on the Path of Devotion
A Translation of Dōgen Zenji’s Bendōwa
Sages one and all uphold the simple message of the wonders of truth with an amazing, unique, natural technique for reaching the pinnacle of enlightenment. Its hallmark is deep inward rapture. Its essence has been passed down unchanged to each of these enlightened ones in turn.
Reveling in this deep rapture begins with sitting upright in zazen meditation. Now, truth is abundantly present in all of us, but to raise it up we must practice it; to make it our own we must validate it. Truth fills your hand even as you let it go; it is neither one nor many. It fills your mouth even as you speak of it; it has neither height nor breadth. For holy ones, no perception remains in any direction as they reside in this truth; for others, no direction appears in any perception as they exploit it.
The way of devotion I am teaching brings forth all things in enlightenment and acts out the oneness of reality. But these will become mere fancy words of no concern to you when the time comes that you jump in and let go.
My own hunger for the truth drove me to crisscross Japan in search of knowledge, during the course of which I encountered the teacher known as Myozen, at Kenninji Temple, and began studying with him. Before I knew it, nine years had passed. It was during that period that I learned something of the Rinzai style. As the senior disciple of the revered master Eisai, Myozen carried the true message better than the other disciples or anyone else.
Next I headed to China where I continued my search in both parts of Zhejiang, learning the teachings of the five schools. At last, I attached myself to Zen master Nyojo of Taibo Peak, and there, was able to accomplish the great task to which one devotes one’s life. In 1227, I returned to Japan with the intent of spreading the truth and saving others. I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders.
However I ended up deciding to put off actively propounding the truth until a more propitious time; instead, for the time being, I would simply wander about in the spirit of the wise men of old, floating like a cloud and drifting like a leaf. But then my thoughts turned to those seekers of truth who, although unconcerned about fame or fortune and focused above all on the way, might nevertheless be led astray and deceived by charlatans and sink into extended confusion. They might never find how to grow the true seeds of wisdom and gain the way. They might never know what mountain the cloud was floating over or river the leaf was drifting down. Heartbroken at this thought, I resolved to gather and record the essential approaches used in the Zen monasteries in China as I experienced them personally, as well as the profound essence of Buddhism that I received from the my Buddhist teachers, so that those studying and resting in the way might know the true law of the Buddha’s house. This is the essence of the truth.
Legend has it that Shakyamuni Buddha entrusted the truth to Mahakashyapa at the assembly on Vulture Peak; it was then passed on faithfully, master to master, down to Bodhidharma. The latter betook himself to China, where he bequeathed the truth on the great master Eka. This was the beginning of Buddhism’s spread throughout eastern Asia.
In this way the simple message found its way to the sixth patriarch, Zen Master Eno, driving out the idea that Buddhism was a matter of theoretical formulations, and flourishing throughout the land. Both of Eno’s two outstanding disciples, Ejo and Gyoshi, received and upheld the mark of the Buddha, and became masters of beings terrestrial and celestial. Their teachings spread and gave birth to five schools: Jogen, Igyo, Soto, Unmon, and Rinzai (although at present in China only the Rinzai school remains popular). But although there were five different schools, there was but one single mark of the Buddha mind.
Of course as far back as the later Han period, there had also been plenty of holy writings available in China, but no clear idea which were worth studying and which not. It was not until Bodhidharma’s arrival in China that the creeping vines of confusion could finally be cut off at the root, allowing a single, pure doctrine to spread. We can only pray that the same scenario unfolds here in Japan as well.
Sitting upright in deep inward rapture is the true path to enlightenment, said to have been followed by all teachers and holy ones who have mastered truth. In India to the west and China to the east, all those attaining enlightenment followed this way. And this was made possible by teachers carefully imparting the exquisite technique to their students, who in turn received it and made it their own.
In our religion the real message is that this truth, as simple and straightforward as it is, takes absolute precedence. From your first encounter with a teacher just sit, letting your body/mind drop away. Make no use of incense or bowing or chanting or ceremonies or scriptures.
