Talks on the Fukanzazengi by
Eihei Dogen Zenji:

Universal Guidelines
for the Practice
of Zazen

Part I

In one of Dogen's early teachings, Bendowa or Wholehearted Practice, he wrote, "In the buddha-dharma, practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner's wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice....[this practice] is the directly indicated original enlightenment." And he continued, "Since it is already the enlightenment of practice, enlightenment is endless; since it is the practice of enlightenment, practice is beginningless." To me, this expresses the oneness of practice and enlightenment which Dogen emphasized. This sesshin I would like to talk about Dogen's teaching of zazen as the practice of enlightenment by looking at the Fukanzazengi.

I want to begin with some background on Dogen's life. Dogen was Japanese and was born in 1200 into an aristocratic ruling family; but when he was two years old, his father died and five years later his mother died. As he sat with his mother's body, he noticed the incense smoke rise and curl and disappear into the air which reminded him of the impermanence of life, and from this deep sense of impermanence, he decided to become a Buddhist monk. Dogen left home and entered a Tendai monastery when he was 13, where his uncle was a priest. As a child, Dogen was unusually precocious. When he was four years old, he read not only Japanese, but classical Chinese poetry; and when he was about nine, he read the 8 volume Abhidharmakosa which is a detailed explication of the philosophical teaching of Buddhist psychology, which he also read in Chinese. I think if he were alive today, he would be considered a child prodigy.

When Dogen was 14, after having practiced in the Tendai monastery for about a year studying both Mahayana and earlier Buddhism, a deep doubt surfaced, "If all people are endowed with Buddha Nature, as the sutras teach, why is it that we have to train so strenuously to realize that Buddha Nature?" His Tendai Buddhist teacher or mentor was unable to satisfy his question, and Dogen was referred to Master Eisai, a Rinzai teacher. Rinzai Zen was brought to Japan from China by Eisai when he returned from studying in China in 1187. Before that there were a couple of earlier Japanese monks who traveled to China and practiced Rinzai Zen but they never established a lineage and their practice died out when they died.

So, Dogen brought his question to Master Eisai, "If all people are endowed with Buddha Nature, as the sutras teach, why do we have to train so strenuously to realize our Buddha Nature?" Eisai answered, "All the Buddhas in the three times (of past, present and future) are unaware that they are endowed with the Buddha Nature, but cats and oxen are well aware of it indeed!" This is taken to meant that Buddhas, precisely because they are Buddhas, no longer think of having or not having Buddha-nature, only the animal-like or grossly deluded think in terms [of acquiring enlightenment]. Upon hearing this, Dogen had his first realization and decided to stay and become Eisai's disciple, but, unfortunately, Eisai died the following year. This story was taken to be history until the last couple of decades; but more recent scholarship hasn't been able to confirm whether or not Dogen actually met Eisai before he died. However, about this time Dogen did begin studying with Eisai's disciple Myozen which he did for nine years, until they both decided to make the dangerous trip to China seeking a mature teacher, when Dogen was twenty-three.

In China, Dogen traveled and practiced in several monasteries with different teachers before finding Rujing or Tendo Nyojo who was to be his main teacher. According to Dogen's diary, one morning when Rujing was circumambulating the zendo, doing the morning greeting at the beginning of zazen, he found a monk dozing. Dogen heard Rujing scolding the dozing monk, saying, "The practice of zazen is the dropping away of body and mind. What do you expect to accomplish by dozing?" We don't know if Rujing was aware of the ripeness of Dogen's mind and was deliberately trying stimulate his realization. Once I heard that when Suzuki Roshi wanted to correct or point something out to one student, sometimes he would say something to a nearby person instead. In any case, when Dogen heard this, he had a realization and went to Rujing's room, and offered incense and bowed. When Rujing asked why he was doing this, Dogen said, "Body and mind have been dropped, that is why I have come!" Rujing approved saying, "Body and mind have been dropped; you have dropped body and mind! But Dogen, maybe thinking that Rujing was being too agreeable said, "Don't give me your sanction so readily" And Rujing said, "I am not sanctioning you so readily." I used to find this role reversal, of Dogen a foreigner (or barbarian) in China, at age twenty-four or twenty-five, scolding his eminent, elderly Chinese teacher for not being strict enough rather strange, and it made me suspicious about whether this exchange actually happened like this. According to Dogen's account, Dogen said, "Show me that you are not sanctioning me too readily." And Rujing approved Dogen's realization saying, "This is body and mind dropped." Whereupon Dogen bowed again. And Rujing added, "That is dropping dropped." In Buddhist practice, not only do we drop delusion, we also let go of realization, leaving us with nothing to attach to or get stuck in, so no trace of realization is left. After this, Dogen continued training with Rujing for two more years. In Zen, practicing with a teacher both before and after realization is considered important for the practitioner to mature.

