Master Dogen described sitting-zen as not zen to be learned but rather ANRAKU NO HOMON.
In the Nishijima-Cross translation of 1994, this phrase is translated as "the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma."
The purpose of this post is not to say that the former translation was necessarily wrong. AN means peace, ease, comfort. RAKU means joy, comfort, ease. HO means Dharma. MON means gate. So, as a literal translation, there is nothing seriously wrong with "the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma."
But if true sitting-zen is a peaceful and joyful Dharma-gate, what then is this practice of mine, which is often not peaceful and joyful, but filled with immature reaction to noise, and other kinds of suffering and complaining?
A few weeks ago a person who had never met me face to face asked me on the phone, with an open mind, simply out of a desire to know, "Are you at peace with yourself?" It was a very good question.
For the past week I have been alone in France, following a routine including four sittings a day adding up to five hours (60+40) + (40+40) + (40+40) + 40. In between I do chores, and write stuff like this, and prepare and eat food, and take naps, and walk up and down admiring the trees. But the main task I set myself, selfish or obsessive-compulsive though it may sound, is to get in those four sessions of sitting-zen adding up to five hours.
So is all this sitting adorned with plentiful peace and joy?
Sometimes it is. But in general, no it is not -- not overtly, anyway, and especially not in weather as cold as it has been for the past few days.
The Buddha preached the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This law not only explains phenomena like frigid hands and chapped lips; it also explains the loss by which human life is invariably accompanied, bringing in its wake grief and suffering. Is there a mustard seed anywhere that testifies to the contrary? No, there is not.
When we suffer loss, we grieve. The bereavement does not have to be the death of a beloved person or the loss of a treasured object -- it can be the loss of another's trust or the loss of our own dream.
On what basis, then, other than the dictionary, am I, a being who frequently sits suffering in hell, to translate into English ANRAKU NO HOMON?
Only on the basis that the six samsaric realms are just the one bright pearl.
On this basis, I think that ANRAKU might be better translated as "ease" -- on the basis that, when we are sitting in hell, bereft of the peace and joy that can exist in the realms of human beings and gods, when we affirm our seat in hell and do not bother trying to make ourselves peaceful and joyful, just in that not bothering there is ease to be had.
A fellow devotee of sitting-zen asked me yesterday to express a view on compassion -- does compassion precede body and mind dropping off, or vice versa?
My response is this: Master Dogen nowhere writes that our job to have a view on compassion. He writes that our job is to devote ourselves to bodily sitting in lotus, mentally sitting in lotus, and body-and-mind-dropping-off sitting in lotus.
When we are able truly to entrust ourselves to this process of growth through sitting, even if this entrustment takes us in recurring cycles to hell and back, even if our practice becomes temporarily devoid of peace and joy, even then there is ease to be had, just in the act of entrustment itself.