A Dharma talk given at the regular Friday morning service at Oasis.
A Dharma talk given at the regular Friday morning service at Oasis.
Dogen Zenji is, perhaps, the most important figure in Zen in the history of Japan. I am working on a translation of Dogen's seminal text Genjo Koan. It is about enlightenment. It is written to a layperson. Later on Dogen writes other things that strongly suggest that it is virtually impossible for a lay person to be enlightened. Did Dogen change his mind? If so, why?
Dogen is known for being a dedicated advocate of zazen. It has the highest value in his system and is presented as equivalent to enlightenment, yet in Genjo Koan, which is about enlightenment, he does not mention it? Why?
If you take Genjo Koan in isolation, if you knew nothing else about Dogen's writings, you would probably never guess that he regarded zazen as being so important. You would rather, I think, tend to think that what he is talking about could arise in a variety of ways.
My own experience of spiritual practice would go along those lines. I have learnt important things from meditation, but also from other aspects of practice, from my relationships with different teachers, from adventitious circumstances of life, from devotion, chanting and prayer, from writing, and even from reading Dogen. Many of Dogen's own writings also suggest such diverse learning. Dogen, however, makes a distinction between the kind of learning that is cumulative and the awakening that is satori. My own spiritual awakenings have certainly had some kind of contemplation as one important element, but that has not been the only trigger.
We can ask, why did Dogen write, given that he wrote a great deal. Some of the writings were initially delivered as spoken sermons. One can say that their purpose was to encourage people to do zazen, but such encouragement did not require such sophisticated prose, such wide ranging rehearsal of doctrines and stories, such poetry. Much of Dogen's writing revolves around koan cases - Zen stories of encounters between monks or between teacher and disciple, in which one at least generally arrives at some kind of enlightenment experience. It is therefore clear enough that Dogen also thought that enlightenment came via interaction and dialogue.
Sometimes Dogen writes about zazen as sitting in a specific posture and managing the mind in a particular way. Sometimes he writes as though almost any activity can be zazen.
Dogen's text that most centrally focusses on zazen is called Fukanzazengi - Instructions for Zazen. Early in this text he reminds us of Shakyamuni training for six years and Bodhidharma for nine. This implies that enlightenment comes as a result after a period of time. However, later in the text, he says that training is enlightenment. These claims cannot both stand.
In any case, Shakyamuni, at least, clearly was not enlightened when he was "training" and what he was doing at that time was not zazen, and Bodhidharma we are led to believe was already enlightened before he started his legendary nine years facing a wall.
Were Dogen's writings as much a way of putting down his own dilemmas as of instructing others? Is what we are to learn here the way that a spiritual life, such as he exemplifies, is a continual series of dilemmas? Is he obliged to be consistent? Perhaps contradicting himself within the same essay is enlightened behaviour. Perhaps he was not sure about some of the answers. He probably wanted to think that lay people could be enlightened, but found in practice that they just gave him a lot of trouble. He probably wanted people to do zazen but realised that for many it was impractical. He probably wanted his message to be popular, but found that it wasn't.
He certainly did not have an easy time. His parents died when he was young. He became a monk. He went to the big Tendai monastery Enraku-ji at Hiei and then to the Rinzai Kennin-ji temple. When the abbot, Myozen, went to China Dogen went with him. However, on their arrival the Chinese did not accept that Dogen was a proper monk and treated him as a layperson, or at best as a bottom grade junior. Then Myozen died. When Dogen got back to Japan he probably expected his new understanding to be greeted with acclaim, but largely it met with rejection. After ten years of trying to run his own monastery near to the capital he was forced to leave and move to a remote area. The school he founded was always teetering on the brink of being made illegal. He had to try hard to find persons of influence to speak up for him. He had some successes, but it was a difficult progression and he must have been near to despair on occasion.
So the moral of today's teaching is that the spiritual life is not easy or straight-forward, that it involves many struggles and often a good deal of lack of clarity. Our spiritual heroes are not people who sailed along from one great experience to another. Honen Shonin also went to Enraku-ji as an orphan, left, struggled, got exiled, and had many conflicts.
