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.

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