Archive for the ‘dogen’ Category

Book Review: Eihei Dogen, Mystical Realist

Sunday, January 9th, 2005

Hee-Jin Kim’s Eihei Dogen, Mystical Realist is a scholarly work by a respected Dogen scholar, placing Dogen’s thought in the context, primarily, of Buddhist philosophy and its history.

I enjoyed the early parts of the book, describing Dogen’s life. Here’s an interesting account of his enlightenment experience:

In 1225, a decisive moment of enlightenment in Dogen’s life came at long last during an early morning zazen session at geango (i.e., the three-month intensive meditational retreat). In the course of mediation, a monk next to Dogen inadvertently had fallen asleep. Upon noticing the monk, Ju-ching thundered at him: “In zazen it is imperative to cast off the body and mind. How could you indulge in slepping?” This remark shook Dogen’s whole being to its very core, and then an inexpressible, ecstatic joy engulfed his heart. In Ju-ching’s private quarters that same monring, Dogen offered incense and worshiped Buddha. This unusual action of Dogen prompted Ju-ching to ask: “What is the incense-burning for?” The disciple exuberantly answered: “My body and mind are cast off!” “The body and mind are cast off” (shinjin-datsuraku), jointed the teacher, “cast off are the body and mind” (datsuraku-shinjin). Thus, Ju-ching acknowledged the authenticity of Dogen’s enlightenment.

I was also interested in Dogen’s visit to my old home town of Kamakura (Wikipedia Wikitravel) during late 1247 and early 1248, where he preached before Hojo Tokiyori (Wikipedia). According to Kim, “there are different speculations as to what Dogen recommended to or discussed with Tokiyori during his stay in Kamakura.” I’d also like know where he stayed: could it have been at Enkakuji, the huge, dignified Rinzai temple in North Kamakura?

I have to admit to most of the rest of this book flying over the top of my head. It’s copiously annotated and clearly authoritative. It’s just that I’m not that interested in Buddhist philosophy—for instance, how Dogen’s concept of Buddha-nature differed from that of some Indian guy from the second century. Here’s a flavor:

Thus, temporal passage in the intra-epochal whole of a realized now, as Dogen saw it, was perhaps best descrbed in terms of the Hua-yen philosophy of simultaneity.

Kim uses his own translations of Shobo Genzo which are, unsurprisingly given his lifetime of Dogen study, superior to virtually all existing published translations. Examples:

As you maintain such efforts throughout the months and years, you further cast off those months and years of efforts (from Dotoku).

Many sages do not realize that “cutting” consists in cutting entwined voines with entwined vines. Nor do they understand entwining entwined vines with entwined vines…a vine seed grows into branches, leaves, flowrs, and fruits that are intertwined in harmony with one another (from Katto).

I can recommend this book, but primarily to those with scholarly aspirations.

Translating Japanese poetry, translating Dogen

Monday, January 3rd, 2005

What can we learn about translating Dogen from the problem of translating medieval Japanese poetry? Carl Kay (website , pictured), Harvard-trained Japan scholar, entrepreneur, and author, recently shared with me his senior thesis from nearly 30 years ago, entitled “The Translation of Classical Japanese Poetry.”

Kay lavishes praise on Kenneth Rexroth (Wikipedia entry ), a critic, essayist, and translator of poetry. Says Kay, “…a reader of Rexroth’s translations experiences the freshness and intensity of the work…[Rexroth] concentrates on conveying the poetic experience.” Compared to scholars who are “concerned exclusively…with the meanings of the words [and whose translations] are as limited in their own way as translations that focus on other levels of the poetry”, Rexroth’s versions “capture the ‘meaning’ as clearly as the scholars but preserves the poetic intensity, the glow of the language, the force of syntax and rhythm that scholars often fail to bring over.”

