Dogen – Contextualized Acts of Compassion

The moralist’s “attachment to the precepts” turns medicine into poison. How much evil has been inflicted in the name of imposing on others one’s own idea of the good?

Dōgen says that delusion is a matter of “carrying the self forward to verify‐in‐practice the myriad things,” whereas enlightenment is a matter of letting the “myriad things come forth and verify‐in‐practice the self ” (2009: 256). This “letting” is not mere passivity; indeed it involves what Dōgen calls “rousing the whole body–mind” to participate in the “total activity” (zenki) of an event of interconnectedness.

Delusion is a matter of seeing ourselves as dualistically separate from, and then imposing our dōgen 3 egoistic ideas and judgments on, reality. Those judgmental projections, or prejudices, are formed through greed and loathing, which, along with delusion, make up the “three poisons” according to Buddhism. Like other Zen masters, Dōgen especially warns against projecting our egoistic ideas of “good and evil” on the world. In fact, Dōgen rejects not only egoistic but also metaphysically predetermined ideas of good and evil.

The good is not a set of predefined rules that we need to implement, but rather arises simultaneously with its concrete enactment. “There has never been any kind of good that is realized beforehand and then waits for someone to do it. … The myriad kinds of good have no set shape, but they converge on the place of doing good faster than iron to a magnet” (2007–8: 1:131; trans. mod.). Dōgen may thus appear to be an ethical relativist (see relativism, moral) insofar as he affirms that “there are similarities and differences between wrong in this world and wrong in other worlds and between former times and latter times” (2007–8: 1:128; trans. mod.).

However, he is as far as possible from an egocentric relativist (see Dōgen 1971: 78), and his relativism is neither absolute nor arbitrary. We must always strive to do the right thing in each situation, though it is only in the midst of the situation that we can discern the right thing to do. He is thus probably better characterized as a contextualist than a relativist (see contextualism in ethics).

As Hee‐Jin Kim puts it, Dōgen’s “concern is with how to live relativity without falling into the trap of relativism” (2004: 224). While Dōgen affirms Yunmen’s (Japanese: Unmon) statement that “in expressing full function, there are no fixed methods” (1971: 9), which itself echoes the third patriarch of the Zen tradition Sengcan’s claim that “in the ultimate state there are no fixed rules” (Akizuki 1991: 71), he does give us a method for awakening the state of heart and mind with which to properly judge good and bad according to the fluid and concrete circumstances of our lives: the method of zazen

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