Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dogen's Shobogenzo, Does the Soto Church Own it?

Outside of specialized scholarly studies, many (if not most) of the English language books offering interpretation and commentary on the Shobogenzo are based primarily on contemporary Soto-Zen dogma. Consequently, few support their assertions with textual or historical evidence outside of Soto-Zen authority, leaving the general reader without much hope for achieving an unbiased appraisal of the Shobogenzo.

In spite of the vast amount of attention Dogen has received in the last thirty years or so, for most English language readers the Shobogenzo remains ambiguous. In fact, for the general reader, the so-called "Dogen boom" has been more like a hazy and complicated series of dull thuds. English language commentary on the Shobogenzo, if we set aside the works of sectarian bias, scholarly specialization, charlatanism, triviality, and eccentricity, is certainly much less in volume, as well as variety, than such an original and brilliant work is entitled to.

Since the 1970’s, when a genuine interest in the teachings of Dogen began in the west, only one English language book has seriously attempted to convey an inclusive exposition of the Shobogenzo; the landmark book by Hee-Jin Kim: Dogen Kigen—Mystical Realist (1975). (Slightly revised and reissued as, Eihei Dogen—Mystical Realist). Most of the scholarly treatment on the Shobogenzo has been highly specialized, focusing on specific aspects of its history, or thought. While these efforts offer valuable insight into their respective topics, they do not provide a comprehensive examination of the Shobogenzo as a whole. Nevertheless, approaching the Shobogenzo through the works of the scholarly community is preferable to approaching it through the works of many of the so-called authorities within the various Zen sects and institutions, which rarely transcend sectarian bias.

The tendency of exponents (both scholars and clergy) to insist, almost exclusively, on focusing on the peculiarity or, unorthodox nature of the Shobogenzo has only increased its ambiguity. When it becomes necessary to deal with the influence of Eihei Dogen, Buddhist scholars (and non-Soto Zen sectarians) tend to either ignore the Shobogenzo entirely, or interrupt the continuity of their immediate explication and widely digress into explanations about the uniqueness of its form. Meanwhile, the Soto Zen adherents tend to revere Dogen (and hence the Shobogenzo) as the ultimate (if not the only) authority of Buddhism itself. The Shobogenzo is consequently projected as standing apart from (or above) its context in the Buddhist tradition that produced it and which it was intended to reveal, and is ultimately perceived as an anomaly within the Zen Buddhist tradition, an isolated and separable occurrence.

This isolationism is compounded by the fact that much of the interpretive literature available to English readers is conveyed by a handful of "Zen masters" often basing their authority on a narrow interpretation of the Zen tradition of "mind to mind" transmission. The Zen doctrine of transmission has powerful significance for the spiritually mature; however, the naive understanding that many modern "Dharma-successors" demonstrate (which amounts to a type of idolatrous superstition) can hardly form a basis for an accurate understanding of the Shobogenzo.

Although some in the Zen community are aware of the negligent and sometimes slanderous activity by pseudo-Zen masters, few have been willing to publicly challenge it. No doubt, some of the reluctance to openly challenge those responsible is due to the traditional Buddhist precept to avoid criticizing "members of the community (sangha)." However, having already experienced the disastrous results of keeping silent about wrong conduct, evidenced by the numerous scandals involving extortion, favoritism, and sexual exploitation that has nearly come to define the western history of Zen Communities, how can anyone justify silence regarding false or deluded teaching?

In Bussho, Shobogenzo, Dogen laments the sad fact that "many accept what they know to be fake." Disgusted by usurpers claiming to be heirs of the Buddhist master Nagarjuna, Dogen wrote what accurately describes many of his own interpreters today:

'Nevertheless, wrong groups of usurpers often boast, "We also are the heirs of the great Nagarjuna." They make commentaries and put together interpretations, often having feigned the hand of Nagarjuna himself… Groups discarded long ago [by Master Nagarjuna] disturb and confuse human beings and gods… But many accept what they know to be fake. The stupidity of living beings who insult the great prajna is pitiful and sad."
Trans. Nishijima Roshi & Mike Cross

Of course, some of those guilty of misrepresenting Dogen are simply deluded by self-approbation based on "confirmation" by their own misguided teachers, and are merely repeating the sectarian bias inherited from their own particular schools. Although knowingly prostituting the Shobogenzo for personal gain might appear to be the greater evil, unintentional misrepresentation causes no less damage. Many of these misrepresentations have gone unchallenged for far too long, which, I believe, threatens Dogen’s masterpiece with petrifaction in institutional dogmatism.