Although poetry is clearly a different genre than Dogen’s writings, the two have more in common than you might think. Dogen brought a strong poem-like sensibility to his essays, in diction, cadence, word choice, and sentence structure. I would assert that the aspects of Rexroth’s translations praised by Kay are every bit as relevant when it comes to Dogen.

Kay takes issue with the translations of Brower and Miner, who were active in translating classical Japanese poetry in the mid 20th century, accusing them of “using” translation of Japanese poetry as a “vehicle” for their own analysis—for answering the question of what the poems “say”. “Considerations of the poetic experience are subordinated to an understanding of what the poem refers to outside of itself. The emphasis is not on the poem, but on cultural information. [Their] translations often blur into analysis…Their translation seems to be written to be appreciated by other scholars.”

Carl’s entire analysis applies as is to nearly all current translations of Dogen. The translators are not conveying the Dogen experience to us, but rather seem almost to be preaching at us, using Dogen as a weapon.

I will present more of Carl’s insights about translation in future posts.

Dogen says to brush and floss

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

Bad breath around the zen center can be a real problem. As Dogen put it in the “Sen-men (washing the face)” fascicle of Shobogenzo:

Monks and lay people throughout the country have terribly bad breath. When people speak from two or three feet away, the stench from their mouth is difficult to bear.

Yes, I know the feeling. Dogen’s solution was the willow twig, a kind of brushing and flossing device combined, traceable back to India. You take a twig about the size of your little finger, chew one end into fine fibers, then use that end to clean your teeth. Specifically, you rub the twig over the front and back of your teeth; wash and rinse; repeat; next polish and wash the base of the teeth, above the gums; then carefully scrape clean the gaps between the teeth; wash again; finally, scrape your tongue three times..

There’s a verse, of course, for before you start:

Holding the tooth cleaner in my hand / May I vow with sentient beings / To attain the right Dharma / and purity spontaneously.

And then one for when you’re done:

Using the tooth cleaner each morning / May I vow with sentient beings / To attain teeth strong enough / to gnaw away all passions.

Dogen was apparently entering a semi-obsessive/compulsive period of his life when he wrote this fascicle. Not only did he counsel disposing of the twig in a particular way after use, but after throwing it away, you were supposed to snap your fingers three times.

In any case, as usual Dogen was far ahead of his time. 750 years later in the west, we’re seeing an strong focus on oral hygiene and a number of new products. My favorite product is the Reach Access Daily Flosser (pictured). My dentist informs me that it may not be quite as effective as using old-fashioned floss you hold between your fingers, but it’s a lot easier to use. (I’ve seen a motorized product as well, but that seems like overkill.)

[Essay on willow twigs by Christine Homitsu White]

New translation of "Why The First Patriarch Came From The West"

Saturday, May 31st, 1969

I’m pleased to make available a new compendium of my Dogen translations, under the name “First Dogen Book,” including my most recent project, a translation of “Why The First Patriarch Came From The West.” I have also revised and updated my previous translations.

As with my previous translations, this translation is distinguished by an intensive level of research and analysis not seen elsewhere, as well as an obsessive attention to style, rhythm and nuance.

The four essays in the book span the range from introductory to advanced. “Dialog on the Way of Commitment,” or Bendowa, is an introductory essay directed towards the newcomer to Zen Buddhism. “Truth Unfolding,” or Genjo Koan, is a definitive, elegant exposition of the importance of practice, one of Dogen’s primary themes. “A Particular Hour,” or Uji, is a compelling testament to the urgency of attending to the moment. Finally, the latest translation “Why the First Patriarch Came from the West,” or Soshi Seirai I, is a Zen meditation on the human condition. Together, they represent the essence, albeit highly distilled, of Dogen’s writings and teachings.

The translations are exhaustively annotated. The annotations are not in general meant to elucidate the essays’ deeper meaning. Dogen can speak for himself if only given the voice to do so. Rather, the focus is on pointing out interesting aspects of Dogen’s prose and possible alternative interpretations. The notes also present historical and cultural background.

Download (170pp. PDF, 1MB).