Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It the Zazen of Zen, are all realms vertical?

In Shobogenzo, Sammai-O-Zammai, Master Dogen offers a suggestion on how to apply ourselves to meditation while sitting. He says:

We should investigate: at the very moment we are sitting, are all realms vertical? Are they horizontal? At the very moment we are sitting, what about that sitting? Is it a flip? Is it “brisk and lively”? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it making? Is it without making? Are we sitting within sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind? Are we sitting having sloughed off “within sitting,” “within body and mind,” and so on? We should investigate one thousand points, ten thousand points, such as these.
Translated by Carl Bielefeldt

Yes! This is exactly how practitioners with genuine aspiration apply themselves to Zen meditation. Looking deeply, examining exhaustively, not only our own perspective but that of "all realms."

Master Dogen is not alone; all of the outstanding figures of Zen history testify to the eternal quest that is the source of what, who, where, when, how, and why---the very essence and function of the vast unnamable fathomless void. Zen meditation (Zazen) illumines the wonder and mystery of being alive.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Even the non-dharma does not exist

The section in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan about how awakening to the truth that "the many things actualize awareness of the self" is the function of Zen practice (indicating that our true nature is the true nature of the universe). The text goes on to indicate the nature and function of enlightenment and delusion. Genjokoan states:

Those who are enlightened about delusion are buddhas.

So being "enlightened about delusion" means awakening to the reality of delusion. That is, realizing what delusion truly is. This could be likened to being shown the cause of a magician’s illusions: mirrors, wires, hidden compartments, etc., thus being able to grasp the reality of the illusion. The reality of the illusion (the mirrors, wires, hidden compartments) is existent, and the illusion is a real characteristic of its existence. Similarly, when realizing the cause of delusion: misperception or partial perception, of true nature, we realize the reality of delusion. The reality of delusion (misperception or partial perception of our own true nature) is existent, and delusion is a real characteristic of its existence. Those who are "enlightened about" this are called "buddhas."

Next, the Genjokoan says:

Those who are deluded about enlightenment are ordinary beings.

To be "deluded about enlightenment" is to view enlightenment as being something outside or apart from ourselves or the everyday world. Those who are aware of their true nature are called buddhas; those who are unaware of their true nature are called ordinary beings. Flowers fall, weeds flourish; cocks crow, dogs bark. The Genjokoan goes on:

There are people who continue to realize enlightenment based on enlightenment.

Dogen’s emphasis on post-kensho practice and enlightenment is rarely matched in Zen literature. In many places throughout his works he insists that the initial experience of enlightenment is just the beginning of genuine practice-enlightenment. Of course, enlightenment for Dogen is only authentic as practice and enlightenment. In his works, he often refers to realizing enlightenment based upon enlightenment (often using the Zen ancestors of the past as examples of how to approach the lifetime process of deepening and refining our realization). The Genjokoan continues:

There are people in the midst of delusion adding to delusion.

Dogen does not seem here to be simply repeating himself, but to be indicating something else. In Shobogenzo, Keisei-Sanshiki, Dogen uses the same phrase (as best as I can tell) in a manner that suggests a deeper implication:

When [a person] tells people who do not know the will to the truth about the will to the truth, the good advice offends their ears, and so they do not reflect upon themselves, but [only] bear resentment towards the other person. As a general rule concerning actions and vows, which are the bodhi-mind, we should not intend to let worldly people know whether or not we have established the bodhi-mind or whether or not we are practicing the truth; we should endeavor to be unknown. How much less could we boast about ourselves? Because people today rarely seek what is real, when the praises of others are available, they seem to want someone to say that their practice and understanding have become harmonized, even though there is no practice in their body, and no realization in their mind. "In delusion adding to delusion" describes exactly this.
Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Keisei-Sanshiki
, Book 1, p. 91 (italics added)

In this passage, Dogen seems to define the condition of "increasing delusion in the midst of delusion" as the denial of delusion. That is to say, when people in delusion deny they are deluded (or assert they are enlightened) they are "in delusion adding to delusion." Looking at Case One of the Blue Cliff Record may shed some light on this particular condition. The koan reads:

Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, "What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truths?"
Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy."
The Emperor asked, "Who is facing me?"
Bodhidharma responded, "I don’t know."
The Emperor did not understand. After this Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtse River and traveled to the kingdom of Wei.
Later the Emperor asked Master Chih about it.
Master Chih asked, "Do you know who this man is?"
The Emperor said, "I don’t know."
Master Chih said, "He is the great bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, transmitting the confirmation of the buddha-mind."
The Emperor was regretful and wanted to send an envoy to bring Bodhidharma back.
Master Chih said, "Don’t say you will send someone to bring him back. Even if everyone in China went after him, he would not return."