When you sit upright in rapture, even once, imprinting the mark of truth on your body, speech, and mind, you imprint that same mark of truth on all known worlds, flooding the emptiness with light. Thus the sages rejoice, and renew the splendor of the path to satori. Beings throughout earth, heaven, and hell are purified and cleansed, affirm their absolute liberation, and show their original visage. All things attest to and engage the buddha’s true insight. Finally you transcend the realm of perception to become the king at the foot of the bodhi tree in seated meditation, instantly turning the incomparable wheel of being and unfolding the ultimate wisdom.
This enlightened world circles back to sustain the zazenners, that they might completely drop off body/mind, disconnect from random, impure perceptions and thoughts, affirm and enter into the intrinsic truth of Buddhism, raise up the teachings at countless places of practice, and bequeath widely the chance for surpassing holiness and proclaim its law. As they do, soil and earth and grass and trees, fences and walls and tiles and pebbles throughout this world exude holiness. Blessed by the wind and water at the wellsprings of this outpouring, and graced by the incomparably subtle and inconceivable teaching, they soon arrive at enlightenment. Those taking up this water and fire endow themselves and everyone with whom they live and speak with endless virtue by spreading the teaching of original awakening, their efforts have wide effect, and imbuing the entire universe, within and without, with inexhaustible, indestructible, inconceivable, and immeasurable truth. But yet we don’t perceive these things while sitting—because in the stillness, stripped of artifice, we experience direct affirmation. Many hold the view that practice is one step, perfection a second; but this would imply that these two are perceived separately. Yet if perception is involved, it cannot be perfection. A mental muddle cannot bring us to perfection.
As your mind and surroundings sit together in stillness, awakening flows in, affirmation flows out. As you approach the boundary of self-rapture, you embody boundless truth and the profound and subtle teaching. Not a particle is moved nor aspect of reality disturbed. Wherever nature is touched by this teaching, a great light emanates, forever illuminating the profundity and strangeness of its truth. Earthly objects hold forth on behalf of sages and fools, and in return the sages and fools raise their voices on behalf of the earthly objects. Intrinsic to the world of realization of self and others is that we are fully endowed with an enlightened nature; we unfailingly carry ourselves according to enlightened law.
So zazen—even that of a single person, sitting a single time—joins with all things in contemplation and calmly connects with all moments of time, thus embodying the eternal divine teaching throughout time and space. Each experience of zazen is identically practice, identically realization. Practice is not just sitting on your cushion. It is the echo of emptiness being struck, the strange, sonorous, silken subtones before and after the mallet meets the metal of the bell. And true practice, unjudged and unjudgeable, is intrinsic to the true visage of each and every individual.
Put it this way: not even the collected power and wisdom of gods as numerous as the grains of sand on the shore of the Ganges could begin to comprehend the virtue in the zazen of one man.
Q1. You’ve certainly made the case that zazen has a great many advantages. But a stupid man might wonder on what basis you recommend zazen as the be-all and end-all, since there are many ways to approach the truth.
A1. I’d tell him on the basis that it’s the right way to approach it.
Q2. And why would zazen alone be the right approach?
A2. Because it is precisely the approach the historical Buddha passed down to us as the way to find truth. Because all enlightened ones did find, do now find, and will in the future find truth through zazen. Because the church fathers in India and China all found the truth though zazen. That’s why I present it as the right approach to men and angels alike.
Q3. Let’s say that this wondrous prayer technique has in fact been passed down correctly and was practiced by the ancient fathers, even though that seems far-fetched. But enough reading of the scriptures or chanting itself can also get you saved, right? How can just sitting by yourself doing nothing get you any closer to salvation?
A3. Your assertion, that the rapture of the sages and their matchless technique is merely sitting by yourself doing nothing, is an insult to our entire religion. You could hardly be more confused if you sat in the middle of the ocean claiming there was no water. If you practiced zazen you could already be sitting in the carefree self-rapture of the buddhas. Wouldn’t that be far better? It breaks my heart that you remain so blind and hypnotized.
