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Taigen Dan Leighton 
Article for the book, Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice, edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Buddhist meditation has commonly been considered an instrumental technique aimed at obtaining a heightened mental or spiritual state, or even as a method for inducing some dramatic “enlightenment” experience. But in some branches of the Zen tradition, zazen (Zen seated meditation) has been seen not as a means to attaining some result, but as a ritual enactment and expression of awakened awareness. This alternate, historically significant approach to Zen meditation and practice has been as a ceremonial, ritual expression whose transformative quality is not based on stages of attainment or meditative prowess.

The Zen ritual enactment approach is most apparent and developed in writings about zazen by the Japanese Soto Zen founder Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). After beginning with his ritual instructions for meditation practice, especially in his monastic regulations for the monks’ hall in Eihei Shingi, I will explore relevant teachings about meditation in a selection of his extended essays in Shobogenzo (True Dharma Eye Treasury), as well as in his direct teachings to his monks in Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). This will be followed with a sampling of a few other Zen sources with analogous approaches.

Before focusing on teachings by Dogen, we may briefly note that such enactment practice is usually associated with the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, in which practitioners are initiated into ritual practices of identification with specific buddha or bodhisattva figures. Although Vajrayana is often considered the province of Tibetan Buddhism, increasing attention is being given to the crucial role of the Japanese forms of Vajrayana (mikkyo in Sino-Japanese).[1] In the Heian period this mikkyo, also known as “esoteric” or tantric practice, was prevalent not only in Shingon (True Word), the main Japanese Vajrayana school, but also in the comprehensive Tendai school in which were first trained not only Japanese Zen founders like Dogen and Eisai (1141-1215), but also Pure Land founders Honen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1262), as well as Nichiren (1222-1282). Thanks to this mikkyo heritage that permeated all of medieval Japanese Buddhism, in many inexplicit ways mikkyo or tantric practice can be seen as underlying all subsequent forms of Japanese Buddhism. Further studies exploring the direct and indirect influences of mikkyo on Japanese Zen promise to be especially instructive.

For Dogen and others, Zen shares with the Vajrayana tradition the heart of spiritual activity and praxis as the enactment of buddha awareness and physical presence, rather than aiming at developing a perfected, formulated understanding. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, Robert Thurman speaks of the main thrust of Vajrayana practice as physical rather than solely mental. “When we think of the goal of Buddhism as enlightenment, we think of it mainly as an attainment of some kind of higher understanding. But Buddhahood is a physical transformation as much as a mental transcendence.”[2]

The Japanese Vajrayana teacher Kukai (774-835), the founder of Shingon, emphasized the effects of teachings over their literal meaning. As explicated by Thomas Kasulis, “Kukai was more interested in the teachings’ aims than in their content, or perhaps better stated, he saw the aims as inseparable from their content. He saw no sharp distinction between theory and practice.”[3] The understanding of a teaching was not privileged independently from its practical effects. “The truth of a statement depends not on the status of its referent, but on how it affects us.”[4] For Kukai, physical postures, utterances, and mental imagery are expressions of ultimate reality, and by intentionally engaging in them, practitioners are led to realization of that reality. The performance of the ritual practice helps effect an expressive realization deeper than mere cognition.

Both the Vajrayana and Zen emphasis on fully expressed performance of reality reflects the valuing of actual bodhisattvic workings and the realization of a teaching’s enactment over theoretical dictums or attainments. In his early 1231 writing on the meaning of meditation, “Bendowa” (Talk on Wholehearted Engagement of the Way), now considered part of Shobogenzo, Dogen directly emphasizes the priority of the actualization of practice expression over doctrinal theory. “Buddhist practitioners should know not to argue about the superiority or inferiority of teachings and not to discriminate between superficial or profound dharma, but should only know whether the practice is genuine or false.”[5] This priority of a teaching’s actual performance is reflected, for example, in the somewhat later Japanese Soto Zen prescription, “Dignified manner is Buddha Dharma; decorum is the essential teaching.”[6] The point is to enact the meaning of the teachings in actualized practice, and the whole praxis, including meditation, may thus be viewed as ritual, ceremonial expressions of the teaching, rather than as means to discover and attain some understanding of it. Therefore the strong emphasis in much of this approach to Zen training is the mindful and dedicated expression of meditative awareness in everyday activities.

In perhaps his most foundational essay on zazen, “Fukanzazengi” (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen), Dogen gives detailed postural instructions for sitting meditation, largely patterned after Chinese Chan meditation manuals. The earliest version of this essay, no longer extant, is from 1227, written shortly after Dogen’s return to Japan from four years of studies in China. Later revisions are from 1233 and 1242, the latter cited here from his Eihei Koroku.[7] This essay was aimed at a general audience of laypeople, but still describes the practice in ritual terms. Dogen specifies in detail preparation of the meditation space, suggesting a quiet room, and also grounding of the mental space, including to put aside involvements and affairs, and not to think in terms of good or bad. He adds, “Have no designs on becoming a buddha,” emphasizing the non-instrumental and instead ritual nature of this activity. He then describes postural arrangements, including details of full lotus and half lotus leg positions, how to hold the hand position, and physical guides for upright alignment, such as ears in line above shoulders and nose above navel. All these are provided so that the practitioner can “settle into steady, immovable sitting.”[8]

After the procedural descriptions, which were patterned closely after the Chan sources, Dogen then comments, “The zazen I speak of is not [learning] meditation practice. It is simply the Dharma gate of peace and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated awakening.”[9]Here Dogen clarifies that the zazen praxis he espouses is not one of the traditional meditation programs that one can study and learn, step-by step. “Meditation” is a translation for Zen in Japanese, Chan in Chinese, or Dhyana in Sanskrit, which can be understood in terms of the four stages of the technical dhyana practices (often translated as “trances”), which predate the historical Buddha in India. But in China this term was used generally to refer to a variety of meditation curricula, the sense indicated here by Dogen. He goes on to clarify that his zazen praxis bears no relationship to mental acuity, “Make no distinction between the dull and the sharp witted.” Then he adds, “If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled.”[10] In many of his writings, Dogen emphasizes the oneness of “practice-realization,” that meditation practice is not a means toward some future realization or enlightenment, but is its inseparable expression, as will be discussed further, below.

