In the 13th century, a Japanese Buddhist monk named Eihei Dogen traveled to China to search for the truth. He discovered a teacher there who emphasized zazen above all else, and in studying with him Dogen found the resolution to his personal koan. Dogen then traveled back to Japan to share what he had learned, and although he generally eschewed sectarianism, we call the school of Zen that descends from him “Soto.”
Three years after his return from China, Dogen still hadn’t established a monastery. However, some students, lay and monastic, had begun to gather around him and ask for his teaching. In response, in 1231, Dogen composed an essay he called “Bendowa,” or “On the Endeavor of the Way.” In the text, the Zen master explains how he hoped to spread the teaching he got in China and thereby save sentient beings, but he was waiting until the time was ripe to establish a community and a monastic order. However, he says, so current students won’t be led astray in the meantime, he was composing Bendowa, saying, “I wish to leave for students of the way the teaching of the buddha’s house. This is indeed the essence.”
So Bendowa is, in a nutshell, Dogen introducing Japanese students to Soto Zen. In it, he addresses many questions his students naturally had for him, including Soto Zen’s position on whether the nature of mind is permanent, the importance of following moral precepts, the feasibility of lay practice, and why practice is necessary at all if, as some forms of Buddhism say, “Mind itself is Buddha.”
The most central question Dogen answers with Bendowa, not surprisingly, is why he emphasizes zazen above all else. In other words, why is zazen such a big deal in Soto Zen? One actual question recorded in Bendowa asks, “reading sutras or chanting Buddha’s name of itself must be a cause for enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?”
Dogen responds, “If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great method, is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing, you will be one who slanders the Great Vehicle. Your delusion will be deep – like saying there is no water when you are in the middle of the great ocean.”
Yikes! That’s quite a vehement response! And yet what Zen student hasn’t wondered to themselves, at times, “What am I doing sitting here?” At least in Rinzai Zen they do koan introspection, but in Soto we’re just suppose to sit in shikantaza and do nothing at all! How do you even go about that? How do you know if you’re doing it right? If you do it right, does something happen?
Part of the whole process of shikantaza, honestly, is to wrestle with these very questions. There is no end to the depth of zazen, which is simply Being itself. Any “doing,” any struggle at all, misses the mark, but on the other hand, when we’re truly sitting zazen we know why Dogen says it’s deluded and preposterous to think zazen is just sitting uselessly and doing nothing. In the absence of any struggle at all, this seamless moment is profound beyond description and tends to bring a tear to the eye.
It’s a mystery when we try to understand how It all works, but only because we’re trying to grasp It with our discriminating mind. When, instead, our whole body-mind meets It, it’s as obvious as knowing whether water is hot or cold when we drink it (another metaphor from later in Bendowa).
Do you have a taste of this, or not? If so, going forward is just a matter of deepening in your faith. If not, it’s best to hold this teaching with gentle, nonjudgmental curiosity. Elsewhere, Dogen calls zazen “the Dharma Gate of joyful ease,” and you aren’t going to get there through struggle or a sense of inadequacy. The only thing that needs to be done is to drop your preconceived ideas and you’ll instantly see why zazen is such a big deal.
Still, practice isn’t easy. Isn’t it comforting to know that Zen students in 1231 struggled with the exact same questions we do?