56 - Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion
58 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 2: Inconceivable Dharma, Practice, and Realization

Zen master Dogen wrote Bendowa in 1231 to introduce his Japanese students to Soto Zen. In a sense, then, it’s “Soto Zen in a nutshell.” In this episode I introduce the text and the context in which it was written, and talk about how and why Dogen recommends zazen – seated meditation – above all other Buddhist practices. I also talk about how Soto Zen elevates zazen far above a mere method for achieving awakening to enactment of enlightenment itself.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Bendowa as “Soto Zen in a Nutshell”
Zazen as the Front Gate of the Buddhadharma
Elevation of Zazen to an Enactment of Enlightenment
How Can You Attain Enlightenment by Sitting Uselessly, Doing Nothing?
Source

 

Today’s episode is on Zen master Dogen’s essay “Bendowa” and its emphasis on zazen as the “front gate” of the buddhadharma. In this episode and next week’s, I’ll cover the main body of the text and its first three sets of questions-and-answers. (I’ll leave the subsequent 15 questions for future episodes.) Rather than take you through the text line by line the way I’m usually inclined to, I’m going to start by giving you the context for when and why Dogen composed Bendowa as a short introduction to the essentials of Soto Zen, because it highlights the essay’s significance and explains its structure. Then I’ll focus on the first and central point Dogen makes: that zazen is not only central in the form of practice he’s teaching, it’s really all you need. Next week I’ll talk about two other important teachings he offers in this first part of Bendowa, including the ubiquitous and unconditioned nature of the “inconceivable dharma,” and the importance of practice in allowing us to actualize and experience it.

Any Bendowa quotations I use are from a version translated by Lew Richmond and Kazuaki Tanahashi, which can be found in the book Moon in a Dewdrop. If you’d like to read Bendowa, you can also find translations online – just type Bendowa into your search engine.

Bendowa as “Soto Zen in a Nutshell”

The author of “Bendowa” is the 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk named Eihei Dogen who traveled to China to search for the true Dharma. He’d had Buddhist teachers in Japan and was obviously dedicated to the Dharma, but he had deep spiritual questions that were still unanswered. In China, Dogen discovered a teacher, Rujing, who emphasized zazen above all else. While studying with Rujing for 2-3 years, Dogen found the resolution to his personal koan. He then traveled back to Japan to share what he had learned, and although he generally eschewed sectarianism, we call the school of Zen that descends from him “Soto.”

Three years after his return from China, Dogen still hadn’t established a monastery. In Bendowa, he explains how he hoped to spread the teaching he received in China and thereby save sentient beings, but he was waiting until the time was ripe. In the meantime, however, some students, lay and monastic, had begun to gather around him and ask for his teaching. In response, Dogen composed Bendowa, or “On the Endeavor of the Way,” in 1231, saying, “I wish to leave for students of the way the teaching of the buddha’s house. This is indeed the essence.”[1]

So Bendowa is, more or less, Dogen introducing Japanese students of Buddhism to Soto Zen in a nutshell. The first quarter or so of the text is the Zen master’s treatise, a fair portion of which establishes the legitimacy of the Zen lineage tradition he is teaching in the traditional Chinese Chan manner. He does this by stating where and with whom he studied and explaining how this lineage traces its origin back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself.

The rest of Bendowa is devoted to eighteen sets of questions and answers. Presumably, the questions were either a record of actual exchanges, or a composite of the many questions Dogen received from his students about his new way of teaching and practice. The questions reflect his students’ previous experience of the other sects of Buddhism already established in Japan for centuries (including Tendai, Shingon, Kegon, and sects based on Vinaya adherence or on Yogacara philosophy).

In other words, Dogen’s audience was familiar with Buddhism, just not with Zen or its particular Soto form. Based on the questions he chose to address in Bendowa, some of the main concerns or points of confusion for Dogen’s students included:

  • Did Dogen teach that the nature of mind is permanent, and therefore that it exists after the death of the body?
  • Was is important for a Zen practitioner to follow moral precepts?
  • Was lay practice legitimate and feasible? (That is, did the goal of Zen require someone to become ordained and practice as a monk or nun?)
  • Why is practice necessary at all if, as some forms of Buddhism say, “Mind itself is Buddha?”

