The following commentary has been taken, in slightly different form, from the forthcoming book, Meeting the True Dragon: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi.
Eihei Dogen was born in the Japanese Capital of Kyoto in 1200. He was a Dharma heir in both the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen and is credited with being the founder of the Soto school in Japan after having trained in China and receiving Dharma transmission from the Chinese Soto master Tiantong Rujing. After returning to Japan in 1227 he took up residence at the Rinzai temple Kennin and wrote the Fukanzazengi, which may be translated as “Universal Recommendation of Zazen for all People,” or “Principles of Seated Meditation.” It was largely based on an earlier text called the Tso-Ch’an I, composed in 1103 and attributed to Ch’ang-lu Tsung-tse. Ch’ang-lu’s text found great popularity and was frequently imitated by other writers, including Dogen. Dogen was not fully satisfied with Ch’ang-lu Tsung-tse’s work and made many substantial changes and improvements, adding not only more clarity but also an eloquence of style for which he is well known. The Fukanzazengi, as well as almost all of Dogen’s other writings, was, for the most part, unknown outside of the Soto school, and even within the Soto school, only about 10% of the monks were literate and able to read his work. It has not been until fairly recently that Dogen’s writing has begun to find its way outside of the Soto school and into translation throughout the world.
Commentary on the Fukanzazengi
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.
After providing us with precise instructions on our physical posture when seated on the cushion, Master Dogen now begins to bring us into the heart of zazen: Think not-thinking. Now, how do we do that? Dogen even poses this very question right in the text so that he may respond: Non-thinking. Now we are entering the inexpressible heart of the matter: the functioning of our mind and how this relates to our meditation practice. It’s an understatement to say that our mind does many things. It’s a mystery that science will never completely fathom. For our purposes and with regards to the Fukanzazengi, we will look at our mind from the perspective of its thought production.
Thoughts appear in our mind all the time. Their production is a natural function of the brain and may be seen as no more of a hindrance to us than the production of bile from the gallbladder or the production of urine from the kidneys. We may also say, in a very broad sense, that our brain produces thoughts just as our eyes produce sight, our ears produce sound, our nose produces scent, our tongue produces taste and our flesh produces the sensation of touch. Now, there are some who would say that to stop all thought is the main purpose of our meditation. They might argue that we are looking for – to quote a cliché – the “still point” whereby there are no thoughts and our mind is a vast empty space. But trying to suppress thoughts or stop their production is like trying to remove colors from our eyes or sounds from our ears. It would be like trying to erase the color blue from the sky. However, through simple, basic techniques such as counting or following our breath we are able to bring our mind to focus on a task and thus keep it reigned in. These techniques increase our power of concentration while decreasing the chances of the mind wandering off – which is exactly what the mind wants to do. It wants to stay busy and create stories or drama while preparing for the future or ruminating on the past. Simple thoughts lead to sentences which lead to stories and so on and so forth. It’s endless! And we believe it’s real. But it’s all just in our heads, and while we’re busy amusing ourselves with our stories, a big black bear wanders by the window! If anything will bring someone right back to the here and now, it’s a black bear walking by the window.
Cultivating our power of concentration in zazen is crucial to non-thinking. The power of being able to focus the mind on a task allows for a greater, more spacious awareness to reveal itself during our meditation. This spacious awareness has been there all along, but because we have been so busy thinking, processing and figuring things out, it has been largely obscured, much in the same way that clouds obscure the vast sky. Thoughts, as a natural product of the brain, will always occur, but that doesn’t mean that we have to pay much attention to them. These thoughts will naturally, and of their own accord, disappear if we don’t feed them our undivided attention – and we soon realize that they need our attention in order to exist. Over time, as we pay less and less attention to our thoughts, and especially less attention to the cultivation of thinking, we may find that thought production is vastly reduced, giving way to a more fluid feeling of spaciousness and of non-solidity. In this vast space we may begin to pay more attention to other things (or perhaps nothing at all), such as the sounds around us: the rustle of the leaves outside or the sound of a passing airplane. A cough. The creak of floorboards. There is so much happening in the world of sound. Listen! Within this vast space there are sounds, there is light, there are scents, and there are thoughts. This is non-thinking. This is what Dogen means by the essential art of zazen.
The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation.
Many of us have spent a lot of time in school. Many of us have gone on to university spending years studying various subjects, learning how to write essays and take exams. By the time we reach our early twenties we’ve been in school almost all of our life. In many ways we are so good at learning, so accustomed to it and so at ease with it that it has almost become second nature to learn something when we do an activity. What would be the point of doing an activity where we didn’t learn something? I knew someone who frequently said, “Everyday I want to learn something new.” This is an admirable trait, certainly, and in many respects it’s indicative of our society as a whole. We always seem to want to get something out of whatever we’re doing, whether it be yoga, sports, work, or even our leisure time. We want to learn, even if it’s just learning how to do something with less effort or in less time.
The meditation that Master Dogen is talking about is not concerned with learning anything. This is not a class where we take notes. We’re not learning new postures. The zazen that Dogen is talking about is not concerned with mulling over our problems and trying to figure out solutions, or sifting through past traumas and trying to come to terms with them. Neither are we processing anything. Processing, learning, figuring out, coming to terms with things – these are all the activity of the discursive mind. Important as these functions are for our daily existence, zazen has no concern for them whatsoever. And although things may come up while we’re sitting and we may look at them and be aware of them, we are not trying to figure anything out. Nor are we learning anything. We learn nothing in meditation. Zazen, from the standpoint of the discursive mind, is totally and utterly pointless.