Thought cannot penetrate the realm of the buddhas. Consciousness cannot approach it. How unlikely then that it could be known by the skeptical or the naïve! Only those of pure and great faith can enter it. Those who doubt will have difficulty receiving the teaching no matter how much they are taught. Even on Vulture Peak there were some of whom the Buddha said, “It may be best for them to depart”. So when faith arises in your mind then practice and study. If it does not then do not, bewailing the fact that after all this time truth has still not bestowed its fruits upon you.
Do you really imagine that you understand what doing things like reciting scriptures or chanting God’s name is supposed to get you? The notion that merely moving your tongue or raising your voice could bring God’s grace is irrational. Time will show clearly how far these practices are from Buddhism. Scriptures serve only to document the teachings of the Buddha regarding practice that we need to follow in order to accomplish our goal. Do not tax your paltry intellect in the vain hope that you might thereby be able to attain wisdom. You have no more chance finding the truth by flapping your gums reciting ten million Hail Marys than you would trying to get south by driving north. It’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Reading a scripture without understanding how to practice is like reading a prescription but forgetting to take the medicine—it accomplishes nothing. And neither do sounds issuing incessantly from your mouth, like toads croaking day and night in the spring rice paddies. People enthralled by fame and fortune find these practices especially difficult to discard, because of the depth of their avarice. Such people existed in the past, as well as today. It’s heartbreaking.
Let me be clear about one thing. The wondrous truth of the seven buddhas must be conveyed from master to student, the master having attained the way and clarified his mind, the student realizing his nature and affirming his being. That is how this truth is revealed and maintained. It is not something that can be grasped by our brothers who base their study on the written word. So cast aside your doubts; follow the teachings of a true teacher; devote yourselves to the way of zazen; and validate the self-inward rapture of the buddhas.
Q4. The Tendai and Kegon teachings now popular in Japan are among the finest in Buddhism. Then there is Shingon, passed down directly and unblemished by Vairocana Tathagata to Vajrasattva. Its teachings, summed up as “Thus Mind Is Buddha; Being Mind Makes Buddha”, do not require passing through eons of training; instead, a single sitting results in the enlightenment of the five Buddhas. Certainly this doctrine represents the mystery of Buddhism at its best. What is so good about your type of practice that you recommend it to the exclusion of all these other teachings?
A4. Let’s be clear about what is important in Buddhism. It’s knowing whether practice is genuine, not debating the relative superiority or inferiority of one doctrine to another, or pointing out the supposed shallowness of one belief or the profundity of another. It could be plants and flowers and mountains and rivers that draw you into merging with the Buddha way. It could be grasping earth, stones, sand, or pebbles that brands you with the Buddha’s seal. But all the phenomena of nature can be swamped by torrents of words; the wheel of dharma can turn within a speck of dust. I could just as easily say “Thus Mind Thus Buddha,” but this would just be the moon reflecting in the water; I could just as easily tell you “Thus Sitting Becomes Buddha,” but that would just be an image in a mirror. Do not be distracted by eloquent words. I recommend the practice where you experience enlightenment directly so that you may know the wondrous path passed down directly from our predecessors in the faith and become people of the true path.
And a religious teacher aligned with the truth is indispensable for Buddhism to be taught and learned. Academics with their nose buried in the scriptures cannot shepherd our flock; that would be a case of the blind leading the blind. One of the bulwarks of Buddhism is that all those following the teachings handed down by the church fathers respect the master who has attained the way and is aligned with the truth. Both to unbelievers who come seeking refuge, and students of other faiths who come questioning the truth, he holds out his hand that they might open and illuminate their mental state. This is unheard of in other sects. Disciples of the Buddha should simply learn Buddhism.
Intrinsically, we are all completely and perfectly sane. We are enveloped and imbued by this sanity. But unable to bring ourselves to acknowledge this, we hatch a hodgepodge of beliefs which we embrace and then chase as if they were real, stumbling and falling on the great way. These beliefs embroider the entire sky with their flowery efflorescence. Otherwise, people would not have dreamed up the twelve-fold chain of causation, or the twenty-five realms of existence, or the doctrines of three vehicles and five vehicles or buddha’s existence or non-existence. Do not confuse learning these doctrines with the true practice of Buddhism.