Commenting on the line "The Emperor did not understand," Engo (Yuanwu - the editor of the Blue Cliff Record) says, "Too bad! Still, he’s gotten somewhere." (Cleary & Cleary) Might the meaning of Engo’s comment, "Still, he’s gotten somewhere," illumine what Dogen means by "in delusion adding to delusion"? In following the reasoning here, Emperor Wu could be understood as "adding to delusion" when he thought he knew something (or asserted his enlightenment). However, (although he is still in delusion) after his meeting with Bodhidharma, he admits that he does "not understand," that is, he does not deny his own delusion. The Emperor is in delusion (i.e. not enlightened), but he is no longer adding to delusion (by asserting his enlightenment).

Clearly, recognizing and acknowledging the reality of our own delusion is a prerequisite to enlightenment. For how or why would one aspire to, or arouse the will for enlightenment if they failed to recognize and acknowledge their own delusion? Hence, Dogen’s words, "Those who are enlightened about delusion are buddhas" could be read as meaning that the recognition and acknowledgement of delusion is simultaneous with enlightenment. Throughout the Shobogenzo, Dogen continuously asserts the nondual nature of delusion and enlightenment; but he never says (to the best of my knowledge) that buddhas are free from delusion, as is often implied by much of the contemporary literature of Zen. Indeed, as Genjokoan goes on to say:

When buddhas are buddhas, they do not know they are buddhas.

This line reminds us that when buddhas are experiencing the condition of Buddhahood, there is nothing but Buddha in the whole universe. This condition is sometimes described in Buddhist literature as the state where the known and the knower (or actor and action) are one. Obviously, for a buddha to have the thought, "I am a buddha," they would have to perceive themselves as something (buddha) in opposition to something else (not buddha), hence; they would not be in the condition of Buddhahood. That does not mean there are no buddhas, as the Genjokoan points out next:

Nevertheless, buddhas are buddhas and continuously actualize Buddhahood.

The condition of Buddhahood is not something that is gained, but something that is discovered and activated; that is, the nature of delusion is illumined and our original Buddhahood is realized. Of course, this experience is only called Buddhahood to differentiate it from delusion. When speaking of a state beyond delusion we call it "Buddhahood." However, in the absolute sense, as in Dogen’s opening lines to Genjokoan, there is nothing to be grasped (no buddhas, no ordinary beings, etc.) and in the transcendent sense, buddhas and ordinary beings always contain and include each other.

The classic Zen records tell us that in the actual experience of Buddhahood all names and labels are meaningless; for from the perspective of oneness or emptiness, differentiation does not exist. Even "oneness" is a relative term–that is, oneness is relative and only valid in contrast to multiplicity. Therefore, when differentiation is truly dissolved so, too, is Buddhahood. One wonderful Zen expression of this principle is a verse attributed to Ananda, one of Buddha’s disciples and the traditional Second Ancestor of Zen in India:

When we are awake to the truth, even the non-dharma does not exist.
The Transmission of the Lamp, Sohaku Ogata, p. 10


Ted Biringer

Friday, December 12, 2008

Giving Dogen - and Shobogenzo - their due respect

While many of Dogen’s writings are complex, subtle, and profound, they are not mysterious, mystical, or irrational. It is true that they demand sustained, active, intensive and extensive investigation and maybe some interpretation, but they do not require decoding. Like all great literature, Shobogenzo will only yield its treasure through genuine, rational, and sustained exploration.

As Shobogenzo is not only great literature, but also a soteriological device, genuine understanding also demands personal experimentation. As great literature, it must be read by employing a variety of reading skills. That is, it must be read from the various levels or dimensions of what the educator Mortimer J. Adler called "active reading." (Mortimer J. Adler, How To Read a Book). He delineated four general "levels" of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical. These "levels" of reading correspond to a certain extent with the three basic "points" outlined in Dale S. Wright’s landmark book, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism. The reader that applies the "levels" of Adler, or the "points" of Wright (or both) to Shobogenzo will certainly attain a better understanding than many so-called Dogen specialists have demonstrated. This kind of reading is extremely effective because, as Professor Wright says:

In the Language of Zen, it calls forth "the one who is right now reading," and refuses to allow the reader to cling to his or her own invisibility."
(Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism)

When this kind of active reading is combined with a reliable method of spiritual practice/realization, it augments and enhances ones experience, understanding, and enjoyment of literature. In the case of Shobogenzo, following a regular practice of meditation is certainly necessary for achieving anything more than a superficial overview.

