Dōgenism—the Bane of the Buddhadharma


Perhaps there is no finer rival of Dōgenism (sitting Zen—zazen) than The Zennist. He has relentlessly contended that it is vastly overrated and comes at the cost of eclipsing the fact that “Zen is about the fundamentally awakened True Mind or the same, Buddha-nature—not about sitting.” Too much emphasis is placed upon “posture”, as if sitting on one’s rump can somehow jump-start the process of becoming enlightened. The Zennist warns that those who just practice zazen in a meditation center will eventually become disillusioned with Zen, or for that matter, Buddhism in general. The Zennist relates how he initially enjoyed zazen in a small zendo, but eventually a deep realization from within convinced him that Zen Buddhism was far and beyond the quaint notion that somehow just the act of sitting would procure “an awakened mind.” He argues how Dōgen’s zen is quite radical and far from the authentic Buddhadharma:

Much of the Zen found in the West is Sōtō Zen. More specifically it is Dōgen’s  Sōtō Zen. It is important for beginners to know that Dōgen’s Zen is not the Zen of China or Korea which are more congruent with Mahayana Buddhism and certainly not far away from the Pali canon (Nikayas/Agamas). In a nutshell, the Sōtō teachings of Dōgen believes that the ultimate meaning of Buddhism lies in the practice of zazen (lit. “seated meditation”), that is, just sitting. On this same track, this means that for Dōgen, Buddhism and zazen are fundamentally the same thing. Zazen is Buddhism. Buddhism is zazen.

For anyone who has studied the Buddhist canon, Dōgen’s Zen is quite radical and unsupported. Neither the Mahayana canon nor the Pali canon provide any good evidence for his view when, for example, he claims that “birth and death’ is nirvana.” Both canons essentially teach the realization of nirvana which is transcendent; which is beyond the pale of samsara in which the cycle of birth and death take place.

Dōgen basically wants us to understand that when we just sit, or the same, practice zazen we are abiding in Buddha reality itself. In zazen we are as we are and the external world is as it is which means that both are one—the oneness of reality. But this is a lot of rubbish.

For The Zennist, exposure to Suzuki’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra was a true Baptism in the Light of Mahayana; from thereon there was no comparison and a swift departure from Sōtō Zen was inevitable. Dōgen’s claim is that “Sitting is the treasury of the true Dharma and the mystic mind of nirvana” (from his manual of Zen Meditation). Yet, “a passage from the Mahāprajñāpāramitashāstra describes nirvana in more concise terms: ‘Nirvana is the unborn, unextinct dharma; it is the ultimate reality, the supreme end.’ Such a realization requires more than sitting in a full or half lotus posture.” Rather, according to Zen Master Ejo (Dōgen’s spiritual successor) the True Treasury is the Light Body—not the skhandic-husk; just point directly at “THAT which illuminates” and not on any secondary phenomenalizations that obscures the face of True Zen Essence. Regrettably, seated meditation (“or where the rubber meets the road”) is normative in today’s Zen; it has supplanted the true measure of the Buddhadharma which is direct gnosis and the heart of true Buddhist Mysticism—it is a direct means of winning Enlightenment. This whole business of Dōgenism has also led to an excessive “formalism” (or the formalist quagmire) in today’s Zen settings; it’s all about an institutionalism that confers robes and certificates that somehow purports to be a transfer of “mind transmission” which is, in actuality, a dead and lifeless end at the expense of conferring “genuine spiritual gnosis.” Zen, or more historically correct, Ch’an Buddhism, was born at the moment Bodhidharma handed his disciple, Huike, his copy of the Lankavatara Sutra—a true mystical manual which is all about Pure Mind (cittamatra).

Another factor that goes hand in hand with all this sitting business is “following one’s breath” in meditation. The Zennist quite succinctly places this in proper perspective:

Many of us, I am sure, have done breath meditation or in Pali, ānāpānasati, which roughly translated means to be mindful (sati) of our breathing (both in and out breath). It seems easy enough. Just sit on a cushion and follow your breathing or if you prefer, count your breaths. But if this is all the Buddha meant by it, he wasn’t a very smart fellow and certainly not awakened to anything profound. There is much more to ānāpānasati than meets the eye. We have to look at this particular meditation from the discourses of the Buddha otherwise we can’t figure out what is really going on.

