Hello, this post is in response to some recent comments by Martin Lake that raise some important points. For the full text of the comments see:
Mumonkan, Case 8
RWL - The Reason of Words and Letters,
DMT - Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen.
Nonthinking: The Essential Art of Zen Practice-Enlightenment
The practical application or process of Dogen’s practice-enlightenment is illuminated by the works of Hee-Jin Kim in a variety of ways; one of the most succinct examples is a translation and commentary on a passage from Bendowa, one of Dogen’s early writings…
to briefly survey one of the most perniciously tenacious fallacies about the methodology of Dogen’s practice-enlightenment that is revealed by Hee-Jin Kim’s illumination of Dogen’s writings.
In comparison with the detailed attention Dogen’s writings dedicate to the koan literature, sutra study, the nature and dynamics of language, thinking, and reason of practice-enlightenment, Buddha-nature, existence-time, and numerous other topics, his treatment of the practical aspects of seated meditation is minimal at best. In comparison with the creativity and originality of his treatment of those same topics, his meditation manuals hardly qualify as vastly original; apart from a few minor points his treatment of seated meditation is indistinguishable from other sources of his era and earlier. As Kim points out:
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen: On Meditation and Thinking, p.38
Thank you for sharing.
I am not sure that I accurately understand your comments (or their context); please keep this in mind in reading my responses, in which I will try to indicate what I am assuming to be your meaning or context.
Martin wrote: “My experience of koans is that they are records of the behaviour of those who have clarified the state.”
Here I am assuming that by “my experience of koans” you are talking about reading them, hearing them expressed (within and or outside of teachings, teishos, sermons, etc.), and or thinking about them rather than any kind of systematic study or training with a koan teacher.
If so, I can see how they might be viewed as “records of behaviour” – that is certainly how a great many of them are structured. But I wonder what you might think of the many koans that are not structured in the manner of a person’s conduct. For example:
Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?Mumonkan, Case 4
The Ryogon Sutra says, "When I don't see, why don’t you not see my not seeing? If you could see my not seeing that would not be the nature of not seeing. Since you don’t see my not seeing, it must not be a thing. Thus, how could it not be you?Hekiganroku, Case 94
Gettan said, "Keichu, the wheel-maker, made a cart whose wheels had a hundred spokes.If you took away the wheels and the axle, what would be vividly apparent?
Mumonkan, Case 8
Also, in this context, “the state” you refer to seems to mean “one (and the same) particular state” – that is, that all the different koans, the many and various “records of behaviour" all have their source in one and this “one and the same state.” If so, this would certainly seem to be inconsistent with the classic Zen literature (including the records and writings of Dogen and Keizan) which portrays the nature and dynamics of practice-enlightenment as the actualization of the universe (genjokoan) at the interface of both the “myriad dharmas” and the “mind alone” (as interdependent and coessential elements of true nature).
Martin wrote: “What else could they be?”
Even on the surface it seems they could be something other than “records of behavior.” How about allegorical stories? Or, vehicles of truth? Expressions of wisdom? Perhaps even the Buddha Dharma?
While it seems to me that these are at least as likely as “records of behavior,” however, even these fall short of my view/experience of koans. In my view koans are not simply “recordings,” they are not even authentic expressions/teachings of Buddhas and ancestors, they are precisely what the classic Zen masters proclaimed, that is, instances of the Dharma itself, expressions of Buddhas and ancestors as they are here and now. To cite one example, Dogen says:
In encountering these sayings and expressions of Theirs, do not treat them as something apart from the Buddha's assembly, for They are Buddhas turning the Wheel of the Dharma. Because this Wheel of the Dharma encompasses everything in all directions, the Great Ocean, Mount Sumeru, all lands, and all thoughts and things have fully manifested themselves.Shobogenzo, Muchu Setsumu, Hubert Nearman
Martin wrote: “Koans can be recognised as such when we clarify the state for ourselves, otherwise we get lost in opinion or think they have something special to give us.”
This seems to suggest the view that studying koans would be an act in futility for anyone that had not yet clarified “the state” (whatever that may be); and that koans do not have anything special (like wisdom, liberation, etc.) to transmit. If so, do you think that Dogen was wrong when he proclaimed that students should “first know the sayings of Buddhas and ancestors” – for instance:
People who study the Buddha Dharma should first know the sayings of Buddhas and ancestors, without being confused by those outside the way.Eihei Koroku, Leighton & Okumura
Was Dogen trying to confuse or mislead students when he advised them to “first ask” for one koan when you “meet a teacher”?
