In The 37-Bon-Bodai-Bunpo, Dogen says “prevention of that which has not yet occurred is called the Buddhadharma”. This is said in the context of his commentary upon “The Four Kinds of Right Restraint” which is a classical Buddhist teaching. The four are to prevent the arising of bad, to extinguish bad that is already arisen, to cause to occur good that has not yet arisen and to promote the good that has already occurred. On the face of it, the traditional teaching is straightforward moralism, but Dogen begins by pointing out that different cultures have different ideas about what is bad and what is good.
Dogen’s statement, “prevention of that which has not yet occurred is called the Buddhadharma,” is more sweeping and seems at first more mysterious. It does not distinguish between good and bad. It just says that the Buddhadharma is to prevent happening. What does this mean?
This is not unrelated to the story about Bodhidharma meeting the emperor. The emperor asks Bodhidharma how much merit he has accumulated by building temples and monasteries, supporting the monks and providing welfare for the people, and Bodhidharma says, “None whatsoever.”
To understand this we have to go back to the origins of Zen which is a sinification of Buddhism strongly influenced by Taoist principles. In 432CE the monk Zhu Daosheng wrote a commentary upon the Lotus Sutra, often considered the foremost Buddhist scripture, that became a formative influence upon Chinese Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. Zhu established the principle that “good deeds attract no retribution.” This was a skilful way of marrying Buddhism and Taoism.
According to Taoism, the best way to be is to be natural. To be natural is called wei wu wei, which literally means “act without acting”. It is an injunction against being pretentious. However, it carries the implication that a good action is a non-action and Zhu points out that non-action creates no karma.
So, if a person needs food and a second person feeds him, the second person is, in this way of thinking, considered not to have done anything, because what happened was entirely natural. To do something would be to agitate the mind and body against the natural grain of the situation. Such agitation would be to “do something” since it disturbed the natural order of things, and this would create karma, whereas to act in a perfectly natural way creates no “retribution”.
Bodhidharma was, therefore, giving the emperor a sublime compliment by saying that he had not acted in any way that would generate karma. His support of the sangha was completely natural in the sense that it is natural to supply the needs of good people. When rulers accord with the principle of wei wu wei there will be peace and prosperity in the land.
So, “to prevent what has not yet occurred” means to generate no karma and the way to avoid creating karma is to act naturally in this extended sense of the term. This way of thinking puts a wide division between kind acts done in a perfectly natural way and similar acts done pretentiously or as part of a scheme of some kind.
This, therefore, is not a “virtue ethic” in which certain qualities are considered always good and others always bad. Much depends upon the frame of mind in which the act was performed. Hence, Dogen says, “non-appearance means yesterday preaching an established rule and today preaching an exception to the rule.”
Dogen had the idea that the mind is basically a mirror. A mirror responds to what is before it and does so automatically. The mirror does not do anything in order to show a reflection. In the same way, the natural person responds automatically and so, “does nothing”.
We see some version of this idea in our own culture in the way in which a genuine person might say, “It was nothing,” or “I didn’t do anything,” even when, objectively, they have done a great deal, because to them was natural to do whatever the situation required.
Dogen’s term “non-appearance” is a shorthand for this principle. If a person acts in a completely natural way he or she is invisible to demons. Such a person passes through the world untainted and their actions are measurelessly beneficial without them necessarily knowing anything about it.
This way of thinking is a long way distant from what is common today. Nowadays we tend to think that good must be created by deliberate effort and that if one does not make such effort one is failing in some way. In the pursuit of fairness we try to turn service and generosity into systems, often administered by people who do not feel particularly generous. Also, we look for celebrities - heroes of good of some sort who try to appear as much as possible and are lauded for doing so. Dogen’s idea is quite different.
In Dogen’s approach, a life lived naturally generates no karma. It harmonises with the natural order of things to such a degree that the person, in a meaningful sense, disappears. They claim no credit. It is because they lay claim to nothing that everything they need arrives naturally and they unceasingly transfer merit to all beings, even though mostly they are quite unaware of doing so.