Image 2: Title page of 1811 edition of Dogen’s Shobogenzo

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

Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala Publications, 2011
1280 pp., $150 cloth

Shambhala’s publication of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s two volume translation of the complete text of Eihei Dogen’sShobogenzo marks a watershed moment for Western Buddhism. Shobogenzo has been legendary for centuries. Written in the 13th century, it was at first known only to adepts and disciples, and eventually all but lost. In the 17th century the text was unearthed, edited, and published as the basis for a radical reformation of Soto Zen. In the 20th century, secular Japanese philosophers touted it as their answer to the great philosophies of the Occident. In the West, Shobogenzo stands almost alone among Buddhist writings as a work that philosophers and intellectuals with or without Buddhist affiliations take seriously. Its notorious difficulty and startlingly modern themes (like language, being, and time) have invited comparison to major Western thinkers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Dogen is now widely considered to be one of the great religious, literary, and intellectual figures in Japanese history—and, according to some, in world religious history as well. Naturally, contemporary Soto Zen practitioners, both in the West and in Japan, have embraced Shobogenzo as the basis for their practice.

With all this, it is no surprise that Dogen’s major work has been translated many times into English. In addition to many volumes of selections, there have been three translations of the complete text: Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens, Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, and Hubert Nearman. All three of these works, impressive though they are (translating Shobogenzo is justly considered the feat of a lifetime) have remained fairly obscure; they are published in small editions and are generally only studied by specialists. With the Tanahashi version, it appears we now have an edition that will receive the sort of attention this great work deserves.

Tanahashi has been at work on this project for 50 years. In 1960 he began a translation into modern Japanese of Dogen’s difficult medieval Japanese writing, and within a few years he had produced (with the late American Zen teacher Robert Aitken) the first English translation of what is probably Dogen’s most well-known essay, Genjokoan (Actualizing the Fundamental Point). Since then he has been translating steadily, collaborating with dozens of seasoned Zen practitioners from around the country and from several Soto Zen lineages. [For the sake of disclosure, I should point out that I am myself one of those collaborators.] In the process, Tanahashi has produced several volumes of selected works, the first of which, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (published in 1985) has become in its own right a contemporary Zen classic. The complete Shobogenzo draws together all the previous work and adds considerable material that had not before been included. It includes an introduction by the translator that orients the new reader to Dogen’s context, themes, and style, as well as copious notes and explanatory material. It is worth mentioning, however, that the text, intended for Buddhist practitioners, does not go into the sort of historical and linguistic detail scholars would find necessary.

Tanahashi’s version, compared to the others, has two key advantages. First, the long time-frame of its preparation and the sheer number of collaborators (34) makes for a deeply considered and deeply relevant text. Second, Tanahashi’s effort to preserve the particularly Japanese difficulty of Dogen’s poetic prose, aided by the excellent work of the poet and Zen teacher Peter Levitt, the book’s associate editor, emphasizes the text’s ambiguity, multiplicity, and resonance of meaning more effectively than other versions.

Image 2: Title page of 1811 edition of Dogen’s Shobogenzo
Image 2: Title page of 1811 edition of Dogen’s Shobogenzo

Japanese Zen was the first of the Buddhist traditions to make big waves in the West. The most significant person in bringing this about was the Japanese Zen scholar-practitioner D. T. Suzuki, who presented Zen not only as a school of Buddhism but as a profound expression of a Japanese ethos that he saw as particularly relevant to contemporary Western culture. In the 1950s, Suzuki taught at Columbia University in New York, where his popular lectures were attended by many of the leading intellectuals, cultural players, and avant-garde artists of the day. His influence spread to the Beat writers, who popularized Zen as a form of aesthetic improvisation and passionate present- moment awareness. With the cultural space for Buddhism opened by Zen and the arts, many other forms of Buddhism came West, and by the 1970s both Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhist Vipassana meditation were well established, adding their own native Asian roots to the Buddhist mix. From today’s perspective it is easy to forget how important Japanese Zen and Japanese culture were to the original establishment of Buddhism in the United States.

