Remembering Buddha

In my last talk, I spoke about zazen, self-power, and other power (in Japanese, tariki and jiriki respectively.) I specifically mentioned Dogen’s seminally crucial phrase, jijuyu zanmei, as a gateway to explore this idea, or feeling, or practice; or actually, properly speaking, this fundamental reality. Jijuyu Zanmai can be translated in many ways but it could mean something like “the practice of self-actualization”, to employ language perhaps more familiar from some other traditions.

The idea of self here is really the key, in different respects. This self (ji) is not a self as opposed to an other (ta), but rather a ji that includes ta; a ta that includes ji. And as Dogen elsewhere states, it’s a self that must be dropped off or simply forgotten to be truly and thoroughly investigated, or expressed. Dogen promoted zazen as a particularly…elegant method (of no method) for doing so.

This week I wished to expand a bit more on this topic, especially since my teacher Taigen pointed me toward a talk he himself gave, that was recorded a couple of years back. He talked about Zazen as Nembutsu Practice. I think we are both great appreciators of Shinran Shonin, the Pure Land Buddhist ancestor and slight precursor of Dogen. Like Dogen, he was an accomplished and veteran Buddhist monk when he came to his great awakening. Shinran came to a profound realization of his total ineffectiveness, true hopelessness, in the face of his own and others’ confusion, ignorance, and endless craving. As a result, he took radical refuge in the vow of the great Amida Buddha, in whose vast compassion all beings are granted solace and the promise of salvation from the otherwise impossibly grinding endurance demanded by this Saha world. We might understand this as devotion, and a great prayer for peace and grace – for self and other.

This is one perspective and a great gift we receive from the Mahayana, the Buddhist movement or development that flowered in East Asia a few centuries after the historical Buddha is supposed to have lived in India. And it is the mother tradition or soil from which the Zen, Pure Land, and many other Dharma manifestations were shaped and born.

As Taigen beautifully outlined, we can view our zazen as not different than the Pure Land practice of nembutsu, which actually means “re-mind-ing Buddha” or “re-member-ing Buddha.” For the Pure Land folks, in practice this often means the recitation of the name of the Buddha they most revere – Amida. For Nichiren sects, they praise through repetition the name of a great textual manifestation of enlightened wisdom often called the Lotus Sutra (saying nam myoho renge kyo in Japanese, or namas saddharma pundarika sutra in Sanskrit – a mantra I sometimes employ myself).

These are fine practices the founder of our tradition, Eihei Dogen, was well aware of. However, it must be said that Dogen at times pretty emphatically rejected these practices in favor of zazen, which he said was the instantaneous and complete manifestation of Buddha-Mudra with one’s whole body and mind. A mudra is often thought of as a hand gesture, but Dogen’s take is obviously much more encompassing, and I think exceedingly compelling.

Dogen’s zazen was not the zazen practiced or understood by his contemporaries, or perhaps even by some people today. Dogen’s zazen may feel or look at times like a sort of heroic effort of a personal, egoic self to come to terms with itself and the world. But Dogen deeply understood that, in effect, if that’s all zazen was, it was simply not Buddha Dharma. In other words, meditating good is not necessarily a spiritual thing.

Dogen transmitted to us an understanding of zazen, or upright sitting, as totally transcending any limitation that one might place on it: self/other, body/mind, conscious/unconscious, deluded/awakened, good/bad. I think it is safe to say he was devoted to zazen as an especially beautiful way to engage that thing that is beyond all our petty “-isms and schisms”: the habitual distinctions that drive us personally to distraction, and our living planetary home to the potential verge of quite literal destruction.

Is it possible to experience and know if our zazen is truly displaying Buddha Mudra with our whole body and mind? We ask this question, and we must ask this question. But Dogen told us that the answer is to be found in no other place than in zazen itself (which is in no way limited to simply sitting down or being still) and in this current moment (which is fundamentally beyond all our efforts at total cognition). Despite this limitlessness, his exhortations to just sit, sit, and sit, attending moment by moment without expectation, continue to echo down to us 800 years later. And those of us attracted to this practice (of no practice) keep individually discovering, over and over, that he may have been on to something.