Eihei Dogen Zenji was opposed to the idea that Zen was a separate branch of Buddhism. He repeatedly asserts that Zen is simply Buddhism. Yet today the Zen we have inherited reflects the Zen “meme” of a teaching outside words and letters. There is a great deal of emphasis on the enlightenment experience either through Shikan Taza (Just Sitting) or Koan study and though this is a wonderful legacy, I believe the time has come for a broader practice – a modern practice. Ironically, this modern practice is rooted in the very beginnings of Zen in China.
Rather than understanding Zen as a way outside words and letters, we could instead understand Zen as a teaching that cannot be contained by word and letters. The early Chinese practitioners seeking direct experience rather than the study of the sutras were already, in all likelihood, well versed in the sutras. They were also acquainted with Taoism and Confucianism as well as the many forms of Buddhism. When they went forward from study toward the direct experience of the ground of being they already had an ethical, philosophical and metaphysical platform to stand on. I think we need those ethical, philosophical and metaphysical riches as well as the experiential enlightenment experience.
Thus the distinction of Zen from Buddhism might have been useful in the early days, but now may continue for some suspect reasons: elitism, regionalism or just a lack of information/knowledge. There is no practical reason any longer for our practice to fall into any of these traps. Our Zen practice can become a kind of mental regionalism in which we embrace a very small section of the “Way” and our world. Worse, as we turn our backs and ignore aspects of the richness of the Dharma we can inadvertently ignore what we most have to see and face: ourselves.
Seeing ourselves “objectively” and not just escaping into experiences and “understandings” is not as attractive. It is less sensational, more mundane and slower. Often it doesn’t produce bliss, although it does not need to produce painful self- judgment either. Facing ourselves, in my opinion, is the important and often neglected aspect of practice necessary for our mature development. I want Lost Coin to work in that area so we will produce “adepts” with true humility and integrity as well as clear understanding.
Facing and clarifying ourselves, we can move forward in our practice. We can leave our psychological regionalism and not just face but embrace the world of sciences and arts and all the richness of information and technology available to us today.
Dogen Zenji was reluctant to see Zen as separate from Buddhism. I am hoping we can avoid seeing Buddhism as separate at all.
photo credit: Patrick Hoesly