Thursday, September 17, 2009

The “Unity” of Shobogenzo (Part Two)

In part one of this series of posts on the unity of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo (The “Unity” of Shobogenzo - Part One) we explored the significance of approaching Shobogenzo as a 'unity.'
To summarize briefly, we suggested that Master Dogen intended his masterpiece, Shobogenzo, to be a singular canon (rather than a collection of miscellaneous writings). We also discussed how the meaning of any 'part' of a singular literary work is dependent on the whole of the text (just as the meaning of the whole must take into account all of its parts). In short, the meaning of any fascicle included in Shobogenzo depends on its context in the whole Shobogenzo.
Today (part two of this series), we explore what 'reading in context’ implies, and how to do it.
Reading and listening to a speaker (and even thinking to a great extent) is first concerned with following a sequence of words. It makes no difference if it is a four verse gatha or the voluminous Avatamsaka sutra, we will not be able to accurately evaluate the meaning until we reach the end of the sequence. For instance, look at the third "Maxim of Master Han Shan":
3. Neither are they correct who dedicate themselves to exposing the fraud of every sensory object they encounter. True, perceptions of material objects give rise to wild desire in the heart. True, once it is understood how essentially worthless such apparent objects are, wild desires are reduced to timid thoughts. But we may not limit our spiritual practice to the discipline of dispelling illusion. There is more to the Dharma than understanding the nature of reality.
~Han Shan
Can you see how the last four sentences add substance and detail which serves to clarify the meaning of the first sentence? Try it, I will wait... Now, look at how different the meaning of the last sentence might be read outside the context of the preceding sentences. The same can be seen of the other sentences, and finally even down to each word, each punctuation. "True perceptions of material objects..." means something much different than, "True, perceptions of material objects..."
Once we come to the end of the sequence of words however, we are in possession of a single 'unit' or image; each part serving to flesh out and clarify the real meaning that the speaker or writer is attempting to convey. We can, as they say, "see the whole picture."
True, the real meaning of the Maxim we used in our example would certainly become clearer if read in the context of Han Shan's whole list of Maxim's, and clearer still if read in context of all his works. While it served its purpose as a simple illustrative example, imagine what kind of meaning it might have if read out the context of Buddhism as a whole, say by a Christian that had never heard or read anything about Buddhism.
By now it should becoming clear how easily it would be to misunderstand the real meaning of any single fascicle of Shobogenzo outside its context within the whole.
While this post may seem to be dwelling on something that is ridiculously obvious, it is not doing so without reason. Dogen's works generally, and particularly Shobogenzo, are the frequent victims of "selective authority." This is done for the same reasons, and in the same way that "religious" extremists in the West have used "selective authority" to hijack the Holy Bible for rationalizing or selling their own narrow, often quite unchristian agendas.
Today there are a number of popular "Zen" books whose authors "confirm the accuracy" of their views by evoking the "authority" of Dogen by offering short quotes (often paraphrases) from his works coupled with assertions like, "Dogen said this or that...", or "Dogen taught such and such...", or even assuring us that, "Dogen believed so and so..." (which seems to imply the author's skill in mind-reading). Not only do such claims often fail to provide any context of "Dogen's words", they frequently fail to note, or even acknowledge the sources from which they were "selected" (cherry-picked)...
As time and space seem to be running short we will postpone the discussion on "how" to go about reading Shobogenzo "in context" until next time.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope it is useful in some way.


Anders Honoré said...

One thing that recently struck me as being entirely overlooked in Shobogenzo studies is the fact that, as far as I can tell, the secondmost oft quoted text in the Shobogenzo next to the Lotus sutra (and probably the most quoted text in terms of volume) is Nagarjuna's Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

Not only does he cite it extensively (particularly in the later parts), he praises Nagarjuna as peerless in India and China alike, telling his readers they shouldn't even try comparing the mundane teachings of those in China to this master and simply be thankful that we have such a text that explains the Dharma in so readily understandable terms and detail. and furthermore that if one should come across any teaching that appears contradictory to what is written there, it should simply be discarded as adharma. He evidently held this work in the highest possible regard.

Studying that work then, should tell us a lot about Dogen's view of Buddhism. And it is noteworthy that this treatise is essentially a tour de force of Mahayana Buddhism in all its aspects, as well as Sarvastivadin 'hinaya' and its abidharma, citing from an astonishing number of sources in both traditions. The author was evidently a master not only of Mahayana but also Sarvastivadin abidharma. Perhaps the most impressive feat about this work is that it manages to address so many topics, from the pov of both hinayana and mahayana (except on topics only the mahayana concerns itself with) from anything to the value of ordination, the dhyanas, the paramitas, the nature of buddhahoood, the 37 factors of awakening to the rituals for lay practise and the value of the five precepts and present it all in a coherent and internally consistent manner according to a madhyamika perspective.

When you talk about the Shobogenzo as a unity, I can't help but think that Dogen was, on a somewhat lesser scale, trying to emulate this work with the added perspectives of Zen teachings.

The more I look at it, the more I think one cannot really appreciate Dogen's outlook on Mahayana without also studying this work.

And it's kinda funny - who would have thought Dogen was at heart a real madhyamika-walla.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Anders,

Thanks for sharing this.

Good to hear from you!

I agree with you that a solid grasp of Madhyamika is essential to an accurate understanding of Dogen's work (especially Shobogenzo).

