172 - The Profound and Difficult Practice of Putting Everything Down
174 - A Story of My Spiritual Journey Part 1: Conveyor Belt to Death

The nature of true satisfaction is something explored by Zen master Dogen in his essay “Kajo,” or “Everyday Activity.” Using the imagery of having had rice, taking a leisurely nap, and living contentedly in a grass hut, Dogen emphasizes how true satisfaction is unconditional, and that we are nourished by the universe whether we are able to appreciate that fact or not.

 

 

Quicklinks to Rough Outline Headings:
The Value of Wrestling with Buddhist Texts
Brief Review of Kajo, Everyday Activity
True Satisfaction in a Flimsy Grass Hut
True Satisfaction Lets Us Take a Leisurely Nap
“Having Had Rice:” The Nature of True Satisfaction
The Requirements for True Satisfaction Are There All Along

 

The Value of Wrestling with Buddhist Texts

Dogen’s fascicle/essay/chapter Kajo, or Everyday Activity (from Shobogenzo)

About a month ago, part 1 covered about the first page/couple sections

Value of this kind of study: Can take our practice deeper… Our heart-minds run in particular grooves, sometime we lack the imagination or experience or will to challenge ourselves or think outside the boxes we’ve created for ourselves, sticking to what we think we already know.

This kind of study is like exercise for the heart-mind… it can be challenging or uncomfortable in the same way physical exercise can be, but in the end our heart-mind is usually expanded, strengthened, more flexible…

When I first read a Dogen passage (in particular!) I usually think, “I have no idea what this is about!” My first inclination is to move on to something else. But if I slow down and spend some time with it, ask myself, what could this mean? Important: I base my answers on my own direct experience of life (not some kind of academic, literary, or historical knowledge), I usually find the text opening up (at least somewhat).

Note about relating to Dogen’s writings like poetry…

Brief Review of Kajo, 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[1]

As I discussed in the first episode on this essay, 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” and that “Taking tea and eating rice is a metaphor for partaking of the Dharma which spiritually nourishes us.”

Given this explanation, we might be ready to read this fascicle and think “Dharma” every time we read “tea and rice,” or in the passage we’ll talk about today, “rice.” However, Dogen almost never uses metaphors in such a straightforward way (this thing stands in for that thing, so he’s never just talking about tea and rice in this chapter, for example). In fact, Dogen seems fond of using imagery and phrases and that can simultaneously be interpreted metaphorically and literally. 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 start off thinking about the relationship between Zen and our “everyday life” is about to be expanded, softened…

True Satisfaction in a Flimsy Grass Hut

We continue from where we left off last time (Kaz Tanahashi translation):

Shitou, Great Master Wuji, at the Shitou Hut on Mount Nanyue, said:

 

I have built a grass hut where no coins are kept.
Having had rice, I am ready for a leisurely nap.

 

Having had rice—words come, words go, words come and go, filled with buddha ancestors’ thoughts and phrases. Not yet having rice means not yet being satisfied. However, the point of having had rice and a leisurely nap is actualized before having rice, while having rice, and after having rice. To assume that the experience of having rice lies only after having had rice is the mere study of four or five sho [small amount] of rice.[2]

So again, this can initially strike us as an annoying riddle. Why make the meaning so obscure? Or maybe this is too old or culturally specific to understand? (Nope, it is likely people in Dogen’s time didn’t find this much more accessible than we do!) Maybe Dogen is so realized we can’t understand his reflections? Maybe.

But let’s explore…

Shitou’s teaching of the grass hut is well known separately from Dogen’s reference. It’s open to interpretation and has been widely commented on, but rather than relying on other people’s interpretations, let’s just guess.

“I have build a grass hut…” A grass hut is shelter. We need some form of shelter as human beings, depending on our environment, for warmth, protection from sun, rain, insects… Even a great Zen master like Shitou has built something to protect and take care of his life.

Buddhism can often seem like a pretty self-denying tradition: Monastics are renunciates, living with minimal possessions and entertainments and begging for their support. Lay practitioners may have more but are still asked to cultivate nonattachment, generosity, and to recognize the emptiness of self.

But the reality of our lives is we spend much – if not most – of our time and energy taking care of this life. Our bodies, relationships, responsibilities, health, emotional well-being, etc.

However, Shitou says he has built a grass hut, which is pretty minimal and flimsy. It could blow away in too much wind, and won’t last long. If destroyed, the traces of it would disappear quickly.

What kind of shelter have we built for ourselves, and how long do we expect it to last? If you’re anything like me, you’ve created much, much more than a grass hut – physically/literally, and metaphorically.

