A Zen’s-Eye View: Zen teachings are logical, include whole reality of life

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In the next section of his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen takes to task other Zen teachers of his day who say that the old teaching stories of Zen cannot be understood logically, that the purpose of the stories is to defeat logic. He uses the story of Nansen, an eighth century Zen master, to make his point and complains that too many Zen teachers consider the story to be an example of how logic cannot help one understand Zen. Too many teachers have the idea that Zen is illogical, that it is not a religion because it is beyond religion, or that Zen is beyond the scriptures that contain Buddha’s words.

It’s true that there are certain sayings in Zen that make it look like these Zen phrases are meant to destroy the logic-creating mind so students can leap past logic to some other transcendent realm of realization, and beyond. Dogen says this is totally ridiculous and many of his essays explain stories that others say are not logical. But he doesn’t explain them in the way we usually explain things. In a way, the traditional Zen phrases, such as the ones we have been examining in this essay series, are so illogical that the only way to understand them is to reach an understanding that is beyond our ordinary and limited way of understanding. An example story follows:

Nansen, a Chan (Zen) teacher who lived in eight century China, was working in the fields harvesting rice.

A student interrupted him to ask, “What is the true way?”

Nansen held up his sickle and answered, “I got this sickle for thirty cents.”

The student replied, “That’s not what I asked you. I asked, ‘What is the true way?’ ”

Nansen went back to working and said, “My sickle works very well.”

This story goes directly to Dogen’s point because the student insisted that Zen is beyond words about working with a sickle. But Nansen says that truth is not some transcendent and otherworldly epiphany. The truth is right here. The truth is completely giving oneself to this work, right here, right now. Nansen is saying, “I’m answering your question about the way, and the answer is in this sickle that I got for thirty cents.” His answer includes everything: the world of commerce, the world of tool making, the minerals in the tool and, indeed, the whole reality of life itself.

It’s all right here, he is saying. Don’t make some transcendent illogical world that then becomes its own kind of tyranny. Just find the truth that is right in front of you.

How beautiful and simple is that!

Suggested practice: Several times in the next two weeks pick an activity, such as washing dishes or cleaning the garden. Look deeply into it to discover how much of the world is present in that activity. Notice if you enter into an understanding that is beyond your normal way of seeing that activity.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.