Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Of all the distinguished Zen masters, perhaps the best known is Eihei Dogen, who was born in A.D. 1200, in Kyoto Japan. Dogen is identified as the founder of Soto Zen, a practice that strips away all ritual and metaphysics of Zen as a religion or a philosophy, and considers it as an enduring way of life.

Dogen once put forth the image of the moon in a dewdrop to demonstrate one’s awakening. I have titled this talk simply “Dewdrops,” in the hope that it might lead to an awakening for anyone who hears it or reads it. I’ll say more about that later.

Dogen was a remarkable fellow. He is best known for his no-nonsense emphasis on shikantaza, or pure meditation, and for the collection of his teachings and lectures known as Shobogenzo. Shobogenzo is a Japanese term that’s translated as Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.

Gudo Nishijima, co-translator of the four-volume, l994, version of Shobogenzo, wrote that “. . . reading Shobogenzo is the best way to come to an exact understanding of Buddhist theory, because Master Dogen was outstanding in his ability to comprehend and explain Buddhism rationally.”

Nishijima mentioned that Dogen understood that things we tend to separate in our minds are one reality. Dogen also understood that time is not yesterday or tomorrow, but the present moment.

Extensive as are the writings of Shobogenzo, that collection is but a small part of Dogen’s output. There is also Eihei Koroku, known in English as Dogen’s Extensive Record. It’s a compilation of his later teachings, short dialogues, and longer talks.

Dogen was a prolific writer, and an inexhaustible teacher. I’m sure many more of Dogen’s writings lie around in the original Japanese, dust-covered, and waiting to be translated and put into print.

As a skillful writer, Dogen often broke thorny concepts into easy-to-understand-lists, or sequences. His notion was that any part of a sequence is comprehensible and worthy as a guide. Together the parts are totally graspable. For example, in Shobogenzo Dogen wrote:

“To study the Way is to study the self.
“To study the self is to forget the self.
“To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
“To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.”

Another sort of inventory from Shobogenzo gives eight important features, or characteristics, of awakening. Dogen lists them as follows:

1. Freedom from greed. That means the cessation of desire.
2. Satisfaction. That means to be contented with what one has.
3. Quiet. That means to be separated from worldly disturbances.
4. Diligence. That means to be persistent in one’s practice.
5. Correct remembrance. That means to bear in mind what a master or a teacher says.
6. The practice of samadhi. That means clearing the mind thorough meditation.
7. The practice of wisdom. Wisdom results from awakening, and when one practices wisdom he is free from attachments.
8. Avoiding discriminatory thinking. That means realizing the true nature of things.

As I said earlier, Dogen likened awakening to the reflection of the moon in a drop of water. To quote Dogen translator Kazuaki Tanahashi (Moon in a Dewdrop), “He [Dogen] suggests that just as the entire moon is reflected in a dewdrop, a complete awakening of truth can by experienced by the individual human being.”

The main concepts of Dogen's Zen—therefore, of Soto Zen—form another list:

1. Recognition of zazen (zazen is not a way to awakening but is awakening itself).
2. Constant practice of zazen (zazen is not a once-in-awhile observance but a way of life).
3. All beings are Buddha-nature (Buddha-nature is not something to be awakened but an actuality).
4. Buddha-nature is impermanent (all things change, and nothing lasts forever, so live in the moment).
5. “Uji” (beings and time are inseparable).

On the note that all things are Buddha-nature, I’ll close this talk not
with one more list, but with the record of a short conversation between an ancient Chinese Zen master and an analytical official.

The official said, “An earthworm is cut. It becomes two. Both parts
move. In which part does the Buddha-nature exist?”

The master said, “Hold no illusions.”

Think about it.