Enlightenment guaranteed—eight, even nine out of ten

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Dogen (1200-53), the founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, is known for his teaching of genjokoan, an idea that everything in the world around us is a koan, a manifestation already of the Buddhadharma. With this radical redefinition of koans, Dogen broke away from the Rinzai Zen tradition in which koans are still employed to this day as a teaching device to help practitioners gain insight into the true nature of reality. While he himself composed some 300 koans, Dogen turned to zazen as the primary mode of practice as represented by his word: shikantaza. Usually translated as “just sitting,” shikantaza is a method of meditation without a definite goal or a definite set of guidelines. It is natural that we practitioners feel a little uneasy about the effectiveness of such a method. How do we know that we are making progress? How do we know that we will eventually accomplish enlightenment?

Dogen was actually quite confident about the effectiveness of shikantaza as the path leading to the Way, to enlightenment. In Gakudo Yojin-shu (Precautions on Learning the Way), which he wrote in 1234 while he was still at Koshoji in Kyoto, Dogen had this to say about the prospect of practitioners successfully accomplishing enlightenment: “You should practice along with the Way. … You try to cut off the root of consciousness by sitting. Eight, even nine out of ten will be able to see the Way—have kensho—suddenly.”1

Does Dogen really mean that we have the possibility of successfully seeing the Way, of successfully accomplishing enlightenment, eight, even nine out of ten? That sounds quite encouraging for us practitioners. But where did he get this number, “nine out of ten”, or p=0.9, as the probability of people successfully accomplishing enlightenment?

As one who is known to have trained many monks, Dogen could have arrived at this probability based on what is now known as the “law of large numbers”. Due originally to Jacob Bernoulli (1654-1705), the law of large numbers says: x/N = p if N is large, where N is the total number of trials, and x the number of trials that result in success. One apparent problem with the law of large numbers is that N has to be very large. Thus, tossing a coin one hundred times, or even one thousand times, does not guarantee that we will get the true probability (p) of the coin landing heads-up, which is 0.5. But the law of large numbers is a mathematical theorem, and Bernoulli assures us that, by taking enough trials, we can be “morally certain” that x/N is within 0.000001 of the true probability.

In Dogen’s case, N would be the total number of monks he trained, and x the number of monks who successfully accomplished enlightenment, namely, those monks who experienced shinshindatsuraku (dropping off of mind and body), the word Dogen used to describe his own enlightenment. While we don’t know whether the total number of monks Dogen trained was large enough to satisfy Bernoulli’s law, we do know that the monks who came to him were highly motivated and dedicated to practice with this great master. When this additional factor of high motivation and dedication is taken into account, the probability of success of 0.9 may not be too far off the mark for monks. But what about the success rate among lay practitioners? Does the same probability apply to lay practitioners as well?

When it came to practicing the Way, Dogen did not make distinctions between monks and laypeople, between men and women, between nobles and ordinary people, even between intelligent and non-intelligent individuals, as we find the following words of his recorded in Fukan Zazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen): “Intelligence or lack of it does not matter; between dull- and sharp-witted there is no distinction. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is negotiating the Way.”2 If this is indeed the case, the 0.9 probability of success for all practitioners becomes a credible number and gives us hope that we may perhaps be one of those successful nine out of ten.

But a probability is a probability, not a certainty. After all, there is a probability of one out of ten that we may be unsuccessful in accomplishing enlightenment. What if we happen to be among those unlucky 10% of the practitioners who fail to accomplish enlightenment?

Dogen’s point was that we need to practice with a conviction that we will accomplish enlightenment sooner or later, led by a Calvinistic faith, so to speak, that we are among the successful ones. We may recall how the Buddha emphasized the importance of “making the breakthrough”: “If anyone should speak thus: ‘Having made the breakthrough to the noble truth of suffering as it really is … I will completely make an end to suffering’—this is possible” (Samyutta Nikaya 56:32.) Dogen echoed the same message with his word: shushoichinyo, which means “practice and enlightenment are one and the same thing.” If that were the case, the probability of 0.9 would become an underestimate for the probability of successfully accomplishing enlightenment—a very encouraging message indeed.

  1. Dogen, Gakudo Yojin-shu (Precautions on Learning the Way), as quoted in “Shikantaza” by Hakuin Yasutani, in John Daido Loori (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting, Wisdom Publications, 2002.
  2. Dogen, Fukan Zazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen), as quoted in John Daido Loori (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting, Wisdom Publications, 2002.

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