Saturday, October 25, 2008

Delusion is easier on the knees

Aside from the question of what Dogen actually meant, it is clear that he personally approached life with great zeal and intensity. Even setting aside the uncertainties concerning his biography, what little is known clearly testifies to the fact that he himself acted in accord with his repeated, energetic exhortations to “master in practice” and “examine sideways and upside down” and “apply yourselves as if your head was on fire” etc.

His own life was an eternal quest; committing to the path at 8 years old, running away at 13 to avoid the barriers of secular life, reading the entire Tripitaka twice by his early 20s, mastering Tendai, the exoteric and esoteric teachings. Not yet satisfied, he set about mastering Rinzai Zen under Myozan, then accompanied him on a journey to China. There, he traveled around and sought wise counsel wherever he could.

Finding Tendo Nyojo, he intensified his practice and study, realized a profound awakening, then spent a couple more years “entering the room” deepening and refining his realization under the guidance of his teacher.

When he finally returned to Japan, he spent the rest of his life continuously exploring and developing all manner of methods, techniques, and activities to effectively transmit the Buddha-Dharma to his fellow countrymen. To this end he produced hundreds of fascicles which he continuously re-worked, edited, and refined many times, right up to his final illness, and he established Eihei-ji (still regarded as one of the great temples of the world), and he offered instruction to monks, nuns, and secular people from all classes.

The energy that Dogen applied in those monumental efforts can still be felt on a visceral level through reading and (trying) to apply his teachings as outlined in some of the most creative expressions in Buddhist history.

Dogen’s life was clearly engaged in actively creating, exploring, and expressing the meaning, function, and experience of the Buddha-Dharma. When we see how vibrantly he speaks of discovering whole worlds in each moment, and in each drop of water, we come to understand his outspoken disdain for the distorted ‘nothing to realize’ and ‘everything is it’ notions of Zen that had taken root in his own time. We are (at least I am) inspired by Dogen’s constant earnestness on the necessity to focus our aspiration and effort that he asserts are essential to genuine practice and enlightenment. His repeated exhortations to “those who have already attained enlightenment” to continue to go ever-deeper attaining enlightenment upon enlightenment, are reinforced by his own example. His constant refrain reminds us that enlightenment without practice is not authentic enlightenment, and practice without enlightenment is not authentic practice.

We don’t need to prove Dogen’s meaning to understand that the necessity of wholehearted effort and focused, dedicated practice is a basic teaching of Buddhism, and a hallmark of Zen. And even those that have not researched much in the Zen records realize that the teachings of “practice and enlightenment” have always been susceptible to misunderstanding and misappropriation.

Obvious to even the most casual of readers among Zen students is that some of the most pernicious divisions in the history of Buddhism have been caused by arguments around what this teaching means. The confusion between sudden realization (original enlightenment) and gradual cultivation (acquired enlightenment), has been the most visible and persistent manifestation of this argument in the Zen tradition.

According to his biographers, the apparent contradiction between original enlightenment and acquired enlightenment was the barrier to and eventually the catalyst of Dogen’s own great awakening. Resolving this conflict became the central focus of his spiritual quest. 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 own words from Shobogenzo, Bendowa—“complete the task of a lifetime.”

After such a powerful experience, it is only natural that the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment became such a central theme in Dogen’s teaching. By “non-dual” I mean, empty of duality, I do not mean that practice and enlightenment are one, as is propagated by some. Practice and enlightenment in Zen are two aspects of one reality. I think that Dogen is clear on the fact that though they always go together, they each maintain their distinctive aspects.

This brings me to, what I think is one of the best passages in Shobogenzo that takes up question raised, “What constitutes practicing Dogen’s Zen?” The very first paragraph of Dogen’s very first teaching, Fukanzazengi, is constructed of four lines—each variations expressing the fundamental point.

“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?”Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1, p. 279

Coming from Dogen we know this is not a simplistic series of rhetorical statements, but an expression of spiritual realization, urging us to deep contemplation. It seems clear that Dogen is not saying, “the truth is all around: we do not need to rely upon practice, put forth great effort, etc.” Rather, he is saying, “the truth is all around: why do we need to practice, who could believe in the means, of what use, and so on.” His statements are neither rhetorical, nor are they conventional questions wanting answers. Here he not only respond to the question posed, Dogen indicates, at once, the revelation of the truth of Zen and illustrates the appropriate attitude for Zen practitioners to employ.

