Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dogen's Criticism of False Dharma

Tommy Bonn - in the comments section of asked:

1. How do you feel about Dogen's contempt for followers of other religions, or people who take up views he finds heretical? It's at least shockingly opposed to the modern spiritual trope that all paths point in the same direction, no? To tip my hand here, whenever I read the Shobogenzo, I find Dogen's extreme contempt for, say, Taoists or lazy people very upsetting and mostly discordant with the profound wisdom evident throughout so much of the text.

2. All sayings of Buddhas are expressions of truth, and all true statements are sayings of Buddhas? I think most Buddhists would assent to the first proposition, but I imagine many would at least be suspicious of the second. If this is the case, is Buddhism a form of philosophy? (Or perhaps ~all~ of philosophy ~plus~ something else?) Could you perhaps expand on the equivalence between true statements and words of Buddhas?


Hello Tommy,


In response to the first point you raise, I would suggest that from the perspective of Dogen’s address there were really only two ‘religions’ – the Way, Tao, or Truth, and Not the Way, Tao, or Truth. His primary intention, I think, was emphasize the futility, more, injurious nature of sectarian bickering – the truth is the truth, if some Buddhist teaching or expression is true it is the ‘authentic Buddha-Dharma’ if not it isn’t; in either case it has nothing to do with a particular (i.e. exclusive, superior, etc.) ‘sect’ or ‘school.’ In short I think Dogen’s criticism is less directed at ‘heresies’ (as opposed to ‘correct doctrines’) and more directed at ‘deluded views’ (as opposed to ‘enlightened understanding’). In other words I think Dogen would say all authentic (true, right, accurate) paths point in the same direction, while all inauthentic (false, wrong, distorted) paths are truly inauthentic.


Also most of Dogen’s enthusiastically fiery criticisms or ‘extreme contempt’ (not uncharacteristic in Zen literature generally) seem to me to be directed at truly pernicious views and practices – views and practices that have actually demonstrated the ability to divert genuine aspirants from authentic practice-enlightenment. The use by Dogen of such harsh language, in my experience, seems to signal the delineation of wrong views that are either particularly harmful, particularly widespread, or both – they are ‘shockingly’ virulent for good reason; to get our attention and make a strong impression.


Along similar lines, his ‘contempt’ of Taoism, for instance, when seen in the context wherein it appears, is less directed at Taoism itself than it is at misrepresentations of Taoism (e.g. the practice of equating Taoism and Buddhism – that is, suggesting that their doctrine and methodology are indistinguishable). Indeed, in one such criticism in Shobogenzo Dogen says that such practices not only distort the Buddha-Dharma, they do a disservice to Taoism as well – and his writings clearly demonstrate his obvious admiration for and influence by Taoism.


The best way I can think of to respond to the second issue you raise is to paste in some excerpts from my (as yet unpublished) Zen Cosmology. The points here should also add some details to the reasoning informing my response to your first issue.


Begin excerpts:


… I want to recall the reader’s mind to some relevant points previously observed.


·         To exist is to be experienced, to be experienced is to exist.

·         All experience is experience of particular dharmas.

·         The true nature (real form/essence) of dharmas is their normality, thusness, whether it is seen ‘as it is’ or ‘as it is not.’

·         To experience anything is to experience reality as it is.

·         To experience reality as it is as it is (i.e. to clearly see), is to be normal (enlightened, Buddha).

·         To experience reality as it is as it is not (i.e. not to clearly see), is to be abnormal (deluded, ordinary being).


To accept the validity of these points is to accept the implication that:


·         To clearly see reality, is to see truth as truth and see falseness as falseness.


This is what Zen means when it speaks of seeing with the eye to read scriptures, the Buddha-Eye, the normal eye, or the Dharma-Eye.



To realize the koan (genjokoan) is, in Dogen’s terms, to ‘increase the sacred life of Buddha;’ in Zen this is inclusive of all ‘good.’ Not to realize the koan is not to increase the sacred life of Buddha… In Zen this encompasses all that constitutes ‘evil.’


