Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dogen, The Shobogenzo, Nonduality of delusion and enlightenment

No matter how one "interprets" Dogen's writings, I doubt there are many serious students of Dogen that have not lain awake some nights with one of his phrases turning over in their mind like a multifaceted jewel illumining undreamed of dimensions within what Dogen calls "the homeland of the self." Anyone that has will probably find it easy to agree with Hee-Jin Kim’s observation that "the single most original and seminal aspect of Dogen’s Zen is his treatment of the role of language in Zen soteriology." (Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: His View On Zen, p.59) Saying Dogen believed that language played a vital role in an authentic approach to the practice and realization of Zen would be a gross understatement.

This does not mean, in my opinion, that Dogen was unaware, or unconcerned with the limitations, dangers, and difficulties inherent to the misuse or misunderstanding of verbal teachings, formulas, and doctrines of all kinds. In fact, it seems to me that just the opposite was true; Dogen’s appreciation for the power of language seems to have engendered him with an almost hypersensitivity to anything that he percieved as a misuse of words and phrases. Other than Shakyamuni Buddha, and Dogen’s own revered teacher, Tendo Nyojo, nobody was excused from a fierce scolding when Dogen discovered them using an awkward or ambiguous term, especially if it smacked of dualism. Joshu, who Dogen sometimes refers to as "the ancient Buddha," the great Master Baso, and even the revered Sixth Ancestor of Zen are all the subjects Dogen’s lash for what he perceived as a misuse of language.

However, it was only the misuse of language that Dogen disparaged, it seems to me, not the use of language in itself. The misuse of language, as far as Dogen is concerned, includes more than simply using an improper term or dualistic phrase. His records are filled with just as many instances in which he upbraids the "ancient worthies" for what they failed to say as it is for what they said badly. In one tirade, Rinzai, who Dogen frequently acknowledges as a "rightful heir of the Dharma," is dismissed as an ignoramus for not expressing something when he should have. Poor old Deshan is pummeled, kicked around, and chopped to pieces for several pages in Dogen’s treatment of his failure to express anything in his classic conversation with the tea-selling woman.

One of the corollaries of Dogen’s views concerning the inseparability of ones understanding, and their expressions is the ability to accurately evaluate someone’s understanding simply by examining their expressions. Before Dogen went to China he realized that the authentic teachings of written texts were much more valuable than any inauthentic teachings of certified "Dharma heirs." In the Zuimonki Dogen explains how he came to realize this fact when he compared the teachings of his own "distinguished" title holding teachers to those of the "eminent Buddhists" of the past:

"…I came to realize that they differed from what my teachers taught. What is more, I realized that thoughts such as mine, according to their treatises and biographies, were loathed by these people. Having contemplated the nature of the matter at last, I thought to myself I should have felt rather humbled by ancient sages and future good men and women instead of elated by the praise of despicable contemporaries… In view of such a realization, the holders of the title of Great Teacher (daishi) in this country seemed to me worthless, like earthen tiles, and my whole life was changed completely."
Zuimonki, V:8 (Quoted from Mystical Realist, p.25)

Dogen’s insistence to "study this" "get inside these words" "penetrate this saying" "take up these words again and again" and similar exhortations is so constant throughout his works it is easy to become desensitized to their presence. Dogen’s direct instruction to take up and study specific phrases, words, koans, sutras, and so on probably outnumber his instructions to dedicate ourselves to Zazen by at least 20 to 1. I hasten to add that contrary to some "officials," when Dogen urges us to "investigate these words," he means we should take them up in sitting meditation, as well as our other activities (at least that is what Dogen's records say).

Just to get a feel for his constant demand on "investigating these words" here are a few random examples of Dogen’s constant demands concerning words:

"At the same time we should investigate whether the Great Master’s words ‘I call this thing bamboo and wood,’ and Shin-o’s words ‘I also call it bamboo and wood,’ are the same or not the same, and whether they are adequate or not adequate. The Great Master says, ‘If we search the whole Earth for a person who understands the Buddha-Dharma, it is impossible to find one.’ We should also closely scrutinize and decide about this expression."
Shobogenzo, Sangai-Yuishin, Nishijima & Cross

"Good gentelman, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one case of [koan] story, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently. If you climb to the top of the mountain and dry up the oceans, you will not fail to complete [this study].
Dogen's Extensive Record, The Eihei Koroku, Vol.8:14, Leighton & Okumura

"Even a work produced latterly, if its words are true, should be approved."
Shobogenzo, Butsudo, Nishijima & Cross

"The truth expressed now in the founding Patriarch’s words ‘What people are able to hear the non-emotional preaching the Dharma’ should be painstakingly researched through the effort of one life and many lives."
Shobogenzo, Mujo-Seppo, Nishijima & Cross

"We should quietly investigate the principle of, and learn in practice the realization of words like this."
Shobogenzo, Ganzei, Nishijima & Cross

"Thus the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature’ can be heard coming form the distant room of the fourth patriarch. They are seen and heard in Obai, they are spread throughout Joshu district, and they are exalted on Dai-i [mountain]. We must unfailingly apply ourselves to the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature.’ Do not be hesitant."
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Nishijima & Cross

"Learning these words in practice, we should meet with the ancestral patriarchs of Buddhism and we should see and hear the teachings of Buddhism."
Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Nishijima & Cross

"We must investigate these words quietly; we should replace our heart with them and replace our brain with them."
Shobogenzo, Daigo, Nishijima & Cross

It seems that the only time Dogen’s rhetoric becomes more passionate than when insisting that we take words, koans, and sutras seriously is in his attacks on those that dismiss or minimize the role of verbal and rational activity in the practice of Zen. The coarsest language in Dogen’s records has been reserved for those that fail to take up and discern the koans, which he treats as the basic texts of Zen Buddhism. For example, in Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Dogen says:

