The True Nature of Horror, Suffering, & Samsara?
Dogen’s era was a time of tremendous chaos and suffering. The whole of Japan was suffering from the instability caused by the ever shifting hierarchies that accompanied the rise of the warrior class. The fierce internal rivalry of both the nobility and the Samurai compounded the confusion and turmoil in their struggles against each other over the governing powers of Japan. Regardless of the accuracy of the evidence linking Dogen’s own familial lineage to both the warrior and noble classes, there is little doubt that many friends and family were deeply enmeshed on various sides of the struggle, some at the highest levels.
To “leave home” and live as a Buddhist monastic in 13th century Japan was much different than most of imagine today. Becoming a monk in any of the temples around Kyoto in those days certainly did not free anyone from the chaos of the secular and political worlds. All the major Buddhist temples controlled vast amounts of Japan’s wealth (mostly in the form of land grants) and were deeply entwined with the court which dictated temple leadership. At the same time, they depended on Samurai families for patronage as well as armed protection from rival sects. Moreover, Japanese Buddhist sectarianism was way beyond “bickering” or “competition” – it would be less than accurate to define the sectarian rivalry of the 12th and 13th centuries as anything less than out and out warfare. The major Buddhist institutions found it necessary to employ thousands of “warrior monks.” More “warrior” than “monk,” these monastic were trained in the martial arts and armed to the teeth. Ostensibly needed to defend the Dharma and the temple properties, they were often used as a threat to force secular decisions. And if opportunity arose they were used to kill the members of rival Buddhist sects. The “ordinary monks” often joined their brothers in the larger killing ventures that sometimes ended by burning the losing sect’s temple to the ground.
During the same period, Japan suffered a long and devastating series of catastrophes; homes, roads, and whole cities were laid waste by waves of unprecedentedly severe hurricanes and earthquakes, a succession of droughts caused a massive shortage of rice, and severe outbreaks of plague swept the entire region. In hindsight, we can all be grateful for the explosion of Buddhist creativity and reformation that directly resulted from this turbulent period of Japanese history, but for Dogen (as well as Eisai, Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren) things must have looked much different.
Even if his upbringing among the elite offered some insulation from the horror, it did nothing to shield Dogen from personal tragedy. Dogen’s lost his father at age 2 (possibly to assassination), his mother died when he was only 8, his first four Dharma teachers were dead by the time he was 17, his fifth teacher, Myozan (from whom he received transmission in Rinzai Zen), died when Dogen was 25, and his last teacher, Tendo Nyojo (from whom he received transmission in Soto Zen), died when Dogen was 28.
Any of these factors would have been enough to make Dogen intimate with the “cruel facts” of life-and-death (samsara) and the first noble truth (truth of anguish), all of them together must have seared it into his bones. And indeed, his massive corpus of writings testify to his profound intimacy with the realities of samsara and the truth of suffering – nevertheless, at first glance we may wonder how a world as full of tragedy and horror as Dogen’s could be described in the terms he used here, for example:
How could this fail to be the Land of Old Buddhas! What a joy it is that the Flower of the Dharma has existed for eon after eon! What a joy it is that there is a flowering of the Dharma day and night! Because the Flower of the Dharma continues from eon to eon and flowers throughout both day and night, even though our own bodies and minds wax and wane in strength, this very waxing and waning is also the flowering of the Dharma. Everything, just as it is, is a rare treasure, a luminous radiance, a place for training in the Way. Everything, just as it is, is great, vast, profound, and far-reaching in its influence; everything is the profound, vast, and far-reaching supreme, fully perfected enlightenment; everything is the mind’s wandering off into delusion at the turning of the Dharma Flower; everything is the mind’s awakening which turns the Flower of the Dharma; everything is truly the Flower of the Dharma setting in motion the Dharma’s flowering.
The mind’s wandering is its being turned by the Flower of the Dharma:
The mind’s awakening is its turning of the Flower of the Dharma.
If what we fully realize is like this,
It is the Flower of the Dharma setting in motion the flowering of the Dharma.
When we make offerings to It, bow in respect to It, honor It, and praise It, the Flower of the Dharma is the flowering of the Dharma.
Shobogenzo, Hokke Ten Hokke, Hubert Nearman
From the midst of ruthless, bloody political turmoil, from the midst of destruction, poverty, disease, crime, and starvation on unprecedented scales Dogen sings out, “How could this fail to be the Land of Old Buddhas! What a joy it is..!” He is not praising a “Buddha land” that is far away in space or time or a potential of the world we live in, nor is he speaking of a hidden realm behind or underlying the appearance of the very forms we see all around us. Anuttara samyaksambodhi (fully perfected enlightenment) is, Dogen unequivocally proclaims “everything, just as it is.” To clearly grasp what Dogen means, we need to honestly acknowledge what “everything, just as it is” signified in his particular circumstances. Part of that which Dogen describes as a “rare treasure” were politics of mass corruption, assassination, and execution (sometimes of entire clans, including the children); this “luminous radiance” was also inclusive of mass destruction, disease, and death. In short, what Dogen plainly said was that the very forms of war, poverty, brutality, starvation, and all the other evident evils are, just as they are, inclusive of “the profound and far-reaching supreme, fully perfected enlightenment” (anuttara samyaksambodhi).
Once we are clear about what he actually said, we can begin to discern what it means. One encouraging implication is that, if Dogen is correct, anuttara samyaksambodhi could be the “as it is” of our own era, which is certainly no more chaotic or evil-ridden to us than his was to those around him. The meaning that informs Dogen’s joy for the Buddha Land that is “everything, just as it is” is intimated in the terms, “a place for training in the Way,” and “far-reaching in its influence,” in his description from the above passage.
What “place” is Dogen referring to when he says, “a place for training in the Way”? This is certainly something worth taking up on the cushion. There is no doubt that this place has a specific coordinate in existence-time, for Dogen all places are specific places and all times are definite instances. When we find this place we will certainly be able to verify that it is truly “far-reaching in its influence.”