Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dogen on Words and Letters, Nonduality of Delusion and Enlightenment

Before continuing along the lines of my last post I though I would offer another translation of the last thing I quoted in the last post. This is "main" part of that quotation as Hee-Jin Kim translates it in his "Dogen On Meditation and Thinking":

The "emptiness" in question is not the "emptiness" of "form and emptiness." [The true meaning of] "form is emptiness" is not that you forcibly make "form" into "emptiness" or that you split "emptiness" so as to fabricate "form"; it is the "emptiness" of "emptiness is emptiness." This "emptiness" of "emptiness is emptiness" is a single piece of rock in emptiness.
Hee-Jin Kim, DOMT p.71

This elucidation on how the realization of emptiness illumines the true significance of all particular things (dharmas), also serves as an illustration of Dogen’s guidance to us students/practitioners on how to apply ourselves in study and practice in order to achieve what he often refers to as "right understanding." The Shobogenzo is packed with examples of this kind of systematic breakdown on methodology. (It makes me wonder if it was the method he himself used to come to his own understanding.) Anyone that has applied him or herself to koan-introspection will quickly notice the similarity of Dogen’s language with the kind of stream of consciousness "nonthinking" that often occurs during intense koan-introspection.

One point I think is clear is that Dogen wrote his record with one eye to posterity. For Dogen, the Shobogenzo was much more than some kind of personal journal or simple textbook on Zen. I think the Shobogenzo was intended to be a complete, self-contained soteriological device.

Before continuing, allow me to briefly digress. This last paragraph would no doubt be denounced as, in the least, an outrageous distortion by most "authorities" within the Soto orthodoxy. They have good reasons to denounce it; if such were the case, it could threaten their very livelihood as the "spiritual authorities" of powerful institutions. If students/practitioners could realize liberation through their own independent practice and study, what need would there be for professional priests?

Of course, the difficulties of the relations between institutional power and spiritual authority have existed in all times, and in all the great religions. For instance, in the chaotic early Kamakura period of Dogen’s own time (when armed monastics were common), a position in the right "spiritual" institution was often the fastest way to personal and familial advancement.
As for interference by "authorities" of institutions regarding the case of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, scholarship has shown that the Shobogenzo itself was largely neglected, and nearly forgotten for centuries by the Soto orthodoxy. As it began to resurface and fall under the public eye, it was discovered that much of its teaching seemed to directly contradict institutional Soto dogma. The first reaction by the Soto institution was to try to keep it away from the public. When it was clear that would fail, they tried to claim that many of its teachings were "fraudulently" attributed to Dogen. When more copies were discovered, some in Dogen’s own hand, some followed the only option left to discredit the Shobogenzo; interpretation, by which of course I mean, "misinterpretation." (For details of these incidents see the works of James W. Heisig, Steven Heine, Dale Wright, John McRae, and others)

The saddest part is that it did not need to turn out that way. When it became clear that the Shobogenzo was under the public eye, and that its Zen teaching was different than what the Soto School had been claiming for centuries, they faced a choice, and unfortunately took the easy way out. They could either have chosen to raise themselves up to Dogen’s true teaching, or reduced Dogen’s true teaching to their own view. Sadly, they opted for the latter.

Some will denounce my assertion for reasons other than self-protection; many of which will, no doubt, be well intended. Nevertheless, I make my claims, not on my own authority or the authority of any teacher or institution, spiritual or otherwise. I make my claim based on a 21 year dialogue with the writer of the Shobogenzo itself; Eihei Dogen. Of which the following is simply a sample out of hundreds within his own records…

"I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of profound instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and maintained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage."
~Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Nishijima & Cross

This statement by Dogen about his intentions for writing his record is not ambiguous, "I will leave this record … so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage." He does not say, "I will transmit my Dharma to a disciple or two so they can pass it on to students will be able to know the right Dharma." Of course it needs to be taken in the overall context of his work, but it does not need to be "interpreted" for its meaning to be discerned—unless, that is, we are trying to reduce it to fit into our own preconceived notions as to what Dogen taught.

