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Denko-roku, Case 51
Hakuin's Daruma

Augusto Alcalde

Eihei Dogen came to Tendo Nyojo. One day Nyojo preached to his assembly at early morning zazen, saying: “Zazen is a dropping away of body and mind”. Dogen, on hearing this, suddenly had great realisation.

Poem by Keizan Zenji:

The ground, clear and bright, has neither surface nor inside
How can there be body and mind to drop away?

This case of the Denko-roku, a book compiled by Keizan Zenji, one of Dogen's disciples, is about the practice of shikantaza, which is the core practice in Soto Zen, as transmitted by Dogen Zenji.

Here we have the story of Dogen's realisation on hearing the words of his teacher Tendo Nyojo: Zazen is a dropping away of body and mind . Now really, this is perhaps the most clear definition of zazen that we can find. Zazen is a dropping way of body and mind. Together with that dropping away, we are able to drop away all that can be called the ‘technique' of zazen. Here is a very clear pointer that zazen is not a matter of method or a special or secret technique to work at something; but zazen itself is that realisation experience. We call it dropping away body and mind.

The practice of shikantaza has its origin in China in a school called T'ien-t'ai which flourished in China around 550 years after Christ. The first Chinese patriarch of the T'ien-t'ai school, the one who emphasised this kind of practice, was Hui Wen. There is one phrase of his, the one that brought him to realization, for us today. The phrase is: “ The three wisdoms are realised into the one mind ”. And this is another definition, if you wish, of zazen, which echoes back that one by Tendo Nyojo: “ Zazen is a dropping away of body and mind ”; the three wisdoms are realised into the one mind.”

This morning at dokusan some of you were musing with me about the etymology of the word shikantaza . That word, which comes from the Chinese tradition, has a different pronunciation but exactly the same ideographs. How we pronounce it in Chinese is chih-kuan to tsuo , and it's very interesting how it changes and amplifies its meaning when it goes to Japan and is pronounced in a different way.

The first two ideographs, chih-kuan are the same as used in traditional Theravada Buddhism when we talk of samatha and vipasyana . Some of you have been practising in vispasyana groups or in the Theravadin tradition, and you'll find it there. Samatha and vispasyana are expressed in Chinese by those two first ideographs, chih and kuan. Samatha can be translated as ‘calm' and ‘oneness'. The root of the word samatha is the same as samadhi . So we have here ‘calm'; we have the meaning of openness, and we have the meaning of oneness, all in our first word.

‘Chih-kuan': this kuan is the translation of the Sanskrit ‘vispasyana' and means ‘seeing through' or ‘understanding into' essential nature. Now, when it goes to Japan, this ‘chih-kuan' is pronounced ‘shikan'. In everyday language, it has a different meaning, and shikan, written with the same ideographs, means ‘just' or ‘nothing but'.

The za in shikantaza is the same as in ‘zazen', and means ‘sitting'. But the ideograph that is before ‘za', that which is written ta , is very interesting. ‘Ta' means ‘hitting the centre' or ‘touching the centre', in the same way as when we practise archery, and you shoot the arrow; you touch the centre. This is the meaning of ‘ta' here, in shikantaza.

So the word shikantaza is a kind of orientation to its own practice. Thus it's the practice of sitting in that calm oneness, openness, seeing clearly through essential nature and being in touch with the centre. This is what we call shikantaza, and in that way we cannot even talk of it as if it were a practice or a process. But it is really a living experience, moment by moment, with no relationship to any kind of accumulation or development in time or space. It happens, moment by moment. It renews itself, moment by moment. There is no way we can make it continue. And in that process of renewing moment by moment, our attention and openness to the living fact of this very moment, our whole body, our whole mind, is perfectly involved.

Then we have the poem of Keizan Zenji: “ The ground, clear and bright, has neither surface nor inside. How can there be body and mind to drop away? ” Here Keizan Zenji is really completing the meaning of the case itself, and it's a perfect echo to the phrase of Tendo Nyojo: “ Zazen is a dropping away of body and mind .” Keizan takes one more step and says: “ The ground, clear and bright, has neither surface nor inside. How can there be body and mind to drop away?” That ground, that ground of zazen, sitting in that clear, bright ground with no gap at all — not one, not two; no inside, no surface — this is the zazen of total openness in which we ourselves disappear and that very ground itself is sitting right here on these cushions, taking a step at kinhin, doing gassho at the beginning of zazen.