Recent academic study shows that this exchange between Dogen and Rujing first appeared, not in Dogen's diary from his time in China as had been assumed, but in the book Transmission of the Light, which is a collection of the enlightenment stories of the Buddhas and Ancestors whose names we chant in service. It was written by Dogen's fourth generation successor, Master Keizan Jokin who was born after Dogen died. It looks like this may be a creation of Keizan. Even though it is unlikely that this exchange is historical, I find Keizan's presentation of it encouraging because it is such a good expression of Dogen's teaching of non-duality and "traceless enlightenment;" and it indicates that Keizan understood and was continuing Dogen's teaching. Keizan ended this account with a verse:

Clear as pure light, no inside or outside —
Is there any body or mind to be dropped?

This dialogue was supposed to be the first time Dogen used the phrase shinjin datsuraku which has been translated as, "dropping body and mind," the "falling away of body and mind," "casting off body and mind," "freeing body and mind," and the "sloughing off or shedding of body and mind," and Dogen used it frequently in his teaching. Dainen Katagiri Roshi said that the second character, "datsu" means emancipation or freedom, like a snake shedding it skin. Uchiyama Roshi used the metaphor of opening the hand of thought. He said if we open the hand of thought, the things we make up inside our head fall away, this is the "the falling away of body and mind." But sometimes when people hear this, they imagine some kind of literal, physical metamorphosis in which the body falls apart or disintegrates during enlightenment, but that's not what Dogen meant. Letting go of our conceptualizations, or conceptualized world, is how we drop the idea of a separate body and mind. What is being dropped is separation. When we let go of our boundaries or the artificial separation created by discriminating consciousness, this is the falling away of the boundaries of our own body and mind as well as the perceived boundaries of others, and we are left with our direct, unmediated experience.

Issho Fujita talks about "casting off body and Mind' as a way to talk about "being freed by means of zazen from the individual, private, limited body and mind that each person holds onto" and instead "becoming the universal, ... infinite reality experientially." And the experience of this is what is most important.

In a later meeting, Dogen asked Rujing, "What is the mind of a bodhisattva?" Rujing replied, "It is soft, flexible mind." Dogen asked, "What is soft, flexible mind?" Rujing replied, "It is the willingness to let go of body and mind." Shohaku Okumura Roshi said that we grasp ourselves or define ourselves through categories such as rich or poor, capable, incompetent, being a parent, and so on. He said, "These are the selves created by karma. When we sit in zazen and let go, all these self images are ungrasped....all these concepts drop off. Our body and mind are released from karmic bonds. This is what datsuraku means."

Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 to teach what he considered the "true Buddhism" that he had learned from Rujing. As a symbol of his recognition of Dogen's realization and entrustment of the teaching to Dogen, Rujing gave Dogen his teacher's okesa or ordination robe, copies of Soto texts including "Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi" by Tozan, and a portrait of himself. Rujing died less than a year after Dogen returned to Japan.

Japanese Soto Zen is considered to have begun when Dogen returned to Japan. Soon after his return, Dogen began writing the "Fukanzazengi" which is the most cherished text in Soto Zen, and it comes close to being treated as a sutra. Even though this teaching is fairly short, it is considered a Soto Zen meditation manual, and Dogen considered it important enough to continue working on for almost twenty-six years until it reached the form we now have.