Our image of the spiritual life in modern times has been somewhat built upon the idea that it provides 'happiness' and freedom from trouble. We asset strip it for techniques to use for 'personal growth' but often miss the meaning of the body of practice that we have taken them from. We do not have a feel for 'enlightenment' we just want more immediate benefits for body and mind - exactly the things that Dogen learnt to let go of in China.
My teacher Kennett Roshi said, on more than one occasion, that if enlightenment was just about happiness then a dog asleep in the sun would be the ideal. There is more to it.
My Zen teacher, Kennett Roshi, often talked about the danger of quietism. By this she meant that it is no good thinking that one has arrived at the perfect understanding or the perfect organisation or the perfect practice. There has to be an endless dialectical process to re-invigorate the practice or things become stale and then become narrow. Wherever we have got to, there is always a next step. It is not that that next step takes us closer to the goal, it is that taking next steps is the goal. As soon as we stop doing so, we fall out of the Dharma creating a gap “as great as that between heaven and earth”.
In a spiritual community there should always be some grit, or it does not produce pearls. The Buddha Shakyamuni had many disciples and his leading ones were very different personalities. There was plenty of dynamic between them. Honen Shonin also had many disciples and after he died there were many different ideas about the precise meaning of his teaching. Different groups were in competition. The result was that Pureland in one shape or form spread all over Japan and became the most popular form of religion in the country. Since the second world war, Nichiren Buddhism has approached similar status and, again, we see many different Nichiren groups in competition.
Competition, debate, and airing of different perspectives can become conflict and go over into a destructive mode. There is, therefore, a middle path to be found between quietism and conflict - between death and destruction, one could say. On the middle path there is life, joy, respect and a continual ‘going beyond’. If we lose this spirit of adventure and exploration, then the Dharma decays. When we have it there is a vibrancy and the Dharma continues - we are all young at heart.
Although I have retired to the country, I am by no means retired in any other sense. We talk about going 'on retreat', but perhaps should be talking about 'advance'. Rather, instead of talking about it, we should be living it. There is no end to this path. The Dharma is not bland - there is always some pepper and salt and sometimes a dash of curry powder too.
Too many people are looking for the one right answer or the one right way. When you find it, give it a good kick and see if it says anything. If it gives a shout, then ask it the direction to somewhere it has never been.
If you are familiar with the koans of Zen you will know at least these two. The first is "What is the sound of one hand clapping" and the other is called Joshu's Mu. The second is based on the story that when the Buddhist Master Joshu was asked whether a dog has Buddha Nature, he said "Mu" which usually means "No." Zen has a characteristic kind of dialogue in which spiritual truths are expressed in a kind of symbolical dialectic. Thinking about these two koans might get you into it.
So what is the sound of one hand clapping? It is that one do what is best unilaterally. If the other hand comes to meet you, that is wonderful, but if it does not, no matter, one still does one’s part. A community is like this. Each person does their best and there is then a surplus of goodwill sufficient to absorb setbacks. When one hand is clapping, the other is encouraged to join in. This is the perfect situation. Each person is completely absorbed in his or her faith and practice and so is a perfect example to everyone around them. People who come to visit then feel good about it, get caught up in the atmosphere and want to come again. Those who reside feel joy in each other’s company. Those who go away feel that they have something solid behind them. They feel able to go forth and be one hand clapping.
Usually when one goes to the temple at the appointed time everybody is there ready to join in the ceremony together. Even if one had been sluggish or reluctant to go when one arrives and joins in one feels good. Sometimes one goes to the hall at the appointed time and nobody else shows up. One thinks, that’s fine, they must all have good things that they need to do. One lights a candle and get on on one’s own. That is one hand clapping. Sometimes the others show up later. Sometimes they don’t. Sitting in the divine presence one feels happy either way - one way for the solitude and the other way for the company. Sometimes it is oneself who does not show up, sometimes for a good reason, sometimes not. In any case, one knows that one is still loved and whatever vicissitude of reason or emotion one is going through, one knows that there is here a fund of love and goodwill and all will be well. This is the sound of one hand clapping.
