Monday, July 07, 2008

Dogen On Enlightenment and Practice

Recently, a "certified" Soto Zen teacher told me that according to Dogen, "practice is enlightenment itself." I suggested that if one were to "qualify" that statement by expanding it to include, "enlightenment is practice," it might be an acceptable position.

I said that in my experience, whenever Dogen could be read as saying "practice is enlightenment," he qualified it by implying the "nondual" nature (which does not mean "synonomous" or "equivalent"). The Heart Sutra would be meaningless if it stated, "form is emptiness" without the inclusion of "emptiness is form." Yet, the teacher would not accept that.

Although he refused to give me any kind of explanation that might lead one to that notion, he may be right (although I don't think so).

I may be wrong (as I often am) although I do offer a partial explanation of my understanding, and how I came to it:

For Dogen, enlightenment without practice is not authentic enlightenment (and vice versa). True enlightenment is activated only coincident with true practice, and true practice is itself the activation of enlightenment.

This has always been the truth in Buddhism, and its teaching has always been susceptible to misunderstanding. The confusion between "sudden" (or, original enlightenment) and "gradual" (or, acquired enlightenment) has been the most visible and persistent manifestation of this argument in the Zen tradition.

His biographers tell us that for Dogen, it was the apparent contradiction of this doctrine that became the barrier to, and eventually the catalyst of his own great experience of enlightenment. It was through his personal resolution of the seeming contradiction between the doctrine of "original" enlightenment and the need for spiritual "practice" that allowed him to, in his words, "complete the task of a lifetime."

The term "non-dual" means, "empty of duality", it does not mean that practice and enlightenment are "one." Practice and enlightenment in Buddhism (hence Dogen) are two aspects of one reality.

The very first paragraph of the very first teaching he is purported to have written on his return from China is constructed of four variations of the question that drove him throughout his quest.

"Now, when we research it, the truth originally is all around: why should we rely upon practice and experience? The real vehicle exists naturally: why should we put forth great effort? Furthermore, the whole body far transcends dust and dirt: who could believe in the means of sweeping and polishing? In general, we do not stray from the right state: of what use, then, are the tip-toes of training?"
Fukan-Zazengi, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross, Appendix, v1, Shobogenzo, p.279

This is not simply a series of rhetorical statements, but an expression of spiritual realization, which calls us to a deep contemplation, much like koan-introspection. Keeping in mind his creative use of interogatives, Dogen is not neccesarily saying, "the truth is all around: we do not need to rely upon practice, put forth great effort, etc." Rather, he may be saying (and I think he is saying), "the truth is all around: why do we need to practice, who could believe in the means, of what use, etc.?" Hence, it is not rhetorical, nor is it a "question" which requires an "answer" in the conventional sense. It is the revelation of a spiritual truth.

As professor Hee-Jin Kim points out in his landmark book, "a characteristic of Dogen’s thought was that he used a number of interrogatives in the Sung colloquial language in order to express his profound metaphysical ideas such as shimo or somo (what, how, why) and other related expressions...
...[T]hese interrogatives, along with the idea of emptiness and nonthinkning, are significant in indicating that zazen for Dogen was ultimately the expression of an eternal quest for the meaning of existence, which was paradoxically enough, meaningless—it was living the meaning of ultimate meaninglessness. This is Zen.
Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist, p.63 (see also; p.134-140)

Dogen realized and taught that enlightenment is the actualization of authentic practice, practice is the actualization of authentic enlightenment.

The duality of practice and enlightenment is transcended not annihilated. Dogen frequently and explicitly included the standard Mahayana teaching on nonduality for this dynamic when he used the term "Zazen" to indicate the non-dual actualization of practice and enlightenment.

Ted Biringer

Flatbed Sutra


Mike Cross said...

Hello Ted,

Beginning to understand the distinction that FM Alexander drew between "end-gaining" and "the means-whereby" as different, nay, opposite conceptions, helps me to understand the relation between practice and enlightenment in sitting-zen.

In Alexander work, I ask my pupil to totally give up the idea of making a movement -- e.g. moving a leg when lying down, or standing up from a chair -- in order that he or she may experience a new kind of freedom, in which a new experience of freer and easier movement becomes possible.

The point, in other words, it to totally give up the idea of getting something, in order to get it.

So-called Soto Zen Masters, as you have truly perceived, tend to be strong on denial of the idea of getting enlightenment, but when one looks for a Soto Zen Master who actually got enlightenment, there is, to my knowledge, not a single one.

And how could there be? Because if a Soto Zen Master ever got enlightenment, that enlightenment would inevitably include his seeing through the falsity of the conception of "Soto Zen."

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Mike,

Thank you for stopping in and offering your comments.

Your observation on "enlightened" Soto Zen Masters touches on something I have pondered concerning Master Dogen's teachings on "Only Buddha to Buddha."

In some instances where he writes things like, "Not one single layman ever became a Buddha..." He could also say, "Not one single monk ever became a Buddha." Because, of course, only Buddhas can be Buddhas.

I remember some years back when my teacher asked me something about a koan. After giving my response he asked, "So there was really no "deep" or "shallow" in Obaku's Zen?

I said, "There is not even any Zen!"

He liked that.

I agree with you. If a Soto Zen Master (or anyone else) realized enlightenment, even Zen would vanish, much more so "Soto" or any other "brand." In fact, I think the water would become so shallow everywhere that there would not be enough for even an ameoba to get a sip.

Thanks again!


Harry said...

I think 'Soto', 'Zen' and 'Masters' vanish all the time effortlessly. Who/what might be responsible for them annoyingly hanging around?

There's a saying, an insult really, over here:

"Deep down he (she etc.) is very shallow".

Regards & Running for cover from Angry Gods,


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comment.

That is an interesting saying (insult)...

I would probably find it uncomfortable to use it in regard to someone else, but I might find an occasion to use it for referring to myself...

Ted Biringer