Zazen is For Everybody

Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master By Brad Warner.  New World Library.  306 pp.  $16.95.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of Brad Warner’s latest book, which I regard as his richest and most helpful to date.  I had hoped to go into various themes he explored, but by the time I’d said everything I wanted to about the book I was out of time.  But the book continues to haunt me, and I realized as I went over it yesterday that, though it covers only the first 21 fascicles of the Shobogenzo, it presents a unified method and ethic of practice.  I hope to explore it more, with no idea how long that might take. Dogen’s writing is a bottomless pit.

One of the things Brad said in his Introduction is one of the most interesting and revolutionary things about Dogen, though we can easily overlook it.  “I never entered a monastery as a full-time live-in monk,” Brad says, “which many people consider the only way to practice what Dogen preached.  But this would ignore the fact that Dogen taught a number of lay students throughout his life and, indeed, recommended zazen as a daily practice not only for those who live in monasteries but also to everyone interested in self-discovery.”

Dogen himself spent his life in monasteries; he’d become a monk at the age of 13, after the death of both of his parents.  But the question that haunted his early years was: if, as Buddhism basically teaches, all beings are already enlightened, why do we have to practice?  He could find no one in Japan who could answer that question to his satisfaction, which was why he traveled to China.  It was in China that he found some true teachers, first some cooks from a monastery near where he came to shore, then his most important teacher, Rujing.  It was after practicing with that man that he felt he had answered his question and could return to Japan.  He arrived wanting to let people know what he had found.  One of the first things he wrote, at the age of 27, was the Fukanzazengi, usually translated as Recommending Zazen to All People.

Zazen had been something monastics did.  It was a part of their training to prepare them as priests; they went off to monasteries to sit zazen intensively for a period of time, then were ready to go out and be clergy.  They could conduct weddings and funerals, which was (and is) a large part of their function in Japanese society.  But Dogen didn’t see zazen as a method of training (you didn’t practice to achieve enlightenment).  He saw it as enlightenment itself, part of one’s whole life.  And he didn’t think it should be confined to monastics.  He thought everyone should do it.

One wonders how practical that would have been in 13th century Japan.  People were busy in ways we can hardly imagine—the work of a farming family, for instance, swallowed their whole lives—and as he stayed in Japan Dogen focused on monastic practice.  But in the first flush of his return to Japan, full of his new understanding, he wrote a piece which recommended zazen to everyone.  And his single most famous and most profound teaching, the Genjokoan, was a letter to a lay person.

I have written elsewhere about some of my heroes of spiritual practice, the President of a Korean university that my wife and I met who went to a Presbyterian church every morning from 4:00 to 6:00 to pray, the Japanese grandmother of one of my students who spent those same hours chanting in the Nichiren tradition.  Nichiren Buddhism is supposed to be for lay people, those unable to enter a monastery, but their practice is to chant morning and night, and there’s no reason they can’t spend that same time in zazen.  I’m not saying zazen is better than chanting or prayer (though it has been for me).  I’m just saying it’s as available as any other practice.

When people resist it, when they hear that I spend periods of time every morning and most afternoons sitting in silence, what they most often say, reflexively and instinctively, is, “I could never do that.”  They apparently mean they’re too jittery to sit still and in silence.  But what they’re saying isn’t literally true.  When you sit zazen you’re not doing anything.  Anyone can do that.  And if they can gradually increase the distances they walk or jog, they can work up to sitting longer.  It’s like yoga.  You just stay in the asana for a very long time.

The reason for doing it is something Dogen speaks in another early work, “On the Endeavor of the Way,” one of his clearest and most extensive explanations of the dharma.  Brad renders the opening lines this way:

“The Buddhas and Buddhist ancestors had a brilliant way of figuring out what the real deal was with the universe.  They transmitted this method all the way down to our time.  This method is the samadhi of receiving and using the self.

“The truth is everywhere all around us, but if we don’t practice, it doesn’t show itself and we can’t experience it.”

Here is Kazuaki Tanahashi’s more literal—and poetic—translation.

“All Buddha Tathagatas who individually transmit inconceivable dharma, actualizing unsurpassable, complete enlightenment, have a wondrous art, supreme and unconditioned.  Receptive samadhi is its mark; only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off.  Sitting upright, practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to free yourself in the unconfined realm of this samadhi.

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

Tanahashi’s is probably the most respected current translation (though Brad favors the work on his own teacher, Gudo Nishijima).  Seeing those two passages together gives an idea of the value, and limitations, of Brad’s paraphrase.

For me the value is enormous.  It’s opened up the Shobogenzo altogether.

What Dogen is getting at in the first lines of this work is something he spoke of again and again.  It is what one of those cooks taught him when he arrived in China.  Nothing in the universe is hidden.  All of reality is here for us to see and understand.  The problem is that what we want reality to be gets in the way of seeing what it actually is.  Our craving and aversion and misunderstandings distort what we see.  So we practice sitting and seeing reality as it is.  Our knee hurts, our back aches, the wall is jagged and has knots in it.  If we can see reality in that simple activity—sitting and staring at a wall—the hope is that we can see it in more complicated moments as well.

The key is that word realization.  We all are Buddha nature—as Dogen understood from the start—but haven’t realized it.  That doesn’t mean (as we sometimes use that word in English) to have an idea pop into our heads, the way we might say, “I realized I had overslept.”  It means to make real.  We make our enlightenment real through practice.  That’s why those two things are so connected, to the point that Dogen wrote them as one word.

And it’s why he recommend zazen to all people.