Practice/Realization/Expression - Dogen’s Path of Creative Enlightenment: a dharma study class


  • Mountain Rain Zen Community 2016 Wall St Vancouver, BC, V5L Canada

This is a series of five classes, offered as part of the Annual Fall Practice Period at the Mountain Rain Zen Community in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. The classes are free of charge, but registration is appreciated. To register, or for more information about the practice period, please visit the Mountain Rain Zen Community website.

Practice/Realization/Expression - Dōgen’s Path of Creative Enlightenment

The Buddha sat down under the bodhi tree and started to meditate; forty-nine days later, he attained enlightenment. This simple, foundational story marks the start of Buddhism. It’s a good story. It has a protagonist, who embarks on a quest, battles his demons, and through his efforts, achieves his goal. The story establishes a linear chronology and suggests a causal link between effort and outcome, or, in the case of the Buddha, meditation and enlightenment.

For Dōgen Zenji, time is anything but linear, and cause and effect are never what they seem. He takes this storyline and turns it inside out by proposing that meditation is not a path to enlightenment, but rather enlightenment, itself. For Dōgen, zazen is simply the creative expression of realization. We do not practice in hopes of becoming enlightened somewhere down the road. Rather, when we sit down on our cushions and position our bodies in the posture of the Buddha, we express our faith in our Buddha-nature and embody his enlightenment.  At the moment of practice, we are enlightened. Taigen Dan Leighton has proposed that we might even call Dōgen’s zazen “a performance art, in which its upright posture and every gesture expresses one’s present enlightenment-practice.”

So, practice is enlightenment. Enlightenment is expression. Expression is practice. As a priest and a fiction writer, whose livelihood relies upon creative expression, this vital nexus of practice/realization/expression is the koan at the heart of my life, and I suspect this is true for all spiritual seekers. In our class, I’d like to examine this koan together and explore its fundamental nature. We will study Dōgen’s teaching of shikantaza (“just sitting”) as a dynamic and creative activity, and consider how his view amplifies early Buddhist teachings such as the Eightfold Path. We will read selections of Dōgen’s fascicles and try to approach these often mind-bending texts creatively, interactively and dynamically, by inquiring into the text, collaborating with it, and seeing how it responds. 

How does our Zen practice express itself in our lives? What are the demons that hinder and block us? How can we nurture the creative expression of our understanding of the Dharma? Does our zazen inspire creative expression? Can our creative expression inspire our zazen? During our practice period, I’d like to encourage all of us to take up a creative practice of our choosing—poetry, painting, music, journal writing, or anything else—through which to explore these kinds of questions and any others that may arise. 

Classes will run from 1:00 - 2:30 pm on consecutive Sundays, from October 5 - November 2. Please note that on October 12, class will start at 1:30, following the half-day retreat.