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Bodhisattva Path

Dharma talk September 6, 2020, Two Rivers Zen Community, Narrowsburg, N.Y.

The Bodhisattva Path and Engaged ActionMyoki Marcia Nehemiah

In August I had the great good fortune to attend a Genzo-e with Shohaku Okumura, Roshi which was hosted by San Francisco Zen Center. A Genzo-e is a Shobogenzo (True Dharma Eye) study retreat that includes lectures and zazen whose purpose is to support zazen practice. In a series of 14 lectures over 7 days, Okumura, Roshi spoke on Dogen’s fascicle Mujo Seppo, translated as “The Dharma Expounding of Insentient Beings.” His lectures sparked the thoughts that led to today’s talk.

Shohaku Okumura is a Soto Zen priest, author of many books on Dogen’s writings including his poetry, and premiere translator of Dogen. He was was born in Japan in 1948, and when he was 19 began studying under Uchiyama Roshi. Following his teacher’s wishes, he came to America in 1975 and built a temple in Massachusetts as a satellite of the temple where he studied in Japan. He is the founding teacher of Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, Indiana. A branch of Sanshin is the Dogen Institute which promotes the work of Dogen and his teachings. Find them online.

During the genzo-e, Okumura called bodhisattvas “contradicted beings,” and he elaborated on that concept. I’d like to take his phrase as a jumping-off point to explore the meaning of the term bodhisattva and how we embody that meaning in our practice. Early Buddhist schools as well as modern Theravadan schools teach that people begin their practice as ordinary beings and move through 52 stages to attain the state of an enlightened sage. When the practitioner achieves the final stage of enlightenment, he or she is liberated from samsara, which is defined as the suffering brought on by the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Being freed from these three poisons, the sage is freed from the cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence and death, and enters nirvana, the Sanskrit term that literally means “blowing out” or “quenching,” which is an apt metaphor because nirvana is the state in which the three fires of greed, hate and delusion are blown out or extinguished.

Mahayana Buddhism takes this idea further by advancing the radical concept of the bodhisattva. In Sanskrit Bodhi means “awakening or enlightenment” and sattva means “sentient being.” A bodhisattva is an awakened person who practices the Buddha Way for the sake of all beings. Mahayana Buddhists don’t practice to attain their own personal liberation, but rather practice for the benefit of all beings. The bodhisattva generates bodhicitta, a spontaneous wish arising from a compassionate mind, and vows to practice until all beings can be brought to the other shore, the place of nirvana. Even if a practitioner is freed from the three poisons, he or she chooses not to enter nirvana, but to remain in samsara until all beings are freed from the three fires.

In Dōgen Zenji’s fascicle in Shōbōgenzō Hotsu Bodaishin translated as “Arousing Bodhicitta” or “Establishment of the Bodhi-Mind,” he writes:

“To establish the bodhi-mind means to vow that, and to endeavor so that, “Before I myself cross over, (or to attain enlightenment and enter nirvana) I will take across all living beings. Even if their form is humble, those who establish this mind are already the guiding teachers of all living beings.”

As I mentioned earlier, a few times during his lectures, Okumura called bodhisattvas contradicted beings and he explained what he meant by saying, “our practice fluctuates between commitment to our vow to save all beings and our commitment to our delusions.” He elaborated by saying that we want to escape from suffering, and yet even as we practice zazen to be free from our emotions and thoughts, we are caught and ensnared by our emotions and thoughts. Often, our thoughts and emotions exert a strong control over our actions. This is our contradiction: We aspire to save all beings, which is how we are sages, and this aspiration exists alongside the human reality of our delusions which make us ordinary beings. But while this is a contradiction, a logical incongruity, it isn’t a conflict. It is exactly because we experience our myriad delusions that we understand human pain and samsara, and from this ground of delusion, we resolve to help others. We understand the suffering of others because we experience that suffering ourselves. In this teaching Okumura echoes Dogen’s insistence that we not make a distinction between sages and ordinary beings. In Fukanzazengi, (Universal Promotion of the Principles of Zazen) Dogen says that our practice of shikantaza, or just sitting, “is the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” In other words, when we sit, we embody totally culminated enlightenment even as delusions come and go. Dogen adds later in the fascicle that “intelligence, or lack of it, does not matter. No distinction exists between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, you are thereby negotiating the Way with your practice-realization undefiled. As you proceed along the Way, you will attain a state of everydayness.” Dogen assures us that with our whole-hearted commitment to practice, every one of us ordinary beings expresses the Dharma, not only in shikantaza or just sitting, but in our everyday activity, manifesting the Way when we act in the world. We are in the beginningless and endless process of practice as we bring the light of compassion and wisdom into our relationships with all beings, including our own selves.

