Just Focus On That One Thing

Lately, I’ve been reading a translation of the Bendowa, a 13th-century text written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen (1200-1253).  The Bendowa is comparatively short, compared to other longer texts that he wrote later, but it contains a lot of nuggets of wisdom that I have enjoyed sharing in the blog (here and here for example).

One of the important themes of the Bendowa is the primacy of Buddhist practice.  Dogen frequently criticizes those who study Buddhism but never actually do any practices.  For example here:

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 under a correct teacher, and actualize the self-fulfilling samadhi of all buddhas. (pg 148-149, Moon in a Dewdrop, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi)

This reminded me of some words I had posted in the past here on the blog.  For example in this old post, I talked about sustaining a practice long enough to reach fruition, like applying steady heat to boil water.

But what practice?

Another Zen master, Hakuin (1686-1786), wrote a letter to a Nichiren-Buddhist nun:

At any rate, nothing surpasses the casting aside of all the myriad circumstances and devoting oneself to recitation [of the o-daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra: namu-myoho-renge-kyo].

Yet Hakuin cautions:

But do not adhere to the one-sided view that the title of the Sutra alone will be of benefit. This applies as well to the Shingon and Pure Land schools. The followers of the Pure Land, by the power of the concentrated recitation of the Buddha’s name, resolving to see once the Pure Land of their own minds and the wondrous form of Amida Buddha in their own bodies, give rise to a valiant great aspiration, and devote themselves ceaselessly to the recitation of the name, as fervently as though they were dousing flames on their own heads. Is there any reason that they should not see the form of the Buddha, who is spoken of as not being far off, the trees of the seven treasures, and the pond of the eight virtues? The followers of Shingon, by the mysterious power of the dharani resolving to see without fail the great Sun Disc of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A, give rise to a great aspiration to persevere, just as in Zen one koan is taken up and concentrated upon. Is there any reason that they should not polish and bring out the true form of the Diamond indestructible that Koya Daishi has described as “[attaining enlightenment] without being reborn in a new body”?

Hakuin’s point I think is that not even steady practice is enough.  The aspiration is what really counts.  If you work up the right resolve, the practice becomes a means toward that end, and in time you will see the fruition of your practice.

But how do you work up the resolve?  This is where things like studying the sutras, and the writings of past masters, visiting various temples, and looking for other inspirations really come in handy.  Dogen’s warning is right: simply studying in an intellectual capacity isn’t enough, but at the same time, it is sometimes helpful to get support from other Buddhist sources.  But the important thing to bear in mind is why you’re doing it.

Best of luck to my fellow Buddhists out there!

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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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