Unusually clear advice from Zen master Dogen
This week we're going to take a look at some guidelines for Zen practice written by the great Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen in the 13th century. If your heart sinks at the mention of Dogen's name, fear not - unusually for Dogen, they're comparatively straightforward and accessible!
Eihei Dogen, 1200-1253
Dogen is one of the greatest Zen masters who ever lived, and is the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen lineage. Dogen started out in the Tendai school of Buddhism, who promoted the idea of 'intrinsic awakening' found in (for example) the Lotus Sutra; like many who encounter that approach, Dogen wanted to know 'If I'm enlightened already, why do I need to do all this practice?' Dogen wasn't satisfied with the answers he was given, which largely boiled down to 'Because we say so', and so ultimately he went to China in the hope of finding a more satisfying answer. Evidently he did, because he came back to Japan a changed man, founded a succession of Zen monasteries and taught in the Soto style for the rest of his (sadly short) life.
Soto Zen stresses the primacy of shikantaza ('just sitting') as the main (and often only) practice.
(I'm going to pick out the key points, but if you want to read the whole text, you can find some translations here - scroll down for the text. I'll use the Brown/Tanahashi translation for the headlines, and offer the Nishijima translation for the alternative readings.)
1. You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.
(Alternatively: Establish the will to the truth.)
My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, likes to say 'First priority is kensho [awakening]; second priority is kensho; third priority is kensho.'
It's pretty common today to find meditation teachers presenting it as a kind of psychologised self-therapy, as a performance enhancer, as a tool for relaxation and stress relief, and so on. And that's fine - it can be used for all those things, quite effectively. But the purpose of Zen practice goes beyond those applications, to something much more fundamental - to awaken us to who we really are, much deeper than the level of our thoughts or personality. Zen awakening is about discovering for ourselves the true nature of who we are and what our subjective experience actually is, and radically changing our relationship to everything that we encounter.
So Dogen wants to stress that we should hold this 'thought of enlightenment' - the intention to look deeply into our experience, not settling for less than full awakening. He says: 'If in the past or present, you hear about students of small learning or meet people with limited views, often they have fallen into the pit of fame and profit and have forever missed the buddha way in their life. What a pity! How regrettable! You should not ignore this.'
He also gives us a practice instruction: 'Just forget yourself for now and practice inwardly—this is one with the thought of enlightenment. We see that the sixty-two views are based on self. So when a notion of self arises, sit quietly and contemplate it. Is there a real basis inside or outside your body now? Your body with hair and skin is just inherited from your father and mother. From beginning to end a drop of blood or lymph is empty. So none of these are the self. What about mind, thought, awareness, and knowledge? Or the breath going in and out, which ties a lifetime together: what is it after all? None of these are the self either. How could you be attached to any of them? Deluded people are attached to them. Enlightened people are free of them.'
2. Once you see or hear the true teaching, you should practise it without fail.
(Alternatively: When you meet and listen to the authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, be sure to learn them through practice.)
Dogen's instructions here are brief and to the point. In the same way that a king should take heed of the advice of his wise ministers and follow through on that advice, those who hear the teachings of Zen shouldn't stop there, but must actually practice it for themselves in order to realise the truth. Hearing the teachings is only the first step, and is frankly pretty worthless unless backed up by your own direct experience.
3. In the buddha way, you should always enter enlightenment through practice.
(Alternatively: To enter into and experience Buddhism, always rely upon practice.)
Dogen now elaborates on the nature of practice. He points out that different people will practise in different ways - each person has affinities for certain practices and difficulties with others - but in all cases practice is required.
He also offers some encouragement. 'You should know that arousing practice in the midst of delusion, you attain realization before you recognize it. At this time you first know that the raft of discourse is like yesterday's dream, and you finally cut off your old understanding bound up in the vines and serpents of words. This is not made to happen by Buddha, but is accomplished by your all-encompassing effort.' And this is very true - while we occasionally have moments of breakthrough in practice, often it's a long, slow process in which nothing much seems to be happening for long stretches of time. But if we keep going, sooner or later we'll get where we're going - not because the teacher decides to 'bless' us with enlightenment as a reward for our practice, but because we've done the work ourselves.
4. You should not practise Buddha's teaching with the idea of gain.
(Alternatively: Do not practise Gautama Buddha's teachings with the intention of getting something.)
Dogen counterbalances the emphasis of the previous point, so that we don't fall into the trap of self-centredness. Yes, we must do the practice ourselves; yes, enlightenment comes as the fruit of our own efforts rather than as a gift from the teacher; and yes, enlightenment brings tremendous benefits.
However, in order to see who we really are, we have to let go of who we think we are right now. If we pursue Zen practice as a way of getting something good for ourselves that other people don't have, as a way of earning a trophy to put in our spiritual display cabinet, we're not only missing the point but actually reinforcing precisely the self-centred way of relating to the world that we need to move beyond in order to wake up.
Dogen emphasises this point: 'Clearly, buddha-dharma is not practiced for one's own sake, and even less for the sake of fame and profit. Just for the sake of buddha-dharma you should practice it. All buddhas' compassion and sympathy for sentient beings are neither for their own sake nor for others. It is just the nature of buddha-dharma.'
5. You should seek a true teacher to practise Zen and study the way.
(Alternatively: To practise Zazen and study the truth, look for a true master.)
Having access to a teacher is a powerful support for any contemplative or spiritual practice. Books and YouTube videos (and blogs like this!) are all well and good, but they can only ever present very generalised instructions. A good teacher can work with you as an individual to understand your particular circumstances and give you tailored advice to help you move forward.
These days, access to teachers is easier than at any previous point in history. You don't need to travel hundreds of miles on foot through the mountains of China to reach a monastery - you can attend teachings, sit in meditation and have Skype interviews with Zen masters online (see the Zenways website for more details on how to connect with my teacher Daizan). And, of course, I also run an online class on Wednesdays, although I'm not a Zen master, so take whatever I say for what it's worth!
Actually, Dogen also has some advice on how to recognise a true teacher: 'Regardless of one's age or experience, a true teacher is simply one who has apprehended the true teaching and attained the authentic teacher's seal of realization. One does not put texts first or understanding first, but one's capacity is outside any framework and one's spirit freely penetrates the nodes in bamboo. One is not concerned with self-views and does not stagnate in emotional feelings. Thus, practice and understanding are in mutual accord. This is a true master.'
So there you go - five points to consider in your practice. Come back next week for the second half of this text, and five more pearls of Dogen-shaped wisdom!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.