Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dogen's Shobogenzo - State of, and barriers to assimilation in the West

What is the significance of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, and is it truly possible to discern its authentic message?

I offer here, as objectively as possible, the current state of progress on, and the basic barriers to, the assimilation of Shobogenzo in the West. Corrections and/or alternative suggestions are welcome (please abstain from simple criticism which does not offer reasoning beyond personal opinions, thanks).

In spite of frequent references to the "boom" of Dogen studies in modern Zen literature, comprehensive examinations of his magnum opus are sparse. Outside the propagation of sectarian assertions, most of the English language publications concerning Dogen have focused on specific aspects of his thought or teaching, much without due regard to its context within the Buddhist tradition from which it springs, or even its context within the whole of his own works. Omitting sectarian popagation, specialized, scholarly analysis, the specious, and the trivial, leaves a veritable dearth of study considering the significance that such a masterpiece warrants.

English readers seeking to discern Dogen’s teaching face a number of difficulties and ambiguities, not the least of which arise from dogmatic bias and abstract philosophical speculation. Most explications of Dogen’s Zen approach it from one of two extremes: sectarianism, or scholarly specialization. Both, sectarian authorities and secular scholarship tend to focus on the unique or singular qualities of Dogen’s genius. Regardless of intentions, this has resulted in presenting Dogen and his work as an anomaly within the history of Buddhism. The popular view of Dogen seems to be one of a tragic hero isolated from his world and contemporaries by the sheer magnitude of his realization. While secular scholarship warrants a degree of justification due to the nature of its role, sectarianism does not. Dogmatic sectarian assertions appear to be aimed only at the retention, acquisition, or usurpation of authoritarian power.

Those sectarians seeking to appropriate (or undermine) Dogen’s authority primarily base their views of ‘Dogen’s Zen’ on the uniqueness of his ‘central’ teaching regarding the method of zazen (seated meditation). Aside from the question of why Dogen would devote such a minimal effort on his ‘central’ teaching (of the hundreds of texts written by Dogen, only eight short fascicles address zazen as a primary topic [See Carl Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, pp.5-6]), his writings on zazen do not appear to present anything radically unique from traditional sources. Some of his instructions and exhortations are exceptionally inspiring and provocative, yet none present any obvious demarcation from the traditional teachings in the records of Zen. When confronted with the apparent discrepancies between institutional dogma and textual evidence, the religious authorities often offer some "creative" interpretations or fall back on esotericism (only the enlightened or initiated can grasp it), thus leading a number of people to dismiss Dogen out of hand.

Competing schools use the scarcity and apparent lack of originality of Dogen’s zazen texts, coupled with their own interpretation of Dogen’s zazen as a form of quietism, as the basis for their denial of his authority. Such assertions and counter assertions have fostered rigid adherence to positions in a viscous-circle of one-upmanship. The impossibility of substantiating sectarian positions based on nefarious interpretations of cherry-picked texts can only result in the continued hardening of views that is necessary to sustain positions defying rational explanation or appeals to reason.

While religious authorities emphasize Dogen’s uniqueness to assert claims of sectarian superiority (or inferiority when from competing sects), secular scholarship contributes to his isolation simply through the nature of its work (categorizing, verifying, specifying, identifying unique and/or modifying elements, etc.). Not only have these factors, and others, combined to isolate Dogen’s work from the tradition that inspires and supports it, they effectively destroy its integrity.

Dogen’s writings (especially Shobogenzo) have been mined, cherry-picked, cited, published, and propagated out of context more than any other work in literary history except the bible (and perhaps the works of William Blake and Thomas Jefferson). A handful of his more accessible essays appear in a multitude of works ranging from eclectically selected translations to exhaustive philosophical analysis of single fascicles. Nevertheless, the bulk of his work is, for the most part, neglected, relegating it to the very kind of obscurity that many scholars enthusiastically deride the Soto orthodoxy for allowing.

