Zen, The Bendowa and the Nembutsu

The Bendōwa (弁道話) is one of the earliest texts written by Dōgen, founder of Soto Zen, composed shortly after his return from China, where he studied Chan Buddhism for years. A full text of the Bendowa can be found here, but you need to scroll about two-thirds of the way down. Dogen wrote this at age 32, fresh from his trip, and so the text has an optimistic, but also triumphalist viewpoint to it. In it, Dogen zealously asserts that zazen is the only true Buddhist practice, and all else is useless croaking or philosophizing.

Speaking of croaking, in question 3 you see the famous quote:

Constant repetition of the Nembutsu is also worthless-like a frog in a spring field croaking night and day. Those deluded by fame and fortune, find it especially difficult to abandon the nembutsu. Bound by deep roots to a profit-seeking mind, they existed in ages past, and they exist today. They are to be pitied.

Taken by itself, Dogen sounds like he’s insulting the Pure Land movement, which started with Hōnen about 30-40 years earlier. I admit I’ve never liked this quote especially when I first read it. But if you read the later questions in the Bendowa, I feel that you get a better view of Dogen’s viewpoint. The early questions are mostly just asserting that Zazen is superior to other practices, but the later questions seem to deal with more practical issues in Dogen’s time, and the state of Buddhism in Japan then. Japanese Buddhism at this time was still largely an aristocratic luxury, apart from the Nichiren and Pure Land movements, where special teachings and practices were limited to those who were literate, upper-class, and could join the priesthood.

Like Dogen, Honen in his writings criticized Buddhism of this era as well, complaining that while the teachings were superior, they were not capable of being widely practiced, and so they were not very practical. He advocated a Buddhist practice anyone anywhere should be able to practice, and Dogen appears to advocate the same approach in the Bendowa, question 13:

Q: Can a layman practice this zazen or is it limited to priests?

A: The patriarchs have said that to understand Buddhism there should be no distinction between man and woman and between rich and poor.

But what about his criticism of the nembutsu? It’s hard to tell who exactly he criticized in the first quote, considering that the nembutsu was understood differently by different groups (Pure Land vs. Tendai vs. Shingon for example), and each group had different motivations for practicing the nembutsu. But the key sentence I believe is Those deluded by fame and fortune, find it especially difficult to abandon the nembutsu.

I believe his criticism was less focused on the nembutsu as a practice, and more on the belief that one could just recite the nembutsu and that was it. Namely, people who had no real commitment to Buddhism, but wanted to secure their rebirth in the Afterlife in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, while they persue a worldly life here.

Interestingly, within Pure Land Buddhism, a persistent belief arises where people believe they can lead a bad life because they’re assured of rebirth in the Pure Land by Amida Buddha. This is known as Antinomianism and Honen spoke sharply against it, as did Shinran.*

Also, Dogen, when asked about whether lay people can practice zazen (question 14), answers in this way:**

It simply depends on the will. Those who can discern excellence and inferiority will believe Buddhism naturally. Those who think that worldly tasks hinder Buddhism know only that there is no Buddhism in the world; they do not know that there is nothing that can be set apart as worldly tasks in Buddhism….

This last point is something that comes up a lot in Pure Land Buddhism. One of the reasons why Pure Land Buddhism flourished in Japan was its emphasis on living a normal lay while, while still devoted to the Dharma. As stated above, one didn’t live a callous and care-free life, but at the same time, Pure Land accepted that for most people, one couldn’t live a life where Buddhism was separated from their daily toil. Unlike the noble families of the Heian Period, one couldn’t just go be a monk for a while, and still maintain an estate. Most people had to work for a living, often doing detestable work. Honen’s famous story where he talks to a prostitute is one example where he tries to dissuade the lady from her lifestyle, but then tells her that if she can’t, she should at least take up the nembutsu. Or, when speaking to an elderly fishermen and his wife, he acknowledged they couldn’t quit their livelihood, and suggested to fervently take up the nembutsu as a practice. In Jodo Shinshu, this notion seems to go further, especially in Rennyo’s time, where one’s life becomes an expression of gratitude toward Amida Buddha and the nembutsu, such living a spiritual and morally respectable life.

So, I think Dogen’s criticism of the nembutsu is based on some common misunderstandings about Pure Land Buddhism, based off the more elitist, dilettante image of the aristocracy at the time. Dogen, like Honen and Shinran, was concerned about bringing Buddhist teachings to a wide audience, while maintaining its authenticity. All three intended on creating a kind of “everyday Buddhism”, and to bring Buddhism away from the aristocracy to regular people. In practice, their approaches do differ significantly, but at least in concept their aspirations were very similar.

Namu Amida Butsu

* – I have to admit, I thought Shinran made a better case than Honen. Honen’s criticism is accurate, but but in the quote I used, I don’t feel he made a clear case why, given that people can cite Dharma Decline and other excuses.

