Approaches to Awakening

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose.

— Reb Anderson Roshi

I was very interested while listening to a tape by Okumura Roshi when he said that right after the Shobogenzo was written and after Dogen Zenji died, immediately there was a split in the interpretation of Dogen’s teaching especially concerning the use of koans and kensho or the awakening experience.

The first commentators on the Shobogenzo interpreted Dogen’s writing as very critical of koan practice. These first commentators saw Dogen’s approach as very oppositional to the Rinzai School. This way of thinking became the mainstream Soto understanding of Dogen’s teaching.

But there was another smaller group of interpreters who said that Dogen’s teaching was more similar to Rinzai and that his criticism was against a certain kind of shallow understanding of koan, kensho and enlightenment experiences. His writing, they say, points out a way to deepen our understanding of the so-called enlightenment experience. There interpretation indicates more common ground with the Rinzai School.

Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and Uchiyama Roshi were in lineages that followed the mainstream traditional understanding of Dogen’s teaching, which did not emphasis the kensho experience (even though of course it must have been present in their zendos). They call the Rinzai approach “ladder-climbing Zen.” They rather emphasized the Genjo-koan, the koan of expressing reality merged with daily life.

My experience of this with Katagiri Roshi was his refusal to acknowledge an opening experience through talk or praise. He was adamantly against praising people’s practice or one could say, verifying people’s experiences, because he felt that “verification” just emphasized people’s ego-centricity and the sense of a separate self. I remember once having an opening experience and Katagiri Roshi’s answer to that was a harrumphing sound and the next thing I knew I was out of the zendo and in the kitchen as the tenzo. (the head cook).

On the other hand, their has been a line of Soto lineage holders who have felt the need to deepen their satori experience and have gone to Rinzai teachers and done the koan training of that school. Yasutani Roshi, Aitken Roshi, Phillip Kapleau Roshi, and Maezumi Roshi have all been in the school of using koan practices and emphasizing kensho. These teachers may use Dogen’s teaching in their schools but have quite a different approach and emphasis then the mainstream Soto tradition.

I have always known this to be an extremely sensitive point in the teachings. It has helped me to learn the history of this split. This tension between schools has existed for hundreds of years. Various teachers over the centuries have had different approaches and have tried to merge these dichotomies in different ways. This study of history has made me more tolerant of all the different ways to practice and to release the ever-present fundamentalism of “my school is Right!”