Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dogen's use of Criticism in Shobogenzo

Throughout the history of the Japanese Soto sect, much has been made of the influence of the Chinese Rinzai master, Daie Soko, on the teachings of Dogen. Traditionally, Dogen has been presented as being profoundly critical of Daie’s Zen teachings, especially his teachings regarding koans. Of course, Shobogenzo is not unique in its negative criticism of Zen ancestors. Scathing, colorful, and often humorous critiques are characteristic of a number of the classic records of Zen.
Claims about Dogen’s negative criticism of Daie have some basis in fact, but its significance has been exaggerated, and the reasoning underlying Dogen’s criticisms have often been skewed. In light of Daie’s importance to the Japanese Rinzai sect, specifically, his teachings regarding koans, some of the reasons for exaggerating and distorting Dogen’s criticism of Daie seem clear; to infer the inferiority, or even the illegitimacy of the Rinzai sect and posit the superiority of the Soto sect.

While an objective reading of Dogen’s treatment of Daie is enough to cast doubt on most sectarian claims, recent scholarship has decisively revealed a number of fallacies regarding many of these claims--and provided a great deal of clarity on the real issues. As others have lucidly presented the history and details concerning this issue *1, there is no need to dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that some of the distortions were probably legitimate attempts for sectarian survival, but many (if not most) were grounded in sectarian competition for spiritual superiority (and its corollary, the power associated with spiritual authority).

The negative criticism in Shobogenzo does offer some interesting possibilities. In Shobogenzo, Dogen is critical of Daie, but not only of Daie, nor is his criticism simply leveled at his use of koans. Other Zen ancestors, including Rinzai, Tokusan, and Ummon, are subjected to criticism just as harsh as any directed at Daie. These Zen masters are rebuked for the same reasons Daie is rebuked; inaccurate expressions of buddha-dharma (J. buppo).

In fact, in Shobogenzo Dogen does not hesitate to challenges even the most revered Zen ancestors including Hyakujo, Setcho, Joshu, and others. Furthermore, Dogen explicitly denigrates Vimalakirti, the hero of the sutra widely venerated in the records of Zen, and even denounces the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, Eno (second in Zen reverence only to Bodhidharma), as a fraudulent text. Moreover, some of Dogen’s more creative ‘misreadings’ and ‘interpretations’ of the Buddhist sutras could easily be regarded as tacit (if gentle) criticisms of the Buddha himself.

(In fairness, two characteristics of the negative portrayal of Daie in Shobogenzo should be noted. The first is a lack of any corresponding positive treatment; most of the important masters upbraided in Shobogenzo are nevertheless acknowledged in other sections of it. Although Daie is tacitly acknowledged as a legitimate ancestor (by Dogen’s acceptance of some of Daie’s descendents, including Bussho Tokko), explicit acknowledgement is conspicuously lacking. The second characteristic unique to Dogen’s charge against Daie is his direct assertion that Daie’s (recorded) teachings disqualify him as a Zen ancestor.)

Dogen’s criticism of Zen ancestors can be viewed as justified based on the rationale of Shobogenzo, which consistently asserts the nonduality of realization and expression in the buddha-dharma. That is, in Shobogenzo, realization and expression are interdependent aspects of the authentic buddha-dharma; each contains and is contained by the other. Hence, in Dogen’s view one’s realization of buddha-dharma is evident in one’s expressions of buddha-dharma. In fact, according to Shobogenzo, evaluating the authenticity of a Zen master’s realization "invariably" includes examining their expressions:

All the Buddhas and all the Ancestors express what They have realized. This is why the Buddhas and Ancestors, when singling out an Ancestor of the Buddha, invariably ask, "Can that person express their realization or not?"
Shobogenzo, Dotoku
, Herbert Nearman

While Dogen rebukes, and even hints at the lack of qualifications of Zen ancestors, he stops short of complete denunciation (except of Daiei), and often lavishes praise on them elsewhere in Shobogenzo. For instance, when Rinzai is denigrated as a ‘weak spirited newcomer’ in Shobogenzo, Bukkyō, Dogen does not dismiss his legitimacy. In fact, throughout Shobogenzo Rinzai is quoted as an authority, and in some fascicles of Shobogenzo, like Gyōji, and Hotsu Mujō Shin, Dogen praises Rinzai’s example, singling him out as an outstanding model for Zen practitioners.