While his expressions were unique, and may even transcend those of his predecessors, what Dogen actually taught was what all the true buddhas and Zen ancestors taught; enlightenment is the essence of authentic practice, practice is the function of authentic enlightenment. The duality of practice and enlightenment is actualized and transcended, not eradicated or annihilated. It seems obvious in this light, that Dogen frequently used the term zazen in reference to the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment, not just as a reference to sitting meditation. In Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, Dogen outlines this fundamental teaching of Zen. Near the end of this essay, he uses a Zen koan to illustrate the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment. The koan runs:

Zen Master Hotetsu, of Mount Mayu is using a fan. A monk comes up and says, “The nature of air is ever-present, and there is no place it does not reach. Why then does the Master use a fan?”The master says, “You understand that the nature of air is ever-present, but you do not understand the truth that there is no place it does not reach.”The monk says, “What is the truth of there being no place it does not reach?”At this, the master just continues to use the fan.The monk does prostra-tions.

Dogen goes on to say, “The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the living way of authentic transmission, is like this.”Because of the universal significance that is applied by all Dogen admirers to Genjokoan, combined with the widely held notion that all Dogen’s teaching can be summed up by “zazen”, it is worth noting that the word “zazen” does not appear even once in this vastly popular fascicle.

The term zazen, like dharma, buddha, bodhi, and the like, has different meanings depending on the speaker, audience, and context of its expression. Just as the most common use of the term “Buddha” is as a reference to the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, so the most common use of the term “zazen” is as a reference to sitting meditation. By developing a working knowledge of the records and koans of Zen, it becomes obvious when Dogen is using the term zazen strictly in reference to sitting meditation, and when he is using it in the sense of: the non-dual nature of practice and enlightenment.

It is truly regrettable that Dogen’s profound expressions on practice and enlightenment has often been twisted into shallow, naturalistic views. When this is allowed to occur, Dogen’s wonderful teaching that practice is practice-and-enlightenment, and enlightenment is practice-and-enlightenment, is reduced into practice is enlightenment, and enlightenment is practice.

In Dogen’s teaching on practice and enlightenment, he regarded any teaching that posited practice as a term indicating something other than the enactment of enlightenment, as in practice-and-enlightenment, or as a term synonymous with enlightenment, as false teaching. Perhaps this is why some contemporary “Zen” books avoid the word “enlightenment,” altogether—except as something to be challenged, and the word “practice,” is so profuse. Rambling on about Zen practice this and Zen practice that, it often seems as if practice has become totally divorced from enlightenment—diminished to a simple catchphrase, a kind of pseudo-Zen. Worse, when this misrepresentation of practice is married to a strictly literalist interpretation of zazen, it reduces great enlightenment to ordinary sitting meditation. If the true creed of Dogen’s teaching is; “there is no enlightenment to seek, have no goal except to only sit which is itself full and perfect enlightenment", then I would simply prefer delusion--it is much easier on the knees.


Ted Biringer


Uku said...

Interesting and really good post, thank you.

I think it doesn't really matter what buddha, dharma, zazen and so on means. It's much more important to realize that this present moment is what really matters. And after all, it doesn't matter at all. It's all in our deluded minds. And realizing that we can understand what Dogen means by saying "there is no enlightenment to seek, have no goal except to only sit which is itself full and perfect enlightenment" ;)

Gassho, my Dharmafriend!

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Uku,

Thank you for your reply!


Ted Biringer

SlowZen said...

But are the knees easier on delusion?


Barry said...

Hi Ted,
Thank you for this post. I know so little about Dogen, having "grown up" (or down) in the Korean Zen tradition.

My root teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, said that practice means "how you keep your mind, moment to moment."

This teaching has nothing to do with formal sitting meditation - although Korean Zen emphasizes this heavily - and everything to do with - well, how we "keep" our mind.

As we all know, one can sit like a rock for years but if the mind is always daydreaming, then it's a complete waste of time.

On the other hand, 5 minutes of what Zen Master Seung Sahn called "hot" training, can change everything.

Thanks again,

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Jordan,

Thanks for the comment.

As for the question, I don't know.


Ted Biringer

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Barry,

Thank you for your comments.

While the translations of the Korean master Chinul have long been cherished, I have not had the pleasure of working with any contemporary Korean teachers.