Achieving an accurate grasp of Shobogenzo presents some enormous challenges. Even discerning what Dogen actually said is a formidable task, to say nothing of what he meant. It was written in the language of 13th century Japanese (with a smattering of Chinese) by a creative genius that challenged every limitation of verbal expression in a style undaunted by grammatical rules. Simply rendering the original fascicles of Shobogenzo into modern Japanese requires great effort, how much more so to achieve a reliable English translation. Of his readers, Dogen assumes a solid grasp of traditional Buddhist history and doctrine, familiarity with Zen and Buddhist literature (including the koan literature), as well as a certain degree of spiritual maturity, experience, and insight.

The difficulties involved in achieving a reasonable understanding of Shobogenzo, are often evoked to rationalize approaches that sacrifice extensive investigation to intensive investigation. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to accept an interpretation of ‘Dogen’s Zen’ based on a handful of texts cherry-picked from a veritable corpus of fascicles. Clearly, any demand to accept Dogen’s writings as authoritative to the authentic teaching of Zen requires an accurate grasp on what those writings mean, which requires taking a reasonable account of the entirety of his work.

To deny that the wisdom inspiring and informing his work was not unique or anomalous to Dogen, is not to deny that the man himself was an isolated, lone individual. It is impossible to read Dogen’s work without acknowledging a certain degree of the loneliness one often senses in the works of the extraordinarily gifted. Dogen openly acknowledges feeling "as if a weight had been placed upon my shoulders" (See Shobogenzo, Bendowa). His activities during the first years of his return from China suggest that he may have entertained notions of popular or authoritative recognition. There is no doubt that he, like all genuine spiritual leaders, was driven by an overwhelming need to communicate his realization. Nor can one deny a sense that Dogen may have suffered a certain amount of frustration by the indifference of all but a few, as well as the neglect of those in power. While his comments are rarely directed to specific religious authorities and traditions in his own country, his harshest condemnations of certain "views and practices of ignoramuses he witnessed in China" are often suspiciously similar to the views and practices being propagated by the religious authorities and traditions of Japan in his own time.

Any disdain for his lack of recognition, however, cannot be taken as a sign of desire for personal glory, or fame. Born into an aristocratic family with wealth and connections, combined with his obvious charisma and intellectual genius, Dogen’s opportunities to achieve high status, religious or secular had always been within his reach—provided he had been willing to submit to the rules of fame and power. If one can ascribe a sense of disappointment to Dogen for the indifferent reception of his message, which he regarded as the first authentic transmission of the Buddha-Dharma to Japan, it must be attributed to a sense of personal responsibility, or obligation to the Buddha-Dharma, not personal ambition.

The proof of his commitment to the Buddha-Dharma alone is made clear by his unyielding defiance of institutional (and popular) views of enlightenment as being utterly beyond verbal expression. For Dogen, as is clear in his writings throughout his entire career, authentic realization of Buddha-Dharma inevitably includes the activity of expressing Buddha-Dharma. Consistent throughout his writings, both implicitly and explicitly is the assertion that "one has not resolved the great matter until they can put it into words." In Dogen’s Buddha-Dharma, realization without verbal (and by extension, literary) expression is not authentic realization.
The implication of this simple recognition is profound; if authentic expression is inherent in authentic realization, authentic realization must be inherent in authentic expression. This, combined with Dogen’s apparent intention for compiling Shobogenzo, suggests some possible motivations behind Soto authorities to conceal Shobogenzo for centuries; and, finally unable to sustain concealment, the concerted efforts apparently aimed at obscuring it through creative "interpretation."

Dogen’s work has long been regarded by the major Soto institutions as the authentic expression of the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, and hence, as the ultimate authority of Soto doctrine. While this hierarchical arrangement is already a strain on reason (in that realization is not considered authentic without the confirmation of institutionally recognized "Dharma heirs") it has not practically effected the concentration of institutional power. However, if it were shown that the teachings of Shobogenzo suggested that authentic realization could be transmitted through expression, hence, through Shobogenzo itself, the potential consequences to the powers of institutional authority are obvious. While there would be a number of legitimate roles for an institution to fulfil, none of them would include the retention of the level of power they have come to enjoy. In view of the history of institutional powers, it is reasonable to assume that efforts to circumvent such a revelation might be enacted.

