Sunday, May 26, 2013

Note to Myoshi

NOTE to Myoshi:

I would like to respond to your question regarding the source of a Dogen quote I posted in my recent blog, Treasury House of True Teaching. The quotation was, "If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?"
     Thanks for asking. That passage came from a short list of Dogen sayings given on the Goodreads Internet site. If the words are bogus I apologize to you and to Dogen.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


       I would like to talk about Bendowa, the first chapter in Dogen’s Shobogenzo collection. I’ll start with a quotation.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Dogen didn’t say that.

The words are by Anaïs Nin. I’m pretty sure she was not a Zen person. She was a femme fatale. In the 1930s Nin was a noted flamenco dancer, an artist’s model, and a writer of female erotica. Her words have nothing to do with Dogen but they echo his feelings on Zen.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

The Japanese word Bendowa has several translations. I will stick to one version: “Discourse on the Practice of the Way.” Dogen wrote the essay in 1231, which was early in his laying of the groundwork of the Soto School in Japan. Though Bendowa is today the first piece in the Shobogenzo collection, for one reason or another it wasn’t widely know for hundreds of years after Dogen’s death when the manuscript turned up in a Kyoto temple.

It was there that a Zen master added Bendowa as the first section of the 95-volume edition of Dogen’s compilation of Shobogenzo. It is said Bendowa contains the essence of all of the other sections.

Note: The various parts of Shobogenzo are commonly called fascicles. It rhymes with popsicles. It’s a good word in botany and anatomy, but I’ll seldom use it because it’s hard to pronounce without lisping.

Another Note: In this talk I’ll occasionally mention the names Nishijima and Abe. These two guys are topnotch among the various translators and commentators of Shobobenzo.

          And, because Sanskrit words pop up frequently, I’ll try to explain them where they occur and hope they won’t interrupt things too much.

Dogen’s zazen doesn’t push enlightenment. It’s a zazen of no seeking and no accomplishment. Awakening is realized in training, and training is awakening.

The first part of Bendowa is an introduction to the way of zazen that emphasizes meditation over other popular forms of Buddhist practice that were common in Dogen’s day. Gudo Nishijima writes [That first part] “suggests the state of natural balance we experience when making effort without intentional gain.”  

          The second part of Bendowa is in a question and answer format supposedly between Dogen and a Zen beginner. It illustrates the frame of mind between a master and a novice.

          As usual, the title “Bendowa” translates in more than one way. Take your pick of “Discourse on Doing One’s Utmost in Practicing the Way of the Buddha” or “A Talk about Pursuing the Truth.” I will refer it simply as a talk about the practice of Zazen.

          First, a direct quote from Nishijima’s translation of Bendowa.

          “When the buddha-tathagatas, each having received the one-to-one transmission of the splendid Dharma, experience the supreme state of bodhi, they possess a subtle method which is supreme and without intention.” 

          What those high flying words mean is that when one realizes the Way, the Way is where one is.

          Dogen starts Bendowa saying that Dharma is present in each human being, but if we do not practice it, it isn’t evident.

          He then tells of going to China to study under various Chan masters and returning to Japan to teach the Dharma. He admits his choice was a heavy load, and to help relieve it he initially wandered like a cloud, in the style of the ancient sages. Then he decided to write down everything he had experienced in China, including the practical instructions.

          To quote Dogen, “I will leave this record to people who learn in practice . . . so they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage.”

          He mentions the Buddha’s teachings in India, and Bodhidharma who brought those teachings from India to China, and the lineage of the authentic transmission that followed.

          Taking a swipe at organized religions and practices, Dogen said we don’t need to burn incense, to bow or kneel, to recite Buddha’s name, to practice confession, or to chant sutras. All we have to do is sit, free our body and our mind, and we will understand.

          We learn in practice.

          That may sound like pie in the sky, but it’s a certainty. You don’t need to take Dogen’s word.

Practice and you’ll know.

          In a practical sense, a person who sits in zazen becomes free of body and mind and understands the Buddha-Dharma.

          So much for the first part of Bendowa.

          I said that the second part of Bendowa is in a supposed question and answer format between Dogen and a Zen beginner. Let’s take a look at a few of those dialogues.

          Question: How can sitting without doing anything be the means of awakening?
          Response: If you attempt to use logic or practical reason, your eyes are not open and your mind is in a drunken stupor. Okay, go ahead and have doubts. When the Buddha himself spoke, people had misgiving and the Buddha said doubts are fine. Just don’t get carried away by them.
According to Dogen, there is no virtue gained from reading prayers or reciting names. Trying to arrive at the Buddha’s state of mind through chanting is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Those who chant endlessly are like frogs in a pond. Only by sitting in zazen is there complete stilling of the mind.

Question: The various sects of Buddhism hype their individual principles. Why is the practice of zazen so much better?
Response: Among Buddhists we do not argue about superiority and inferiority. We need only to know whether the practice is genuine or artificial. Dogen said that some individuals have been publicly proclaimed masters and leaders by demonstrating wizardry in grasping soil, stones, sand, and pebbles and spouting pithy sayings. We must take as a teacher a person who has experienced the Buddha’s state.
When we sit in zazen, letting go of everything, we go beyond delusion and emotion. We shuck off intellect, we shuck off Western notions of logic.

