by Koun Franz
For the first two years after I met my teacher, I would sit every morning in his temple, usually alone, then clean up the grounds. One morning, after maybe thirty minutes of perfect quiet in the dharma hall, there was a sudden bang that shook the room. It came from nowhere and sent a shock up my spine—for a moment, in the silence that followed, I was perfectly still, perfectly alert, not yet sure what had happened or if it might happen again. I’m sure it stopped my breath. More than twenty years later, I remember the air of that moment perfectly. Nothing happened after that. After zazen was finished, I got up and looked around and found that a big, beautiful, colourful bird—I have no idea what kind—had slammed into the dharma hall’s glass doors and died.
A bird hitting a window is just a thing that happens—perfectly ordinary, but also not small. A life ended. For me, there was this sense of things coming together. I had been sitting there, still, doing what I do, and the bird had been flying, doing what it does, and neither of us had had any awareness of the other. But now, in this dramatic and tragic way, the bird was born into my consciousness.
An exploration of Dogen’s Zenki is an exploration of birth and death. We might imagine that that bird’s life had an arc or a trajectory that all led to that moment, that event, that simple unforeseen event. It’s easy, from the perspective of the end of something— whether it’s the end of a life or the end of a relationship or even the lights coming up in the movie theater when the movie is done and you know it’s time to go home—to feel that this is what the whole thing was aimed at, as if this is the final punctuation in some sentence. In my case, I had zero awareness of the bird until it became a player in a story about me. Suddenly, it not only existed for me, it felt important.
Dogen writes—and here he is referring to these images of someone stretching or someone grabbing the pillow, but we can also take this moment of the bird—”About just such a moment, you may suppose that because realization is manifested in undivided activity, there was no realization prior to this.” You may suppose that because you’re noticing something now, it wasn’t important before that. In Zen stories, when the teacher hits the student and the student suddenly sees clearly, or is suddenly in the present, that moment in the story becomes important—for the characters, and for us—as if realization happened just then. But Dogen is saying that realization also happened just before that, and just before that, and just before that, and just before that—it’s just that we noticed it here.
It’s easy to talk about the present as including everything, but Dogen is reminding us that an all-inclusive present doesn’t mean there wasn’t something before. Or that there will be something after. So there is this moment with the bird, and then there is the moment of finding the bird, and there is this moment two decades later. All are reminders of a kind of relationship—they stand out in time, and we remember them, sometimes for the rest of our lives. But that relationship, according to Dogen, also existed prior to that moment. He talks about how when you ride in the boat, it’s the boat’s moment; when the bird hit the window, it was the bird’s moment, at least in my experience of it. It was very dramatic. But in those moments before the crash against the window, when I was sitting in front of that altar, there was already a world outside. That was also the bird’s moment. And as I write about this, and as you read about it, that bird becomes central to our experience of right now, so perhaps now is the bird’s moment. If we try to say it’s just one thing, we miss it.
Dogen writes, “However, prior to this realization, undivided activity was manifested.”—whatever that realization may be. “But undivided activity manifested previously does not hinder the present realization of undivided activity.”
This is a mouthful, but it’s important: he’s saying the past does not hinder the present. We’ve spent some time with this text now, so we might be able to jump into that kind of statement very easily and say, Oh, well yeah, the past is the past and the present is the present, and both are complete. He wants us to recognize that. But the implications here are far from abstract: your past does not hinder your present. How easily can you believe that?
Experiences shape us, that’s what experiences do. But we too often fall victim to the idea that we must then retain that shape. No experience you have had is actually capable of holding you back now, because this moment itself cannot be held back. If the total functioning of the present is indeed total, then nothing is being withheld, nothing is obstructed, nothing is hindered. Maybe you sit down to zazen and think, I’m not very good at this. Or, when I sit in zazen, it’s not really zazen—I just fantasize. What you’re saying is, I’m about to fantasize in zazen because I’ve established in my mind that that’s what I do. The past verifies this. The past doesn’t lie, so even though I may intend to really be present, I kind of have these hindrances. Or, I had a very bad experience with that person, so there are certain negative emotions they bring up, and there’s a certain amount of contracting that I have to do when I see them—the past has verified that, with this person, I must feel this way. We do this in every moment.
Or perhaps you attend a sesshin, and when it’s done, you feel it went very well. Maybe your experience of zazen changed in those seven days, and your breathing kind of slowed down, and your eyes became very steady, and your mind—after it danced around for a while, maybe a couple days—maybe it stopped roaming so much and you settled into something that felt kind of solid. What you do then, of course, is to make that a marker and say, Well, that’s sesshin. I feel very present when I’m in sesshin, but not somewhere else. And you decide—though you would never say it this way because you know it would sound wrong—that somehow the present moment is more available in sesshin than it is outside of it. And on Monday you go to work and nobody is acting like the people do in sesshin, and there are computers everywhere, and phones, and people are running around, so busy. And you think, Oh, if only that sesshin awareness were available here, wouldn’t that be great? I wish I could bottle it.
But it is available. Completely. We have to be very careful that what we call practice is actually a support of our life and not a retreat from it. On a personal level, I have to give myself a little pep talk all the time because I’m not in the monastery anymore. I have to consciously remind myself that it doesn’t matter. The way I moved in the monastery, the way I held my body in the monastery, the way I viewed people and objects in the monastery—to the extent that any of that movement or any of that feeling or any of that awareness was true, it’s available now. And if I blame my current circumstances for not feeling those things or not moving in that way or not seeing in that way, then I do a disservice to this moment. I miss it.
That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I know it’s not easy. There are people honking their horns, there are noisy neighbours, there are phone calls that just didn’t come at the right time, and it’s not always as easy as simply remembering, oh yeah, the present is available right now, but even that reminder is no small thing.
The last line of Zenki: “Undivided activity manifested previously does not hinder the present realization of undivided activity. Because of this, your understanding can be manifested moment after moment.”
Dogen never speaks of realization as a one-time thing. You don’t say, Well, I got it. I’m done. You ate breakfast this morning, but it doesn’t mean you’re done eating—in the same way, understanding is not something that you get and then you keep. Not true understanding, anyway. Understanding is something that’s happening all the time. It’s being uncovered all the time. It’s being cultivated all the time. So even if you understood in the previous moment, it doesn’t mean that you understand in this one. And if you understand in this moment, it’s no guarantee that you’ll understand in the next, because understanding is not some abstract thing—it’s a kind of seeing, and we can only see in the present. We can only see what is in front of us, never behind.
As you go on with your day and your life, it’s not important for you to carry around a lot of big ideas about how reality works. All of this, the whole of Zenki, is just Dogen’s attempt number thirty-four, or whatever number it is, to make sense of it all, but you can discard it. He’s simply doing what every other teacher has done, which is to grab you and say, Pay attention, pay attention. Don’t pay attention and then insert some idea about what you’re looking at; rather, see with clear eyes. If you do that, if you truly pay attention in this moment, then what you see will be this moment—it will be true, and all of this explanation won’t be necessary. It sounds hard—and sometimes it is—but it isn’t complicated, and it isn’t out of your reach. It isn’t even an inch from where you are now.