How to Raise an Ox - Introduction

Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo


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The zen of Dōgen is the Zen of practice. Whatever else may be said about the ninety-five chapters of his Shōbōgenzō—and there is so much that has been said!—it is clear that the main theme that runs through these chapters is that of the necessity for daily, diligent, and continuous practice of Zen. To understand what it means to say that Dōgen’s Zen is the Zen of practice is to understand something of that remarkable man’s place in the development of Buddhism, as well as something of the nature of Buddhism itself. It is my earnest hope that these translations of nine chapters from Shōbōgenzō and of Fukan zazengi will help to clarify for us Dōgen’s Zen of practice.

Western students of Buddhism these days are perhaps not quite so prone to making the same errors of interpretation that characterized earlier generations, but there still remains a tendency to misunderstand certain aspects of Buddhism. For instance, it is generally said that the goal of Buddhism is enlightenment. In a sense, this is true, but it is misleading when it is claimed without qualification; it might be more accurate to say that in Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is the doorway through which one must necessarily pass in order to reach the true goal. Enlightenment is sometimes imagined as a sudden, dramatic, transformational event that occurs only after a long preparatory period of moral self-cleansing and hard meditation, the prize that is finally claimed after much practice, and that is the culmination and termination of that practice. For if practice exists for the sake of enlightenment, why practice once the prize is won? Yet this is precisely what Dōgen and the masters of old did. They tell us repeatedly that there is nothing to attain. But in reality, this “nothing” is attained many times and in varying degrees of intensity and depth.

To characterize Dōgen’s Zen as the Zen of practice is not to suggest that his form of Buddhism is the only one concerned with practice. All forms of Buddhism necessarily involve some kind of practice because Buddhism is mainly practice. Buddhism is a markedly experiential religion inasmuch as the true life in the Dharma involves a realization (i.e., a making real) of those doctrines taught by Shakyamuni, and this making real does not happen in the absence of constant effort—the continual and conscious direction of the will toward realization. Without this effort, Buddhism would degenerate into mere philosophy, into a mechanical profession of faith, or into vague, warm feelings directed toward some remote, mysterious Other.

Dōgen’s unique Zen of practice can be seen clearly in certain phrases in the Shōbōgenzō. Honshō myōshū means “wonderful practice based on intrinsic enlightenment.” It is an important phrase because it embodies two ideas that are central to Dōgen’s understanding of Buddhism. Honshō (“intrinsic enlightenment”) refers to the idea that all living beings are already Buddhas. This does not mean that beings possess a Buddha nature, or that beings are containers in which a seed form of Buddha can be found, as if there were two realities: beings and Buddha. All beings are Buddhas, but they are Buddhas who are ignorant of their true nature. Second, the whole phrase, honshō myōshū, points to the manner in which beings should proceed to make this hidden nature manifest and functional. Practice should not be undertaken in the mistaken notion that it has a purely instrumental value, as a means to a separate—and presumably greater!—end. To believe that one does zazen now in order to acquire enlightenment later is to merely perpetuate the very dualities that lie at the root of the human problem. This mistaken view tacitly assumes that there is a difference between beings and Buddha, means and ends, now and then—and thus practice becomes just one more attempt to achieve ego-gratification. The belief that practice culminates in enlightenment is a denial of what was for Dōgen the basis for his own achievement—the conviction that all beings just as they are are Buddhas.

The second phrase highlighting the uniqueness of Dōgen’s Zen is shūshō ittō, which means “the oneness of practice and enlightenment.” Shūshō ittō points the way to correct practice by cautioning us not to think of enlightenment as a future event that will result from present practice. Instead, practicing shūshō ittō, we proceed in the knowledge that we are already that which we hope to become, and that our practice is the manifestation of this inherent enlightenment. Actually, it is not even we as sentient beings who engage in practice, it is the Buddha who practices. Consequently, there is no sequence of ignorance followed by enlightenment. When we practice Zen, we are Buddhas. Practice and enlightenment are the same; to practice is to be a Buddha.