The ritual context of Dogen’s zazen is highlighted at the beginning of his essay,”Bendoho” (The Model for Engaging the Way), a manual for the proper procedures for practice in the monks’ hall, within which the monks sit zazen, take meals, and sleep, each at their assigned places. This is the traditional mode of Chan practice in China, which Dogen established at Eiheiji, the monastery he founded after moving in 1243 from the capital of Kyoto to the remote mountains of Echizen (now Fukui), and which remains one of the two headquarter temples of Soto Zen. “Bendoho” is one of the essays in Eihei Shingi (Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community), the seventeenth century collection of all of Dogen’swritings in Chinese about monastic standards and regulations. “Bendoho” follows in this text after the more celebrated essay “Tenzokyokun” (Instructions for the Chief Cook), which propounds the appropriate attitudes and responsibility of the tenzo, as well as rituals and procedures to be followed in preparing food in the monastery kitchen.

In “Bendoho,” Dogen states that all monks should sit zazen together, “when the assembly is sitting,” and stop together when it is time for all to lie down for the night. He states that “Standing out has no benefit; being different from others is not our conduct.”[11] Clearly Dogen sees zazen as a communal ritual, rather than an individual spiritual exercise. Commencing with the evening schedule, Dogen imparts the proper ritual conduct for daily activities in the monks’ hall throughout the day, including comprehensive ritual procedures for such activities as serving tea, teeth brushing, face cleaning, and using the toilet (in the lavatory located in back of the monks’ hall). He speaks of zazen as one of such ritual activities, and describes in detail the manner and route with which the abbot should enter the hall to lead the assembly’s evening zazen.[12] Later, after describing less formal early morning sitting, Dogen gives further instructions for zazen that copy in many particulars the detailed postural instructions in “Fukanzazengi.” It is clear in context that Dogen considers zazen the core ritual, but still simply one of the many ritual activities in the everyday life of the monks’ hall.

One of the Shobogenzo essays that focuses on zazen practice is the 1242 “Zazenshin” (The Acupuncture Needle, or Point, of Zazen). In it Dogen says, “For studying the way, the established [means of] investigation is pursuit of the way in seated meditation. The essential point that marks this [investigation] is [the understanding] that there is a practice of a Buddha that does not seek to make a Buddha. Since the practice of a Buddha is not to make a Buddha, it is the realization of the koan.”[13] Here, as in many places in his writings, Dogen emphasizes as the “essential point” that zazen specifically and practice generally is not about seeking some future buddhahood. Rather, it is already the practice of buddhas, realizing with awakened awareness what is crucial in this present situation.

As “Zazenshin” proceeds, it centers on Dogen’s commentary about a story about the great Chan master Mazu Daoyi (709-788; Baso Doitsu in Japanese), when he was studying under Nanyue Huairang (677-744; Nangaku Ejo in Japanese). Mazu was sitting and his teacher Nanyue asked him about his intention in zazen. Mazu replied that he intended to make a Buddha. Nanyue took a tile and began polishing it with a rock. When Mazu asked what he was doing, Nanyue replied that he was polishing a tile to make a mirror. When Nanyue perplexedly asked how this was possible, Nanyue responded, “How can you make a Buddha through zazen?”

This story is frequently referenced by Dogen, for example as case 38 in his collection of ninety koans with verse comments in volume nine of Eihei Koroku.[14] In one of his two verse comments, Dogen inverts Nanyue’s action by saying, “How can people plan to take a mirror and make it a tile?”[15], implying that such effort denigrates the Buddha already present. In “Zazenshin,” commenting after Nanyue says, “How can you make a Buddha through zazen?” Dogen declares, “There is a principle that seated meditation does not await making a Buddha; there is nothing obscure about the essential message that making a Buddha is not connected with seated meditation.”[16] For Dogen zazen is adamantly not merely a means to achieve buddhahood. But after commenting in detail on this story, Dogen says, “It is the seated Buddha that Buddha after Buddha and Patriarch after Patriarch have taken as their essential activity. Those who are Buddhas and Patriarchs have employed this essential activity, . . . for it is the essential function.”[17]Although it is not an instrumental activity for gaining awakening, zazen is still the fundamental activity of buddhas for Dogen.

“Zazenshin” concludes with Dogen commenting on and writing his own version of a poem about the function of zazen by Chinese master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157: Wanshi Shogaku in Japanese), the most important Soto (Caodong in Chinese) teacher in the century before Dogen, and who was a primary source and inspiration for Dogen. For the purpose of this article, the main point in Dogen’s discussion is that both verses begin with the proposition that zazen is “the essential function of all the Buddhas.” Dogen comments that, “the essential function that is realized [by buddhas] is seated meditation.”[18] Again, he sees zazen as the expression and function of buddhas, rather than buddhahood being a function, or consequence, of zazen.

