Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Fallacies about Zazen

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.

6 comments: said...

Hi Ted,

I am not an expert of Zen or of Buddhism, but I am in the process of learning. I have a question about your post: do you hold to the doctrine of upaya, "skill in means"? If so, might the particular view of Zen (that you discount in your post) be an important step for some practitioners at a particular time in their development?

I am not a Buddhist, I am a Christian, but I practice meditation, and I also have other spiritual disciplines and goals of personal development. At times, it is helpful for me to take on some of the "wrong notions" listed in the post. I find myself needing to let go of aspirations to achieve my spiritual goals, to let go of the need for spiritual progress. Paradoxically, I have found that I accomplish the most when I am able to let go of the need to accomplish.

I do agree with your closing statement, however: "The requirement of wholehearted effort and focused, dedicated practice is basic to Buddhism, and a hallmark of Zen." I think that wholehearted effort and focused dedication is important and cannot be replaced, by a practitioner of any religion who is hoping to become a more mindful and developed person. But can one be both a wholehearted and dedicated practitioner and also believe that "everything is Zen"? Can one be dedicated to practice yet still let go of the need to make spiritual progress? I am curious as to how you might answer this, based on your own experiences as a Buddhist practitioner. (I realize that we may have different ideas of spiritual development, because we are from different faith perspectives.)

Ted Biringer said...

Hello erdman31,

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your sincere words. I will reply in several sections.

Part 1

First let me say that I too consider myself to be in the process of learning – I would be wary of anyone that did consider themselves to be an “expert” of Zen or Buddhism. There is a saying in some Zen communities, “Shakyamuni Buddha has been practicing for 2500 years, and he is only halfway there.” In any case, my view is basically that since the “Way” is endless, everyone with a genuine interest in the study or practice of Zen (or any spiritual tradition for that matter) is simply a student or practitioner – some further along than others, but all on the same path…

Having said that, I try to keep my posts here confined to those things/topics that I have “verified in practice.” That is to say, this post attempts to convey something that I have found to be genuinely true – of course, my ability to express it may be faulty and my understanding may flawed, but at present, this post expresses my best understanding on this topic (i.e. that the method/significance of zazen as taught by many contemporary teachers/schools, diverges (sometimes widely) from that expressed in the classic Zen records, specifically, Dogen’s Shobogenzo).

As to the significance of understanding upaya (skillful means), it is, in my view, an essential element of the Buddha-Dharma and deserves our careful study and attention. In fact, this is a topic I have studied and written extensively about both here and elsewhere. In my experience the Zen Buddhist view of upaya is often misunderstood and misrepresented. To clarify what I mean, here is an excerpt of a commentary I wrote recently on a passage from Dogen’s Shobogenzo:

See Part 2

Ted Biringer said...

Reply to erdman31 - Part 2

Dogen wrote:

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 doctrine 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. In other words, skillful means are usually defined and described as temporary measures or devices; mere instruments employed only for the practical reason of directing students to something else, something more significant. In short, skillful means are depicted as only means, not ends, which are separate and distinct realities. Accordingly, advocates of this view regard the verbal and written teachings of Buddhism as “momentary skills” for directing students to truth; useful devices perhaps, but ultimately mere instruments without intrinsic value. This view is commonly illustrated with the analogy of using a raft to cross a river; upon reaching the other shore (the ends), the raft (the means) is to be discarded. The favorite Zen analogy is that of a finger pointing to the moon; the pointing finger likened to the “means,” the moon to the “ends.” While traditional accounts usually ascribe a similar view to Dogen, some scholars, notably Hee-Jin Kim, have underscored the fact that Dogen advocated a much different view; a view nearly diametrically opposed to the popular notion.