When Dōgen returned to Japan after his trip to China, the first thing he wrote was Fukan zazengi (“General Recommendations for Doing Zazen”), and in it he said, “Do not sit [i.e., do zazen] in order to become a Buddha, because that has nothing to do with such things as sitting or lying down.” We recall the famous dialogue between Master Huai-jang and Ma-tsu. Huai-jang found Ma-tsu doing zazen, and when asked why he was doing it, Ma-tsu replied, “To become a Buddha.” Thereupon, Huai-jang sat down and began to polish a piece of brick. “Why are you polishing that brick?” asked Ma-tsu. “I’m going to turn it into a mirror,” was the master’s answer. “But,” said Ma-tsu, “no amount of polishing will turn that brick into a mirror.” “That is true,” replied Huai-jang, “and no amount of zazen will turn you into a Buddha.” This story is not meant to deny the necessity of practice—practice is essential; it is the heart of Buddhism and the key to learning the Way—but it is not a means to an end. True practice is the enlightened activity of the Buddha we already are.

Dōgen’s understanding of practice turns the older, traditional Buddhist sequence of morality, meditation, and enlightenment (Skt. shīla, samādhi, prajñā) upside-down. In the Buddhism prior to Dōgen’s time, a proper observance of moral and ethical injunctions was emphasized as the necessary, preliminary basis for the central practice of meditation. The rationale for this apparently is the obvious one: a person who is careless in his interpersonal relationships is just not the kind of person who can meditate effectively. Thus, the  order of morality preceding meditation seems ultimately to have had a practical basis; and then in turn meditation leads to insight and enlightenment. However, Dōgen places enlightenment first, as the basis of both meditation and ethics, which themselves are in turn manifestations of enlightenment. Dōgen’s views on the matter of ethics and morality led him to the conclusion that the real, practical observance of the precepts had to be an organic unfolding of a mode of conduct that was itself an expression of an enlightened nature. In fact, Dōgen says that ethics and meditation are the same thing: “When one does zazen, what ethical precepts are not being observed?” he asks. Both ethics and meditation are thus “wonderful practice based on intrinsic enlightenment.” This is the life of a Buddha.

The idea that meditation, ethics, and enlightenment are all the same thing was not exactly Dōgen’s innovation. The story about Huai-jang polishing a brick indicates that Dōgen’s Chinese predecessors had already understood this relationship. The doctrine of “intrinsic enlightenment” is in fact one of the most obvious characteristics of Chinese Buddhism. This doctrine of intrinsic enlightenment is, in Dōgen’s teaching, raised up to the status of the central and crucial fact, and it explains his whole approach to training in the Dharma. For Dōgen, it is not even really correct to say that it is the ordinary human being who is performing the practice; it is the Buddha who instigates the practice and maintains it. “No ordinary being ever became a Buddha,” he says in Yuibutsu yobutsu, “only Buddhas become Buddhas.”

Historically, the first clear statement of this insight occurs in the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, the sixth ancestor of Chinese Zen. It is clear that there is continuity between Hui-neng’s Zen and Dōgen’s Zen. In the Platform Sutra Hui-neng says,

Good friends, my teaching of the Dharma takes meditation and wisdom as its basis. Never under any circumstances mistakenly say that meditation and wisdom are different; they are a unity, not two things. Meditation itself is the substance of wisdom; wisdom itself is the function of meditation. At the very moment when there is wisdom, then meditation exists in wisdom; at the very moment when there is meditation, then wisdom exists in meditation. Good friends, this means that meditation and wisdom are alike. Students, be careful not to say that meditation gives rise to wisdom, or that wisdom gives rise to meditation, or that meditation and wisdom are different from each other. To hold this view implies that things have duality.