Along with the playful, elaborate essays in Dogen’s Shobogenzo, noted for their poetic wordplay and intricate philosophical expressions, Dogen’s other major and massive work is Eihei Koroku. The first seven of the ten volumes of Eihei Koroku consist of usually brief jodo (literally “ascending the hall”), which I will call dharma hall discourses. These short, formal talks are given traditionally in the dharma hall with the monks standing. The development of the jodo as a Chan ritual form is discussed elsewhere in this volume in the article by Mario Poceski. Except for the first volume of Eihei Koroku from prior to his departure from Kyoto in 1243, the dharma hall discourses in Eihei Koroku are our primary source for Dogen’s mature teaching at Eiheiji, after he had finished writing the vast majority of the longer essays included in Shobogenzo. These talks to his cadre of disciples at Eiheiji reveal his personality qualities and style of training. This training apparently was effective, as Dogen’s seven major disciples present at Eiheiji, together with their disciples over the next few generations, managed to spread his Soto lineage and teaching widely in the Japanese countryside.[19]

In a great many of the jodo Dogen discusses zazen as a ritual activity for enactment of Buddha awareness. For example, in dharma hall discourse 319 from 1249, just before celebrating the institution of the first Japanese monks’ hall at Eiheiji, Dogen says, “We should know that zazen is the decorous activity of practice after realization. Realization is simply just sitting zazen.”[20] Dogen again emphasizes that his zazen is not an activity prior to realization of enlightenment, but its natural expression, comparable to the ongoing daily meditation by Shakyamuni Buddha after his awakening to buddhahood.

However, this ritual zazen expressing realization is not a pointless or dull, routinized activity, inertly enshrining some prior experience. In dharma hall discourse 449 from 1251, Dogen says, “What is called zazen is to sit, cutting through the smoke and clouds without seeking merit. Just become unified, never reaching the end. . . Already such, how can we penetrate it?”[21] Behind these zazen instructions and encouragements to actively enact awareness in practice is a strong attitude of persistent inquiry that permeates Dogen’s teachings and his challenges to his disciples. Dogen’s zazen can even be seen as a ritualized mode of silent inquiry, and this attitude of inquiry is reinforced in many of his mentions of zazen.

The ninth day of the ninth month was the traditional date in the Chan monastic schedule when the relaxed summer schedule ended and increased zazen practice began. Although Dogen did not follow the relaxed schedule in his training set-up, he did honor the traditional date for renewed zazen with talks encouraging revitalized practice.[22]Dogen’s dharma hall discourse 523 from 1252 is the last such talk given on that date to encourage zazen. In that talk he says, “Body and mind that is dropped off is steadfast and immovable. Although the sitting cushions are old, they show new impressions.” Here he refers to the importance of sustaining zazen as a practice ritual, and its renewal with fresh impressions (on cushions as well as minds), ritually celebrated on this occasion. He then adds, “It is not that there is no practice-realization, but who could defile it?”[23] This refers again to the oneness of practice and realization, and the story about it from the sixth ancestor and Nanyue, which will be discussed below.

In dharma hall discourse 531, his very last jodo in 1252, during which he was succumbing to the illness that would take his life in the following year, Dogen says in a verse, “A flower blooming on a monk’s staff has merit. Smiling on our sitting cushions, there’s nothing lacking.”[24] In this, one of his very last teachings, he describes zazen as a joyful event that celebrates the full expression and blossoming of awakening.

There are many other such examples in Dogen’s writings. But one of the most revealing dharma hall discourses is 266 from 1248, truly astonishing in disclosing Dogen’s self-awareness of the subtlety of his training approaches. He states four aspects of his practice teaching, and their intended impact on his students.[25] He begins with, “Sometimes I enter the ultimate state and offer profound discussion, simply wishing for you all to be steadily intimate in your mind field.” This may refer to the impact of his talks, either from Shobogenzo or Eihei Koroku. Then he adds, “Sometimes within the gates and gardens of the monastery, I offer my own style of practical instruction, simply wishing you all to disport and play freely with spiritual penetration.” This refers to his teaching about engaging with everyday monastic activities, as in Eihei Shingi. But in both of the first two instances, the desired impact is not about the students acquiring some new state of being or understanding, but rather about their fostering steady intimacy in their awareness, or for them to disport and play freely, i.e. to respond and engage with spontaneity, in their daily activities. In the third approach “I spring quickly leaving no trace, simply wishing you all to drop off body and mind.” This may refer to abrupt exclamations or startling demonstrations in Dogen’s teaching. But dropping off body and mind, his stated aim, is an expression Dogen uses both for complete enlightenment, but also as a synonym for zazen. This dropping off, letting go of physical and conceptual attachments, is the activity of zazen that is enacted in the zazen ritual.

The fourth mode refers most directly to zazen. He says, “Sometimes I enter the samadhi of self-fulfillment, simply wishing you all to trust what your hands can hold.” This samadhi of self-fulfillment (jijuyu zanmai in Japanese) is another of Dogen’s synonyms for zazen, described fully in Dogen’s early 1231 essay “Bendowa” (Talk on Wholehearted Engagement of the Way), in which he calls it the “criterion” for zazen.[26] In his excellent introductory book on Dogen, Hee-Jin Kim says that this samadhi of self-fulfillment is “a total freedom of self-realization without any dualism of antitheses, [which are] not so much transcended as realized. [This freedom] realized itself in duality, not apart from it.”[27] In this dharma hall discourse 266 Dogen describes the intention of the samadhi of self-fulfillment as supporting his students simply to “trust what your hands can hold.” This implies that zazen supports the practitioner’s confidence in their ability to respond aptly to the present situation, or to engage and abide fully in the circumstances of their own “Dharma position,” another phrase used often by Dogen.

