Conduct and observance

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Conduct and observance

Today I find myself within that rare set of conditions that evokes unconditional gratitude. I am, in fact, not very interested in writing on theory--the prospect of using my lunch hour to reside as firmly as possible within the essence and receive the immediate blessings of this life is far more appealing. This morning, however, my reading and my sitting brought me to a specific question which I gave myself the task of presenting today in the blog.

As I attempt to examine this dilemma a bit less partially, I discover that just as there is nothing wrong with life, so there is also nothing wrong with theory. Life exists; theory exists. Both are true things. Should we use our ability to discriminate to complain about one or the other, to fault it?

I think not. Where is the gratitude in that?

If all of us give ourselves the task each day to have one sound, truly pondered thought about the nature of our existence in this cosmos, I believe it will benefit us. That is, in some senses, the whole point of this blog: to come to that effort, to offer it to others, to share, to support, to encourage. This costs me something, of course, beginning with my time, but if even one other person gains one single thing from it, then it is worth the price.

In Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, chapter 30 is entitled "Gyoji," or, "Conduct and Observance."

This chapter appears to address the question of Zen practice within the context of the form, but I believe that it can be read in a manner that raises larger questions. (Like all of Dogen's work, the chapter is complex and demands a complete reading with a great deal of thought. In this blog, we can't even scratch the surface -- just about all we can do is acknowledge that there is one.)

I began to ask myself, what is conduct? What is observance?

Conduct in the context of practice is obedience. Obedience in the context of the natural universe is law. Here we see the moving center, or physical reality, of the Dharma, expressed within the principle of law.

Observance in the context of practice is attention, or intelligence. Intelligence in the context of the natural universe is consciousness. This is the thinking center of the Dharma.

So here we have two of the three great forces that run the machine of the universe: consciousness and law, or, put in other terms, intelligence and obedience.

The third great force, of course, is compassion, which gives birth to the binding materiality of love.

Master Dogen advises us thus. "Conduct and observance is not loved by worldly people, but it may be the real refuge of all human beings. Through the conduct and observance of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, the Buddhas of the past, present, and future are realized. Sometimes the virtue of this conduct and observance is evident, so the will arises, and we practice it. " (Shobogenzo, Nishijima and cross, Dogen Sangha press, p. 110 vol.2.)

Referring back to yesterday's post, we are confronted by the tension between external conditions -- law -- and consciousness, which finds itself both in relationship to law, and under a demand that results from it.

There is a movement Gurdjieff brought with his work called "the trembling dervish. " This movement allegorically depicts a universe inexorably ruled by law, populated by two men. One man is upright, resolute, reading a text, and the other man dances in circles around him like a puppet. It is a picture of a universe of slaves and masters, or, conversely, the struggle between conscious and unconscious forces.

One of the messages embedded within this movement, I believe, is that we can't run and we can't hide; no matter what we do, in either an inner or outer sense, there is going to have to be a structure. The enneagram teaches us that even at higher levels, cosmological structure is inevitable. Any presumption of consciousness, of Being, in the complete absence of structure is sheer wishful thinking. By extrapolation, even if the nature of a structure is unknown to us at this level, we can still know that it exists.

Structure may be fundamental, but law needs no consciousness to operate, its function is rote and automatic. Consciousness finds itself at the mercy of law if it does not make efforts. but the effort at consciousness must be an inner one, in direct opposition to the action of law, which is an outer condition.

All of this leads me to ask what our relationship to other conditions, to form, and to law it is. Men speak of freedom as though freedom existed outside of this context. I do not believe there is any such freedom. Freedom only exists within the context of both consciousness and law, and it emerges from an understanding of the relationship between the two. One without the other is ultimately worthless.

Taken alone, we already know that no law is ever compassionate. Laws are relentlessly objective, and they are not informed by intelligence. It's generally understood that the exercise of law without intelligence leads to abuse, because law by itself is unable to perceive. Reality, literature, drama, and world mythologies are all filled with situations where awful things took place because the principles of law were applied in the absence of perception.

I think we can agree that equally awful things happen when perception is applied in the absence of law. Intelligence with no law leads to anarchy or chaos. Here, movement is completely random.

Law with no intelligence leads to death by stagnation. Here, there can be no movement. Hence law must inform consciousness, and consciousness must inform law.

The only thing that can balance these two forces, which operate both on the universal scale and within the scale of human society, is an emotional force.

The emotional center of the Dharma, the emotional center of reality, is compassion. You may recall that Mr. Gurdjieff said no real work could ever take place in a man unless the emotional center began to awaken. If we examine his ideas in relationship to other teachings, I believe we begin to see that he was saying the same thing that the Buddhists say and that Jesus Christ said.

A man is nothing if he is without compassion.

It in is the discovery of this force, balanced between the possibilities of intelligence and the requirements of obedience, that something new can emerge in us. We cannot find it, however, unless we are willing to fully submit to the conditions of intelligence and obedience. I believe this is exactly what Master Dogen is getting at when he discusses conduct and observance.

Master Dogen also says, "The opening flowers and falling leaves of the present are just the realization of conduct and observance."

In an esoteric sense, we might conclude that the opening of our inner flowers and the participation of other inner organs ("falling leaves") follow upon both our understanding and practice of intelligence and obedience. Within the effort to understand the struggle between these two forces, we discover compassion.


May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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