On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

May 15, 2006

Eight Awakenings of Great Beings – Part I

Dogen (1200-1253)

All buddhas are great beings.  What great beings practice is called the eight awakenings.  Practicing these awakenings is the basis for nirvana.  This is the last teaching of our original teacher Shakymuni Buddha, which he gave on the night he entered pari-nirvana.

The first awakening is to have few desires.  To refrain from widely coveting the objects of the five sense desires is called “few desires.”


The Buddha said, “Monks, know that people who have many desires intensely seek for fame and gain; therefore they suffer a great deal.  Those who have few desires do not seek for fame and gain and are free from them, so they are without such troubles.  Having few desires is itself worthwhile.  It is even more so, as it creates various merits.  Those who have few desires need not flatter to gain others’ favor.  Those who have few desires are not pulled by their sense organs.  They have a serene mind and do not worry, because they are satisfied with what they have and do not have a sense of lack.  Those who have few desires experience nirvana.  This is called “few desires.”

The second awakening is to know how much is enough.  Even if you already have something, you set a limit for yourself for using it.  So you should know how much is enough. 

The Buddha said, “Monks, if you want to be free from suffering, you should contemplate knowing how much is enough.  By knowing it, you are in the place of enjoyment and peacefulness.  If you know how much is enough, you are content even when you sleep on the ground.  If you don’t know it, you are discontented even when you are in heaven.  You can feel poor even if you have much wealth.  You may be constantly pulled by the five sense desires and pitied by those who know how much is enough.  This is called “to know how much is enough.”

The third awakening is to enjoy serenity.  This is to be away from the crowds and stay alone in a quiet place. Thus it is called “to enjoy serenity in seclusion.”


 The Buddha said, “Monks, if you want to have the joy of serene nondoing, you should be away from the crowds and stay alone in a quiet place.  A still place is what Indra and other devas revere.  By leaving behind yourrelations as well as others, and by living in a quiet place, you may remove the

conditions of suffering.  If you are attached to crowds, you will experience suffering, just alike a tree that attracts a great many

birds and gets killed by them.  If you are bound by worldly matters, you will drown in troubles, just like an old elephant who is stuck in a swamp and cannot get out of it.  This is called ‘to enjoy serenity in seclusion.’”

The fourth awakening is diligent effort.  It is to engage ceaselessly in wholesome practices.  That is why it is called “diligent effort.”  It is refinement without mixing inother activities.  You keep going forward without turning back.

The Buddha said, “Monks, if you make diligent effort, nothing is too difficult.  That’s why you should do so.  It is like a thread of water piercing through a rock by constantly dripping.  If your mind continues to slacken, it is like taking a break from hitting stones before they spark; you can’t get fire that way. What I am speaking of is ‘diligent effort.’”

The fifth awakening is “not to neglect mindfulness.”  It is also called “to maintain right thought.”  This helps you to guard the dharma so you won’t lose it.  It is called “to maintain right thought or “not to neglect mindfulness.”

The Buddha said, “Monks, for seeking a good teacher and good help, there is nothing like not neglecting mindfulness.  If you practice this, robbers of desire cannot enter you.  Therefore, you should always maintain mindfulness in yourself.  If you lose it, you will lose all merits.  When your mindfulness is solid, you will not be harmed even if you go into the midst of the robbers of the five sense desires.  It is like wearing armor and going into a battlefield; there is nothing to be afraid of.  It is called ‘not to neglect mindfulness.’”

It is rare to encounter the buddha-dharma even in the span of countless eons.  A human body is difficult to attain. By practicing and nurturing these awakenings, you can certainly arrive at unsurpassable enlightenment and expound them to all beings, just as Shakymuni Buddha did.

Dogen (1200-1253)

Written at the Eihei Monastery on the sixth day, the first month, 1253

Excerpted from Enlightenment Unfolds : The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen” Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi

The Awakenings are clear and direct teachings that appeal to those of us preferring clean and simple instructions along the Way.  Each one of these contemplations could become an entire practice. Sometimes with so many practices and aspects of training, we tend to accumulate the ideas but not the actual embodiment of the teachings.

Meditation is the cornerstone of any practice and contemplation probably deserves more of our energy as well. Reflection on the middle way and how it functions in daily life is the basis for a life of practice. Sometimes one phrase deserves time to allow its maturity. But we need to make these teachings our own. The way to do that: put them to work in your life.

In other words after contemplation, time for action. A life of training needs to move from our heads into the world to help in the transformation of the lives of others as well as ourselves. Pick any phrase, like not to engage in hollow discussions and see if you can make that a sincere reality in your life.

Or the contemplation on how much is enough. This one appeals to me as a wonderful measure of living in accord with the middle way. In our time of excess, paring away to just what is enough is a practice that is good for the earth and leads to a balanced approach to life. 

Spring rains,

Summer showers,

A dry autumn:

May nature smile on us,

And we all share in the bounty.

Ryokan (1758-1831)

Paring Away,

The Scribe

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