We build or live in substantial houses of hundreds or thousands of square feet, built solidly in order to last – we hope – for our entire lives, or as long as need them. For our comfort and security we acquire and construct all kinds of things – physical objects, money, insurance policies, plans…

And yet we know – and are uncomfortably reminded as we watch things unfold across the world every day – that everything we have built can lost in an instant, as easily as a grass hut can be blown away in a storm.

What would it be like to be able to be satisfied with a grass hut? At times in our lives many of us have experienced this lightness, perhaps while traveling, or on an adventure, or in retreat, or participating in challenging physical activity…

Even though we were not so protected and prepared, we were also freer to respond, open to adventure, less defended, more alive, less burdened by our possessions and by concern about losing them… We felt a confidence in our ability to meet circumstances as they come, and that whatever happens will be, in some fundamental sense, okay. Even if our grass hut blows away and we have to shiver off the hypothermia all night in order to survive. At times, we can access that sense that whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us stronger – and the risk is worth the growth.

Of course, there are two levels of interpretation here: Body and mind. This isn’t saying that if you’re a good Buddhist you wouldn’t own a house or even rent one but would live in the woods in a hand made shelter! You might, of course. But more important is the state of body-mind-heart that is being pointed at…

What is it to be truly satisfied – to feel secure, to feel no need to strive for more – with a minimum needed to survive? This is a spiritual question, not a practical one. To know true satisfaction for ourselves we need to meticulously explore our self-attachments and fears through practice, to ultimately be freed from them.

Note that Shitou’s grass hut gives him a little protection from rain or cold, but certainly not protection from thieves. So, he can’t hoard wealth there (“no coins are kept”). Our wealth is our protection against future need or misfortune. It is responsible to plan and save, but even our savings and best-laid plans can come to nothing. Again, this isn’t saying we should be irresponsible and deliberately live in literal poverty with no concern for the future, but can we live with the full awareness of the impermanence of things without fear?

True Satisfaction Lets Us Take a Leisurely Nap

Moving on… Shitou says that in his little hut, “Having had rice, I am ready for a leisurely nap.”

As we discussed last time, Dogen often deliberately uses words that can be interpreted metaphorically and literally.

Rice (and tea) can metaphorically be read as referring to the Dharma, but what is “the Dharma?” As our precept text, the Kyojukaimon[3], says, the Dharma can be defined at several levels: Dharma is the medicine for all suffering; it is the truth realized; it us that which appears in the world and in the scriptures, becoming good for others, and ultimately it is immaculacy itself. Wow!

Dharma = The truth, plus that which nourishes, including anything which meets our needs and relieves our suffering.

So “rice” is the intimacy in your relationships; it is the support of nature, which brings us water, food, and clean air; it is the Buddhist teachings and practices which help you change the relationship you have to your experience and give you insight and inspiration; it is the Sangha, which supports and encourages you – and it is also rice! Or pasta, or vegetables.

Shitou says, “having had rice, I am ready for a leisurely nap.” What does a leisurely nap have to do with Buddhism or Buddhist practice?

Again, there are the metaphorical and literal meanings of this. I can’t remember where I learned this so can’t give a reference, but I believe a “nap” or “sleep” can refer to zazen. If you think about it, when we sit we become still and let everything go. Even better if our attitude is leisurely – sitting for its own sake and not trying to achieve anything.

Of course, our zazen is not literally the same thing as sleep. We try to remain alert, and if our attitude gets too leisurely in a certain sense we’re likely to doze or get dull or daydream. And yet there is a level of letting go that is very similar, and when our zazen is right on, the process is not so different – we relax but remain awake as long as we really don’t need to sleep. In that moment, sleepiness is a kind of self-indulgence or avoidance that becomes unnecessary. (Assuming we’re not actually exhausted – and if we are, then we simply sleep!)

Therefore, Shitou may actually take a leisurely nap in his grass hut. Think of times you have drifted off to sleep with utter contentment. If you’re anything like me, those times are relatively rare. Usually, even if there isn’t obvious worry or desire or anger disturbing us, there is some level of preoccupation with the past or future, some sense – perhaps very subtle – that things are not yet exactly as they should be.

I see the passage we’re discussing as being about true satisfaction – a deep level of contentment we usually postpone because conditions are not yet right. Yet there’s Shitou taking a leisurely nap in his flimsy grass hut without a coin to his name!

What is the nature of contentment, or satisfaction, if it’s not dependent on conditions? This is really the central question of Buddhism. Each of us needs to explore it for ourselves, but ultimately Buddhism teaches us that true satisfaction is absolutely unconditional. We can taste it when we recognize only this moment is real, and any fears or expectations we have are projections of our own minds. Because they are projections, we can can let go of them (at least temporarily).