In describing a Buddha’s discourse as “beyond the relative and the absolute,” Dogen explicitly rejects the notion that a Buddha’s discourse could be dualistically divided into “means and ends.” From the perspective of Dogen’s Zen, separating “the raft” from “reaching the other shore” violates the Buddhist principle of nonduality, a principle Dogen persistently, even radically upheld. For Dogen, the authentic “skillful means” of Buddhism is coessential and coextensive with the authentic “end” of Buddhism – if the “means” were provisional (momentary), the “end” would also be provisional. Truly “reaching the other shore” (the Buddhist goal) is not possible with a “provisional” raft, only a real raft (authentic teaching) will do. According to Dogen’s teaching of “existence-time” (uji) all dharmas (including “rafts”) exist at a definite place and specific time called a “dharma-position.” Occupying their “dharma-positions,” Dogen explains, dharmas “posses a ‘before’ and ‘after’” (past and future) and do not “become” different dharmas (e.g. “firewood does not become ash”), nor do dharmas vanish or even fade in the passage of time (they are “cut off” from past and future). A more comprehensive explanation will have to wait for a detailed account of existence-time (uji); the point here is that true skillful means are real dharmas (i.e. authentic, efficacious), not provisional (i.e. temporary, momentary) – “The Gate of Skillful Means does not refer to some momentary skill.” Dogen describes “this discourse” as “real form” (i.e. an actual dharma) to emphasize that “a Buddha’s discourse” is an actual manifestation of existence-time (uji), not a merely temporary device.

To sum up this point; according to Dogen’s perspective, the skillful means of a Buddha’s discourse (thus, Shobogenzo) is a real form (dharma) occupying a definite place and specific time, not a provisional device or momentary skill.

See Part 3

Ted Biringer said...

Reply to erdman31 - Part 3

In light of this, you will see why I would respond in the negative concerning your question, “… might the particular view of Zen (that you discount in your post) be an important step for some practitioners at a particular time in their development?”

If upaya is not a “temporary skill” but an authentic aspect of the Way, its relevance must be inherent to authentic Zen practice-enlightenment as a whole – not simply one “step” at a “particular time” which would become irrelevant later on. In short, it is my view that if the truth is really the truth, it will not become something else later on (false, irrelevant, non-existent). The “expressions” of Buddhism (including upaya) are the “form” or “body” of Buddhism (the tangible manifestation that allows us to access it essential significance or true nature). The “essence” (reality, meaning, liberating potential) of Buddhism does not and cannot exist in a vacuum – in the absence of the teachings (upaya, words, expressions, demonstrations, etc.) there could be not Buddhist reality. If a teaching (upaya) is true, it will always be true, if it is not true it will never be true.

In regard to aspiration, the Buddhist teachings on “bodhicitta” (literally; the thought (or mind) of enlightenment) assert that the genuine aspiration (bodhicitta) is an essential element of authentic practice. Much different than personal aspiration or ambition, bodhicitta is the sincere desire/commitment to actualize enlightenment and deliver all beings from suffering. This sincere “intention” to awaken the Bodhi mind is described as a condition which “happens to us” as much or more than something “we do” – though our intentional effort is also an essential part of arousing this condition, which is described as a “resonation” between ourselves and the universe.

Having said this, the significance in Zen of “letting go” or “not making Buddhahood or enlightenment a ‘goal’” is concerned with the futility of conceptualization. Briefly, if a student or practitioner has not yet awakened to their own true nature (Buddha, enlightenment), they are, by definition, incapable of conceiving the reality of “Buddha” or “enlightenment” – thus any “concept” they construct will be “off the mark”, therefore, if they were to aim for the goal of “Buddha” or “enlightenment” they would only be making a goal of their own “concept” – which would be a futile waste of effort.

Therefore, the Zen practice of the beginner (pre-kensho, or prior to actual awakening) applies sincere, focused effort to the method/technique (upaya) of awakening (e.g. zazen, shikantaza, koan-introspection, tuning the breath, etc) while “letting go” of their personal “expectations” or “goals” (ego constructed concepts).

Finally, you wrote, “…we may have different ideas of spiritual development, because we are from different faith perspectives…”

It is my experience that authentic truth, reality, and wisdom are authentic truth, reality, and wisdom – how could there be two separate truths for Buddhists and Christians (or anyone else)? I think Jesus, Buddha, Bodhidharma, Mohammed, Lao-tzu, William Blake, Eckhart, Dogen, and Black Elk would all be able to find common-ground as to the true nature of the great matter of life and death. While each of the sages expresses the truth according the particular circumstances, culture, era, etc. the truth is the truth – as the Upanishads say, “Truth is one, the sages speak of it my many names.” If so, each of those different names (forms, images, upaya) is a real manifestation of truth.

“Faith” is where we begin, when we verify the significance of what we take on faith it becomes practical experience – certainty. When we find the kind of “faith” that fails in the face of experiential realization, we let it go and seek the truth – always maintaining and verifying the kind of “faith” that assures us that authentic truth and understanding are attainable.