"They say that present talk of the East Mountain moving on water, and stories (koans) such as Nansen’s sickle, are stories (koans) beyond rational understanding… It is pitiful that the great truth of the Buddhist Patriarch is going to ruin. The understanding of these [shavelings] is inferior even to that of sravakas of the small vehicle; they are more stupid than non-Buddhists. They are not lay people, they are not monks, they are not human beings, and they are not gods; they are more stupid than animals learning the Buddha’s truth. What these shavelings call ‘stories (koans) beyond rational understanding’ are beyond rational understanding only to them; the Buddhist patriarchs are not like that. Even though [rational ways] are not understood by those [shavelings], we should not fail to learn in practice the Buddhist patriarchs’ ways of rational understanding… [The shavelings] do not know that images and thoughts are words and phrases, and they do not know words and phrases transcend images and thoughts. When I was in China I laughed at them, but they had nothing to say for themselves and were just wordless (sic)... They have the non-Buddhist view of naturalism."
Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Nishijima & Cross

His charge at the end of this passage concerning "the non-Buddhist view of naturalism" is also a topic that earns Dogen’s unrelenting scorn. His definition of what he means by such a "view" is remarkably similar to a style of "Zen" which is sometime advocated in modern times. Briefly, this view promotes a notion that "just sitting" calmly in "pure awareness" and allowing things to "be as they are" is the authentic practice of Zen. Some even use the common terms of naturalism like, "natural state," "natural man," etc. In modern variations, this "non-Buddhist view" is sometimes combined with the fostering of cultic belief in the supernatural influence of specific practices or rituals, usually a subversion of "Zazen." In such cases, the term "Zazen" is usually reduced to its most literal meaning of "sitting meditation," then equated with Buddhahood. Thus, the whole of the Buddha-Dharma is degraded to a mere superstition: "to sit like Buddha" is "to be Buddha." But I digress.

Turning back to Dogen’s constant refrain concerning words and language, we should examine one of his favorite phrases; "learning in practice." Dogen uses this term so often that it is important to understand exactly what he means. One of his own explanations about what "learning in practice" means is found in, Shobogenzo, Mitsugo:

"’Learning in practice’ means not intending to understand at once but striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object. We should not think that when a person has something to relate we will be able to understand at once."
Shobogenzo, Mitsugo, Nishijima & Cross

Reading this, and the multitude of similar exhortations on the rigorous nature of Zen practice, we can understand why some might prefer a "Zen" of "just sitting" or of simply "labeling" our thoughts and feelings. I don't think Dogen would have a problem with that as long as it was not asserted as his teaching on Zen Buddhism.

Dogen’s repetitious insistence on "striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object" certainly may not sound as attractive as "just sitting" and "letting go" and "having no goal." But if we are going to use Dogen's records as any authority on his teachings, we need to consider what those records actually say.

He does not always focus on the neccesity of "striving painstakingly" of course, Dogen also highlights those rare and wondrous, blissful moments of Zen where mind and body drop away and "Buddha is not aware of being Buddha." This is the inexpressible, inconceivable "state of Buddha" that can only be realized through direct experience.

And, even while acknowledging the impossibility of expressing this experience in words, Dogen goes to great lengths to express what can be expressed about it. In some of his more poetic moments he describes the indescribable in incredibly elegant (and eloquent) terms. The Shobogenzo, Bendowa, for instance, presents one his most memorable descriptions of the "experience" of the "state of Buddha."

"At this time, everything in the Universe in ten directions - soil, earth, grass, and trees; fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles - performs the Buddha’s work. The people that receive the benefit thus produced by wind and water are all mystically helped by the fine and unthinkable influence of the Buddha, and they exhibit the immediate state of realization. All beings who receive and utilize this water and fire spread the influence of the Buddha in the original state of experience, so that those who live and talk with them also, are all reciprocally endowed with the limitless Buddha-virtue. Expanding and promoting their activity far and wide, they permeate the inside and the outside of the entire Universe with the limitless, unceasing, unthinkable, and incalculable Buddha-Dharma. [The state] is not dimmed by the views of these individuals themselves, however, because the state in the quietness, without intentional activity, is direct experience."
Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Nishijima & Cross

Dogen’s exuberance here nearly makes the inexpressible palpable--as when the sound of a child’s laughter causes us to laugh, so Dogen’s exuberance resonates and arouses a sympathetic response in our own body-and-mind. This sense of great joy and zeal for the Buddha-Dharma has a powerful encouraging effect on those that seriously engage in actively reading and implementing his work. In the (relatively few) passages when Dogen sings out on the marvelous wonders of enlightenment, they bring a refreshing moment of release similar to the sound of the dinner bell after a day of hard labor. Of course, in the overall context of Dogen’s Zen teaching, such exhilarating praises on the blissful wonders of Buddhahood are rare. Nevertheless, like the sound of the dinner bell at the end of the day, they are most welcome.

Much more often, Dogen’s expressions sound more like those of an exacting taskmaster. Sometimes, the compassion of an old grandmother manifests as a thump on the head. For every expression about the "blissful" state transcending enlightenment and delusion, there must be fifty expressions urging us to "grind our bones to powder" in our efforts to "get inside these words."

I don't think Dogen is trying to make things difficult for us anymore than the kindly old grandmother administers her thumps simply to cause pain. Dogen has realized something marvelous and he wants to share it with us—no, he has to share it with us. For as we observed earlier, understanding, activity, and expression always occur together. Dogen’s expressions are the activity of his continuous and ongoing understanding.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogen on what practice is "most urgent"

People who arouse a true and genuine aspiration and engross themselves in study to the full extent of their capacity, do not fail to attain. As for the description of the essential point to be mindful of, what thing must be concentrated upon, what practice is to be considered most urgent, that is as follows.