Also, Dogen's reverence for Nagarjuna is certainly unquestionable. I would point out however, that the records of the classic Zen masters are far and away the most often quoted texts in Shobogenzo, greatly outnumbering even those of the Lotus Sutra.

Also, there are a number of fundamental differences between the viewpoints of Dogen and Nagarjuna.

This is probably due, at least in part, on the fact that Dogen's teachings are more "practice" oriented (or better, "praxis" oriented) than Nagarjuna's. Also, I thing a certain amount of influence of Huayen is involved, particularly its doctrine of mutual penentration and non-obtruction of phenomena.

In any case, the widest differences between the two can be seen in their teachings concerning:

1.The deconstructive vs. reconstructive aspects of emptiness.

2. The meaning and significance of "the two truths" (ultimate and worldly)

3. Their veiws regarding the nature and function of language.

The latter two differences, though significant in themselves, hinge on the first.

For example, Hee-Jin Kim points out (Dogen On Meditation and Thinking, pp.43-44) that while Dogen's view sometimes sounds similar to Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness", Dogen asserts, "...empty space/emptiness in a typically Zen Buddhist fashion so that... [emptiness itself] is 'totally exerted' (gujin) and 'cast off' (datsuraku) simultaneously."

This also explains why Dogen diverges from Nagarjuna on the "two truths" -- Dogen finds this "exerting/casting off" dynamic located at the interface of the two.

Which also accounts for the reasoning behind Dogen's affirmation for the integral role of words and language, not as provisional expedients "pointing" to somethng "beyond" themselves, but as "vehicles", in both senses of the word, that is, as conveying AND containing the authentic Dharma.

Dogen has a tendency, it seems, not uncommon among those Zen fellas, of calling up 'authorities' and modifying their points to fit the particular insight he is trying to evoke. As you probably, even old Yellow Face is not off limits for Dogen--just check out his convienient "mis-reading" of the Mahaparanirvana Sutra at the opening of Bussho.

In any case, I hope you find this of interest.

Thanks again.


Anders Honoré said...

Hi Ted,

Well with the benefit of historical hindsight, we probably need to distinguish between Nagarjuna, the author of the mulamadhyamakarikas, and 'Nagarjuna', the author of the Mahaprajnaparamita-upadesa as the are likely not the same (although the upadesha did achieve fame as the 'fourth treatise' of the three-treatise school and was reputedly also the baseline for Kumarajiva's outlook). So when I say Dogen has a great deal of respect for Nagarjuna, I mean the author of the Upadesha since that is the only work attributed to him he actually cites in the Shobogenzo.

And the noteworthy traits of the Upadesha that Dogen so admires are not so much the characteristic madhyamikan outlook on emptiness, but rather the uncanny meticulousness and detail of it and the clear language of it (Lamotte's translation, including notes and introductions but not appendixes, indexes and articles come to 2000+ pages. And he only got through a third of it!). You may note that large parts of the fascicles devoted to 'standard' Buddhist and Mahayana topics, he either cites 'Nagarjuna' whole sale, or inserts relevant passages from the upadesha he then comments on.

So it's not so much the emptiness topics that madhyamika is most known for that I think is worth noting in relation to Dogen, but rather that he put so much weight on a shastra that is perhaps the most thorough and exhaustive compilation of Mahayana doctrine (this despite predating the wealth of new additions that came with Yogacara and Tathagagarbha teachings) *and* practise written.

Imo, in relation to what Dogen might have intended for a 'unified' work, looking to the upadesha as an example of such a work, tells us a lot about Dogen view, not so much on emptiness, but on the breadth and width of the Mahayana that he not only acknowledges in other fascicles but implicitly *admires* (even swoons over) in his praise of Nagarjuna (which imo we can take as praise primarily of 'Nagarjuna', the author of the upadesha).

Which is not only different from the 'just sitting' perspective, or the 'Dogen presents a specific *soto* *zen* perspective on Buddhism' he is sometimes portrayed as, but rather a stark contrast even, as Dogen situates himself as being a rather orthodox Mahayana commentator.

In that light, if one is to acknowledge Dogen's own self-understanding, one might say his main contribution in that regard was the boldness and originality of his expression in presenting Zen practise (and shikantaza) as a natural extention of that.

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Anders,

Thank you for your comments.

When you put it like that, I think I can see your point--and I (mostly) agree.

I especially appreciate your point regarding the significance of qualifying who or what we mean to designate with the name "Nagarjuna."

This should probably also be applied to "Dogen." As with Nagarjuna, there are certainly some wide variations on this.

The 'Shobogenzo' Dogen who (mostly) speaks from the perspective of a fully enlightened Buddha.

The 'Ehiei Koroku' Dogen who comes across as 'a good and wise friend', a 'qualified and lively Zen master' leading a community of dedicated adherents.

The institutional or cultic view of Dogen as the "Soto Founder" who taught 'Just Sitting' itself was the only essential element of 'Zen.'

The view (I tend to) of the Dogen that is evoked by the present form of the 'totality' of those writings attributed to him —— as studied and practiced within the context of Mahayana Buddhism (particularly as represented in the classic Zen records).

I want to thank you again, Anders. Your comments have definitely directed my attention to interesting and intriguing possibilities.

Three Full Bows.