Attention to Myriad Dharmas — Leland Shields, Intensive Day 5, April 14, 2022

Posted by on Apr 20, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Attention to Myriad Dharmas — Leland Shields, Intensive Day 5, April 14, 2022

Earlier in the retreat I presented Dogen’s often-repeated words from Actualizing the Fundamental Point:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others.

Yasutani, Hakuun; (translation) Jaffe, Paul, Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan, 1996.

Now on the 5th day, please join me in forgetting the self, which is to engage in the myriad dharmas. “Dharma” is not a word I grew up with and if I’m not cautious, it can become abstract for me. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism recognizes “dharma” as “notoriously difficult to translate,” including definitions as “law,” “teaching,” and also phenomenon, that is, “the constituent elements of existence.”

It is clear from other passages in Dogen’s work that the latter meaning is the one to which Dogen refers. But he is also joining the two definitions of teaching and phenomenon by citing that there is teaching offered by these ubiquitous elements of existence. One such passage of Dogen’s words from the talk on the first day is this one:

Yet it is a matter for delight that we have the opportunity to acquire the proper conditions for experiencing the Way in these sounds and forms. The sounds are never stilled, and the forms never cease to exist.

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (p. 70). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

As we sit in our respective places of practice, I’m confident we all recognize the unstilled sounds and ceaseless forms, changing continuously. Light comes and goes with movement of clouds, and slowly, slowly, illumination moves from east, to south, and to west. It is a matter of delight that we have a day in which we can slow our pace to that of the movement of the sun, playing our own part in the dance of day and night as we sit. Trees and wind have their own dance with pauses and energetic motion – our part is to sit, and acquire the proper conditions to experience the dance.

With your sitting these many days providing a foundation, return again to the myriad dharmas –  that is – the attention to sounds of buses, and the form of your own left foot underneath you. It is this point Master Ichu patiently expressed to an unnamed student:

… [A] student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

Joko Beck, Charlotte, Nothing special: Living Zen. 1993, p 168.

Attention is a spacious way to invite the dropping away of self through awareness of everything, anything, right here. To forget the self is to be enlivened by the floor beneath you and walls around you – enlivened as floor and as walls. With a soft and fixed gaze fostering a quiet mind, there is vitality in carpet, wood floor, and droplets of water hanging on, under a railing. When mind is active on things to come or that have been, vitality is diminished.

Attention can be considered as form for our practice. Form is the container within which we can release considerations extra to these circumstances. While sitting, there is no need to expend any effort to decide whether I’m going to get up and eat potato chips – now is not the time – that choice was made when I entered the room, and bowed to the altar. Attention is also not separate from the experience at hand. Bowing at the period’s end is part of attention, and at once not separate from the resonance of the bell, or the bow of the followers of the Way to your right and left, and those linked to us all by Zoom.

While engaged in formal sitting we bring our attention to the practice, you to yours, and me to mine. Whether that relates to the breath, a koan, or sound. While cooking we bring our focus to chopping, washing, stirring, and tasting. Attention in the kitchen is open. Getting lost in the chopping might mean scorching what is in the pan on the stove. So our awareness includes all that is appropriate. What is appropriate will likely exclude some things as well. When surprised by the red brake lights of a car stopped in front of you on the highway, it is fitting to focus on braking, mirrors, swerving, without focus on the colors of the clouds in evening light.

This fifth day of non-residential intensive retreat is another chance to integrate our ancient practice to lives on city streets, in our own homes, and including interactions with other people. Ichu was asked for great wisdom, without qualifying the question in context of a dojo. Ichu’s response of attention, was also not limited to any specific context – the wisdom is portable across centuries, miles, and settings. The student struggled to understand the immediacy of Ichu’s wisdom which declined all philosophy.

There is a great freedom in Ichu’s teaching. Attention is enough. We come to the one dojo we all share, with an intention to focus. We apply ourselves by engaging with our breath, our koan, with this sound. In the dojo we can more often have clarity regarding “attention means attention.” When we are sitting diligently on our cushion, and start to smell lunch in the next room, we may recognize hunger. So far, so good. We have all sat long enough to know what might next arise – “I wonder what’s for lunch,” then, “When is she going to ring the bell?” And perhaps, “Maybe I’ll pick up something for dinner on the way home…”…and off we go.

On the fifth day we may also imagine we can smell the end of the retreat. It can be a time to renew and adapt to practice today. Find your way.