When you now release everything and sit single-mindedly in zazen, departing the realm of delusion, enlightenment, emotion, and intellect and leaving aside paths sacred or mundane, instantly you find yourself enveloped by and imbued with sanity, on a leisurely stroll outside of the matrix. Those entrapped in the snare of words have nothing to compare with this.
Q5. Zen is already included in The Three Learnings, namely Precepts, Meditation, and Wisdom, since the the “jo (meditation)” part of the Japanese version “kai-jo-e” is short for “zenjo.” And it’s already included in the Six Paramitas, since one of them is “dhyana paramita”, the perfection of meditation, where “dhyana” is the Sanskrit precursor of the Chinese term “chan” and the Japanese “zen”. All Buddhas-to-be learn about both of these as beginners in the search for truth and practice them through thick and thin. So your “zazen” would seem to be just one principle of many. On what basis are you claiming it brings together the true dharma of the tathagatas?
A5. This question may arise from confusion caused by the fact that the name “Zen” has come to be applied to this Treasury of the True Dharma Eye on the Tathagata’s Great Question, the matchless Great Law.
The term “Zen” arose in China; it was never used in India. During the great master Bodhidharma’s nine years of wall-gazing at Shaolin Temple on Mt. Song, neither monks nor laypeople understood the Buddha’s true teaching as yet so they simply referred to him as “that Indian monk who makes a religion of zazen.” The following generations of church fathers all focused exclusively on zazen, as evidenced by the fact that common folk, unaware of the reality, dubbed them the “Zazen Church.” In today’s world people have come to drop the “za” and now simply use “Zen” to refer to the sect or religion. But the pronouncements of our forebears make it clear where the roots of this word lie. Zazen must not be considered in the same sense as the “zen” concentration or meditation in the Three Learnings or the Six Paramitas.
The Buddha’s Law has been seamlessly passed down across the generations without a single gap. The heavenly hosts bear incontrovertible witness to the ceremony on Vulture Peak where Shakyamuni Tathagata conveyed to Mahakashyapa the treasury of the true dharma eye, the wondrous mind of nirvana, the great truth. Those same multitudes of angels will hold and protect the Buddha-dharma into eternity, with effort unflagging.
Let me be perfectly clear. This is the entire road of the Buddha Law. It brooks no comparison.
Q6. What in Buddhism leads you to recommend meditation in the seated posture, in preference to the other four postures, for entering enlightenment?
A6. I do not claim to know everything about the way in which each successive buddha of old practiced and entered enlightenment. If you need a reason for seated meditation, think of the reason as being that that is what is used in the Buddha’s mansion. And that is reason enough. But another reason for you is that one ancestor described zazen approvingly as “approaching the truth in joyful repose,” and you can deduce for yourself that sitting is the posture that fits the bill best. I would also emphasize that this is the path of all buddhas that have preceded us, not just one or two.
Q7. This zazen may be something that people who have not yet reached an internal affirmation of Buddhism can devote themselves to in order to get that affirmation. But what does it offer to those who have already reached clarity on the Buddha’s true law?
A7. At the risk of casting pearls before swine, or trying to give an oar to a woodcutter, let me expand on this point.
Thinking of practice and enlightenment as two separate things is just wrong. In Buddhism, practice and enlightenment are identical. You can experience this practice within enlightenment even now by assuming a beginner’s mind and devoting yourself to the way; this is the entirety of intrinsic enlightenment. Why do we recommend in the instructions for practice not having any expectation of enlightenment? Because practice is already the intrinsic realization that points directly to your true self. Enlightenment is practice, so it has no end; practice is enlightenment, so it has no beginning. Shakyamuni Tathagata and venerable Mahakashyapa were both filled and enriched with practice within realization, and practice within realization also drove great master Bodhidharma and venerable Eno. After embracing Buddha’s truth, it is like this for everyone.
