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One Thing
Dharma Talk by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei
From Master Dogen’s Zuimonki

In an evening talk Dogen said, “Even people in the secular world must concentrate on one thing and learn it thoroughly enough to do it in front of others, rather than learn many things at the same time without truly accomplishing any of them. This holds all the more true for the Buddhadharma, which transcends the secular world and has never been learned or practiced from the beginningless beginning. We’re still unfamiliar with it. Also, our capacity is poor. If we try to learn many things about this lofty and boundless Buddhadharma, we’ll not attain even one thing. Even if we devote ourselves to only one thing, because of our capacity and nature, it will be difficult to clarify Buddhadharma thoroughly in one lifetime. Students, concentrate on one thing.” Eijo comes forward and says, “If that’s so, what thing or practice should we choose to devote ourselves to among the various ways of practicing the Buddhadharma?”

Dogen replies, “It depends upon one’s character or capability. However, up to now, it is zazen which has been handed down and concentrated upon in the community of ancestors. This practice is suitable for all people and can be practiced by those with superior, mediocre and inferior capabilities. When I was in China in the assembly of my late master Tendo Nyojo, I sat zazen day and night after I heard this. When it was extremely hot or cold, monks there stopped sitting for a while because they were afraid of getting sick. At the time I thought to myself, I may become sick and die. Still, I should just practice zazen. What’s the use of clinging to this body? How can I refrain from practice when I’m not sick? Dying from illness because of practice accords with my original wish.

“First of all, I am fortunate to be able to practice and die in an assembly under a good teacher in great China and to be buried by such great people with an authentic Buddhist funeral! If I were to die in Japan, it would be impossible to have a funeral service performed by such great people according to the Buddhist rituals. If I were to die during practice before clarifying enlightenment, I would be born into the family of Buddha again because of having established the relationship. It’s meaningless to live long without practicing. It’s useless. Furthermore, even though I wish to keep my body secure and healthy, I might drown in the ocean or meet an accidental death. How regrettable it would be.

“With such resolve, I continually sat zazen night and day, yet I never once got sick. Now I urge each of you to practice exclusively and wholeheartedly. Ten out of ten of you will attain the way. My late master Tendo encouraged us in this way.”

Concentrate on one thing. A student says, “I don’t know what to do.” A teacher says, “Do zazen.” The student says, “Should I do more?” The teacher says, “Do more.” The student says, “I’m afraid of getting sick by doing too much.” The teacher says, “Be whole. Be wholehearted. Then you will accomplish zazen.” Accomplish what? Attain what? What is “one thing?” Where are its edges? The hour of zazen—how long is it? The heart-mind of the way—how is it expressed?

There’s a movie out now called Pay It Forward that some of you may have seen, and some of you may have avoided given its “schmaltz factor.” In it, a teacher assigns his seventh-grade class to create a way in which they can personally change the world. One boy comes up with this plan to “do something big” to help three different people, with the understanding that each person will pay the gratitude forward by helping three more people. In the movie, the practice of paying it forward reveals what spiritual practice in general reveals: this inherent demand that we leap wholeheartedly into what seems impossible. When we do this, we inevitably encounter long stretches of seeming failure, when we have no assurance that our practice is having any impact despite our good intentions. This is the difficulty of just giving one’s life as it is to all beings.

In Zuimonki, Dogen tells the story about Zen master Chikaku. He has a government officer and kind of a Robin Hood of the day. “He was a man of talent and righteousness,” Dogen writes. “While he was a provincial governor he appropriated official money unlawfully and gave it to the people. One of the officers around him reported this to the emperor. Upon hearing this, the emperor was astonished; all of his ministers also thought it was strange. Still, since the crime was not a minor one, the decision was made to put him to death. The emperor said, ‘This man is a man of talent, and a wise man. He dared to commit this crime. He might have had some profound motivation. When his head is about to be cut off, if he looks regretful and full of grief, cut it off immediately. If not, undoubtedly he had some profound motivation, so do not kill him.’

“When the imperial envoy brought him out to cut off his head, he didn’t show grief or regret. Rather, he looked joyful. He said to himself, ‘I give this life to all living beings.’ The imperial envoy, surprised and amazed, reported it to the emperor. The emperor exclaimed, ‘It’s exactly as I thought! He must have some deeper reason.’ When the emperor asked the officer what his motivation was, he said, ‘I wanted to retire from government office, to throw my life away by giving it to all living beings to form an association with them. To be born into the family of Buddha, become a monastic and practice the Buddha way wholeheartedly.’ The emperor was moved by his reply and allowed him to be ordained. Therefore, he was given the name Enju Yonsho, meaning ‘prolonged life,’ since he had been saved from capital punishment.