After listening to Okumura’s talks I asked myself: At this point in my life, am I practicing to attain enlightenment or am I practicing for the benefit of all beings? After living with this question for a while, now I understand that it is not either/or; it is both/and. They are not mutually exclusive. There is no difference between practicing for myself and practicing for all beings because there is no separation between self and others. And although it would be nice to be free from my delusions and from my unique version of suffering, at the same time I know that my delusions are inexhaustible. Through practice of zazen, I have come to accept my delusions. By studying the self, opening the hand of thought, and forgetting the self, little by little, delusions loosen their grip. They show up for visits, my familiar friends making an appearance, stay a while, and then recede. Everything comes and goes, so there is no suffering and no end to our suffering. As Dogen writes in Hotsu Bodaishin: “It is not without cause that minds and all things, self and other, come together; therefore, at the moment you arouse bodhi mind, myriad things become conditions that increase this aspiration. At each moment, all aspirations for enlightenment and attainments of the way are born and perish. If they were not born and did not perish at each moment, the unwholesome actions of the past moments would not go away. If the unwholesome actions in the past moments did not go away, wholesome actions in their future moments would not manifest at this moment.” This is so moving to me. Dogen acknowledges our flawed humanness while encouraging us that each moment is an opportunity for repentance and starting over. Arousing bodhichitta at this moment opens the way for wholesome actions to manifest in this moment. I remember when I first felt the overwhelming impulse of bodhichitta. I was fourteen years old. All ninth graders in my high school had to write a research paper. I chose as my subject the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who was still alive and active at that time. While delving deeply into his life’s work and writing, my heart split open and I felt a compelling desire to follow his teachings and to try to make the world a better place for all beings. I didn’t have a name for what I felt, but it was the main factor that led to my career choice to be an educator.

When I was a young girl and people asked me why I wanted to be a teacher, my response always was: “I want to help people.” This feeling of bodhichitta, while it has never left me, isn’t what originally led me to take up Zen practice. I came to Zen in a state of despair, despondency and urgency. I felt deep confusion and took up meditation practice hoping for a way to end my personal suffering. I wasn’t thinking about all beings; in fact, the impulse to respond to the suffering in the world felt separate from my deep need to eliminate my own suffering. But as my practice of non-judgmental awareness of immediate experience progressed and my study progressed, I began to feel a subtle shift in my relationships and my way of being in the world. I began to bring more kindness to speech and to my attitude toward all the people I encountered. I began to be gentler with myself and others. Bodhichitta is embodied in the bodhisattva vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

That these vows are impossible to achieve is why they are a gift: they are our ground of practice. We have endless opportunities to arouse bodhichitta, to whole-heartedly embody Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in body, speech, and mind for the benefit of all beings. I never doubt that our practice has a deep and lasting impact on the world. Uchiyama Roshi, as quoted by his student Okumura, expresses this faith when he writes:

“ …if there is a way to improve human society…it must be the way each one of us as the self can sit peacefully as the true self. …Simply by practicing zazen immovably and peacefully as the true self, I am making the best contribution to the development of the society that I can. Unbeknownst to other people, my personal zazen is already reverberating throughout the entire society.”

