What’s the “Just” in Just Sitting All About?

What’s the “Just” in Just Sitting All About? February 25, 2012

Before the noon meal during sesshin the Katagiri Roshi way, we rise from zazen, offer incense, do three prostrations, and chant the “Self Enjoyment Samadhi” section of Dogen’s Negotiating the Way (Bendowa).

It includes the lines (a quote, really, unattributed here to Dogen’s teacher, Rujing), “From the start of your consultation with a wise teacher, have no recourse whatsoever to burning incense, prostrations, buddha-mindfulness, repentances, or sutra reading. Just sit and attain the sloughing off of mind and body.”

One common interpretation of this passage is that zazen-only is the one true way, and is the expression of pure and original Zen, while other practices are cultural baggage, secretions of other schools, and not something we Westerns really need to do. This is a common view in so-called Western Zen.

When I was young, I wrestled with this passage and the behavior surrounding it, sometimes delighting in the irony of offering incense, bowing, reading a sutra and then chanting that there is no need for these practices, then bowing again three times at the end of the recitation for good measure.

Other times, I confess, it was just annoying. Back then I was a zazen-only guy, or so I thought, and so resonated with Antaiji-style Zen that threw out everything but zazen (as I understood at the time).

Now I see it differently and so was delighted to read T. Griffith Foulk’s essay, “‘Just Sitting?’ Dogen’s Take on Zazen, Sutra Reading, and other Conventional Buddhist Practices,” in Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies, edited by Steve Heine. I beat up on the good professor in a post in the fall, Satisfying Hunger with Koan: A Critical Review of Foulk’s Scholarly Perspective, but I’m not a hater, generally speaking, so here’s lavish praise for the eminent scholar.

Foulk has written other pieces about this key Dogenophile passage and now takes it to a new level of thoroughgoingness. He first works through each practice that Dogen seems to be saying isn’t necessary, offering incense, bowing, etc., and cites passages where Dogen gives specific instructions for that very practice, “…explicitly and enthusiastically promot[ing]…” these practices.

“Those practices,” writes Foulk, “were not mere fomalities for Dogen, but heartfelt expressions of his Buddhist faith.”

Foulk concludes this section with this: “The vision of ‘pure,’ ‘original’ Zen that informs this view (that Dogen was a zazen-only guy), is largely wishful thinking on the part of academic apologists for the Zen schools of modern Japan. The projection of that ideal onto the figure of Dogen is scarcely defensible….”

And like I said above, not only the Japanese scholars have this view. There are plenty of practitioners and teachers who also embrace it because it so nicely aligns with the culturally-conditioned, self-serving dream that makes Western Zen something like a box of chocolates and we get to pick the ones we like and leave the rest. The dark chocolate fudgies for me, please, and I’ll leave the nasty milk-chocolate caramels for someone else.

That’s all well and good when it comes to chocolate selections but when we extend this picking-and-choosing mind to everything, particularly those things we can’t really choose – like life and death – our practice  becomes just another expression of our disease and dis-ease.

Preemptive comment: yes, prissy-assed offering incense, bowing, etc., might also be culturally-conditioned, self-serving dreamin’. Rejecting offering incense, bowing, etc., is wrong. Accepting offering incense, bowing, etc., is also wrong. Here’s the sweet old corner where we cannot move an inch.

What is right?

Foulk’s second movement in “‘Just Sitting’? Dogen’s Take on Zazen, Sutra Reading, and other Conventional Buddhist Practices,” involves his careful examination of the seven other times in his extant writings, from Hokyoki to Eihikoroku, where Dogen quotes Rujing’s admonition to “…just sitting and attain the sloughing off of mind and body.”

In Eiheikoroku, Vol. 9.85, Dogen goes so far as to elevate this saying of Rujing to a koan, including it with the classical koans, one of the three involving Rujing that Dogen includes in his 90-case koan commentary that is included in Eiheikoroku.

This phrase about sloughing or dropping body and mind, of course (for you old Dogen hands that is), refers to Dogen’s enlightenment experience.

And, by the way, a while back I mentioned that Shohaku Okumura argues in his Genjokoan book (see Was Dogen Enlightened? And an Important New Book on Genjokoan for more about that) that Dogen’s enlightenment story may have been made up by Keizan because Dogen himself doesn’t tell the story. But according to Foulk, Dogen “…relates [it] in his colophon to the Discourse Record of Chan Master Rujing…” so I can breath a sigh of relief that my self-serving dream about Dogen’s enlightenment story is real after all. Phew!

Nevertheless, what is Dogen advocating in this passage? Fortunately, not just one thing. Dogen is a wonderful example of having a “thick” view of things. There are different nuances to each of the seven times he raises the quote. Sometimes it seems to be an admonition not to “use” anything, including zazen, but to authentically practice each thing wholly (see Koun’s “Authentic Practice” for more on this view).

Sometimes he seems to be saying that until a practitioner has sloughed off, the other practices will be counterproductive and so shouldn’t be done – using zazen as a means to an end in this case, horror of horrors! Dogen’s view also seems to shift from seeing sloughing off as a samadhi state of trance to realization or insight.

Like any real person, it is hard to pin the old boy down. This kind of careful study – Foulk’s that is – is great medicine for our proclivity toward fundamentalism, fetishism, and/or the tendancy to over-simplify so as to make the teachings into our own image.

So thanks! Professor Foulk for an excellent piece of Dogen scholarship.

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