57 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 1: What's the Big Deal about Zazen?
59 - Buddha's Teachings Part 6: The Three Poisons as the Root of All Evil

This episode is the second of two on the first part of “Bendowa,” Zen master Dogen’s “Soto Zen in a Nutshell.” I discuss two more important subjects in Bendowa: The ubiquitous and unconditioned nature of the “inconceivable dharma,” and the importance of practice in allowing us to actualize and experience it.

Read/listen to Bendowa Part 1

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Inconceivable Dharma Is Always Here
Different Levels of Reality
Why Is Practice Necessary? 1) Realizing for Ourselves
Why Is Practice Necessary? 2) Making It Real
Wait… No Difference Between the Ineffable and Enlightenment?
Conclusion
Source

 

This episode is the second of two on the first part of Zen master Dogen’s essay “Bendowa.” As I discussed last week, Bendowa is Dogen’s “Soto Zen in a Nutshell.” He composed it for his students in 1231, a few years after returned from his studies in China, in order to introduce the Soto tradition to Japan. The essay is composed of a main text followed by 18 sets of questions and answers, and last week’s episode focused on the Soto emphasis on zazen – particularly shikantaza, or “just sitting” – as the “front gate” to the buddhadharma. This week I’ll cover two other important subjects Dogen covers in Bendowa: The ubiquitous and unconditioned nature of the “inconceivable dharma,” and the importance of practice in allowing us to actualize and experience it. There is much more to Bendowa – this really only takes us as far as the first three sets of questions and answers – so I’ll turn to other topics next week and return to Bendowa at a later date.

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.

The Inconceivable Dharma Is Always Here

One of Dogen’s key teachings in Bendowa – and therefore, in his view, an essential aspect of Soto Zen – is that the inconceivable dharma is always present. Before I get to how it’s always present, what is the “inconceivable dharmaDogen refers to multiple times in this essay? It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to define or describe; after all, it’s “inconceivable!” In this case “dharma” refers to reality or truth, and particularly to the profound and enlightening truth to which buddhas awaken.

Although it’s beyond words, let me once again take a stab at putting words to it: The inconceivable dharma is what we taste in a moment of pure being. It’s a reality that spiritual mystics throughout time have awakened to, and it goes by many names. In Bendowa alone, Dogen calls it enlightenment, realization, “all-inclusiveness with detachment,” and “the buddha’s seal.” You might call it the divine, or unity, and in my podcast episode on this subject I used a term from another of Dogen’s essays, “Inmo,” or the Ineffable. Words can only dance around reality, especially a reality this vast. So, if you try to grasp intellectually what the point of Zen or zazen is, it will elude you. At the same time, although It can never be pinned down, all beings have a sense of It, and a longing for It. When we taste this inconceivable dharma, everything somehow has a rightful place.

The point Dogen makes in Bendowa, and the point that’s central to Soto Zen in general, is that the inconceivable dharma is all around you, within you, operating through you, and is you. You’re as close to It as a fish is to water – and therefore you can be oblivious to It, because It’s so all-pervasive.

We tend to think the Ineffable is something separate from our everyday existence: A special experience or viewpoint or understanding, a reality ordinarily hidden behind a screen that we might be able to access by breaking through the screen with effort. Or we conceive of it as a perfected way of being we might achieve after ridding ourselves of all defilements. In contrast, Dogen’s telling us it’s not like that at all. In fact, personal striving is so irrelevant to the whole equation that even inanimate objects have what it is we so long for. In Bendowa he says, “earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles all engage in buddha activity,” and not only that! “Grass, trees, and lands which are embraced by this teaching together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable, profound dharma.” It’s not only that grasses, trees and the like are practicing, they’ve got the essence of the buddhadharma and are actually teaching it.

Different Levels of Reality

What does this mean? If I try to explain it, it’s only more inadequate words dancing around the words of a Zen master revered as one of the greatest philosophers ever. What more can be said? But just in case it helps, I’ll put this in everyday language: At this moment, you’re in a particular place – let’s say, in your car, or walking on a street near your house, or sitting in a chair. If someone asks you where you are, you might also refer to what city or area you’re in. It depends on who you’re talking to, but you’re unlikely to mention what country you’re in, or what continent you’re on. I doubt you’ll say, “I’m on the planet earth,” or locate yourself in the Milky Way galaxy. And yet you won’t deny you’re in (or on, or near) all these locations simultaneously. Each scale of consideration differs enormously, but you wouldn’t say the fact that you’re in the Milky Way conflicts in any way with the fact that you’re sitting in a chair.

