I recently visited Chicago, and my teacher Taigen Dan Leighton, to participate in our annual Rohatsu Sesshin, traditionally celebrated the first week in December in honor of the historical Buddha’s awakening. Throughout the week. Taigen discussed Eihei Dogen’s essay Gyobutsu Iigi. While Taigen himself had previously translated this title as “The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas,” he stated he wished to give it a different translation and hence a subtly different interpretation. He alternately translated it as something akin to “The Dignified Manner of Active Buddhas.” I wished to in the coming weeks also speak about this text, introduce some of Taigen’s ideas about it, and open it up for discussion and use in our practice here in New Mexico. In Chicago, I found myself excited to come back and share this wonderful teaching.
This week I will concentrate on just the first two paragraphs, reproduced here from Taigen and Kaz Tanahashi’s collaborative translation from a few years back:
“Buddhas invariably practice complete awesome presence (dignified manner); thus they are active buddhas. Active buddhas are neither reward-body buddhas, nor incarnate-body buddhas, neither self manifesting buddhas, nor buddhas manifesting for others. Active buddhas are neither originally enlightened, nor enlightened beginning at some time, neither naturally enlightened, nor without enlightenment. Such kinds of buddhas can never compare with active buddhas.
“Know that buddhas in the buddha way do not wait for awakening. Only active buddhas fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha. This is something that those such as self manifesting buddhas have never seen even in a dream.”
Gyobutsu is translated here as “active buddha/s.” Gyo can also mean walking, moving; generally engaging in activity. This distinction itself is already instructive, in that perhaps we often equate Buddha with stillness, non-action, emptiness, and a sort of transcendence. In other words, buddha sits; she’s not doing anything. But here, buddha is sort of intrinsically active (or buddha’s are.)
Iigi indicates how this buddha activity manifests; how it looks or feels, perhaps. And we can see this immediately in the context of practice, and how our traditions inculcate or model for us this attitude or posture of iigi. So the meaning of this phrase lies perhaps somewhere between, or beyond, these two translations.
“Awesome presence” sounds pretty high-falutin. And buddha, or awakened presence, can certainly feel quite awesome, which is to say profound. But Taigen’s alternate translation of “dignified manner” gently brings it all back to earth a little. The threat here is that we can maybe interpret this dignity to be sort of stuffy or uptight – I think of the British upper classes as lampooned by Monty Python or something. This uptightness (in a Zen iteration) certainly happens among practitioners. Maybe things can look a little pretentious, sometimes. And that’s ok too – maybe even corrective.
But hopefully with some good instruction, good modeling, and some consistency over time, we get to a point with our forms and postures and basic zendo etiquette where we inhabit them with a kind of naturalness and gentleness that are sort of dignified and awesome, but in a very unpretentious and deeply human way. We aren’t aware of being dignified or awesome; rather, we just recognize that our Zen way is just a good way. Not the best way even, but good enough. If we take care of it, it takes care of us.
So Dogen then lists all these different sorts of buddhas, referencing categories of attainment found in various scriptures and versions of Dharma through Buddhist history. But he says none of these kinds of buddhas can compare with active buddhas. So clearly, these active buddhas are important to know about.
I love this next line: “Know that buddhas in the buddha way do not wait for awakening.” I am intimate with this feeling. I feel generally unprepared to talk to you about buddha. I sometimes feel completely unworthy to speak about zen. That said, I love talking with you about buddhadharma; my teacher has asked me to do so, and I like being given this homework. But it would be very easy for me to entertain the idea, “I have not attained complete perfect awakening, and am therefore unable to speak to you about Zen.” This idea however would contradict Dogen himself. And as another teacher in our tradition has said, sometimes “you have to say something.”
Dogen further clarifies that Active Buddhas (which as he’s just flat out stated are the ultimate buddhas), “fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha.” We all can apprehend this directly; we came here tonight, or we sit down each day in zazen, and we directly drop off our ideas of self or zen, and aim toward directly experiencing our life as it is in this moment. We release our idealistic notions of Buddha or zen, and we just sit. This is a quite vital process of going beyond any idea, and tasting reality for ourselves. Its active; its engaged. It’s not disassociated, it’s not an homage to another time and place, or being named Buddha.
Someone has asked about the historical distinction regarding “sudden” enlightenment schools versus the “gradual” path. As you can I think immediately recognize, once again, these distinctions are maybe not so useful, or even fundamentally meaningful. Of course we have sudden-seeming insights; but hopefully we have those in the context of long-term, committed practice on the path of going beyond buddha, be that in relationships, work, healing, parenting, or our formal zen discipline.
-Keizan Titus O’Brien