Sunday, August 30, 2015

On Reading Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo

 On Reading Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo

Despite all this, systematic study of Dogen in the West today is virtually nonexistent. As a result, Western knowledge of Zen is painfully fragmentary, not only in quantity, but more important, in quality. In recent years, some sporadic attempts have been made to acquaint the West with Dogen, but these cover only a tiny portion of the entire corpus of his religion and philosophy. It is my hope that the study of Dogen’s Zen will remedy the situation and will lead to a more complete understanding of Zen.

On the other hand, I am of the opinion that it is high time for Western students to deal with Zen as a historical religion in its concrete historical, philosophical, moral, and cultural context—not to isolate it from that context. After all, Zen is a cultural and historical product. I feel strongly that such an approach to Zen is imperative to the maturity of Western Zen (or any Zen for that matter), and my work endeavors to apply it seriously to the study of Dogen. It might surprise many readers that such a historical consciousness is actually in accord with Dogen’s belief that maintaining a fidelity to history was the way to transcend it.

Hee-Jin Kim1


The widespread notion that Zen is antithetical to language is, from Shobogenzo’s viewpoint, a serious delusion based on a false assumption; specifically, the dualistic assumption that the reality of verbal expressions (spoken or written) is separate and independent of the reality of what the expressions concern. Of the host of fallacies about Zen spawned by dualism, the delusion that the reality of Zen somehow exists independently of the expressions of Zen is the most pernicious. It is to this distortion that we owe all the vulgar claims that Zen is some kind of mysterious or ineffable reality, condition, or experience that is somehow transcendent to, thus independent of, the normal human capacities of communication.

Here it is worth stating the obvious; since claims asserting that the truth about Zen cannot be communicated through language, are themselves constituted of language, they thereby refute their own validity!

Despite the obvious incoherency of such views, this distorted notion has plagued Zen throughout the greater course of its history.

Concerning Dogen’s Intentions and the Form of Shobogenzo

The uncertainty concerning which particular fascicles actually constitute Dogen’s Shobogenzo merits attention. For example, depending on which proponent’s view is taken, the ‘true’ form of Shobogenzo consists of eighty-four fascicles, or twelve fascicles, or twenty-eight, or seventy-five, etc. Further, besides controversy about how many and which fascicles should be included, there is disagreement as to their order of arrangement, the extent of their posthumous alteration, their relation to Dogen’s koan collection of the same title, and other similar questions.

Here I won’t debate these issues, but briefly note my own view on several points:

·                     At least four of the advocated versions of Shobogenzo demonstrate sufficient credibility to merit serious consideration.

·                     There is good evidence that Dogen ultimately intended Shobogenzo to consist of one-hundred fascicles.

·                     There is good evidence that Dogen engaged in revising and reediting fascicles of Shobogenzo throughout his career.

·                     There is good evidence that one of Dogen’s last contributions to Shobogenzo was a revision of the key Genjokoan fascicle (one of its two earliest fascicles, chronologically as well as structurally).

The interested reader is referred to the excellent detailed account of the particular issues involved, the historical evidence, and the present state of scholarship on these issues by Steven Heine in his remarkably comprehensive study of Dogen’s writings, Did Dogen Go To China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It.2

Now, I want to emphasize that, in my view, the precise details and historical evidence concerning what Dogen intended concerning the final form of Shobogenzo is of little ultimate import. For the Zen practitioner the only significance of Shobogenzo is what it actually expresses. For one thing it would be impossible to verify Dogen’s true intentions even if there were universal agreement. More importantly, Dogen’s personal intentions are finally irrelevant to the truth of Shobogenzo. The truth of Shobogenzo, like the truth of any dharma, exists nowhere but in and as its actual form. From the nondual perspective, the reality of a dharma and its form are not-two – the truth of Shobogenzo can only abide in and as its form here-now – and nowhere else.

The Unity of Shobogenzo

An issue related to the variety of fascicles constituting Shobogenzo merits attention; the tendency to misunderstand individual fascicles as independent writings rather than parts of a unified work. Despite the universal recognition of Shobogenzo as a unified work (e.g. a masterpiece, the work, etc.), accounts and studies frequently discuss particular fascicles of Shobogenzo in terms only appropriate to distinct texts. There is really no justification for ignoring the unity of Shobogenzo – the very reason for arguing about which fascicles belong presupposes the unity of Shobogenzo – if not for their place in that unity, such controversy would obviously be superfluous.

