January 26, 2023 [books] #reviews #zen

Book: Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dōgen's Bendōwa
Author: Dōgen, Commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

Bendōwa is one of the two early texts Dōgen wrote after his return from China in 1227. This very short treatise emphatically rejects everything other than zazen as central message and practice of Buddhism. After the introduction, there are a series of questions followed by answers. Sometimes Dōgen can be insulting, and I found these put-downs outright hilarious.

“Reading literature while ignoring the way of practice is like a person reading a prescription but forgetting to take the medicine; what is the benefit? Continuously uttering sounds like frogs in a spring rice paddy croaking day and night is also ultimately worthless.”

Or consider this:

“Although it is said that one should not relate dreams to fools and it is useless to give oars to mountain folks, I will give you further instruction.”

Was this a common pedagogical style in Japan back then? It’s always interesting to see references to India and its geography - “In the Western Heaven…people are inherently straight forward”. The River Ganges is mentioned without further elaboration, which means both Dōgen and other monks and laypeople in 13th century Japan were at least a little familiar with the river, and its significance in India.

Most of the book is a commentary on Bendōwa by the 20th century Sōtō Zen priest, Kosho Uchiyama. This commentary on an established religious text is similar to the other tradition I am most familiar with, that of 20th century Advaita teachers commenting on Shankaracharya or Ramanuja or Bhakti Sutras. There is a mixture of apologetics, elaboration and the necessity of faith in Buddha-dharma to address some of the ills of modernity. Zen as explained by Uchiyama is also very similar to Shankara's Advaitic non-duality, which itself arose in oppositon to Buddhism. It's fascinating to me that East Asian Buddhists and Vedantists agree on the nondual worldview.

“All beings exist through life experience of the self. The self lives out itself in the life experience of all beings. The life experience of the self and the myriad beings that we experience are one. This is the reality of life. The life experience of the self and the life experience of all beings can never separate into subject and object. That which experiences and that which is experienced cannot be divided into two.”

Uchiyama repeatedly emphasizes that the practice is the point. Enlightenment is just zazen, and not a state that you encounter suddenly after sitting for some time or by listening to Zen koans. You must construct your life around sitting. There is a reality beyond the conceptual mind, before dividing into good or bad, delusion or enlightenment. Zazen is no good if you want to become an improved person - kinder, more productive and such. You cannot see this reality by reading about it. It takes years of practice. He recommends sitting for at least 10 years. This message has been persuasive to many people in the West. Uchiyama’s books are one of the most recommend books on Zen practice. If you are into Zen or Buddhism, I suppose this will deepen your practice in the same way that Yoga Sutras will for yoga practitioners. In other words, svādhyāya.

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