Contemplating this new translation, I find Shobogenzo inspiring and important exactly because of the Japanese spirit that Dogen brings to his reading of Chinese Chan (Zen). Two Japanese cultural concepts that seem to me to be major influences on the general mood and tone of the work are yugen and aware.Yugen means, roughly, “mystery.” It refers to the sense that this human world that we see and hear and take completely for granted is in fact deeper and more mysterious than we can ever know. Yugen was an aspect of Japanese court poetry even before Buddhism arrived, but in Dogen’s hands it becomes conflated with the East Asian Buddhist conception of universal buddhanature, as taught in the Lotus Sutra. In this text, of signal importance in China and Japan, though noncanonical in Theravadan countries and barely read in Tibet, the Buddha reveals that the outward form of his practice—enlightenment and parinirvana, as taught in the early sutras—was an illusion, a tale told for effect, because human beings were not capable of grasping the shocking and more mysterious truth. But now, in the Lotus Sutra, this truth at last is revealed: the true Buddha was in reality not limited to birth, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana in conventional space and time—in fact he has existed, exists, and will exist everywhere and in everything, and all practice is nothing other than the manifestation of his true illumination, all-pervading and everlasting. Like a phantom city that is produced by a magician to encourage weary travelers who are far from their destination, the earlier teachings of a historical Buddha were given to aid practitioners who needed them. In truth, reality itself is Buddha, and even our suffering has its buddhanature. The Lotus Sutra was the key text of the Tendai school, the dominant Japanese school of the day, into which Dogen was first ordained as a boy. The scripture’s sense of the sacred all-pervasive presence of the Buddha must have impressed Dogen as profound confirmation of the mystery of human life that is a deeply imbedded value of Japanese culture.

The second Japanese cultural concept that Dogen brings to Chan is aware, meaning “impermanence.”Aware appears as a form of nostalgia and sadness, love for a fleeting world we can never grasp. Of course impermanence is also a cardinal principle of Buddhism. In Dogen’s hands the two conceptions collapse into one, so that the fleeting world and its human sadness and sense of beauty are one with the three marks of Buddhism: suffering, not-self, and impermanence.

Because of these cultural roots and combinations, Shobogenzo presents a view of Buddhism and of Zen as being not so much a retreat from or a transcendence of ordinary reality—which is a vale of tears, a realm of suffering, of dukkha, to be overcome—but instead the full embrace of the human world as the world of nirvana. To be sure, this radically nondualistic approach to Buddhism is not Dogen’s invention; it is a clear doctrine of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, and a key element of Chan understanding. But in combining this doctrine with his Japanese cultural sensibility, Dogen brings to Buddhism a poignancy and an appreciation for humanity that is unique. This sensibility is everywhere in Shobogenzo, but perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Genjokoan, where, after delineating the dialectic between enlightenment and delusion, Dogen concludes, “Yet in attachment blossoms fall; in aversion weeds spread.” In other words, for Dogen the ultimate standpoint of dharma is simply the full affirmation of our ordinary human world of attachment and aversion and their consequences. It is precisely through full appreciation of this vale of tears that Buddha’s illumination shines in us.

As a young Zen student I remember being enormously moved by these words when I first read them. It made sense to me then, and still does, that the point of my practice was not to overcome my humanity, to transcend it by becoming enlightened, but rather to settle into it with ultimate depth and appreciation. This is the overwhelming point of Shobogenzo.

There’s little doubt that Dogen did not intend to reread Buddhism in the light of his own culture. He apparently felt, as he often wrote, that what he was transmitting was not Soto Zen; it was not even Zen—it was simply dharma itself, as originally taught by the Buddha. He felt that in his teaching and practice he was returning to the root of the original teaching as he had received it from his own Chinese teacher, Rujing.

