Tag Archives: zazen

Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (49)
Verse from Dharma Hall Discourse 516
Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

「示衆」 (「示衆」)

面壁坐禪佛祖傳 (面壁坐禪は佛祖の傳なり)
不同外道二乘禅    (外道・二乘の禅に同じからず)
機先開得機先眼 (機先に開き得たり、機先の眼)
譬如臘月火中蓮    (譬えば臘月の火中の蓮の如し)

— • —

The buddha ancestors transmit zazen facing the wall,
Which is not the same as the meditation of the two vehicles or those out-side the way.
The eye that sees before anything happens can open before anything happens,
Just like the lotus blossom in flames in the twelfth month.[1]

This is verse 48 in Kuchūgen and a part of Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 516 in Volume 7 of Eihei Kōroku. After a long presentation, Dōgen Zenji recites this verse at the end of the jōdō. This verse in Manzan’s version and Monkaku’s version are the same.

Sitting with Eyes Open in the Flames of the World

 The date of Dharma Hall Discourse 516 is not known, but it was presented after Discourse 515 on the anniversary of Tiantong Rujing’s death (the seventeenth day of the seventh month of 1252), and before the dharma discourse on the Mid-Autumn Day (on fifteenth day of the eighth month). On twenty-eighth day of the eighth month in the next year, 1253, Dōgen Zenji passed away. This Dharma Hall Discourse is his teaching on zazen given about one year before his death.

It is interesting that in this dharma discourse, Dōgen quotes the Nāgarjuna’s saying about the difference between bodhisattvas’ zazen and other types of meditation practices. This saying is from the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa. (Daichidoron, 大智度論), Nāgarjuna’s commentary on the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Dōgen had discussed this same teaching of Nāgarjuna with his teacher Rujing about twenty-five years prior; Dōgen recorded their conversation in Hōkyōki.

Rujing had repeated Nāgarjuna’s criticism against the zazen practice of non-Buddhists and the two vehicles. Nāgarjuna said non-Buddhist practitioners’ zazen has three sicknesses: attachment, mistaken views, and arrogance. While practitioners of the two vehicles do not have attachment, because they don’t see the true reality of all beings, their compassion is weak. Rujing then said the following about the buddha-ancestors’ zazen:

In buddha-ancestors’ zazen, they wish to gather all Buddhadharma from the time they first arouse bodhi-mind. Buddha-ancestors do not forget or abandon living beings in their zazen; they offer a heart of compassion even to an insect. Buddha-ancestors vow to save all living beings and dedicate all the merit of their practice to all living beings. They therefore practice zazen within the world of desire.[2]

Some Dōgen scholars from Japan such as Yaoko Mizuno (水野弥穂子) and Shūdō Ishii (石井修道) suppose that Hōkyōki is not simply a copy of the records Dōgen wrote while he was practicing with Rujing, and which were then left alone until Dōgen’s death; they maintain that these records were organized and written down in the later years of Dōgen’s life.[3] If that is true, Discourse 516 might be evidence that Dōgen was working on that project around this time.

In Discourse 516, Dōgen says that many Zen practitioners in Song dynasty China do not understand the point of bodhisattvas’ zazen. At the end of the discourse, he recites this concluding verse:

The buddha ancestors transmit zazen facing the wall,
Which is not the same as the meditation of the two vehicles or those out-side the way.

“Zazen facing the wall” is translation of menpeki zazen (面壁坐禪). This famous expression was originally used in the biography of Bodhidharma. In Volume three of the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, it is said that, after arriving in China, Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu and had a short conversation, but the emperor did not understand what he said. Then Bodhidharma crossed the Yangzi River and went to the north. He stayed at Shaolin Temple on Mt. Song and sat facing the wall all day in silence for nine years. People didn’t understand what he was doing and called him “the wall-gazing Brahman.”

In kōan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity, more importance has been placed upon his conversation with Emperor Wu than on his sitting facing the wall. But Dōgen Zenji says at the end of Shōbōgenzo Zanmai-O-Zanmai (三昧王三昧, Samadhi that is King of Samadhis):

The First Ancestor, Venerable Bodhidharma, came [to China] from the West [India], and spent nine years at Shaolin temple on Shaoshi Peak of Mt. Song, sitting zazen with full-lotus posture, facing the wall, for nine years. Since then until now, the head crown and the eyeball of the Buddhadharma has penetrated throughout China. The life-vein of the First Ancestor is nothing other than full-lotus sitting. Before the First Ancestor came from the West, people in the East land did not know full-lotus sitting; after his coming from the West, [full-lotus sitting] became known. Therefore, without leaving a monastery, wholeheartedly just sitting in full-lotus posture day and night for an entire lifetime from the beginning to the end, even for ten-thousand lifetimes, without pursuing anything else, is the samadhi that is the king of samadhis.[4]

The eye that sees before anything happens can open before anything happens,
Just like the lotus blossom in flames in the twelfth month.