In that ground, clear and bright, that has no surface, no inside, no outside, no before, no after, there is no place for ‘mere sitting'. By that I do not mean a way of sitting in which we become aware of what is going on but the observer has not been dropped; that very body and mind is not being dropped completely. It doesn't matter how bright that observer can become; the experience of dropping away body and mind isn't there.

We have to touch the point that Keizan Zenji is pointing at when he says: “How can there be body and mind to drop away?

When we talk about shikantaza, there is always the question about the differences between shikantaza practice and koan practice, specifically Mu and shikantaza. And sometimes there is the impression that you have two openings in front of you, and you can take either the path of Mu or of shikantaza. I don't see them really as different practices, but as different qualities or focus of the same essential practice — dropping away body and mind. In a way, when our practice of Mu, or any koan we are involved with in this moment, becomes really deep, really subtle, the koan itself begins to disappear and naturally we fall into shikantaza. Also, if shikantaza is not really being practised with the inquiring spirit that we talk about when we talk about koan practice — if that inquiring spirit is not present in shikantaza — we are just practising “mere sitting”, watching, witnessing, but there is no dropping away of body and mind. So the two of them disappear at some moment in subtle practice, and the living fact of essential nature is clearly seen. This is what we can call true zazen.

As to the process of shikantaza itself: once we have said that it is a single act of essential nature, continually renewing itself, for the sake of practice we can talk about three steps, making clear that this is totally expedient and that there are no such steps. But we can explain the process in this way. The three steps are: we sit the body; we sit the breath; and we sit the mind.

So the first one is about the body — sit the body. Dogen Zenji says: “Human body means the four great elements and the five skandhas. However, none of those elements or skandhas are fully understood by ordinary people. Only sages know them. The entire world of the ten directions is the true human body .” That's very interesting — the entire world of the ten directions is the true human body. So when we say “sit the body”, we are not just saying take the correct posture and keep it without moving. Here Dogen Zenji is saying something much more. For me, it's that we have to really recognise that the true human body that Dogen Zenji is talking about, the entire world of the ten directions, is our true body. And that is the body that practises true zazen. That is the body in which we can find joy and ease in our practice, as well as deepness and understanding. So we sit that body. Of course, we sit that body quietly, in the right posture, in such a way that there is almost no effort, with a good balance to our practice. But we should be clear that our skin is not a limit between the body and the rest of the world; it is a connection, a part of that true human body that is the entire world in the ten directions. This is sitting the body.

Then we have breath: sit the breath.

When we talk about breathing in zazen, we talk about a natural way of breathing. We don't interfere with our breathing, and we allow it, as it is, to manifest itself. Also we need to see clearly that breathing is more than merely the air coming in and going out. Even if we were to speak of it just as a physical act, that air goes to every part of our body; every cell of our body is pervaded by this air. So really, there is not much difference between what we are saying about sitting the body and sitting the breath. We let our natural breathing pervade our whole body. And not only breathing as air coming in and going out through our nostrils, but the breathing of the trees, the breathing of the mountains, the breathing of the sea and the birds and every being. Then we have the mind: sit the mind. That means, basically, we sit mindfully, in attention, with our consciousness being clear about the fact that we are alive, sitting here in this very body, in this complete and precious moment. But Dogen also has something to say here. He says: “ Mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, moon and stars, walls, tiles and stones—these are the mind ”. So again here, let us sit with that mind; let us sit as that mind, in our very body.

So this practice that we incidentally call shikantaza — but which we can also call koan practice, subtle koan practice — body, breath, mind — all disappear and there is only that fundamental ground, clear and bright, as our very body, as our breath, as our mind. How can there be body and mind to drop away?, asks Keizan Zenji. There is another comment about this in one of Dogen's essays called “The Point of Zazen”. He says there: “ Clear water all the way through to the bottom. A fish swims like a fish. Vast and fathomless blue sky, without end. A bird flies like a bird .”

A fish swims like a fish; a bird flies like a bird; that's obvious, isn't it?


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