If we look at ānāpānasati by means of our psychophysical body which consists of five aggregates/skandhas, namely, material shape, feeling, perception (more at ideation), volitional formations, and sensory consciousness; keeping in mind that the Buddha said these aggregates are to be abandoned because they are not our ātman, why should we follow the breath? Doesn’t the breath, both in and out breath, belong to the psychophysical body? The answer is, yes it does. Our ātman is actually spiritually distinct from breathing. It is certainly not connected with any one of the five aggregates/skandhas, which are never other than conditioned, according to the Buddha.

What the Buddha is really demanding of us, is to be aware of being thoroughly before our breathing as we breathe—not just following or counting breaths. It is only by being immersed in our karmic ignorance that we imagine we are our breathing. As strange as it sounds, we have always been thoroughly before our breathing; just as we have always been potentially Buddhas and the ātman which is not part of the five aggregates/skandhas, each aggregate being an-ātman (lit. not the ātman).

I discovered this technique many years ago. One day during my usual walk I was thinking how pure Mind fits in with ānāpānasati. Then, as if a voice entered my head, I knew immediately what ānāpānasati was. I ran across the campus. Went into the library. Found the Pali text and read the passage. I wanted to shout. Instead, I just smiled. And what better proof than the pudding, itself, as I did ānāpānasati the right way I immediately felt an energy shift. It was strange. Nevertheless, there it was. It was like I was backing out of the former habit of assuming I was the breath. I could spiritually distinguish my pure Mind from the carnal body, together with its breathing. At the same time I was dis-identifying from the psychophysical body as a whole becoming more of ātman.

The long section just quoted ties in quite nicely with the previous blog post concerning the Self, or Ātman. When properly attuned with Self, all former anthropocentric characteristics, like sitting or breathing, becomes secondary in the face of the True Measure of, as The Zennist states, “distinguishing Pure-Mind from the carnal body, together with its [sitting] and breathing.” I can attest to The Zennist’s experience that he encountered with “running across that campus”. This all became reinforced for me through the series, The Secret Golden Light of the Unborn, when my own exercise of daily walking soon became an implementation of The Zennist’s principle:

I was focusing exclusively (actually a Wu-wei wink) on “being before the in-breath”—in effect empowering the Dharma-Child (spiritual embryo of the ātman) from within to do the “actual breathing (Right-Āānāpānasati)” with the result being that I no longer am “out of breath” when walking, let us say, up a steep hill; this has the strange and wonderful sensation of being totally centered in the Dantien point—or the location of the dharma-womb—all the while being-before the act of breathing.

One can discern from this blog that Authentic Zen Buddhism has more to do with being Lankavatarian as opposed to Sōtōian. It’s all about being mystically and intuitively attuned to the Buddhadharma (the Buddha’s great wordless teaching) rather than subjugating oneself to corporeal positioning—and punishment. It’s a “spiritual” vs. a physical venture. The Real Medium is Mind Only. From the standpoint of the Lanka, the body with its Five Aggregates is loosely based on decaying elements that have no lasting or real substance. The “Substantial” (tathata) has to do with Mind’s awakening to Its own Primordial Core THAT is far and beyond any bewitching phenomenalizations that are Matter-based and not Spiritually-originated. Until one can distinguish the True Self (ātma) from the false constituents of the UN-real and insubstantial, then any psychophysical exercises to the contrary are self-empty and barren of any lasting fruits. Citta needs to awaken, not an animated corpse. Hence meditation is more about transcending the corporeal apparatus rather than being bound and transfixed by it. Deficient Zen offers mere trinkets—Where’s the Beef?”

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3 Responses to Dōgenism—the Bane of the Buddhadharma

  1. Mark Errington says:

    Another eye-opening article.
    Thank you for the recommendation to read it.
    I actually learned anapanasati this way, at a Thai Forest Theravada monastery, personally from Luang Por Munindo. It is the nearest Buddhist establishment to me. When I explained my interest in Ch’an to him, he remarked that he knew of many Ch’an practitioners who take the Pali Nikāyas very seriously and cultivate according to the Early Buddhist Tradition suttas as well as the Mahayana. It seems that the tradition founded by Dogen has strayed far from its roots.

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