Practice has never been separate from enlightenment. With each slice of that unique practice which you gratefully learned one-on-one, of your beginner’s mind devoting itself to the way, comes a slice of intrinsic enlightenment in its natural habitat. Our church fathers admonished us to maintain a robust practice in order to avoid defiling the enlightenment from which it cannot be separated. As your hands release ineffable practice, intrinsic enlightenment will fill them; as intrinsic enlightenment passes from your body, ineffable practice will course through it.
I saw for myself that temples everywhere in China have halls for zazen accommodating five hundred, six hundred, a thousand or two thousand monks, encouraged to do zazen day and night. When I asked the head monks about the true meaning of Buddhism, these keepers of the Buddha’s seal informed me that it lay in the identity of practice and enlightenment.
That is why I call on not just those studying here, but all worthy seekers of truth, all who long for the reality within the Buddha Law, be they new or old, saint or sinner, to follow the path of the masters and devote themselves to the way of zazen as the sages before us have taught.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the old master who said “There’s no point in making light of practice and enlightenment. They’re here to stay anyway.”
Then there was the one who said “See the way, walk the way.” The implication is clear: you must practice within attainment of the way.
Q8. Past teachers of Buddhist doctrines in Japan all visited China and heard the true message there. Why did they bring back only the doctrinal teachings and not the framework you are speaking of?
A8. These ancient teachers of men did not bring back the Law because the time had not yet arrived for them to do so.
Q9. Do you think those teachers of old grasped the Law?
A9. If they had understood it, it would have spread.
Q10. It has been said:
“Bemoan not mortality; the path to escape it is at hand, and it is to realize the eternal nature of spirit. The body shall die just as surely as it is born, but not so the spirit. Realize that the immortal spirit exists within, and that therein lies thy essential nature, the body a mere temporary abode, ephemeral, dying here, reborn there. Mind endures unchanging, throughout past, present, and future. To understand this is to be liberated from mortality. Those who do so put an end to the living and dying of the past and, when they cast off their mortal form, enter the ocean of nature. As they do so verily they are endowed with the same sacred virtue as the buddha tathagatas. Those who have not yet learned this principle are damned to repeat their experience of mortality forever.
The only possible conclusion is that we must hasten to comprehend that mind endures. What on earth is to be gained by wasting your time sitting on a cushion?”
Is this line of thinking in accord with the way of the buddhas and patriarchs?
A10. Not in the least. It’s the heresy of Senika.
According to this heretical view, lurking in your body is a sort of ghostly intelligence, which can tell good from bad, right from wrong. The ability to know pain and pleasure, suffering and delight is due to this ghostly intelligence. And what’s more, this ghost-like nature can slip out of a dying body and be reborn over yonder. Just when you think it’s dying, it manages to get itself reborn somewhere else and thus hangs on through all eternity.
That’s what the heresy says.
Believing such nonsense to be Buddhism is more foolish than grasping tiles and pebbles and imagining that they are golden jewels. The utter stupidity of such views leaves me at a loss for an analogy. National Master Echu of Great Tang China rebuked them strongly. How laughable—raising to the level of the subtle truth of the buddhas the belief that the soul endures and the body perishes, thereby promoting the basic cause of the very mortality that you are trying to escape? It’s pitiful. Know that this is pure heresy, and pay it no heed.
There’s no point in stopping here. If you really want to be saved from this heresy, know that the teaching is that in the Buddha’s Law body and mind are intrinsically unified, nature and aspect are indivisible; the same is known throughout China and in India, and shall never be violated. If a religion teaches permanence then everything is permanent and it is impossible to separate body and mind. If a religion teaches evanescence then everything is evanescent and it is impossible to separate nature and aspect. In either case, it cannot possibly be true that the body perishes while the spirit lives on. Realize that mortality is in fact exactly nirvana. Nirvana has never been discussed outside the context of mortality. And let me say, the mind which tries to arrive at a supposed Buddhistic wisdom which avoids mortality, based on the idea that mind is separate from body and endures forever, is an understanding and perceiving mind which is itself subject to mortality, thus violating the premise of eternality. This is undeniable.
