More about mindfulness and Dogen

Dogen 1200-1253

Eihei Dogen 1200-1253

Zen teacher Dogen, zazen and mindfulness

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), is one of the founders of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism and one of the most influential of Japanese philosophers. At the centre of Dogen’s teaching lies the practice of zazen, a form of sitting meditation or mindfulness – also known in the Soto Zen tradition as shikantaza, just sitting. For Dogen, zazen is the primary Buddhist practice, an activity in which a person can learn how to be a Buddha, or to realise that they are a Buddha – manifesting Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature – yet doing this, as we’ll see below, without striving or intending that this should happen.

In 1227, after travelling and studying in China, Dogen arrived back in Japan. One of the first things he did on his return was to write the Fukan Zazengi, in which he gives precise guidance on how to practice zazen. In my own practice I have tried to follow Dogen’s guidance set out in the Fukan Zazengi. I suppose I see this as the bare root of Zen practice.

The practice of sitting in the way that Dogen advocates can be seen as both a mode of sceptical enquiry and as a way of waking up to the simple yet extraordinary fact of being here – a mode of attending to this life as advocated and practiced by many sceptic and Buddhist teachers. To sit in quiet and patient attention to the infinite particulars of everyday experience is not as easy as it sounds, indeed it can be extremely difficult. We have a tendency to construct endless commentaries about what is happening and what has happened within and around us, or we spend our time imagining what might happen or what we would like to happen. Either way we tend not to be present to this moment in anything other than a marginal way. It is as if our own existence, our being here, is of marginal interest, as if it is not worthy of clear unadorned observation.

To practice zazen it is necessary to set aside assumptions and habits of thought – for these tend to cloud and distort our vision. As we sit we begin to notice more and more, and we become aware of the glorious intertwining web of riches which we refer to as mind or consciousness. Our chattering, fantasising, desiring and regretting are integral to what we are, and although they have the power to entangle us in divisive and constricting patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour, they are part of our being – an aspect of our Buddha-nature or Buddha-mind. As such these qualities are not things that need to be scoured from our minds like stains on a teapot – as if they are failings or imperfections. Rather they are to be accepted, acknowledged and observed with care and benevolence – without clinging or additional commentary.

All our foibles, inconsistencies, doubts, dislikes and anxieties are material with which we can work – as much to be attended to as any other aspect of our being. Whatever comes into view has to be seen as important to the open-ended enquiry of sitting. It is important that we do not turn away from, or deny, aspects of our behaviour and do not pass judgement on them or label them as problematic, bad or unworthy. Rather it is by clear observance and non-judgemental noticing that we come to a realisation of who we are and how marvellous it is just to be here.

Zazen and washing dishes

For many years I followed very strictly Dogen’s instructions in the Fukan Zazengi – apart from the leg positions (I have never been able to adopt the full lotus position, using instead a meditation stool). At some point I adapted Dogen’s guidelines to include a short period at the beginning of each session in which I recite (to myself, not out loud) what is known in Buddhism as The Three Refuges: I take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma (the teachings) and in the Sangha (the community of fellow Buddhists). I find that reciting this a few times is a very effective way of focusing the mind. I’ve always used a version of this chant in Pāli, the language of Theravāda Buddhism:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. (to the Buddha I go for refuge)

Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. (to the Dharma I go for refuge)

Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. (to the Sangha I go for refuge)

Dutiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. (For the second time I go to the Buddha for refuge – each phrase repeated)

Tatiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi. (For the third time – each phrase repeated)

I’m not sure where I first came across this melodious and gently rhythmic version, but it has proved useful not only as a way of beginning zazen, but also as a way of calming my nerves before job interviews or dealing with other stressful situations.

If asked to describe “what happens” during my mindfulness (zazen) sessions I would point out that each session, even after so many years, is very different. Although a similar pattern may be evident, it is not always so. Each time I sit I still feel as if I am just beginning and I’m never at all sure what will happen. One thing I can say with relative certainty is that in all these years I have very rarely finished sitting without feeling more intensely alive, more at ease, temporarily wiser and often surprised. As to a pattern of what happens, I’ll try to describe it: usually when I begin there is a period, long or short, in which my mind flits about from thought to thought, sensation to sensation; things then begin to settle and to clear; sometimes the mental flitting-about reoccurs a few times, or a particularly persistent thought keeps returning, filling the field of attention for a while; but eventually, quite often, there’s an opening of awareness, as if to the whole phenomenal field – as if the indeterminate stream of sounds, changing light, smells, thoughts, feelings, itches and flickering emotions are of equal value, pattering like raindrops on the windscreen of consciousness. Worries and hopes, joys and fears, are no more or less significant than the sound of a bird or the sensation of cool air on my skin. Everything seems alive and evanescent – a mutable universe of interwoven motions and events.