Carl Bielefeldt, a Dogen scholar, was a student of Suzuki Roshi and sat sesshins with Uchiyama Roshi when he did research in Japan. Bielefeldt wrote, Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation where he examined the "Fukanazazengi." Bielefeldt said that for Dogen, "... zazen was the very essence of Buddhist religion." And "He considered zazen, when rightly practiced, the direct realization of the enlightened Buddha mind within us all."

The "Fukanzazengi" begins with a phrase that was commonly used as a formal opening in Buddhist writings, but which is usually not included in English translations, "After searching exhaustively, he came to realize that...." Maezumi Roshi translated the first sentence as, "After a thorough search for the truth, Dogen Zenji came to the realization that the very essence of the Way is basically perfect and all pervading." We could say, "After searching exhaustively, he came to realize that the Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is free and untrammeled. What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the Whole Body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?"

Dogen began the text with four questions that restate his own original doubt, "if enlightened mind is inherent, why do we have to work so hard to realize it?" but he offers no answer. These opening questions, have several references to earlier Zen literature. In the first, the word "Way" means original awakening, enlightenment, or Reality, and so the first line means, "Reality is fundamentally perfect and complete, unhindered and all-pervading." How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? Katagiri Roshi brought another nuance to this line. He said, "the Way is the origin of existence" or truth itself. So, we could say that "the origin of existence or truth is basically perfect and all pervading..." This refers to a story about Nangaku Ejo or Huairang who was a dharma heir of Huineng or Daikan Eno Daiosho, the sixth Zen ancestor in China.

After Huairang had been practicing for some time, and his practice was fairly mature, he met Huineng. Huineng asked, "Where are you from?" Huairang replied, "From Mt. Song"" Huineng asked, "Who is it that thus comes?" (referring to original nature.) But Huairang didn't have a response, and he continued practicing for eight more years. One day he had an insightinto this and went to Huineng to respond to the question, "Who is it that thus comes?" saying, "Speaking about it won't hit the mark." (or any explanation misses it.) Huineng then asked, "If so, is there practice and enlightenment?" Or "Is original nature contingent upon practice and realization? And Huairang replied, "It is not that there is no practice and realization, it's just that they cannot be defiled." In Zen the word "defiled" refers to duality, so this is saying that practice and enlightenment aren't stained by dualistic separation. Huineng had the last word saying, "It's just this non-defilement (or non-duality of practice and enlightenment) that all buddha ancestors maintain." Then he added, "You are like this and I am like this," confirming their mutual understanding.

Original nature — the awakened quality of mind — does not increase or improve with practice, nor is it diminished by our ignorance or lack of practice. Original Nature itself is not dependent upon practice — our awareness of original nature may be strengthened by practice, but the truth of reality, or original nature itself, isn't changed by practice. Dogen's teaching of the non-dual nature of practice and realization is based on this story, and he comments on it in Bendowa saying, "You should know that in order not to defile realization, which is inseparable from practice, Buddha ancestors always caution not to be slack in your practice. If you release the inconceivable practice, the original realization fills your hands; if you become free from the original realization, the inconceivable practice is upheld with your whole body."

Returning to "Fukanzazengi," Dogen's third question was, Indeed, the Whole Body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? "The Whole Body" means the Whole Body of reality. "The world's dust" refers to delusion, or discriminating consciousness, as well as anything that leads us to the experience of feeling separate. This also refers to a story about Huineng and how he came to be the dharma heir of the 5th Ancestor, Hongren or Daiman Konin Daiosho. This story is found in the Platform Sutra. The legend is presented as an autobiography and begins with Huineng, who was a layman from Southern China which was considered far away from the center of civilization. His father died when he was a child, and Huineng supported himself and his mother by gathering and selling firewood. One day when he was at the market place, he had realization when he heard a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra, "A bodhisattva should develop a pure, lucid mind that doesn't depend upon sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell, or on any thought that arises in it. A bodhisattva should develop a mind that functions freely, without depending on any thing or any place." In the Diamond Sutra, this is referred to as an "unsupported thought." When he asked the monk where he had gotten this sutra, he was told, from the 5th Ancestor, Hongren, living on the East Mountain. Huineng is described as a poor, illiterate peasant, who, when having heard the Diamond Sutra, was so moved that he walked to the East Mountain to meet the 5th Ancestor.

