One way to make sense of the bewildering proliferation of Buddhist schools, doctrines, and practices over the last 2,500 years is to see them as a single, creative, ongoing effort to deal with the central problem of samsaric existence, which is the erroneous belief in an enduring, permanent self. Whether it is Zen, Pure Land, Theravada, or Tibetan Buddhist practice, all Buddhist paths teach practices that will effectively destroy the belief in this self. Dogen’s Zen, with its stress on faith, is no different; that is, the mechanism of faith is effective in dealing with the problem of the self. The necessity of shinjin datsuraku, the “dropping off of body and mind,” is the necessity of understanding that one is, like all other beings, empty of this self that is only a convenient fiction.

How does one drop off body and mind? How does one achieve emptiness? It seems that there have been primarily two different ways of achieving this result in the history of Buddhism. The way of pre-Mahayana Buddhism and the Theravada Buddhism of present-day Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka has been the way of frontal assault. This is the method of shamatha and vipassana meditations, which first put obstructive emotions and impulses to sleep in shamatha exercises, then subject the self to the corrosive analysis of vipassana insight practices. The final achievement is the destruction of the illusory self.

The other method, which is generally Mahayana and takes various forms, is an indirect method. It is indirect because instead of attacking the idea of a self directly, the illusion is destroyed in the process of directing one’s will and attention away from the self. The Mahayana emphasis on compassion and the bodhisattva’s career of selfless service on behalf of others gradually diminishes self-serving, self-interested action. The saying “to help others is to help oneself” means that in the process of devoting oneself unconditionally to helping all living beings, one becomes more and more capable of acting in a non-self-serving manner. I would like to suggest that faith accomplishes the same goal in Dogen’s Zen. And, of course, because this Zen is Mahayana Buddhism, there is the same bodhisattva vow, so that the individual involved in this Zen practice is working toward the goal in the traditional Mahayana fashion. The approach must be indirect, in a way, because the direct pursuit of enlightenment is a confession of dualistic thinking and merely one more attempt to seek ego gratification.

This is why Dogen Zenji so often warns against any kind of seeking or wanting, even if the object of the desire is a “holy” object or enlightenment itself. “If you wish to practice the Way of the Buddhas and ancestors, you should follow without thought of profit the Way of the former sages and the conduct of the ancestors, expecting nothing, seeking nothing, and gaining nothing. Cut off the mind that seeks and do not cherish a desire to gain the fruits of buddhahood,” he says in the Zuimonki. But how does one practice if one should not think of practicing for something?

There are several ways of doing this in Mahayana Buddhism. One method is that of making a vow to emancipate all living beings even though one is not completely emancipated oneself; this is the traditional bodhisattva vow. By practicing in this manner, even though one has an objective (to emancipate all living beings), it is not a self-gratifying objective. The other method is to commit oneself utterly to practicing the Way, but in the understanding that it is not merely oneself who is carrying out the practice: Thus, when one sits in zazen, it is not the individual self who sits, but the Buddha who sits, and thus all beings. The gradual clarification of one’s experience as a result of zazen is not the result of the individual clarifying and spiritualizing his own mind, but the result of the Buddha being a Buddha; that is, it is the Buddha who is realizing buddhahood, as Dogen says. And this begins to happen when we completely abandon our own efforts and trust completely in our true nature, which is the Buddha. Again, this is Buddhist faith.

Faith is important in Dogen’s Zen because practice must be undertaken in trust in another—the Buddha. This is the necessary basis of practice. Seen in this way, Dogen’s Zen is not really the Buddhism of self-power (jiriki), it is the Buddhism of other-power (tariki). One may indeed practice the Buddhism of self-power, and many do, but it will not be Dogen’s way. Dogen’s approach to practice and realization is the culmination of Buddhism’s historical attempt to deal with the problem of the self and its actions, and is thus a most sophisticated and profound solution to the problem.