First is only that the aspiration of joyful longing be earnest. …while travelling, abiding, sitting and reclining, in the midst of affairs as the pass, though various different events come up, he goes along seeking an opening, his mind occupied [with his quest]. With his mind so forcefully earnest, there can be no failure of attainment.

In this way, when the aspiration to seek the Way has become sincere, either during the period of sole concentration on sitting, or when dealing with illustrative example of the people of olden times, or when meeting the teacher, when one acts with true aspiration…

Unless you arouse a mind comparable to this, how will you accomplish the great task of the Buddha-Way, which cuts of the turning round of birth and death in a single instant of thought?

If someone has such a mind … he will definitely attain enlightenment.
~Eihei Dogen, Record of Things Heard (zuimonki), II:15, Thomas Cleary

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ryokan - Reading the Record of Eihei Dogen

By Ryokan

On a somber spring evening around midnight,
rain mixed with snow sprinkled on the bamboos in the garden.
I wanted to ease my lonliness but it was quite impossible.
My hand reached behind me for the Record of Eihei Dogen.
Beneath the open window at my desk,
I offered incense, lit a lamp, and quietly read.
Body and mind dropping away is simply the upright truth.
In one thousand postures, ten thousand appearances, a dragon toys with the jewel.
His understanding beyond conditioned patterns cleans up the current corruptions;
the ancient great master's style reflects the image of India.

I remember the old days when I lived at Entsu Monastery
and my late teacher lectured on the True Dharma-eye.
At that time there was an occasion to turn myself around,
so I requested to read it and studied it intimately.
I keenly felt that until then I had depended merely on my own ability.
After that I left my teacher and wandered all over.
Between Dogen and myself what relationship is there?
Everywhere I went I devotedly practiced the true dharma-eye.
Arriving at the depths and arriving at the vehicle--how many times?

Inside this teaching, there's never any shortcoming.
Thus I thoroughly studied the master of all things.
Now when I take the Record of Eihei Dogen and examine it,
the tone does not harmonize well with usual beliefs.
Nobody has asked whether it is a jewel or a pebble.
For five hundred years its been covered with dust
just because no one has had an eye for recognizing dharma.
For whom was all his eloquence expounded?
Longing for ancient times and grieving for the present, my heart is exhausted.

One evening sitting by the lamp my tears wouldn't stop,
and soaked into the records of the ancient buddha Eihei.
In the morning the old man next door came to my thatched hut.
He asked me why the book was damp.
I wanted to speak but didn't as I was deeply embarrassed;
my mind distressed, it was impossible to give an explanation.
I dropped my head for a while, then found some words.
"Last night's rain leaked in and drenched my bookcase."

~Ryokan (Translated by Nelson Foster, The Roaring Stream, p.348-349)

Yes! Yes! How wonderful! How terrible! No! No! What more can be said?
There was silence......... Some thought the sutra ended there....
But that was only the end of Chapter Three.... So Manjushri continued....
And continues still..... Can you hear him?
What is "he" saying?
What are "you" saying?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dogen on Words and Letters, Nonduality of Delusion and Enlightenment

Before continuing along the lines of my last post I though I would offer another translation of the last thing I quoted in the last post. This is "main" part of that quotation as Hee-Jin Kim translates it in his "Dogen On Meditation and Thinking":

The "emptiness" in question is not the "emptiness" of "form and emptiness." [The true meaning of] "form is emptiness" is not that you forcibly make "form" into "emptiness" or that you split "emptiness" so as to fabricate "form"; it is the "emptiness" of "emptiness is emptiness." This "emptiness" of "emptiness is emptiness" is a single piece of rock in emptiness.
Hee-Jin Kim, DOMT p.71

This elucidation on how the realization of emptiness illumines the true significance of all particular things (dharmas), also serves as an illustration of Dogen’s guidance to us students/practitioners on how to apply ourselves in study and practice in order to achieve what he often refers to as "right understanding." The Shobogenzo is packed with examples of this kind of systematic breakdown on methodology. (It makes me wonder if it was the method he himself used to come to his own understanding.) Anyone that has applied him or herself to koan-introspection will quickly notice the similarity of Dogen’s language with the kind of stream of consciousness "nonthinking" that often occurs during intense koan-introspection.

One point I think is clear is that Dogen wrote his record with one eye to posterity. For Dogen, the Shobogenzo was much more than some kind of personal journal or simple textbook on Zen. I think the Shobogenzo was intended to be a complete, self-contained soteriological device.

Before continuing, allow me to briefly digress. This last paragraph would no doubt be denounced as, in the least, an outrageous distortion by most "authorities" within the Soto orthodoxy. They have good reasons to denounce it; if such were the case, it could threaten their very livelihood as the "spiritual authorities" of powerful institutions. If students/practitioners could realize liberation through their own independent practice and study, what need would there be for professional priests?

Of course, the difficulties of the relations between institutional power and spiritual authority have existed in all times, and in all the great religions. For instance, in the chaotic early Kamakura period of Dogen’s own time (when armed monastics were common), a position in the right "spiritual" institution was often the fastest way to personal and familial advancement.
As for interference by "authorities" of institutions regarding the case of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, scholarship has shown that the Shobogenzo itself was largely neglected, and nearly forgotten for centuries by the Soto orthodoxy. As it began to resurface and fall under the public eye, it was discovered that much of its teaching seemed to directly contradict institutional Soto dogma. The first reaction by the Soto institution was to try to keep it away from the public. When it was clear that would fail, they tried to claim that many of its teachings were "fraudulently" attributed to Dogen. When more copies were discovered, some in Dogen’s own hand, some followed the only option left to discredit the Shobogenzo; interpretation, by which of course I mean, "misinterpretation." (For details of these incidents see the works of James W. Heisig, Steven Heine, Dale Wright, John McRae, and others)

The saddest part is that it did not need to turn out that way. When it became clear that the Shobogenzo was under the public eye, and that its Zen teaching was different than what the Soto School had been claiming for centuries, they faced a choice, and unfortunately took the easy way out. They could either have chosen to raise themselves up to Dogen’s true teaching, or reduced Dogen’s true teaching to their own view. Sadly, they opted for the latter.

