Monday, September 14, 2009

The “Unity” of Shobogenzo

The “Unity” of Shobogenzo (Part One)

Dogen’s successor, Ejo, added the following explanation to Shobogenzo, Hachi Dainingaku:

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 Shobogenzo that had previously been written in Japanese script and also to include some new manuscripts, so that he would be able to compile a work consisting altogether of one hundred discourses.
Shobogenzo, Hachi Dainingaku, translated by Hubert Nearman

This statement by Ejo, supported by research and widely accepted by scholars and Soto authorities, reveals a vastly important aspect of Shobogenzo that is too often ignored: Dogen intended Shobogenzo as a singular canon. Students of literature know why this is so vitally important; a written work that is intended as a ‘unity’ can only be understood if read as a ‘unity.’

One scene, or even one act in a play by Shakespeare cannot be accurately comprehended outside of its context within the whole play becuase even the last scene can and often does change the meaning of earlier scenes.

This potential is utilized in popular novels and films. The first 95% of the movie “The Sixth Sense” for instance, takes on a whole new significance in light of the final 5% of the film. Other obvious examples include the films of Quentin Tarantino, a master of applying the implications of ‘unity’ (e.g. “Pulp Fiction”, “Reservoir Dogs”).

The point is this; any particular scene, essay, chapter, book, or part of a ‘unity’ that is read apart from the ‘unity’ it belongs to cannot be accurately understood. This is true of any written unity, be it a massive sutra or a single poem. Each chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Moby Dick, or The Razor’s Edge depends on every other chapter for its true meaning.

Dogen wrote a vast number of texts that he did not include in Shobogenzo. If he had meant Shobogenzo to simply be a collection of miscellaneous texts, he could have easily included enough to reach his goal of 100. While the exclusion of a particular writing from a unity can be regarded as intentional or unintentional, inclusion can only be regarded as an assertion of approval.

In light of this, every fascicle admitted to Shobogenzo, regardless of its length, date, or subject must be read as part of a unified whole inherently consistent with Dogen’s intention.

Therefore, if any fascicles of Shobogenzo seem to be at odds with each other we need to reevaluate our own approach and understanding of Dogen’s meaning rather than simply ignoring them or dismissing them as inconsistencies in Dogen’s teaching.

NEXT: What reading ‘in context’ implies, and how it is done.

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