Regardless of our own personal disdain for intellectual and/or verbal activity, of which everyone has a right to cling, we should not drag Dogen down to our own level. Forcing convoluted interpretations upon Dogen’s masterpiece in order to make it agree with our own view is not only vulgar; it is pointless. Not only does such treatment cut us (and maybe others) off from his message, his record will always come to its own defense. For example, no matter how much one insists that Dogen believed that words and letters were insignificant to the authentic practice and enlightenment of the Buddha-Dharma, his own record will not "sit down and shut up."

For example, we can say, "Dogen did not believe that people could come to understand ichimizen (non discriminatory Zen) based simply on words and letters." But we can’t eradicate it from his record:

The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen (ichimizen) based on words and letters, if they devote their efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.
~Eihei Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun

We could try to say things like, "Dogen meant the words and letters of a true master with a certificate from a Soto institution." And sure, there will always be students who prefer the "authorities" to tell them what to believe, rather than check it out for themselves. Nevertheless, there will always be some free thinker who will have to find his or her own certitude. Dogen himself was unable to merely swallow the teachings of the highest certified teachers in his own time. He undertook a dangerous journey to China to get to the bottom of it himself. If he had not found Tendo Nyojo, I would not have been surprised if went to India!

Of course, many modern institutions would chide him if he tried to pull that off today. The audacity of using his own thinking mind! Yes, his THINKING mind. For it is only that mind, that discriminatory, analyzing, judging, mind that can establish the bodhi-mind (Enlightened Mind). As Dogen points out in that darn record of his:

In general there are three kinds of mind. The first, citta, is here called thinking mind. The second, hridaya, is here called the mind of grass and trees. The third, vriddha, is here called experienced and concentrated mind. Among these, the bodhi-mind is inevitably established relying upon thinking mind. Bodhi is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "the truth." Citta is the sound of an Indian word; here it is called "thinking mind." Without this thinking mind it is impossible to establish the bodhi-mind. That is not to say that this thinking mind is the bodhi mind itself, but we establish the bodhi-mind with this thinking mind.
~Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo, Hotsu-Bodaishin, Nishijima & Cross

We may personally choose not to exercise our own "thinking mind" and simply believe, act, or submit to whatever spiritual authorities we like, but we should avoid slandering Dogen’s work by making claims that we have not personally experienced. If, after years of careful study and practice, we happen to gain some insight into his life’s work, and that insight seems to be corroborated by Dogen’s own record, that is one thing. If, however, we presume to expound on what Dogen taught or believed based only on what we have heard second hand, that is something else entirely.

When I stated that I believed the Shobogenzo was intended as a complete, self-contained soteriological device, I meant it literally (pun intended). Besides the predictable denunciation by the Soto orthodoxy discussed above, this claim is bound to raise the eyebrows of even those more liberal, and open minded within the Zen community. Such a statement does seem to contradict some of the most traditional views of language in Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen.

I would not deny that the bulk of Zen literature concerning language is directed toward emphasizing its limitations and provisional status, and often portrays it as a hindrance to the authentic truth of Zen. For the most part, the Zen records only grudgingly recognize language as a useful function in the practical aspects of everyday life, and generally deny its value in any meaningful way concerning the ultimate truth of Buddhism. According to this view, when it comes to the highest realizations of Zen, language is at best a provisional tool that can be disregarded when one finally realizes the "authentic" truth.

Nevertheless, his own record clearly shows that Dogen did not conform to this view any more than the most prominent Rinzai master of Japanese Zen history did. Hakuin Ekaku wrote in his autobiography that he took a text "as my master" (Wild Ivy, Waddell, p.24) and declared near the end of his life that, "This book has meant more to me than anything else—even my teachers." (Wild Ivy, Waddell, p.132)

In fact, both of these great Zen Masters regarded the notion that the authentic practice of Zen could dispense with verbal teachings and written words as grossly negligent.

