No matter how one "interprets" Dogen's writings, I doubt there are many serious students of Dogen that have not lain awake some nights with one of his phrases turning over in their mind like a multifaceted jewel illumining undreamed of dimensions within what Dogen calls "the homeland of the self." Anyone that has will probably find it easy to agree with Hee-Jin Kim’s observation that "the single most original and seminal aspect of Dogen’s Zen is his treatment of the role of language in Zen soteriology." (Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: His View On Zen, p.59) Saying Dogen believed that language played a vital role in an authentic approach to the practice and realization of Zen would be a gross understatement.
This does not mean, in my opinion, that Dogen was unaware, or unconcerned with the limitations, dangers, and difficulties inherent to the misuse or misunderstanding of verbal teachings, formulas, and doctrines of all kinds. In fact, it seems to me that just the opposite was true; Dogen’s appreciation for the power of language seems to have engendered him with an almost hypersensitivity to anything that he percieved as a misuse of words and phrases. Other than Shakyamuni Buddha, and Dogen’s own revered teacher, Tendo Nyojo, nobody was excused from a fierce scolding when Dogen discovered them using an awkward or ambiguous term, especially if it smacked of dualism. Joshu, who Dogen sometimes refers to as "the ancient Buddha," the great Master Baso, and even the revered Sixth Ancestor of Zen are all the subjects Dogen’s lash for what he perceived as a misuse of language.
However, it was only the misuse of language that Dogen disparaged, it seems to me, not the use of language in itself. The misuse of language, as far as Dogen is concerned, includes more than simply using an improper term or dualistic phrase. His records are filled with just as many instances in which he upbraids the "ancient worthies" for what they failed to say as it is for what they said badly. In one tirade, Rinzai, who Dogen frequently acknowledges as a "rightful heir of the Dharma," is dismissed as an ignoramus for not expressing something when he should have. Poor old Deshan is pummeled, kicked around, and chopped to pieces for several pages in Dogen’s treatment of his failure to express anything in his classic conversation with the tea-selling woman.
One of the corollaries of Dogen’s views concerning the inseparability of ones understanding, and their expressions is the ability to accurately evaluate someone’s understanding simply by examining their expressions. Before Dogen went to China he realized that the authentic teachings of written texts were much more valuable than any inauthentic teachings of certified "Dharma heirs." In the Zuimonki Dogen explains how he came to realize this fact when he compared the teachings of his own "distinguished" title holding teachers to those of the "eminent Buddhists" of the past:
"…I came to realize that they differed from what my teachers taught. What is more, I realized that thoughts such as mine, according to their treatises and biographies, were loathed by these people. Having contemplated the nature of the matter at last, I thought to myself I should have felt rather humbled by ancient sages and future good men and women instead of elated by the praise of despicable contemporaries… In view of such a realization, the holders of the title of Great Teacher (daishi) in this country seemed to me worthless, like earthen tiles, and my whole life was changed completely."
Zuimonki, V:8 (Quoted from Mystical Realist, p.25)
Dogen’s insistence to "study this" "get inside these words" "penetrate this saying" "take up these words again and again" and similar exhortations is so constant throughout his works it is easy to become desensitized to their presence. Dogen’s direct instruction to take up and study specific phrases, words, koans, sutras, and so on probably outnumber his instructions to dedicate ourselves to Zazen by at least 20 to 1. I hasten to add that contrary to some "officials," when Dogen urges us to "investigate these words," he means we should take them up in sitting meditation, as well as our other activities (at least that is what Dogen's records say).
Just to get a feel for his constant demand on "investigating these words" here are a few random examples of Dogen’s constant demands concerning words:
"At the same time we should investigate whether the Great Master’s words ‘I call this thing bamboo and wood,’ and Shin-o’s words ‘I also call it bamboo and wood,’ are the same or not the same, and whether they are adequate or not adequate. The Great Master says, ‘If we search the whole Earth for a person who understands the Buddha-Dharma, it is impossible to find one.’ We should also closely scrutinize and decide about this expression."
Shobogenzo, Sangai-Yuishin, Nishijima & Cross
"Good gentelman, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one case of [koan] story, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently. If you climb to the top of the mountain and dry up the oceans, you will not fail to complete [this study].
Dogen's Extensive Record, The Eihei Koroku, Vol.8:14, Leighton & Okumura
"Even a work produced latterly, if its words are true, should be approved."
Shobogenzo, Butsudo, Nishijima & Cross
"The truth expressed now in the founding Patriarch’s words ‘What people are able to hear the non-emotional preaching the Dharma’ should be painstakingly researched through the effort of one life and many lives."
Shobogenzo, Mujo-Seppo, Nishijima & Cross
"We should quietly investigate the principle of, and learn in practice the realization of words like this."
Shobogenzo, Ganzei, Nishijima & Cross
"Thus the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature’ can be heard coming form the distant room of the fourth patriarch. They are seen and heard in Obai, they are spread throughout Joshu district, and they are exalted on Dai-i [mountain]. We must unfailingly apply ourselves to the words ‘being without the Buddha-nature.’ Do not be hesitant."
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Nishijima & Cross
"Learning these words in practice, we should meet with the ancestral patriarchs of Buddhism and we should see and hear the teachings of Buddhism."
Shobogenzo, Bukkyo, Nishijima & Cross
"We must investigate these words quietly; we should replace our heart with them and replace our brain with them."
