To Meet The Real Dragon

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  • Kokuu
    Treeleaf Priest
    • Nov 2012
    • 6785

    To Meet The Real Dragon

    I am currently reading this book by Gudo Nishijima and the following passage struck me as very insightful as to the relationship between Buddhist idealism and actual practice. I know from personal experience how often I am inspired by dharma writing and the beautiful descriptions of the clear blue sky of practice only to be rudely awakened by the reality of how my body feels and how much I want to escape from pain.

    As much as I might want it to be true, practice cannot be achieved by rising above or suppressing worldly concerns but only through experiencing and working with them. Life may not be entirely filled with suffering but it certainly hurts. Idealism is a natural starting point of Buddhism but the more we practice, the more this becomes tempered by the truth of life.

    "We are born with the will to the Truth. We have the will to know, the will to find out, the will to understand - naturally. As we live, the will to the Truth may lead us in many directions. If we are sincere and follow our intuition resolutely, we may meet Buddhism... We find concepts like Buddha-nature, Dharma and the middle way. We would like to understand such concepts. We would like to find the rule of the universe, realize our true Buddha-natures and live our lives according to the middle way...

    But in our efforts to reach the target of Buddhist, we encounter many annoying difficulties. When we practice zazen our knees become still and painful, our backs tired and sore. Our thoughts wander into all sorts of trivial areas of life and we can't seem to settle down...

    It may be annoying, but the intrusion of physical realities into the world of our idealistic efforts is very important. Sooner or later we must acknowledge another side of life; we must admit the importance of our physical or material existence... If we don't eat for several days, our bodies become weak and thin; we feel tired and sluggish; our thinking ability is impaired. If spirit or mind were the only basis of life, such facts would seem very queer. But such facts are real in our lives... We must realize that there is a side of life that cannot be explained in terms of spiritual aims or ideas; that when we look closely at that side of life, can only conclude that our lives are based in the material world."

    -- Gudo Nishijima 'To Meet The Real Dragon' p 133-134

  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39450

    Hi Karasu,

    My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, like all Zen teachers before him, has tried to express in words the experience of Zazen that is ultimately beyond words. He tried to do so in modern terms which he believed would be more easily understandable to Western peoples. In order to do so, Nishijima turned to his understanding of Western philosophical terms like "materialism" and "idealism". I am not sure if it was always an easy and clear fit (and I am not sure that he always correctly used those terms from an academic point of view), but the basic viewpoint he came up with is truly a modern and brilliant way to re-express Mahayana Buddhism 101 and Soto Zen. It helps to understand Nishijima's particular intent in using such terms. Nishijima Roshi tries to express Zazen as a practice of "Action" or "Pure Doing/Being", and Buddhism as a "realistic" philosophy beyond idealistic religions or materialistic philosophies.

    Here is a description I once made, in a nutshell, although it is a bit more than this:

    Some people (almost all people in some way) dream of an idealized world (or "heaven" or "enlightenment" or a "purified society after the revolution comes" ... whatever) that is always good by our little human standards ... candy cane trees and ice cream mountains. Or, they feel lack between how the world "is" and how they wish it "should be" in their ideals. At least, they dream of some state much better than the present state. In contrast, this world of ours is less than ideal. That is an "idealistic" view. There is also a sense in most religions of some "ideal" world that is the world of the spirit, which is the world we need to get to by escaping this world of the "flesh".

    On the other hand, some other people think of this universe as just blind processes, dead matter that happened to come alive as us, going no place in particular. (I really abbreviate the description ... but this is generally a materialistic view of the world). Although seemingly dispassionate and "coldly objective" about the world, this view will often cross the line into asserting that the world is "meaningless" or "pointless" or "survival-of-the-fittest cruel" or just "we are born, we work, we die" ... some such bleak thing. He also sometimes uses "material" to mean the "world of the flesh, this sometimes disappointing and hard life" as opposed to the above idealized "world of the spirit" found in most religions.

    Both those views tend to judge that there is something lacking in the present state.

    However, Buddhism is an existentialist way of being in and as this life-world-just-as-it-is, meaning the world and this life before we impose our judgments and dreams upon it. We neither judge the world lacking in comparison to another ideal world, nor do we judge it cold and pointless and hopeless. We just let the world be as it is, and we go with the flow ... to such a degree that we can no longer see perhaps the divisions between ourselves and the world in the flowing. In that way, as Nishijima describes it, it swallows whole both materialism and idealism by finding this world, just going where it goes, to be ideally just what it is. And that way of seeing beyond "beautiful" or "ugly", "peace" and "war" is .... pretty darn Beautiful and Peaceful! Material and Ideal merge into each other and are transcended. This is Nishijima's view of Buddhist "realism", his third philosophy.

    However, theory alone is not enough. More than words describing this "realistic" perspective, we must actually taste it in the practice-experience of Zazen. So, Zazen is the pure action whereby we actually experience this being of reality.

    Something like that.
    Nishijima has his own lingo, and ways of expressing the basic Zen and Mahayana worldviews.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 07-16-2013, 11:20 AM.


    • Kokuu
      Treeleaf Priest
      • Nov 2012
      • 6785

      Jundo, I think Nishijima Roshi did an excellent job here. I don't know whether it would work as well with a Japanese audience but for a westerner like me, the swallowing of idealism and materialism captures dharma practice beautifully, bringing both together through the action of practice. Uchiyama Roshi's notion of living between vow (ideal) and atonement (reality) seems to me to do the same thing.

      Of course, even with such realistic words, they are nothing without action. I remember reading someone comment on the phrase 'knowledge is power' saying that unless you act on that knowledge, it has no power at all.



      • Myosha
        • Mar 2013
        • 2974

        Teachers - grateful thank you for lessons.

        "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"