Commentary: Dogen’s 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination

Personal Reflections on Dogen’s 108 Dharma Gates
Andy Cohen, with gentle edits by Carl Jerome

Dogen Zenji (13th Century) was one of the primary founders of Soto Zen, the largest Zen sect in Japanese Buddhism.  His 1000-page spiritual masterpiece, Shōbōgenzō, The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching, includes a chapter setting forth the “108 Gates of Dharma illumination,” which are aphoristic descriptions of various aspects of experience that can be used as tools to deepen one’s Buddhist practice.  Except for the final paragraphs which were written by Dogen, the chapter containing the 108 Gates is comprised of a lengthy quotation from an earlier Chinese text, the Sutra of Collected Past Deeds of the Buddha.  

Following are some notes from my personal reactions to Dogen’s 108 Gates.  My perspective is limited by my background. I have no previous exposure to Dogen’s works, and only the most passing familiarity with Zen practice and thought.  Dogen’s work contains a significant amount of jargon that is clearly derived from Zen or other Buddhist scholastic traditions (e.g., “pure mind,” “Buddha-eye,” “four bases of mystical power”), but I think that the 108 Gates are intriguing at face value, without reference to these received tropes.  This fresh perspective can (I hope) add clarity and interest.  (Carl has helpfully annotated my thoughts with explanations of many of the technical terms.)

I have commented in total on about half of the 108 Gates, and out of the order in which they appear in Dogen’s text.  First, I hope this adds to the iconoclastic and lighthearted nature of this commentary, and, in any event, is in keeping with the wisdom that there are many roads which lead to the Path, and any or all of the 108 Gates could be the ones that are pivotal to your practice.  Many of the 108 run together thematically despite being separated in Dogen’s text, and so I have put them together where this seemed helpful.

I hope that a fresh look at these fascinating aphorisms from a student of emptiness who is virtually free of influence from previous Zen scholarship or practice may be fun and thought provoking.  If not, there is plenty of other content on DeepDharma.org that may suit!

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 The faculty of belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not blindly follow the words of others.

What belief?  Belief that the Four Noble Truths, meditation, study of Dharma, and other “institutional” pathways will increase the potential for diminishing delusion – the only way to enhance apprehension of the ultimate truth of emptiness.  Eliminating the barriers of delusion means that we do not require “convincing” or other influences.  That said, we will certainly need some convincing at the beginning of the path, unless we are one of the lucky few to whom no self or other fundamental truths are self-evident.  (An intriguing glimpse into at least one person’s experience to whom this advanced concept was intuitive can be found in Douglas Harding’s book On Having No Head – highly recommended.)  If we can open our thoughts just enough at the beginning of the path, to gain the karma (thought pattern) of curiosity and attention to the Dharma, belief will grow as the weight of non-stop delusion in our minds lessens.  We will “see” the gate and the Dharma for ourselves, and this “seeing” and belief will reinforce each other.

 Love and cheerfulness are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they make the mind pure.

These emotions and behaviors are invigorating, they allow one to lessen attachment, to laugh at the supposed “self” that is upset or craving or clinging, and, most significantly, that attaches to all the multifarious delusions that cause suffering.  My 21st century mentality doesn’t resonate with the notion that the mind is “pure,” as in scraped clean of corrupting attachments, rather, I find it much more cheerful to think of the effects of love and cheerfulness on the mind as making it free, lessening the self-imposed bondage of attachment to desires and other thoughts that mire the mind outside the Dharma.