“Before anything happens” is a translation of kisen (機先); ki (機) is function or work — the same as ki in zenki (全機, total function). “Before anything happens” means reality before being processed with human discriminative thinking, that is, just sitting keeping our hand of thought open. Within just sitting, the Dharma eye can be open. This does not mean that we can see the so-called reality of all beings as the object of our eyes or the object of our mind, but that this full-lotus sitting is itself prajñā.

“The lotus blossom in flames,” is a translation of kachūren (火中蓮). This expression appears, for example, in Chapter 8, The Buddha Way of The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Burton Watson’s translation into English of the Chinese translation by Kumarajiva is:

To live as a lotus among flames –
this may be deemed a rare thing.
To exist amid desire yet practice meditation –
this too is rare![5]

Yongjia Xuanjue (永嘉玄覚, Yōka Genkaku, 665–713), a disciple of the Sixth Ancestor Huineng, used this expression in his well-known poem Song of Awakening (証道歌, Shōdōka):

Within this world of desires, it is the power of seeing and knowing that permits the practice of zen.
The lotus that blooms in the fire is indestructible.[6]

“The power of seeing and knowing” is a translation of chiken riki (知見力); chiken is a translation of Sanskrit word “darśana,” which means “seeing,” “vision,” “insight,” or “understanding.” Jñāna-darśana-pāramitā (the perfection of knowledge and vision) is another name of prajñā-pāramitā (perfection of wisdom). In our practice of zazen within samsara, there is the function of the power of vision or wisdom which sees impermanence, no-self, suffering, and emptiness.

Rujing said that because of their compassion, buddha-ancestors practice zazen within the world of desire. Dōgen expresses this same zazen as a lotus blossom in flames. “In flames” refers to the burning house of samsara, the world of desire. As a bodhisattva, we don’t escape from the burning house, but practice zazen right there. This is an expression of no-abiding nirvāṇa (mujūsho nehan, 無住処涅槃) of bodhisattvas, who do not stay in samsara because of wisdom but do not enter nirvāṇa because of compassion.

In our zazen we don’t negate our discriminative thinking. Samsara is still there, but we just let thoughts come and go without grasping, fighting against, or eliminating them. We don’t take any action based on them. The thoughts are not “my” thoughts as objects of my mind. Even though there is a wall in front of “my” eyes, it is not the object of this person sitting. The sounds of birds’ singing or the wind’s blowing might be out there and enter “my” ears, but those are not the objects of this person sitting. Thoughts are the same. “I” am just sitting, and these thoughts are just coming and going there as they are. “We” are free from samsara even though we are right within samsara. I think this is a very meaningful practice right now within the pandemic. We try to see impermanence and suffering, without being overwhelmed by them.

“The twelfth month,” is rōgetsu (臘月) that is another name of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is called rōhatsu (臘八), which means the eighth day of the twelfth month. Dōgen combines two common Zen expressions related to lotus blossoms: rōgetsu no ren (臘月の蓮) lotus blossom in the twelfth month (December), and kachū no ren (火中の蓮), lotus blossom in a fire. In an ordinary sense, lotus blossoms bloom in the summer not in the winter, in the water not in the fire, so when Dōgen uses both of these expressions he means something extremely rare, or something that cannot exist in reality.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record Volume 7, Dharma Hall Discourse 516, p.459–460) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dōgen (Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala,1999), p. 21.
[3] Yaoko Mizuno: Hōkyōki (Koza Dōgen 3, Dōgen no Chosaku, Shunjusha, 1980) p.221.
Shudo Ishii: Saigo no Dōgen: Junikan-bon Shōbōgenzo to Hōkyōki (Junikan-bon Shōbōgenzo no Shomondai, Daizo shuppan,1991), p.367.
[4] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[5] Burton Watson’s translation in Vimalakīrti Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1997), p.102.
Robert Thurman’s translation from Sanskrit manuscript is:
Just as it can be shown that a lotus
Cannot exist in the center of a fire,
So they show the ultimate unreality
Of both pleasures and trances.
The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti, (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p.70.
[6] Translation by Tonen O’Connor in Commentary of the Song of Awakening (Merwin Asia, 2015), p.13

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:
See Dōgen’s Extensive Record.

