Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Zazen, Shakyamuni & The Lotus Sutra in Dogen's Zen

The Lotus Sutra in Dogen's Zen
The Lotus Sutra, hailed by Dogen as the “Sutra of Sutras,” being the greatest (most complete) expression of truth (Dharma), forms the hub of his vision of existence-time (Buddha). The Lotus Sutra is thus qualified by Dogen because it presents (makes present) a lucid, definitive, and (most importantly) comprehensive picture (image, form, expression) of the whole Buddha Dharma, from “before the empty eon” to “after the kalpa ending conflagration.”
In its comprehensive treatment of Buddhas and Buddha realms, the nature and activities of Bodhisattvas, the significance of similes and parables, and graphic depictions of the meaning of expedient means, various vehicles and individual capacities, the Lotus Sutra achieves a vision that not only reconciles the many and various aspects of the Dharma, which otherwise might appear inconsistent, it reveals their interdependence. Being inclusive of the entire lifespan of Buddha (the totality of existence-time), the meaning, manner, and affirmation of “opening up, manifesting, awakening, and entering” into Buddhahood of all beings (i.e. the certain affirmation of universal salvation), the Lotus Sutra clearly and unequivocally illumines the eternal connection of “Buddhas” and “ordinary beings” that appears as a gap to the deluded eye, and is often depicted only vaguely in less complete expressions, thus making the connection seem hazy, obscure, or mysterious.

“The content of the buddha lands of the ten directions” is the “sole existence” of the “Flower of Dharma.” Herein, “all the buddhas of the ten directions and the three times,” and beings of anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi, have [times of] turning the Flower of Dharma, and have [times of] the Flower of Dharma turning. This is just the state in which “original practice of the bodhisattva way” neither regresses nor deviates. It is the “wisdom of the buddhas, profound and unfathomable.” It is the “calm and clear state of samadhi,” which is “difficult to understand and difficult to enter.” As Buddha Manjusrī, it has the “form as it is” of “buddhas alone, together with buddhas,” which is “the great ocean” or “the buddha land.” Or as Buddha Sakyamuni, it is “appearance in the world” in the state of “Only I know concrete form, and the buddhas of the ten directions are also like that.” It is the “one time” in which he “desires to cause living beings” to “disclose, to display, to realize, and to enter,” [saying] “I and buddhas of the ten directions are directly able to know these things.”
Shobogenzo, Hokke-ten-hokke, Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

The inclusion in this passage of the symbolic images of the Lotus Sutra as “equivalents” with symbolic images common to the literature of Zen (most importantly Dogen’s own writings) is typical throughout the entire Shobogenzo. When he describes the Sutra’s symbolism as “form as it is,” “buddhas alone, together with buddhas,” “the great ocean,” “the buddha land,” etc. Dogen conveys a new significance to both symbols. For example, “as Buddha Shakyamuni, it is ‘appearance in the world,’” succeeds in expanding the connotations of both “Shakyamuni” and “appearance in the world.”

Here we want to stress two important points about Dogen’s use of the Lotus Sutra; first, all the fascicles of Dogen’s Shobogenzo are centered on a single myth (Buddhism); second, that single myth is most clearly portrayed (so far as Dogen is concerned) by the Lotus Sutra. The significance of this cannot be over emphasized; if we come to terms with Dogen’s understanding of the Lotus Sutra, that is, when we understand how he read it, the difficulty of the symbolism of Shobogenzo is enormously reduced.

Key to Dogen’s view is that, for him, the Lotus Sutra (hence, the Buddha Dharma) is a single unified vision; thus, is totally consistent. As the central and primary expression of the Buddha, it is the source of all the Buddhist sutras, shastras (treatises), Zen records, expressions of truth, and finally, all real dharmas (things, beings, events, instances, etc.).