… consider Dogen’s expression, ‘Buddhas are greatly enlightened about delusion.’ To see the true nature of a particular dharma is to see its one true reality; its normality or ‘as is-ness’ – thus to be wholly enlightened in/as that particular place-time. One is wholly enlightened in/as that ‘here-now’ because in seeing the one true reality at that place-time, one is thereby ‘equipped with the eye’ to see any and all untruths at that place-time. ...seeing any untruth about a dharma as true (i.e. to see a dharma ‘as it is not’) is to be wholly deluded in/as that particular place-time. …to see any untruth about a dharma as true is obviously to fail to see its one true reality.


In light of this reasoning (dori) it is accurate to say that there is only one true Dharma (Buddha-Dharma, Tao, Path) and only one false Dharma. Total existence-time is Buddha – whatever is, is Buddha. Every particular dharma is an expression of Buddha. To see, read, or understand any expression as it is, is to see, read, or understand the one true Dharma. To see, read, or understand any expression as it is not, is to see, read, or understand the one false Dharma.


Each here-now of an individual’s experience in/of the activity/expression of existence-time is inherently endowed with the potential to realize (make real) Buddha (or enlightenment), or to not realize Buddha. There are no other possibilities…


Each moment of the ceaseless advance of existence-time is an opportunity for enlightenment or not-enlightenment, the true Dharma or not-the-true Dharma, Buddhahood or ordinary being – one or the other; never both or neither…


Zen practice-enlightenment… ‘transforms experience into events,’ …fashions passive, random experience into ordered, significant realities. In this sense, ‘sole-sitting’ is a mode of ‘active alertness’ or ‘mindfulness’, an informed intentionally applied capacity to discern and actualize Buddha… Such active mindfulness makes all the difference between passively… ‘living one’s life in vain’ and intentionally ‘actualizing the universe’ (genjokoan).


What matters most in religion, as Dogen saw it, is not a deferred realization of immortality in an after-life, nor an eternal recurrence of rebirths, but the realization of enlightenment here and now. Hence, this present birth-and-death is the only absolute locus—discrete from before and after—in which we can speak of religion, that is, our liberation. In short, birth-and-death is the very locus in which the two possibilities of enlightenment and delusion are offered to every one of us. Thus, “in the midst of birth-and-death, an ordinary person wanders about in delusion, whereas a great sage is liberated in enlightenment.” Life can either be a blessing or a curse; hence, we must choose either enlightenment or delusion, but not both. Dogen’s view of religious life bore strictly on this life—no more, no less.

Hee-Jin Kim[i]


The ‘curse’ of ‘wandering about in delusion,’ whether… passive dullness… or… cultivated detachment, does not actually constitute the actualization of something, but rather the… absence of actualizing anything… regardless of whether the deluded condition… is the result of… ignorance or timidity, or the result of intentionally turning away from the world, it amounts to the same thing; a reduction… or decrease of experience/existence. To the extent a sentient being is… in harmony with reality as it is, their experience… increases the sacred life of Buddha. To the extent a being is deluded… their experience… fails to increase the sacred life of Buddha.


Accordingly, from the perspective of Zen, ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ does not… amount to a thing, being, or event (i.e. a dharma) but… an absence or lack of a thing, being, or event… murder, for example, is an obstruction or restraint of the experience/existence of Buddha… rather than the realization of an activity or form… robbery is the hindering of another’s security… lying hinders another’s wisdom, etc.


From the nondual perspective this is obvious; if every actual instance of reality is Buddha (hence ‘good’), there can be no such a thing as ‘a realization of evil’ or ‘a manifestation of wrong.’ Here is a Zen koan that presents this point directly:


Yunmen, addressing his assembly, said, ‘I do not ask about before the 15th day of the month, come and give me a word about after the 15th day.