Some will denounce my assertion for reasons other than self-protection; many of which will, no doubt, be well intended. Nevertheless, I make my claims, not on my own authority or the authority of any teacher or institution, spiritual or otherwise. I make my claim based on a 21 year dialogue with the writer of the Shobogenzo itself; Eihei Dogen. Of which the following is simply a sample out of hundreds within his own records…

"I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of profound instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and maintained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage."
~Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Nishijima & Cross

This statement by Dogen about his intentions for writing his record is not ambiguous, "I will leave this record … so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage." He does not say, "I will transmit my Dharma to a disciple or two so they can pass it on to students will be able to know the right Dharma." Of course it needs to be taken in the overall context of his work, but it does not need to be "interpreted" for its meaning to be discerned—unless, that is, we are trying to reduce it to fit into our own preconceived notions as to what Dogen taught.

Regardless of our own personal disdain for intellectual and/or verbal activity, of which everyone has a right to cling, we should not drag Dogen down to our own level. Forcing convoluted interpretations upon Dogen’s masterpiece in order to make it agree with our own view is not only vulgar; it is pointless. Not only does such treatment cut us (and maybe others) off from his message, his record will always come to its own defense. For example, no matter how much one insists that Dogen believed that words and letters were insignificant to the authentic practice and enlightenment of the Buddha-Dharma, his own record will not "sit down and shut up."

For example, we can say, "Dogen did not believe that people could come to understand ichimizen (non discriminatory Zen) based simply on words and letters." But we can’t eradicate it from his record:

The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen (ichimizen) based on words and letters, if they devote their efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.
~Eihei Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun

We could try to say things like, "Dogen meant the words and letters of a true master with a certificate from a Soto institution." And sure, there will always be students who prefer the "authorities" to tell them what to believe, rather than check it out for themselves. Nevertheless, there will always be some free thinker who will have to find his or her own certitude. Dogen himself was unable to merely swallow the teachings of the highest certified teachers in his own time. He undertook a dangerous journey to China to get to the bottom of it himself. If he had not found Tendo Nyojo, I would not have been surprised if went to India!

Of course, many modern institutions would chide him if he tried to pull that off today. The audacity of using his own thinking mind! Yes, his THINKING mind. For it is only that mind, that discriminatory, analyzing, judging, mind that can establish the bodhi-mind (Enlightened Mind). As Dogen points out in that darn record of his:

In general there are three kinds of mind. The first, citta, is here called thinking mind. The second, hridaya, is here called the mind of grass and trees. The third, vriddha, is here called experienced and concentrated mind. Among these, the bodhi-mind is inevitably established relying upon thinking mind. Bodhi is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "the truth." Citta is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "thinking mind." Without this thinking mind it is impossible to establish the bodhi-mind. That is not to say that this thinking mind is the bodhi mind itself, but we establish the bodhi-mind with this thinking mind.
~Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Hotsu-Bodaishin, Nishijima & Cross

We may personally choose not to exercise our own "thinking mind" and simply believe, act, or submit to whatever spiritual authorities we like, but we should avoid slandering Dogen’s work by making claims that we have not personally experienced. If, after years of careful study and practice, we happen to gain some insight into his life’s work, and that insight seems to be corroborated by Dogen’s own record, that is one thing. If, however, we presume to expound on what Dogen taught or believed based only on what we have heard second hand, that is something else entirely.

When I stated that I believed the Shobogenzo was intended as a complete, self-contained soteriological device, I meant it literally (pun intended). Besides the predictable denunciation by the Soto orthodoxy discussed above, this claim is bound to raise the eyebrows of even those more liberal, and open minded within the Zen community. Such a statement does seem to contradict some of the most traditional views of language in Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen.

I would not deny that the bulk of Zen literature concerning language is directed toward emphasizing its limitations and provisional status, and often portrays it as a hindrance to the authentic truth of Zen. For the most part, the Zen records only grudgingly recognize language as a useful function in the practical aspects of everyday life, and generally deny its value in any meaningful way concerning the ultimate truth of Buddhism. According to this view, when it comes to the highest realizations of Zen, language is at best a provisional tool that can be disregarded when one finally realizes the "authentic" truth.

Nevertheless, his own record clearly shows that Dogen did not conform to this view any more than the most prominent Rinzai master of Japanese Zen history did. Hakuin Ekaku wrote in his autobiography that he took a text "as my master" (Wild Ivy, Waddell, p.24) and declared near the end of his life that, "This book has meant more to me than anything else—even my teachers." (Wild Ivy, Waddell, p.132)

In fact, both of these great Zen Masters regarded the notion that the authentic practice of Zen could dispense with verbal teachings and written words as grossly negligent.