It is not within the scope of this post to analyze the various methods that may have been employed to maintain power within the Soto Zen institutions, but it is worth noting that the most effective method would be to retain exclusive authority of "Dharma Transmission" (which has been thus far achieved). Because the doctrine of Dharma Transmission is inherently resistant (nearly invincible) to any form of criticism it has been plagued by individual and institutional appropriation and distortion throughout the history of Zen. This doctrine is still the most effective trump card held, and played, by individual and institutional "Zen authorities" that are challenged by major discrepancies within their doctrines or reasoning.

Ironically, the notion that Dogen acknowledged that textual authority could supercede that of certified "Dharma heirs" is denounced by Soto authorities based on the authority of (specially selected passages) Dogen’s texts. In spite of the irony, the vigor of their persistence to maintain this position (and its inherent power) has resulted in the popular view (including many in the scholarly community) that "text as authority" is oxymoronic, heretical, or even blasphemous to Zen Buddhism. Notwithstanding this institutional distortion of Zen, however, the traditional role of texts as legitimate vessels (containers and transmitters) of Buddha-Dharma is not as radical as contemporary notions might suggest. There have been Zen ancestors who have credited their own realization to texts in nearly every school, house, and lineage of Zen Buddhism.

Desperate efforts to minimize the significance of Dogen’s acknowledgement of textual authority by claiming his assertions apply only to fully "enlightened" masters are hollow. Dogen admits that even before undergoing his journey to China in search of his own spiritual resolution he viewed written expressions as more reliable than living teachers, certified Dharma-heirs or not. Confronted with the contradictions between the teachings of his, own greatly "recognized" teachers and the written Buddhist records, Dogen did not hesitate to dismiss the authenticity of his teachers (See Shobogenzo, Zuimonki).

The fact that he admitted recognizing the superiority of texts in a time before his own resolution infers that Dogen believed so-called "unenlightened" individuals could discern the authenticity of truth through reading a text. In this light, Dogen’s method of choice for words in Bendowa, while difficult to reconcile with contemporary notions of Zen as "a direct transmission outside words and letters," can be understood as the most obvious and rational decision:

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.
Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Alternative Translation:

Because of my feelings of pity for these persons, I have undertaken here to write down what I saw and learned of the customs and practices in Chinese Zen monasteries, as well as to preserve the Transmission of what my spiritual teacher understood to be the most profound Purpose, and thereby to propagate the true Dharma of Buddhism. I trust that what follows is the genuine inner meaning of this.
Hubert Nearman

Clearly, if we are to take Dogen at his word, it will be necessary to examine the whole of what his records say.

Gassho to all,
Ted Biringer
Author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Monday, August 25, 2008

Zen methodology, Dogen, and emptiness

I have noticed that I seem to spend a great deal of time trying to "clarify" my posts (and comments) concerning what is, in my view, a universal element in the classic teachings of Zen Buddhism on nonduality and emptiness. Rather than continuing to repeat the same thing, I am posting this overview to serve as a topic in itself, and also as a link to clarify my position elsewhere.

It is a Zen axiom that the sole value of any Buddhist doctrine or method is wholly, and proportionately, dependent on its actual soteriological effectiveness. This principle is based on the recognition that all terms, systems, methodologies, and conceptual constructs are no more than methodological designations. In fact, according to Zen, all designations (methodological or otherwise) are nonsubstantial (i.e. they are not "independent entities," but are in fact interdependent).

The practical application of this axiom by contemporary Zen Buddhists is often evident concerning a number of Buddhist doctrines and methodologies (e.g. doctrines of karma and the Bodhisattva, and the methodologies of devoting merit and bowing), but is nearly absent in others. This absence is particularly conspicuous concerning doctrines that apply the soteriological methods of nonduality (e.g. emptiness and form, practice and realization, Buddha and ordinary being, delusion and enlightenment, etc.). This may be partly due to the complexities of using methodological designations that are inherently self-referential (applicable to themselves), like the "emptiness of emptiness" and the "nonduality of nonduality."

Yet it is this principle, as revealed in the Prajnaparamita literature, that even allows for the possibility of "explanations" to be effective (or not). This is the insight of the Madhyamika as elucidated by the Indian Buddhist master, Nagarjuna (acknowledged in Zen tradition as an ancestor).

