After Taking a Few Small Detours:
Notes from the Zen Overground
Tours, Détours, Retours
The title of this essay harks back to a song from a Broadway musical production called Take Me Along, which my parents drove me to see with the original cast performance as a fourth-grader in 1959 by going up I-95 one weekend from Philadelphia. The lyric that was sung on stage long ago by Jackie Gleason recently triggered off reminiscences of how several different phases of American culture in which I was involved growing up both through accepting and rejecting my parents’ influence greatly affected my approach to Buddhism.
I usually recall that the relatively easy access I enjoyed to New York’s Greenwich Village played a much greater role in helping to shape my early interest in Buddhist thought. That started just a few years later when, as a teenager in high school who was a mere ninety-minute train ride away from the Big Apple, I had much more freedom to choose my destinations. Of course, I did not realize at that time the tremendous impact that experiencing key aspects of contemporary bohemian culture was exerting on me, so this is entirely a retrospective comment.
New York in those days was a great repository of creative cultural phenomena, where I could watch Off Broadway dramas in the Theater of the Absurd genre by Edward Albee and Harold Pinter; hear the eccentric folk-rock group, The Fugs, sing songs like “Monday Nothing, Tuesday Nothing” and “Kill, Kill, Kill For Peace”; or visit some of the places where Beat poet Allen Ginsberg said in Howl he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.” Based on weekend trips to what some friends called “the city,” I also starting reading Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” a discourse on subjective reality that somehow remains one of the most popular books of American poetry ever published despite its arcane message.
Looking back to the period that took place just a few years before, I realize that the late fifties and early sixties milieu also provided a fertile resource in that the mainstream middlebrow culture of my parents’ era was offering up stories of Americans falling in love with Asian society through such remarkably successful Hollywood films as South Pacific, Sayonara, and The World of Suzie Wong that featured some of the top leading men of the day, including William Holden and Marlon Brando, who once played a wizened Japanese character in Teahouse On the August Moon. Meanwhile, the original version of Godzilla (or, rather, the edition with the Raymond Burr add-in) was still playing on TV along with an occasional glimpse of a Japanese baseball game or, better, a sumo tournament. Furthermore, The Magnificent Seven, we were told as kids, was a direct descendent of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and the multiperspectivism of Hitchcock’s Vertigo had affinities with the mystical suspense of Rashomon.
At the same time, the discourse of D.T. Suzuki and the musical compositions (or the non-music of 4’33”) of John Cage were slowly inching their way into everyday conversations about art, psychology, and the role of media that no doubt made an impression on me, as did the minimalist jazz piano accompaniment that Bill Evans provided for tunes by Mile Davis or Coltrane that were filling the FM airways which I listened to with a tiny Sony transistor radio. Little did I realize that the wheel of the Dharma was turning and the fragrance of the Lotus Sūtra was wafting by when I saw the synesthesia-titled Broadway production of The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd. But looking back, all of those remarkable creative expressions, whether appealing to highbrow or middlebrow audiences, helped with their countless resonances to train my thoughts for interpreting Zen.
The show Take Me Along, based loosely on Eugene O’Neill’s comedy about turn-of-the-century life in small town Connecticut, Ah Wilderness, took place like its predecessor in a 1906 New England setting (think “Next Stop, Willoughby” from The Twilight Zone episode). It featured then-spry Jackie Gleason playing a rather rambunctious reporter known as Sid Ol’ Kid Davis. He returns to his hometown (where “life has been a cemetery”) from the big city of Waterbury, CT in order to entertain his friends with stories of his shenanigans while also trying to win back the love of his life, Lilly, who seems forever disillusioned with his ongoing state of drunken high jinks occurring as the regular order of the day. In the denouement, the couple reconciles in a heartbeat as Sid finally sobers up and the two love birds start riding off together on a train into the sunset while a local crowd cheers them along after they’ve sung a surprisingly touching and tender love song, “But Yours.”
In this melody Lilly asks if Sid, who says he will climb mountains and slay dragons to display his feelings, has become her “hero of heroes” and he replies, “After taking a few small detours. A little gentler … a little wiser … a little tired … but yours!” Nostalgically downloading the song from my iTunes app a couple of weeks ago, I started to wonder if this tale could be seen as a metaphor for my relationship with Zen Buddhist studies, especially regarding Dōgen (1200-1253), which was the topic that began and has long sustained my career and hopefully will see me through to the end of my research days, whenever that may run its course. Maybe not. But hearing the tune did bring a tear to my eye one day and made me think of more than a few detours taken that have affected my overall attitude toward investigating Buddhism as well as the trajectory of my academic career as a whole.