Listen as these two Dragons lament with one voice this pernicious misunderstanding about Zen being "a special transmission outside words and letters, and direct-pointing":

"How sad is the aridity of contemporary Zen schools! They laud unintelligent ignorance as transcendental direct-pointing Zen. Considering unsurpassed spiritual treasures like Focusing the Precious Mirror and the Five Ranks to be worn-out utensils of an antiquated house, they pay no attention to them. They are like blind people throwing away their canes, saying they are useless, then getting themselves stuck in the mud of the view of elementary realization, never able to get out all their lives."
~Hakuin, Kensho, Thomas Cleary, p.68-69

"How sad; how sad! Evil demons and spirits, wild beasts, and domesticated animals now call themselves the Zen School… we should know that within Buddha Dharma there are the Lotus and Huayan and other [teachings]; and it is not that within each of the Lotus and Huayan and so on there are various different buddha dharmas. Therefore, the eighty-four thousand Dharma treasures within the Lotus, Huayan, and so on are all without exception what is simply transmitted by buddha ancestors. It is not that outside of the Lotus and Huayan there is the way of ancestral teachers."
~Dogen, Eihei Koroku, Volume 7, Dharma Hall Discourse 491, Leighton & Okumura

While Dogen recognized and preached the necessity of authentic intellectual and verbal (and by extension, literary) activity in the practice of Zen, he also warned of the dangers of inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity. For Dogen, authentic intellectual and verbal activity consists of illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the Buddha-Dharma, which is illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the self. Inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity consists of blind allegiance to authority, imitation, passivity, detachment, and rigid adherence to particular forms of practice and proscribed systems of thought.

Authentic intellectual activity functions as a creative and transformative process which manifests as an intense curiosity, playfully and energetically engaged in discerning and investigating life, the world, and the Buddha-Dharma. It is marked by the continuous polishing and deepening of realization and wisdom, and the refinement of personal conduct within the Buddha-Dharma. People choosing this mode describe Zen with terms like, "challenging, fascinating, rich, and unpredictable." This is the enactment of the life of prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion), the life of the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana.

Inauthentic intellectual activity is the willing acquiescence to formal doctrine, an adoption of static, submissive passivity that is manifested as a sterile, resignation to a "things are as they are" type of naturalism. It is marked by the cultivation of detachment and disengagement from the world of thought, ideas, and emotion. People choosing this mode often describe Zen as "boring, nothing special, ordinary, and everyday." This is the life of arya-marga (no-more-learning) and the extinguishment of klesha (passions), the life of the Arhat of the Hinayana.

Okay, good enough for tonight. Please share your own ideas, insights and comments. Thank you!


Copyright Ted Biringer 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

How have you approached the Shobogenzo

I have noticed a few coincidences lately between some of the discussions I have had and some of the things I have been reading. Now, I am not actually a very superstitious person, but I have learned to pay attention to coincidences…

The thing that seems to keep coming up is the relation between "study" and "practice" in Zen—especially regarding what Dogen’s Shobogenzo has to teach us about it, and how we can access that teaching.

One thing that has happened—which I have found to be somewhat surprising—is that several people that offered their views (not their opinions, mind you, but their "knowledge"- as in what they "know") on the teachings of the Shobogenzo, when asked, admitted that they had not even read the whole thing—much less the Eihei roku, or zuimonki.

Two of these people have been "practicing" Zen (Soto) for more than ten years and claim to be living their lives according to the teachings of Dogen—but how could they know that? I was able to inquire a little deeper with one of them. She admitted that she really had not made much of an effort to study Dogen’s work, but took her teacher’s word for what Dogen did or did not teach.

Lately I have been spending a little time each day trying to catch up on books written by contemporary Zen teachers. In the course of my reading I have come across several passages by different teachers that begin with something along the lines of, "Dogen believed that…" and "According to Dogen…" and then finish their sentences by saying something that did not seem to fit anything I had ever read or heard about in Dogen’s work. I looked, but the authors did not reference which record that they found the teaching in, much less the source. It made me wonder if they too, were simply repeating what a teacher had told them.

So, after mulling things over a little I thought that maybe we could share our own experiences, ideas, and insights on the study and practice of Zen. Here are some questions to help get the juices flowing:

How have you approached the Shobogenzo (or other Zen texts)?

How far is too far to go when offering our "knowledge" about Dogen’s (or anyone’s) teaching if we have not actually studied it ourselves?

Should we "qualify" our views with things like, "My teachers says that Dogen…" and "According to my teacher, Dogen taught…" Or do you think it is perfectly acceptable to say, "Dogen taught…" without qualifying our source?

If and when you do offer your experience and/or knowledge on Dogen, or anything to do with Buddhism or Zen, what do you base the validity of your understanding on?

Since I am the one that is trying to drag you into this, I will start…

When I offer my understanding of Dogen’s Shobogenzo I usually try to do so in a way that acknowledges that I could be wrong. Many times I have been forced to let go of some notion or another that did not stand up in the face of fresh knowledge or experience.

So let me qualify what I am about to share now and thereby avoid the cumbersome task of qualifying each point as I make them. Everything I think I "understand" about the Shobogenzo (or anything else really) is subject to change in the light of new knowledge or experience. Having said that, I believe that I can qualify everything I am about to say with at least two examples from Dogen’s own records. Okay, here goes…

My understanding of the Shobogenzo is based on 21 years of practice and study, employing a wide range of approaches and methods in a concerted effort to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the Shobogenzo. I think that this effort has, for the most part, proven successful —I hasten to add that by "comprehensive understanding" I mean extensive, not exhaustive, thoroughgoing, not all-inclusive.

Early on, I came to the conclusion that an accurate grasp of the message of Dogen’s unique, multidimensional work would require much more than an extensive familiarity with the entirety of its text and the tradition from which it evolved. It would also require years of intensive and extensive practical application, exploration, and experimentation. I reasoned that the work of such a uniquely gifted thinker and writer embedded within a specific literary tradition, an accurate understanding of the Shobogenzo demanded a thorough grasp of the philosophical, historical, literary, and religious systems through which it is conveyed. Moreover, as a soteriological expression by a Zen Buddhist master, a true appreciation of it would require the experience that only the actual implementation of its vision could provide. In short, it was clear from the beginning that any hope of discerning the authentic message of Dogen’s masterpiece demanded a combined approach allowing full and equal attention to experience as well as to knowledge, to practice as well as to study. I still believe this.

