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Washing the Face

By now, everybody knows Dogen's famous words about forgetting the self. The first lines are usually translated:

"To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self."

There are various ways of translating the next lines:

"To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas (or, we might say, to be at one with everything in the world). To be at one with the whole world is to drop off the body and mind of self and others. All trace of enlightenment ends and this traceless enlightenment continues forever."

Forgetting the self; dropping off body and mind; being at one with the whole world - what do these words actually mean in our practice? All are ways of talking about no separation - any experience of body or mind, of self and others, as separate dropping off - just being this moment. For Dogen, this meant that zazen was not a means to becoming enlightened, zazen - just sitting, just being this moment - was enlightenment itself. If you remember just one thing from this talk - it should be that. Sitting is not a means towards enlightenment. Sitting is not a means.Life is not a means towards anything. Sitting is just sitting; our life is just our life.
The actualization of enlightenment isn't something that takes place just on our cushions when we sit. Our enlightenment - our being just this moment - our life is taking place everywhere all the time. How do we do that? How do we maintain that level of awareness off the cushion?
Well, one very literal and traditional answer is ritual. There's a chapter in the Shobogenzo called "Semmen" - which means washing the face. The lines sbout forgetting the self come from the first page of the first lecture - "Genjokoan ("The Actualization of Enlightenment") of the collection known as the Shobogenzo - but the whole collection runs to four volumes in the Nishiyama and Stevens (Tokyo 1975) translation. After reading Genjokoan, we might expect Dogen to always write on a very lofty and metaphysical level - but in Semmen he tells us what size toothpick to use!
Dogen takes time off from metaphysics to give us a minutely detailed description of how a monk should wash his face, what kind of towel should be used, how the teeth and mouth should be cleaned and so on. His point is that practice must extend into every nook and cranny of our everyday life. This is one sense of that traceless enlightenment continues forever. There is no place, no activity, no matter how mundane, it does not reach. In a traditional monastic setting, the way that was actualizeded was to have a rule or ritual for how everything. A lot of what counted as training in the Soto tradition was simply instruction in ritual - minute attention paid to how every action in the monastery should be carried out. Now, it's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as ritual for ritual's sake, or see it as obsessive or whatever. And no doubt that way of practicing can indeed go awry in just that sort of way. Nowadays, we are more comfortable with the idea of simply being mindful in all our actions throughout the day, without using a rule or ritual to keep our awareness sharp.
But in the zendo, we not only sit, we follow certain rules and rituals. It's the jikido's job to run the zendo according to our rules, and it's important to understand what those rules are and how they are supposed to function in our practice. At one level, they serve a simple, functional purpose - helping maintain the silence and order of the zendo without having to give a lot of explicit instructions every time. But at a deeper lever - just like our sitting itself - the rules and rituals are not a means to an end - they are the very expression of our being in this moment, our functioning in this moment. So the jikido's job is not just to facilitate the functioning of the zendo, the jikido embodies and exemplifies practice as functioning. And that is the functioning of no-self - of the forgotten self - that responds to each thing in turn, performs each function in turn without a thought of right or wrong or how am I doing or how do I look when I'm doing it. Any separate sense of self is lost or forgotten in the midst of each bow, each ring of the gong. The challenge of moment by moment attention and responsiveness are our koans. Here's one I know the jikido's still working on: At the beginning of the 1st period, after striking the han, the jikido enters the zendo, bows at the door, bows to the altar, lights the altar candle, bows and then goes to her cushion. What happened to the match that lit the candle? There's no waste basket to toss it in and it's unsightly to leave it on the altar. So where does it go?
It is by attention to a thousand everyday encounters like this one that practice comes up off the cushion and into our life. Functioning from that place of no-separation - each time we bow, each time we fold back our cushions, each step of kinhin, each time we hear the bell - just doing that, just being this moment. And we continue that practice forever.