Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Zazen, Enlightenment, and the one "Religion" of Dogen

As a young prince, Shakyamuni perceived all the various dharmas as existing separately from the rest of the universe, himself, and from each other. Some innate capacity drew him to believe in the possibility that there was something much grander to the myriad diversity of the world than he could see. This possibility culminated in sincere aspiration to discover the truth. After much time and various approaches, his endeavors came to fruition and he experiential realized the integration of the infinite variety of dharmas into the one body-mind of Buddha nature.

According to one account, following this realization Shakyamuni exclaimed, “How wonderful, all beings are the Tathagata (“thus come one,” Buddha), only their delusions and preoccupations keep them from testifying to this truth.” Technically, such an exclamation does not “say” anything that had not been said many times to Shakyamuni (who was thoroughly versed in the Upanishads) before; its meaning, however, was vastly different for Shakyamuni – it was an expression of personal verification. This is not to say that the teachings of Hinduism or the Upanishads is the same as (or different from) Buddhism; the point is that learning truth and verifying truth are two totally different processes with two vastly different results. As the Zen tradition eventually came to epitomize, there are two distinct forms of religion or spiritual wisdom, one that is communicated from institutions to individuals, and one that is communicated from Buddha to Buddha.

In Dogen’s Zen, no religion or spiritual wisdom is or can be communicated from an institution to an individual. Religious institutions would be instantly eradicated but for the innate human capacity for self-doubt and self-hindrance. As such institutions are keenly, if tacitly, aware of, their very existence is dependent on men who are unable or unwilling to recognize their own identity with the one mind. If suffering (delusion) exists, such men reason (with much encouragement from institutions and their agents), it is due to some inherent flaw in humanity and cannot be ascribed to Buddha. For Dogen, of course, such reasoning is literally non-sense, as it amounts to the generalized notions of abstract speculation which has no basis in actual sense experience. Dogen does not so much refute the various systems and views that purport to classify the relative depths and types of “good and evil” as much as he avoids them altogether by refusing to grant validity to the abstractions they are based on. For Dogen, “pure light” (or “good”) is as nonexistent as “pure” awareness, consciousness, blueness, sharpness, or any other general, abstract quality.

The only true religion or spiritual wisdom is that transmitted from Buddha to Buddha; existence is experience and any religion or wisdom that is not experienced does not exist. In Buddhism such experience is referred to as enlightenment and is described as an awareness or awakening to true nature. In the Zen tradition this experience is often described in terms of death or dying.

When expressing this experience in terms of death and dying, Zen often calls it the “great” death. The “greatness” of this death lies in the fact that with this experience not only the individual Zen practitioner dies, but the entire universe itself. This total destruction of the universe is symbolized by the Buddhist version of the “apocalypse,” called the “Aeonic Ending Conflagration” in which the entirety of space and time is destroyed by fire.

As in western versions, the Buddhist apocalypse is followed by the actualization of a new world in which peace, joy, and liberation abound. The great death of Zen then, is the expression of a vision in which the individual’s experiential world of ceaselessly streaming chaotic confusion is utterly destroyed, thereby making way for a new world of ceaselessly advancing enlightenment of ongoing creativity, freedom, joy, and peace.

In this sense, the “great death” is synonymous with “great enlightenment.” Contrary to popular notions and seemingly reasonable assumptions however, great enlightenment does not imply an eradication of delusion, at least as far as Dogen is concerned:

“We do not see “not being deluded” as great realization.”
Shobogenzo, Daigo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

While one of the names for the realm in which Buddhas dwell is the “pure land,” it would be a serious error to equate the reality of this realm with the usual notions of purity:

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the Pure Land?”
Joshu said, “A puddle of piss.”
The monk said, “Can you show it to me?”
Joshu said, “Don’t tempt me.”
(James Green)

Far from some kind of empty, undifferentiated realm of bliss, detachment, or quietude, the world in which Buddhas or Buddha ancestors dwell has nothing to do with “pure” awareness or consciousness, at least insofar as that implies an absence of delusion. To be a Buddha does not mean to be separate from delusion, it means to be enlightened about delusion.

