March 26, 2009

Reading Past Dogen, to Dogen

We're having some interesting discussions at the Tricycle Community on the Big Sit, the teachings of Zen Master Dogen, and a bunch of other things. Here's an interesting response by Tricycle’s editor-at-large, Andrew Cooper, to our post from last week’s discussion on The Fundamentals of Dogen's Thought:

Reading Past Dogen, to Dogen

Studying the work of a religious teacher from a distant time and place presents any number of problems. Yet it is precisely through an active dialogue with tradition, for which such study can be essential, that the strivings and concerns of an individual’s spiritual life are anchored in a context of shared human endeavor. Sometimes ideas from the past seem to float unimpeded across the centuries and resonate intimately with our deepest intuitions. Sometimes they just clang and clatter in discordance with our basic values and best knowledge about the world.

I think this week’s selection from Kazuaki Tanahashi’s essay points up some of the things in Dogen that are, to modern readers, problematic. To start with, the claim that Zen and Zen alone is the true transmission of the Buddha is premised on a fiction. Like other Buddhist schools, Zen sought to establish its legitimacy—indeed, its preeminence—by tracing itself back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Most traditions did this through scripture: schools based themselves on particular scriptures and made claims for their supremacy by citing reasons for the superiority of their favored texts. But when the Zen school formed itself, in China, it employed a different strategy, the idea of a mind to mind transmission “outside the scriptures,” an unbroken lineage going back to the Buddha and extending up to the present. Of course, teacher to disciple transmission was indeed an integral part of Zen as Dogen encountered it. But it was a practice that began in China, not India. It is, then, deeply ironic that Zen’s very model and proof of authenticity is, historically speaking, largely a fabrication.

But such things are common in religions. History—that is, the systematic and rigorous study of the past—is a form of knowledge that is quite foreign to Buddhism’s self-understanding, as it is to that of any religion. The study of history began in ancient Greece, with Herodotus and Thucydides, and its tradition is Western humanism. Over the past century or two, its methods have become more exacting and powerful, and it has become the modern world’s main way of knowing the past. But that is comparatively recent.

Through most of history, humans knew their past through some blend of myth, legend, and recollection of actual events. It is true that in Buddhism one finds a strong tradition in the interpretation of scripture of distinguishing between the literal description of events and the symbolic meaning they convey. But the two levels of interpretation were seen as reinforcing one another, not as alternatives. The power of the symbols attested to the truth of the events; the truth of the events explained the power of the symbols. Today, however, we know the past in a way our religious forebears never could, and so we repeatedly face a dilemma: to remain open to metaphoric meaning, we must, more often than not, sever the connection between symbol and event.

What are we to make of the sectarian Dogen? The parochial Dogen? The intolerant Dogen? These are attitudes that shadow words like “genuine,” “true,” and “correct.” When Dogen says that zazen alone is the authentic gate to the Buddha-dharma, it is clear that he means that quite literally. He is saying that the zazen that was transmitted to him—and no other form of meditation or other practice—is the only way to practice true Buddhism.

It is hard to reconcile this narrow-minded Dogen with the Dogen of breathtaking religious genius. The latter speaks to and evokes our finest intuitions; the former expresses views that run directly counter to our best and most complete cosmopolitan sensibilities.

One can point out that Dogen’s sectarianism was hardly unique to him. He was the product of a highly structured, hierarchical society, in which authority was a function of position as sanctioned by tradition. Further, it is always a problem to view the past through the lens of the present. To find meaning in writings from the past, even the recent past, there is much—bigotry, superstition, false assumptions, provincial attitudes—that we simply must read past. Dogen is no exception. Still, that is rather cold comfort.

Reading past Dogen’s claim that there is but one true way—for we know that, as a literal statement, it simply doesn’t hold up—we are still left to ponder the spiritual meaning of such a statement. And for me, notwithstanding the necessity of rejecting its literal meaning, there is a spiritual meaning that is undiminished.

Dogen is expressing the Buddha Way as it revealed itself in his life-practice. The universality of his wisdom derives from—is inseparable from—the particular circumstances in which it is rooted. The universal and particular constitute a wholeness, and I think it is the wholeness of life—whether it is Dogen’s life or my life or your life—that he spoke of as being realized and actualized in zazen, and that zazen excludes nothing. It is from his deepest sense of things that he speaks, and it is in our deepest sense of things that we find him.

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Maura's picture

Thank you, Andrew, for your generous and clear explanation of the issues that the reading on Dogen raises for us, as modern-day Buddhists. Whatever tradition we practice in, I believe, we encounter similar problems. As you say, "To find meaning in writings from the past, even the recent past, there is much—bigotry, superstition, false assumptions, provincial attitudes—that we simply must read past." If we can't do this, we will always wander searching from group to group for the infallible teacher, the flawless sangha. That's a recipe for resentment, judgmentalism, dissatisfaction, suffering, and so surely not the right way. I have, unfortunately seen it happen in others, and felt twinges of the same reactions myself at times.

ruben barrera's picture

First of all, please do not take this personal. When I first read your essay, I simply label it as another attempt to study Dogen as a philospher or as a religious thinker. I believe as you stated"studying the works of a religious teacher' means that you encountered Dogen very differently than I do. I do not think Dogen wanted to be label or studied as a religious person or a philospher. In fact he clearly did not want to be label as a "Zen thinker." Many of his writings were very critical of groups that label themselves belonging to one sect or another including Zen. Second your premise that Zen's model of transmisson and proof of authenticity is a fabrication and premise on a fiction because it did began in China and not in India has no logic or reasoning. The authencity of Zen has nothing to do where it began nor what model it uses. The awakening that comes from Zen can come from a word-casting off body and mind. It can come from a sound-a pebble stricking a bamboo stick or a tile, from a gesture-fanning the wind with a fan,or from a koan-Mu. Third you label Dogen a historical figure that was a product of a highly structure hierarchical society, and that in his writing you find bigotry,superstition,false assumptions, etc... This is so far from the truth. Dogen cannot be label a historical figure that wrote for a 12th century audience. Why do we today study his writings? Do you think we are only interested what a person in the 13th century thought. I hope that this is not the reason we are reading him. His writings transcend the socio-cultural-historical conditions of a japan in the 1200s. There is something in his writings that enables a 21st century person to grasp the meaning of existance today and attain or realize freedom. His use of language and word and letters were not to portray thought in japan in the 1200s. Rather his use of words and letters were to open up our minds to reality-to encounter the truth. His language does away with " bigotry, superstition,false assumptions" Fourth as far as his "narrow-mindness", I am not sure where that comes from. Unless you mean on his assistance that we practice. But I consider that not being his narrow-minded, rather of his greatness. My question to you is in reading Dogen did you really encounter Dogen or simply studied him?

Helene Constant's picture

whew, big sigh of relief. Thanks so much -- I really needed your comments. I felt myself pulling away after reading last week's Perils of Dogen installment. It is so helpful to see that there is something useful to the upset, that I'm not the only one who....... I love the conclusion Andrew comes to: "his wisdom derives from—is inseparable from—the particular circumstances in which it is rooted. The universal and particular constitute a wholeness, and I think it is the wholeness of life—whether it is Dogen’s life or my life or your life—that he spoke of as being realized and actualized in zazen, and that zazen excludes nothing." that is very nourishing. This is working, isn't it? aside from the cute strangeness of the social networking, I seem to be able to learn something. Who would have thunk it?