Monday, July 26, 2010

Shobogenzo & the Tao of Mythical Expression

We have said that for Dogen all expressions are real expressions, but that it is only Buddha ancestors that fashion expressions of truth. Most Dogen students know that Shobogenzo is regarded by many as Japan’s greatest literary achievement and is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of world literature. Few, if any, would deny its qualification as one of the world’s great works of art, or its status ranking it as one the most important works of sacred literature in world history. In light of this no one would deny that an evaluation of Shobogenzo deserves as much attention and concentration as has been given to other of the worlds sacred texts. This means, first and foremost, to acknowledge the fact that the language of Shobogenzo, like that of all sacred literature, is the language of mythology and must be treated accordingly.

While the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, Suzanne Langer, James Hillman, and others has gone a long way in restoring the true meaning of “mythology,” the terms associated with it are still popularly used and understood as meaning “not true,” “fanciful,” “fabricated,” etc. Whatever value the term may have in that regard, it is certainly not what is meant here. The meaning of mythology here is in accordance with Dogen’s view of language, specifically, expressions of truth. That is, by the “language of mythology” we mean Dogen’s view of language as integral to the universe, and entwined with the infinite variety of myriad things. As expressed in the words of Hee-Jin Kim:

“…the scope and depth of language are coextensive and coeternal with those of the whole universe. Dogen envisions the infinite varieties of linguistic modes according to different beings in the universe, in terms of “words and letters” (monji), “the sutras” (kyokan), and “expressions” (Dotoku).”
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p. 60

The nature of mythological language is succinctly expressed in the title of a four volume collection of books by Joseph Campbell: The Masks of God. As “masks,” the expressions of mythology have the potential to reveal as well as conceal the face of God—or, in Zen terms, our own “original face.” While Dogen, like all Zen masters, was fully cognizant of the limitations of language and their capacity to “conceal” reality, he was also keenly aware that regardless of this, language was the greatest, and maybe the only, vehicle of true liberation.

“…for all its limitations, language can still function as the most powerful agent of salvific liberation.”
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p. 62

Mythical language, like great art, requires us to go beyond literal interpretations and academic theories if we want to achieve genuine understanding. Also like art, the meaning, reason, or significance of mythical expression is inherent in its form—and nowhere else; thus to perceive its true form is to realize its true nature. The concerns of the great mythologies are the concerns of Dogen’s teachings: the universal truths of life and death. In this sense, “Buddhism” and “Zen” served Dogen as the masks of true nature, or Buddha nature, which he called the “Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye” (Shobogenzo).

While Dogen’s knowledge of Earth’s geography was limited to what was known in 13th century Japan, his teachings were obviously intended to be inclusive of the entire human realm (and beyond). The countries and peoples of his world were all familiar with Buddhism, thus for Dogen, the term “non-Buddhist” was never used in reference to people that had not heard of Buddhism. It is important to remember that for Dogen, Buddhism was not a religion in opposition to “other” religions; Buddhism was simply the Buddha Dharma, the universal truth of life and death. For Dogen, expressions of truth, that is, authentic practice-enlightenment (shusho) was Buddhism. There was no more need for Buddhism to compete with other religions than there was for rice to compete with not-rice—authentic practice-enlightenment is Buddhism, everything else is not-Buddhism, period.

Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto, for instance, were not repudiated by Dogen as such, but informed by and distinguished from Buddhism, as joinery, masonry, or landscaping might be informed by and distinguished from architecture. Dogen’s well known criticism of the (then popular) “tripod doctrine” which asserted that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were “three legs” of “one truth” was not an attack on Taoism and Confucianism, but on the failure to distinguish their differences. As a master of the Buddha Dharma, Dogen naturally regarded Taoism and Confucianism to be of minor significance in contrast to Buddhism. But so were rice-cultivation and sandal-making, for which he was no doubt grateful, even if they were less important to him than Buddhism. In order to clarify or illustrate points in his own teachings, Dogen freely quotes Taoist and Confucian classics throughout his writings, and openly acknowledges that “instruction and training” can be found in Taoist and Confucian texts. Moreover, Dogen describes the failure of distinguishing between them as slandering Taoism and Confucianism as much as slandering Buddhism.