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Monkey-mind horse-will

Copyright©2021 Misaki C. Kido

Dōgen’s Chinese Poems (47)
Verse from Dharma Hall Discourse 348

Like a Lotus in Flames
348. Dharma Hall Discourse

The sitting cushions of the seven buddhas are now about to be worn through;
The sleeping stick of my former teacher [Tiantong Rujing] has been transmitted.
Eyes and nose should be upright and straight,
Headtop reaching up to the blue sky, and ears aligned above the shoulders.[1]

「示衆」(示衆)
七佛蒲團今欲穿 (七佛の蒲團今、穿なんとす、) 
先師禪板已相傳 (先師の禪板、已に相傳す。)
眼睛鼻孔可端直 (眼睛鼻孔、端直なるべし)
頂對青天耳對肩 (頂きは青天に對し、耳は肩に對す)

— • —

This is verse 46 in Kuchūgen and Dharma Hall Discourse (上堂, jōdō) 348 in Volume 5 of Eihei Kōroku. This verse in Manzan’s version is the same as in Monkaku’s version. After reciting this verse in his discourse, Dōgen added a short comment.

At this very time, how is it?
After a pause Dōgen said: Do not control the monkey mind or horse will. Make an effort like a lotus in fire.

正当恁麼時、又作麼生。良久云、莫管他心猿意馬。功夫猶若火中蓮。
(正当恁麼の時、又た作麼生。良久して云く、管すること莫れ、他の心猿と意馬と。功夫は猶お火中の蓮の若し。)

348. Dharma Hall Discourse

This Dharma Hall Discourse was given in the ninth lunar month in 1249. The ninth lunar month is the last month of autumn, called nagatsuki (長月); this is an abbreviation of yonagatsuki (夜長月), which means the month in which night is getting longer. In the solar calendar this would be somewhere between the end of September and the beginning of November. Heat is over but it is not yet too cold, so it is a good time for zazen practice. In this jōdō, Dōgen Zenji first introduces the verse, and after a pause he makes a short comment that clearly shows a characteristic of his zazen practice.

The sitting cushions of the seven buddhas are now about to be worn through;
The sleeping stick of my former teacher [Tiantong Rujing] has been transmitted.

At Dōgen’s monastery Eiheiji, monks devoted themselves to zazen practice so much that their cushions are almost worn through. He says that their cushions (zafu) have been transmitted from Vipaśyin Buddha, who is the first of the seven buddhas of the past (before Shakyamuni Buddha) as we count back through all of the buddha-ancestors. Of course, it is not the cushion but zazen that has been transmitted. The phrase about sitting cushions being worn through comes from the expression “habuton (破蒲團),” literally, “breaking a cushion.” For example, in the section concerning Changqing Huileng (Chōkei Eryō長慶慧稜, 854–932) of Shōbōgenzo Gyōji (行持下, Continuous Practice, part 2), Dōgen praises Changqing, a disciple of Xuefeng (雪峰, Seppō), saying:

Master Huileng of Changqing was a venerable master [in the assembly of] Xuefeng. He studied and practiced going back and forth between Xuefeng and Xuansha for almost twenty-nine years. During those years and months, he broke twenty sitting cushions. Among todays’ people who love zazen, Changqing is considered to be the excellent example of yearning for the ancient [style of practice]. Although there are many who adore him, few of them are equal to him.[2]

“The sleeping stick” is zenpan (禅板). It is a flat wooden board about 1.7 feet long and 2 inches wide, and there is a hole in the upper part. This is used to support the sitter’s body when they sleep in the zazen posture. Originally in China, they put a cord into the hole and tied the rope behind their seat to support the body. In Japan, a sitter placed a zenpan on their hands and supported their chin. Zenpan is mentioned in case 20 of Blue Cliff Record; Lung Ya’s Meaning of the Coming from the West:

Lung Ya asked Ts’ui Wei, “What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?”
Wei said, “Pass me the meditation brace.”
Ya gave the meditation brace to Wei; Wei took it and hit him.
Ya said, “Since you hit me I let you hit me. In essence, though, there is no meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West.”

I have never seen a zenpan in use today. It seems that Dōgen Zenji received a zenpan from Tiantong Rujing. This means that Dōgen’s sangha practiced zazen in the style of Rujing transmitted by Dōgen.