As Nagarjuna says in his examination on The Four Noble Truths:
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
MMK XXIV:18 (Trans. Jay L. Garfield)

It is significant to note that one of the first (maybe even the first) things Dogen wrote upon his return from China was a commentary on the Heart Sutra that specifically singled out how the effectiveness of teachings, or "explanations" was precisely proportionate to their emptiness:

"In the order of Sakyamuni Tathagata there is a bhiksu who secretly thinks "I shall bow in veneration of the profound prajna-paramita. Although this state there is no appearance and disappearance of real dharmas, there are still understandable explanations of all precepts, all balanced states, all kinds of wisdom, all kinds of liberation, and all views…

The bhiksu's secretly working concrete mind at this moment is, in the state of bowing in veneration of real dharmas, prajna itself - whether or not [real dharmas] are without (empty of) appearance and disappearance - and this is a venerative bow itself. Just at this moment of bowing in veneration, prajna is realized as explanations which can be understood: [explanations] from precepts balance, and wisdom, to saving sentient beings, and so on. This state is described as being without (empty). Explanations of the state of being without (emptiness) can thus be understood. Such is the profound, subtle, unfathomable prajna-paramita."
Shobogenzo, Maha-prajna-paramita, (Trans. Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross)

Failing to realize, apply, and maintain an accurate perception, or "right view" of this fundamental principal is one of the primary causes for the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Buddhist doctrines and methodologies. Nevertheless, while Zen (and most other Mahayana schools) acknowledges the validity of this revelation, it is not the only implication of the teachings on emptiness. The earliest records of Zen acknowledge the validity of the Huayen teachings of mutual identity, interpenetration, and non-obstruction of the universal and the particular (and among all particulars), as outlined in the pinnacle teaching’s of Li (universal) and Shih (particular).

The Huayen metaphors, On The Golden Lion, and, The Net of Indra, are perhaps the most well known illustration of this teaching by the Huayen ancestors (the fifth of which, Tsung-mi, is also acknowledged as an ancestor of Zen).

Perhaps lesser known is the Huayen teaching that Zen Master Dogen adapted in his own writings called the, Non-Obstruction of Concealment and Disclosure, by the Huayen ancestor, Ch’eng Kuan. A passage from the prologue on this teaching reads:

On the eighth day of a [lunar] month, half of the moon is bright and the other half is dark; the very appearance of the bright part [the disclosed] affirms but does not negate the existence of the hidden part. Likewise, the manifestation of something always implies the existence of the unmanifested or concealed part of the same thing (italics mine). At the moment when the bright part of the moon is disclosed, the dark part also "secretly" establishes itself. This is the reason for the so-called simultaneous establishment of concealment and disclosure…
(Trans. Garma C. C. Chang)

Students of Dogen will immediately recognize Dogen’s adaptation of this teaching in his essay Shobogenzo, Genjokoan: "As one side is illumined, the other side is darkened." Yet, this teaching permeates the entirety of Shobogenzo. It is explicitly used in Dogen’s teachings on practice and enlightenment, the expressible and the inexpressible, Buddha and ordinary being, original (sudden) enlightenment and acquired (gradual) enlightenment, speech and silence, nonduality and duality, past and present, and others. So permeated are Dogen’s writings (especially Shobogenzo) by this principal that any failure to account for it will undoubtedly lead to a misunderstanding of Dogen’s meaning.

While Dogen’s work comprises, by far, the largest corpus of English translations of Zen writings employing this principle, most of the classic records of Zen use it to a greater or lesser degree. It is the foundation of a number of Zen devices, such as the "Four Shouts", and the positions of "Guest and Host" associated with the Rinzai School, and the "Five Ranks" associated with the Soto.

Lacking a basic understanding of these methodologies can lead to some serious misunderstandings of Zen (and indeed any Mahayana School) expressions. Some of the most common manifestations resulting from the misunderstanding and misapplication of the liberative tools of nonduality as they apply to the doctrines on emptiness are:

A tendency to confuse "dualism" with "duality," leading to views that posit emptiness as "real," and form as "unreal."

Related to the first is the conceptualization of emptiness as truly and absolutely separate (or "other") than form (hence separate from the myriad dharmas, including us).

