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Thread: True Confession or Am I Stupid?

  1. #1

    True Confession or Am I Stupid?

    I’ve been dealing with an issue since I began my practice almost three years ago. It’s been coming to the forefront of my mind lately so I thought I’d post about it. I’ll try to be as clear as I can, but I admit that my mind is a bit jumbled about it. Forgive me for what will probably be a long rant.

    Many times when I read Zen lit. I get turned off. Frankly, I am confused about most of it. Some of it, I just don’t get. As I wrote a few times here, after almost 15 years of just reading about Zen, I was inspired to actually practice by Brad Warner’s work. It just seemed so down-to-earth and straightforward, so unlike other stuff I read. However, now I have a love/hate (although “hate” is strong - let’s say “frustration“) relationship with his work. I have a healthy appreciation for most things, but monster movies and punk rock don’t really do it for me, and I do get tired of his calling others “ass wipes” and whatnot. Still, he remains one of my favorite Buddhist writers.

    Anyway, since trying to practice the Soto way, I, of course, have been exposed to Master Dogen’s work. I love “Fukanzazengi” and I’m currently reading the “Shobogenzo- zuimonki.” I can appreciate these two works. Apparently, Zuimonki means “easy on the ears” and someone once referred to it as “Zen for Dummies.“ Perhaps I’m a dummy, because so much of Dogen’s other works are pretty damned meaningless to me. Like a great deal of Zen lit., I just don’t get it. I just picked up the late Dainin Katagiri’s new book, “Each Moment Is the Universe,” that deals with Dogen’s idea of being-time. Basically, I can’t make heads or tails out of that either. But there’s always this quiet, underlying voice in me that says I need to get my copy of Shobogenzo and get to work on it.

    True confession ahead:

    This experience brings up some insecurity and frustration. Now, I don’t consider myself the sharpest tool in the shed. I’m no Einstein, but I have enough intelligence to earn my Ph.D. in education from a top university, serve as an adjunct professor, write and publish for my field, and present my work at national conferences. Please know I say this not to boast; to me, this stuff is enjoyable. I like it. Again, I don’t feel superior intellectually for doing any of this stuff. I believe almost anyone with enough motivation and tenacity can do the same. It’s just that when I read some Zen stuff, it seems unnecessarily dense and obtuse. In the Soto stuff, usually the writer ends up saying a variation of “just sit.” “Okay,” I end up saying. “I get that. Why did you have to take such a circuitous route to say that?” I also see some here on Treeleaf and on Brad’s and Nishijima’s sites say how much they love and get so much out of Shobogenzo. Really? Do all those people really understand this dense, 800 year old tome as much as they purport? Or am I just dumb?

    These feelings make me question if Zen (or at least the Soto variation of it) is the right practice for me. Perhaps, I sometimes think, the seemingly down-to-earth Insight Meditation is a better fit. But, I also realize that Shikantaza IS the right practice for me. Plus, I try to live by the Precepts. These two things I get! I even like some of the rituals, especially the chants (although I don‘t always understand what they mean, either!). A lot of the other stuff, however, is just white noise to me.

    Does anyone else here have a similar experience? Now I know in the grand scheme of things, with my almost 3 years of practice, I’m still a newbie to Zen. Though I admit, I get a little defensive when someone tells me that I may get this stuff after 25 years of practice. Yeah, maybe. But sometimes I just don’t want to hear it. I could be dead tomorrow. 25 years from now is also meaningless to me.

    The main thing I like about studying with Jundo is his down-to-earth approach. He says that Zen practice is basically: “Do no harm to self or others, and realize that there is no difference between the two.“ I like this. It’s “easy on my [dummy’s] ears.“ On a recent thread, he wrote: “I would say that, if you are living, as you can, so as not to do harm, and sitting Zazen ... learning from Buddhist perspectives and teachings to guide you in that ... then it does not matter what you call yourself.”

    On the other hand, Jundo did once say to me that one day I’ll have to study Shobogenzo. Really, Jundo? Come on, how many Zen masters (and masters in other traditions for that matter) throughout history never read it? They seemed to turn out pretty good. :wink:

    Anyway, that’s my frustrated and long-winded rant. Thank you for your endurance.

