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 2 of 3)
Zazen as the essence of Zen practice
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 5, 2001
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
I will continue to ruminate with you on Dogen Zenji’s Bendowa. As you remember, he is giving you a theoretical or metaphysical vision of how he understands zazen – a very lofty, almost inconceivable idea of zazen.
When even for a moment you express the buddha’s seal in the three actions by sitting upright in samadhi, the whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.
That’s nice, isn’t it? So when you sit in zazen, the whole phenomenal world becomes transformed into the authentic Buddha’s teaching. Every bird that flies by is not just a bird flying by; it’s the ultimate teaching of Buddha. Every breath you take, every thought that arises in your mind, becomes transformed into the Buddha’s seal, and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.
Because of this all buddha tathagatas as the original source increase their dharma bliss and renew their magnificence in the awakening of the way.
Your zazen does this. Your zazen transforms the phenomenal world and also increases the joy and wisdom of all the buddhas of the past. So I think that we feel this, and we can cultivate the feeling for the power and the grace of zazen. When we sit in zazen, according to Dogen’s conception of zazen, we’re not just thinking, “I’m going to meditate. It cools me out. It’s good for me. It’s my zazen. I’m going to do zazen now.” Instead, we’re actually slipping into the role of the Buddha, because we have that in us. That’s our birthright as human beings. All human beings have within them the dignified enlightenment of Buddha.
So, in a way, to sit in zazen is to let ourselves go. When we sit in zazen, we leave our self, our phenomenal self, our problems, outside. And even if you really do bring it all in, you’re really not bringing it all in. When I walk into zendos, I don’t see ordinary people. I see lofty buddhas manifesting enlightenment throughout the whole sky. And that does happens. That actually does happen.
Because such broad awakening resonates back to you and helps you inconceivably, you will in zazenunmistakably drop away body and mind.
In other words, you sit in zazen, and the power of your zazen, whether you know it or not, whether you intend it or not, does this. The whole world wakes up, and all the buddhas are increased in their magnificence, and then they bounce that back to you. They bounce that back to you, and it helps you, so you can do zazen. You can do zazen and surpass yourself in zazen because of the help that you are getting from them. The idea is that we’re sitting in zazen to be inconceivably helped by the buddhas. We’re not doing anything. We’re just sitting here and allowing the Buddha to work through us.
That’s also why our practice is really not, I feel, incompatible with theistic understanding, because self and Buddha-hood, self and other, are non-different. So, there’s no problem about God, or something like that. When we sit in zazen, it is just the same as somebody praying. You could say that zazen is a form of faith practice, a form of prayer. This is how Dogen saw it, because zazen is non-dual. Zazen is not something – this and not that. It’s all-inclusive. Zazen, he’s saying, is inconceivable existence itself, and when we sit in zazen, we are manifesting that.
Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles all engage in buddha activity, those who receive thebenefit of wind and water caused by them are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s guidance, splendid and unthinkable, and awaken intimately to themselves. All this, however, does not appear within perception.
Perception, according to the Buddhist analysis of mind, is already confused. The minute we see, hear, taste, touch, or think something, there is already some confusion. In order to have that experience, we already have to reduce the world to an object; therefore, when we reduce the world to an object, we reduce ourselves to a subject, standing over against the object – looking at it, or hearing it, or smelling it, or thinking it. And so, there is already a feeling of loneliness and exile in the very act of perception, in the very beginning. So, therefore, the inconceivable zazen that Dogen is talking about here can’t really be an experience, or something that we could perceive. It’s something that surrounds or illuminates our perceptions. It’s not elsewhere – like a distant God that we can never know.
All this, however, does not appear within perception, because it is unconstructedness in stillness – it is immediate realization.
It is radically unconstructed. It is not put together. It’s free and open, without any boundaries. And it’s still – like space, or like silence. Space and silence can be entered into, but not really objectively perceived. Although without space, there’s nothing, right? Thanks to space, everything exists. Everything that exists is in space and also has space inside of it. We’re in space. We’re taking up space. Thanks to space, we’re in this room. The room is in space, but also, space is in us. If there weren’t space in between the particles of the atoms of our body, there would be no us. And silence is the same way. You can’t hear silence, but without silence, there is no sound.
And then he says, and this is really an important part:
If practice and realization were two things [the practicing toward the goal of realization and achieving realization], as it appears to an ordinary person [like us], then you could recognize practice and realization separately. But what can be met with recognition [in other words, what you can perceive] is not realization itself, because realization is not reached by a deluded mind [a mind that perceives]. In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment; nevertheless, because you are in the state of self-fulfilling samadhi, without disturbing its quality or moving a particle you extend the buddha’s great activity, the incomparably profound and subtle teaching.
Then he says this very famous line:
This being so, the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time.
The zazen of even one person, in one moment, accords through all space and time. This is very reasonable, actually, because thanks to the endless, boundless consciousness of the world, we appear. And it’s only because each one of us taps into that, that we see and hear and experience. All experiences are conscious. It is as if the big, limitless consciousness is squeezed through a little straw, and it pops out, and “Look, what a blue sky!” But what’s really going on is that there is this big consciousness. So when we sit in zazen, what we are really doing is acknowledging that our active life is nothing more than this big consciousness, appearing right here. And so it is literally true. Since there are no boundaries or dimensions to consciousness, when consciousness is right here, and I release myself to it, then I’m beyond space and time.