Concepts regarding emptiness as real (and separate from the myriad dharmas) arouse views of emptiness as "something" that can be attained (through prajna, intuition, or some form of practice).

Or, concepts of emptiness become reified, idolized and raised (as if upon a pedestal) above form (the myriad dharmas), reducing everything to a mere conceptualization of emptiness, which is often posited as a kind of "Supersymmetry" where all distinctions lose their significance.

Resulting in a loss of dynamism, creative imagination, authentic practice, intellectual development, reasoning, art, and the real characteristics, of charisma, zeal, and zest for the Dharma that is displayed in the records of the great Zen masters like Bodhidharma, Dogen, Hakuin, Huineng, and Ryokan. All of which is reduced into the bland, dull, flavorless soup of "oneness."

Leading to abandonment of authentic practice, justified with smug, self-assurances of "realization" that is really a mere contentment with conceptualized notions of oneness (rather than the actual experience of the infinite dynamic potential of authentic "Vast and Fathomless Unnamable Void").

Which finally manifests in forms of antinomianism (as is evidenced in many of the major western "Zen centers" where exploitation and violation of precepts are dismissed as the "enlightened behavior" of "crazy wisdom").

While the misunderstanding of any teaching can have negative results, the misperceptions concerning doctrines of nonduality and emptiness are especially effective in stifling genuine aspiration, zeal and affirmation for the Dharma. This is, of course, not the zeal of ambition or personal gain, but the true joyous realm of what Dogen calls "self-fulfilling samadhi." It is the "play," (in both senses of the word) of the universe itself. It is "Dharma enacting Dharma." In the words of the Large Sutra of Perfection of Wisdom:

What is the liking for the Dharma? The wish, the eagerness for Dharma. What is the delight in Dharma? The pleasure in Dharma. What is fondness for Dharma? The appreciation of its qualities. What is devotion to Dharma? The developing, the making much of that Dharma.
The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, p. 104, Edward Conze

The records of Zen indicate how the nonduality of emptiness and form are fused in Manjusri’s sword of wisdom, that each of us take up with the Four Great Vows. Dogen says, it is difficult to cut into one. Emptiness and form are cut into one by the razor-sharp sword of case 100 in the Blue Cliff Record.

A monk asked Haryo, "What is the razor-sharp sword?"
Haryo said, "Each branch of coral supports the moon."

Master Tozan went around visiting the teachers of his day, to test and sharpen his own "sword." As he was taking leave of Nan-yuan, they had the following dialogue:

Nan-yuan said, "Make a thorough study of the Buddha Dharma, and broadly benefit the world."
The Master said, "I have no question about studying the Buddha Dharma, but what is it to broadly benefit the world?"
Nan-yuan said, "Not to disregard a single being."
The Record of Tung-shan, p.31, Trans. William F. Powell

According to one of Tung-shan’s verses on the Five Ranks, as we become more dexterous at wielding this sword, we activate "a natural determination to ascend the heavens." This is the inspiration that the Mahayana doctrine on the "Four Prajnas of Buddhahood" affirms as the inevitable effect of the realization of Buddha nature, concerning the third prajna (Observing Prajna) which closely corresponds to the fourth of the "Five Ranks" of Tung-shan.

Beyond this, the Zen masters indicate that, while we cannot help but rejoice at the freedom and boundless wealth of the fourth rank, another marvel remains. At the interface of the fourth and fifth ranks, the fourth prajna of Buddhahood—Practical Prajna—begins to function. The reality of total and absolute liberation. Dogen describes this as, "When Buddhas are Buddhas, they do not know they are Buddhas."

In Practical Prajna, wisdom and compassion are spontaneously manifested beyond intention, and convention. The fifth of the Five Ranks calls it: Arriving within Together. The verse for this rank is:

Falling into neither existence nor nonexistence, who dares harmonize?
People fully desire to exit the constant flux;
But after bending and fitting, in the end still return to sit in the warmth of the coals.
The Record of Tung-shan, p.31, Trans. William F. Powell

Ted Biringer

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dogen's Teacher - Who speaks Real Form?