    Gassho,
    Keith

  2. #2
    Hi Keith.
    I enjoyed reading your post because a lot of what you say is true for me. Forgive me, but I am about to lay another musical analogy on you.
    Many years ago when I was working on my undergraduate degree in jazz piano performance, I was often told that there were certain albums that were "must haves" and that I should really study those and transcribe them as models of what to do in jazz improvisation. So I'd go buy the CDs and listen. I'll use Chick Corea's "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" as an example. I bought it and listened to it and 99% of it went over my head. It was so far ahead of where I was in my practice that I just could not understand it—my vocabulary was simply not large enough to process the information in a meaningful way to me. So, I put the record away for about a year. I was practicing and/or playing 6 or more hours per day during that time so progress was fairly quick. About a year or so later I got the CD out again for a long car trip to an out-of-town gig. I was blown away by the recording! It all made sense, and not only that, it was incredible the amount of musical information that was contained on it. He was saying more in 4 measures than most jazz guys were saying in entire solos. So, for that first listening, I just wasn't up to handling the density of information—I was bombarded and overwhelmed. Later, when I was ready, it was a transformative experience for me. This happened more and more with other artists and albums.
    That lesson stayed with me. I have a copy of Shobogenzo and it does the same thing to me. It is overwhelming and dense (like drinking from a firehose). But, I have faith that, like my jazz experiences, it will make sense one day. So I have learned that just because I don't 'get' it now doesn't mean that reading it won't help plant seeds for when I am ready for it. I guess I have learned to be patient with that kind of thing. Nonetheless, I too get frustrated sometimes by the peculiarities of Zen authors.

    Gassho,
    Bill

  3. #3
    Keith,
    My name is jordan, and I am a Dogen Head.

    That said I do not "Get" everything Master Dogen has wrote, I have not even read everything that he has written. Allot of what I have read has just made good practical sence to me. The stuff i do not understand is likely because I am not in the right frame of mind to accept it yet.
    If you have not already read it, there is an article on understanding the Shobogenzo here: http://www.dogensangha.org/articles.htm#Understanding

    I think it may be useful.
    I have also found that sometimes I don't "get" something for quite a while after I have read it, and even discussed it with a "good friend" and even then any and all understanding is subject to change. I would not worry about it so much, like they all say, just sit with it. I happen to think that reading Royokan's poetry is another good way to break down some of the barriers we put up. you might consider putting down the Shobogenzo for a bit and giving that a try.

    Hope that was helpful,
    Jordan

  4. #4
    A little advice that I received when I was reading Dammapada.

    If you don't get it, don't sweat it. You can always go back and read it again later. If you don't get it then, still no sweat, read it again later.

  5. #5
    Thanks for the post Bill.

    I use to be into reading Dogen's stuff. I was focusing on that more than effortless sitting. Now I don't read to much about Zen. When it is time for me to pick up the Shobogenzo, I will.

    G, W

  6. #6
    I have two thoughts on this regarding my own practice. (Strictly me. Not claiming to have answers for anyone else.)
    First, I sort of feel like the whole point is the journey, not the destination. If the map doesn't always make sense or match the terrain, I keep moving on in the direction I know. Eventually, something on the page will make sense again.
    Second, I feel I know and learn what I'm supposed to know and learn for a particular time at particular levels and intervals. When I was newer to it all than I am now, I understood less, and just practiced what I DID know.
    Now I know a little (very little) more, and I practice what I DO know.
    And I figure that's about right. I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. when it's time for me to learn more, when I'm ready, something that makes little or no sense to me right now will "click" on it's own.

  7. #7

    Re: True Confession or Am I Stupid?

    Hi Keith and Everybody ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Keith

    I also see some here on Treeleaf and on Brad’s and Nishijima’s sites say how much they love and get so much out of Shobogenzo. Really? Do all those people really understand this dense, 800 year old tome as much as they purport? Or am I just dumb?

    These feelings make me question if Zen (or at least the Soto variation of it) is the right practice for me. Perhaps, I sometimes think, the seemingly down-to-earth Insight Meditation is a better fit. But, I also realize that Shikantaza IS the right practice for me. Plus, I try to live by the Precepts. These two things I get! I even like some of the rituals, especially the chants (although I don‘t always understand what they mean, either!). A lot of the other stuff, however, is just white noise to me.
    ...

    The main thing I like about studying with Jundo is his down-to-earth approach. He says that Zen practice is basically: “Do no harm to self or others, and realize that there is no difference between the two.“ I like this. It’s “easy on my [dummy’s] ears.“ On a recent thread, he wrote: “I would say that, if you are living, as you can, so as not to do harm, and sitting Zazen ... learning from Buddhist perspectives and teachings to guide you in that ... then it does not matter what you call yourself.”

    On the other hand, Jundo did once say to me that one day I’ll have to study Shobogenzo. Really, Jundo? Come on, how many Zen masters (and masters in other traditions for that matter) throughout history never read it? They seemed to turn out pretty good. :wink:

    Anyway, that’s my frustrated and long-winded rant. Thank you for your endurance.