Eyes and nose should be upright and straight,
Headtop reaching up to the blue sky, and ears aligned above the shoulders.

In the third and fourth lines of the verse, Dōgen describes their zazen posture simply, and in accordance with what he wrote in Fukanzazengi and Shōbōgenzo Zazengi:

Sit in upright posture. Do not lean either to the left or right, either to the front or back. The line connecting your ears should be parallel with the line connecting your shoulders without fail. Your nose should be in line with your navel. Your tongue should be placed against the roof of your mouth. Breathe through your nose. Your lips and jaw should be closed. Keep your eyes open, neither too wide nor too little.[3]

Thus, the verse is a simple description of their zazen transmitted from the buddhas and ancestors through Dōgen Zenji. After reciting this verse, Dōgen asks the monks, “At this very time, how is it?” It is not clear if the monks offered some answers or not. In Eihei Kōroku, the monks’ reaction to Dōgen’s presentations is not recorded at all. Dōgen keeps silence for a while and offers a final comment:

Do not control the monkey mind or horse will. Make an effort like a lotus in fire.
莫管他心猿意馬。功夫猶若火中蓮。

I think this comment clearly expresses Dōgen’s Zazen practice. “The monkey mind or horse will” is a translation of shin’en iba (心猿意馬), shin (心) is mind, en (猿) is monkey, i (意) is will, or more commonly in Buddhist terminology, the sixth sense organ “mind.” Ba (馬) is horse. In this case, shin and i are not different. In Tenzokyōkun, Dōgen writes:

This principle is a certainty that you still do not yet clearly understand, only because your thinking scatters like wild birds (horses) and your emotions scamper around like monkeys in the forest. If those monkeys and birds (horses) once took the backward step of inner illumination, naturally you would become integrated. This is a means whereby, although you are turned around by things, you can also turn things around. Being harmonious and pure like this, do not lose either the eye of oneness or the eye that discern differences.[4]

He does not say that we should control our thinking mind; instead, he says, “If those monkeys and birds (horses) once took the backward step of inner illumination, naturally you would become integrated.” “Taking the backward step of inner illumination” (回光返照退歩, ekō henshō taiho) and “becoming integrated” (打成一片, dajō ippen)[5] are the same expressions Dōgen uses in Fukanzazengi, Universal Recommendation of Zazen. This is the opposite of what was said by Yuanwu, the Rinzai Zen Master who made The Blue Cliff Record: “Let the mind-monkey completely die and kill the mind-horse. (死却心猿殺却意馬).”[6]

In Shōbōgenzo Sanjūshichihon Bodaibunpō (三十七品菩提分法), Dōgen says this about right thinking in the eightfold noble path:

An ancient buddha [Yaoshan] said, “Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond thinking.” This is right thinking, right cerebration. Breaking through the zazen cushion is right cerebration.”[7]

古佛いはく、「思量箇不思量底、不思量底如何思量、非思量。」これ正思量正思惟なり。破蒲團これ正思惟なり

In Dōgen’s practice, zazen of hishiryō (非思量, beyond thinking) which includes both thinking (思量, shiryō) and not-thinking (不思量, fushiryō) is the foundation of “right thinking” and “mindful work” in the kitchen and other places.

— • —

[1] (Dōgen’s Extensive Record volume 5, Dharma Hall Discourse 348, p.312) © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] This is Okumura’s unpublished translation. Another translation is in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi), p.368.
[3] Okumura’s unpublished translation.
[4] This is the translation in Dōgen’s Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A translation of Eihei Shingi (translated by Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, SUNY, 1996), p.37-p.38. In a note, it says, “Instead of ‘birds,’ the common rufubon edition has ‘horses.’” (p.51)
[5] Literally, “becoming one-piece.”
[6] This is Okumura’s translation of the sentence from Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Yuanwu (圓悟佛果禪師語録). I cannot find another English translation.
[7] This is Okumura’s translation. Another translation is in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo (edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala), p.682.