In the conclusion of this dharma hall discourse 266, after describing these four teaching modes, Dogen rhetorically asks, “What would go beyond these [teachings]?” He responds with a poetic capping verse, “Scrubbed clean by the dawn wind, the night mist clears. Dimly seen, the blue mountains form a single line.”[28] Here Dogen points to the suchness of reality, which is for him the object of attention in the enactment of zazen, in which is clearly seen the total interconnectedness of all particulars as in the image of the many peaks coalescing into a single horizon. The image “blue mountains form a single line” also implies Dogen’s appreciation of the single-minded lineage of Zen buddha ancestors, each teaching at their mountain temple, who have kept alive through the generations the practice-realization teaching of zazen as the practice of buddhas, rather than as a practice aimed at attaining buddhahood.

Dogen provides what might be seen as an extended description of the content of the enactment in the ritual of zazen in a 1241 Shobogenzoessay, “Gyobutsu Igi” (The Awesome Presence, or Dignified Manner, of Active, or Practicing, Buddhas). Near the beginning of this long essay, Dogen says directly, “Know that buddhas in the Buddha way do not wait for awakening.”[29] Awakening for Dogen is not some event that will occur some other time in the future, after doing the appropriate meditative exercises. He continues, “Active buddhas alone fully experience the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha. . . . They bring forth awesome presence with their body. Thus, their transformative function flows out in their speech, reaching throughout time, space, buddhas, and activities.”[30] This zazen ritual does indeed involve transformation for Dogen. We can see in all Zen rituals that, at least ideally, ritual activity does have some impact, or liberative effect, for the participants. And on the other hand, attachment to the mere procedural forms of ritual, in which the forms are followed in a routinized, rote manner, is traditionally considered a hindrance to practice.

This passage of “Gyobutsu Igi,” with its description of the active process involved, gives a clear account of Dogen’s view of the workings of zazen. “Fully experiencing the vital process on the path of going beyond buddha” highlights the dynamic aspect of the ritual act of zazen. Its ongoing practice is a lively “vital process,” open to the shiftings and complexities of life, and yet one engaging it is already “on the path,” committed to awakening and support of universal liberation. “Going beyond Buddha” is a common phrase in Dogen’s writings, indicating the ongoing nature of awakening and of the active or practicing buddhas’ conduct. For Dogen, buddhahood is not some one-time attainment to be cherished thereafter, but an ongoing vital process, requiring continued re-awakening.

A little further in “Gyobutsu Igi,” Dogen says, “Practice-Realization is not defiled. Although there are hundreds, thousands, and myriad [of practice-realizations] in a place where there is no Buddha and no person, practice-realization does not defile active buddhas.”[31] This key phrase, “Practice-Realization is not defiled,” is frequently repeated by Dogen from a story about Nanyue Huairang, who was featured in the later story of his polishing a tile to make a mirror, discussed previously. This earlier story of Nanyue as a student visiting the Chan sixth ancestor Dajian Huineng (638-713; Daikan Eno in Japanese) is recounted fully in several places by Dogen, including the 1250 dharma hall discourse 374 in Eihei Koroku.[32]

In the story, Nanyue appeared before the sixth ancestor, who asked, “What is this that thus comes?” This is a curious, probing manner of asking, “Who are you?” without assuming some fixed “self” or “you,” which of course is antithetical to Buddhist teachings of non-self and emptiness.

Nanyue was speechless, but the story says, he “never put this question aside” for eight years of intensive practice thereafter. Finally he returned to the sixth ancestor and responded, “To explain or demonstrate anything would miss the mark.”

The sixth ancestor asked whether, if so, there is practice and realization or not. Nanyue validated his eight years of study by responding, “It is not that there is no practice-realization, but only that it cannot be defiled.” The sixth ancestor affirmed that “this nondefilement” is exactly what all the buddhas and ancestors “protect and care for.”[33] Part of the possibility of defilement warned against here is exactly that of meditation practice engaged as a mere means, and enlightenment as a remote abstraction separate from our activity and awareness.

As we have already seen, Dogen often cites this story in the context of his important teaching of the unity of practice and realization (shusho-itto). He proclaims this clearly in his early 1231 writing “Bendowa.” In response to one of the questions posed, Dogen states,

In buddha-dharma, practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner’s whole-hearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. . . Since it is already the enlightenment of practice, enlightenment is endless; since it is the practice of enlightenment, practice is beginingless.[34]

For Dogen, true practice of buddha-dharma can only be a response to some present awareness of enlightenment or realization. And enlightenment is not realized, or meaningful, unless it is engaged in practice. Dogen says that because of this unity he urges all to engage in zazen, and then he cites Nanyue’s, “It is not that there is no practice and enlightenment, but only that it cannot be defiled.”[35]

In the writing hogo (dharma words) 11 from volume eight of Eihei Koroku, Dogen goes beyond the unity of practice and enlightenment to discuss the unity of practice and enlightenment with the expounding or expression of the teaching.[36] These hogo are probably from before he moved away from Kyoto in 1243, and are mostly from letters to individual students, although this hogo 11 is one of the few in which a recipient is not specified. Dogen says, “Within this [true Dharma] there is practice, teaching, and verification [enlightenment]. This practice is the effort of zazen.”[37] It does require some effort to arrive at the monastery, to enter the meditation hall, to sit upright, to keep eyes open, to breathe, and to return to being present and upright in one’s body and mind. This is the effort of zazen practice. Dogen adds, “It is customary that such practice is not abandoned even after reaching buddhahood, so that it is [still] practiced by a buddha.” Dogen here points out that even after he became the Buddha, roughly 2500 years ago now in northern India, the historical Shakyamuni Buddha continued to do this meditation practice. When the Buddha became enlightened, that was not the end of Buddhism, but just its beginning.

