A Zen’s-Eye View: Zen teaching has no special truth

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In Zen we have no special truth, no transcendent understanding that no one else has. All we have is our life, and full engagement with it. That is the only truth we have, and it is the same truth that everybody else has. When we enter Zen practice, we enter our lives as deeply as we can, more deeply than we did before we found Zen, because practice heals our lives. In his essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen makes it clear that it’s been that way since the beginning, and that the Zen ancestors lost their way when they started setting up a special Zen understanding and Zen truth.

Even now, people make the same mistake. They set up a Zen master as someone who has a unique understanding. They imagine that a Zen teacher has realized something they haven’t. But to think that way is to deny what the Buddha taught. When Buddha sat under that Bodhi tree and entered enlightenment, he realized that there is only this miniscule point in time and space, and it is unspeakably wise, beautiful and healing. There is nothing special about it. And he taught that everyone has their own amazing miniscule point in time and space. Buddha wasn’t thinking that his experience was special. When he taught, he was trying to describe what he experienced.

When we first read Zen stories, we think they are illogical and that they transmit a special truth. But Dogen tells us that they are not illogical. He agrees that they are hard to understand, but there is a way to understand them — not in our usual way of understanding, but in another way that uses language differently. And this other way is transformative.

Dogen also says that we can never come to the end of understanding the Buddha’s teachings. In Zen there is no equivalent to the Apostles’ Creed that dictates what we must believe to be true. Truth in Zen is beyond doctrine. It is beyond our ordinary way of understanding. But, says Dogen, if we throw away our ordinary capacity to understand and abandon ordinary language, we misunderstand our lives. We misunderstand Buddha’s teaching. Even though truth is beyond doctrine, Zen students spend a lot of time trying to understand Buddhist teachings. And the study is never over.

Zazen (sitting meditation), which is the heart of Zen practice, is like this. We don’t do zazen once and then not do it again. We don’t say, “I did that yesterday. Why should I do it today?” That would be absurd, because like the teachings, zazen is inexhaustible and endlessly illuminating. We go on with it even if we feel we’ve reached the end. Zen has no final destination, no final truth.

Suggested practice: Take some time to reflect on a spiritual principle that you believe you understand. See if you can look beyond your understanding of that principle and enter a brand new world.

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.