Shobogenzo, Daigo, Nishijima & Cross
It seems that the only time Dogen’s rhetoric becomes more passionate than when insisting that we take words, koans, and sutras seriously is in his attacks on those that dismiss or minimize the role of verbal and rational activity in the practice of Zen. The coarsest language in Dogen’s records has been reserved for those that fail to take up and discern the koans, which he treats as the basic texts of Zen Buddhism. For example, in Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Dogen says:
"They say that present talk of the East Mountain moving on water, and stories (koans) such as Nansen’s sickle, are stories (koans) beyond rational understanding… It is pitiful that the great truth of the Buddhist Patriarch is going to ruin. The understanding of these [shavelings] is inferior even to that of sravakas of the small vehicle; they are more stupid than non-Buddhists. They are not lay people, they are not monks, they are not human beings, and they are not gods; they are more stupid than animals learning the Buddha’s truth. What these shavelings call ‘stories (koans) beyond rational understanding’ are beyond rational understanding only to them; the Buddhist patriarchs are not like that. Even though [rational ways] are not understood by those [shavelings], we should not fail to learn in practice the Buddhist patriarchs’ ways of rational understanding… [The shavelings] do not know that images and thoughts are words and phrases, and they do not know words and phrases transcend images and thoughts. When I was in China I laughed at them, but they had nothing to say for themselves and were just wordless (sic)... They have the non-Buddhist view of naturalism."
Shobogenzo, Sansuigyo, Nishijima & Cross
His charge at the end of this passage concerning "the non-Buddhist view of naturalism" is also a topic that earns Dogen’s unrelenting scorn. His definition of what he means by such a "view" is remarkably similar to a style of "Zen" which is sometime advocated in modern times. Briefly, this view promotes a notion that "just sitting" calmly in "pure awareness" and allowing things to "be as they are" is the authentic practice of Zen. Some even use the common terms of naturalism like, "natural state," "natural man," etc. In modern variations, this "non-Buddhist view" is sometimes combined with the fostering of cultic belief in the supernatural influence of specific practices or rituals, usually a subversion of "Zazen." In such cases, the term "Zazen" is usually reduced to its most literal meaning of "sitting meditation," then equated with Buddhahood. Thus, the whole of the Buddha-Dharma is degraded to a mere superstition: "to sit like Buddha" is "to be Buddha." But I digress.
Turning back to Dogen’s constant refrain concerning words and language, we should examine one of his favorite phrases; "learning in practice." Dogen uses this term so often that it is important to understand exactly what he means. One of his own explanations about what "learning in practice" means is found in, Shobogenzo, Mitsugo:
"’Learning in practice’ means not intending to understand at once but striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object. We should not think that when a person has something to relate we will be able to understand at once."
Shobogenzo, Mitsugo, Nishijima & Cross
Reading this, and the multitude of similar exhortations on the rigorous nature of Zen practice, we can understand why some might prefer a "Zen" of "just sitting" or of simply "labeling" our thoughts and feelings. I don't think Dogen would have a problem with that as long as it was not asserted as his teaching on Zen Buddhism.
Dogen’s repetitious insistence on "striving painstakingly hundreds of times, or thousands of times, as if working to cut a hard object" certainly may not sound as attractive as "just sitting" and "letting go" and "having no goal." But if we are going to use Dogen's records as any authority on his teachings, we need to consider what those records actually say.
He does not always focus on the neccesity of "striving painstakingly" of course, Dogen also highlights those rare and wondrous, blissful moments of Zen where mind and body drop away and "Buddha is not aware of being Buddha." This is the inexpressible, inconceivable "state of Buddha" that can only be realized through direct experience.
And, even while acknowledging the impossibility of expressing this experience in words, Dogen goes to great lengths to express what can be expressed about it. In some of his more poetic moments he describes the indescribable in incredibly elegant (and eloquent) terms. The Shobogenzo, Bendowa, for instance, presents one his most memorable descriptions of the "experience" of the "state of Buddha."
"At this time, everything in the Universe in ten directions - soil, earth, grass, and trees; fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles - performs the Buddha’s work. The people that receive the benefit thus produced by wind and water are all mystically helped by the fine and unthinkable influence of the Buddha, and they exhibit the immediate state of realization. All beings who receive and utilize this water and fire spread the influence of the Buddha in the original state of experience, so that those who live and talk with them also, are all reciprocally endowed with the limitless Buddha-virtue. Expanding and promoting their activity far and wide, they permeate the inside and the outside of the entire Universe with the limitless, unceasing, unthinkable, and incalculable Buddha-Dharma. [The state] is not dimmed by the views of these individuals themselves, however, because the state in the quietness, without intentional activity, is direct experience."
Shobogenzo, Bendowa, Nishijima & Cross
Dogen’s exuberance here nearly makes the inexpressible palpable--as when the sound of a child’s laughter causes us to laugh, so Dogen’s exuberance resonates and arouses a sympathetic response in our own body-and-mind. This sense of great joy and zeal for the Buddha-Dharma has a powerful encouraging effect on those that seriously engage in actively reading and implementing his work. In the (relatively few) passages when Dogen sings out on the marvelous wonders of enlightenment, they bring a refreshing moment of release similar to the sound of the dinner bell after a day of hard labor. Of course, in the overall context of Dogen’s Zen teaching, such exhilarating praises on the blissful wonders of Buddhahood are rare. Nevertheless, like the sound of the dinner bell at the end of the day, they are most welcome.
Much more often, Dogen’s expressions sound more like those of an exacting taskmaster. Sometimes, the compassion of an old grandmother manifests as a thump on the head. For every expression about the "blissful" state transcending enlightenment and delusion, there must be fifty expressions urging us to "grind our bones to powder" in our efforts to "get inside these words."
I don't think Dogen is trying to make things difficult for us anymore than the kindly old grandmother administers her thumps simply to cause pain. Dogen has realized something marvelous and he wants to share it with us—no, he has to share it with us. For as we observed earlier, understanding, activity, and expression always occur together. Dogen’s expressions are the activity of his continuous and ongoing understanding.