In giving informal instruction in the Abbot’s private quarters, my late Master, the Old Buddha of Tendo, said in verse one night:

Tonight, Tendo Mountain is blessed with calves,And a golden-faced Gautama holds aloft the Real Form.“If buying is your wish, how will you afford Its priceless price?” So cries the night bird from above the solitary cloud on high.

When the situation is as described above, venerable senior monks who are accomplished in the Buddha’s Way speak of Real Form. Those who do not know the Buddha Dharma and who do not explore the Buddha’s Way do not speak of Real Form...

When the poem was finished, he struck the right arm of his meditation seat with his right hand and said, “Enter my room for your spiritual interview.” His topic for the spiritual interview was “The night bird cries out and the bamboo on the mountain splits open.” These were his very words for the spiritual interview. He offered no commentary. Even though our monastic family was large, many had no response, as they were simply overawed...

During such informal teaching, my Master’s seat was surrounded by screens which the community crowded around. While the monks remained standing, the interviews took place with whichever monk was prepared to enter the Abbot’s presence. When a monk had finished his interview, he departed through the door of the Abbot’s quarters in the customary manner...

I cannot remember how many mountains and bodies of water there have been between Mount Tendo and this mountain, but the Real Form of those beautiful words and wondrous phrases of my Master has been engraved on my body and mind, on my bones and marrow.
(Shobogenzo, Shoho Jisso, Trans. Hubert Nearman)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Zen Master Dogen on negation of rational understanding

"...Such people are in great number everywhere in Sung China, as I have personally witnessed. Sad to say, they did not recognize that the phrase ‘the use of intellect’ is itself a use of words, nor realize that a use of words may liberate us from the use of our intellect. When I was in Sung China, even though I laughed at them for their foolish views, they had nothing to say for themselves; they were simply speechless. Their present negation of rational understanding is nothing but an erroneous view. Who taught them this?"

(Shobogenzo, Sansuikyo, Trans. Hubert Nearman)

Ted Biringer

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dogen on intent to obtain awakening

Dogen Said:
As long as you study the Buddhist Teaching with the earnest intent to obtain awakening before you die, there should not be a single person who would fail to attain.
Shobogenzo-Zuimonki, 2:20 (Record of Things Heard, Thomas Cleary)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review - Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice

Book Review (corrected - I wrongly attributed the quote from Albert Welter to Michel Mohr)
Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice by Steven Heine & Dale Wright

This book is a welcome addition to the growing collection of literature revealing the huge gap between the actual practices of the various Zen schools and the common Western ideals of what Zen Buddhism represents. It presents in-depth analysis on the actual practices (from Zen's early history through the present) of many Zen rituals. These studies focus on Zen rituals as diverse as "Dharma Transmission" and "Zazen", to the rituals to "Glorify the Emperor" and "Protect the Country."

For those readers familiar with Zen only through "romantic" treatments of it by charismatic popularizers, this book may be an eye-opening read. For instance, the actual incorporation of Zen into Japan seems to have had little to do with "spiritual realization." As Albert Welter writes:

"While it is commonly supposed that early Kamakura bakufu leaders were attracted to Zen for spiritual reasons and for its discipline and rough and ready call to action that was part and parcel of samurai life, nothing could be further from the truth. Early Zen patrons looked to Zen ... to honor the dead, ensure victory in warfare, and alleviate sufferings associated with drought and natural disaster."

While many of the truths revealed and outlined in this wonderful and readable collection of essays have already been revealed (or at least implicated) in previous works, this book brings them together in one place offering an overview of the actual activities and functions of Zen institutions. While many westerners have become aware of some discrepancies between romantic accounts of the Zen schools and the actual theories and practices of those schools, some may be astonished at just how wide these discrepancies actually are. Most westerners associate Zen with "koans", "zazen" (meditation), enlightenment, etc. Many would not have guessed that, in the words of T. Griffith Foulk:

"...funerals and memorial services are the mainstay of the Zen tradition in Japan and its most important contribution to Japanese Buddhism at large." In fact, outside of actual "training centers", it is only a very small minority of Zen priests that engage in anything like "koan-introspection" or "zazen." Even in the so-called "training centers," reports Foulk: "Sutra-chanting services (fugin) take up more of the time of monks in Zen monasteries than any other kind of observance. They are regarded as a vital part of the daily (as well as monthly) routine, for it is through them that all the spirits enshrined on altars in various monastery buildings are nourished and propitiated."

