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Treasury of the True Dharma Eye:
Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo

by Dogen, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi (multiple translators)
Shambhala, 2 volumes, 1280 pages, $150

Dogen lived from 1200 to 1253 and is generally regarded as the father of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and, according to that tradition at least, he enjoys a position of special eminence in the history of Japanese Buddhist thought. Brilliant and devout, a reformer and innovator, an indefatigable spiritual teacher, a critic of sectarianism but at times sternly sectarian himself, Dogen was arguably the most important religious thinker of the Kamakura period. He was certainly among the most brilliant, and the Shobo Genzo—a large collection of his discourses and short treatises on the practice and philosophy of Zen—is his magnum opus .

Dogen was born into a noble family in Kyoto, and as a boy his precocity attracted the attention of the ruling clan, which sought to adopt him and prepare him for some exalted position in government. He had no interest in temporal power, however, and at the age of thirteen he became a monk on Mt. Hiei, where the powerful Tendai sect ran a virtual city of monasteries and temples. The Tendai taught a form of Buddhist esotericism, a supposedly higher version of the dharma , and placed great emphasis upon the chanting of mantras, the performance of mudras, and ritual initiation intended to unite one directly to the Buddha’s omnipervasive Dharmakaya or “Truth-Body.”

Dogen, it seems, was not much impressed by esoteric doctrine. He was also soon disappointed by the political intrigues that were the plague of Mt. Hiei. At the age of seventeen, he left and entered a monastery recently established by Eisai (1141“1215), the “founder” of Rinzai Zen in Japan, taking only one element of Tendai teaching along with him: the doctrine of “original enlightenment,” which taught that all persons always already possess knowledge of the truth.

And yet, he noted, the Buddhas have always had to seek enlightenment through contemplative and spiritual practices. Surely, then, elaborate rituals were not of any real value as compared to the simple but exacting disciplines of meditation, by which alone one can free the mind and will of everything that prevents one from awakening to the “dharma -nature” filling all things.

In 1223, Dogen journeyed to China and, at some of the great Chan (Zen) monasteries, immersed himself in the study of gong-ans ( koans in Japanese), those enigmatic anecdotes and conundrums by which the Zen exercitant is supposedly goaded onward towards a moment of sudden enlightenment. In time, however, he wearied of this as well, concluding that koans ought not to be used so obsessively as to displace the connected discourses of the Buddhist sutras .

Fortunately, he encountered a master of the Cao Dong school named Ru Jing, who placed a far greater stress upon contemplative discipline than had the Lin Ji masters under whom Dogen had been studying. Here at last Dogen had found a form of Zen that not only appealed to his austerely earnest spiritual temperament, but that seemed to him, in its purity and simplicity, nothing less than the authentic dharma taught by the Buddha. From Ru Jing, he learned that the true path to enlightenment was to know the self by letting go of the self, passing beyond the finite preoccupations of body and mind; that selfish desire must be left nothing to cling to if one is to come to see the truth ceaselessly made manifest in everything; and that this is, and must always be, a primarily contemplative path.

On returning to Japan, in 1227 or 1228, Dogen went back to the Kyoto area and began teaching the art of zazen , or seated meditation. Two years later, however, the hostility of the Tendai sect forced him to move farther south and, three years after that, to establish his own school and temple. A decade later, he and his disciples moved again, this time to a remote location on the northern coast, where they founded a new temple, the famous Eihei-ji. At the request of the shogun’s regent, he visited Kamakura, but, though the regent plied him with extravagant offers of lands and resources, he refused to stay on in Kamakura for very long. He soon returned to the north, vowing never to leave again. In 1250, after twice refusing it, Dogen graciously accepted the high imperial honorific of the purple robe, but then never donned it. He died in 1253.

The Shobo Genzo is, in many ways, a forbidding text. It requires of the reader not only some understanding of Zen principles, and perhaps of the special atmosphere of Japanese religious thought, but a great deal of patience too. One must often read a passage several times before one can make sense of it and even then may arrive at only a hazy impression of what is being argued. Dogen may have been principally a spiritual guide, but he was still a teacher of Zen.

He may not have shared the exaggerated appetite of his Rinzai contemporaries for evocative but impenetrable koans , but he was more than willing to indulge in paradox and apparent contradiction in order to shake his disciples out of their reliance upon conventional concepts of the self or of the world. And, while his language is frequently striking and even lovely, it is also often tangled and recursive and elliptical and willfully imprecise. It is obvious that Dogen expected his students not merely to receive his teachings, but to think along with them, taking them as the occasion of understanding rather than merely as a source of authority.

In this respect, Kazuaki Tanahashi’s edition has much to recommend it, but also much to answer for. In many instances, it is a graceful and faithful attempt to capture Dogen’s simultaneously attractive and frustrating style, and at times it issues a sincere invitation to the reader to enter into the train of Dogen’s thoughts, and to follow along right up to that mysterious point where thought breaks off before an experience that cannot be described, but only pointed toward. At other times, however, it is both ponderously literal and unnecessarily gnomic.

