The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Belief, Understanding, and Personalization in Zen Practice

by Koun Yamada
August 5, 2015
Wed, 08/05/2015 - 10:00 -- Koun Yamada

Excerpt from Zen: The Authentic Gate by Koun Yamada.

Although belief, understanding, practice, enlightenment, and personalization come together into a single whole on the Zen path, they are not unique to Zen—any authentic religion will possess them. But just what is it that we believe, understand, practice, realize, and personalize in Zen? It is, of course, our True Self. The True Self is exactly the same thing as the true fact. Although the words “True Self” sound more subjective and the expression “true fact” sounds more objective, Shakyamuni Buddha realized both aspects in his great enlightenment: our own essential nature is identical to the essential nature of the universe—this is none other than unexcelled complete awakening. This is the fundamental standpoint of Buddhism.

Harada Roshi provides a painstaking explanation of the five elements of belief, understanding, practice, enlightenment, and personalization in his Essentials of Zen Practice (Sanzen no Hiketsu), on which I will base my explanation in this chapter.


Every religion probably begins with belief. Without some initial belief, most people will be unlikely to even want to spend time listening to religious teachings. From the standpoint of authentic Zen, belief means accepting the truth that the three classes of Three Treasures are one. More directly, it means belief in the opening statement of Hakuin Zenji’s Song in Praise of Zazen: “All beings are intrinsically awake.” Some individuals, thanks to their fortunate karmic connection to the Dharma, are able to immediately believe this statement without argument. The Sixth Zen Ancestor Enō Zenji (Hui-neng), for example, attained enlightenment immediately after hearing the line from the Diamond Sutra, “Dwelling nowhere, the mind emerges.”

Allowing for different levels in the depth of faith, we can say that when someone has faith, that belief can lead to a peace and salvation commensurate with their degree of faith. Thus we can say, to this extent, that they already “sit comfortably at home.”

However, belief can easily become superstition or fanaticism if it is not accompanied by intellectual understanding. It doesn’t matter how many times someone may exhort us to “just believe,” if we lack real conviction in our hearts, we will never develop the decisive determination needed for practice. Furthermore, we will never reach a state of truth freed from doubt unless we practice and realize our True Self. Although we may believe in its reality, we need to actually see it with our own eyes before we truly know it to be true.


The two wheels that drive the vehicle of Zen practice are hearing the Dharma from a true master and practicing zazen. Dōgen Zenji explains these two wheels in his Guidelines for Studying the Way:

There are naturally two aspects of settling the matter of body and mind: going to a teacher to hear the Dharma and practicing zazen. Hearing the Dharma lets consciousness go free. Zazen must make the two matters of practice and realization like the left and right hands. If you throw away either, you cannot attain realization.

After developing belief, we must use the light of the intellect to accurately and clearly understand the Buddha Way. To do this it is essential to study authentic Dharma with a true master. If we mistakenly make arbitrary judgments or listen to heretical teachings, we will arrive at false understanding that could prevent the teachings from taking root. To practice under and study the Dharma directly with a true teacher includes participation in periods of intensive meditation, attending group meditation sessions, listening to the teacher’s public talks, and receiving individual instruction in the private interview room.

In order to correctly understand the Dharma, however, we must also read and study the teachings. This is absolutely essential for students who do not have access to a true teacher. I would recommend first of all, among all the works on Buddhism, the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha as recorded in the sutras, followed by the records and writings of early Zen founders, as well as the public talks of enlightened masters. In the beginning we may struggle to understand such texts, but if we repeatedly read them we will in time be able to appreciate, however dimly, the world they discuss.

Our understanding increases in proportion to our level of training and perceptiveness. As we progress in practice our understanding and appreciation deepens, so we don’t need to exhaust ourselves trying immediately to grasp the meaning of an unclear passage. It is enough to savor the passages that we don’t understand. At least once or twice a year, however, we should find an opportunity to see a true teacher and hear his or her public talks or lectures. Otherwise we may misunderstand the teaching and acquire a complacent attitude toward Zen.


Personalization is the final step where the experience of awakening is totally embodied in our own flesh and blood and in every aspect of our daily lives. The fourth stage of the Five Modes of Endeavor and Accomplishment, “Sharing Accomplishment,” is the first step in this process. This is where we return to our original self—where the excitement and pride that follow the enlightenment experience are extinguished and traces of delusion, such as dualistic views, are done away with. We return to the state of the ordinary person without complaints or objections. But at this stage traces of pride about our enlightenment still remain—“the spirit tortoise cannot avoid leaving the traces of its tail on the sand.”

We must press on from here to the fifth of the five positions, “Accomplishment without Accomplishment,” where the traces of awakening are totally wiped away and we attain true liberation. At this stage we finally enter the marketplace with helping hands—in other words, we stand in the midst of the everyday world to fulfill the vow of saving others. This is the fifth stage, “Practicing and Repaying the Debt of Gratitude,” in Dōgen’s Principle of Practice and Enlightenment. For someone like me, this is a far distant state, and I have the feeling of viewing the gate of my ancestral home from a distance of ten thousand miles.

Thus, the Buddha Way is comprised of nothing other than believing in, understanding, practicing, and realizing our essential nature of intrinsic buddhahood—where in one sense there is not one thing, but in another our essential nature is complete, perfect, and limitless—and then personalizing that realization.

Learn more and get the book here.

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