Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Zen Master Dogen on negation of rational understanding

"...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?"

(Shobogenzo, Sansuikyo, Trans. Hubert Nearman)

Ted Biringer


Harry said...

Yes, a good point to differentiate between words which may 'liberate us from the use of our intellect' and playing with words to 'negate rational understanding'.

Ted, obviously you like to emphasise the koan content in Dogen's writing. Do you feel that the use of/ the practice of koans is indispensable from what Dogen was advancing in his writings?

There is more than one way to 'liberate us from the use of our intellect'... such as taking certain drugs or falling into a deep sleep for example.



Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comments.

As far as the koan content in Dogen's writing, I don't think I really try to emphasize it. Dogen's writings are thoroughly saturated, or permeated with koans and its associated literature.

If the 'koan content' was stripped from Dogen's work, there would not be much writing left over.

The 95 chapter edition of Shobogenzo alone makes reference to over 250 koans, many of those references seem to indicate his assumption that his readers/hearers are familiar with the classic koan collections.

(Examples of his seeming indications of assuming familiarity include: his use of abbreviated refrences to koans that would be missed by those unfamiliar with them, like "Sun Face, Moon Face" "Twirling a Flower" "Shaking the Sieve" "Breaking into a Smile" etc. Also, his constant, explicite statements like, "These are the words of our ancestor, you should diligently make effort to get inside them" or "You should replace your liver and heart with these words" etc.)

Although Dogen also makes refrences to sutras and shastras (especially the Lotus Sutra and the Awakening of Faith Shastra) his refrences to koans far outnumber any other literary element. (A good recent source for Dogen's use of koans and sutras is the Soto priest and Dharma heir, Taigen Dan Leighton's most recent book, "Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra:

For a thorough, scholarly examination Steve Heine's "Dogen and The Koan Tradition" is excellent: )

As for the 'indespensability' of koans, first let me say this: I am convinced that anyone, regardless of tradition or no tradition, with koans or without, whether they follow teachers or not can realize their own true nature if they have genuine aspiration.

Having said that, Zen Buddhism is the path that I have found to be the most direct path, for me. By 'Zen Buddhism' I mean the art, or science (or method, or whatever term you want to apply to the unnamable Way) of awakening, or realization, or (my personal preference) practice-realization as revealed in the Buddhist sutras and shastras as they have been applied and outlined in the Classic Records of Zen, and especially the works of Dogen (primarily in his Shobogenzo).

The various Mahayana schools of Buddhism (Tendai, Kegon, Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, etc) all have certain things in common--all are universal, all incorporate some form of meditation (mostly seated meditation), most recognize the same sutras, precepts, paramitas, etc. Yet each has distinguishing features also--some emphasize particular sutras, some have developed unique methods of practice, etc.

The most distinguishing feature of Zen, in my view, the single most unique characteristic is the development of and incorporation of the koan. It seems to me that without koans and their related literature, Zen would fall into a kind of 'general' category of Mahayana Buddhism.

I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with other schools, or even with some general approach to the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism. But why call it Zen?

I know there are some other distinguishing characteristics of Zen, but for the most part they are minor. For instance, most Mahayana schools incorporate sitting meditation (some of the Kegon, Tendai, and Tibetan schools advocate a method of sitting meditation that is indistinguishable from shikantaza--which, by the way originated in the Tendai school). Most also assert the nondual nature of practice-and-enlightenment. Most of the various approaches of sudden/original enlightenment and/or gradual/progressive practice are also represented in the various schools and sects outside of Zen. But none of them, that I know of, have anything like the Zen koan.

In spite of the fact that the essence and function of koans is widely misunderstood and misrepresented, in my view, the koan is not only the most distinguishing characteristic of Zen Buddhism, it is one of the most unique and reliable developments for the communication (transmission) of bodhi-prajna (enlightened wisdom) in the history of the world.

When my publisher asked me to develop a glossary for The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing, I examined a vast array of English language koan definitions and explanations. 99% of them seemed to be widely off the mark, at least to my own experience (a couple were pretty good, Shibayama Roshi for one, and Robert Aitken Roshi's discussion in his translation of the Mumonkan seemed pretty good). In the end, I took a shot at creating my own definition.

Here are the definitions I put in the glossary for "Koan(s" and "Koan-introspection":

Koan(s). Short stories or sayings unique to Zen Buddhism; the most distinctive characteristic distinguishing Zen from other schools of Mahayana Buddhism; expressions which contain, transmit, and evoke enlightened wisdom; direct expressions of specific wisdom; most koans come from the recorded sayings and doings of the classic Zen masters.

Koan-introspection. The assimilation of enlightened wisdom (bodhi prajna) through the illumination of koans within observation meditation; evoking the specific wisdom within particular koans; a method (unique to Zen) for the transmission of enlightened wisdom. See also koan; transmission; prajna.

While these definitions are not completely satisfactory, to me they seem a little more accurate than anything else I came across.

Look how I have rambled on Harry! Don't you know to be careful about discussing Zen with a nutcase like me? (Ha! Just kidding.. I look forward to continuing our discussion and our mutual sharing of experience, insights, and ideas).

Take good care,
Ted Biringer

Harry said...


Thank-you for your explanation. It is very interesting. I agree they are of great importance as part of the literary and oral culture of Zen Buddhism, and that they have great potential to the student.