One pattern that often arises in sitting sessions is a move from having a clear sense of myself observing what is going on, an ego at the centre of my experience – a linguistic self spinning a web of words and thoughts, pouring out a stream of stories, commentaries, fantasies and what ifs – to a dissolving sense of self, a gradual letting-go of the control-tower self, watching the stories and commentaries dissipate until there is only an experience of thoughts, feelings and sensations arising, and no sense of a secondary self giving orders, commenting on, let alone owning, what is happening. It is as if this chattering ego self gives way, melts and becomes a porous, fluid succession of sensations, thoughts and feelings that are in process – a transparent lightened stream of selves emerging from moment-to-moment out of the constantly changing interactions of a relational universe.

Some of the most vivid moments of my life have taken place while sitting in this state of open awareness – or while walking or undertaking an activity in a zazen mode of consciousness. Certainly, however paradoxical it may seem, I have often felt most alive while apparently sitting still as a stone or doing something mundane like washing dishes or digging the garden. I have had euphoric joyous moments; periods of deepest tranquillity; feelings of indescribable connectedness with everything – as if I am dissolved into a great stream of intermingled possibilities; periods of intense clarity of mind; and feelings of kinship, empathy and compassion. But all of these states have come and gone and, in the end, are of no particular significance, compared to the moment-by-moment process of attending to their occurrence. It is the process of attending, being aware, being there as sensations arise and die away, without commenting on them (suspending judgement) or trying to hold on to them – it is this process which is, for me, the challenge, purpose and value of zazen.

On another level, for sitting involves both great simplicity and great complexity, this process can be seen as a letting-go, a casting-off of layers of accumulated verbal and mental silt, an unlearning of habits of thought and emotional response – an undoing as much as a doing. In this sense it is a vital counterpoint to the usual accretive, clinging, categorising activity of our minds. This may be why so often at the end of a period of sitting I have felt lighter, less burdened, suppler, ready to face what comes next in a slightly more flexible and robust way.

Dogen and embodiment

Throughout the Fukan Zazengi, Dogen combines precise instruction with poetic suggestion to show how the practice of zazen enables a sitter to gain a clear view of the world in its dynamic relational glory by the simple, yet difficult, act of sitting, attending and being-here.

Dogen adds a further dimension to this practice by introducing the term, hi-shiryō, often translated as “non-thinking”. According to Hee-Jin Kim, hi-shiryō refers to “a very special form of thinking beyond thinking and not-thinking”.  In this sense “non-thinking” is “objectless, subjectless, formless, goalless, purposeless”. Once again, this is a form of cognition that manifests the same kind of undifferentiated quality that perception has within zazen practice. Hence Dogen’s paradoxical statement that, “the total experience of a single thing is the same as the total experience of all things” – for to see one thing clearly is to see it as integral to everything else.

For Dogen, mind and body are inseparable, indeed the term, shin-jin, is often used by Dogen to refer to “body-mind” rather than mind on its own. According to Kim, “the human body, in Dogen’s view, is not a hindrance to the realisation of enlightenment but the very vehicle through which enlightenment is realised”. There is no hint here either of the dualistic polarising of body and mind, or the tendency of some Christian thinkers to marginalise the body or even to consider the body as something to be overcome or subjugated in order to become closer to God.  (Above quotes from Kim, Hee-Jin, 1987 – see bibliography)

Not only does Dogen consider the body-mind to be an integrated whole, but he also recognises no essential separation between body-mind, shin-jin, and the world. Hence, Dogen’s reference to the ancient Buddhist belief that, “the entire universe is the true human body. The entire universe is the gate of liberation”. For Dogen, the world and body-mind are co-dependent and permeable. There is no fixed boundary between them. The body-mind is interwoven with the entire universe. The body-mind is a porous field of interpenetrating forces, a mingling of currents of being and awakening, a boundless site or clearing in which realisation can occur.