When Huineng arrived at the monastery, the 5th Ancestor asked him, "What do you want?" and Huineng replied, "I want to be Buddha." The 5th Ancestor asked, "How could someone like you (an illiterate peasant) from the south become a Buddha?" Hui Neng replied, "There may be north and south among people, but there's no north and south in Buddha nature." The 5th Ancestor knew from this that Huineng was a "vessel of the Dharma," but he didn't tell Huineng, "Now you should get ordained and practice Zen with me." Instead he sent Huineng out in back of the monastery to work with the peasant workers husking rice.

The story continues with the 5th Ancestor deciding to retire and needing to choose a successor. So, he called his monks together and asked each of them to write a poem that expressed their understanding of Zen so he could choose his Dharma Heir based on the insight of the poem. The head monk of the monastery had been studying with the 5th Ancestor for a long time and all the monks looked up to him as the obvious heir. So the other monks didn't even try to write a poem. But the head monk was not so confident, so he wrote his poem on a wall during the night without signing it. His poem was, "The body is the bodhi tree, The mind a bright mirror standing. Constantly strive to brush it clean, not allowing dust to collect."

This poem also contains a number of references. The word "bodhi" means awakening or enlightenment, and the tree that Buddha was sitting under when he awakened was later called a Bodhi Tree. "The body is the bodhi tree" means that this very body, our own body is the place of enlightenment. "The mind is like a bright mirror" refers to the clear, reflective quality of an awakened mind which sees things as they really are without the distortions of our hopes and fears and individual conditioning, and this infers that our own mind is the enlightened mind of Buddha. "At all times we must strive to brush it clean or polish it, so dust cannot collect," describes the work of practice as striving to keep the mind clear, free of delusion and distraction.

According to the legend when the 5th Ancestor saw the poem, he told everyone that it was pretty good and asked the monks to memorize it and put it into practice, but the story goes that secretly he had doubts. Huineng, while in the kitchen storeroom, heard a monk reciting the poem and asked the monk if he would take him to the wall where the poem was written so he could pay homage to it. When they got to the wall, Huineng, who was illiterate, asked the monk if he would write a poem for him to commemorate the head monk's poem. Huineng's poem was, "Originally Bodhi is not a tree, The mirror also has no stand, Buddha Nature is always pure and shining, Where is there any room for dust?" "Originally Bodhi is not a tree" means that enlightenment has no fixed point or location. "The mirror has no stand" means that the clear, reflective quality of awakened consciousness is neither contained by a frame nor dependent upon anything for support. "Buddha Nature is always pure and shining" means that from the beginning, Original Nature is undefiled or non-dual, how could the dust of delusion effect it?

When the 5th Ancestor read Huineng's poem, he had it painted over, and he went to Huineng in the kitchen storeroom and gave him a signal to come see him in the middle of the night. Because of the hierarchy within the monastic community which Huineng was at the very bottom of, the 5th Ancestor arranged a secret meeting with Huineng when everyone else was asleep. Huineng received Dharma Transmission, and he was given the robe and bowl of Bodhidharma. The 5th Ancestor then told Huineng to hide in the mountains, in anticipation of an uprising among the other monks when they found out. According to the story, the 5th Ancestor rowed Huineng across the river to the other shore where he could hide in the mountains, echoing the Bodhisattva who sometimes is depicted as rowing beings to the "other shore of nirvana." Huineng then lived by himself practicing in the mountains for fifteen years before he began teaching and was finally ordained.

The answer to Dogen's doubt took shape as, because we are already Buddha, or because consciousness is fundamentally awake and boundless, practice is not a technique or method of cultivating enlightenment, rather it is a manifestation or embodiment of the awakened quality of consciousness. Furthermore, it's not even we who do the practice, but the Buddha we already are who practices. In this way, realization is the practice of non-dual effort, not the result or accumulation of earlier practice.

Dogen wrote, "Realization, neither general nor particular, is effort without desire."

© 2020 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan