Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dogen's Shikantaza (sole-sitting)

A new post on Dogen's shikantaza (sole-sitting) has been posted on our sister blog: Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog, here:


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Zen Emptiness: The Real Form of All Dharmas

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form. Real form is all dharmas. All dharmas are forms as they are, natures as they are, body as it is, the mind as it is, the world as it is, clouds and rain as they are, walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, as they are; sorrow and joy, movement and stillness, as they are; a staff and a whisk, as they are; a twirling flower and a smiling face, as they are; succession of the Dharma and affirmation, as they are; learning in practice and pursuing the truth, as they are; the constancy of pines and the integrity of bamboos, as they are.
Shobogenzo, Shoho-Jisso
, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

If all reality is particular forms and specific actions, as Dogen contends, there is no reason to worry about our ability to distinguish reality from unreality; everything that can be distinguished is real; if every particular form and specific action is reality, there is every reason to concern ourselves with our ability to perceive, understand, and act skillfully.

The ability to perceive, understand, and act skillfully is the measure of true wisdom, it is the ability to respond wisely in the here and now – this is the real wisdom of responsibility (response-ability). For, if all particular forms and actions are real dharmas, as Buddhism contends and Dogen emphasizes, then every particular “a wise act” (e.g. eating, reading to our child, looking both ways, practicing zazen, etc.) is a real dharma. Corollary with this, every specific “foolish act” (e.g. gluing our eyes shut, accepting views we have not personally verified, giving a 5 year old a pound of chocolate, accepting an invitation to a “special transmission” from a naked “Zen master,” etc.) is also real. And it does not stop there; all specific oak trees are real trees, all particular biases are real biases, all specific expressions of truth are real expressions of truth, all particular lies are real lies, flowers are real, cluster-bombs are real, awareness of the Dharma is real, ignorance of the Dharma is real.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Skillful Means - Is "The Raft" Truly Disposable?

Skillful Means - Is "The Raft" Truly Disposable?
(Excerpted and revised from the 2010 December issue of The Flatbed Sutra Zen Newsletter)
A Buddha’s discourse is beyond the sentient and the non-sentient; it is beyond the relative and the absolute. Even so, when He became aware of bodhisattvas, of ordinary humans, of the Real Form of things, and of this discourse, He opened the Gate of Skillful Means. The Gate of Skillful Means is the unsurpassed meritorious functioning of the fruits of Buddhahood. It is the Dharma that resides in the place of Dharma and It is the form of the world as it constantly manifests. The Gate of Skillful Means does not refer to some momentary skill.
Shobogenzo, Shoho Jisso, Hubert Nearman

The Zen perspective of the Buddhist teaching of “skillful means” has been discussed in numerous Zen books. Not without some justification, both traditional and scholarly accounts tend to stress the expedient or provisional aspect of skillful means, that is, are portrayed as temporary doctrines or momentary skills used to direct students to something else, something other than themselves. In short, skillful means are truly depicted as means, not ends. This view is often illustrated with the analogy of a raft; having reached the other shore (the ends), the raft (the means) should be discarded.

Dogen’s view is not so simple (nor is the view of the classic literature, but our focus is Dogen). In fact, the popular view is nearly diametrically opposed to Dogen’s own. When Dogen says a Buddha’s discourse is “beyond the relative and the absolute” his meaning is inclusive of all dualistic views, including “means and ends.”

To separate “the raft” from “reaching the other shore,” can only be done by violating the Buddhist principles of nonduality. According to these principles, any two constituents in a nondual relationship are interdependent – that is, they are coessential. The inference is clear; if “the means” are provisional or momentary, “the ends” must also be provisional or momentary. For a raft to be an effective "means" for crossing a river, it must be a real raft. All real forms (dharmas), according to Dogen’s teachings on existence and time (existence-time; uji), are in and of real time; thus they cannot change into unreal things, disappear, or be eliminated from time (and existence). A raft that is truly “a means for crossing a river” is, and will always be an intrinsic aspect of “arriving at the other shore.” Likewise, if a verbal or written teaching is an effective means it must be a real dharma, not a provisional one.

