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Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo


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The Importance of Faith  

Practice is not possible without faith. It may be startling to hear that faith is important in Zen, but the fact is that it has always been an important part of Buddhism throughout its twentyfive-hundred-year history. Prior to the experiential realization of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, one must proceed with practice in the faith that the teachings are true and that through practice we will realize our Buddha nature. Without this faith, there is no support for the practice, and if there is doubt or lack of assurance, one will either not begin practice or will not continue it through one’s inevitable difficulties. In all of Buddhism prior to the arising of the Zen tradition, faith has thus had a crucial function in the life of the meditator. Many of the lists of practices, mental states, and stages of development of the early abhidharma literature include shraddhā (faith). When meditators begin to verify the teachings of Buddha in their own experience, faith is superceded by direct knowledge. This differs from the Christian tradition, for instance, where faith remains the central way of religious expression throughout the life of the “believer.” For Christians, there is never a time when faith is no longer important, for the tenets of their belief are not experientially validated in the same way as the doctrines of Buddhism. For Buddhists, faith, while it is necessary in the first phase of development, is something that eventually becomes transformed. In Buddhism there is a vast difference between believing that all things are impermanent and realizing that they are; but before that belief becomes true knowledge, one must practice in the faith that it is so, and will eventually be proven to be so by one’s own experience.

Before going on, it might be well to define Buddhist faith. We can begin by examining the kinds of faith. First of all, faith may be the intellectual acceptance of a doctrine or creed. In this case, faith amounts to an act of the will, whereby the individual feels that he ought to accept such-and-such a teaching and thus does so. I may be taught that a supernatural being exists, and in order to qualify as an orthodox member of a community, I will agree, even though there is no basis in my own experience for doing so. In fact, many people profess belief in a god, in resurrection of the body, and in final judgment, but their merely intellectual acceptance of these ideas is evident from the fact that their lives do not correspond to their belief. Second, faith may take the form of passionate commitment to an idea that can never really be validated experientially. For instance, I will never in this life know (in the strict sense) if personal immortality is a fact, but I may choose nonetheless to cling tenaciously to the idea and organize my life in accordance with it. Third, faith may approach a kind of certainty, because the object of faith is a common, recurrent phenomenon in one’s life and therefore seems to merit faith: I can have faith in the rising of the sun tomorrow morning because it has risen every morning of my life so far. Though there is always a chance that it may not rise tomorrow morning, I can be reasonably justified in my faith. This is an easy kind of faith because I can rely on past experience.

But none of the above examples closely resembles Buddhist faith. Buddhist faith is a deep certitude as to the veracity of a certain doctrine, accepted and used as a touchstone for conduct in confidence that one’s practice will verify its truth. The object of faith may be an idea, one’s teacher, or the trustworthiness of the Buddha himself, but in any case, there is a complete certainty that one is encountering something on which one may totally rely. The object of faith may be trusted provisionally because Buddhism itself teaches that the faith will eventually be replaced by knowledge and that any teaching not verifiable in this way ought to be rejected. Consequently, Buddhist faith is not blind and irrational, nor is it a mere intellectual adherence to creedal orthodoxy. Acceptance of Buddhist doctrines is provisional because of the necessity of eventually replacing faith in them with experiential knowledge. Thus faith is anticipation of validation. This faith is further strengthened because of one’s association with people who actualize their own experiential knowledge in their lives. And because Zen Buddhism as a religion is based on each individual’s realization of the Buddha’s own enlightenment, ideally, there can never be a question of reliance on faith alone throughout life.

The various chapters of Shōbōgenzō show that there can be several objects of faith, but in the final analysis, all are the same. One has faith in the Buddha, and one must have faith in one’s teacher— one’s teacher is a kind of surrogate Buddha inasmuch as he has inherited the Buddha’s mind from his own teacher, and so on, back to the time of Shakyamuni himself. This is the meaning of the ancestral succession in the lineage of teachers. One must also have faith in the teachings of Buddhism—but are these not merely verbal expressions of the Buddha mind? And one must have faith in one’s own intrinsic Buddha nature. This faith is the very door through which one enters the Dharma. Dōgen therefore remarks, “The Buddha once said, ‘The person who is without faith is like a broken jug.’ This means that living beings who do not have faith in the Buddha’s teaching cannot be vessels of the teaching. The Buddha also said, ‘The great ocean of the Buddha’s teaching is entered through the door of faith.’ Clearly know that those beings who have no faith are those people who do not dwell in it.”

