I was explaining recently to a friend in the Dharma – the inmate shuso of our San Quentin practice period, as it happens – how I think of my study of Japanese language as an act of devotion to the Dharma. This was something that needed explaining because the Japanese study that’s consuming me this summer (much to the detriment or perhaps the improvement of this blog) doesn’t in any kind of day-to-day way tie into the reason I’m studying it. I’ve entered this process of academic study in order to read Dogen and Kumarajiva and the Buddhist scholars of 20th century Japan. But this week, in class, I’m reading about the inventor of instant ramen noodles. I’m working on a skit about joining the sumo team. The semester project is a paper about robots. It’s not uninteresting – I mean, gee, what robot would I build if I could? – but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Dharma. Ok, there’s the occasional resonance that comes from any kind of exposure to Japan – a teacher today casually referred to “en” (karmic affinity), and a section about Japanese sports was all about polishing baseball bats – but it’s pretty thin.
So I was explaining to our shuso that, as my language study is pretty far removed from the Dharma, I was trying to keep this “real” motivation in the back of my mind. When my eyes are exhausted and my fingers are shaky from writing characters over and over, or my mind grinds over how exactly one stick figure should be asking another about noodles, I try to recall that I’m doing this to open up some Dharma gates that I can’t quite see past at present.
The shuso wasn’t pleased. “How about you just do what you’re doing?”
Hmm… Oh yeah.
You mean, why don’t I enter the Dharma gate I can see now – the one my feet are just now touching – instead of dedicating myself to the Dharma gates that I don’t? Why don’t I unburden this moment from my idea of my motivation? My idea of my path? My “goal”?
How about I forget about the Dharma gates I can’t see, and about how maybe I’ll get to peek in eventually, and just plunge into the one that today looks like a stick figure talking about noodles; the one that looks like a verb conjugation, that looks like a pencil, or another student, or the sound of chalk? How about I devote myself to that Dharma, and let the Dharma I’m dreaming fall back to its status as dream?
Of course it’s more complicated than that.
Is it more complicated than that?
Is it good to think about the Dharma? Is a student of the Way “supposed” to bring the Dharma to mind? I’ve long wanted to write a post about whether we should check how we’re doing or not, and while this may not be that post, it feels closely related. Do I really want to check how I’m doing, assess if it’s in accord with the Dharma, or do I just want to do what I’m doing? Should I ask myself – or some teacher – how I’m doing, or just be how I’m doing?
“Should’s” notwithstanding, the question is a real and an old one for me.
Last fall at Tassajara I was struck by SFZC Abbot Steve Stucky’s practice period advice that before we start something we should identify whether it’s wholesome or not. But then, if it is wholesome, we should just do it without wondering if it’s the right thing to do, without hesitating while we do it. Eventually we check again – I don’t know, monthly? quarterly? – whether we can still see our involvements as wholesome. But if they still check out, then we forget about it again. The point is, to me at least, that once we’re doing something, it’s really the thing to do. We can ask if we’re doing the right thing, but we shouldn’t ask very often. Step back from the “what” we’re doing and put our life energy into the “how” we do it.
I can check if I’m practicing, I can check if I’m serving the Dharma, if I’m inspired by the Dharma, or I can just completely meet, completely be the single moment before me. I can wonder if this or that is the Dharma, if this or that is moving toward the Dharma – and maybe I should wonder that, honestly ask that of myself and my friends – but I want to be careful to not wonder too much. I can ask if I’m living for the Dharma, but ultimately how can I even approach that question? What self am I assuming? What Dharma am I fabricating?
No question. Just this. Just this stick figure, and the faint line of my own nose, and the sound of some words that I can’t quite make out…
Is that rigor or complacency? Is that practice or laziness, “settling in” or “settling for”?