“Buddhas are enlightened about delusion; ordinary beings are deluded about enlightenment.”
Shobogenzo, Genjokoan

It is common to misunderstand enlightenment as an experience that eradicates, or at least transcends, delusion. Buddhism professes to offer a way to realize liberation from suffering. Asserting that the anguish of old age, sickness, and death is due to our deluded notions of “self,” Buddhism asserts that the experience of enlightenment, that is, awakening to our true nature, can liberate us from suffering. If enlightenment does not mean an eradication of delusion (which is the cause of suffering), how does the experience liberate us from suffering? This question, which should be an obvious one, often seems to go unexplored in Buddhist study, as well as on the cushion (in meditation) by Zen practitioners. Needless to say, Dogen exhorts us to carefully examine this important issue thoroughly. For instance, here is a passage from Shobogenzo, Daigo [Note: in the following translation, “mei” is rendered as “illusion” rather than “delusion,” as we are doing].

Let us consider this for a moment. Is a person of great enlightenment who still suffers from illusion the same as a person who is not yet enlightened? When a person of great enlightenment still suffers from illusion, is s/he making illusion by means of great enlightenment? …when we say “A person of great enlightenment still suffers from illusion,” are we to construe the addition of great enlightenment as “still suffering from illusion”? We must investigate these issues in various ways.

…we must realize that hearing the statement “A person of great enlightenment still suffers from illusion” is the ultimate penetration of our inquiry. Note that “great enlightenment” is ever joined with “still suffering from illusion.”
Shobogenzo, Daigo, Hee-Jin Kim, Flowers of Emptiness, p.148

This is, undoubtedly, a complex issue, though it is not a complicated one; it demands serious investigation and consideration, but it is not paradoxical, esoteric, or enigmatic. Anyone that takes up the issue in serious study and meditation will find resolution without too much difficulty; anyone that does not take it up will not resolve it. We will meet with this issue again, for now the main point is that enlightenment and delusion are mutually interdependent and non-obstructive, that is, they are nondual, and as such are coessential and coextensive.

Before summarizing the main points of this discussion in Dogen’s terms let us briefly consider the etymology of the term “religion” which is the meaning applied to it here. “Religion” comes from the Latin; religio, which means “re-link” or “re-connect, to the source.” More specifically then, by “religion” we mean “re-linking to our source.” This should not, however, be read as implying a reconnection to some source of the past. Our source, in Buddhism, is not restricted to the past, present, or future but is inclusive of existence-time as a whole. In other words, our true source has always been, is now, and will always be our source.

Now then, for Dogen the one only true religion is communicated from Buddha to Buddha through practice-enlightenment which accompanies the casting-off (apocalypse, great death) of the body-mind of self and other (the world of chaos and confusion) which illuminates the true nature of the unity of the one mind (true self) with the myriad dharmas. Not a “stage” or “level,” but a dynamic, ongoing activity, enlightenment penetrates and illumines delusion in a continuously advancing creative process of actualization (becoming, manifestation). This “actualization” is the unified of practice-enlightenment wherein “practice” is enacted by and as “enlightenment” and “enlightenment” is realized in and through “practice.” Such is the transmission of wisdom to wisdom, of Buddhas alone together with Buddhas, face to face, mind to mind. This then, is the one and only religion recognized and advocated by Dogen, his favored term of which is, “genjokoan” (genjo; actualization, manifestation, expression, realization; koan; truth, public document or demonstration, the universe, yin-yang).

Enlightenment means illumination, that is, to illumine and be illumined by; thus illumination is seeing and being seen. This seeing and seen are activity of what Dogen calls, the Dharma-eye. The result of such illumination is not “belief” in the Dharma, or “faith” in the reality of nirvana, liberation, or a pure land, it is seeing reality directly, it is, in Zen terms, “face to face transmission,” which Dogen describes as directly “meeting Shakyamuni Buddha” (kenbutsu). This illumination (which is of course not limited to the visual sense) is actualization of true religion, the re-linking with our source which is not a static state but a ceaselessly advancing process. Although not static or fixed, it is nevertheless, the ultimate end of religion – the ever advancing casting-off of the “old world,” or the “false self” in the continuous clarification of the Dharma-eye’s ceaseless actualization of universe here and now.