Good gentlemen, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one case of [koan] story, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently. If you climb to the top of the mountain and dry up the oceans, you will not fail to complete [this study].Dogen's Extensive Record, Vol.8:14, Leighton & Okumura
If koans have nothing special to give us, then why would Dogen tell Ejo that even by hearing a koan “a student may suddenly become enlightened”?
(Asked by Ejo about the "use" of Nansen killing the cat) If it were not a turning word, we could not say, 'Mountains, rivers, and the great earth, are the marvelously pure illumined mind'; and we could not say, 'The very mind is Buddha.' So in the expression of this turning word, see that the cat is identical to the Buddha-body. Furthermore, hearing these words, a student may suddenly become enlightened.Shobogenzo-Zuimonki, (Record of Things Heard, Thomas Cleary)
Martin wrote: “Can you tell me the difference between "just sitting" and "mere sitting"?
In short, the difference is the difference between “authenticity” and “inauthenticity.”
For the longer version, here I will post some excerpts on this topic from an article on Hee-Jin Kim's findings regarding Dogen's Zen in the latest “Flatbed Sutra Zen Newsletter” (Oct. 2012 – Jan. 2013).
[Note: three dots “…” indicate omitted material]
MR - Eihei Dogen: Mystical RealistFE - Flowers of Emptiness: Selected Translation from Shobogenzo
RWL - The Reason of Words and Letters,
DMT - Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen.
Nonthinking: The Essential Art of Zen Practice-Enlightenment
This brings us to the next topic of discussion; Dogen’s notion of authentic practice-enlightenment. The first four points are:
1. In Dogen’s Zen, zazen (or shikantaza) is the primary archetype of authentic Zen practice-enlightenment (shusho).
2. The nature and dynamics of the form/essence unity embodied by the zazen archetype is most comprehensively revealed and elucidated by Dogen in his vision of “nonthinking.”
3. As a human capacity, nonthinking is a mode of thinking informed by, and enacted in harmony with the wisdom of nonduality as revealed by the doctrines of emptiness and interdependence.
4. As practice-enlightenment, nonthinking is the intentional, skillful utilization of thinking for the actualization of universal liberation performed by beings awake to true nature (i.e. a Buddha).
[Note: for examples of Dogen’s notion of “nonthinking” see MR pp. 62-63, & esp. DMT pp. 79-120; on the specific notion of “zazen as archetype” see for example MR p. 58, DMT pp. 23-26]
In connection with nonthinking, “the wisdom of nonduality” means the recognition of the nondual nature of “thinking” and “not-thinking.”
“Thinking” means actively engaging in discriminative, critical, thought concerning a dharma or dharmas; the application of the normal capacities of human intelligence or cognition.
“Not-thinking” is the reality and presence of all dharmas that are “not-thought” at a particular location-time of “thinking” – the sum total of the universe not appearing in/as a particular instance or phenomenal form of “thinking.”
“Nonthinking,” then, is a mode of thinking in which the thinker is awake to or cognizant of the presence of not-thinking in/as the present existence-time of thinking.
Dogen affirms “nonthinking” is “thinking not-thinking,” the significance of which he elucidates by demonstrating that “not-thinking” is a “concrete-state” (i.e. a dharma). This expression by Dogen (see Shobogenzo, Zazenshin) is itself an exemplification of nonthinking; it expresses a thought that recognizes (thus accounts for the presence of) the spatial-temporal form/essence (concrete state) of “not-thinking.”
……should be clear that “nonthinking” is nothing more or less than the application of the truth of nonduality to the activity of “thinking.” In terms of the prajna-paramita… thinking is not-thinking, therefore, thinking is thinking – it is in the (full) context of this that “thinking” can be accurately understood as the mode of thinking that Dogen calls “nonthinking.”
… Dogen’s view of Zen practice-enlightenment, as presented by his teaching of nonthinking, views the human capacity of thinking to be much more expansive than commonly supposed… thinking, from Dogen’s perspective, is not confined to intellectual capacities but is inclusive of all human capacities for discernment (e.g. sensation, perception, linguistic abilities, intellectual pursuits, emotional capacities, consciousness, etc.). It is in light of this refusal to divide, classify, categorize, pigeonhole, or otherwise abstract or reduce the ever-advancing novel actualization of self/world experience-existence, that thinking (along with its sisters, language and reason) is as essential an element of practice-enlightenment as is any other element of Zen, including seated meditation.
5. Dogen's Zen is grounded in and dependent on the clear and comprehensive understanding and skillful utilization of “language, thinking, and reason.”
