Dogen - Great Enlightenment - Part One
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | October 1, 2008
Edited and abridged by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
What is daigo? What is great enlightenment? Let's remember Dogen's seminal issue, which is always at the crux of Dogen's teaching - the balance, or paradox, between enlightenment and delusion. Enlightenment is too big a category, too profound an experience, too vast for any human being to encompass. It's beyond definition. It's beyond perception. Dogen often refers to enlightenment-awakening as inconceivable. So it is nothing that we can know or possess in any ordinary way. It's so big and so fundamental that Dogen says that it is not even correct to say that it exists - that there is such a thing, or that there isn't such a thing. It's bigger than those categories, which are, after all, human, conceptual categories. But to us the question seems so basic: Is there such a thing or not? Awakening goes beyond those categories - whether it exists or it doesn't exist.
This perspective of Dogen's is very much like the perspective of Pure Land Buddhism, that says that since we can't possibly experience or attain enlightenment, we should just pray to Amida Buddha. We should pray, and we should have a faith practice. It's not unlike the idea of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which says that God is far more than we can know. We could never encompass or know God, so we can have faith. We can pray for God's mercy, knowing that we are included in God. It's not so different from Dogen's view of what awakening is.
So that's on the one hand. On the other hand, we have to do something. There actually is something we have to do. Not only would it be a good idea to do it, but Dogen implies that as human beings we have to do this. There's this sense that human beings have the necessity or obligation to do something. So we have to practice zazen or the religious life. And we have to try to live an awakened life - to carry over from that practice to our everyday life. In other words, we do have to make some effort. We do have to awaken, despite the fact that awakening is beyond us. We have to awaken, and we have to advance in our understanding.
So this is the paradox that was Dogen's original spiritual question as a boy - the paradox that he is always talking about and always thinking about. To hold this paradox is our actual practice, our actual human life. It is a radically non-dual view. There is this and that. There is enlightenment and delusion. These are different from each other, and at the same time, there is no this and that, and there is no actual difference between enlightenment and delusion. And it's because Dogen is always explicating this essential paradox that we find Dogen so difficult to read. We are always looking for something definitive that we can hang our hat on. "Give me something definite here that I can stand on!" And it's unbelievable how the mind is always looking for that and never really finding that in Dogen. It's very frustrating. In a way you could say that the method of Dogen's writing is inherently self-canceling, because to say anything is always to say something dualistic. So Dogen sets up a dualistic proposition, and then he contradicts it, or then he cancels it out.
In Daigo there are three stories that the essay is built on. The first one is,
Linji, Great Master Huizhao, said, "In the great nation of Tang China, if you look for a single person who is not enlightened, it is hard to find one."
In our common sense way of looking at things, it would appear that enlightenment and delusion are different things. We're deluded, and we want to get to enlightenment. The trouble with delusion is that it is painful and difficult and confining. Enlightenment, we presume, would not be so painful and would not be so difficult. It would be more expansive, happier. So one possibility, the one that seems most obvious, is that we want to go from delusion to enlightenment. We think that it will be an improvement. If that's not true, and delusion and enlightenment are the same, then I guess there is nothing to do. We are already saved, and no effort is needed. It seems like it is either one or the other. We think it is probably the first one, that enlightenment and delusion are different. The second one doesn't really do us any good. We keep feeling like there must be something better here than this. And why are all these people pursuing religious teachings, if not because there is something better? So the first one must be true.
But Dogen wants to expand this picture. He wants to say that it might not be an either/or proposition. It might be that both these viewpoints are true, or maybe sometimes one is true, and then sometimes the other is true, or maybe neither is true. Maybe it's something altogether different from that. Maybe all of those possibilities are simultaneously true and not true.
So let's go to the beginning of the essay. I am going to read you the beginning of the fascicle in two versions, because I think it takes that to really appreciate what's going on. So this is the one in Kazuaki Tanahashi's book, Beyond Thinking - A Guide to Zen Meditation:
The Great Way of the Buddhas has been transmitted with intimate attention; the work of the ancestors has been unfolded evenly and broadly.
So you have two things going on: first, the transmission, which is done with intimate attention, and then the unfolding of the dharma itself, which is even and broad.