Look closely, and you’ll see that Buddhism has always taught that body and mind are unified. So why on earth should the mind take off and detach itself from the body and survive when the body goes down? That would imply that body and mind are unified sometimes and not unified other times, meaning that Buddhism is just a big lie. Those who think the idea is to eliminate mortality are guilty of hating Buddhism. We must tread carefully here.
The gate to the truth that Buddhism talks of as “the nature of mind being the great overall aspect” refers to the entire phenomenal world, without separating nature and aspect, without speaking of living and dying. Everything, up to and including bodhi and nirvana, is mind essence. Each and every thing and phenomenon is this one mind, excluding nothing, disconnecting nothing. All of the gates to the truth are equally one mind. To preach that there is absolutely no difference among them truly is the mark of knowledge of the mind nature of the Buddha house.
And thus in this single law, it is not possible to think of body and mind separately, or to distinguish between mortality and nirvana. We are born children of the Buddha. and must not lend our ears to the jumbled mumblings of the non-Buddhist philosophers.
Q11. Must those pursuing this zazen strictly abide by the precepts?
A11. Following the precepts and leading a pure life is indeed basic to the Zen school and the traditions of our Buddhist patriarchs, but even those who have not yet received the precepts or who have broken them may still benefit from zazen.
Q12. Can someone practicing this zazen also engage in Shingon and/or Shikan?
A12. The entire time that I was in China, the masters there whom I met and of whom I inquired the truth told me that of all the patriarchs, past and present, East and West, who carried the true message of the Buddha seal, they had never heard of one who combined practices as you propose. Attaining a singular wisdom requires taking a singular approach.
Q13. Can men and women in the material world follow the practice you describe, or is it limited to those who devote themselves to it monastically?
A13. The patriarchs have told us that the Buddha Law makes no distinctions of gender or status as to who can grasp it.
Q14. But monks can leave behind all the cares of daily life and devote themselves to the way of zazen without impediment. How can those pursuing the affairs of the material world dedicate themselves to practice and fulfill the natural Buddha way?
A14. The patriarchs have in their great benevolence opened to us the vast gate of compassion, that each and every living being might achieve realization. The gate is open to man and angel without exception. And many are those who have entered it and are entering it now. For example, the Tang emperors Dai Zong and Shun Zong, although preoccupied with affairs of state, nevertheless devoted themselves to the way of zazen and penetrated the great path of the patriarchs. Prime Ministers Li and Fang were both trusted aides to their emperors and the legs and arms of the nation, but still devoted themselves to the way of zazen and achieved realization onto the great path of the patriarchs. So it simply depends on your commitment, not on whether you have left the world behind to become a monk or not. Anyone possessed of a keen ability to discern excellence will be drawn to believe. Those who imagine that daily activities will interfere with the Buddha Law are stuck in the belief that there is no Law of the Buddha in the midst of the world, having not yet realized that there is no Law of the world in the midst of the Buddha.
Recently in China there was a Minister of State named Feng, a high-ranking official experienced in the way of the patriarchs. He wrote the following poem to express himself:
When duties permit, I delight in zazen;
Seldom do I sleep my shoulders touching the bed.
And although I appear to be a minister,
My name is known across the four seas as a senior adept.
This man was constantly occupied with his official duties, but was able to attain the way due to his deep commitment to it. Based on others, cast your eyes on yourself. Based on the past, reflect on the present.
In Great Song China, the Emperor, his ministers, aristocrats and commoners, men and women all have minds which linger in the way of the ancestors. Warriors and scholars alike are committed to joining in and studying the way. That many of those so committed will illuminate the ground of their mind is beyond doubt. From this alone you can see that daily affairs do not interfere with the Buddha Law.
When true Buddha-dharma spreads throughout a nation, the buddhas and angels protect it, and the reign of the emperor proceeds in peace. As the reign of the holy proceeds in peace, the Buddha’s truth gains in strength.
