Thursday, November 06, 2008

Reading Shobogenzo, Ejo's words on Dogen's intentions

Dogen’s successor, Ejo, added the following explanation to Shobogenzo, Hachi Dainingaku:

This was our Master’s last discourse, drafted when he was already ill. Among other things, I heard him say that he wanted to rework all of the Shōbōgenzō that had previously been written in Japanese script and also to include some new manuscripts, so that he would be able to compile a work consisting altogether of one hundred discourses.

This present discourse, which was a first draft, was to be the twelfth of the new ones. After this our Master’s illness worsened. As a result, he stopped working on such things as the drafts. Therefore, this draft is our late Master’s final teaching for us. Unfortunately, we will never see His full draft of the hundred chapters, which is something to be greatly regretted. Those who love and miss our late Master should, by all means, make copies of this twelfth chapter, and take care to preserve it. It contains the final instructions of our Venerable Shakyamuni and is the final legacy of our late Master’s Teaching.
I, Ejō, have given this final account.
(Translated by Hubert Nearman)

This statement by Ejo, supports and augments the evidence of two important aspects of Shobogenzo that are widely agreed upon by both scholars and the Zen orthodoxy. First, that Dogen intended Shobogenzo as a singular canon consisting of one hundred fascicles. Second, that Dogen died before completing all one hundred fascicles. What is not so widely agreed upon, and is in fact much debated, are how many of the fascicles Dogen did complete, and which ones were intended for Shobogenzo.

There are a number of versions of Shobogenzo, including 12, 28, 60, 75, 89, 92, and 95 fascicle versions that have had, and/or continue to have their proponents as representative of Dogen’s intent. Of these, the official 95-fascicle Shobogenzo of the Soto sect is the most well known edition. As the most inclusive version (other than those including obviously separate or spurious texts), it is an important version for understanding Dogen’s message. However, as this version was not created until 1690, more than four hundred years after Dogen’s death, few seriously consider it as an accurate representation of Dogen’s intention.

The version that is most widely acknowledged as best representing Dogen’s intention is the 75-fascicle version. Including extensive commentary by one of Dogen’s own disciples, this version was the earliest published edition of Shobogenzo. This fact, combined with a number of other factors (style, dates of composition, subject matter, etc.) seem to offer the most convincing argument for considering it as ‘Dogen’s’ Shobogenzo.

(For an overview of the history and recent scholarship on the various versions of Shobogenzo, see Steven Heine’s, Did Dogen Go to China?: What He Wrote and When He Wrote It, esp. pp. 51-87)

Throughout his writings Dogen consistently asserted the interdependence of understanding and expression. While common sense reveals the fallacy of expression without understanding, Dogen points out that understanding without expression is just as fallacious. His writings are filled with exhortations to ‘express it in your own words’, and assertions that ‘if you cannot express it, you have not yet understood it.’ Moreover, his writings offer many evaluations of the depths of the understanding of ‘Zen ancestors’ based on their (recorded) expressions. Nor is his criticism restricted to ‘what’ an ancient expressed; just as often they are appraised by what they fail to express. Not even Joshu, who Dogen often highly reveres as ‘an eternal Buddha’ escapes being chastised by Dogen for an inadequate expression.

In light of this, if Shobogenzo was intended to form a definitive canon, as it evidently was, every fascicle that was admitted to it, regardless of its length, date, or subject must be read not only as part of a unified whole, but as inherently consistent with Dogen’s understanding. While exclusion can be regarded as intentional or unintentional, inclusion can only be regarded as an assertion of approval. There is convincing evidence that the fascicles of Shobogenzo were subjected to Dogen’s ongoing editorial refinement throughout his teaching career. Genjokoan, for instance, written in 1233 and included in every major version of Shobogenzo, was re-edited by Dogen shortly before his death in 1253.

This is not to imply that Shobogenzo is limited to a ‘singular message’, but that all of its various fascicles, by their very admission, must have been harmonious with Dogen’s understanding. Therefore, if fascicles of Shobogenzo seem to be at odds with each other we should attempt to reevaluate our own understanding of Dogen’s meaning rather than simply dismissing them as inconsistencies in Dogen’s teaching.

Thank you for your comments.
Ted Biringer


Mike H said...


the attempt to and the ability to express is one way in which things are deepened and integrated.

Without the attempt to express it can all be held at arms-length but is also of not much use.

The ability to express I think shows that proper integration has/is-going on since it suggests that both cognitive and intuitive sides of the brain are able to cooperate together.

That's my guess anyway.

Uku said...

Hi Ted,

thank you for this interesting post.

I think it doesn't really matter what Dogen's intentions were. If he seems to be correct, that's fine. If he seems to be incorrect, that's fine also. I've been studying Shobogenzo because I find Dogen's writings very wise and correct, they've been helping me a lot on my Buddhist path. I don't think it's more complicated than that.

I think also that is very important to practice and to study. Shobogenzo without practicing daily Zazen is just a bunch of beautiful words.


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Mike,

Thank you for your comments.

You have obviously been spending way too much time on the cushion... The direct, lucidity of your words make too much sense. Ha!

Thanks again!


Ted Biringer

Ted Biringer said...

Hello uku,

Thank you for your comments.

It is always good to hear from you.

In the absolute sense, I agree with you that "it doesn't really matter what Dogen's intentions were." But at the same time, it seems to me that the better we do understand his intentions, the better we can understand his teaching--

--and how to practice it.

And as you make clear in your comment, that is what it's all about.

Thanks again.


Ted Biringer