A Look At The Bendowa

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in months that wasn’t super busy with holiday events, friends, family, kids’ birthday parties, etc. So on that quiet afternoon, I mindlessly thumbed through books at home, including one called Moon In A Dewdrop which is a translation of various writings by Dōgen (道元 1200-1253), the founder of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Japan.

Dogen has never been particularly interesting to me for some reason, but the pages I was flipping through happened to be one of his early writings called the Bendōwa (弁道話,¹ “On the Endeavor of the Way”) which was written 1231, four years after returning from China but before he had become established.

The Bendowa is not a particularly long document but it is an interesting one. In it, he introduces the practice of zazen and demonstrates how it is superior to other Buddhist practices in Japan at the time.  First he talks about his intentions in returning to Japan (all translations by Kazuaki Tanahashi):

Then at the beginning of the Shaoding Era [1228-35] of Great Song [Dynasty], I came back to Japan with the hope of spreading the teaching and saving sentient beings—a hreavy burden on my shoulders. However, I will put aside the intention of having the teaching prevail everywhere until the occasion of a rising tide….Yet there may be true students who are not concerned with fame and gain and who allow their thoughts of enlightenment to guide them, and they may be confused by incapable teachers and obstructed from the correct understanding….Because I feel concerned for them, I would like to record the standards of Zen monasteries which I personally saw and heard in Great Song as well as the profound principle which has been transmitted by my master. I wish to leave for students of the way the teaching of the buddha’s house. (pg. 144)

Later, Dogen asserts the importance of the teacher-student relationship, rather than relying on doctrines and words:

Just understand that when a master who has attained the way with a clear mind correctly transmits to a student who has merged himself with realization, then the inconceivable dharma of the Seven Buddhas, in its essence, is actualized and maintained.  This cannot be known by monks who study words.  Therefore stop your doubt, practice zazen [sitting meditation] under a correct teacher and actualize the self-fulfilling samādhi of all buddhas. (pg. 148-149)

Apparently the term “self-fulfilling samādhi” (自受用三昧, jijuyū zanmai) is a term that Dogen used often in his writings. This refers to a state of samādhi, or serene, settled, concentration, that the Buddhas enjoy and find contentment in.

Afterwards, the bulk of a the Bendowa is a long series of questions and answers.  Some are short and pithy:

Question 8: Various teachers who went to Tang China spread the scriptural teaching in Japan in the past, and they introduced the teaching here.  Why did they ignore a practice such as you have described and introduce only scriptural teaching?

Answer: The reason why these ancient teachers did not introduce this practice is that the time was not yet ripe.

Question 9: Did those masters in ancient times understand this teaching?

Answer: If they had understood it, it would have spread. (pg. 152-153)

He later asserts the importance of observing the Buddhist precepts on wholesome conduct too:

Answer [Question 11]: Holding to the precepts and pure actions is the rule of the Zen Gate and the teaching of the buddha ancestors.  Even those who have not yet received the precepts or have broken the precepts can still receive the benefit of zazen.  (pg. 154)

He also answers a question on the concept of Dharma Decline (末法, mappō):²

Question 15: Can we attain realization if we practice, even in this last age of decline?

Answer: In the scriptural schools they explain various names and aspects, but in the true Mahāyāna [Buddhist] teachings dharma is not divided into periods of truth, imitation, and decline.  Instead, it is taught that everyone attains the way by practice.  Particularly in this correctly transmitted teachings of zazen, you are enriched with the treasure of yourself, entering the dharma and leaving bondage behind.  Those who practice know whether realization is attained or not, just as those who drink water know whether it is hot or cold. (pg. 156)

I hope to write more on the Bendowa, but this is a sample of the writings.  You can find various translations online, but this translation is quite readable and enjoyable.

Hope you enjoy too!

¹ If you look at English sources, they often use the really old Chinese characters for the Bendowa (辨道話), but if you look on Japanese sources, they use the more modern versions (弁道話).  I prefer the modern version of the sake of readability.

² Buddhist sects in Japan at the time were deeply divided over the issue of Dharma Decline, first elucidated in an obscure sutra called the Sutra of the Great Assembly.  Pure Land and Nichiren sects took Dharma Decline literally and formulated their teachings and practices as the last resort, the only viable teaching left in such an era so far removed from the historical Buddha.  As you can see Dogen took a different view.  Other sects in Japan sort of ran across the spectrum, and sometimes it varied by teacher too.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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