Despite the fact of the almost total lack of recognition or assimilation by the Zen/Buddhist community (from Dogen’s time to the present), Dogen’s vision of language, thinking, and reason is the de facto vision of Dogen’s Zen. The fascicles of Shobogenzo not only elucidate and expound Dogen’s vision, they exemplify it…
…It is in light of this that Kim writes, for example:
The foregoing passage (from Shobogenzo, Bussho) demonstrates Dogen’s analytic and critical thinking in search of clarity and depth of meaning. In fact, I consider this as a very good example of his practice.Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.106 (italics in the original)
Rather, his approach (for transmitting Zen to his students) emerged from his foremost desire to provide them with fundamental principles—spelled out in terms of language, thinking, and reason—with which each could grapple with his/her individual soteric project, thereby realizing his/her own Zen. Dogen demonstrated this himself by writing the fascicles of the Shobogenzo.Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.122 (italics in the original)
…According to Dogen, the practical application of authentic practice-enlightenment consists in:
6. Utilizing the skillful means (expedients, effective capacities) of the normal human body-mind.
By “utilizing skillful means” is meant the adept application of efficacious abilities; Kim identifies this as, “dialectically negotiating the Way” (between or within nonduality and duality). By “the normal human body-mind” is meant the healthy (hence enlightened) human individual commonly recognized as a “person” or “self” constituted of a body-and-mind, and more technically denoted in Zen/Buddhist literature as “the five skandhas” (i.e. form, sensation, perception, mental formulation, and consciousness). “Normal” here coincides with the Zen saying, “The normal mind is the Tao” – this is the normal of “healthy,” “harmonious,” “undistorted,” “correct,” etc.; not the normal of “average,” “usual,” “typical,” “mundane,” “routine,” etc.
To utilize the skillful means of the normal human body-mind (i.e. the practical application of nonthinking) is to intentionally engage in continuous, ongoing discernment of true nature (of the self/world) at/in/as the ever-arriving here-now and conducting one’s self accordingly.
…Kim states the key point near the beginning of his commentary on the passage as follows:
In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo).Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.21
The significance of this passage is probably clear enough. Nevertheless, certain implications may not be readily apparent to readers unfamiliar with common distortions frequent among popular Zen or pseudo-Zen communities and literature. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that clarity of expression is any guarantee something will receive the attention it merits; many of the key elements of Dogen’s Zen revealed in Kim’s initial effort continue to be widely misunderstood and neglected nearly 40 years after the fact.
In any case, the real significance that Kim brings to relief in singling out how “Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen” here needs to be appreciated in context of the knowledge that Dogen’s enunciation diverges widely from prevailing contemporary enunciations professing to describe Dogen’s Zen…
…unless we are ready to assert that Dogen does not qualify as an authority on his own view of Zen, we are compelled to acknowledge that the prevailing views and accounts of Dogen’s Zen are fallacious.
It is a simple truism that false presuppositions about a thing are incompatible with an accurate understanding of that thing, yet the obvious implication, that the recognition of false notions is therefore a prerequisite for the assimilation of truth, often goes unheeded. Let us, then, clearly spell out the significant implication here; clearly recognizing fallacious notions one holds regarding Zen or Dogen is a prerequisite for realizing any truth regarding Zen or Dogen…
The fallacy in question… is that the methodology advocated by Dogen as “zazen” (seated meditation), “shikantaza” (sole-sitting), “sanzen” (practicing-Zen), or “hi-shiryo” (nonthinking) consists in and of a mere ritual performance involving a bodily posture (upright sitting) and proscribed mental attitude (specific do’s and don’ts). The distortion, or more accurately, superstition surrounding this “Zen” method is that the proscribed physical posture/mental attitude is itself the actual manifestation of authentic Zen practice-enlightenment. Some of the more popular champions of Dogen as the advocate of a fixed-form of “Zen practice” insinuate that the efficacy of this uncomplicated access to Buddhahood is inherent to the physical posture itself (the mental aspect is commonly portrayed as secondary, sometimes even inessential).
Significantly, those promoting such misleading notions commonly support their claims on superficial readings of Dogen’s own expressions. In other words, their fallacious proclamations are themselves dependent on neglecting, distorting, or subverting the first principles (i.e. language, thinking, and reason) of Dogen’s methodology. To cite one popular example, we turn again to Dogen’s Bendowa.
In the authentic transmission of [our] religion, it is said that this Buddha-Dharma, which has been authentically and directly transmitted one-to-one, is supreme among the supreme. After the initial meeting with a [good] counselor we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha’s name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit and get the state that is free of body and mind.
