A Zen’s-Eye View: Enlightenment is nothing special

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Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji

In his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, Eihei Dogen, a 13th century Zen monk, lists several ways of understanding the Zen teachings. He presents three traditional approaches to understanding. The first phrase he discusses in this paragraph is “turning circumstances and turning the mind.”

Zen teachers before Dogen said that what we need to do is “turn circumstances and turn the mind” rather than allowing circumstances of daily life and thoughts that arise in mind to turn us. But Dogen says no, that’s not it; that’s not what the Buddha taught.

In his next sentence he refers to a teaching that many Zen masters of his day emphasized, “seeing into mind and seeing into essence.” These words are a translation of the Japanese word, kensho, or enlightenment experience. “Buddhas grumble when you idealize enlightenment,” says Dogen. Only people who know nothing about Zen would say this. Nothing could be more harmful than teaching the dharma this way.

Here, Dogen denies the common view of Zen practice that he encountered when he travelled to China to train with the Chinese masters. At that time in China many Zen teachers emphasized the enlightenment experience. We still see this today in the pop spirituality movements that encourage us to imagine that we can attend a workshop to have an enlightenment that will free us from suffering. “This is not the Buddha dharma,” says Dogen.

Finally he says, “Confined words and phrases do not lead to liberation.” Here he is referring to the popular Zen practice of studying koans, teaching stories about the realizations of past Zen teachers. Dogen is denying that the powerful insights that come from koan study lead to liberation. With these words he wipes away everything that previous Zen teachers have taught and has us sitting on the edge of our seats. If those three ways of practice don’t free us, what do?

Dogen answers our question. “There is something free from all of these views. Green mountains are always walking and eastern mountains travel on water.”

This is astonishing. He is telling us that the answer to the mystery is a poetic phrase. In effect he is saying, “When I say green mountains are always walking and eastern mountains travel on water, I am not talking about all this other stuff. I’m not using Zen phrases in the same way, and you must study this in detail.

In other words, setting up a Zen phrase or enlightenment experiences as more important than an ordinary phrase or ordinary living is a mistake that leads to all kinds of goal seeking, hierarchies and harmful dynamics. He doesn’t deny that there is a transcendent and powerful life full of gratitude, but that life is no other than the one we are living in this very moment, right here.

Suggested practice: In the next two weeks, notice the various ways in which you look to the future to bring you lasting happiness. Then see true happiness right here, right now.

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 Fischer. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.

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