Hui-neng says clearly that what seem to be two things are in fact one. For Dōgen, too, wisdom and meditation are identical, and thus the duality of means and ends is overcome and the way to correct practice is shown. To sit upright with straight back, with mind and body unified, empty and unattached to internal and external events—this is itself Buddha wisdom; this is Buddha mind.

            “Buddha-Tathāgatas,” says Dōgen, “all have a wonderful means, which is unexcelled and free from human agency, for transmitting the wondrous Dharma from one to another without alteration and realizing supreme and complete awakening. That it is only transmitted without deviation from Buddha to Buddha is due to the jijuyū samādhi, which is its touchstone.” Jijuyū samādhi is another important term. It is in a way synonymous with zazen. Ji means “self ” or “oneself,” and ju and mean “receive” and “use,” respectively. The samādhi called jijuyū, therefore, is meditation that one enjoys and uses oneself. It is contrasted with tajuyū samādhi, which is samādhi performed for some other purpose, such as for other beings or in order to acquire Buddhahood. Dōgen teaches that, rather than do zazen for some purpose, one sits quietly, without expectation, in jijuyū samādhi, simply to enjoy one’s own inherent nature, without question of means and ends. This zazen practice is, according to Dōgen’s Fukan zazengi, zazen in which we “gauge our enlightenment to the fullest.”

According to Dōgen, Shakyamuni himself first enjoyed this samādhi while sitting under the bodhi tree for several days after his own realization. There was no question of using the samādhi for some ulterior purpose, because he had already obtained everything there was to obtain. Then why did he continue to sit in jijuyū samādhi? Because he was just manifesting and enjoying his Buddhahood. Yet eventually he rose and went on to teach his Dharma for the next forty-five years, for ultimately jijuyū samādhi is not separate from tajuyū samādhi; samādhi used for the benefit of others is not separate from samādhi enjoyed oneself. Sentient beings are numberless, and Buddhist practitioners, if they truly follow the Mahayana Way, must arouse the determination to do whatever they can to emancipate all these sentient beings by leading them to the other shore, to enlightenment.

Again we come to the following question: If one is in fact a Buddha right now, why practice at all? Isn’t it enough that we are told by scripture and the personal testimony of masters that we are, always have been, and always will be Buddhas? This question plagued Dōgen in his younger years and eventually led him to China in search of answer. The answer itself is not really difficult to find, but it is vitally important that we understand it. We may know that we are Buddhas, but for most of us, this is not real knowledge. It is only hearsay, something we are told and that we may (or may not) accept on faith. However, our unrealized Buddha nature does not illuminate and transform our everyday lives. It is somewhat like having talent for music. We may be told we have this talent, and the knowledge may be gratifying, but we are still unable, for instance, to play the piano. The potential is real, but remains unactivated and unrealized. If the individual begins to practice, the talent itself will become evident in the practice. The ability to play the piano is a latent talent now realized. But if a talented person does not begin to practice, he might as well not have the ability. Our Buddha nature is like this. Dōgen tells us, “To disport oneself freely in this [jijuyū] samādhi, the right entrance is proper sitting in zazen. This Dharma is amply present in every person, but unless one practices, it is not manifested, unless there is realization, it is not attained.”

Dōgen Zenji himself speaks often of realization. The Japanese word that is translated as “realization” literally means “proof,” “evidence,” “certification,” and “witnessing.” All these words carry the sense of authenticating and bringing out into the open. The English word “realization” literally means “making real,” which is close to the meaning of the Japanese term. Thus, realization of Buddha nature means making real for ourselves what otherwise is only hearsay. Buddhism is an experiential religion in which this real-making process actualizes Buddha nature as a concrete, lived reality.