The sense organs are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we practice the right way.
This may seem counter-intuitive, after all, we spend a lot of energy attempting to see through delusions of duality, including that there are such individuated things as sense organs. This is one of the masterstrokes from Nagarjuna and others – the recognition that our only way to perceive and then conceive of anything which may lead to apprehension of the ultimate truth of emptiness has to start with the only available avenue for perception. This avenue begins with inputs received by the sense organs (see, DeepDharma’s discussion of MMK, Chapter XXVI, The Twelve Links).  The sense inputs form the raw material for our perceptions, which then play an indispensable role in providing inklings of the ultimate truth of emptiness.  This leads to the conclusion that the Two Truths (conventional truth formed by everyday perceived reality leads to understanding of emptiness) are necessary to illuminate the Dharma.  We can only reach any apprehension of the Ultimate Truth through the gate of conventional truth, which we begin to apprehend through the sense organs.  Clearly, the sense organs provide a gate, but we must enter this gate the right way (through, at least, study and meditation), as they can also act as a gate leading only to delusion, desire, and, hence, suffering!

Accretion of happiness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it benefits all living beings.

Happiness, an interesting concept, and not one I normally think is worth discussing.  It is too subjective to define and implies (to my ear) some state of karma promulgation by “getting what one wants” more often than not, which leads to ever more clinging, grasping and desire, the epitome of disquiet, a version of “unhappiness.”  I will go with an inversion of Dogen’s notion here: Accretion of happiness = non-accretion of karma, especially karma generated in the course of indulging and achieving gratifications.

Hidden expedient means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they are sensitive to many kinds of suffering.

The dharma acts in each of us according to our means.  Certain parts of practice are easier than others, and what is easier for me may not be for you.  Some people access the dharma most easily through study and conceptual engagement, others reap more benefit from a deep meditation practice, still others through acting to embody self-deflating Buddhist methods of compassion, patience, generosity, and other virtues.  Most of us reap benefit from all these dharma practices in different measure, and it is up to us to uncover the right proportion of them at the right time to deepen our dharma practice.  These proportions of practice that are most beneficial change for each of us over time, as our engagement with study matures we may be ready for more time devoted to sitting in meditation to expand our dharma, or more thought given to how to expand our practices of compassion, generosity and the like.  Who knows, with enough flexing of our practice muscle, we may find our way to another Gate: The wisdom that leads us from one state to another state is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, having water sprinkled on the head, we accomplish total wisdom.

Mind as an abode of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we reflect that mind is like a phantom.

Mind helps us to realize that the mind itself is a delusion – and is self-propagating, in part because mind is a necessary element in all other perceptions and attendant delusions.  Hilarious!  While self-referential statements like this seem maddeningly obtuse to non-Buddhists, with background in the concept of the Two Truths, mind-creating-mind makes sense  See DeepDharma’s discussion of Vasubandhu’s Three Nature Treatise for much more detail on this.

Knowledge of names and forms is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it clears away many obstacles.

How can we know names and forms when nothing has any intrinsic characteristics and thus all differentiating names and forms (which are constructed by us and do not exist naturally or independently) are false, and their existence is indicative of delusion?  That’s just it!  Knowing that names and forms are delusions exemplified helps uncover and weaken these delusions, clearing these obstacles to apprehending ultimate reality.

Awareness of time is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not treat spoken teaching lightly.

Time is just another delusion, a story we tell ourselves to conform various information provided by our senses.  However, I think what Dogen means here is an eloquent expression of mindfulness.  To be mindful is to engage fully with whatever is intentionally occupying our attention at that moment, and to add the additional delusions that crowd attention by less than full engagement is the same thing as “wasting time.”  Opportunities to clear mind/attention are before us at every moment, but if we do not take advantage of those opportunities, those moments are lost.  As Dogen observes, to engage with mindfulness not only ensures that our time is spent productively, but it has many other beneficial effects, including avoiding undue karmic engagement with the crowd.

The power of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not blindly go along with others.  Indeed, with adequate mindfulness we can see concepts expressed in speech as what they are – pure sound without the story attaching to it to increase our karmic engagement:  Right speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it concepts, voice and words are all known as sound.  Likewise, extreme engagement with mindfulness automatically lessens our grasping, clinging and worries about the future, which give rise to much suffering.  We can avoid having these unbeneficial effects and easily forego the self-torture of wanting and regretting that our life is or was not the way that we desire, or desired in the past.  We can simply experience this life with no unneeded imagination of what other versions of this life could have been.  Abandonment, as part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we can turn away from all kinds of lives.  Put even more beautifully, Stillness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it realizes, and is replete with, the samadhi (Samadhi is complete bliss, total consciousness, and super enlightenment of the Tathagata (one of the titles of a Buddha and the one most frequently employed by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, when referring to himself.)