Question of the Consistency of Shobogenzo and Dogen’s View

Related to the questions as to the unity and precise constituents of Shobogenzo, there is controversy concerning the integral consistency of its vision. The prevalence of the false notion that inconsistency has been confirmed is evinced by the frequent inclusion of generalizations about ‘inconsistencies’ (and contradictions) among the fascicles of Shobogenzo within both academic and traditional works on Dogen.

None of the particular examples of inconsistency singled out by proponents offer anything like confirmation – the ‘inconsistency’ within Shobogenzo is speculative, not demonstrable. The only certain inconsistencies I am personally aware of are between the significance of Dogen’s expressions and the understanding of them expressed by some commentators. Most examples offered in support of the notion are clear misunderstandings resulting from attempts to read Dogen’s works according to rules inapplicable to his writings; specifically, attempts to read mythopoeic expression as literal description. Such attempts are inappropriate for approaching any sacred text or literary masterpiece, and in this case only exacerbate the already widespread fallacies about the labyrinthine or esoteric complications of Dogen’s symbolism.

Unfortunately, the reasoning of this speculative theory is carried over to support another common misnomer; the notion that Dogen’s view as to the nature of the authentic Buddha-Dharma underwent a significant changes during the course of his career. This notion presupposes the accuracy of the claims of inconsistency, and amounts to an explanation for their presence. According to this latter notion, the fascicles of Shobogenzo are inconsistent because Dogen’s views changed during the time between which the fascicles were written. This notion is also the source of the frequent, unqualified allusions to an ‘earlier Dogen’ and a ‘later Dogen’ encountered in contemporary Dogen studies.

For clarity, I want to articulate the implications inherent to the adoption of this notion. To accept this notion is to grant that the apparent inconsistencies are not mistakes in reading or understanding, or mistakes of transcription; one must grant that the apparent inconsistencies are actual inconsistencies. To grant this is 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. In short, to accept this notion is to accept that the ‘later Dogen’ would have considered some views of the ‘earlier Dogen’ as wrong views (false Dharma) and vice versa.

I want to emphasize that none of the actual evidence suggests, much less demonstrates that Dogen’s views of the Buddha-Dharma changed during his career. I find Dogen’s written views as to the constitution of authentic Buddhism to demonstrate a remarkable consistency throughout. Granted, there are uncertain points concerning some of Dogen’s expressions, there are no certain points that can or should be regarded as demonstrating inconsistency.

For the Zen practitioner, fortunately, it is ultimately irrelevant whether or not there is any validity to the various theories of inconsistency in Dogen’s works. 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.

First, Dogen’s writings are composed in the same medium as all sacred texts; mythopoeic expression. Any attempt to read them from a literal, historical, biographical, philosophical, metaphysical, or other non-mythopoeic perspective can only result in confusion. Next, completing a revision of the Genjokoan fascicle was evidently one of Dogen’s last contributions to Shobogenzo. Genjokoan is one of the earliest fascicles Dogen composed for Shobogenzo. His revision demonstrates his continuing involvement with the earliest fascicles of Shobogenzo. This in itself undermines any attempt to discern changes in Dogen’s views based on the evidence of ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ writings.

Rather than being indicative of changes in Dogen’s understanding, I would suggest that such revisions demonstrate sincere endeavors to improve the communication of his 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 to speculatively assume they indicate attempts to correct or expunge earlier viewpoints.

Further, ordinary common sense suggests 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 is especially true if that master is, like Dogen, widely recognized as a master of language with an unusual gift for creative expression.

In conclusion I want to notice that regardless of Dogen’s views, the true nature of reality is the true nature of reality. Regardless of Dogen’s ‘true’ view, it is only our view of reality that has any practical effect on us or the world. Thus, the only relevant measure with which Dogen’s writings can be effectively gauged is the actual impact they have on bringing our own vision into greater harmony with the true nature of reality.

Issue of Misplaced Authority

Among other unfavorable outcomes, the narrow focus of specialization characteristic of scholarship and the generalization characteristic of traditional accounts has tended to provide support to the authority of an effectively biased version of Shobogenzo. That is, they have contributed credibility to views that identify Shobogenzo with what actually amounts to an ‘abridgement’ of Shobogenzo.

To clarify, a handful of apparently ‘easier’ fascicles along with a handful of fascicles commonly regarded as ‘philosophically profound’ have appeared in numerous anthological versions of Dogen’s work, exclusive of the majority of Shobogenzo fascicles. Many readers naturally assume such selections provide an accurate and balanced, if general account of Dogen’s vision of Zen.

Obviously, any understanding of a literary work arrived at exclusive of the bulk of its content would be unreliable at best. If the excluded bulk happens to be the more complex content, as has commonly been the case with ‘selected’ translations of Shobogenzo, misunderstanding can be the only result.

