Berkeley Zen Center

Dogen Zenji's Zenki: Our Vow of Practice

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

This lecture is reprinted from the April 2001 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

Dogen Zenji wrote two essays, one Zenki and the other Shoji, both of which deal with the problem of birth and death. For Dogen, to clarify the problem of birth and death was central to resolving the Great Matter. Zazen provides that opportunity.

While the term Shoji literally means birth and death, in Zenki, the root "Zen" means total or all-inclusive. Suzuki Roshi used the term, "Big Mind," and said that big mind is wide enough to include everything. You should be able to include everything within your big mind. "Ki"in Zenki means function or dynamic activity. So Zenki means something like "Total Dynamic Activity." In Moon in a Dewdrop, it is translated as "Undivided Activity," which expresses the essence of Zenki. Undivided non-dualistic activity. Or as Thomas Cleary titles it, The Whole Works, which is a nice twist on words. In the total dynamic working of undivided activity, birth and death are like the two sides of a coin, while Zenki is like the coin itself. It covers or includes both sides

Dogen begins by saying, "in the culmination of its quest (where there is total exertion), the great way of the Buddhas is emancipation and realization." The word emancipation in Japanese is todatsu. It means freedom from, in the sense of freedom from delusion and its associates, greed and ill-will, which is the pre-condition for nirvana. It means within birth, leaving no trace of attachment to birth, and within death leaving no trace of attachment to death. It means, as the Sixth Ancestor says, to realize our essence of mind in the most common everyday activities. Freedom and non-attachment does not mean no involvement but rather, non-self-centered interaction. As long as our actions in the world are not driven by the dynamics of "self," but rather directed toward the welfare of the world, we can realize freedom.

Then, Dogen goes on to say, "birth emancipates birth and death emancipates death." Birth emancipates birth sounds a little strange. It means that birth is no birth and death is no death. This is the basic understanding of Mahayana Buddhism. Birth is called "no-birth" and death is called "no-death." Birth lets go of birth and death lets go of death. Birth is not something static but is renewed moment by moment. Death is also like this. This moment is this moment's birth as well as this moment's death. Freed from this moment we enter this moment. We enter this moment with our vow of practice and our vow of practice is Zenki.

Last revised June 17, 2001. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
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