And when Shakyamuni was alive, criminals and heretics gained the way. In the congregations of the ancient church fathers satori opened to hunters and woodcutters, So there is no reason this is impossible for anyone. All that is necessary is to seek the guidance of a true teacher.
Q15. Can this practice bring us enlightenment even in these final days of our degenerate society?
A15. It is the doctrinaires, who specialize in naming and classifying things, that have invented the phases of True Dharma, Semblance Dharma, and Final Dharma you allude to; the actual teachings of Mahayana Buddhism teach no such thing. They simply say that anyone who practices will attain the way. In fact, whether you are starting on the path or completing it, the simple message of the truth is just to gather the same rare family treasures and fill yourself with them, The person doing the practicing himself knows whether or not he is enlightened in the same way that a person drinking water himself can tell whether it is tepid or cool.
Q16. It has been said:
In Buddhism, nothing is required except to fully grasp the principle of “Thus Mind Is Buddha”; no sutras need pass your lips, no trappings of Buddhism adorn your body. Knowing that Buddhism is intrinsically within you—this completes the circle of attaining the way. Nothing remains to be sought from others. Why, then, must we go to all the trouble of following the zazen path of devotion?
A16. This statement lacks all rhyme and reason. If what you said were even remotely true, then anyone with mental function could obtain knowledge simply by being taught this idea.
You need to let go of other people’s beliefs and your own in order to study Buddhism. If you could attain the way just by understanding “Self Equals Buddha” then Shakyamuni would not have bothered to give us his teachings.
Let me illustrate this with an excellent example from an old master.
Long ago, there was a director monk named Gensoku in the congregation of Zen Master Hogen, who asked him, “Gensoku, when was it again that you came to this temple?”
Gensoku replied, “Three years have passed since I arrived here.”
The Zen Master said, “You’re fairly new here then. Why haven’t you ever asked me about Buddhism?”
Gensoku replied, “I cannot lie to you, Master. Actually while I was studying with Zen Master Seiho, I already reached the state of joyful repose in Buddhism,”
The Zen Master asked, “And through what words was it that you were able to obtain that entrance?”
Gensoku answered, “I asked Seiho, ‘What is the nature of the self of this student?’ And he replied, ‘Filii Vulcani veniunt ignem petentes. (The children of Vulcan come seeking fire.)’”
Hogen responded, “Fine-sounding words. But perhaps you didn’t really understand them.”
Gensoku said, “But Vulcan is the Roman god of fire. I understood that searching for fire with fire was similar to searching for the self with the self.”
The Zen Master replied, “Now I see that you in fact don’t get it. If that was all there was to Buddhism then there is no way it would have been passed all the way down to us today.”
Devastated, Gensoku stomped out of the meeting. But halfway back to his quarters he thought, “The Zen Master is famed as a top teachers, and the spiritual leader of 500 souls. There must be something to his criticism.” He returned to the Zen Master, apologizing for his rudeness, and asked him, “What is the nature of the self of this student?”
The Zen Master replied, “Filii Vulcani veniunt ignem petentes.”
Upon hearing this, Gensoku had an immense satori experience.
It’s clear, then, that you cannot claim to have understood Buddhism by virtue of superficially comprehending a formula like “Self Equals Buddha”. If superficially comprehending “Self Equals Buddha” is Buddhism, our Zen Master above would have given neither the guidance nor the admonition that he did. From the first time you meet your teacher, just learn the rules of practice and single-mindedly follow the zazen path of devotion, without letting fragments of knowledge and half-baked concepts stick in your mind. Then Buddhism’s wonderful technique will not be in vain.
Q17. We hear stories from ancient India or China where people realized the way on hearing the sound of bamboo being struck, or cleared the mind on seeing the colors of a flower, and the Great Teacher Shakyamuni affirmed the way upon seeing the morning star, while the venerable Ananda attained clarity in truth when told to take down the banner pole; during the period of the five Zen schools following the sixth patriarch Eno for many a single word or half a phrase was enough to illuminate the foundation of the mind, yet not all of these people had been practicing the zazen way of devotion, had they?