I hope this is helpful.

Thank you again.

Ted said...

Hi Ted,

Tanks for taking the time to so thoroughly answer my queries. I certainly have heard different explanations of skillful means. I was just listening to the dalai lama the other night, which is one reason I asked you about skillful means. The dl seems to be coming from a different perspective, one that is less about Truth, when truth is understood as an absolute disconnected with the relative of space and time. Well, that's how I understood the dl.

You asked me a question about truth and how it could possibly differ between different faith traditions. My point of view at this point is that there is no truth that is not temporal, bound by space and time. Because truth is temporal it is therefore useful, b/c a truth that is completely disconnected from the temporal world would be useless because by definition it would have no connection with our existence.

If truth is temporal,however, then it changes and is relative to it's place and time. In short, I view truth as contextual.

I have a follow up question regarding Dogen. If he asserts that there are "authentic" and "inauthentic" skillful means, then hasn't he created a dualistic view of skillful means? Likewise, if one is dogmatic about a true way versus a false way, then hasn't one become sharply dualistic? Furthermore, if Truth and Falsity did exist in a duality, who would be able to claim access to Truth such that s/he could decipher between the dialogues of True and False? That would be the traditional role of God, no?

Ted Biringer said...

Hello erdman31,

Thank you for your comments. You raise some very important points. I will try to clarify my view on these points as best I can.

If I follow you here, I think our differences may be based in different views of “time” and “space” (or of “nonduality” generally).

Dogen’s view of time and space (or place, existent) adheres strictly (even radically) to the Buddhist principles of nonduality (as elucidated in the Buddhist doctrines of emptiness and interdependence). He elucidates his vision of this nonduality by combining the two terms for existence and time – thus, “existence-time” (Japanese; “uji”).

Briefly, this view sees “time” (passage, endurance) and “space” (spatial forms, or existent things) as a nondual unity – that is, as interdependent, coessential, and coextensive. One of the implications of this is that “dharmas” (individual, specific existent things, beings, events, etc.) do not manifest “in” time, but “as” time (i.e. all actual manifest forms are time itself, or “existence-time.”) For example, in one passage Dogen says:

When you reach such a fertile field of seeing the way things really are, then the earth in its entirety will be ‘one whole sprouting, one whole form’… It is the same as the times we refer to in ‘from time to time’, which contain all forms of existence and all worlds. So take a moment to look around and consider whether there is any form of being, that is, any ‘world’, that does or does not find expression at this very moment of time.
Shobogenzo, Uji, trans. Hubert Nearman

I must have been unclear with my words – Dogen does not posit “inauthentic skillful means” – there are no such things; if it is truly a “skillful means” it is an “authentic” skillful means – if it is not truly a skillful means, it is not a skillful means at all (but something else).

This should clarify your other points: to posit a “true way” and a “false way” in general (or absolute) terms is dualism. No one has ever seen or painted a “general” true or false way (and if reality is a process that is ceaselessly advancing into novelty, as Buddhism contends, there could be no “absolute” [fixed, static, etc.] way).

In Zen the only reality is that reality that actually manifests at/as a particular place and specific time (existence-time) – the “reality”, or “essence” (i.e. emptiness) of a real, particular flower, for instance, exists only in/as the actual “manifestation” (i.e. form, appearance) of that flower. To see (perceive, experience) “this particular flower” as it is (“this particular flower”) is to experience an instance of “truth.” To see “this particular flower” as something “other than it is” is to experience an actual instance of “falsity.”

Having said that, it is important to discern between “duality” and “dualism.” “Dualism” is rejected by Buddhism as a false view. “Duality” is treated as interdependent (coessential) with “nonduality” –nonduality/duality reveal and account for the “oneness of the many” and the “many-ness of the one.”

To engage in authentic Zen practice-enlightenment is to see (experience, perceive) real things (duality, particular manifest forms, etc.) as they are (i.e. real instances of “existence-time”), in contrast with the “common” or “unawakened” way of seeing real things as “other than they are.” In Dogen’s words:

Those who are enlightened about delusion are buddhas Those who are deluded about enlightenment are ordinary beings.
Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, trans. Ted Biringer

I hope this is helpful.

Thanks again.