Thus, faith is the entryway to the Dharma. Correct practice is based on the faith that one is already a Buddha, for there is nothing that is not the Buddha. “Grass, trees, all are [One] mind and body,” says Dōgen in Hotsu mujō shin. “If the myriad dharmas are not born, neither is the One Mind born. If all dharmas are marked with this ultimate reality, then [even] a speck of dust is marked with it. The One Mind is all dharmas; all dharmas are the One Mind, the whole body.” Consequently, unless practice is undertaken in the faith that oneself is the Buddha, and that everything else, even a speck of dust, is also the Buddha and preaches the Dharma with a clear voice, realization of the fact will be impossible.

Dōgen did not compose a separate chapter on faith in Shōbōgenzō, but there are many scattered statements about it in various chapters in the Shōbōgenzō and elsewhere that leave no doubt that it is the basis for the practice of Dōgen’s Way. For instance, in Gakudō yōjinsh (which is not part of Shōbōgenzō , he says,

Practicing the Way of the Buddha means you must have faith in the Buddha Way. Having faith in the Buddha Way means you first must have faith that you originally abide in the Way, are not deluded, are not mistaken, neither gain nor lose [in Buddha wisdom] and are not in error. If you arouse this kind of faith, illuminate the Way in this manner, and rely on it and practice it, it is the basis for enlightenment.

Faith is not only the basis for practice and the entry into the Dharma, it is practice itself.

Zazen, for instance, is surely the main practice in Dōgen’s Zen, but practice takes other forms also, as I have already indicated in the first chapter. Home departure (shukke) is practice, as is receiving and maintaining the precepts (jukai), venerating all the Buddhas, taking the threefold refuge (kie sambō), wearing the robes of a monk, repenting one’s past bad deeds (karma), making images and reliquary containers (stupas), asking questions of the master, and still other things as well. It is interesting that Dōgen interprets all these forms of practice as expressions of faith. Atonement, for example, which Dōgen says is the examination of one’s own wicked behavior, is not just a verbal confession and a decision not to do evil again, but in essence consists of a reaffirming of faith and rededication to practice. To have faith in the Buddha and his teaching and to commit oneself to hard practice without reservation is atonement. Taking refuge in the Three Treasures means relying completely on Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and not on one’s own abilities, so that taking refuge in them is itself a statement of faith in their reality and power. In Kie sambō (“Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures”), Dōgen says,

With regard to taking refuge in the Three Treasures, with pure faith in your abdomen, whether the Tathāgata dwells in the world or does not, join the palms of your hands together, bow your head, and say, “I, from now on until I become a Buddha, take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in his teaching, I take refuge in the community of followers.”

Dōgen’s attitude toward the monk’s robe (kesa) is also instructive. The kesa is not just clothing worn by a specific group of people to distinguish them from others; it is to be treated with great respect because it symbolizes and embodies the Dharma itself. Thus, to take the precepts and wear the kesa is to acknowledge faith in the Dharma and to wear the Dharma on one’s body. Dōgen tells us,

It is clear that the Dharma that is symbolized by the kesa has been transmitted from master to master. To think that it is without value or that it has not been correctly transmitted is evidence of lack of faith. He who is interested in arousing the thought of enlightenment must be instructed in the correct transmission of the ancestors. He is then not only a person who has encountered the Dharma, which is hard to encounter, he is in fact a descendent of the Dharma that is correctly transmitted in the form of the Buddha’s robe. He sees it, learns it, and now wears the robe. In other words, he is in reality standing right in front of the Buddha, meeting him, hearing him preach the Dharma, and being illuminated by his light. [Wearing the kesa] means using what the Buddha used and transmitting the Buddha’s mind to oneself. It means acquiring the essence of the Buddha.

The object of faith in this passage is twofold: Dharma itself as taught by the Buddha, and the Zen master as one who has inherited this Dharma in the ancestral succession. The kesa that one wears is the visible Dharma, and wearing it expresses one’s faith.

The merits of the kesa enable us to realize the truth within ourselves: “The kesa correctly transmits the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow of Shakyamuni, the Blessed One.... Those who receive the kesa, wear it, and hold it reverently to their heads will without doubt become enlightened.” Thus to put on the kesa is putting on the Dharma, as the “Verse of the Kesa” says:

How wonderful is the robe of liberation,
A markless field of merit.
I place the Buddha’s teaching on my body,
And liberate living beings everywhere.

Such passages serve to show that faith is the indispensable basis for practice. In Bendōwa, Dōgen says,

The realm of Buddhas is inconceivable and beyond the reach of the intellect. How can it be reached by someone who has no faith, who has little knowledge? Only a person with a great motive can attain it. For the person who is lacking in faith, it is impossible. When right faith arises in the mind, one should practice and study under a master.

