Thursday, January 29, 2009

Looking at a Picture

Shobogenzo is the title of a well-known book by a Japanese monk named Master Dogen. Dogen wrote many texts on Buddhism, but Shobogenzo is regarded as his most important. It’s a collection of lectures Dogen gave during his life. It can be a difficult book to read, though, because in Shobogenzo Dogen is trying to describe reality with words. It’s not an easy thing to do, so some parts are hard to understand because he doesn’t write things the way we’re used to. If you read Shobogenzo you’ll find places where you don’t have a clue what Dogen is trying to say –at least, I don’t anyway. When that happens though I just keep reading through the passage, and after a while there’s usually a bit that’s not too hard to understand.

One interesting thing about Shobogenzo is that it was kept more or less secret for several hundred years after Dogen died. One reason for this was that Dogen's ideas were very ahead of his time, so the priests who followed Dogen figured it best to keep the book hidden away in Dogen's old temple called Eihei-ji. The first time it was published was the start of the 19th century, which was about 600 years after Dogen had died. That's a long time. Even then it took another hundred years or so before it began to attract attention from anyone other than a small number of priests in Japan. I think one reason it took so long for Shobogenzo to be published was that some of the stuff Dogen wrote must have seemed pretty strange, even to Buddhists. There are also parts where he criticizes people that he felt were misrepresenting Buddhism, which was probably a dangerous thing to do in medieval Japan.

I used to wonder about the point of reading the Shobogenzo when it was hard to understand a lot of what was written. I asked Gudo Nishijima about whether he thought it was important to understand everything in the Shobogenzo when you read it. He said “No, no. Reading Shobogenzo is like looking at a picture. When we’re reading a particular chapter or paragraph some parts stick out and make an impression, while other parts don’t. But it’s good to just read it anyway.” I stopped worrying about how well I understood the Shobogenzo after that.

Not all the chapters in Shobogenzo are difficult to understand, but some of them definitely are. That's maybe one reason people might buy a copy of Shobogenzo Book 1 (the first 21 chapters), but then won’t bother to read Books 2, 3, or 4. It takes a bit of effort to read some of those chapters. I can understand that. At the same time, though, if you're interested in Buddhism it's a pity not to try to read the rest of it. Some of the later chapters are shorter and easier to understand.

My own way of reading Shobogenzo is to pretty simple. I just start at Chapter 1 in Book 1 and read the chapters one after the other. Sometimes I hit a chapter that I get bogged down in and it can take me few weeks to finish it. That happened me recently with a chapter titled “Bussho” (The Buddha Nature). Bussho is the first chapter of Book 2 in the Nishijima/Cross translation, and it’s a hard one to understand. But I decided to just stick with reading it and eventually managed to finish it, even though a lot of it went right over my head.

As well as reading Shobogenzo cover to cover like that, sometimes I just pick out a chapter at random and read it through. That’s kind of a hit and miss way I suppose, but it can be easier to read some chapters like that.

The Shobogenzo translation I read is by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. It's made up of four volumes. Each volume has about 25 chapters. You can download volume 1 and 2 from the Numata Center website. It sounds like they’ll eventually have volumes 3 and 4 on there for downloading as well. There are other English translations of the Shobogenzo out there too, but the Nishijima/Cross version is the only one I’m familiar with.

The best known chapters in Shobogenzo are probably Bendowa (chapter 1) and Genjo Koan (ch. 3). Bussho (chapter 22), the chapter I was stuck on for a while, is also considered an “important” chapter. For me though, just about any of the chapters in Shobogenzo are worth reading, because you can pick up some point or idea Dogen had about Buddhism from any chapter. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to read the whole 95 chapters if you can. That way you get a better understanding of what Dogen was about. It’s also something you can brag about to your friends or mention down at your local zen group. It’ll be sure to increase your street cred (at least a little).

Having said all that, here are just a few chapters in Shobogenzo that aren't among the best known ones, but which are worth a bit of a read:

1. Raihai-Tokuzui [Prostrating to Attainment of the Marrow] -- Chapter 8 (Book 1)
In this one, Dogen gives us his take on the equality of men, women, and children in Buddhism. He says we should respect anyone who has got the Buddhist truth, regardless of whether that person is a man, a woman or a child. Nowadays Dogen’s idea doesn’t seem so strange, but it probably would’ve sounded pretty radical at many Buddhist temples in medieval Japan. Here’s an excerpt (from the Nishijima/Cross translation):

Again in Japan, there is one particularly laughable institution. This is either called a ‘sanctuary’ or called a “place for practicing the truth of the Great Vehicle” where bhiksunis (nuns) and other women are not allowed to enter.

2. Gyoji [Pure Conduct and Observance] -- Chapter 30 (Book 2)
Buddhism is based on action. In this chapter Dogen quotes lots of examples of the action of Buddhist masters down through the centuries. It’s a fairly straightforward chapter to read. It’s an encouraging one for anyone practicing zazen on a regular basis. Nishijima told me it’s one of his favorites:

Master Chokei Eryo was a venerable patriarch in the order of Seppo. Going back and forth between Seppo and Gensa, he learned in practice for a small matter of twenty-nine years, In those years and months he sat through twenty round cushions. People today who love Zazen cite Chokei as an excellent example of an adorable ancient – many adore him, but few equal him.

3. Butsudo [The Buddhist Truth] – Chapter 49 (Book 3)
In this chapter Dogen says that there is only one Buddhism – the Buddhism established by Gautama Buddha in India. Dogen disapproved of using words like “Zen” Buddhism, or of describing different sects like the “Rinzai sect” or “Soto sect.” Nowadays, some people make a big deal about differences between various types of Buddhism. But as far as Dogen was concerned true Buddhism is just the Buddhism of Gautama Buddha:

Do not concede that the Buddha-Dharma might even exist among people who claim to be the “Zen Sect”. Who has invented the name “Zen Sect”? None of the buddhas and ancestral masters has ever used the name “Zen Sect”. Remember, the name “Zen Sect” has been devised by devils and demons.

4. Zanmai-o-zanmai [The Samadhi That is King of Samadhis] – Chapter 72 (Book 3)
The word "samadhi" means the "balanced state of body and mind". In daily life, there are lots of times when we might feel "balanced", like after a long walk or a jog or doing some activity. But in this one, Dogen says the balanced state we feel when we do zazen is the best one. So Dogen described zazen as the king of the samadhis:

My late Master, the eternal Buddha, says, ‘To practice Zazen is to get free of body and mind. Just to sit is to have attainment from the beginning. It is not necessary to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite the Buddha’s name, to confess, or to read sutras.’




  1. Peter,

    thank you for your inspiring post. I like that what Nishijima Roshi said about understanding Shobogenzo and the importance of reading it. I've been reading different kind of translations but for me Nishijima's and Cross' translation is the best, most clearminded with useful notes.

    I don't actually care whether I understand Shobogenzo or not because I think it's important to practice zazen and Buddha's Way at the same time while reading; reading Shobogenzo supports practice and daily life and practice and daily supports reading Shobogenzo. But when I started reading it several years ago, I think I understand something now comparing to when I started reading. But it's not so important. I think, most important is to read and practice, to live daily life, just as it is. Like Master Seung Sahn used to say something like (practicing Buddhism)"is becoming more stupid." I like that. ;)

    Thank you, Peter.

    With palms together,

  2. Peter,

    Thank you for the guidance. It is good to know that it doesn't matter if we "understand" every word. This will make reading it easier for sure.



  3. Hey, Peter, are you waiting for Dogen to come back or something...?

    I bet you don't get anywhere quick in kinhin ;-)