Seeing True Nature (Kensho) - Seeing Buddha (Kenbutsu)
As previously noted, Dogen advocates two essential aspects of practice that he calls “study with body” and “study with mind.” Study with body, usually symbolized as “zazen,” is the aspect of practical verification (expressed and enacted in the world) and also the Dharma-gate through which practitioners initially awaken to true nature: kensho (seeing true nature), or Dogen’s preferred term, kenbutsu (seeing Buddha).
It is important for Zen practitioners to clearly understand that this awakening is essential, but should not thought of as an end in itself; truly, it is but a beginning. In contemporary Zen literature, this experience (when it is not avoided altogether) is often over-emphasized, under-emphasized, or simply presented in obscure terms. Because of the widespread confusion about the significance of this important aspect of Dogen’s teaching (and Zen generally) it may be worth making a few comments in an effort to help clarify the issue. First let’s consider these words from Shobogenzo:
Those who have not yet given rise to this enlightened Mind are not our Ancestral Masters.
Question 120 in the Procedures for Cleanliness in a Zen Temple states, “Have you awakened to enlightened Mind?” You clearly need to realize that what this is saying is that, in learning the Truth of the Buddhas and Ancestors, awakening to enlightened Mind is unquestionably foremost. This is the continual Teaching of the Buddhas and Ancestors. ‘To awaken’ means to have something fully dawn on you. ‘To awaken’ means to have something fully dawn on you. This does not refer to the great, ultimate awakening of a Buddha.
Shobogenzo, Hotsu Bodai Shin, Herbert Nearman
Here we can clearly see what this awakening “means” to Dogen, and see that he considers this experience as being both “essential” and only a “beginning.” It means to fully grasp, understand, or realize truth in that it means, “to have something fully dawn on you.” It is essential in that this awakening is “unquestionably foremost” in learning the truth. It is only an “initial” awakening in that this experience is not the “ultimate awakening of a Buddha.”
While definitely not an end in itself, this experience is essential insofar as it is an “initial opening” (of the Dharma-eye, or Buddha-eye) that marks the true beginning of authentic Zen practice-enlightenment. In a certain sense, this is where “practicing Zen practice” (attempting, trying, experimenting, etc.) becomes “Zen practicing Zen.” Its primary importance is due to the fact that until we have truly experienced at least a glimpse of true nature (or Buddha nature), we lack the experiential “body-knowing” that is necessary to truly “see” (in the metaphoric sense) what Buddhist teachings actually mean by “Buddha nature.”