Does any of this accord with the observation of others?

Thank you,

Ted Biringer

Home: The Flatbed Sutra


Crookedsophist said...

Hi Ted,

I can't really comment on the accuracy of your observations here, since I'm new to Zen practice and to studying Dogen. But what you've written is very interesting. It raises some questions for me about what the best way forward is for me in studying Dogen's work.

My strategy so far has been to read the Shobogenzo (I'm about halfway through the Nishijima/Cross translation and intend to look at other translations when I've read it through once), while at the same time slowly reading older Buddhist texts (some Zen, some not).

Do you have any suggestions as to which commentaries on the Shobogenzo are helpful, or don't fall into some of the traps you've described here? Or other texts that might help me see the Shobogenzo in its historical context in the history of Buddhism and Zen?

My impression so far is that Shobogenzo is a very unique work in terms of style, but that it obviously 'fits' with earlier Buddhist philosophy. But, as I said, I'm something of a beginner.

Thanks for any guidance you can offer, and for your absolutely fascinating blog.


Ted Biringer said...

Dear Charles,

Thank you for sharing your comments.

It sounds to me like your strategy is excellent.

First of all, I would suggest the advice of the Buddha, "Be a lamp unto yourselves."

While I acknowledge the risks of "self guidance", I believe that we should pay very close attention to our own intuition--that is, to a certain extent, we should follow our noses... After all, according to Zen, the wisdom of the sages is inherent to all beings, including ourselves.

There is a classic Zen saying that goes, "First awaken on your own, then seek someone."

I would say that your approach to Zen study, as far as approaching the "teachings" will take you in the right direction. I would add this; if you are not yet trying to apply those teachings, you might find it very helpful.

Follow Dogen, or some other classic Zen master's instructions on some type of "regular" meditation (sitting meditation is usually the best to start with, but walking meditation works well for some--just try something that sound reasonable to you.)

Put those teachings (and your understanding of them) to the test. Do they bear the fruits they claim? This, I think, is the best way to find out what works: try it and see.

The one book that I have found to be (by far) the most helpful on Dogen and the Shobogenzo is, "Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist", Revised, Third Edition, by Hee-Jin Kim. I would also recommend his more recent book, "Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on His View of Zen".

Some Zen books that I think are are helpful for beginners (and oldtimers!) are:

"Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism", by Chang Chung-yuan.

"The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma", translated by Red Pine.

Taking the Path of Zen",by Robert Aitken.

"Zen Mind, Beginners Mind", by Shunryu Suzuki.

"The Three Pillars of Zen", edited by Philip Kaplaeu

On my website, at:

I have a more detailed list of Zen books I have found helpful listed under: Beginners - Essential Translations - Dogen - Koans

I also have links to Zen/Buddhist Online texts at:


Also, check out my other blog if you like:


Feel free to comment here any time, I make an effort to reply to all comments.

Also, email me if there is anything else I can help with;


I hope you find something helpful here.

Thanks again for your comments. Keep coming back!

Take good care.

Ted Biringer

Crookedsophist said...

Hi Ted,

Thanks for the recommendations and the links. I'll follow them up. The only one I've read so far is "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" -- the rest should keep me busy for a while! :)

As far as practice goes, I have been doing sitting meditation. My guides for that have been the version of Dogen's Fukanzazengi printed in the Nishijima/Cross Shobogenzo, and the teachings of Jundo Cohen over at Treeleaf. (treeleaf.org)

Although I'm very impressed with Buddhist philosophy, it's the sitting that's keeping me with it. Until this past year my philosophical background has been almost exclusively the Western/European tradition. What got me looking elsewhere was the lack of practice that matched up with the philosophy. That doesn't seem to be a problem for Zen. Sitting regularly has maybe been more of an eye-opener for me than all of the reading and study.

Anyways, I agree with what you wrote about following our own noses. Though most of what I've ready about Dogen so far has been from a Soto perspective -- and that perspective appeals to me -- I'm interested in looking at other viewpoints as well.

Thanks for taking the time to help me out!

Best wishes,


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Charles,

Thank you for your comments.

It sounds to me like you are on the right track for sure.

