This nine-week course is an interfaith opportunity presented by Christians Aware, as part of its Faith Awareness programme. It is presented in association with the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.
This evening, Kevin Commons and Ian Grayling, from Leicester Serene Zen Meditation Group present a Soto Zen perspective on our them, entitled "Dogen: Mystical Realist". Kevin has prepared a handout, which is reproduced below:
Origins of Zen Buddhism
After years of trying various practices Shakyamuni finally just sat under the Bodhi tree, experiencing all manner of thoughts and images, until the morning star appeared, at which point all thought dropped away, and he experienced Enlightenment, and became the Buddha. He was prevailed upon to teach and, over time, gathered a large following of disciples, to whom he regularly unfolded aspects of his teaching. One day, on Vulture Peak Mountain , instead of talking, he just held up a flower and Mahakashyapa, one of his main disciples, smiled, indicating his understanding of the essence of the teaching. This incident is regarded as the foundation of the Zen form of Buddhism, which involves the transmission of the teaching “outside the scriptures”. The point is that, although there are lots of Buddhist scriptures, in the Zen tradition scripture study does not, in itself, result in realising the heart of the teaching. Direct experience, beyond words is necessary for this. This form of Buddhism was taken to China by the Bodhidharma, and maintained by a succession of Chinese patriarchs, including Hui-Neng, who had held the lowly position of kitchen assistant at his monastery and was believed to have been illiterate.
Dogen’s early childhood (1200-1212)
At the time of Dogen’s birth the Japanese nobility had become steeped in aesthetic refinement. This inspired a sense of the transience of beauty, and so focused on the aesthetic, rather than ethical, aspects of religion. Consequently, they were indifferent to the lot of the masses. His birth was also preceded by the establishment of feudalism in Japan and the rise of the Samurai class. In a time of political chaos, many Buddhist monasteries’ concern about their wealth, prestige and power was to the detriment of their moral, intellectual and religious activities.
Though Dogen’s father died when he was two, the death of his mother when he was seven had a bigger impact, as she had requested, on her deathbed, that he should become a monk in order to seek the truth of Buddhism and strive to relieve the sufferings of humanity. This imperative prevailed against his uncle Moroie’s wish to name him as his heir and to establish him in a career as an aristocrat.
Apprenticeship in Buddhism (1212-1227)
Dogen was ordained in 1213 and began a systematic study of the Buddhist scriptures. This led him to this seemingly insoluble spiritual question:
“As I study both the exoteric and esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?” (Quoted in Hee-Jin Kim (2004) p. 22)
Whilst Dogen accepted the truth of original enlightenment he did question the significance of activities that constitute human existence, which amounted to asking “What is the meaning of existence?” To seek an answer he studied with various Buddhist teachers, most notably Myozen, who had brought Rinzai Zen from China to Japan . Yet he still felt dissatisfied with much of the Buddhist teaching in contemporary Japan as his original question remained unanswered so he travelled to China to continue his search in 1223. He stayed at various monasteries but overall was rather disappointed with the state of Buddhism in China and had decided to return to Japan , when an old monk suggested he should visit Ju-ching, the abbot of Mount T’ien-tung monastery. Ju-ching was a rigorous practitioner of Ts’ao-tung (Soto Zen) sitting in theshikan-taza (just sitting) form of za-zen (formal sitting meditation) every day, often for long periods. Unlike his contemporaries he eschewed politics, prestige and financial reward but rather focused on helping his students to see the truth for themselves. One day Ju-ching admonished a monk who had fallen asleep during meditation with the following words:
“In za-zen it is imperative to cast off body and mind. How could you indulge in sleeping?” (Quoted in Hee-Jin Kim (2004) p. 36)
The remark shook Dogen to his core and he experienced an inexpressible ecstatic joy that engulfed his heart and Ju-ching acknowledged the authenticity of Dogen’s enlightenment experience.
“To cast off body and mind did not nullify historical and social existence so much as to put it into action so that it could be the self-creative and self-expressive embodiment of Buddha-nature. In being “cast off”, however, concrete human experience was fashioned in the mode of radical freedom – purposeless, goalless, objectless, and meaningless. Buddha-nature was not to be enfolded in, but was to unfold through, human activities and expressions. The meaning of existence was finally freed from and authenticated by its all-too-human conditions only if, and when, it lived co-eternally with ultimate meaninglessness.
What was taking place in Dogen’s mind was a radical demythologising and in return remythologising of the whole Buddhist symbol-complex of original enlightenment, Buddha-nature, emptiness, and other related ideas and practices. The crux of his vision lay in a realistic affirmation and transformation of what was relative, finite, and temporal in a nondualistic vision of the self and the world. To understand duality lucidly and to penetrate it thoroughly within a nondualistic mode of existence was Dogen’s final solution. His remaining life consisted of his intellectual, moral, and cultic efforts to enact and elucidate this vision in the specific historical and social conditions of his time.” (Hee-Jin Kim (2004) p. 37)
Return to Japan (1227 to 1253)
This experience answered Dogen’s question about the meaning of existence. In 1227 he returned to Japan to transmit the ancestral line of his teacher to his own countrymen. In the same year he composedFukan zazengi “Rules for Meditation”, (Appendix) which can be regarded as a manifesto for the teaching he proclaimed. He stayed at Kenninji temple until 1230, when he moved to an abandoned temple called An’yoin, where he composed the Bendowa chapter of theShobogenzo, which expanded his teaching in the Fukan zazengi. In 1233 he moved into Kannon-doriin temple, which was expanded over the next ten years, and wrote 44 more chapters of the Shobogenzo and took on Ejo as a disciple, who helped with the administration of the temple and its development. He opened the monastic community of the re-named, expanded, Kannon-horinji temple to everyone regardless of intelligence, social status, sex or profession and abolished the separation between monks and lay people, writing:
“It (enlightenment) depends solely upon whether you have a sincere desire to seek it, not upon whether you live in a monastery or in the secular world.” (Quoted in Hee-Jin Kim (2004) p. 42)
However, he did put the bulk of his effort into developing monastic training and his lay disciples built the Daibutsuji temple in a secluded mountain area. He moved there in 1244 and., two years later, changed its name to Eiheiji (temple of eternal peace) under which name it survives today. He spent much of his later years establishing the detail of daily life and practice for his monastic community. In 1253 he appointed Ejo as his successor and finally succumbed to illness that he had experienced for about 3 years. He died sitting in the zazenposture.
Much of the material about Dogen's life comes from: Hee-Jin Kim's Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist Wisdom Publications (2004). You can find a review of the book online in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.
After an hour or so of the session, we're invited to dry a bit of zazen - "just sitting" - meditation. We can sit on the floor, with various kinds of stools or cushions for support or remain in our chairs (as I do) and face the wall for ten minutes. Eyes open, not struggling against any thoughts which may arise, but not deliberately engaging with them if possible. I don't think I'll be able to last that long without falling asleep, but I find it surprisingly easy - and refreshing.