There may be no human being who clearly understands this state; “it keenly avoids verbal expression.” If we express it with words, horns will appear on the head. It is simply illumination of the mind in seeing forms, and realization of the truth in hearing sounds. The mind described as “the mind to be illuminated” may be the mind of Buddha. The truth to be illuminated may be the truth of Buddha. In the truth of Buddha and in the house of Buddha, we just illuminate the mind by seeing forms and realize the truth by hearing sounds; there is nothing else at all. A state that is like this, being already in the Buddha’s truth, should preach, “To those who must be saved through this body, I will manifest at once this body and preach the Dharma.” Truly, there is no preaching of Dharma without manifestation of the body, and there can be no salvation that is not the preaching of Dharma.
Himitsu-shōbōgenzō (Secret Shōbōgenzō), Butsu-kōjō-no-ji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

Dogen uses a number of terms synonymously in referring to the authentic practice-enlightenment (shusho) of the Buddha Dharma. These include sanzen (the practice of Zen), shiryo fu-shiryo (thinking not-thinking), hi-shiryo (nonthinking), shikan-taza (sole sitting), and of course, his favorite, zazen (seated meditation). As “terms” these posses various and unique connotations, but his use of these terms are in reference to a reality that he regards as the one and only authentic activity of Buddhas and ancestors. Until the reality of zazen, sanzen, etc. are practically actualized in the everyday world they remain, at best, in a state of potential. To be practically actualized, of course, means to be actualized authentically (accurately verified and understood); Dogen’s writings are sprinkled with cautions about confusing authenticity with formality. He relates in Zazenshin, for instance, that while “everyone from the abbot to the monks” (in many temples) practice zazen and regard “sitting in zazen as the main task,” very few truly know zazen.

If [people] are not able to be illuminated by the brightness, they lack this state of maintenance and reliance and they lack this belief and acceptance. This being so, even since ancient times, few people have know that zazen is zazen. On the mountains of the great kingdom of Song today, leaders of top-ranking temples who do not know zazen and who do not learn of it are many; there are some who know [zazen] clearly, but they are few. In many temples, of course, times for zazen are laid down, and everyone from the abbot to the monks regards sitting in zazen as the main task. When recruiting students, too, they urge them to sit in zazen. Even so, those abbots who know [zazen] are rare.
Shobogenzo, Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

Obviously, simply performing the physical activity of Zen practice (zazen, shikantaza, etc.), even if it is regarded as “the main task,” is nothing more than an exercise in futility as far as Dogen is concerned. To sit in zazen, regard it as the essential practice, and accurately perform the physical aspects of it (e.g. correct environment, posture, breathing, application of consciousness, etc.) is certainly not what Dogen means by authentic practice-enlightenment. In short, “sitting in zazen” is not what Dogen means by “zazen.” When Dogen uses the term “zazen” he does not mean the zazen of those that do not “know zazen.” Authentic zazen is not “sitting in meditation,” it is the “state of maintenance and reliance” that is “illuminated by the brightness” of Buddhas and ancestors. This is worth insisting on because cultists and charlatans have long been proclaiming simplistic and superstitious views about “zazen” in Dogen’s name. To this day, popular “teachers” and “Zen” books advocate simplistic and superstitious “Zen practices” (citing Dogen as their authority) professing that even the “first sitting of a rank beginner” is the “complete and perfect” actualization of Buddha, or “just sitting is itself enlightenment.” It is no wonder that the followers of such “teachers” (and even the teachers themselves) often speak of zazen as something that is dull or boring. While such an expression is a clear demonstration of not knowing that “zazen is zazen,” one can only wonder how those that make such (honest?) expressions manage to attract large flocks – it seems that one could find “less boring” ways of being bored. As I heard one (authentic) teacher say, “If you are bored, it is because you are boring.” Again, boredom is a sure sign that one has not yet come to know that zazen is zazen, at least not the zazen that Dogen recommends.

When we use [this state] it is totally vigorous.
Shobogenzo, Zazenshin, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

The standard state of real experience, when activated, allows no idle moment. Zazen, even if it is only one human being sitting for one moment, thus enters into mystical cooperation with all dharmas, and completely penetrates all times; and it therefore performs, within the limitless universe, the eternal work of the Buddha’s guiding influence in the past, future, and present.
Bendowa, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

This sitting in zazen is not learning Zen concentration. It is simply the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma. It is the practice-and-experience which perfectly realizes the state of bodhi. The universe is conspicuously realized, and restrictions and hindrances never reach it. To grasp this meaning is to be like a dragon that has found water, or like a tiger in its mountain stronghold.
Fukanzazngi, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross



SotoRinzai said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SotoRinzai said...

Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into writing this fascinating essay. It really helped me with my resource paper on the Great Death! I may even pick up a copy of your book!
Thanks again!

Ted Biringer said...

Greetings SotoRinzai,

You are welcome. Thank you!