What is the significance of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, and is it truly possible to discern its authentic message?
I offer here, as objectively as possible, the current state of progress on, and the basic barriers to, the assimilation of Shobogenzo in the West. Corrections and/or alternative suggestions are welcome (please abstain from simple criticism which does not offer reasoning beyond personal opinions, thanks).
In spite of frequent references to the "boom" of Dogen studies in modern Zen literature, comprehensive examinations of his magnum opus are sparse. Outside the propagation of sectarian assertions, most of the English language publications concerning Dogen have focused on specific aspects of his thought or teaching, much without due regard to its context within the Buddhist tradition from which it springs, or even its context within the whole of his own works. Omitting sectarian popagation, specialized, scholarly analysis, the specious, and the trivial, leaves a veritable dearth of study considering the significance that such a masterpiece warrants.
English readers seeking to discern Dogen’s teaching face a number of difficulties and ambiguities, not the least of which arise from dogmatic bias and abstract philosophical speculation. Most explications of Dogen’s Zen approach it from one of two extremes: sectarianism, or scholarly specialization. Both, sectarian authorities and secular scholarship tend to focus on the unique or singular qualities of Dogen’s genius. Regardless of intentions, this has resulted in presenting Dogen and his work as an anomaly within the history of Buddhism. The popular view of Dogen seems to be one of a tragic hero isolated from his world and contemporaries by the sheer magnitude of his realization. While secular scholarship warrants a degree of justification due to the nature of its role, sectarianism does not. Dogmatic sectarian assertions appear to be aimed only at the retention, acquisition, or usurpation of authoritarian power.
Those sectarians seeking to appropriate (or undermine) Dogen’s authority primarily base their views of ‘Dogen’s Zen’ on the uniqueness of his ‘central’ teaching regarding the method of zazen (seated meditation). Aside from the question of why Dogen would devote such a minimal effort on his ‘central’ teaching (of the hundreds of texts written by Dogen, only eight short fascicles address zazen as a primary topic [See Carl Bielefeldt, Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, pp.5-6]), his writings on zazen do not appear to present anything radically unique from traditional sources. Some of his instructions and exhortations are exceptionally inspiring and provocative, yet none present any obvious demarcation from the traditional teachings in the records of Zen. When confronted with the apparent discrepancies between institutional dogma and textual evidence, the religious authorities often offer some "creative" interpretations or fall back on esotericism (only the enlightened or initiated can grasp it), thus leading a number of people to dismiss Dogen out of hand.
Competing schools use the scarcity and apparent lack of originality of Dogen’s zazen texts, coupled with their own interpretation of Dogen’s zazen as a form of quietism, as the basis for their denial of his authority. Such assertions and counter assertions have fostered rigid adherence to positions in a viscous-circle of one-upmanship. The impossibility of substantiating sectarian positions based on nefarious interpretations of cherry-picked texts can only result in the continued hardening of views that is necessary to sustain positions defying rational explanation or appeals to reason.
While religious authorities emphasize Dogen’s uniqueness to assert claims of sectarian superiority (or inferiority when from competing sects), secular scholarship contributes to his isolation simply through the nature of its work (categorizing, verifying, specifying, identifying unique and/or modifying elements, etc.). Not only have these factors, and others, combined to isolate Dogen’s work from the tradition that inspires and supports it, they effectively destroy its integrity.
Dogen’s writings (especially Shobogenzo) have been mined, cherry-picked, cited, published, and propagated out of context more than any other work in literary history except the bible (and perhaps the works of William Blake and Thomas Jefferson). A handful of his more accessible essays appear in a multitude of works ranging from eclectically selected translations to exhaustive philosophical analysis of single fascicles. Nevertheless, the bulk of his work is, for the most part, neglected, relegating it to the very kind of obscurity that many scholars enthusiastically deride the Soto orthodoxy for allowing.
Achieving an accurate grasp of Shobogenzo presents some enormous challenges. Even discerning what Dogen actually said is a formidable task, to say nothing of what he meant. It was written in the language of 13th century Japanese (with a smattering of Chinese) by a creative genius that challenged every limitation of verbal expression in a style undaunted by grammatical rules. Simply rendering the original fascicles of Shobogenzo into modern Japanese requires great effort, how much more so to achieve a reliable English translation. Of his readers, Dogen assumes a solid grasp of traditional Buddhist history and doctrine, familiarity with Zen and Buddhist literature (including the koan literature), as well as a certain degree of spiritual maturity, experience, and insight.
The difficulties involved in achieving a reasonable understanding of Shobogenzo, are often evoked to rationalize approaches that sacrifice extensive investigation to intensive investigation. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to accept an interpretation of ‘Dogen’s Zen’ based on a handful of texts cherry-picked from a veritable corpus of fascicles. Clearly, any demand to accept Dogen’s writings as authoritative to the authentic teaching of Zen requires an accurate grasp on what those writings mean, which requires taking a reasonable account of the entirety of his work.
