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Dogen's Sitting Advice ☼

"Dogen [1200–53] was responsible for the introduction of the Soto Zen lineage to Japan, and his writings are now the font of orthodoxy for Soto Zen," writes David E. Riggs in Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism, edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright (2006, 249).

Riggs, further:

In the medieval era Dogen's role was limited. His writings, especially the collection of essays that is now called the Shobogenzo, were treated as secret treasures, but there was no commonly accepted version and no commentaries were written about them from about the end of the thirteenth until the seventeenth century (2006, 249-50).

Riggs goes on to tell how Menzan Zuiho (1683–1769) wanted to help common people meditate, and resorted to Dogen's teachings. In the Buddha Samádhi he offers quite detailed, basic Buddhist doctrines, but there is no practical advice about meditation in the text itself. What the text contains, is explanations of problems and misunderstandings that can arise in meditation. But on the last page of an appendix added to the printed version there is some concrete physical advice about meditation posture and environment. (2006, 247-48)

Menzan filled in areas that Dogen had left blank, and he tried to clarify the ambiguities in Dogen's work by interpreting the texts that Dogen himself had access to, but the selection and interpretation were very much Menzan's own. (2006, 249)

Menzan's work promoted a Soto Zen that had its own distinct teachings and practices. (2006, 252)

Menzan devotes much space to discussing what proper Soto practice is not. (2006, 253)

The Buddha Samadhi is appropriate for almost anyone interested in Dogen's teaching. As Menzan points out in the last sentence of his opening comments, Dogen writes in the Bendowa that lay people too should do this [seated meditation] practice and that attaining the way has nothing to do with being a monk. (2006, 254)

Eko hensho, or stepping back somehow to see the original face without concepts

First "turn the light around", and the rest follows - maybe.

Kigen (Joyo) Dogen (1200–1253) was born into a family of the court nobility, and studied a form of Zen in Japan before studying Zen meditation in China under the Zen teacher Ju-ching. Here are quite simple adages from Dogen's Fukanzazengi. In this treatise he tells that contemplating the mind source is the essential art of zazen (meditation-sitting) by the eko hensho method of "turning the light around and looking back".

Sozan, an early master of the same sect of Zen as Dogen, says: "There is something fundamental in oneself, when one turns the light around (shifts attention from sense experience to the essence of mind) one ejects form, sound, smell, flavor, touch, and phenomena, and attains tranquility." And Dogen says in an early treatise on zazen [Zen sitting], "You should stop the intellectual practice of pursuing words and learn the 'stepping back' of 'turning the light around and shining back'; [and finally] the 'original face' [real nature, mind essence, original Buddha-nature] will appear." (Cleary 1986, 9)

The meditation during eko hensho is not conceptual. There are many pointers around it to be found in Zen lore, using terms such as "before the Buddha appears in the world," before a single thought arises," to orient the mind in the eko hensho technique. (Cleary 1986, 21n; cf. 10)

Dogen used koans, or Zen conundrums, but did not stress koans as much as is done in the Rinsai Zen sect or school. He also said, "the prime essential is sitting meditation (zazen)." He counsels students not to get involved with other things than the act of Zen sitting so that the Way opens up. Leting deepening meditation come first, would be a matter of priority. (Cleary 1986, 14).

1. Stop pursuing this and that so as to find time to sit in contemplation

In doing zazen it is desirable to have a quiet room.

The way is completely present where you are.

2. End a sitting session calmly

At the completion of zazen move your body slowly and stand up calmly. (3)

3. As you practice the sitting contemplation, a way may open too (as you get along)

Meditation clothing should be loose but neat (convenient so may do too). (7)

Try to begin training at once.

No distinction needs to be made between the clever and the stupid as you devote yourself exclusively to and get completely absorbed in the practice of zazen.

Forsake all delusive relationships.

Adhering to the way is the most important thing in life.*

Zazen is not "step-by-step meditation."

So: Sit and meditate, spend five minutes on ending it with calm. As you practice, ways may open. 

A Few Dogen Statements

"In this short life of ours, avoid involvement in superfluous things and just study the Way," says Dogen. (Masunaga 1975, 83)

"Study the Way" means "do the sitting in a quiet room," and "sitting practice . . . is the way," Dogen affirms.


Fukanzazengi advice, How to sit in meditation, of Eihei Joyo Kigen Dogen in Zen Buddhism, Literature  

Cleary, Thomas, tr. 1986. Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

Heine, Steven, and Dale S. Wright, eds. 2006. Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Masunaga, Reiho, tr. 1975. A Primer of Soto Zen. A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Honolulu: University Press.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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