Zen Buddhism And Enlightenment

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The thirteenth century Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, had the advantage of looking back at eighteen centuries of the development of Buddhist though and practice. Dogen was well informed of earlier Chinese Zen developments, and his writings and teachings show that he was on intimidate terms with the great Zen teachers of the Chinese lineage. One area of Dogen’s teachings that is particularly worthwhile to take note of is his teachings and writings about practice and the nature of Enlightenment because one can see how Dogen had taken the teachings of his predecessors and remolded it with his owns. Dogen’s teachings originated from the ideas of Hui-neng, Bodhidharma, and other great Zen Masters, but at the same time one can witness the depth and subtly of Dogen’s own though as he goes beyond what his predecessors taught.

Enlightenment is commonly seen as a spiritual breakthrough experience in Zen Buddhism. Scriptures and writings often state how Shakyamuni Buddha, upon days and days of rigorous meditation, had suddenly realized that everything surrounding him had attained Buddhahood, thus he became enlightened. There have been stories of monks who had experienced some sort of dramatic shift in consciousness after an intense pursuit for such transformative experience. In Zen Buddhism, these stories have been studied as cases of obtaining the great enlightenment. In the Lin Chi and Rinzai schools, such stories are used as koans to help the monks break through their conventional thinking that is confined by the barrier of dualism. Dogen, like every other Zen master, often quoted such stories of enlightenment and incorporated it into his teachings, but unlike the Lin Chi and Rinzai schools, Dogen did not rely on koans in his teachings and practice, but instead used zazen mediation. On one side of the coin is Dogen’s teaching where one practices the way of awakening, and experiences enlightenment moment after moment, but on the other side is Lin Chi and Rinzai’s teaching that one has to endure a long and hard time to achieve a breakthrough. But which side is correct? In fact, they can both be correct, seeing as how one can achieve enlightenment either way as stated by Dogen, “Actually, the meaning of studying sutras is that if you understand and follow the rules of practice for sudden or gradual realization taught by the buddha, you will mistakenly attain enlightenment” (Transmission of the Teaching 148).

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Surprisingly, Dogen never directly responded to the controversy concerning whether obtaining enlightenment is a sudden or gradual process, but throughout his numerous teachings and writings, one can come to a sort of conclusion as to what Dogen may believe the process is. In China and Japan, there were two different views on the attainment of enlightenment, the Northern school viewed the process as a sudden event while the Southern school viewed it as a gradual process.

It is understandable as to why some people may believe that Dogen promoted gradual enlightenment because the Soto style does seem to take on a gradualist approach to the topic. Dogen’s teachings was very demanding of zazen practice in contrast to the teachings of Rinzai Zen, where it had taken more of a relaxed and apathy approach to practice, but the constant ongoing practice of zazen does not mean it is a gradual approach. Viewing zazen practice as such is to completely miss the purpose of its intensity. Enlightenment in Soto Zen can be characterized on as “enlightenment from the beginning”, whereas Rinzai’s was “enlightenment with a beginning”. It can be said that the former places more of a stress on gradual process in enlightenment because it is as stating that enlightenment is starting from a fixed point and continuing on whereas the latter stresses a sudden experience of enlightenment since it is as stating the enlightenment is starting somewhere and sometime.

Based on the characterization made, if zazen practice is considered as a means to which one can obtain eventual enlightenment, then it can be assumed that Soto Zen is the process of gradual enlightenment. But if one views zazen as such, then it is like the notion of mediation gives the impression that the self-purification will culminate into a transformation, thus one can will attain enlightenment. The problem lies within the interpretation of Dogen’s teachings, because while there are some elements of gradualism in his teachings, there is also some subitism. Another part of the problem lies within the fact that enlightenment is thought of as a temporal state.

While many believe that the effect of enlightenment is sudden, the principle of gradual enlightenment was help by some Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism refined the nature of the goal to an even greater extent. The goal was no longer purification, but more of a sudden perception of the universal emptiness which lies the nature of morals and faults. By realizing such emptiness, those faults are removed. Even though such perception is sudden, it can be debated that the progress is gradual not because whether the transformative even per se is sudden but rather whether it is necessary to undergo some sort of purification process prior to such enlightenment.

Throughout the centuries, Zen Buddhism in China had undergone several important developments, which eventually led to issue of whether enlightenment is sudden or gradual. According to the newly modeled ideals in China, the meditation of the mind-body leads to enlightenment whereas some people can achieve rapid results in mediation while others may not. Therefore, while the enlightenment is always sudden, some people attain the sudden enlightenment quickly while others may take eons and eons to achieve the same sudden enlightenment. Thus, one can conclude that the enlightenment is sudden for both types of individuals, not gradual. Even though some may require longer time to prepare for the sudden enlightenment, others may not. So, what does this mean for the nature of enlightenment in Dogen’s writing?

Dogen inherited centuries of continental tradition, but his teachings concerning enlightenment can only be appreciated when discussed against his predecessors’ teachings since this is what defines Dogen more as an innovator rather than an inheritor. Dogen developed his own unique teaching concerning practice and enlightenment. Dogen’s teachings particularly concentrate on zazen. If zazen is a means for attaining enlightenment, then what is the point of it for someone who already attained enlightenment? Dogen states that practice and enlightenment are identical, and that practice and realization are one. “Because practice of the present moment is practice-realization the practice of beginner’s mind is itself the entire original realization” (On The Endeavor 151)

Thus, one can see the relationship between practice and enlightenment as Dogen taught it. Practice is not a means to attain enlightenment, but it is that which measures one’s already existent enlightenment. In fact, Dogen states that zazen practice is enlightenment. Practice is an intrinsic realization whereas zazen is simply the way such realization manifests itself. The realization takes the form of dispassion and clarity in the activity of zazen. Consequently, a distinction can be made between practice and realization now; when one is present, so is the other. In Dogen’s view, enlightenment does not occur as a distinct event at the end of one’s long journey of the Bodhisattva. In fact, enlightenment Is present even in those who have not started practice, but only through practice can one realize that they are enlightened. There are numerous teachings that equate enlightenment as events or states of minds, and Dogen believes that all of these are equivalent to realization and Buddhahood because all of those events or states of mind are concrete manifestations of the transcendent which is the actualization of Buddha nature. With this being the case, for Dogen, zazen is no longer thought as an activity that nurtures one’s inner latent spiritual self. Instead, Dogen states “Zazen is, rather, an activity through which we testify to, actualize or realize that which we really are, total, at all times.” Therefore, what it means to be enlightened, is not transforming oneself gradually or even suddenly, but instead a matter of self-authentication, meaning being one’s authentic self, that which is one’s Buddha self, which can be done through the process of zazen.

For Dogen, the overwhelming emphasis in his teaching is on practice rather than finding a way to attain enlightenment, which is what makes his Zen Buddhism unique. The reason why practice is held to such a high standard by Dogen is because through practice does one realize their Buddha self and such realization is what Dogen associates to enlightenment. But one cannot stop once thieve achieved their actualization, their practice must continue because such realization must be repeated over and over again for each new event that occurs. Prior to practice, there is no realization, thus one’s Buddhahood cannot be actualized. Only when one begins to practice, even just a little, will their actualization materialize.

In a way, there is some sort of gradualistic approach in Dogen’s teachings of practice, but at the same time each realization is timeless. Thus, while there is a gradualistic notion to such realization, it cannot simply be either gradual or sudden. The whole nature of Dogen’s enlightenment can be best acquainted to the process of constant sudden realizations, thus combining the two notions of gradual and sudden enlightenment.

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