I am not a Zen Buddhist but I am a follower, more or less, of one of its greatest teachers, Dogen, who introduced Zen (Ch’an) to Japan in the form of the Soto school. He lived during the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the Medieval era in which “original awakening” (hongaku) was a core concept in Japanese Buddhism.
Original awakening refers to the fundamental nature of enlightenment native to all human beings and the external world, and is closely related to the idea of Buddha-nature. Some time back, I ran across this description of original awakening which I think is pretty good: “[it] means that everything, without exception and without alteration, is already full-blown Buddha. Ignorance? Buddha. Wisdom? Buddha. The leaf, the blossom…” You, me, our enemies, friends, the wind, mountains… all Buddhas.
A famous Zen anecdote, “Mazu’s ‘Mind is Buddha,” goes like this:
Damei once asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.” Commenting on this, master Wumen said, “If you can at once grasp “it,” you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, and living buddha life; you are a buddha yourself.”
Everything, everyone is Buddha. It seems to me that there is no other religious philosophy other than Buddhism that has such a concept where there is absolutely no separation between the ordinary person and the ultimate reality. You cannot become God, Jesus, the Prophet – you can be Buddha. Here, the ultimate reality is everything.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states. “Zen aims at a perfection of personhood.” This is it exactly. Buddha is not a god or a psychedelic spiritual being but an ordinary person who has realized wisdom within. A Buddha has “perfected” his or her person so that thoughts and actions are based on positive virtues as opposed to negative emotions. And it goes further than that, a Buddha is a whole person.
If you want more detailed information about this concept and its development, see these posts.
In my less than educated view (I am not a Dogen scholar) original enlightenment is the notion underlining Dogen’s concept of the “oneness of practice and enlightenment” (shusho-itto or shusho ichi-nyo). In his essay, Bendowa (“On Practicing the Way of Buddhas”), Dogen says,
“The view that practice and enlightenment are not one is a non-Buddhist view. In the Buddha-dharma they are one. Inasmuch as practice is based on enlightenment, the practice of a beginner is entirely that of original enlightenment. Therefore, in giving the instruction for practice, a Zen teacher should advise his or her disciples not to seek enlightenment apart from practice, for practice itself is original enlightenment. Because it is already enlightenment of practice, there is no end to enlightenment; because it is already practice of enlightenment, there is no beginning to practice.”
When we factor in the inseparability of all things, non-duality, then “oneness of practice and enlightenment” is fairly easy to understand. “Oneness of practice and enlightenment” is an original concept, nonetheless it marks a further development of the traditional Buddhist view that meditation is the sole way leading to the transcendence of suffering, and to awakening. Meditation is the heart of Buddhism. Without it, there is no Buddhism.
Having Buddhahood within does us no good unless we make an effort to actualize it. Meditation is our tool for this endeavor, although Dogen might object to calling it a tool.
Francis H. Cook, Associate Professor at the University of California Riverside and author of a number of books on Buddhism, makes this important point about Dogen’s concept:
“[The] relationship between practice and attainment as Dogen understood it: practice is not a means to enlightenment or attainment, but is that which measures, or actualizes, one’s already existent enlightenment. In fact, says Dogen, zazen [meditation] practice is enlightenment.”*
While Dogen was adamant about meditation being the essence of Buddha-dharma, we should keep in mind that “practice” is not always limited to sitting. What we do after we get up from the meditation cushion is also practice. It is crucial that we apply the realizations we gain from meditation to our daily life. Good behavior is a reflection of sincere practice. If the aim is to perfect our humanness, to become better people, daily life is where we find the fruits of our labor. Meditation is not a means to escape the world but rather to see the world as it truly is, without illusion.
When Buddha awakened beneath the Bodhi Tree, it was not some mystical experience, rather the culmination of years of effort. Awakening is a process. Meditation was the “tool” the Buddha used to wake up to the awakening of every thing and see the unfolding of everything into enlightenment. Meditation is the practice we practice in the midst of original awakening.
“[Buddha] said, at this moment all beings and I awaken together. So it was not just him. It was all the universe. He touched the earth. ‘As earth is my witness. Seeing this morning star, all things and I awaken together.‘”
– Jane Hirshfield, poet
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Enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen, Francis H. Cook, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume6, 1983, Number 1
Cook also translated the passage from Bendowa