DT—Dogen’s Wisdom-1

Tonight’s dharma talk discusses Dogen’s Wisdom. Some of you may not be familiar with the life story of Zen Master Eihei Dogen. He was born in 1200 in Kyoto, which had been Japan’s imperial capital for over 400 years. At that time, the aristocratic class was striving to maintain its control of political and cultural power, while a rising warrior class was establishing a feudal government in nearby Kamakura. Values were changing from the refinement of urban courtiers to the strength and discipline of rural samurai.

Japanese Buddhism, which had been developing for more than 600 years, was in decline: some monks were selling magical prayers and ceremonies to the upper classes, and monks in rival monasteries were engaging in armed combat. Many Buddhists decried how distant these practices were from the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. During this period, there was a rapid spread of belief in Amitabha, the Savior Buddha who promised to lead people to the heavenly Pure Land. Buddhists in that lineage believed that repeatedly reciting Amitabha’s name was sufficient to attain liberation from suffering.

Dogen’s father was probably Michichika Koga, the most influential minister in the imperial court at the turn of the 13th century, and his mother was probably a daughter of Motofusa Fujiwara, a former regent at the court. His father died when Dogen was three, and his mother died when he was eight. Confronted with the stark reality of impermanence, the orphaned boy rejected his inherited high court position and turned to the Buddha’s teachings. At 13, he entered Mt. Hiei, a great center for Buddhist studies, where he was ordained the following year by Koen, head of the Tendai School of Buddhism.

After seriously studying scriptures, Dogen was troubled by a compelling question: If all persons have buddha nature as their essence, why do buddhas in the past, present, and future seek enlightenment? Nobody at the monastery could give him a satisfactory answer.

Dogen went to study with Eisai, a senior Tendai monk who had traveled to China in search of a way to restore the Japanese Tendai school to its former vitality. In 1191, Eisai brought the Chinese Linji tradition to Japan and founded the strict Rinzi school of Zen.

When Eisai died in 1215, Dogen continued his studies with Eisai’s disciple Myozen, who recognized his mastery and gave him dharma transmission in 1221. Together, the two monks traveled to China in 1223, where Myozen died. Two years later, Dogen had a life-changing meeting with Rujing, the 62-year-old abbot of Tiantong Mountain monastery. According to Dogen’s written report, the abbot gave him immediate transmission and declared, “The dharma gate of face-to-face transmission from buddha to buddha, ancestor to ancestor, is realized now.”  Rujing taught that studying Zen is “dropping away body and mind.” He discouraged students from reciting Buddha’s name, chanting sutras, or holding rites of repentance. Instead, he instructed disciples to practice a single-minded sitting meditation without trying to solve questions or to achieve realization.

When Dogen returned to Japan in 1227, he stayed at Kennin Monastery in Kyoto, where he had first encountered Zen. But the Tendai monastic community rejected the teachings that he had absorbed in China. Dogen moved with some disciples to Echizen Province, a place of severely cold winters on the Japan Sea northeast of Kyoto. There, his students built a monastery that Dogen named Eihei-ji and dedicated in 1244. (The monastery was rebuilt in the 1500s and still stands.)

For 22 years, Dogen continued dictating monastic regulations that his student Ejo edited and compiled into a hefty book called the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. In his collected works, Dogen recommended dedicated sitting practice in a secluded environment. In 1253, the venerable Zen Master became very ill. After appointing Ejo abbot of Eihei Monastery and giving him a robe that he had sewn with his own hands, Dogen traveled to Kyoto, the city of his birth, where he died on July 27 in 1253.

Dogen uses the image of a dewdrop reflecting moonlight to describe the state of meditation. He suggests that just as the entire moon is reflected in a dewdrop, a complete awakening and realization of truth can be experienced by an individual human being. For Dogen, zazen sitting practice is not merely a method by which one reaches awakening but is itself awakening. The model for awakening in Buddhism is the understanding experienced by Shakyamuni Buddha in meditation. Particularly in Zen Buddhism, this understanding is regarded not as a step-by-step achievement but as an immediate and complete experience. One who experiences it is called a buddha—an awakened or enlightened person. The full moon illuminating the entire universe symbolizes this state of enlightenment.

Dogen’s poem titled “On Zazen Practice” describes the dynamic aspect of concentration in serenity:

The moon

          Abiding in the midst of

          Serene mind;

          Billows break into light.

Moonlight, which appears to be still, shimmers on ocean waves that crash against rocks and burst into droplets. Reflected bits of light spread and merge with one another. For Dogen, meditation practice entails this kind of mutual permeation between an individual’s inner “light” and the activities of all things. Although one person’s practice is part of the practice of all awakened beings, each individual practice is indispensable, as it actualizes and completes everyone’s activity as a buddha. Dogen saw meditation as a source of creative engagement in life.

While we can view life as a continuation of birth, moment after moment, meditation is a total experience of this “birth” in each moment. Dedicated dharma practitioners no longer live a moment passively as a segment of life but are fully engaged actively and creatively in living. Describing this transition, Dogen uses the metaphor of a boat:

Birth is just like riding in a boat. You raise the sails and row with the oar….

          You ride in the boat and your riding makes the boat what it is.

In the chapter “Principles of Seated Meditation”from Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Dogen clearly elaborates ideal conditions and procedures for zazen. He refers to zazen as “the art of seated meditation” and “the dharma gate of great ease and joy.” 

During decades of sitting practice, despite attending numerous month-long Vipassana retreats, I have developed some habits that are obstacles to what Dogen calls “the dharma gate of great ease and joy.” Although he suggests, “Cast aside the various involvements,” I recognize that I often arrive at my daily sitting place after a busy day of activities. My mind is usually full of thoughts about plans with my husband, daily newspaper reports, themes for writing dharma talks, issues at the hospice where I volunteer as a chaplain, and concerns about my ailing father or friends who are suffering. My fidgety body reflects the restlessness of my mind. Swaying back and forth habitually, I am reminded of the stimming movements of my music therapy clients with autism, as they attempt to calm down their overstimulated nervous systems.

My Soto Zen teacher Koshin has pointed out that I sometimes look as if I am “shuckling” like devout Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall! In Hassidic lore (Tanya, chapter 19), rocking is considered “an expression of the soul’s desire to abandon the body and reunite itself with its source, similar to a flame’s shaking back and forth as if to free itself from the wick.”

In contrast, Dogen is presenting a method for spiritual embodiment of full presence, connecting with the preciousness of life just as it is in the moment. If I adhere firmly to counting my breaths and focus on grounding atop my sitz bones, I settle down eventually and taste joy and ease.

Only when I enter a state of concentration do I experience the art of seated meditation. Lengthy Vipassana retreats and 8-day sesshins allow me time and space to develop inner stillness. At such moments, I feel blissfully embodied and completely at home. Koshin is challenging me to follow Dogen’s recipe for a more direct and immediate path to “regulate body and mind” and to sit “fixedly.” Dogen’s “Principles of Seated Meditation” remind me to “take to seated meditation as though brushing a fire from your head.” As I prepare to sit, sometimes it helps me to visualize sweeping energy downward from my highly active mind towards the earth to ground myself more fully.

Perhaps Dogen’s insights can help with your own challenges to sitting fixedly in seated meditation.