Perhaps owing to the calamitous pandemic years, a wealth of books extolling the benefits of Zen meditation has appeared on the market recently. “Master Dogen’s Zazen Meditation Handbook” is one such book, but what makes it unique is that it’s likely the very first of this genre. It was written in 1231 by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto, the largest of Japan’s Zen Buddhist sects. Soto emphasizes meditation as a means to gradual enlightenment.
Master Dogen’s Zazen Meditation Handbook, by Eihei Dogen and commentary by Kosho Uchiyama
Translated by Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton
Published by Tuttle, the book consists of a translation of Dogen’s seminal “Bendowa” (“On the Endeavor of the Way”), believed by many to be the first chapter of Dogen’s masterwork “Shohogenzo” (“Treasure of the True Dharma Eye”). Though “Bendowa” is barely 25 pages long, the bulk of which is taken up by a lively question-and-answer section between Dogen and a novice monk, it clearly lays out the importance of zazen, or seated meditation, as a way of finding enlightenment. This version of “Bendowa” is translated by Zen priests Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton. They also contribute the introduction and foreword, respectively.
Tuttle’s edition is made more compelling by its detailed commentary on “Bendowa” by Zen master and Soto priest Kosho Uchiyama (1912-98), Okumura’s mentor and one of the great Zen masters of the 20th century. Uchiyama expands on Dogen’s original answers in contemporary language that is refreshingly down-to-earth.
Dogen wrote “Bendowa” because he felt dissatisfied with the Buddhist teachings of his time in Japan. In 1223, he went to China, where he spent five years studying Zen in monasteries. He returned to Japan in 1227, aiming to pass on what he had learned.
“The essential meaning of engaging the way of zazen in this country has not yet been transmitted,” he writes in “Bendowa.” He hoped to rectify this by spreading his teachings, writing prolifically and founding a monastery. Many of his writings are today recognized as “a pinnacle of Japanese philosophy and of world spiritual literature,” Leighton writes.
In recent decades, Dogen’s teachings have spread to many countries, as Zen, meditation and mindfulness gain ever more adherents worldwide.
Many of these new aficionados are probably asking themselves the same questions posed in “Bendowa”: How can sitting without doing anything be a means for attaining enlightenment? How can people who are busy with their duties in the world practice the Buddhist way? In “Master Dogen’s Zazen Meditation Handbook,” the Zen teacher’s answers call out through the centuries, helping those who seek a little help in finding their way.
As Dogen writes: “I have recollected and written about what I saw with my own eyes … in the Zen monasteries of Song China … I leave this for devoted practitioners of the way of serenity.”
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