Zen and Ethics: Dogen's Synthesis

Douglas A.Fox

Vol.21 No.1



Philosophy East and West

Copyright @ 1971 by Philosophy East and West

. p.33 Japanese Buddhism has been enriched by the lives of a goodly number of dynamic, perceptive, often dramatic and sometimes erratic saints. I think there is little doubt that the most gifted mind among them was that of Doogen Kigen, who lived in the first half of the thirteenth century. The son of a notable family (his mother was descended from the Fujiwara clan) , Doogen enjoyed a sound literary education. He began to devote his attention to Buddhism nevertheless while still very young. In 1223 he sailed to China, like many another young monk, to pursue his studies and his quest for understanding, and he remained there for about four years, So far there is nothing remarkable or unusual in his story, but a fact which does distinguish him from most religious pilgrims is that he returned to his homeland eventually without a collection of exotic religious artifacts to flourish, yet with a profound apprehension of the meaning of Zen and a gentle zeal to share widely and freely what he had discovered. Doogen is frequently referred to today as the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, which is entirely accurate but, at the same time, a little ironic. He did not wish to be thought of as sectarian; he had truths which he regarded as Buddhist rather than merely Zennist, and he ardently advocated a method for seeking enlightenment which, he felt, was the prerogative of all Buddhists and not merely adherents of Soto. His.method was preeminently zazen (his way is sometimes called the way of "zazen-only"). He felt that the cross-legged position in which one sits for zazen represented the ideal unity of body and mind and was in itself, fherefore, a step toward the realization of the unity of all things. Doogen fourided the Eiheiji temple of the Soto sect in Echizen Province, and this remains a center of the sect just as his method and his spirit remain the heart of Soto to this day. But his importance transcends his influence in Soto, and he can reasonably be claimed as the greatest intellectual figure in Japanese Zen. It is, consequently, a grave deficiency that very little of his writing has been published in European languages and that there are few secondary sources available to Western scholars. which do justice to his life or thought. At the end of this essay is appended a bibliography of materials fairly readily available. The very brevity of this list should be regarded as a cry for help! Doogen's great work the Shooboogenzoo is without question one of Buddhism's finest treasures. It deals with a wide range of subjects, but in a style which at times almost defies translation, or even comprehension. The title of the work itself, for instance, is formidable. Rather literally it seems to mean something like "The Correct Dharma Eye Storage," and attempts to rephrase it meaningfully include such suggestions as "A Treasury of the (Mind's) Eye of the True Dharma," "A Treasury of Knowledge Regarding the True Dharma," and "The Principles of a Correct Understanding of the Dharma." p.34 In any case, the purpose of the present paper is to take one section of this work (that entitled Shoakumakusa) which is concerned with a Zen approach to ethics and to see how Doogen relates the typical Zen subjectivism and Mahaayaana ontology to two primary ethical questions: Whence comes value? and What is the relation of being and doing? I must acknowledge at the outset that I am indebted for my translation of Doogen's material, as well as for much else, to Professor Hiroshi Sakamoto of Otani University.(l) Two qualities distinguish Doogen's intellectual life. The first is a profound dedication to the experience of dhyaana, the gathering and intensifying of one's mental powers in acute concentration, and the second is that eager spirit of inquiry which typifies the outstanding philosopher. His work constantly demontrates the interrelation of these two forces, and the chief target of both is the discovery,.experience and, so far as this is possible, the discussion of what he sometimes calls the "Unborn," or, in more familiar Mahaayaana terminology, the dharmakaaya or 'sunyataa, or one of their synonyms. Let us begin, then, by briefly specifying whatever can be specified about this Unborn which he.seeks,and which he presents as his basic metaphysical and ethical concept. In another part of the Shooboogenzoo--the section called Busshoo--Doogen says, "all being is the Buddha-nature. A part of all being we call 'sentient beings.' Within and without these sentient beings there is the-sole being of the Buddhanature."And this Buddha-nature is, to use Western terms, the Absolute Reality which persists behind the mists of our deluded egotism and of the ephemeral world of transient and particular realities. When all that is illusion is gone; this is what remains; when all that can die is dead, this is what survives; when all false meanings are dispelled this is the Truth. A later Japanese Zennist, Bankei (1622-1693), using the phrase "Buddha-mind" where Doogen might have used "Buddha-nature," echoes lucidly the sentiment of Doogen when he says: "What everyone of you received from your parents is none other than the Buddha-mind, and this mind has never been born and is in a most decided manner full of wisdom and illumination. As it is never born, it never dies.... The Buddha-mind is unborn, and by this unborn Buddha-mind all things are perfectly well managed."