Dogen goes on to say,

Teaching and verification [enlightenment] should be examined in the same way. This zazen was transmitted from Buddha to Buddha, directly pointed out by ancestors, and only transmitted by legitimate successors. Even when others hear of its name, it is not the same as the zazen of buddha ancestors. This is because the principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment.[38]

As in “Bendowa,” “Gyobutsu Igi,” and elsewhere, Dogen emphasizes that his ritual zazen praxis is not passively waiting for some future event or experience, and he notes critically that, “The principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment.” In many traditional branches of Buddhism, meditation practice may eventually lead to enlightenment. Dogen states that some people even practice “like having crossed over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that upon crossing the ocean one should discard the raft. The zazen of our Buddha ancestors is not like this, but is simply Buddha’s practice.” In this common Buddhist simile of the raft, once one reaches the other shore of liberation the raft (e.g. of meditative practice) is no longer needed. But Dogen implies that the practitioner should continue to carry the raft, even while trudging up into the mountains or down into the marketplace.

For Dogen zazen is not waiting for enlightenment, but simply the practice of buddhas. This practice is not to acquire something in some other time, or in another state of consciousness or being. It is actually the practice of enlightenment or realization right now. And this enlightenment or realization for Dogen is naturally expressed in practice. Enlightenment that was not actually put into practice would just be some abstracted idea of enlightenment, and would not be actual, verified enlightenment. There could be no true enlightenment that is not expressed in practice.

This unity of practice and awakening expressed fully in this hogo 11 is discussed elsewhere by Dogen. But here he continues further,

We could say that the situation of Buddha’s house is the oneness in which the essence, practice, and expounding are one and the same. The essence is enlightenment; expounding is the teaching; and practice is cultivation. Even up to now, these have been studied together. We should know that practice is the practice of essence and expounding.[39]

The conventional view of spiritual practice and of a buddha’s career would be that one first engages in meditative practice, then, after many years or, more likely, a great many lifetimes, one might experience awakening or enlightenment. Only thereafter would one “turn the wheel of dharma,” or expound the teaching. But in the above passage and as hogo 11 continues, Dogen insists that the ritual meditative praxis of the buddha ancestors is completely one with “the essence” of enlightenment, but also with its expounding. The Chinese character for “expounding” also means simply “to express.” So from the first thought of practice and awakening, the practice completely expresses the enlightenment at hand. The zazen ritual is not only not separate from the verification of enlightenment, but also completely expresses, expounds, and enacts that enlightenment. Buddha dharma “never comes from the forceful activity of people, but from the beginning is the expression and activity of Dharma.”[40] In some sense, people’s postures are always inevitably expressing their current realization. But also the effort and enactment of the practice ritual derives from the responsibility to more thoroughly enact that expression.

This expounding of awakening need not be offered only through verbal dharma talks. It may also be fully expounded and enacted simply through the physical, ritual expression of upright sitting, or zazen. Moreover, for Dogen the awakening of buddhas is expounded by buddhas listening to the teaching equally with those who give the teaching. In a later section of “Gyobutsu Igi” (The Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas) Dogen describes buddhas listening to as well as speaking dharma. “Do not regard the capacity to expound the dharma as superior, and the capacity to listen to the dharma as inferior. If those who speak are venerable, those who listen are venerable as well.”[41]The ritual enactment of a dharma talk is performed by the listeners as well as by the speaker. Dogen clarifies, “Know that it is equally difficult to listen to and accept this sutra. Expounding and listening are not a matter of superior and inferior. . . As the fruit of buddhahood is already present, they do not listen to dharma to achieve buddhahood; as indicated, they are already buddhas.”[42] As with zazen itself, for Dogen the ritual of listening to the teaching is not undertaken as a means to the goal of awakening or understanding, but simply as an enactment of the buddhahood already present.

Some of Dogen’s jodo (dharma hall discourses) in his Eihei Korokupose a further analogy to his approach to zazen as an enactment ritual. He uses his own expounding of the dharma as an enactment ritual rather than as a mere technique to communicate philosophical doctrines or practice instructions. This mode of enactment ritual represents a primary aspect of Dogen’s Zen expression. For example, in dharma hall discourse 70, given in 1241, Dogen proclaims:

As this mountain monk [Dogen] today gives a dharma hall discourse, all buddhas in the three times also today give a dharma hall discourse. The ancestral teachers in all generations also today give a dharma hall discourse. . . . Already together having given a dharma hall discourse, what Dharma has been expounded? No other Dharma is expressed; but this very Dharma is expressed. What is this Dharma? . . . It is upheld within the monks’ hall; it is upheld within the buddha hall.[43]

Dogen never states the content of the dharma hall discourse, except to say that he is giving it, together with all buddhas and ancestors, and that it is upheld in the ritual activity of the monks in the monks’ hall and buddha hall. This is a ritual discourse that celebrates the ritual itself and its enactment, beyond any other content signified by the ritual. As such, it provides a mirror to the ritual enactment of zazen that Dogen proclaims as itself the essential realization or enlightenment. And, as in hogo 11 discussed above, this also reflects zazen as itself the expounding or expression of zazen practice and realization.

