Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Zen: To Philosophize or Not to Philosphize

For those brought up with notions about Zen as something incommunicable, ineffable, or transcendent of thought and intellectual endeavors it was certainly a shock to discover that for Dogen, as Hee-Jin Kim pointed out, “The issue was not so much whether or not to philosophize as it was how to philosophize…” (Mystical Realist, p.98)

In 1975, when Hee-Jin Kim’s landmark book came on the scene, the popular view that the great Zen masters not only abstained from philosophizing but actively disparaged it was deeply entrenched. Some of the most open-minded Zen practitioners had difficulty accepting Kim’s revelation that for Dogen, the “philosophic enterprise was as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as was zazen.” (Mystical Realist, p.98) A certain amount of skepticism regarding this notion is definitely understandable. However, for the better part of 40 years Kim’s assertion has not met one serious challenge; indeed, his argument has been repeatedly validated and reinforced by evidence and studies in every related field—yet popular delusions persist.

The lines of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Genjokoan, “To realize the buddha-dharma is to realize your self. To realize your self is to forget your self” is often cited out of context as if it presents a complete view of Zen practice—to forget the self. As we shall see, this is just one example of how Dogen is frequently a victim of “anthologies.” For now, we will just point out that one thing “forgetting the self” implies in this context is taking up, or embracing, and being taken up by, or being embraced by all the many things of the world:

To realize the buddha-dharma is to realize your self. To realize your self is to forget your self. To forget your self is to be actualized by the many things. To be actualized by the many things is to allow the body-and-mind of your self and the body-and-mind of other than your self to fall away. All traces of enlightenment fall away, and the falling away of all traces of enlightenment is continuous.
Ted Biringer

To be “actualized by the many things” is a totally inclusive statement. Nothing is to be disregarded or cut off; not specific activities, certain kinds of desires, or particular thoughts, and certainly not emotional involvement, systematic study, or critical and intellectual endeavors. In the condition that Dogen calls, forgetting the self, spiritual practices like zazen (sitting meditation), formal teaching, and ceremonial participation, simply cannot be singled out, or divided from “the many things.” To divide spiritual practice from mundane activity is to instantly “re-member” the self; to revere meditation above philosophizing is not possible in the condition in which “all traces of enlightenment” have “fallen away.”

It is in the context of what Dogen here describes as being “actualized by the many things” that Hee-Jin Kim’s assertion that the “philosophic enterprise was as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as was zazen” applies. According to Dogen, practice and enlightenment is either authentic, or it is not; in the former nothing is excluded, in the latter nothing is included.

Zazen is only true zazen when performed in and as authentic practice and enlightenment, so too philosophizing. Hence, it is clear that the authenticity of “philosophizing” is not inherently concerned with a particular system or philosophy, but with the quality or conditions of the philosophic process itself. This means, for one thing, that Dogen should never be considered as expressing himself from within a particular theoretical system of thought or applying any kind of conceptual formula.

[Moments] when the truth is realized that the arising of mind is the arising of miscellaneous real dharmas and the truth is realized that the passing of mind is the passing of miscellaneous real dharmas, are all moments when the mind is expounding and moments when the nature is expounding.
Shobogenzo, Sesshin-sessho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

In short, “action” according to Dogen, is not different from thought and perception, but identical with them. Again, forcing Shobogenzo (or any literary work) into a formula necessitates cutting out elements that effectively ruin its integrity, just as cutting out a single piece of the Mona Lisa would ruin it. As Dogen goes on to explain, people make this mistake by speculating about what the “truth of Buddhist patriarchs should not include,” and failing to “think critically about whether or not they have penetrated the great truth.”

Nevertheless, ordinary folk who do not penetrate the mind and do not master the nature, in their ignorance, not knowing “expounding the mind and expounding the nature” and not knowing discussion of the profound and discussion of the fine, say, and teach to others, that the truth of the Buddhist patriarchs should not include these things. Because they do not know “expounding the mind and expounding the nature” as “expounding the mind and expounding the nature,” they think of “expounding the mind and expounding the nature” as expounding about the mind and expounding about the nature. And this is mainly because they do not think critically about whether or not they have penetrated the great truth.
Shobogenzo, Sesshin-sessho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

For Dogen, then, to philosophize is as much the practice of Zen as zazen, but there are two types of philosophizing. One type professes to understand and explain the world as it is; the other endeavors to transform the world into what it could and should be. Abstract speculators and religious cults are those involved with the former. Calling them “scholars that count words,” Dogen portrays these as people that see their own reflections in the images of Buddhism, rather than reality through those images, thus leading them to characterize reality with their own puny qualities; vague, difficult, boring, mundane, insignificant, and inflexible. Confusing their own ego-creations for reality, they conceive a vast, mysterious world, unconcerned and impervious to human influence. The philosophic enterprise based on such a vision of reality naturally tends toward escape and oblivion; advocating conformity and resignation such philosophies preach the “wisdom” of accepting powerlessness and revere the “serenity” of emotional and intellectual detachment.

Dogen’s view of what constitutes an authentic Zen application of the philosophic process is best illustrated by his own example; the cosmological vision of Shobogenzo. Symbolized by the Lotus Sutra’s flower of Dharma “turning and being turned,” the universe of Dogen’s vision is not unconcerned, vague, or inflexible, but intimate, lucid, and compliant. In contrast to speculating on the hazy, ego-centric ideas and abstract notions of the conceptual theorist, the authentic philosophic process is an intimate engagement of the true person and the “clear-clear” forms of the immediate present in the dynamic coordination of actualizing the universe (genjokoan). Speculation pictures the world through shadows of what is past, Shobogenzo pictures through the world continuously advancing into novelty. The philosophic enterprise demonstrated by Shobogenzo, like all authentic philosophic enterprises, is expressed in the language of myth, the only language that is potent enough to reveal the nature and dynamics of what is of the truest concerns to human beings, that which Zen calls the great matter of life and death.


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