The assembly was silent.

Yunmen, answering for them, said, ‘Every day is a good day.’

Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record), Case 6[ii]


From the perspective of enlightenment (after the 15th day) every place-time (every day) is Buddha (good). … If ‘good’ is to have any validity in a nondual cosmology it needs to be understood as a mode of ‘affirmation’ – ‘every day’ is a dharma as it is; a real manifestation of Buddha; if every day is a ‘good’ day, it is because it is a reality, a dharma as it is. Thus, ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ can only be valid as a mode of ‘negation.’ ‘Evil’ is a dharma as it is not – more, it is not a dharma as it is, … an absence of reality (good)… as Dogen says, ‘its essence is just nonappearance.’


In regard to the ‘wrongs’ that we are discussing now, among ‘rightness,’ ‘wrongness,’ and ‘indifference,’ there is ‘wrongness.’ Its essence is just nonappearance.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku-makusa[iii]


Thus, the essential meaning or significance of ‘good’ is ‘manifestation as it is,’ ‘appearance as it is,’ ‘form as it is,’ actuality, reality – every real thing, being, and event is a good, thing, being, and event; every day is a good day.


This does not mean that all is rosy or that all evils serve some great good purpose. Every genuine Zen practitioner is intensely aware of the truth that suffering, tragedy, and horror abound, but they are also fully cognizant of the fact that they abound because of the failure to adequately actualize enlightened thought, speech, and action.


…the sole task of genuine Zen teachers and practitioners is to realize the koan (genjokoan), to actualize (make actual) ‘every day is a good day’ which consists in discerning all things as they are (from the enlightened perspective), and thereby, actualizing things as they should be (‘enact that vision amidst this world of duality’)…


Again, this is not at all to be understood as denying the value of moral or ethical training, behavior, and commitment or the significance of teachings concerning ‘good and evil’ or ‘right and wrong’ conduct. Such training and teachings are, like all actual dharmas, nothing less than self-expressions of Buddha-nature.


…Sentient beings are capable of being sentient of the things, beings, and events they encounter because the things, beings, and events they encounter are what make beings sentient


As it is normal to see a horse as a horse, and thus distinguish it from what is not a horse, it is normal to see the ‘right’ conduct called for at any given place-time, and to distinguish it from the ‘not right’ (i.e. wrong) conduct (i.e. everything ‘other than’ the ‘right’ conduct).


We are capable of responding ably here-now because here-now is what enables us to respond. After all, here-now is us – the significance of which shines forth from this remarkable expression by Dogen:


Remember, [teaching] that sounds like ‘Do not commit wrongs’ is the Buddha’s right Dharma. This [teaching] ‘Do not commit wrongs’ was not intentionally initiated, and then intentionally maintained in its present form, by the common person: when we hear teaching that has [naturally] become the preaching of bodhi, it sounds like this. What sounds like this is speech which is the supreme state of bodhi in words. It is bodhi-speech already, and so it speaks bodhi. When it becomes the preaching of the supreme state of bodhi, and when we are changed by hearing it, we hope ‘not to commit wrongs,’ we continue enacting ‘not to commit wrongs,’ and wrongs go on not being committed; in this situation the power of practice is instantly realized.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku-makusa[iv]


What looks like a horse is form which is the supreme state of bodhi (i.e. Buddha) in/as horse-form, and what “sounds like ‘Do not commit wrongs’ is speech which is the supreme state of bodhi in (and as) words.” A particular form or sound (e.g. horse, preaching) was not previously manifest and thereafter abiding (‘intentionally initiated, and then intentionally maintained’) in its present state…


For example, what is heard as a sound preaching ‘Do not commit wrongs,’ is Buddha manifesting as an ‘understandable explanation’ of the truth of enlightenment (‘preaching of bodhi’).


