Dogen's Genjokoan

by Norman Fischer | May 17, 2006 at 7:24 PM

ritten for the weekly Dharma Seminar. On Dogen's Genjokoan. May 17, 2006

Before resuming discussion of Genjokoan I want to report to you on my reading of Steven Heine's book "Did Dogen Go To China?" First, let me assure you that Heine is not suggesting that Dogen did not go to China. The title is a play on another book that all scholars of Asia know: "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" That book actually does offer some solid evidence that Polo never did go to China, and that he or someone else pieced together information from other books as well as some imaginative material to concoct a story. " Did Marco Polo Go to China" is a rather spectacular example of critical historical scholarship disproving something that has always been taken for granted, and this is what scholars love to do, to debunk the conventional wisdom, causing us to reexamine our whole perspective, which seems like a healthy thing to do in any case. And this is what Heine wants to do as well in his book- to cast doubt on current theories in Dogen studies.

The early view of Dogen studies in Japanese and English was that Dogen was an enlightened religious genius and that everything he wrote was equally valid and true. In the last twenty five years this naive sense of Dogen has been criticized and replaced by two other views, called the Decline and Renewal theories. 

In the Decline theory there is an assumption that Dogen, early in his career, had a cheerful, open, and universal sense of practice- as evidenced in Genjokoan — but that as he went on, disappointed at his lack of success in procuring important patronage, and moving further and further away from the centers of power and from the laity, he became crankier, narrower, and more and more sectarian. Some scholars, like Heinrich Doumolon, even accuse him of becoming senile and bitter. 

The Renewal theory proposes that while Dogen did perhaps, as he moved to Echizen, out into the mountains, where Eiheiji is located, become narrower and more monastic, a more important change came rather later in his career, when he was summoned to the compound of a powerful warlord in Kamakura, who offered to build Dogen a major temple. Dogen refused this offer and returned to Eiheiji appalled at the possibility- that he could see coming- and that in fact did come — that the great universalist doctrine of Original Buddha Nature, that he had been so sincerely propounding, could become an ideology that might support violent samurai regimes. After all, if we are all originally Buddha, equally empty and free from the first, life and death transcended in Oneness, then why not conquer and pillage? In fact, horrible regimes never have venal motivations. All great political criminals, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pat, operate under high and inspiring ideological banners that justify temporary and spectacular misdeeds. So Dogen came home to Echizen renewed in his appreciation of the importance of karma and precepts for Buddhist practice, and at the end of his life was preparing a new version of Shobogenzo that would reflect this. 

There is an important scholarly movement in Japan, called Critical Buddhism, that, horrified by the Japanese Buddhist record of support for militarist regimes from the Tokugawa Period to World War II, condemned the whole of Japanese Buddhism, which has always been based on the doctrine of original Buddha Nature — an idea we like so much- and which is so much evident in Genjokoan — and claimed that only Dogen, after his renewal, saw through it. The truth is though that Dogen was editing Genjokoan toward the end of his life, and the text we have now reflects that late editing. So it is unlikely that Dogen ever repudiated it, as both these theories would imply. As we will see I think as we read the text closely and thoughtfully, Dogen is saying that despite — or rather because of - our Originally Enlightened Nature - practice is necessary. Not to know this is to misunderstand the real meaning of Original Buddha Nature. In other words, practice is necessary not because we need to become enlightened, but because we already are. 

In any case, Heine's book exhaustively works with dates of the various fascicles of Shobogenzo and other Dogen writings to show that both the Decline and the Renewal Theories are too simple and fail to take many details into account. It seems as if there were, from the beginning, many angles to Dogen's thought, and that he was both narrow and wide from the start. Heine has his own theories about how and why Dogen might have changed his views over time- and I will tell you what they are when I get to that part of the book. But one thing seems to have remained constant for Dogen from the beginning till the end: his conviction that the practice of zazen, always understood both widely and narrowly, was central to any true practice of Buddhism. 

In any case, Heine's very detailed method shows us what we already knew anyway: that the closer you look at something the less definite and the more complex it gets. This is as true of Dogen's life and career as it is of our own. There may be many good explanations for something but in the end multiple, and usually contradictory, explanations are required. And even then one must admit that one doesn't have the whole story. 

Written for the weekly Dharma Seminar. On Dogen's Genjokoan. May 24, 2006

More on Heine's book:

Before going on to finish up Genjokoan, let me conclude my report on Steven Heine's book "Did Dogen Go to China? What we are basically dealing with in this book are historiographical theories about Dogen's career, rather than an analysis of the meaning of what Dogen wrote. Analyzing meaning is, from the point of view of post modern religious scholarship, old fashioned and irrelevant. Because there can't be any fixed meaning; any text is a product of its time and circumstances, of its, as they say, "field of discourse." In other words, religious texts are not records of what people mean. They are complex interactions and conversations between people, events, other texts, other times. And it is quite impossible to appreciate what a text might mean without taking all of this into account. 

This seems quite true to me. And also to be quite in accord with the basic Buddhist teaching that nothing is separate and fixed, that everything is, as I like to put it, a shifting point of meeting. When we read Dogen we are not trying to figure out what Dogen, a 12th century Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, meant or taught. Our purpose is not to see if we can understand that teaching and then, because Dogen is a great authority, to see if we can conform our view to his. Instead, our purpose is to see what good we can get out of Dogen's words; what they can tell us about our own lives and the living of them that will help and inspire us. 

In our reading of Dogen though there is some virtue in knowing about the sort of material that historiographical scholars like Heine dig up. To appreciate Dogen's words, and to minimize our own projections onto them — because there is no use in our simply reading what we want to read into Dogen, without being in dialog with Dogen — it helps to know at least something about the context in which Dogen wrote, and the intentions he might have had, even though there is probably no way to know for sure why Dogen wrote what he wrote and precisely what he intended by his words.