It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.
Dharma refers to the Way or the Great Reality and the teachings that surround it. Gate, of course, refers to the entrance to this, the way in, so to speak. Dogen is emphasizing that zazen is a pathway to realization and yet, in the second half of the sentence, he underlines the fact that zazen is itself realization in “practice-realization” apart from anything else to obtain or realize.
When we are sitting zazen there is, at some point, a spaciousness that will reveal itself during our meditation. The more we practice concentration techniques of focusing the mind – on counting from one to ten, on following our breath or on other sensory observations – the more easily we let go of solidifying our thinking. Thoughts continue to appear, however, but our habitual tendency of following those thoughts and creating stories will eventually diminish as we practice diligently. This is non-thinking. Soon, a whole new space may open up between those thoughts – so to speak – a space that may at first seem unfamiliar and yet, deep down, we may feel as if we are coming home. Although one might think that the thoughts and the space in between the thoughts are different, they are not. They are one seamless flow of consciousness, a wave of awareness that sometimes manifests as thought and sometimes as non-thought. And sometimes it manifests as thinking. This is beyond thinking and non-thinking, this seamless awareness pervading everywhere. This practice of non-thinking allows for a vast field to reveal itself where the entire universe can show up unimpeded by our thinking: a fly buzzing around our head; dappled sunlight across the floor; the sound of leaves rustling outside the window; the feeling of the cushion under our legs. And then, suddenly, a thought passes. How marvelous! The brain is at work, doing its thing, and then, just as quickly as that thought enters our mind, it vanishes. A door opens in the distance and the sound of footsteps and creaking floorboards fills the air. What else is there? This practice is realization, which is Bodhi, or awakening, where all phenomena are just as they are. This zazen is called shikantaza.
Yasutani Roshi (1) said that this practice, shikantaza, is “the highest practice,” where “means and end coalesce.” He went on to say that, “when rightly practiced, you sit in the firm conviction that zazen is the actualization of your undefiled True-nature, and at the same time you sit in complete faith that the day will come when, exclaiming, “Oh this is it!” you will unmistakably realize this True-nature.” (2) This is precisely what Master Dogen is referring to when he writes, “the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Far from being simply a means to an end, zazen is the actualization of our true nature and not simply a technique for achieving enlightenment. However, it is important to experience enlightenment – even to a shallow degree – in order to grasp the truth of this, otherwise we are nothing more than elephant gropers (3), complacent in our discursive understanding and unconcerned with making Shayamuni’s experience our own. On this subject, Zen Master Hakuin considered enlightenment so crucial to one’s understanding of Zen that he went so far as to say that anyone who called themselves a follower of Zen and had not realized their true nature was, quite simply, an outright fraud (4). Yamada Roshi (5) said that attaining enlightenment was “the most important matter,” and that without this experience, “there is practically no Zen Buddhism.”(6)
It is the manifestation of ultimate reality.
In this meditation, which I mentioned earlier is called shikantaza, or just sitting, we are not labeling thoughts, sights, sounds, feelings or emotions. We are not adding anything to that which is already there, whatever it may be. In a certain sense, we could say that we are just observing this universe of free-flowing colors, sounds and puffs of ideas, all of which are transmigrating in and out of our sphere of consciousness. We are, quite simply, going along with what is, whether it’s the sound of the wind, a cool breeze on our neck or a thought popping up in our mind about what we’d like to have for lunch. In this moment, who is it that is observing what? Who is it sitting on a cushion, hearing the sounds, seeing the colors of light and darkness on the floor? Who is hearing the wind outside the window? Who is it? And what if there were just the observing? What if there was no perceivable observer? What if it were just the seeing, the hearing, the smelling, the feeling and the tasting? What if all of these things were going on and yet nobody was home? In other words, if we look at what I just wrote about “going along with what is” and take it even further, as Master Dogen is inviting us to do, what if we were to say that instead of going along with what is, what if we were what is, whatever it is happens to be? What if, instead of saying that we are just observing this universe, we were to experience that we were just this universe? Not observing something on the outside, but being all things without the illusion of an inside or an outside. The sound of footsteps. A cool breeze across our neck. A sneeze. As the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats once wrote, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (7) The dancer is the dance! Elsewhere, Dogen calls fully manifesting ultimate reality “genjokoan,” which is none other than our daily, ordinary deportment, opening a window, getting up from a chair, making a cup of tea or answering the phone. This is all the manifestation of ultimate reality. We do it everyday.
1 Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973) was a Dharma heir of Harada Roshi and teacher of Maezumi Roshi.
2 Kapleau, Philip, ed. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment. Beacon Press, 1967. p. 46.
3 The blind people who, touching different parts of the elephant, each describe it differently.
4 Waddell, Norman, translator. Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Shambhala, 2001. p. 1.
5 Koun Yamada Roshi (1907-1989) was a Dharma heir of Yasutani Roshi.
6 Yamada, Kohun. “Dogen Zenji and Enlightenment” in On Zen Practice II. Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, editors. Zen Center of Los Angeles, 1977. p. 7-9.
7 Yeats, W. B. “Among School Children.” The Poems of W.B. Yeats, A New Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1933.