Vow, Self Power, and Other Power

Since co-founding Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in March, Taisan and I (Keizan) have alternated giving short talks on Monday nights following zazen. In the style of his teacher, he typically prepares his remarks in written form before hand, which he then more or less reads directly (and can subsequently easily post here); in the style of my teacher, I typically have a few notes, and speak mostly extemporaneously. While I have been recording our talks and hope at some point to begin posting these, in the meantime I will begin trying to at least draw up a brief summary of my remarks, so that the burden of providing content for our site is not falling on Taisan alone.

In the last few weeks, Taisan and I have been speaking directly to the role of “Vow” in our Soto way of practice. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I think to the heart of Buddha’s Way. Taisan has been reading from Shohaku Okumura-roshi’s “Living by Vow” and speaking to this. I have read from the Avatamsaka Sutra, and attempted hopefully to place Zen explicitly in a larger perspective of Mahayana understanding and historical context. This last week, I read the opening passage from Dogen’s Bendowa, or “The Wholehearted Way”, purported to be his first Dharma treatise written in Japanese.

In particular, I wished to introduce the idea of jijuyu zanmai to our sangha members unfamiliar with it, and place this idea, or rather practice, clearly within the context of Buddha’s Vow. Jijuyu zanmai is as far as I know a phrase unique at the time of this treatise to Dogen’s teaching. A phrase of profound subtlety, it has been translated in many ways, but means something along the lines of “self-actualizing samadhi” or “self-fulfilling samadhi” or perhaps as the 20th c. Zen teacher Uchiyama-roshi puts it, “the practice of the self realizing the self as the self.” In the spirit of Dogen’s love of word-play, we might adjust the grammar and say “the self realizing the Self as the self” or even “the Self realizing the self as the Self”, underscoring the Self/self distinction sometimes made in various yogic traditions. But as even this phrase indicates, ours is a totally non-dual practice and understanding, and we mustn’t get too caught up in an idea of a “self” realizing a “Self”, or vice versa.

I am a fan of the founder of the Jodo Shinshu tradition and Dogen’s contemporary, Shinran Shonin. Of course, the practice of Shin Buddhism is simply the recitation of the name of Amida Buddha, and the practice of taking refuge within this cosmic Buddha’s infinite vow of compassion to save all beings from suffering. Shinran’s primary insight was to realize that all efforts of a egoistic self to realize some transcendent Self were doomed to failure due to the utter pervasiveness of egotistical grasping in the human heart/mind. The only way to find relief from this pernicious influence of the ego is to take refuge in the Vow of that which encompasses, and resolves, everything. A thousand texts have been written on this subject, and I can’t do it justice here.

I simply wish to underscore how our zazen practice is similarly non-dualistic, and imbedded within the context of vows so vast and encompassing that they remain virtually incomprehensible to the human mind, and yet deeply stirring and meaningful to our all-too human hearts.

I was struck by a contrast in the terminology of these contemporaneous Dharma giants. Shinran in his understanding came to reject entirely the idea of jiriki, or self-power, in favor of tariki, or other power, in this case the redeeming power of Amida’s compassionate vow. Interestingly, jijuyu likewise has a contrasting principle in tajuyu. The original characters for ta- and ji- in both formulations are the same: other- vs. self-. But the ji- in Dogen’s teaching, and in our Soto practice of zazen, is not a ji- or self separate from others or the world, but a self that includes ta-, or other.

This is an extremely important point in our Soto way of practice; maybe the central point. When we sit, or chant, or bow, or walk in the zendo, there is not a self who is “meditating” in order to gain anything. We instead are simply and inexorably drawn to enact a practice of awakening beings – be that recitation of the Name or crossing our legs in zazen posture or simply praying for peace in our hearts (there obviously is no denominational limit around the longing to drop away selfness and experience connection, making one path superior to another.) As our understanding deepens, no matter what may have initially inspired the “self-powered” effort to enter onto a path of practice, and what personal energy may seem to generate what we need to spur ourselves toward uprightness on the cushion, in time we begin to realize that what really fuels our practice is totally beyond the “self” – and yet simultaneously demands or inspires expression through this very self. In a way, the true satisfaction that we experience in zazen, or wearing the robe, or recitation of scripture, or any of the other forms of practice is in simply submitting to this call, or vow – a vow that expresses itself through yet goes beyond any small idea of self.


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