Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Luminous Wisdom

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Luminous Wisdom

Article excerpt

Luminous Wisdom Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo BY DOGEN EDITED BY KAZUAKI TANAHASHI (MULTIPLE TRANSLATORS) SHAMBHALA, 2 VOLUMES, I2.8o PAGES, $150

Dogen lived from 1200 to 1253 and is generally regarded as the father of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and, according to that tradition at least, he enjoys a position of special eminence in the history of Japanese Buddhist thought. Brilliant and devout, a reformer and innovator, an indefatigable spiritual teacher, a critic of sectarianism but at times sternly sectarian himself, Dogen was arguably the most important religious thinker of the Kamakura period. He was certainly among the most brilliant, and the Shobo Genzo - a large collection of his discourses and short treatises on the practice and philosophy of Zen - is his magnum opus.

Dogen was born into a noble family in Kyoto, and as a boy his precocity attracted the attention of the ruling clan, which sought to adopt him and prepare him for some exalted position in government. He had no interest in temporal power, however, and at the age of thirteen he became a monk on Mt. Hiei, where the powerful Tendai sect ran a virtual city of monasteries and temples. The Tendai taught a form of Buddhist esotericism, a supposedly higher version of the dharma, and placed great emphasis upon the chanting of mantras, the performance of mudras, and ritual initiation intended to unite one directly to the Buddha's omnipervasive Dharmakaya or "Truth-Body."

Dogen, it seems, was not much impressed by esoteric doctrine. He was also soon disappointed by the political intrigues that were the plague of Mt. Hiei. At the age of seventeen, he left and entered a monastery recently established by Eisai (1141-1215), the "founder" of Rinzai Zen in Japan, taking only one element of Tendai teaching along with him: the doctrine of "original enlightenment," which taught that all persons always already possess knowledge of the truth.

And yet, he noted, the Buddhas have always had to seek enlightenment through contemplative and spiritual practices. Surely, then, elaborate rituals were not of any real value as compared to the simple but exacting disciplines of meditation, by which alone one can free the mind and will of everything that prevents one from awakening to the "dharma-natuie" filling all things.

In 1223, Dogen journeyed to China and, at some of the great Chan (Zen) monasteries, immersed himself in the study of gong-ans (koans in Japanese), those enigmatic anecdotes and conundrums by which the Zen exercitant is supposedly goaded onward towards a moment of sudden enlightenment. In time, however, he wearied of this as well, concluding that koans ought not to be used so obsessively as to displace the connected discourses of the Buddhist sutras.

Fortunately, he encountered a master of the Cao Dong school named Ru Jing, who placed a far greater stress upon contemplative discipline than had the Lin Ji masters under whom Dogen had been studying. Here at last Dogen had found a form of Zen that not only appealed to his austerely earnest spiritual temperament, but that seemed to him, in its purity and simplicity, nothing less than the authentic dharma taught by the Buddha. From Ru Jing, he learned that the true path to enlightenment was to know the self by letting go of the self, passing beyond the finite preoccupations of body and mind; that selfish desire must be left nothing to cling to if one is to come to see the truth ceaselessly made manifest in everything; and that this is, and must always be, a primarily contemplative path.

On returning to Japan, in 1227 or 1228, Dogen went back to the Kyoto area and began teaching the art of zazen, or seated meditation. Two years later, however, the hostility of the Tendai sect forced him to move farther south and, three years after that, to establish his own school and temple. A decade later, he and his disciples moved again, this time to a remote location on the northern coast, where they founded a new temple, the famous Eihei-ji. …

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