One essay, "Zazen as an Enactment Ritual," written by Taigen Dan Leighton, a scholar, Soto priest, and Dharma heir, offers some "unorthodox" information on Dogen's "zazen." For instance, Leighton offers Dogen's own writings as evidence that:

"It is clear in context that Dogen considers zazen the core ritual but still simply one of the many ritual activities in the everyday life of the monks' hall."

This may not sound all that radical, but anyone that has had the "pleasure" of discussing the significance of "zazen" with western Soto "adherents" will find the confession that zazen "is simply one of the many ritual activities in the everyday life of the monks' hall", unusual, to say the least.

Leighton, as a learned scholar, is one of the few Soto "Dharma heirs" that is willing to acknowledge the validity of many things in Dogen's record that contradict much of what is postulated by "orthodox" Soto adherents. Among these are the notions of progressive practice, the validity of "enlightenment" experiences, and the necessity of study and right understanding in authentic Zen practice-realization.

Another interesting essay offers a deep analysis and overview of the ritual to "Glorify the Emperor." This ritual is so important in both the Rinzai and Soto schools in Japan that it is elaborately carried out at least 26 times a year in all the major monasteries. This was one ritual that some may not realize was fully endorsed by Dogen--and indeed, this book reveals that every single one of the rituals that Dogen dismissed in his "Bendowa" was actively encouraged and practiced by him and his followers. This book also offers the first in-depth analysis on the practice of "kinhin" (walking meditation) in the Soto school of Zen. Said to have been passed down from Dogen, David E. Riggs reveals that this practice was actually devised about 500 years after Dogen's death.

The essay on "Dharma Transmission" is perhaps one of the most important revelations for modern western students. While many are aware of the untenability of anything like an "unbroken" line of Transmission from the Buddha to any modern Zen master, the details of the corruption of "Dharma Transmission" offered here force us to question how this ritual could be considered as valid in any context today.

Revealed are a number of "posthumous" and "proxy" Transmissions (Dharma Transmissions "after death" or through "mediators" without ever meeting the "successors"). For instance, the "Transmission" of Dogen's own teacher, Tendo Nyojo, was re-created by means of a posthumous transmission by proxy (a previous "master" took transmission from a "dead" master, then transmitted it to Tendo Nyojo's lineage).

This collection of essays may be a disillusioning experience for those students with romantic notions of modern masters purported to be teaching the "authentic" or "true" Zen transmitted from master to disciple down through the ages. However, dis-illusion opens the door to authentic Zen.

This book, along with others that reveal the truth behind the "orthodox" doctrines and institutional dogmas regarding the authentic message of Zen, allows students with genuine aspiration to see through the bias, narrow, and one-sided teachings inherent in hierarchical systems of all kinds. Rather than becoming the "followers" of those "creative interpretations" by the modern sects, schools, and institutions seeking to win power through authority, students become free to go directly to the sources of the Zen records themselves and discover the timeless wisdom embodied therein.

Master Dogen, for one, seems to have foreseen the appropriation and corruption of his own teachings by future "authorities." In order to preserve the "True Dharma" he did not decide to establish "a sect" or a "school" or a "transmission" from successor to successor, but a written record:

"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 pro-found instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and main-tained. 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." Shobogenzo, Bendowa (Trans. Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross)

This book, with its revelations of the gap between "authentic Zen" and the "teachings by Zen institutions" highlights the necessity for genuine students to look to the classic Zen records, rather than modern sects and schools, to discover the authentic message of the great Zen masters.

Ted Biringer
Author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Soto and Rinzai Zen Masters on the Koan "Mu" (Tendo Nyojo & Mumon)

While the "Soto" and "Rinzai" Zen sects are asserted to differ on a variety of issues regarding the teachings of Zen practice and enlightenment, their differing view on the role of "Koans" is often the most emphatic.

