“Through consistent meditation practice, we will begin to recognize the separate self as a fiction, and we will begin the experience our interconnection with all life more directly and intimately? Claude Anshin Thomas, Bringing Meditation to Life
In the first line of the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara experienced a shift of perspective as he perceived body and mind during meditation. “Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita perceived the emptiness of all five conditions and was freed of pain.” The five conditions are the aggregates of body and mind which are form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. The first aggregate, form, is “body,” which is the five material sense organs along with their objects. The remaining four aggregates are “mind.” Avalokiteshvara saw that they were empty and this insight replaces passion for them with dispassion which became the primary factor for letting go of clinging to them.
Dogen experienced this same shift when he attained the Way. When he was a novice, Dogen had some misconceptions about the nature of enlightenment as well as what meditation was and what it was for. The teachings that he had received were that fundamentally, we are already enlightened and that meditation was the practice of attaining enlightenment. These notions seemed contradictory to him so his burning question became, “If we are already enlightened, then why do we have to practice to become enlightened?”
While practicing zazen one night he heard his master yell in a booming voice: “Zazen is not for sleeping! Zazen is for DROPPING OFF BOCDY AND MIND!” In an instant the truth about meditation and enlightenment was realized. The self born of the five aggregates was no longer taken to be his reality. Immediately he dropped identifying with body and mind and in this way he discovers the practice of enlightenment. His enlightenment was the realization of the practice of letting go of identifying whatever phenomena that arise connected with the aggregates of form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness as his reality.
To articulate the practice of the Enlightened Way is no small feat. Dogen embodied the unsurpassable Enlightened Way so his words have a particular ability to transform our delusion about enlightenment. In the Genjokoan, Dogen expresses the practice of enlightenment in these words: “To study the Enlightened Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
To study the self, we take a “backward step” and evaluate the experience of the internal and external sensations including the world of “me” and “mine” that develops around them. As we evaluate the experiences of body and mind, we also hold the perception that whatever arises in connection to the five aggregates is not self. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha said that a monk practicing concentration “regards whatever phenomenon are there that are connected with form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, as inconstant, suffering, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, a lien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not self.”
The notion that this world of experience is an empty fabrication and not self counteracts the deluded perception that we have led all of our lives, which is the belief that it is our reality. As we continue regarding whatever phenomenon that arises in connection with body and mind as empty and not self delusion is weakened. Right discernment dissolves the attachment s between the senses of body and mind and their objects. The eye still sees, the ear hears, the nose smalls, the tongue tastes, the body feels, and fabrications still appear within mind but there is the knowing that these are connected no more and you no longer define yourself by attachments to body and mind. When the veil of delusion is torn open, direct insight shines forth. As Dogen put it in the Genjokoan , “At the moment when dharma is directly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.” In commenting on the Therigatha, Sister Subha writes: “I- unimpassioned, unblemished, with a mind everywhere released…..knowing the unattractiveness of fabricated things, my heart adheres nowhere at all.
In conclusion, this essay is an attempt to illuminate a passage from the Genjokoan, as I understand it, which was inspired by my newfound experience with zazen. With steady zazen practice, I began to realize a new relationship to my sense of self as I began to lose my penchant for using the body and mind to define myself. In this new relationship, the body and mind move through space and time, cycling through the experiences of sometimes being pleasant and sometimes being unpleasant. The sense of self goes on as the five aggregates do their thing, but my newly discovered freedom was not based on the senses and the mentally fabricated sense of self. This new freedom is release from the suffering that arises from clinging to any form of identity that is based on anything fabricated and impermanent. “Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita, perceived the emptiness of all five conditions and was freed of pain.” This is original nature.
In Gassho, Jiryu