“The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent on practice and realization? The true vehicle is self-sufficient. What need is there special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion. Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the Way and clarifying the mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens. You are playing in the entranceway, but you are still are short of the vital path of emancipation.
Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall is celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?
Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.
For practicing Zen a quiet room is suitable…” – Ehei Dogen’s Fukanzazengi
Om. During the first year that I became serious about Zen I was deeply inspired by the writings of Ehei Dogen. Dogen was a Japanese Zen master who lived from 1200 – 1253 A.D. He was orphaned early on and as a young man became a monk and dedicated his life to the study of Zen. His path led him to many contemporary Japanese Zen teachers, but they ultimately left him dissatisfied. So, risking his life on a perilous sea excursion, he journeyed to Song China to study with the era’s greatest Zen teachers.
There he met Rujing and after years of study under him finally experienced enlightenment, which he described as “body and mind dropping away.” After years of further study he returned to Japan to restore and permanently establish the authentic Zen tradition there. During his relatively short years as a teacher he founded a monastery that still exists today, essentially created the Soto Zen tradition (one of the main two Zen schools today), and left behind an impressive amount of writings whose poetic brilliance and universal insight transcend the historical and cultural barriers that distance his unique life from the modern world.
I believe that Dogen has something important to offer spiritual people of all traditions. His unwavering dedication to enlightenment, his practical and simultaneously profound teachings, and his emphasis on zazen as an easy to understand method to actually experience enlightenment (aka God) are things I believe many can learn from. Although Dogen has been relatively unknown until very recently I believe his teachings will soon become more widespread and aid in the collective spiritualization that our turbulent historical era so desperately needs.
The two most fundamental innovations in Dogen’s teaching are that practice is enlightenment and his strong emphasis on the power of zazen (seated meditation). Enlightenment is not something we “get.” It is rather always just this moment, yet this is simultaneously something that we can realize more intimately depending on the depth of our spiritual practice. This classic irony of the spiritual path – that intense effort is needed to realize what has always been true – is powerfully expressed in one of Dogen’s most practical and celebrated works, the Fukanzazengi or Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. I will only share some thoughts about the introduction here but encourage you to read the whole short work in the link attached below. And now, let us begin!
“The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent on practice and realization? The true vehicle is self-sufficient. What need is there special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth.”
Being self-existent and omnipresent, how could God be limited to formal spiritual practice? The whole universe in this moment is the manifestation of God; so how could we think that by working hard we can become more of God than we already are? This “God” is not a flimsy concept or a far away Deity in a far away heaven. Rather, “This very body is free of dust,” or this very body is always and without exception the perfection of Buddha. Simply put, in this moment God is seeing out of our eyes, hearing through our ears, feeling the body, and is the Enjoyer of our life. This nameless Awareness has never been separate from you, and although it is not limited to “you,” indeed it is you! Who therefore, could believe in “a means to brush it clean,” in a contrived way to perfect That which is already perfect?
This emphasis that the Truth “is never apart from this very place” is very important to understand. Many people believe they have to go to India, change their name, perform unnecessary austerities, and go many other extremes to experience God. But the truth is that you can realize God in the context of your life right now. You can meditate each day right where you live, practice mindfulness throughout the day, and realize that your very life, with all its seeming imperfection, is actually Heaven, is actually God.
Although there is undoubtedly a great value to pilgrimages, rituals, and monastic practice we should never be deluded that these things somehow have a monopoly on the Truth. The God of India is also the God of Oklahoma, and the God of the Italian Vatican is also the God of buying a Ho-Ho in a 711 on the pastoral highways of the Great Plains. The God who manifested as Jesus Christ is manifesting as your annoying neighbor who plays his music too loud, and as you every time you fart! Your very life IS the life of God, and to realize this is the meaning of salvation.
Yet… “If there is a hairbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth.” This “deviation” is the habit of separating from the present moment our mind is addicted to and the sense of self we falsely attach to the impermanent body/mind. You may intellectually understand that you are one with God, but then immediately fall into anger if a painful memory arises. You may memorize a thousand scriptures but if someone cuts you off in traffic you immediately become consumed by rage.
