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?


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