Dogen again

In a recent blog entry, Hokai Sobol maps the steps of Dogen’s famous syllogism:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

to the stages of the Buddhist tradition.

Interesting. But we must tread carefully when dealing with poor English translations of Dogen.

The word translated as “study” is “narau”, which, like many Japanese words, has a broader sweep of meaning than its counterparts in a Western language. Some of its nuances, in addition to “study”, include “learn” and “follow” and “master”, with a hint of “by imitating someone”. Here I’ll go with “follow”.

Next, the Japanese that was rendered as “To xxx is to yyy” in the translation above is “xxx to iu wa, yy nari”. Although subject to interpretation, the “to iu wa” part has the flavor of a definition—that the first part is a verbal construction, whose real content is given by the second part. The syntax here does not really support that Dogen is describing temporal stages of development. It seems that he’s really trying to correct misconceptions people have about, or amplify on, what xxx really is. I therefore prefer the construction “xxx’ing really means yyy’ing.” But that’s just one of a dozen ways to express this.

Then, we have the word “self”, a translation of the Japanese “jiko”. Many translators automatically translate this as “the self”, but I prefer the friendlier “yourself”. Beware, though, that Dogen often also uses this term in subject/object dichotomies.

Moving ahead, we have “enlightened by all things”, for which the Japanese is “manpou ni shou-seraruru”. “Manpou” is indeed often translated as “all things”, and you should consult a Buddhist dictionary for its myriad nuances, but the word which evokes the same nuance in modern English speakers is “reality”. As for “shou-seraruru”, this “shou” is indeed commonly used for enlightenment, but also “prove”, “validate”, “establish”. Personally, I don’t know what it means to “be enlightened by something”; do you? It could be “hear the testimony of reality”, but I’ve chosen the simple “trust reality”.

The “remove barriers between one’s self and others” part is most tricky of all. As currently translated, it sounds like some kind of international friendship program. The Japanese here is “jiko no shinjin oyobi tako no shinjin wo shite, totsuraku seshimuru nari”. Note that the English translation has also completely omitted the “shinjin”, lit. “body and mind”, which follows both “jiko” (your own self) and “tako” (the self of others), and is at the heart of what Dogen is saying here!

The “oyobi” connecting “jiko…” and “tako…” is clearly an emphatic “and”, and cannot possibly mean “between”.

“Totsuraku” is the famous “cast off” or “fall away”, so most translators would immediately render this as “cast away body and mind of your own self and that of others”, but that has many problems, not least of which is that it doesn’t mean anything. Dogen teaches that there is not distinction between body and mind, so how could he be telling us to cast them off? What does it mean to cast off your body anyway? My reading is that he is telling us to cast away that distinction. In other words, “shinjin” is not “body and mind”, but “body vs. mind”.

Overall, then, I’d translate this famous paragraph as:

Following the Buddha Way really means following yourself.
Following yourself really means forgetting yourself.
Forgetting yourself really means trusting reality.
And trusting reality really means not setting your body against your mind, nor the bodies of others against their minds.

2 Responses to “Dogen again”

  1. Vincent Henderson Says:

    Beyond simply illustrating a translation case, the above post shows, when one compares the initial translation example with your new proposal, how cultural clichés are created or maintained through translation of original works.

    It’s no wonder that eastern philosophies are so ill-understood in most of the western world, when most of what we are exposed to of eastern thought is presented more often in the “be enlightened by all things”
    (holliwood-style wishy-washy “transcendental” hogwash) version, rather than the “trust reality” (pragmatic, understandable philosophical
    proposition) one.

  2. Lisa Melyan Says:

    You say you do not know what it means to be “enlightened by all things,” and perhaps you take issue with the phrase “actualized by myriad things” as well.

    These phrases and Dongshan’s “teaching of the inanimate” have jumped out at me as my practice has deepened, and they have the ring of deep truth in my direct experience of reality.

    The concept is concrete, not wishy-washy, in my experience. I believe it refers to the ability to respond in all conditions, to start from zero and simply respond spontaneously. When I quickly jump over rocks and driftwood at the beach, I am being enlightened by those things, “actualized” by them- jump here, turn here. No thought. Those who think think think (should I step here, I’m not sure) are stuck at the other end of the shoreline.

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