Question: Along the four basic postures of standing, walking, lying down, and sitting, why does Zen encourage sitting?
Response: One reason is based on tradition. According to legend, sitting was the posture practiced by Bodhidharma in teaching Zen. He did it, and it worked, so we do it.
More important is that sitting is the most quiet and most balanced position for the human body. Lying down can lead to drowsiness, standing may lead to physical imbalance. As for walking, we do walking meditation, called kin-hin in order to keep our minds focused on meditation even while moving.

Question: Can zazen be combined with practices or pursuits in other spiritual disciplines?
Response: Dogen said his teacher in China told him it was best not to combine practices. If your mind is fragmented by simultaneously engaging in several disciplines, you will never reach one wisdom.

That’s enough. To sum up Dogen’s eighteen Bendowa questions and replies, he states that the notion of not doing zazen is nonsense. If just knowing that the self is buddha, Shakyamuni wouldn’t have bothered to give guidance.

As an example, Dogen tells the story of a head monk who, when was asked by his master how long he had been in the assembly. The monk replied it had been three years.
“Why haven’t you ever asked me about buddha-dharma?” the master asked.
“Because I understand I am endowed with buddha-dharma from birth,” the monk said. “And if I have it I don’t need to pursue it.”
The master said. “Never mind that buddha-nature is inherent. If you keep your mind stuck on a half comprehension and don’t sit zazen, you are not just a donkey but a ninny.”

Monday, May 06, 2013


You have probably heard or read the term “Treasury House of the Eye of the True Teachings.” It’s an elaborate title that refers to the manuscript Shobogenzo which was written around 1233 by Zen Master Dogen Kigen.

          The words Shobogenzo and Dogen are almost synonymous. They go together like sushi and soy sauce.

          Over the next few meetings I would like to talk Dogen, about Shobogenzo, and about the relevance of Shobogenzo to Soto Zen. For good measure I’ll throw in an occasional Shobogenzo story.

          These talks are drawn primarily from five books:
1.       The Wholehearted Way, translated by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi and Taigen Daniel Leighton.
2.     Zen Master Dogen, by Yuho Yokoi and Daizen Victoria
3.     A Study of Dogen, by Masao Abe
4.     The Shobogenzo, by Hubert Nearman and Daizui MacPhillamy
5.     Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross

          An aside: A word often encountered in any form of Buddhism is Dharma. Simply and literally, the term refers to the wisdom and teachings of the Buddha. Never mind that the terms Buddhahood and Buddha-dharma are redundant. Get used to them.

The Japanese man known as Dogen Kigen lived from 1200 to 1253. At age thirteen he joined the Tendai Buddhist community.

Another aside: In case you’re wondering about Tendai, it’s a popular school of Buddhism whose practice is based on the Lotus sutra, which was compiled after the death of the Buddha. It contains his supposed teachings.

In less than a year after Dogen joined Tendai, he packed his bags and quit the order. Tendai was too patterned for him, too dull, and too political. Wanting to dig into the original teachings of the Buddha, he traveled to China where he studied under a master named Rujing. When Dogen heard Rujing say “Cast off body and mind,” he was awakened.

Back in Japan Dogen returned briefly to Tendai before he quit it for good and set up his own temple.

One more aside: Dogen became known, as the originator of Soto Zen. It was a label he denied, but it survives to this day. So work around it.

To quote Japanese scholar Masao Abe, “[Dogen] concerned himself not with establishment of any new sect but rather the return to the Buddhist truth originally awakened to and expounded by Gautama Buddha.”

          Although Dogen did not emphasize the use of koans, he neither condemned them nor did he promote them. In fact, he sometimes wrote in a style that resembles koan stories. Some of his works contain imaginary dialogues between him and a student, some contain questions and answers.

According to one Shobogenzo translator, Dogen’s aim was to help an individual to recognize the limitations of a mind that thinks in terms of “it’s gotta be this or that,” and to break clear of such dualistic thinking.

          Dogen believed that zazen, silent meditation, was essential.

          An important question arose in Dogen’s mind. If Buddhism teaches that enlightenment, or awakening, is inborn in all beings, why do Buddhists spend so much time and effort seeking enlightenment?

          It was a puzzle that bothered Dogen so much he asked Eisai, the Tendai master, “If our training is right in that Buddhahood is natural in a person, why do we have to go through Zen practice to realize it?”

          Eisai answered: “The Buddhahood in man is only potential. The necessity of realizing it is Zen.”

          In other words, don’t worry about whether you have Buddhahood or not. Keep on meditating.

So Dogen pushed meditation, convinced he was passing along the teachings of the Buddha the way Shakyamuni intended them to be transmitted.

Popular as Dogen became, neither he nor his followers thought of him as a saint, a prophet, or a miracle worker. He never had visions, nor did he ever heal anyone He never conversed with celestial beings. He didn’t go in for dog-and-pony shows to boost his reputation.

