A Postcript on Faith

Hsin, the Chinese character for "faith" does not imply mere belief, but confidence that comes from firsthand experience.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that Dogen is one of the premier Buddhist teachers from the past. Not everyone has the same opinion, but that’s their problem.

One thing that I always find rather puzzling, though, is that even within the school Dogen founded, Soto Zen, it seems there is some resistance to, or exception taken with his notion that “just sitting” is the path to awakening, equal to enlightenment. I can’t believe that he meant it to be taken literally, but then I am no expert on Dogen’s teachings, and I’m not even a Zen Buddhist, so I may not know what I am talking about.

But I do know that early in his life, Dogen pondered this question: if one undertakes Buddhist practice with the hope of attaining enlightenment, then after one has achieved that goal why is it necessary to continue to practice? The answer he arrived at was that practice (zazen or meditation) and enlightenment were identical (shusho ichinyo, literally “practice and enlightenment are one’).

In the Introduction to “Moon in a Dewdrop”, a collection of Dogen’s writings, Kazuaki Tanahashi says,

There is a tendency to view enlightenment as separate from practice and to seek some splendid insight as the goal of Zen practice. Dogen teaches that this is an illusion. One must fully understand the wholeness of practice and enlightenment. Dogen describes this understanding as mastery of Buddhism or the “true dharma eye.” It is freedom from a dualistic frame of mind.

Enlightenment as actualization of buddha nature through practice is Dogen’s fundamental teaching. All his discourses are intended to help students “understand” the meaning of this practice-enlightenment. But understanding is not the final goal; continuous everyday practice is the ultimate goal.

Dogen was a Tendai priest so it is certainly reasonable to assume that the teachings of T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i had some influence on his thinking. In the  Fa-hua Hsuan-i or “Hidden Meaning of The Lotus Sutra”, Chih-i is quoted as saying, “No affairs of life or work are in any way apart from the ultimate reality.” He, in turn, was influenced by Nagarjuna, who wrote in the Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra, “The ultimately real nature of the knowledge of all forms (sarvakarajnata), the ultimately real nature of the tathagata, all this is one reality, not two, not divided. When the bodhisattva realizes this reality (tatha) he is called the Tathagata.”

Tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus gone.” Tatha refers to “suchness” which is “the undifferentiated whole of things, the ultimate reality, it is the nature of all things.” (Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms) A tathagata then is someone who has entered deeply into the realization of  ultimate nature. There is no separation between this reality and the individual or any activity carried out by any individual, and you can carry that to say that everything is enlightenment or as the Diamond Sutra says, “Everything is Buddha.”

Because reality does not exist in separate parts but is actually a cohesive whole, Dogen said that practice is enlightenment, and I think he well understood, as I mentioned previously, that enlightenment is not a destination,  it’s a process, a path itself. Dogen “repeatedly emphasizes the interpenetration of practice and enlightenment. ‘Practice’ here means ongoing daily activity centered in [meditation]. ‘Enlightenment’ is actualization of buddha nature through practice.” (Tanahashi)

How else can one actualize buddha nature if not by practice? Since it is an intuitive process, you can’t do it by reading a book, watching a video, listening to a podcast or even thinking about it.

In reference to yesterday’s post, we could say that, within Buddhism, faith is practice. This kind of faith is not a passive thing, it’s dynamic. “Just sitting” is not just sitting, for meditation is dynamic. For instance, if the results of the study I blogged about last week are to be believed, meditation changes our brain structures. That’s not just squatting on a cushion.

Going further, faith is enlightenment, if by faith we mean the trust and confidence that helps us maintain continuous everyday practice.  Unfortunately, words like faith come with a lot of baggage, which is why I am often inclined to use the Asian words for these terms. If we talk about shraddha, the Indian word, or the Chinese hsin (Jp.: shin), these are word-sounds that are new to our ears and not loaded with a lot of images that only fog up our minds and make it difficult to grasp a new understanding for an old word.

Buddhahood may seem to be a grand ideal or a goal far off on the horizon of the future, however, faith in Buddhism means understanding that it is only a mirage. Buddhahood exists nowhere else except where we are right now. Putting one’s “faith” into action means practicing, through which we uncover the awakened nature that we have always had, and through our continuous practice we are continually becoming Buddhas.


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