Caltrain and the Shobo Genzo

I have a pretty long commute these days, from San Jose, where we’re living with my mother-in-law until sometime after the baby is born, up to San Francisco and Oakland, where I work.  I spend hours every week on Caltrain.  There are many things to love about my commute:  the fact that I even have a job is miraculous; I was so worried as my job hunt was beginning earlier this year.  My feeling of gratitude and excitement to be working at all is one piece of my mornings and evenings on the train.  But there’s more.  I ride my bike from home to the station, and on the other end from the station to work, and I’m so happy with the bike car on the train, its rectangular yellow sign with the words “Bike Car” and a helpful picture.  I enjoy the way my thighs hurt after those damn hills on the way back from the SF office.  I love the yellow tag I have labeled with my destination, the scramble of bungee cords and pedals when the racks are all filled.  I pull my right sock up over my dress pants so I don’t get grease on them while I ride.  Some people use Velcro straps around that pant leg—very sharp.  Some people roll the pant leg up; everybody’s got a system.  I leave my sock pulled up for the whole ride, for some reason, and don’t pull my pant leg out until I get to my destination.

This is all to say that I have these hours every week—well over two hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, sometimes even more—to just sit on the train and read, and for the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Kaz Tanahashi’s translation (with various co-translators) of the Shobo Genzo.  I wouldn’t say I’m studying it, exactly; often I’m pretty exhausted, and I’m not comparing translations, or consulting commentaries, or working line by line through the acrobatics of Dogen’s dizzying range of expressions.  Instead, I’m just reading it, page after page, fascicle after fascicle, stopping occasionally to look out the window at the graffiti on the walls, or the rows of houses and apartment buildings, or the sky.

All these parts of the experience mix together—this feeling of having a job, my sock pulled up over my pant leg, the other commuters and their iPods, that hill on my ride to the station in the evening, the conductor’s voice on the intercom, Dogen’s dense, looping prose—and I have a whole herd of thoughts that I’d like to try to clarify for myself in the next couple of posts.

The first thing on my mind is translation itself, that bizarre act of moving something—what?—from one language to another.  This is an aspect of our lives that I have some experience with.  I spent the first few years of my life speaking Spanish and didn’t learn English until we moved to the U.S. from Argentina when I was five.  I remember preschool in Nashville, Tennessee, all the strange clanging noises of English, the sharp edges of English words in my mouth.  These days, my Spanish is rough—I can feel myself blush if a conversation in Spanish starts moving too fast, out of the vocabulary I’m comfortable with.

At one of my very first sesshins, at the Austin Zen Center. I remember having a really difficult time.  The silence was unbearable to me somehow, the fact that no one was speaking.  The evening of the fifth or sixth day, I found one of the senior priests after the day’s last zazen period to tell him I was thinking of leaving and going home.  I probably talked really fast; I doubt that I made much sense.

The priest was kind.  He listened, and I’m sure said various wise things.  I don’t remember.  But he suggested that I try telling myself that everything was all right.  Somehow our interaction calmed me down, or at least calmed me down enough to try sticking things out for another day.  The next morning, again, that silence, and dutifully, I tried telling myself things were all right, that I’d be okay.  Nothing.  Crickets.  Just a guy sitting on a cushion, deeply, painfully unsure if he wanted to stay.  I tried it various other times, and then, for some reason, I tried it in Spanish—Davito, I said (Davito, my family’s name for me when I was young), Davito, todo está bien—and I cried as hard as I have in my entire life, loud, with snot running down my face, for a really long time.  Different languages impact us in different ways; different words have different kinds of power.

About Dogen and the Shobogenzo, specifically, I have such different experiences of different translators.  The Nishijima and Cross translation in the four different-colored volumes is a classic, of course—the first complete translation I ever saw, with that pursed-lip Dogen on the cover.  The footnotes in that text are so helpful, I think, especially since I know absolutely zero Japanese.  I have to say, though, that this new Tanahashi version, at least for me, is much more fluid than Nishijima and Cross’s, much more readable.  It flows more easily.  In the Nishijima, it can be a chore to get from page to page.  Part of this may be that Nishijima is skimpier on the paragraph breaks, printing long sections in one paragraph, whereas Tanahashi tends to break sections up into shorter paragraphs, which makes an enormous difference.

