Illustration of Dogen.

Just Wholeheartedly Sit

A translation of Dogen’s Bendowa fascicle, from Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.

By Kazuaki Tanahashi

Dogen. Illustration by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

A translation of Dogen’s Bendowa fascicle, from Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.

All buddha tathagatas individually transmit inconceivable dharma, actualizing unsurpassable, complete enlightenment, have a wondrous art, supreme and unconditioned. Receptive samadhi is its mark; only buddhas transmit it to buddhas without veering off. Sitting upright, practicing Zen, is the authentic gate to free yourself in the unconfined realm of this samadhi.

Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not experienced without realization. When you release it, it fills your hand—how could it be limited to one or many? When you speak it, it fills your mouth—it is not bounded by length or width.

All buddhas continuously abide in this dharma, and do not leave traces of consciousness about where they are. Sentient beings continuously move about in this dharma, but where they are is not clear in their consciousness.

The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of allows all things to come forth in realization to practice going beyond in the path of letting go. Passing through the barrier [of dualism] and dropping off limitations in this way, how could you be hindered by nodes in bamboo or knots in wood [concepts and theories]?

After the aspiration for enlightenment arose, I began to search for dharma, visiting teachers at various places in our country. Then I met priest Myozen, of the Kennin Monastery, with whom I trained for nine years, and thus I learned a little about the teaching of the Rinzai School. Priest Myozen alone, as a senior disciple of ancestor Eisai, authentically received transmission of the unsurpassable buddhadharma from him; no one can be compared with him.

Later I went to Great Song China, visited masters on both sides of the Zhe River, and heard the teachings of the Five Schools. Finally, I became a student of Zen Master Rujing of Taibai Peak and completed my life’s quest of the great matter.

Then, at the beginning of the Shaoding Era [1228–] of Great Song, I came back to Japan with the vision of spreading the teaching and saving sentient beings—a heavy burden on my shoulders. And yet I have put aside the hope of having the teaching prevail everywhere until the time of surging opportunity. For the time being I wander about like a cloud or a waterweed, and let the wind of the ancient sages be heard.

There may be true students who are not concerned with fame and gain who allow their aspiration for enlightenment to guide them and earnestly desire to practice the buddha way. They may be misguided by incapable teachers and obstructed from the correct understanding; intoxicated in confusion, they may sink into the realm of delusion for a long time. How can they nourish the correct seed of prajna and encounter the time of attaining the way? Since I am wandering about, which mountain or river can they call on? Because of my concern for them, I would like to record the standards of Zen monasteries that I personally saw and heard in Great Song, as well as the profound principle that has been transmitted by my master. I wish to leave for students of the way the authentic teaching of the buddha house. This is indeed the essence:

The great master Shakyamuni entrusted dharma to Mahakashyapa at the assembly on Vulture Peak; it was then authentically transmitted from ancestor to ancestor down to Venerable Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma went to China and entrusted dharma to the great master Huike; this was the beginning of dharma transmission in the eastern country. In this way, by direct transmission, it reached Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor, Zen Master Dajian. Then the authentic buddhadharma spread in China, and the teaching that is not concerned with concepts and theories took form.

At that time there were two outstanding disciples of Huineng: Nanyue Huairang and Qingyuan Xingsi. They both equally received the buddha seal, as guiding masters of humans and devas. Their two lineages spread, and later the Five Gates opened: the Fayan School, the Guiyang School, the Caodong School, the Yunmen School, and the Linji School. At present in Great Song China only the Linji School prospers throughout the country. But in spite of their different styles, each of the Five Schools holds the one seal of the buddha mind.

In China after the Later Han Dynasty [25–], the teachings of Buddhist scriptures were introduced and spread all over the land, but there was no conclusive teaching as yet. When Bodhidharma came from India [], the root of twining vines was immediately cut off and the pure, single buddhadharma spread. Hope that it will be like this in our country.

Now, all ancestors and all buddhas who uphold buddhadharma have made it the true path of unfolding enlightenment to sit upright, practicing in the midst of receptive samadhi. Those who attained enlightenment in India and China followed this way. Thus, teachers and disciples intimately transmitted this excellent art as the essence of the teaching.

In the authentic tradition of our heritage, it is said that this directly transmitted, straightforward buddhadharma is the unsurpassable of the unsurpassable. From the first time you meet a master, without depending on incense offering, bowing, chanting buddha names, repentance, or reading scriptures, just wholeheartedly sit, and thus drop away body and mind.

When even for a moment you sit upright in samadhi expressing the buddha mudra [form] in the three activities [body, speech, and thought], the whole world of phenomena becomes the buddha mudra and the entire sky turns into enlightenment. Accordingly, all buddha tathagatas increase dharma bliss, the original source, and renew their magnificence in the awakening of the way. Furthermore, all beings in the world of phenomena in the ten directions and the six paths, including the three lower paths, at once obtain pure body and mind, realize the state of great emancipation, and manifest the original face. At this moment, all things actualize true awakening; myriad objects partake of the buddha body; and sitting upright, a glorious one under the bodhi tree, you immediately leap beyond the boundary of awakening. Then, you turn the unsurpassably great dharma wheel and expound the profound wisdom, ultimate and unconditioned.

