Last fall on my commute up to the city I read through Kaz Tanahashi’s new version (with many co-translators) of the Shobogenzo. It was a joy to spend so many hours with the dynamic kaleidoscopic intricacy of Dogen’s writing, letting the strangeness and music of the words wash over me, but I also found myself consistently irritated by some of the particularly cranky and sectarian bits. I have an easier connection with the Dogen of “Bendowa,” who stresses that practice-enlightenment is available to all—men and women, lay and monastic—than the Dogen of “Menju” who says things like:
Now, our country surpasses other countries and our way alone is unsurpassable. In other places there are not many people who are like us.
Or the Dogen of “Shukke Kodoku,” who says:
Although, in the scriptures, there is a teaching about a layperson becoming a buddha, it is not an authentic transmission. Although there is a teaching of a woman becoming a Buddha, it is not an authentic transmission. What is authentically transmitted by Buddha ancestors is leaving the household and becoming a Buddha.
There are many, many more examples of each side here. Among the numerous threads that make up the shimmering, constantly refracting tapestry of the Shobogenzo, there’s a universal one and a sectarian one. You might say that on the one hand there’s a recognition of infinite Dharma gates and on the other an assertion of the one true path—a more accepting mood and a more exclusive mood. The more accepting thread in Dogen’s writings resonates more easily with my contemporary egalitarian ideals, while the more exclusive thread can be harder—intersects with my disgust and sorrow at the various fanatical fundamentalisms alive and well in our world.
As I say, I was bugged by this sectarianism and rigidity in Dogen at various times last fall, but I also had another feeling, a feeling of recognition, which I’d like to try to articulate here. First, I’ll note that ridiculous exclusion seems to be one of the ways that religious people talk. A few of the classics:
And just to play fair:
What to make of statements like this? Is there a way to hold them that doesn’t just slide instantly into fanaticism? Maybe there isn’t; I’m not sure. But there is something I recognize in this kind of talk.
At one of my first sesshins in Austin I remember seeing clearly that the room I was in—dark wooden floorboards creaking under bare feet during kinhin—was the entire world. There was no other room anywhere, no other floors, no other feet. During a formal meal I once saw the same thing about a setsu.
There is a deep, still place from where it is vividly, vividly clear that there is only what presents itself, and that there really, really is nothing else—and from that place one might say in all sincerity There is no God but Allah, and this Setsu is his prophet, or one might say No one comes to the Father but through this Setsu, or one might say In heaven above and on earth below, this alone is the World Honored Setsu and it would be absolutely, unequivocally true.
And then from another place—a place closer to our everyday thinking, maybe, but no less wise—one might see that this setsu is one of millions of setsus, that this room is one of millions of rooms, that this moment is one of millions of moments. One might see that there are endlessly varied paths.
I say that exclusive claims to truth are spoken from a deep insight, a still and perfect point. But that in the next moment, or from another place, they can’t be taken seriously. In fact, to take them seriously from these other places is to become rigid, dogmatic, fanatical. Still, from that deep and unmoveable spot, it doesn’t work to qualify the assertion, to say that this coffee mug is the only coffee mug that’s ever existed and yet I know there are others. There are no caveats in that realm, in that moment. From that still point, one asserts completely—there is only this coffee mug. And then from another point, another moment, one drops it completely—lots of coffee mugs on earth, my friend. That back and forth, that willingness to assert the truth of one moment without reservation and let it go completely, marks, it seems to me, the freedom and vastness and flexibility of the Buddha-mind.
I’ll try to say this another way. The truth of an exclusive claim—Rujing is the only enlightened teacher in all of China!—is completely independent of, not hindered by, an insight from some other place—any moment of zazen, by anyone, actualizes all of awakening! One moment does not hinder another; one truth does not hinder another.
This understanding is way out at the edge of my ability to find the words for it. Among the upheaval of my life these days—my mother-in-law home from surgery, this long commute, these nights with our newborn son—it’s felt important to see that each moment is entirely itself, entirely precious, entirely unhindered. And it’s felt equally important to see that the moments flow into each other and that the ordinary common-sense distinctions of our human life constantly emerge and re-emerge. There is only this blog post; there are many, many more blog posts. There is only this aching head, these tired eyes, this moment—and yet something different will happen soon, and then something else, and then something else, forever.