Waddell and Abe’s versions feel especially nuanced somehow, and full of power.  The footnotes are detailed and clarifying, worth careful attention.  I admit I’m not crazy about Thomas Cleary’s translations of Dogen, although I love his Avatamsaka Sutra, the only complete translation into English as far as I know, and his Blue Cliff Record (with J.C. Cleary) and his Book of Serenity.  Where would we be without the Cleary brothers’ efforts?  Francis Cook’s translations I love—his are the ones I recommend people new to Dogen start with (the few who have ever asked!) at least partly because his introductions are so helpful and clear.  Then there’s the Shasta Abbey one, which is just wild.  It can be fun to spend a little time with, but I admit that for my taste it’s so idiosyncratic that I haven’t looked at it too much.

All of these different experiences of the same text.  To the point where it’s strange to speak of “the same text” at all.  There are various Shobogenzos, as there are various me’s who have read it.  I remember reading Moon in a Dewdrop when I first came to practice and feeling overwhelmed by it somehow.  It was like nothing I’d ever read, maybe a little like Faulkner in its power and strangeness, that combination of utterly incomprehensible and deeply moving, but otherwise not like anything I’d ever come across.  My experience now is different—I’ve read and re-read some of those chapters, and they’re more familiar.  It doesn’t have the foreignness it had then;  it feels more subtle, more nuanced, softer, although still the strangeness of it—the radicalness of Dogen’s Dharma—can wash over me with no warning at a particular line.

So which is the real Shobogenzo?  (Which is the true Seijo?)  If even one version changes for me over time, as I change, and there are now half a dozen English versions or more of many of these fascicles, along with various Japanese versions in the first place, along with myriad other versions in the myriad languages I don’t know, then what is the Shobogenzo, really?  Is there a Genjokoan in Finnish?  In Arabic?  How many editions?  My mind boggles.  What do we think we’re reading when we read someone’s version of someone’s version of Dogen’s version of someone’s version of an old Chinese or Indian poem or story?  What does this all have to do with my train ride to work, my practice today, my vow?

Somehow I can’t stop thinking about all of this, the shaping and branching of the Dharma as it flows from mind to mind, language to language, culture to culture, generation to generation.  Next time I’ll try to take up one of the wilder essays about these issues, Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” from 1923.  It’s an amazing piece of writing—and I’ve only read it, of course, in translation.

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8 thoughts on “Caltrain and the Shobo Genzo

  1. It’s a funny thing but the monk who taught me the most about zen refused to speak about zen at all. I asked him once to talk about it and he just refused outright. I know that he did do a talk to some students but me he refused. Officially he had dedicated his life to Kung Fu, but really I think his passion was Chan.

    Long after I quit (health issues) his class I went back to see how things were going. We didn’t talk about much but what he took time to do was to point out which students were making progress with chan. Others might have been better at Kung Fu moves but he was much more interested in how they did those moves. He wad insistent in this and refused to be drawn by my praise of some of his most dedicated students.

    I got sucked into words and especially Genjo Koan. I loved the clarity. For a while I though the foray into written zen was a mistake, almost like it was zen porn.

    Now I’m not so sure. From Oneida learnt that zen does not live in words. From another I learnt that zen is not absent from words. My bookshelf is full of zen words.

    This lunchtime in the office I read some Dr Sess. It makes a change from my current reading list of Reich and Jung and Marie Von Franz and others. But I love Dr Sess. I love the pictures. I love the language. I love the skill with which it is wielded. Most of all I loved the way he just made shit up.

    In theory it’s teaching kids how to read. No other reading book would just make words up. Kids are learning words that they need useless words like Lorax and Zans and….

    I wonder if the true genius of Dr Seuss is that he’s teaching kids that words are useful and that if they can be invented if you want one for a job like rhyming.

    I loved the Nishijima-Cross Shobogenzo although I never read all of it. I couldn’t quite work out if Dogen was a genius lost in translation or a wannabe.

    After reading JDLs Chinses Shobogenzo I was more certain. This was what made me see Dogen in his true colours. It gave me a whole new view on Shobogenzo.

    Sometimes reading zen and reading koans feels kinda like Dr Seuss. Sometimes they inspire me into poetry, into expression.

    iPad
    I pad
    Maybe mad?
    Maybe sad?
    Maybe bad?
    Lost something I never had?
    These days I seem glad
    – that life isn’t all sad

    I love working with others
    Forget zen
    In the office we share a vision
    We make the world a little less bad
    My boss and I agree on some things
    And for that I’m glad.