Listen as these two Dragons lament with one voice this pernicious misunderstanding about Zen being "a special transmission outside words and letters, and direct-pointing":

"How sad is the aridity of contemporary Zen schools! They laud unintelligent ignorance as transcendental direct-pointing Zen. Considering unsurpassed spiritual treasures like Focusing the Precious Mirror and the Five Ranks to be worn-out utensils of an antiquated house, they pay no attention to them. They are like blind people throwing away their canes, saying they are useless, then getting themselves stuck in the mud of the view of elementary realization, never able to get out all their lives."
~Hakuin, Kensho, Thomas Cleary, p.68-69

"How sad; how sad! Evil demons and spirits, wild beasts, and domesticated animals now call themselves the Zen School… we should know that within Buddha Dharma there are the Lotus and Huayan and other [teachings]; and it is not that within each of the Lotus and Huayan and so on there are various different buddha dharmas. Therefore, the eighty-four thousand Dharma treasures within the Lotus, Huayan, and so on are all without exception what is simply transmitted by buddha ancestors. It is not that outside of the Lotus and Huayan there is the way of ancestral teachers."
~Dogen, Eihei Koroku, Volume 7, Dharma Hall Discourse 491, Leighton & Okumura

While Dogen recognized and preached the necessity of authentic intellectual and verbal (and by extension, literary) activity in the practice of Zen, he also warned of the dangers of inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity. For Dogen, authentic intellectual and verbal activity consists of illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the Buddha-Dharma, which is illumining and discerning the practice and enlightenment of the self. Inauthentic intellectual and verbal activity consists of blind allegiance to authority, imitation, passivity, detachment, and rigid adherence to particular forms of practice and proscribed systems of thought.

Authentic intellectual activity functions as a creative and transformative process which manifests as an intense curiosity, playfully and energetically engaged in discerning and investigating life, the world, and the Buddha-Dharma. It is marked by the continuous polishing and deepening of realization and wisdom, and the refinement of personal conduct within the Buddha-Dharma. People choosing this mode describe Zen with terms like, "challenging, fascinating, rich, and unpredictable." This is the enactment of the life of prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion), the life of the Bodhisattva of the Mahayana.

Inauthentic intellectual activity is the willing acquiescence to formal doctrine, an adoption of static, submissive passivity that is manifested as a sterile, resignation to a "things are as they are" type of naturalism. It is marked by the cultivation of detachment and disengagement from the world of thought, ideas, and emotion. People choosing this mode often describe Zen as "boring, nothing special, ordinary, and everyday." This is the life of arya-marga (no-more-learning) and the extinguishment of klesha (passions), the life of the Arhat of the Hinayana.

Okay, good enough for tonight. Please share your own ideas, insights and comments. Thank you!


Copyright Ted Biringer 2008


Anonymous said...


Have I missed something? I thought Master Dogen was dead. Death does rather stop dialogue.

What we have is in fact the words of a dead guy which were written in a dialect that has long been forgotten. This has been interepreted and 'corrected' by a number of less-dead people.

Mike Cross is for whatever reason making very clear how difficult translation can be when the thing being translated at its heart is non-conceptual.

I think you are arguing from the wrong position.

Let's say there is something that we shall call "an understanding" of Zen. This may or may not be expressable in words.

Now, if that understanding is non-intellectual but experiential then the absence of words is not a hindrance. Words can be chosen to express an aproximation of that which is 'real'. Words after all are nothing more than tokens that represent that which is talked about.

Now, look at from the other direction. If the understanding is based on symbolic manipulation - i.e. words and language and you remove the words and the language does any understanding remain?

When I write software it doesn't take me long to become fluent in a new language - I already know what the author of the language was trying to achieve by choosing one word or structure over another. In that context all languages are more-or-less the same and the differences are in spelling.

If I had learnt one language without understanding what the language was trying to do I would not be able to pick up a second or a third or a forth. I have no understanding of the difference between the goal and the implementaiton.

Zen is not about words. Words are just one tool that is used as a convenience. Traditionally I think it's almost an embarrasment to use words - as if you are unable to express it better. "A finger pointing at the moon" was an act captured in words. Likewise a "finger chopped off" was an act put into words. How cold was it that night? What was the Master's expression? What was he wearing? How much was lost when the words were written down?

Koan introspection is a recognised way of using words to move beyond words but you are not supposed to keep dragging the words behind you. The make a funny rattling sound and slow you down.