Why Did Joshu Say Wu/Mu? When one hand claps, it enters emptiness. When Joshu was asked if a dog had Buddha Nature he said “Wu” (Mu in Japanese) which means “No” or “Empty” or “Without”. To which the hearer may say, “But I thought it was Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings have Buddha Nature.” This response, however, betrays an intention to cling to formulas. We should ask ourselves who or what is the dog? Just as we need to know who or what is the one hand that claps. When we have found the dog, we can find out if it is empty or not. Perhaps we will discover that true Buddhist faith and practice is a matter of emptying the dog again and again. Or perhaps we shall find that the dog was empty from the very beginning. Or perhaps the old dog just likes lying in the sun, in which case, we must ask: who or what is the true sun? And when the dog is lying in the sun, does it get full or does it stay empty? Is Buddha Nature something that comes and goes? When it is coming and going, what is it up to? Is one hand clapping the same as one dog barking? Is the old dog barking the same as Joshu saying, “Wu”.
Buddha Nature is not a personal asset, it is something that appears when one hand claps. When an old dog is empty he does not think about one hand clapping, but it claps all the same.
Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) was the founder of the Soto Shu, a Japanese school of Zen based on a Chinese tradition. He was an important philosopher and his major work was called the Shobogenzo.
Dogen was an illegitimate son of a high official, Minamoto Michitomo. His mother died when he was seven years old.
He ordained as a Tendai monk. The Tendai Shu taught that all beings are intrinsically endowed with Dharma Nature. Dogen became preoccupied with the question, if this is so, why do Buddhas need to teach?
Not finding an answer, he went to study Rinzai Zen under the master Myozen who was the successor of Eisai, the founder of Rinzai Shu in Japan.
In 1223, Myozen and Dogen travelled together to China seeking further teachings. In those days this was a hazardous journey.
Here's Dharmavidya on the course he has been teaching in Korea:
Day One: Qwan Shi Yin practises deeply
Introductory remarks about Buddhist psychology, Zen Therapy and about the sutra.
Introductions by individuals. Three particular themes emerged
- the challenge of living the Dharma life, whether as a person in the robe or as a layperson
- the question of all acceptance
- the matter of space and emptiness
- Do not criticise, but accept everything
- Do not be proud of oneself and devalue others
- Do not seek personal advantage
- Do not advertise one's own virtue, nor the faults and failings of others
- When one finds that one has done these things (as all of us do) tery to avoid becoming defensive or self-punishing and, instead, learn how it is to be a human being.
- Two main characters: Quan Shi Yin and Shariputra
- Two main concepts Prajna and Paramita
Quan Shi Yin and Shariputra as two different kinds of intelligence that need to be in communication with one another, the heart and the head. In helping others, the heart leads the head, but must not try to do without the head. Quan means to look deeply. Yin means tears, crying. Shi refers to generations of people. Quan Shi Yin looks deeply into the tears that have come down through the generations. The therapist attends carefully to the distress that has come to the client, knowing it as an instance of the suffering of all beings.
Prajna is cognate with “diagnosis”. There is a surface presentation and a deeper meaning. There is an immediate manifestation and a longer term process. Paramita refers to the other shore, beyond the rushing torrent of emotion and karma. The therapist has confidence that together they will reach the other shore, and that the way to get there will actually be revealed within the torrent itself.
Then the group divided into small groups to discuss the material presented.
Then we did an exercise: each person made a list of who they would choose from the group to represent different members of their family or other significant people in their life. After the break there were a series of pairings exploring the relationship between projection and reality.
Here's a link to the latest newsletter, Red Letter:
Red Letter is the Newsletter of ITZI, its affiliated groups and its departments, ITZI-Red and Amida Academy. ITZI (Instituto Terapia Zen Internacional) is a consortium of trainers and centres around the world dedicated to the development and dissemination of education in Buddhism, Buddhist Psychology and related approaches to spirituality, therapy and personal growth.
Uniting Zen and Pureland
The essence of Zen is big mind and big heart. The essence of Pureland is that there is nowhere where the Light does not shine. These two are sides of a coin. Nothing is outside of the compass of one's spiritual life. There is nowhere where one's spiritual life is not supported.