Bendowa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Rather than reading this as the mythopoeic expression of a Buddhist master, this passage is read as if it were the literal explanation of an instruction manual. In short, this passage (and passages similar to it) is espoused as meaning that as soon as a practitioner has met a reliable teacher all manner of study and practice, except “just sitting,” can literally be abandoned…
such a superficial reading of this passage – written in 1231 – had already developed in Dogen’s time. For, twelve years later (1243), in the Bukkyo fascicle of Shobogenzo, Dogen wrote that most people misunderstood the significance of this expression, and pointed out that to view “reading sutras” as literally meaning “reading sutras” was reductionism, while imagining that one could thus dismiss the whole question of “reading sutras” was vulgarity.
My late master constantly said, “In my order, we do not rely on burning incense, doing prostrations, reciting names of buddhas, practicing confession, or reading sutras. Just sit, direct your energy into pursuing the truth, and get free of body and mind.”
Few people clearly understand an expression like this. Why? Because to call “reading sutras” “reading sutras” is to debase it, and not to call it “reading sutras” is to be perverse.Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
The whole point here is that the language, thinking, and reason of Zen must be effectively understood and skillfully applied if one is to truly appreciate the language, thinking, and reason of Zen expression. Like poetry, art, myth, and all sacred literature, the expressions of Zen are not addressed merely to the intellect, but to one’s whole being. When we truly see the “waving thistle” of a poem, what is seen is neither a “waving thistle” nor other than a “waving thistle” – such “seeing” is not something that is achieved with the literal eye, nor something achieved without the literal eye. This kind of seeing is achieved with the eye that is not-the-eye and is therefore the eye. In Buddhism this is sometimes called the Dharma-eye, the Buddha-eye, or the eye to read scriptures. As Dogen goes on to say:
“You are not allowed to talk and not allowed to be mute: say something at once! Say something at once!” We should learn this truth in practice. Because this principle [of reading sutras] exists, a man of old has said, “To read sutras we must be equipped with the eyes of reading sutras.”Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
The notion that the uniqueness of the physiognomy of seated meditation is the keystone of Dogen’s Zen, and the most distinguishing characteristic of him as a Buddhist master, is undoubtedly one of the greatest misnomers about Dogen and his writings among contemporary practitioners. Fallacious notions, commonly in the form of vague, but grand generalizations about the exceptionally original, rigorous, or efficacious quality of the bodily form of seated meditation in Dogen’s Zen can clearly be seen as having its primary source in sectarianism. In contrast to traditional sectarian claims the fact of the matter is:
7. The technical physiognomy of Zazen and/or shikantaza receives relatively little detailed attention in the corpus of Dogen’s writings.
8. The little detailed attention Dogen’s writings do dedicate to the practical physical performance of zazen and/or shikantaza is clear, straightforward – and generally unremarkable.
Dogen's instructions on seated meditation were brief and minimalist. He did not elaborate on meditation techniques or meditative experiences in any detail, nor did he attempt to guide his disciples through graduated stages of meditative and spiritual progression, as we often see in some religious traditions within and without Buddhism.Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, p.122
As long as we hold to a view that Dogen’s practice-enlightenment consists in a unique bodily form of seated meditation we will simply be unable to recognize that authentic practice-enlightenment consists in actualizing a “unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality.” In sum, for Dogen, “zazen” is the archetype of the actualization of the “unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality.” As expressed in the following observation of Hee-Jin Kim:
Language, thinking, and reason constitute the key to both zazen and koan study within Dogen’s praxis-oriented Zen. The koan’s and zazen’s function is not to excoriate and abandon the intellect and its words and letters, but rather to liberate and restore them in the Zen enterprise. In short, enlightenment is not brought about by direct intuition (or transcendent wisdom) supplanting the intellect and its tools, but in and through their collaboration and corroboration in search of the expressible in deeds, words, and thoughts for a given situation (religious and secular).Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.78
Having established these fundamental points of Kim’s illumination of Dogen’s vision of practice-enlightenment, we now want to briefly elaborate upon their significance:
1. Dogen’s “brief and minimalist” treatment of zazen harmonizes with his “extensive and elaborate” treatment of the significance and methodology of ongoing critical discernment of, and conduct appropriate to, the true nature of the self/world, which is envisioned as the essential art of Zen practice-enlightenment (i.e. nonthinking; utilizing the skillful means of the normal human body-mind).
This point brings Dogen’s vision of practice-enlightenment into harmony with the Zen axiom that Buddhahood (enlightenment) can only be achieved by oneself. The harmonization of these two aspects serves to illumine the reason that:
2. Dogen’s writings are naturally focused solely on presenting aspirants with the knowledge and skill necessary to successfully realize Buddhahood.
Whether we are considering Dogen’s teachings on nonthinking, sitting meditation, or the proper procedure for cleaning teeth, we need always be wary of falling into reductionism, superficial literalism, or idolatry; Zen does not recognize, must less worship fixed-forms, methods, formulas or codes of any kind. This brings us to the next point:
3. The language of Zen, like all genuine expressions of truth, is mythical language, not narrative description or literal definition.
Attempting to read Dogen’s expressions on sitting meditation, nonthinking, or using the toilet according to the rules or notions of a non-mythical or non-poetic language is to literally (pun intended) miss the mark from the get go. The language of truth is, as ever, mythopoeic language. Unlike the language of literal description, Zen language can communicate the truth that each particular thing contains and is contained by every other particular thing. Thus, when speaking about zazen, zazen is the principal and nonthinking (and all other particular things) is a satellite; when speaking of nonthinking, nonthinking is the principal and zazen is a satellite. To use a more Dogen-like phrase, “Whenever we verify zazen, nonthinking is shadowed.”
“Whenever we verify one side, the other is shadowed.”Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, trans. Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.51
Dogen’s treatment of language, thinking, and reason – epitomized in his notion of nonthinking – is, as Kim says “the common thread running through” (thus binding together, or fashioning) the Zen vision Dogen dedicated his life to elucidating:
…I have presented some salient facets of Dogen’s thought on authentic practice, which was his paramount concern in his praxis-oriented Zen. In this regard, his emphasis was on the reconstructive use of such notions of as duality in relation to nonduality and dependent origination in relation to emptiness. His thrust was as much on engagement in duality as it was on nonattachment to duality. Thus Dogen located his religious method and hermeneutics in the clear understanding and responsible use of language, thinking, and reason. The present work’s primary purpose has been to explicate such a methodological/hermeneutic orientation and its significance. This orientation, as I see it, was the common thread running through Dogen’s Shobogenzo (as well as his other writings), although it evolved throughout his monastic career before reaching its final form later in life—most notably in relation to his notion of nonthinking.Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, p.121
It should be clear by now how “language, thinking, and reason” constitute the orientation that is “the common thread,” that runs through the whole of Dogen’s works, and is thus presupposed in all his expressions. This, then, clarifies our reason for stressing that Dogen’s vision of “nonthinking” is the true keystone of Dogen’s methodology concerning practice-enlightenment – to hold a view of that keystone to be otherwise, the practical performance of seated meditation for instance, is to be obstructed from an accurate vision of Dogen’s Zen.
As a “Buddha ancestor,” Dogen recognized his mission as the liberation of all beings from suffering and the realization of complete enlightened fulfillment. This meant, according to the basic Zen tenet of "enlightenment-by-oneself without a teacher" (mushi dokugo), which includes textual study and working with reliable teachers, that Dogen’s task entailed doing whatever was within his capacity to encourage beings to “awaken on their own.”
…The vision of “things as they are” is never of a fixed reality/truth; the power for self-subversion and self-renewal is inherent in the vision itself. Thus “things” seen as they are are transformable [sic]. Every practitioner’s task is to change them by seeing through them. From Dogen’s perspective, this is the fundamental difference between contemplation (dhyana) and zazen-only. To him, seeing was changing and making.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen: On Meditation and Thinking, p.38
…Dogen’s Zen does not pretend to reveal the truth of things, beings, or events, rather it inspires trust in one’s aspiration for activating and developing one’s own innate capacity to discern the true nature of reality (Buddha) as it is. In other words, Dogen’s expressions (like all genuine expressions of truth) do not teach “laws” or “facts” – they present practitioners with means – the eye, the key… for actualizing the fulfillment of their inherent aspiration for enlightenment.
From the perspective of ceaseless-advance it is obvious that authentic practice-enlightenment could never be accurately approached while being entangled with notions about fixed-forms, specific formulas, defined doctrines, or proscribed techniques. Thus, Dogen’s vision is of a Zen that is only and always particular, actual, and novel; particular to the specific dharmas involved, actual as experiential phenomenal appearances, and novel as the ceaseless-arrival (or arising) of here (place) and now (time). Thus Kim writes:
Accordingly, he underscored that Zen which is reexpressed and reconceived by each individual practitioner and by each generation, according to different conditions and needs. Zen's so-called fierce individualism is, in this way, firmly grounded in one's existential situation: Each practitioner must add his/her own details.Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen, p. 122
I hope this is helpful.