Background for Dogen’s Thought

“A special transmission outside the scriptures
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood.”

These are the well-known verses encapsulating Zen’s insight and practice, that have been attributed to Bodhidharma, the semi-legendary founder of the Chan/Zen school who had sailed from Southern India to land in China in 475 where he sat in front of a wall for nine years.

Red Pine, however, notes that these verses were first found in a text dating from 1108, that is, nearly six hundred years after Bodhidharma’s death! It may be safe to say that Bodhidharma perfectly exemplified the new emphasis on “seated meditation in front of a wall” presented as the core practice of Zen, though the nature and function of meditation in Zen is a lot more complex than that suggested by the ever popular Daruma doll showing a bearded meditator who had sat for so long that his arms and legs had fallen off!

It is, in fact, in the Platform Sutra that practitioners and scholars have looked for the origins of the radically new teachings of the Zen schools. This text is, according to Red Pine, the eight-century text that “has been the most studied, the most quoted, the most influential of all the texts that teach that branch of Mahayana Buddhism known as Zen.”

Liang Kai, The Sixth Patriarch Tearing a Sutra, Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), (Mitsu Memorial Museum, Japan)

The Platform Sutra is attributed to Huineng (638-713) who is, however, a rather obscure figure. He is described in the text as an illiterate “barbarian from the South” who attained enlightenment at the mere hearing of a verse of the Diamond Sutra as he was delivering firewood to a shopkeeper. Having joined Hongren’s monastery, he was sent to the milling room, where, for more than eight months he pedaled a millstone. Though not even a monk, following his success at a contest involving the composition of a poem about “what is truly important,” he secretly received from Hongren the robe as symbol of the patriarchship, thereby becoming the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen school. At the same time, he was told to run away and go into hiding.

In fact, we soon learn that Shenxiu – Hongren’s main disciple that Huineng had defeated in the contest – had in fact become Hongren’s successor in the Northern School, while Huineng was Hongren’s successor in the Southern School. Contemporary scholars have also established that Shenxiu and Huineng lived Hongren’s temple at different times! What we have here is a story obviously meant to validate the foundation of the Southern School. It is said that the Northern School held that enlightenment was the outcome of a gradual process, while the Southern School argued that it came about as a sudden realisation. It is, at least, how the Southern School, through the contrast between the two poems, describes the difference between the two schools. Whereas Shenxiu’s poem had stuck to the original definition of buddha-nature as a potential Buddhahood that needed to be developed, Huineng’s showed it to be synonymous with emptiness – ultimate reality – which, as such, is prajna (wisdom). Zen was not the only school moving in that direction. A mere century after the composition of the Platform Sutra, the Japanese Tendai and Shingon schools, likewise, rejected the gradual approach, still taught by the “official” Nara Schools, to introduce practices based on an originally enlightened reality seen as a cosmic Buddha that expounds the truth.

Hee-Jin Kim says that Dogen was an “ardent admirer of Huineng” and borrowed from him. The Platform Sutra is presented as a sermon on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra given by Huineng, sitting on a platform as was the tradition, to a large audience of monks and lay people, that was later compiled by Fahai, a direct disciple of Huineng, soon after his death. According to modern scholarship, however, the text was reworked over several decades, with contributions by the Oxhead school and Shenhui (684-758), also a direct disciple of Huineng. In fact, very little evidence of the historical life and thought of Huineng has been found outside the Platform Sutra.

The first eleven sections of the text cover Huineng’s personal history, including the events that led to his receiving the patriarchship, ending with what he had learned from Hongren, in the words of the Sutra: “I didn’t receive any instructions. The only thing he talked about was seeing our nature. He didn’t talk about meditation or liberation.’ [Why?] ‘Because these two teachings are not the teaching of buddhas. The teaching of buddhas is a teaching beyond duality.’ In the following sections, the text explains what is meant by this statement. It is the non-duality between meditation and prajna (wisdom). Prajna here refers to our inherently enlightened nature, merely concealed by the veil of our delusions, and just waiting to be uncovered. Red Pine comments: “Prajna means ‘before knowledge’, and knowledge,” (that is, the conceptual, dualistic knowledge elaborated by the intellect), “according to Mahayana, is just another name for delusion. Hence, prajna is our original mind, our mind before we know anything, before there is a person who knows or something known. This non-dual nature is our original nature, our buddha nature.”

In Chapter 13 of the Platform Sutra, one reads: “Good friends, this Dharma teaching of mine is based on meditation and wisdom. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that meditation and wisdom are separate … Meditation is the body of wisdom, and wisdom is the function of meditation. And wherever you find meditation, you find wisdom .… What this means is that meditation and wisdom are the same … Don’t think that meditation comes first and then gives rise to wisdom or that wisdom comes first and then gives rise to meditation.”Meditation is no longer seen as a means to attain enlightenment, it is, as such, the enacting of prajna, i.e., our inherently enlightened nature.

Chapter 14 refers to meditation as One Practice Samadhi, which “means at all times, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, always practicing with a straightforward [honest, sincere] mind … The Way has to flow freely. Why block it up? The Way flows freely when the mind doesn’t dwell on any dharma. Once it dwells on something, it becomes bound.” Though zazen in Japanese Zen monasteries is formally a seated meditation, this sitting is understood to be a preparation for the daily life practice as monks/nuns eat, wash, and engage in the multiple tasks of their everyday routine.

Red Pine (Bill Porter) – The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma
Red Pine – The Platform Sutra – The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng
Hee-Jin Kim – Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist

Huineng (Nanhai Guanyin Temple, in Foshan, Guangdong – China)