Dogen’s exclusive claims, and mine . . .

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:

There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but through me.

And just to play fair:

In heaven above and on earth below, I alone am the World-Honored One.

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.


9 thoughts on “Dogen’s exclusive claims, and mine . . .

  1. Consider the audience the talk was given to. Connecting requires different words or different people. There is a TED talk on Tribal Leadership which puts people into five stages. They may seem familiar!

    1. Life sucks
    2. MY life sucks (unlike yours….)
    3. I’m great (and you’re not)
    4. We’re great (and they’re not)
    5. Life is great.

    Whatever stage they are at people can only hear messages on either side. You can put students and teachers into these categories and immediately start to predict behaviours.

    There is sufferring. There is no sufferring. Where is the truth?

    No-one signs up to a group that proclaims “we are mediocre at what we do, join us and be mediocre too!” Where would monastic entrance trials be targetting? When would they work and fail?

  2. Thanks, Hondo, for a really great post. It brought to mind Steven Heine’s summary in “Did Dogen Go to China” of two theories of Dogen’s development: “decline” (Bielefeldt, Dumoulin) vs. “renewal” (Critical Buddhists). It was striking to me that part of the rationale for both of them has to do with this sharp exclusivity he has/develops. In the “decline” theory – that Dogen started off with a real Mahayana, inclusive view but over time, under sectarian pressure and alienated, he retreated into narrower and narrower understandings – they note the “temper” or exclusiveness that they see getting more and more intense in his later writings. They see that as really marking the end of the great Dogen. The Critical Buddhists see it as related to his “renewal” – his finally taking a stand on the “true Dharma” and rejecting, as they do, the accreted East Asian nonsense. Heine rejects both views as simplistic, selective readings that take Shobogenzo as all of Dogen without acknowledging his other work (especially the Eihei Koroku). In any case, I’m appreciating that everyone who takes Dogen seriously has to really wrestle with this side of him, as you are so eloquently and personally doing.

  3. I’m also wondering whether his trajectory as a spiritualist can be understood in terms of the ageing of his mind: it narrows as we get older, and while he died young in our terms he was old in his. I’ve also studied with venerable Asian masters (for instance in Japan and Burma) who came out with extraordinary sectarian whoppers during teachings. As to verifying the truth of any religious claim, including on the nature of reality: I reckon the only thing that’s trustworthy is your own sense of its “realness”. I don’t know that that can be transmitted. Maybe the point is that it can’t.

  4. Wow, what a well-laid out line of inquiry. Such a pleasure. Thank you Dave. And yes, THIS is the most important thing. Except that this is THE most important thing. And this is the MOST important thing. And, and, and…Sigh. It’s so much easier for the monotheists.

    Not to reduce this eloquent conversation to psycho-babble, but I personally interpret Dogen’s contradictions through what I perceive as his compartmentalized personality. In his single-minded sectarian mode, he reminds me of Lenin in his brutal battle to purge the revisionists and lay down the “correct line.” (The metaphor was taking from brick-laying.) Both had a very dark side to their brilliance, and it was fear. So there.

  5. Thanks for bringing up these questions about Dogen. As a layman, I’ve heard lots of Soto-shu priests rationalizing what I see as sectarian and masogynistic statements in Dogen’s later writings. I am squarely in the decline camp.

    Perhaps this great genious just got old and grumpy?


  6. Pingback: Who Owns the Dharma? | No Zen in the West

  7. Pingback: Who Are REAL Buddhists and How Can You Say What They SHOULD Do?! | No Zen in the West

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