Koans, Zen Cosmology, and Practice-Enlightenment Here and Now
To be adequate for authentic practice-enlightenment in our everyday world here and now our vision of Dogen’s cosmology requires us to bring his vision forward (and westward) by seeing it through the accumulated insights of the “grand discussion” (and seeing them through it). So too our vision must extend backward (and eastward) through Dogen’s predecessors within the various Buddhist traditions, as well as those among the great eastern traditions of Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, Confucianism and others.
Most importantly our vision through Dogen’s predecessors must be inclusive of the Zen Buddhist tradition as presented in the classic records of the Zen ancestors from the prehistoric “seven Buddhas” through the historical Shakyamuni Buddha and his Indian successors, beginning with Mahakashapa and continuing through Bodhidharma, then to Bodhidharma’s Chinese successors, beginning with Huike, then down through the sixth Chinese ancestor, Huineng and his successors, then on through the five major ancestral lines. From among the voluminous literary production of the Zen tradition, the “koan” related literature, the most distinctive element of Zen as an independent tradition, is far and away Dogen’s greatest influence, thus is of particular importance to our understanding of his Zen cosmology.
The special significance of the koan literature is its powerful capacity to cut through barriers of conceptualization and make bodhi-prajna (enlightened wisdom) an immediate, intimate experience, rather than conveying a teaching that must then be verified or worked out practically – resolving a koan, in contrast to learning through study and cultivation, begins with the true nature of things and works out the implications from there, whereas conventional learning begins with implications and works toward the true nature of things. This does not mean that koan training can replace ordinary conventional study, both are essential to authentic practice-enlightenment, and in fact since koan training is an exacting method requiring accurate understanding and skill, conventional study and cultivation must necessarily precede successful koan training – as well as supplement that training in the past, present, and future that is only and always here and now.