It goes without saying that we should avoid falling into a literal (one-sided; biased) understanding, thus losing sight of the mythopoeic significance of ‘wrong’ (i.e. an absence of ‘normality’ or ‘good’


…In other words, ‘not to commit wrongs’ does not mean to abstain from something; to refrain, desist, or avoid some form or forms of conduct. On the contrary, ‘not to commit wrongs’ means to ‘commit right,’ to conduct oneself appropriately, to continuously ‘respond with ability’


…To ‘not commit’ is to engage activity, not restrain activity, thus Dogen says, “we continue enacting ‘not to commit wrongs’…”


… as Buddha is only and always ‘good’ or ‘right’, Buddha is also only and always a particular here-now of a particular sentient being. …the ‘rightness, wrongness, and indifference’ of today is not the same ‘rightness, wrongness, and indifference’ of yesterday, and his ‘rightness, wrongness, and indifference’ is not the same as her ‘rightness, wrongness, and indifference.’ Thus Dogen points out:


At the same time, at each concrete place these three properties include innumerable kinds of dharmas. In ‘wrongs,’ there are similarities and differences between wrong in this world and wrong in other worlds. There are similarities and differences between former times and latter times. There are similarities and differences between wrong in the heavens above and wrong in the human world. How much greater is the difference between moral wrong, moral right, and moral indifference in Buddhism and in the secular world. Right and wrong are time; time is not right or wrong. Right and wrong are the Dharma; the Dharma is not right or wrong. [When] the Dharma is in balance, wrong is in balance. [When] the Dharma is in balance, right is in balance. This being so, when we learn [the supreme state of] anuttara samyaksambodhi, when we hear the teachings, do training, and experience the fruit, it is profound, it is distant, and it is fine.

Shobogenzo, Shoaku-makusa[v]


Right and wrong are time (hence, existence-time), are the Dharma (i.e. Buddha Way), time is not right or wrong, Dharma is not good or evil. To ‘hear the teachings, do training, and experience the fruit’ is… to engage practice-enlightenment; thus, good-conducted/wrong-not-conducted is the Dharma, the ‘balance’ or ‘equilibrium’ realized in/as authentic practice-enlightenment. To maintain such equilibrium is to be ‘solely-seated’ at the hub… or Bodhi-seat, the here-now from which existence-time ceaselessly springs forth. In Zen this is sometimes called, ‘Taking up with one hand and setting down with the other,’ or ‘Walking straight on a path with 99 curves.’ This is the actualization of the universe (genjokoan).


Real actualization is only and always the actualization of some particular dharma, at some definite place-time, by some specific individual being – actualization is good-conducted/wrong-not-conducted; ‘wrong’ is only ‘not-conducted’ in/as actualization-conducted. All that is actualized is Buddha; to conduct-good/not-conduct-evil is to realize Buddha, when Buddha is not realized, not-conducting-evil/conducting-good is not realized.


…Not to meet one’s responsibility is to suffer selfishness; to be self-centered (egocentric), hence to deny, restrict, or constrain one’s self, which, being nondual with ‘other,’ is also to deny, restrict, or constrain others. To deny, restrict, or constrain one’s self and others is to hinder or obstruct the experience/existence of self and other – to stem or obstruct the advance of realization…

[i] Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, pp.167-168
[ii] Ted Biringer – as learned verbally
[iii] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[iv] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
[v] Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
End Excerpts
I hope this is helpful.
Please treasure yourself.


Unknown said...

Thank you Ted, great stuff. I'm sorry to say I've forgotten to check your blog for a while and only come across this post today. I'd like to respond. How would you feel about a phone conversation? If that's impossible or not feasible, I can also respond in writing. Sometimes speech is quicker and leads to less confusion in my experience.


Ted Biringer said...

Hey Tommy, good to hear you.
Sure, a phone call would be cool. 360-298-4752
I'm in Washington State (not sure where you are so you can figure out the time zone). Call anytime between 10am and 10pm. If I don't answer leave your number and a good time to call.
Look forward to hearing from you.