Friday, November 12, 2010

Painting a Needle With a Pointed Life

By Dosho Port

Twenty years ago I spent most of a year at Bukkokuji, a Zen monastery in Obama, Japan. The teacher, Harada Tangen (Unfathomable Mystery), was the only surviving successor of Harada Daiun (Great Cloud) Roshi (1871 – 1961) the Zen monk who reintroduced koan introspection to Soto Zen and launched the Harada-Yasutani lineage with the Maezumi, Kapleau, Yamada and Aitken branches now so influential in the West.

The most striking feature of Roshi Sama, as Tangen’s students called him, was his powerful hara-based, joyful energy. His dharma talks and dokusan, in their unfathomable mysteriousness, almost always included his most important two words of Zen – “Ichi tantei!” Or “One doing!”
Dokusan with him was unpredictable in many ways, including whether Roshi Sama, who had studied English more than 50 years previously in high school, would have access to his mind’s English language file or not. But it didn’t matter much. Whatever I said to him, presenting the Mu koan, or cold, tired, hungry, clear, confused, or lonely – all might be met with him a hearty “One doing!” Or, depending on the day, it might also be the Japanese, “Ichi tantei!”
And despite his koan Zen orientation, his “one-doing” was exactly right from my previous training in Dogen Zen. In what follows, I will explore Tangen’s “One doing!” from the perspective of Dogen’s Zen, starting with a passage from Actualizing the Fundamental Point and follow with a fragment from the Healing Point of Sitting Zen poem.
The question that I want to explore is how to live life to the full. What I’ve learned from thirty-some years of Zen practice is that in order to live life to the full, it is critical to be clear about one point – where am I standing?  Am I outside looking in or inside looking out? Put another way, is Zen about the business of being free within this life of suffering, living fully in it, or being free from this life of suffering, transcending the world? 

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Tokyo, 1999, video still.
In order to investigate these questions, let’s dip into how Dogen’s thinking is translated and how the translations, perhaps due to constraints of English, lean to the transcendent or the immanent, sometimes of the same passage.

For example, in Actualizing the Fundamental Point, Dogen says, “Since the Buddha way by nature goes beyond abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas” (Shohaku Okumura translation).
From this translation it sounds like the Buddha way is transcendent – going beyond fullness and lack and all the other this and thats of this life. Other translations seem to support this. Tanahashi and Wenger have leaping clear of” and Nishijima and Cross say transcendent over.” However, other translators see the Buddha way as immanent: Cleary has the Buddha way “springing forth from” abundance and deficiency. Kim prefersleaps out of.”

Looking at the original exacerbates the issue. Dogen used these characters: 豊倹より跳出 (hoken yori choshutu suru). The phrase at issue here can be read “go beyond” or “leap out from.” Perhaps there is a third place option, something that isn’t fully encompassed by either side of the freedom-from-suffering or freedom-within-suffering teeter totter. What would that be?
In another work by Dogen, Healing Point of Zazen, Dogen quotes a poem by an earlier Soto Zen master, Hongzhi. The most relevant part for our inquiry is this:

Essential function of buddha after buddha,
Functioning essence of ancestor after ancestor –
It knows without touching things;
It illumines without facing objects.
Knowing without touching things,
Its knowing is inherently subtle…
Remember, we’re exploring the question of how to live life to the full and what the Buddha and Zen masters suggest in terms of where we stand in relation to our life. In other words, is the Buddha Way transcendent or immanent?
The first point of this poem fragment is that the essential function and the essential functioning are marked by a kind of knowing that doesn’t touch or face the things of the world. It appears to be transcendent, yet it is “knowing.”
 “Knowing without touching things/Its knowing is inherently subtle.” What kind of knowing is this? In his commentary on this poem, Dogen cautions us that “‘…Knowing’ does not mean perception; for perception is of little measure.”

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Delhi, 1999, video still.
Our ordinary perception is small. Habitual unawakened perception can stand apart form the world, but this is different than the kind of knowing that doesn’t touch or face things of the world. Perception is also dependently arising – eye, eye consciousness, and red maple leaf interact. I (subject) see (sense organ transfers information to the mind that recognizes) the red maple leaf. As such, ordinary perception is a mental image, a shadow of the world and so is divided, and what is divided is suffering.

While perception is not Hongzhi’s knowing, it is also not understanding, because, Dogen says, “…understanding is artificially constructed.” For example, look at an enso, any enso. What do you see? Black color and zero form – and then the mind projects a meaning (including lack of meaning) based on some understanding. According to Wikipedia, the enso “… symbolizes the Absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void.”

However, maybe for you (like me), it just looks like a zero. Maybe you like zeros and maybe you don’t (I do). Maybe you see a corporate logo (like and all the associations and understanding that arise with that.

I suspect that in understanding the enso, you are not much more free or big happy than before you went to all the trouble to artificially construct something. Me either. However we artificially construct an understanding of the enso before us, there seems to be only a limited measure of essential functioning there. If so, then we know that we’re not sitting in the bull’s eye of Buddha’s essential functioning. In other words, given that the process of understanding involves a constructed meaning, understanding is not the knowing of which Hongzhi speaks.

Then what is right? Dogen says, “Therefore, this ‘knowing’ is ‘not touching things’ and ‘not touching things’ is ‘knowing.’