Your observations about philosophy and practice sound very familiar to me. Ha! Of what use is "knowledge" if, a) it does not apply to anything in our everyday life, or b) we cannot even verify whether it is accurate or not?

In my understanding and experience, the teachings of the classic Zen masters is all about "actualization." Rather than presenting beautiful theories about the nature of life and death, or demanding that we should simply "take Buddhas word for it" or "believe" a particular thing, they say--- Experience It Yourself.

Repeatedly, almost monotonously, the classic masters assert that there is not truth, no reality, no Buddha outside of our own body/mind. They say that if we truly want to arrive at certainty, we can, and will--but only by realizing it directly...

There are some in the Zen community (too many, I think) that believe, insist, assert, and proclaim that direct realization, or the personal experience of true nature, is not really accessible to us, or is not important on the authentic path of Zen. For this reason, I think it is very important to read the classic records of the great Zen masters...

When we have a fair grasp of the teachings of Bodhidharma, Ma-tsu, Hui-neng, Joshu, Pai-chang, Yuanwu, Lin-chi, Tung-shan, Dogen, and Hakuin, and we discover that the teachings of contemporary Roshi so-and-so sound quite a bit different....

Well.... who are you going to trust?

Thanks again! Keep coming back!

Mike Cross said...

There is something good in your skepticism, Ted.

Master Dogen's Shobogenzo in Japanese belongs to Master Dogen, and to Japanese-speaking people who love it. No, the Soto Church does not own it. It belongs to people who love it, as the mountains belong to people who love mountains.

My translation of Shobogenzo into English belongs to me, but at the same time it belongs to anybody who loves it. So I don't mind you quoting it freely.

But when I read you credit it to "Nishijima Roshi and Mike Cross," I wonder what kind of skeptic you are...

My translation of Shobogenzo into English I did with the intention of serving it to the true Roshi. But before I got to the end of my service, the Roshi moved to steal it from me, as if it were the Roshi's own personal thing already. By that action, the Roshi clearly demonstrated to me that he was not a true person -- a fact that I knew already,. although I did not wish to believe it.

What actually happened does not conform to the worldview of fans of the true Roshi, and so fans of the true Roshi, following their own noses, prefer to throw a veil over what actually happened, and keep believing in the true Roshi. For many years, I have tended to do the same thing myself.

25 years ago, the Roshi spoke of his "four Ejos." Those four were Jeff Bailey, Larry Zacchi, Michael Luetchford and me, Mike Cross. The former two left the Roshi before the end of the 1980s. The latter two did their best, against terrific odds, to keep serving him. But the Roshi eventually moved to exclude us as well. Michael Luetchford, apart from one brief lapse, has chosen to keep quiet in public. I have tended towards the other extreme.

If you were truly skeptical, Ted, you might ask yourself this: In your desire to be polite to the true Roshi, might you not accidentally be being very rude to the other translator, to the one who actually did the translation you are using? Might you not be falling into the same trap as the likes of Brad Warner and James Cohen who, not knowing what really happened at all, just followed their noses, closed their eyes, and thereby maintained their belief in the true Roshi?

If you preach skepticism, then can I suggest that you truly practise it?

If you write to me or about me, I like just Mike Cross. How you refer to the old Japanese teacher you like to call Roshi, is entirely up to you. But the copyright is jointly held by Gudo Nishjima and Chodo Cross. So when you credit the Nishijima-Cross translation, those are the words you should use.

Ted Biringer said...

Dear Mr. Cross,

Thank you for clarifying this for me.

I will follow your suggestions in any future posts.

Ted Biringer

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Ted -- but no need to bother with the "Mr."

For several years Gudo Roshi has been calling me "Mr." as opposed to other, more authentic Dharma-heirs whom he calls "Ven. So and So."

So the prefix "Mr." carries negative connations for me, just as the prefix "Ven." does.

For a long time, I tried to see the humorous side of that situation. But in the end i cannot help it bothering me that the old man to whom I devoted a large chunk of my youth to serving, is still, after all these years, up to his old tricks -- the subtle, ever-so polite tricks of the little Japanese bully, the little man who, despite being so very small in physical stature, even for a Japanese, managed to connive his way to positions of power in various institutions of the Japanese Establishment including not least the Ministry of Finance.

So forgive my sensitivity, but I prefer not Mr. Mike Cross and still less Ven. Chodo Mike Cross. Just Mike Cross.