Play Full Out
(Dosho Port)

Dogen Zenji says, To listen to dharma is to cause your consciousness to play freely. This play is not a means but an end in itself. At that time you can have full commitment to play. The power to transform our life is from just playing with wholeheartedness. Naturally, you can play freely within practice. In the process of doing zazen, you can play freely with zazen and produce a new creative life. – Katagiri Roshi

I work in a school for teenagers in a large metropolitan district. Of course, like young people everywhere, they love to play. After a recent break, I asked a student how it was for him. He thought for a long moment and then said, “Well, I’d have to say good.”

“What about it was good?” I asked. After another reflective pause he said in seriousness, “Well, I didn’t get shot this time.”

This young man is not alone. I see many young people whose lives have been shaped by violence, who have gunshot or knife wounds, some of them sport several such urban battle scars with pride. Almost all of them have close relatives in prison.

These young people reflect the larger culture as it appears through popular movies to computer games, a culture increasingly permeated by violence and its glorification. Many of us have become increasingly numb or oblivious to violence, tolerating more and more of the intolerable.

The popularity of violence might be due to how easy and cheap it is to get people’s attention with violence—a lazy way that leaves us yearning for more in the hope that then we might feel alive, like potato chips and their greasy, saltiness that don’t satisfy hunger but leave us wanting more.

What’s this got to do with play?

In my view, the potential of Zen isn’t limited to giving aging boomers something to do in their upper middle years, nor is it about meeting any individual’s need for spiritual trips.

“The wind of Buddhadharma makes manifest the great earth’s gold,” said Dogen. In other words, Zen is about freshly addressing the key issues of our times and encouraging us to assertively make a Buddha out of a mud-ball life.

One of our primary issues, perhaps the challenge for our time, as Thich Nhat Han has long argued, is to make peace fun and interesting. Our survival may depend on it. Soto Zen, I suggest, is a practice of playing full out that offers one challenging way in which we can live a creative and deeply fulfilling life, doing what needs to be done with this precious opportunity of human birth.

Such a Zen has the potential to become a social movement, making playing together with all our hearts in all that we do the society's central organizing principle and our life’s most passionate engagement.

Frequently Dogen emphasizes this point. For example, in “Fukanzazengi” he says, “If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the Way.”

And above you’ll find Katagiri Roshi’s comment on Dogen’s word, yuge, transforming through play. “This play is not a means but an end in itself. At that time you can have full commitment to play. The power to transform our life is from just playing with wholeheartedness.”

Yuge comprises the root of the name of our little practice place here in White Bear Township, Minnesota Yugeji, or Transforming Through Play Temple. Our most important guideline is to play full out.

By dropping the cowboy tendency to drift into our individual trips and our hungry ghost tendency to wallow in Zen-group-think blather, we are compelled to balance on a tight rope, on a razor’s edge of dynamic aliveness. This is the life vein of vividly hopping along together in this great life.

It certainly beats getting shot.

(Editor's note: Dosho Port is a priest in Katagiri Roshi's lineage who teaches in Minnesota, author of Keep Me in Your Heart a While. Visit his blog:

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