The following is a re-publishing of my article published in Thelemic Union, “There’s Nothing Special About Meditation,” (2020) comparing the wisdom of Eihei Dogen and Aleister Crowley on the discipline of meditation:
Eihei Dōgen (also known as Dōgen Kigen, 1200 – 1253), the founder of the Buddhist school of Sōtō Zen in Japan, and one of the most important and influential Zen masters, preached the omnipresence of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha)—that Buddha-nature, one’s true and enlightened nature, is present and available to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. To Dōgen, zazen, meditation, is not an attempt at enlightenment so much as enlightenment in and of itself. For him, the simplicity of just sitting, maintaining mere presence, is enough to tap into one’s innermost perfection.
As Dōgen said, “To model yourself after the way of the Buddhas is to model yourself after yourself.” This is a stance of radical self-authentication, a view of enlightenment which, though quintessentially natural and undeniably simplistic, is ultimately beyond description, being rooted in the purity of practice, and not in conjecture or philosophical rhetoric. Hence the Buddha’s noble silence, Bodhidharma’s insistence that the true and profound dharma is “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not depending on words and letters,” and—as we read in so many koans—the wordless responses Zen masters to inquiring pupils.
One Zen parable that illustrates the omnipresence and immediacy of Buddha-nature is a mondō, or dialogue between a disciple and teacher, involving the Zen master Hotetsu.
In this dialogue, a monk approaches Hotetsu, who is fanning himself, and asks the following:
“The wind-nature is constant. There is no place it does not circulate. Why do you still use a fan?”
“You only know that the wind-nature is constant. You do not know yet the meaning of it circulating everywhere.”
In his commentary on the parable of Hotetsu, Dōgen states, “To say that since (the nature of wind) is permanent one should not use a fan, and that one should feel the breeze even when not using a fan, is not knowing permanence and not knowing the nature of the wind either.”
This is itself a somewhat cryptic response to an already cryptic parable, but it remains telling: I think that what Dōgen wants us to understand, essentially, is that Buddha-nature is inherently available all the time, but that just because it is “there” and that we “have” it, doesn’t mean that we comprehend, fully appreciate, and integrate it into our lives.
Zazen is thus like the fan, a utilization of latent potential. By simply sitting in meditation, we better comprehend and, indeed, integrate Buddha-nature. Through practice we move from philosophical speculation to spiritual affirmation. In a single moment of sitting Buddha-hood is actualized.
Meditation for Spiritual Perfection
Teachers from other traditions have in, in so many other terms, echoed similar notions, with the primary idea more or less being that one is already spiritually “perfect,” but has yet to really “remember” or “actualize” that perfection.
Hints of this concept can potentially be inferred from the writings of esotericist Aleister Crowley: Crowley railed against the idea of restorative reincarnation in his commentary on Liber AL vel Legis, saying:
“The idea of incarnations ‘perfecting’ a thing originally perfect by definition is imbecile.”
This conception of existence, Nietzschean as it seems, assumes that each individual human life, in its own uniqueness, is already “perfect” and in need (though not necessarily want or will) of nothing beyond itself.
Crowley developed Thelema, a spiritual and philosophical system which, like Buddhism, often sees its practitioners engage in meditation. And like the pupil of Dōgen, the pupil of Crowley may, if one should in this regard follow his philosophy to the tee, see meditation, and spiritual practice in general, not as a reshaping of something presently unsuitable for a certain purpose (in this case enlightenment), but as a reminder to wake up—a cue to approach life with excellence and live out the perfection already and always resident within all human beings.