The power of effort is a gate of Dharma Illumination, for with it we do not regress or stray.

Have you ever tried to meditate or study any significant Buddhist text?  These are difficult things to engage with, and since meditation/experience and analysis are the only two ways we seem to have to apprehend emptiness, or more realistically, to take steps on the path toward apprehending emptiness, effort is a necessary component to this journey.  Clichés abound to describe the value of this effort, “nothing worth having comes easily,” “idle hands are the Devil’s playthings,” etc., and our experience in the Buddhist journey agrees.

The power of balance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we discontinue all thought.

Thought inevitably gives rise to images, ideas and judgments.  Discontinuing thought while remaining aware allows the veil of delusion to weaken and drop, and with it suffering caused by thoughts (fears and desires) associated with the past, present and future (all constructions of our thoughts).  Balance can be thought of as a state of ultimate equilibrium.  Control over emotions and other mental states that upset this equilibrium comes through effort and practice, and allows weakening and discontinuation of thought, lessening suffering.  This idea is reinforced in other Gates:  The faculty of balance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the mind is pure.

The mind itself is not inherent or naturally occurring, it is a construct that seems to be necessary to create all other constructs (Vasubandhu).  The ability to achieve balance (the faculty) allows us to discontinue thought, which provides the building blocks of the mind. The pure mind is no mind.

The practice of the balanced state of Dhyana is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it fulfills the ten powers.

Balance, or equanimity, help free one from emotional karma reactions, truly a superpower, or (in Dogen’s world) ten!

[CJ — Dhyana is meditation, the training of the mind to withdraw the mind from the automatic responses to sense-impressions, and leading to a state of perfect or pure awareness.

 Mipham Rinpoche, the great early 20th century Tibetan scholar, explains the Ten Powers this way:

  1. Power over life means that we can choose to relinquish our life, or, if we choose to remain, live for as long as we wish, even for an infinite number of eons. This is mainly the result of having been generous.
  2. Power over mind means that we have mastery over states of meditation and so on at will. This is the result of meditative concentration.
  3. Power over material things means we can materialize the riches of the gods, human beings or bodhisattvas, just as we wish. This is the result of perfecting generosity.
  4. Power over action means we have the power to do whatever must be done or whatever we wish.
  5. Power over birth means we have the power to manifest a variety of births according to our wishes, in whichever place, or in whichever form, or however we choose. These last two powers are mainly the result of discipline.
  6. Power over aspirations means we have the power to fulfil our disciples’ aspirations. This is the result of patiently acting in accordance with disciples’ wishes on the path of training.
  7. Power over prayer means they can perfectly fulfil whatever prayers are made. This is the result of diligence.
  8. Power over miracles means we have the unimpeded power to display whatever miracles we choose. This is the result of meditative concentration.
  9. Power over wisdom means we possess the great wisdom which knows, without attachment or hindrance, all that can be known throughout the past, present and future.
  10. Power over Dharma means we have the unimpeded power to teach, according to the wishes of disciples, all the forms of the Dharma of transmission included within the twelve branches of the excellent teaching. These last two powers are the result of wisdom.

From: www.rigpawiki.org]

 Right practice is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we arrive at the far shore.

One of my favorite Buddhist metaphors is the analogy of the Buddha’s teachings (and the resulting practices) to a raft, enabling us to cross the river of delusion and karma to the apprehension and immediate experience of emptiness.  That is the far shore, and when we reach it we discard the raft and simply experience emptiness without further need for words, concepts, views and the like.  I think that Dogen could just as easily substituted a lot of different concepts as the first words of the sentence (right action, right thought, right speech, study, meditation, right mindfulness, right belief, etc.).

