Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dogen, nonduality and practice-realization

This post is an attempt to address a notion that seems to be prevalent (though NOT exclusive) on a number of blogs as well as contemporary books in regard to Dogen’s teaching on Zazen. This is the notion that the mere act of sitting upright (usually in lotus or half-lotus posture) is the equivalent of enlightenment.

I am not suggesting that ALL teachers/students/practitioners and others propagate this view. Yet, it does seem that this "question"(?) is one of the most persistent in all Dogen’s teachings. While I have never been certain enough of my own views of Dogen to assert that "I know what Dogen meant…", I do think I have been able to discern some things that he did not mean.

DISCLAIMER: What I write here is simply my own, no doubt flawed, understanding. This understanding is subject to change at any moment, as it frequently does (especially regarding Dogen!) I often use "positive" statements for lucidity. Rather than qualify each statement below—I clarify my position here: are my views accurate? I don’t know. This is just my understanding today…

I think it is a major mistake to posit the notion that Dogen regarded practice—Zazen (sitting meditation) and/or shikantaza (sole sitting)—as synonymous with, or equivalent to enlightenment itself. In my view, this would be just as flawed as positing a notion that practice was absent from enlightenment (though that does not seem to be an issue with people).
I believe that this is a distortion based on a misunderstanding, or misrepresentation of Dogen’s teaching on the nonduality of practice and enlightenment. It manifests in several forms, and is expressed by its adherents in varying degrees of religious zealotry ranging from simplistic dogmatic insistence to fervent monomania.

It seems clear to me that to posit such a view requires a rejection of the traditional Mahayana teaching on the nonduality of practice and enlightenment (really on nonduality in general). Adherents of this notion insist that practice and enlightenment are "equivalent," (which is untenable in the traditional teachings on nonduality) rather than "nondual," thus rendering both terms (practice and enlightenment) impotent and meaningless.

This assertion seems to amount to a kind of superstition. The superstitious notion that simply sitting "like Buddha" is itself "being Buddha." This view is openly expressed by an increasingly large number of westerners (there are of course many teachers and practitioners that reject this notion).

Perhaps followers are attracted by claims that Dogen’s Zen offers a method that instantly transforms ordinary mortals into Buddhas. While there are variations regarding the details of the sitting posture (some insist of just the proper posture, others claim it makes no difference how one sits), the underlying superstition is basically the same: practice is equivalent to enlightenment.

I have read "teachings" that suggest the wisdom of Zen consists of just sitting and aspiring to no goal. This, such teachings claim, is enlightenment. As those familiar with the classic Zen records know, this is not a new phenomenon, but simply a new incarnation of an old one. There have always been people willing to propagate notions of "magic zazen" (or any other formula people are willing to buy). And again, it is not a view propagated by the All teachers or Dharma heirs, but sadly, a number of popular "Zen" books offer a number of variations of this formula.
This can only happen by failing to study and understand some pretty basic Buddhist principles. For instance, the basic principles of the Buddhist teachings on nonduality.
Here I offer a kind of "rational" description.

First it is important to remember that any two "poles" (or "foci" to adopt the apt term of Professor Hee-Jin Kim) in Zen are necessarily methodological designations (i.e. upaya "skillful means", techniques, devices, practices, etc.). More specifically, they are the methodological designations through which the practical application, or implementation of practice and enlightenment on the path of Zen is accessed. Hence, if one foci (pole) of any nondual unity is eradicated, or equalized, the very reasoning behind its use as a methodological designation is undermined, which effectively renders both foci meaningless.

While nonduality is one of the easier teachings to understand, it does offer some complexity, and is often difficult for beginners unfamiliar with the concept. Nevertheless, it is neither mystical nor intellectually difficult to grasp. The basic Buddhist teachings on nonduality assert that within the unity of any two foci (e.g. practice/enlightenment, samsara/nirvana, enlightenment/delusion, etc.), the affirmation of either one does not (and cannot) eradicate, or replace the other; nor does one come prior to or successive of the other. Each foci differs from the other dependent on perspective, while both (poles or foci) are coextensive (exist in the same space) and coeternal (exist in the same time) as a continuous event, or process. As such, without an accurate realization, or understanding of both the indivisible nature and the distinctive nature of each (foci or aspect), neither one of them can be accurately grasped or understood—much less incorporated into ones life.

Applying this fundamental doctrine from the perspective of "practice" within the nondual nature of practice and enlightenment we would say, the affirmation of practice (in the dynamic unity of practice and enlightenment) does not eradicate or replace enlightenment, nor does practice precede or succeed enlightenment. Practice differs from enlightenment dependent on perspective, while both practice and enlightenment are coextensive, and coeternal in the dynamic ongoing performance, or process of practice/enlightenment.

Thus, one must, as Dogen says, "learn in practice" (actualize, or personally realize) the indivisible and the distinctive nature of both practice and enlightenment for practice to be considered "authentic practice" (i.e. true zazen, shikantaza, sanzen, etc.).

It is reasonable to expect beginning students and practitioners to be unaware of these fundamental aspects of Buddhism. It is also understandable why people may find them difficult on their initial encounter with them; they are simple enough to grasp, but they do present perspectives that are unfamiliar to beginners. At the same time, not being equipped with a firm grasp of these basic principles while presuming to teach Zen (or any other school of Buddhism) is, in my view, inexcusable—to say the least.

Ted Biringer

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