“Some Sōtō Zen scholars and priests argue that Dōgen was against ‘personal’ enlightenment and that such an experience is out of tune with Dōgen’s teaching. Therefore, they conclude that later teachers must have made up the story of Dōgen’s personal enlightenment experience (you’ll find one version of this story at the bottom of this post).”
I wrote that on April 1 (no joke), 2016. You can read the whole post here. In this post, I’d like to update you on what I’ve learned about this issue recently. And there’s a surprise ending so hold on to your zafu.
“What?” You might say, “I’ve seen the movie, ‘Zen – The Life of Zen Master Dōgen,’ and the whole enlightenment thing, including levitating on a lotus, is right there about twenty-minutes into it.” Click here.
Well, the movie version of Dōgen’s enlightenment is really a trippy, hallucinogenic presentation and not what we’d consider an enlightenment experience today. So I’d go out on a limb and say that the movie isn’t definitive proof that it actually happened.
Why is Dōgen’s enlightenment important today?
Sometimes it seems to me that the two orientations in contemporary Sōtō Zen represent two different religions – belief-system Sōtō Zen and realization-system Sōtō Zen, which explains how it is that we often seem to talk past each other. Both use the name “Sōtō Zen” and both orientations can lead to transformation. They also both look to the founder, Dōgen, for support … and find it. Although I lean toward the realization system, I know and respect practitioners of both persuasions.
A little more about these orientations. From the perspective of those who see Sōtō Zen practice as primarily being a belief system, the protocols for sitting, bowing, chanting, etc., tend to be of primary importance. In addition, as a statement of the faith, this group believes that zazen is itself enlightenment, no matter what. They tend to see those who are interested in realization-system Sōtō Zen as greedily striving for some special experience.
For those who are primarily interested in realization-system Sōtō Zen, practice is about verification and the “special experience” is also known as “reality.” Kōan introspection is often important for this group, more important than the protocols. John Tarrant Roshi, for example, has likened nonkōan (belief-system) Zen to a cargo cult where the protocols have a fetish-like quality (see Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, p. 29).
So that’s a bit about the two orientations in contemporary practice, but what was Sōtō Zen originally transmitted to Japan in the 13th Century, a belief system or a realization system? One of the key issues that has emerged now, that defines these two systems, is whether Dōgen had a personal enlightenment experience or not.
Was the story of Dōgen’s enlightenment made up?
Shohaku Okumura Roshi, in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (pp. 81 – 88), lays out the argument for those who believe that the story was made up after Dōgen died. It comes down to this: Dōgen didn’t write about it or apparently talk about it himself, even in his China journal, Hōkyōki. That is suspicious.
On the other hand, although the key phrase in Dōgen’s enlightenment experience,”body-mind drop off” (Japanese, “shinjin datsuraku,”身心脱落), doesn’t occur in the Chinese Buddhist Canon, Dōgen frequently used it in Hokyoki, Shōbōgenzō, and Eiheikōrōku. Did he pull it out of thin air?
One explanation for the absence of his enlightenment story in Dōgen’s written works is that writing about a personal enlightenment experience might have been considered gauche in the 13th Century, lacking the dignified bearing of a buddha. Dōgen also didn’t write about other personal stuff like why he didn’t take the full monastic precepts when he went to China or why he left Kyoto for the mountains. However, he did write about other things we would consider personal today like how “…tears filled [his] breast” (Eiheikōrōku #111) when his young successor, Sōkai, died. Granted, then, this is hardly a definitive argument.
But there’s more. Although Dōgen didn’t write about his enlightenment experience in Hōkyōki, Shobogenzo or Eiheikōrōku, there is one text, Continued Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Rujing of Tiantong Mountain, that does contain the story, attributed to Dōgen. This is the source I mentioned in my earlier post on this topic as definitive proof of the historical reliability of Dōgen’s enlightenment experience. I have since learned, however, that this text is not reliable (this from an email dated June 24, 2017, from Dr. Steven Heine, Professor of Religious Studies and History, Florida International University). Some scholars suspect that it was written in Japan, possibly after Dōgen’s death, and so the story could have been inserted at that later time.However, there’s yet another source that is a candidate for documenting the event.
