At the end of Genjokoan, Dogen quotes a koan between Master Mayu and one of his students. Mayu was fanning himself when a student approached and asked, “The nature of wind is permanent, and there is no place it does not reach. Why then must you still fan yourself?” “Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,” the master replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.” “What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the student. Mayu just fanned himself. The student bowed with deep respect.
Mayu just fanned himself. Just sit. Just this one thing that is at the heart of this life. Just this turn. Just practice in that spirit. This is a realized teacher speaking. This is a realized teacher expressing the establishment of mindfulness, the irrevocable straightforwardness of remaining on the path, of expressing all that is seen and all that needs to be done. There is the understanding, and there is the practice. Both are necessary. There is the calling and there is the vow. There is the clear intent, the thing within our hearts that guides us, and then there are the details—the microcosm of a gesture, of a word, of a thought, of an encounter or circumstance of practice. The teachings do nothing but remind us of this kind of practice. The forms remind us of it. Dogen repeatedly says, “Just practice one thing completely.” Just sit completely. Just do Mu with every bone, every cell, every neuron, every muscle of your body.
The Buddha had a lot of choices before he turned to the path, many options that would probably have been very fulfilling. He might have been a wonderful family man, clan member or accomplished philosopher. He might have been a world leader, somebody who could have accomplished many social reforms. He was recognized as a great teacher. Yet he didn’t go for any of it. None of that completed that quest. What he chose to pursue seems rather selfish by most social norms—to pursue himself to the very center of his being, the very impossibly narrow path through his own mind, heart, to the center of reality. He chose to pursue what ultimately led him to that place where he could say, “I have seen all that is to be seen. I have done all that is to be done.” Well, if that is the case, he did accomplish his responsibility as a family person, as a monarch, as a philosopher. But he wasn’t going after fame and fortune. He wasn’t after any accomplishment, any solution, anything that was logically fulfilling. He went after something utterly and completely ungraspable.
There’s a rather unusual passage from Marcel Proust’s book, The Search, that describes what happens when we drift away. It’s the passage about his experience with a cookie:
No sooner than the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs, touched my palate, than a shudder ran through me and I stopped. Intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me, an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me—its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory. It was me—I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal; whence could it have come to me all this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake but that, infinitely transcendent of savors, it could not indeed be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize it and apprehend it? I drink a second mouthful in which I found nothing more than the first, then the third which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop. The potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth that I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself.
There is a wonderful book by Jonah Lehrer entitled Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that speaks about this remarkable connection between artists and scientists and the passion with which they pursue their own paths. Virginia Woolf, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Cezanne and others encounter fame and fortune. Then there is a kind of irrevocable and painful drift from the heart of the matter, from that central question. The keel drops off the boat, and things start to drift. “The truth that I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself.” Easy enough to understand, difficult to maintain. “You understand the nature of the wind being permanent. You do not understand the meaning of it reaching everywhere.” The meaning of it reaching everywhere is going straight on all those ninety-three turns.