Rohatsu Sesshin Talk Number 6
by Josho Pat Phelan
For Eihei Dogen the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation, was the
very essence of Buddhism. According to Carl Bielefeldt who wrote
Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, Dogen considered that zazen, when
rightly practiced, was itself enlightenment or the activity of
Buddhahood. The catch, of course, is "when rightly practiced."
For Dogen, zazen was the direct realization of the enlightened Buddha
mind within us all. In China, Buddhism was and is more inclusive than
Buddhist practice in Japan, and monks in China incorporate practices
from the different Buddhist traditions, including Pure Land, Ten’tai,
and Hwa Yen. But the Ts’ao Tung or Soto Zen tradition in China tended to
set aside these different methods of practice and the kind of
hierarchical stages sometimes associated with them, so that practice in
the Soto Zen tradition was reduced to the single practice of zazen.
When he was practicing in China, Dogen felt that there were two ways
that zazen was often misunderstood. One way was the idea that zazen was
a concentration device for calming and focusing the mind; and the other
way was the idea that zazen was a technique only needed by beginners
until the practitioner realized that everything one does is Zen, i.e.
walking, standing, working, everything is Zen, so the separate practice
of zazen was no longer necessary. In the "Fukanzazengi," Dogen wrote, The zazen I speak of is not
learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma-gate of repose and bliss,
the practice realization of totally culminated enlightenment. The
phrase, "learning meditation" refers to the Sanskirt word
dhyana which is Right Concentration or Meditation of the Eight-fold
Path and in the Three Trainings, it is the cultivation of meditative
concentration. Traditionally, Buddhist cultivation is divided into the
Three Trainings, beginning with the practice of morality or right
conduct which is expressed through the precepts. Through wholesome
conduct, one’s mind becomes calm enough to meditate, and through
meditation, one-pointed concentration is developed. And meditative
concentration sets the stage for wisdom through personally tasting the
Truth oneself – knowing how it is expressed through one’s own
When he was practicing in China, Dogen felt that there were two ways that zazen was often misunderstood. One way was the idea that zazen was a concentration device for calming and focusing the mind; and the other way was the idea that zazen was a technique only needed by beginners until the practitioner realized that everything one does is Zen, i.e. walking, standing, working, everything is Zen, so the separate practice of zazen was no longer necessary.
In the "Fukanzazengi," Dogen wrote, The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice realization of totally culminated enlightenment. The phrase, "learning meditation" refers to the Sanskirt word dhyana which is Right Concentration or Meditation of the Eight-fold Path and in the Three Trainings, it is the cultivation of meditative concentration. Traditionally, Buddhist cultivation is divided into the Three Trainings, beginning with the practice of morality or right conduct which is expressed through the precepts. Through wholesome conduct, one’s mind becomes calm enough to meditate, and through meditation, one-pointed concentration is developed. And meditative concentration sets the stage for wisdom through personally tasting the Truth oneself – knowing how it is expressed through one’s own experience.
Dogen’s zazen or shikantaza is not cultivating meditation, it’s
not step-by-step meditation whereby one does a particular meditation
practice, and then graduates to a more difficult practice or more subtle
level of consciousness, slowly perfecting techniques and purifying one’s
karma. In zazen, the instructions given to a beginner and those given to
an experienced practitioner are pretty much the same. Bielefeldt said
that for Dogen, "zazen was not merely a... device for producing a
perfected state of enlightenment, but the expression of a more
fundamental perfection inherent in all things. In this way, the practice
of zazen itself becomes the actualization of the ultimate truth; and the
practitioner, just as he or she is, becomes the embodiment of perfect
enlightenment." And at any point in practice, Dogen considered a moment
of true zazen to be a moment of Buddha or realization. I think this sets
zazen practice apart from most other forms of meditation.
Next Dogen wrote, It [or zazen] is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. The phrase, manifestation of ultimate reality is also translated as "actualizing the fundamental point" which is genjokoan in Japanese. Harada Roshi said that "traps and snares" are a "condition in which you are bound by something you can’t see, like karma, for example." "Traps and snares" are also considered to be discriminative thinking and everything related to it which trap the living, dynamic world by conceptualizing it and through which we end up being ensnared.
Dogen continued, Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when she gains the water, like the tiger when he enters the mountain. In Asian culture, dragons are wonderful water dwelling creatures who bring good fortune. When a dragon enters the water and a tiger enters the mountain, they are in their true element. Likewise we enjoy our Original Nature, our true element, when we are totally engaged in zazen. Next, For you must know that just there in zazen the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that from the first dullness and distraction are struck aside. "Dullness"is the near-enemy of zazen which has no particular content or object. It refers to dull, lethargic, sleepy states of mind, and sometimes it is like a "gray zone," while distraction means getting caught up in our thinking, wandering endlessly away.