While the Lotus Sutra is the “Sutra of Sutras” from which all arises, it would be a serious mistake to think that Dogen regarded the Lotus Sutra as a complete or even uniquely exclusive form of Buddha. Such an understanding would be as narrow and misguided as the vulgar interpretations of Zen as “a special transmission outside the sutras” that Dogen so vehemently criticized.
The Lotus Sutra is the hub of the total form of Shakyamuni Buddha, the axis mundi, the source of all true expression; it is not the totality of Buddha nature, and certainly not the totality of expressed truth.

The comprehensiveness of the Lotus Sutra means that it can and does accommodate the totality of Shakyamuni, the body or form of Buddha (the universe); the Lotus Sutra does not exhaust the form of Buddha. The significance of an expression of truth is experienced in its connection to the source of human existence. When we truly perceive (with the Dharma-eye) a real form (an expression of truth), subject and object are united; we make it what it is, it makes us what we are.
This is the nature and function of zazen, the authentic practice-enlightenment of Dogen’s Zen that “re-links” (religion) us with our source, or true nature. The true nature (Buddha nature) of an expression of truth has nothing to do with biographical or historical accuracy, nor is it concerned with ontological, epistemological, cosmological, psychological, physiological, or any other “ological” fact or even possibility. One of the “miscellaneous koans” assigned to students early on in the lineage where I underwent koan training runs:

“A man raised a goose inside a bottle; set it free without breaking the glass or hurting the goose.”

After several responses to this koan were rejected over the course of a couple of weeks, I exclaimed, “It is impossible!” My teacher calmly replied, “In Zen, nothing is impossible.” While I eventually arrived at a point where the truth of the koan allowed me to free the goose, the truth of my teacher’s calm reply has been an even more treasured companion for the nearly two decades since.

Zen starts at the heart of reality and thus accommodates new horizons of truth without needing to be reformed or revised. While the circumference of enlightened vision is capable of infinite expansion, the hub of truth is not and cannot be disrupted. Authentic zazen is being seated (based, centered) within the hub of true nature which allows us to clearly perceive when, where, and how any particular form can be – in truth – accommodated, even freeing geese from bottles. The Lotus Sutra, as the axis mundi of Dogen’s Zen, is the central perspective, the pivot point from which the true nature of the whole universe expands spherically outward in the ten directions. It is the bodhi-seat, the immovable spot where Shakyamuni realizes enlightenment; it is the eternal center point from which existence-time expands infinitely outward, and to which all things return.

That is to say, from today it passes through a series of moments to tomorrow; from today it passes through a series of moments to yesterday; from yesterday it passes through a series of moments to today; from today it passes through a series of moments to today; and from tomorrow it passes through a series of moments to tomorrow.
Shobogenzo, Uji, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

It is not the task of expressions of truth to convey knowledge or information, but to unite subject and object, to re-link us to our source. Expressions of truth do not instill wisdom, they evoke it. If we listen to a piece by Mozart with an ear to understand its meaning, we will not understand it nor truly hear it; we will fail just as surely if we attempt to not understand it. Only when we forget (cast off) our “self” as well as “Mozart” (the body-mind of self and other) will we truly hear and understand.

The true form (shape, body, appearance, sound) of a dharma (thing, being, event) and its true nature (essence, meaning, significance) are not two separate things. Expressions of truth are not signifiers of truths or realities apart from themselves; they are not simply “fingers pointing at the moon.” The meaning (nature, essence) of an expression of truth is not in its relation to the “real things” in the “external world” to which it “points.” Even in an actual instance of “a-finger-pointing-at-the-moon” the finger is as essential as the moon; the expression, “the-moon,” is an entirely different dharma (form, thing).

In fashioning expressions of truth, Buddhas and Buddha ancestors will readily use whatever “material” the world makes available, including philosophical concepts, historical facts, fictitious beings, and anything else they can appropriate; the final product however, may well have nothing to do with any of those materials. If it is an authentic expression of truth it will be a novel creation with intrinsic significance to the central truth of human life and death.

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