Thursday, July 23, 2015

Reading Dogen

I've recently heard someone describe Eihei Dogen's masterwork Shobogenzo as "basically impenetrable," and over the years I've heard many people express frustration over the difficulty of reading Dogen (and to be honest, I have experienced difficulty myself).

Shobogenzo is not an "easy" read by any stretch of the imagination, not the least reason of which are the numerous translation issues and problems. As I understand it, it's difficult to translate Dogen's medieval Japanese into modern Japanese, much less 21st Century English, and the subtlety of Dogen's concepts renders translation by those not practiced at meditation and familiar with Zen Buddhist thought nearly impossible.  

Further, I don't think Dogen wrote Shobogenzo as a book to be read from front cover to back.  It's  a distillation of everything that Dogen had learned about Buddhism in his own monastic studies and during his time in China, and what he wanted to memorialize for future generations of Japanese monks.  Also, and most importantly, he writes at various times from any one of four different philosophical viewpoints and the fun in reading Dogen is trying to keep up with him and figure out which of the points of view he's speaking from at any particular moment.

I call the four viewpoints the relative, the absolute, the transcendental, and the practical, and Dogen pretty much spells out his heuristic in the opening lines of Genjo Koan, one of the early fascicles of the Shobogenzo.  

"When all dharmas are seen as the buddha-dharma," he writes, "there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings." This is the relative viewpoint, the way most of us experience life, where the cookie-cutter mind has divided the continuous fabric of potential into separate little "things" (dharmas).  

The absolute point of view is expressed in the next line, "When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death."  Here Dogen is acknowledging that beyond the division into separate dharma-things by the mind (the ego-self), there is only potential, and all of the things he just identified - delusion, realization, buddhas, ordinary beings, life, and death - don't really exist.  If there's no self, there's no mind to divide potential into this-and-that.  He's not contradicting the previous line, he's just describing the relative world of this-and-that from the absolute viewpoint of everything being what I call potential.

The next point of view transcends the dualistic distinction between the relative and the absolute. "Because the Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity" (or any other pair of opposites for that matter) "there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are ordinary beings and buddhas."  In other words, without falling into one philosophical camp or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of dharma-things, we can regard life and death and so one while clinging neither to their existence or non-existence.  In the transcendental, it matters not whether you are eating red beans and rice, or whether you eating red beans and rice is merely potential consuming potential - there is still eating going on one way or the other.  

And finally, as we should ask all philosophers, "so what?"  This leads us to the practical, about which Dogen merely writes poetically, "Though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish."

So there you have it, four different viewpoints, four different philosophies, no one of which is "right" or "wrong," and no one of which proves or disproves any other.  When Dogen writes, he often first expresses things from one of these viewpoints - often, but by no means always, from the absolute at first, and then doubles back and expresses it again from another viewpoint, without warning when he changes or which view he's just adopted.  It can get maddening at times and Shobogenzo often reads something like "The cow jumped over the moon.  The moon jumped over the cow,  There is no cow and there is no moon, there is only jumping."  But once you get used to it, and abandon any goals of reading through his prose "quickly" or in one sitting, it can be very rewarding to follow his quick and agile mind from one vista to the next.  I enjoy reading Dogen and I enjoy the mental workout his writing provides, and if I don't read anything by Dogen for some period of time, I find that I miss it.

So here's how I would interpret the opening passage of Genjo Koan: 
"When we look at the world, we see delusion and realization, we see practice, we see life and death, we see buddhas and we see ordinary beings.  But without the discriminating mind of the ego-self, there is no delusion or realization, no life and death, and no buddhas and ordinary beings.  But as the distinction between existence and non-existence is itself just another dualistic concept, we can discuss delusion and realization, life and death, and buddhas and ordinary beings, regardless of their existential state.  For example, we can say that beloved flowers fall even as hated weeds flourish."
I don't know if any of this makes sense to anyone else - these things are hard to talk about, and maybe that's what makes Dogen so hard to read.

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