Buddhas and Buddhas

In the last few posts I’ve been looking at Master Dogen’s Vow. Please note that a dharma master could probably write about this text for weeks. I’m just beginning to look at it myself. But I’m happy that several of you have found this text inspiring. So here’s a little more of it:

The Chan Master Lung-ya said:

“Those unenlightened in past lives will now be enlightened.
In this life, take care of the body, the fruit of many lives.
Before Buddhas were enlightened, they were the same as we.
Enlightened people of today are exactly the same as the ancients.”

(Note: “Chan Master Lung-ya” is Lung-ya Chii-tun, an important patriarch of Soto Zen who lived from about 835¬† to about 920 CE. Among Zennies he is associated with the famous question “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”)

The Chan Master is trying to encourage us. “Take care of the body, the fruit of many lives” reminds us that while past actions have caused a lot of obstacles, past actions also have given us this body with which to practice.

And here’s the end:

This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha, so quietly explore the far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions.
Repenting in this way, one never fails to receive help, deep and unending, from all Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revealing before Buddha one’s lack of faith and failure to practice¬† dissolves the root of these unwholesome actions.
This is the pure and simple manifestation of true practice,  of the true mind and body of faith.

This part may be a little jarring to those who are quite certain Buddhism — especially Zen — is not a religion. Because this part of the text sounds awfully religious.

When I first began to practice Zen, a lot of people were making a big deal about “self power” versus “other power” in Buddhism. Zen, they declared (with some chest-thumping) is about self-power. Other schools of Buddhism, such as Pure Land, are more devotional and rely on other power. But here we have the great Dogen himself talking about receiving help from Buddhas and Ancestors.

First, after all these years, I no longer think the self-power/other-power dichotomy really means anything. Although practice takes personal commitment and effort, you’re never really practicing by yourself. (How is that even possible? Where is the autonomous self that practices?)

We may begin through devotion to Amitabha, or faith in the Lotus Sutra, or trust in our own practice. But after awhile the self-and-other power thing all blurs together.

Those of you who are familiar with the Lotus Sutra may recognize some of that sutra’s influence here. Somewhere in the Lotus it says that only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the great reality of all existence. Dogen — and 0ther Mahayana teachers — said that ordinary people do not turn into Buddhas. Rather, enlightenment is possible because Buddha-nature is already present. This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha.

One of Dogen’s fascicles from Shobogenzo is called Jinshin Inga, or deep faith in cause and effect. This one’s as yet out of my depth, I fear, but the line “far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions” make me think of it. If you are feeling adventurous, there are translations of Jinshin Inga online.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 19, 2013.]

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