Those of us who have looked at the precepts of religions from around the world are often intrigued at how similar they can be across religions. There is something ultimately freeing in realizing that the roots of goodness, happiness, and wealth are not based, as is imagined by some unenlightened and unlucky sods, in what we can accumulate but in what we can utilize.
Some things about Buddhism are so attractive in their attention to simplicity that one cannot help but be drawn to understanding a little more. Warner does a wonderful job of sharing his realizations with us, in several steps. He paraphrases the first twenty-one chapters of Shōbōgenzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dōgen, who explains the philosophical basis for one of the largest and influential sects of Zen Buddhism. Warner tells us it’s a classic of philosophical literature, revered the world over, but that few have actually read it due to density, complexity of concepts, language and length.
Warner does not translate the work, but speaks in language common to modern Americans about how he comes to understand the work. In each chapter he gives us a sense of what the chapter header means, then paraphrases generally those pieces of the work that will aid our understanding of the precepts. Finally he gives us once again a few lines in colloquial English which aid absorption of the notions into our daily life.
I skimmed this work, and feel richer for it. Warmer tells us that one of the things about Dōgen’s writing that stumps modern readers is his use of contradictions. He’ll say one thing and a short while later will say an opposite thing. This is explained by Nishijima Roshi, a recognized acolyte of Dōgen, by understanding that Dōgen adopted four points of view when considering any particular subject: Idealism/subjectivism, materialism/objectivism, action, and realism. Depending on the lens one uses to look at something, the object will have a different appearance. Westerners generally are confined to two lenses: idealism/spiritualism and materialism.
One of the first chapters is entitled “How to Sit Down and Shut Up” which tries to explain the concept of zazen. One of the most important takeaways from this chapter is that the practice is as physical as it is mental, a process Dōgen calls “getting the body out.” Warner compares it to one yoga position held for a very long time. Zazen is not meditation or concentration but instead is ‘thinking not-thinking’ with your eyes and mind open, goal-less. Anyone can do this, “it doesn’t matter if you are smart or dumb.” Warner writes: “Since the entire book is ultimately about practicing zazen, you really need to know what he is talking about right from the outset or you’ll be lost later on.”
One of my favorite chapters is “Note to Self: There is No Self.” Warner talks about how we might have a notion of self kind of like a house with things in it. All the things in the house are what we believe, what we've learned and kept. One well-respected Buddhist practitioner, Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said you should have a general house cleaning of your mind when you study Buddhism. Warner tells us this tradition is like that of osoji, a once-a-year house cleaning during which everything is taken out of the house, cleaned, and considered. If it is not necessary, it does not go back into the house. The notion is terrifying, but if you allow yourself to contemplate it, completely freeing.
There is more. Much more. I like the chapter called “List of Rules.” In it Warner paraphrases the Dōgen
“People who have a will to the truth and who throw away fame and profit may enter the zazen hall. Don’t let insincere people in. If you let somebody in by mistake then, after consideration, kick them out. Nicely.”The rest of the list of rules teach consideration and concern for one’s cohort. “Work on your behavior as if you were a fish in a stream that was drying out.” That sentence will require some contemplation.
In the chapter “Don’t be A Jerk,” we get the feel of the Netflix series Sense8 and perhaps even an explanation of it. Don’t-be-a-jerk is comparable to do-the-right-thing, which Warner tells us is the universe itself.
“When you yourself are in balance, you know right from wrong absolutely. The state of enlightenment is immense and includes everything…And so forth and so on. You just have to go with him on that one.
When jerk-type actions are not done by someone, jerk-type actions do not exist. Even if you live in a place where you could act like a jerk, even if you face circumstances in which you could be a jerk, even if you hang out with nothing but a bunch of jerks, the power of not doing jerk-type things conquers all…
At every moment, no matter what we’re doing, we need to understand that not being a jerk is how someone becomes enlightened. This state has always belonged to us. Cause and effect make us act. By not being a jerk now, you create the cause of not being a jerk in the future. Our action is not predestined, nor does it spontaneously occur…
Doing the right thing isn’t something you can understand intellectually. It’s beyond that. Doing the right thing is beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond form and emptiness. It’s nothing other than doing-the-right-thing being done…
Wherever and whenever doing the right thing happens, it is, without exception, doing the right thing. The actual doing of the right thing is the universe itself. It doesn’t arise or cease. All individual examples of doing the right thing are like this.
When we are actually doing the right thing, the entire universe is involved in doing the right thing. The cause and effect of this right thing is the universe as the realization of doing the right thing.”
If you want to know more about the author, David Guy's review here is beautifully written and explains why Brad Warner is such an unusual interpreter of Dōgen.
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