What follows is an extract from Ross Bolleter's book Dongshan's Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment to be published by Wisdom Publications, Boston, in April 2014.

Service is the second of Dongshan's stages of the enlightened Way.

For whom have you washed off your splendid makeup?
The cuckoo's call urges you to return.
The hundred flowers have fallen, yet the call is unending,
moving deeper and still deeper into jumbled peaks.

I asked an old friend of mine who doesn’t practice Zen formally, “What should I do when I feel depressed?”

“Do something for someone else,” was his reply.

We find relief from self-preoccupation when we make efforts on behalf of others. With luck, the other person will have been helped and given a lift too. When a student asked Soen Nakagawa, “What can I do when I feel discouraged?” he famously responded, “Encourage others!” His words are a timeless spring of service and commitment, and are an inspiration for this chapter.

In Latin, attendare, from which the English word “attention” is derived, means “to lean towards,” or “to serve.” We serve others when we open an attentive silence in which they can express their joy and suffering. In order to accomplish this we need to let go of rehearsing our eager story as they tell theirs. Whatever else enlightened activity is, it surely includes this. One of the finest acknowledgments one human can give another is to say of them, “He was there for me,” or “She was there for me.” Idealistic and self-congratulatory notions of service disappear in such moments—we simply help the child with their homework, or push the neighbor’s car when its battery is dead. Enlightenment is as enlightenment does.

For a ninth century Chan monk or nun, service was unquestioningly vested in fulfilling one’s obligations to the Buddha and to one’s teacher. In order to be undivided in his commitment to the Buddha Way, and to secure a favorable rebirth, Dongshan would have taken up some two hundred and fifty precepts, and committed himself to a life of unremitting meditation. Such a lifestyle was much more rigorous than anything we could, or probably would, undertake as lay people.

In the light of the towering past, modern lay Zen practice can look like a long shot. If we do commit to practice as laypeople, chances are that for most of us it will be within the context of family, relationships, and work, where it takes ingenuity to carve out time to meditate. However it’s often more possible than we allow ourselves to imagine. If we can be open to opportunities as they present themselves, we will find that gaps appear in even the busiest schedule.

A story circulates within Hasidic Jewish communities of a man who, caught up in the pressure of the day’s business, suddenly realized that he would be unable to make it to the synagogue for his daily worship. During a brief moment of quiet between tasks, he prayed a hurried prayer of contrition, and then hastened to his next appointment. It is said that God blessed him threefold. I don’t know about the triple blessing, but momentarily returning to my breath refreshes a torrid hour in the recording studio.
It is difficult to sustain zazen in a life that is too ramified, with too many counter pulls. I wrote “ramified,” but when I read it back it looked like “rarefied”—and truly, a life that is too simplified and pure can also be problematic. The practice of zazen thrives in busy lives, where it creates its own joy, and feeds commitment. Regarding these two poles, the solitary and the bustling life: sitting alone makes us strong; sitting with others opens us up. It’s good to do a lot of both.

Taking up the Bodhisattva Precepts, which comprise: the Three Vows of Refuge (taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), the Three Pure Precepts (renouncing evil, practicing good, and liberating manifold beings), and the Ten Grave Precepts (not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sex, not to speak falsely, not to give or take drugs, not to discuss the faults of others, not to praise oneself while abusing others, not to spare the dharma assets, not to indulge in anger, and not to defame the Three Treasures) is an expression of our commitment to the Way, and should help us to reduce the harm we do to others and ourselves.

We come to know ourselves through the challenge of trying to keep the precepts, because they make us more conscious of our motives, and help us to know our own hearts. Regardless of our commitment to keep the precepts, we can still hurt others and cause harm. We aren’t proof against that. To live is to hurt and to be hurt, and making apology, forgiving, and being forgiven remain at the core of our relationships with others.

As regards that core, it is important that we know our own hearts. Our loves and our fears are also our true nature in its unfolding. We serve the essential when we allow the presence of those feelings. Otherwise we run the risk of divorcing what we mistakenly take to be the purity of the essential from the messiness of our lives.

In Dongshan’s verse the voice of the cuckoo calls us into greater depth, and we enter the jumbled peaks of passion and suffering to find that they too are expressions of awakened mind and heart

For whom have you washed off your splendid makeup?

The reference to removing makeup conjures the image of a woman, well versed in the ways of the world, who decides to wash off her makeup and commit to the one she loves. This is Dongshan’s image for renouncing worldliness to commit to the Buddha Way. Most of us are not in a position to renounce our worldliness, so to bring the verse into closer accord with contemporary lay experience, I will reframe Dongshan’s question as Robert Aitken does: “For whom do you bathe and make yourself presentable?” 1

This is a koan of daily custom. In it, the “for whom”—or more aptly the “who”—disappears into the fact of our showering, of our drying our hair, and of our dabbing on deodorant. There is nothing ulterior here, nothing hidden. Our being born is like this. Our dying too. This long day here—the sun that rises, the cat that glides through the long grass, the figure that stands at the sink making coffee, the dark purple, almost indigo, morning glories twined on the fence opposite—is clearly that, and clean as a whistle. All ages and limitless space disappear into the least of these.

The cuckoo's call urges you to return.

