Zen Master Dogen’s “Active Compassion”

Those who regard worldly affairs as an obstacle to their training do not realise that there is nothing such as worldly affairs to be distinguished from the Way (Bendowa – Wholehearted Practice).

Dogen thus demonstrates his concern to dissolve all dualisms, all compartmentalisation. For him Buddhist practice is about fully and mindfully living your life. He would surely have been critical of what that pioneer Buddhist activist David Brandon liked to call “Mañana Buddhism” -- the view that social action should be delayed until enlightenment had dawned.

This is one of several Dogen perspectives that are particularly relevant to a socially engaged Buddhism.

Eihei Dogen (1200-53) is one of the truly outstanding figures in the history of Buddhism. Founder of the Soto Zen sect, Dogen produced a large body of writing much of which is, for several reasons, quite demanding. Nonetheless his influence has continued to grow, both among scholars and practitioners like ourselves.

For much of his life Dogen was a public figure active in a society ravaged by civil war, plague and destitution. He showed considerable courage in denouncing the excesses of the warlords, and typically insisted that samurai leave their weapons outside before entering temples.

Dogen insisted that not only laymen but even laywoman had a full potential for enlightenment. And he wrote a substantial essay lambasting the male chauvinists who dominated the culture of his time:

Nowadays there are some extremely stupid men who think, ‘Women are nothing but sexual objects and providers of food’ …..There are many who will not pay homage to women or nuns even if they have manifested the Dharma and transmitted it. They do not understand the Dharma [and] are like animals.” (Raihai Tokuzui – Paying Homage and Acquiring the Essence).

An Inspiring Dharma

It has to be said that, in his later years, as he withdrew more deeply into monasticism, his views appear to have grown more conservative. However, Dogen is important to contemporary activists more for the inspiring kind of Dharma which he taught than as an exemplar. For Dogen this world of space and time is an active and potentially transformative agent of liberative awakening if we can but open ourselves to it. Typically the fearful self responds to the sense of lack, of chronic existential insecurity, by structuring, solidifying, dulling and narrowing the world as experienced. And may spend a lifetime raging and rattling the bars of the cage so laboriously constructed, shackled by Blake’s “mind forged manacles”. Such is our lifelong, unwinnable law suit with reality, as Hubert Benoit so graphically described it. The wonder of the world is thus debased to an egocentric shadow of our wants and fears – political as well as personal. In his Genjo Koan Dogen characterized our typically upside-down, inside-out, back-to-front way of experiencing life with the metaphor of the boat and the shore, where it is the latter which we suppose to be moving.

Dogen elaborated and enlarged the contention of predecessors like Hui Neng that all beings have (or rather, are) the Buddha Nature. That is to say, we all are intrinsically inwardly at peace and outwardly compassionate but are characteristically too fearful and deluded to be aware that this is so. And yet the world around us is constantly seeking to en-lighten us, like the sun trying to break through a cloudy sky. Hence Dogen’s dictum “When the self advances, the ten thousand things retreat; but when the self withdraws the ten thousand things advance”. Thus even sticks and stones and the rest of inanimate nature are there to wake us up, and hence are themselves “enlightened” and possessed of the Buddha Nature. There is here the essence of a dynamic and mutually transformative Dharmic ecology.

A Life of Total Engagement

The way out of suffering lies in heartfelt and absolute acceptance of the “suchness” of how things are, freed of all those evasions which are of the essence of dukkha. This then liberates us to respond to the needs of the world, freed of the shadow of our own neediness. Carl Bieldefelt has argued that “Dogen’s vision is of a Buddhist life of total engagement with the world around us, of a Buddhist self that is a full participant in the immediate circumstances in which it finds itself … I have in mind something like the ancient ideal of the bodhisattva, who is at once patiently accepting of the world as it is, and yet deeply committed to making it better.” (“Towards a Participatory Buddhism”, in Zen Mountain Record, 21(1) Fall 2002). The italics are mine, and such “empowerment through acceptance” refers to the root paradox of socially engaged Buddhism, where “nothing matters; everything matters (or, philosophically speaking, “form is only emptiness, emptiness is no other than form”). This paradox is encapsulated in the activists’ koan of Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, an influential post-war Japanese teacher, scholar and activist: “Right now, if nothing you can do is of any avail, what do you do?”.

Moreover, for Dogen the world is alive with variant perceptions and possibilities, and hence the bodhisattva spirit of serious playfulness. The Korean scholar Hee-Jin Kim writes of Dogen’s emphasis on dotoku – active compassion as follows:

In Dogen’s view, things, events, relations were not just given, but were possibilities, projects and tasks that can be acted out, expressed, and understood as self-expressions and self-activities of the Buddha-nature [my italics - KJ]. This did not imply a complacent acceptance of the given situation but required man’s strenuous efforts to transform and transfigure it. Dogen’s thought involved this element of transformation, which has been more often than not grossly neglected or dismissed by Dogen students. (Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, p.183).

