Shobogenzo Zuimonki 1.11

Dogen instructed:

Impermanence is swift; birth and death are vital matters. During this short life, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the Buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the Buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study them extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the Buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.

This passage from Dogen gives me some difficulty since it seems to superficially state that all activities other than Buddhism are a waste of time and should be avoided. Which, in a way, he is but it should noted that these discourses are meant for monks and not lay-persons. So, while it needs to be understood in that context, we can play with the meaning some to provide insights for the lay-practitioner (like myself).

In some translations, I have seen the statement “just practice Buddhism” which would infer the study of scripture and the Pali canon but then Dogen goes on to say not to study those things (or at least not to dive to deeply into them). So where does Dogen’s true meaning lie? I think in the translation I have above with the statement of “just practice the Buddha-Way…and Buddha Dharma” the meaning is in your daily life to practice (whatever it be…dishes, zazen, marketing reports) within the framework of the Buddhist Ideal – with compassion.

Some will disagree with this but most of them have a desire to study the almost inexhaustible Buddhist Canon. The simple fact is that as lay-practitioners, we do not have the time to do this. I can’t study the Tripitaka or the Lotus Sutra or the Pali Canon while doing the duties of the Householder. So I take my Dharma where and when I can get it. Mostly that will include the practice of Mindfulness and Compassion in daily activities. That is what I draw from the closing line – “It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.”

4 thoughts on “Shobogenzo Zuimonki 1.11

  1. The Zen antithesis to "multitasking". Buddhists were never considered to be in the Renaissance ideal of a jack of all trades.

    Instead goal is often to focus upon work at the moment with the fullest attention.


  2. It might be helpful to remember that Dogen was partly reacting to the stale, heady zen of his time – and trying to forge a renewal of sorts by focusing on zazen practice, and not on excessive study of texts and whatnot.

    "It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing." To me, this is an important statement for our times. Being too busy, too involved in everything, we tend to miss everything as well.

    As for literally tossing out things like poetry and literature – well, Dogen himself wrote a hell of a lot, even if it was spiritually focused writing. He wrote poems and teachings, and always pokes at things from multiple angles, undermining attempts to cling to any one side. Literalists would want to say – toss out the whole world and just sit. Those hell-bent on emptiness might say, it's all ok because there is no worldly stuff, nor teachings, nor anything really. Both these answers miss the mark in my opinion.

    Right now, seeing his words, what comes to mind is the emphasis on practice, on experience. To not collect knowledge, but to live our lives, which includes study and learning, but isn't just that.

  3. @ Nathan:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that Dogen's words were mostly, in the long run, about focus and integration. While simple to read, Dogen still has much to teach us. Especially to us that insist on doing too much at once.


  4. "Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up." Though Dogen says this, His presence showers many elegant words, sentences and paragraphs. We are fortunate to have them. ~Seiho

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