** – In my opinion, one big weakness in the Bendowa at least is that Dogen seems to take Chinese Buddhist stories at face value, including the largely debunked myth that zazen began with Mahakasyapa. Better scholarship has shown that the technique of Zazen as we know it, didn’t exist in the Buddha’s time. Honen and Shinran relied on the Chinese commentaries and teachings as well, but the irony is that Dogen repeatedly claims to be teaching something free from doctrine, unaware that at least some of what he’s transmitting is the product of Chinese Buddhism. This is more the reflection of the culture at the time, which was deeply indebted to Tang Dynasty China for its culture and religion, than Dogen’s actual teachings. It just goes to show that you have to carefully consider the culture of the writer, in addition to what he’s teaching.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
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4 Responses to Zen, The Bendowa and the Nembutsu

  1. Jaime McLeod says:

    Good post! Dogen was given to hyperbole, and can often come across as very arrogant. Of course he thought Zen was the true way, or he wouldn’t have practiced it so fervently. But in this case his argument seems to be – as you discerned – that practice should be wholehearted, rather than a mere show of how holy or devout one is. (Forgive my ignorance of Japanese, but doesn’t Bendowa translate as “The Wholehearted Way”? That’s how Kosho Uchiyama translated it, anyway). In fact, at one point in his commentary for Bendowa, Uchiyama notes that chanting is a kind of “portable zazen,” suitable for those who aren’t in a position in their lives to do zazen. He states later that whatever your practice is, you should devote yourself to it fully. “If you do zazen, then only do zazen. If it is nembutsu, then only do nembutsu.” In other words, settle down into a serious practice and don’t dabble too much. I tend to agree. I think learning about other traditions is good, but I’m not sure the “buffet Buddhism” we seem to be so fond of in the West is such a good thing. We sacrifice depth in favor of breadth.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I definitely appreciate your input. I actually know surprisingly little about Dogen, except from Brad Warner’s second book (which was pretty good at times). I figured his sense of hyperbole due to his young enthusiasm, but I recall similar statements in the Shobogenzo too, his later, bigger work.

    I do think Dogen was a product of his time, because his words and sentiments often echo what Honen said, or Nichiren said, even though they all have different viewpoints otherwise. It’s like reading all the stuff came out of the European Romaticism Era: even though they focus on different subjects or ideas, they all seem to have underlying threads of common thought.

    So, I kind of take his words with a grain of salt, as I have gradually learned to do with founders in the Pure Land tradition. They’re still men, and men make mistakes.

    Regarding the etymology of the title, I can’t confirm that myself. I looked up the first kanji 弁 here, and it mentioned nothing about “wholehearted”. The other two are as you stated. The first one may have had a different meaning in the past, I am not sure.

    As for Buffet Buddhism, sister, I couldn’t agree with you more! I struggle with it myself admittedly (as many blog readers may have noted in the past), but gradually as I get older, I find myself settling down and making the most of what I got, which I hope is good enough. :)

    I’ll check out that Uchiyama book as well. I remember Kyoshin over at Echoes of the Name blog enjoying it much.

  3. Johnny says:

    Great article and discussion. I also struggle with Buddhist buffet. Sometimes I feel I can do zazen! I can have an experience that people of zen have and eckhart tolle etc… but then other times I feel failure and feel that Nembutsu is my only way. Othertimes its again I have the thought “I just have to keep meditating!” Then I read strict monastic guidelines and the need to be vegetarian and then I feel the utter sense of failure and turn back to nembutsu. Maybe Im a lost cause lol.

  4. Doug says:

    Hi Johnny,

    I know how you feel. I often struggle with the Buffet Buddhism issue too. I think it really boils down to a lack of a solid Buddhist community (i.e. the Sangha that we’re supposed to take refuge in). In my case, where I live there’s no lack of communities, but either they’re inaccessible due to work schedule, or not very good, so it doesn’t help. Online communities just don’t work either, no matter what people say.

    With that said, study of the Dharma is never time wasted, and at the very least, striving to improve one’s conduct are two things one can definitely do by themselves. Self-reflection too. I guess we place too much emphasis on “practices” in Japanese Buddhism in particular. Zen and Pure Land Buddhism are both guilty of this, because of their tendency toward exclusivity, but if you look at the larger Buddhist religion, it should be a balance of sila (conduct), samadhi (practice) and panna (wisdom). If we lean on one too much, the whole thing suffers.

    So, I guess don’t worry so much about your practice, but instead, see it as one only one part of being a Buddhist. When time permits, I meditate and/or recite the nembutsu, but even in busy days, at least I can try to refrain from harmful speech, reflect on my past actions, etc, etc. :)

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