When Dogen speaks of “this discourse” as being a “real form” he is highlighting the fact that “a Buddha’s discourse” is a real dharma; thus, he says, “The gate of skillful means does not refer to some momentary skill.”

Therefore, by his own definition, Dogen’s Shobogenzo (a Buddha’s discourse) is not a provisional or momentary device, but a real form (dharma) in and of space and time (existence-time; uji); it is an expression of Buddha nature.

Attempting to find the “reality” of a Mozart symphony independent of the actual music would not only be delusional, it would be ridiculous. This applies equally to the “reality” of a Buddha’s discourse. Some of the most colorful expressions in Shobogenzo are those directed at views that the “words and letters” of sutras and Zen records are mere means pointing to ends apart from themselves.

Therefore, when he describes a Buddha’s discourse as “the gate of skillful means” saying that it is “the Dharma that resides in the place of Dharma” and “the form of the world as it constantly manifests,” Dogen is not only emphasizing the physical-temporal (existence-time) reality of the words and letters (of a Buddha’s discourse), but also its accessibility. The significance of this is often underscored in Shobogenzo with an allusion to one of Dogen’s favorite koans, “nothing in the whole universe is concealed.” The main point of the koan concerns the principle of nonduality; more specifically, the teaching that the “form” of something and its “nature” are not separate.

Buddhism teaches that the emptiness of things (dharmas), that is to say, their essence, is the true nature, or reality of all things – without exception. The most common formulation of this teaching states, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” To simplify, “form is emptiness” means the true nature of “forms” is their emptiness of self nature; in other words, the reality of forms is their lack of independence. “Emptiness is form” means that the true nature of emptiness is its appearance as forms. The practical sense is that the “outward form” of a thing (dharma) and the “essential nature” of that thing are a unity. Thus, a “form” and its “emptiness” are coessential, neither exists independently – no form, no emptiness; no emptiness, no form. Like all simplifications, this is an over-simplification, but it suffices for our purpose here.

The importance of being aware of the nature of this unity for understanding Shobogenzo cannot be overstated; it is a principle that is explicitly and implicitly central throughout the whole of Shobogenzo. Other than Dogen’s teaching of “nothing concealed,” just mentioned, this unity is key to his doctrines of “existence-time,” “practice-realization,” “appearance-reality,” “enlightenment-delusion,” “experience-existence,” and others.

While this is a fundamental doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, its practical application has often been neglected, resulting in biased views privileging “form is emptiness” over “emptiness is form.” The consequences have been diverse and numerous, but our interest here is its effect on the notion of language in Zen; specifically, on how this bias contributed to the widespread acceptance of distorted views on the role of verbal and written expressions in Zen Buddhism.

As we just observed, according to the doctrine of emptiness, a form and its essence are a unity; but according to the biased view in question, a form is inferior to its essence. The level of this inferiority varies according to the particular advocates and other specifics. For example, some may suggest that all forms are unreal or illusory and emptiness is the only reality; others might say forms are provisionally or temporarily real, or that some are real and others are not, etc.

Regardless of the particulars, all such views share a common presupposition that is inherent to the bias in question: a dualistic view that the reality of the Buddha Dharma exists independently of the expression of the Buddha Dharma. As should be clear by now, this would violate the principle of nonduality (not to mention common sense) as it inherently presupposes that forms (dharmas), in this case; words, scriptures, and utterances, can exist independently of emptiness (reality, true nature).

Obviously, to privilege “form is emptiness” over “emptiness is form” is to see the former as superior and the latter as inferior. Now, in the absence of two or more things, “superiority” and “inferiority” are meaningless, they simply cannot be applied to one thing (or none). Therefore, to view the “meaning” of a Buddha’s words as superior to their “form” necessarily presupposes a division between the “form” and the “essence” of the Buddha Dharma. Obviously, any such view is inherently dualistic (i.e. non-Buddhist).

If the essence of an expression and the form of that expression are a unity, as Dogen contends, truly understanding an expression cannot even begin until one recognizes that the essence (i.e. reality, meaning, etc.) of an expression exists in the form of the expression before one – and nowhere else. This is why Dogen so adamantly insists, “A thing and its nature are not two different things.” It is also why we can rejoice, as Dogen does, as he underscores the implication, “Nothing in the whole universe is concealed.”