Dogen’s True Mission

In my view, Dogen’s Shobogenzo was intended as – and successfully achieved – a complete exposition of the essential doctrine and methodology of authentic Buddhism inclusive of everything necessary for sincere students to directly and personally realize full and perfect enlightenment. By that, I mean that Dogen fulfilled the ‘mission’ he set down in Bendowa, one of the first writings he undertook upon his return from China. After describing how his journey to China led him to, ‘accomplishing the task of a lifetime,’ Dogen described his experience upon returning to his native land and how he came to decide ‘to spread the Dharma and save living beings’:

‘…I came home determined to spread the Dharma and to save living beings it was as if a heavy burden had been placed on my shoulders. Nevertheless, in order to wait for an upsurge during which I might discharge my sense of mission, I thought I would spend some time wandering like a cloud, calling here and there like a water weed, in the style of the ancient sages. Yet if there were any true practitioners who put the will to the truth first, being naturally unconcerned with fame and profit, they might be fruitlessly misled by false teachers and might needlessly throw a veil over right understanding. They might idly become drunk with self-deception, and sink forever into the state of delusion. How would they be able to promote the right seeds of prajna, or have the opportunity to attain the truth? If I were now absorbed in drifting like a cloud or a water weed, which mountains and rivers ought they to visit? Feeling that this would be a pitiful situation, I decided to compile a record of the customs and standards that I experienced first-hand in the Zen monasteries of the great Kingdom of Sung, together with a record of profound instruction from a [good] counselor which I have received and maintained. I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage. This may be a true mission.’

Shobogenzo, Bendowa (Italics mine)3

Before proceeding I would point out that the method Dogen chose for providing ‘true practitioners’ with a vehicle to ‘know the right Dharma’ (i.e. written records) is a method disparaged by many contemporary Zen representatives as unreliable, ineffective, or even misleading. Many within the Soto Zen sect (which claims Dogen as its founder) claim the only way practitioners can ‘know the right Dharma’ is through transmission from a living representative (i.e. a formally certified ‘Dharma-heir’). Such claims commonly suggest that such a ‘transmission’ is not only required, but solely sufficient, that is, no ‘records,’ whether of ‘customs and standards’ or ‘profound instruction,’ are necessary. For those claiming to be ‘heirs’ of Dogen, this is convenient; the record Dogen left so people could ‘know the right Dharma of the Buddha’s lineage was all but lost to the world for about 700 years. It should be noted that such ostentatious claims are usually not intentionally malicious or insincere, but simply the results of the usual competition and power struggles common to sectarian institutions. 

Shobogenzo: Intelligible and Accessible

In the nation of Great Sung China today, there is a certain type of unreliable person that has now grown to be quite a crowd. They have gotten to the point where they cannot be bested by the few true people. This bunch says such things as the following:

Just like the comments about Eno’s walking on water or the one about Nansen’s buying a scythe, what is being said is beyond anything that reason can grasp. In other words, any remark that involves the use of intellect is not the Zen talk of an Ancestor of the Buddha, whereas a remark that goes beyond anything that reason can handle is what comprises a ‘remark’ by an Ancestor of the Buddha. As a consequence, we would say that Meditation Master Obaku’s applying a stick to his disciples or Meditation Master Rinzai’s giving forth with a loud yell go far beyond rational understanding and do not involve the use of intellect. We consider this to be what is meant by the great awakening to That which precedes the arising of any discrimination. The reason why the ancient virtuous Masters so often made skillful use of verbal phrases to cut through the spiritual entanglements of their disciples was precisely because these phrases were beyond rational understanding.

Fellows who talk like this have never met a genuine teacher, nor do they have an eye for learning through training. They are foolish puppies who are not even worth discussing. For the past two or three centuries in the land of Sung China, such devilish imps and ‘little shavers’ like the Gang of Six have been many. Alas, the Great Way of the Buddha’s Ancestors has become diseased! This explanation of those people cannot compare even with that of the shravakas who follow the Lesser Course; it is even more confused than that of non-Buddhists. These fellows are not laity nor are they monks; they are not gods or humans. And when it comes to exploring the Buddha’s Way, they are more befuddled than beasts. The stories which the ‘little shavers’ refer to as going beyond anything that reason can grasp only go beyond anything their reason can grasp: it was not that way for any Ancestor of the Buddha. Just because they said that such stories are not subject to rational understanding, you should not fail to learn through your training what the intellectually comprehendible pathways of the Ancestors of the Buddha are. Even if these stories were ultimately beyond rational understanding, the understanding that this bunch has cannot hit the mark. Such people are in great number everywhere in Sung China, as I have personally witnessed. Sad to say, they did not recognize that the phrase ‘the use of intellect’ is itself a use of words, nor realize that a use of words may liberate us from the use of our intellect. When I was in Sung China, even though I laughed at them for their foolish views, they had nothing to say for themselves; they were simply speechless. Their present negation of rational understanding is nothing but an erroneous view. Who taught them this? Even though you may say that they have not had someone to teach them of the true nature of things, nevertheless, the fact remains that, for all intents and purposes, they still end up being offspring of the non-Buddhist notion that things arise spontaneously, independent of any form of causality.