Right Mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not consider all dharma intellectually.

One of the things I most enjoy in life is studying teachings on the dharma.  When I first had the opportunity to work through Nagarjuna’s MMK, it was a lifetime breakthrough for me to experience how Nagarjuna deconstructed conventional reality, explaining in detail and with inexorable logic how conventional notions simply can’t be representative of objective reality.  While this kind of study is useful, and is itself a Dharma Gate, over-reliance on it, born from attachment to the process and its outcomes, will not lead one to the far shore.  This Gate serves as my reminder!

Development is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we realize all dharmas concerning the root of good.

I take this Gate as Dogen’s observation that it is unlikely that you will achieve the experience of emptiness as a bolt from the blue.  This is very encouraging, as, along with the traditional Buddhist moral guidelines (right action, right speech, right belief, etc.), Dogen supports us by observing that there will be many steps on the path (or strokes of the oar across the river).  We can expect growth in our practice, and the feeling that we are making progress. One might think that this is simply attachment to these feelings, but, as conventional reality is our bridge to the Ultimate, for there is no other way to get there, this sort of attachment and its attendant karma can keep us on the path.  Without such attachment, it may be too easy to despair, falter and ultimately to give up.  Along with this, however, it is good to keep in mind another of Dogen’s Gates: Expedient means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we manifest ourselves according to the dignified forms that living beings admire, and we teach and guide living beings, accomplishing the Dharma of all the Buddhas.  There is such a thing as trying too hard!  Diligence in development is beneficial, but carrying it over into obsession or over-focus can increase emotional barriers by creating negative associations (karma) like frustration or anger directed at your practice.  Work, persevere, but don’t struggle too much.

Pursuit of abundant knowledge is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we truly reflect on the form of the Dharma.

Abundant knowledge of the Dharma, what can this mean?  Real knowledge (knowledge about the nature of reality) is almost 100% counterintuitive, and knowledge of the Dharma requires that we overcome all that we have known and experienced, and thus reinforced as karma in our everyday lives.  Abundant knowledge of the Dharma means that we have to employ multifarious ways to conceive of emptiness through logic (philosophy, science), metaphors (art), mindfulness (meditation), everyday living (right action, right thought, etc.) that this knowledge and experience can begin to loosen and ultimately overcome our attachment to the delusions of conventional knowledge, which have been continually reinforced from before birth (see The Twelve Links, Chapter 26, http://www.deepdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Nagarjuna-Middle-Way-Philosophy-MMK.pdf).

Enjoyment of the meaning of the Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we seek the meaning of the Dharma.

How do we keep up the energy to take on the daunting task of pursuing abundant knowledge of the Dharma?  Enjoyment in peeling back the layers of our perceptions and views!  Enjoyment grows, and creates karma leading to more enjoyment, allowing a beneficial attachment to uncovering the meaning of Dharma, until we get far enough not to need even enjoyment any further!

Love of Dharma illumination is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain Dharma illumination.

Love of Dharma illumination is the ultimate expression of attachment to it, and this attachment is the culmination of the piece-by-piece enjoyment that allowed us to “seek the meaning of the Dharma.”  We have pursued knowledge, our enjoyment provided the impetus to stay the course, and the love this process engenders will allow attainment, after which we won’t need these gates any longer.

The four elements of sociability are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we accept all living beings and, after we have attained the truth of bodhi, we bestow upon all living beings the Dharma.

 I don’t know what the “four elements of sociability” are, but this aphorism immediately made me remember the value of (in the currently fashionable argot) listening mindfully – fully engaging with the person you are interacting with.  Distraction seems to be a pervasive affliction in the digital age, and this, along with all the other emotional barriers intrinsic to each of us, can prevent relaxed, agenda-less interactions, which I might describe as true sociability.  Without it, it is hard to gain spontaneous learning from each other, much less experience human connection that isn’t freighted with expectation, transactional thinking, and other heavy barriers to deep personal relationships. [The four are generosity, kind speech, helpful conduct, and harmony and cooperation.—CJ]

Attainment of the state of unrestricted speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we cause all living beings to rejoice.