Anyone that would claim to understand, or be an adherent of Dogen’s teaching clearly needs to look very, very closely at what he said. In so doing, his work deserves the respect accorded to all great literary figures; that is, it must be evaluated from within its literary, cultural, and historical context. Any assertions about Dogen’s work short of at least this much would be vulgar, to say the least, especially by anyone identifying themselves as adherents of "Dogen’s Zen." Just as an understanding of Zen is meaningless without actual practice, the practice of Zen is meaningless without actual understanding. To assume an understanding of Dogen’s Zen based on a mere handful of his writings would be absurd, and an understanding based only on faith in the assertions of authorities is merely an imitation of understanding, which Dogen (and many Zen masters) considered as a mockery of genuine understanding.

As one of the most influential figures in the history of Buddhism, Dogen deserves to be given his due. Regardless of our intentions, before we venerate or condemn his teachings, we must do our utmost to clarify our understanding, to get to the truth of what Dogen actually taught. A quote attributed to Herbert Spencer sums up the point nicely, "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

It seems to me that to honestly give Dogen his due we must first approach Shobogenzo as if it actually is what he said it is—The True Dharma-Eye Treasury, that is, the authentic truth of the Buddhism. This would mean that all the fascicles constituting Shobogenzo must, to the best of our ability, be read as Dogen intended them to be read; not as independent treatises, but as parts of a unity—the unity of Shobogenzo. Corollary to this is that each fascicle must, for the most part, be gauged by the same standard and granted equal authority concerning the genuine meaning of the whole Shobogenzo, or of any part of that whole. We would not expect to understand any one chapter of the Lotus Sutra outside its context in the whole, or the whole of the Sutra apart from its chapters, likewise with Shobogenzo.

The inference of this seems clear; the more unfamiliar, neglected fascicles of Shobogenzo, because they far outnumber the familiar, popularized fascicles, provide more than just the bulk of its content, they provide the bulk of its meaning. This does not mean that those teachings that have been revealed and propagated based on a relatively minor selection from Shobogenzo are widely off the mark—I believe they are not. Just as several chapters from the Lotus Sutra could reveal the genuine, if partial, message of that sutra, so too with Shobogenzo.

Fortunately, the language, reason, and methods of the fascicles constituting Shobogenzo are extraordinarily consistent, not only with each other, but also with Dogen’s other works and with those of Mahayana Buddhism (especially Ch’an [J. Zen]) generally. Yet, when all the fascicles of Shobogenzo are taken into account, not only is the scope of Dogen’s message expanded, many of the ambiguities concerning his teaching are resolved. In short, approaching Shobogenzo as a unified whole broadens and clarifies its genuine message.

In my view, Dogen’s records exemplify Zen’s characteristically freehanded approach to doctrines and systems of all kinds. This Zen characteristic is sometimes referred to in the classic records as, "Taking up with one hand, letting go with the other." The misunderstanding of this technique has evidently contributed to popular false notions of Zen as anti-doctrinal and iconoclastic. I have not seen any valid evidence that Zen in any way advocates the destruction of traditional teachings, forms of practice, systems of thought, or established institutions. To me it seems that Zen simply asserts that they should be employed, and applied in a useful manner.

It is not difficult to understand why there is such widespread misunderstanding about Zen’s use of language, doctrine, and methodology; many are profoundly subtle and difficult to grasp (much more so to employ). Indeed, it seems to me that many of the more subtle doctrines and techniques of Zen are concerned with the transmission and development of the skillful use of language and doctrine. Throughout the literature of Zen, one finds a great deal of emphasis on the necessity of developing the skill to use systems without being used by systems.

In my own view, it seems important to understand that Zen literature, including Dogen’s work does not merely acknowledge language as unavoidable; it embraces it as the dynamic, liberating vehicle of Buddha-Dharma itself. "Katto" translated into English as "entangling vines" or "entwining vines," is a term that is often used in Zen to indicate hindrances associated with attachment to, and/or conceptualization aroused by words, explanations, doctrines, etc. While many of the classic Zen records implicitly acknowledge the positive, even necessary role of language and doctrines (if only tacitly by the sheer fact of their existence), Dogen voices it clearly:

