In the summer of 1225, Dogen was in China, searching for a teacher who could help him deepen his meditation practice. He went to a monastery in the Tiantong Mountains to meet the sixty-two-year-old abbot, Rujing. The meeting was one of the most important events in Dogen’s life.
Rujing seems to have been an unusual teacher, who had little time for the trappings of authority that went with his position. He never wore the ornately decorated robes that he was entitled to wear, and he argued that what he taught was ‘the great way of all the Buddhas,’ something that couldn’t be confined within the label of ‘Zen School.’ (Tanahashi 1995: 6)
Rujing advocated a simple but powerful approach to meditation. He told Dogen that, ‘to study meditation …. Is to drop body and mind; it is single-minded intense sitting without burning incense, worshipping, reciting, practising repentance or reading sutras.’ (Batchelor 1994: 126) ‘Single-minded intense sitting’ – ‘shikantaza’ in Japanese – is a term many scholars regard as having been introduced into the vocabulary of Zen by Rujing.
Rujing’s sitting meditation was also not a practice in which one sat in order to become enlightened. As Dogen was to teach when he returned to Japan, zazen involves sitting just to sit, realizing Buddhahood in the very ordinary act of being attentive to one’s own existence – just being here, just becoming.
Dogen shared with Rujing the belief that zazen was ‘authentic practice’, and that practice and awakening are one and the same. According to Dogen, we don’t have to ‘do’ anything to ‘gain’ enlightenment. We do not need to search for something on the horizon. It is already here, immanent in us, ready to be actualised. We only have to be present, to wake up to our tangible transient existence. For Rujing and Dogen, practice is enlightenment.
Dogen emphasises that zazen is something we do – it is an activity, to be undertaken for its own sake – with no thought of chasing after enlightenment or nirvana. Enlightenment is inherent in us, and the only way to realisation is to let go of chasing after it, or, desiring to be someone other than we are. Indeed, the Japanese term for awakening, kensho, means to ‘see into one’s true nature’ – which is also one of the primary meanings of the word ‘dharma.’ Dogen says, ‘stop pursuing words and letters’ – in other words, stop chasing after ideas, theories and abstractions – for there is no purpose to zazen, other than to sit and to be present. To practice zazen is to return to one’s original nature. There are echoes, here, of the Daoist belief that by letting-go of the layers of words and concepts that we drape over ourselves and the world, we can re-discover the Dao – the spontaneous, fluid nature of the universe.
The approach taken by Rujing and Dogen echoes the experiences and the teachings of the Buddha 2,500 years ago. When the Buddha was sitting under the Bo-tree in Bodhigaya, after years of chasing after ‘enlightenment’ – years during which he tried all kinds of meditation, fasting and other harsh forms of religious practice – he realised that he had been misguided in believing he could find enlightenment by chasing after every idea and teaching offered by the religious teachers he met on his travels. He realised that there is no need to look elsewhere for enlightenment, for it is right here, under the Bo-tree, right where we are. We are all gifted with the potential for enlightenment or nirvana, we only have to wake up to our true state, by letting go of attachments to theories, intentions, analyses and delusions of all kinds. Instead, sit, in one mind, in unity with the universe. Suspend judgment, sit quietly, pay attention and be the Buddha you have always been. Trust in your own nature.
Batchelor, Stephen. 1994. The Awakening of the West. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Tanahashi, K. ed. 1995. Moon in a dewdrop: writings of Zen master Dogen. New York: North Point Press.