I once had a guy boasting to me and the world about how long he had been studying Dogen and Zen. ISTR saying that it's a shame he was such a slow learner.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Mike,
Good to hear from you! Thanks for your comments.

As far as Dogen being dead, if I was going to base my judgement on the overall state of Zen Buddhism in the modern West (especially of the Soto variety), I would have to say YES INDEED!

But as far as my "dialogue" goes, "he" seems alive in some strange way, in "his" writings anyway. In that state, "he" has given me some clues about where and how "I" might like to look to see if I might experience some kind of insight about this thing I sometimes refer to as my "self." And, although I often fail to find anything, quite a few times his advice has proven fruitful. That is probably the main reason that I have come to trust "him" and even regard him as being "alive" in my own life, anyway.

Of course, I often feel the same way about old dead "Homer" and his Illiad - he may or may not have ever lived at all, yet somehow "his" writings have been instructive for me... I do agree that it is very strange...

Yet, it also seems strange that "I" am living on some kind of a giant rock covered with mud and water, that is hurtling through space, around a large ball of fire, and is spinning at just the right speed to sustain "my" life, which for "me" will likely only last for 50 to 65 revolutions around the fireball (at least according to those "guys" that are able to look at those little curly things within each one of "my" cells and predict such things)and while "I" am doing this unlikely and mysterious thing, in this unlikely and mysterious place, "I" get up each day, help "my son" get off to school, drive to my own "place of employment," where I "see" and interact with a bunch of other "creatures" that are similar to "me" (in that they too seem to be walking, talking, flesh tubes --dead things go in this end, and come out this end -- they too have "eyes" that see (regardless of their intentions to see or not see) and ears, and brains, and what not. And I do all this as if it all made perfect sense! It sometimes seems quite strange! Yet, I fugging dig it!

Perhaps I am just mentally warped or something, or perhaps I am mistakingly making a wrong association, but my zeal? zest? enthusiasim? for life has drastically improved since my "dialogue" with the dead guy began in earnest. I mean, what an awesome ride it has been so far! Who knows what in the hell is going to happen even before I breathe out again! For a long time life seemed more like a nightmare than anything else. But for many years now, WOW, it has seemed more like an embarassment of riches! For some reason, I associate this change of how I experience life with my "dialogue" with Dogen.

(Of course, this "dialogue" includes implementing the advice "he" has suggested. Simply "reading" about it, I am pretty sure- though I have not tried it, so I won't say that I know- but I am pretty sure it would have proven useless for me. I doubt that even memorizing it would have been helpful.)

That is not to say that life has been a "piece of cake" or even that I have been "happy" most of the time. I have not been whistling zip-a-dee doo-da through my asshole by any means. During this "dialogue" I have experienced the most intense pain of my life - the death of my daughter, Jade Alexandria (her birthday is coming up in 8 days and I will probably weep - judging by previous experienc), my third wife died tragically - leaving my 12 year old step-son without a mother, my best friend died of AIDS, I have been divorced (three times! hence, don't ever take my advice on "relationships") I have gone through bankruptcy, and I have experienced the other usual "hard" stuff that happens to everyone in this thing we call life...

Yet, for some reason that seems, to me, to be associated with my "dialogue," I think I have come to an "understanding" of Yunmen's words in case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, "Everyday is a good day." If I am simply suffering from some kind of psychological pathology, that is okay with me - it is much more enjoyable than when I was sane! Ha!

I will have to agree with Mike Cross if he is demonstrating how difficult translating Dogen's work is. When you look at, say, six translations of Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, you may find six very different texts-and that is one of the shorter fascicles! And although I have spent a fair amount of time studying Japanese, I don't have much talent for it--much less, 13th century Japanese-with Chinese mixed in-written-edited-and revised who knows how many times, or by who-then throw in the fact that Dogen (if it was Dogen) not only "ignored" the basic rules of grammer, but actively altered them in his own weird ways--then top that all off with the subject matter; Zen, complete with hundreds of "difficult to penetrate koans"!! It is a wonder that anything could be discerned!