Shobogenzo, Sansuikyo4

Shobogenzo is profound, complex, and multifaceted, but it is not cryptic or obscure, much less ‘beyond rational understanding.’ The only real obstacle to an accurate perception of the vision of Shobogenzo is the failure to study it.

Despite the images evoked by common characterizations of Dogen’s language as ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘archaic,’ etc., the vision of Shobogenzo is no less accessible than that of many (if not most) literary masterpieces, the Iliad, the Upanishads, or the Inferno for instance. Indeed, Shobogenzo is almost certainly more accessible than some texts that are widely considered to be standard reading for all educated persons, Virgil, Aristotle, or Kant for example. In short, it is true that Shobogenzo is a complex work that requires active reading, intensive and extensive study, and sustained, focused effort, but it is not written in esoteric terms, or secret code.

Shobogenzo in Light of Shobogenzo

An approach to Shobogenzo that begins from a perspective provided by established presuppositions concerning its form, content, or significance begins from a biased (partial) perspective – thus can only end in a biased conclusion. To initially approach a literary work after having already accepted the conclusions of traditional, scholarly, sectarian, or institutional authorities is to demonstrate a distrust of, if not contempt for the work itself, one’s own critical capacities, or both.

According to the Buddhist principles of nonduality, the essence (reality, truth, significance) of a literary work, like that of any dharma, exists only in and as its actual form and is, therefore, the only place it can be accurately discerned. Treatises, commentaries, interpretations, references, and other sources or aids to study can, at best, clear away particular technical obstructions to our vision by providing us with details or contextual information. Thus, the only reliable authority as to the true nature, significance, and value (i.e. essence) of Shobogenzo is the very form of Shobogenzo itself.

Approaching the Expression of Shobogenzo from Shobogenzo’s Vision of Expression

Whether we agree with Shobogenzo’s vision concerning the true nature of language or not, that vision itself is very clear; language is Buddha-nature, expressions of truth – expressions of Buddha. Expressions and Buddhas are nondual – Buddha is expressions, expressions are Buddha. This only appears extravagant when viewed apart from the totality of Dogen’s vision; from that grand perspective, all Buddhas and ancestors constitute a sole ancestor: Shakyamuni Buddha. I mention this here to emphasize why Shobogenzo needs to be approached with the same attitude used to approach scripture, or to meet Buddha (kenbutsu).

According to its own perspective, Shobogenzo is not a treatise on Buddhism, or instructions about the Dharma – it is an expression of Buddhism, an exemplification of the Dharma itself. We may reject Shobogenzo as such, but that would not change the fact that this view is advocated by Shobogenzo, thus is the view it is expressed from. Clearly, any understanding achieved by approaching Shobogenzo as if it were expressed from a view other than the one it is expressed from can only lead to an understanding other than the one expressed by Shobogenzo.

The Vitality of Zen Practice-Enlightenment in Shobogenzo

In Shobogenzo’s vision of Zen, reality itself consists of the expression of Dharma, an unceasing advance into novelty, an ongoing creative activity – not a fixed system, dogmatic formula, or absolute truth. Zen practice-enlightenment (shusho) is genjokoan, ‘actualizing the fundamental point’ – not the actualized, actual, or actualize of past, present, or future, but the ceaseless actualization of here-now which fully includes and transcends past, present, and future. Zen practice-enlightenment is only and always an ever-ongoing creative discernment-and-realization of Buddha here-now – the presentation (making present) of one’s true self ‘as it is.’ In short, practice-enlightenment consists of clearly seeing (accurately discerning, understanding, etc.) the true nature of reality, dharmas as they are here-now, thereby conducting one’s thoughts, words, and deeds in harmony with that truth in and as the self/world here-now.

1 Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, pp. xxix -xxx
2 Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go To China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It
3 Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
4 Hubert Nearman


No comments: