Enlightenment and Dogen’s True Mission: the Rightly Transmitted Buddha-Dharma
Among the world’s spiritual traditions the ultimate goal is variously called salvation, deliverance, liberation, paradise, nirvana, and other similar names. ‘Enlightenment’ is the name most commonly used in Zen. Thus ‘enlightenment,’ or more specifically, ‘full and perfect enlightenment’ (annuttara-samyak-sambodhi) is the root of every name, expression, or allusion to the end or goal of Zen.
Enlightenment in Zen, means personally verifying (seeing and understanding) the true nature of reality. According to Zen, seeing true nature or ‘realizing enlightenment’ means liberating all beings from suffering. Leaving aside the question as to how this is said to occur, the expressions of Dogen (or any genuine Zen teacher) spring from a sincere conviction that what they communicate truly possesses the power to actualize universal liberation. Only by remaining mindful of the true import Dogen attached to his expressions – whether or not we agree with him – can we possibly encounter the truth of what he communicated.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of Dogen’s intentions as to the final form of Shobogenzo, it is clear that he did intend Shobogenzo to form a unified vision with a specific purpose. In my view, Dogen’s Shobogenzo was intended as – and successfully achieved – a complete exposition of the essential doctrine and methodology of authentic Buddhism inclusive of everything necessary for sincere students to directly and personally realize full and perfect enlightenment. By that, I mean that Dogen fulfilled the ‘mission’ he set down in Bendowa, one of the first writings he undertook upon his return from China. After describing how his journey to China led him to, ‘accomplishing the task of a lifetime,’ Dogen described his experience upon returning to his native land and how he came to decide ‘to spread the Dharma and save living beings’:
‘…I came home determined to spread the Dharma and to save living beings it was as if a heavy burden had been placed on my shoulders. Nevertheless, in order to wait for an upsurge during which I might discharge my sense of mission, I thought I would spend some time wandering like a cloud, calling here and there like a water weed, in the style of the ancient sages. Yet if there were any true practitioners who put the will to the truth first, being naturally unconcerned with fame and profit, they might be fruitlessly misled by false teachers and might needlessly throw a veil over right understanding. They might idly become drunk with self-deception, and sink forever into the state of delusion. How would they be able to promote the right seeds of prajna, or have the opportunity to attain the truth? If I were now absorbed in drifting like a cloud or a water weed, which mountains and rivers ought they to visit? Feeling that this would be a pitiful situation, I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of profound instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and maintained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage. This may be a true mission.’
Shobogenzo, Bendowa (Italics mine), Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Here I would point out that the method Dogen chose for providing ‘true practitioners’ with a vehicle to ‘know the right Dharma’ is a method disparaged by many contemporary Zen representatives as unreliable, ineffective, or even misleading. Many within the Soto Zen sect (which claims Dogen as its founder) claim the only way practitioners can ‘know the right Dharma’ is through transmission from a living representative (i.e. a formally certified ‘Dharma-heir’). Such claims commonly suggest that such a ‘transmission’ is not only required, but solely sufficient, that is, no ‘records,’ whether of ‘customs and standards’ or ‘profound instruction,’ are necessary.
For those claiming to be ‘heirs’ of Dogen, this is convenient; the record Dogen left so people could ‘know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage’ was all but lost to the world for about 700 years. It should be noted that such ostentatious claims are usually not intentionally malicious or insincere, but simply the results of the usual competition and power struggles common to sectarian institutions.