Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Questioning the convert Soto Zen obsession with Dogen

This post probably could be filled with citations, quotes, historical data, and every other form of research-oriented, "fact" based information to back up my point. But I'm not going there for now. Maybe later, but for now, I'm just going to say what comes.

Also, to my readers who aren't steeped in Zen, and who don't know Dogen, I apologize. Maybe this post will spark some interest in you anyway, or maybe not.

So, I've been wondering for a long time about what almost feels like an obsession with Zen Master Dogen's teachings amongst those who teach and practice in convert Soto Zen communities. Specifically, what I have experienced in my own sangha at times over the years, and have also seen in writings and blogs of others, is a some times exclusive pairing of Dogen with root teacher X's teachings (Katagiri, Suzuki, and Maezumi being the most prominent) as the gospel of zen. Clearly, some of this is a function of what those root teachers focused on and handed down to us converts. However, I also wonder if there is also some attachment to the view that Dogen was the best, and that the teachings of root teacher X are the modern presentation of the most important parts of Dogen.

Obviously, spiritual traditions tend to revere founders, and look to their words and lives as examples of enlightened living. And clearly, Dogen was an amazing teacher whose words continually spark something within me, even when I find myself disagreeing with something. Yet, sometimes I wonder if such a heavy emphasis on a 13th century monastic, who broke from the past by emphasizing a single practice, zazen, above all else - I sometimes question if his words and life are the most appropriate teachings for us 21st century "in the world" practitioners.

Here are a few issues I have specifically questioned when it comes to Dogen:

1. How does the focus on zazen and monastic living in Dogen mesh or not mesh with living in the world lay practice? And does it matter if the two clash?

2. How much can we truly learn about sex, money, politics and social issues from Dogen? I remember talk during a class about the Tenzo Kyokun last winter that applied its teachings to these issues, but how much of that was simply projection or extension of something that wasn't actually there?

3. Can we always rely on Dogen's teachings? In other words, does he sometimes hit the mark completely and other times not so much? Partly, I think of some of the teachings in the Shobogenzo-zuimonki that seem rather rigid, and even extreme. People love to chalk this up to poor translation, or misinterpretation, but really, isn't that just a justification for continuing the narrative that Dogen was the best, and should go unquestioned? Or that our questioning about Dogen must be kept in the realm of how his teachings illuminate the truth of our lives?

4. What does the over-reliance on a single historical teacher, no matter how wonderful, do to the practice as a whole, and to our individual practices?


Anonymous said...

I like to call them Dogen-ites! And I can be included in that grouping from time to time. The thing with Dogen is that he is accessable and most translations are easy to read and difficult to digest.

That combo is perfect to the Soto Zen community who seem to want a bit more than Lay-Practice and a bit less then Monastic practice. Dogen fits right there for them.

Others are just as accessable from different traditional. I like some Shinran and some Honen too.

You mention the Shobogenzo-zuimonki and I do really love that text and it served as an entrance point for me to enter into a solid Home-practice.

In the end, Dogen is just a tool and shouldn't be overly revered (as he tends to be). There is that tendency to take his works as scripture and I think that is dangerous in the long-run (no-one should go unquestioned). If you polish one facet of a jewel till it shines the others are still dusky and then no light passes through. It is better to broaden.

Great post and questions, nathan, Thanks,


Adam said...

I think you touch on a lot of great points here. And the same could apply to numerous traditions and religions/organizations.

Just because someone was the first, or the founder, doesn't mean that they are infalliable. I think it's important to remember that great teachers show us the way, not the absolute truth. They don't write things down on stone tablets and carry them down from mountain tops. Instead they show us where the mountain is so we can go and figure it out for ourselves.

Great post Nathan.

Algernon said...

Very instructive and interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think this is why I've shied away from Soto, if not for the extreme focus on zazen as well. I've been digging the early Zen/Chan writers especially from China (Like Bodhidharma, Hui-Neng, etc.). I've heard a recent criticism, but I've also been digging the Zennist blog pretty heavily as well. People have been talking about the root teachings, which at first I've taken a hard look at as far as the Buddha, now I have been looking for the root teachings of Zen.

Nathan said...

Hi Jamie,

I've also been digging into earlier Chan teachings, including the Xinxinming, which I've written about a fair amount lately. I continue to learn from Dogen, and yet, I can't accept that he "did it all" and we just have to find it within his work.


Jeanne Desy said...

I find myself still thinking about this. My own take on Buddhism, and on the Zen focus, is that we are told to find the truth for ourselves, to be our own light. I imagine the Buddha as being amused and a little saddened (but it will pass) to see people elevating anybody's words to be cast in pure gold. Even Dogen's. Granted, he was a fine poet and mystic - but doesn't Zen ask each of us to go and be that ourselves?