During the last 21 years I have sat with a wide variety of practitioners from various lineages. In the early years I worked with four different Zen masters (2 Soto, 1 sanbokyodan, and 1 in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh). I eventually settled on the teacher that I have now been with for almost 15 years. I spent my first 13 years with this teacher engaged in koan-introspection, shikantaza, and studying the works of Dogen. I also continued my own independent study during this time. I studied Japanese for two years but did not have much talent for it, and am deeply grateful for the many gifted translators that are supplying us with quality texts. I experimented with a variety of meditation techniques outlined in the classic Zen texts—especially the ones that seemed to me to be similar to Dogen’s teachings on "nonthinking."

My initial resistance to undertaking what at first seemed a daunting, if not futile task (coming to terms with the Shobogenzo) was gradually relieved as the validity of my approach was continuously confirmed by the very medium of the subject of my inquiry; the Shobogenzo itself. I eventually discovered, that this method of approaching the Shobogenzo is not simply a requirement for comprehending and expressing Dogen’s teaching, it is an inherent aspect of it. That is to say, I came to the realization of something Hee-Jin Kim had realized and expressed a decade before I had ever even heard of Zen Buddhism. His expression is much better than I could paraphrase hence I quote:

"[N]onduality did not primarily signify the transcendence of duality so much as it signified the realization of duality. When one chose and committed oneself to a special course of action, one did so in such a manner that the action was not an action among others, but the action—there was nothing but that particular action in the universe so that the whole universe was created in and through that action…

"As we incorporate these observations on Dogen’s view of the body-mind understanding into what I have said about activities and expressions, it is evident that activities, expressions, and understanding were one and the same for Dogen. It was not that we acted first and then attempted to understand, nor was it even that action was a special mode of understanding; all modes of understanding were necessarily activities and expressions."
(Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, pp.105-106)

In discussing the validity of this observation with others over the years, I have often been met with a great deal of skepticism and resistance, especially by those within the Zen community. Nevertheless, I believe that Kim’s is an accurate assessment of a theme that runs through the entire corpus of Dogen’s work and is especially prominent in the Shobogenzo. For Dogen, activity, expression, and understanding—while maintaining their particular differences—always go together. Hence, any authentic understanding of the Shobogenzo inevitably includes "activity" and "expression."

While some inside the Zen community have been willing to (at least temporarily) entertain this notion, most have vehemently denied it all together once the mere outline of its corollary becomes apparent; namely, that the authentic practice of Zen consists largely of verbal, and by extension, literary activity. This sounds astonishing in the ears of those that have been inundated with the rhetoric surrounding Zen’s self-designation as "a separate transmission, outside words and letters, and not dependant on writings." While Dogen’s own writings may present the clearest evidence of how widely misunderstood this "self-designation" of Zen is, a simple appeal to common sense, I think, provides sufficient reason to dispel the most glaring misunderstandings in regard to this notion.

The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the meaning behind "a separate transmission, outside words and letters, and not dependant on writings" is grounded on a faulty supposition. The faulty supposition in question is that "a separate transmission, outside words etc." is necessarily exclusive of words and letters (or any manner of verbal and literary activity). In other words, asserting the position that Zen is "outside words etc." and asserting that the authentic practice of Zen consists largely of verbal and literary activity need not be read as contradictory statements. The rationality of this point may become clearer if I try illustrating it within a different context. For instance, we would not find any difficulty in the statement that human life "exists outside words and letters, is not dependent on writings, and its occupation consists largely of verbal and literary activity. Indeed, one is hardly able to imagine human life apart from its ability and practice of verbal activity.

I firmly believe (and will present my evidence in the coming weeks, if requested) that the Shobogenzo insists that a failure to endeavor in intellectual and verbal activity will effectively bar one from the authentic practice of Zen.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not construe this to mean, in any way that Dogen did not acknowledge the ineffable aspect of reality or the limitations of language and intellect. What I am saying is that based on my experience and understanding, Dogen’s teachings did not deny the limitations of the human condition, but evaluated and illumined them within the context of the highest realizations of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, namely, emptiness and dependent origination. When seen through the experience of emptiness, or what Dogen often calls "nonthinking," each and every particular thing has absolute significance. Not only words and letters, but as Dogen never tires of saying, "walls, tiles, pebbles and mountains, the whole earth and the great sky." In the Shobogenzo Dogen even illumines the absolute significance of such things as dreams, illusions, pictures, doubt, and surprise.

Try to keep an open mind, and apply what I have discussed above to what Dogen points out in Shobogenzo, Bussho:

"We must unfailingly apply ourselves to the words "being without the Buddha-nature." ("being without" is a translation of "mu") Do not be hesitant. Though we should trace an outline of being without (mu) the Buddha-nature, it has the standard which is What, the real time which is You, the devotion to the moment which is This, and the name, common to all, which is Shu: it is direct pursuit itself.

