An often overlooked but powerful teaching of Soto Zen is that of Ho-i (法位): All things, beings and moments are always each in their own “dharma position”. Or, every phenomenon of reality always remains in its place and time, where it fully embodies its own perfection and the wholeness of all.
While each thing or event exercises perfectly as itself, it also perfectly embodies all of reality and perfectly contains all other things, beings and moments as well. In other words, any single dharma position is the whole universe, omitting nothing. Think of it as the universe containing all the atoms and time containing all the seconds, while each little atom physically contains the entire universe and each second contains all of time. Thus, every thing, person or moment, whether big or small, is limitless and without measure.
This teaching of Ho-i is not the origin of Master Dogen, but stems from the Tendai teachings in which he first trained – a Japanese school based on the Lotus Sutra, which he has always cherished and which finds an echo in the Hua-yen and many Mahayana and Zen teachings. To understand Ho-i is to say that the universe becomes known as a puzzle of magnificent scale and size, with every piece in its rightful place, not a missing piece in the whole. Nevertheless, some of these coins show images of beauty and some images of disgust. It’s like seeing the world as a dynamic improvisational theater, with trillions of actors each speaking their lines and moving, some performing comedy and some tragedy, some in romance scenes and some in violence, with each actor playing a role and standing in an appropriate place.
It is not an intellectual parlor idea, but it is tasted and deeply experienced when we practice zazen, seated in faith and the conviction that there is no other thing to do, no other place to go, nothing is missing, and everything is entirely contained in and fulfilled by zazen during the time of sitting. A sitting moment is limitless and without measure when we abandon all objectives and consider, in our hearts, that each moment of zazen is whole and complete, without end, without beginning or anything outside it. Sitting zazen is an act in its own dharma position, complete and whole in itself. Zazen embodies all of space and time – the totality of reality – and is also timeless.
A practical medicine
Ho-i may seem abstract to some, but it is the most practical medicine to invoke insight and release from one’s experience of the world.
Most human beings experience samsara, this ordinary world, as beautiful but as difficult and painful. Because life disappoints, denies what we wish, terrifies us with its threats and saddens us with its dramas, we suffer or live dukkha. As the ultimate remedy for the sufferings of life, Zen and Mahayana Buddhism offers the realization of empty, by which all things and all separate moments are emptied of their own existence. You and I, this and that, gain and loss, friend or foe, and even birth and death are swept away in the fluid wholeness of all reality. The tensions and conflicts, the ups and downs of this world reveal themselves as a dreamlike theatre. You can’t fight wars when there aren’t two sides to fight them. Nothing can be missed or gained in a whole and measureless universe.
In zazen, one can feel the abandonment of all these separations, conflicts and measures as the abandonment of the borders of oneself and others, of the past, the present or the future. In turn, tension, sadness, fear and pain also disappear. There is nothing else to fear, fight or lose, and nothing separates us to fear, fight or lose.
However, Ho-i is not an invitation to complacency or an excuse to let the ugly and the violent be as they are. The Buddhist teachings and Master Dogen call us together to change the ugly and the violent. While the good and the bad are each in their particular dharma positions, our power as human beings is to create good where we can.
We sentient beings have the power to paint our life pictures, play our scenes and plant our seeds to create the cruel or the gentle, the wholesome or the harmful. Although an individual may be limited in their power to change far beyond their small lifetime, if we work together, sentient beings coming together in great numbers, we could one day make this planet a beautiful and harmonious stage – a beautiful story and a rich garden.
While the good and the bad are each in their particular dharma positions, our power as human beings is to create good where we can.
Understanding Ho-i can also be helpful in one’s personal life. For example, sick times are just that – sick times, resting in their dharma position. Bow down to these moments, honor them, knowing they are perfect just the way they are, but also take your medicine and try to get better! Learn to approach all of life’s ups and downs, and serious worldly problems, the same way: bow to everyone, bow to what can’t be changed, and fix what might. ‘be.
Master Dogen wrote the following about life turning into death, the ultimate human problem, but it can apply just as well to times of sickness or health, or other ups and downs. He said that although time passes, each is its own moment of full time:
Birth is a complete situation right now. Death is a complete situation right now. These are the same as winter and spring. We are not saying that winter becomes spring, nor that spring becomes summer. (Genjokoan)
Just understand that only life and death themselves are nirvana, there is nothing to avoid as life and death, and nothing to seek and aspire to as nirvana. Then, for the first time realizing this, you are free from life and death. It is a mistake to think that we pass from birth to death. Birth is a state of a time with its own past and future. For this reason, in the teachings of the Buddha it is said that life is not life, birth itself is not born. Death is also a state of time with its own past and future. This is why it is said that death is not death. Thus, in the time that is called life, there is only life. In the time called death, there is only death. So when life comes, there is only life, and when death comes, death is actualized. So don’t fight them, don’t serve them, nor do you need to wish for them. (Shobogenzo Shoji)
Hand in hand, let’s do our best to create as healthy and nourishing a life and a world as possible, even as we accept and honor all outcomes as their own dharma position.