(2) This Absolute, call it what you will, is clearly immortal. But for Doogen, it is not its failure to die that is decisive, but its failure to be born, for birth and death are really inseparable, and when birth has occurred not only 1 Passages quoted herein from Doogen are taken from a rather tentative translation designed as a basis for discussion rather than for publication. The edition of the Skooboogenzoo on which they are based is the Iwanami-bunko edition of 1939, edited by Professor Sokuo Etoo of Komazawa University. The chapter under discussion, Shoakumakusa, occupies pages 147-157 in this text. 2 D. T. Suzuki, Sayings of Bankei (Tokyo, 1941),p.33. p.33. p.35 is death inevitable, but birth is always birth into the illusion of separate identity, of egotism, of erroneous discrimination. So our only refuge from the Angst which is the inescapable consequence of false discrimination is to find a Truth which is itself beyond even birth. The Ultimate Truth, the ground of our being, is that Reality or Absolute which we may call by many names, but which Doogen often likes to call simply the Unborn. Here, then, is Doogen's basic metaphysical principle or entity. It must be recognized that this Unborn is not a static "something" unmoved and unmoving. It is dynamic. That which is born is, in some sense, the self-expression of that which is not. Yet this is, perhaps, a somewhat misleading way of putting the matter because to speak of things as the self-expression or the manifestation of the Unborn may suggest that we are referring to some tangible substance or essence which crops up in various shapes. Rather, the truth is that particularity really exists,and has existed from time immemorial, even though all particular things are transient. All such particular, transitory existence is finally not other than the dharmakaaya or Absorute, yet the Absolute is not divided. We have, however this fractures logic, to affirm at once both that particularity exists and that nevertheless one thing alone is real-the Uriborn Absolute. In any case, the Unborn is the ground not only of being but of becoming, and therefore of all endeavor including ethics and morality, and for the sake of convenience we shall continue to speak metaphorically of these and all particular things or events as its self-expression. Here, then, is a very basic presupposition which we must keep in mind as we proceed to look briefly at some aspects of Doogen's moral philosophy. Doogen begins the chapter-of the Shooboogenzoo we are considering by quoting a familiar passage which occurs in several places throughout the Buddhist scriptures: The Buddha said, Do not commit evil; Do good devotedly; Purify your mind. This is the precept of all Buddhas. Having stated his text, so to speak, Doogen next isolates the first part of it- "Do not commit evil"--and begins to expound its meaning at some length. He does the same, subsequently, for each section of the verse, but we shall have space only to consider his treatment of this first line. Since this, however, will produce the essence of his view about the questions we have in mind, we can be satisfied. Every Buddha, it seems, has left us this injunction against evil. On the face of it, it seems both a trivial and imprecise command and suggests the image of the faithful Buddhist as a sort of simpleminded Oriental Puritan preoccupied p.36 with the negative function of avoiding whatever orthodoxy disapproves. Doogen, however, sees this injunction in quite a different way. It is important not because it is a piece of good, if pedestrian, advice but because it is pregnant with ontological illumination. To put the matter briefly, "Commit no evil" is the self-expression of the Unborn, and the practice of it is the Unborn itself in action. He says, "This 'Do not commit evil' is not something contrived by any mere man. It is the Bodhi (the Supreme Enlightenment) turned into words.... It is the (very) speaking of Enlightenment." The significance of this is that the Enlightenment spoken of here cannot be separated from Ultimate Reality itself. It is an important Mahaayaana understanding that the Absolute and the knowing of the Absolute are identical--the knowing and the being are one. Consequently, to say that "Do not commit evil" is the very speech of Bodhi means that it is the self-expression of the Absolute. Having established this, Doogen goes on: "Being moved by the Supreme Enlightenment one learns to aspire to commit no evil, to put this injunction into practice, and as one does so the practice-power emerges which covers all the earth, all wortds, a11 time, and a11 existences without remainder." To understand this important sentence it is essential to realize that for Doogen the "practice-power," that is, the power by which a man performs what is good and attains enlightened urideystanding is not simply the power of the individual ego, the sort of thing a man boasts of as his "willpower." It is, rather, the Bodhi-power or Dharma-power, the Absolute itself conceived as power. While our last quotation,therefore, is rather unclear, it seems to mean that the practice-power which is manifested as the Buddhist applies himself to avoiding evil (the power not to do evil) and the injunction not to do evil are united. "Do not commi, evil" is, in a sense, the verbal self-expression of the Absolute and jts fuifillment is the active self-expression of the same.Absolute. Doogen goes on: "The just man at precisely the moment(of the practicepower emerging) is the one in whom we see that no evils will ever be committed, even if he appears to visit a place full of the temptation to evil, or to meet a situation fraught with seduction to evil, or to have friendly contact with evil doers." That is to say, this man is now free from the power of evil and free for good because the power of the Truth (the Dharma-power), the Ab- solute conceived as power, finds expression in him and even as him. He does not merely know truth, he is Truth and consequently does Truth, which is to say that he inevitably does no evil. In short, Doogen's insight overcomes the false dualism of word and deed: the command to perform and the power to perform are essentially identical, and this unity of performance and command