Monday, April 14, 2008

How have you approached the Shobogenzo

I have noticed a few coincidences lately between some of the discussions I have had and some of the things I have been reading. Now, I am not actually a very superstitious person, but I have learned to pay attention to coincidences…

The thing that seems to keep coming up is the relation between "study" and "practice" in Zen—especially regarding what Dogen’s Shobogenzo has to teach us about it, and how we can access that teaching.

One thing that has happened—which I have found to be somewhat surprising—is that several people that offered their views (not their opinions, mind you, but their "knowledge"- as in what they "know") on the teachings of the Shobogenzo, when asked, admitted that they had not even read the whole thing—much less the Eihei roku, or zuimonki.

Two of these people have been "practicing" Zen (Soto) for more than ten years and claim to be living their lives according to the teachings of Dogen—but how could they know that? I was able to inquire a little deeper with one of them. She admitted that she really had not made much of an effort to study Dogen’s work, but took her teacher’s word for what Dogen did or did not teach.

Lately I have been spending a little time each day trying to catch up on books written by contemporary Zen teachers. In the course of my reading I have come across several passages by different teachers that begin with something along the lines of, "Dogen believed that…" and "According to Dogen…" and then finish their sentences by saying something that did not seem to fit anything I had ever read or heard about in Dogen’s work. I looked, but the authors did not reference which record that they found the teaching in, much less the source. It made me wonder if they too, were simply repeating what a teacher had told them.

So, after mulling things over a little I thought that maybe we could share our own experiences, ideas, and insights on the study and practice of Zen. Here are some questions to help get the juices flowing:

How have you approached the Shobogenzo (or other Zen texts)?

How far is too far to go when offering our "knowledge" about Dogen’s (or anyone’s) teaching if we have not actually studied it ourselves?

Should we "qualify" our views with things like, "My teachers says that Dogen…" and "According to my teacher, Dogen taught…" Or do you think it is perfectly acceptable to say, "Dogen taught…" without qualifying our source?

If and when you do offer your experience and/or knowledge on Dogen, or anything to do with Buddhism or Zen, what do you base the validity of your understanding on?

Since I am the one that is trying to drag you into this, I will start…

When I offer my understanding of Dogen’s Shobogenzo I usually try to do so in a way that acknowledges that I could be wrong. Many times I have been forced to let go of some notion or another that did not stand up in the face of fresh knowledge or experience.

So let me qualify what I am about to share now and thereby avoid the cumbersome task of qualifying each point as I make them. Everything I think I "understand" about the Shobogenzo (or anything else really) is subject to change in the light of new knowledge or experience. Having said that, I believe that I can qualify everything I am about to say with at least two examples from Dogen’s own records. Okay, here goes…

My understanding of the Shobogenzo is based on 21 years of practice and study, employing a wide range of approaches and methods in a concerted effort to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the Shobogenzo. I think that this effort has, for the most part, proven successful —I hasten to add that by "comprehensive understanding" I mean extensive, not exhaustive, thoroughgoing, not all-inclusive.

Early on, I came to the conclusion that an accurate grasp of the message of Dogen’s unique, multidimensional work would require much more than an extensive familiarity with the entirety of its text and the tradition from which it evolved. It would also require years of intensive and extensive practical application, exploration, and experimentation. I reasoned that the work of such a uniquely gifted thinker and writer embedded within a specific literary tradition, an accurate understanding of the Shobogenzo demanded a thorough grasp of the philosophical, historical, literary, and religious systems through which it is conveyed. Moreover, as a soteriological expression by a Zen Buddhist master, a true appreciation of it would require the experience that only the actual implementation of its vision could provide. In short, it was clear from the beginning that any hope of discerning the authentic message of Dogen’s masterpiece demanded a combined approach allowing full and equal attention to experience as well as to knowledge, to practice as well as to study. I still believe this.

During the last 21 years I have sat with a wide variety of practitioners from various lineages. In the early years I worked with four different Zen masters (2 Soto, 1 sanbokyodan, and 1 in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh). I eventually settled on the teacher that I have now been with for almost 15 years. I spent my first 13 years with this teacher engaged in koan-introspection, shikantaza, and studying the works of Dogen. I also continued my own independent study during this time. I studied Japanese for two years but did not have much talent for it, and am deeply grateful for the many gifted translators that are supplying us with quality texts. I experimented with a variety of meditation techniques outlined in the classic Zen texts—especially the ones that seemed to me to be similar to Dogen’s teachings on "nonthinking."

