Practicing Dogen Zen

The Problem of the Instrumental Aspiration to Enlightenment

This in fact perpetuates dualistic thinking in at least three respects: (a) it actually deepens suffering through a frustrated desire to achieve a more exalted state in contrast to the present “deluded” one; (b) this is to be achieved in some future time (though as soon as possible!) in contrast to the unsatisfactory present; (c) there is the logic trap that the “deluded” mind that imagines the goal of enlightenment can in effect only conceive of it delusively.

Instrumental meditation is arguably the biggest obstacle which Western practitioners have to overcome. And the mentality to attain some ideal state of mind is too deep-seated to be readily dismissed. It can pervade the whole of practice, even down to the dualistic struggle to reach the end of a sitting period – “praying for the bell”. It can lead to burnt out cases confessing their “failure” in meditation.

Personally it took me many years before I could step out of this trap. This was the acceptance of how things really are; of who I actually am. In Dogen’s words:

If you wish to practice the way of the Buddhas … you should expect nothing, seek nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood. – Zuimonk (trans. Cook, How to Raise an Ox, p24)

“Simply to enjoy one’s own inherent (Buddha) nature, without question of means and ends”

This is Francis Cook’s understanding of Dogen’s term Jijuyū Samādhi, where we sit, out of time, simply to bear witness to who we truly are.

We are all potential pianists, but we cannot manifest that latent ability without long hours practicing scales. The same applies to our Buddha Nature. But unlike piano playing, it is our destiny as human beings to manifest our inherent humanity in the world we create. Not to do so is to remain trapped in duality. And that is the existential misfortune to be trapped between this and that, the origin of dukkha.

For Dogen the actualisation of the Buddha Nature requires ceaseless practice – Gyōji – which must be manifested in every aspect of one’s life – Kajō:

This present continuous practice is nothing other than just committing oneself to continuous practice for no other reason than to practice continuously – Gyōji, (trans. Cook p144).

In this practice we create and enlighten the world and the world creates and enlightens us – activity, expression and action are one and the same:

Therefore you should entreat trees and rocks to teach the Dharma and you should ask rice fields and gardens for the truth. Raihai Touzui (trans. Cook, p98).

“Dogen’s Zen is the Zen of Faith”

So claims Francis Cook – “that is, a religion in which faith is the very mechanism by which the goal is achieved, and in the absence of which the door to the truth remains closed. It is therefore not simply one important element among others; it is the essential prerequisite (How to Raise an Ox, p22). This is so because how else can one sustain one’s practice if not practicing for something ? Practicing just for the sake of manifesting and enjoying one’s Buddha Nature requires a strong faith in the existence of such a nature – and also of the inherent need to actualise it. It requires a deep faith that it is not this aspiring little self that sits on the cushion, but Buddha who sits.

The great bodhisattva vows so prominent in Zen liturgy provide a strong motivation for practice. But unless and until one’s selfless nature is actualised these four vows may simply provide another instrumental motivation for ego, which is always drawn to inflating itself at the prospect of doing good to others. This is evidently why each of the vows is framed as a koan which thwarts and challenges ego, --as in “sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to free them all”. And one vows to liberate all beings even though one is not yet liberated oneself. All this requires great faith. Dogen refers to Shakyamuni just sitting in jijuyū samādhi, but eventually he arises and goes on to teach the Dharma for the next forty-five years. For ultimately, when the Buddha nature has been actualised, jijuyū samādhi is expressed as tajuyū samādhi (meditation performed for some external purpose), which naturally receives authentic bodhisattva expression.

Dogen certainly provides plenty of justification for Cook’s claim, as in this passage from Bendowa,(p.22):

The realm of the Buddha is inconceivable and beyond the reach of the intellect … only a person of great motivation can attain it. For the person who is lacking in faith it is impossible.

How then is faith to be engendered in place of spiritual desire, bearing in mind that faith is a mysterious power, an other power that lies beyond the mere rational beliefs and convictions of the self ? It may, along the way, be affirmed and sustained by insight, but is surely itself an insight recognisant of being moved by something greater and beyond the aspiring self. Indeed, D.T. Suzuki and others have thought of it as a form of satori in the sense of a self-forgetting.

In his Arousing the Supreme Thought (Hotsu Mujō Shin) Dogen lists a great many activities which “arouse the thought of enlightenment”, such as taking the refuges, bowing to the Buddha even “while you are being disturbed by demons”, “practicing good to even the slightest extent possible to you”, doing zazen, reading the sutras, making a stupa even “with a blade of grass”, and so on. In short, in all these activities, however modest and limited, one formally acts as if one were Buddha – one just gets on with it. This suggests the relevance of liturgy, robes, and other traditional outward manifestations to engendering that faith which is so indispensable for Dogen Zen, and which go-getting Westerners might be inclined to dismiss as mere distractions from the great goal…

The practice of Bare Awareness (Mindfulness)

Important above all is Dogen’s emphasis on the actualisation of our humanity in every aspect of our lives.

