As all Dogen students know, Dogen frequently praises the merit of sitting meditation (zazen); imploring us to wholeheartedly practice zazen and consistently affirming the nondual relationship of practice and enlightenment. He also goes to great lengths to define his terms, often by contrasting his meaning of zazen with popular “wrong notions” about zazen.
In his most detailed account of zazen, Shobogenzo, Zazenshin, Dogen outlines two common fallacies about prevalent in his era. One is the teaching that zazen is “just sitting” and letting things be (thoughts, sounds, smells, etc.); he deplores the notion that any of the six streams of experience (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking) should just be allowed to come and go, that there is “nothing special” to realize, and that “just sitting and attaining peace of mind” is the “right method” of zazen. For example:
In recent years, however, stupid unreliable people have said, “In the effort of Zazen, to attain peace of mind is everything. Just this is the state of tranquility.” This opinion is beneath even scholars of the small vehicle. It is inferior even to the vehicles of men and gods. How can we call such people of the Buddha-Dharma? In the Great Kingdom of Buddha-Dharma today, people of such effort are many. It is lamentable that the Patriarch’s truth has gone to ruin.
Shobogenzo, Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Nevertheless, popular books and teachers continue to espouse variations of this very notion today. One popular teacher (Joko Beck) asserts that, “The natural state is what practice is about,” and, “Our essential task is not to try to achieve something. Our true nature is always there, always undisturbed.”
This is very different from Dogen’s teaching which exhorts us to, above all, “achieve the bodhi mind” (attain enlightenment), frequently reminding us that:
“This Dharma is abundantly present in each human being but…if we do not experience it, it cannot be realized.”
Bendowa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Unless you arouse a mind comparable to this, how will you accomplish the great task of the Buddha-Way, which cuts off the turning round of birth and death in a single instant of thought? If someone has such a mind, we do not talk about whether he has inferior wisdom of degenerate faculties, we do not discuss whether he is a stupid and ignorant evil man; he will definitely attain enlightenment.
Shobogenzo, Zuimonki, Thomas Cleary
The second common delusion manifests in various forms of the notion that “everything is Zen.” This is commonly touted by expressions like, “Everything you see and hear is the One-essence, it is nothing but the Buddha-dharma” or, “Allow whatever comes to come and, when it goes, just let it go, don’t suppress it or attach to it. Think of it as a bubble” (Genpo Merzel)
In Contrast, Dogen urged us to approach life as an eternal quest for meaning and experience—asserting that whole worlds existed in each moment, in each drop of water. Dogen’s disdain for “no goal or no purpose” notions of Zen practice was unabashed. Dogen constantly asserts that aspiration and effort are essential to genuine Zen practice and enlightenment:
It is pitiful that [such people] spend a lifetime passing in succession through the monasteries of the ten directions, and yet they have not experienced the effort of one sitting. Sitting is not in them; their effort does not meet with themselves at all. This is not because Zazen hates their own body and mind, but because they do not aspire to the genuine effort [of Zazen], and they are quickly deluded. Their collections seem only to be about getting back to the source or returning to the origin, about vainly endeavoring to cease thought and become absorbed in serenity. That is not equal to the stages of reflection on, training in, assuming the fragrance of, and cultivation of [dhyana]; it is not equal to views on the ten states and the balanced state of truth: how could [those people] have received the one-to-one transmission of the Zazen of the buddhas and the patriarchs?
Shobogenzo, Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Dogen’s work almost seems to consist of nothing but expounding the thought, practice, and continuous actualization of practice and enlightenment. He urges those who have already attained enlightenment to continue to go ever deeper attaining enlightenment upon enlightenment. Dogen repeatedly and consistently asserts that practice without enlightenment is not authentic practice.
Concentrating our resolve, we should just strive in pursuit of the truth. We should learn in practice that in pursuing the truth we are as if meeting life-and-death [itself]; it is not that we pursue the truth in life and death. People today imagine that they will set aside the pursuit of the truth when they reach fifty or sixty, or reach seventy or eighty: this is extremely stupid… If you do not single-mindedly strive to be saved, who will be inspired by whom? When we are vainly wandering in the wilds, skeletons without a master, we should realize right reflection—as if making an eye.
… The sixth Patriarch was a woodman in Shinshu district. It would be difficult to call him an intellectual. He had lost his father in infancy and had been brought up by his old mother; he made a living as a woodman in order to support her. After hearing one phrase of a sutra at a town crossing, he left his old mother at once, and went in search of the great Dharma. He was a man of great makings, rare through the ages. His pursuit of the truth was in a class by itself. To cut off an arm may be easy, but this severance from love must have been enormously difficult; this abandoning of obligation could not have been done lightly. Having devoted himself to the order of Obai, he pounded rice day and night, without sleep or respite, for eight months. In the middle of one night, he received the authentic transmission of the robe and the bowl. Even after getting the Dharma, he still carried the stone mortar on his travels, and continued his rice-pounding for eight years. Even when he manifested himself in the world and preached the Dharma to deliver others, he did not set aside the stone mortar. This was maintenance of practice rare through the ages.
Baso of Kozei sat in Zazen for twenty years and he received the intimate seal of Nangaku… Even into old age he did not let up.
Master Ungan learned in practice alongside Dogo in the order of Yakusan. Having made a pledge together, [Ungan and Dogo] did not put their sides to a bed for forty years; with one taste, they investigated the state in experience…
Great Master Kokaku of Ungo-zan mountain in former days resided in a hut on Sanpo mountain… The Great Master on one occasion, on visiting Tozan, decisively attained the great state of truth… No longer expecting heavenly cuisine, he saw the great state of truth as his sustenance. We should try to imagine his determination.
Shobogenzo, Gyoji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
The requirement of wholehearted effort and focused, dedicated practice is basic to Buddhism, and a hallmark of Zen.