Difference between revisions of "Read the Shobogenzo"

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Revision as of 15:09, 15 April 2019

I finished the Shobogenzo. For those who are not Zen nerds, the Shobogenzo translates to the Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, and it contains the collected writings on Eihei Dogen. Eihei Dogen is the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school, of which I am a student. Notable students of this school include Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind) and Brad Warner (Hardcore Zen). It is a large work. They physical dimensions of the four volume translation I have (Nishijima/Cross) are 8.5 inches by 11 inches by 3 inches, very much like a phone book.


The content of the Shobogenzo is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of it is deep, impenetrable Zen philosophy. An easy sample might be "Studying the Buddha way is studying oneself. Studying oneself is forgetting oneself. Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all things. Being enlightened by all things is to shed the body-mind of oneself, and those of others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly." Then there is stuff like "To talk about the Wheel of Dharma is to describe a dream within a dream. Because it is verification seen within verification, it is a dream explaining a dream." Then there is a detailed chapter about how to take a shit. No, I am not kidding. It runs the range between those extremes, from living in a monastery, to how certain rituals are performed, to Zen philosophy, to mountains going for a walk. And you never know what is mundane and what isn't. The chapter Instructions to the Cook may seem to be about cooking for monks, but Dogen viewed this as a very important role in the monastery, and there is a fair bit of Zen philosophy in that chapter. Which fits, because in Zen, the mundane is as important as anything else.


Dogen is well known for saying things that don't make any sense. Some people spend a lot of time trying to figure out what he means. I think some times (not all of the time) he doesn't mean anything. The ineffable is a big concept in Zen. It's the idea that it is not possible to really understand reality, and what we should try to do instead is to experience reality. As Dogen puts it, reality "cannot be understood conventionally." Any understanding we do have is meant to be a finger pointing to the experience. Often when Dogen is not making sense, he says we should examine what he is saying, we should study it and research it. I think he's saying that he's trying to point the way to the truth. However, instead of using something we can understand to point the way to the truth, he's using something we can't understand. I think he wants us to grapple with what we can't understand, to show the way to the reality we can't understand.

Cranky Old Man

There was something that bothered me in the later chapters. It may have been in the earlier chapters, and I just didn't notice it there. But he really strikes me as a cranky old man. He is constantly calling other people stupid fools and non-buddhists who have never tasted the Dharma blah blah blah. He is very critical of other people, not just the ideas themselves. I don't like it when teachers go after each other. Brad Warner does it from time to time, and I wish he would just get back to saying what is true. Jundo Cohen does it a lot, too. He's even more irritating because he twists people's words a lot.

I am reminded of this one meditation group I was in. It was nominally open to any Buddhist tradition, and there was a rotating group of people who would bring readings for discussions. I didn't agree with everything that was read, and I struggled a lot with how to criticize the readings from other traditions. I finally decided not to. Instead I would use the discussion to try and emphasize what I thought was true from the reading. Of course, then someone brought in a reading I didn't think had any truth in it. That was one of the things that made me leave that group.

Leaving Family Life

While there was a ton of stuff I found to be really inspiring and helpful in the Shobogenzo, there were two chapters at the end that made me re-examine my whole practice. The two chapters are Leaving Family Life and The Merit of Leaving Family Life. The original Buddha, Sakyamuni, left his family behind to wander as a monk, seeking the truth. This was a tradition in India, to leave your family behind to wander as a monk, begging for food and meditating. As Buddhism traveled to China and Japan, the tradition became more leaving your family and going to live in a monastery. In these two chapters Dogen states that the only way to see Buddhist truth is to leave home. He goes on for some length about this, and I think he's quite clear that if you don't leave home, you are just not going to get it.

American Zen has nothing like that. There are monasteries in America, to be sure. But when people in America take Jukai, the ceremony Dogen sees as leaving family life, they keep working their jobs, living in their condos, and seeing their friends and family. And there are modern interpretations of Dogen that soften this. Leaving family life is seen as a metaphor for abandoning the expectations that family and society have for us. It is noted that earlier in the Shobogenzo, Dogen says that anyone can find Buddhist truth (I don't remember that, and I am having trouble tracking it down, but I assume it is in there). And at the beginning of The Merit of Leaving Family Life, Dogen quotes Nagarjuna (an Indian philosopher and boddhisattva), who says that lay people can attain salvation, but the distractions of their jobs and duties makes it harder.

I'm not sure I buy any of these softenings of Dogen. I think he really meant leaving home life and living in a monastery, physically separated from society. And while he may have been more open to lay practice in the earlier parts of his teaching, the writings of the Shobogenzo span over 20 years. I can see 20 years of living in a monastery changing your mind about the value of living in a monastery. While he does quote Nagarjuna on lay salvation, everything Dogen says in that chapter, which goes on for a long time, is that you need to leave family life to attain bodhi-mind and the truth.

This made me really wonder about the path of my practice. I am training to take the Jukai ceremony, and become a lay monk, who still lives amidst many duties and distractions. But now I feel that Dogen, the founder of my school, would see that as nothing, or at least nowhere near enough. But I resisted the idea of becoming a monk. Typically in American Zen, the first thing you are told to do is to get a regular meditation practice, preferably a daily sit of 20 to 40 minutes. Once you have that, the next thing you are told to do is go on a retreat. That's where I resist. I have had several deeply moving Zen experiences or Kensho, but they all came out of taking my practice off of the meditation cushion and into those distracting jobs and duties. So I have always down played retreats (which are sort of dipping your toe into the lake of monastic practice) and emphasized bringing the practice into the rest of your life.

But recently having found a teacher after over a decade of practice, I am wary of set patterns of thought about practice from that decade of experience, and how they might get in the way of what my teacher has to offer. So I tried to think openly about leaving family life. I remembered this one time I was on retreat. It was the third day of sitting and I had been asked to address the sangha. After speaking the teacher (not the one I have now) berated my words rather forcefully, in front of the whole sangha. It really irritated me. But only for a second. There was this bright flash of intense irritation, and then it just sort of floated away while I sat there peacefully. For a champion grudge holder with an Irish temper, that was a pretty amazing thing. Perhaps in that mental state I could see things that are not possible to see through my normal practice.

I wrestled with this quite a bit. What would Dogen really think of modern lay practice? Lay practice in 13th Century Japan was nothing like lay practice in 21st Century America. Hell, families are probably completely different across the centuries and the Pacific. Maybe I'm wrong about what Dogen thinks. Maybe now that I'm retired I should just haul my ass off to a monastery. Maybe I'm right about what Dogen thinks, and Dogen was wrong and Nagarjuna was right.

In the end I fell back on one of the foundational rules I have always lived by: You can't divide the world into black and white. The world is an infinite variety of grey, from very light to very dark. I think that whatever Dogen actually meant, Nagarjuna was right. Family, jobs, and duties create obstacles to practice, and that getting away from those obstacles through retreats and monastic practice has value that I have been resisting. But at the same time I still maintain that making those obstacles our practice has value as well. Not all value has to be the same value.