is rooted in the Unborn. Doogen's way of putting this is picturesque: a pine-tree in spring is neither non-existent nor existent, but it is (absolutely) the "do not commit"; a chrysanthemum in autumn is neither existent nor non- p.37 existent, but it is (absolutely) "do not commit"; Buddhas are neither existent nor non-existent, but they are the "do not commit"; a pillar, a lattern, a brush, a stick are none of them existent or non-existent, but (absolutely) "do not commit"; one's own self is neither existent nor non-existent, but (absolutely) "do not commit." What is meant here, of course, is that a pine tree, for example, should be seen not as a natural object only, but more importantly as the "do not commit," that is, as another manifestation of that same ultimate which is the reality of both the command not to commit evil and the power to obey it. In other words, particularity, as we find it in the command, and in the power to act, and in a pine tree, and a chrysanthemum and so on indefinitely is, even while it is genuine particularity, nevertheless the Absolute. Particularity has existed from beginningless time, yet it is also true that the dharmakaaya or Unborn encompasses all particularities in such a way that, while not destroying them, it is itself not divided by them. All this raises the trite sentence "Do not commit evil" to a new and surprising level of complexity and importance. It is not merely a rule, a Buddhist Boy Scout motto; it is the way that "that which eternally is" expresses' its character, and therefore I must consider myself in some degree of alienation. from Truth and Reality, bound in some measure to illusion, while it is ever a self-conscious struggle on my part to obey. "Do not commit evil" must become my subjectivity; it must not remain an externally imposed rule. When it is truly my subjectivity and my true self, then my self is no longer that separate finite ego of which I once boasted, but is none other than the Unborn, the Absolute, the Eternal Truth. Doogen resorts to a metaphor to illustrate the nature of the transformation we undergo in the process he is discussing. He says, "Just as the Buddhahood-seed grows by favorable conditions,so the (very) favorableness of those favorable conditions derives from the Buddhahood-seed." That is, the subjectivizing of the "Commit no evil"can be likened to the growth within us of the seed of true Buddhahood, and this seed, the favorable conditions for its growth, and the process of growth are all alike the Unborn. Among the "favorable conditions" for this growth of the Buddha-seed within us is, of course, the diligent practice of Doogen's beloved zazen. But now we come to what seems at first to be a considerable dilemma. All that has been said so far points to an ontology which might best be described as "dynamic" monism. Buddhists are rather inclined to reserve the term "monism" for Indian thought concerning Brahman, and since they, at least, understand this in a very static way--Brahman is always pictured in Japanese writing as utterly unmoved, a sort of unchanging block--they prefer not to associate their own highly dynamic Absolute with the term "monism." But monist in some respects (or at least nondualistic) it surely is, even though it is anything but static and however it embraces all the changes and emergences of p.38 our temporal and relative sphere. However, if Doogen's ontology is not dualistic, must it not follow that the "evil" which one is not to do either does not exist or is as much the character of the Absolute as the good we are to do? In a rather diffcult passage Doogen says: "Examining the problems of the evil referred to, three kinds of disposition are to be distinguished: the good, the evil and the neutral. The evil is (indeed) one of them. Nevertheless, the evil disposition is, as much as the good and the neutral, in its essence birthless. They are all birthless, immaculate and finally real." Hiroshi Sakamoto interprets this as meaning that the Unborn is the reality of all that is. Consequently, when a mind turns to evil, even that by which and with which it does evil (its energies and so on) must be the Unborn. Not only the good but also the evil disposition is birthless, and consequently in its true and essential nature it is "immaculate." Its quality as "evil," then, is not finally, decisively, or ontologically alien to the Absolute Reality,but (and here I take leave of Professor Sakamoto) may perhaps be thought of metaphorically as karmic dust which adheres to the disposition and blurs its reflection of the Unborn. If this is too dualistic an image, its "evilness" may be considered to.be so only relatively and within the realm-of our present relative existence, but not to be evil in that finally Real realm which is the Absolute itself.'Perhaps Fit could be said that the Unborn "maketh even the wrath of man to praise him!" Possibly Doogen himself can help us to see more clearly what he means. In another passage he says: "We have a truth which declares:'one twisting, one letting loose.' At the very moment of the practice-power's emergence (in us), the truth that evil does not violate man is recognized, and at the same time the truth that man does not destroy, that which is the essential nature of the evil is also realized." The.phrase "one twisting, one letting loose" is probably an epigrammatic way of pointing to the law of causation. Every twisting is followed by a letting loose. Every act has a consequence. So, in the moment when the Dharma-power, that is, the Unborn as the power-to do the good, emerges in us we come to know, as a consequence, that what we formerly did as evil actually did not damage that which we truly are--the Unborn-and that our doing good, while it destroys the form of evil or the appearance of evil in this transient world of shadows, does not destroy that which is in the ground of the evil as