Meditation as a Sacrament - Master Dōgen’s Fukan Zazengi

 Master Dōgen’s Fukan Zazengi is probably the best introduction to the practice of Zen meditation that one can find. Written almost 900 years ago in Japan following Dōgen’s study tour to China, it is timelessly concise. Credit to several modern translators and commentators, this text is easily accessible to those seeking to learn about authentic Zen practice in the 21st century. The title Fukan Zazengi - 普勸坐禪儀 – literally means “Universally recommended instructions for zazen” (Sōtō Zen Text Project, p. 69). And it is just that: an almost IKEA-style step-by-step manual on how take the correct posture and practice Zen meditation. Zazen - 坐禪 – means “to sit” (za - 坐) and “meditation” (zen - 禪). So, zazen is usually understood as “seated meditation”. The word zen (禪) has been imported as chan into Chinese from the Sanskrit dhyāna where it describes a practice of concentration. Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese chan which eventually become the key term of the Chan or Zen schools of Buddhism. Another noteworthy word from the title is gi - 儀. This is commonly translated as “instruction”. It can mean “apparatus” or “tool”, but its first meaning is “ceremony” or “rite”. This word is an important clue regarding the way Dōgen thought about his practice of seated meditation or zazen.

But what is so special about Dōgen’s zazen? What does it add to the multitude of spiritual practices that are readily available to those seeking a spiritual way, like Yoga’s concentration samadhi, Buddhism’s insight vipassanā, or secular mindfulness? The answer is that Dōgen’s approach to meditation is radically different from these more conventional practices. In Fukan Zazengi Dōgen even seems to say that his zazen has nothing at all to do with meditation. “What is known as zazen is totally not the practice of Zen [dhyāna or ‘meditation’]” - 所謂、坐禪非習禪也. Instead, Dōgen tells as that zazen does not serve any purpose, but that is just wonderful as it is: “It [zazen] is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease” - 唯是安樂之法門也 (Sōtō Zen Text Project, p. 70.) Dōgen compares his seated meditation zazen - 坐禪 – to what he calls “study” or “concentration” meditation shu-zen - 習禪. The latter he understands merely as a kind of mental exercise to eventually reach a spiritual goal like enlightenment. And indeed, if we compare zazen to all the other spiritual ways mentioned above, we find that samadhi, vipassanā or mindfulness tend to be used as methods to reach a future goal. Zazen to the contrary, is the method and the goal in one. It is “practice-realisation” - 修證. As soon as we follow Dōgen’s instructions and sit down on a meditation cushion, we instantaneously express our true Buddha nature. And this is all that can ever be achieved.

This may sound too good to be true. No need for arduous exercises or hardships to reach enlightenment eventually. Just sitting down – and we are done. Sadly, it is not that simple. 

Firstly, although it is true that we instantaneously realise our Buddha nature as soon as we practice zazen in earnest, we often do not feel like Buddhas at all when we sit on our cushions. There are sometimes moments of bliss and ease, but equally we experience long hours of bodily discomfort and mental agitation. If this is the contents of Dōgen’s enlightenment, other traditions that promise us a quick fix for our daily problems or an eternal blissful state no matter how far in the future can seem a lot more attractive. But at least, Dōgen is honest with us. He understood that our longing for a blissful awakening is not much more than wishful thinking that makes us vulnerable to false enlightenment doctrines. Instead, he invites us to see the sacred and the wonderful amid our everyday lives as they unfold in every moment. Dōgen calls this enlightenment in daily life genjo koan - 現成公案 or 現成公按 – “the realised law of the universe” (Dōgen, 1994, p. 33) or “to answer the question from true reality through the practice of our everyday activity”. (Okumura, loc. 556)

Secondly, Dōgen’s enlightenment is not something that we can keep once we have attained it. It is very perishable and fragile. Yes, we fully realise our Buddha nature when we practice. But as soon as we stop, we lose it instantly and succumb to illusion. In Dōgen’s own words: “if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth” - 然而毫釐有差天地懸隔 (Sōtō Zen Text Project, p. 69.) Dōgen’s enlightenment is easy to attain but difficult to keep. We need to commit to a life of continuous practice and effort to do it justice. And so Dōgen encourages us to not waste any more time, but to start practice right now: “If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now” - 欲得恁麼事、 急務恁麼事 (ibid.)

What is called “such” in the previous quotation is another one of Dōgen’s signature expressions: inmo - 恁麼. It literally means “it”, “that” or “what”, but here it stands for the unspeakable truth of the universe which is the real contents of Dōgen’s enlightenment (Dōgen, 1996, p. 101). And reminding ourselves of the original meaning of gi (儀) in Fukan Zazengi as “ceremony” or “rite”, we can now fully appreciate that Dōgen very likely understood his zazen as a kind of religious sacrament. In the same way as the Lord’s Supper in a Christian service is not a means to satisfy hunger and thirst, but a rite to realise communion with Christ, so Dōgen’s zazen is also a rite to realise communion with the whole universe. Now it is possible to fully appreciate why Dōgen is so adamant to separate his zazen from other contemplative practices that treat meditation merely as a form concentration training (shu-zen - 習禪). For him zazen is a religious sacrament, not a mind gym.

It has taken us three months to work through Fukan Zazengi in the study group. This little summary can only cover a few points. Although Dōgen wrote Fukan Zazengi as an instruction to zazen, he touches on many topics that would later become the subject of dedicated essays in his masterpiece Shōbōgenzō – “The treasury of the True Dharma Eye”. Both inmo and genjo koan appear as chapters in this classic. I would like to encourage everybody who is interested in Zen meditation to study Fukan Zazengi thoroughly. There are many good translations and commentaries in English. I point out a few below. In the study group (zeninlondon.org), we will soon start to look at genjo koan. Everybody is free to join.


Sources and further reading

The following works contain either translations or commentaries (or both) on Fukan Zazengi:

Coupey, Phillipe (2006). Zen: Simply Sitting: A Zen monk’s commentary on the Fukanzazengi. Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press.

Dōgen, Ehei (1994 and 1996). Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo, Books 1 and 2. Translated by Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross. London: Windbell.

Okumura, Shohaku (2010): Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo. [Kindle]. Boston: Wisdom Publications. Available from Amazon.co.uk.

Sōtō Zen Text Project (2002). Fukan Zazengi: Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. Sōtō Zen: An introduction to Zazen. Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho.

Warner, Brad (2016). Don’t be a Jerk: and other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master. Novato, California: New World Library.

I used the following online dictionaries to make sense of Dōgen’s Chinese:

MDBG Word dictionary (2020). MDBG: Available from https://www.mdbg.net/chinese/dictionary.

Soothill, W. E., Hodous, L. (1934). A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. Available from http://mahajana.net/texts/soothill-hodous.html.

Wikitionary. Available from https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary


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