          Dogen believed in the old Buddhist saying that “All things relate to all things.” He interpreted this thought of interdependence in the sense that being is time. Time is everywhere. The bamboo is time; a cat is time; humanity is time. The past is no more, the future doesn’t exist. There is only the present moment, and that is time.

          In Dogen’s generation at least five different Zen sects existed in Japan and China, each one distinct from the others. Dogen rejected the idea of Zen as a sect, a faction, or an order in itself. He claimed that if a so-called “Zen sect” formed its own system it was likely to become biased and one-sided.

          Zen is Zen, Dogen thought. Just as time is the present moment. There are no levels and no comparisons. To construct similarities or differences is absurd. Not only that, it’s a waste of time.

Dogen understood that Zazen was not just sitting still. It was the self opening to its own reality. When life is experienced directly, one experiences one’s true nature.

Yoho Yokoi, translator and compiler of the book Zen Master Dogen, emphasized two main points of Dogen’s teachings: (1) There is no gap between practice and enlightenment, and (2) Buddhism is our proper daily behavior. Furthermore, Zen is one’s daily life.

          Dogen said, “The state of dropping off mind and body is like piling fruit into a basket without a bottom, like pouring water into a bowl with a pierced hole; however much you may pile or pour you cannot fill it up. When this is realized the pail bottom is broken through.”

Do you remember from past talks the term “shikantaza”? It means quiet awareness, or goalless meditation. It means not working on a koan or counting the breath. It means simply sitting in zazen with no trace of sluggishness or drowsiness.

Dogen emphasized that practice and awakening cannot be separated. By practicing shikantaza, attainment and Buddhahood are already being expressed. For Dogen, zazen, or shikantaza, is the essence of Buddhist practice.

      Dogen was not only an educator, he was also a brilliant thinker and an accomplished writer.

Shobogenzo is the title given to the recorded series of his teachings. Shobogenzo is also known elegantly as Treasury House of True Teaching of the Dharma Eye, a name sometimes shortened to True Dharma Eye. Shobogenzo refers specifically to the realization of the Buddha's awakening that is not contained in the written words of the sutras.

The term has three main usages in Buddhism. (1) It refers to the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, that is, to the Buddha Dharma itself. (2) It is the title of a koan collection by Chinese Master Dohui Zonggao. And (3) It is used in the title of three works by Dogen.

          Shobogenzo the book exists in at least half-a-dozen English editions, many more in Japanese and Chinese. The Foreword to one edition states that “Shobogenzo is probably the single most important text among those works which are unique to . . . . Soto Zen.”

          The significance of Shobogenzo isn’t restricted to one branch of Buddhism. Dogen wanted to pass along the heart of what he had found in China concerning the truth of Buddhism to everyone. Because Shobogenzo is among the most wide-ranging and deepest of all Buddhist writings, it is relevant for any scholar of Buddhism.

          As is common in old Asian texts, Shobogenzo passages are rich with cultural idioms and colloquialisms. In the thirteenth century such allusions were readily understandable to Japanese or Chinese people. However, today’s readers may find most of them impenetrable.

          Such phrases as “Life is more transient than the dew” is fairly clear to the Western mind. But if you don’t understand the likes of “When birds fly they lose their feathers,” don’t get hung up trying to make sense of the words.

          I can’t promise all will become understandable. But you will gain a scrap of meaning if you clear your mind of Western thinking.

As Dogen might say, just meditate.

Gudo Wafu Nishijima is a contemporary Zen Master. I say “contemporary” because he was born in 1919, and he may still be on the go.

Nishijima translated the four-volume set of Shobogenzo that was published in 1994. In the Preface to Volume One, he states that “. . . reading Shobogenzo is the best way to come to an understanding of Buddhist theory, because Master Dogen was outstanding in his ability to understand and explain Buddhism . . . .”

That being said, Nishijima also published a short piece titled “Understanding the Shobogenzo” in which he says most people's reaction on first reading the Shobogenzo is that is seems very difficult to see what the writings mean.

          Now that’s a straightforward statement by a Zen master.

Nishijima blames difficulties on several characteristics of the writings. One of them relates to contradictions between chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. Take, for example, the statement, “Mountains are mountains. Rivers are rivers.” The statement makes no obvious sense because it contradicts the rules of logic.

But remember, Zen is not logical, it is intuitive. Dogen said that mountains should not be viewed from the scale of human thought.

          Quoting Nishijima, “If we take the Shobogenzo as a handbook to reality, it makes complete sense, contradictions and all. If we take the Shobogenzo as a description of an intellectual system, we can never make sense of it.”

          Again, quoting Nishijima, “It is said that when Guatama Buddha was practicing Zazen one morning, he experienced that mountains, rivers, grass and trees were all buddhas. This is usually called the Buddha’s enlightenment. We tend to think that after years of intense effort, his state changed. But after my own experience [that is, Nishijima], I began to see that in fact the story of Guatama Buddha’s enlightenment didn’t mean that he entered some special state, but just that he saw clearly for the first time the reality in which he was living.”

          In closing, here are a few Dogen quotes to take with you.

          “If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
          “Forgetting oneself is opening oneself.”
          “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”
          “When you paint Spring, do not paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots, but just paint Spring.”