An apprehension of the ultimate truth, that all things are empty of intrinsic characteristics, is necessarily beyond speech, which is freighted with delusion and imprecision.  Unrestricted speech may just be the freedom from the necessity of speech at all, entering the buddha-like state of immediate participation in the ultimate truth.  Imagine if speech were “unrestricted” – no longer necessary – how much samsara could be avoided!

Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the steadfast mind is not broken.

Right belief in the existence of the two truths and the emptiness of all is an understanding that is earned through both study and practice, rather than a belief that is simply accepted through reliance on authority or other deluded notions. There are no “leaps of faith” involved.  Utterly convinced of the pervasively empty nature of all, even challenged by our constant state of delusion, we know that the delusions are just that, and we stay steadfast in progressing toward lessening the hold delusion has over us.

Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain the supreme Dharma.

Right belief will ensure that the steadfast mind is not broken.  Eventually, then, the steadfast mind will, through right effort and exertion, attain the immediate apprehension of emptiness.

The wisdom paramita is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we eradicate the darkness of ignorance, together with attachment to views, and we teach and guide foolish living beings.

Right belief and effort will lead to the wisdom to know that what we see, think, feel, all originate in deluded notions, formed by karma that itself originated in preceding delusions.  We can see this process at work through study and practice, thus gaining wisdom, lessening delusion (defeating ignorance), and ultimately realizing that our views all are sourced in delusion.  Our example in doing this consistently and thoroughly can help inspire those who are not as far along the path of freedom from delusion.

The state beyond regressing and straying is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it is replete with the Dharma of past buddhas.

Past buddhas, through their words, conduct and overall example, founded the group of teachings we call Buddhism, which serves as a guidebook to the path of freedom from delusion, the path of apprehension of ultimate reality.  At the end of the path, all previous notions, effort, right speech, study, and other precepts fall away and there is no more “progress,” no more attainment, and thus no more regressing or straying possible.

Right view is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain the noble path on which the superfluous is exhausted.

How many of us have tried, however unknowingly, to see the truth or gain control over ourselves through false teachings and mistaken belief?  Catharsis does not relieve anger, rather it reinforces the storehouse of similar anger; analyses of the Self do not help improve the Self, rather they reinforce the deluded notion that there is such an unfindable, indefinable thing as the Self that could ever be perfected.  Focusing on relief from delusion through recognizing all these notions as false and deluded is right view, which will help to discard these unhelpful branches off the path.

The power of wisdom is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we depart from the two extremes.

The extremes, in our view, are reification and nihilism.  Reification is the common notion that what we perceive, think, feel, is all there is of reality and is representative of some sort of ephemeral “thing in itself” or other notion that there is objective reality behind these objects.  Nihilism is the mistaken notion that emptiness is a negation of all – that there is no ultimate reality.  Wisdom leads to the middle way, no reification and no nihilism – no views at all, as all views are constrained by the need for description and other inadequate constraints on the apprehension of the ultimate.

Entry into all conduct is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain realization of the Buddha-eye.

I think Dogen’s notion of the “Buddha-eye” is simply the way of “seeing” that nothing has any intrinsic characteristics, that all “things” are non-individuated, and hence empty of inherent meaning and description.  “All conduct” clearly is impossible for any human to attain as we are fairly limited to doing one thing at a time, so Dogen here is making clear that our dualistic notions of separate “conducts” different from each other and from one moment to the next are pure delusion.  If we could only recognize that we could simply surrender to the experience of emptiness, to embody the meaninglessness of striving and other conduct, we could thereby see with the “Buddha-eye” that all things are empty.

Inhibition of self-conceit is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it wisdom is fulfilled.

