Great Master Dogen’s expression dropping off body and mind has captured the imagination of many who have heard it and has been the subject of much study and scholarship. The expression appears to originate with Dogen’s master Tendo Nyojo, occurring many times in Dogen’s record of his conversations with his master.
Dogen himself uses the expression in a frequently quoted passage from Genjokoan, a key chapter in his Shobogenzo:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express the ungraspable trace of realization.
The above translation is by Shohaku Okumura, from the chapter called Dropping Off Body and Mind in his book Realizing Genjokoan. Here is part of Okumura’s explanation of dropping off body and mind from the same chapter:
We have many different experiences during the course of our lives, and in the process of experiencing these billions of things we create a self-image. We come to consider ourselves as capable or incapable, superior or inferior, rich or poor, honest or dishonest. We define ourselves in this way and hold on to ideas of who we are; we create the karmic self. But when we sit in zazen, we let go of all these self-images. When we open the hand of thought, these concepts drop off and the body and mind are released from karmic bindings.
These billions of experiences have not just created a self-image, they have created our whole world-view and way of being in the world. Another term for this is conditioning – we have been conditioned by everything that has happened to us in our lives. Meditation shows us that we do not need to be bound by our conditioning, we do not have to be limited by what has happened to us in the past, by the way things have been.
And it is not just our minds, but our bodies also, that are temporary collections of molecules, constantly in flux, impossible to hold on to.
As another of the Soto Zen ancestors, Sekito Kisen, puts it in Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage (trans. Taigen Dan Leighton):
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.