So this is the third post in a series on the Soto Zen Precepts. If you want to start from the beginning, go here. The first component of receiving the Precepts is to take refuge in the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I wrote a little bit last time about the overall concept of taking refuge, in case you want to take a look at that first.
But I’ll cut right to the chase. Let’s talk about the Dharma, shall we?
Dharma means truth or teaching. Strictly speaking, the teachings of Buddha himself are the basis of Dharma, and the most basic teachings of Buddha are the Four Noble Truths (4NT), with the Noble Eightfold Path (N8FP) as the prescription to our suffering. You’ll often see representations of an eight-spoked wheel meant to symbolize Buddhism. The eight spokes represent the N8FP. I’ll get more into those in future posts, but you can google it if you’re really curious. Prior to any intensive Dharma study, an understanding of these concepts is essential.
Master Dogen calls the Dharma “good medicine” in the Shobogenzo (Kie Bupposo Ho / “On Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures”). Why do we need medicine? Well, we are all troubled by the Three Poisons, aka greed, hate, and delusion – because Buddhism loves lists, and especially the number three. Basically all of our human failings will fall into one of these three categories. The basic teachings of Buddha in the form of the N8FP are like medicine in the sense of an antidote to the three poisons.
But here’s the catch: learning the teachings or studying the Dharma aren’t good enough.
Zen is not about intellectual understanding, not ultimately anyway. It’s good to study the Dharma, but only insofar as it affects your actions and practice. Because Buddhism – especially Zen Buddhism – isn’t about beliefs or ideas. This is so important I’ll say it again: Buddhism isn’t about beliefs or ideas. It’s about your life and actions right now.
I have a checkered relationship with Dharma study for a few different reasons, one being my point above about action over intellectual ideas. But there’s more to it than that. In my day job, I’m a professor, so I’m keenly aware of the value of intellectual pursuits, having spent my entire adult life engaging in them or helping others grow intellectually. However, being a professor means I also know the limits of intellectual understanding, what intellectual understanding can’t bring. Intellectual study of the Dharma, or anything else, can’t bring about an end to suffering. That takes practice.
Having said that, Dharma study does indeed have value and you should do it – but not as a substitute for practice. There is no substitute practice, by which I mean not only zazen but also the Precepts. If Dharma study helps clarify points in your practice and encourages you to actually do the stuff then it is worth your time. In a nutshell, if studying the teachings only serves to puff up your sense of self and gives you fodder for looking fancy at cocktail parties – or in the zendo – it’s absolutely worthless. There, I said it.
That frustrates people sometimes when they want to talk about the sutras with me. I’m really only interested in talking about teachings insomuch as they spur our practice and give us inspiration. Cheerleading, if you will. Dogen is a great cheerleader, by the way.
One of my favorite examples of the value of practice over intellectual understanding comes from the story of Huineng, aka the Sixth Zen Patriarch. The Platform Sutra recounts his biography in its first chapter. Essentially, he was a poor guy, the lowest of the low in the monastery, and he was illiterate. The abbot announces a poetry contest to determine who really “gets it” and who doesn’t. Huineng can’t write his poem down like everybody else. Instead, he speaks it out loud spontaneously and, just like that, blows everybody away without even breaking a sweat. The abbot makes Huineng his successor right then and there. Then Huineng has to go hide for a while because all the other monks are mad at him for being so awesome. But the point is, he’s illiterate – his realization of the Dharma comes through his sincere, wholehearted practice. Nothing else.
There’s more to the story of course, but it points to the importance of practice above all else. Yes, ironically I read about him in a book, and the Platform Sutra is considered pretty important in Zen, but its value lies in the fact that it very clearly demonstrates one of the main points of Zen: teachings are only ever “the finger pointing at the moon.” As the great Dharma teacher Bruce Lee says in Enter the Dragon, “If you concentrate on the finger, you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Heavenly glory, in this case, is the liberation from suffering that only comes through – you guessed it – practice.
By the way, Bruce Lee wrote a book called The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, in which he expresses his understanding of Buddhism and Taoism that he acquired in part through his practice of martial arts. It’s legit.
But there’s also another aspect of Dharma besides just the written teachings we can study. Dharma is everywhere if we manage to not be boneheads for a minute. In traditional Buddhist teachings, “dharmas” sometimes just mean “things.” The stuff that flies at us every minute of every day. The truth of our lives is already a teaching if we are open to it.
Here’s an example: On that first sesshin I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I encountered the kyosaku for the first time. This is the Zen whacking stick… but no it’s not what you think. It’s not used for punishment. It’s only used if requested, and the whacks go to particular shiatsu points on the meaty part of your shoulders. If the designated whacker does it right, it instantly relaxes all the muscles in your back. Whoosh! This is great in a retreat setting. Even longtime sitters experience discomfort with the concentrated zazen of a sesshin.
So I was sitting there. My shoulders were tight because we had been sitting for hours. Plus I was bored. So I thought, “Hey, why not?” A senior student was walking around whacking upon request, so I requested. And he whacked. And it hurt. I don’t know what I expected, but it stung, badly. Like, a lot.
Instead of just thinking “huh, a sensation that stings” and getting on with my zazen, I spent the whole rest of the period, and the next one, thinking all kinds of things about the senior student / designated whacker: “He never liked me. He’s so holier-than-thou with his fancy rakusu. He did that on purpose” etc. Very mature stuff.
Finally, it was time for dokusan, so I went in to see the teacher, and I told her what happened, that this dude had clearly whacked me super hard on purpose because he doesn’t like me. (Incidentally, we barely knew each other, so this was completely unfounded.) She just looked at me, kind of amused, and said “I doubt it was on purpose. You should talk to him.”
So I did as soon as a work period came around. We really weren’t supposed to talk much, but if any talking happened, it was during work period. So I approached him, scowling, and said “You really hurt me when you hit me with the kyosaku.”
And he instantly got this stricken look on his face. Before he could even say he was sorry, that very second, I realized – as if it were glowing in neon lights all around me – how utterly stupid I was. All that crap I made up in my head about him being holier-than-thou and a jackass and whatever else? It was so clearly 100%, unadulterated crap I had made up in my head.
In the clear light of a sesshin, where I could fully see what I had done, I realized beyond all intellectual knowing that, “This is how I live my life! I make up crap and act like it’s real, and ascribe nonexistent motives to people, and that makes me miserable.”
Your sesshin results may vary. But the point is, that was the Dharma literally whacking me with a stick. That was an undeniable truth that I will now never be able to un-understand. I still might make up dumb stories in my head, sure. But I soon realize what I’m doing, and it’s like getting whacked all over again. I largely create my own suffering, and so do you. The First Noble Truth, y’all. Plain as day.
The Dharma whacks us all the time if we’re open to noticing it. And that’s what Zen practice does. If we’re really open to what it shows it shows us, Dharma unfolds all around us.
Clarifying our understanding of practice and being encouraged by the teachings of Buddha and Dogen and Huineng and all the others is great and I recommend it. But keep in mind that those are the finger pointing to the moon, aka pointing to the real reality of your life. The moon is the moon. The moon is that dawning realization inside us that cannot be denied. It becomes a part of us.
If the teachings and formal Dharma study help you towards that realization, then study them. But maybe you, like me, also need to be whacked with a stick to get the point.