Zen Master Dogen Meets a Thirteenth-Century Postmodernist

Article excerpt

Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher,(1) tells a story in his monumental Shobogenzo(2) that anachronistically illustrates the differences between postmodern philosophers and theologians. The story is about a brilliant scholar, Tokuzan (779-865), and an old, unnamed woman selling rice cakes.

Tokuzan, the scholar, had a well-deserved reputation for being the unquestioned authority on the Diamond Sutra, one of the most important Mahayana Buddhist texts. He was known as the King of the Diamond Sutra. The Diamond Sutra is the locus classicus for the pivotal Buddhist teaching that the individual mind has no existence apart from the oneness of all Being. In the Buddhist texts this teaching is often summed up in the phrase, "the mind cannot be grasped."(3) The story in the Shobogenzo goes like this:(4)

Word came to the scholar Tokuzan that in the south of China an Enlightened Buddhist teacher had realized a new truth about the Diamond Sutra. True scholar that Tokuzan was, he packed up all his books and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra (over 300 pounds of them) and left immediately to take the long journey to hear first-hand this new teaching. On the way he paused at a wayside rest stop and fell into a conversation with an independent businesswoman selling rice cakes.

He asked her, "What is your business?"

"I sell rice cakes," she replied.

"Will you sell me a rice cake?"

"What do you want to buy a rice cake for?" [She was an independent businesswoman.]

"To refresh my mind," said Tokuzan.

The old woman took a look at Tokuzan's 300-pound load of books. "What is all that you are carrying?"

"Haven't you heard? I am the King of the Diamond Sutra. I have mastered the Diamond Sutra. There is no part of it that I do not understand. This load I am carrying is commentaries on the Diamond Sutra."

"Could I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"I have heard it said in the Diamond Sutra that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped. Which mind do you now intend to refresh with my rice cakes? If you can tell me, I will sell you a rice cake. If not, I will not sell you my rice cakes."

Tokuzan was dumbfounded and could not find an appropriate response.

The Three Characters

As Dogen tells the story, three personae emerge in this mini-drama: The first is the scholar Tokuzan. He has all the positive, admirable characteristics of a scholar, and it takes only a little imagination to compare him and his approach to life with the scholars of today. He is thorough, having read and mastered all there is to know about his special field, the Diamond Sutra. He is dedicated - the minute he hears about a new approach to his specialty he makes a long, difficult journey to its source, a scholar in another place a long way from Tokuzan's home. He is objective and rationalistic; he does not dismiss this new theory as some crackpot idea but is willing to take a good long look at it to see if it has merit when measured against the prevailing canons of Diamond Sutra study. Finally, he is honest; when the rice-cake woman asks him a question to which he does not know the answer - an embarrassing question, really - he does not try to bluster through with an answer but simply sits in humiliating silence.

The second persona is the rice-cake woman, who represents the common-sense voice of the masses. She brings a certain skepticism to bear on her famous customer, a skepticism that sees only the dark side of what we have just listed as Tokuzan's strengths. By calling attention to his 300 pounds of books, she makes his thoroughness seem compulsive. A certain weariness with which she approaches him transforms his dedication, as witnessed by his arduous journey, into a kind of touristy excessiveness. She turns out to understand the suprarationalism of the very Buddhist philosophy being taught by the Diamond Sutra, or at least the implications of that suprarationalism, better than Tokuzan, the expert. …