In a world where a certain kind of intellectualism is valued over many other human capacities, it’s easy to feel inferior to those we perceive to be smarter than ourselves and to imagine that the things that we do not understand with our intellect will somehow hold us back from a more profound experience of the world. Dogen was approached by one of his students with this question and he answered that aspiration rather than sagacity is more powerful in guiding a student towards fulfillment of the Way, and that we should always keep our eye and mind on impermanence. This exchange is recorded in the Shobogenzo Zuimonki, a brilliant book that documents many of Dogen’s talks as recorded by his student Koun Ejo, and that is a much more accessible way in to Dogen’s teachings than the main body of the Shobogenzo itself.
Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2:14
One day, a student asked,
“Although many years have passed since aspiring to learn the Way, I have not yet had any realization. Many of the ancient teachers said that the Way does not depend on intelligence or sagacity. Therefore, I don’t think we should demean ourselves because of our inferior capacity. Is there something about this that has been handed down in the tradition which I should keep in mind?”
“You are right about not relying on intelligence, talent, quick-wittedness, or sagacity in learning the Way. Still, it is wrong to mistakenly encourage a person to become blind, deaf, or ignorant. Since studying the Way does not require having wide knowledge or highly talented abilities, you should not show disdain toward anyone because of their inferior capacity. True practice of the Way must be easy. Nevertheless, even in the monasteries in great Song China, there are only one or two people out of several hundred or thousands of practitioners who realize the dharma and attain the Way in the assembly of one teacher. Therefore, there must be things handed down which we should keep in mind.
I believe this. It depends only on whether one’s aspiration is firmly determined or not. A person who arouses true aspiration and studies as hard as his capacity allows will not fail to attain [the Way]. We have to be careful to concentrate on and directly carry out the following practice: first of all, just maintain the aspiration to earnestly seek [the Way]. For example, a person who desires to steal a precious treasure or to beat a powerful enemy or win over a beautiful woman of high nobility will constantly seek an opportunity to accomplish these tasks in any situation or occasion, though various things are changing, since his mind is always occupied with this desire. If his desire is that enthusiastic, he will not fail to fulfill it.
In the same way if the aspiration to seek the Way is earnest enough when you practice shikantaza (just sitting), study the koans or meet your teacher, though the aim is high you will hit the mark, and though it is deep you will fish it out. Without arousing such aspiration, how can you complete the great matter of the Buddha-Way in which the samsara of life-and-death is cut off in a single moment? Only if you have a mind unconcerned about inferior intelligence or dull faculties, or ignorance or dullness, will you surely attain enlightenment.
Next, to arouse such an aspiration, think deeply in your heart of the impermanence of the world. It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating in our heads that which does not really exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes. We need not wait for some teaching from others, some proof from some passage of scripture, or some principle. Born in the morning and dead in the evening, a person we saw yesterday is no longer here today —these are the facts we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. This is what we see and hear about others. Applying this to our own bodies and thinking of the reality (of all things), though we expect to live for seventy or eighty years, we die when we must die.
During our lifetime, though we may see the reality of sorrow, pleasure, love of our families, and hatred of our enemies, these are not worthy matters. We could spend our time letting go of them. We should just believe in the Buddha-Way and seek the true joy of Nirvana. Much more so for the aged whose lives are already more than half over. How many years still remain? How can we relax our study of the Way? This is still not close enough to reality. In reality, it is only today or even this moment that we can thus think of worldly affairs or of the Buddha-Way. Tonight or tomorrow we may contract some serious disease, or may have to endure such terrible pain as to be unable to distinguish east from west. Or we may be killed suddenly by some demon, encounter trouble with brigands, or be killed by some enemy. Everything is truly uncertain.
Therefore, in such an unpredictable world, it is extremely foolish to waste time worrying about various ways of earning a living in order to postpone one’s death, uncertain as it is, to say nothing of plotting evil against others.
Precisely because this is reality, the Buddha preached it to all living beings, the patriarchs taught only this truth in their sermons and writings. In my formal speeches and lectures too, I emphasize that impermanence is swift; life-and-death is the great matter. Reflect on this reality again and again in your heart without forgetting it, and without wasting a moment. Put your whole mind into the practice of the Way. Remember that you are alive only today in this moment. Other than that, [practice of the Way] is truly easy. You needn’t discuss whether you are superior or inferior, brilliant or dull.