My initial resistance to undertaking what at first seemed a daunting, if not futile task (coming to terms with the Shobogenzo) was gradually relieved as the validity of my approach was continuously confirmed by the very medium of the subject of my inquiry; the Shobogenzo itself. I eventually discovered, that this method of approaching the Shobogenzo is not simply a requirement for comprehending and expressing Dogen’s teaching, it is an inherent aspect of it. That is to say, I came to the realization of something Hee-Jin Kim had realized and expressed a decade before I had ever even heard of Zen Buddhism. His expression is much better than I could paraphrase hence I quote:

"[N]onduality did not primarily signify the transcendence of duality so much as it signified the realization of duality. When one chose and committed oneself to a special course of action, one did so in such a manner that the action was not an action among others, but the action—there was nothing but that particular action in the universe so that the whole universe was created in and through that action…

"As we incorporate these observations on Dogen’s view of the body-mind understanding into what I have said about activities and expressions, it is evident that activities, expressions, and understanding were one and the same for Dogen. It was not that we acted first and then attempted to understand, nor was it even that action was a special mode of understanding; all modes of understanding were necessarily activities and expressions."
(Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, pp.105-106)

In discussing the validity of this observation with others over the years, I have often been met with a great deal of skepticism and resistance, especially by those within the Zen community. Nevertheless, I believe that Kim’s is an accurate assessment of a theme that runs through the entire corpus of Dogen’s work and is especially prominent in the Shobogenzo. For Dogen, activity, expression, and understanding—while maintaining their particular differences—always go together. Hence, any authentic understanding of the Shobogenzo inevitably includes "activity" and "expression."

While some inside the Zen community have been willing to (at least temporarily) entertain this notion, most have vehemently denied it all together once the mere outline of its corollary becomes apparent; namely, that the authentic practice of Zen consists largely of verbal, and by extension, literary activity. This sounds astonishing in the ears of those that have been inundated with the rhetoric surrounding Zen’s self-designation as "a separate transmission, outside words and letters, and not dependant on writings." While Dogen’s own writings may present the clearest evidence of how widely misunderstood this "self-designation" of Zen is, a simple appeal to common sense, I think, provides sufficient reason to dispel the most glaring misunderstandings in regard to this notion.

The misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the meaning behind "a separate transmission, outside words and letters, and not dependant on writings" is grounded on a faulty supposition. The faulty supposition in question is that "a separate transmission, outside words etc." is necessarily exclusive of words and letters (or any manner of verbal and literary activity). In other words, asserting the position that Zen is "outside words etc." and asserting that the authentic practice of Zen consists largely of verbal and literary activity need not be read as contradictory statements. The rationality of this point may become clearer if I try illustrating it within a different context. For instance, we would not find any difficulty in the statement that human life "exists outside words and letters, is not dependent on writings, and its occupation consists largely of verbal and literary activity. Indeed, one is hardly able to imagine human life apart from its ability and practice of verbal activity.

I firmly believe (and will present my evidence in the coming weeks, if requested) that the Shobogenzo insists that a failure to endeavor in intellectual and verbal activity will effectively bar one from the authentic practice of Zen.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not construe this to mean, in any way that Dogen did not acknowledge the ineffable aspect of reality or the limitations of language and intellect. What I am saying is that based on my experience and understanding, Dogen’s teachings did not deny the limitations of the human condition, but evaluated and illumined them within the context of the highest realizations of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, namely, emptiness and dependent origination. When seen through the experience of emptiness, or what Dogen often calls "nonthinking," each and every particular thing has absolute significance. Not only words and letters, but as Dogen never tires of saying, "walls, tiles, pebbles and mountains, the whole earth and the great sky." In the Shobogenzo Dogen even illumines the absolute significance of such things as dreams, illusions, pictures, doubt, and surprise.

Try to keep an open mind, and apply what I have discussed above to what Dogen points out in Shobogenzo, Bussho:

"We must unfailingly apply ourselves to the words "being without the Buddha-nature." ("being without" is a translation of "mu") Do not be hesitant. Though we should trace an outline of being without (mu) the Buddha-nature, it has the standard which is What, the real time which is You, the devotion to the moment which is This, and the name, common to all, which is Shu: it is direct pursuit itself.

