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In “Mitsugo,” Dogen says this about words and actions:

If we think the Buddha’s teachings with words is superficial, then holding up a flower and blinking the eyes is also superficial. If we think that Shakyamuni’s words only contain letters and forms, then we are not students of the Tathagata’s dharma. Those who think that words are just names and forms do not know that Shakyamuni’s words are not bound by letters and forms. Those people are not liberated from the body and mind of ordinary people. The buddhas and ancestors who have totally cast off body and mind use words to proclaim the dharma and turn the wheel of the law, and many benefit from seeing and hearing it. Those who have faith and follow the dharma will be influenced by both the spoken and the wordless teachings of the Buddha.

Words, no words—this is not about the flower or the Four Noble Truths—it is always about us and our capacity to awaken. This is about abandoning our postures of knowing what the truth is by our limited way of being in the world, by our defining, our trying to find a place to rest. It is about understanding that there is something utterly unique about that flower, something that surpasses the possibility of a dharma word. It is about giving up into practice, into the mystery of each detail, as Dogen is encouraging us to do, and coming back, over and over again. It is only in that detail, and in seeing the possibility of studying it, that we come to recognize who we are. And at that moment, we are able to enter the mystery. This is about coming back hundreds of thousands of times—that is what Mahayakashapa did, that is what Kodanya did. Those are lives of practice.

Ripeness is in practice. Practice is insight, taking the breath for the millionth time until we know what it is, until it is completely mysterious and completely transparent—until it is completely each of us. That’s when we see the flower


Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei is abbot and director of operations of Zen Mountain Monastery. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 2009.

The Gateless Gate or Wumenkuan is a collection of forty-eight koans compiled in the early thirteenth century.