Drawing on Dogen’s teaching, Zoketsu describes zazen as the essence of Zen practice, beyond just the practice of sitting, discussing Dogen’s promise of zazen as the manifestation of the ultimate reality.
Dogen’s Bendowa (Part 1 of 3)
Zazen as the Essence of Zen Practice
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 4, 2001
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
If I were to summarize in a few sentences the thrust of Dogen’s work, of Dogen’s thought, I would say that he was focusing on Zen practice, not as a special school of Buddhism, or a special approach to spirituality, but as the essential essence of all Buddhism. He didn’t think of Zen as a limited school, but as being Buddhism itself, and he saw Buddhism as being the practicing of awakening, the practice of liberation. He didn’t see liberation as a goal that we were laboriously attempting to reach and might reach someday, or that we practiced to accumulate knowledge, merit, or wisdom. The essence of his thought was that liberation and enlightenment couldn’t possibly be a future event that we would someday encounter. The only way that liberation could possibly make any sense, Dogen Zenji felt, was if it were in the midst of every moment of practice. So practice is not the means towards liberation. Practice is the expression, the manifestation of liberation.
So while the Buddhist path had traditionally been a step-by-step affair, with many practices accumulating to a final result, Dogen Zenji saw the whole Buddhist path as collapsing entirely into each moment. On every moment of our practice, we were literally a beginning practitioner and also a Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, at the moment of attaining awakening.
The Bendowa was an early, polemical text, arguing for the primacy and supremacy of the essential practice of zazen – zazen not as a yogic technique, but zazen as a symbolic manifestation of ultimate reality. It is very interesting that this practice, which in a way involves so much effort, becomes, oddly enough, fundamentally a zazen of faith. We make effort to get somewhere and to achieve something, but Dogen says the achievement is just the faith that right now, right here, from the first moment of zazen, liberation is already manifested – having confidence and trust that we all are of the nature of liberation and awakening. So the practice of zazen becomes the practice of settling our hearts with this trust. Allowing trust in our own awakened nature to come forward, because it is already there.
So, with that little bit of introduction, we can consider the beginnings of the text, Bendowa. I am reading from Moon in a Dewdrop, a translation of a number of Dogen fascicles that Kaz Tanahashi and several of us from Zen Center did some years ago.
Bendowa is translated here as “On the Endeavor of the Way.” Ben means effort or endeavor, do is like Dao, meaning the Way or the Path, and wa means a tale about or a story about. So actually Bendowa is a talk on endeavor in the Way. “Endeavor in the way” is one of the many phrases that Dogen used as a synonym for zazen, so Bendowa actually means “a talk about zazen.” This is in line with what I was saying earlier, that according to Dogen, zazen is not just one of the many possible practices that you can do in Buddhism, zazen is the essence of the Way. To make endeavor in the Way is to do zazen, and to do zazen is to make endeavor in the Way. So it has a double meaning. It is something very broad, and also specifically, the meaning and the essence of the practice of zazen.
From the Bendowa,
All buddha tathagatas, who directly transmit inconceivable dharma and actualize supreme, perfect enlightenment, have a wondrous way, unsurpassed and unconditioned.
That’s the first sentence. Dogen has a way of saying everything all at once, right at the beginning of his text. The word tathagata literally translates as “the one who just comes and just goes” – without any traces, without anything extra, without leaving any marks. In other words, the appearance of things as they are, in their ineffable, flashing in and out of existence. There are a number of names that are given to the Buddha, and tathagata is one of them. It has the sense of the one who is just there, beyond human agency, beyond our attachments and confusions.
Dogen says “All buddha tathagatas,“ because there’s not just one buddha; there are many buddhas. The universe, the world, is a succession of buddhas, coming and going – world systems appearing and disappearing. So there are many, many buddhas. I think on a cosmic level the world is an unceasing succession, on every atom, of buddhas arising, attaining enlightenment, teaching, and bringing worlds to perfection. Worlds disappear, and another one starts on every atom and on every moment of time. So these buddhas, who fill all space and time, have a wondrous way – a beautiful, wonderful way of practice – that cannot be surpassed. It is unconditioned and free, beyond human agency.