Nevertheless, his reenvisioning of the Zen tradition is clear throughout the text of Shobogenzo. Quite often he will comment on a traditional Zen story in a way that inverts the typical way the story is understood. The usual view of Zen stories is that, at least at the outset, someone is enlightened and someone else is not. But in Dogen’s version, everyone in the story is equally enlightened from the start, no matter how much this would seem not to be the case. For example, there is the famous story of the First Zen Ancestor in China, Bodhidharma, who calls his four disciples together for a contest to see which of them has the best understanding. He poses a question, and they each answer. To the first he says, “You have my skin,” to the second, “You have my flesh.” The third has his bones. and the fourth, Huike—clearly the winner and in Zen’s sacred history the Second Chinese Ancestor— has his marrow. But Dogen reads this story as if all four equally possess the full measure of Bodhidharma’s truth using expressions like “the skin contains the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow.” In other words, the perceived hierarchy between shallow and deep is itself shallow; in the deepest dharma every single moment, every single teaching, whether “shallow” or “deep,” contains complete depth of understanding.

Such a rereading of the tradition, on such radical principles, connects to the perspective for whichShobogenzo is most famous, and which lies at the core of Japanese Soto Zen: that practice and enlightenment are one phenomenon. This runs completely counter to the normative Buddhist view (which dovetails fully with our conventional materialistic and psychological view) that one practices in order to achieve nirvana or enlightenment, which comes after the practice has been accomplished, as a consequence of it. After all, what would be the point of practice if it weren’t a process leading to a positive result? This is what we all want, and it seems to be exactly what the Buddha’s teaching promises. The Four Noble Truths seem to point to this exactly: suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering, path. To explode this conventional view in as many ways as he can, Dogen takes on many fundamental questions in Shobogenzo: Time (in the famous fascicle Uji), Space (Koku), Practice (Gyoji), Compassion (Kannon), Meditation (Jisho Zammai), Language (Mitsugo), Enlightenment (Daigo). In essay after essay he is at pains to show that the way we conventionally understand the teachings is not in accord with what the Buddha actually taught. The view that time is sequential, yesterday coming before today and tomorrow coming after, is incorrect, Dogen tells us. Time is nonexistent, and simultaneously eternal: so the thought that practice leads to enlightenment is a superficial view. Practice doesn’t lead to enlightenment: a moment of practice is a moment of enlightenment. And enlightenment, to begin with, is not a state in contrast to delusion, it is “delusion throughout delusion.”

Given this, one might wonder, why practice at all? In a sense, this is the question of Dogen’s lifetime and the underlying question of Shobogenzo. Ultimately, Dogen answers it with the insight that to use practice as a means to an end is to pervert practice with the very self-focused grasping that causes suffering in the first place. We practice not to gain an enlightenment we do not possess, but because of our original enlightenment, which is the key to our essential human nature. Shobogenzo is a powerful argument, made in many ways—from the deeply conservative to the wildly radical—that the only thing that counts for dharma, and for human life in general, is continuity of practice, which is the true expression of a full human life.

For Dogen, this radical fact of life pervades everything. Because of it, we can’t talk or write about practice, as if practice and enlightenment were objects or states we could examine and comment on: our talking and writing is necessarily a form of practice, not an explanation of it. It’s not that Dogen is obscure in order to confound his readers. It’s simply that we do not find in Dogen’s writing the explanations we seek. All explanatory teachings will always be misleading, because they will reinforce delusional concepts of cause and effect, time and space, enlightenment and ignorance, and so on. Instead, Dogen’s words demonstrate through their very elusiveness—poetic, suggestive, and all-inclusive—that is the essence of dharma as he sees it.

This understanding accounts for both the beauty and the famous difficulty of Shobogenzo. Much has been written about the various literary techniques that Dogen employs to so torque his prose that it can sometimes dazzle the reader with its semantic dervishness. Some of these techniques, like paradox and tautology, are common in Zen expression, but others are unique to Dogen, or at least used by him in unprecedented ways and with unprecedented relentlessness. Tanahashi’s introduction lists 13 such techniques—and there are more. Among them is Dogen’s much-discussed penchant for creative Japanese misreading of Chinese grammar, as when he reads Rujing’s “plum blossoms open in early spring,” a conventional poetic image, as “plum blossoms open early spring.” This subtle difference reads into the phrase the insight that each and every phenomenon (plum blossoms) opens up and includes the whole of time and space. It is attention to and emphasis on these techniques, without mollifying them with interpretive translation, that, for this reader, makes the Tanahashi Shobogenzo so satisfying.

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