Dogen and the Nembutsu

While reading the Bendowa, a 13th-century Zen Buddhist text written by Dogen, I was struck by this statement:

Question 3: We understand that you have correctly transmitted the tathāgata’s excellent method and studied the tracks of the ancestors.  It is beyond the reach of ordinary thoughts.  However, reading the sūtras or chanting Buddha’s name [the nembutsu] of itself must be a cause of enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?

Which Dogen replies:

When right trust arises, you can practice and study. If not, you may wait for a while and regret that you have not received the benefaction of dharma from the past.

Also, do you understand the merit attained by the act of reading sūtras, chanting Buddha’s name,¹ and so on? It is hopeless to think that just moving the tongue and making a sound is meritorious Buddhist activity. If you regard these as the buddha’s teaching, the buddha’s teaching will be further and further away.

Actually, the meaning of studying sūtras is that if you understand and follow the rules of practice for sudden and gradual realization taught by the buddha, you will unmistakably attain enlightenment. In studying sūtras you should not expend thoughts in the vain hope that they will be helpful for attaining wisdom.

To try foolishly to reach the buddha way by the practice of chanting myriad times is just like trying to go to the southern country of Yue with your spear heading towards the north, or to fit a square post into a round hole.  To look at letters but be ignorant of the way of practice is just like a physician forgetting how to prescribe medicine; what use can it be?  People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever.  Even worse off are those who, deluded by name and gain, cannot give up such practices, because their greed for gain is so deep.  There were such people in the past.  Are there not even more?  What a pity, indeed!

(Pg. 148, Moon In A Dewdrop, trans. by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Reading this gives me mixed feelings. Dogen makes a valid point in that just repeating sounds over and over is no real way to Enlightenment. Afterall, if it were that easy, we’d see it taught over and over again in the earliest scriptures, and yet we don’t.

Also, I see where Dogen is coming from in that the real value in Buddhist scripture (sūtra) is providing guidance on Buddhist practice. In other words a means to an end, not the end itself. Interestingly, unlike some of the more unconventional Zen monks of the past, Dogen taught the importance of the sutras because he felt they were in accord with the Buddha’s teachings.  He even revered the Lotus Sutra as show in the previous link.

However, Dogen’s focus was on the primacy of practice, and for him the only true practice was seated meditation.  Anything else in Buddhism was clearly intended to be a supportive role.  Honen had a very similar approach, though ironically replacing meditation with the recitation of the Buddha’s name:¹

If one cannot practice nembutsu as a monk, one should take a wife and recite nembutsu.  On the contrary, if cannot practice nembutsu with a wife, one should recite nembutsu as a monk.  If staying in one place makes nembutsu possible, go on a pilgrimage and recite nembutsu.  Conversely, if nembutsu is difficult on a pilgrimage, stay in one place and recite nembutsu…. (pg. 318, The Promise of Amida Buddha: Honen’s Path to Bliss, trans. by Joji Atone)

Both monks, also ironically both ex-members of the Tendai sect, treated practice as the most important thing, and that all other aspects of one’s life should support this, even if they totally disagreed on which practice was the best.

¹ The nembutsu, or chanting the Buddha’s name, was central to the Pure Land Buddhist movement that started in the 12th century under Honen, a couple generations before Dogen was born, and still remains overwhelmingly the most popular Buddhist branch in Japan.


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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