Thus, great enlightenment is actualized and beyond-enlightenment is the decisive way. In this way, enlightenment is realized and fooled with; enlightenment disappears in the practice of letting go.
In this way, enlightenment is realized, and one has a good time, and one plays with it. And also, enlightenment disappears when you let go. On the one hand, enlightenment appears and we have a good time, and on the other hand, we let go, and enlightenment completely disappears.
This is the everyday activity of buddha ancestors. Enlightenment taken up activates the twelve hours of the day. Enlightenment hurled away is activated by the twelve hours of the day.
In other words, twenty-four hours of the day, the world of time. We activate the world of time when we pick up enlightenment, and the world of time activates us and turns us around, and we let go of enlightenment.
Furthermore, leaping beyond the mechanism of time, there is fooling with a mud ball and fooling with spirit.
The next version is from Thomas Cleary, and this one, I think, might be the easiest to understand. This is in a volume by Cleary of Dogen translations, which came out some years ago from Shambala and is called Rational Zen:
The great way of the buddhas, being communicated, is thoroughgoing. The effect of activity of the Zen masters manifested is even. For this reason, their great enlightenment becomes manifest. They arrive on the way without understanding.
Here "great enlightenment" is translated as "great understanding." So great understanding becomes manifest, and it's not manifest. They have insight into understanding, and they manipulate understanding - meaning they play with it, they do things with it. Then they lose understanding and let go. These are the everyday affairs of enlightened people.
So, you have this balancing. The great understanding, the great enlightenment, is communicated, transmitted, and then it is passed on. Once it is passed on, it is as if the Buddha set the wheel in motion. The Buddha taught, and the wheel was set in motion. The truth is set in motion. So, there's this initial communication, which is intimate, attentive, immediately manifested, and then there is the rolling of it out - broad and smooth. Broad and even.
These are the two great aspects of our practice, right? There's our effort to express, transmit, communicate. And then there's the great manifestation of the dharma, that is beyond what we can communicate, what we can transmit, what we can manifest. The communication is thoroughgoing. It's a continuous line of immediacy. We give it our intimate attention. And the manifestation is even - broad and even.
So this is the flavor of our practice, and it comes from Dogen's view of enlightenment and delusion. In other words, we honor both. Enlightenment and delusion are important to us. We are not here to demonize and get rid of delusion. That's not our practice. That's not our way. We honor and respect enlightenment, as well as delusion. We see these two things as intimately connected. We need them both. Both of them have their effectiveness. And it's exactly because we demonize our delusion that we want to get rid of it, and then we have problems. For Dogen, delusion is really very important. It's human to be deluded. It's the source of our beauty. It's a necessity, so we have a high respect for it. That's why we have respect for each other, not because we're looking to be perfect, but because we see that each one of us is manifesting a uniquely deluded sensibility. It's a fantastic thing!
Great enlightenment, or great understanding, comes up, or great understanding doesn't come up. We are on the Way with great understanding, great enlightenment, and we're also on the Way without it. And when great understanding, great enlightenment, comes up, we play with it, and we make use of it. And when it doesn't come up, we let go of it. We forget about it. This is the everyday life of enlightened masters.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. It's quite rational. If you really get attached to enlightenment, how enlightened is that? It isn't too enlightened. If somebody were enlightened, and they were really insisting on it, and if they were so enlightened that they were really loathe not be enlightened, that doesn't sound like such a great enlightenment. This is an enlightenment that you can forget. Forget enlightenment. Forget dharma. It's gone. Let go of it. There's a time to exercise our understanding and exercise our abilities in the world, and there's a time to let the world have its way with us. And this is the everyday activities of the enlightened ones.
We can use the twenty-four hours when enlightenment arises, and we can let ourselves be used by the twenty-four hours when we let it go. This is where the Everyday Zen motto comes from. Maybe you didn't know it. The Everyday Zen motto says, "Changing and Being Changed by the World." That's what Dogen is saying here. If you only want to change the world, and don't want the world to change you, pretty soon you are going to be imposing your will on the world. Even with all your altruistic motivation, what you're really doing is imposing your will on others and on the world. Eventually that is going to be unsuccessful. On the other hand, if you're only going to let the world wash over you and change you, then you're passive. You won't be taking your place in the world, because everybody is here to change the world. The world before any one of us existed was a different world. The world that exists as a result of our being in it is a different world. Every one of us is changing the world completely, and being changed by the world. The world is making us, and we are making the world. That is life.