This habit of separation, this sense of “I” that constantly imposes its likes and dislikes upon reality literally creates hell upon our Earth. The unchecked dualistic thinking mind can lead to an argument between neighbors over a fence, and it can lead to a devastating nuclear apocalypse. So although everyone is right now God Itself, the vast majority of people have not actually experienced this. The “hairsbreadth deviation” Dogen speaks of is a metaphor for the bad habits of our mind that are far from trivial; they lead to the sickening paradigm of hostile nation states, the ignorance of religious sectarianism, the cancer of racism, perpetual anxiety in millions, and to unfortunate acts of violence all over the world. Yet if everyone realized the Truth there would be no more war, for we would truly see that we are Everything and Everyone. To harm another would be to harm our Self, and this very Earth would become the Heaven all people have longed for since the dawn of humankind.
This is why Dogen felt that zazen (seated meditation) is critically necessary for spiritual people everywhere to embrace. It is not enough to proclaim our belief in a God, to memorize scripture, or praise prophets for their impressive lives. We must actually embody the Truth that all religions symbolically express in our own life, and to do this we must train “the wild elephant” of our own mind. As Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka says, you can train a parrot to chant the Holy Name of Krishna, but when a mouse starts tickling its feet it will instinctively react in rage! So the simple fact of the matter is this: Although we are originally Buddha, we cannot fully experience and embody this without practicing meditation or similar spiritual exercises. This is one of Dogen’s most essential insights.
For in zazen the mind is habitually trained, on a concrete physical level, to return to the present moment by uniting it with the tool of the body. When this sacred alchemy reaches completion the mind eventually loses its habit of separating into the realm of illusory thought and rests perpetually in the Now. And when the dense fog covering the mirror finally clears, one’s “original face” will manifest and they will see that this very world is the divine activity of the Eternal.
“Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall is celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?”
Dogen is referring here to the stories of two great masters his disciples would have been culturally familiar with. The Buddha told his disciples that after leaving his final Vedantic teacher he meditated in the forest for six years before he experienced enlightenment. Similarly, Bodhidharma, a semi-mythological figure who is said to have brought Zen from India to China, meditated in a cave for nine years before considering himself ready to teach (and this was after he had received the official “mind seal” from his teacher that authorized him to teach others).
Dogen is using these examples to give his disciples a realistic sense of the work it takes to attain realization. The “mud” of our primordial bad habits that stop us from seeing our reflection in the pond of Truth does not settle easily. If you have ever tried to actually meditate for even twenty seconds you will know what I mean. One moment you are tranquilly dwelling in spacious inner peace, and the next moment you are utterly lost in the memory of a delicious corn dog you ate two weeks ago that really hit the spot. The sheer AMOUNT of distracting information that exists in the mind is outrageous once you actually try to calm it. Thousands of movies, slogans, memories, desires, words, and images pass through our mind every hour of the day. After going on my first mediation retreat I realized that my mind often behaves like a five year old child addicted to potent espresso trapped in a small room with hundreds of tiny TV screens filling every part of the wall.
Yet it can be trained. Like building muscles, however, this training can take years and perhaps even lifetimes of persistent dedication. Casual meditation undoubtedly has beneficial health, social, and psychological effects. But this should not be confused with the path to Enlightenment that is far more than a beneficial hobby and takes “wholehearted practice.” Yet, “like a lute that strung too tight or too loose will not play,” we must walk the middle path by not overdoing things and also realize that small efforts in meditation can make a big difference. No one can tell you what your middle path will look like, which perhaps will have little or nothing to do with meditation at all.
And, as in all scriptures, the wisdom of Dogen has to be translated realistically in our life as it is. We must remember that he was a 13th century zen monk; the implementation of his universal wisdom will look drastically different in each case, but the spirit of it is the same. We can live a normal modern life, make a contribution to society, and pursue worldly interests while simultaneously maintaining a meaningful spiritual practice and generally living for the sake of Enlightenment. Simply put, a life dedicated to enlightenment does not mean you formally meditate 24 hours a day; rather, it is a state of being that includes formal meditation in moderation but also encompasses all other aspects of our life as well (work, relationships, etc.). Also, some people literally only have time for a few minutes of meditation per day and yet can still fully embody the spirit of Dogen in the context of their circumstances. The spiritual path is, after all, not a to do list but a matter of the heart.