When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. Our bearing and comportment are an extension of our state of mind. There is no need to hurry away from this moment. Out of the stillness of zazen, we begin moving, slowly rocking from side to side and then stand up. This is an opportunity to maintain a connection with our inner stillness and balance as we go on to the next thing whether it is walking meditation, service or leaving the zendo.
Dogen continued, In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength [of zazen]. There are a number of stories of Chinese and Japanese Zen Masters who, when they felt they were about to die, bathed and put on fresh robes, took the zazen position and passed away. In Zen lore, Bodhidharma, and the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Zen ancestors in China died this way, and it’s said that the Third Ancestor, Kanchi Sosan who wrote the Hsin Hsin Ming, died while standing under a large tree. I think the idea of "transcending both unenlightenment and enlightenment" is the hallmark of Buddhism. It is pretty easy to see why attaching to unenlightenment would be an obstacle to liberation; but attaching to practice and even to our breakthroughs, create separation and makes something unsubstantial seem substantial. In Buddhism, the practice is to let go, including letting our insights, understanding and nondual experience – we let everything go. Holding on means holding on to our conceptualizations about experience since there is no way we can hold onto actual, living reality. In Buddhism, true liberation includes freedom from both unenlightenment or, we might say, duality, as well as enlightenment or non-duality.
Then Dogen wrote, In addition, the bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout, cannot be fully understood by discriminative thinking. In this section Dogen gave a list of things which played a role in several different enlightenment stories. First, a "finger" refers to Gutei. Whenever he was asked about Zen, Master Gutei simply held up one finger and offered no other teaching. There was a boy living at Gutei’s temple who, each time he was asked by someone about a matter, held up one finger. When Gutei found out, he said to the boy, "I heard that you understand the essential doctrine. Is that so?" The boy said, "yes." Gutei then asked, "What is Buddha?" The boy held up one finger. Gutei grabbed the boy and cut off his finger. As the boy ran out of the room, Gutei called after him. When the boy turned his head, Gutei asked, "What is Buddha?" The boy held up his hand but his finger was gone so there was nothing there, and the boy instantly awakened.
If you find this story distasteful, don’t take it literally. It illustrates that whatever we use to stand on or to explain reality to ourselves, eventually will be taken away, if we continue to practice. With nothing to stand on, explanations and beliefs are no longer needed – direct experience is enough. When the time is right, when the practitioner is well-grounded in practice, pulling the rug out from under them can be effective and constructive. Or it can be that just taking away a small straw will provide an opening to vast spaciousness.
Next in the list, "a banner" refers to Ananda’s enlightenment story. Ananda was the Buddha’s first cousin and became his attendant for the last twenty-five years of Buddha’s life. Both Ananda and Kasyapa were disciples of Buddha, but in Zen lore Kasyapa became Shakyamuni Buddha’s dharma successor, whereas Ananda didn’t realize enlightenment until after Buddha’s death when he was practicing with Kasyapa. Ananda’s enlightenment story goes, One day Ananda asked Kasapya, "Elder brother, did the World-Honored One (or Buddha), transmit anything else to you besides the gold brocade robe?" Kasyapa, knowing the time was right, called out, "Ananda!" And like a valley spirit echoing in response to a call, Ananda immediately replied, "Yes!" Like a spark issuing from a flint. Kasyapa said, "Knock down the banner in front of the gate." Ananda was greatly awakened.
In India at that time, when two religious or philosophical groups debated, both sides put up a banner; when one side was defeated, their banner was taken down. The commentary says, it’s as if Kasyapa and Ananda had lined up for debate and set up their banners next to each other, since now Ananda was appearing in the world, Kasyapa should fold up his banner – one appearing, one disappearing. But this story is not about debating or winning and losing. When Kasyapa instructed Ananda to take down the banner, Ananda was greatly enlightened because master and disciple had become one in the Way, so they no longer needed two banners. This is a story from the Transmission of the Light which is a collection of the enlightenment stories of the ancestors in our lineage collected by Keizan.
The next story, about a "needle," refers to the enlightenment story of Kanadeva which is also from the Transmission of the Light. When Kanadeva met Nagarjuna, he hoped to become his disciple. At their first meeting, Nagarjuna knew that Kanadeva was a person of great wisdom. Nagarjuna sent his assistant for a bowl full of water and had it placed before Kanadeva. When Kanadeva saw it, he thrust a needle into the bowl of water and presented it to Nagarjuna. They met each other and joyfully realized that they were of like minds. Nagarjuna accepted Kanadeva as a disciple and eventually he become Nagarjuna’s Dharma successor. Both of these stories present a quiet, intimate meeting.