Sometimes you really feel it, and I think that this feeling, however you call it, or whatever words you put on it, is really religious experience, the religious life. This is why human beings throughout history always had some sensibility around this – some feeling for returning to boundlessness. We are manifestations of that boundlessness, and we forget about that when we are busily running around doing our chores. So we take time and just sit and enter into that. Even though most of the time we can’t really think about it or appreciate it, it is always the case.
Know that even if all the buddhas of the ten directions, as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, exert their strength and with the buddhas’ wisdom try to measure the merit of one person’s zazen, they will not be able to fully comprehend it.
So you’re sitting in zazen, and even the congregation of all the buddhas in every atom of space and time can’t figure out your zazen. You get all these buddhas together, thinking really hard, trying to figure out your zazen – they can’t do it. They would never be able to exhaust the dimensions of your zazen. So that is the kind of zazen Dogen is advocating.
That’s the end of his explanation of zazen. Those of you who looked at the text know that the rest of the Bendowa takes the form of about twenty questions. I don’t know if these are real questions. I don’t know if he delivered this as a talk, and people took notes, and these were real questions, or whether he made them up. I’ll discuss some of the questions that I think are interesting.
The first question says, in effect, “Well, yeah, we heard what you said, but how could it all be reducible to zazen? Why just zazen? Why is zazen the best practice? You seem to be advocating this one practice. There are many practices. Buddhism is full of practices, actually. Myriad practices. So why only zazen?” And Dogen says, “Because this is the front gate for the buddha-dharma.” So then the question, “Why do you think it is the front gate of buddha-dharma?” Dogen says,
The great master Shakyamuni correctly transmitted this splendid method of attaining the way, and tathagatas of the past, future, and present all attain the way by doing zazen. For this reason it has been transmitted as the front gate. Not only that, but also all the ancestors in India and China have attained the way by doing zazen. Thus I now teach this front gate to human beings and devas.
Zazen is a kind of symbolic re-enactment and re-creation of the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment. So when we sit in zazen, we are that. Because the real meaning of the Buddha sitting under the tree of enlightenment is not its historical dimension. There was a historical dimension to it, but more fundamentally, the meaning of the act of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree is that it is the shape of time. It’s the pattern of existence – the awakening of suffering; the awakening of consciousness of suffering, not only for oneself, but also for others; the awakening of the human heart to see that there is suffering; the taking on the burden of that suffering as a responsibility. With that awakening comes the vision that it’s possible to turn that suffering around in a moment. That is actually the shape of time and space – always. So this image of the Buddha seated and our entering that as a symbolic re-creation, re-enactment, is why zazen is important.
However, reading sutras or chanting Buddha’s name of itself must be the cause of enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?
This is very funny, because I have given many talks about the uselessness of zazen. And so Dogen says that if you think zazen is useless, you’re in trouble. You’re deluded deeply.
Then he says, and this is very important:
Now, the realm of all buddhas is inconceivable. It cannot be reached by consciousness. [In other words,by discriminative awareness. You can’t see it as an object.] Much less can those who have no trust, who lack wisdom, know it. Only those who have right trust and great capacity can enter this realm. … Even on the assembly at Vulture Peak, there were those who were told by Shakyamuni Buddha, “You may leave if youwish.” [They didn’t have trust.]
So you could see why trust and faith are so important in this conception of zazen that Dogen is describing. Without trust, you can’t really practice this practice. Now trust does not automatically appear. Trust is developed and nurtured and arises in us. It arises with persistence, I think, with returning to the cushion. My experience, seeing people practice over the years, is that people do develop trust over time. They develop trust in zazen. They might not use the extravagant language that Dogen is using here, but people do develop, over time, that kind of patient trust in zazen. It’s interesting that zazen both is and isn’t the literal practice of upright sitting. To trust the practice of zazen is to trust consciousness itself. It’s really to trust life – to have a feeling of trust in your life. So the important point that I am emphasizing here is the necessity of trust for our practice. And then it says:
When right trust arises, you can practice and study. If not, you may wait for awhile and regret that you have not received the benefaction of dharma from the past.
So if you don’t have trust, it doesn’t mean that you have to leave. You can continue to practice and wait until eventually the benefaction of the past will emerge in your life, and trust will arise. The essence of the practice is the entering into the right here, fully, with trust. It doesn’t need to be complicated. We don’t need to be experts or accumulate a lot of merit. So when he is talking about zazen, he is talking about that essential moment of the Buddha’s awakening, which is really enacted on every moment of time and space, and especially activated in this world by our doing practice.
Question seven asks whether somebody who realizes the dharma, do they still have to do the practice. Aren’t they beyond that now? Can’t they go on to other things?
To suppose that practice and realization are not one is nothing but a heretical view. [Because in buddha- dharma, practice and realization are absolutely inseparable. There is no such thing as having one without the other.] Therefore, when we give instructions for practicing, we say that you should not have any expectation of realization outside of practice.
In other words, don’t expect something to happen in the future. Just practice. That is the realization. The realization is doing the practice. It is the trust, the devotion, and the happiness that arise in your heart as a result of doing the practice. Not something extra that is going to happen afterward, because, as Dogen says, “This is the immediate, original realization. Because this is the realization of practice, there is no boundary in the realization.” Experiences are things that are always bound. Specific experiences. So there is no boundary like that. There is no limited experience and there is no limited person who realizes that experience. There is just the boundless moment of practice.