The Self is the ultimate source of delusion.  The idea that there is a central actor that can engage in desiring, sustaining aversions, grasping, clinging and all the other behaviors that result in perpetuating delusion and constantly adding to the karmic storehouse is the central problem that meditation and dharma study seek to ameliorate.  Inhibiting fixation on the Self and its “needs” is certainly a worthy pursuit.  Dogen agrees in another Gate: No self-deception is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not praise ourselves.  To praise ourselves is to increase the karmic energy behind the misguided notion that we are individuated selves.  Acceptance of praise is the fuel for the engine of self-conceit.

The non-arising of ill-will is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we protect ourselves and protect others.

A valuable practice is to use a metacognitive voice to prevent negative emotion from arising.  One can do this by recognizing triggers in advance, like other people’s driving habits, the insistence of a child on having her own way, or your boss’s self-aggrandizing behavior, for example.  Buddhists have long recognized anger (a necessary emotional component of ill-will) as one of the most dangerous emotions (one of the three poisons) as it clouds judgment even more than most other emotions and thus is a powerful accelerator of additions to the karmic (alaya) storehouse.  Consciously interrupting triggers to ill-will/anger will lessen these additions and propel one down the path.

 Reflection on suffering is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we cease all aspirations.

Recognize that attainment of aspirations causes suffering, as does non-attainment.  When do we ever get what we want and then stop wanting something else?  Focusing on aspiration increases attachment to delusions.  First comes the delusion that that which we desire has any characteristics at all that “make” it desirable.  It doesn’t!  Any desirable things about it are entirely the product of our mental constructions.  Second, piling further delusions on top, we imagine a state in which, having attained the supposedly desirable thing, we will be satisfied or stop desiring.  We have all experienced that this is never the case!  Reflecting on these layered delusions and their attendant suffering is one way we can weaken our attachment to them, and thus is a gate for Dharma illumination.

 Mindfulness of Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it reflection of the Dharma is pure.

Focus is essential as the study of Dharma is at least non-intuitive, when it is not downright counterintuitive.  How can one really engage apprehend that all notions, even all perceptions are not representations of any objective reality when all our karma pushes the opposite notion.  Focus provides the energy to overcome this karma.

Mindfulness of Sangha is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it attainment of the truth is steadfast.

Speaking for myself, the Sangha is a terrific additive force in commitment to Dharma study, and without Dharma study very little progress is made.  Given that delusion is so strong as to ever be before consciousness, it must be approached from many different angles to be weakened.  The study of Dharma that is contemplating and then writing about these 108 Gates, the MMK, and all the other content on DeepDharma.org is reinforced by every reader and friend’s affirmation, however small.  The attraction of the Dharma is strong, and it is reinforced and awakened by these interactions, which can only come from those who appreciate and are helped by these efforts — the DeepDharma Sangha.

Entry into the state of unrestricted speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain realization of the Dharma-eye.

Unrestricted speech?  That must mean no speech at all, as verbalizations are only good to get us so far along the path.  Dharma-eye, whatever Dogen means by that, is at least a poetic phrase invoking the being-with emptiness that is freedom from karma, aversions and desires.

Pure mind is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it there is no defilement.

This saying can be read as a tautology, a pure mind is that mind in which there is no defilement (adherence to aversion, attraction or other products of delusion).  It is also a shout from the mountaintops – it is possible to be free of delusion!

Reflection on stillness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not disturb the mind.

Stillness, absolute stillness is the mind purified, without entry of delusion.  Practice with stillness, reflecting on its value in itself automatically diverts attention from stronger delusions – while stillness itself is conceptual and empty, I would assert that contemplation of it (not desire for it, however) generates weaker/less karma than certain other engagements with concepts.  Thus, it can be a significant step on the Path.

Joy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon all unpleasant things.

Joy, immediate experience of the Ultimate, immersion in emptiness!  No more aversions, desires, gratification, disappointment, fascination with the future, remembrance of the past, for all these things are constructed from karma which comes to a joyful end at this Gate.