So that's the everyday affair of the enlightened ones - using and being used by the twenty-four hours. Then there is also going beyond the twenty-four hours. And Kaz has a good way of putting it. How does he say it? "Leaping beyond the mechanism of time." Going beyond time itself, going beyond the world that we live in. We can fool around with a mud ball, meaning this material world, and we can fool around with spirit - meaning consciousness, the inner life, the mind, the heart.
Back to Kaz's version,
Although it should be thoroughly understood that buddha ancestors are invariably actualized from great enlightenment, it is not that the entire experience of great enlightenment should be regarded as buddha ancestors, and it is not that the entire experience of buddha ancestors should be regarded as entire enlightenment. Buddha ancestors leap beyond the boundary of great enlightenment, and great enlightenment has a face that leaps further beyond buddha ancestors.
This is about the dialectic between the great enlightenment and the people who embody it. You could think in a more mundane way - about Suzuki Rosh or the tradition of Soto Zen, instead of great enlightenment. What was great about Suzuki Roshi was that he completely embodied the tradition of Soto Zen. He lived that. That was 100% him. There was nothing else to him but embodying the tradition, and exactly because of that, he went beyond the tradition. He was beyond his tradition, and this is what we all aspire to. We aspire to embody the practice that we are doing so thoroughly that we are not limited by it. We go beyond it. And I think this is true of all religious sages. When there's a great religious sage that we like, we sense that the person is not stuck on their enlightenment, not stuck on their tradition. They completely embody it, and they go beyond it. And Soto Zen goes beyond Suzuki Roshi. There is more to Soto Zen than just Suzuki Roshi; otherwise, it would be Suzuki Roshi-ism, which sometimes it gets to be, a little bit! It goes beyond any of us. It's beyond anybody's manifestation of it.
So that's what he's saying here, because there is no great enlightenment without people who manifest that great enlightenment. Great enlightenment as an abstraction in the sky is of no use to anybody. And yet it is not limited to the great person or to the great sage who embodies it. Just as there is a cross-over and dialectic between delusion and enlightenment, similarly there is a dialectic between a person of enlightenment and the great enlightenment itself.
Now, human capacity is greatly varied. For example, there are those who already have understanding at birth. [Like the Buddha who is born and is already a Buddha and therefore liberated at birth.] At birth, they are free from birth. That means they understand with the body at the beginning, middle, and end of birth. There are those who understand through study, ultimately understanding the self through practice. That means they practice with the body - the skin, flesh, bones and marrow of study.
Besides those who have understanding at birth or through study, there are those who have understanding as buddhas. They go beyond the boundary of self and other, having no limit in this very place, and are not concerned with the notion of self and other.
There are also those who understand without teachers. Although they do not rely upon teachers, sutras, self-nature, or form, and they do not turn the self around nor merge with others, nevertheless, all things are revealed.
Among these types of people, don't regard one as sharp and another as dull. Various types of people, as they are, actualize various types of accomplishments. You should examine what sentient or insentient being is without understanding at birth. If one has understanding at birth, one has enlightenment at birth, realization at birth, and practice at birth. Therefore the Buddha ancestors who are already excellent tamers of beings are regarded as those who have enlightenment at birth. This is so because their birth has brought forth enlightenment. Indeed, this is enlightenment at birth that is filled with great enlightenment. This is the study of twirling enlightenment. [In other words, enlightenment that is rolling along, moving around.] Thus one is greatly enlightened by twirling the three realms [past, present, and future], by twirling one hundred grasses [all things], by twirling the four great elements, by twirling buddha ancestors, and by twirling the fundamental point [the Genjokoan, the essential pivot point of our living]. All these are further attaining great enlightenment by twirling great enlightenment. The very moment for this is just now.