Dogen provides a further turn to his mode of ritual enactment in a remark near the end of hogo 4, one of three of the fourteen hogo or dharma words in Eihei Koroku volume eight that are addressed to the nun Ryonen. Ryonen was one of Dogen’s women disciples who he praises lavishly, saying that she has long had “seeds of prajna,” and “strong, robust aspiration.” He continues,

Without begrudging any effort in nurturing the way, for you I will demonstrate the precise meaning of coming from the west [of Bodhidharma]. That is, if you do not hold onto a single phrase or half a verse, a bit of talk or a small expression, in this lump of red flesh you will have some accord with the clear, cool ground. If you hold on to a single word or half a phrase of the buddha ancestors’ sayings or of the koans from the ancestral gate, they will become dangerous poisons. If you want to understand this mountain monk’s activity, do not remember these comments.[44]

In effect, Dogen is saying not to remember the content of what he is telling her. And yet, he is clearly praising and encouraging her practice. The enactment here seems more important than the particular meaning enacted. But what he goes so far as to call the “precise meaning” of the ultimate teaching (commonly represented in Zen by Bodhidharma’s coming from the West), is exactly that in order to understand his activity, then the content of that activity, his comments, should not be remembered. The ritual enactment itself is given primal meaning by Dogen.

Non-attachment or not clinging is a primary feature of Dogen’s practice-realization as expression. Such clinging would be to neglect rather than to “protect and care for” the nondefilement of practice-realization proclaimed by Nanyue and Huineng. Practice marked by pursuit or attainment of enlightenment can become a form of spiritual materialism or greed, and even an unwitting attempt to defile enlightenment. Radical non-attachment through not even remembering the teaching, as suggested by Dogen to Ryonen, may actually fully demonstrate appreciation and enactment of the meaning of practice-realization. Dogen’s zazen celebrates and enacts Buddha’s practice of inquiry, rather than some practice of acquisition, and takes refuge in the actuality of Buddha’s practice, rather than aspiring to some external imagined ideal.

This approach to zazen as a ritual of enactment, which is clearly articulated throughout Dogen’s writings, is not unique to Dogen. As mentioned at the outset, in Japanese Zen it may derive in part from the significant influence throughout Japanese Buddhism of mikkyo, in which the practitioner identifies with and takes refuge in a particular buddha or bodhisattva. The bulk of the Chinese Chan koan or encounter dialogue literature does not deal directly with meditation as a ritual. But in Chinese Chan we indeed can see signs and intimations of this practice approach of zazen as an enactment ritual, evident in the following brief sampling of sources, all later mentioned by Dogen.

We have already seen how the eighth century Chan master Nanyue explored the enactment meaning of zazen in declaring to the sixth ancestor that “practice-realization cannot be defiled,” and later used a rockoand tile to demonstrate to his student Mazu that zazen is not about “becoming a buddha.” When Mazu himself became a prominent Chan teacher, he later taught that, “This very mind is Buddha.” Although not directly about ritual zazen, this implies an enactment rather than attainment approach to practice. And Mazu’s disciple Damei Fachang (752-839; Daibai Hojo in Japanese), who Mazu and Dogen both praised, spent thirty years on his mountain practicing zazen based on this teaching.[45]

Another prominent disciple of Mazu, Nanquan Puyuan (748-834; Nansen Fugan in Japanese) was asked about the Way by his student, the renowned adept Zhaozhou Congshen (778-897; Joshu Jushin in Japanese). Nanquan responded that, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”[46]When asked by Zhaozhou how to approach this, as if it was something to be attained, Nanquan replied, “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you will move away from it.” Again, this implies an enactment approach to practice, rather than seeking some attainment, which Nanquan clarifies as counter-productive. Nanquan continues that, “When you reach the true Way beyond doubt, it is vast and open as space.”

One of Mazu’s major contemporaries was Shitou Xiqian (700-790; Sekito Kisen in Japanese). Progenitor of the Caodong (Soto) lineage that Dogen inherited, Shitou is noted for his teaching poem, “Harmony of Difference and Sameness” (Cantonqi in Chinese; Sandokai in Japanese), which originates the fundamental philosophical dialectic of Caodong.[47]

Shitou also wrote a teaching poem that metaphorically describes his hermitage as a ritual space of meditative practice expression, “The Song of the Grass Hut” (Caoanke in Chinese; Soanka in Japanese). Therein Shitou says, “Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest. Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all. Living here he no longer works to get free.”[48] He is modeling a praxis not involved in the effort to gain some understanding or insight, but simply to allow all things to be “at rest,” just as they are. Shitou further adds, “Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk, innocent.” He is recommending practice that expresses just simply letting go whether in sitting or everyday conduct, reminiscent of what Dogen would later call “dropping body and mind.” In such aware and responsive presence, the practitioner may be able to act effectively, innocent of grasping and attachment. The stories of Nanyue, Mazu, and Nanquan, and the writings of Shitou indicate a classic Chan background for zazen as an enactment ritual.

