“You and I are dancers in this dance, as is every creature great or small, the mountains and seas, every grain of sand or massive galaxy, the atoms that make up the universe and the whole universe itself.”
– Jundo Cohen
The Zen Master’s Dance, is Zen teacher Jundo Cohen’s new book, reflecting on the teachings and writings of 13th century Japanese Zen master Dōgen, who is considered the founder of the Soto school in Japan. In this extract from the introduction of his book, Jundo Cohen paints a picture of the universe as an integrated and indivisible dance, in which certain elements temporarily swirl out and take on form, but always fundamentally belong to the flow from which they emerged. The crux of Dōgen’s teachings, according to Cohen, were dancing lessons – instructions in how to prime ourselves for the movements of the great, universal dance.
Eihei Dōgen, a Japanese Zen Master of long ago, heard the music of the universe that sounds as all events and places, people, things, and spaces. He experienced reality as a great dance moving through time, coming to life in the thoughts and acts of all beings. It is a most special dance, for it is the dance that the whole of reality is dancing, with nothing left out, that you and I are dancing, that is dancing as you and me. It is a vibrant, swirling, flowing, merging and emerging unity that Buddhists sometimes call “emptiness,” as the motion and sweep of the dance “empties” us of the sense of only being separate beings, and fills and reaffirms us as the whole. We, as human beings, can’t be sure when or where this dance began, or whether it even has a beginning or end. But we can come to see that it is being danced now in each step and breath we take, much as a dance unfolds and constantly renews with every turn or leap of its dancers.
You and I are dancers in this dance, as is every creature great or small, the mountains and seas, every grain of sand or massive galaxy, the atoms that make up the universe and the whole universe itself. Everything in reality, no matter how old or vast, no matter how unnoticed or small, is dancing this dance together. And although we may feel as if we are separate dancers—finite individuals on a grand stage spanning all of time and space—we are also the dance itself dancing through us. A universe of dancers that are being danced up in this dance that the whole universe is dancing.
Picture in your mind a spectator witnessing a dance so vigorous and vibrant that its countless actors seem to vanish in the swirl of motion: single dancers becoming pairs, then groups, coming together and separating moment by moment, yet so merged as the overall movement that, from a distance, individual dancers can no longer be seen. It is like single raindrops vanishing in a distant storm. The dance is the ground below, the air that’s stirred, the light of moon and stars in the open sky above. We are such fragile drops in motion, but also the whole ground, the whole motion, every breath of air, the moon and all the stars, the entirety of sky that is dancing too—for the dance is the whole of everything. It’s a dance that leaves nothing out.
“Beyond temporary appearances, we are also the whole dance itself—a dance which happens before, during, and after our limited sense of time.”
Indeed, the swirling dance constantly spins out new shapes and creations, gives temporary form to each and all of the individual dancers. From this vantage point, each of us is no more solid or separate than eddies in swirling water, dust devils in the breeze, flashes of lighting casting momentary light and shadow, each there for a while before fading back into the dance. The dance of nature in motion seems to spin us out onto the stage, then spin us back in, giving the appearance of birth and death. But beyond those temporary appearances, we are also the whole dance itself—a dance which happens before, during, and after our limited sense of time. There are scenes during life of youth, health, love, joy, and beauty, as well as sickness and sorrow, violence and war. Yet all are outward appearances rippling across the surface of it all.
So united did Dōgen see that whole that, in his mind, each point holds all other points, near or far, each point miraculously fully contains the whole, and each moment of time ticks with all other moments of time, before or after. It is much like saying that every step of each dancer somehow embodies, depends upon, and also fully expresses every step by all the other dancers on the stage, past, present, or future, and fully contains the entire dance too. Dōgen experienced the time of the dance as the overall movement that is fully held and expressed in each individual move itself, with past not only flowing into present and future, but future flowing into the present and past, as the present fully holds the past and future of the dance.
Can we truly say that there are separate dancers in this all-encompassing dance? Endless dances are going on within each dancer, each cell and each atom, each bond and reaction, just dancing within and with each other . . . dancing within dancing. We can experience all dancers and all reality absolutely absorbed in the constant motion of the dance. As the borders that separate our sense of self from the rest of the world soften or drop away, we see that there is no dance outside, no “me” and “you” inside the dance. There is only that which flows from inside to outside, outside to in—all borders, all barriers dropped away and the whole having no surface or edge.
“Can we truly say that there are separate dancers in this all-encompassing dance? Endless dances are going on within each dancer, each cell and each atom, each bond and reaction, just dancing within and with each other . . . dancing within dancing.”
Please don’t understand the concept of this dance merely intellectually. Instead, join in, truly feel what it is to be swept up in this dance as this dance. Master Dōgen spoke of practice, putting it all in motion. Where this dance has come from, where it is going, is not as important as the dance that is truly realized—made real—right here, in your next leap and gesture. The dance is always right underfoot, so just dance, without thought of any other place.
How to Dance
What would a dance be without some dance lessons? Each dancer can find herself—find her identity in the dance knowing her life as a dance too (a personal dance within the great dance), and that her grace, balance, direction, the choices she makes in each step by step, help create the dance as she goes. In his many writings, Master Dōgen, our master instructor, shows us how to dance with skill and grace. His dance secrets come down to a few fundamentals:
The first step is no step, sitting upright and very still. This is zazen, seated Zen, in which we assume a balanced and stable posture, breathe deeply and naturally, and just sit. In this sitting, we let go of tangled thoughts and judgments as best we can. We try not to wallow in our emotions or get caught up in long trains of thought, but instead let things be. We sit in equanimity, beyond judging good or bad, with a sense that this sitting is the one and only act that needs to be done in this moment, the one place to be in the whole universe. We sit in the present instant without engaging thoughts of past or future, and in doing so, we encounter the timeless wholeness of just this moment. As we sit unmoving, the whole moving world flows past and through us. When we sit with the trust that nothing is lacking in zazen, our sitting is complete because we stop all other measuring.
“The first step is no step, sitting upright and very still. This is zazen, seated Zen, in which we assume a balanced and stable posture, breathe deeply and naturally, and just sit.”
We human beings are always chasing goals, feeling our lack, judging good and bad, and feeling friction between our wants and reality. But when we sit in shikantaza—in “just sitting that hits the mark”—we stop chasing goals for a time. Sitting is its own goal and completion. When we sit this way, the division between us and the world drops away and we feel the profound wholeness of the dance. That is the first lesson.
Master Dōgen’s next lesson is the sacredness of all things and activities. Getting up from the sitting cushion, we return to a life of goals and tasks, work that needs tending, clothes that need mending. In his teachings, Master Dōgen said we should not separate life and practice, but instead see everything and all moments as sacred practice. Rising in the morning, using the toilet and washing, cleaning and cooking, are all steps in the dance. Every single thought, word, and gesture, no matter how seemingly ordinary and mundane, is sacred.
This does not mean that all our actions are equally good. We need to live and act in skillful ways in order to taste the overarching goodness and sacredness of life. Thus, Master Dōgen’s next lesson tells us to always seek to do good and to avoid doing harm. By that he means that we should avoid greed, anger, jealousy, and other damaging mental states. We should live with balance, poise, and moderation. In our own thoughts, words, and acts, we should choose that which is free from such harmful behaviors. In turn, the lessons of zazen and Zen practice will help us to do this. Thus, dancing well leads us to practice as better dancers, while being better dancers allows us to dance well.
Of course, realizing this truth, getting it into our bones and living accordingly, is what our practice is about.
From: The Zen Master’s Dance