Here in Australia it is the crow’s “caaaark!” that calls me home, and which surely is home. “To return” is the integrity of practice, and we do this undeterred by any awakening experience we may have had. In this spirit, Yamada Koun, after his great awakening, practiced every day for the rest of his life with what some might regard as a beginner’s koan: “Who is hearing that sound?”

The wind on our faces—our ever-faithful breath—calls to us, as us. As we move into accord with this, our half-lives become a life. With repeated returning, over time, the genuine person emerges. We emerge in our true colors.

The hundred flowers have fallen, yet the call is unending,
moving deeper and still deeper into jumbled peaks.

Even though our delusions fall away, still the call continues to draw us in to greater depth. Our heart yearns for its release, and that too is the call. The heart’s yearning is its release. With the confidence that comes from our surrender to the softest of invitations—a long ringing bell, a flickering star—we embark on a journey into the jumbled peaks of our suffering, and of the suffering world.

Regarding our suffering, and our journey with it, it is important to get to know our propensities and our demons, and to learn to work with them. This process usually entails fear: of the journey itself, and of what we might discover. When I touch on the topic of fear when giving a Dharma talk, I feel the atmosphere in the zendo change, and I have the sense that everyone’s on board for this bit. Fear seems so fundamental to how many of us feel much of the time.

We are often more afraid of life than death. This isn’t reasoned or even reasonable. We fear shame, in particular. And shame surely can feel like a death. My mother used to say, “I could have died!” or “I felt as big as sixpence!”2 Contrariwise, we often need signs of respect from others in order to behave tolerably towards ourselves, even to feel that we are alive in a way that’s worth the living.

When we learn to acknowledge our fear, we also learn a lot about the sources of our aggression, manifested both as lashing out, and as being uncooperative. We see how painful it is when we allow fear to shape our lives, as when we constantly contort ourselves trying to avoid others. If we could see the tracks of our avoidance from above, what a confusing maze of scuffmarks that would be!
By attending to our fear, and anger, over time we are changed. This is not least because with attention to our fear and anger we are more in touch with our sorrow and vulnerability. We can then connect with the world from a much more settled, open place. When we speak, our words have much more heart and body in them, and our compassion feels less entangled with our co-dependent need to please others.

Even a moment free from attachment to our isolated self can release helpful energies and abundant love that many can share in, without quite knowing what draws and holds them. Groups form and benefit from this. Over time, as we settle into such communities, our less appealing traits get unerringly reflected back to us (our more appealing traits having mostly shown up earlier). For this reason, being in community can be rough. As Subhana Barzaghi, a fellow teacher, says, “It’s in the communal vegetable garden that words are said, and tears are shed.”

When we begin to cultivate the Way we’re often naïve, and blind sighted to our heart’s darkness, which is perhaps just as well. Later, when we encounter our own ill-will and cruelty, and that of others, we may feel daunted. But in a maturing community such experiences are part and parcel of our journey together. The old master Wumen Huikai wrote:

If you want to support the gate and sustain the house,
you must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.3

Huikai is saying that if we wish to teach and to cultivate a practice community, we must bear the difficulties involved. Dealing with the trickiness of Sangha relations, as well as with our own deviousness and self-deception can be confronting. The first four letters of Sangha are sang, the French word for blood. The ties that connect us in Sangha are blood ties: the shared pain and joy of a second, third, or fourth go at family.

As we learn to open and allow more of the world in, we hear the sorrow that lies beneath the anger in the voice that criticizes us. We feel our own shame, nearly to the point of incapacitation, in that moment. We begin to open to truths embedded in our interactions with others, and slowly come to see our own part in the conflict.

We lean in, we serve, by giving our awareness to each painful situation. We allow whatever is there to be there. Every subtle movement of feeling is just what it is. This is the voice that calls us home. This is home. No one asks us to do this work, and for the most part we didn’t come to the Way for it. But we do it nonetheless, cultivating a path of opening to, and seeing into our karmic inheritance, as we struggle to come to terms with what is most obdurate in us.
When we take this on, we undertake to practice with devotion to the end of our lives. This means accepting disappointment without giving up, and enduring in the face of discouragement. All of this requires courage, understood here as that quality that carries us beyond petty resistance and self-pity. Having made the commitment, it’s good to keep going. There’s still so much (who knows how much?) to be discovered. It’s as though we’ve found our way into a dark cave. We grope our way forward. We glimpse a stalactite, and see what looks like water glimmering in the dark. Is it a lake? How far back does it go?

By undertaking service to the essential, we learn to distinguish stream from lake, stalactite from stalagmite, and we begin to emerge from the shadows. Even with our ordinary activity—bathing, cleaning our teeth, squinting in the steamy mirror to comb our hair—we make the subterranean caverns eloquent, no less than the night of turning stars.

Ross Bolleter

1. Aitken, Robert, The Morning Star: New and Selected Zen Writings, (Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington, D.C., 2003),139.
2. In nineteenth century England a “sixpence” was the smallest coin minted. The saying “I felt as small as sixpence” indicates a diminution, even unto death—as when we say “I could have died of shame.”
3. Aitken, Robert, The Gateless Barrier: Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan). Translated with commentary by Robert Aitken. (New York: North Point Press, 1991), 114