Right Action is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it there is no karma and no retribution.

This one starts out as a bit of a mystery, because to my understanding and experience all actions yield karma (deposits into our alaya storehouse, thoughts, patterns, habits).  Perhaps this is another way to express the ultimate truth of emptiness – all action qua action is dualistic, requiring an actor and the acted-upon (subject-object).  Thinking of “action,” then, imprisons the mind by thinking of actions it can take, so “right action” would really be no action at all.  Or, perhaps “right action” is what would otherwise be conventional subject-object actions taken without intention, and by removing the conscious actor no karma is generated while still allowing interactions with the conventional world.  As to retribution, I don’t know what Dogen means, as without action generating karma there could be no backlash or other consequences, so right action not generating karma would also necessarily eliminate retribution along with all other consequences.

The state in which water is sprinkled on the head is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, following birth in a family, we are at last able to realize anuttara samyak sambodhi.

It seems pretty clear that Dogen is referring to some ritual here that is unknown to me, he is just playing with the reader, or this was added by a different author since it is so different in character to the other Dharma Gates.  At any rate, as a bald man, having water sprinkled on the head provokes instant attention, and hence mindfulness, and mindfulness is certainly a gate of Dharma illumination. [CJ — This ritual is a base for anuttara samyak sambodhi, a Buddha’s state of complete, perfect enlightenment.]

Reflection on inconstancy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we reflect upon the desires of the triple world.

What Dogen means by the “triple world,” here is inconsistency. Inconsistency is one expression of the state of impermanence that permeates the triple world, and invests all supposed “things.”  If we think of an inconstant lover or friend (as in English, the word is often used to describe flighty or changeable emotional states in those we hope to be more dependable), how could they be otherwise?  Nothing has inherent or permanent characteristics, least of all “things” at several levels of abstraction (delusion) like the emotional states of others.  In fact, what is more inconstant that our “selfs,” with our ever-shifting moods and opinions?  To reflect on this “constant state of inconstancy” is wise indeed, we will see dependence on these delusions as themselves delusions to be recognized and mitigated.  [CJ — Triple world? Buddhist cosmology adopts an ancient Āryan conception of the world having three strata (earth, atmosphere, and sky) and renames these as the Desire Realm (kāma-loka), the Form Realm (rūpa-loka), and the Formless Realm (ārūpya-loka).]

Delight is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it is the mind of peace and tranquility.

Delight must mean more than attainment of desire, for there never is such attainment, as there is always more to desire, a lynchpin of suffering.  Delight could be instead freedom from desire, or simply doing and being and experiencing without goals, and the freedom and ease that come with this state could be delight.  Thought of this way, delight could also be seen as the freedom from aversion as well, and also from grasping, clinging, hoping, wishing, achieving, and all else that causes suffering.

Being without hindrances is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the mind is free of doubt.

Traditionally the five hindrances are sensory desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness, and doubt. To be without hindrances would be an advanced state of being indeed!  We could choose to avoid delusion, and to have that happen automatically, to have no-hindrances as our default state.  Wouldn’t this be like “Nirvana,” a realization of emptiness?

Equality of all elements is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it obviates all rules for harmonious association.

I take “equality of all elements” to be something like equanimity of view, or perhaps another description of delight, experiencing a state where desire, aversion and all attendant states fail to exist and provoke delusion.  Dogen here takes it to the next step – this state would render unnecessary all the conventional world’s need for moral rules and other rules for interpersonal interaction, as these interactions would be harmonious where the experience of emptiness is shared.

The balanced state, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, we realize that all Dharmas are in equilibrium.

The balanced state, yet another description for aspects of practice including equilibrium, delight, equality of all elements, each of which help us to glimpse the effortlessness of an experience of emptiness.  It can only be part of the state of truth, for to describe it in these terms as “aspect” or “part” of the experience fails, as all conventional descriptions must, to fully convey this experience of viewlessness.  Nevertheless, the balanced state is a long way down the path.