Remember last time I told you Heine was critiquing two theories of Dogen's career that have had a lot of currency in the last few decades. The Decline Theory has Dogen disappointed at his lack of success in the capitol, and so moving out to the country where he becomes testy, sectarian, and narrowly focused on monasticism. The Renewal Theory, created by a Japanese movement called Critical Buddhism, sees Dogen as revising his teaching quite thoroughly at the end of his life after his famous visit to the samurai enclave in Kamakura. He now believes in and emphasizes karma as the key to all of Buddhism. The Renewal Theorists have an ax to grind: influenced by recent work on the Japanese Buddhist collusion with nationalistic militarism throughout Japanese history, and especially during World War II, they are taking on the whole of Japanese Buddhist doctrine, and using Dogen's supposed change of heart as a wedge.

In the last part of the book Heine looks more closely at Dogen's Eiheiji period. In fact, it seems that Dogen may not have fled to Eiheiji in a fit of personal disappointment, which he then took out on everyone in his bitterness. It's possible that Dogen, who always loved nature and remote places, wanted to go to the deep mountains for their contemplative advantage, as well as for another reason: at Eiheiji Dogen could create a unique monastic environment, such had never been seen before, either in Japan or Sung China: a truly independent, democratic and popular, religiously-based institution, more or less free of political influence. And that's what Eiheiji was. In Sung China, monasteries were controlled by the government which appointed monastic leaders. This was true also in the Japanese Tendai establishment that Dogen had trained in as a youth. In both Sung and Tendai Buddhism, monasteries were patronized by government officials and the literati. They were bastions of high culture. You can see this especially in the Zen literature of the period, which is very refined and delicate. The older I get the more impatient I am with it, I must confess. When Dogen moved to Echizen he had a different idea: while Eiheiji certainly had major patrons, it was, at the same time, supported by the local population, who attended regular repentance and other ceremonies. And Eiheiji officials were appointed directly by the abbot based on their ability, and their faith in practice. They were not government appointees. Furthermore, they were conceived of as independent operators, not beholden to the abbot or to anyone else, but charged with performing their duties as they saw fit, for the benefit of the whole community, which included the laity. So when evaluating Dogen's supposedly narrow late writings, which do relate quite a bit to monastic life, it is important to keep all this in mind. 

Heine's conclusion is that it is incorrect to overemphasize any one text or any one event in Dogen's life, making it the centerpiece of what is always going to be a one -dimensional view of Dogen's career. In fact, Dogen, like any of us, did change his view in response not only to the things that happened to him, but also, as a literary person, to what he was reading. During the period when Dogen was writing a lot about his teacher, Rujing, he had just received a copy of Rujing's writings, and when he was writing about early Buddhism and the early conceptions of karma, he'd just received a copy of the Tripitaka, the traditional Buddhist canon. 

It's true there are many contradictions in Dogen's writings. In some writings he praises Zen Masters he vilifies in other writings. His various discussions of particular koans may not always evidence the same points of view. But there is no need to sort all this out, or to imagine that Dogen changed his mind, repudiating one view in favor of another. In reference to the teaching on karma, for instance, Dogen early on wrote about Baizhang's fox case, emphasizing the absolute side: that karma is empty of karma; later, after he returned from Kamakura, he wrote again about this case, emphasizing the relative side: the karma is karma, that good actions lead to good results, bad to bad. But this does not need to mean, as the Renewal Theory proponents insist, that he changed his view. It may simply be that at different times and to different audiences Dogen had good reasons to express himself differently. 

I know that as someone who is more or less in the same business as Dogen was that I often do this: depending on who I am talking to or what the situation is, whether formal or informal, public or more or less private, to committed practitioners or newcomers, and depending on what is on my mind at the time, or what the historical moment seems to call for, I speak differently. I believe and hope that this is not because I am manipulative; it is because I want to be understood and to say what might be beneficial in a particular situation. I am much more concerned about this — as I suspect Dogen was — than I am about doctrinal consistency. 

Of course there are limits to this — for me as well as for Dogen. I can't lie or violate what I know to be true of the Teachings. But within these limits there are many ways to speak, and all efforts to figure out and make consistent the views of any thoughtful religious teacher will always say more about the scholar or reader and their needs or prejudices than they will about the teacher. 

With Dogen — and I believe this is true of my own writing too — there is yet another factor. As a literary person, Dogen was quite conscious of not only the social context in which he was writing, but also of literary forms. His Japanese writing is quite different from his Chinese writing; his evening talks are informal, while his talks from the Dharma seat in the Buddha Hall are formal and employ stock phrases. A Dharma talk is sometimes a ritual and a performance as much as an exposition of views, and Dogen surely understood this. Dogen also wrote poetry, and in his poetry expresses a completely different side of his practice.

In the end then what do we learn, as practitioners, from plunging into all this detail about Dogen's life and work? We learn that like the rest of us Dogen changed as conditions changed, but that at the same time the key thrust of his lifelong religious journey remained fairly consistent: faith in practice, especially in zazen not as a spiritual technique but as an enactment of Buddha's awakening; a desire to share practice with others; a sense, simultaneously of the wideness and the specificity of practice; and strong determination and seriousness of purpose. Many of you have told me that you've found Dogen's words inspiring and opening, as I have found them over the years. Probably the more we come to appreciate that Dogen is a person of his time just as we are persons of our own time the more his words will ring true to us, and spur us onward in our practice. 


Norman Fischer

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