Dogen’s Backward Step

May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

Moonwalking Monk

Zen Master Dogen wrote in the Fukanzazengi:

“You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness you should practice suchness without delay.”

In this quote Dogen expounds a basic premise of Buddhism that ultimate reality is neither known nor can be expressed through words, speech or the intellect. Though this is so, Dogen does not say that words or the intellect must be abandoned or cast aside. Rather, he tells us that we must “learn the backward step” which means that this backward step is something that must be intelligible at least to some extent to the intellect.

We would err if we took Dogen’s backward step to mean that in meditation we are to step back from something to see it more clearly or gain some greater intellectual understanding. Dogen has already stated that practice is not conceptual so the backward step must not be framed as an attempt to experience or know something.

Dogen’s meaning may be better understood in terms of stepping back to take a rest or break. This strips the backward step of any goal-oriented intention and presents it as something done for it’s own sake. This interpretation is more in keeping with the Zen practice of “just sitting” although, as Dogen says, it is not “just sitting and doing nothing”.

In the last post I referred to the far side of the moon that can never be seen directly from Earth; yet is there, nonetheless. What the Buddhist refers to as no self, or suchness, is the far side of the self. It can never be known intellectually or through experience; yet nonetheless is.  And like the far side of the moon that is not other than the moon, there is no separation between self and no self.  In Zen, this is the fingertip that can never touch itself and the knife that can never cut itself.

Properly understood this means that meditation is ultimately a matter of just sitting wherein we do not look for any understanding or subtle object to experience. Our usual intellectual activity cannot help us here. In fact, trying to know takes our attention out and away from what we want to know. So we do our best to just be still and resist the urge to turn the far side of our self into an object, thought or idea.

In this way we take the backward step. Body and mind will drop away, as Dogen writes, “of themselves.” No self sits and the moon illuminates the landscape while we cultivate the empty field.


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