“Having Had Rice:” The Nature of True Satisfaction

In the rest of the passage, Dogen discusses “having had rice.” When he wrote, much of the text was written in the accessible Japanese of his time, with some passages written in Chinese for emphasis. Tanahashi italicizes these words or phrases, and throughout the passage we’re discussing, having had rice and a leisurely nap are repeatedly italicized.

“Having had rice—words come, words go, words come and go, filled with buddha ancestors’ thoughts and phrases. Not yet having rice means not yet being satisfied.”

What is having had rice? This is emphasized, and it’s unlikely to simply refer to us having stuffed food in our mouth and then having swallowed it. It’s seems unlikely to refer to us hearing the words of the Dharma teaching while kind of zoning out and then forgetting about them. It seems unlikely to refer to us stumbling about our lives in a state of self-preoccupation, only half aware of all the blessings we encounter every day.

Not yet having had rice, Dogen says, mean not yet being satisfied. This means we can have rice literally without having had rice in this sense of being truly satisfied and nourished by it. We all know this state of not yet having had rice… of failing to appreciate most of the blessings we encounter every day because we’re caught up in a self-centered dream.

When have you touched this state of unconditional, true satisfaction, contentment, or fearlessness Dogen is talking about this part of Kajo? Sometimes we experience this when faced with great difficulty. Sometimes it’s when we come face to face in a visceral way with the impermanence of our bodies, lives, and everything we love. Sometimes it’s when we are able to deeply appreciate something very simple – something that came to us freely, not something fancy or expensive, or that we had to achieve or earn. Something like the joy of a child, or the setting of the sun, or the beating of our heart.

For me this is one of the sweetest and most inspiring aspirations – to fully experience and appreciate each moment of my life. I can’t say I’ve managed to remain in this state in a transcendent way for more than few moments here and there, but those moments have deeply informed the rest of my life. In those moments I look at my ordinary state, where I can’t possibly just let go and have a leisurely nap because there’s so much to do or worry about or desire, and my ordinary state looks like folly.

I also love Dogen’s phrase, “words come, words go, words come and go, filled with buddha ancestors’ thoughts and phrases.” This makes me think of the Dharma as nourishment, rather than as something to be grasped. We consume the Dharma and let it become part of us, and the process will go on throughout our lives. Therefore true satisfaction is not a permanent state, it is a dynamic, alive process of allowing ourselves to be nourished as we live out this ephemeral life.

The Requirements for True Satisfaction Are There All Along

This passage ends with something encouraging. It can be quite daunting when we aspire to be truly attentive to and satisfied with our lives. No matter how many years we’ve been practicing, we so far from this ideal. It is the human condition to forget, to get pulled back into self-referential thinking, to view the world through the filter of our pre-conceived notions. To change this way our mind works can seem like a nearly impossible task, one we make infinitesimal progress on over many years of hard work.

But Dogen says, “However, the point of having had rice and a leisurely nap is actualized before having rice, while having rice, and after having rice. To assume that the experience of having rice lies only after having had rice is the mere study of four or five sho [small amount] of rice.”

This is the true brilliance of Dogen, which can be called radical non-duality. It is dualistic to conceive of wasting our lives in the fog of dissatisfaction on the one hand, and blissfully appreciating every single moment in an unbroken flow for the rest of our lives on the other. It is useful to consider this dualism, this contrast, and appreciate how our lives could be different. But we shouldn’t get stuck there, because that’s just more dissatisfaction!

To assume the experience of true nourishment – from the Dharma, from nature, from our relationships, from rice – happens only once we’ve achieved the (italicized) spiritual state of having had rice, or only when we become consciously appreciative and satisfied in any given situation, is, Dogen says, “the mere study of four or five cups of rice” – in other words, getting stuck in a very limited and literal understanding of this teaching.

Instead, Dogen says, “the point of having had rice and a leisurely nap is actualized before having rice, while having rice, and after having rice.” How wonderful. We are being nourished and supported all the way along. At certain points we become conscious of this state of grace, and this is an unconditional source of satisfaction, contentment, and fearlessness. This is wonderful and something to be sought after. But the state of grace applies throughout our journey, and is not dependent on our conscious realization of it.

Do you have a sense of being profoundly nourished and supported by the universe even though you may not appreciate it consciously most of the time?

Do you find it comforting to know that you live in this state of grace no matter what your current level of realization or ability to live in a state of true satisfaction?

 


Endnotes

[1] 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/

[2] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition. Chapter 64: Everyday Activity.

[3] https://brightwayzen.org/practice/taking-the-precepts/text-of-precepts/

 

172 - The Profound and Difficult Practice of Putting Everything Down
174 - A Story of My Spiritual Journey Part 1: Conveyor Belt to Death
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