    Gassho,
    Keith
    Over the years, I have often felt much the same way.

    Bill's Jazz music analogy is very much right, I think (I've even thought that the same parts of the brain must be involved in understanding Dogen and listening to Jazz sometimes, but that is a topic for another time). So, I am going to run with that analogy a little.

    Strictly speaking, one does not need to read anything like the Shobogenzo, or other such writings or Koan collections, in order to "practice Zen" or get much of the benefit of Zen (yes, even though I constantly say we seek "no benefits", there are great benefits in learning to "seek no benefits"). So, one can stay listening to gentle, quiet and balanced music (e.g., George Winston? I think his "Charlie Brown" stuff might fit the image. Certainly not "David Sanborn", because Zazen practice on its most superficial day is not some mushy New Agey nonsense) Even without any complex Buddhist philosophy, one can taste the fruits of our practice merely in dropping many opinions and resistances to life, learning balance in body and mind, balance and regulation of the emotions, etc. One can do all that. No problem.

    However, there are many many nourishing fruits in our Zen practice only available (or maybe, "most directly available" is a better way to say it) through writers like Dogen. This is because those writers and their works serve as a monkey wrench to our normal way of perceiving life, who we are, who we are not, who we are and are not, death, time etc, etc. This is now Thelonious Monk (Buddhist Monk?). Do you want to learn to make time stand still, flow backwards, syncopate? That's Dogen et.al. (The reason I say "writers like Dogen" is because most of the other Zen literature and Koans over the centuries have been meant to serve as this same monkey wrench. It is just that, for our Soto Shikantaza practice Dogen is the best fit ... and also, I think he was on to some aspects of "non-seeking" that are very special even in the Zen world).

    So, yes, like Bill and his Chick Corea ("Corea" would be the Kwan Um school ... ha ha), it is an acquired taste but worth the effort. COMPLETELY OPTIONAL HOWEVER, ALTHOUGH RECOMMENDED!

    THAT BEING SAID, please give a chance to the Genjo Koan talks I will be starting in a few days. I have taught it 3 or 4 times before (although not as slowly as we will be going), and I hope I can bring my "magic touch" to it. Frankly, I think that Dogen (like many Jazz musicians) was actually a pretty predictable, understandable, repetitive guy once you get his "style" and usual way of playing. (I even think that Nishijima Roshi sometimes makes explanations of Dogen more complex than need be because of Nishijima's way of speaking English that is itself rather confusing, and because he is very insistent on fitting his "Three Philosophies and One Reality" so exactly onto every single line even though it is a rough fit sometimes ... Don't tell him I said that).

    May I jump from music to modern art? Dogen is like Picasso: Once you get his basic trick of cutting pictures up and pasting them back together again, it all becomes pretty clear.

    (Even so, there are parts of Dogen where he makes lost or obscure literary references, or the translations are confused, or are open to various interpretations, or maybe he was free forming a little too much ... like Miles Davis when he went crazy ... that I am not going to tell you that evey single sentence or reference is clear to me or maybe anybody).

    So, how about giving "Jundo's Genjo"(™) a chance? What could it hurt? Making time run backwards can be a handy trick!

    Gassho, Jundo "Coltrane" Cohen

    PS- But, Keith, you told me there is some problem with seeing the Ustream video system. Anybody else having that problem?? I will try a new system this week as an alternative. Let's see if that works.

  8. #8
    Hello Keith!


    Thank you for your very honest post. I guess that talking about Dogen a bit is so "en vogue" in Zen circles, that it seems to me loads of people are doing a great job of pretending to understand and like his style, whilst really they just want to sound cool. A bit like people who pretend to love Jazz I read the Shobogenzo Zuimonki for the first time roughly five years ago...one word: BOOOORING. Then, at the beginning of this year I forced myself to read the whole BIG Shobogenzo in one go for the first time......the word boring had to be replaced with ??? on many occasions. It was only after letting go of my idea that this was the book to end all books on Buddhism, that I actually manged to begin to like it.

    I really liked Nishijima Sensei's down to earth commentary on the Shinji-Shobogenzo (the one with all the Koans) and stuff....and only now am I beginning to really find some kind of angle that allows me to really appreciate the Shobogenzo.

    To tell you the truth, I feel a lot happier reading Khalil Gibhran's The Prophet than reading the Shobogenzo. But the fact that Dogen's writings demand soo much from my intellectual capacities aaand (more importantly) from my actual, daily practice, makes me very confident that to me it really is the book to end all other books, mainly because I know it will never fail to surprise me again and again even in years to come.

