Doing Nothing for No Good Reason

Dogen Zen.  Translations by Shohaku Okamura.  Kyoto Soto Zen Center.  1988.  $198 pp.

Hara: The Vital Center of Man by Karlfried Graf Durckheim.  Inner Traditions.  202 pp.  $14.95.

I have been known to complain—mostly to myself—that many of the works of a man I consider one of the great religious minds of the twentieth century have not been translated into English.  Everyone wants to translate Eihei Dogan—a hopeless task—but no one wants to translate the man who could make him comprehensible.  Wikepedia says that Kosho Uchiyama published twenty titles on Buddhism and origami (an art in which he was an expert).  I’d be happy to read even the books or origami.

So I was shocked when I noticed a little volume on my shelves that I’ve had for years, Dogen Zen.  Tucked in the back is an essay by Uchiyama entitled “Dogen Zen as Religion.”  The text is full of weird typos, like the menu in a Chinese restaurant, and I don’t know that the book is generally available.  I bought it at our Zen Center.  But this little essay, like everything else I’ve encountered by Uchiyama, is a gem.

He begins by looking at the place of religion in human life, not as a scholar, just as a human being thinking about it.  There was a time, when men were hunter gatherers, or when they relied on farming, when people prayed to God that the game might be plentiful, or that crops would come up.  Gradually, as methods of producing food became more scientific, we relied on science rather than God for such things; we figured we could take care of them ourselves.

In the modern world, then—in which our lives aren’t consumed by an effort to find food and shelter—the problem is that we lack meaning.  Life seems empty.  In Japan when Uchiyama was writing, “Even some elementary or junior high students try to commit suicide.  I am afraid that they feel the same existential emptiness.”  The purpose of religion in the modern age isn’t to take care of the basic necessities.  It’s to find something beyond that.

But true religion, for Uchiyama, must be universal; the fruits of it can’t be confined to a small group of people.  “A religion which calls for building enormous sanctuaries or temples and requires artwork such as statuary and paintings to decorate the buildings, is far from true religion.  In order to raise such a huge amount of money, priests cannot maintain an unbiased attitude toward all people.”

He is also opposed to religions where some people succeed better than others because of personal qualities.  “True religion must transcend differences in charisma, personality, natural gifts, ability, or education.”  He quotes the Gospel of Matthew (as I mentioned in an earlier post, Uchiyama’s student Shohaku Okumura told me that Uchiyama continued to read the Bible until the end of his life) as saying, “Blessed are they who know spiritual poverty, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven[1].”  He compares that to the famous statement of the Pure Land teacher Shinran Shonin, “Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person.”  Uchiyama elaborates in his usual (and somewhat ungrammatical) blunt manner.  “In true religion, even those who have committed grave crimes, or are ignorant or idiots are all forgiven, saved, and able to rest in absolute peace in the realm beyond worldly evaluation.”

Uchiyama believes that the Kamakura period in Japan (1185-1333A.D) was one in which people were awakened to true religion, because a series of teachers—Honen, Shinran, Eisai, Dogen, Ippen, and Nichiren—emphasized single practices, chanting or sitting, that did not require money.[2]  But Uchiyama is opposed to practices, like Eisai’s Rinzai Zen, where some people succeed and others fail.  He actually compares the “zazen of Shakyamuni,” which is described in some Pali scriptures as “having many steps”[3] to the training in Rinzai, where people work their way through koans and finally succeed in becoming a master.  But “after Shakyamuni’s death, a totally different way was opened which was not concerned with training the individual self.”  Sutras were composed which said that “all phenomenal things are themselves the ultimate reality, and all living beings have Buddha-nature.”  When Dogen wrote at the beginning of the Fukanzazengi (his instructions on zazen) that “the way is complete and universal,” he reflected those teachings.

The attitude of Buddhism is that “being settled in the true self is the place of absolute peace.”  That isn’t the self we normally think of as the I—which is just an aggregate of thoughts—but the self we see when we let go of thinking.  This sitting “actualizes the prajna (wisdom) of emptiness moment by moment.”  It is sitting “not for the purpose of gaining personal enlightenment,” not for any purpose at all.

“In zazen which actualizes prajna,” Uchiyama says, “there should be mushotoku (no gaining).  I agree.  And yet I must admit that I find this simple practice damnably difficult.  I do have thoughts when I’m sitting, I have judgments about how the sitting is going (which Dogen clearly says I shouldn’t); I judge this sitting against another one, wish this one were more like that, or like some imagined one I’ve never had.  I wonder what enlightenment is, imagine what it’s like, wish I could have it (those are all thoughts, in case you didn’t notice.  They’re thoughts of gaining).   I do everything wrong.  I’m a total klutz.

Yet when I do come back to the body, “just aiming at zazen with our bones and muscles,” I sometimes experience the bliss that Uchiyama alludes to.  “This zazen is really wondrous. . . . It has limitless profundity.”  I think of this as zazen practiced in the spirit of Pure Land Buddhism.  You don’t rely on the self (especially since there isn’t one).  You rely completely on the Other, on what Pure Land practitioners call Amita Buddha, what Dogen calls the House of Buddha.  Zazen does not, as people sometimes say, rely on self-power.  Every practice relies on Other power.


Another book I returned to recently is Karlfried Graf Durckheim’s Hara: The Vital Center of Man.  I vividly remember reading another edition of the book some twenty years ago, when I was working on Breath by Breath with Larry Rosenberg and found a copy in CIMC’s library.  The part I keep returning to is the first appendix, about Okado Torajiro.

Master Okado was one of those twentieth century people—like the founders of Sensory Awareness and the Alexander technique—who seemed determined to re-invent the wheel.  The weird thing is that he lived in Japan, where one might have thought you didn’t need to teach people to sit in silence.  He invented a spiritual practice called seiza, in which he advocated the kneeling posture that some people use in our zendo, but otherwise seemed to be describing zazen.  (“Do not try to free yourself from all thoughts.  Simply be watchful and keep your strength in your belly.”)  I read somewhere that he was partly inspired by Quakers in the West (???).  Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle.

One of his students talks about how he met Okada at the university, at a time when “intellectualism in academic education was at its peak.  We were overfed with rationalism.”  But a group of them got up early to sit with Master Okada, who had told them, “If you come and practice with me you will not, it is true, accumulate knowledge, but you will learn to understand the speech of birds.”

Master Okada left behind a book of sayings, and Durkheim gives us a sampling, apparently arranged by topic.  The man had an exalted view of the lower abdomen—“Tanden is the shrine of the Divine”—and I must admit that, after years of sitting, I do too.  He says that there are three ranks of people: those who value the head, “who endeavor only to amass as much knowledge as possible,” those who value the chest, “men with outward courage but without reals strength.  Many of the so-called great men are in this category,” and those who value the belly.  “Strength flows out from them and produces a spiritual condition of ease and equanimity.  They do what seems good to them without violating any law.”

He goes on.  “Those in the first category think that Science can rule Nature.  Those in the second have apparent courage and discipline and they know how to fight.  Those in the third know what reality is.”

This book is worth buying for the section on Master Okado alone.

[1] My brother Bill, a linguist and scholar of the Bible, told me that a similar passage in Luke reads, Blessed are the poor, or more accurately Happy are the poor.  That raises a question as to what Jesus actually said, and what he meant.

[2] It’s my impression that that was a period of religious awakening throughout the world.  Maimonides lived then, as did Meister Eckhart.

[3] The Anapanasati Sutta comes to mind, where there are sixteen steps that lead to nirvana.