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

— • —

For further study:

> More of Dōgen Zenji’s Chinese Poems


Copyright©2021 Sanshin Zen Community

Teacher and student: the dog’s buddha nature

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have a buddha-nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “Yes.”
The monk said, “Since it has, why is it then in this skin bag?”
Zhaozhou said, “Because he knows yet deliberately transgresses.”
Another monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have a buddha-nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”
The monk said, “All sentient beings have buddha-nature—why does a dog have none, then?”
Zhaozhou said, “Because he still has impulsive consciousness.”[1]

The koan about Zhaozhou’s (Jp. Joshu’s) dog appears as Case 18 in the Shoyoroku (Book of Serenity). The main point of the interpretation of this koan in the Shoyoroku concerns Zhaozhou’s teaching method. In the first part of the koan, Zhaozhou offers buddha nature by saying “u,” indicating yes, a dog does have buddha nature. In other words, “Here it is, you have a buddha nature”– it’s a kind of encouragement. You have a precious jewel, so you have to take care of this and practice. In the second part of the koan, to the another monk, who has already matured in practice, and doesn’t rely on whether or not he has buddha nature, Zhaozhou removes this encouragement by saying “mu,” indicating that a dog does not have buddha nature. Zhaozhou says there’s no such thing called buddha nature.

First Zhaozhou gave buddha nature – here you are, you have buddha nature, so practice diligently, take care of it, become free from your delusion, and the beauty of this jewel reveals itself. That is a type of teaching for beginning students. To the mature student, Zhaozhou said there’s no such thing called buddha nature. It’s just an illusion. So he took it away, and he knew that student would be all right without that concept of buddha nature. For Zhaozhou himself, buddha nature is neither “u” nor “mu,” but he could say “u” or “mu” depending on the person’s need. That is basically the interpretation in Shoyoroku of the story of a dog’s buddha nature.

In a funny way, a teacher is always deceiving students, and the student neither perfectly nor completely trusts the teacher. That is a problem. If you are lucky, you meet the right teacher, but as a beginner we cannot really evaluate the teacher, so we cannot tell whether this teacher is trustworthy or not. This is a really difficult point, but this is what Uchiyama Roshi said – the teacher is just an ordinary human being. In this case, the teacher he was referring to was Sawaki Kodo Roshi – he was a really great teacher. But  Uchiyama Roshi practiced very closely with Sawaki Roshi for twenty-five years, until his death, so he knew Sawaki Roshi was not a special person, but an ordinary human being. Uchiyama Roshi’s important point was to understand that all people, even Zen masters, are ordinary human beings. But as students we need to study Dharma from that person.

In this case from the Book of Serenity, the Dharma we need to study is about buddha nature and karmic nature, or karmic consciousness. Even  a great teacher like Sawaki Roshi has both. Uchiyama Roshi said many people studying with Sawaki Roshi were attracted by his karmic features. Sawaki Roshi was a very strong, strict, and very attractive person, as a karmic being. Many people practiced with Sawaki Roshi because of that attraction. But that was not Sawaki Roshi’s Dharma, according to Uchiyama Roshi. What Sawaki Roshi did was just sitting. Not so many people sat like Sawaki Roshi, but they loved to listen to Sawaki Roshi talking. Uchiyama Roshi said that we as students need to study the person’s Dharma, not the person’s karma. Karma means karmic attribute – their good points and bad points, as they are the person’s – how can I say? – characters, or personalities. But as a beginner we cannot tell which is Dharma which is karma.

Somehow I became attracted to Uchiyama Roshi’s way of life. At that time I knew nothing about Buddhism, or Zen. I didn’t know even what he was doing. But somehow what he wrote in his book and how he lived his own life was very attractive to me. So somehow I was sucked into that path. I was so fortunate that it was when I was seventeen years old; now I am sixty-five, so more than forty years I walked this path, only this path, and I have no regret. I think it’s really a rare thing. I know some people who have had some difficulty with their teachers and then quit their practice. There’s no one hundred percent safe way. Somehow we have to find our own path. It’s really difficult to make judgments about teachers. When we judge and evaluate teachers, then we can’t be really a true student. We have to accept everything the teacher can offer to be a real student. But we cannot tell if what the person is offering is really true Dharma or not, because we don’t know yet. So we need to go through a really difficult process to find out if this is really my teacher, and if I really want to be this person’s student. This is not an easy path. On the one hand we have to accept everything from the teacher, and at the same time, we have to doubt.

Dogen said in Shobogenzo Jisho zanmai that whether we study Dharma following the teacher or following the text, we’re studying the self – ourselves. So that means we have to – how can I say? – accept everything the teacher can offer, and yet we should not rely on that person. It’s kind of contradictory, but both are important. That means we need to walk on our own legs, our own feet.