Bare Awareness practice embraces:

(a) Being aware of every detail of one’s outward daily life, and has been the subject of much contemporary Buddhist instruction about washing dishes, answering telephones and so on. Dogen himself was much concerned with prescribing the minutiae of monastic life, such as toilet ritual. Here we can readily experience how this “actualisation of our Buddha Nature” can greatly enrich the texture of our daily lives. This doing each thing for its own sake, to experience every activity, every encounter, just for what it is, is a great antidote to our habitual dualistic obsession with goals and achievements and busyness for the sake of busyness.

(b) Through emotional awareness we transform the way in which we experience mental discomfiture and physical pain. The origins of this practice can be found in the Pali canon. Thus, the Sallatha Sutta is a parable of the two arrows that can simultaneously strike us as if they were one; pain, and the experience of pain, and this is a distinction on which we need to work… This practice is presently not taught as widely as it should be (see my essay Ageing: the Great Adventure). It is the kind of thing Dogen evidently had in mind when he counselled that “even a thousand of acres of clear fields [satori] is not as good as a bit of skill that you can take round with you” Zuimonki (trans Thomas Cleary). A direct reference occurs in Dogen’s essay Shunjū (Spring and Autumn) with the koan in which a monk asks Tung-shan “When the cold or heat arrive, how can one avoid it ?” Tung-shan says there is a place where there is neither heat nor cold, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. So, where is that place ?

Particularly relevant to our response to physical pain is Dogen’s teaching of the “body-mind” (shinjin) -- “Mindfulness of the body (kanshin) is the body’s mindfulness (shinkan)” (from Hee-Jin Kim Dogen Kigen- Mystical Realist, p128).

Social Engagement

There have been some tentative explorations of the relevance of Dogen Zen to socially engaged Buddhism, inspired perhaps by his declaration that “he who regards worldly affairs as an obstacle to his training only knows there is no Way in worldly affairs, not knowing that there is nothing such as worldly affairs to be distinguished from the Way” Bendowa (Wholehearted Practice). Writing “Towards a Participatory Buddhism “ Carl Bieldefelt argues that for him “the crucial point lies in Dogen’s vision 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 (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, its own version of Buddha nature. In order most effectively to change situations we must wholeheartedly accept how they are, their suchness, and abandon our habitual wish-fulfilling illusions, (though it will not make us popular with fellow secular activists !). Only then can we respond with a clarity of mind unshadowed by the distorted perceptions of the needy individual and collective self.

Just as “individual”, goal-less practice requires great faith in one’s Buddha Mind, so does the socially engaged bodhisattva practice (which ultimately is identical) likewise require great faith. It is not faith that the desired ends will ultimately be achieved, but just faith in doing what has to be done. And there is a parallel here, also, between the individual’s imagined future state of enlightenment and a clinging to some vision of a Dharmically-inspired utopia. The road is itself the goal.

Moreover, for Dogen the world is alive with variant perceptions and possibilities. Dogen scholar Hee-Jin Kim explains 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. 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)

Incidentally Dogen’s writing contains numerous warnings about the secular inversion which makes of Engaged Buddhism no more than a mindful lubricant for the wheels of radical social change. Turning the argument right side up, Dogen reminds us that “if we wish to build a temple [that is, to engage in any intentional activity] we must remember that the main purpose is not form, fame or fortune. But it is rather the ceaseless practice of the Buddha Dharma that is important” Gōji (Ceaseless Practice).

I am grateful to Francis Dojun Cook, whose book How to Raise an Ox (Wisdom, 2002) so much inspired the above vision and prompted the reflections.

Comment on the above by David Loy:

“Perhaps the thing that strikes me most about Dogen's understanding of Buddha-nature -- as I understand it! -- is that it is inherently dynamic. We tend to think of Buddha-nature as something stable, perhaps outside of time [our usual understanding of "eternal"], but it has a transformative quality,which is why our Zen practice can be one with the highest enlightenment itself. Awareness/mindfulness is not something fixed or passive or resistant to change, but is inherently transformative. All processes are Buddha-nature, but the process of spiritual practice is how we attune ourselves/are attuned to that constant transformation built into the way the world is/works.

The paradoxical parallel between the need to both accept myself wholly and work ceaselessly to transform myself, and to both accept the deluded, suffering world and to work ceaselessly to "save" it, is perfect. There is no intellectual solution to this paradox – only practice.”