RATIONAL ZEN: The Mind of Dogen Zenji
Thomas Cleary
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1993.
256 pp., $20.00 (clothbound).

IN HIS INTRODUCTION, Thomas Cleary rightly calls Dogen Zenji “the greatest Japanese thinker in history,” and places him among the “greatest religious or philosophical authors in any culture.” Credited with introducing Zen practice from China and founding the Japanese Soto Zen school, Dogen (120012S3) also left a truly extraordinary body of writings that present a detailed, profound, and poetic expression of the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Dogen’s vast corpus includes the comprehensive essays of his masterwork Shobogenzo, “Treasury of Eyes of True Teaching,” and the almost as massive, though pithier,Eihei Koroku, “Universal Book of Eternal Peace,” featuring brief talks to his assembly of monks. These two works of Dogen are excerpted in Rational Zen.

The publication of another collection of Dogen translations by Thomas Cleary is an occasion for celebration by American Buddhists. The acuity of selection as well as the sheer volume of materials Cleary has made available from the Chinese and Japanese teachings make his contributions as a Buddhist translator uniquely valuable. Along with numerous works from I Ching studies and Taoist practice traditions, which have both greatly influenced and in turn been influenced by East Asian Buddhism, Cleary has long provided lucid and dependable versions of major Buddhist texts such as the monumental Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra, and the Blue Cliff Record and Book of Serenity Zen koan anthologies. Rational Zen provides the first substantial, competent translations from the Eihei Koroku, although Cleary has selected less than ten percent of this large collection of Dogen’s sermons, poetry, and informal talks. A brief sample:

When you have attained the realm of Zen, there is no Zen; when you clarify the realm of desire, there is no desire. There is no one in the whole world who understands Buddhism—everyone is eating leftovers. To say it is like something would miss it—it is not in the company of myriad things. What stages are there? What do you want with the beyond?

Rational Zen also includes five subtle, poetic essays from Shobogenzo (in its fullest version consisting of ninety-five essays): “Do Not Do Anything Evil”; “Awakening the Unsurpassed Mind”; “The Dragon Howl”; “Great Understanding”; and “Sounds of the Valley Streams, Colors of the Mountains.” Further, Cleary offers quite extensive, often brilliant notes which give valuable access to much of the inner dialectic of Dogen’s teaching. Several provocative reference texts also appear in an appendix.

By naming Dogen’s teaching “rational,” Cleary highlights key issues, as elaborated in his fine introduction. Dogen’s writings refute the fiction that Zen is an irrational experience. Though historically misunderstood at times (continuing even to this day in some Japanese training centers where reading is officially forbidden), the famous Zen dictum “teaching beyond words and letters” was not intended as an anti-intellectual ban on textual study. Instead, it indicates that the study of sutras and of sayings of ancient masters is not a conceptual plaything, but must be thoroughly enacted in prac tice; going beyond words means being able to use them appropriately, without fixation on any particular formulation.

In his commentary and introduction Cleary emphasizes the logic of awakening, frequently illustrated by Dogen in the process of integration of the universal or absolute reality with the particulars of the phenomenal world. This dialectic, derived from the Flower Ornament and other Mahayana sutras, is the basis for Dogen’s profound, fully digested view of awakened practice, which itself is totally integrated with mainstream East Asian Buddhist teaching.

Dogen’s Zen is also rational in presenting appropriate teachings as efficacious in particular situations. But these teachings and practices are not merely therapeutic techniques. Dogen is foremost a religious thinker; his is not a limited, materialistic rationality, but the rational completely unestranged from the intuitive. Dogen’s writings are replete with the importance of faith as the core of Buddhist activity. Cleary’s brief discussion of the correspondence between Dogen and Pure Land Buddhism is suggestive of the devotional depths of Zen, still barely glimpsed by Western practitioners.

Dogen’s rationality is also not that of Western philosophical schools who rely on fixed, consistent, dogmatic systems. Dogen’s writings all derive from functional teachings given to particular students in particular instances. His profound philosophical sense was at the service of expressing and fostering awakening, not of promulgating a consistent doctrinal system of “rational” philosophy.

This practical nature of Dogen’s teaching has been misunderstood by many modern academic scholars, both in Japan and in the West. Much mental effort has been squandered in taking bits of Dogen’s writings out of their contexts as skillful teaching to find purported doctrinal “contradictions,” with some nonsensical or, as Cleary puts it, “truly hilarious” results—for instance, explaining Dogen’s later teachings as due to senility, though he was still in his forties. Dogen sometimes used extremely harsh language in diatribes against degenerate trends in Buddhist teaching. Thanks to recent historical research, we can begin to appreciate the particular practice background and resulting problems of Dogen’s audiences that these harangues were intended to counter.

Cleary’s introduction also gives attention to the question of the roles of lay and monastic practice in Dogen’s teaching. This promises to remain a compelling issue in the development of American Buddhism. In the early phase of his career, Dogen stressed the universal efficacy of zazen practice, that opening experiences and realization were available to diligent lay practitioners as well as monks. Later, after establishing a monastic community where he devoted his energy to developing a cadre of monks committed to continuing his work, Dogen strongly emphasized the importance of concentrated monastic practice. Cleary points out Dogen’s intention to reform decadent aspects of the traditional monastic institution. Undeniably, Dogen’s later focus on the continuation and transmission of Buddhism has been maintained by ordained monks up to our present generation, despite the numerous excellent lay adepts throughout Buddhist history. While the nature of lay and monastic practice in American culture has already undergone great transformations from Asian models, the role of our monastic and community practice remains unclarified.

All who have attempted translations of Dogen affirm that it is an exceedingly problematic undertaking. Famous for his dense and intricate use of language, he often turns conventional expressions and syntax inside out to reveal the inner nature of dharma and the limitations of habitual thought patterns. Dogen’s Chinese and Japanese originals also naturally lend themselves to rich overtones of meaning, often uncapturable by even the best translation in the more precise English.

The lively, insightful translations in Rational Zen, along with Cleary’s two previous Dogen volumes,Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen and Record of Things Heard, are welcome additions to the various translations that have appeared in the last few decades. Quite frankly, these publications have included some poor renderings, characterized by loose paraphrase, oversimplification of Dogen’s carefully wrought language, and even complete deletion of those passages beyond the translators’ comprehension. We are still far from having competent translations of the entire Shobogenzo. However, perhaps a half dozen relatively reliable anthologies do exist. Comparing different versions of the same text often gives a fuller sense of Dogen’s meaning than any single translation can. The attempts by Okamura, Tanahashi, Kim, Kodera, and Cook at least are worthy of study. Perhaps the best Dogen translations are still those by Waddell and Abe that were published in Eastern Buddhist; fortunately these will be available as a collection in the foreseeable future.

Cleary’s translations have sometimes been criticized for not applying contemporary Western academic conventions and forms to texts from Asian wisdom traditions, as if such conventions represent absolute verity. Those concerned with the living meaning embedded in these writings can only feel gratitude for the riches Cleary has provided. However, he perhaps does his audience a disservice in sometimes rendering “a Zen master [or sutra] said” where the original gives specific names, as readers might want to pursue these teachings in other related translations. Also, it would be helpful to provide fuller identifications for sources of appended reference materials. Such defects aside, one hopes that Cleary will use his considerable talent and energy to provide further quality translations of Dogen.

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