Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) founded the Japanese Soto Zen school. Many of his talks and letters are collected in Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), a work of beauty, subtlety—and density. Many find Shobogenzo more baffling than enlightening.
In his newest book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advise from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, Brad Warner presents 20 of the best-known fascicles or “chapters” of Shobogenzo with his own commentary. But rather than translating the archaic Japanese texts, Warner—a Soto Zen priest, punk bassist, and filmmaker— paraphrases them in modern American vernacular, cutting through the thick semantic haze to express Dogen’s teachings as plainly as possible. (Note that his “modern American vernacular” includes references to Doritos, zombies, and beer.)
Warner is a dharma heir of the late Gudo Nishijima, a Dogen scholar who, along with coauthor Mike Chodo Cross, left us one of the few complete English translations of Shobogenzo. In Don’t Be a Jerk, Warner describes his years of study with Nishijima as a painstaking line-by-line immersion into Dogen’s work. Warner has fun with the venerable 13th century text, but his boundless respect for Dogen is clear, too.
Your new book obviously focuses on Eihei Dogen, who pops up a lot in your other books as well. In the introduction, you write that we “desperately” need Dogen today. Why is he a big deal?
Dogen was ahead of his time. He understood aspects of human nature that we take for granted today, but which there weren’t even words for in his time.
He says amazing stuff constantly—he’ll point out that even the things that the traditional Buddhist sutras warn us against, like doubt and anger, take place within what the Buddhists call “original enlightenment.” Reality isn’t some pristine thing far off in outer space where there is no doubt or anger or greed or whatever. Reality is what you are living in at the very moment that you doubt you are living in reality.
But more than that, he takes the basic premise of Buddhism to its ultimate conclusion. And he does so fearlessly. He doesn’t accept any doctrine without question. He is the ultimate skeptic—he’s skeptical even of himself, his own senses and his own conclusions. That kind of attitude would paralyze most people. Yet Dogen manages to take that skepticism and turn it into something that’s freeing rather than paralyzing.
As a society we are only now getting to the place that Dogen was 800 years ago. We are watching all of our most basic assumptions about life, the universe, and everything come undone. Religions don’t mean anything anymore, except maybe to small groups of fanatics. You can hardly get a full-time job, and when you do there’s no stability. A college degree means very little. The Internet has leveled things so that everyone’s opinions are presented as if they were all of equal value. The news industry has collapsed and it’s hard to tell a fake headline from a real one. Money isn’t money anymore, it’s numbers stored in computers. The American presidential race has turned into bad reality TV. Respected scientists are starting to say things like, “Maybe we’re living in a computer simulated reality.” I don’t believe that, but a lot of people seem to be ready to accept such ideas. In fact, lots of people seem inclined to accept a variety of clearly crazy ideas because every basic assumption is instantly challenged. This uncertainty has a lot of us scrambling for something to hang on to. Dogen gives us a way to be OK with uncertainty. This isn’t just something Buddhists need; it’s something we all need.
Yes, we humans can be certainty junkies. We’ll attach to ridiculous nonsense rather than not know. It’s like part of our brain is dedicated to compulsive dot-connecting.
I think we are wired to want to be certain. You have to know if that’s a rope or a snake, if the guy with the chains all over his chest is a gangster or a fan of bad seventies movies. My neighbor’s cat knows me but she’s very wary of almost everybody else. So if there’s a sound near my door she makes sure it’s me. She’s looking for a kind of certainty there.
The difference with humans is we can think about a lot of stuff that’s not actually real. We crave certainty in areas where there can never be any certainty. That’s when we start in with the crazy stuff.
Why are Dogen translations so difficult to read?
Probably the main reason is because they’re difficult to begin with. Dogen is trying to say things that can’t actually be said. So he has to bend language to the point where it almost breaks. He’s often using language itself to show the limitations of language. Even the very first readers of his writings must have found them difficult.
In your paraphrase of Fukanzazengi (“Universal Guide to the Standard Practice of Zazen”) you write, “We should stop chasing words.” The Nishijima and Cross translation of the same passage begins, “So cease the intellectual work of studying sayings and chasing words.” My first Zen teacher used to tell us you can’t find Zen in books, and then he wrote a lot of books. Why isn’t this a big, fat discrepancy?
Dogen had the same question. He understood both that words always ultimately fail to describe reality, but that we human beings rely on words anyway. This isn’t really a discrepancy. You use words, but you remain aware of their limitations. My teacher used to say, “People like explanations.” We do. They’re comforting. When the explanation is reasonably correct, it’s useful as a way to predict the outcome of similar situations.
But there will always be things we can’t explain. In fact, our explanations are always provisional. This isn’t a problem unless we start to confuse the explanation with reality. We have a strong tendency to do that because we like explanations so much.
This relates to Dogens’s other writings, such as the Ikka No Myoju (“One Bright Pearl”).
In “One Bright Pearl” Dogen seems to take the view that explanations are not really necessary. And yet he spent a lot of his life trying to explain things that can’t be explained. It’s ironic that you have to use words to explain why words are so limited. But it can be done. If you understand exactly why explanations are always limited, you can use explanations in a practical way.
I’ve studied Dogen’s words for 30 years and I’ve also studied myself for 30 years. Dogen studied himself for 40 years, much more deeply than most of us have ever attempted. His words are based on his explorations of himself and on his explorations of the words of others who had explored themselves. He is always careful to point out that any explanation is not the thing it explains. That’s a huge contribution.
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In several places in the book you discuss the mind-matter dichotomy and how Buddhism doesn’t subscribe to it. You write, “What we conceive of as matter and what we conceive of as spirit/mind are actually one and the same.” Why is it important that we clarify this?
Even though this insight goes all the way back to the Buddha 2,500 years ago, it’s somehow still startling. I think that’s because even Buddhists themselves have often failed to understand it.
I have a theory that our inability to see the unity of mind and matter may have roots in human evolution. It may be that because we are so good at imagining things that are not physically real, we have had to evolve ways of constantly making a clear distinction between the two. This leads us to be almost incapable of comprehending that mind and matter are really two aspects of the same thing, which is neither mind nor matter.
A lot of our greatest conflicts have been clashes of philosophies that value the mind against philosophies that value matter. Religions say that spirit is real while matter is negligible. Materialistic philosophies, such as classical science, say that mind is just an illusion caused by the interactions of material objects and processes. Contemporary physics is starting to dimly comprehend that this distinction is false, but it will probably take a long time before this becomes widely accepted.
But it’s more than just a philosophical debate. People get killed over this stuff. Part of what happened on 9/11 was that people who believed mind or spirit was more important than matter were trying to prove that by destroying some of the great emblems of materialism. Of course there was more to it. But I feel like this aspect was really crucial.
The Buddhist idea is revolutionary, because if you take it to its logical conclusion, it really overturns all religions and makes materialism seem ridiculous. That’s a scary prospect to a society that’s heavily invested in either of those outlooks. But it’s a far more realistic way of looking at things. Once we put it into wider use, we’ll find that we human beings are capable of things we have never even dreamt of.
All of science is based on the materialistic outlook. It seems to work pretty well, but fails to address a lot of our deepest concerns. We live in greater comfort than ever before with all sorts of conveniences available to us, yet we’re still just as sad and confused as ever. Material prosperity clearly does not lead to happiness. Religious people argue for a return to spirituality, but we can’t go back. Buddhism offers a middle way that includes materialistic and idealistic or spiritual aspects but doesn’t favor wither one of these outlooks.
If we can find a way as a society to integrate this stuff, we ‘ll no longer have to fight about them. Right now, we deal with the contradictions between science and religion by allowing them to operate in completely separate areas. The Buddhist outlook would allow us to integrate them. I don’t think this will happen for a few hundred years at least. By then Buddhism will probably no longer be called “Buddhism” and won’t have much connection to ancient Indian cosmology. But I think future historians will see the connection between Buddhism and a more fully integrated and realistic view of life.
[This story was first published in 2016]
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