Therefore, because practice is absolutely necessary for making our inherent Buddha nature a lived reality, practice never ends. As long as we imagine that practice is only a means to a greater end, we tend to think that once we have acquired some small insight, we no longer need to practice. But if in fact we are each a perfect and complete Buddha, then there can never be an end to the realization of this nature, for there is no limit to its ability to encompass more and more of experience. Indeed, a person who desires enlightenment ardently may for that reason be unable to acquire it, since by definition enlightenment is essentially desireless. In fact, Dōgen says that all that is required is simple faith in one’s intrinsic Buddha nature, and elsewhere, in Shōji (“Birth and Death”) he says:

You only attain the mind of Buddha when there is no hating and no desiring. But do not try to gauge it with your mind or speak it with words. When you simply release and forget both your body and mind and throw yourself into the house of Buddha, and when functioning comes from the direction of Buddha and you go in accord with it, then with no strength needed and no thought expended, freed from birth and death, you become Buddha. Then there can be no obstacle in any man’s mind. There is an extremely easy way to become 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.

This faith in one’s intrinsic Buddha nature is the life of endless practice. To “throw ourselves into the house of the Buddha” is to have deep faith in the reality of this nature, and practice is simply allowing this nature to actualize or realize itself in our daily lives. It is practice forever. From time to time there may be flashes of satori insight, sometimes grand and overwhelming, sometimes small and modest, but practice goes on and on. The master may test the depth of our insight from time to time by means of judiciously chosen kōans, and may certify our understanding, but the practice continues. “When Buddhas are truly Buddhas,” says Dōgen, “there is no need to know that we are all Buddhas, but we are realized Buddhas and further advance in realizing Buddha.” If, like Methuselah in the Hebrew scriptures, we were able to live for 900 years, we would continue to practice and continue to realize the Buddha. The horizons of Buddha vision are boundless and limitless, and the depths to which it can penetrate are fathomless.

This practice is very simple, but also very difficult. It is our human nature to pick and choose, to desire and loathe, to form myriad attitudes and judgments toward the events of our lives. This practice is difficult because it demands of us that we simply cease the picking and choosing, desiring and loathing. A contemporary Zen master has said that “Zen is picking up your coat from the floor and hanging it up.” Nothing could be simpler. Yet how difficult! There is no fun in “picking up your coat.” Tasks like this do not seem at all self-fulfilling and enriching. Even worse, “picking up your coat” doesn’t seem to be a very “spiritual” kind of practice—unlike, we imagine, prayer, meditation, fasting, or developing a meaningful relationship. There is nothing more ordinary and unspecial than “picking up your coat.” Yet, it is really the essence of practice, for “picking up your coat” is exactly what Dōgen means by meditation.

Just how is “picking up your coat” the essence of practice? It is particularly important for Western people to understand this, because we have all been raised in a culture where it is usually assumed that religious activities are of a special nature; indeed, that religion is a sphere separate from the mundane world. From this perspective, the statement that religious practice—meditation—consists of “picking up your coat” may seem absurd. We almost always pick up the coat, or wash the dishes, or perform any other task of that sort with regret or dislike, yearning to be elsewhere doing better things. We are bored, impatient, and perhaps even somewhat resentful. Doing things in this manner—our minds filled with likes and dislikes—is not Zen. But the rest of our lives will be made up of countless situations of this kind. Will we continue to approach them with irritation and regret, hoping for better things elsewhere, later, or will we begin to see this ordinary life as Buddha sees it? Possibly our ordinary life can in time come to seem good enough, even beautiful, to us, if we begin to practice meditation in Dōgen’s way.

Unfortunately, most choose not to practice. Non-practice means continuing to approach every situation with self-centered attitudes. “Is it going to benefit me?” we ask, or “Is it a threat to me?” All about us we see things that we imagine are “good” or “bad,” but these goods and bads are only good and bad for me. Our hierarchy of self-oriented values often becomes more complex and deep-rooted the older we become, and it is just this mesh of attitudes and valuations that obscures our Buddha nature. To realize our Buddha nature, we need to remove this mesh and come to see that dishwashing is not inherently “bad” and becoming, say, chairman of the board of directors is not inherently “good,” for the good and bad we constantly perceive about us are only reflections of our selfconcern. Dōgen’s zazen, the jijuyū samādhi, is a way to eliminate this obscuring veil, for by its very nature it is the experience of events without subjective judgments. But it is not a preparation for the sake of a future realization; in jijuyū samādhi we begin to realize ourselves as Buddha right here and now. As we live this samādhi, we live the life of Buddha.