In light of this, it is interesting to examine and compare the koan instructions given by two Zen masters that are both highly revered by their respective sects. For the "Soto" position, Master Eihei Dogen's teacher, Tendo Nyojo, is considered an excellent representitve. For the "Rinzai" position, Master Mumon, author of the Mumonkan, is considered to be one of the best koan representives in Zen history.

Fortunately, both of these masters are on record giving instruction on what is probably the most well known of all Zen koans, Case 1 of the Mumonkan. Look how these two Zen masters from opposite lineages approach Joshu's 'Mu.'

Jõshû's "Mu 趙州狗子

A monk asked Jõshû, "Has a dog the Buddha Nature?" Jõshû answered, "Mu."

Now here is Mumon's instruction:

"In order to master Zen, you must pass the barrier of the patriarchs. To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking. If you do not pass the barrier, and do not cut off the way of thinking, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds.

Now, I want to ask you, what is the barrier of the patriarchs? Why, it is this single word 'Mu.' That is the front gate to Zen. Therefore it is called the 'Mumonkan of Zen.' If you pass through it, you will not only see Jõshû face to face, but you will also go hand in hand with the successive patriarchs, entangling your eyebrows with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Isn't that a delightful prospect? Wouldn't you like to pass this barrier?

Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word 'Mu.' Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of 'has' or 'has not.' It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try. All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream.

Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant general Kan'u and hold it in your hand. When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them. On the brink of life and death, you command perfect freedom; among the sixfold worlds and four modes of existence, you enjoy a merry and playful samadhi.

Now, I want to ask you again, 'How will you carry it out?' Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this 'Mu.' If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!'
~Trans. Katsuki Sekida

Here is Tendo Nyojo's instruction:

"When thoughts are flying around your mind in confusion, what do you do? 'A dog’s Buddha-nature? No (Mu).' This one word No (Mu) is an iron broom: Where you sweep there is a lot of flying around, and where there is a lot of flying around, you sweep. The more you sweep, the more there is. At this point where it is impossible to sweep, you throw your whole life into sweeping. Keep your spine straight day and night, and do not let your courage flag. All of a sudden you sweep away the totality of space, and all differentiations are clearly penetrated, so the source and its meanings become evident."
~ Trans. Thomas Cleary

Mumon: " must completely cut off the way of thinking...
Tendo Nyojo: "When thoughts are flying around your mind in confusion..."

Mumon: "'How will you carry it out?' Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this 'Mu.'"
Tendo Nyojo: "...what do you do? 'A dog's Buddha-nature? No (Mu)."

Mumon: "...what is the barrier of the patriarchs? Why, it is this single word 'Mu.'
Tendo Nyojo: "This one word No (Mu) is an iron broom..."

Mumon: "Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word 'Mu.'"
Tendo Nyojo: "At this point where it is impossible to sweep, you throw your whole life into sweeping."

Mumon: "Carry it continuously day and night."
Tendo Nyojo: "Keep your spine straight day and night, and do not let your courage flag."

Mumon: "It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try."
Tendo Nyojo: "The more you sweep, the more there is."

Mumon: "Then all of a sudden..."
Tendo Nyojo: "All of a sudden..."

Mumon: "All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated... internal and external will be spontaneously united... an explosive conversion will occur..."
Tendo Nyojo: " sweep away the totality of space, and all differentiations are clearly penetrated..."

Mumon: "You will know this, but for yourself only..."
Tendo Nyojo: "...the source and its meanings become evident."

While there are some subtle differences here, the common characteristics seem to outweigh them for the most part. Having employed both of these methods to the best of my ability, I have not discerned any difference in the actual experience. If anyone else has, please share your comments.

Note: While both Tendo Nyojo and Mumon recommend taking up this koan in Zazen , I would not recommend doing so without a reliable teacher. Unfortunately, many Soto 'teachers' flatly deny that 'Soto' Zen masters (often they mean 'Dogen') ever recommended taking up koans in Zazen, hence few Soto 'teachers' have developed the capacity to instruct students in koan-introspection (this is not to say that no Soto teachers have undergone this training, but very few have).

Dogen's records are full of many references to the Mu koan, and I highly recommend his writings to see how he uses it in some intriguing ways.

Ted Biringer
For more Zen and Buddhist Resources check out The Flatbed Sutra Zen Blog