Note: most of these questions come later in the text and I won’t be addressing them in detail in this episode.

Zazen as the Front Gate of the Buddhadharma

The most central question Dogen answers with Bendowa, not surprisingly, is why he emphasizes zazen above all else. In other words, why is zazen such a big deal in Soto Zen? None of the existing schools of Buddhism focused so much on seated meditation. (With the possible exception of Rinzai Zen, which was also relatively fresh on the Japanese scene.) Established Buddhist sects were centered around key Buddhist texts, complex systems of Buddhist philosophy, or esoteric ritual. Most of the sects recommended a fairly broad and extensive regime of study, training, and adherence if you wanted to master the rewards of Buddhism. For the most part, you had to get ordained as a Buddhist monastic and devote yourself to practice full-time if you wanted to understand the Buddha Way or achieve enlightenment of any kind.

Many of the existing sects included some kind of meditation, but few of them suggested, as Zen did, that it was essentially the be-all and end-all of Buddhist practice. In the first paragraph of Bendowa, for example, Dogen claims that the truth transmitted through the generations by the buddhas has “self-fulfilling samadhi as its standard.” Samadhi is often translated as concentration, but its meaning is broader than a willful focus of attention – it refers to a settled, grounded, collected mind or way of being. It’s referred to as self-fulfilling at least in part because it’s its own reward. Dogen then says, “Sitting upright, practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to the unconfined realm of this samadhi.” Note that “Zen” means meditation.

Later in the text Dogen states zazen alone is the “front gate” for buddha-dharma because all buddhas of the past, and all ancestors in India and China, have attained the way by doing zazen. He says this because in the Buddhist tradition – at least until modern times – you don’t rally people to your Dharma cause by stating you’ve created something new. Instead, you calmly explain how the superb teaching and practice you’re offering is the essence of what Buddhist masters have been practicing all along, since the time of Shakyamuni.

In Bendowa, Dogen explicitly recommends zazen over all other Buddhist practices, stating that studying sutras, chanting, repeating the Buddha’s name, and so on, are essentially useless. As he lists these practices, it’s implied that any other extant Buddhist practices, such as studying philosophy or performing esoteric rituals, similarly miss the mark. Given how other Buddhist sects emphasize the Vinaya, or strict moral regulations for monastics, Dogen addresses a question about keeping moral precepts and admits morality is “the rule of the Zen Gate and the teaching of buddha ancestors,” but then goes on to state that even those who haven’t received the precepts, or who have broken them, “can still receive the benefit of zazen.” It’s clear to us even today that Dogen’s a big advocate of zazen, but his advocacy seems especially strong when you understand the sectarian overtones of his ballsy dismissal of other core Buddhist practices.

You might think, hearing these words of Dogen, that Soto Zen doesn’t include the practices of studying the teachings and sutras, or chanting, or ritual, or emphasis on precepts – but it does. It’s just that such things are always considered supplementary to practice – useful in their own ways, at times, but not ultimately the way to awaken to the truth of the buddhadharma.

Elevation of Zazen to an Enactment of Enlightenment

On the other hand, the zazen advocated by Dogen and other Soto Zen masters is elevated far beyond a mere method for cultivating calm, insight, or even enlightenment. Instead, it’s portrayed as a sort of enactment or actualization of enlightenment itself. In Bendowa, for example, Dogen writes:

“When even for a moment you express the buddha’s seal in the three actions [of body, speech, and mind] by sitting upright in samadhi, the whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.”

The “buddha’s seal” refers to the characteristic mind, or way of being, of an awakened being, and every person’s experience of it is seen as being fundamentally the same.

