The More Things Change… and Dogen

I have spent the better part of the last 20 years of my Buddhist life immersed in the Pali Canon. We are so blessed to have good translations of the Pali Canon in English. I always encourage people to at least read the Majjhima Nikaya. Yes, it is tough going. It took me a year to work my way through it the first time. But little by little you will see for yourself what the Buddha taught. His world will open up to you.

But now that I have a feel for the Buddha’s discourses I have become interested in what came later. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu is enamored of Dogen, the great Japanese Zen Master, so I started reading a little about him and his life. And even in a short period of time I discovered that the more things change the more they stay the same.

There are two parts of Dogen’s life that I find particularly compelling. The first is his initial training and how he became disillusioned with it.

Dogen entered a monastery when he was young. It was a monastery of the Tendai School of Buddhism, which was the mainstream school in Japan. But eventually he came to feel that a) no one there could teach him how to Awaken and b) there was a lot of social infighting in order to gain status, especially with the Abbot.

So let’s just stop there for a moment and look at those two phenomena.

A friend of mine is in a long-term program at a noted Buddhist center (resort?). And after the first retreat in that program she noted that a number of the people there seemed mainly interesting in becoming visible so they could gain favor with the famous teacher at the center. And I got the feeling that they did not mind climbing over a few fellow Dharma practitioners in order to do that. I am sure it is this way at a lot of centers. And that is what Dogen found at Mount Hiei.

As to the other of Dogen’s complaints, I can start with a comment that I have made before. It took me a long time to realize that there are not many people who aspire to Awakening, especially in the Vipassana world. That does not mean that their agendas are completely flawed. If you use meditation to become a happier, more useful person that is a noble aspiration. It is certainly better than not doing it. But at a certain point a community that avoids the issue of Awakening becomes a hindrance to anyone who wants to Awaken. They actually drag you down. And I am pretty sure that is what Dogen ran into at Mount Hiei, and why eventually he left.

Now we fast forward in time to the end of Dogen’s life. He was sick and dying so he turned his monastery, the legendary Eihei-ji, over to his best student, Koun Ejō, and Koun’s responsibilities to his disciples Senne and Gien. However, Koun had competition from students of another teacher,  Darumashū. Daramashū’s students did not recognize Koun’s authority. And according to Ṭhānissaro, Daramashū had more or less gotten his Dharma transmission by mail from another teacher, and his Dharma understanding was not very deep.

Koun also had trouble with another of Dogen’s students, Tettsū Gikai. Tettsū wanted to reintroduce parts of the practice that Dogen specifically rejected. Further, even Dogen noted Tettsū’s lack of compassion for his other students.

So the short version of the story is that Zen from there onward was just not what it had been under Dogen. This happened in Buddhism as a whole, which as why I encourage people to read the Majjhima Nikaya. This gets you back to the original teachings. And those teachings are often in conflict with what Dharma teachers are telling you. This corruption also happened in Zen, which is why you have to go back to Dogen to understand Soto Zen.

Now we flip to the present. I know of several instances where quite knowledgable, serious practitioners were forced out of meditation groups by people who have aggressive personalities. People often gravitate towards people who are like that. We see it in the Republican Party at the moment. Even when the person running the show is toxic, there is this allure of strength. So it is not so different from what Koun, Senne and Gien faced. And they did not live very long after Dogen died, so that was pretty much that.

The path to Awakening is a long and winding road. It is full of pitfalls. And I think this is one reason why the Buddha emphasized conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Three Jewels are sometimes the only things you can safely rely on:

At Sāvatthī. “Bhikkhus, there are these four streams of merit, streams of the wholesome, nutriments of happiness. What four?

“Here, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Buddha thus: ‘The Blessed One is … teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.’ This is the first stream of merit, stream of the wholesome, nutriment of happiness.

“Again, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Dhamma thus: ‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One … to be personally experienced by the wise.’ This is the second stream of merit.…

“Again, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Saṅgha thus: ‘The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way … the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.’ This is the third stream of merit.…

“Again, householder, the instructed noble disciple possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones, unbroken … leading to concentration. This is the fourth stream of merit.…

“These are the four streams of merit, streams of the wholesome, nutriments of happiness.”

–  [SN 55.31] Streams of Merit

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