Thursday, October 21, 2010

Many know about zazen - Few know zazen

All Zen Buddhists know about zazen, but few actually know zazen.

Near the end of Himitsu-shōbōgenzō, Butsu-kōjō-no-ji, Dogen says:

In the house of the Buddha there is Bodhisattva Regarder of the Sounds of the World. Few people have not seen her but very few people know her.
Himitsu-shōbōgenzō (Secret Shōbōgenzō), Butsu-kōjō-no-ji
, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

This Bodhisattva is, of course, Avalokitesvara, one of the most important Bodhisattvas in Buddhism and the great hero of the Heart Sutra.

Clearly, as Dogen says, “Few people have not seen her.” However, what does Dogen mean by, “but very few people know her”? The reason that millions know about her but very few know her is the same reason that all Zen Buddhists know about zazen, but few actually know zazen.

[Note: This failure to “know” has nothing to do with what Zen calls “not knowing” or “don’t know mind” – if we don’t know Avalokitesvara or zazen we certainly don’t know “not knowing.”]

"Zazen" is a term that is often taken for granted, glossed over, and misconstrued. We all know that the literal translation of, “zazen” is “seated meditation,” but what is that? That is the same as saying “2+2” is “4” - which is only saying the same thing in two ways; both of which are generalizations. We may understand the terms, but apart from "knowing" what they actually stand for (e.g. “4 apples,” “2 dogs plus 2 cats,” etc.) the terms are meaningless. There is no such thing as a “general” 2+2, or a “general” 4, 5, or 6; there are only particular, actual things that posses such qualities.

A general “seated meditation” is as non-existent as a general “zazen.” Defining zazen as “non-thinking,” “casting off body-mind,” etc. is no more meaningful than defining 4 as 1+1+1+1, or 7-3 Only particular, actual instances of zazen have actual significance.
So how do we “know” Avalokitesvara or zazen? We know them by becoming aware of their reality in actual experience. We come to know 4 (or 2+2) by experiencing its reality within actual, particular things of the world that possesses its quality; our hands are 2, Mommy’s hands are 2, together there are 4 hands, and on it goes. We come to know zazen and Avalokitesvara by experiencing its reality within actual, particular things of the world that possesses its quality; looking at forms with the whole body-mind, and listening to sounds with the whole body-mind we experience them directly – this is knowing zazen, knowing Avalokitesvara.
Dogen describes this condition as that in which the “body-mind” of “self and other than self” is cast off. The Zen masters tell us that this experience first occurs (kensho, or kenbutsu) when we actually awaken to our own true nature. The significance of this kind of knowing is demonstrated by the fact that all the great Zen masters are in agreement that it is essential to authentic Zen practice-enlightenment. Such an awakening is, in Dogen's terms, “that one experience that we cannot omit.”
To clarify, consider Dogen’s criticism of Zen Master Soko (Daie). There is a widespread misunderstanding among Zen students, especially those identified with the “Soto” tradition, that Dogen’s refutation of Soko’s teaching was based on his association with Zen koans. This claim is based on a simplistic grasp of the issue at best, at worst it is a blatant falsehood designed to detract us from the real issues. Dogen’s rejection of Soko’s teaching was based on the criteria he always used to verify or deny expressions of truth: authentic practice-enlightenment.
Regardless of the “Urban Legend” surrounding his view of Soko, Dogen’s rejection was due to the fact that Soko had failed to realize that one vital experience. Dogen’s own words on the matter are clear and straightforward:
Even though time and time again Tandō aimed at opening Sōkō up, the latter ultimately kept missing that one experience, and there is no way of compensating for that, for one cannot omit that experience.
Shobogenzo, Jishō Zammai, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

There are “certified Dharma heirs” that spend a lot of time and energy minimizing this experience, a few even suggest it might be “expendable” (some deny such an experience exists), but as we see, that is definitely not Dogen’s take. By why does Dogen (like the classic Zen masters) say that this is one experience that cannot be omitted? Because without it we can’t “know” zazen (and Avalokitesvara); zazen will simply be a general notion, a concept – and there is simply no way to practice a concept of zazen no matter how long we “just sit” in the lotus position.
In his criticism of Soko, Dogen not only criticizes his failure to experience kensho, he criticizes Soko’s failure to penetrate the sayings (koans) of the Buddha ancestors as well as the words and ways of Buddhas. Dogen was a Dharma-heir of both the Rinzai and Soto Zen traditions and his teachings demand authentic awakening as well as a thorough study of the sutras and koans. In his critique of Soko, he insists on the need to both, awaken or, “intuitively grasp what the Buddha Dharma is” and to study and learn, or, “to intellectually understand what the Buddha Dharma is.”

Sōkō did not thoroughly explore his own statement, “That is precisely what Sōkō is suspicious of,” nor did he drop it off, or break it open, or give rise to the Great Doubt, or break through that doubting.

It is so pitiful how he failed to understand what the Ancestors of the Buddha were saying to him in their talks and writings. He did not grasp that to study and train is to awaken to one’s True Self. He did not hear that to delve deeply into the writings of myriad generations is to come to realize what that Self truly is.

Without proper study, there are errors like these and there is self-deception like his.

Because this was the way ‘Meditation Master’ Sōkō was, in his assembly there was not a single disciple, or even half a one, who had a trustworthy nose ring, but there were many who were pretend monks.

Failure to intuitively grasp what the Buddha Dharma is and failure to intellectually understand what the Buddha Dharma is are both just like this. Beyond any question, novice trainees here and now should explore the Matter in detail with their Master. Do not be negligent out of pride.
Shobogenzo, Jishō Zammai, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Until we actually manage to cast off the body-mind of “self and other,” we do not know zazen, which means we do not know the “state of Buddha.” If we do not know the state of Buddha, we can certainly not know the “ascendant state of Buddha.” Here we come to the only point in Dogen’s Zen where we can in any way say that the experience of kensho, or kenbutsu (the initial experience of enlightenment) is of “minor” significance; it is minor insofar as it is only the beginning of authentic Zen practice-enlightenment. In short, it is “major” in that if we omit it we cannot truly realize Zen, it is “minor” in that it is only the true start of Zen.

Thus we come to the real blood and guts of a lifetime of Zen practice-enlightenment: the ascendant state of Buddha.

Great Master Gohon of Tōzan said, “You should know that there is the matter of the ascendant state of buddha. When you know of the matter of the ascendant state of buddha, you will truly possess the means to speak.”

“The means to speak” is the means to turn the wheel of Dharma. In truth, if we do not know the matter of the ascendant state of buddha, we idly stagnate without penetrating to and getting free of the state beyond buddha. If we do not penetrate it and get free, we do not transcend the worlds of demons. Once we find the Way that arrives at buddha, we leave the area of the common person immediately. The people who have mastered this Way are few. Still, just because we are unable to know it, we should not, so saying, leave it at that. If, with a true will, we learn in practice under good counselors who have truly illuminated [the Way], we will be able to attain it without fail.
Himitsu-shōbōgenzō (Secret Shōbōgenzō), Butsu-kōjō-no-ji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross


Unknown said...

Thank you Ted. Thank you for your continued hard work.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Will,

You are welcome. Thank You!