A major predecessor for Dogen’s teachings on meditation is the important twelfth century Caodong (Soto) master Hongzhi Zhengjue, a prolific writer already mentioned for his poem on the acupuncture needle of zazen, discussed in Dogen’s Shobogenzo essay, “Zazenshin.” Hongzhi’s meditation teaching, sometimes referred to as silent or serene illumination, was a model for Dogen’s just sitting zazen. One sample of Hongzhi’s clear, evocative articulation of his meditative praxis is,

The practice of true reality is simply to sit serenely in silent introspection. When you have fathomed this you cannot be turned around by external causes or conditions. This empty, wide open mind is subtly and correctly illuminating. . . Here you can rest and become clean, pure, and lucid. Bright and penetrating, you can immediately return, accord, and respond to deal with events.[49]

In a later section of this volume of his Extensive Record, Hongzhi says, “Sit empty of worldly anxiety, silent and bright, clear and illuminating, blank and accepting, far-reaching and responsive.”[50] As Dogen would do in his own way a century later, Hongzhi elaborates the workings of a meditation of open, responsive presence in which subtle awakened awareness is enacted.

Teachings on meditation as enactment ritual continued among Dogen’s successors in Japan. Keizan Jokin (1264-1325), a third generation successor of Dogen, is considered the second founder of Soto Zen after Dogen. Keizan’s manual on Zen meditation, “Zazen Yojinki” (Writing on the Function of Mind in Zazen), begins, “Zazen just lets people illumine the mind and rest easy in their fundamental endowment. This is called showing the original face and revealing the scenery of the basic ground.”[51] This resting in and revealing of the fundamental ground certainly continues Dogen’s enactment practice. As this text proceeds, Keizan gives extensive ritual instructions in when, where, and how to perform zazen, incorporating much of the procedural recommendations of Dogen’s “Fukanzazengi,” while adding much more detail.

In the midst of these ritual instructions, Keizan also provides detail on how he sees zazen’s relationship to and enactment of teaching, practice, and realization.

Zazen is not concerned with teaching, practice, or realization, yet it contains these three aspects. . . . Although teaching is established within zen, it is not ordinary teaching; it is direct pointing, simply communicating the way, speaking with the whole body. . . . Although we speak of practice, it is practice without any doing. That is to say, the body doesn’t do anything, the mouth does not recite anything, the mind does not thinkoanything over. . . . Though we may speak of realization, this is realization without realization, . . . the gate of illumination through which the wisdom of the realized ones opens up, produced by the method of practice of great ease.[52]

Here clearly Keizan is not espousing zazen as some technique to gain enlightenment, or some perfected practice or expounding, but simply is affirming the full endowment of realization already expressed in zazen.

This approach continues in much of later Soto Zen. The Soto scholar-monk Menzan Zuiho (1682-1769) significantly influenced the development of modern Soto Zen. Among his many writings is a long essay called “Jijuyu-zanmai” (the Samadhi of Self-fulfillment), in which he includes excerpts from many of Dogen’s writings about meditation, including “Bendowa” and “Zazenshin,” discussed above.[53] Before the Dogen selections Menzan comments briefly on many other Buddhist meditation teachings. Menzan critiques the dualistic meditation of those who “aspire to rid themselves of delusion and to gain enlightenment; . . . This is nothing but creating the karma of acceptance and rejection.”[54] For Menzan, on the other hand, “zazen is not a practice for getting rid of delusions and gaining enlightenment.”[55] Commenting on a teaching attributed to the third ancestor, Menzan adds, “If you do not make mental struggle, the darkness itself becomes the Self illumination of the light.”[56] Later he says, “This is the culmination of the Buddha-Way and the unsurpassable samadhi which is continuously going beyond. For this reason all Buddhas in the world of the ten directions . . . always dwell in zazen.”[57]

In closing, it is important to note that the approach to zazen as an enactment ritual described in this article is far from the only approach to zazen in the Zen tradition, or in modern Zen. For example, the modern Rinzai Zen incorporation of koan introspection into zazen has its own set of associated rituals, many related to private interviews with the teacher. This praxis dates back to the great Japanese Rinzai master Hakuin (1686-1769), contemporary with Menzan, and has roots back to Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163; Daie Soko in Japanese) in Song China. This version of the koan introspection approach includes a curriculum that at least has the appearance of fostering attainment of stages of mastery of koans, and seeking impactful experiences of kensho, or “seeing into [Buddha] nature.”

The koan curriculum tradition from Hakuin, while contrary to much of Dogen’s approach to zazen addressed in this article, seems to have been successful and effective for many of its followers, historically and today. It is probably the approach most usually assumed in modern academic general discussions of “Zen practice,” and remains popular among some Western practice groups. It is not accurate, however, to stereotype Dogen’s enactment ritual zazen as only in Soto, since it can also be found used by a number of historical Rinzai teachers, and has not necessarily been followed by all Soto teachers. We should remember that Zen is far from monolithic; there is a pluralism of Zen traditions and ritual systems derived from Japan, and even more so when we include the developments in Korean Son, in Vietnam, and in Chan as it has evolved in China.

In the West, Zen meditation traditions continue to be influential among a range of spiritual practitioners and contemplatives. And recently, along with its philosophical insights, Buddhist ritual practices are being studied more closely by religious and historical scholars. The enactment ritual approach to zazen expounded by Dogenmay serve as a helpful antidote and be particularly illuminating in Western cultures dominated by materialist and consumerist orientations, where a bias toward acquisitiveness often can color even spiritual activities.



[1] See, for example, Richard Payne, ed., Tantric Buddhism in East Asia (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006).

