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.”


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