Today my program went to Mt. Hiei, the Tendai headquarters where Dogen trained as a teenager. Tendai Buddhism put forth the doctrine of inherent enlightenment, and it was practicing at Mt. Hiei that Dogen first articulated the question that would eventually drive him to go to China: if all humans posses inherent enlightenment, why is it necessary for Buddhas to practice and make effort? No one could answer his question, so he felt compelled to seek answers in other places. Walking among the same temples where Dogen trained as a young monk, and where he first asked these questions, I felt compelled to honor Dogen with some questions of my own, in the form of an open letter.
Dear Old Time Religion,
First, I want you to know that I think you’re beautiful. I really do. There’s nothing quite so beautiful to me as an old, quiet room, filled with the smell of incense. I think the old wood is beautiful, and the stone pathways are beautiful, and the high mountains where you build your churches and temples are beautiful. The tankas and paintings are beautiful, and the altars— the gold candle holders, the offerings of flowers and fruit, the statues— it’s all beautiful to me. I need quiet, routine, concentration, and a certain level of seriousness in my life that I can’t get anywhere else, so I’m drawn to you.
But I have to ask, is there anything there? When you descend the steps to the inner sanctum, in the spaces where only certain monks can go, to wash important graves and keep the candles lit, is there anything there at all other than old wood and old stone? In the gold lanterns and candle holders, in the flower arrangements, in the long hallways and shrines— what’s inside of them? Is there anything you can actually give me?
Are you actually interested in my questions? Everyone tells me, “If you have great doubt, you will have great enlightenment,” but do you really mean this? Is it only safe to ask questions if I am also following along with the schedule? If I chose to define and live my life the way I want to, in a way that doesn’t fit the proscribed form, are my questions still valid? If there’s really no answer outside of myself, why do I need you at all? Why shouldn’t I just go out into the desert, into the forest, alone?
Are you really concerned with questions, or are you mostly concerned with preserving yourself? Is your most important priority just transmitting yourself? Is your most important priority actually to stay the same, to not change? Is your most important priority to cultivate and empower people who care primarily about preserving and transmitting your tradition?
I’ve started reading the literature again that I was reading when I first became interested in Buddhism, at age nineteen. At that time in my life before Buddhism, I was mostly interested in social justice. When I really looked into justice, when I really began examining how transformation of society is made possible, it became clear to me that love had to be a part of that transformation. Reading bell hooks helped. She was the first person I ever read who spoke about ending racial injustice and compassion in the same paragraph. She writes about the need for love to inform political change: “A culture of domination is anti-love. It requires violence to sustain itself. To choose love is to go against the prevailing values of the culture.”
So I have to ask, without domination, could you survive? Without power? What if I was your equal in this? Could you still exist?
What happens if I trust myself? What if I chose not to follow? If I trust myself, do you think you can teach me anything? Can you only teach me something if I inherently do not trust myself? Can you only teach me something if I hate myself, if I am afraid of myself and my own intuition? Is the transformation you promise contingent on my own self-effacement?
Because usually I think I can’t do this alone. Usually I think I need help, I need community, I need guidance, I need a path, I need a curriculum, I need rules, I need shape, I need form. And that’s what you offer me. Handrails. A container. A way to stop listening to myself. A way to forget myself.
You write, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by ten thousand things.”
What does that mean?
I'm still wearing your clothes. I'm still shaving my head. I get up every morning and sit zazen. But I have to ask.