In the Footsteps of Dogen - Contemplative Journal

In the Footsteps of Dogen

In the Footsteps of Dogen

“Each day is valuable….
Do not compare it with a dragon’s bright pearl.
A dragon’s pearl may be found.
But this one day out of a hundred years
cannot be retrieved once it is lost.”

Eihei Dogen

I had never dreamed of going to China, but a friend told me about trip led by Kazuaki Tanahashi (calligrapher, translator of Dogen, Zen Buddhist teacher, and peace activist) and Joan Halifax (Roshi of Upaya Zen Center who works with the dying and those in prison.) I had met Joan several times and stayed at her practice center in Santa Fe. And I had heard wonderful things about Kaz, although it was crazy to go to China to meet him when he lived in Berkeley. For the uninitiated (including me), I should explain that Eihei Dogen was a Japanese Buddhist monk, born in 1200, who set sail for China with his teacher Myozen in 1223, to “clarify the real source of Buddha, dharma, and sangha.” Buddhism had come to Japan from India via China, and Dogen hoped to find there what he had not found at home.

Dogen traveled to China’s highest-ranking Zen monasteries, known as the Five Mountains, in Zhejiang province near the East China Sea, and while studying with Rujing, the abbot of Jingde Monastery, he “attained the Buddha way.” Myozen died a few months after arriving in China, and in 1227 Dogen returned to Japan, became the founder of the Soto school of Zen (which emphasizes the practice of zazen rather than koans), and wrote and taught until his death in 1253. Although his works were not published for five hundred years, and he didn’t gain recognition in the West until the 1960s, he is now the most-studied East Asian Buddhist in the Western world. However, reading him is a challenge. The aim of our trip to China was to visit the Five Mountains monasteries and get to know Dogen and his teaching a little better.

There were 17 of us in the group, plus Kaz and Joan, and we were accompanied by Arnold, a Chinese guide in his early thirties. I asked Arnold why he had an English name and he explained that when Chinese people learn English, their teachers select an English name for them, so that when foreigners call them on the phone, it is easy for them to pronounce the name of the person they want to speak to. The more I got to know him, the more I wondered whether we hadn’t come to China for Arnold’s sake. His life had not been easy. On our first day he told me, “Money and suffering wrap you up very tight like rope, but Buddhism makes me feel a little relaxed.” The Buddhism he had encountered was all from books. He didn’t know of any teachers. During the trip he purchased the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, the famous Sixth Ancestor who lived from 638–713. From then on he walked around with his nose in this little paperback. It was Hui–neng who turned his mind around.

Our group included an obstetrician, a potter, a surgeon, a massage therapist, a social worker, a vet, a lawyer, and Enkyo O’Hara, abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City, with whom I’d traveled before. Almost everyone in our group practiced Zen or Vipassana, and we “sat” together and chanted the Heart Sutra at 7 each morning. Soon Arnold began to join us and Joan gave him a few guidelines (and also told him his jeans were too tight for meditating!)

In Beijing we visited the Lama Temple, which houses the tallest Buddha statue carved out of a single piece of white sandalwood. It took first Ching emperor five years to transport the trunk from Tibet. It is so huge—84 feet high by 24 feet in diameter—that the temple was built around it once the carving was finished. A high wooden threshold at the entrance to each hall is said to keep evil out and you must step over this rather than on it. Inside the first, highly decorated hall was a huge golden image of Hotei chuckling to himself. Most people were there to pray rather than to gawp, and offered incense before entering the hall and kneeling before the Buddha images, prostrating themselves three times, muttering prayers. It didn’t feel very different from what I saw in Russian churches when religion was once again permitted. Currently Buddhism is the major religion in China and the government is encouraging it. Then comes Christianity, followed by Islam.

In most large temples there were three halls, one behind the other, each with a mighty Buddha image. Protecting the Buddha are the four fierce guardian deities that look as though they are about to cut your head off. Each Buddha embodies one aspect or quality of the Buddha. The most important image is the one in the third hall, which was in a red wooden pagoda that was very dark inside. The only light came in through the open door. The huge standing Buddha appeared to be gilded in copper, but perhaps it was gold, and was adorned with red and yellow katas or ceremonial scarves.

While we were there Arnold asked: “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but all that matters is this moment.”

Arnold replied: “We grew up without religion. If this life is all there is, then it doesn’t matter what I do.”

