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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhas and Buddhas

By September 19, 2013

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In the last few posts I've been looking at Master Dogen's Vow. Please note that a dharma master could probably write about this text for weeks. I'm just beginning to look at it myself. But I'm happy that several of you have found this text inspiring. So here's a little more of it:

The Chan Master Lung-ya said:

"Those unenlightened in past lives will now be enlightened.
In this life, take care of the body, the fruit of many lives.
Before Buddhas were enlightened, they were the same as we.
Enlightened people of today are exactly the same as the ancients."

(Note: "Chan Master Lung-ya" is Lung-ya Chii-tun, an important patriarch of Soto Zen who lived from about 835  to about 920 CE. Among Zennies he is associated with the famous question "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?")

The Chan Master is trying to encourage us. "Take care of the body, the fruit of many lives" reminds us that while past actions have caused a lot of obstacles, past actions also have given us this body with which to practice.

And here's the end:

This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha, so quietly explore the far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions.
Repenting in this way, one never fails to receive help, deep and unending, from all Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revealing before Buddha one's lack of faith and failure to practice  dissolves the root of these unwholesome actions.
This is the pure and simple manifestation of true practice,  of the true mind and body of faith.

This part may be a little jarring to those who are quite certain Buddhism -- especially Zen -- is not a religion. Because this part of the text sounds awfully religious.

When I first began to practice Zen, a lot of people were making a big deal about "self power" versus "other power" in Buddhism. Zen, they declared (with some chest-thumping) is about self-power. Other schools of Buddhism, such as Pure Land, are more devotional and rely on other power. But here we have the great Dogen himself talking about receiving help from Buddhas and Ancestors.

First, after all these years, I no longer think the self-power/other-power dichotomy really means anything. Although practice takes personal commitment and effort, you're never really practicing by yourself. (How is that even possible? Where is the autonomous self that practices?)

We may begin through devotion to Amitabha, or faith in the Lotus Sutra, or trust in our own practice. But after awhile the self-and-other power thing all blurs together.

Those of you who are familiar with the Lotus Sutra may recognize some of that sutra's influence here. Somewhere in the Lotus it says that only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the great reality of all existence. Dogen -- and 0ther Mahayana teachers -- said that ordinary people do not turn into Buddhas. Rather, enlightenment is possible because Buddha-nature is already present. This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha.

One of Dogen's fascicles from Shobogenzo is called Jinshin Inga, or deep faith in cause and effect. This one's as yet out of my depth, I fear, but the line "far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions" make me think of it. If you are feeling adventurous, there are translations of Jinshin Inga online.

September 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm
(1) Hein says:

Barbara this information is very helpful to me. Firstly in Chinese Buddhism I have never encountered the self-power/other-power dichotomy, well not in the form you mentioned it here. Where does it come from? Was it an American invention or did the Japanese already made that distinction? I suspect the latter?
Secondly I have been told that Dogen’s views correlate with those of the Chinese insofar as it relate to a “unified practice” (for lack of a better word) of devotion and zazen. Thanks for the reference to the Jinshin Inga.
Lastly is people ordinarily not going to equate the Buddhas and reliance upon the Buddhas (as well as receiving help from the Buddhas) in the same light as the monotheistic Abrahamic religions view reliance upon God/receiving help from God?

September 21, 2013 at 1:07 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — Self-power vs. other-power may be a Japanese thing. I’m not sure.

September 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm
(3) Hein says:

Barbara having read the translation of the Jinshin Inga I fail to understand why you say this is out of your depth? From what you have written it would rather appear that you have a good grasp of the principles of cause and effect. Cause and condition is fundamental to Buddhism and denying its existence or not having deep faith in it can hardly make one a Zen or Buddhist practitioner? I would even take it one step further than Dogen stated it; without cause and effect there cannot be the Buddha, Zen or a ‘me’.

September 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — I understand much of the Jinshin Inga on some levels, but I perceive other levels I haven’t yet clarified. I don’t feel comfortable writing about it just yet.

September 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm
(5) JonJ says:

Hein – I think the relationship between “reliance on Buddhas” in Buddhism and “reliance on God” in the monotheistic religions is quite difficult to pin down. First of all, in this area of language, you have to rely on non-rational uses of the mind to begin to get a sense of what the phrases actually mean (what the people who use them really are trying to express), so a rather simple cut-and-dried explanation won’t work.

Secondly, in my view, the language that adherents to the monotheistic religions use is so slippery and changeable — especially these days, when they have to slip and slide around scientific/naturalistic objections to their beliefs — that even using your non-rational mind won’t help. One moment they seem to mean one thing by the God-talk and the next moment something else. (An excellent book on this subject I’ve just come across is “Evolving Out of Eden” by Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen.) Traditionally, they certainly thought of God as a real person, in fact one who is much more real that we humans, but a lot of Christians and Jews, especially, are pretty skittish these days on that point. So if God is not an actual person, what sense is there in saying you are relying on him?

In contrast, I think that the Buddha-talk of Buddhists was never as straightforward as the God-talk of traditional monotheisms, especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. Relying on “Buddha and the Buddhas” is pretty close to “relying on the Buddha-nature”—your Buddha-nature, everyone’s Buddha-nature, the dog’s Buddha-nature (unless you want to make a big problem of dogs having a Buddha-nature :-) ). In Buddhism, I think, pinning down just what you mean by the “Buddha and Buddhas” is not so important as doing the practice and getting used to not relying on language at all.

September 26, 2013 at 8:17 pm
(6) Dharmamitra Jeff Stefani says:

Greetings Barbara,
I have very much enjoyed this series, as well as your blog and commentary, in general.

I particularly admire the description of your relationship with “Self-Power versus Other-Power.” I very strongly relate with both a time when <b>it</b> was a common, prevailing concept (of course,<b>it</b> was not an “it” then, because “they” were starkly contrasted concepts, only later evolving the ‘self-p versus other-p’ as yet another, singular concept, on a common level) as well as your personal relationship, understanding, experience, and evolution with this concept, which now seems totally arbitrary and become a meaningless conceptualization.

In this sense of “it” (self power vs. other power), I know reflects my experience and understanding, but I have not heard any public or private commentary on “it” nor the meaningless conceptualization of “it.” Which is simply an observation. I don’t know if there is any social or popular history relevance, but pretty sure the dissolution of “self” and “it” has rendered all such conceptualizations equally arbitrary and meaningless.

Thanks for the Great Blog!

PS; Regarding the “Comments” 1) Dogs have Buddha-Nature :) 2) A “Personal-Creator God” which Intervenes in any manner e.g. favors, be influenced, punishes, “miracles” for this over that, etc, is directly incongruent with the fundamental, essence of all Buddhadharma: the “Law” of Pratītyasamutpāda/Paticcasamuppāda (Sanskrit/Pāli), the basis of Jinshin Inga, and all Dharma Teachings relating to “cause and effect” and is bears <b>no</b> similarity in essence, nature, practice, or understanding with “Judeo-Christain-Muslim” or any Monotheism.

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