Not gaining, Not knowing #18 of 21

The last three blogs on the fascicle “Going Beyond Buddha” will be working with this koan from Great Teacher Shitou:

In the assembly of Great Master Shitou Wuji, Zen Master Daowu of Tianhuang temple asked:

Daowu – “What is the essential meaning of the Buddha Dharma?”

Shitou said – ”Not-gaining, not knowing.”

Daowu said, “Going beyond, is there a further pivotal expression?

Daowu responded, “The great sky does not obstruct the drifting of the white clouds.”

Let us begin this discussion with the answer to What is the essential meaning of the Buddha Dharma?  And the answer:

Not gaining, not knowing.

This is a profound and poignant answer to me.  What is the meaning of doing all this study and all the meditation and leaving the world to enter quiet?  The answer is – to learn how to interrupt our natural instinct to gather things around the so-called self.  Our whole psychological life is built on “gaining” things for ourselves.  Now, this is a very hard thing to see, to understand and to break.  Through discriminative thinking and through knowing, our ego learns how to bolster the “self.”

I have always loved Dogen’s phrase from the Genjo Koan:

Loss is enlightenment, Gain is delusion.

This phrase has always turned my thinking around.  In my immature understanding of Buddhism, enlightenment was always something to be achieved and something to add on to my self-righteous ego.  But in this phrase, Dogen is clearly expressing that this additive understanding is incorrect.  When our sense of self is broken by the sorrows of life and by loss, then we have a moment where we could drop off our sense of ego and enter into the dynamics of the present moment without a story line or with deep acceptance of the story line.   We either let go of, or deeply, profoundly accept the circumstances of our life and either way, we are left with the present moment.

There are times in our lives where we are absorbed with the negative aspects of the worldly winds.  The worldly winds are:

Pleasure – pain



Praise- blame

Currently, I am dealing with pain, loss, failure, and blame, the negative side of the chart above. Even after all these years and a title of Roshi that some people call me,  life’s problems, my problems, “the shit has hit the fan.”  My failures and psychological weakness are in my face.  How do you continuously practice with the instinctive attachment to pleasure, gain, success and praise? This attachment to “gaining” is what Dogen is talking about in this phrase.  When the whole world seem to be loss, there is a great teaching right there.  It is a teaching of going beyond your self.

Pema Chodron has often called this loss or failure, a time of ego-insult.  She then adds that ego-insult is a fantastic opportunity for practice.  In the breaking apart of our pride, there lies our opportunity not to hold on to the stories of our self.  We sometimes feel broken like the fan in the Rhinoceros koan. The fan, made from the horn of a rhinoceros, is broken.  The master says,  “Well then, bring me the rhinoceros.”  Bring me the essential energy of this moment which exists without a self or a particular form.  This human pain and loss can force us to open to the moment and to accept what is actually happening.  Through this acceptance, we can let go, and “loss becomes enlightenment.”

Dogen writes:

“We should know that in the Buddha Dharma, the essential meaning is already there.  It is there when we first arouse bodhi-citta and is still there in the ultimate rank of buddhahood.  The essential meaning is not-gaining.”

Again and again, Dogen says enlightenment is not something that we climb up a ladder to get.  It is not something we gain.  It is not developmental or progressive even though there is a karmic story of growth.  The essential meaning of being awake, happens in the moment and permeates everything.  As Katagiri Roshi would say, it is the same essence for a kindergartener or a PHD.  One is not “better” or more “enlightened” then the other.  They are equally imbued with the essence.  Their intellectual knowing does not change the mystery of their being and their inter-connection with the whole universe.  It is not gained by knowing.  It is not that enlightenment or practice-verification does not exist.  But enlightenment IS the letting go of gaining and knowing.