Master Dôgen’s original awakening, Katia Kôren Robel

Master Dôgen’s original awakening, Katia Kôren Robel

What are the main characteristics of Sôtô Zen and what is Master Dôgen’s contribution to it?
Though he was the successor of his master, Tendô Nyojô, who belonged to the Ts’ao-tung lineage, one of the five schools, the one which became Sôtô in Japan, he did not intend to transmit the tradition of this school and spread it in his country. This is clear when we read the Shôbôgenzô: he refused to designate his tradition by a name of a school, such as the Zen School or the Ts’ao-tung School, insisting that such a name reflects a unilateral point of view and not the Buddha-Dharma as it is authentically transmitted.
He did not mean to reject the Zen tradition based on the lineage of transmission, nor did he disapprove of the branch of the Ts’ao-tung tradition. Rather, he wanted to emphasise the true meaning of his religious tradition. He never used the term “Zen” but spoke of the authentically transmitted  Buddha-Dharma, or sometimes just the Buddha-Dharma, or the true Dharma etc. He hated above all the divisions within Buddhism and within Zen itself. He had seen the pernicious effects of these divisions in Song China: animosity, narrow-mindedness, jealousy, exclusivity. Neither did he agree with rejecting the sayings of the Buddha and the sutras. For him, Zen was not linked to any school; it was “the Way of all the buddhas and patriarchs.”
What is, then, the authentically transmitted Buddha-Dharma? Dôgen says it is: “The true Dharma that was authentically transmitted from person to person through the buddhas and patriarchs and which is embodied in the act of sitting” (Eihei kôroku 4). He says again in the Eihei kôroku 6: “In the first place, what was directly transmitted from person to person through the buddhas and patriarchs of the succession is sitting Zen (zazen).”
In the introduction of the Bendôwa, he clarifies the meaning of the Buddha-Dharma of the authentic transmission:
“When the buddha-tathagatas, each having received the one-to-one transmission of the splendid Dharma, experience the supreme state of bodhi, they possess a subtle method which is supreme and without intention. The reason this method is transmitted only from buddha to buddha, without deviation, is that the Samadhi of receiving and using the self is its standard (jijuyû zanmai). For enjoyment of this Samadhi, the practice of zazen, in the erect sitting posture, has been established as the authentic gate. This Dharma is abundantly present in each human being, but if we do not practice it, it does not manifest itself; and if we do not experience it, it cannot be realized. ”
Jijuyû zanmai is the samadhi whereby we feel joy, bliss, and happiness through ourselves. It is not the joy of one’s own awakening, as some people believe, because awakening is not personal, and it is not anyone's attribute. It is original awakening.
Nevertheless, Dôgen criticized the doctrine of original awakening because of what he had seen in China. As Imamura Roshi told us, there were many monasteries where the monks did zazen and certain teachers used to do it in a strange way. Some abbots did not wear the kesa or kolomo, others grew their hair down to their shoulders, had long nails and a beard. Still others were almost naked or wore improvised clothing. This style was based on a way of thinking that was quite popular and widespread at the time. It concerned original awakening, hongaku: everyone is already Buddha, awakened, but not aware of it. Once it has been realized, we are Buddha, however we may behave. So, it is not even necessary to do zazen. Whether we are sleeping or awake, we are Buddha, so, everything’s fine, no problem. No need for rules. Dôgen criticized this way of thinking. Zen should not end up as a kind of doctrine of spontaneity.
Not only did Dôgen devote himself with all his heart to seated meditation, he also praised its merits and recommended that everyone practice it, seeing in zazen the realization and accomplishment of the whole Dharma of the Buddha. Furthermore, he demonstrated his comprehension of this through his great open-mindedness towards the laity, both men and women.
Yet, in Rinzai Zen, they also practise zazen. How is zazen different for Dôgen? On the one hand, in Rinzai Zen, there is the search for kenshô, sudden awakening, permitting the “discovery of one’s true nature,” through zazen and koân practice. Whereas the Bendowâ is about a method free of all intention. That is, we don’t seek to obtain awakening through zazen, as the famous mondô about the tile explains. I will come back to this.
On the other hand, for Dôgen, practice and realization are the same. It is the doctrine of original awakening that is practiced wondrously, honshô myôshû, and which is a key to understanding the specificity of Sôtô Zen.
Dôgen said, “Zazen is not the practice of meditation.” (Fukanzazengi) In Buddha’s time, everyone did meditation, saints, sages, ascetics… The dhyâna we practise, is the zazen after Buddha’s awakening. In practising zazen, we renew this awakening, we are in harmony with it, we awaken it in ourselves.
In the seventh exchange in Bendowâ, Dôgen replies to the following question: “In regard to this practice of zazen, a person who has not yet experienced and understood the Buddha-Dharma may be able to acquire that experience by pursuing the truth in zazen. But what can a person who has already clarified the Buddha’s right Dharma expect to gain from zazen?”
“We do not tell our dreams before a fool, and it is difficult to put oars into the hands of a mountaineer; nevertheless, I must bestow the teaching. The thought that practice and experience are not one thing is just the idea of non-Buddhists. In the Buddha-Dharma, practice and experience are completely the same. Practice now is also practice in the state of experience; therefore, a beginner’s pursuit of the truth is just the whole body of the original state of experience. This is why, in the practical recommendations the patriarchs have handed down to us, they teach not to expect any experience outside of practice. And the reason may be that practice itself is the directly accessible original state of experience. Because practice is just experience, the experience is endless; and because experience is practice, the practice has no beginning.”
Since the practice is itself awakening, awakening is not an end in itself. Since awakening is inherent to the practice, the practice is not a beginning; due to the non-differentiation of practice and awakening, awakening is not considered as a final effect that will come from the practice.
As Master Dôgen said in the Zuimonki, “Nansen polished a tile to make a mirror and yet he warned Obaku about seeking to become a Buddha. This was obviously not a warning about doing zazen. Sitting is the action of Buddha; sitting is in itself without intent; it is manifesting one’s original form.”
It clearly follows from this that original awakening is a sine qua non condition in order that zazen be truly zazen.
In the end, if during zazen we forget even the notion of the marvellous practice, original awakening penetrates us; if we forget every notion of original awakening, the marvellous practice is fully realised.


Katia Kôren Robel.