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?
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