That is another thing Uchiyama Roshi taught me. It was right on the day after I was ordained as a priest. For the ordination ceremony – I was twenty-two years old – my father came, and as a greeting to Uchiyama Roshi, my father asked him, “Please take care of my son.” The next day Uchiyama Roshi said to me, “Even though your father asked me to take care of you, I cannot take care of you. It’s not possible. You have to walk on your own legs.”

Uchiyama Roshi also said he never watches his students, but he is walking toward the path he needs to walk, toward the direction he needs to walk. That’s his own practice. If I want to be his disciple, I need to walk toward the same direction with my own legs. To me, this is a really interesting thing. Basically what he said is: “Don’t rely on me.” Therefore, I accept this teaching, and I try not to rely on him, except as an example of Dharma practice. And by doing this, I completely rely on him. So both are there. This teacher-student relationship I think is the same as the one between parents and children. The parents’ goal is to raise children to make them independent – “Don’t rely on me, or on us.” But to do so, the children need to rely on the parents. This is an interesting aspect of our life.

— • —

[1] Thomas Cleary, trans., Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues (Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 2005), p. 76.

— • —

Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of perspectives on koans from Okumura Roshi. This is the first of the series. These perspectives are taken from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

— • —

For further study:

> Other posts on koans


Copyright 2020 Sanshin Zen Community

The incompleteness of our practice

By Pau GinerOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

All the karma ever created by me since of old
Through greed, anger, and self-delusion
Which has no beginning, born of my body, speech, and thought
I now make full repentance of it[1]

Student:
Could you say something about repentance?

Okumura Roshi:
Repentance is a translation of the Buddhist term sange. The origin of sange in Buddhism is as old as the history of the Buddhist sangha. Because of certain Christian connotations, I know many American people don’t like the word “repentance.” Some people use another word such as atonement, or try to avoid the word repentance altogether. I use this word repentance because when the Bible was translated into Japanese, Japanese Christians translated the English word repentance with the Buddhist word sange. So when I use the English word repentance, in my mind this is simply the Japanese word sange in a Buddhist context. I am not referring to the meaning of this word as it is used in Christianity.

As far as repentance in Buddhism, historically, Buddhist sanghas in India had gatherings twice a month, on the evenings of the new moon day and the full moon day. In the lunar calendar the new moon day is the first day of each month, and full moon day is the middle, the fifteenth of each month. On these evenings all sangha members gathered together and the leader of the sangha recited the precepts. When any member of the sangha thought they did something against the precepts they made a kind of confession. I did such and such things and this is against the precept and I will try not to do such a thing again. That is the original practice of repentance.

When we receive the precepts, especially the Mahayana precepts, they are really difficult to completely, perfectly keep. It’s almost impossible to live completely keeping the precepts. Take the example of the precept of not killing. Even if we don’t kill animals and we kill vegetables to eat, vegetables are living beings, so we need to make repentance. Or take the example of not telling a lie. You know, if we say “sunrise” and “sunset,” it’s not true. The sun doesn’t actually move to create day and night. We use such an expression in our common usage, but it is not true. Well, my example is a kind of joke, but when we try to live following the precepts we receive, often we see we are not completely following those precepts. So we need to see, or be aware of the incompleteness of our practice. I think that is sange, or the English word I use, repentance. As far as we take our vow and practice trying to fulfill that vow we have to see the incompleteness of our practice. This awakening is repentance to me, and repentance allow us to return to the original direction in which we are going. So repentance is kind of encouragement to me, an encouragement to keep practicing.

Dōgen emphasizes that whatever the condition or situation or state of our mind, we just whole-heartedly practice. That’s it, only the reality of right now right here. But we need to practice, based on our bodhisattva vow to free all beings, to be free from our delusions, to study dharma, and to attain buddha’s way.

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.[2]

That is our vow. Usually or almost always our practice is incomplete. We cannot really fulfill those four bodhisattva vows so we need to awaken, we need to be aware of that incompleteness of our practice. Incompleteness is not a bad thing, and to awaken to that incompleteness of our practice is important. That awakening allows us to practice repentance. So as far as we practice based on following our bodhisattva vows, we need to awake to the incompleteness of our practice and practice repentance. Vow and repentance allow us to return to the track we follow to go in that direction, that is, towards buddhahood or nirvana. And when we practice with that attitude, we can find nirvana in each step, each moment.

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[1] See Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012), chapter 2 for an in-depth discussion of this verse.
[2] See Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012), chapter 1 for an in-depth discussion of this verse.

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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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