Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 28, 2006

by Norman Fischer | July 28, 2006 at 7:15 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 55 July 28, 2006 The Big Island, Hawaii

Some reflections on David Riggs' Ph.D. thesis on Menzan. Many of its salient points I'd already, somehow, known, but I read it with great interest. Menzan and Hakuin were almost exact contemporaries (Menzan born 1683; Hakuin in 1686; both died in 1769); both were major reformers of an all-but-moribund Zen tradition, but the direction of their reforms was almost diametrically opposed (though there is no record of any direct disagreement between them, and no one knows whether they knew of one another). Hakuin stressed kanna Zen ("seeing the phrase"), that is, koan study in a secret pantomime-based system that seems quite related to the typical Tokugawa Period Japanese model of theater and crafts clans in which secret specific traditional gestures, words, and techniques were handed down in families through the generations. Menzan, on the other hand, was a careful textual scholar, a deeply conservative person who felt he was going back to the "pure" Dogen, long neglected in Soto. David's chief thesis though is that whether he knew it or not (surely he didn't) or intended it or not (doubtless he did not) Menzan was a bold innovator in that he used, for the first time in Zen, modern textual study as the basis for creating a Dogen that had possibly never before existed. Before Menzan Dogen was a Bodhidharma-like Soto Zen cult legend; after Menzan Dogen the author, the doctrinal center of the school, was an inescapable reality. 

One way of seeing the difference between Menzan and Hakuin is as the difference between the authority of logical, clear, textual proof, and "spontaneous" oral teaching that purports to be ineffably beyond any possible written record. But what's the actual difference between these two, considering that written texts are also simply no more or less than the record of the thoughts and words of human beings — recording of what might otherwise be remembered only by a few individuals present at the utterance — and therefore largely forgotten. This comes down to the difference between writing and non-written discourse (significant of course because Dogen is almost unique among early Zen teachers in that he actually occupied himself with writing as writing, and based much of his writing on other written texts). Writing is fixed, not fluid; therefore can't be as sensitive to context as oral communication. It's public and subject to scrutiny, so is less intimate. In some ways it's inherently clumsy and untrue: exactly because writing's not as contextual, doesn't change as much with situations (though meanings may change drastically, the original words remain exactly the same, barring textual corruption), can't be adjusted to suit the listener or the moment, it's always untrue. And yet there's something in and of itself important in the act of writing something down — and the act of writing, as a formal gesture, in some ways a timeless gesture, changes significantly what one would say. 

Although Menzan based his understanding on a careful study of Dogen's texts (and not on lore received from his teachers), he was a fierce supporter of Dogen's doctrine of menju, face to face transmission (ironically, a written doctrine). That is, Menzan believed, following Dogen, that neither textual expertise nor the "direct experience" so much touted in kanna Zen, was enough to insure true Zen understanding and authentication of the tradition. Only in the living, in-the-flesh, face to face relationship in which teacher confers and student receives could Dharma be safely passed on. 



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Norman Fischer


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