After Dōgen died, an Eiheiji monk, Giin (1217-1300), took the record of Dōgen’s teaching, Eiheikōrōku, to China, probably where it was abbreviated into the Eiheigōrōku. Apparently, to gain legitimacy for Dōgen’s lineage, Giin secured several eulogies from Ch’an monks. One of those monks, Yiyuan (or “I-yuan,” also known below as “Huangping”), was the monk in the story that exclaimed after Dōgen’s personal enlightenment was confirmed by Rujing, “It is truly not a trifling thing for a foreigner to attain to such a degree” (see below).
In Yiyuan’s preface to the Eiheigōrōku, he acknowledged that there was such an encounter between Dōgen and Rujing (this also from an email dated June 24, 2017, from Dr. Steven Heine). The statement of a third-party witness to a student’s presentation of a personal enlightenment experience and the teacher’s confirmation is quite rare today and probably was in the old days as well.
It seems to me that we can say with more confidence than 99% of things we believe happened in the 13th Century (really before cell phone cameras), that Dogen’s personal enlightenment experience happened in an historical sense. The historical veracity of Dōgen’s enlightenment experience is really quite solid.
What was said that triggered Dōgen’s awakening?
But it isn’t quite that simple … or solid.
Because Dōgen emphasized “body-mind drop off” and due to the phrase’s power for practice, it has become a corner-stone in Sōtō Zen for almost 800 years. Could this corner-stone have been something that was a mistake?
Yes, it could, of course.
There has been a theory floating around for some time in Sōtō scholarly circles that Dōgen might have actually misheard what Rujing said (for example, see “Shinjin Datsuraku: Shedding Body-Mind” by Rev. Seijun Ishii). Dōgen heard “body-mind drop off” or “shēnxīn tuōluò” (身心脱落) in Chinese. There aren’t any records of Rujing using that phrase, nor, as I mentioned above, does it occur in the Chinese Buddhist Canon. Rujing and the Canon, however, did use a phrase that might have sounded the same to Dōgen – “xīnchén tuōluò” (心塵脱落) or “mind dust drop off.”
In Yiyuan’s preface to the Eiheigōrōku, when he acknowledged that there was such an experience, he used the characters 心塵脱落 or “mind dust drop off” (this also from an email dated June 24, 2017, from Dr. Steven Heine).
Now it is possible, of course, that it was Yiyuan who misheard Rujing, but it does seem more likely that the foreigner, Dōgen, misheard, then ran with it – and a beautiful run it has been.
Another possibility, suggested by a Zen student, is that Dōgen, who had a great love for playing with homonyms, knew what he was doing. Perhaps he took his teacher’s words and knowingly, creatively, twisted them for his own enlightening ends.
But it seems more likely that Dōgen got it wrong in a wonderful way. As Wumen said, “Among a thousand mistakes – a road.”
So in the end, regarding Dōgen’s enlightenment experience, something happened but we don’t know what it turned on.
A perfectly messy Zen enlightenment.
Record of Transmitting the Light: “The Fifty-First Ancestor, Eihei Dogen”
Eihei Dōgen came to Tiantong Rujing. One day, Tiantong said during early morning zazen, “Zazen is body-mind drop off.”
Dōgen, hearing this, suddenly had great realization. He went at once to the abbot’s chambers and offered incense.
Tiantong asked him, “Why do you offer incense?”
Dōgen said, “Body-mind drop off.”
Tiantong said, “Body-mind drop off. Drop off body-mind.”
Dōgen said, “This is a momentary achievement. Don’t confirm me too hastily.”
Tiantong said, “I do not confirm you hastily.”
Dōgen said, “What is this not-hastily-confirming?”
Tiantong said, “Body-mind drop off.”
Dōgen made bows.
Tiantong said, “Drop off body-mind.”
At that time, his attendant Huangping of Fuzhou said, “It is truly not a trifling thing for a foreigner to attain to such a degree.”
Tiantong said, “Before he came here, he received the blows of many fists. Liberated is he is mild and peaceful. The thunder roars.”
Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.