“If a doctor tells someone they have three weeks to live,” I said, “they don’t go out and kill their enemies.”

“They might,” he replied.

“But no one ever has,” I said. “You have to make up your own mind about reincarnation. I can’t do that for you.”

Then we flew south to the 7,000-year-old city of Ningbo (“Calm Waves”) bustling with people and traffic. Ningbo is considered a port, although it is twenty kilometers from the coast. It’s here that Dogen is reputed to have landed when he arrived in China.

An old Chinese friend had asked me to buy him the classic Zen koan collection, the Blue Cliff Record. Kaz wrote the title in Kanji (ideographs) and I marched into a huge bookstore. People kept pointing me upward, so I moved from escalator to escalator, always hoping that there would be someone who spoke English. Eventually I found two girls to help me. As I discovered when we visited the monastery where it was written, the name of the book is nothing like Blue Cliff Record in Chinese, and so no one recognized the graphs. Also, there was no published version available in Mainland China then. As I left the store, one girl asked, “Why are you here?” I know she wasn’t asking what I was doing in this store, but why I was in Ningbo? But her question aroused a deeper question: What was I doing here (or anywhere for that matter) and why? Perhaps our local guide in Ningbo answered that question when he welcomed us, saying “I will do my best to make your stay present,” which seemed an appropriate thing for a Buddhist group. (The Chinese, like the Japanese, do not discriminate much between the letters “l” and “r”!)

Then we set off for Jingde Monastery on Tiantong Mountain, where Dogen was enlightened. He visited this Chan temple at the beginning of his time in China, but did not stay long. However, he returned when Rujing became abbot, and it was here that his mind “dropped off.”

The 70–year–old vice abbot awaited us, beaming. First we entered the Hall of the Heavenly King, which housed another golden laughing Hotei. The hall behind housed three more golden Buddhas representing the past, present, and future. These Buddhas were not smiling, but their eyes seemed to watch everything, including the mighty red pillars and banners. Behind the images was a wall of small golden Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and in the center a great Guanyin, which took my breath away.

Much of the monastery had been devastated during the Cultural Revolution, but you would never have known that from the feeling of the place. We were shown 400–year–old brush drawings by great teachers that had been saved by the monks. Eventually we entered the study hall which had a portrait of Dogen and a tablet telling the story of his enlightenment in this room in 1225, which Kaz translated for us. Kaz looked as though he had stepped out of an ancient painting—wraith–thin with wispy hair, a parchment–like face, on which there was a hint of a smile, but only a hint, and a long, sparse beard. He appeared passive, but as the trip progressed, it became clear that once he had made up his mind, his will was indomitable. He wore loose black clothing, and you couldn’t quite tell where he was inside it. One day when it rained he donned a white slicker and was invisible to us, because we were looking for someone all in black. We visited the zendo where young monks were circumambulating the room at a brisk pace. They were encouraged by an older monk with a big stick, and it wasn’t clear whether he was beating time with it or threatening them if they didn’t move fast enough. We asked later whether it would be possible for us to “sit” in the zendo, but permission was not granted, perhaps because we were both men and women.

Eventually the vice–abbot handed his card to everyone and we were served green tea in white cups with the traditional lid and a painting of the monastery in blue on the outside, which he insisted we each take home with us. He told us that he had been there 46 years. There were currently 600 resident monks (all Chinese), although they certainly weren’t visible. Our local guide was translating between the old monk, and Joan and Kaz. They spoke of making an exchange with American monasteries. Someone inquired about nuns, and the guide said, “Don’t even ask,” and didn’t appear to translate the question. Joan then asked about women priests in China, but that too fell on stony ground. Joan described her work in US prisons, and the vice–abbot said that they too sent Buddhist books to prisoners, but it didn’t sound as though they did anything more than that.

We then repaired to the study hall where we sat in a circle on the damp flagstones and took turns reading Kaz’s translation of Dogen’s account of the teachings he received. I suspect that this was the first time Abbot Rujing’s words had been heard there since the thirteenth century.

Then we set off for the island of Putuo Shan, driving past intense agricultural development plus factories and power stations (we’d been wondering where the electricity came from for all the development) and many waterways. At one point we saw a shipment of live geese on the side of the road, waiting to be taken to market. Each goose was wrapped in a white bag with just its head and neck sticking out.

