Friday, December 12, 2008

Giving Dogen - and Shobogenzo - their due respect

While many of Dogen’s writings are complex, subtle, and profound, they are not mysterious, mystical, or irrational. It is true that they demand sustained, active, intensive and extensive investigation and maybe some interpretation, but they do not require decoding. Like all great literature, Shobogenzo will only yield its treasure through genuine, rational, and sustained exploration.

As Shobogenzo is not only great literature, but also a soteriological device, genuine understanding also demands personal experimentation. As great literature, it must be read by employing a variety of reading skills. That is, it must be read from the various levels or dimensions of what the educator Mortimer J. Adler called "active reading." (Mortimer J. Adler, How To Read a Book). He delineated four general "levels" of reading: Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical. These "levels" of reading correspond to a certain extent with the three basic "points" outlined in Dale S. Wright’s landmark book, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism. The reader that applies the "levels" of Adler, or the "points" of Wright (or both) to Shobogenzo will certainly attain a better understanding than many so-called Dogen specialists have demonstrated. This kind of reading is extremely effective because, as Professor Wright says:

In the Language of Zen, it calls forth "the one who is right now reading," and refuses to allow the reader to cling to his or her own invisibility."
(Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism)

When this kind of active reading is combined with a reliable method of spiritual practice/realization, it augments and enhances ones experience, understanding, and enjoyment of literature. In the case of Shobogenzo, following a regular practice of meditation is certainly necessary for achieving anything more than a superficial overview.

Anyone that would claim to understand, or be an adherent of Dogen’s teaching clearly needs to look very, very closely at what he said. In so doing, his work deserves the respect accorded to all great literary figures; that is, it must be evaluated from within its literary, cultural, and historical context. Any assertions about Dogen’s work short of at least this much would be vulgar, to say the least, especially by anyone identifying themselves as adherents of "Dogen’s Zen." Just as an understanding of Zen is meaningless without actual practice, the practice of Zen is meaningless without actual understanding. To assume an understanding of Dogen’s Zen based on a mere handful of his writings would be absurd, and an understanding based only on faith in the assertions of authorities is merely an imitation of understanding, which Dogen (and many Zen masters) considered as a mockery of genuine understanding.

As one of the most influential figures in the history of Buddhism, Dogen deserves to be given his due. Regardless of our intentions, before we venerate or condemn his teachings, we must do our utmost to clarify our understanding, to get to the truth of what Dogen actually taught. A quote attributed to Herbert Spencer sums up the point nicely, "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

It seems to me that to honestly give Dogen his due we must first approach Shobogenzo as if it actually is what he said it is—The True Dharma-Eye Treasury, that is, the authentic truth of the Buddhism. This would mean that all the fascicles constituting Shobogenzo must, to the best of our ability, be read as Dogen intended them to be read; not as independent treatises, but as parts of a unity—the unity of Shobogenzo. Corollary to this is that each fascicle must, for the most part, be gauged by the same standard and granted equal authority concerning the genuine meaning of the whole Shobogenzo, or of any part of that whole. We would not expect to understand any one chapter of the Lotus Sutra outside its context in the whole, or the whole of the Sutra apart from its chapters, likewise with Shobogenzo.

The inference of this seems clear; the more unfamiliar, neglected fascicles of Shobogenzo, because they far outnumber the familiar, popularized fascicles, provide more than just the bulk of its content, they provide the bulk of its meaning. This does not mean that those teachings that have been revealed and propagated based on a relatively minor selection from Shobogenzo are widely off the mark—I believe they are not. Just as several chapters from the Lotus Sutra could reveal the genuine, if partial, message of that sutra, so too with Shobogenzo.

Fortunately, the language, reason, and methods of the fascicles constituting Shobogenzo are extraordinarily consistent, not only with each other, but also with Dogen’s other works and with those of Mahayana Buddhism (especially Ch’an [J. Zen]) generally. Yet, when all the fascicles of Shobogenzo are taken into account, not only is the scope of Dogen’s message expanded, many of the ambiguities concerning his teaching are resolved. In short, approaching Shobogenzo as a unified whole broadens and clarifies its genuine message.

In my view, Dogen’s records exemplify Zen’s characteristically freehanded approach to doctrines and systems of all kinds. This Zen characteristic is sometimes referred to in the classic records as, "Taking up with one hand, letting go with the other." The misunderstanding of this technique has evidently contributed to popular false notions of Zen as anti-doctrinal and iconoclastic. I have not seen any valid evidence that Zen in any way advocates the destruction of traditional teachings, forms of practice, systems of thought, or established institutions. To me it seems that Zen simply asserts that they should be employed, and applied in a useful manner.

It is not difficult to understand why there is such widespread misunderstanding about Zen’s use of language, doctrine, and methodology; many are profoundly subtle and difficult to grasp (much more so to employ). Indeed, it seems to me that many of the more subtle doctrines and techniques of Zen are concerned with the transmission and development of the skillful use of language and doctrine. Throughout the literature of Zen, one finds a great deal of emphasis on the necessity of developing the skill to use systems without being used by systems.