Certainly, faith is important, but the truth of the matter can be expressed in an even stronger way: Dōgen’s Zen is the Zen of faith. That is, it is a religion in which faith is the very mechanism whereby the goal is achieved, and in the absence of which the door to the truth remains closed. It is therefore not simply one important element among others; it is the indispensable prerequisite.

Japanese and Chinese Buddhists have for centuries distinguished the various forms of Buddhism by means of a system called (in Japanese) kyōhan, “doctrinal classification.” In this system, a dominant characteristic of each form of Buddhism is isolated and used to distinguish between that form and all other forms. For example, the Pure Land Buddhism of Shinran has always referred to itself as the “way of faith,” while all other forms, including Zen, are referred to as the “saintly way.” The “saintly way” refers to practices that presumably involve meditation, concern with moral purification, learning, and the like. It has also been said that Pure Land Buddhism is the way of “other power,” while Zen and other forms of Buddhism are the way of “self power.” The reason for this is that in Pure Land Buddhism, the way is through complete dependence on the saving power of another, specifically the Buddha Amida, while Zen practitioners depend on their own efforts to achieve emancipation. Faith is important in a different way in Pure Land Buddhism than it is in Dōgen’s Zen.

One way to make sense of the bewildering proliferation of Buddhist schools, doctrines, and practices over the last 2,500 years is to see them as a single, creative, ongoing effort to deal with the central problem of samsaric existence, which is the erroneous belief in an enduring, permanent self. Whether it is Zen, Pure Land, Theravada, or Tibetan Buddhist practice, all Buddhist paths teach practices that will effectively destroy the belief in this self. Dōgen’s Zen, with its stress on faith, is no different; that is, the mechanism of faith is effective in dealing with the problem of the self. The necessity of shinjin datsuraku, the “dropping off of body and mind,” is the necessity of understanding that oneself, and all other beings, are empty of this self that is only a convenient fiction.

How does one drop off body and mind? How does one achieve emptiness? It seems that there have been primarily two different ways of achieving this result in the history of world Buddhism. The way of pre-Mahayana Buddhism and the Theravada Buddhism of present-day Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka has been the way of frontal assault. This is the method of shamatha and vipassanā meditations, which first put obstructive emotions and impulses to sleep in shamatha exercises, then subject the self to the corrosive analysis of vipassanā insight practices. The final achievement is the destruction of the illusory self. The other method, which is generally Mahayana and takes various forms, is an indirect method. It is indirect because instead of attacking the idea of a self directly, the illusion is destroyed in the process of directing one’s will and attention away from the self. The Mahayana emphasis on compassion and the bodhisattva’s career of selfless service on behalf of others gradually diminishes self-serving, self-interested action. The saying “to help others is to help oneself ” means that in the process of devoting oneself unconditionally to helping all living beings, one becomes more and more capable of acting in a non-self-serving manner. I would like to suggest that faith accomplishes the same goal in Dōgen’s Zen. And, of course, because this Zen is Mahayana Buddhism, there is the same bodhisattva vow, so that the individual involved in this Zen practice is working toward the goal in the traditional Mahayana fashion. The approach must be indirect, in a way, because the direct pursuit of enlightenment is a confession of dualistic thinking and merely one more attempt to seek ego-gratification.

This is why Dōgen Zenji so often warns against any kind of seeking or wanting, even if the object of the desire is a “holy” object or enlightenment itself. “If you wish to practice the Way of the Buddhas and ancestors, you should follow without thought of profit the Way of the former sages and the conduct of the ancestors, expecting nothing, seeking nothing, and gaining nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of Buddhahood,” he says in the Zuimonki. But how does one practice if one should not think of practicing for something?

There are several ways of doing this in Mahayana Buddhism. One method, about which I will speak in detail in the next chapter, is that of making a vow to emancipate all living beings even though oneself is not completely emancipated; this is the traditional bodhisattva vow. By practicing in this manner, even though one has an objective (to emancipate all living beings), it is not a self-gratifying objective. The other method is to commit oneself utterly to practicing the Way, but in the understanding that it is not merely oneself who is carrying out the practice: Thus, when one sits in zazen, it is not the individual self who sits, but the Buddha who sits, and thus all beings. The gradual clarification of one’s experience as a result of zazen is not the result of the individual clarifying and spiritualizing his own mind, but the result of the Buddha being a Buddha; that is, it is the Buddha who is realizing Buddhahood, as Dōgen says. And this begins to happen when we completely abandon our own efforts and trust completely in our true nature, which is the Buddha. Again, this is Buddhist faith.