“Practitioners,” Dogen says, “also have to arouse aspirations like this at least once. Arousing such an aspiration means thinking little of your own life, having deep compassion for all living beings and entrusting your bodily life to the Buddha’s teaching. If you’ve already aroused such aspiration, protect it. Don’t lose it even for a moment. It’s impossible to realize Buddhadharma without arousing such aspiration.”

We should appreciate that the “family of the Buddha” lives in the home of zazen. This one thing—zazen—is huge. Everything is contained in it. That’s why it can be practiced exclusively. This is Chikaku’s Robin Hood activity—giving away money, sacrificing his career, creating a life in which no other thing is going on. And each of us faces that moment over and over again, when the leap, the astonishing shift from self-involvement into involvement in the whole thing, requires us to do what doesn’t seem possible. Sometimes our leaping is grand; sometimes it’s really mundane.

In late October I spent about two weeks trying to keep a vow to myself to call everyone I know and encourage them to vote. I didn’t call students because I felt it would compromise the relationship of teaching. I called people I used to work with in Florida, who haven’t heard from me in years, and I had these conversations where I said, “I’m not even sure if you remember me and I’m sorry to be bothering you, but I have this feeling that a lot is at stake and I just needed to take a chance. I hope that if this is simply an annoyance, you’ll forget about it and have dinner. But if you can, I’d like to talk. I’m a little scared about what might happen with this election and I just wanted to talk about it with everyone I know.”

These were very difficult conversations to have. But I was sitting with it a while back and realized that I had to take responsibility. If a new appointee to the Supreme Court shifts the situation so that a victim of rape is forced to give birth to that rapist’s child, and I haven’t done everything I could muster to prevent that situation, I would not face that falling sword without regret and grief. If one seal or one seagull dies coated in oil because greedy corporate interests are valued over ecological well-being, and I haven’t done everything I could muster to prevent it, I would die with regret and grief. I haven’t done much, and yet I’m working on beginning. Whether this is a place that challenges your courage and, the giving that you need to do, or whether your challenges lie in an entirely different arena, I hope that our realization of one thing clarifies by virtue of our practice together. How can we begin and sustain this one thing wholeheartedly?

There’s a recent book I used with the Dharma Arts group called Art and Fear by David Bales and Ted Orland which takes up the creative process as a way of transforming the presence of fear into the possibility of courage. At the risk of insulting the authors, I want to take some of their ideas on making art and rephrase them in terms of the heart-mind that’s realized in Buddhism. So, where they write about making art, I’ll read “making heart,” with a bow to them. They write, “Those who would make heart,” or arouse and realize the bodhi mind, “might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them. Most who began, quit. It’s a genuine tragedy. Worse yet, it’s unnecessary tragedy. After all, heartists who continue and heartists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground. Viewed from the outside, in fact, they’re indistinguishable. We’re all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles, troubles we routinely survive but which are oddly enough routinely fatal to the heart-making process. To survive as a heartist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make heart are those who have learned how to continue, or more precisely, have learned how to not quit. But curiously, while heartists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.

“Heartists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail. And heartists quit when they lose the destination for their work, for the place their work belongs. Virtually all heartists encounter such moments. Fear that your next work, your next moment, your next offering will fail is a normal, recurring and generally healthy part of the heart-making cycle. It happens all the time. You focus on some new idea, new way, new practice in your work. You try it out, run with it for a while, reach a point of diminishing returns and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further. Writers even have a phrase for it: ‘the pen has run dry’.” (The hara has run dry we might say...) “But all media have their equivalents. In the normal heartistic cycle this just tells you you’ve come full circle, back to the point where you need to begin cultivating the next new moment. But in heartistic death,” (the death of the life of practice,) “it marks the last thing that happens. You play out an idea, it stops working, you put the brush down,” (you get up from your pillow,) “and 30 years later you confide to someone over coffee, well, yes, you had wanted to paint while you were much younger.” You had wanted to live a spiritual life. You had wanted to be courageous and kind. And clear. “Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again, and heart is all about starting again.”

Many of you know that my dog and best friend Lobo is quite old now and he’s going through a lot of health challenges. He’s a great being, and one of the things I’ve learned from him and love in him is his wholeheartedness. When he was a puppy he seized any opportunity to run, to just go. It was nothing but joy to run as far as he could, as much as he could, as often as he could—to just run. Now he can barely stand up; he falls over about one out of every four times he gets up. But, once he gets his feet underneath himself, he just goes. He limps as far as he can limp. It’s the same heart and it just wakes me up over and over again. I hope I can continue his life and his teaching without his body to remind me. He has beginner’s mind in his old age. I don’t want to see it stop.

