Thursday, July 16, 2015

Not 'Aiming' for Enlightenment does not mean Not 'Aiming' for Enlightenment

The Zen/Buddhist teaching instructing students not to aim for (a fixed notion or idea of) enlightenment has often been reduced to distorted teachings that proclaim practitioners should have no goals whatever, that they should not aim for anything at all. Such assertions are commonly accompanied with comments about how efforts and attempts to realize enlightenment or Buddhahood obstruct practitioners from realization. The truth is, if we do not aim for and make effort to realize enlightenment, we are very unlikely to do so. As long as we learn, and remain mindful of the fact that ‘enlightenment’ cannot be accurately envisioned ahead of time, we will not make the mistake of aiming for a reified concept. Thus, even though our thoughts and ideas about enlightenment fail to perfectly harmonize with enlightenment, our efforts will nevertheless be accurately empowered –in a nondual reality all activity is interdependent, hence even ‘wrong thinking about realization’ is realization itself. As Dogen says:

When we have attained realization, we do not know what the reasons were for our being [now] in the state of realization. Let us reflect on this. To have thought, prior to realization, that it will be like this or like that, was not useful for realization. That it was different from how we had supposed it to be, in all our miscellaneous prior thoughts, does not mean that our thinking, being very bad, had no power in it. Even the thinking of that time was realization itself, but because we were then directing it the wrong way round, we thought and said that it was powerless.

Yui-butsu-yo-butsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross


Tommy Bonn said...

If we can't accurately envision enlightenment ahead of time, how can we confirm that we have attained enlightenment? Or, if we were always enlightened to begin with, why exert effort to try to become enlightened? This is simply Meno's paradox applied to enlightenment instead of knowledge. (How would Dogen feel about Socrates's answer to Meno? Can enlightenment, too, be "recollected"?)

Please excuse me if these questions are impertinent or if you've addressed them elsewhere. I've just discovered your site, and I think it's wonderful. I will try to read more of your posts (and more of the Shobogenzo!) soon, hoping to comment further.

Ted Biringer said...

Dear Tommy Bonn,
Thank you for your comments.
While it has been awhile since I considered Meno’s paradox I don’t think Dogen’s (hence Zen’s) doctrine and methodology concerning the appropriate (right/effective) attitude for Zen aspirants to cultivate in their approach to enlightenment is as complex or paradoxical as Plato’s notion of ‘true knowledge’ as ‘recollection’ (though there are certainly some similar points). The Zen guidance about ‘aiming’ for enlightenment on the one hand, while ‘not aiming’ for enlightenment on the other is, in my understanding, simpler, more straightforward.
Briefly, the Zen point is grounded on the experiential truth that every ‘first’ encounter we have is ‘different’ from what we have previously envisioned. For example, the first time we actually swim our experience is different than we previously imagined – at the same time, our ‘aiming’ to go swimming is an essential element of our actual experience of swimming. If we did not ‘aim’ to swim, we would probably never swim. We can learn about ‘swimming’ and we can hear what others say about it, even see them do it – we might have a full, accurate understanding of swimming, but until we actually do it, it will just be a concept. The same goes for our first time skydiving, eating blueberries, and having sex; when we learn of these we may ‘aim’ to experience them – none will be exactly how we envision them, but all of them are realizable and well worth aiming for.
The problem is when we develop a ‘concept’ of some experience and then wrongly identify that concept with the actual experience – if I ‘understand’ swimming and thus skip the ‘practice’ I am not likely to realize (make real) swimming. If I ‘understand’ enlightenment and thus skip the ‘practice’ I am not likely to realize (make real) enlightenment.
As for ‘confirming’ that we have attained enlightenment, there are various aspects to this. First, the Zen tradition strongly urges practitioners to seek confirmation from an enlightened teacher – here is a real paradox! How do we know if the teacher is enlightened!? On a practical level, however, it is not as difficult as it might appear; when one does have an authentic ‘glimpse’ or ‘opening’ (often referred to as ‘kensho’), one usually knows it (especially if they are familiar with basic Zen doctrine/methodology). Moreover, an authentic insight into one’s true nature inspires one to continue to advance in their practice-enlightenment, whether they find ‘confirmation’ or not.
Finally, as long as it could be understood in light of Dogen’s/Zen’s view of the nature of ‘time’ (more accurately ‘existence-time’) Plato’s notion of “knowledge” as “recollection” would appear to be perfectly acceptable – for in that view “knowledge now” is “not-knowledge then” (past/future) and “not-knowledge now” is “knowledge then.”
Thanks again.
Please treasure yourself.

Tommy Bonn said...

Thank you for responding! Your remarks about swimming reminded me of something a senior student in a monastery told me once: he said he was always thinking he knew the way things were, then discovering that they were different from the way he had imagined. In my (as yet brief) formal Zen training, I think I glimpsed this just a bit, but it was very exciting. Especially in my case (a common one, from what other Zen students there said), recurrent, habitual negative thoughts had convinced me that my world (~the~ world) ~just was~ certain ways, and even a little Zen training quickly dissolved the solidity of my fortress of negative thoughts.