At the same time, even those "six very different texts" will have some similarities. As a mariner I have found it useful to take a "dead reckoning" approach when it comes to trying to get a "fix" on Dogen's position at any particular point. If you are at sea, and you can get three visual landmarks from your position, you can draw three lines on the chart and find your position where these three lines intersect-in actual practice you usually don't get a perfct intersection, but instead a small triangle--the position of your ship is somewhere inside that triangle. The more points of reference you have, the better fix you get.

Fortunately, more quality translations are becoming available rapidily. Some of Dogen's more popular texts, like Genjokoan, are probably available in 10 (or more) fairly decent to high quality translations. If you comine those with Dogen's "original" and some of the versions in "modern" Japanese, in most cases I think you can get a pretty good "fix" on the main points of the text.

As far as whether these texts actually, and authentically portray what the real "historical" Dogen intended, is for me, only of secondary importance. Scholarship has long shown that the records of Rinzai, Huang Po, Bodhidharma, etc, are the products of hundreds, even thousands of factors, individuals, groups, etc. (For a great discussion on this in light of the Buddhist teaching of "dependent origination" see Dale Wright's "Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism"-a great book!)

It seems to me that all of the truly great literature (except maybe for Shakespeare) is a product of this sort. I mean, we don't know who wrote the Dhammapada, or the Heart Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Holy Bible, Beowoulf, the Tao Te Ching, The I-Ching, The Upanishads, etc. But who would doubt their significance?

As for the the position I am "arguing from", first, I don't really think I am arguing, but simply presenting my understanding based on my own experience.

In my first post I explained my position as:

"I would like to take up some of the topics Kim presents in his books and make an effort to give them some of the attention they deserve... I will attempt to keep my focus primarily on Dogen’s teachings as presented in his writings, primarily in his Shobogenzo."

This, as you see, is not about trying to get at what "the real historical Dogen" taught, but that teaching which has been in the process of informing Zen students for a long time--which we "call" "Dogen's" teaching--but which are "actually" written records by ...???? ... For lack of a better word-Dogen.

I have made an effort to do this. Whenever I have discussed the Shobogenzo with anyone, Zen "master" or another "ordinary" being like myself, I have always tried to remain open minded about what "they say" "it says" or "means." This has often resulted in discovering some new insight that has in some way enriched my experience of living.

At the same time, when someone "tells" me the Shobogenzo "means" something that seems to differ widely with what I get out of it, I ask them how they come to their conclusions. Sometimes they offer something that allows me to get their point. Other times, I am just not convinced. This is all I am doing here. By stating that I have no "authority" to back up my understanding except for my own "dialogue" with Dogen, I simply mean my experience and understanding of those written records that are most often attributed to "Dogen" and how they have influenced my own Zen practice and study through the years (both inside and outside the Zen community).

You wrote:

"Let's say there is something that we shall call "an understanding" of Zen. This may or may not be expressable in words."

How about Dogen's observations on Bodhidharma's skin, flesh, bones, and marrow? If we give it the benifit of the doubt, there will be "as many understandings" of Zen as there are disciples, even if there were 84,000 of them. And some would be "expressible in words" as were the first 3 disciples, and some "expressible" in "no words" as in Eka's case.

As far as your observations on Zen, words, and fingers pointing at the moon, I agree with you (as do most of the classic Zen texts). Your explanation is a great presentation of the traditional Zen veiw on the "instrumental" role of language. Dogen too, I think, agrees on this point as far as it goes.

But Dogen, and I think some other Zen records, also see the role and nature of language, especially in the soteriological sense, as offering something more than a "a fish cage" or a "raft" that is simply used to reach a goal, and then abandonded. I think that if we look deep enough we may just discover that the "finger pointing at the moon" is "the moon pointing at the moon," or in Dogen's terms, "hunger can only be satisfied by a picture of a rice cake." (Shobogenzo, Gabyo).

If so, woah! What is going on here??!! if not, whoa! What is going on here??!!

In any case, the aim of this blog (and my own posts) is to share and explore our experience, ideas, and insights.