So: While God is “originally perfect” and “never apart from this very place,” as Dogen also says “we cannot dispense from wholehearted practice.” This practice is enlightenment, because through the power of practice we realize that practice, and our life itself, is the living manifestation of Truth.
“Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.”
Here Dogen emphasizes his view that zazen is the key to actually experiencing enlightenment. What is the use of memorizing the words and experiences of others? Scripture is only a “finger pointing to the moon,” a treasure map that only exists to inspire us to seek God within ourselves. “Taking the backward step that turns the light around” means returning, again and again, to the reality of the present moment; to the reality of the breath; to the reality of Awareness, which has nothing to do with belief, religion, or human intelligence. If this is done continually with great faith one’s “original face” will manifest, and they will know That which the word God and Buddha so inadequately signify.
Conclusion: Chill out…Enlightenment is an adventure, not an imposition!
Allow me to quote myself: Enlightenment is an adventure, not an imposition! It is easy to read writers like Dogen and feel inadequate or go to irrational extremes that always end in disaster. I used to get really pumped up by writings like this, set unattainable goals for myself, and always feel horrible in the end when I couldn’t meet them. I have since learned that such a strategy violates the middle path and is ironically a “golden chain” that makes spirituality just another way to puff up my ego. So now I utilize what I call “the baseline number.” I set an amount of meditation I can actually do each day (for years it was 25 minutes) and try to attend meditation retreats regularly. Sometimes I do more, but I’ve learned to be kind to myself if I simply cannot force it.
For neither I nor you should ever forget that the nature of the Universe is pure Love and Mercy. You are always unconditionally loved and are already a wonderful and beautiful and valuable and interesting and sacred person. Nothing you ever do or don’t do will change this, and you will never once be outside of God’s grace. I used to always judge myself for not doing enough on the spiritual path, and made it just another one of those “shoulds” that drive us to insanity by insisting that we, as living human beings, become lifeless ideals.
So now I think of the spiritual path as an adventure and not merely “the right thing to do.” My favorite symbolic image of this is Jesus when he says in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” There is no negative punishment for not being interested in the spiritual path. Yet the infinite bliss of God, the freedom of enlightenment, and the wisdom of the sages “stands at the door” and is waiting for anyone who passionately seeks it. And, as Jesus also said, “My Father’s house has many rooms.” For the Buddha is infinite, and unlike transient material things there is no limit to the dimensions (“rooms”) we can experience of It. God is a bottomless treasure chest that can satisfy us in a way that no created thing can. I thus view the path to God as the greatest possible adventure that a person can take whose rewards far exceed any other goal.
Yet let us not forget the wisdom of Dogen: What is this “God” right now in this present moment? It is seeing out of our very eyes, is always indeed “just this,” and as we brush our teeth a trillion galaxies shine without effort, celebrating the One and Only in a life without end. Om.
Thank you for reading,
Ehei Dogen being a boss, as usual…
Here is a link to the rest of the scripture: http://www.stanford.edu/group/scbs/sztp3/translations/gongyo_seiten/translations/part_3/fukan_zazengi.html
Also, if you are interested, a great abridged collection of Dogen’s work I personally recommend is called Moon in a Dewdrop.
Lastly, the inevitable question after such talks is always, “what do I actually do?” My personal and entirely subjective advice about this question is found in my new book, Daily Bliss, which is available for a free download on this website.
- Purposes of Meditation
- Zen Meditation in Activity
- Freedom from Worry Part II: Zen Meditation
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven
- Working from the State of Rest
- Ordinary Mind is the Way – Thoughts on Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan
- Three Reasons to go on a Meditation Retreat
- Exploring the 4 Noble Truths Part 1: Life is Suffering