“A second universal moment of truth for heartists appears when the destination for the work is suddenly withdrawn. For veteran heartists, this moment usually coincides rather perversely, we feel, with reaching that destination. There was a friend whose single-minded quest for 20 years was to have a one-man show at his city’s major art museum. He finally got it and never produced a serious piece of art again.” We get the girl, we get the guy, we never produce a serious piece of heart again. We get the job, we get the apartment, we stop seeing, appreciating, singing it. We accomplish finding a teacher, we take Jukai, we pass our first koan,…and at each juncture, you see the same thing happen. “There’s a painful irony to stories like this, to discovering how frequently and easily success transmutes into depression.” Oh, this is it? This is loving? This is being with you? This is realizing this koan? This isn’t what I thought at all. I want more. I want something else. And we become depressed.

The authors say, “Making heart can feel dangerous and revealing.” Making heart is passing the koan. Making heart is showing up for zazen. Making heart is raising the bodhi mind moment after moment. It’s seeing the crap of the world and not turning away. Making heart is dangerous and revealing.

“Making heart precipitates self doubt, stirring the deep waters that lay between what you know you should be and what you fear you might be. For many people, that alone is enough to prevent them ever getting started at all, and for those who do, trouble isn’t long in coming. Doubts, in fact, soon rise in swarms.” I love that image—doubt in swarms. And then they list, probably in ten lines, a summary of what most of us spend about ninety percent of our silent sitting and daisan/dokusan time saying some variation of, to ourselves or to our mirror: I’m not an heartist... I’m not an artist... I’m not a practitioner... I’m not a buddha... I’m a phony... I have nothing worth saying, giving... There’s nothing to realize... I’m not sure what I’m doing... Other people are better than I am. . . I’m only a student, mother, physicist... I’m only a lay person... I’m only a monk... I’ve never had a real opening... I’m so confused right now... No one understands my work... No one likes my work, my practice, my loving... I’m no good.

And then they say, “Viewed objectively these fears obviously have less to do with heart,” or the buddha nature in my gloss, “than they do with the heartist and even less to do with individual artworks, heartworks, actions. After all, in making heart, you bring your highest skills to bear upon the materials and ideas you care most about. It’s a high calling; fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines or schedules, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over achievements of others, indeed, anything that keeps us from giving our work our best shot. What separates heartists from ex-heartists is that those who challenge their fears continue, those who don’t quit. Each step in the heart-making process puts that issue to the www.” I’ve rarely seen a more to-the-heart presentation of what it is to really practice, that there is in each moment the opportunity to fool ourselves into the idea of quitting.

Later in the book, in a chapter called “Finding Your Work,” they say, “The world displays perfect neutrality on whether we achieve any outward manifestation of our inner desires. But not art.” Not practice. “Art is exquisitely responsive. Nowhere is feedback so absolute as in the making of art.” And if you hear again, without my pounding you with it, nowhere is feedback so absolute as in zazen, as in the making of heart, as in that one thing. “The work we make, even if unnoticed and undesired by the world, vibrates in perfect harmony to everything we put into it or withhold from it. In the outside world there may be no reaction to what we do. In our artwork,” in our practice, “there’s nothing but reaction. The breathtakingly wonderful thing about this reaction is its truthfulness.

“Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When your lazy, your art is lazy. When you hold back it holds back. When you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets.” Doesn’t that feel like so many sitting periods of looking for your heart, but being so held back that it’s just kind of standing apart from you, looking at you with its hands in its pockets? But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.

“Wholehearted,” Dogen says, “ten out of ten attain the way.” “Commit what?” Ejo asked, we ask. Dogen said, “Zazen.” What, really, is zazen? What is one thing? Knowing divides into knower and known—whatever we know is not it. “I don’t know” falls into the same pit as knowing: it divides the mind into two. Even to say “Just this!” ignores that and that and that and that. To say, “Can’t say” hides in silence. Dogen, and all real teachers press for “wholehearted” to be realized, to not have any trace left of sweetness and light, the ideas that will separate us and keep our genuine freedom at bay. May we concentrate, and not pretend nor take for granted this opportunity. May we live this day such that when the sword falls, the joy that cannot be cut away isn’t a frail idea, dependent on some thing. The great release from grief and regret that is at the depth of zazen frees the heart only when we enter it utterly, timelessly. When we stop measuring, sit down in the center of the universe.