Shobogenzo’s View vs Dogen’s View
Significant controversy exists concerning the integral consistency of Shobogenzo’s vision of the Buddha-Dharma. Indeed, the prevalence of a false notion – that such inconsistency has been confirmed*– testifies to the level of significance such controversy entails.
In truth none of the particular examples of inconsistency thus far singled out by proponents of this view meet any standard that could be legitimately qualified as ‘confirmation’ – all claims about the ‘inconsistency’ among the fascicles within Shobogenzo is speculative, not demonstrable. Indeed, the only certain inconsistencies involving Shobogenzo I have encountered are those between the actual significance of Dogen’s expressions and the understanding of those expressions offered by certain commentators.
Most of the actual examples offered to support the notion of inconsistency are clearly misunderstandings arrived at through attempts to read Shobogenzo in a manner inappropriate to such writing; that is, attempting to read mythopoeic expression as literal description. Such an approach is inappropriate for any sacred text or literary masterpiece, and in this case can only exacerbate the already widespread fallacies that exaggerate the complications of Dogen’s symbolism.
Further, the reasoning of the speculative theory of inconsistency has been carried over to support another common misnomer; that Dogen’s view as to what constitutes the authentic Buddha-Dharma underwent a change (or changes) during the course of his teaching career. This theory presupposes the accuracy of the inconsistencies proposed by the former theory. According to this latter notion, the fascicles of Shobogenzo are inconsistent because Dogen’s views changed between the times the various fascicles were written. It is this notion, then, that is the source of frequent allusions to an ‘earlier Dogen’ and a ‘later Dogen’ in contemporary studies.
The quantity and quality to which Dogen’s views are supposed to have changed, along with the degree of abruptness with which the changes occurred, varies according to particular advocates. Briefly, the variations in the theories range from a basic division of ‘early’ and ‘late’ periods roughly corresponding to Dogen’s move from the Japanese Capitol to the isolated Echizen province a little over halfway through his career, to the elaborate theory detailed by Steven Heine as early early; early middle; middle middle; late middle; early late; and late late (See, Did Dogen Go To China?What He Wrote and When He Wrote It,by Steven Heine).
To clarify, I want to point out that accepting this notion requires us to recognize that the apparent inconsistencies are not mistakes in reading or understanding; not mistakes of transcription, editing, forgery, etc. In short, accepting this view requires us to accept that the apparent inconsistencies are actual inconsistencies – to affirm that Dogen expounded one view as the authentic Buddha-Dharma at one place and time, and expounded another, incompatible view at a different place and time. To accept this notion is to accept that the ‘later Dogen’ would have considered some views of the ‘earlier Dogen’ as wrong views, delusions; false Dharma (and vice versa).
Here I would argue that even if the topics, emphasis, and style of Dogen’s writings did change over the course of his career, and even if these changes coincided with the periods in which Dogen lived in the Capitol and when he lived in the Echizen province, it would not be unusual much less qualify as inconsistent. Indeed, it would be unusual if the content and style of his writing had remained fixed throughout the twenty years of his career, or if his altered environment failed to be demonstrated in his creative endeavors. More importantly, I would argue that none of this would suggest, much less demonstrate that Dogen’s views of the Buddha-Dharma changed during his career. In fact, the constitution of authentic Buddhism as presented by Dogen’s writings demonstrates a remarkable consistency throughout. Granted, there are uncertain points as to the full significance of some of Dogen’s expressions, but there are no certain points that can be regarded as definitely demonstrating inconsistency of Dogen’s views concerning the authentic Buddha-Dharma.
Clearly, attempting to refute vague speculations and generalizations is futile. At the same time, it is also true that every particular example of so-called inconsistency within Shobogenzo thus far offered falls far short of justifying charging Dogen with inconsistency, much less accepting such charges as confirmed. Accordingly, ascribing to the various theories about an ‘earlier and later’ Dogen is even less justifiable. In sum, despite widespread notions, there is no real evidence suggesting an inconsistency in the views expressed by Shobogenzo.
Further, even if there were some validity to the various theories of inconsistency in Dogen’s works, for the Zen practitioner they would be ultimately irrelevant. However, in light of the influence this notion has on contemporary works on Zen and Dogen, I would like to offer the reader a few salient points to keep in mind.
Dogen’s writings are composed in the same medium as all sacred texts and works of art; mythopoeic expression. Any attempt to read mythical and metaphorical expressions from a literal, historical, biographical, philosophical, metaphysical, or other non-mythopoeic perspective can only result in confusion and misunderstanding.
Completing a revision of the Genjokoan fascicle was evidently one of Dogen’s last contributions to Shobogenzo. Genjokoan (originally written in 1233) is one of the earliest fascicles composed for Shobogenzo. His revision in 1252 demonstrates Dogen’s ongoing involvement with even the early fascicles of Shobogenzo. This in itself raises significant questions about attempts to discern changes in Dogen’s views based on evidence of ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ writings. Anyone that has compared earlier and later versions of Dogen’s writings, for example, Fukan zazen gi, can attest to his unabashed willingness to radically alter and re-phrase earlier writings. Rather than indicating changes in Dogen’s understanding, such revisions more likely demonstrate the typical behavior of a teacher; ever striving to improve their communication of knowledge.
It is far more reasonable to see Dogen’s reworking of earlier writings as demonstrating an ongoing effort to refine and elaborate his vision, than it is to speculatively assume such revisions evince efforts to correct earlier viewpoints.
A basic rule of Zen study, as well as common sense, tells us that if our understanding of an expression by a Zen master fails to harmonize with our understanding of another expression by that master we would do well to inquire into the accuracy of our understanding before concluding it is the Zen master that is inconsistent. This basic rule is particularly relevant if the master is, like Dogen, widely recognized as a master of language with an unusual gift for creative expression.
In conclusion I would notice that regardless of Dogen’s views at the beginning, middle, or end of his career, the true nature of reality is the true nature of reality. Regardless of Dogen’s ‘true’ view, it is only our view that has any practical effect on us or the world. The only relevant measure with which Dogen’s writings can be effectively gauged is the actual effect they have on bringing our vision into greater harmony with the true nature of reality.
*This prevalence is evinced by the frequency of general statements cited in both academic and traditional works on Dogen and Shobogenzo noting ‘inconsistencies’ among the various fascicles constituting Shobogenzo.