In Shinran’s Pure Land Buddhism, it is taught that liberation and final nirvana are gifts given by Amida and not states attained by our own efforts. Moreover, in order for Amida’s wonderful gifts to become a reality for us, we must not try to gain them by our own efforts. In a time countless cosmic eons in the past, when Amida was still a practicing bodhisattva named Dharmakara, he made a number of vows, the essence of which was that he, Dharmakara, would never enter into the state of final, complete buddhahood until and unless every other living being also achieved the same buddhahood. Through countless, inconceivable practices he accumulated a vast store of merit and finally did become the Buddha Amida. What this means is that in some sense, all living beings are guaranteed buddhahood, and therefore also, in some sense, are already Buddhas, because the condition of the vows was that Dharmakara would not become a Buddha unless every other living being did also. The fact of his present buddhahood implies the present buddhahood of all beings. In other words, the conditions of the vow are fulfilled. Once an individual becomes aware of what Amida has done for him, that is, once faith in the vows has arisen in his heart, he is then reborn in Amida’s paradise when he dies, where he will speedily achieve enlightenment. The key to rebirth in the Western Paradise of Amida is unshakable faith in the vows.

To have faith in the Buddha is the same as forgetting the self.

When we look deeper into this matter of faith and try to determine what is actually happening in the life of the believer, it becomes evident that faith exactly coincides with the complete abandonment of self-effort and a turning to Amida, for as was pointed out above, self-effort is itself an admission of doubt in the power of Amida’s vows. As D. T. Suzuki and others have noted, if we strip away the mythological trappings of the situation, we find that what is spoken of as a kind of knowledge that one has really been saved by Amida is a form of satori, and this satori occurs when, and only when, the individual ceases to rely on his own power and ability. Is this not the forgetting of the self that Dogen speaks of in Genjo koan? Can there be a more powerful form of this self-forgetting than abandoning oneself completely to the Other?

Thus, the reason why faith is necessary, and is so powerful, is that in turning completely to the Other, we begin to forget the self and its incessant demands. It might be said that the human tendency to seek self-gratification through self-reliance begins to diminish in inverse ratio to our faith and trust in our inherent Buddha nature and its ability to actualize itself. Thus, Dogen tells us to throw ourselves into the house of the Buddha. A young Soto Zen monk once remarked, “We can find complete freedom and tranquility in ourselves when we have left ourselves completely to the Buddha’s boundlessly wide mind.” Dogen knew this from his own experience, and therefore his life was spent teaching a Buddhism of faith in the power of the Other, who is the Buddha.

It is difficult to overstate the matter: To have faith in the Buddha is the same as forgetting the self. How can it be otherwise when the prime requirement for “learning the Way” is to forget the self, shinjin datsuraku? The dropping off of one’s own body and mind and the minds and bodies of others is the almost incredible and inconceivable act of becoming totally empty, whereby we are no longer attached to anything (even nirvana), in which there is nothing to desire, nothing to expect, nothing to be. The vexing dualisms of life are transcended and all discriminations cease to operate. But how does one achieve this life if practice itself is a greater attachment, and if one’s practice is based on dualisms even more absolute than the ordinary ones? It is like trying to fight fire with fire—an even greater entanglement in contradictions and confusion.

In the final analysis, there is really no difference between this faith and zazen itself. The definition of zazen is that sitting means not activating thoughts toward external events, and Zen means seeing one’s true nature and not being confused. True zazen, then, is any activity carried out without self-concern, not forming self-serving attitudes toward events, and living one’s ordinary life without attachment or loathing. This is the same as forgetting the self. To forget this self is to have faith in the ability of the Buddha to illuminate our lives with Buddha insight. Nothing more is required. Thus, Dogen says:

When I see an ignorant old monk sitting wordlessly, I think of the story of the woman with faith who became enlightened by giving a feast. It does not depend on knowledge, books, words, or long explanations. It just requires the aid of true faith.


From How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo by Francis Dojun Cook © 2002. Reprinted in arrangement with Wisdom Publications. 

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