The fifth patriarch says, "The Buddha-nature is emptiness, ("emptiness" is a translation of "ku") so we call it being without." (mu) This clearly expresses that emptiness (ku) is not non-existence. (mu) To express that the Buddha-nature is emptiness, (ku) we do not say it is half a pound and we do not say it is eight ounces, but we use the words "being without." (mu) We do not call it "emptiness" (ku) because it is void, (ku) and we do not call it "being without" (mu) because it does not exist; (mu) because the Buddha-nature is emptiness, (ku) we call it "being without." (mu) So real instances of being without (mu) are the standard for expressing "emptiness," (ku) and emptiness (ku) has the power to express "being without." (mu) This emptiness (ku) is beyond the emptiness (ku) of "matter is just emptiness." ("Shiki Soku Ze Ku" from the heart sutra) [At the same time,] "matter (U)is just emptiness" (ku) describes neither matter being forcibly made into emptiness (ku) nor emptiness (ku) being divided up to produce matter. (U) It may describe emptiness (ku) in which emptiness (ku) is just emptiness. (ku) "Emptiness(ku) in which emptiness(ku) is just emptiness(ku)" describes one stone in space. (ku)"
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Nishijima & Cross

You see? Try this kind of reading with some of your favorite chapters of the Shobogenzo and see what you see. It never hurts to try.
All comments are welcome. Thank you.

Copyright Ted Biringer 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Visit Jordan's latest post for a timely koan...

Visit Jordan's latest post for a timely koan...

Jordan' latest post

Dogen's instructions on what to do while sitting zazen

I have read some things by "Zen teachers" lately implying that Dogen taught people a kind of "objectless" meditation, urging students to "let go" of thoughts. Some even suggest that Dogen's teaching exalted some kind of detached state of "pure awareness" and that Dogen exhorted students not to employ their intellect during sitting meditation.

I would like to ask Dogen himself about it.

Master Dogen, what should we do during the very time of our sitting?

"At the very time of your sitting, you should examine exhaustively whether the total world is vertical or horizontal. At that very time, what is the sitting itself? Is it wheeling about in perfect freedom? Is it like the spontaneous vigor of a leaping fish? Is it thinking? Or not thinking? Is it doing? Is it non-doing? Is it sitting within sitting? Is it sitting within body and mind? Or is it sitting that has cast off sitting within sitting, sitting within body and mind, and the like?"
Dogen, Shobogenzo, Sammai-O-Zammai, Waddell & Abe, p.100

Okay, thank you for clearing that up.

To read this passage in the context of the whole essay, please follow this link to the translation by Carl Bielefeldt:


Monday, April 07, 2008

Dogen's Buddha Nature of Enlightenment in Nonduality

Now where were we… Ah yes, the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen…

Dogen’s teaching on the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment is in sync with his teachings about nonduality in just about every aspect of the Buddha-Dharma. His writings testify to the profound depths that his exploration of nonduality went. It seems to me that this exploration of the reason (dori) of nonduality goes all the way back to his earliest quest (if what his biographers say is true) concerning the nature of practice and enlightenment.

According to those who are supposed to know such things, for Dogen, the apparent contradiction between ‘original’ enlightenment and ‘acquired’ enlightenment became the barrier to and eventually the catalyst of his own great awakening. Resolving this conflict became the central focus of his spiritual quest. If so, then it would seem that 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."

What happened in Dogen’s case (according to the experts) was something like this: A monk fell asleep in the meditation hall. Tendo Nyojo, Dogen’s teacher, shouted at the sleeping monk, ‘True Zazen demands that we cast off body and mind. Why are you sleeping!’ These were the turning words that opened Dogen’s heart. He went to Tendo Nyojo’s room, burned incense and made bows. Tendo Nyojo asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Dogen said, ‘My body and mind are cast off!’ Tendo Nyojo replied, ‘Body and mind are cast off, cast off are Body and mind.’ This is how Tendo Nyojo is supposed to have testified to Dogen’s great enlightenment.

After such a powerful experience, it is only natural that nonduality holds such a central, urgent theme in Dogen’s teaching.

(It is important to remember of course that Dogen always explicates nonduality within the context emptiness. That is, when he talks of anything being ‘non-dual’ he (like all Mahayanists) means, empty of duality, which does not mean that delusion and enlightenment are one (undifferentiated), as is propagated by some scholars. Delusion and enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen are always two aspects of one reality. It is important to understand that though they always go together, they each maintain their distinctive aspects.)

In order to understand Dogen’s meaning regarding nonduality, it seems rational to look a little deeper into his view on the nonduality of practice and enlightenment (in the context of emptiness). For, if our assumptions are true, then it was when he hit upon this insight that he finally resolved the problem that sent him all the way to China; original (or sudden) enlightenment and its relation to spiritual practice.

The very first lines of his very first teaching (which he continuously revised and refined throughout his life), Fukanzazengi, is constructed of a number of variations of this fundamental question. To rule out the notion of a "mistranslation" I will post two different translations:

The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is utterly free and untrammeled. What need is there for our concerted effort? Indeed the whole body is far beyond the world’s dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from you right where you are. What use is there going off here and there to practice?
Norman Waddell and Masao Abe

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 and Chodo Cross

If we are at all familiar with Dogen’s work we know right away that this is not simply a series of rhetorical statements, but an expression of spiritual realization, urging us to deep contemplation. In the context of our earlier discussion we can see that Dogen is not simply saying, "the truth is all around: What need is there for our concerted effort?." Rather, he is saying, "the truth is all around: What need is there for our concerted effort?"

As Hee-Jin Kim (and others) have noted Dogen’s radical and enlightening use of interrogatives. Dogen often uses "what," "how," "why," and so on in a manner that is referential to that "great matter" the "inconceivable" or "the ultimate mystery" of life and death. Hence his statements it seems, are neither rhetorical, nor are they conventional questions wanting answers. It seems clear to me that what Dogen is indicating is at once, the revelation of a spiritual truth and an indication of the appropriate attitude for Zen practitioners to employ in their efforts.

