In some of the early Buddhist sutras, and in many religious traditions, the body is presented as an obstacle to spiritual practice. We have bodily sensations that then give rise to desires. We see something nice, and we want more of it, and that’s where we can get into trouble. And so from the perspective of asceticism, the solution is to deny the body, deny your desires, starve the senses. The body can then become the enemy, which just reaffirms the illusion of the body as self. In the Shobogenzo Dogen has a fascicle entitled Shinjin-gakudo (“Body and Mind Study of the Way”) in which he said, “To study the Way with the body means to study the Way with your own body.” Who else’s would you use? “It is the study of the way using this lump of red flesh.” The difference here is that in Zen we use the body to see through the body. Desire is not the problem; the senses are not the problem; the object that we perceive is not the problem. The source of the problem is our attachments, our way of experiencing our bodies and desires. The true body comes forth through the study of the Way, through the study of the self by forgetting the self. Through forgetting the body, the real body appears. In other words, we experience it for the first time as it truly is. All our ideas—good, bad, old or young—drop away and there is “the miracle of aliveness.”

Dogen says, “Everything which comes forth from the study of the Way is nothing but the true human body. The entire world of the ten directions is nothing but the true human body. The coming and going of birth and death is the true human body.” Clearly he is not talking about just this physical form, nor is he negating it. “To turn this body around, to abandon the ten unwholesome actions, keeping the eight precepts, taking refuge in the three treasures, and leaving home and entering the homeless life is the true study of the Way. For this reason, it is called the true human body.”


Jane Cleary


In this koan, the student wants to know which of the three bodies of an enlightened being are not fixed, are free of all categories. Dongshan says, “I am always close to this.” How close? How close do you have to be to go beyond any category? A hair’s breadth of distance is like a thousand miles. As long as you can see that to which you’re moving closer, there are still categories and distinctions. We are still in the realm of the discriminating mind which arises when a single thought appears. In true intimacy there is no distance. “I am always close to this.” Does this mean Dongshan never has a single thought arise? To be free of conditioned existence is to be liberated unconditionally. It is not dependent on a certain state of mind. The presence or absence of thought cannot create or eliminate delusion; if so, then our liberation is dependent upon that particular state of mind. This is why it’s said, “When one thought is enlightened, all subsequent thoughts are enlightened.” Thus Dongshan says, “I am always close to this.” This intimacy, this true human form, this body of the Buddha is always present.

Dongshan doesn’t explain “not falling into any category,” he doesn’t talk about intimacy. This would be to move away from it. In the pointer, reference is made to different masters who “didn’t turn away from Dongshan,” that is, also used skillful means to help their students directly experience this intimate truth. Caoshan was a disciple of Dongshan. After Dongshan’s death a student asked Caoshan, “What is the meaning of the late master’s saying, ‘I am always close to this?’” Caoshan said, “If you want my head, cut if off and take it.” If you want to realize the mind of the Master, you must see it for yourself. Shishuang was a contemporary of Dongshan. A student asked Shishuang about the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West. Shishuang gnashed his teeth. He did not explain the truth of Zen, but embodied its subtle truth. Jiufeng was Shishuang’s disciple. A student asked Jiufeng about Shishuang’s response and Jiufeng said, “I’d rather bite off my tongue than violate the nation’s taboo.” What is the taboo? To speak intellectually about the truth is to move away from it, to fall into categories of this and not this. Jiufeng would rather lose his tongue than create such illusions.

Zazen is the practice of closeness, of that true intimacy with body and mind. It begins with being stuck on your cushion. Once the bell rings you don’t move, you’re contained. Zazen is skillfully holding you so you can’t go anywhere, can’t go looking somewhere else for relief. Sometimes what feels like closeness gets so claustrophobic that we want to leap out of our skin. Yet, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nothing to avoid, no distractions from our distractions. All our nervous habits, all the ways in which we express not being close begin to be revealed. It can be very painful and yet it’s the only way to return home. An old Chan master wrote a poem about this case:

This closeness is heart-rending if you search outside;
Why does ultimate familiarity seem like enmity?
From beginning to end, the whole face has no color or shape,
Still your head is asked for by Caoshan.