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Dogen's Three Essential Aspects of the Buddha Dharma

Dogen's Three Essential Aspects of the Buddha Dharma...
In accord with what I have been saying, the process of succession of Buddha after Buddha is something that is extraordinarily profound. It is completely resolute, neither retreating nor deviating: it is unbroken in its continuity and has never died out.
Shobogenzo, Shisho, Hubert Nearman

Notions of superior or inferior aspects of the Buddha Dharma are consistently refuted throughout Shobogenzo. For Dogen, the Dharma is a single wholeness; each aspect is an essential and intrinsic constituent of it. If an aspect of the Dharma were nonessential, it would be superfluous. For this reason the superiority and inferiority of doctrines or methods are never raised by Dogen, there can be no superiority or inferiority between essential elements; as the constituents of water, neither hydrogen nor oxygen occupy a superior position; in the absence of either there is no water. Thus, in Shobogenzo all constituents of the authentic Buddha Dharma are essential elements of it; the absence one element of the Dharma would mean the absence of the whole Dharma.

The question, therefore, is not what aspects of the authentic Dharma are essential – they all are – but simply, what are the essential aspects of the authentic Dharma. According to Dogen, there are three essential aspects of the Buddha Dharma.

Before considering these three aspects, we should mention something else implied by the wholeness of the Dharma; the perspective of Shobogenzo – from that perspective, the Buddha Dharma is simply the Buddha Dharma. This means Shobogenzo not only shuns arguments of superiority and inferiority, it dispenses with notions about relative levels of Dharma. The expressions of Dharma that are directed to novices are no less authentic or significant than expressions addressed to seasoned veterans. In Dogen’s Zen, the Dharma is either authentic or it is not; the truth cannot be watered-down – if it is true for the beginner, it is true for the fully enlightened Buddha. Unlike philosophers, scholars, or scientists, Zen masters do not express themselves from the perspective of theory or speculation; their expressions are asserted from the perspective of their personal verification of the authentic Buddha Dharma.

All the Buddhas and all the Ancestors express what They have realized.
Shobogenzo, Dotoku, Hubert Nearman

Now, the three essential aspects of the Buddha Dharma, according to Shobogenzo, are scriptural teachings, training and practice, and personal verification.

By “scriptural teachings,” Dogen means the expressions of Buddhas and ancestors; “training and practice” means endeavoring to study, understand, and apply these teachings; “personal experience” means achieving personal verification of their truth.

As the Dharma is a single wholeness, these three aspects constitute a unity, and thus, are not divided by time or space. The “treasure” of Shobogenzo is the “True Dharma-Eye.” In the present context we can say that the experience of perceiving via the Dharma-Eye is what is here called “personal verification.” Now, some argue that this is inconsistent. If the Dharma is a single wholeness and the three essential aspects are united in time and space, as Dogen contends, how can we speak of three distinct aspects? In other words, if the three essential aspects of the Dharma – teachings, practice, and experience – are undivided by time or space, where is “personal experience” during “teaching” or “practice,” and where are teaching and practice at the moment of experience? The only inconsistency here is this question; it reveals a fallacious presupposition inherent to a dualistic view of existence and time.

In Shobogenzo, not only are existence and time nondual, existence and existence are nondual, time and time are nondual. That is, each particular thing (dharma) contains and is contained by all other things in all existence; each instant of time contains and is contained by all instants of time in the past, present and future. The three essentials of the Dharma – teaching, practice, and experience – are therefore mutually interdependent and non-obstructive.

This principle is succinctly stated in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, as, “When one side is revealed, the other side is concealed.” Like the light and dark sides of the moon, the revealed aspect testifies to the presence of the concealed aspect. When the teachings are revealed, practice, and experience are concealed (present); when the Dharma-Eye is functioning, the teachings, and practice are concealed.

