Rational Zen

The Mind of Dogen ZenjiTaigen Leighton

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.

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