The human realm is called the “realm of conditioning.” And conditioning means to be stuck to, to glom together, to be sticky. The human realm is the sticky realm. Things don’t smoothly flow. They get stuck. I’m talking now as if we are over here, and the buddhas are elsewhere. But, of course, the point is, we are human beings, and we are also buddhas. But we are stuck in this sticky part of being human, and we can’t get unstuck. Actually, at the same time, in all the space on our bodies, and in every moment of our time, there is this other reality going of which we are unaware, because we are too stuck to ourself. But these buddhas, these buddha tathagatas, who just come like a cool breeze, have a wondrous, wonderful way of being and practicing. It is free and limitless in all directions.
These tathagatas “directly transmit inconceivable dharma and actualize supreme, perfect enlightenment.” So they are always passing on this teaching of freedom that is literally inconceivable. The source of the stickiness of the human realm is that it is conceivable. We can literally conceive of ourselves. We conceive of our condition, we conceive of our desires, and we conceive of our wants and our preconceptions. And because of that, we’re stuck.
The dharma – the teaching, that is always passed on, in their very being, by these different buddhas – is inconceivable. We can’t grasp it with our conceptual mind. They transmit it, they experience it, and it’s perfect.
Only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off.
So there’s a sharing of this wondrous, ineffable, inconceivable way of practice between buddhas. Buddhas pass it on to buddhas, “without veering off” – unerringly. There are no mistakes when a buddha transmits this inconceivable, ineffable way of life, that’s inside of us all the time and all around us all the time. It is always unerring.
Self-fulfilling samadhi is its standard.
I think all of you know the word samadhi. Samadhi is a pre-Buddhist word that means “concentration.” The word actually means “gathering together at one point.” It’s the opposite of dispersion. So meditation is samadhi. The adjective that precedes the word samadhi – self-fulfilling – is a very important term for Dogen. “Self-fulfilling samadhi” is the samadhi, the concentration practice, that Buddha did under the enlightenment tree, when he vowed not to get up until he was awakened. So, in other words, it is the most profound essence of meditation.
Jijuy┼½ zanmai samadhi is the term in Japanese. There are a few other terms throughout his work, Shobogenzo, that Dogen uses to talk about concentration, but this is one of the most important ones. Ji means “self,” ju means “to receive,” and y┼½ means “to use.” Jijuy┼½ zanmai – self-receiving and self-functioning concentration. This means concentration that is absolute and all-inclusive. In other words, “self” here doesn’t mean “me” – like my personality, my sense of separate selfhood. It means my recognition, in the midst of this concentration, that what I am is without limit. That what I am is all-inclusive, and that I can enter into everything right here, within my own feeling-awareness. This self-fulfilling, or self-functioning, all-inclusive awareness is open not only to what is outside, but also to what is inside. Outside/inside actually makes no sense. There’s just open acceptance, functioning of what is, coming and going, moment after moment, without any sense of limitation or desire to hold or push away. So this samadhi, this kind of awareness, is the seal, the standard, the essence of this wondrous dharma, that these buddhas transmit, everywhere, in every moment of space. The essence of that which is being transmitted is this wondrous practice of jijuy┼½ zanmai.
Sitting upright, practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to the unconfined realm of this samadhi.
Everything that Dogen said about transmitting the dharma, buddha to buddha, comes down to jijuy┼½ zanmai – self-fulfilling, self-opening samadhi. The gateway to self-opening samadhi is just this simple thing of sitting upright in zazen.
Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not experienced without realization.
It’s already in each person. This inconceivable, lofty sensibility about our lives that Dogen is speaking of is not something that only the holy are open to. It’s abundant in every creature. It’s our nature. It’s our real nature. We are limitless consciousness. We are inconceivable Buddha realms.
So this is really an important thing. It’s not that we have to make something happen – that we think something is wrong with us, and we’ve got to change that to improve. That’s not the case. We are, each one of us, a manifestation of the perfection of reality. Each one of us is a different locus and a different expression, unique and unrepeatable, an absolutely necessary expression of the perfection of reality. That is the fact. And yet – and yet – if we don’t practice, if we don’t by our intention manifest this, even though it is so, it won’t really appear in the world as it should. So, in other words, it’s a dialectic. We don’t have to make it happen, but unless we release ourselves to it, not only will our own lives not be complete, but we will have prevented reality from fully manifesting itself through our lives.