Also, there are irresponsible people who say, “Although they are different to begin with, the teachings of Taoism, the teachings of Confucianism, and the Scriptures of Shakyamuni ultimately have the same goal. They are just different ways for entering the gate to Truth.” Or they may say, “They are like the three legs of a tripod.” This is at the heart of a hot debate among present-day monks in Great Sung China. When people speak like this, the Buddha Dharma has already been banished from the earth and perished for them...

To recklessly discuss them as all having one and the same principle is to slander the Buddha Dharma and to slander Confucianism and Taoism. Even though there are some accurate points in the teachings of those two, our present day veteran monks have not even clarified a fraction of those points, much less have they grabbed hold of the Great Handle even once in ten thousand tries! Although instruction and training can be found in the works of both of these, ordinary, run-of-the-mill scholars today cannot readily follow it. There is none in that bunch who could even try to do that training. They cannot even connect one bit of teaching with another. How much less could these present-day veteran monks possibly realize the profound subtleties of Buddhist Scriptures! Not having clarified what the other two are actually about, they just irresponsibly put forth their own questionable teachings.
Shobogenzo, Bukkyō, Hubert Nearman

The point here is that for Dogen, Buddhism is nothing more, or less, than authentic practice-enlightenment, the true nature of the universe and the self. The truth of life and death is what Dogen means by the Buddha Dharma; it has nothing to do with a particular text, canon, doctrine, lineage, creed, sect, tradition, or even religion—authenticity is all that counts for Dogen. On this, Dogen is unyielding in the extreme—not even the Buddhist sutras (much less the records of Zen) are exempted from Dogen’s demand for authenticity. This fact is undeniably demonstrated by numerous examples in Dogen’s writings. While Dogen is not averse to explicitly denouncing particular Zen masters or Buddhist scriptures, his more common approach is to “correct” the traditional texts via deliberate mistranslation.

(Note: examples of Dogen’s explicit denigration/denial of ancestors and sutras are found in Shobogenzo, Butsudō [criticizing Zen master Rinzai] Shobogenzo, fascicles Sesshin Sesshō & Jishō Zammai [criticizing Zen master Daie] Shobogenzo, Shizen Biku [refuting the Platform sutra] Shobogenzo, Tembōrin [refuting the Surangama sutra]. This list is far from exhaustive.)

The most popular example of Dogen’s affinity for “correcting” Buddhist sutras is found in the Shobogenzo, Bussho fascicle. Here Dogen (mis-)translates a saying of Shakyamuni Buddha from the Mahāparinirvāna-sūtra. Basically, Dogen’s “improved” translation has the effect of changing the Buddha’s assertion that, “All beings inherently have Buddha nature,” to “All beings are Buddha nature.” Regardless of how we frame it, such action amounts to a deliberate alteration of the Buddhist scriptures—it is hard to imagine how to defend him from charges of refuting the Buddha himself.

Another example, which may be even bolder than the one in the Bussho fascicle is Dogen’s alteration of a sutra that is accomplished by the addition of a word. In Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu, Dogen inserts the word “whole-body” (konshin) into the first line of the Heart-sutra (Mahāprajnāpāramitāhrdaya-sūtra) and thereby renders it as follows:

“When Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara practices the profound prajnā-pāramitā, the whole body reflects that the five aggregates are totally empty.”
Shobogenzo, Maka-hannya-haramitsu , Gudo Nishijima & Mike (Chodo) Cross

The enormity of Dogen’s self-assurance is evidenced here, not only by his willingness to “correct” this popular sutra, but by the fact that this fascicle is one of the earliest writings of his teaching career (perhaps the first, probably no later than the third). This would be gutsy move for a veteran teacher—for a 27 (or 28) year-old upstart, still years away from leading his first temple, such a move testifies to a rare, and unwavering commitment to ones values—or a gargantuan set of balls (or both, which seems likely).

To sum up the points here, acknowledging the status of Shobogenzo as one of the great works of world literature, we asserted it merited the attention granted to works of similar rank. Also, we noted that the language of Shobogenzo is (like that of all sacred literature) mythological; and followed this with a brief discussion of some of the obvious implications. The need to distinguish contemporary notions of Buddhism and religion from the worldview of Shobogenzo was emphasized with a reminder of Dogen’s historical context (13th century Japan). Finally, the primacy of truth, that is, the authenticity of practice-enlightenment in Dogen was shown to be over and above all else (including the Zen records and Buddhist sutras).

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