Master Dogen’s Bendowa:  “The Whole-Hearted Way”

Dharma Talk by Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

January 2017

Red Rocks Zen Circle

Good morning, everyone.  It is good to be here together on the first day of our ango.  Ango means peaceful dwelling, and it is a traditional practice for sangha to come together to intensify and deepen our practice for certain periods of the year.  It’s a meaningful way to start this new year, to help clarify for ourselves what is important in our life as the year begins to unfold.  Any of the small steps we take to be more awake and more present can be meaningful.  Our Shuso Paul developed a commitment form to help us focus, and I encourage you to use that and reflect on it in the weeks ahead.

In our study text, Bendowa, Master Dogen is focused on the practice of zazen.  He says that the beneficial aspects of even one person’s zazen can not be measured or even comprehended.  That includes both what unfolds during our actual practice on the cushion, as well as what comes forth from our zazen — the ways that we are in the world, what we bring to the world and how we relate to what happens, moment by moment.  Dogen tells us that even the most profound wisdom of the Buddhas cannot fully measure the impacts of this as they ripple outwards.

So the Japanese title Bendowa has been translated in a number of ways; the most widely used is “The Whole-Hearted Way”.  Also translated as The Whole-Hearted Endeavor, or simply Practice of the Way.  So to put our full energy and intention into zazen, into practicing the Way. 

It’s important to remember here that zazen refers of course to the seated meditation that we do …. but for Dogen, zazen is beyond a zabuton.  The Zen teacher Barry Magid says:  “What do we mean by zazen or just sitting?  Sitting means sitting, walking, working, eating, speaking and being silent.  “Just” means that there is nothing in the world that is not sitting.  When we speak of just sitting, we are not limiting ourselves to describing a certain posture.  We are describing a way of being in the world in which everything we encounter is fully and completely itself.’

So this is quite important when reading Dogen, and letting ourselves be immersed in this mind. That zazen is encompassing, that it is a way of seeing, a way of being in the world, in which everything is vividly whole and complete, and we are not bound by our conceptualizations, thoughts and opinions about whatever we experience.  We hear this description and it sounds like something far away, but this is just our own doubt that says our own ordinary experience can’t be it.  In fact the sitting we have done this morning, the walk on the road, step by step, breath by breath, things are vividly whole and complete.

Dogen wrote Bendowa  in 1231, not long after his return to Japan from his years of study and training in China.  Apparently when he first returned to Japan he wrote Fukanzazengi, which we have studied, which is his instruction on zazen, on sitting meditation.  The second piece Dogen wrote was Bendowa.   Bendowa is a further elaboration of Fukanzazengi, in that it too is making a very strong case for the essential function of zazen, for the primacy of zazen over other Buddhist religious practices that were common in Japan at that time.  Many scholars consider Bendowa to be a seminal teaching, in that many of Dogen’s later writings are elaborations of ideas, insights and themes that Dogen introduces in Bendowa. 

Bendowa is a dense piece of writing.  It is not a light read.  But for our study group we’ll have a handout that has a couple of translations, as well as commentary from Uchiyama Roshi, and through our discussions I think the text will open up for us.  It’s important when we’re looking at Dogen to just let some of his ideas wash over us, and not struggle with being too literal to try to understand every word or sentence.  His expression of the dharma is challenging and lofty, but at the same time he is talking about something fundamentally close to each of us. The Zen teacher Norman Fischer describes it this way:  “In Bendowa, Dogen is saying that zazen is returning to ourself, to the simplicity of being alive.”  We’ll hear a lot about zazen and the self in Bendowa, some of it expressed in difficult language, but I really appreciate Norman Fischer’s perspective on Bendowa.  “Just to sit with no goal, and appreciate the feeling of being alive, and that we share this with everything that is.”  So the simplicity of just being alive.

So in Bendowa, Dogen is expressing a cosmic, sweeping view of Buddhism and in particular the power of zazen.  For Dogen, zazen is a manifestation of ultimate reality.  Right here in our zazen this morning, this is ultimate reality unfolding.  He tells us that not even the Buddhas, with their vast wisdom, can comprehend the far-reaching power of one person’s zazen.  Who knows how zazen may have impacted your response to something …. how you treated someone … why you did one thing instead of another.  In a world of constant and complex interconnectedness, Zazen can have very far-reaching consequences that we cannot fully comprehend.