The fifth patriarch says, "The Buddha-nature is emptiness, ("emptiness" is a translation of "ku") so we call it being without." (mu) This clearly expresses that emptiness (ku) is not non-existence. (mu) To express that the Buddha-nature is emptiness, (ku) we do not say it is half a pound and we do not say it is eight ounces, but we use the words "being without." (mu) We do not call it "emptiness" (ku) because it is void, (ku) and we do not call it "being without" (mu) because it does not exist; (mu) because the Buddha-nature is emptiness, (ku) we call it "being without." (mu) So real instances of being without (mu) are the standard for expressing "emptiness," (ku) and emptiness (ku) has the power to express "being without." (mu) This emptiness (ku) is beyond the emptiness (ku) of "matter is just emptiness." ("Shiki Soku Ze Ku" from the heart sutra) [At the same time,] "matter (U)is just emptiness" (ku) describes neither matter being forcibly made into emptiness (ku) nor emptiness (ku) being divided up to produce matter. (U) It may describe emptiness (ku) in which emptiness (ku) is just emptiness. (ku) "Emptiness(ku) in which emptiness(ku) is just emptiness(ku)" describes one stone in space. (ku)"
Shobogenzo, Bussho, Nishijima & Cross

You see? Try this kind of reading with some of your favorite chapters of the Shobogenzo and see what you see. It never hurts to try.
All comments are welcome. Thank you.

Copyright Ted Biringer 2008


noa said...

Hi again Ted. I much appreciate your focus on Dogen's record, as I have spent a lot of time in an effort to understand his true meaning as well. Simply reading Dogen seems to require a meditative effort! I agree completely with your thoughts on activity, expression, and understanding - it seems to me that every understanding is an action, as it requires a dialogue between two sentient beings involving questioning and confirmation of some sort. When I think about it, it seems necessary that an understanding consists of a memory involving a percieved action and expression. Maybe! It's hard to think about it without questioning my definition of the word understanding.

I wanted to ask if you could give me the english names of the two sections you mentioned (Eihei roku & zuimonki) as I can't find those names in my translation (by Rev. Hubert Nearman.)

Ted Biringer said...

Hi noa,

Thanks for your comments. I am glad you are enjoying the posts.

I agree with your assessment about reading Dogen being a "meditative effort." And what a wonderful ride it is! Have you read "Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism" by Dale S. Wright? The whole book is great, but he has a very good "reading lesson" in his introduction. It is similar to Mortimer Adler's "How To Read A Book," only geared more to the "Buddhist reader." Check it out if you get a chance.

I was thinking about your observation on understanding where you noted "it requires a dialogue between two sentient beings involving questioning and confirmation of some sort." How about "nonsentient" beings? Do you think it is possible to achieve understanding through interaction or "dialogue" with a nonsentient being? Dogen is always saying things like, "You should ask a pillar..." What do you make of that?

Also, you said, "it seems necessary that an understanding consists of a memory involving a percieved action and expression."

I think that is true of some kinds of understanding. But how about "understanding" right in the moment of "nonthinking", or as Dogen says, "At the very time of your sitting..." What I am saying, is how about understanding which is not involved with "memory" (or anticipation)? Do you have any experience working with koans? When we resolve the koan, "Who hears?" for instance, I think that brings us right to the "place" where understanding, expression, and activity are realized without being involved in memory.

You also said, "It's hard to think about it without questioning my definition of the word understanding." Yes! Great! Question it, look it up, ask about, ponder it, ask an outdoor pillar about it! I think questioning deeply, and investigating upside down and sideways is a good way to keep the old mind from becoming too rigid and dried out. And who knows, you just might realize something along the way. Ha!

You asked about the Eihei koroku & Zuimonki.

Both of these are separate records (not the kana Shobogenzo).

The Eihei Koroku has been translated into English as "Dogen's Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku" by Leighton and Okumura. It is a very good translation, and a must have.

Zuimonki has been translated into English as "Record of Things Heard: The Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Talks of Zen Master Dogen as Recorded by Zen Master Ejo" by Thomas Cleary. I think there are also some partial translation scattered around in some of Cleary's other books--those of the "anthology" type.

Let me know if there is anything else. And please, comment freely!
Thanks again,
Take care,