"A mallet" refers to the first case of the Shoyoroku, or Book of Equanimity, which is a Soto Zen koan collection. One day the World Honored One, or Buddha, ascended the seat or teaching platform. When Buddha took his place, Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, struck the gavel and said, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus." Then without saying anything, the World Honored One got down from the seat, and that’s the end of the story. It was the custom at the opening of the teaching hall to strike the gavel and announce this verse the way we chant before a Dharma talk. Except that after the verse was said, Buddha got down and walked out without saying anything. In this case, the teaching is in what was not said.
Dogen gave another list of four elements that helped stimulate realization. A "hossu" is a ceremonial whisk which was also used to shoo flies without hurting them. The hossu refers to Tozan Ryokai’s exchange with Ungan Donjo. Tozan was on a pilgrimage visiting different teachers. When he visited Master Ungan, he asked, "When the inanimate preaches the Dharma, who can hear it?" Ungan said, "The inanimate can hear it." Tozan asked, "Can you hear it?" Ungan said, "If I could hear it, then you would not be able to hear me teach the Dharma." Tozan persisted, "Why can’t I hear it?" Ungan raised his whisk or hossu and said, "Can you hear it?" Tozan said, "No, I can’t." Ungan responded, "You cannot even hear it when I expound the Dharma. How do you expect to hear when a non-sentient being expounds the Dharma?" Tozan then asked which sutra teaches that non-sentient beings expound the Dharma. And Ungan said, "The Amitaba Sutra says "water, birds, tree groves, all without exception recite the Buddha’s name, recite the Dharma." This was a turning point for Tozan, he had his first realization.
I’m not sure what a "fist" and a "staff" refer to. "A shout" referred to Master Lin-chi or Rinzai who was known for his shout, which helped many of his disciples awaken. In Chinese, the shout is "Ho’ and in Japanese it is "Katsu" or "Kwatz." All of these references are to stories in which practitioners were pushed beyond conceptual experience. Not only did they go beyond conceptualization and discrimination, they also went beyond supernatural powers.
Next Dogen said, Indeed, it [liberation] cannot be fully known by the practicing or realizing of supernatural powers either. It must be deportment beyond hearing and seeing – is it not a principle that is prior to knowledge and perceptions? In Buddhism, supernatural powers or paranormal abilities sometimes accompany spiritual attainment. These are abilities like being able to see everywhere without obstruction; hearing any sound, near or far; being able to transport oneself through solid objects; knowing other’s thoughts; the ability to remember past lives in detail; and so on. I can imagine yogis and ascetics in ancient India with these abilities, but the historical Buddha emphasized that these powers do not lead to liberation, and in fact they can be a hindrance because it is so easy to become intoxicated and attached to them. So, developing supernatural powers can lead us away from waking up.
Dogen wrote a fascicle Jinzu which is translated as Miracles or Spiritual Powers in which he referred to the six supernatural powers mentioned above as small powers or minor miracles. He considered the six major miracles of a buddha to be entering forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, and objects of mind and not being confused by them. Dogen said, "A buddha practices miracles that are grounded on the earth." He cited the 8th century Buddhist practitioner, Layman Pang who studied with Ma-Tsu. Layman Pang said "Miracles are nothing other than the everyday activities of fetching water and carrying firewood." Dogen commented, "Those who practice this are all miracle buddhas." "Not abiding in these miracles is called ‘going beyond miracles.’ A Bodhisattva who goes beyond miracles does not leave traces. This is a person going beyond buddha." Going beyond Buddha is neither being attached to enlightenment or unenlightenment, moving freely between the conventional world and Ultimate Reality.
I would like to end today by reading a passage by Kaz Tanahashi in Enlightenment Unfolds. He wrote, "Nirvana is regarded as the realm of nonduality, where there is no distinction between large and small.... self and other. It may be called reality itself.... To experience this ... in the midst of the passage of time, change, and decay, is a miracle." He said, "For Dogen, this miracle can happen each moment, as each moment of duality is inseparable from a moment of nonduality. Duality and nonduality, change and no-change, relative and absolute, coexist and interact with each other. Dogen calls the experience of this dynamic ‘actualizing the fundamental point.’" In Zen, miracles are nothing other than drawing water and carrying firewood, when we realize – really realize – each moment of samsara as inseparable from a moment of nirvana.
© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan 2010