A17. You must realize that now or in the past, those who seeing colors clarified their mind, or hearing sounds realized the truth, were, one and all, exactly those who did not doubt, debate, or deconstruct the way of devotion and were at one with themselves in the moment.
Q18. People from India and China are sincere by nature. Living in the center of civilization as they do, they are more receptive to Buddhism when it is taught. In Japan, people have always lacked virtue and wisdom, making it difficult for the seeds of truth to grow. It is deplorable that we are such barbarians. Our monks can’t even measure up to the laypeople in India and China. Our world is obtuse and small-minded. We spend all our time trying to make ourselves look good and adore superficiality. I doubt if even zazen can help people like this grasp Buddhism.
A18. You’re right. The people in our country are twisted, and still lack virtue and wisdom. Teach them the honest truth and they manage to turn its heavenly nectar into poison. They are quick to go running after fame and fortune, slow to dissolve their confusion and attachments. However, the worldly knowledge of men and angels is not the vessel in which we make the voyage to entering and affirming the Buddha’s truth. When the Buddha was alive, someone attained the fourth stage by being struck by a ball; while someone else illuminated the great way when she put on an monk’s robe as a joke, even though both were stupid, crazy animals. True belief was what helped them leave confusion behind. There was the lay woman who experienced satori when she offered a meal to a senile old priest that just sat there saying nothing; this was not based on knowledge, not based on learning, not relying on words, not relying on stories, just sustained by true faith.
Shakyamuni’s teachings have now been spreading throughout the billion worlds for more than two thousand years. The many lands they have reached include some where virtue and wisdom do not prevail and some where the people are not necessarily sages. But the miraculous great power of good intrinsic to the true law of the tathagata will allow it to spread in each land when the right time arrives. People of true faith and diligent practice will obtain the way, regardless of their level of intelligence. Do not think that our people should not encounter Buddhism because they are stupid or our country is short on virtue and wisdom. The seeds of true wisdom are abundant in all of us. It’s just that we rarely acknowledge that they are and have not yet taken them up and made them our own.
Perhaps this question-and-answer approach, with me asking the questions and then turning around and answering them, has proven somewhat confusing. To what extent have I been creating flowers in the flowerless sky? But it is sad for those possessing the will to know the real meaning of the zazen path of devotion that it has still not been brought into our country. That is why I decided to answer the prayers of aspiring practitioners by gathering the things I saw and heard in a foreign land, and recording the truths of the clear-eyed masters. Other rules of practice and temple regulations need to be written down as well, but that deserves more time than I have now.
Although our country lies east of the Dragon Ocean, far beyond the clouds and mist, its people were indeed blessed by Buddhism being brought from West to East around the time of the Emperors Kimmei and Yomei. But the corruptive focus on names, appearances, and rituals has relegated practice to a position of unimportance. Choose instead, now, to don a torn robe and eat from a patched-together bowl for the rest of your life, build a straw hut by the mossy crags and white cliffs, and practice sitting upright, whereupon going beyond Buddha will be immediately revealed and the great task of your life of study instantly accomplished. This is exactly the teaching of the dragon’s tusk and the legacy of the chicken’s foot. The rules of zazen which you should follow can be found in “Fukanzazengi,” which I compiled in the Karoku era.
Normally we would await the emperor’s edict to spread Buddhism throughout our country, but it is the edict that the Buddha left on Vulture’s Peak that should be graciously received by emperors, ministers, nobles, and generals of one hundred billion lands, who have not forgotten how in their past lives they protected and maintained Buddhism. Everywhere the teachings spread becomes Buddha-land. So spreading the word of Buddhism does not necessarily require choosing the right place or waiting for the right circumstances. Why don’t we just start today?
Thus I gather these thoughts and leave them for distinguished seekers after truth as well as those who wander, like drifting clouds or floating weeds, in search of the Way.
Written this mid-autumn day, the third year of Kangi (1231), by the mendicant Dogen, Visitor to China, Messenger of the Truth.