One of the most illuminating examples of Dogen’s technique of challenging Zen ancestors based on their recorded sayings is in Shobogenzo, Shin Fukatoku, where he asserts the inaccuracy of five of the ‘giants’ of Zen tradition. In that fascicle Dogen exposes the ‘blindness’ of Joshu, Kyozan, Gensha, Kaie, and Setcho, taking them all to task for their ‘mistaken’ expressions concerning a koan. Significantly, there is no hint of their disqualification as Zen ancestors. To the contrary, Dogen asserts that although "it may be hard to believe" that people who do not understand one aspect of buddha-dharma are able to understand the rest of it, we should "realize that ancient Ancestors may also make mistakes":

In that the five worthy Masters did not at all understand the everyday practice of the National Teacher, they are, to that extent, similarly inaccurate. For this reason I have now let you hear about ‘the mind not being able to grasp It’ in the Way of the Buddhas. Although it may be hard for you to believe that people who are unable to thoroughly understand this one aspect of the Teaching are apt to understand all the rest of the Teaching, you need to realize that ancient Ancestors may also make mistakes and compound them, as in this case.
Shobogenzo, Shin Fukatoku
(Written Version), Herbert Nearman

Dogen’s recognition of the reality of human limitations is indicative of the realism—highlighted in the title of Hee-Jin Kim’s landmark book, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist—which permeates his records. Dogen’s realistic acknowledgement that even ancestors "may also make mistakes" seems to be much more than a reluctant admission of human weakness, or fallibility; but more of a realistic assessment of the human condition, hence, of reality itself. In the Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku, fascicle, Dogen assures his listeners/readers that "having mistaken views" is not unique to time or circumstances by asserting it even happened when the Buddha himself was actively teaching:

In truth, even those who had left home life behind and received ordination when the World-honored One was in the world found it difficult to avoid having mistaken views and personal opinions, due to their not giving ear to His Teaching.
Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku
, Herbert Nearman

To deny this characteristic of reality is, in Dogen’s teaching, to be ‘in delusion adding to delusion.’ Knowing the reality of buddha-dharma, on the other hand, is contingent on recognizing the reality of delusion. Herein lies the fundamental difference between ‘ordinary beings’ and ‘Buddhas’, as Dogen says in Shobogenzo, Genjokoan: "Ordinary beings are deluded about enlightenment, Buddhas are enlightened about delusion."

If Dogen is to be regarded as an authentic Zen master, then his teachings must be viewed as having the same goal as any authentic Buddhist master; the alleviation of suffering. Thus, all of Shobogenzo’s expressions, including those challenging Zen ancestors, must be understood as legitimate efforts to transmit the buddha-dharma. In light of this reasoning, it should be clear that Dogen’s criticism in Shobogenzo has more to do with instructing students then with admonishing long dead masters.

In summary, what can Dogen’s use of criticism teach us about applying ourselves to the Zen path of authentic practice-realization? Anything? Everything?

*1. For instance, see:

How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (Studies in East Asian Buddhism) by Morten Schlütter.

The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy: The Development of Chan's Records of Sayings Literature, by Albert Welter

Dogen and The Koan Tradition, and Did Dogen Go to China? What He Wrote and When He Wrote It, both by Steven Heine.

Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation, Carl Bielefeldt.


Uku said...


thank you very much for your interesting post.

I think, in the end we're all humans and we all make mistakes. It's part of our lives and enlightenment (tm) or what ever won't change the fact that we're humane beings and we're allowed to do both ignorant and beautiful things. So, that's why when practicing Buddha's Way our acts and thoughts are coming from our buddha nature, we want it or not. And practicing helps us to realize the meaning of our thoughts and acts so we're able to do more skillful than ignorant things; not being attached to anything. Killing Buddha. And more we practice, our acts and thoughts will become more skillful than ignorant, we're helping more than destroying. And to learn doing skillful acts, we need road signs like Dogen's and other teachers' teachings and writings.

Therefore, I think what Dogen's use of criticism can help us is that Dogen show us how stupid and empty words and teachings can be without practicing Buddha's Way at the same time; everyone can write and say wise and beautiful Zen-like things but if our minds are deluded, we can't see the true meaning of teachings and words. And in the end, we all have to realize the reality by ourselves, no one can't do it for us. We have to walk through the Gateless Gate by ourselves.

Like Dogen wrote in Gakudo Yojin-shu (transl. E. Brown, K. Tanahashi): Listening to the teaching opens up your conscious mind, while sitting zazen is concerned with practice-enlightenment. Therefore, if you neglect either of these when entering the buddha way, you cannot hit the mark. And later on, he continues: To follow buddha completely means you do not have your old views. To hit the mark completely means you have no new nest in which to settle.

But I don't know. That's why I practice Zazen and study writings. With beginner's mind.

With palms together,

Ted Biringer said...

Hello Uku,

Thank you for your thought provoking comments.

Me too! Ha!

