"This mountain monk has not passed through many monasteries. Somehow, I just met my late teacher Tiantong. However, I was not deceived by Tiantong. But Tiantong was deceived by this mountain monk. Recently, I returned to my homeland with empty hands. And so this mountain monk has no Buddha Dharma. Trusting fate, I just spend my time. Morning after morning, the sun rises in the east. Evening after evening, the sun sets in the west. The clouds disperse and mountain valleys are still. After the rain, the mountains in the four directions are close. Every four years is a leap year. A rooster crows toward sunrise."
- Eihei Dogen, Dharma Hall discourse No. 48 from The Eihei Koroku, Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, translators
For years, the meaning of this famous passage from The Eihei Koroku eluded me. I understood the second half well enough, Dogen's poetic description of the time passing by in the world around him, but I did not understand the portion about deception. How, and why, would he deceive his teacher, and why does he sound almost relieved that his teacher hadn't been deceiving him?
I asked this question of my Zen teacher several times, in private dokusan and during public mondo, but never got a satisfactory answer, usually just something along the lines of "Dogen is just being modest." When have we known Dogen to be modest outside of this one passage? I even asked the America teacher of Korean Zen Dae Gok about it during a mondo, and while we had a very interesting and informative exchange, it still didn't answer my question (although it did answer other ones).
Not that this was some sort of obsession, mind you. I wasn't tossing and turning at night wondering what was this "deception" they spoke of, nor was I banging my fists against my knees during zazen trying to solve this self-imposed koan. But it did bother me that I couldn't understand it and that no one could explain it to me.
Well, I had a breakthrough today, and an understanding (if not "the understanding") came to me. I was reading the Denkoroku, the record of the transmission of the dharma from the Buddha down to Ejo, Dogen's student, when I came across this account of Dogen's awakening in China:
Dogen trained under Tiantong Rujing. Once, during the late night meditation, Tiantong told the assembly, "To practice mediation is indeed to drop off body and mind." Upon hearing this, Dogen suddenly had a great awakening to his true self. He arose immediately, went to the abbot's quarters and offered incense.Tiantong asked him, "Why are you making an incense offering?"Dogen replied, "Body and mind have dropped off."Tiantong said, "Body and mind have dropped off the dropping off of body and mind."Dogen said, "This is a transitory ability; Reverend Monk, pray do not give me your seal arbitrarily."Tiantong said, "I am not giving you my seal arbitrarily."Dogen said, "What is that which does not give the seal arbitrarily?"Taintong replied, "That which drops off mind and body."Dogen bowed in respect.Tiantong said, "The dropping off has dropped off."
Dogen once said that to truly practice mediation you must truly abandon your attachments to body and get free of your attachments to mind. At Tiantong's words, Dogen was released from these attachments and made a ritual offering of incense to commemorate the occasion. When asked what he was doing, Dogen replied "Body and mind have dropped off."
Tiantong confirms this saying, "Body and mind have dropped off 'the dropping off of body and mind'." The "dropping off of body and mind" can be just another concept, another mental formation (samskara). Full awakening is in the dropping off of even the concept of "dropping off of body and mind." Tiantong is showing him the truth; he is not deceiving his student.
"This is a transitory ability; Reverend Monk, pray do not give me your seal arbitrarily." Perhaps there was a trace of humility in Dogen after all. My teacher did not deceive me.
Dogen and Tiantong then acknowledge their common, empty Buddha Nature. Dogen asks Tiantong, "What is that which does not give the seal arbitrarily?," to which Taintong replies, "That which drops off mind and body." Dogen bows in respect, and Tiantong assures him, "The 'dropping off' has dropped off."
Prior to this exchange, Dogen was still clinging to attachments to body and mind, and clouded in his delusion, was not showing his true nature to his teacher. He was deceiving the teacher. But at the end of their exchange, both were revealed, nothing was hidden, and the teacher was not deceiving his student.