Ideally, this samādhi comes to be our everyday consciousness, wherever we are, at all times. It is not a special consciousness reserved for an hour in the meditation room in the morning and evening. Nor does it mean going about in a dreamy, semi-wakeful state, as if we were anesthetized or drugged. In samādhi we know pain as pain and pleasure as pleasure; the alert and receptive mind reflects all events clearly and without distortion. The only difference between samādhi and our ordinary self-consciousness is that in samādhi we do not correlate our experiences with some idea or judgment such as “good” or “bad.” We live an experience one-hundred percent, without adding any subjective judgment to it.

Hui-neng defines this zazen practice in the following way:

What is it in this teaching we call sitting in meditation? In this teaching, sitting means without any obstruction anywhere, outwardly and under all circumstances, not to activate thoughts. Meditation is internally to see the original nature and not become confused.

To sit, then, means to stop correlating external events with ideas such as “it is this,” or “it is that,” “right,” “wrong,” and so on, endlessly. Sitting has nothing to do with anesthesia or with escaping anything, for when the snow falls, we will still shiver and get our hair wet; when the pangs of disease strike, we will suffer the pain; and when the voracious tiger of old age springs, we will be devoured like everyone else. Dōgen says that the secret is not to hate these things nor desire their alternatives, but to to realize that these things— exactly as they are—are all there is. When the great Chinese Zen master Ta-mei was dying, his students asked him for a final helpful word. “When it comes, don’t try to avoid it; when it goes, don’t run after it,” he said. Just then, a squirrel chattered on the roof. “There is only this, there is nothing else,” said Ta-mei, and then he died. Can we conceive of what this is? Can this be enough for us? Is there another reality more real or more wonderful than this? To know that there is only this is to “see the original nature and not become confused.”

The key to practice is the development of jijuyū samādhi and its expression as tajuyū samādhi in all activities. Daily formal sitting in zazen will establish a model for this samādhi that we can in time learn to retain and use to illuminate our ordinary life. When we “pick up the coat” as a Buddha activity, two things occur. First, it is no longer a profane or lowly act, but the very functioning of Buddha nature. Second, this and every act become ceaseless training through which this Buddha activity grows to include more and more within its scope. Because there are no limits to the amount of experience that can be illuminated by this activity, there is also no end to practice.

The practice I have been discussing might also be called the practice of the art of doing just one thing at a time. It is wonderful to learn to do one thing at a time. When we do formal zazen, we just sit; this means we do not add to the sitting any judgments such as how wonderful it is to do zazen, or how badly we are doing at it. We just sit. When we wash the dishes, we just wash dishes; when we drive on the highway, we just drive. When pain comes, there is just pain, and when pleasure comes, there is just pleasure. A Buddha is someone who it totally at one with his experience at every moment. This practice is simple, but difficult. And the difficulty lies in not adding something extra to the events of our life.

In practicing Dōgen’s Zen, there is really no big graduation day when the training stops, because we are already that which we seek, and practice is learning day-by-day to be what we are. The starting point is intrinsic Buddhahood. Real meditation is the alert, clearminded attention to the details of daily life that emerges when we “do not activate thoughts.” To attain this even to some slight extent is to realize one’s Buddha nature to that extent. To realize this nature fully requires one to practice forever. This is what it means to follow Dōgen’s Way.