Because Dogen and the ancestors of our lineage devoted their lives to monastic practice, the teachings have radiated out over the centuries to affect millions of people. Because Suzuki Roshi and Maezumi Roshi brought Zen Buddhism to America from Japan at the beginning of the 1960s, we are sitting here together today. Because Shohuku Okumura accepted his teacher’s assignment to build a satellite temple in Massachusetts, we are sitting here together today. Because our guiding teacher Seiso Sensei is dedicated to practicing and teaching the Dharma, we are all sitting here together as a sangha today. This is the power of sangha—we support each other in our efforts. Because of myriad causes and conditions, it is inevitable that Zen practice in the 20th and 21st centuries has evolved in the West into something different from the monastic practices in Japan.

Which brings me to something that I have been ruminating over for many months: How should the bodhisattva commitment to saving all beings manifest in our current time? I do not hold that our particular time is any more or less troubled than other times in the past. I’ve read enough history and lived enough years to witness the conflicts and destructive actions human beings create for each other and all beings. In every moment of every era there is the opportunity to practice the bodhisattva way. One way to entertain this question is by considering something called “Engaged Buddhism,” based on the teachings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words, we all “inter-are.” We are connected with and to every event – near or far, past or present. Engaged Buddhism is an expression of this intricate web of interconnection. Each and every situation – locally and globally– is an opportunity for wisdom and compassionate action, for generosity, and for equanimity. Engaged Zen Buddhists such as Bernie Glassman, Joan Halifax, Taigen Dan Leighton, and Dai-En Benage, to name just a few, bring their practice and dharma teachings to places such as prisons, to hospice care for the dying, demonstrations, to city streets where they practice with homeless people. This quote is from an essay titled “Engaged Buddhism, Anger, and Retribution” by Ewan Kingston published in June 2017 on the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He writes: Buddhism suggests we are more intimately connected with those who do wrong than we often want to think. In his discussion on his widely anthologised poem, “Call Me by My True Names,” Nhat Hanh recounts that, on hearing of a refugee girl raped by a pirate at sea, he immediately sought retribution on the pirate. However, this changed. “I learned after meditating for several hours that I could not just take sides against the pirate. I saw that if I had been born in his village and brought up under the same conditions, I would be exactly like him. Taking sides is too easy.” In other work from the early 90s he goes further, emphasizing what Buddhists see as the ultimate truth—that we are intimately connected with our apparent enemies.

As Dogen would say: Investigate this thoroughly. We are intimately connected with our apparent enemies. One challenge I see in acting on an intention to respond to social injustice and by participating in a demonstration, or campaigning for a particular political candidate, for example, is that my actions may be propelled by anger. I may feel that I am right and justified in my anger because THEY are wrong and misguided. I see myself as fundamentally separate from and superior to others because MY views are RIGHT. If I act from this ground, I perpetuate greed, hate and delusion.

Hsin-hsin Ming or Trust in Mind, (or Faith in Mind) written by Sosan, the third Zen patriarch, late 6th century, admonishes us:

“Do not seek for the truth;

only cease to cherish opinions.

Do not remain in a dualistic state;

avoid such easy habits carefully.”

Or to put it another way: Challenge your certainties.

In conclusion, I would posit that ALL whole-hearted practice under the guidance of an authentic teacher is engaged Buddhism. The book Boundless Vows, Endless Practice: Bodhisattva Vows in the 21st Century begins with an essay by Okumura titled “Original Vow and Personal Vow,” in which he writes:

“One of the most important teachings in Mahayana Buddhism is that samsara and nirvana are one. Actually, there is no river between samsara and nirvana. When all people are working to help others on this shore, we find nirvana on this shore of samsara even though we are still deluded ordinary beings and there are many problems and hardships. …We are bodhisattvas working in samsara with all beings. We try to help dharma flowers bloom in the muddy water.”

As we arouse bodhichitta to save all beings rather than acting in a way that causes harm, we may as bodhisattvas feel motivated to respond to social injustice, cultural turmoil, sexism, racism, climate crisis, environmental degradation etc. I would like to pose this question in conclusion: How can we respond without succumbing to anger or falling into the delusion of dualism, of us vs. them? Without being attached to outcomes? In what ways might socially and politically engaged action in the world defile or enhance our practice?

Thank you, dear sangha, for your practice.

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