well as the good--again, the Unborn. To recapitulate a little before pressing on to our conclusion: the great Absolute, void of all distinctions and oppositions, 'suunyataa, the Buddha-nature, the Buddha-mind or whatever synonym we choose to employ, is the Real, the finally unborn and undying ground of all that appears in the temporal and particularized level of our mundane existence. Here is the ground of the injunction to do good, and here is the power to fulfill the injunction, and both are one. And here, too, is the reality of each piece of human existence. This does not p.39 mean that the Unborn fragments itself and that you and I are respectively pieces of it; in its essence it remains undivided, and it "expresses itself" as you and as me. Consequently, to be enlightened is to know yourself as the Absolute; but it is also to know, quite paradoxically, that I, too, am the Absolute and that the story of our relationship at this relative level is, as D. T. Suzuki puts it, a story about the interpenetration of Absolutes. This means that the evil we do to each other is what the strange blindness and ignorance of one manifestation of the Absolute does to another, yet at the supraempirical level the Absolute is not damaged. By ignoring logic, which can never be adequate to grasp and express the truth, the Buddhist of Doogen's stamp can, then, affirm at once the inviolability of Reality in its Absoluteness, and the relative reality of the evil and ignorance of particular men. And since what matters is that enlightenment should break out throughout the relative and empirical level and not that evil should be recompensed and punished, it follows that while we must ever operate at this empirical level, our obligation is not merely to do good in an amorphous fashion, but especially to do good which will provoke the awakening of our fellows. The need-especially but not exclusively for enlightenment-of our fellows is the root of our ethical behavior, and therefore ethical theory may never be legalistic, reduced to a fixed Program of rules and regulations, but must be contextual and flexible. Doogen criticizes the rigidity of Hiinayaana ethics for this reason and remarks, ("a 'Sraavaka's abiding by the 'Sila (ethical norm) might-in some cases be replaced for the bodhisattva by the violation of the same 'Sila." The Mahaayaanist is coommonly inclined to see the Hiinayaanist as bound by the letter of the law, while he himseIf is bound by karunaa,compassion, which often means the transcending or suspension of the law. In conclusion, then, we see in Doogen a skillful attempt to relate Zen subjectivism and Mahaayaana ontology to some primary questions of ethics:Whence comes value? and What is the relation of being and doing? As the Zennist seeks the Absolute within himself, so Doogen places the ground of ethics, the "Commit no evil" and the power to obey, within us, for both are really one, the Absolute itself. It is in this essentially Absolute nature of whatever is that the values which must find expression as the "good" of out lives arise. And when the "Commit no evil" has fully become our subjectivity--that is, when we have overcome the illusion that our irrevocable and unique particularity is the final Truth-we know that there is no distinction in essence between being and doing: the command and its fulfillment are one, the unborn and undying Truth: This is why the fully awakened man acts without hesitation, naturally and spontaneously. There is no barrier of self-conscious reflection between the stimulus and his response. His acting is his being, and he needs no puzzled intermission between the impulse and the act. p.40 A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY OF DOOGEN MATERIAL IN ENGLISH 1. Primary source material Anesaki, Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion Rutland, Vt. and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963. A few verses on page 208. Chan, Wing-tsit, et al. The Great Asian Religions. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1969, pp. 284-288. Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. A short section on "Being and Time" from the Shooboogenzoo is included. Masunaga, Reihoo. The Soto Approach to Zen. Tokyo: Layman Buddhist Society Press, n.d. Contains primary as well as secondary material. Stryk, Lucien, ed. World of the Buddha. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968. Some verses and a sermon. 2. Secondary material Anesaki, Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion. Rutland, Vt. and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963. Bapat, P. V., ed. 2500Years of Buddhism. Delhi: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1959. Dumoulin, Heinrich. A History of Zen Buddhism. Translated by Paul Peachey. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. Ejo, Koun. Shooboogenzoo Zuimonki. Lecture notes by a pupil of Doogen; available in a cheaply duplicated form from some Zen temples. Eliot, Sir Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1935. Iino, Norimoto. "Doogen's Zen View of Interependence." Philosophy East and West ¢, no. 1 (Apr. 1962), 51-57. Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religion in Japanese History. New York:Columbia University Press, 1966. Moore, Charles A., ed. The Japanese Mind. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1967. XX. Philosophy and Culture East and West. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1962. XX. Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1964. Ross, Nancy Wilson. Three Ways of Asian Wisdom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966. p.41 Saunders, E. Dale. Buddhism in Japan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964. Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1959. Tsunoda, Ryusaku; de Bary, William T.; and Keene, Donald, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.