In Shobogenzo Zazenshin, Dogen writes, “Love a true dragon instead of a carved one.” This comes from a popular story of a man in China who loved dragons. He collected figurines and paintings. He read what he could and fancied himself to be quite the expert on dragon lore. People knew him as the guy who is really, really into dragons. Well, an actual dragon heard about this man and thought it would be a pleasure to go and meet such a big fan, so she traveled to the man’s house and stuck his head in the window. When the man walked into the room and saw, there among his little figurines, the face of a real dragon, he fainted from fear (or wet his pants, or lost his mind, depending on who’s telling the story). I think most people–myself included–hear this story first as a warning not to shy away from the difficulties of practice. Don’t spend all your time thumbing through the latest catalog from Dharmacrafts–sit. Just sit. Or, perhaps, don’t choose the teacher who tells you how great you are–choose the one who frightens you a little, who challenges you in ways that surprise you, who seems to put obstacles in your way. On a larger level, we can understand it as a reminder that by avoiding those things that frighten us or make us uncomfortable, we limit ourselves and our potential. It’s a great story. I think about it often, and it always feels relevant.
But more interesting than this story, to me, is what Dogen says next: “However, know that both carved and true dragons have the ability to produce clouds and rain.” This is huge. This is shushō ichinyo (修証一如, the perfect singularity of practice and realization). This points to what, for me, is the most exciting thing in the Zen world–that form and substance are not separate. Dragons produce clouds and rain–that is part of their power. Producing clouds and rain is a dragon. And a dragon is a dragon is a dragon. The man in the story didn’t need to find a “true” dragon in his living room in order to meet a true dragon. Through his intimacy with the figurines–through his intimacy with his life–he could have faced them, and so when the curious dragon stuck her head in the window, the man could have met her with open arms. Or shooed her away, as a pest. Or ignored her.
Moment to moment, we act in the world and ascribe meaning to our actions. I help a stranger who dropped her coins on the floor–it means I’m a nice guy. I break my diet–it means I’m lazy. This is automatic and mostly unconscious, but when we enter a spiritual or religious context, we actually do it deliberately. We imagine that the ability to recognize and interpret meaning is what makes us informed or deep or aware. It also makes us feel safe. For many people, bowing as one does in a Buddhist temple feels too foreign, too strange to be comfortable. So, with all the best intentions, we offer those people explanations of what it all means: “The hands coming together is the dissolution of opposites.” “You’re holding a flower in your hand and offering it to all beings.” “You’re not bowing to the Buddha–you’re bowing to buddha nature.” I’ve heard a lot of these. But Zen practice, at its heart, is just bowing without reserve, and letting that action stand on its own. If we can completely bow, then that’s the true bow; but if we talk ourselves through it, imagining that this is merely a physical representation of some deeper philosophical concept, then that is an imitation of a bow. The encounter passes unnoticed.
If you practice zazen, you can ask yourself: “What do I think it means? What do I think it means about who I am, or who I’m becoming? What do I think is the point? What am I trying to achieve?” The extent to which we can then let go of those questions is the extent to which we can do zazen, which is to say, the extent to which zazen can be zazen. This is true in every second of our lives, in every action. It takes great faith and courage, I think, to let one’s life, in this moment, be as it is.
Each moment of each day is producing clouds and rain. Each moment is shaking the sky with its own power. With this action, right now, we can make the heavens and earth tremble and roar. But to do that, we need to see the dragon in all directions, all around us, inside us, in the soles of our feet and in our hands and with the same eyes that we use to look on the world. Let go of “real” and “unreal.” “Unreal” is about what we cannot yet see. Nothing unreal exists.
(All quotations are taken from “The Point of Zazen” in Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Treasury of the Dharma Eye)
thank you for offering up these thoughts in blog-form. I can now visit you on-line in a tasty and immediate way again. The effort taken to put forth these teachings is significant; more than arising at something-a.m. to get to Uto-An and a morning sit. Our ways of familiarizing self with the dragon are numerous…and are a curious mix of intentional and happenstance circumstances. I open my window to your blog, and invite you to mess with my predictable world (just a bit).
My thanks to you–for many things, but today, for writing the most generous first-ever-comment-on-the-whole-blog that I could ever hope for. It’s an encouraging start for me.
p.s. Depending on snow and wildlife conditions, I think getting up to sit at Uto-an can be awfully significant. 🙂 I miss it.
Nothing unreal exists, and nothing real either.
Thank you for sharing life,
Thank you that you started at the right place. Dragons. This is true, a most interesting thing. We choose them , chase them and are often haunted by them. I am aware that i am haunted by my father’s dragon too. Today, after siesta, when i rest with my son on bed i see his dragon and am amazed that it was mine and went to him as an heirloom. In practice, it is better to choose the dragon and knock him at his door, than wait for him in contemplation. Thank you.