To deny that the wisdom inspiring and informing his work was not unique or anomalous to Dogen, is not to deny that the man himself was an isolated, lone individual. It is impossible to read Dogen’s work without acknowledging a certain degree of the loneliness one often senses in the works of the extraordinarily gifted. Dogen openly acknowledges feeling "as if a weight had been placed upon my shoulders" (See Shobogenzo, Bendowa). His activities during the first years of his return from China suggest that he may have entertained notions of popular or authoritative recognition. There is no doubt that he, like all genuine spiritual leaders, was driven by an overwhelming need to communicate his realization. Nor can one deny a sense that Dogen may have suffered a certain amount of frustration by the indifference of all but a few, as well as the neglect of those in power. While his comments are rarely directed to specific religious authorities and traditions in his own country, his harshest condemnations of certain "views and practices of ignoramuses he witnessed in China" are often suspiciously similar to the views and practices being propagated by the religious authorities and traditions of Japan in his own time.
Any disdain for his lack of recognition, however, cannot be taken as a sign of desire for personal glory, or fame. Born into an aristocratic family with wealth and connections, combined with his obvious charisma and intellectual genius, Dogen’s opportunities to achieve high status, religious or secular had always been within his reach—provided he had been willing to submit to the rules of fame and power. If one can ascribe a sense of disappointment to Dogen for the indifferent reception of his message, which he regarded as the first authentic transmission of the Buddha-Dharma to Japan, it must be attributed to a sense of personal responsibility, or obligation to the Buddha-Dharma, not personal ambition.
The proof of his commitment to the Buddha-Dharma alone is made clear by his unyielding defiance of institutional (and popular) views of enlightenment as being utterly beyond verbal expression. For Dogen, as is clear in his writings throughout his entire career, authentic realization of Buddha-Dharma inevitably includes the activity of expressing Buddha-Dharma. Consistent throughout his writings, both implicitly and explicitly is the assertion that "one has not resolved the great matter until they can put it into words." In Dogen’s Buddha-Dharma, realization without verbal (and by extension, literary) expression is not authentic realization.
The implication of this simple recognition is profound; if authentic expression is inherent in authentic realization, authentic realization must be inherent in authentic expression. This, combined with Dogen’s apparent intention for compiling Shobogenzo, suggests some possible motivations behind Soto authorities to conceal Shobogenzo for centuries; and, finally unable to sustain concealment, the concerted efforts apparently aimed at obscuring it through creative "interpretation."
Dogen’s work has long been regarded by the major Soto institutions as the authentic expression of the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, and hence, as the ultimate authority of Soto doctrine. While this hierarchical arrangement is already a strain on reason (in that realization is not considered authentic without the confirmation of institutionally recognized "Dharma heirs") it has not practically effected the concentration of institutional power. However, if it were shown that the teachings of Shobogenzo suggested that authentic realization could be transmitted through expression, hence, through Shobogenzo itself, the potential consequences to the powers of institutional authority are obvious. While there would be a number of legitimate roles for an institution to fulfil, none of them would include the retention of the level of power they have come to enjoy. In view of the history of institutional powers, it is reasonable to assume that efforts to circumvent such a revelation might be enacted.
It is not within the scope of this post to analyze the various methods that may have been employed to maintain power within the Soto Zen institutions, but it is worth noting that the most effective method would be to retain exclusive authority of "Dharma Transmission" (which has been thus far achieved). Because the doctrine of Dharma Transmission is inherently resistant (nearly invincible) to any form of criticism it has been plagued by individual and institutional appropriation and distortion throughout the history of Zen. This doctrine is still the most effective trump card held, and played, by individual and institutional "Zen authorities" that are challenged by major discrepancies within their doctrines or reasoning.
Ironically, the notion that Dogen acknowledged that textual authority could supercede that of certified "Dharma heirs" is denounced by Soto authorities based on the authority of (specially selected passages) Dogen’s texts. In spite of the irony, the vigor of their persistence to maintain this position (and its inherent power) has resulted in the popular view (including many in the scholarly community) that "text as authority" is oxymoronic, heretical, or even blasphemous to Zen Buddhism. Notwithstanding this institutional distortion of Zen, however, the traditional role of texts as legitimate vessels (containers and transmitters) of Buddha-Dharma is not as radical as contemporary notions might suggest. There have been Zen ancestors who have credited their own realization to texts in nearly every school, house, and lineage of Zen Buddhism.
Desperate efforts to minimize the significance of Dogen’s acknowledgement of textual authority by claiming his assertions apply only to fully "enlightened" masters are hollow. Dogen admits that even before undergoing his journey to China in search of his own spiritual resolution he viewed written expressions as more reliable than living teachers, certified Dharma-heirs or not. Confronted with the contradictions between the teachings of his, own greatly "recognized" teachers and the written Buddhist records, Dogen did not hesitate to dismiss the authenticity of his teachers (See Shobogenzo, Zuimonki).
The fact that he admitted recognizing the superiority of texts in a time before his own resolution infers that Dogen believed so-called "unenlightened" individuals could discern the authenticity of truth through reading a text. In this light, Dogen’s method of choice for words in Bendowa, while difficult to reconcile with contemporary notions of Zen as "a direct transmission outside words and letters," can be understood as the most obvious and rational decision:
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. This may be a true mission.
Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
Because of my feelings of pity for these persons, I have undertaken here to write down what I saw and learned of the customs and practices in Chinese Zen monasteries, as well as to preserve the Transmission of what my spiritual teacher understood to be the most profound Purpose, and thereby to propagate the true Dharma of Buddhism. I trust that what follows is the genuine inner meaning of this.
Clearly, if we are to take Dogen at his word, it will be necessary to examine the whole of what his records say.
Gassho to all,
Author of The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing