Saving Energy is Gaining Energy: More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì

Saving Energy is Gaining Energy: More On The Keyword Instruction Of Dàhuì May 7, 2020

Fern bed in the Timeless Peace Contemplative Garden at Nebraska Zen Center, Shinkoji.

Awakening is lot about energy.

Slump and sniff in zazen and daily life and that’s what you get. Burn like a Buddha in flames and that’s what you are.

“This energy,” wrote my old teacher Katagiri Rōshi, “appears in every aspect of human life; gassho, a cushion, a cup. Within each single form of being we can see this total dynamic life. This is seeing something with our whole body and mind. At that time we become one with our object and this is illuminating. So Avalokiteshvara practiced deeply, by seeing and illuminating.” (1)

Energy (aka, enthusiasm or virya) is one of the six paramitas, practices for crossing over the flood. But how can we cultivate the energy paramita deeply, so as to awaken like Avalokiteshvara, seeing and illuminating?

In this post, the sixth of ten on the teaching of Dàhuì, I’ll explore just that.

First, the usual series introduction and disclaimer:

In the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjuétranslators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe offer nine themes, motifs, that emerge in the letters about how to do keyword practice (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō). I’ve been sharing them on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training for students working with keywords (e.g., mu), and I’ll also be sharing them here for others who might be interested. Close study of an ancient text can help both students and teachers notice details of the method and refresh their practice spirit. If you are working with a keyword with another teacher, consult with them, of course, and rely on their guidance.

Theme 5: Saving on the expenditure of diligent practice energy is gaining [awakening] energy

Broughton and Watanabe write:

The expression “saving energy” is central to the praxis program of Letters of Dàhuì. Dàhuì is quite fond of the slogan “saving on the expenditure of energy is gaining energy, and gaining energy is saving on the expenditure of energy.

Mujaku’s commentary on Letters of Dàhuì makes the point that the word energy (li 力) refers to two different things—“saving energy” refers to diligent practice energy and “gaining energy” refers to awakening energy. Furthermore, according to Mujaku, there are two types of saving on the expenditure of energy. The first pertains to beginners: by abandoning efforts to understand the Way via intellectual understanding—which is a useless waste of energy—one can save that energy for use in the “reverse-illumination” of one’s own mind.

Mùxī’s “Six Persimmons”

The second pertains to seasoned practitioners: as with the ripening of a persimmon, as the ripened area increases (= gaining awakening energy), its unripened area decreases (= saving on the expenditure of diligent practice energy). Spontaneously, the expenditure of diligent practice energy diminishes. (2)


1. In the Letters, Dàhuì generously addresses both beginners and more seasoned practitioners. What brings everybody to the path in this moment is the awareness of impermanence. And the opportunity to resolve the great matter of birth-death, not only for oneself, but for the awakening of all living beings. And although this energy can get us going, or return us to the Way, it is easily dissipated through distraction. Methods for cultivating this nascent energy are, therefore, great treasures.

2. For beginners, it is helpful to know that if you save energy by not doing unskillful actions and instead follow the precepts, there will be more energy available for diligent practice. Perhaps that’s obvious. It becomes even more obvious during sesshin. The more we quiet down, the more energy is saved and can be directed to our keyword. Energy is also saved when we sit upright and in a balanced manner with our center of gravity delicately balanced at the tanden (about 2 inches below the navel and 2 inches inside). Energy is also saved when we allow the breath to flow freely and uncontrived through the diaphragm. Energy that is saved can then be directed to what is translated above as “reverse-illumination,” or more commonly, “turning the light around.”

Turning the light around is a practice common to all of Zen; perhaps the expression began with Shítóu Xīqiān (700-790), a great ancestor in the Cáodòng lineage. Dōgen also taught, “Learn the backward step, turning the light around to illuminate.” (3) 

Turning the light around saves energy that is otherwise dissipated through distraction and simultaneously generates energy, or perhaps just uncovers the energy that is always available. 

3. One of the enormously valuable aspects of traditional Sōtō practice is a highly refined embodied liturgy, best learned from following the body  of someone settled in this Way (a well-trained teacher or guide). Notably, Dàhuì makes few references to chanting as a vehicle for saving or generating energy. Nevertheless, the spirit of innovation has continued in the Zen way and now liturgy practice is a vital aspect of energy work in Sōtō Zen. Generally speaking, Sōtō liturgy is a physical expression of the human heart. Many of the elements of Sōtō liturgy open the heart, and humbly beg for illumination, so as to be a light in the world to benefit living beings.

Zen is usually regarded as a “self-power” approach, but in contemporary practice, “other power,” too, is used as a driver for awakening and benefiting beings. This is particularly palpable in bowing, reciting “Formless Atonement,” “Shosaimyo Kijicho Dharani,” and “The Universal Gateway of Avolokiteshvara.” (4) Thus, one common dedication (ekō,囘向, “returning the merit”) begins like this: “We humbly beg your illumination and sympathetic response.”

4. It is especially important in householder practice, without the benefit of direct in-person support of others, to practice mindfulness of what brings energy for diligent practice and what depletes energy. It may not be what you think, so, yes – investigate! Does ranting on about your pet peeve generate or deplete energy for your keyword? This mindfulness practice is one of my most frequently used tools to help students find energy for keyword practice. It is based on a passage from The Chan Whip, attributed to Dàhuì’s granddaddy in the dharma, Wǔzǔ Fǎyǎn, who also seems to have taught with the keyword method, a method that scholars today think was invented by his grandbaby, Dàhuì. Hmmm. Anyway:

“You must take the two characters birth-death, paste them on your forehead, and demand of yourself a clear understanding of this matter. If you just follow the crowd and team up with them, killing time just making a racket, one of these days the old one Yama will calculate the tab for your meals. Don’t say I didn’t tell you! If you’re thinking of doing diligent practice, you must constantly look carefully, at every moment pulling the keyword into full awareness. Where are you gaining energy? Where are you failing to gain energy? Where are you lapsing? Where have you not failed?” (5)

Mùxī’s “Mother and Child Persimmons”

5. Seasoned practitioners will know the process of letting go of both being tense and slack. Click here for more. Focus on the keyword opens to a field of self-enjoyment samadhi. The breath will become subtle and may even seem to stop. Time will fall away and reveal itself as just a function of thought. The body will become incredibly pliant and the practitioner will find that they can sit for longer periods of time than they previously thought possible. Sleep will not be necessary. And body and mind will fall away.

All of these in themselves are not awakening. But entering absorption and the dissolving of absorption provide very important cracks between worlds, opportunities for awakening. That is, if the keyword focus has become deeply embedded, psychophysically, in the body-mind stream, then upon entering, or almost entering, absorption, and again when the state dissolves, the keyword will be the last or first thought and may trigger awakening, especially when accompanied by an abrupt occurrence like the call of a bird, a clap of thunder, the backfire of a truck. Something beyond method.

An initial awakening provides the touchstone for gradual cultivation, both within the training process and through the myriad vertiginous vicissitudes of  daily life. Deeper awakenings must follow for the practitioner to do what can be done in this life. The maturing practitioner’s character develops too, having more and more capacity for benefiting and liberating living beings, practically and in the nitty gritty detail of daily life.

Finally, the most important method for saving and gaining energy is to do all of the above methods without any expectation of saving or gaining energy. Bow just to bow. Sit just to sit. Drop it all just to drop it all. Practice awakening truth (aka, buddhdharma) just for the sake of the awakening truth.

Persimmon goes SPLAT!

Katagiri Rōshi liked to use the persimmon-ripening process as a metaphor for the practitioner’s journey toward becoming a completely mature, completely ripe human being. He would say, “When the persimmon is completely ripe, it falls to the ground, and goes SPLAT!”

Then he would throw back his head and howl in laughter.

The elements that have developed in the Zen tradition – Great Doubt, the keyword, diligent practice, and saving energy/gaining energy – are like putting the proverbial persimmon tree in a greenhouse with ideal heat, light, fertilizer, and tender loving care, all in order to maximize the conditions for awakening and post-awakening practice.

However the persimmon reaches this point of ripeness, though, the SPLAT! is one and the same.

(1) Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence: Practicing Zen in Daily Life, 58.

(2)The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice,” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. Modified.

(3) Dōgen, Fukanzazengi, trans. by Dōshō Port.

(4) Formless Atonement: All the karma ever created by me since of old/through beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance/born of my body, speech and thought/I now fully and openly atone with it all

(5) The Chan Whip Anthology, “Chan Master Wǔzǔ Fǎyǎn of East Mountain Sends Off Followers to Travel on Foot [Far and Wide in Search of a Teacher and Realization],” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe, 74-75. Modified.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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