Dogen’s description of zazen may sound transcendent or even grandiose: “The whole phenomenal world becomes the buddha’s seal and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.” Surprisingly, however, the actual experience of zazen is grounded and even mundane, but it tends to make such descriptions make a certain kind of sense. Someone’s first taste of expansive awareness or profound stillness may feel remarkable, but ultimately, in the space of zazen, the entire sky turning into enlightenment tends to feel… almost… commonplace. Kind of like, “Oh yeah, look, the whole phenomenal world is part of this same seamless reality.” And we just keep sitting there, breathing. It’s not that such an experience isn’t profound or precious, it’s just that it doesn’t occur in some parallel, rarified spiritual universe, or as a result of getting ourselves all whipped up. It’s just right here, as obvious as whether water is hot or cold when you drink it (to borrow an analogy Dogen uses later in Bendowa).

When trying to describe the reality of zazen, I feel it’s most effective when I return to my own, direct experience of it. I can’t say I’m very good at zazen, even after 20 years of practice. Most of the time I can’t stop thinking about my projects, or cool ways to describe zazen. Still, I absolutely love the practice, and just that is saying something, I think. Not that I love every minute of it – but the moments where everything aligns are so precious as to bring tears to my eyes. When I finally remember I am not “doing” zazen – that zazen is about being, and opening up to what Shunryu Suzuki called, “Things-as-it-is,” – there’s this enormous sense of relief. It’s like being accepted into loving arms, or, as Zen master Keizan put it, “returning home and sitting in peace.” Everything falls into place, and even if my life circumstances are troubling, intimately being with reality just-as-it-is feels like a balm.

How Can You Attain Enlightenment by Sitting Uselessly, Doing Nothing?

The utility and efficacy of zazen defies all logic, because it’s doing nothing at all. This is inevitably frustrating to Zen students who have any spiritual ambitions! The instructions for Soto Zen meditation, or shikantaza, are mind-boggingly simple and vague. The bulk of the instructions are about how to position the body, and then you’re basically told to just sit there, very still. If thoughts come, they just come. You don’t fight them or do anything with them, and they eventually go. That’s it! At the end of Bendowa, Dogen refers his students to his earlier essay, Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen), for explicit zazen instructions. In it, after explaining how to sit in the right posture, he says:

“Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a buddha…” and later, “Think of not thinking. Not thinking – what kind of thinking is that? Nonthinking.”

There you go, essentially the entirety of Soto Zen instructions for its central practice – at least, for what to do with the mind! (Zazen is as much of a body practice as it is a mental practice, so the detailed instructions for posture are just as important, if not more so.) You can probably see, then, why Dogen’s Japanese students asked the following question, as recorded in Bendowa:

“…reading sutras or chanting Buddha’s name of itself must be a cause for enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?”

As someone who’s wrestled with the meaning of zazen, it encourages me to know even Dogen’s students in the 1200’s asked this question. I don’t know a Zen student who hasn’t wondered to themselves, at times, “What am I doing sitting here? At least in Rinzai Zen they do koan introspection, but in Soto we’re just supposed to sit in shikantaza and do nothing at all! How do you even go about that? How do you know if you’re doing it right? If you do it right, does something happen?”

Dogen’s response to his student’s question might sound a little harsh:

“If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great method, is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, you will be one who slanders the Great Vehicle. Your delusion will be deep – like saying there is no water when you are in the middle of the great ocean.”

Part of the whole process of shikantaza, honestly, is to wrestle with the very question of effort, non-effort, achievement, and non-achievement. How do you “give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness” and “stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views” without doing something? How do you do nonthinking when any attempt to approach it involves some kind of thinking? As long as we’re stuck in delusion, attached to our ideas, zazen can seem impossible or pointless, boring or frustrating. But when we just do it, giving up any struggle at all, we instantly know why Dogen says it’s deluded and preposterous to think zazen is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing. A pure moment of being is profound beyond description and tends to bring a tear to the eye.

Read/listen to Bendowa Part 2


Source

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. New York, NY: North Point Press, 1985

[1] Tanahashi pg 144 (all quotes from Bendowa are from Tanahashi)

 

56 - Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion
58 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 2: Inconceivable Dharma, Practice, and Realization
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