – Part 1
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