Similarly, there are different scales of consideration of our existence – and not just different scales in terms of space and time! There are vastly different realms of experience as well. In one sense we’re limited, struggling, short-lived beings trying hold it all together in a world full of greed, hate, delusion, and injustice. The inconceivable buddhadharma doesn’t deny that relative aspect of reality. But at the very same time we’re each a unique, incredible manifestation of universal liveliness, complete even in the midst of – or more accurately because of – our struggles. We’re part of the vast drama of the universe, which, in the end, really doesn’t have to exist at all, but miraculously does. The boundaries between self and other, right and wrong, inside and outside of our skin bag, are, in a certain sense, all arbitrary constructions of our minds. In another sense there are no boundaries at all, and whole universe is our self.

This is something of an aside, but I want to take a moment to point out that perhaps the most encouraging teaching of Buddhism is the way it encourages us to open our minds and behold reality just as it is – and assures us that, if we do this completely, what we see will support and encourage us. Rather than discovering the universe is a cold, empty, random place, we will discover a cause for celebration. We don’t have to concoct and cling to a positive view of existence in order to sustain ourselves – we just have to let go of all views and allow ourselves to be held by reality. In Bendowa, Dogen describes what happens when even for a moment you “express the buddha’s seal… by sitting upright in samadhi” and “leap beyond the boundary of awakening:”

“Because such broad awakening resonates back to you and helps you inconceivably, you will in zazen unmistakably drop away body and mind, cutting off the various defiled thoughts from the past, and realize essential buddha-dharma. Thus you will raise up buddha activity… cause everyone to have the ongoing opportunity of buddhahood, and vigorously uplift the ongoing buddha-dharma.”

In other words, by just sitting zazen for a moment, just facing reality as it is, you can access immense benefit. Not only will you be helped inconceivably, you’ll end up benefiting others.

Why Is Practice Necessary? 1) Realizing for Ourselves

The second important aspect of Dogen’s “Soto Zen in a nutshell” essay I want to focus on today is his teaching on the role of practice. If the inconceivable dharma – the Ineffable truth that we’re all part of one, seamless reality, and everything has its place – just is, whether or not you’re aware of it, then why do we need to practice?

To go a little further into this Zen teaching: We don’t practice in order to create a little island of perfection and purity within ourselves and our lives, in contrast to surrounding crazy world. Instead, we simply need to wake up to the perfection that already exists. In actuality, that’s not so easily done, but Zen maintains that it’s theoretically possible for you to awaken in an instant; nothing obstructs such an awakening except for your own preconceived notions, and there is no area of the universe over which you have more control than your own mind. In a way, you can see enlightenment as being a matter of choice rather than the culmination of a long process of purification and striving.

However… according to Bendowa, if you haven’t awakened to the reality of the Ineffable in your own, direct, experience, it won’t be much good to you. Dogen writes:

“Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not experienced without realization.”

Realization is consciously, personally, awakening to the truth. You may be inspired by other people’s accounts of the encouraging and boundless aspects of reality, and having faith in such a reality can be a real source of solace and strength. Still, it’s a little like taking joy in counting other people’s money… whereas the more familiar you can get with the deeper truths of Buddhism, through your own, direct experience, the more they will transform your life. This is one of the reasons we practice, or engage in meditation, mindfulness, moral living, studying Buddhist teachings, and all those other things – to prepare our body-mind so we can realize the inconceivable dharma for ourselves.

However, it’s important to remember that awakening to the buddhadharma isn’t a matter of one all-or-nothing, explicit and dramatic enlightenment experience – a dualistic state of “knowing” versus “not knowing.” Instead, we can always deepen our level of familiarity with something. For example, you may know something about New York City by reading about it and looking at maps. You increase your understanding of it by talking to people who have lived there. An actual visit will bring you to a whole new level of knowing, and living in New York for a number of years will make you infinitely more familiar with the city than you were at first. The Dharma is like this; we all, intuitively, have some knowledge of it, but without conscious and deliberate exploration, our relationship to it can remain fairly superficial.

Why Is Practice Necessary? 2) Making It Real

There’s an even more profound aspect to the relationship between practice and enlightenment from a Soto Zen point of view: As Dogen says, practice actualizes enlightenment, or makes it real.

There are two ways to misunderstand this. First, when Dogen says the inconceivable dharma “is not actualized without practice,” you might think he’s simply saying enlightenment doesn’t happen without practice. Now, in one sense it’s accurate to say enlightenment doesn’t happen with practice of some kind (it may not be Buddhist practice, or even conscious practice, but in the most important sense someone has always done some practice before awakening). However, the “inconceivable dharma” isn’t exactly the same thing as “enlightenment.” You could say enlightenment is a sentient being’s experience of waking up to the reality of the inconceivable dharma. Whether or not a being wakes up, the dharma still is. The Ineffable doesn’t depend on our conscious efforts in practice. So, when Dogen says the inconceivable dharma itself “is not actualized without practice,” he means something different!