Faith is important in Dōgen’s Zen because practice must be undertaken in trust in another—the Buddha. This is the necessary basis of practice. Seen in this way, Dōgen’s Zen is not really the Buddhism of self power (jiriki), it is the Buddhism of other power (tariki). One may indeed practice the Buddhism of self power, and many do, but it will not be Dōgen’s way. Dōgen’s approach to practice and realization is the culmination of Buddhism’s historical attempt to deal with the problem of the self and its actions, and is thus a most sophisticated and profound solution to the problem.

In Shinran’s Pure Land Buddhism, it is taught that liberation and final nirvana are gifts given by Amida and not states attained by our own efforts. Moreover, in order for Amida’s wonderful gifts to become a reality for us, we must not try to gain them by our own efforts. In a time countless cosmic eons in the past, when Amida was still a practicing bodhisattva named Dharmākara, he made a number of vows, the essence of which was that he, Dharmākara, would never enter into the state of final, complete Buddhahood until and unless every other living being also achieved the same Buddhahood. Through countless, inconceivable practices he accumulated a vast store of merit and finally did become the Buddha Amida. What this means is that in some sense, all living beings are guaranteed Buddhahood, and therefore also, in some sense, are already Buddhas, because the condition of the vows was that Dharmākara would not become a Buddha unless every other living being did also. The fact of his present Buddhahood implies the present Buddhahood of all beings. In other words, the conditions of the vow are fulfilled. Once an individual becomes aware of what Amida has done for him, that is, once faith in the vows has arisen in his heart, he is then reborn in Amida’s paradise when he dies, where he will speedily achieve enlightenment. The key to rebirth in the Western Paradise of Amida is unshakable faith in the vows.

When we look deeper into this matter of faith and try to determine what is actually happening in the life of the believer, it becomes evident that faith exactly coincides with the complete abandonment of self-effort and a turning to Amida, for as was pointed out above, self-effort is itself an admission of doubt in the power of Amida’s vows. As D.T. Suzuki and others have noted, if we strip away the mythological trappings of the situation, we find that what is spoken of as a kind of knowledge that one has really been saved by Amida, is a form of satori, and this satori occurs when, and only when, the individual ceases to rely on his own power and ability. Is this not the forgetting of the self that Dōgen speaks of in Genjō kōan? Can there be a more powerful form of this self-forgetting than abandoning oneself completely to the Other?

Thus, the reason why faith is necessary, and is so powerful, is that in turning completely to the Other, we begin to forget the self and its incessant demands. It might be said that the human tendency to seek self-gratification through self-reliance begins to diminish in inverse ratio to our faith and trust in our inherent Buddha nature and its ability to actualize itself. Thus, Dōgen tells us to throw ourselves into the house of the Buddha. A young Sōtō Zen monk once remarked, “We can find complete freedom and tranquility in ourselves when we have left ourselves completely to the Buddha’s boundlessly wide mind.” Dōgen knew this from his own experience, and therefore his life was spent teaching a Buddhism of faith in the power of the Other, who is the Buddha.

It is difficult to overstate the matter: To have faith in the Buddha is the same as forgetting the self. How can it be otherwise when the prime requirement for “learning the Way” is to forget the self, shinjin datsuraku? The dropping off of one’s own body and mind and the minds and bodies of others is the almost incredible and inconceivable act of becoming totally empty, whereby we are no longer attached to anything (even nirvana), in which there is nothing to desire, nothing to expect, nothing to be. The vexing dualisms of life are transcended and all discriminations cease to operate. But how does one achieve this life if practice itself is a greater attachment, and if one’s practice is based on dualisms even more absolute than the ordinary ones? It is like trying to fight fire with fire—an even greater entanglement in contradictions and confusion.

In the final analysis, there is really no difference between this faith and zazen itself. The definition of zazen in the first chapter was that sitting means not activating thoughts toward external events, and Zen means seeing one’s true nature and not being confused. True zazen, then, is any activity carried out without self-concern, not forming self-serving attitudes toward events, and living one’s ordinary life without attachment or loathing. This is the same as forgetting the self. To forget this self is to have faith in the ability of the Buddha to illuminate our lives with Buddha insight. Nothing more is required. Thus, Dōgen says:

When I see an ignorant old monk sitting wordlessly, I think of the story of the woman with faith who became enlightened by giving a feast. It does not depend on knowledge, books, words, or long explanations. It just requires the aid of true faith.


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

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How to Raise an Ox by Francis Dojun Cook is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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