Although Shakyamuni Buddha (563-483 B.C.) clearly holds a very special place within the Buddhist tradition, in Zen, he is not an object of worship, as is the case with the central figure in most other religions. During his lifetime, the Buddha was adamant that the purpose of his teaching was the cessation of suffering and that he was but a teacher of the dharma, not the source of the wisdom itself. Shakyamuni Buddha can be looked upon as a great teacher, as an embodiment of the enlightened mind, or as an example of great wisdom and compassion, but not as a divine being descended into the realm of humans. It was perhaps due to his understanding of our human tendency to deify people and things that he was so clear about his own humanity. However, after he died, the Buddha’s relics were divided into eight portions and enshrined in stupas erected by his lay students in various districts of India, and despite his admonitions, the Buddha’s relics have been an object of worship for some ever since.
Such was the practice of the monk in Dogen’s story. The master, who is not identified, saw the futility of his practice, and said it was due to a tenma-hajin. Tenma refers to demons that cause hindrances to those who follow the Buddhist Way; this particular demon’s name was Hajun (Papiyas in Sanskrit). Upon examination at the insistence of his master (“Open the box and look inside!”), the monk was able to see the potential danger of his practice.
Today, we scarcely need to discourage practioners from the worship of images and relics. If anything, based on the resistance to chanting, prostrations, and other forms of devotional practice often seen among Western newcomers and adepts alike, we probably need to encourage a little more reverence toward the Three Treasures. Our modern-day resistance is likely rooted in egocentric attachments that are probably best abandoned. While it may not be the path to enlightenment, Dogen acknowledges the merit of the practice. Dogen, it seems, sought a middle way between abandonment of the practice and dependence upon the practice.