And at the same time, Dogen seems to often point out that enlightenment is not the eradication of delusion, but the illumination of it. For Dogen, it seems to me, delusion is as 'inherent' as enlightenment, and that clinging to either is 'one-sided'. Check out Shobogenzo, Daigo, for a great perspective on this. Here is an excerpt:

"...when we search for and try to comprehend a person who has reverted to delusion, we will encounter someone who has experienced the great realization. We need to carefully scrutinize, right now, whether we ourselves are deluded or not, for it is by this that we humbly encounter the Buddhas and Ancestors."
“Shobogenzo, Daigo” trans. Rev. Hubert Nearman

Thanks again!

Uku said...

For Dogen, it seems to me, delusion is as 'inherent' as enlightenment, and that clinging to either is 'one-sided'.

Yeah, I agree. Thank you for that quote. Daigo rules.

Thank you!

Barry said...

Hi Ted,

First, I want to tell you how much I appreciate this blog. I know very little about Dogen and, thanks to your efforts, I know both more and less than ever before.

Suzuki Roshi used to tell his students: Shoshaku jushaku. As human beings, we make mistake after mistake.

That's just how it is for us. Surely, even the Buddha himself was subject to error and delusion. He was, after all, a human being.

I rarely learn much from other people's mistakes, except in a kind of intellectual way ("there but for the grace of God, go I"). In this way, Dogen's criticisms of others strike me as rather dry and beside the point.

My own mistakes and delusions, on the other hand, are a great treasure. However, I depend on teachers, friends, colleagues, and (especially) my wife to shove my nose into my mistakes and delusions. Without their support, there's just no way that I'd look deeply into this stuff.

When I can do this work, then I indeed must let go of my "old views" - and discover that I have no new nest, nowhere to settle.

Yours in the Dharma,

Mike Cross said...


I think Master Dogen was totally beyond sectarianism and his belief in the teaching of Gautama Buddha was utterly beyond any kind of criticism of Gautama Buddha, tacit or otherwise.

I think that, because of your evidently powerful intellect, you are in danger of making Master Dogen's teaching more complicated than it is.

samaadhi-yukta-cittasya, if my understanding is correct, means balance harnessed to intelligence.

The Alexander teacher Walter Carrington wrote a good paper about Alexander's discoveries titled "Balance as a Function of Intelligence."

So I am by no means, I hope, prejudiced against intelligence, as many so-called "Soto Zen Masters" seem to be.

But it looks to me that your intelligence is just pulling around a lot of baggage in the form of your own opinions.

Mirror principle? Probably so.

In that case, I recommend us both, in spite of being intelligent, to drop off our own opinions.

Good luck with that!


Ted Biringer said...

Hello Mike,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.

I totally agree with you about Master Dogen's being 'beyond sectarianism' as well as his firm affirmation of the teaching of Buddha. In my understanding, everything Dogen spoke or wrote was primarily aimed at the alleiviation of suffering through the transmission (and/or manifestation) of the authentic Buddha Dharma.

While I appreciate your kind words about my 'powerful intellect', I personally sense a definite lack of power in that area, though I do seem impelled to continuously search for an understanding of Master Dogen's work. For some reason, I find it nearly impossible not to ponder his work on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, I will be the first to admit that there does not seem to be much about his teaching that I could claim any certain 'understanding' about. After 20 some odd years of studying and sitting with Master Dogen, about all I can say I am certain of is that my exploration of his work has been a fascinating, inspiring, and life changing journey.

Having said that, I take your counsel seriously and will try to apply it in my ongoing study.

Thank you also for your massive contribution to English speaking students of Master Dogen. Your translations of his works, in your 4 voulume, Master Dogen's Shobogenzo (with Gudo Nishijima) and your continuing work online has enriched my life more than you might imagine. Thank You!

Your observation that I may be in danger of overcomplicating Master Dogen's teaching does fit one of the traits that has been a hindrance to me on a regular basis.

I will try to increase my own awareness of the tendency to allow my personal opinions to taint Master Dogen's teachings. Also, when I feel unable to avoid offering my own opinion I will make an effort to indicate that it is simply a 'personal opinion.'

Thanks again!


Ted Biringer

Mike Cross said...

Thank you for your kind words, Ted.

For me, what real certainty I have found is all in the negative.

It relates to what Jordan described as "vectoring away" from what we know to be not true.

People's conceptions of right posture, I am certain, as a result of doing Alexander work for nearly 15 years now, are generally all false. Pulling in the chin as I used to do it, was certainly symptomatic of delusion.

What enlightenment is, you and I do not know. We could join the chorus of those who parrot that Zazen itself is just enlightenment, but something in us resists joining that shallow crowd.

But our own delusion we can be certain about. And one manifestation of it is this terrible verbal diarrhea that we both seem to suffer from!

All the best,