More to the point, it is almost cruelly devoid of any adequate explanatory apparatus, and as a result one is often left trying to intuit what the point of the original Japanese might be. For example, its rendering of the celebrated discourse Much? Setsumu could have included some editorial notice that Dogen’s use of the term yume (the Chinese “mu” in the title) can be read both as “dream” and “vision,” as the context shifts; instead, the word is rendered simply as “dream” throughout, without sufficient elucidation, thus obscuring its fruitful ambiguity, and much of the text’s complex subversion of the way we think about illusion and enlightenment. This is a clear case of critical dereliction, one that leaves the uninitiated reader without any sure footing.

Still, on the whole, one must be grateful for this edition of the Shobo Genzo . Whatever its failings, it provides a generously synoptic perspective on the great guiding themes of Dogen’s thought: that contemplative practice and enlightenment are not two separate things, and that knowing how to comport oneself toward reality is already the experience of truth; that only selflessness—a detachment from the appetites, obsessions, and exertions of the body and calculating intellect—allows one to become open to this experience; that one must go beyond one’s customary sense of space and time in order to see the truth of all things shining in a single dewdrop or unfolded in a single instant; that one must strip away rigid concepts before one can know the truth that lies beyond the opposition of subject and object; that this experience of non-duality is not a final terminus, and one must descend again to the world of ordinary distinctions for the sake of compassion. And so on.

Read as “mystical” counsels, Dogen’s teachings definitely move toward a final apophaticism, and so how one reacts to them will in all likelihood be determined by one’s tolerance for intentional paradox and constant negation. To someone whose intellectual formation has been in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, for instance, the Shobo Genzo will in all likelihood seem only perverse and insufferable. A mind indoctrinated to believe in the powers of propositional grammar with the same naïve conviction with which a Cartesian believes in clear and distinct ideas is probably not going to prove particularly receptive to a discourse dedicated to the obliteration of such beliefs. And even someone like me, who tends to think that the whole analytic project rests upon irreparably flawed premises, may at times weary of so labyrinthine a via negativa .

But the Shobo Genzo ought not to be read as a unified treatise in the first place, and certainly not as a kind of Zen Summa . If it is to be judged as a philosophical work, it should be according to a certain “classical” notion of what philosophy is: an attempt to give imperfect verbal expression to a knowledge that both precedes and surpasses all words; a passage through language from a pre-conceptual wonder at existence to a postconceptual theoria of unconditioned reality.

Which brings me to the purpose of reviewing the Shobo Genzo here. Few readers of First Things , I imagine, are Buddhists, and many might well ask why they should take much interest in an expensive and compendious collection of frequently obscure Zen discourses. Of course, one obvious answer would be that simple honorable curiosity should prompt them to want to understand the best expressions of the genius of other cultures and other traditions. But, for Christians and Jews, there is more to be found here than the mere appeal of the exotic and remote. There is, after all, ample biblical and theological warrant for expecting to find spiritual truth wherever human beings have earnestly sought it.

The areas of accord are not, admittedly, theological . I say this, however, not because Christianity and Judaism are “theistic” while Buddhism is not. While it is true that Buddhism has no real interest in any creator god, it is also quite clear that what Buddhist tradition has always understood by such a concept is a kind of finite demiurge—the sort of god described by Deists or the New Atheists, for example—and neither Christians nor Jews should be deeply offended by the Buddhist refusal to worship so inadequate a picture of the divine.

Whatever imperfect analogies might be found between Western and Buddhist (especially Mahayana Buddhist) understandings of ultimate reality, they can be discussed only at a far more metaphysical level, where one may draw hesitant but perhaps fruitful comparisons between, say, the infinite actus essendi subsistens and the unconditioned and all-pervasive Buddha-consciousness. But the Shobo Genzo is not a metaphysical text of that sort.

Neither, however, would I be content simply to say that analogies may be found at the purely practical level of spiritual practice. This is true enough, as far as it goes; but it does not go very far. Every contemplative tradition necessarily stresses the need to discipline desire, to control the powers of both body and mind, to cultivate dispossession of the self, to learn detachment from finite things, to sacrifice discrete concepts about the truth for the sake of an immediate experience of the truth, and so forth.

Of greater interest to the Western reader, I would claim, is the actual content of the experience toward which Dogen urges his readers. I think there is more than a verbal or affective similarity between some of Dogen’s formulations and, for instance, Traherne’s or Blake’s or Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of seeing eternity within time, or paradise within the world of suffering and death. It would be presumptuous and reckless simply to claim that, when Dogen speaks of seeing that luminous wisdom that precedes, fills, and transcends all existing things, he is speaking of, say, the eternal Logos of Christian belief. But I would certainly insist that he is bearing witness to a genuine glimpse of that reality, in a way both beautifully distinctive and eminently worthy of reverence.

David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things .

Image by OiMax licensed via Creative Commons.

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