[2] Robert Thurman, “Vajra Hermeneutics” in Donald Lopez, ed., Buddhist Hermeneutics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1988), p. 122.

[3] Thomas Kasulis, “Truth Words: The Basis of Kukai’s Theory of Interpretation” in Lopez, ed., Buddhist Hermeneutics, p. 260.

[4] Ibid., p. 271.

[5] Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton, trans., The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dogen’s “Bendowa” with Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (Boston: Charles Tuttle and Co., 1997), pp. 26-27.

[6] Foreword by Ikko Narasaki Roshi in Taigen Daniel Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans. Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. x.

[7] For a full discussion of the textual variants of “Fukanzazengi,” and its indebtedness to Chinese Chan sources, see Carl Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). An abbreviation of the “Fukanzazengi” essay from 1243 called “Zazengi” is included as part of Shobogenzo. It includes mostly the procedural portions of “Fukanzazengi,” with only minor revisions. See Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed. and trans., Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (New York: North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985), pp. 29-30.

[8] Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans., Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of Eihei Koroku (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004), p. 533.

[9] Ibid., p. 534.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, trans., Dogen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 63.

[12] Ibid., pp. 63-64.

[13] Carl Bielefeldt translation, in Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, p. 190. See also Kazuaki Tanahashi, ed. and trans. Beyond Thinking: Meditation Guide by Zen Master Dogen (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), p. 38; and Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross, trans. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, vol. 2 (Woods Hole, Mass.: Windbell Publications, 1996), p. 93.

[14] For this story in the 1241 Shobogenzo essay “Kokyo” (Ancient Mirror); see Nishijima and Cross, Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, vol. 1, pp. 239-259. For the version with Dogen’s verse comments in Eihei Koroku; see Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, pp. 561-562.

[15] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, pp. 561-562

[16] Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, p. 193.

[17] Ibid., p. 197.

[18] Ibid., p. 200.

[19] See Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, pp. 19-25.

[20] Ibid., p. 292.

[21] Ibid., p. 404.

[22] For Dogen’s attitude toward this element of the traditional Chan practice schedule, see dharma hall discourse 193, Ibid., p. 210.

[23] Ibid., p. 466.

[24] Ibid., p. 472.

[25] Ibid. pp. 257-258.

[26] See Okumura and Leighton, The Wholehearted Way, pp. 14-19, 21-24, 43, 63-65, 105-106.

[27] Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004), p. 55.

[28] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 258.

[29] Tanahashi, Beyond Thinking, p. 79.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 80.

[32] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, pp. 328-329. The story also appears as case 59 in Dogen’s collection of ninety koans with his verse comments in volume nine of Eihei Koroku, Ibid., pp. 575-576; and in the Shobogenzoessay, “Henzan” (All-Inclusive Study), Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop, p. 198. It may be noted that the historicity of Tang dynasty Chan stories is generally suspect, as many of them were not recorded until centuries after the supposed event, and there is no means to verify the oral traditions. Nevertheless, these stories were cherished throughout the later Chan/ Zen traditions.

[33] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 328.

[34] Okumura and Leighton, The Wholehearted Way, p. 30.

[35] Ibid., p. 31.

[36] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, pp. 519-522.

[37] Ibid., p. 521.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Tanahashi, Beyond Thinking, p. 94.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 124. For other examples of how Dogen uses jodo or dharma hall discourses as enactment rituals, see Taigen Dan Leighton, “The Lotus Sotoa as a Source for Dogen’s Discourse Style,” in Richard Payne and Taigen Dan Leighton, eds., Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2006).

[44] Leighton and Okumura, Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 507.

[45] Dogen recounts and comments on this story in dharma hall discourses 8 and 319, and calls Mazu’s teaching “most intimate.” See ibid., pp. 79, 292-293. Parts of this story are included in cases 30 and 33 of the koan anthology Mumonkan (Gateless Barrier). See Zenkei Shibayama, The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan(Boston: Shambhala, 2000), pp. 214-222, 235-239.

[46] This story is cited by Dogen as case 19 in his collection of 300 koans without any of his own commentary in his Shinji (or Mana, i.e. Chinese) Shobogenzo, not to be confused with the more noted workShobogenzo with long essays, often commenting at length on koans. See Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, trans. The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans, with Commentary and Verse by John Daido Loori (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), pp. 26-27. The story also is included as case 19 in the koan anthology Mumonkan (Gateless Barrier). See Shibayama, The Gateless Barrier, pp. 140-147.

[47] See Shunryu Suzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). See also Carl Bielefeldt, Griffith Foulk, Taigen Leighton, and Shohaku Okumura, trans. “Harmony of Difference and Equality,” in Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu, trans. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi (Boston: Tuttle and Co., 2000), pp. 74-75.

[48] Leighton with Wu, Cultivating the Empty Field, pp. 72-73.

[49] Ibid., p. 30.

[50] Ibid., p. 37.

[51] Thomas Cleary, ed. and trans., Timeless Spring: A Soto Zen Anthology (Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1980), p. 112.

[52] Ibid., pp. 118-119.

[53] See Shohaku Okumura, trans. and ed., Dogen Zen (Kyoto: Kyoto Soto Zen Center, 1988), pp. 43-135. For more on Menzan, see David Riggs, “The Rekindling of a Tradition: Menzan Zuiho and the Reform of Japanese Soto Zen in the Tokugawa Era,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 2002.

[54] Okumura, Dogen Zen, p. 51.

[55] Ibid., p. 52.

[56] Ibid., p. 53.

[57] Ibid., p. 73.