Freedom in Words – the Art of Copying

One of the conundrums of a practice that points to the truth outside of words is the question of how to engage the formidable amount of words written to convey this mystery. I remember long ago taking my pile of Zen books up to the counter at our local Smith Family Bookstore for purchase, Three Pillars of Zen, Everday Zen, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind (and then some), only to have the cashier look at me quizzically saying, “Um, isn’t that just about, like, being in the moment?” Unable at the time to offer a cogent defense as to why I needed these books to realize something so simple, I sheepishly bought my reads (and over the years many more stacks after that) pouring through each new expression and insight. It was only years later that I began to understand the importance of beyond words through intimacy with words.

When I first came to practice, before my many years of bookstore runs, I had some understanding that my intellectual bent would be a hindrance in Zen, so I decided to read nothing about it from that point onward, and to Readinghave no iconography in my home. I went on a book diet, and simply attended the local Zen sitting group, practicing being “in the moment” as the cashier had implied was the obvious point. It was an excellent way to begin; just absorbing what was being talked about in the group, and listening deeply in a wordless way to the silence of zazen, resisting the impulse to read about what it all meant. Lots of sitting. In the wee hours of the night — vitally awake, a distant train heard clearly. I felt unburdened and intrigued by this discipline. But then one day, I encountered the writings of Zen Master Dogen. When I first heard the melody of his Genjo Koan, I was arrested and instantly drawn in; something inside me perked up and took note, something nameless and yet undeniable. It was then that I realized it was time to move on from that very informative but limited (and dualistic) pursuit of awakening by keeping words at bay. With some practice under my belt, I began to read in earnest.

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening. When you see forms or hear sounds, fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharma intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.
~ Dogen in Genjo Koan

Before I understood a word of what Dogen was saying, I intuitively took up the practice of copying that I was introduced to in a Louts Sutra class instead of trying to figure out his meaning. Because Dogen’s manner of writing is a circular blend of poetry and prose — unfolding classical exchanges between teachers and students through exhaustive inquiry — his language, like no other, invites us to directly experience the indivisibility of the truth while using representations of the truth. It wholly engages body-and-mind. While we can distill many cogent rational arguments from his writing, returning to the originals continually yields new subtler meanings.

The practice of copying evolved for me over the years, leaving the stiff properness of its classical form behind and instead becoming something life-giving and dynamic. The practice of writing these words over and over has become a central part of my teaching and still informs my deeper mind. The act of simply copying words others have written helps slow down our familiar meaning-making mental apparatus, so quick to grab the old associations, and enter into a piece of writing like a landscape or garden in which one takes a refreshing walk. For those inclined to burn through one dharma book after the other, it is very good medicine indeed.

This might beg the question, why do we need to study at all? While it is true, as my cashier pointed out, that all of Zen is aimed at clarifying one single matter, it is one thing to realize this and another to express and manifest it in the world. In our chant The Precious Mirror Samadhi, it says, A baby babbles/Is anything said or not?/In the end it says nothing/For the words are not yet right. A baby expresses our oneness so beautifully, completely in the moment and the environment, but the baby cannot communicate this in all the places and ways that this samadhi can serve to awaken others. A baby cannot yet say to another, I love you. I’m sorry. Here, let me carry that for you. Without this sense of the other as other, we cannot clarify the dharma that harmonizes the one and the many. My teacher taught us that we must learn to express our awakening with all our capacities so that it serves others. Resolving the duality inherent in language is the key.

Because we are beings with the capacity for language, we can learn to practice with its double edged capacity. On one hand, language helps inspire us to turn the mind to what’s most essential, to walk into those places of growth we otherwise avoid and reach beyond our limited maps of self and other. On the other, language also tends to reinforce our sense of separation, creates ideas of linear reality, and can keep us stuck in an endless self-referential loop of conceptual knowledge like a hall of mirrors from which there is no escape. For this illness, like poetry, the practice of copying helps us leap beyond words, through words, neither grasping nor rejecting.