(By the way, perhaps you know the monastery where I practiced? It's Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. I'm heading back there soon.)

Could you expand on (or direct me to a post about) Dogen's view of the nature of time? When you say "in that view" above, do you mean Dogen's or Plato's view?

Ted Biringer said...

Dear Tommy Bonn,

Thank you for writing.

I certainly understand and relate to what you said about thinking we know how things are only to discover they are different than we imagined – the discovery and subsequent ‘falling away’ of false or distorted preconceptions and presuppositions (aka prejudices, biases, one-sided views, delusions, etc.) has been, for me in any case, one of the most common, beneficial, and liberating aspects of taking the path of Zen. From my own experience I would say the continuous, ever-expanding cognition (rather than re-cognition, for I am speaking of ‘initial’ insights) of our own false or distorted views (hence their ‘falling away’ and increasing our clarity) about the true nature of reality is an intrinsic element of authentic Zen practice-enlightenment.

I am happy to hear that you found your conviction about the “world just being as it is” to be less solid than it appeared. The notion that “the world” or “life” or “things” just are how they are, or “just is” happens to be a very common distorted view – as seen for example in the popular slogan, “shit happens.” Unfortunately, this notion is often proclaimed or reinforced by superficial interpretations of Zen doctrine and methodology. There is no shortage even of Zen “teachers” that suggest (implicitly if not explicitly) “the world is just as it is; the best you can do is to simply accept it (or detach from it).” Such a view diverges widely from the expressions of the classic Zen records which urge us to “strive on, strive on” and “awaken to the myriad dharma-gates” and “save all beings” etc., etc.

I know of, but not about, Great Vow Zen Monastery – I’ve personally never been there. And, while I have never met Chozen Bays, Roshi or Hogen Bays, Roshi (the co-abbots), I have heard some positive things about them, and no negative things.

I meant Plato’s view, but from the Zen (Dogen’s) perspective (in contrast to the common ‘dualistic’ and strictly ‘linear’ view of time).

For Dogen’s view of the nature of time, the best source is his Shobogenzo. While his most direct, focused expression on the nature of time appears in/as the Uji (commonly translated ‘existence-time’ or ‘being-time’ and sometimes as ‘time-being’) fascicle of Shobogenzo, it is important (at least in my view) to read the Uji fascicle in context of the whole Shobogenzo. For his meaning of ‘existence,’ for example, does not exactly coincide with the common view, thus it is easy to come to wrong conclusions about his points without realizing it. The same goes for other terms like ‘self,’ ‘other,’ ‘practice,’ etc. If we are unclear of just what Dogen means by these terms (which we can develop only by familiarizing ourselves with the whole Shobogenzo) we might make assumptions that are misleading. As long as you keep that in mind, however, you can read the Uji fascicle and get a good idea of his notion of time without developing any fixed ideas.

For some basic observations concerning Dogen’s view of time (hence existence-time) and some of the various implications of that view, please see the latest blog-post (inspired by your interest). It consists of a variety of excerpts touching on Zen’s vision concerning the nature of existence-time. These excerpts are from my new (unpublished) book (tentatively titled, Zen Cosmology: Dogen’s Contribution to the Search for a New Worldview).

Thanks again Tommy Bonn.

Treasure yourself!


Tommy Bonn said...

Wow, thank you for that robust response! I have reread Uji, but I might want to review the rest of the Shobogenzo before replying. Also, in the past I have skipped around between fascicles. Would you recommend reading it in order? (And is the order of fascicles the same in every edition?)

I am reading the translation here by Hubert Nearman of Shasta Abbey:

He translates (?) Uji as "On 'Just for the Time Being, Just for a While, For the Whole of Time is the Whole of Existence'"!

Ted Biringer said...

Dear Tommy Bonn,

Thanks for writing.

I will soon post an article here on the relevant issues concerning the reading/study of Shobogenzo. The Hubert Nearman trans is good, but somewhat 'interpretive' - which makes it a good comparison to read with the Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross translation, which is a bit 'literal' (hence consistent).

The Nishijima & Cross translation is also, in my view, a little 'slanted' toward the traditional 'Soto' view (e.g. it glosses over or minimizes the significance and nature of koans, enlightenment experiences, emphasizes or exaggerates the nature and role of zazen, etc.). It is available free online here:

Online Shobogenzo – 95 Chapter Version, translated by Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

Also, you will want to check out Soto Zen Text Project - it has some excellent online translations from Dogen’s works

Some blogposts here that might be helpful are:

Also, by far the most essential English language on Dogen and his teachings are:

-Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim
-Dogen: On Meditation and Thinking, by Hee-Jin Kim

Buy them or steal them - you won't be sorry.

For a comprehensive (if dry) account on the issues/controversies concerning which Shobogenzo is THE Shobogenzo, check out:

Did Dogen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It, by Steven Heine

Thanks again - and keep a lookout for the next post on the main page here.

Treasure yourself.


PS If you have any questions or comments less suitable for this 'comments' section, feel free to email me anytime: