Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Dogen's "Death Poem"



Fifty-four years lighting up the sky.
A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds.
Hah!
Entire body looks for nothing.
Living, I plunge into Yellow Springs.

Zen Master Dogen, (1200-1253)

Four of us from zen center got together yesterday to start a little Dogen study group. It's funny how life flips about. Several months ago (can't recall quite when), I wrote a few posts questioning the "obsession" many Zennies have for Dogen's writing, and now I'm gonna focus on his work again. Actually, it seems like ever since I wrote those posts, he's been appearing in readings and conversations, sometimes in the oddest ways. For example, I recall lying in corpse pose during a yoga class awhile back, and hearing the teacher recite one of Dogen's poems for us to reflect on. There was this interesting moment of spiritual convergence there, which sort of sealed the yoga teacher training deal for me.

Anyway, I continue to stand by the sentiment expressed during those posts that people need to be willing to question Dogen, to not think the guy was somehow infallible. Last night, for example, I read the first lines of one of the talks in the Shobogenzo-Zuimonki, which basically said that monastics are light years ahead of lay practitioners. Gag! There's a pretty heavy monastic bias in many of these little talks, probably in part due to the fact that they were given during the early years of his monastic leadership.

But when you read Dogen's death poem, cited at the beginning of this post, all separation is dropped away. Even life and death itself. What's amazing to me about this poem is how direct, energetic, and even fierce it is, given that it's the writing of a man about to die. He's going into death as if life and death are one continuous experience.

During our little study group, one of the things we talked about was experiencing fully through the body itself. How so often, we remain in our heads, failing to let life run through us. Even as longtime Zen students.

And when you take in Dogen's poem, it's seems to me that he's fully there, even as the physical body is falling apart, on it's way back into the earth from which it came from.

There's an aliveness to this little poem that feels totally calm and at peace all the same. That somehow energetic fierceness can be expressed completely without being tipped over in the process. I find this very attractive.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting opportunity - to examine one's own gag reflex, one's own aversions so automatic you can really almost call-up an auto reflex like gagging.

And then choosing to swim in the gag or return again to a sense of wonder or inquiry what that that might be about.

Not so easy to do either one, for me any way

Nathan said...

odd that you pulled that tiny section of the post out to examine.

that wasn't about monasticism - it's about the view that monastics are so much better than lay folks in terms of practice. something i think even Dogen relaxed on in later years, as his practice insight developed.

you're right, though, I do have a gag reflex around notions of superiority. and perhaps that is a place for me to look further at.

K Grey said...

"... people need to be willing to question Dogen, to not think the guy was somehow infallible."

People "need to"? Inquiry is always an option, never a requirement - just as infallibility is never a requirement. Fallibility is far more interesting and instructive, as it is not some false/empty ideal.

Monastics ARE so much better than lay folks in terms of practice, IF (and only if) someone has some rigid/formal idea of what constitutes practice. Most do, but such attachment to form does not survive awakening. Such practice simply happens as it happens (and may continue or not). Practice is neither help or means to any end, nor hindrance beyond the false expectations one may hold of it.

Of course from a direct inquiry/non-formal perspective, monastics simply have more time to devote. Fortunately, time is as irrelevant as form. Aspects worthy of direct inquiry...

All paths are equally worthless, and ultimately lead nowhere. We walk them anyway, as that is what they are for. Dogen's path has already been walked. Your own may cross it, may share some vistas. Nothing more.

You note the shift in Dogen's expressions, (sort of from a more formal/structured to personal/direct expression) and yet remain stuck on his earlier thinking. Something else for you to discover in this.

I see the change not as a result of his insight/practice becoming more "developed, but of such constructs dissolving... Same thing ultimately, but to focus on a person's "development" is a dead end. This includes your own if your practice is acquisitive vs purely inquisitive.

Petteri Sulonen said...

It's funny, it never even occurred to me to approach someone like Dogen from the POV of whether he's 'right' or 'wrong.' He's writing from wherever he is. That may or may not be where I am, or where I've been, or where I'm going.

I think it's a mistake to think that the precise path he walked is the only path worth walking, though. Kind of a futile mistake, too.

Nathan said...

What's the deal here?

That was almost a throw away comment about Dogen's comment on monasticism, and yet it's all the focus seems to be on.

K.Grey - you seem to appear on here and elsewhere with plenty of strong language, including suggesting that I'm "stuck" on Dogen's earlier thinking. And yet you take issue with my statement that people "need" to question? Hmm...

You are correct that focusing on development is a dead end. I would probably use a different word if I re-wrote the piece, because there is something off about "development" in this context.

Nathan said...

"It's funny, it never even occurred to me to approach someone like Dogen from the POV of whether he's 'right' or 'wrong.' He's writing from wherever he is."

What I find interesting about this comment, Petteri, is that I both agree with it, and also not completely. In some ways, this seems to be a smart way to approach any spiritual/religious writer. They're offering us where they are and where they have been, and we should see it as a pointer perhaps.

Yet, there's also something about folks like Dogen that seems to elevate them into that category, whereas the approach with, for example, other Zen teachers (considered lesser I'm guessing) is different. Right and wrong get tossed around all the time. Hell, Dogen himself was pretty strongly critical of some of his contemporaries.

I don't really have any clear conclusion to this - only raising what I see.

Petteri Sulonen said...

That's the thing with Zen teachers: they can't all be right, in the conventional sense anyway, because they say completely contradictory things. Hakuin had one hell of a koan curriculum, Bankei thought that koans will only screw you up. One of them has got to be wrong. And I've heard pretty strong arguments in favor of, and against, both of them.

And yet, there's always Joshu's dog, somewhere.

Nathan said...

Perhaps they both have it "right" for certain students. I tend to think that depending upon one's karmic history, personality, etc. - different forms will be more or less beneficial. Koan practice might be the expedient means for one person, and really screw up another.

Yet, it's when these huge claims get made - that it's only koan practice. Only zazen. Only chanting. That's where the trouble seems to come in. (In my view anyway).

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yes. Certain students.

And certain teachers.

Anonymous said...

This is the version I've heard.:
Four and fifty years
I've hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through-
What shattering!
Dogen