Rational Zen

The Mind of Dogen ZenjiTaigen Leighton

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.


Taigen Leighton is co-translator of Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi and Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen.

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