Ascending to Sincere and Devoted Practice

Conduct (that is) sincere and devoted.

Farmers rejoice when rain comes after a long dry spell.  Fish are happy, more water to swim in.  Hungry birds feed their young with emerging worms from the saturated soil.  But what happens when rain does not stop?  What happens when it rains so much that it floods?  Earth erodes?  Crops drown? 


Similarly, our mental world can be flooded with ideas and information, like rain that doesn’t quit.   In modern times we are bombarded with or intentionally seek information.  With our iPhones and other devices as our constant companions, there’s no end to trivia, and much of it, whether or not it is true, is irrelevant to our lives, our serenity, and our well being.  Flooding of information often obfuscates what matters most.  We attribute a God-like status, though, to information, as seeking it has become a new religion for many.


Against this backdrop of the age of information, Zen Master Dogen said many centuries prior to ours, “It is not possible to study extensively and obtain wide knowledge.”   (Zuimonki 1 – 5)


Slow down for a moment and think about this statement.  It’s a total reversal of the attitudes we generally hold towards knowledge.  If we could soak this terse statement into the fabric of our being, then we’ll find deep peace in it.  The delusion of our age is that we think we know everything, or even if we acknowledge that we don’t know everything, we think we can simply google what we don’t know and be satisfied with the googled response.  If this is true, Dogen is offering an antidote to our ravenous appetite.  I’m not suggesting that we should remain ignorant in our present views nor never google information.  I am, however, pointing out the arrogance of the peculiar age we reside in, and our over-reliance on external authority as opposed to trust or faith in the Heart.  We’re often too unaware that there are limits to knowing, and that knowing more doesn’t necessarily satisfy our spirit.  Sometimes it does, but many times it just adds to our anxiety, causing our intuition to atrophy.

“Even people in the secular world must concentrate on one thing and learn it thoroughly enough to be able to do it in front of others rather than learn many things at the same time, without truly accomplishing any of them.”

Dogen Zenji, Zuimonki 1-14

Dogen Zenji is suggesting we attempt to accomplish limiting our learning to one thing at a time so that we do that one thing with our full attention and do it with excellence.  I don’t think he is suggesting that we remain ignorant about life, nor about what we need to know.  Elsewhere Dogen says, that because impermanence is real and life is short, don’t spend these limited days grasping after knowledge.  But do carry out whatever activity you are doing with sincerity, with honesty, and with a sense of calm.  Moreover, focus all your attention on one activity.  Don’t multitask. 


The above calligraphy has a similar sentiment.  It reads, “Sincere and Earnest/Devoted Conduct/Practice.”  It’s a reference to chapter 15 verse 6 of the Analects of Confucius where Confucius exhorts his students to constantly be mindful of their words and actions.  What one says ought to be true and sincere.  One’s actions ought to be earnest and given one’s full attention and devotion.


Though Dogen Zenji might balk at conflating a Confucian adage with Zen, if we were to apply this phrase to our daily life, it would change the way we approach what we’re doing in the present moment.  If we were to apply it to our zazen, I’d suggest it means we ought to purify our minds prior to and during zazen (because thought gives rise to speech) and throw ourselves completely into zazen without being distracted by anything.  This is also known as “dropping off body and mind.”


The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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