It was on this island that Guanyin appeared to a monk in a vision (Guanyin/Kwanyin is the Chinese equivalent of Avalokiteshvara, the Indian Buddha of Compassion). In all other countries, this aspect of the Buddha is considered male. Chinese women have a particular affinity for the Buddha of Compassion and like to have a statue of him in their bedrooms, so they can make offerings early in the morning. In the Tang dynasty the sex of the deity was changed, because it was considered inappropriate for women to have the statue of a male figure in their bedrooms.

Here Joan gave more instruction on zazen, pointing out that we should have a strong back, a firm foundation, and an open front, and always remember that our practice is for the benefit of all living beings, so it is good to dedicate it to a particular person, or to everyone. We need to introduce bodhicitta—compassion and kindness, tempered with humility—into our meditation, putting our trust in the Buddha, rather than having faith in him. Her message was, “It is compassion rather than devotion that is manifesting in Buddhism in the US today.”

And Kaz explained why people are suddenly so interested in Dogen’s thirteenth–century post–existentialism. Dogen’s clear line of thought, his “bright mind,” his “words of iron” draw people to his teaching in this time of global crisis. Dogen illustrates that you cannot abide in a definition. He is constantly deconstructing definitions, offering “slippery slopiness” or groundlessness. His writings are full of paradox, but always to the point. We had one other session on Dogen later in the trip, and I was struck by something Kaz said that I couldn’t believe I had not grasped before: “In translation something is always lost and something else added.” I had never doubted the former but somehow missed the latter.

On Putuo Shan we visited the enormous bronze statue of Guanyin towering over one of the promontories on the Nanyang Straits. At her feet nestled one more ochre monastery with its dark fluted roofs, and out to sea a scattering of islands with the rays of the sun slanting through the clouds onto a veritable armada of fishing boats steaming into port as the day began to die. Joan and Kaz had been friends for some years and were a perfect foil for one another, each taking care of different aspects of the journey. When we “sat” each morning, or were in council, Joan was in charge. While Kaz was in some ways transparent (perhaps invisible is a better word), Joan was dynamic, vibrant, intense, almost in-your-face. Her shaved head accentuated her beautiful features, and she dressed in loose black microfiber pants and tunic. At one point she said to me, “There’s nothing you can’t say to me,” and I believe this to be true. She doesn’t hold back, and so you don’t need to either.

On to Hangzhou and its West Lake, which resembles a Sung painting—weeping willows at the edge of the water, pagodas among the trees, curved bridges, a multitude of boats, wooded hills, clouds, mist, and blue sky. Arnold had been immersed in Hui–Neng and now he told me that no statues or meditation were required for self-realization: “Everything you need is within.” He’s right, but it’s not that easy.

As we approached our departure date we wondered how to integrate our experiences into our lives. We’d been received with tremendous kindness, and had felt so much energy welling up everywhere but it was hard to reconcile what we knew about the Chinese regime with the openness of the people. This is a great paradox. The best we can do is surrender our prejudices and discover what we have to offer the Chinese people. The last thing we would wish on them is the bitter taste of consumer culture, yet that does seem to be one of the things they are inheriting from the West.

Copyright © 2014 by Toinette Lippe

Toinette Lippe
Toinette Lippe

Toinette Lippe was born in London, where she began her publishing career. In 1964 she came to New York City “for a year,” worked at Simon and Schuster for three years, and then at Alfred A. Knopf for more than thirty years as reprint rights director and editor of the Feng/English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman’s How Can I Help?, and other spiritual bestsellers. In 1989 she founded Bell Tower, where she published seventy books that nourished the soul, illuminated the mind, and spoke directly to the heart. Her own two books, Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life and Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing, were published in 2002 and 2004, and reissued as ebooks and paperbacks in 2014. For twenty years she made pilgrimages to the “rose-red city” of Petra in Jordan, to Fes in Morocco for the World Sacred Music Festival, to a monastery for a nine-day silent retreat, to Bali for the Arts Festival, to Havana for New Year's, to Rome to be with the Pope in St Peter's for the turn of the millennium, to China and Japan to visit Buddhist monasteries and paint rivers and mountains, to India and Nepal to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, and to many other places. On her return she would write a long account of each journey and share it with a host of friends who enjoyed her trips vicariously. Toinette began to study brush painting in 2001. Her paintings, cards, and signed copies of her books can be viewed and purchased at taught ink painting at the Educational Alliance on New York’s Lower East Side from 2007 until 2011, and now offers small classes and private lessons on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.