Generally speaking, the saintly all devise some method of training whereby they sever the roots of whatever vines are entangling them. But they might not explore how to cut off entangling vines by using the very vines themselves, for they may not have used these embracing vines as the means to understand their being entangled. (Shobogenzo, Katto, Hubert Nearman)

This seems to be precisely the same point indicated by that great visionary of western tradition, William Blake, where, in his Jerusalem, he has Los declare:

Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those System;
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawd his own tender nerves.
(William Blake, Jerusalem)

It is not language, doctrine, methodology, or conceptual constructs in themselves that are rejected by the Zen masters; it is their misuse. In his writings, Dogen insists that helping others reach liberation is best achieved by "giving voice" to the truth of Buddha nature, which should not be confused with giving voice to a rigid view, or formula; sometimes it is tall, sometimes it is short:

Those who can help others reach the Other Shore through manifesting their True Self will manifest It and give voice to the Dharma for that purpose: this is Buddha Nature. Further, sometimes they will display the Dharma Body as something tall and sometimes they will display It as something short. (Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman)

To use a Zen simile, a rabbit running into a stump may be a meal, but a meal is not a rabbit running into a stump. A meal is berries on a vine, cultivated radishes, steamed rice, and myriad other forms. While an expression is Buddha-Dharma, Buddha-Dharma is not an expression. As Dogen points out:

You need to realize that the genuine functioning of the Dharma is beyond any immediate display of what is said or how It is put. A genuine voicing of the Dharma has no set form. (Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman)

Dogen consistently disparaged anything that even hinted at rigid adherence to systems of thought or attachment to methodologies or devices, even devices developed by the Zen ancestors. Far from being beneficial as an approach to Shobogenzo, reducing Dogen’s teaching to intellectually manageable patterns neutralizes its dynamic potential for pushing us beyond our limited view and actually expanding the horizons of our experience.

Reading Shobogenzo through any systematic screen is only possible if one imagines that the message of Shobogenzo is something to be explained. As students of literature tell us, the authentic message of any truly sacred text, like that of authentic poetry, inherently defies explanation. If the authentic message of a sacred text could truly be grasped through an explanation, it should have been written as an explanation to begin with. Obviously, if a sacred text conveyed nothing but what could be grasped by the ordinary human intellect, that text would hardly qualify as sacred. A literary work that does not speak to the heart as well as the mind and does nothing to actually expand our understanding, realization, and experience of life offers, at best, nothing more than a quantity of information, a mere number of trivial facts.

The tendency to categorize and systemize Dogen’s writings is not simply restricted to the sectarian factions of Soto Zen; traces of it appear in nearly every field of Dogen, and Japanese Zen studies. A veritable plethora of labels have been applied to Dogen and his works in a variety of attempts to systematically explain "Dogen’s Zen." Attaching significance to perceived connections between his writings and when he wrote them, many modern Dogen scholars subscribe to one or the other of the so-called "Renewal" and "Decline" theories. These categorizations are established by compartmentalizing Dogen’s work according to when he wrote them. When using this system, Dogen’s work is usually divided into the categories of "early and late" periods or "early, middle and late" periods. One prominent Dogen scholar suggests dividing these three periods into seven sub-divisions (Early Early, Late Early, Early Middle, Middle Middle, Late Middle, Early Late, and Late Late). (Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go to China?)

Because of its role, scholarship is more than justified in dividing, and categorizing the subject of its research, yet students and practitioners should be aware of the nature and function of those investigations. Scholarship can and does illumine important facets of Dogen’s life and work, but it is important to remember that, like a finely cut diamond, Shobogenzo is more than the sum of its facets. After all, the language of Shobogenzo, like that of all truly sacred literature, is mythological. For myth is the language of deliverance and liberation; a living dynamic expression with the potential of rendering transparent the interface of the temporal and the eternal, the finite and the infinite, all beings and Buddha, in Zen terms: the Gateless Barrier.

To read mythic expression as ordinary prose is to misread it.

Sacred text is inevitably addressed to the whole of our being and it is only through the whole of our being that we can receive it. Failing to respect the integrity of Shobogenzo by subjecting it to differentiation, discrimination, and conceptualization inevitably renders it opaque, nullifying its liberating potential.

Shobogenzo, like a necklace made of pearls, is at once ‘the many’ and ‘the one.’ Exploring Shobogenzo through divisions or systems of thought is like examining a necklace only after dividing and organizing the pearls into groups and patterns. There is no doubt that Dogen’s Shobogenzo is one of the most complex and multi-faceted works in all of the world’s literature, but aside from a few uncertain points its message is consistent, and its inherent design is exquisite.

Ted Biringer