I will say, however, that Zen Master Seung Sahn's book, "Dropping Ashes On the Buddha" made a definite impact on me. As I read it before my participation in koan training, I often thought of it when working with koans that illumined various aspects concerning the avoidance of attachment to emptiness. Certainly, this is one hindrance that seems to have plagued Zen communities from its earliest days right into the present! I love the "modern" adaption of this point in the story about person that drops the ashes on the Buddha. I seem to meet this person often in a whole variety of Zen communities.

I heard a story (from Hinduism, I think) with a similar point once. The student asks his master, "What is God?"

The master says, "You are God."

The student is blown away. He wanders off in amazement, thinking, I am God! I am God!

Then, a man riding an elephant comes rambling down the road. The man is shouting, "Look out! Get off the road!"

The student thinks, "I am God. The elephant is God. Why should God have to get out of the way of God?" And so thinking, he stands there.

The elephant rams into him, knoking him ass over tea-kettle off the road and into the ditch and continues on its way.

The student limps back to his master and asks him how that could happen. The master says, "Why didn't you heed the voice of God telling you to get out of the way?"



Ted Biringer

Barry said...

Hi Ted,

Great story about the man who thought he was God.

The "Dropping Ashes" koan is used in Zen Master Seung Sahn's lineage to prepare students as they move into a teaching role in the community (giving meditation instruction, not as a Zen master).

As you observe, we commonly meet people who think they've "got something" - both in the Zen center and also in everyday life.

The "Dropping Ashes" koan helps a student work with this kind of person. Maybe the "dropping ashes" person "has something" - in which case a certain kind of response is needed.

Or, maybe the person only has delusion, in which case a different response is needed.

Maybe the deluded person can be helped, or maybe the delusion is too strong and they cannot be helped. How can we work with either situation?

In my experience, as this koan takes root in the marrow, it makes it easier to interact in ways that benefit all kinds of people.

And that's the point of all this stuff. Really, it's the only point.

Thanks for your wonderful efforts!


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Barry,

Thank you for sharing your experience here.

I can certainly see the value of the "Dropping ashes on the Buddha" koan for illumining and refining skills for helping others--the main point, of course, demonstrates the fundamental difference between a "personal liberation" path and the Bodhisattva path of "universal liberation. The many beings cannot even be heard, much less saved by "sticking to the '0' point of the scale."

One of the loveliest expressions, in my view, on this point is recorded as case 16 of the Mumonkan:

Unmon said, "The world is vast and wide.

Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"
(Translated by Katsuki Sekida)

Also, I wholeheartedly agree with your observation:

"In my experience, as this koan takes root in the marrow, it makes it easier to interact in ways that benefit all kinds of people."

How true these words are! At the same time, I think this koan (and other teachings on the point) can also help us first discern, and then remain mindful of just exactly 'what' or 'who' "all kinds of people" really are. Mumon's comment and verse to case 45 are great on this:

Hõen of Tõzan said, "Even Shakya and Maitreya are servants of another.

I want to ask you, who is he?"

Mumon's Comment

If you can really see this "another" with perfect clarity, it is like encountering your own father at a crossroads. Why should you ask whether you recognize him or not?

Mumon's Verse

Don't draw another's bow,
Don't ride another's horse,
Don't discuss another's faults,
Don't explore another's affairs.
(Translated by Katsuki Sekida)

Huineng's comment seems apt here:

You should know that so far as buddha-nature is concerned, there is no difference between an enlightened man and an ignorant one.
–Eno (Price, A.F. & Mou-lam, Wong)

Much later Bassui made the point thus:

This real Buddha is none other than the heart of all beings, the master of seeing, hearing, and perceiving.
–Bassui (Arthur Braverman)

Dogen, in Genjokoan, after reminding us that “To realize the buddha-dharma is to realize our self,” tells us what it means to “realize our self”:

~To realize your self is to forget your self.~

When we forget the self, grasping and aversion no longer bind us to abstract notions and conceptualizations. Theories, concepts, and knowledge are then seen and utilized within their proper sphere and context, not as unbending metaphysical laws, but as rational and dynamic methodological principles for living in the real world. This kind of “forgetting,” says the Genjokoan, reveals a fascinating implication:

To forget your self is to be actualized by the many things."

Ah yes! Sometimes a cigar is Buddha, sometimes it is just a cigar. Sometimes Buddha is an ashtray, sometimes Buddha is Buddha.

Thanks again.



Barry said...

Thank you very much, Ted!


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Barry,

You are most welcome, Thank You!

Ted Biringer