Universal Recommendations for “ZaZen”: Dogen’s Backward Step

The image is the second of six original panels in the Shinpitsu-bon, the original version of the Universal Recommendations for Zazen written in the thirteenth century by Dogen at Kannon-dori-in Temple. A more popular version of the text exists, as well as numerous translations, but for our present purposes this one should suffice.

Roughly translated, the thought which concerns us begins several lines into this panel and reads:

矧彼釋迦老子之爲生知。已在六年端坐之跡。達磨大師之傳心印。更貽九歳面壁之蹤。古聖既然。今人盍辨。所以ニ翻尋言逐語之鮮行。須迴光返照之退歩。自然身心脱落。本來面目現前。欲得恁麼。急務坐禪。

Even in the case of that old one, Sakyamuni, innately wise though he was, there remains the mark of his six years sitting erect; even the great master Bodhidharma, though he succeeded to the mind seal, left the trace of his nine years facing the wall. When even the ancient sages were like this, how could men today dispense with pursuing [the way]? Therefore, reverse the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing after talk; take the backward step of turning the light and shining it back. Of themselves body and mind will drop away, and your original face will appear. If you want such [a state], urgently work at zazen.

Turning the light appears to be Dogen’s own definition of the backward step, though a more literal translation of the archaic Chinese epithet take a backward step is actually retreat – that might really be neither here nor there. Or might it be? When the light of our cognition, our attention, our focus is consistently put forward, seeking to illumine the paths before us, boldly going forward in our creations, here Dogen is instructing us, conversely, to run away from such endeavor with all good haste if sincerely we would know that answer which all good meditation seeks.

For reference I give you the first two panels in their entirety followed by their translation.

原夫道本圓通。爭假修證。宗乘自在。何費功夫。況乎全體逈出塵埃。孰信拂拭之手段。大都不離當處。豈用修行之脚頭。然而毫釐有差天地懸隔。違順纔起紛然失心。須知歴劫輪迴還因擬議之一念。塵世迷道復由商量之無休。欲超向上之徹底。

唯解直下之承當。直饒誇會豐悟。獲瞥地之智通。得道明心。擧衝天之志氣。雖有入頭之量。尚缺出身之路。

矧彼釋迦老子之爲生知。已在六年端坐之跡。達磨大師之傳心印。更貽九歳面壁之蹤。古聖既然。今人盍辨。所以ニ翻尋言逐語之鮮行。須迴光返照之退歩。自然身心脱落。本來面目現前。欲得恁麼。急務坐禪。

“Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the way is perfectly pervasive; how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is naturally unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it? And yet, if a hair’s breadth of distinction exists, the gap is like that between heaven and earth; once the slightest like or dislike arises, all is confused and the mind is lost. You should know that repeated migrations through eons of time depend on a single moment’s reflection; losing the way in this world of defilement derives from the failure to stop deliberation. If you wish to transcend to the extreme beyond, just directly accede [to the way].”

“Though you are proud of your understanding and replete with insight, getting hold of the wisdom that knows at a glance, though you attain the way and clarify the mind, giving rise to the spirit that assaults the heavens, you may have gained the precincts of the entrance and still be missing the path of liberation.”

“Even in the case of that old one, Sakyamuni, innately wise though he was, there remains the mark of his six years sitting erect; even the great master Bodhidharma, though he succeeded to the mind seal, left the trace of his nine years facing the wall. When even the ancient sages were like this, how could men today dispense with pursuing [the way]? Therefore, reverse the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing after talk; take the backward step of turning the light and shining it back. Of themselves body and mind will drop away, and your original face will appear. If you want such [a state], urgently work at zazen.”

Food for ample thought and discussion surely. The problem I always have is with the integrity of translations even going so far as to create a whitepaper on the topic. You can grab a copy of that in the sidebar. It’s called The Rainbow Sutra.

Anyone can see the wordiness required to clearly depict the ideas represented in the Chinese ideograms, but the integrity of the entire piece is thrown into question when the most amateurish mistakes are made.

Read from right to left, and top to bottom, the yellow lines delineate that portion of the second panel which most concerned us. The problem, however lies with the word circled in red. It reads Lao Tzu, not SakyamuniNow who is going to know that aside from the scarcest few who are either eminently familiar with archaic Chinese, supremely interested to understand each and every glyph, or like myself, so profoundly concerned with impeccability of language and the dangers of false knowledge that I will go that extra mile in my research.

Well, perhaps our readers here, concerned with knowing the deepest mysteries of Self and meditation, might also be said to be similarly infatuated with the truth of what is presented to their gaze when the light is shined outwardly. May your ability to discern and discriminate serve you equally well when you turn the light around.