This does not require forcefulness, it allows receptivity. This talk now is an opportunity for openness, not because what I have to say is so important, but as receptivity practice, without effort. It does not require an understanding – just taking it in, which might include, “I don’t get what he’s saying.” No judgment is needed. Just receptivity carries the simplicity of Ichu’s word. In the spirit of simplicity, there is no need to take this attention as if it is written in all capital letters, or highlighted by a ring of fire. It is enough to notice what is here. Though we may be seduced into making something of this, it remains simple.

Attention is not just an expression toward a goal, it is the goal itself. As in a poem by Izumi Shikibu

Although I try to hold the single thought

of Buddha’s teaching in my heart,

I cannot help but hear

the many crickets’ voices calling as well.

Even in the luxuriously spare dojo where all is carefully chosen to support practice, there is the formal practice that helps guide us, and the songs of the horns and engines calling us – nothing extra, nothing left out. There is no conflict or discord between Master Ichu’s teaching, and breath, as long as our attention is without limits to anything that is.

To express this point further, I offer a couple more perspectives, starting with a poem from Li Po of the 8th century China (701-762)

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

Poetry Foundation article 178390

And here, from 17th century Japan, Hattori Toho, a student of Basho’s, first quoted his old teacher and then explained the meaning with respect to writing poetry.

“Learn about the pine from the pine, learn about the bamboo from the bamboo.” This dictum of our teacher means that you must forgo your subjectivity. If you interpret “learn” in your own way, you will end up not learning. To “learn” here means to enter the object; then if its essence reveals itself and moves you, you may come up with a verse.

Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 1997, p101.

Izumi Shikibu, Li Po, Basho, and Hattori Toho all demonstrate how attention can involve not two.

These examples also reflect due time, and attending to what is present now. We focus, we focus, and again we focus. Which is to say we breathe, breathe, and breathe again. We hear, hear, and hear again. That too is enough. Breathe again whenever you wonder if the period will end soon, and when you think about how many days are left in this intensive. Hear sound until the birds vanish from the sky and all clouds drain away.

This in Zen is faith – trust that when our minds are flitting, that to hear, and hear, eventually returns to silence.

Attention, open to all myriad things is the bookend to Dogen’s words. Li Po poetically agrees. I almost prefer an active form- attend. We actively breathe, hear, mu. With abandon , walk, toilet, eat, lay in bed. Until only the breath, fork, blanket remains.

In the active form , there is nothing to figure out, you already are fully capable of each of these activities. Figuring out can also be an activity needing no philosophical or existential resolutions. When a route is blocked by construction, we can concretely find another route, arriving late or not. Only the finding of a new route remains

However useful these concepts of form and practice can be, by their application we release them. Each time we engage with focus, we may start sitting with the mountain; letting all fall away leaves only mountain. In the language of Basho, to encounter the bamboo is to enter the bamboo. We may find a greater affinity for doing so with bamboo, but the same is available with the dishwasher.

And yet, there is still room for discernment. If Li Po were to become hypothermic sitting with mountain, I would have hoped he would have attended to the chill instead.

In the west, it is no different. What was Monet doing when he painted scenes of stacks of wheat and the Waterloo Bridge over and over, if not practicing attention? And what of the painters over centuries, sitting together with the Grand Canal in Venice? And you, when you drill studs and pull Romex through holes, and when finding a meridian for acupuncture needle placement, and when writing code.

This is not another project to take on. With a broad openness to receive what is, releasing other distractions, we avail ourselves of what is. We attend with the simplicity of a child stacking blocks, not noticing that her tongue is sticking out the side of her mouth, leaving only blocks.

All of these examples are more similar to sitting together in the dojo, taking time, settling in. Just as Monet can pull out another canvas for another time of day. The bell rings and we sit together at another time of day, with this lighting now, following the schedule, and being attention.

Zen practice is attention. Attention is a finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon. “Attention” is the word we use when sitting with the mountain, until only the mountain remains. This remaining mountain is the homeless in vehicles on Martin Luther King Blvd, sidewalks bearing the remnants of falling cherry blossom petals…no beauty and no sadness left out of this mountain.

This attending is retreat. Attend until one or all of myriad things remain. I’m not talking about anything special, in fact far from special, just this very sound of my voice.

If the goal of water is to reach the sea, the goal is implicit as water roils around stones and under logs. Fully attending to the bend in the river, there is no ocean. As we attend to each thing, let any greater goal be implicit. Then we intimately know the effortless peace of water in motion. Fully attending, there is no bell. Of course thoughts of bell arise, and you know what to do…

We are joined in intensive retreat, as we navigate this greater world. Use this gift for both the timed period, and carrying that attention when bowing at the door on your way out. Carry your practice lightly, even as you carry it. Enjoy it – you are already home.