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Dogen on Karma – Talk 3 – 2013 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 08/21/2013
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Pali Canon

Norman gives the third talk on the Dogen on Karma series to the Dharma Seminar.

Karma (Sanskrit, also karman, Pāli: kamma) is a Sanskrit term that literally means “action” or “doing”. In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to action driven by intention (cetanā) which leads to future consequences.



Dogen thought that Buddhism, including his own teaching, was being understood at that time as about transcendence, enlightenment. That ethical conduct was not that important. Ethical conduct was: get your house in order, so that you can have the transcendence. So he wanted to re-do everything to show how central ethics is.

In the last twenty-five years, scholars in Japan, who claim this, had a powerful ax to grind. There has been a soul-searching reappraisal, in Japan, of Japanese Buddhism; that it was 100% complicit in WWII, and, even worse, in the atrocities in China. Dogen people in Soto Zen wanted to confront this in their own past. That was behind their attitude about Dogen.

That is an important fact. It is not only Dogen; in fact, these scholars were criticizing the whole of Japanese Buddhism. Even before Dogen, Japanese Buddhism has always had a powerful emphasis on hongaku, which means original enlightenment, like buddhanature. It’s interesting, because that is the thing that we love about Japanese Buddhism. We love that Dogen affirms impermanence, affirms our imperfection, affirms ordinary life as enlightenment. It one of the most endearing things about Dogen’s teaching and about Japanese Buddhism in general.

That is not emphasized in any other Buddhism – Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana in China, even Zen in China and Zen in other countries. It is specifically Japanese, so there is something about Japanese Buddhism that we really like.

The other side of that is, Oh, our imperfections are enlightenment? Then, let’s go on being imperfect! Let’s go on, like going to war! Let’s go on beyond life and death, beyond ethical conduct. So let’s have Samurai chopping off people’s heads with the emptiness of all things! That is the other side of that teaching; you could see how that works.

So the soul-searching scholars were saying that they were critical of hongaku teaching, critical of the “original enlightenment” that pervades all of our culture and all of our Buddhism. We now want to emphasize morality much more strongly.

excerpted and edited by Barbara Byrum

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