To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.
Buddhism is the investigation of self. This is not the investigation of one's own psychology primarily, but the investigation of existence. Who am I? What is this? What is my true nature? What is reality? Some forms of Zen or other types of Buddhism focus on questions like this in a concentrated way. This isn't a contemporary Soto Zen practice, yet we are confronted with existence, with the matter of reality, self, and other, at every turn. In zazen we are immersed in it.
From earliest times, Buddhism has taught the principle of Anatta, or 'no-self'. When we look for a self all we can find are various phenomena: the body, sensations, thoughts and so on, but nothing at all can be found that is fixed or continuous or distinct from phenomena. Even our perspective and personality changes. External and internal phenomena are in a state of constant change. Yet we tend to have an unexamined belief in our own distinctness and continuity. The sense of self is linked closely with memory and with the abstraction of reality into conceptual symbols to be used by thought and language. Yet no actual self can be found. We may come up with philosophical arguments as to why this may be so, but in the clear gaze of zazen we recognise this as just more thinking.
This no-self is not really a philosophical conclusion or a belief, but an experience. It is not oblivion or the destruction of the personality. It is seeing that this sense of being separate from the universe is manufactured by activities of the personal mind. This is not the gaining of a new belief but the abandonment of an old one.
When there is no separate self there is no separate other. The whole universe becomes something intimate. We share our being with the whole universe and with every being in it. It is not just our own self that drops away it is the selves of all beings and all things. All selves are manufactured by this mind rather than being intrinsic to the world. Everything and everybody interpenetrates everything else. And this is the case at all times. To see that this being is empty of self is to see that all phenomena are empty of self. And to see that is to be intimate with the impermanent, interdepent nature of all beings and phenomena. This is the mind in a state of freedom, clinging to nothing.
No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
It is easy after such experiences to make the mistake of becoming attached to them, to be constrained by them, to see this awakening as something final or fixed, something to be reproduced later, something distinct from ordinary consciousness. But to do this is to manufacture a self for the experience of self-less-ness. Real liberation doesn't get stuck anywhere, not even in liberation. Nothing leaves a trace because nothing has or is a fixed self. Real liberation moves freely without end.
This passage is a direct expression of Dogen's own initial enlightenment. Some contemporary Soto teachers would deny this and deny the significance of any enlightenment experiences, arguing that Dogen's realisation is nothing more than a description of the practice of shikantaza. This isn't false but it is more than a set of zazen instuctions, it is the description of a breakthough insight which resolved Dogen's 'geat doubt' - the apparent contradiction between original enlightenment and the need to practice - provoking him to offer incense in his master's room.
As Dogen practiced with Master Nyojo, the master said "The practice of zazen is the dropping off of body and mind.". At that moment Dogen had a great realisation. He went to see Master Nyojo and offered incense. The master asked him why he had come and Dogen said "body and mind have dropped off". Nyojo said "Body and mind have been dropped; you have dropped body and mind!". Dogen said "Please don't validate me so quickly.". Nyojo said "I am not validating you too quickly" then Dogen asked "What is not affirmed lightly?" and Nyojo said "Dropping has dropped off".
There are two aspects of awakening that are recognised by both the Rinzai and Soto schools, although they generally have a slightly different emphasis.
Firstly 'no attainment, nothing to attain' emphasises ultimate truth or sameness: Buddha or original enlightenment is something that is already completely manifested and at the same time is totally non-existent. Awakening to 'it' or not awakening to 'it' - both are equally 'it'.
Secondly 'there is realisation and a path to realisation' emphasises the relative truth or difference: this universality of Buddha nature has to be realised. The universality of Buddha nature by itself doesn't save anyone from delusion and suffering. Thus we need to make efforts, we need to practice in order to see our true, original nature and actualise the Way.
Sometimes Dogen talks about one side and sometimes he talks about the other. Being attached to one side or the other is to have a limited view.
Those who chase enlightenment, feeling themselves removed from it, suffer from a delusion of duality or idealism. This is the tendency to see enlightenment as a remote state of perfection far removed from our current imperfection and suffering. We conceptualise enlightenment as something outside of this moment, outside of ourselves. This is a common understanding of people who have not seen their own nature. Often those who have some preliminary glimpse of their true nature will cling to the glimpse as if enlightenment was restricted to it. This is the dualistic view of samsara and nirvana.
The other limited view is sameness or nihilism - sometimes referred to as 'emptiness sickness'. Many Prajnaparamita, Madhyamika and Zen texts talk of 'no attainment, nothing to attain', 'ordinary mind is buddha' or 'practice and attainment are one'. The Soto school in particular tends to emphasise this. Yet this is often understood only superficially as a denial of enlightenment, or the significance of insight. Some teachers even teach zazen as a purely postural, physical activity that only relaxes or balances the mind and treat insight experiences with contempt. Others talk of enlightenment as if it was only a realisation that there is nothing to realise. But this would be nothing more than a freedom from the idea of enlightenment and a resignment to one's current condition. If this was all there is to actualising enlightenment then a blind and deaf man who has never heard of the dharma is as liberated as a fully-actualised buddha. If we see no need to make effort or to have insight into the true nature of ourselves and things, then we are doomed to skate around on the surface with a superficial or merely intellectual understanding of 'nothing to attain'.
Sometimes this 'Body and mind have dropped off' is understood as an instruction or description of ordinary zazen, as letting go of thoughts and attachments. But it goes deeper than that. The body and mind dropping off is the dropping off of self and the selves of all beings. Dogen's physical self and mental self were revealed to be empty, non-separate from the being of the whole world. This was the moment when Dogen deeply 'forgot his self and was actualized by myriad things' and deeply realised 'suchness'.
Dogen did not get caught up in conceptualising and clinging to his experience. He did not manufacture a self for his enlightenment, or a dualism of enlightenment/not-enlightenment in other words. He did not carry it. His enlightenment left no trace. It left no trace of itself because Dogen did not manufacture a self for it. Master Nyojo recognised this and said that 'dropping has dropped off'. This no-trace continued endlessly. The realisation that there are no separate things did not get made into a false thing which was separate from other things.
Master Joshu had a lesson about this.
A monk once asked Joshu “If I have nothing in my mind, what should I do?”
“Throw it out.” Replied Joshu.
“But if there is nothing in my mind how can I throw it out?”
“Then,” said Joshu, “you will have to carry it out.”
When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.
An ordinary person who has not glimpsed their own Buddha nature, has a concept of enlightenment as something that is completely removed from their life, something entirely external. It is imagined that a great transformation would have to occur or that something would have to be added for enlightenment to be realised in their life. The enlightenment of all the Buddhas and Patriarchs has been the realisation of something utterly immediate, that which was always intimately present is suddenly or gradually seen clearly as Buddha nature. It is one's own immediate and intimate nature, one's true identity, right under one's nose at all times which is clearly seen as original enlightenment.
The line "At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self." shows the absolute and relative sides simultaneously. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted is the relative side (difference) revealing the necessity of actualisation, attainment, insight, transmission - the path of practice in other words....you are immediately your original self is the absolute side (non-difference) revealing that simultaneously with the need for practice and attainment is the reality that realisation is always fully manifested. Non-attainment is something that needs to be attained (and abandoned). True insight is seeing both sides simultanteously without contradiction.