Monday, March 5, 2012

A blade of grass

Dogen writes, in “The Time Being,” that “... there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice.”

What he means by “practice,” I think, is “enlightenment” or “knowing” or “mindfulness.” Elsewhere he has said that when sitting zazen (that is, when practicing) one is already Buddha. Being present is thus a gate into being itself. I am not a Zen teacher, so I only say what I think he means.

That said, as an anthropologist, I marvel that Dogen also seems here to justify ethnographic, or anthropological, method. Ethnography is always partial, incomplete: we study a few people over time, get to know them, then mine our notes to understand something general about humanity.

There are whiffs of Dogen in Blake and Emerson: a world in a grain of sand. Of course, one can’t find the entire world, in all its detail, the continents and seas, a beggar along the roadside, a king on his steed, in a particular sand grain. That’s not the point.

Ethnographic details, like blades of grass, differ place to place, moment to moment. Yet anthropological insights, for instance the way people negotiate the problematic of separation and attachment, self and other, constitutes a truth about humanity, much the way grass expresses the being of earth.

Dogen’s insight is what emboldens us to think we can know anything in the face of incompleteness and partiality. That said, I suppose Dogen would point out there is nothing partial about the grain of sand, blade of grass, or ethnographic case.

“In essence,” he writes, “all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time-being, they are your time-being.” Though he could not have anticipated the need, Dogen sets out an argument for Zen Anthropology.

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