Recall that Dogen did not view himself as teaching something outside the authentic Buddha-Dharma. Though his expressions may have exceeded many of his predecessors, he taught what all the true Buddhas and Zen ancestors taught; enlightenment is the essence of authentic practice, practice is the function of authentic enlightenment. Again, it is important to point out that the duality of practice and enlightenment is transcended, not annihilated or eradicated.

In a close reading of the Shobogenzo, it seems clear that Dogen often uses the term ‘Zazen’ as a reference to the nonduality of practice and enlightenment, not simply as sitting meditation, as some (especially in the Soto orthodoxy) claim. Dogen uses many Buddhist terms in a variety of contexts and meanings, it would be an anomaly to find that one of his favorite terms (Zazen) was excluded from this insightful treatment.

In Shobogenzo, Genjokoan,, Dogen outlines the fundamental teaching of the nonduality practice and enlightenment with a wonderful koan:

Zen Master Hotetsu of Mayoku-zan mountain is using a fan. A monk comes by and asks, "The nature of air is to be ever-present, and there is no place that [air] cannot reach. Why does the Master use a fan?"

The Master says, "You have only understood that the nature of air is to be ever-present, but you do not yet know the truth that there is no place [air] cannot reach."

The monk says, "What is the truth of there being no place [air] cannot reach?"

At this, the Master just [carries on] using the fan. The monk does prostrations.
Nishijima and Cross

It is interesting to note that this is one of the few instances where Dogen chooses not to elaborate on, turn inside out, or otherwise draw unseen meanings and hidden implications from a koan in one of his essays. He lets the koan stand as it is, with all its traditional implications intact.
His words indicate that this koan is just the right fit for his meaning. He says, "The real experience of the Buddha Dharma, the vigorous road of the authentic transmission, is like this."

It may also be worth noting that in this essay (Genjokoan), which is often heralded as the very essence of Dogen's teaching, the word "Zazen" does not appear even once. Moreover, the two Zen persons (the master and the monk) that Dogen chooses for illustrating "The real experience of the Buddha Dharma, the vigorous road of the authentic transmission" are not engaged in any kind of "solitary" practice, but in a dialogue about Buddha nature.

See you all soon. All comments are most welcome!

Ted Biringer - email > <

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Copyright Ted Biringer 2008

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dogen on the Nonduality of Delusion and Enlightenment

Every western student of Dogen’s Zen is familiar with Hee-Jin Kim’s landmark book, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, published over thirty years ago. Most of us would be quick to agree that, outside the translations of Dogen’s writings, Mystical Realist is the most important book on Dogen’s Zen available in English. In it, Dr. Kim illumined the heart of Dogen’s work in a way that forced all of us in the Zen community to reevaluate some of the most basic assumptions about Dogen’s teaching. In fact, Kim’s book went further, challenging us to question many of the fundamental assumptions concerning Zen itself—at least as it was represented in the West.

In his most recent book, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, Hee-Jin Kim again raises and illumines issues that most Zen teachers and scholars have ignored, avoided, or simply missed. These issues merit our utmost attention, for (to quote the ‘grand master’ himself) "an unexamined Zen is not worth living."

I would like to take up some of the topics Kim presents in his books and make an effort to give them some of the attention they deserve. In doing so, I will confine my comments as they relate to this project here at the Dogen Shobogenzo Blog. I will attempt to keep my focus primarily on Dogen’s teachings as presented in his writings, primarily in his Shobogenzo. My posts on other topics will continue to be posted at the Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog as well as the other Blogs I participate in (see my blogroll).

Although Hee-Jin Kim offers many fascinating topics to choose from, I would like to begin with the one he takes up first in his latest book; the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment.
Of course, the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment has always been a fundamental teaching of Zen (and other Mahayana schools), but as Kim points out, enlightenment has "overshadowed delusion despite Zen’s insistence on their nonduality. This lopsided view has unwittingly led to the aggrandizement and indulgence in enlightenment one way or another." (Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.10)

Before delving into Dogen’s teachings on the subject, let us briefly review the basics of Zen’s teaching on the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment. In Zen, the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment is as basic as the nonduality of light and dark, inside and outside, up and down, and emptiness and form. Just as "up" depends on "down," so "enlightenment" depends on "delusion."

In the classic records of Zen, we often read things like; "nirvana is samsara," or "there is light right in the darkness," and "the defilements are themselves bodhi." As shocking as such statements might seem, they are often quickly forgotten or simply dismissed. Yet, the very fact that such statements sound shocking indicates the importance of examining them very closely and keeping them in mind in our overall understanding of the Buddha-dharma.

The true nature of reality is often surprising, and as Zen is concerned with reality, the expressions of Zen too are often surprising. True Zen masters do not make up "surprising" things to say, they simply express the truth which is often surprising. The fact that enlightenment is only possible because of delusion is obvious enough, but the fact that enlightenment cannot displace, or eradicate delusion might sound surprising. Yet the teaching of nonduality is clear; all such opposites (or as Kim calls them, "foci") equally depend upon and define one another. Light is neither greater, nor lesser than dark, up is exactly proportionate to down, form is exactly emptiness, and according to the fundamental teachings of Zen delusion is equal to enlightenment.

The classic Zen masters, while acknowledging this, have seldom elaborated on it. Dogen, on the other hand, not only elaborated on it, he deeply examined its implications and made regular use of it throughout his Zen teachings. Dogen was a master of expression and his teachings on the nonduality of delusion and enlightenment are often powerful catalysts to sudden insights. From his equation of "great enlightenment" with "great delusion," his teachings on "the nevertheless deluded" and the "ever deluded" to his famous, "one is further deluded beyond delusion," Dogen transformed unseen implications into profound explications of the Buddha-Dharma.

I will return to this topic soon-- I am looking forward to seeing where this might lead. Comments are most welcome!
See you soon, take care