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Dogen Zenji said, “The old head of house, after falling in the grass for six years, during the night entered the plum blossoms without realizing it.”*
“The old head of house” is referring to the Buddha. Prior to the title “Buddha” he was Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya Clan. Siddhartha Gautama was a prince in ancient India who had everything he could possibly want -sex, sleep, food, fame, and fortune. These are the five desires. He realized that these desires did not ultimately lead to happiness, so he left his luxurious palace life, wore the robes of an ascetic, cut his hair off as a symbol of cutting ties to his worldly life, and became a seeker.
He practiced assiduously in search of Enlightenment for six years, but to no avail. Prior to his Enlightenment he thought he would find what he was seeking at some point in the future. This may be expressed in the phrase, “falling in the grass for six years.” He practiced asceticism thinking that by putting his body into extreme states that he would find Enlightenment. He realized that this kind of practice would only lead to his demise. The grass is a symbol for this delusional thinking.
Entering the “plum blossoms” is another way of talking about Buddha’s Enlightenment moment. There was a point in time when Buddha went from a deluded human being to an Enlightened Buddha. But then Dogen Zenji says, “without realizing it.” How could the Buddha not know his Enlightenment?
This statement isn’t really about whether the Buddha knows his own Enlightenment or not, but about our own understanding of Practice/Enlightenment. The Soto school of Zen is not concerned with whether we have some special experience or an “aha” moment or insight. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, “These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this [zazen] posture is itself the right state of mind. There is no need to obtain some special state of mind.”**
The above phrase from Dogen Zenji is not just about the Buddha but about the reality of our own situation as Zen practitioners. As soon as we go looking for Enlightenment we miss it. It’s always right here, right now, even if we don’t realize it.
* Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, translators. Dogen’s Extensive Record. Boston: Wisdom Publications 2010. Page 164
** Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1980. Page 25.