Friday, January 19, 2007

Studying by Forgetting

"There is an easy way to become a Buddha: refraining from all evils, not clinging to birth and death, working in deep compassion for all sentient beings, respecting those over you and pitying those below you, without any detesting or desiring, worrying or lamentation -- this is what is called Buddha. Do not search beyond it." -- Dogen.

One of the most important religious thinkers in Japanese history -- the man who articulated for Japanese Buddhists the relationship between the life of the model monk and the quest for spiritual enlightenment -- Dogen was born at the beginning of the 13th century into the luxuries of a noble household. He was a child prodigy, lovingly encouraged by his elders, although his father died he was 2 and his mother died when he was 7. At the age of 4, he was reading Chinese poetry, and by the age of 9 he had become deeply immersed in Chinese Buddhist treatises.

Through the indulgence of an uncle, he entered monkhood at 13, but found monastic life in Japan at the beginning of the 13th century lacking in discipline and depth of thought; by and large, Japanese Buddhism at that time held that salvation lay in merely following a set of simplified tenets. After traveling through Japan looking without success for a great teacher, in 1223 he went to China. There, under the tutelage of the Ts'ao-tung Buddhist master Ju-ching, he began to see for the first time the expression of religious practice through daily chores, as well as through the practice of zazen (Zen meditation in a cross-legged sitting position).

While receiving instruction from Ju-ching, Dogen experienced enlightenment when Ju-ching noticed a sleeping monk and quipped, "In Zen, body and mind are cast off. Why do you sleep?" He stayed on with Ju-ching for two more years, and before returning to Japan, Dogen received the seal of succession from his master, thereby bridging the traditions of Chinese Zen Buddhism with a young Japanese master and marking the beginning of the Japanese Soto Zen sect.

Back in Japan in 1227, Dogen gained a reputation as a virtuous character and severe training techniques, and attracted many followers during the 1230s, monks as well as laymen. He was the first major Zen master to deliver homilies in Japanese instead of Chinese.

Dogen's essential message was that practice, in the form of zazen, and enlightenment were one, and in his treatise Fukanzazengi (1227), he described in minute detail the correct posture for sitting in meditation and gave specific instructions for proper practice. Through concentration on one's posture and other physical regimens, Dogen's notion of practice was to obliterate the self, or as he articulated it with almost mathematical rigor: "To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barrier between one's self and others."

Beyond practice, Dogen also concerned himself with metaphysics and ethics. While he shared the view of other Buddhist philosophers that there is an eternal consciousness, his original contribution to a Buddhist metaphysics (in his major work, Shobo-genzo, 1235-38) was his recognition of impermanence, the ever-changing reality (a unity of being and time, expressed similarly by the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger) in which the Buddha nature could be revealed. Out of his metaphysical observations about unity of all beings grew an ethical system, recognizing a unity and equality among all men and women and calling for altruistic love for humanity.

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