When Dogen Gigen Zenji (1200-1253) returned after years in China, he was asked, "What did you learn?"
He said, "Not much, just a little bit of gentle-heartedness."
What is the meaning of this?
The gentle-heartedness Dogen refers to in the opening verse is the aspect of mind apparent with the sloughing off of the rough, hard, resisting egotistic structure which comprises what we perceive of as "self." This mind-structure-stuff, which fosters the delusion of individuality, is the core of the matter for zen Buddhists. For many of us, we appear to exist in a fragmented, confused and violent society offering precious little gentleness. We can sleep contentedly while close by others may sleep in the snow. Here, the notion of individuality arises with several facets: the notion of individual "space" (my cell, my apartment, my house, my street, my neighborhood) and the notion of separated individuality in such concepts as me and you, me and him/her, me and them, us and them, and so on.
Dogen's gentle-heartedness, Dozen's selflessness, serves to dismantle neurotic (delusional) barriers that isolate us through the concepts of I-me-mine, ours and theirs. While Dogen might beat his students mercilessly to bring them to the point of realization, he would not hesitate for an instant to give his last crust of bread to a hungry person. These actions, in the Mahayana tradition, are direct manifestations of gentle heartedness.
Gentle-heartedness is a radical approach that we adopt in dealing with the functioning of our own mind. It is gentle in the sense that we develop an attitude devoid of preconception in perceiving that which presents itself before us. Gentleness means keeping still, not grasping or avoiding. Gentleness means not manipulating, not getting involved, but patiently observing.
We often have a tendency to approach things with a hard, unyielding attitude that expresses our unwillingness to accept things as they are. It is the notion of "Self," or separate individuality, which deludes us into thinking that we must continually try to modify or change things instead of simply accepting them as they are. When the notion of "Self" is abandoned, the heart adopts a gentle and highly flexible approach which offers no resistance. This does not mean that we become insensitive or incapable of functioning to bring about change where it is required. What it means is that we are free to make the choice, deliberately, to act in any given situation. We are no longer forced by habitual momentum to constantly seek change. We now have the ability to consciously choose when, or even whether, to act or react to any given situation.
Whether we choose to recognize it or not, totally irrespective of our feelings, thoughts or emotions, our gentleheartedness is so close as to be almost imperceptible, totally inescapable, totally inseparable. No one can bequeath this gentle-heartedness to another. Much of our time and energy nonetheless is spent absorbed in our failings, our fears, and maintaining psychological boundaries in the form of machismo, aggression, aggrandizement and paranoia.
It seems that here, in the present day, there is no oasis from neurotic trains-of-thought and egoist bombast. Our popular culture promotes neurosis through vehicles such as commercials, sit-coms, popular and perhaps not-so-popular music. Yet, despite these conditions, we are heirs to a culture that is rich in what might be referred to as "heart-centric" concern for each other. Whether we are Christians or Jews, Muslims or Rastafarians, agnostics or atheists, as Americans we all share in this "thread" of gentle-heartedness that manifests through concern for our fellow beings.
The popular trends toward behavior-patterns that seem to glorify pretending stupidity not withstanding, and in spite of our total lack of intelligent, awakened, adult-role-models, we possess a tremendous treasure in our American culture that is neglected in the obsession with our perceived failings. An important par to four job as students of zen in America is to get in touch with our own cultural treasure and, in so doing, get acquainted with our gentle-heartedness. Our recognition of the wealth of value that exists in American culture is vital for the balanced development and maturation of our practice. In recognizing the tremendous value of our culture, we automatically acknowledge our own value, our roots, our heritage. This acknowledgment serves to cut through a tremendous amount of psychological baggage in terms of our practice.
It has become an accepted norm within the incarcerated community to view our country, our culture, as arrogant, brutal, racist and oppressive of minority peoples, those of lesser economic means, those with little education and certainly women-in-general, yet this viewpoint unconsciously both places us in the role of the oppressive Ugly American, or the oppressed victim of the Ugly American. Either way, we become enmeshed in a hostile and oppressive world-view that is self-imposed slavery. But these negative images are not the only qualities that exist in our culture. America has always had a history of citizens engaged in socially-responsible compassionate activity, works of charity, support of the arts and literature and a love of scientific inquiry. Often our sisters and brothers who have chosen the pro-active paths, and brought about positive change in America have gone against the "mainstream" of the popular culture at the time. Practicing compassionate action for the benefit of others may not be the "popular" thing to do, but as Dogen says:
The practice of benefiting others is the total truth,
thus it liberates both self and others, far and wide.
To realize this is to serve friend and enemy equally,
and to see that even grasses and trees, wind and water,
naturally reflect this sacred activity.
- Master Dogen