Dogen also has the view that our zazen creates a kind of Buddha-field, in which as we awaken, all things also awaken, and everything supports each other in awakening.  He writes that “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm, carry out buddha work.  Therefore everyone receives the benefit caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by this wondrous influence to actualize enlightenment.” 

So Dogen is saying all awaken together.  This echos Shakyamuni’s great awakening:  I, the great earth and all beings together awaken to the Way.”  All awaken together is a vision of the Net of Indra, of interconnection at the deepest level, of intimacy and a compassionate unfolding.  Modern man has often felt alone and disconnected in an indifferent universe.  Dogen’s perspective is a strong antidote to this — he is referencing a vast cosmic blossoming outside of linear time in which the nature of reality is awakening, and that all things are intimately connected and participate.

So that’s the point of view, the backdrop, of Bendowa.  Let’s look at a couple of the key themes that Dogen expounds on:

– He talks about wondrous dharma and about dharma transmission.  In Bendowa, the reason Dogen gives for why the dharma is called “wondrous” is because even though there is nothing that can be “transmitted”, the dharma does somehow continue and unfold across time.  Here is Uchiyama Roshi:   “When people hear Wondrous Dharma, they think that the dharma is something like a scroll on which some kind of hidden mystery is written.  They imagine that this dharma scroll is transmitted from one person to another secretly, and whenever one receives it, that person becomes great.  This has nothing to do with what Dogen meant.  We should consider that in spite of the fact that the dharma cannot be transmitted, it is somehow transmitted.  Thus it is called wondrous because the dharma that cannot be transmitted in fact has been transmitted right up to this moment, and is present right now.”

Uchiyama goes to say:  “I am just me and you are just you.  Shakyamuni is just Shakyamuni.  There is no way that the dharma was transmitted from Shakyamuni to Mahakashyapa, the second ancestor …. yet the wonder of zazen is that although Shakyamuni is just sitting as his true self, when Mahakashyapa  sits zazen in the very same way,he also becomes his true self,and dharma is completely transmitted”

So when we sit, we also become our true self, this open field of awareness that has this knowing sense of connection with all things.  It’s a beautiful thing to feel that connection with the ancestors as well, with all people across the centuries who have taken a seat, just as we are taking a seat today, to really just be with our experience, or more accurately, to just be our experience. Dogen says that “even if only one person sits for a short time, this zazen is one with all existence and completely permeates all time.” 

As a sidebar to this ….. Barry Magid has an interesting perspective on this topic of the dharma and transmission, and as usual he bring a very refreshing perspective that helps to ground us and relieve us of any romantic fantasies we may have about how practice in the past was somehow better or more authentic.   Here are some important questions Barry Magid raises for us on the mental baggage we may unintentionally carry around words like “dharma” or “dharma transmission”:

“Is Zen, or the dharma, or buddha nature, some entity in its own right that timelessly exists apart from our own life?  Is the Dharma some pure, gem-like flame that that is transmitted from generation to generation irrespective of the nature of the human candle that carries it?  Does the Dharma, unlike everything else, have some unchanging essential nature that exists apart from and is unsullied by its transitory human manifestation?

“In fact The Buddha Dharma is transmitted by and within the form of life of those who realize and practice it, in the same way as art, music or poetry.  It is inseparable from the life we lead.  Let us remember that this was originally a monastic lifestyle. Then Japanese Zen underwent a radical change when the government decreed at the end of the 19th century that priests should marry and temples be handed down within the family.  Now in America we have the integration of Zen practice with lay life, which eliminates what was once the defining characteristic of the monastic:  home leaving.  It is not realistic to imagine that we can ever reproduce in our contemporary lives the training and experience of our ancestors.  The dharma for us can only be today.”

For me, Magid’s perspective affirms the integrity of our practice right here and now.  We study the ancestors, and texts such as Bendowa, and we also study what contemporary teachers offer.  Joko Beck and Dogen express the dharma in very different ways.  There’s no reason to try to choose which is the real or authentic dharma and which isn’t  …. our lives and our practice are enriched by both.  So this is something to consider as we will frequently come across the words “Dharma”  and “Dharma Transmission” in Bendowa.

There is another aspect to Bendowa that I want to touch on, it’s a central part of this text, in which Dogen is talking about the self.  There is a term he uses, “jijuyu samadhi.”  We’ll be exploring this in our Sunday discussions, but for this morning, let’s just look briefly at these two words.

So the word samadhi is a pre-Buddhist Sanskrit word, meaning concentration, absorption, such as we might experience in zazen when our awareness becomes stable, when just following the breath can seem fully absorbing and engaging, when we are rapt with attention.  Samadhi is a state of consciousness that arises, even briefly, when we step out of subject and object duality and there is just the experiencing.  There is not me sitting here, hearing a sound over there.  There is just the sound arising. This is the world without any of our conceptualizations about it.

Now this word Jijuyu can be a bit more difficult.  One definition is “The spontaneous self-receiving enjoyment, circulating, giving and receiving, self-fulfilling, naturally joyous samadhi.”.  Now I don’t find that very helpful, and it seems needlessly confusing.  The way I have come to understand this term jijuyu is the practice of returning to the self.  It is the self settling naturally onto the self.  Or, we could also say that it is the practice of settling the shin, the heart/mind.  It includes having faith and trust in our Buddha Nature, which is ultimately what Dogen is trying to give us in Bendowa. 

Uchiyama Roshi has an interesting way of looking at this samadhi, that actually harkens back to the Buddha’s Eightfold Path:  he says that Samadhi is Right Acceptance.  Right acceptance meaning deep acceptance of life, as it is in each moment.  Acceptance allows the self to settle into the self, for us to return to ourselves.  This is part of the key to this jijuyu samadhi.  That the self settles on the self. Often our energies and attention are scattered.  Jijuyu samadhi is a way we collect ourselves instead of being scattered and distracted.  Even the way we walk in kinhin is a manifestation of this.  We walk with awareness, with dignity …. we fold our hands deliberately, we take our steps deliberately.  It is a very collected way of moving. 

When riding horses in the practice of dressage, the art of horsemanship, you want your horse to be collected.  The rider gives the horse subtle cues so that the horse will tuck inward with his neck, and its back becomes rounded and stronger and it can use more of its power.  This is a good analogy for us with our sitting posture and walking posture.  Zen traditionally puts a lot of emphasis on posture because it is a way for us to collect ourselves, for the self to settle on the self.

We’ll be looking at the etymology of this word jijuyu, but a literal translation refers to the self that is receiving.  Receiving as in perceiving the ways things are.  There is a connotation with this of ease and enjoyment.  There is also a sense of use, of application, of what we receive is for using.  In less stilted lanugage, we might say that jijuyu samadhi is the flow, the experiencing or sense of life as a flowing river that we are not separate from, and that this is the self settling on the self.

Intrinsic to this word jijuyu is the connotation of enjoyment.  So is our zazen experience always pleasant and enjoyable?  No, it isn’t.  Sometimes the body hurts, and the practice of zazen puts us right into that pain, without some of our usual ways of distracting ourselves from difficult and unpleasant sensations.   Sometimes our emotions, our life circumstances, are also painful to be with. Nevertheless, Dogen says that Zazen is the Dharma gate of ease and joy.  Zazen does not create ease and joy, not in our usual understanding of those words, but zazen is the gateway into what is right here, right now, and each time we put down our resistance, there can be this portal to the ease of being awake and open to each moment.

The Japanese master Katagiri Roshi had a way of talking about zazen that I think is very much in keeping with what Dogen is trying to convey.  He says, “All you have to do is settle yourself on yourself.  Concentrate on zazen. Face each moment of time. Open your eyes and see all things vividly, as they are, right now, right here.  And whatever it is that you do, do it wholeheartedly.”

Settling yourself on yourself is what Dogen is guiding us towards.  And we can include Katagiri’s word “vividly.”  Settle yourself on your experience.  Take the one seat.  Breathe with attention.  Let each thing that arises be completely itself, and be vivid.  Be awake for your life.  When we let each thing be vivid, we are practicing wholeheartedly, we are practicing Bendowa. 

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