What Dogen is pointing to here, if you think about the implications of this, is that human beings have an obligation and requirement. That’s why no matter how far away we get from it, we all have some spiritual longing inside of us, because we all know, on some level, that we have this job as human beings. And we have this job not only in relation to ourselves and our own happiness, but in relation to the rest of the world. It’s as if the whole world depends on each one of us to fully be ourselves and fully manifest our practice and our truth. The world depends on each human being to come into his own or her own and manifest this truth, not just for themselves, or their friends, but for the whole world.
So there is a tremendous sense of mission here – a meaningful mission in a human life. And to realize this goal we don’t have to do heroic things, because we already are the goal. All we have to do is release ourselves to it. But that takes intentional effort on our part – not to produce something that isn’t already there, but to simply get out of the way, to get unstuck from ourselves, so we can allow what we are to manifest itself for everyone’s sake. It’s a beautiful thing, don’t you think?
When you let go, it fills your hand – how could it be limited to one or many? When you speak it, it fills your mouth – it is not bounded by length or width.
We think, “This is really great! I’m going to get more of it!” But no. When you let go, you let go of your stickiness; you let go of trying to get anywhere; you let go of trying to be anything; you let go of trying to accomplish anything. It’s not a matter of doing something. Our practice is not a matter of accomplishment or doing – a skill or talent. It’s just the opposite – a matter of releasing, opening, letting go, of what’s inside, everywhere, all around – gone.
All buddhas continuously abide in it, but do not leave traces of consciousness in their illumination.
Although the buddhas are constantly abiding in it, and their whole existence is illumination, they don’t see this samadhi or anything else as an object. Consciousness here implies consciousness of something. The buddhas are not sitting around thinking, “Gee, I’m in jijuy┼½ zanmai. This liberation is great stuff, don’t you think?” Because there is no such thing. There are no objects of consciousness called jijuy┼½ zanmai or liberation. There is only lightness of being, the brightness of being, which doesn’t appear as an object. Any time there is an object, it is already sticky. Objects only exist in close quarters and sticky situations. When we see that all the doors and windows are open and things are appearing and disappearing, then there’s a free flow of awareness and oscillation of consciousness, without any sense of stickiness.
All buddhas continuously abide in it, but do not leave traces of consciousness in their illumination. Sentient beingscontinuously move about in it, but illumination is not manifest in their consciousness.
So the buddhas are in this consciousness all the time, and their world is light, without any hard and sticky objects. The sentient beings are also in it all the time, just like the buddhas. Ontologically, there is no difference between sentient beings and buddhas. The only difference is that the sentient beings have all these sticky objects going on in their lives, without the light. In the buddhas’ world, there are oscillations of light and no objects. In the sentient beings’ world there is no light; there are only sticky, heavy objects.
The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of allows all things to come forth in enlightenment and practice, all-inclusiveness with detachment.
So, this particular view of zazen allows everything that happens, on every moment, to come forth as enlightenment and practice. We don’t think, “I’m in the retreat, and now I’m practicing. The retreat is over, and now practice is over. I had a moment of enlightenment, and now it’s over, and I am back to normal again.” Every moment is an opportunity for practice. Every moment is a manifestation of enlightenment. That’s how the world appears, by virtue of practicing this way of zazen. He says that this is the way of “all-inclusiveness with detachment.” All-inclusiveness is the opposite of detachment. Detachment is removed. Inclusiveness is intimacy. So in this samadhi there is an intimacy with the whole universe, and yet there is spaciousness – the kind of spaciousness that we associate with detachment.
So these are the first few paragraphs of Bendowa. They express in detail, with lots of jargon and terminology, what I was saying in the beginning: Dogen’s lofty sense of zazen practice. But please don’t be intimidated or confused by this expression of Dogen’s, because I think that with all these complicated words, he is talking about something that is really very simple. In a way you could say that what all this amounts to is that zazen is just returning to our self, returning to the simplicity of being alive. That’s really what it comes down to in the end. Without anything extra, without all our complications, without adding anything extra – just to sit with no effort, and just to appreciate the feeling of being alive, that we share with everything that is. That’s all there is to it. And when we do that, when we allow ourselves that, there’s a tremendous healing power in it. And that really does transform our lives. There’s a kind of faith one has in that. That’s really so.