408. Dogen’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Master Dogen’s Dharma Hall discourse number 310:  

Our Buddha Shakyamuni said to his disciples there are four foundations of mindfulness on which people should depend.These four foundations of mindfulness refer to contemplating the body as impure; contemplating sensation as  suffering; contemplating mind as impermanent; and contemplating phenomena as non-substantial.

I also have four foundations of mindfulness: contemplating the body as a skin bag; contemplating sensation as eating bowls; contemplating mind as fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles; and contemplating phenomena as old man Zhang drinking wine, old man Li getting drunk.

Great assembly, are my four foundations of mindfulness the same or different from the ancient Buddha’s four foundations of mindfulness? If you say they are the same your eyebrows will fall out [from lying];  if you say they are different you lose your body and life.

Are they the same or are they different?  If different, what are the differences? 

For starters, there’s a difference in tone.

In the Buddha’s formulation, the four foundations appear to be quite doctrinal. In Dogen’s formulation they  appear colloquial,  everyday and realistic. The Buddha’s formulation mentions the body as  impure. It also mentions suffering. Dogen mentions neither.

It seems to me that in the Buddha’s formulation the ghost of the self is still hovering, whereas in Dogen’s the nonduality of all beings is much more apparent. 

The Buddha’s formulation  in emotional tone is renunciatory. Dogen’s  tone is quite different. It evokes Wonder,  Joy, Acceptance and  Surprise. It’s very human.

Rather than saying  that everything is impermanent and impermanence is the cause of suffering. Dogen’s  formulation really starts from  thenassumption of nonduality, the aliveness and wholeness of everything. So impermanence isn’t the indicator of suffering,  it is a characteristic of  interdependent  wholeness.

Contemplating the body as a skin bag  is different from contemplating the body as impure. It’s much more realistic. We are this skin bag of blood and shit and bone and pain and beauty and memory and longing and love.  A bag that can tear at any moment, and in that moment we are gone.