To clarify this, consider this, for instance: in the actualization of practice, practice is present in the present, teachings are present in the past, and experience is present in the future. Thus, Dogen’s expression in Shobogenzo, Shoaku Makusa:

[This is] not a onetime eye; it is vigorous eyes at many times. Because [those times] are moments in which the eye is present as vigorous eyes, they make the buddhas and the patriarchs practice, make them listen to the teachings, and make them experience the fruit. The buddhas and the patriarchs have never made the teachings, practice, and experience tainted, and so the teachings, practice, and experience have never hindered the buddhas and the patriarchs. For this reason, when [teachings, practice, and experience] compel the Buddhist patriarchs to practice, there are no buddhas or patriarchs who flee, before the moment or after the moment, in the past, present, or future.
Shobogenzo, Shoaku Makusa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

We have said Shobogenzo is itself a unified expression and that it is presented from the perspective that the Buddha Dharma is a unified whole that can be described as consisting of three essential aspects: scriptural teachings, training and practice, and personal verification. Now, we’ll consider two of these aspects further; “personal verification” and “scriptural teachings” (training and practice will be taken up later).

To begin with “personal verification,” we first need to clarify Dogen’s meaning above about the eye as not being a “onetime eye.”

The “eye” is, of course, the Dharma-Eye. That it is not a onetime eye means that, like all real forms (dharmas; things, beings, events, etc.), this eye is intrinsic to all times, that is, to the whole of existence-time (uji). On a more superficial level it can also be seen as a caution against views of enlightenment as an “ultimate” experience or “one time” attainment. Such views are based on abstract concepts derived from speculations about “personal verification,” and thus, can only obscure truth.

The role of personal verification, a key tenet in most Buddhist schools, is a hallmark characteristic of Zen. The initial occasion of the personal experience of enlightenment is central to the story of every major figure in Zen history. Moreover, the necessity of personal awakening is one principle that is inherent to all the classic Zen literature; it is perhaps the most consistent principle of Zen literature.

Despite the tendency of many within the Soto sect to minimize the significance of the story of Dogen’s own initial experience of enlightenment, it is well known to Zen students. Said to have been attained at a moment when he initially “dropped off the body-mind of self and other,” Dogen described it as “accomplishing the task of a lifetime” (in Bendowa). Thus, it is no surprise that the perspective of Shobogenzo harmonizes with the classic literature and insists on the necessity of the experience; for example:

Clearly remember: in the Buddhist patriarchs’ learning of the truth, to awaken the bodhi-mind is inevitably seen as foremost. This is the eternal rule of the Buddhist patriarchs.
Shobogenzo, Hotsu-bodaishin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

As with the story of Dogen’s awakening, many within the Soto sect attempt to gloss passages like this one from Shobogenzo with “interpretations” suggesting Dogen minimized or even denied the necessity of initial awakenings (a central doctrine of Soto’s chief rival; the Rinzai sect). Upon scrutiny however, even the more creative of such interpretations reveal the tell-tale signs of sectarian invention. Strangely, however, these efforts have not only failed to undermine the authenticity of the teaching on “personal verification,” they have failed to counter the over-emphasis on the teaching that is prevalent in much contemporary Zen literature. But the focus here is how this experience is envisioned by Shobogenzo.

As with all aspects of the Buddha Dharma, the teachings of Shobogenzo on the significance of “personal verification” are concerned only with authenticity (or the lack of it). In Dogen’s Zen, authentic aspects of the Dharma are essential aspects; as essential aspects, it would be meaningless to discuss them in terms of superiority and inferiority.

In sum, being an authentic aspect of the Dharma, the experience of opening the Dharma-Eye is simply an essential aspect of authentic Zen practice. Thus, discussing it in terms of superiority and inferiority is senseless; no essential aspect of the Dharma can be more or less important than any other essential aspect. Blood is not more important than a heart, air is not superior to lungs; each is equally essential to authentic human life. Study is not more important than practice, opening the Dharma-Eye is not superior to accurate understanding; each is essential to authentic Zen practice and enlightenment.

Now, if personal verification means verifying the authenticity of the Dharma in direct personal experience, what is it that constitutes the “Dharma” that is to be verified?