In my second and third pieces on enlightenment, I’d like to focus on the Soto Zen approach, growing out of the teaching of Dogen in the 13th century. Dogen emphasizes marrying ourselves to each activity we do. Enlightenment then, is not a spectacular event. Each activity gives us the opportunity to experience the simple joy of pure engagement. Dogen calls this practice/enlightenment, an ongoing process that never ends.
Sitting in this chair, sipping my jasmine green tea with my left hand while my right one rests on my keyboard, looking out my window at the morning sky- all other activities that happened in the past and might happen in the future are swallowed up by just being here. As Dogen says, “The time when continuous practice is manifested is what we call ‘Now’.”
Regardless of what we are doing or what’s going on with us emotionally, we have the opportunity to do practice/enlightenment over and over, free from self-obsessions. “This is wonderful practice,” says Dogen. As long as the activity is not harmful to others or ourselves, it doesn’t matter what we do.
In Soto Zen, meditation is totally stripped of its older traditional form in which we meditate to experience calmness or change our state of mind in some other way. All we need to do is participate wholeheartedly in each activity as we release our thoughts about anything else.
We can experience intimacy in virtually all our activities- including everything from planning our day to deeply listening to others who might need support. And in our sitting meditation, we have the opportunity to be aware of each thought and emotion, positive or negative, without kicking out anything.
The year or two before my father died my thoughts about him continually came up during my meditation, including all of the words, said and unsaid, that formed my attitude toward him. Rather than dissing my thoughts as they arose, my practice/enlightenment gently allowed them to be, including all the different emotions that gave them energy and force.
This level of intimacy with my own process can only happen when I don’t suppress or repress any thoughts or feelings that come up. Each of my thoughts and feelings about my father deepen my realization of my relationship with him. My second teacher, Katagiri Roshi, used to say, “Whatever comes up, just digest it without judgment or evaluation.”
A wonderful benefit of this process is that our ongoing intimacy with whatever comes up has warm-heartedness as a by-product. A feeling of kindness toward my own process and my father’s, including where we completely missed each other over the years, emerges on its own, as I fully accept each/thought feeling. Dogen called this, “going beyond Buddha.”
This effort is motivated, according to Dogen, by the dream of enlightenment. And of course, trying to bring this dream or aspiration to life is another form of practice/enlightenment in and of itself. In the case of my father and me, my practice-enlightenment included an aspiration to be intimate with my thoughts and feelings about him as he approached death.
At Zen Center we chant, “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to free them” in the mornings. It’s so important that we included ourselves in this vow. If the aspiration to be intimate with my own process is wholehearted, I am enlightened already and my enlightenment spills over into my relationship with others.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher