A Zen’s-Eye View: Enlightenment is not a goal — it is here and now

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Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji

In his essay, “Mountain and Rivers Sutra”, 13th century Zen master Dogen expresses something different from other Zen teachings of his day. He takes other teachers to task.

“Others have it wrong,” he says, “They are not seeing the wholeness of reality. They are seeing it only partially.” Dogen learned this from his Chinese teacher Rujing. He is not making it up.

The main difference from other medieval Zen teachings is that, for Dogen, Zen training is not a process with the goal of enlightenment. The Zen path does not go from ignorance to knowledge, from unenlightenment to enlightenment. Dogen saw Zen training as a practice, a way of living life fully every day. For Dogen, enlightenment is present in every single moment. It is not a special moment where you suddenly have an “aha” experience that you have been seeking. It is simply wholehearted participation in every moment, without anything left out. To Dogen, Zen practice is enlightenment and it’s happening right now. It isn’t something that happens later.

We are already enlightened; we just don’t know it. And because we don’t know it we live in way that is destructive and that cuts us off from true intimacy. We come by this alienation honestly. It’s in our education, our culture, our society and our families. It’s normal to have made the mistake of trying to add something to what is already here, but it is still a mistake.

In other words, Dogen believed that we have not appreciated what life actually is. Zen practice is nothing more than appreciating life as it is, and then living it fully every moment. But the culture of self-improvement conditions us to look for something we don’t already know or understand, to look beyond this moment for something that we don’t already possess. Because of this tendency, we are always looking at things with desire and expectation.

But Dogen says, “No. Right now, step inside our life and let go of all conceptual frameworks that alienate us from ourselves and each another. Just enter life right now. Feel the awesome presence of our senses, our bodies, our minds/hearts, and emotions. Feel how, right now, our human experience is literally awesome, and don’t look for something more to complete what is already complete.” But we don’t believe this and are always looking for something more that what we have — something that is missing.

This summarizes the unique approach to Zen that Dogen clearly expressed in “Mountains and River Sutra”. He is not saying that there is no path and no destination, but he is saying that the destination is at every point along the way. We are not marching through time to get to a destination because there are both path and destination in every moment.

Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, each time you first leave your house, stop for a moment, raise you eyes to the mountains that surround Creston and wonder at their perfection.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fishcher. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.