To that end, I’d like to share with you these simple instructions for copying that have evolved for me over time. To begin, choose any piece of classical Zen writing that intrigues you, some of the old Chinese masters or daily liturgy are the best to work with like Master Hongzhi, or the Sandokai or Hokyazanmai. A koan is excellent. (You need not love what you are reading. At a retreat recently, I got a wonderful compliment. After leading a copying exercise, one woman said to me after years of studying Dogen, she “hated him a little less.” We laughed, because I know she has many allies in that dislike and somehow that warmed my heart.)

It’s important to let go of any need for anything particular to happen while copying. Just note your genuine direct experience. Be open. Settle into a comfortable quiet place with paper or journal, a favorite writing implement and take a moment to settle into zazen for a few moments, then simply begin to copy the writing word for word.

As you continue, don’t rush or worry about finishing or how your handwriting looks. Write as if you were writing a letter to a dear friend. If you make a mistake, simply correct it as you go. See if you can taste the words. Like chanting practice, allow the words to flow through your writing without engaging in discursive additions, but shift into a felt sense; that is, notice in the body what it feels like to write these words. Is there tension, warmth, energy movement, lightness? Whatever is there, simply notice and allow that to be. When you notice a particular affinity for a word or phrase, note this by either underlining or putting an asterisk in the margin. Again, let go of getting discursively engaged, but just note what pops out to you.

Whenever you feel the urge, simply pause, put down the pen, and take a few breaths, then return to the writing. If you finish the piece you are writing, start again. You may decide to set a timer to do this for only a period of time, say 15–30 minutes, and let go of producing anything. (For many spiritual traditions, the perfection of copying was an essential goal to carry forward the integrity of the teachings, but this copying is for one’s own digestion. Though you may choose to write and share this with others, producing something is not the point.) End your writing session with a bow to your writing, and return to zazen. Notice the body.

As an optional follow-up exercise, go back to your writing and copy out those words, phrases or sentences that have stood out to you. Then from that, choose the one that has the most energy with it no matter how obscure — favor the heart’s resonance of the mind’s sense of intrigue or preference. Then begin to write about this, pausing and asking in writing from time to time, “What do I mean by [insert a term or phrase]?” and then continue.

And yet, in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
~ Dogen

Blossoms fall. What do I mean by blossoms? Yesterday morning I noticed the plum blossoms evenly scattered on the courtyard stone that stopped me in my tracks on the way to my office. They seemed to just appear — the day before none, then hundreds. I felt the loss of the full bloom ofnthe tree and never really looked. The plum said, You missed it, my friend, where are you rushing to? I had to get to the office. What do I mean by “had to?” …

Copying in this manner is intended, like all Zen forms, to be a full body and mind practice. Copying is good practice for those who find themselves seeking the answers in their reading, and also for those who feel shy with engaging the study of the dharma. It allows us a way of opening up to a deeper knowing we intuitively already have. It invites us to integrate this into the fabric of our karmic lives, in the particulars of what we care for, what we live for. I have watched many people open up to ways the dharma loosens and pries at our stuck places, helping us let go and begin to express the dharma fluidly in our everyday life. I’ve seen some make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to them through the rational mind that seeks to make connections limited by our unconscious assumptions.

Enjoy this practice. Please, feel free to share with me any experiences while trying this copying practice or new variations you’ve added. And to my bodhisattva cashier at Smith Family Bookstore, I reply, “Yes. Exactly! It’s about being in the moment. And how endlessly subtle this is.”

Palm to palm,

Acknowledgements & Notes: Gratitude to Abbess Gyokuko Carlson of DRZC for introducing copying in the Lotus Sutra class many years ago and my friend and colleague, Lay Zen Teacher Joshin O’Hara of the Village Zendo, who gave me the endlessly giving phrase: “What do I mean by …?” For those wishing to take up copying Dogen, the Tanahashi collection, Moon in a Dewdrop, is a good place to start.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *