In one of his sermons, Zen master Dogen speaks of realization as knowing that the eyes are at each side with the nose straight down in the middle. No longer deceived by others, he returns with nothing in the hands, without one hair of Buddhism

‘Realizing the eyes at the sides and the nose straight down, I was not deceived by others.’ Though a hundred, a thousand people come to cheat him, this sort of life is one which is not taken in. With us it is not so; when they whisper behind my back: ‘What nonsense the abbot is talking!’ I get the disturbing thought: ‘Am I?’ But Dogen, who has realized the eyes on each side and the nose in the middle, is never deceived by them The state of experience is expressed by the phrase ‘returning empty-handed’. I came back from China without anything in my hands, without bringing one scroll of the scriptures or any other kind of holy learning. I have not one hair of Buddhism Great Dogen says he has not one hair of Buddhism From this returning empty-handed came the great Soto sect with its 14,000 temples.

In empty-handedness is there distinction of ordinary man and sage? Surely the life of Master Dogen was transcendence of values and seeing everything alike. To have a taste of the world of Emptiness we must make at least some effort to separate ourselves from the world of relative values. Though we may not have attained it, yet if in our passage amidst the illusions of attachment there has been a hint of awakening, we should just be making an effort to wish to transcend values. In this effort is spiritual training, and so it is that every movement of the hand, every step of the foot, is training. Our training should be towards transcendence. In the railway train in conversation with people I must make the effort to do it.

One time I found myself late at night at Fukui station. The train was going to a pilgrim centre and many pilgrims got on. On either side of me were old men and women. I was wearing simple clothes with just a round hat, and I suppose I didn’t look to them like a priest. I asked whether they were pilgrims and if so where they were going, and they told me they were on the way to Minobu mountain at the suggestion of their families. I said that would be interesting for them, and one of them broke in: ‘We’re going to Minobu, where are you going, Grandad?’

At that moment, how is it if one is carrying anything in the heart? For an abbot to be addressed as Grandad! One would not be able to reply. It is here that is the spiritual training, to be called Grandad and from the bottom of the heart to be so. I said: ‘Why, I’m off to Nagoya, you know,’ and then we struck up a pleasant conversation.

We came to the junction at Maebara and while I was getting my things together the pilgrims had already got into the other train, except one old woman who got separated from the party and was lost in the subway tunnel. As I came past she recognized me and cried: ‘Dad, which way is it?’ Now from Grandad I had just become Dad. So I told her the way, and Dad and the old woman went along together.

Our training is in just such things. If an old man comes, then an old man, and if an old woman then an old woman. If a child then a child, and if a deluded man then to become the heart of a deluded man. In this sort of world there is no dividing into good and evil. To take good and evil as they are is the world of Emptiness of the Buddha. Not defiled and not pure, it transcends distinctions of ordinary man and sage, illusion and satori.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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