    I had nothing to say on this post
    Bloody words…
    …ppeared on the iPad.
    Is that bad?

    A dragon in a tree?
    I blame Dogen
    It was him, not me.

  2. Thank you for taking me back, and forward. I’ve just begun reading Shobogenzo, and I remember riding Caltrain ten years ago from SJSU to SF on weekends. It was (and probably still is) slow, bumpy and riddled with stops. Having said that, I loved the route and still miss it. I’ve since settled in the South, but maybe someday I’ll get to ride again 🙂

    Kind regards,
    Chris

  3. I’m not reading, and haven’t read, the full Shobogenzo (I’ve stuck so far with Dogen’s Greatest Hits), though for the sake of clarity I’ll continue to use it as an example.

    I don’t think I’d be comfortable saying that there is a “true” Shobogenzo. Perhaps there was an “original” Shobogenzo, in that Eihei Dogen wrote the words in his vernacular and with full understanding of what they meant to him in that moment — though there, too, I suspect that the meaning changed for the Dogen of one moment as opposed to the Dogen of the next.

    Translations can, and often do, warp meaning. Anyone who’s ever tried to get a decent answer out of Google Translate can tell you that. Even excellent translators circumlocute, elide, omit… as part of a long-ago French class I read a copy of Ionesco’s Rhinocerous in the original back-to-back with an English translation for the purpose of examining the ways in which language colors understanding.

    However much translation can warp meaning, though, I think that our conditions go much further down that path. 18 year-old me would have picked up the Shobogenzo, read about a page, wondered what impact this abstruse, old-ass, Japanese mumbo-jumbo could possibly have on my daily existence. 32 year-old me has a different reaction.

    I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable with the idea that there isn’t one “true” Shobogenzo, say, or one true Vimalakirti Sutra, or one true Lotus Sutra, or maybe one true Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, enlightenment, etc. Where I struggle now is finding the meaning of those things that is true to ME, NOW. That, I don’t have an answer to, though sometimes I feel closer to an answer than others.

  4. I’m touched by this earnest post. Thanks Davido.

    Thanks for your readin of Dogen “for pleasure”…. Letting the words move through instead of intellectualizing over each infinitessimal detail…. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’im just glad you’re letting it hit your body… As the spraypaint drifts by…

    I must say I’m more interested in the burning in your legs than in the intellectual exercise of translation, but the connection between the difficulties implicit in translation and the juxtapositions of your commute is an artful one. I dig muchly.

    Thank you for your presence on this site.
    Mucho guso,
    Beau

  5. You have always been an amazing writer. Interesting perspective…it always takes time to sort through the madness to find the inner peace during the days. Lots of moving parts…tons of small and large things melting together.

    Beauty lies within the pathway of understanding. Haha, now on to understanding…well…understanding. 🙂

  6. Wonderful to know someone’s on CalTrain exploring Dogen! I’m starting to get a little more comfortable with the old guy myself and I’m grateful for the Tanahashi/Levitt translation also. The Nishijima/Cross one really put me off but I’m encouraged to pick it up again. My copy of Moon in a Dewdrop is pleasingly dogeared.

    Per the questions in the comments about is there a “true” Shobogenzo I’ve been reading Steven Heine’s Did Dogen Go to China? and the answer seems to be “we have no idea”. Certainly the fascicles were written individually and then collected in different ways by different people later. A big bunch of them were written during the transition year between Kyoto and Eiheiji and then not much as he focused on Eiheiji and giving the formal talks recorded in Eihei Koroku. (Dogen is more than just Shobogenzo really).

    One of Dogen’s disciples (Ejo I think) did claim Dogen intended to write a 100 fascicle version. Late in life we know he put together 12 fascicle version of mostly later writing and a lot of emphasis on karma, a bit less of the poetry of enlightenment, says Heine but I don’t know those chapters well.

    My teacher tells me Maezumi roshi used to say “let’s appreciate Dogen together!” – seems like it’s more like that than “let’s figure this out”. In our sangha we chant Sansuikyo during a backpack in the mountains. Caltrain studies just another way. Dogen would have approved!

    Tim Burnett
    Red Cedar Zen Community
    Bellingham, WA

  7. Pingback: Tending the Inconceivable | No Zen in the West

  8. Pingback: Dogen’s exclusive claims, and mine . . . | No Zen in the West

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