Serving the Dharma?

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”?


7 thoughts on “Serving the Dharma?

  1. Dharma is a function and not a body of knowledge – rather like Zen Ki. One understands it functionally as appears in one’s just doing what one is doing. It’s not words – in Japanese, modern or classical or anything else – any more than advertisements for Hawaiian vacations are vacations in Hawaii. How does one serve the Dharma? Treating that like a realish question, my realish answer is: by letting dharma manifest in the cultivation of one’s own authenticity. In other words, by letting Dharma serve one’s own aspiration to perfect bodhicitta in the very doing of whatever one is doing and not in the thoughts of doing something else, howsoever more righteously motivated “else” may seem in its being conjured. I’m just saying.

  2. “Is it more complicated than that?”

    “Do you hear the stream”.. “enter from there”

    Chasing a dream can be used to avoid the present moment OR to give it meaning and zest. It can help to more fully engage. When the dream gets in the way you can feel frustration. When it nourishes you you can feel joy and motivation.

    The dream of Zen keeps you returning to the Zafu. What you need to do there doesn’t change. The dream motivates you to enter in to the present.

    You can turn the dream or be turned by it. But a life without dreams is really dull.

  3. When reminders of the practice is just a reminder. Then it’s all right. If it’s trying to control events, to check if the “spiritual person” is intact – it is also helpful, if you are able to identify the clinging. If not… let’s not cling to that either!
    The ambition to be constantly present to the dharma is can be a deceitful dream! It implies that the dharma is an achievement of some kind. Rather I find it more helpful to acknowledge that in me which is never absent.

    As soon as i “return” from a bubble of every day experience, i whish to recognise that which is always present. The one who never left home.

    Thanks for the Post!


  4. Kinda wish I hadn’t expended whatever scholarly capital I had learning Sanskrit, instead of an East Asian language… I say, bully for you. And since “just study” can be sweetly and precisely like “just sit”, no problemo…


  5. I think practice and life work best when there is an effective balance between wholehearted engagement and wise reflection. When things get way out of whack on one side, with “no question, just do it”, we get things like Zen teachers exhorting soldiers to “just kill”; out of balance on the other side, we may become the theoretician who can write exquisite books but our life is a mess.

    Of course, finding this balance is different for each individual and it is different for each activity. In my own practice, the clearest place of discovery for how reflection and engagement can work together and influence each other has been in formal sitting practice.

    I always begin a sitting with a few moments of reflection. What exactly am I trying to do here? Why am I doing it? This is a wonderful time for any dedications of merit, resolutions, aspirations. (Now that I practice a lot of vipassana, these reflections can be quite detailed and specific, but even when I would sit zazen, something like “May I completely accept whatever arises, for the benefit of all beings” could be very helpful)

    And then, when the reflection feels like enough, I just completely let go of it, letting the words float away, and turn to the deep silence of just this, just this, just this.

    I’ve been so amazed with the power of this kind of reflection on a sitting that I’ve started incorporating more conscious reflection into other parts of my life. I should try it before a Japanese study session!

    And as the wholehearted engagement deepens, it gives rise to insight, which in turn clarifies and refines the aspiration, the resolutions, the understanding of what is dharma. I think this is the best kind of positive feedback loop.

    Thanks for the post, Jiryu, and all the comments, which are always stimulating on this blog.

  6. Thanks for these reflections, Jiryu. I wonder if the dream, as it were, of mastering Japanese differs in its essentials from the “dream of Zen”: of being fully present, or fully aware, or continuously skillful. The objects of desire differ, to be sure, but perhaps the impetus might be the same. By that I mean the impetus to deepen your knowledge, whether it be knowledge of the Japanese language (and history and culture embodied therein) or knowledge of the immediate physical reality. Viewed in this way, what you have described seems less a dilemma than a choice of focus, which you are free to make at any time.

  7. Pingback: Who Owns the Dharma? | No Zen in the West

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