Before I get to what Dogen means, let me point out the second way to misunderstand him. You might think he’s saying enlightenment needs to be put into action to be worth anything. That is, there’s this great reality of the inconceivable dharma, but if you don’t enact the truth of it in your everyday life by being a good person, for example, then the inconceivable dharma remains hidden or useless. To a certain extent, of course, this is true, but I don’t think it’s exactly what Dogen is getting at in this part of Bendowa.

Instead, practice actualizes the inconceivable dharma because our practice – even though it’s imperfect, even before we’re realized anything – is the inconceivable dharma itself operating and manifesting. There’s no wonderful reality called “inconceivable dharma” separate from this life, here and now. Sentient beings reach for the truth and are motivated by compassion because they’re ultimately all part of the one, luminous, complete, seamless reality we sometimes call “the inconceivable dharma.” Part of the way the inconceivable dharma functions and manifests is sentient beings reaching for the truth and being motivated by compassion. This is why Dogen describes what happens when even for a moment you sit in zazen and “express the buddha’s seal” (the characteristic mind of a buddha) this way:

“Because of this all buddha tathagathas as the original source increase their dharma bliss and renew their magnificence in the awakening of the Way. Furthermore all beings in the ten directions and the six realms, including the three lower realms, at once obtain pure body and mind, realize the state of great emancipation, and manifest the original face… At this moment you turn the unsurpassable great dharma wheel and expound the profound wisdom, ultimate and unconditioned.”

Wow! All that when you sit even a moment of pure zazen! Of course, this isn’t about little old you making such a superb effort that you increase the brilliance of past buddhas and instantly free all beings from suffering. That would be cool, but this truth is operating at a different level – one where cause-and-effect isn’t a one-way street, and where one instance of illumination makes the whole universe brighter.

Wait… No Difference Between the Ineffable and Enlightenment?

If you find this discussion at all confusing and difficult to follow, it may be because Zen and Dogen aim not to give you new concepts, but to break down the ones you already have. This isn’t about developing a great understanding of ultimate reality and figuring out how practice and enlightenment relate to it. Instead, we’re asked to question everything: Where do I think the inconceivable buddhadharma is? Why do I resist accepting that it’s my life just-as-it-is? Do I see my life as-it-is, or do I only see a false construction of concepts and desires? Am I practicing in order to get something, even though what I’m trying to get is letting go of all striving? What is it that causes me to seek the Buddha Way? Is it so hard to believe my seeking and striving, viewed from a larger perspective, is just the functioning of the inconceivable dharma itself?

I primed you with these questions because I wanted to mention another dimension of the whole practice-actualizes-the-inconceivable-dharma scenario: Remember how I differentiated between the inconceivable dharma and enlightenment? I basically said the inconceivable dharma was the Ineffable, and enlightenment was a sentient being waking up to the reality of the Ineffable. At a certain level that’s true. But remember our different levels of reality? At another level, the boundary between inconceivable dharma and sentient being drops away. Who would realize anything, and how would realization be outside the inconceivable dharma? Dogen writes, “In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment,” and notes that this “does not appear within perception, because it is unconstructedness in stillness – it is immediate realization.”

Dogen plays with words and images in order to coax us out of our linear, dualistic thinking. Rather than using terms in a methodical way to communicate a complex philosophy, he changes up his usage to keep us guessing. In his world, the past, present, and future are manifest all at once, and inanimate objects engage in buddha activity and preach the dharma. In Bendowa Dogen says that when you sit in zazen for even one moment, “the entire sky turns into enlightenment.” So much for “enlightenment” being narrowly defined as the experience of a sentient being!

Conclusion

In general, I find it best to let Dogen’s writing pass through my consciousness without trying to grasp it. Instead, I explore what it evokes in me, like poetry. Hopefully these last two episodes have given you some experiential food for contemplation as we considered what Dogen’s Bendowa says about zazen, the inconceivable dharma, and the importance of practice and realization.

There is, of course, much, much more to Dogen’s Bendowa, but hopefully I’ve given you an intriguing taste, and introduced you to Soto Zen in process. I’ll return to Bendowa in future episodes.

Source

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

 

57 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 1: What's the Big Deal about Zazen?
59 - Buddha's Teachings Part 6: The Three Poisons as the Root of All Evil
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