Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Dogen: Introductory Notes

Dogen (1200-1253) is the founder of Japanese Soto Zen.

D.T. Suzuki (not to be confused with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi), is well known for introducing Zen to the West. D.T. Suzuki was steeped in Rinzai Zen, which is the other major school of Zen in Japan, and so the West’s introduction to Zen was primarily to Rinzai Zen, the Zen of kenshos and koans.

D.T. Suzuki’s influence has been said to have led the West to have a view of Zen as unmediated, ahistorical “pure experience,” and this influence has been attributed by scholar Robert Sharf to cultural bias on Suzuki’s part. Another scholar, Bernard Faure, has referred to this as “Zen orientalism” or “reverse orientalism,” using Edward Said’s term "orientalism."

Dogen’s influence is seen most directly in the West in the US in the teachings of Zen teachers such as Shunryu Suzuki, Dainin Katagiri, and Taizan Maezumi, and in teachings that have flowed from the Zen centers they founded, in SF, LA, and Minneapolis, through their Dharma heirs.

Perhaps the most popular set of Dogen-influenced teachings in the English language is found in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which consists of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki and edited by his students.

“Dogen’s religious and philosophical thought as a whole was highly antagonistic to models of hierarchies, layers, levels, degrees, strata, etc., although this did not mean the denial of their limited usefulness and validity” (Hee-Jin Kim, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Oregon).

Dogen taught zazen. “Zazen is not a method,” said Katagiri Roshi. “Zazen is completely different than other meditations.” (Andrew Newberg, noted for his research on the brain states of meditators and contemplatives, has noted that certain changes in the brain are particularly pronounced in the brains of Zen practitioners. Also see Psychophysiology of Zen by T. Hirai and a reference in Shinzen Young's essay "Stray Thoughts on Meditation.") “Whatever kind of experience we have through zazen is secondary,” says Katagiri.

Zazen has nothing to do with seeking “to attain a special state of consciousness, nor to become a Buddha,” nor is it “an attempt to attain enlightenment" (Kim).

Barry Magid, a Zen teacher in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, says that zazen is “simply the act of sitting and paying attention.” He suggests that insights, illuminations, awakenings, higher states of consciousness, samadhis, and ecstasies, “are the almost inevitable by-product of steady sitting,” and to those who are “addicted to specialness,” these are “ego-goodies.” To such people, he says, “ordinary day-in, day-out practice seems too ordinary,” and “in fact it is too difficult for such individuals to tolerate that ordinariness... But a practice that doesn’t gratify the sense of our own specialness may be the hardest – and most real – of all.”

Dogen’s teaching is nondualistic. “However, Dogen’s nondualistic mystical thinking had an especially realistic thrust… That is to say, nonduality did not primarily signify the transcendence of duality so much as it signified the realization of duality. … This was indeed far from being a kind of mysticism that attempted to attain an undifferentiated state of consciousness. On the contrary, Dogen’s thought was entirely committed to the realm of duality – including its empirical and rational aspects” (Kim).

Dogen’s shikantaza (just-sitting) should not be construed “as advocating absorption in an undifferentiated realm” (Kim).

Dogen wrote that zazen is not a matter of merely “returning to the origin, back to the source.”

To Dogen, “the resolute state of sitting” “should not be identified with mystical contemplation or illumination” (Kim).

Zazen is “not the experience of mystical union, nor of pantheistic apprehension of the self and the world. As Dogen untiringly emphasized, the Way is realized in and through the body” (Kim).

Dogen wrote, “If you have attained enlightenment, you should not halt the practice of the Way by thinking of your present state as final…”

To Dogen, enlightenment is actualized moment by moment. Outside of the embodied actualization of enlightenment, there is no such thing as enlightenment. Enlightenment is thus the beginning of practice, not the end or goal. Dogen means this literally, and he means literally that practice and enlightenment are identical.

Dogen’s “entire religion may be safely described as the exploration and explication of…radical phenomenalism…” (Kim, 2004). I suspect that Kim is following Nakamura here. Hajime Nakamura contrasts what he calls Japanese phenomenalism with “an Indian inclination toward an Absolute transcendent to the phenomenal world… ” “The phenomenalism of Japanese culture meant that the sacred is not distinct from this world but suffused in all things” (David Loy, from this essay).

I would refer the interested reader to:
Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist by Hee-Hin Kim
Chan/Zen Studies in English: The State of the Field by Bernard Faure.
The Rhetoric of Immediacy by Bernard Faure
Ch’an Insights and Oversights by Bernard Faure
The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism by John McRae
Moon in a Dewdrop ed. by Kazuaki Tanahashi
Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri
You Have to Say Something by Dainin Katagiri
Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen (Hagen received Dharma transmission from Katagiri Roshi)
Buddhism Is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen
Ordinary Mind by Barry Magid
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Not Always So by Shunryu Suzuki

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