Knowing is not perception or understanding because it does not touch things and because it does not touch things, it is knowing. This begs the question, where can we go, how can we position ourselves, such that we are not outside, touching things? How about if we position ourselves “inside” and perceive and understand from there? However, this won’t do either because it falls into the same limitations of perception and understanding.

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Shanghai 1999, video still.

If the knowing of the Buddha’s isn’t realized from either outside looking in or inside looking out, then where do we optimally stand in our practice? Indeed, before breaking through the separation of subject and object, it seems impossible, like stopping the sound of the far-off temple bell. But it is not. It is very simple and close, now.

Glowing appellations of the simple-and-close don’t reach it. This is not some ga-ga bliss trip. Dogen continues, “Such ‘knowing’ should not be called universal knowledge; it should not be categorized as ‘self-knowledge.’”

It should not be called self-knowledge if that implies setting the self apart from other. That would be to transcend the things of the world.

What is the knowing that is the essential function of Buddhas? How can we do it? Dogen gives us two more clues. First, “…this ‘not touching things’ means ‘When light comes, hit the lightness. When darkness comes, hit the darkness.’”        

This admonition is attributed to a wild-and-whacky monk who was close to Rinzai, Puhua. He is known for wandering from town to town, ringing his bell and singing, "When brightness comes, hit the brightness. When darkness comes, hit the darkness.”

“Hit” in this context suggests the nuance of “hit” that is “…to come in contact with” and not in a violent way.  In other words, in whatever circumstance arises, meet it directly. If it is light, become light. If it is dark, become dark – with no space between, like a ball meeting a window. That is where to stand. But Puhua meant more, I suspect, than “become” – vigorously express light, vigorously express dark. Just one doing!

Dogen concludes with the second clue.  “This ‘not touching things’ means … ‘sitting and breaking the skin born of mother.’”

The essential function of the buddhas and ancestors, then, is hitting light when light comes, hitting dark when dark comes. In so doing, we break the hardening of all the categories, even the notions of the origins of this body from the body of our mother. Not that we didn’t come from there. Just that sitting means we break the skin, just like the baby’s head crowns in the birth process. Interestingly, the line doesn’t say whether we break in or break out, through or down – because that would suggest a separation.

So where does this leave us standing?  On my first day at Bukkokuji, after morning zazen and service, everyone shot to their cleaning assignments. The work leader, Kodo, grabbed a broom and danced along the main side-walk in front of the Buddha Hall, furiously brushing away the dirt and leaves. Zen temples are usually rather constrained and sober so I couldn’t help myself but to stand and stare at his dynamic presentation. Seeing me by the side of the passage watching him, Kodo continued his work but came directly at me, vigorously sweeping as he went. Stopping abruptly a foot away from where I stood, he said in rough English, “Me Mohammad Ali and I float like butterfly, sting like bee.” 

And away he went showing me just one doing.

Kimsooja, A Needle Woman, Tokyo, 1991, video still.

Dosho Port teaches from Minnesota for local sanghas as well as on line at his award-winning blog Wild Fox Zen. Dosho wrote the book Keep Me in Your Heart A While:  The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri, in honor of his teacher, and is currently working on a book describing his experience with Dogen.  From New York I was very fortunate to have been in an ango with Dosho Port, a small community living and dreaming Dogen's Zen with capping phrases and video dokusan.  From around the world students poked their heads up before the camera to meet face to face in the forceful teachings of Genjokoan.  Since then Dosho has made the leap and as a Soto priest formally taken up koan study with James Ford, David Rynick and Melissa Blacker.  Knowing that Dosho is involved with koan study as he writes his book on Dogen adds to the savoriness of his own one doing.

I first saw Kimsooja's A Needle Woman in the "Street Art Street Life" 2009 exhibit at the Bronx Museum of Art.  What you see here are stills excerpted from a video installation.  Kimsooja stands absolutely still in a standing meditation pose. A  video camera is installed behind her, registering her own body and pedestrian reactions to her stillness from a variety of places around the globe.  Sewing and the needle are a strong motif in her body of work, and here we might say that in her one doing she breaks through the skin born of mother on each spot she stands.  You can see and read more of her work here

Catherine Seigen Spaeth 

Sweetcake Enso opens at Brooklyn Zen Center November 20th!

Noah Breuer Eagle/Tomcat Pinwheel15x15"  Pigment Print, Collage, Resin and Mixed Media, 2009

On Saturday, November 20th, the No Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center will be hosting Sweetcake Enso. The Brooklyn Zen Center exhibition is co-curated by Noah Fischer and Catherine Seigen Spaeth and is the second stop in a series of exhibitions that will be traveling to various Zen Centers across the country over the next several months. The opening celebration will take place on the evening of the 20th, from 6:00 – 8:00pm following a one-day sit. Tea and cookies will be served, and there will be a discussion of Zen practice and contemporary art.

The Brooklyn Zen Center is between 3rd and 4th Avenues in Gowanus/Park Slope. To come by train, take the R train to the Union Street stop or the F train to the Carroll Street stop.  For more information visit the Brooklyn Zen Center website, here.

Noah Fischer, Endless Circulation, wood, wax, metal leaf, 20" diameter, 2010.