In my own view, it seems important to understand that Zen literature, including Dogen’s work does not merely acknowledge language as unavoidable; it embraces it as the dynamic, liberating vehicle of Buddha-Dharma itself. "Katto" translated into English as "entangling vines" or "entwining vines," is a term that is often used in Zen to indicate hindrances associated with attachment to, and/or conceptualization aroused by words, explanations, doctrines, etc. While many of the classic Zen records implicitly acknowledge the positive, even necessary role of language and doctrines (if only tacitly by the sheer fact of their existence), Dogen voices it clearly:

Generally speaking, the saintly all devise some method of training whereby they sever the roots of whatever vines are entangling them. But they might not explore how to cut off entangling vines by using the very vines themselves, for they may not have used these embracing vines as the means to understand their being entangled. (Shobogenzo, Katto, Hubert Nearman)

This seems to be precisely the same point indicated by that great visionary of western tradition, William Blake, where, in his Jerusalem, he has Los declare:

Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those System;
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawd his own tender nerves.
(William Blake, Jerusalem)

It is not language, doctrine, methodology, or conceptual constructs in themselves that are rejected by the Zen masters; it is their misuse. In his writings, Dogen insists that helping others reach liberation is best achieved by "giving voice" to the truth of Buddha nature, which should not be confused with giving voice to a rigid view, or formula; sometimes it is tall, sometimes it is short:

Those who can help others reach the Other Shore through manifesting their True Self will manifest It and give voice to the Dharma for that purpose: this is Buddha Nature. Further, sometimes they will display the Dharma Body as something tall and sometimes they will display It as something short. (Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman)

To use a Zen simile, a rabbit running into a stump may be a meal, but a meal is not a rabbit running into a stump. A meal is berries on a vine, cultivated radishes, steamed rice, and myriad other forms. While an expression is Buddha-Dharma, Buddha-Dharma is not an expression. As Dogen points out:

You need to realize that the genuine functioning of the Dharma is beyond any immediate display of what is said or how It is put. A genuine voicing of the Dharma has no set form. (Shobogenzo, Bussho, Hubert Nearman)

Dogen consistently disparaged anything that even hinted at rigid adherence to systems of thought or attachment to methodologies or devices, even devices developed by the Zen ancestors. Far from being beneficial as an approach to Shobogenzo, reducing Dogen’s teaching to intellectually manageable patterns neutralizes its dynamic potential for pushing us beyond our limited view and actually expanding the horizons of our experience.

Reading Shobogenzo through any systematic screen is only possible if one imagines that the message of Shobogenzo is something to be explained. As students of literature tell us, the authentic message of any truly sacred text, like that of authentic poetry, inherently defies explanation. If the authentic message of a sacred text could truly be grasped through an explanation, it should have been written as an explanation to begin with. Obviously, if a sacred text conveyed nothing but what could be grasped by the ordinary human intellect, that text would hardly qualify as sacred. A literary work that does not speak to the heart as well as the mind and does nothing to actually expand our understanding, realization, and experience of life offers, at best, nothing more than a quantity of information, a mere number of trivial facts.

The tendency to categorize and systemize Dogen’s writings is not simply restricted to the sectarian factions of Soto Zen; traces of it appear in nearly every field of Dogen, and Japanese Zen studies. A veritable plethora of labels have been applied to Dogen and his works in a variety of attempts to systematically explain "Dogen’s Zen." Attaching significance to perceived connections between his writings and when he wrote them, many modern Dogen scholars subscribe to one or the other of the so-called "Renewal" and "Decline" theories. These categorizations are established by compartmentalizing Dogen’s work according to when he wrote them. When using this system, Dogen’s work is usually divided into the categories of "early and late" periods or "early, middle and late" periods. One prominent Dogen scholar suggests dividing these three periods into seven sub-divisions (Early Early, Late Early, Early Middle, Middle Middle, Late Middle, Early Late, and Late Late). (Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go to China?)

Because of its role, scholarship is more than justified in dividing, and categorizing the subject of its research, yet students and practitioners should be aware of the nature and function of those investigations. Scholarship can and does illumine important facets of Dogen’s life and work, but it is important to remember that, like a finely cut diamond, Shobogenzo is more than the sum of its facets. After all, the language of Shobogenzo, like that of all truly sacred literature, is mythological. For myth is the language of deliverance and liberation; a living dynamic expression with the potential of rendering transparent the interface of the temporal and the eternal, the finite and the infinite, all beings and Buddha, in Zen terms: the Gateless Barrier.

To read mythic expression as ordinary prose is to misread it.

Sacred text is inevitably addressed to the whole of our being and it is only through the whole of our being that we can receive it. Failing to respect the integrity of Shobogenzo by subjecting it to differentiation, discrimination, and conceptualization inevitably renders it opaque, nullifying its liberating potential.

Shobogenzo, like a necklace made of pearls, is at once ‘the many’ and ‘the one.’ Exploring Shobogenzo through divisions or systems of thought is like examining a necklace only after dividing and organizing the pearls into groups and patterns. There is no doubt that Dogen’s Shobogenzo is one of the most complex and multi-faceted works in all of the world’s literature, but aside from a few uncertain points its message is consistent, and its inherent design is exquisite.

Ted Biringer


SlowZen said...

Wow, I don't have time to read this right now but I wanted to stop in and say thanks for all your efforts.

Oh, and your other blog is still eating my comments.

Take care,

Ted Biringer said...

Hey Jordan,

Thanks for stopping by!

I found your latest comment (on the other blog) and un-spammed it.

Peace brother,


SlowZen said...

2098 words.

What was said?


Uku said...

*bowing in silence with palms together*

Your Dharmabro,

Anonymous said...


Rough translation -

"Dogen. Respek!"


"Don't Dis Dogen!"


"I love you Dogen"

Ted Biringer said...


2098 words?

I would not dare. Not a single word was ever spoken (or written).