Zazen as True Religion

The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa With a Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  211 pp.

“My late teacher Sawaki Kodo Roshi used to say that when we read Buddhist scriptures, we should illuminate our own mind with the ancient teachings and squeeze out the Buddha-dharma as our own expression.  I have been following my teacher’s admonition and trying to appreciate Shobogenzo from a deeper perspective.  I think this is the work of my closing years

“I am happy if readers follow Shobogenzo with me as their own matter, and appreciate it on the ground of their own lives.”   Uchiyama Kosho, from the Afterword.


Of Kosho Uchiyama it seems there is no end.  I don’t mean that the number of his books is endless—though I read somewhere that he had written over 20 books in Japanese; we seem to have only three in English—but that I can read him endlessly and constantly find new things to ponder.  Every reading seems a first reading.

When I wrote about Opening the Hand of Thought here some weeks back—impetuously calling it the greatest Zen book ever—one of my readers told me he liked The Wholehearted Way even better.  I hadn’t even read the book, had seen it sitting on the shelf at our Zen Center but hadn’t realize it was by Uchiyama.  I can’t say I think it’s a better book than Opening the Hand of Thought, but I can understand liking it better.  It’s Uchiyama at his most personal, commenting on an early teaching of Dogen and ruminating—as he always does—on the true meaning of Zen practice.  Here, for instance, he comments on a phrase from Bendowa, then elaborates from his own experience.

“’Clear-sighted masters who have attained the way and accord with enlightenment’ means teachers who have thoroughly practiced zazen and experienced every nook and cranny of zazen life.  A true teacher must really be an out-and-out zazen person.

“Even believers or practitioners of other religions come to take refuge in such a person.  I myself studied Christianity first, but I couldn’t understand the Bible no matter how hard I tried to do so at that time.  Later I devotedly practiced zazen with Sawaki Roshi, and after that I realized the meaning of the teachings in the Bible.  Once I was invited to a Christian school and gave a talk about important points in the Bible.  People said my talk was more understandable than a pastor’s sermon, and they transcribed it to deliver to Christian believers.  Zazen is something like this.”

I especially like that last sentence.

I abandoned the Christian religion because there was a question in it that I couldn’t answer (my adult life as a Christian was like beating my head against the wall of this question): If God is all-knowing, if he knows what we want before we ask it, if he knows what we need better than we can ever know ourselves, why should we pray to Him?  What use is prayer at all?  Is God so petty that he needs our praise?  Another way of saying the same thing would be: Why are we talking to God, as if He has something to learn from us?  Isn’t that exactly ass backwards?

It’s like Dogen’s question: If we’re already enlightened, as the scriptures tell us, why do we need to practice?

That isn’t the same question, but it’s the same kind of question.  I didn’t get my answer by talking to someone, or asking them that question.  I got it by sitting zazen, which I was lucky enough to stumble into when my wife dragged me to a meditation class.

I’m reminded of the time, two or three years into my study of Zen, when I was walking out of the zendo with a translation of Dogen.  My teacher—Josho Pat Phelan—saw me, and said, “I see you’ve got a copy of Dogen there.”  I admitted I did.  She told me that Dogen was quite difficult, that it might be better if I began with the modern interpreters of Dogen, like Shunryu Suzuki, Uchiyama, Dainin Katagiri, Francis Cook, Joko Beck.  I told her I had read some of those people, but I wanted to go back to the source.  I had the pigheaded notion that I could understand anything if I worked hard enough.  She said, “You can try.  But they say that if you want to understand Dogen better, you should sit more.”

That made no sense to me at the time.  It was like saying, if you want to understand Beethoven’s symphonies, stand on your head.  But I’ve found it to be true.  If you want to understand Dogen, if you want to understand the Bible, sit zazen.  I’ve had any number of experiences of suddenly understanding a teaching because I was sitting zazen.  All the Christianity that I studied through the first 30 years of my life came back to me in a new way.  It doesn’t seem different from Buddhism.  Jesus was just another teacher, from a different culture.

I think the answer to Dogen’s question is that we all have Buddha nature, but we don’t realize it without practice.  I don’t mean “realize” in the sense of getting an idea, the way we might say, “I realized I was an idiot.”  I mean it in the sense of making real.  Zazen makes Buddha nature real.  It’s like someone who has a remarkable talent for singing.  She has the talent, but she doesn’t make it real until she sings.  Zazen makes our enlightenment real.

But it doesn’t happen at some specific moment.  Of all the things Uchiyama is scornful about—and there are many—he seems most scornful of the idea that zazen leads to some particular experience, and that after that we are enlightened.  He comments on that idea many times.  One time is especially memorable.

“I would guess that the percentage of people who gain satori is low.  The gate to enlightenment for them must be narrower than the gate to Japanese universities is for Japanese students.

“However, the zazen taught by Dogen Zenji is not like that; it is zazen as true religion.  It is not zazen as a kind of discipline or training.  There is no failure or success in zazen as a true religion.  All of us can be saved.  This is only natural because we just practice the reality of life that is abundantly inherent in every person.”

We practice the reality of life by sitting there and seeing it.  Then we learn to live it.