If my post came across as boasting, I did not mean it that way. I don't think I have anything to boast about - twenty years of practice and study and I still find Dogen's words about "nonthinking" to be full of mystery--even moreso his teachings on "doing not-doing" and others... Yet all of the time I have spent pondering these ideas? notions? concepts? teachings? insights? or whatever they are, has for me, been time well spent... Just look at how your comments have led me into this long "dialogue" with "mike doe" who I know only through his words, and expressions...

Thank you Mike-- Gassho

Anonymous said...


trust me, I don't consider your comment to be of boasting, more of fact. The tone is all wrong for it to be anything else.

As for Mike Doe, it's no more real than any other name that I'm known by.

As for non-thinking and non-doing, they are not things to be understood. They are things to be non-thought and non-done! They can at best be non-taught!!!!

Ted Biringer said...

Hey Mike,
Thanks for the comments - sincerely.

I have known you long enough, and shared enough ideas back and forth to at least understand that you are true to yourself, and in my expereince, to me also.

I take your points seriously, and respect what you have to say. In fact, I think on most of the basics we are in the same ball park.

I also realize that some of my recent posts (aside from their long-windedness) focus on some of the areas where we see things differently, which of course is often the spark of some of the best discussions. I hope you continue to check in from time to time and offer your perspectives. They offer much food for thought...

Mike wrote:

"As for Mike Doe, it's no more real than any other name that I'm known by."

And Ted could not resist adding:

Nor is it any less real...

Mike wrote:

"As for non-thinking and non-doing, they are not things to be understood. They are things to be non-thought and non-done!"

Ted replied:

Mike, I know you well enough to know that you just zipped this off the top. You could have done much better, as you have proven before. The first "they are not things..." was great! The second "They are things..." was like "adding legs to a snake," to put it in Zen parlance...

Do you mind if I give it a whirl? How about this: As for non-thinking and non-doing, they are not "non-thinking" and "non-doing," they are non-thinking and non-doing.

Mike wrote:

"They can at best be non-taught!!!!"

Ted replied: Yes! Yes! Thank you for your teaching!

Thanks again Mike. No matter how much we agree or disagree, there is a vast amount of fun about it.


Anonymous said...


>I have known you long enough, and shared enough ideas back and forth to at least understand that you are true to yourself, and in my expereince, to me also.

That much is true. When I write it is a result of where I am right now so and so whatever is written is flavoured by the present as it is for me.

When I write I of course do not know how people will react. Sometimes I have expectations. Sometimes those expectations are accurate. Sometimes not.

>I take your points seriously, and respect what you have to say. In fact, I think on most of the basics we are in the same ball park.

Of course, that's a given otherwise I wouldn't bother hanging around here. On the 'basics' we are in the same ballpark but perhaps for diffrent reasons!

Whether we see things differently or the same is not imporant to me. Differences are a source of growth. When there are no more differences we both will have made progress.

What was written yesterday was not written by me. Today I write this. Tomorrow someone else may write something.

>Nor is it any less real...
Of course. It's transative.

>Mike, I know you well enough to know that you just zipped this off the top. You could have done much better, as you have proven before. The first "they are not things..." was great! The second "They are things..." was like "adding legs to a snake," to put it in Zen parlance...

That's the way I write. I know what I've written after it's written. Then the only question is whether or not the del key gets hit. Better or worse is not important to me. I got halfway through a thought and changed how I was going to close out the paragraph. For all you know I could have been drawing a lizard!

>Do you mind if I give it a whirl? How about this: As for non-thinking and non-doing, they are not "non-thinking" and "non-doing," they are non-thinking and non-doing.

I'm disappointed in you - mere wordplay!

A Koan for you:

If I think and I do can I non-think and non-do?

If nobody thinks and nobody does is that non-thinking and non-doing?

>Thanks again Mike. No matter how much we agree or disagree, there is a vast amount of fun about it.

I enjoy our play. It is fun. I might even buy your book!

I might even write one of my own "Zen and Now - a treatsie on the present-moment experience". 200 pages, all blank with a forward from Mike Cross - "Never in 750 years I have I read such crap"

Now "Enchanted" calls me.

Anonymous said...

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.