Do you feel that Dogen Zenji, by the time he was creating what was to become Shobogenzo, had a different emphasis in mind where koans were concerned. Different, that is, to how he had studied and practiced them in the past?

I mean this from the perspective of (trying!) to look at his teachings as a whole.



Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comments.

You wrote:

"Do you feel that Dogen Zenji, by the time he was creating what was to become Shobogenzo, had a different emphasis in mind where koans were concerned. Different, that is, to how he had studied and practiced them in the past?

I mean this from the perspective of (trying!) to look at his teachings as a whole."

In a certain sense, I think that Dogen, like anyone comitted to ongoing, continuous practice/realization, probably adjusted his "emphasis" regarding the various aspects of teaching on regular basis. As a genuine Buddhist teacher concerned primarily with liberating all-beings, I imagine that he was constantly looking for ways to accomplish his task. These, no doubt, suggested themselves in his first-hand experience with students combined with his ever-expanding and ever-deepening realization.

For example, the evidence suggests that just prior to his death he began a project to re-work the Shobogenzo. As Ejo says:

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 (Ejo is discerning this from Dogen's other work of the same name "Shōbōgenzō", which was written in Chinese - It was Dogen's personally edited collection of 300 koans) and also to include some new manuscripts, so that he would be able to compile a work consisting altogether of one hundred discourses...
After this our Master’s illness worsened. As a result, he stopped working on such things as the
drafts... Unfortunately, we
will never see His full draft of the hundred chapters, which is something to be greatly regretted...
I, Ejō, have given this final account. (Shobogenzo, Hachi Dainingaku. Trans. Rev. Hubert Nearman

At the same time, Dogen's use and mastery of the koan literature is apparent in even his earliest works. My take on Dogen's use of koans (at least my present take) is this:

Clearly, Dogen was a creative genius with a rare gift when it came to verbal expression. Koans, at least in my experience, are extraordinary elements of verbal expression. That is, koans are like "words" that express something beyond the limitations of "ordinary" words. They contain, express, and evoke bodhi prajna.

Now, if a Seaman says to seamstress, "Tell the OS to soogie the rainlocker and get the gum out of the scuttle-bucket." The seamstress might conclude that this person only had one oar in the water, and was talking nonsense.

Yet, if the Seaman said it to another Seaman, they would tell the Ordinary Seaman (OS) to clean the shower (soogie the rainlocker) and get the gum out of the drinking fountain (scuttle-bucket).

Similarly, if a Zen teacher said, "There is the everyday food and drink of Twirling a Flower, There is the everyday food and drink of Not Mind, Not Buddha, There is the everyday food and drink of Cold Kills You, Heat Kills You." Someone who had never assimilated those koans would probably think the teacher had spent too much time staring at walls and was saying something irrational or paradoxical.

Yet, someone that had assimilated them would be able to discern what he was saying. Of course in the first example, the Seaman has the ability to tell the Seamstress what he means in different "ordinary" words. But the Zen teacher is stuck because the meaning of the koan is not really a "meaning" but something more along the lines of an "experience" that is meaningless to someone that has not themselves experienced it. See?

So Dogen, in the Shobogenzo, uses koans to "say" those things that ordinary words can't.

This is one reason that so many people find the Shobogenzo so difficult--I have no idea what someone without some serious koan-introspection under their belt could possibly understand in Dogen's explications with koans.

For instance, if someone has not worked with "Joshu's Three Turning Words" (case 96, BCR), what would they make of this "explanation" by Dogen:

"It is because of this principle that his six senses are lacking. Because his six senses are lacking, he has become a Golden Buddha after having passed through the furnace, and he has become a Mud Buddha after having passed through the Great Ocean, and he has become a Wooden Buddha after having passed through fire."

Dogen does not use koans in this way in most of his other works. In the Eihei Koroku for instance, he urges his students to take up koans, or he uses them in a kind of rhetorical or explanatory manner, etc. This, I think, is why his other works are more accssible to most people. I think the Shobogenzo (or at least about 75%) was addressed to those students who had advanced to a certain degree in practice-realization, students with a certain amount of spiritual maturity and realization if you will.

So, while I think Dogen made certain adjustments in his style and methods, I don't see any reason he would have altered much about the way he taught koans in his private work with students. After all, it is the students task to resolve and assimilate them, the teacher simply assigns them, gives a few clues about where to apply themselves, then confirms or denies the students resolution.

Then, any two or more students that had resolved Joshu's Three Turning Words would follow the points of Dogen's use of them in the above quote--which would reveal some awe inspiring implications of the Buddha-Dharma that could not otherwise have been expressed in "ordinary" words.

At least that is my current understanding--I will ditch it as soon as I find a better one. Ha!

Thanks again.

Ted Biringer

Harry said...

Hi Ted,

Thanks for that. Not being a thirteenth century Japanese Zen person I am more than happy to have the philosophy explained to me in clear terms and then cut to the chase of practicing the ineffable.

I think there are ways of expressing and indicating what koans point to which may be more suited to our present cultural conditions.

I fully accept that this may represent literary degeneracy!



Ted Biringer said...

Hello Harry,

Thank you for your comments.

Yes, no. No, yes.


Ted Biringer