So, how I read this, and how I understand this, in the subtle ambiguity of Dogen's writing, is that being born - living - is the seat of awakening. In other words, life itself is such an incredible phenomenon. Nobody has any idea where life comes from, or how life arises from non-life, or how consciousness arises with life. Nobody has any idea how this could be. This consciousness that arises with life is the great enlightenment. Your enlightenment is innate, and it has to be activated in living. So there's both a kind of effort involved and a kind of given-ness to it. As long as we are alive, great enlightenment is there, and yet, we have to live our life. There's no way that that is not an active pursuit. And, of course, the more that we feel that we are really living our life, the life that we should be living, the more we can appreciate our great enlightenment. If we feel, "Oh, I'm not living the life I should be living," it feels like the great enlightenment is being squandered - even though it is always there.
So that's what I mean when I am always saying that when we are sitting in zazen, we are feeling our life. We are really feeling the feeling of being alive. We're stepping back, because usually we are too busy for that. We assume life, and then we think of all the problems that we have. When we sit in zazen, we are gently putting down all these problems, and we're just feeling our living. I'm a living being. This is what it feels like to be alive. To breathe, to be in a body - this is what it feels like. And that's where the awakening is. That's where the enlightenment is. And when we are in touch with that gift of life, that gratitude, we can come forth and live life.
Finally we get to the first story. Dogen has been setting us up so we can appreciate this first story:
Linji, Great Master Huizhao, said, "In the great nation of Tang China, if you look for a single person who is not enlightened, it is hard to find one."
So Dogen says that this is true. If you look for a single person who is not enlightened, you won't find one.
The self of yesterday's self is not unenlightened. The self of today's other is not unenlightened. [So it's true of your self. It's true of others. It was true today. It was true yesterday.] Between the past and present of a mountain-being and a water-being, no one is unenlightened.
This is true. You should really understand this, really penetrate this. Everybody you see, anybody you see, is enlightened. If you get mad at somebody, realize that you are getting mad at an enlightened person. This is not good. You should respect enlightened people. However, we should go beyond this.
Now addressing Linji you should ask, "If you only know that it is hard to find an unenlightened person and do not know that it is hard to find an enlightened one, it is not yet sufficient. It is impossible to say that you have thoroughly understood the fact that it is hard to find an unenlightened one. Even if it is hard to find an unenlightened one, have you not seen half a person who is not yet enlightened but has a serene face and magnificent composure?"
True enlightenment, as we said in the beginning, is rare and precious, and you can't find a human being who completely embodies it. And that's why all of us possess it, not as a personal quality or achievement, but as a luminous glow of our being alive. You can't appreciate that luminous glow unless you really understand what it means to be alive. You won't appreciate the glow of your living unless you understand your life, even though it is a mystery. That's the achievement of the buddhas, that they understand, they appreciate this mystery. They really appreciate the mystery of being alive in themselves and in others. So it's not that they are enlightened. It's just that they appreciate the situation we're in.
What Dogen is talking about is something that is evanescent and very flickering. It's a flickering, momentary sense about our lives, and then after that, we will inevitably return to our grinding, dualistic understanding, which goes something like this: "I am such a wreck. I am limited in so many ways." You all have your favorite limitations. I have mine. So we say, "I definitely have to improve. Definitely going to make improvements here." So there we go, grinding away at our lives and our practice.
So what do we do about this, because, let's be honest, that's what happens, right? So what I'm saying, at best, we study Dogen, and we understand in a flickering way. We put the book down and go forth in the usual way. So what are we going to do about this?
We really should abandon the highly unrealistic effort to think we can make that kind of thinking go away. Instead, we could get a little purchase on it. It's exactly-- it's exactly the fiction that we're going to make it go away that makes it so real! Do you see that? That's exactly what makes it so real. If you say it is real and that it is not going to go away, then you are in despair. When you realize, as Dogen is saying here, it's being half an unenlightened person, that is enlightenment. You realize that these grinding dualistic views are the shape of your mind and are not real. They are the shape of your mind. They are the thoughts that come into your mind. But you're misinterpreting those thoughts. So then you study them. "Oh look, there I go again." You look at how limiting and unhappy-making that is. And that's just what it is - an old habit of thinking that is very limiting and very unhappy-making. And, there it is again. There it is again. There it is again.
So liberation is not gained by leaping beyond our lives. Liberation is gained by a little forgiveness, a little acceptance, a little humor, a little evenness within our own life. And the soul of religious practice is repetition. We just keep doing it and keep coming back to it, over and over again. Little by little, you see the beauty of it - the beauty of yourself and the beauty of this life.