Mindfulness of generosity is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not expect reward.

Expecting reward takes us at least two steps the wrong way, “up the path” so to speak, rather than down the path.  First, expectation of reward is a clear manifestation of desire, which, as Dogen describes in several places, is a foundation of delusion.  Desire is never satisfied, and as such it always increases suffering.  What is doing the desiring?  The Self, so desire also increases attachment to the Self, which is the ultimate source of suffering.  Generosity as an action means that we are taking something from the Self that it would rather grasp on to, and so very graphically controverting this grasping, and thereby weakening attachment to that which we have a desire to keep (e.g., money) and thus weakening the Self concept.

Expedient means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we manifest ourselves according to the dignified forms that living beings admire, and we teach and guide living beings, accomplishing the Dharma of all the Buddhas.

This Gate is quite a mouthful!  It seems a little dangerous, as Dogen’s formulation reads like the product of a “puffed up” attitude, attaching to the power to cause admiration, presuming that we have the wisdom and lack of delusion sufficient to “teach and guide” others, and even presuming to “accomplish the Dharma of all the Buddhas!” For example, among others, an earlier Gate, Humility is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it eternal malevolence vanishes, reminds us of the power of humility, of always keeping mindful that all of our thoughts and views are ultimately deluded.  Humility, it seems is a notable way to ward off the eternal malevolence which is our ever-accumulating karma, piling delusion on top of earlier delusions.

One way to reconcile these seemingly conflicting messages is simply not to try.  Accept each independently and resist the need to compare or consider too deeply their meanings as being in conflict.  Accept that they both exist without criticism. Another way is to simply read the “expedient means” precept at face value, choose not to import emotional/karmic content and simply decide if the words are true.

Does it seem that experience of others who easily (expedient means) embody dignity, imperturbability, without trying too hard inspire similar qualities in others?  Is not the “dharma of all the Buddhas” simply the same Dharma for all, two truths and accessibility of the experience of emptiness is open and, when attained, easy.

To teach and guide living beings is a gate of Dharma illumination, for we ourselves neither indulge pleasures nor become tired.  Again, Dogen reinforces how easy teaching, learning and experiencing Dharma practice is, for those whom embody it – if a teacher is trying too hard, perhaps it is because what they are teaching is too far outside their grasp to effectuate it for others. Instead, teaching grows naturally out of one who more closely experiences emptiness (subject to less delusion).  The experience just is, it is not the product of effort, and embodies what the Buddha meant when he related that all teachings are a raft to cross the river of delusion – once across, there is no more need for paddling or other aspects of implementing the raft.  Dogen reinforces this effortlessness in another Gate; Acceptance of the right Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it eradicates the afflictions of all living beings.  Simple acceptance is what is required, not striving, nor asceticism, nor other forms of extreme effort that create their own webs of delusion.  The resulting free-flow through consciousness of the realization of emptiness leaves no room for suffering, and is a high expression of what I think that Dogen means by this Gate: Joy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon all unpleasant things.

Not to quarrel is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it stops angry accusations.

Ah, how easily said, but such a challenge to dharma practice is this injunction not to quarrel, as can be attested by almost any parent, or any other human being for that matter.  As Dogen and other Buddhist sages have noted, anger carries an especially weighty karmic load with it, and thus is one of the most profitably mitigated emotions.  Dogen helpfully makes an implied distinction here between quarrelling (dumb discussions that are emotionally driven and relatively free of reason), versus other types of disagreement, such as reasoned arguing.  Clearly, other people are a prime source for arising anger, and to quarrel with them can lead to a mounting anger as arguments escalate and enter the realm of pure emotion (anger + accusations) with less and less of reason’s leavening.  While in the midst of a challenging quarrel, other Gates remind us to focus on what is good about our opponent – this may help to dissipate the karmically-freighted anger reactions of the moment: Benevolence is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it good roots prevail in all the situations of life.

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