This broad awakening comes back to you, and a path opens up to help you invisibly. Thus, in zazen you invariably drop away body and mind, cut through fragmented concepts and thoughts from the past, and realize essential buddhadharma. You cultivate buddha activity at innumerable practice places of buddha tathagatas everywhere, provide the opportunity for everyone to engage in ongoing buddhahood, and vigorously uplift the dharma of going beyond buddha.

Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles in the world of phenomena in the ten directions all engage in buddha activity, those who receive the benefits of the wind and water are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s transformation, splendid and unthinkable, and intimately manifest enlightenment. Those who receive these benefits of water and fire widely engage in circulating the buddha’s transformation based on original realization. Because of this, all those who live with you and speak with you also receive immeasurable buddha virtue, practice continuously, and extensively unfold the endless, unremitting, unthinkable, unnameable buddhadharma throughout the entire world of phenomena.

All this, however, does not appear within perception. Because it is unconstructedness in stillness, it is immediate realization. If practice and realization were two things, as it appears to an ordinary person, each could be recognized separately. But what can be met with recognition is not realization itself, because realization is not reached with a discriminating mind.

In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment. Thus, in the state of receptive samadhi, without disturbing its quality or moving a single particle, you engage the vast buddha activity, the extremely profound and subtle buddha transformation.

Grasses, trees, and lands that are embraced by this way of transformation together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable, profound dharma. Grass, trees, and walls bring forth the teaching to all beings, including common people and sages; all beings in response extend this dharma to grass, trees, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-awakening and awakening others invariably holds the mark of realization with nothing lacking, and realization itself is manifested without ceasing for a moment.

This being so, the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time. Thus, in the past, future, and present of the limitless universe, this zazen carries on the buddha’s transformation endlessly and timelessly. Each moment of zazen is equally the wholeness of practice, equally the wholeness of realization.

This is so not only while sitting; like a hammer striking emptiness, before and after its exquisite sound permeates everywhere. How can it be limited to this time and space? Myriad beings all manifest original practice, original face; it is impossible to measure. Even if all buddhas of the ten directions, as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, exert their strength and with the buddha wisdom try to measure the merit of one person’s zazen, they will not be able to fully comprehend it.

Question 1: have now heard that the merit of zazen is lofty and great. But an ignorant person may be doubtful and say, “There are many gates for buddhadharma. Why do you recommend zazen exclusively?”

Answer: Because this is the front gate for buddhadharma.

Question 2: do you regard zazen alone as the front gate?

Answer: The great master Shakyamuni authentically transmitted this splendid method of attaining the way, and all buddha tathagatas of the past, future, and present attain the way by practicing zazen. For this reason it has been transmitted as the front gate. Furthermore, all ancestors in India and China attained the way by practicing zazen. Thus, I now teach this front gate to human beings and devas.

Question 3: understand that you have studied the path of the buddha ancestors and authentically transmit the tathagatas’ excellent art. This is beyond the reach of ordinary thought. However, reading sutras or chanting buddha’s name must be causes and conditions of enlightenment. How can zazen, just sitting uselessly doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment?

Answer: If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great art, is just sitting uselessly doing nothing, you malign the Great Vehicle. Such misunderstanding is like saying there is no water when you are in the middle of the ocean. Just now, all buddhas sit serenely at ease in receptive samadhi. Is this not the actualization of vast merit? What a pity that your eye is not yet open, that your mind is still intoxicated!

The realm of all buddhas is inconceivable. It cannot be reached by intellect—much less can those who have no trust or who lack wisdom know it. Only those who have the great capacity of genuine trust can enter this realm. Those who have no trust are unable to accept it, however much they hear it. Even at the assembly on Vulture Peak, there were those who were told by Shakyamuni Buddha, “You may leave if you wish.”

When genuine trust arises, practice and study with a teacher. If it does not, wait for a while. It is regrettable if you have not received the beneficence of the buddhadharma.

Also, what do you understand of the merit attained by reading sutras, chanting buddha’s name, and so on? It is futile to think that just moving the tongue and making a sound is meritorious Buddhist activity. If you regard these as the buddhadharma, it will be farther and farther away.

Actually, the meaning of studying sutras is that if you understand and follow the rules of practice for sudden or gradual realization taught by the Buddha, you will unmistakably attain enlightenment. In studying sutras you should not expend thoughts in the vain hope that they will be helpful for attaining realization.

To attempt to reach the buddha way by chanting buddha’s name thousands of times is like foolishly trying to go south while heading north, or to fit a square peg into a round hole. To be consumed with words and letters while ignorant of the way of practice is like a physician forgetting how to prescribe medicine; what use can it be? People who chant all the time are just like frogs croaking day and night in spring fields; their effort will be of no use whatsoever. Even worse off are those deluded by fame and gain who cannot give up such practices, because their acquisitiveness is so deep. Such people existed in the past; are there not even more today? What a pity, indeed!

Just understand that when a master who has attained the way with a clear mind authentically transmits to a student who has merged with realization, then the wondrous dharma of the Seven Original Buddhas, in its essence, is actualized and maintained. This cannot be known by those who study words. Therefore, set aside your doubt, practice zazen under an authentic teacher, and actualize buddhas’ receptive samadhi.


From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi, and published by Shambhala Publications.

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Kazuaki Tanahashi is a Zen teacher, author, and translator of Buddhist texts, most notably of works by Dogen. He is also an accomplished artist and has taught Zen calligraphy extensively in different parts of this world.