A river in the ocean

By Greg Shirah (lead animator)
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio: Gulf Stream Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures,
Public Domain, Link

How was Dōgen’s practice of zazen inspired by the Lotus Sutra?

Actually, this is not an easy answer – at genzo-e retreats, I often talk for five days about this!

In the Lotus Sutra, I think there there are two chapters which were very important for Dōgen. One is the second chapter, called “Skillful Means.” This chapter talks about the interdependence of each being and their interconnectedness within time and space. I think this was the source of Dōgen’s insight about time and space. Each and every thing exists only within a relationship throughout space and time.

Another important chapter is Chapter 16, “Life Span of the Tathagata.”  Our life is to be born, stay for awhile, and disappear or die. In the case of Shakyamuni, he was born at a certain time in India and lived for eighty years. This life of the Buddha as nirmanakaya is the result of his long practice for more than five hundred lifetimes. Shakyamuni became Buddha in that final lifetime, as Buddha; this is samboghakaya. Both Buddha’s life as an actual person, (as nirmanakaya), and Shakyamuni Buddha as a result of many lifetimes of practice (as samboghakaya) are taking place within Buddha’s eternal life, (the dharmakaya). The important point in the Lotus Sutra is that those three bodies of Buddha – the nirmanakaya as an actual human being, resulting from long practice as the samboghakaya, and the dharmakaya – are really one. These are not three different things. Our life, not only Buddha’s, but life, and not only that of human beings, but each and every existence is within Buddha’s eternal life. That’s why our practice is to encounter the dharma and start to study and practice and continue and mature little by little. That process of our practice is taking place within Buddha’s eternal life.

Essentially, Dōgen is saying that even before we start practice, when we know nothing about Buddhism, we are already within the Way, within Buddha’s eternal life. And within the Way we practice the Way. We study and practice toward the Way. Our process of studying and growth is taking place within Buddha’s dharmakaya. From the very beginning, we are already at the goal and yet we have to make an effort to get closer to the goal, the Way, though we are already there. I think this kind of paradoxical idea came from the Lotus Sutra. This is the main point of Dōgen’s expression that practice and enlightenment (or verification) are one. When we practice we are already there, within the Way, within Buddha’s eternal life. So this is not something we need to go and get, because we are already there, and yet in our practice of each moment we need to go toward the Way. Our practice resembles a river that flows toward the ocean. The river has direction, toward the ocean – and yet this entire process of flowing toward the ocean is happening within the ocean. A modern Japanese poet expressed this as “a river flowing in the ocean.” A river flowing in the ocean is my image of Dōgen Zenji’s practice inspired by the Lotus Sutra.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

    • For a translation of the Lotus Sutra sometimes used by Okumura Roshi, see this book.

> Other Questions and responses

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