Brad Warner on Genjo Koan

Brad Warner, the “punk” Zen master, is writing another book, a follow-on to his eminently readable Hardcore Zen. He’s published a sample chapter about Dogen’s Genjo Koan.

Brad brings a refreshing new perspective to anything he looks at, and his take on Genjo Koan is no exception. Unfortunately, as a student of Gudo Nishijima (picture), he’s dealing with the Nishijima/Cross translation, not a particularly good place to start. Consider his treatment of the famous three-part syllogism right at the beginning:

Genjo Koan starts off with what sounds like a string of contradictory statements that don’t seem to make very much sense at all. “When all dharmas are the Buddha-Dharma, then there is delusion and realization, there is practice, there is life and there is death, there are buddhas and there are ordinary beings,” Dogen says right at the outset. OK. No major problems there.

Really? What about the problem that no reader understands what “when all dharmas are the Buddha-Dharma” means?

But then he goes, “When the myriad dharmas are each not of the self, there is no delusion and no realization, no buddhas and no ordinary beings, no life and no death.” Wait up! Hold it! I thought there were all those things and now he says there aren’t.

Wait up! Hold it! What on earth could “myriad dharmas each not being of the self” mean? Cleary has “myriad things not all self”, which does not make much more sense, but in his modern Japanese translation, Mizuno says this means “things themselves do not have a fixed essence”. I render it as “once you’ve stripped things of their selves”.

But Nishijima and Cross have gotten mixed up in other ways, right here in just the second sentence of their translation of Dogen’s signature exposition of his thought. What they translate as “delusion and enlightenment” in the first sentence is meigo ari (è¿·æ‚Ÿã?‚ã‚Š), while the “delusion and enlightenment” in the second sentence is originally madoi naku satori naku (ã?¾ã?©ã?²ã?ªã??ã?•ã?¨ã‚Šã?ªã??).

Certainly it can not be just an accident that Dogen chose such different turns of phrase to indicate exactly the same thing within the space of two sentences at the immediate beginning of the definitive statement of his philosophy? And of course, it’s not. The Sino-Japanese compound used in the first sentence is meant to emphasize that at this stage we are dealing with concepts, standing in opposition. With spelling out individual, native Japanese words in pure hiragana in the second sentence, he is indicating the reality and independence of these categories of confusion and wisdom.

Now on to the third and final sentence:

And then just to be even more contrary he says, “The Buddha’s truth is originally transcendent over abundance and scarcity, and so there is life and death, there is delusion and realization, there are beings and buddhas.”

So what in Holy Heck is going on here with this paragraph? I mean, first he says there is life and there is death, and there is a difference between jus’ plain folks and Buddhas. Yet next he says that when we give up the idea of self, all these distinctions disappear. Then he goes right back to what he said in the first line, that these distinctions are real. Well, which is it? Make up your mind, Dogen!

No, he’s not “going back” to what he said in the first paragraph, he’s going a step further. Using the Sino-Japanese form meigo again, he’s now referring to the unity or fusion of the concepts of confusion and wisdom, or delusion and realization, if you prefer.

Next, Brad takes on Dogen’s most famous single passage, one we have discussed here more than once:

So just what is this Buddha’s truth stuff Dogen keeps going on and on about? By way of explanation, the D-man gives us a kooky little passage that goes like this. Ahem. “To learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body-and-mind, and the body-and-mind of the external world, fall away.”

But just how do you forget your ideas of “self?” You do so, the D-man says, when you are “experienced by the myriad dharmas.” In other words, we do this when we stop concentrating exclusively on how we experience the universe and learn how the universe experiences us. It’s not as impossible as it sounds.

Yes, but the original does not say “experience”, it says “validate”, “confirm”, or, if you prefer, “realize” (証ã?›ã‚‰ã‚‹ã‚‹).

Brad’s in-your-face, comtemporary thoughts on Genjo Koan are well worth reading. But he should pair them with a suitably contemporary (and accurate) translation of Dogen’s original words.

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