Throughout the history of the Japanese Soto sect, much has been made of the influence of the Chinese Rinzai master, Daie Soko, on the teachings of Dogen. Traditionally, Dogen has been presented as being profoundly critical of Daie’s Zen teachings, especially his teachings regarding koans. Of course, Shobogenzo is not unique in its negative criticism of Zen ancestors. Scathing, colorful, and often humorous critiques are characteristic of a number of the classic records of Zen.
Claims about Dogen’s negative criticism of Daie have some basis in fact, but its significance has been exaggerated, and the reasoning underlying Dogen’s criticisms have often been skewed. In light of Daie’s importance to the Japanese Rinzai sect, specifically, his teachings regarding koans, some of the reasons for exaggerating and distorting Dogen’s criticism of Daie seem clear; to infer the inferiority, or even the illegitimacy of the Rinzai sect and posit the superiority of the Soto sect.
While an objective reading of Dogen’s treatment of Daie is enough to cast doubt on most sectarian claims, recent scholarship has decisively revealed a number of fallacies regarding many of these claims--and provided a great deal of clarity on the real issues. As others have lucidly presented the history and details concerning this issue *1, there is no need to dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that some of the distortions were probably legitimate attempts for sectarian survival, but many (if not most) were grounded in sectarian competition for spiritual superiority (and its corollary, the power associated with spiritual authority).
The negative criticism in Shobogenzo does offer some interesting possibilities. In Shobogenzo, Dogen is critical of Daie, but not only of Daie, nor is his criticism simply leveled at his use of koans. Other Zen ancestors, including Rinzai, Tokusan, and Ummon, are subjected to criticism just as harsh as any directed at Daie. These Zen masters are rebuked for the same reasons Daie is rebuked; inaccurate expressions of buddha-dharma (J. buppo).
In fact, in Shobogenzo Dogen does not hesitate to challenges even the most revered Zen ancestors including Hyakujo, Setcho, Joshu, and others. Furthermore, Dogen explicitly denigrates Vimalakirti, the hero of the sutra widely venerated in the records of Zen, and even denounces the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, Eno (second in Zen reverence only to Bodhidharma), as a fraudulent text. Moreover, some of Dogen’s more creative ‘misreadings’ and ‘interpretations’ of the Buddhist sutras could easily be regarded as tacit (if gentle) criticisms of the Buddha himself.
(In fairness, two characteristics of the negative portrayal of Daie in Shobogenzo should be noted. The first is a lack of any corresponding positive treatment; most of the important masters upbraided in Shobogenzo are nevertheless acknowledged in other sections of it. Although Daie is tacitly acknowledged as a legitimate ancestor (by Dogen’s acceptance of some of Daie’s descendents, including Bussho Tokko), explicit acknowledgement is conspicuously lacking. The second characteristic unique to Dogen’s charge against Daie is his direct assertion that Daie’s (recorded) teachings disqualify him as a Zen ancestor.)
Dogen’s criticism of Zen ancestors can be viewed as justified based on the rationale of Shobogenzo, which consistently asserts the nonduality of realization and expression in the buddha-dharma. That is, in Shobogenzo, realization and expression are interdependent aspects of the authentic buddha-dharma; each contains and is contained by the other. Hence, in Dogen’s view one’s realization of buddha-dharma is evident in one’s expressions of buddha-dharma. In fact, according to Shobogenzo, evaluating the authenticity of a Zen master’s realization "invariably" includes examining their expressions:
All the Buddhas and all the Ancestors express what They have realized. This is why the Buddhas and Ancestors, when singling out an Ancestor of the Buddha, invariably ask, "Can that person express their realization or not?"
Shobogenzo, Dotoku, Herbert Nearman
While Dogen rebukes, and even hints at the lack of qualifications of Zen ancestors, he stops short of complete denunciation (except of Daiei), and often lavishes praise on them elsewhere in Shobogenzo. For instance, when Rinzai is denigrated as a ‘weak spirited newcomer’ in Shobogenzo, Bukkyō, Dogen does not dismiss his legitimacy. In fact, throughout Shobogenzo Rinzai is quoted as an authority, and in some fascicles of Shobogenzo, like Gyōji, and Hotsu Mujō Shin, Dogen praises Rinzai’s example, singling him out as an outstanding model for Zen practitioners.
One of the most illuminating examples of Dogen’s technique of challenging Zen ancestors based on their recorded sayings is in Shobogenzo, Shin Fukatoku, where he asserts the inaccuracy of five of the ‘giants’ of Zen tradition. In that fascicle Dogen exposes the ‘blindness’ of Joshu, Kyozan, Gensha, Kaie, and Setcho, taking them all to task for their ‘mistaken’ expressions concerning a koan. Significantly, there is no hint of their disqualification as Zen ancestors. To the contrary, Dogen asserts that although "it may be hard to believe" that people who do not understand one aspect of buddha-dharma are able to understand the rest of it, we should "realize that ancient Ancestors may also make mistakes":
In that the five worthy Masters did not at all understand the everyday practice of the National Teacher, they are, to that extent, similarly inaccurate. For this reason I have now let you hear about ‘the mind not being able to grasp It’ in the Way of the Buddhas. Although it may be hard for you to believe that people who are unable to thoroughly understand this one aspect of the Teaching are apt to understand all the rest of the Teaching, you need to realize that ancient Ancestors may also make mistakes and compound them, as in this case.
Shobogenzo, Shin Fukatoku (Written Version), Herbert Nearman
Dogen’s recognition of the reality of human limitations is indicative of the realism—highlighted in the title of Hee-Jin Kim’s landmark book, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist—which permeates his records. Dogen’s realistic acknowledgement that even ancestors "may also make mistakes" seems to be much more than a reluctant admission of human weakness, or fallibility; but more of a realistic assessment of the human condition, hence, of reality itself. In the Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku, fascicle, Dogen assures his listeners/readers that "having mistaken views" is not unique to time or circumstances by asserting it even happened when the Buddha himself was actively teaching:
In truth, even those who had left home life behind and received ordination when the World-honored One was in the world found it difficult to avoid having mistaken views and personal opinions, due to their not giving ear to His Teaching.
Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku, Herbert Nearman
To deny this characteristic of reality is, in Dogen’s teaching, to be ‘in delusion adding to delusion.’ Knowing the reality of buddha-dharma, on the other hand, is contingent on recognizing the reality of delusion. Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘ordinary beings’ and ‘Buddhas’, as Dogen says in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan: "Ordinary beings are deluded about enlightenment, Buddhas are enlightened about delusion."
If Dogen is to be regarded as an authentic Zen master, then his teachings must be viewed as having the same goal as any authentic Buddhist master; the alleviation of suffering. Thus, all of Shobogenzo’s expressions, including those challenging Zen ancestors, must be understood as legitimate efforts to transmit the buddha-dharma. In light of this reasoning, it should be clear that Dogen’s criticism in Shobogenzo has more to do with instructing students then with admonishing long dead masters.
In summary, what can Dogen’s use of criticism teach us about applying ourselves to the Zen path of authentic practice-realization? Anything? Everything?
*1. For instance, see:
How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Studies in East Asian Buddhism) by Morten Schlütter.
The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy: The Development of Chan's Records of Sayings Literature, by Albert Welter
Dogen and The Koan Tradition, and Did Dogen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It, both by Steven Heine.
Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation, Carl Bielefeldt.