Aside from the question of what Dogen actually meant, it is clear that he personally approached life with great zeal and intensity. Even setting aside the uncertainties concerning his biography, what little is known clearly testifies to the fact that he himself acted in accord with his repeated, energetic exhortations to “master in practice” and “examine sideways and upside down” and “apply yourselves as if your head was on fire” etc.
His own life was an eternal quest; committing to the path at 8 years old, running away at 13 to avoid the barriers of secular life, reading the entire Tripitaka twice by his early 20s, mastering Tendai, the exoteric and esoteric teachings. Not yet satisfied, he set about mastering Rinzai Zen under Myozan, then accompanied him on a journey to China. There, he traveled around and sought wise counsel wherever he could.
Finding Tendo Nyojo, he intensified his practice and study, realized a profound awakening, then spent a couple more years “entering the room” deepening and refining his realization under the guidance of his teacher.
When he finally returned to Japan, he spent the rest of his life continuously exploring and developing all manner of methods, techniques, and activities to effectively transmit the Buddha-Dharma to his fellow countrymen. To this end he produced hundreds of fascicles which he continuously re-worked, edited, and refined many times, right up to his final illness, and he established Eihei-ji (still regarded as one of the great temples of the world), and he offered instruction to monks, nuns, and secular people from all classes.
The energy that Dogen applied in those monumental efforts can still be felt on a visceral level through reading and (trying) to apply his teachings as outlined in some of the most creative expressions in Buddhist history.
Dogen’s life was clearly engaged in actively creating, exploring, and expressing the meaning, function, and experience of the Buddha-Dharma. When we see how vibrantly he speaks of discovering whole worlds in each moment, and in each drop of water, we come to understand his outspoken disdain for the distorted ‘nothing to realize’ and ‘everything is it’ notions of Zen that had taken root in his own time. We are (at least I am) inspired by Dogen’s constant earnestness on the necessity to focus our aspiration and effort that he asserts are essential to genuine practice and enlightenment. His repeated exhortations to “those who have already attained enlightenment” to continue to go ever-deeper attaining enlightenment upon enlightenment, are reinforced by his own example. His constant refrain reminds us that enlightenment without practice is not authentic enlightenment, and practice without enlightenment is not authentic practice.
We don’t need to prove Dogen’s meaning to understand that the necessity of wholehearted effort and focused, dedicated practice is a basic teaching of Buddhism, and a hallmark of Zen. And even those that have not researched much in the Zen records realize that the teachings of “practice and enlightenment” have always been susceptible to misunderstanding and misappropriation.
Obvious to even the most casual of readers among Zen students is that some of the most pernicious divisions in the history of Buddhism have been caused by arguments around what this teaching means. The confusion between sudden realization (original enlightenment) and gradual cultivation (acquired enlightenment), has been the most visible and persistent manifestation of this argument in the Zen tradition.
According to his biographers, the apparent contradiction between original enlightenment and acquired enlightenment was the barrier to and eventually the catalyst of Dogen’s own great awakening. Resolving this conflict became the central focus of his spiritual quest. It was through his personal resolution of the seeming contradiction between the doctrine of original enlightenment and the need for spiritual practice that allowed him to—in his own words from Shobogenzo, Bendowa—“complete the task of a lifetime.”
After such a powerful experience, it is only natural that the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment became such a central theme in Dogen’s teaching. By “non-dual” I mean, empty of duality, I do not mean that practice and enlightenment are one, as is propagated by some. Practice and enlightenment in Zen are two aspects of one reality. I think that Dogen is clear on the fact that though they always go together, they each maintain their distinctive aspects.
This brings me to, what I think is one of the best passages in Shobogenzo that takes up question raised, “What constitutes practicing Dogen’s Zen?” The very first paragraph of Dogen’s very first teaching, Fukanzazengi, is constructed of four lines—each variations expressing the fundamental point.
“Now, when we research it, the truth originally is all around: why should we rely upon practice and experience? The real vehicle exists naturally: why should we put forth great effort? Furthermore, the whole body far transcends dust and dirt: who could believe in the means of sweeping and polishing? In general, we do not stray from the right state: of what use, then, are the tip-toes of training?”Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1, p. 279
Coming from Dogen we know this is not a simplistic series of rhetorical statements, but an expression of spiritual realization, urging us to deep contemplation. It seems clear that Dogen is not saying, “the truth is all around: we do not need to rely upon practice, put forth great effort, etc.” Rather, he is saying, “the truth is all around: why do we need to practice, who could believe in the means, of what use, and so on.” His statements are neither rhetorical, nor are they conventional questions wanting answers. Here he not only respond to the question posed, Dogen indicates, at once, the revelation of the truth of Zen and illustrates the appropriate attitude for Zen practitioners to employ.
While his expressions were unique, and may even transcend those of his predecessors, what Dogen actually taught was what all the true buddhas and Zen ancestors taught; enlightenment is the essence of authentic practice, practice is the function of authentic enlightenment. The duality of practice and enlightenment is actualized and transcended, not eradicated or annihilated. It seems obvious in this light, that Dogen frequently used the term zazen in reference to the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment, not just as a reference to sitting meditation. In Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, Dogen outlines this fundamental teaching of Zen. Near the end of this essay, he uses a Zen koan to illustrate the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment. The koan runs:
Zen Master Hotetsu, of Mount Mayu is using a fan. A monk comes up and says, “The nature of air is ever-present, and there is no place it does not reach. Why then does the Master use a fan?”The master says, “You understand that the nature of air is ever-present, but you do not understand the truth that there is no place it does not reach.”The monk says, “What is the truth of there being no place it does not reach?”At this, the master just continues to use the fan.The monk does prostra-tions.
Dogen goes on to say, “The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the living way of authentic transmission, is like this.”Because of the universal significance that is applied by all Dogen admirers to Genjokoan, combined with the widely held notion that all Dogen’s teaching can be summed up by “zazen”, it is worth noting that the word “zazen” does not appear even once in this vastly popular fascicle.
The term zazen, like dharma, buddha, bodhi, and the like, has different meanings depending on the speaker, audience, and context of its expression. Just as the most common use of the term “Buddha” is as a reference to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, so the most common use of the term “zazen” is as a reference to sitting meditation. By developing a working knowledge of the records and koans of Zen, it becomes obvious when Dogen is using the term zazen strictly in reference to sitting meditation, and when he is using it in the sense of: the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment.
It is truly regrettable that Dogen’s profound expressions on practice and enlightenment has often been twisted into shallow, naturalistic views. When this is allowed to occur, Dogen’s wonderful teaching that practice is practice-and-enlightenment, and enlightenment is practice-and-enlightenment, is reduced into practice is enlightenment, and enlightenment is practice.
In Dogen’s teaching on practice and enlightenment, he regarded any teaching that posited practice as a term indicating something other than the enactment of enlightenment, as in practice-and-enlightenment, or as a term synonymous with enlightenment, as false teaching. Perhaps this is why some contemporary “Zen” books avoid the word “enlightenment,” altogether—except as something to be challenged, and the word “practice,” is so profuse. Rambling on about Zen practice this and Zen practice that, it often seems as if practice has become totally divorced from enlightenment—diminished to a simple catchphrase, a kind of pseudo-Zen. Worse, when this misrepresentation of practice is married to a strictly literalist interpretation of zazen, it reduces great enlightenment to ordinary sitting meditation. If the true creed of Dogen’s teaching is; “there is no enlightenment to seek, have no goal except to only sit which is itself full and perfect enlightenment", then I would simply prefer delusion--it is much easier on the knees.