To study the Buddha’s way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by ten thousand things.
These few lines by this 13th century Japanese Zen master capture the essence of Buddhism. Dogen was the founder of Soto Zen, and a brilliant philosopher as well as a meditation master. He championed the importance of shikantaza, or just sitting, as the central practice of Buddhism. Modern day Soto Zen teachers include Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen, and Ezra Bayda, author of Being Zen. (I recommend all three books for those who haven’t read them). Dogen’s spirit permeates Soto Zen, and can still be felt in the work of the teachers cited above.
I am struck by how applicable this Dogen quote is to those of us who are practicing Buddhism in America in the early years of the twenty-first century. We begin by working with ourselves, by studying ourselves. Eventually this leads us to “forget” ourselves, to drop our usual egocentric approach to life, and this is remarkably freeing. Freedom–and enlightenment–can only come when we get out of the way.
The seventeenth century German Catholic priest, Angelus Silesius, said something similar. He was talking about God, but I think his understanding of God was not too different from Buddhist concepts of enlightenment and Buddha nature:
God, whose love and joy/ are present everywhere/can’t come to visit you/unless you aren’t there.
In the end, if we are fortunate we are “awakened by ten thousand things”. We actually wake up, we realize our true nature, we are enlightened, and we are free from suffering.
Thank you, Dogen, for these remarkable words.