Practice must therefore include all activities; it cannot be limited to the formal activities of the zendō, when we chant, bow, offer incense, and do zazen. Zazen must begin when we open our eyes in the morning and not even end when we close them at night, so that all the activities of the day become practice. Sometimes many or most of these other activities do not feel like practice. Earning money to eat, maintaining the buildings and grounds in which we practice and live, keeping our living quarters neat and clean, treating food and clothing with respect and gratitude, following the many regulations of any community of people—these are often thought of as distractions from real practice, nuisances, or at best necessary concessions that support real practice. Dōgen reminds us that it is not hard to desire to practice, to seek out a teacher, and to enter the activities of the meditation hall, but harder to do all the other things that we do not associate with practice. “Entering the deep mountains and thinking about the Buddha Way is comparatively easy, while building stupas and making Buddha images is very difficult,” he says. These things are difficult because unless a person has a very real commitment to following the Way and understands this commitment as a total response to all events and all activities, ordinary activities feel like a burden.

All our activities are ideally gestures of respect toward the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Learning the Way must therefore include niceties of etiquette between individuals who practice together, for this is nothing nmore than respect for their Buddha nature.

Many things that need to be done are not for ourselves but for our successors, like Lin-chi planting cedars for those who would come after him. The Mahayana emphasis on helping all living beings thus includes not only those living now but also those who will come after us. All these activities become practice for the person who has what Dōgen called “the mind that seeks the Way.” When one has dropped off mind and body and no longer hankers for fame and profit, when one lives one’s life just as do the birds that sing in the trees, when one is truly grateful to the Buddha and his descendents, then all activities become practice. When there is no distinction of sacred and profane, profitable and nonprofitable, practice and nonpractice, then every gesture is practice in learning the Way. This is learning to raise an ox.

The most impressive aspect of Dōgen’s Way is the insistence on utter seriousness and utter commitment. It is inspiring to read any of the writings of Dōgen, for he tolerates no half-hearted, self-serving, or dilettantish involvement in the Way. One must pursue the Way in the single-minded and earnest manner of a person trying to extinguish a fire in his hair. Anything less than this is only a waste of our time, for we will never succeed unless learning the Way is the most important thing in our lives. How can anyone hope to measure up to Dōgen’s demanding requirements? Practice exacts our full effort at all times. To read the various chapters on practice in the Shōbōgenzō is to become aware of what a rare person Dōgen was, and why there is no grander conception of the religious life to be found anywhere.

The ten chapters I have translated are all about this ceaseless practice, though philosophy is not entirely absent. I have chosen these ten chapters for several reasons. They represent the various dimensions of practice, they are powerful and beautiful in their spirit and rhetorical force, they exhibit so well Dōgen’s stern and uncompromising spirit, and they are among the most moving I have encountered. There are surely other chapters of Shōbōgenzō that could have been included. For instance, any collection ought to include Genjō kōan, which is pertinent to practice and is surely one of the most brilliant, profound, and moving religious documents in world religious literature. I have not included it because it has already been well translated by others, and I cannot improve on these translations. Also, I might have included a chapter on atonement, which, perhaps surprisingly, is very important in Dōgen’s ideas about practice.

The following expository chapters are included here in the earnest hope that they will help to clarify just what Dōgen Zenji means by practice, although just what the essence of that practice is, is beyond my powers to express. Dōgen uses several expressions to indicate the same thing. For example, we might say that the essence of practice is shinjin datsuraku, which means “mind and body dropped off.” It is synonymous with “emptiness,” and denotes a state in which one is no longer motivated by self-concern. But it seems clear from the essays translated here that, in a very real way, shinjin datsuraku is the same as shukke, which means “home departure.” Consequently, to really leave home, or the world, is the same as dropping off mind and body. However, again, both terms can be seen as identical with hotsu mujō shin, “arousing the supreme thought,” or “arousing the determination to attain the supreme.” Continuous practice (gyōji) is none other than the whole of daily activity performed by one who embodies these things. If we grasp such interconnections among Dōgen’s terms, we will find the essence of practice is enunciated clearly in all the chapters of Shōbōgenzo translated here. They allow us to obtain some idea of what it is that Dōgen’s Way requires.


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© Zen Center of Los Angeles, How to Raise an Ox (Wisdom Publications, 2002)

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