Also, the first line of the quotation reminds us that there are “no things as they really are”, only liberation from “I see what I am”. Neither is there a “Pure Consciousness”, a nirvana where there is security at last from the flux of impermanence and the pit of insubstantiality. On the contrary the bodhisattva finds true freedom in impermanence and insubstantiality and a world of infinite and wondrous possibilities.

The Humanism of Suchness

“Every creature covers the ground it stands on, no more, nor no less. It never falls short of its completeness” (Genjo Koan). Dogen was a great humanist. But he was a Buddhist humanist. What does this mean ? In the first place, it is an all embracing humanism – every star, every atom… Moreover it is the humanism of “suchness” of “just-how-it-is-ness”, beyond this and that, good and bad, rich and poor, justice and injustice, the tyrant and the oppressed. Thus, in one of Dogen’s many fine poems,

The true person is

not anyone in particular

but, like the deep blue colour

of the limitless sky,

it is everyone, everywhere in the world

The “true person” is not only your friend but also the spinning politician and the Burma arms dealer, all seen with the same eye of this inclusive humanism, in which the self is freed of its need to cling to this and to reject that. And which is therefore liberated into clear seeing and effective action against injustice. And so….

In the stream

rushing past

to the dusty world

my fleeting form

casts no reflection

And shadow neither, so that things may be hopeless, but not dispiriting; unjust, but not hateful; beautiful, but not desirable; loathsome, but not rejected.

Action in Timeless Time

And what of “having no time”, of the crowded diary, and what Thomas Merton called the “frenzy of the [overcommitted] activist”? To fill our deep sense of lack time is reified and solidified, and returns to us as yet another vexatious constraint.

Dogen maintained that “everything exists in the present within yourself “ (Zenki). So, “when you cross the river and climb the mountain, you are time. We cannot be separated from time…. Time appears to be passing, but the past is always contained in the present” (Uji). If we are time. how then does this radically change our conventional way of living in time ? The experience of the past – maybe some ancient injustice – exists only in the present, as memory and record. And the future is no more than an intention conceived in the present. And since the present is gone as soon as it arrives we therefore live in timeless time. David Loy has likened this to being in the middle of the ocean in a light rubber dinghy which moves as fast as the current which carries it, and hence, in the absence of any fixed point from which to gauge it, gives us no experience of movement at all. Yet we begin to feel thirsty and hungry -- time does pass….

So here again, how can we live out and embody the paradox of this further version of the Two Truths, of emptiness and form, where timeless time exists at the intersection with that fleeting time which cannot be denied ? No longer harassed by the clocks and calendars of fleeting time, we relax in timeless time, simply doing our best “as if we had all the time in the world”, and yet at the same time within the remorseless constraints of fleeting time. To be able to do this wholeheartedly is no easy matter. T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets (“The Dry Salvages”) comments as follows:

“Men’s curiosity searches past and future

And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time is an occupation for the saint.”

The Redemption of Morality from Moralism and Conformism

Situational versus absolute morality is an important issue particularly for socially engaged Buddhists to which Dogen brings some trenchant clarification. This is well set out in Hee-Jin Kim’s excellent Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist (Wisdom, 2004, pp. 221-229), from which the following is taken.

“[For Dogen] the moral values of good, evil and neutral do not exist in themselves or for themselves with any independent metaphysical status, because they were nothing more than the temporary configurations resulting from infinitely complex interactions of conditions.” (224). Dogen: The human mind is neither good nor evil. Good and evil arise with circumstances…(223); What is good and what is bad are difficult to determine (221); Good is understood differently in different worlds (222). Thus “a perennial question in Dogen’s thought was What particular course of action am I to choose here and now in this particular situation ? Dogen himself was acutely aware of the enormous difficulties in answering the question” (222). And so “although ‘not to commit evil’ was the moral as well as the transmoral, sensibility that was intrinsic to enlightenment… this did not imply denial of the human propensity for failure and guilt … that is why we must constantly repent and be forgiven… Though it may sound paradoxical, confession is an essential part of enlightenment, not a condition prior to enlightenment” (225-6).

The Four Ways of a Bodhisattva

This is the title of a writing in Dogen’s Shobogenzo collection, dated 5th May 1243.

The first way is that of generosity (fuse), which Dogen interpreted broadly to include having “a position in society and to act on behalf of society”, in which he included “politics and industry”. “Supplying a boat or building a bridge are deeds of fuse”.

The second way is aigo – kind speech “When we meet together and talk, we should take care of each other… We should learn that aigo has great power to change situations.”

Thirdly is rigyo -- beneficial action -- which means that in our concerns and activities “we take care of every kind of person, no matter whether of high of low position.”

Fourthly there is doji -- compassion and empathy – “Not to differentiate self from others … when we know doji we are at one with ourselves and others.”

“What is most necessary is that we face everything with an open and flexible mind” are Dogen’s concluding words here.

The two poems are from Steven Heine’s “Zen Poetry of Dogen” (Tuttle, 1997).