    In our search for truth and/or the end of suffering, we all try to dig our way through the ground until we hopefully find the actual well (that's always been there staring us in the face....but let's use this relative metaphor for a second). Now I've been doing some proper and some not so proper, superficial digging work ever since I was a teenager, and you know what, I am sick and tired of finding a new spot each time the ground begins to feel uncomfortable. So I'll let those shallow holes be shallow holes and continue with this horrible thing called Shobogenzo all the way down, knowing well that I can trust my Shikantaza practice to be purely what it is - simple, clear, profound, non-pretentious, even when the Shobogenzo seems to be the exact opposite at times

    Just keep digging Keith


    All the Best,


    Hans

  9. #9
    Hey Guys,

    Thank you for your replies. They are appreciated. Bill’s and Jundo's jazz and modern art analogies were particularly useful. I actually like jazz and Picasso! So, maybe I'm not as dumb as I thought! :wink:

    Anyway, good advice all around. Jundo, I am looking forward to your chats on the Genjo Koan. Hopefully, I'll be able to watch them via your new system. So, do you suggest I pick up a copy of Dogen? Perhaps not the 4-volume Nishijima/Cross edition; I should probably ease into it. Maybe Moon in a Dewdrop or Waddell/Abe's Heart of Dogen's Shobogenzo (I actually had a copy of this, which I remember was pretty good). Or maybe a good intro like Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist? What do you think?

    Gassho,
    Keith

  10. #10
    Senior Member Martin's Avatar
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    Hi Keith

    Yours was a great post. As I've just posted on another thread, I too am reading "Each Moment is the Universe" and I don't purport to understand it either. I understand the individual words ok, and I understand the order they're put in, I could even paraphrase it in the sense of arranging words in a similar pattern, but somehow I haven't "got" the sense yet.

    But I enjoy reading it, and sometimes I think the fact that I don't "get" the sense yet is part of the point. I mean, "being time", it's not as if I'm going to pick up a book and read a few pages and suddenly understand this concept is it? Reading books like that makes me beat my head against the wall of my own limited ability to understand and sometimes, long after, a little bit of it falls into place. Sometimes not.

    Gassho

    Martin

  11. #11
    I believe exploring the Dharma is not like learning algebra. Sometimes when a text seems really frustrating or totally unrelated to experience I just try to sort of "get into the beat" of it, resisting the urge to understand intellectually. I even developed the habit of reading particularly tricky or beautiful passages aloud. So even if a text doesn’t make the least bit of sense it still may "sound right". I keep a couple of Dharma talks on my iPod that i just listen to over and over – like music.

    All this isn't too different from my education as a professional graphic artist: Occasionally, someone may explain to you what makes a decent page layout or a decent nude drawing but it doesn't make any sense to you until you found out for yourself – by practice. When you finally understand, you can't explain what you're doing.

    Regards,
    Mensch (who has yet to tackle the Shobogenzo)

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Keith
    He. So, do you suggest I pick up a copy of Dogen? ... Or maybe a good intro like Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist? What do you think?
    No, I will post up a couple of translations of Genjo Koan, as I did with Fukanzazengi. Mystical Realist is a good read though.

    Quote Originally Posted by Martin
    As I've just posted on another thread, I too am reading "Each Moment is the Universe" and I don't purport to understand it either. I understand the individual words ok, and I understand the order they're put in, I could even paraphrase it in the sense of arranging words in a similar pattern, but somehow I haven't "got" the sense yet.
    I have read sections. It is another one of those compilations of talks that a Japanese teacher gave during Dharma Talks at various times to a live audience, winging it "live", on a variety of vaguely linked subjects, edited by his students (after his death) and strung together in a book. Add to that the original English level of the Teacher, which was a bit not so fluent sometimes (and who is no longer with us, so he could not check the draft), and ...

    ... and what you have is a work of great beauty, wisdom, compassion and insight, but with all the pitfalls that you can imagine from the above. Heck, as a guy who gives a short talk each day completely "off the cuff" in my own native language, I can tell you that it can be very "free form". (You should also hear one of my talks in Japanese! They are very interesting to my Japanese audience, but sometimes not in the way I intend! ops: ).

    So, please appreciate the book that way. "Zen Mind, Begineers Mind", for all its beauty, is much the same.

    Gassho, Jundo

  13. #13
    Keeping with the art subjects, I think it is as important to understand why you don't " get a painting" as it is to understand why you do.

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