Can you acquire the dharma?

Nine talks on Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui
Photographer: User:Justinc {{cc-by-sa-2.0}} This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally.
All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma.
Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman.
This is the most wondrous law of the Buddhadharma.[1]


—From Shōbōgenzō Raihai Tokuzui

What does “acquiring the dharma” mean? It sounds like the dharma is something concrete that you can attain.

Okumura Roshi:
This word “attain” is a problem. Toku (得) means to “attain.” Conventionally, this means we get something we don’t have or didn’t have before. So this is something new that is attained. But actually, nothing is attained. That is what the Heart Sutra says:

With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajñā pāramitā, and thus the mind is without hindrance.

The first phrase of this sentence reads mu chi yaku mu toku. Mu chi means “nothing who (as a subject) attains,” and mu toku is “nothing that is attained.” Because there’s no such attainment. If we think there’s something called “dharma” that can be attained, then that is a mistake. We usually say, “I attained enlightenment.” Even Dōgen sometimes used the words, “attain the Dharma.” That is a mistake, I think.

When we use the word “attain the dharma” it means we awake to the reality that there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose. But this word “attain” itself is contradictory. When we read the story of someone who attained so-called enlightenment, that process of attaining enlightenment is a process of losing.

There is a famous kōan story about someone whose name was Kyōgen Chikan. He was very eminent, a very bright person. He knew everything about Buddhist teachings. One time his teacher asked him, “Say something about the dharma without using what you have studied” from the scriptures. That means, don’t use any word you studied from somewhere else. Kyōgen tried to say something about the dharma. But everything he could think of was something he had studied, either from the texts or from the teachers. He tried very hard and finally he said, “I can’t say anything without using something I learned from others.”

He said to his teacher, “I can’t say anything without using something I studied. So please say something for me.” Now the student asks the teacher to say something. But the teacher rejected his request. So Kyōgen lost his pride about his knowledge. He was rejected by the teacher. He said he gave up hoping to become an enlightened person in this lifetime. He made a determination to become a working-class monk, to serve people instead of trying to become enlightened. He spent some time in that way. Then, sometime later, he left the monastery and lived in a hermitage near a certain Zen master’s grave. So he lost the monastery also. And he had lost his teacher.

When he was cleaning the road to that Zen master’s grave, he swept a stone and the stone hit a stalk of bamboo. He heard the sound of the stone hitting bamboo. At that time, the story says that he “attained” enlightenment. But what had he attained? He had lost everything. And when he heard the sound of the stone hitting the bamboo, he lost even himself. He swept the stone, and hitting the bamboo it made a sound. This sound is made by everything, this entire universe. So what he understood is… well, we have to say what he “understood” or what he “awakened to” or what he “attained,” but actually there’s no such thing called “he” or “me.” We are simply a part of this network of interdependent origination. “We” are not “living,” but we are… how can I say? All beings allow me to live, to exist. There’s nothing called me. So, that is called attaining enlightenment. What did Kyōgen attain actually? He lost everything, even himself. So the process of attaining enlightenment, so-called enlightenment, is a process of losing everything.

What kind of word can we use about this? Somehow, we have to say “he attained.” But actually, he lost. He attained awakening? He awakened to wisdom? You know, somehow, we have to use a positive expression or word when we talk about it. If we always use negative expressions, then our mind somehow doesn’t work. So even in the case of Shakyamuni, when he attained awakening and became Buddha, we have to say he attained buddhahood. But what did he really attain? He didn’t attain anything. But somehow, we have to say “he became Buddha” or “attained buddhahood.” I think this is a problem of language. We need to be careful not to be deceived by the language we use to express the real things that happen. What do you say? Attain? Do we attain or do we not-attain? If we say I attain that is a mistake. But if we say I don’t attain anything, then how can we express this transformation?


[1] Okumura’s translation.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Rōshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Rōshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are taken from Okumura Rōshi’s recorded lectures, and are edited to provide continuity and context.

— • —

For further study:


> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2022 Sanshin Zen Community

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.