As of this writing, sixty years after watching Take Me Along and headed soon enough to the land of permanent bliss (a.k.a. retirement), I am working diligently on publishing my thirty-third book with several more volumes lined up that I expect to be able to pursue well after leaving my position at the university. All of my current research projects deal with some aspect of Dōgen’s writings and activities, starting with a new analysis of the complicated textual history and often perplexing teachings of the Shōbōgenzō in addition to several related topics. These include a translation of an early fourteenth-century commentary on Dōgen’s masterwork written in Sino-Japanese (kanbun) verse form by the monk Giun, the fifth abbot of Eiheiji; an overview of the Sōtō founder’s life, literature, and legacy geared toward an introductory audience; and another translation consisting of a selection of 150 kanbun poems by Dōgen that was originally edited in the eighteenth century by the eminent Sōtō school scholastic Menzan.
There are many more ideas I could come up with if I would have the time and energy. I am especially eager to investigate the “black hole” areas of late medieval editions of the Shōbōgenzō in addition to voluminous Edo-period commentaries, scholarly topics barely mentioned in Western scholarship but exceedingly well developed in Japan. In the meantime, I am particularly fond of Giun’s capping phrase on the “Great Awakening” (“Daigo”) fascicle borrowed from Dōgen, “Nothing is hidden throughout the universe” 遍界不藏, as well as his verse comments: “The World-Honored One’s intimate words are not generally understood, / But from the start their meaning was crystal clear to Mahākāśyapa. / The mountain peak merging with the heavens creates an endless sea of blue, / Light streaming from the waxing moon glows splendidly amid the deepest valleys” 世尊密語無人會 / 迦葉當初不覆藏 / 山嶽連天常吐緑 / 溪深和月轉流光.
I am finding that I’ve returned to the topic of Dōgen after taking a hiatus for a few years while mainly trying to immerse myself in Song-dynasty Chinese Chan prose and poetry, especially hybrid multi-levelled texts like the Blue Cliff Record. Such works must be considered essential background reading for understanding Dōgen’s distinctive syntax, wordplay, and humor since he learned these and numerous other discursive techniques while traveling to the mainland in the 1220s. So many of the terms and sayings he liked to use, such as zenki (total dynamism), genjōkōan (realization here-and-now), and “the pearl is spinning in a bowl while the bowl is spinning the pearl” stem from Song sources. Other gems Dōgen is known for, including “making the right mistake” 將錯就錯 and “dragons singing on a withered tree” 龍吟枯木, derive from various continental expressions that in today’s vernacular are, ironically, popular in the realm of Chinese teen fiction since those phrases become metaphors for finding true romance after being sadly disappointed and disheartened. The field of Song Chan writings is such a vast and fascinating topic in itself that it would take a lifetime to master. Nevertheless, scratching one of its myriad surfaces has led me back to and greatly informed my primary interest by providing important ways for seeing how Dōgen was heavily reliant on Chinese writings yet persistently stressed the need to develop innovatively his own approach in either Japanese or kanbun.
Four decades ago, I was first studying Dōgen’s texts at Komazawa University in Tokyo. I am exceedingly grateful to several mentors who were charitable with their expertise, including the late Yoshizu Yoshihide, who visited my home in Philly on a couple of occasions and always gave me extra time and insight, plus Ishii Shūdō, Ishii Seijun, Matsumoto Shirō, and Kawamura Kōdō. While living through a harsh winter in a traditional Japanese house with knotty pine and tatami-matted flowers not providing very much insulation (as my late wife often pointed out with increasingly less good cheer while the weeks dragged on), and fearing there would be difficult job prospects when I was to return to the states during difficult economic times, I had a fascinating vision late one night when I was sitting by the kotatsu with my electric typewriter barely functioning due to a contrast with the Japanese system of electrical current, and while wearing about six layers of clothes on my back and stacking up over three dozen dictionaries and diverse reference books piled high on the table. The apparition was of what I’ve called ever since the Sōtō Angels, which was not of Dōgen himself nor of any other of the sect’s luminaries but, rather, a couple of mid-level manager-monks floating on lotus leaves who appeared mysteriously to offer me a kind of “crossroads” proposition, as in the Blues tradition: stick with us, meaning with Dōgen studies, they assured me, and eventually if I was patient and persistent in my path, doors would open up enabling me to advance and even prosper in the field.
This inspirational experience helped carry me through many travails before eventually landing a job with tenure and a useful research budget. During the purgatory period, there was a stretch of teaching eighteen courses a year (seven-seven-four) at five different colleges in order to make ends meet. For better or worse, my sons in their early years in the late eighties were not great sleepers, so when I was kept up all night and learned to work vigorously at the computer to fill the time, sometimes I’d look up to find, almost miraculously, that a book chapter or an article was nearly finished. A few years later, when you couldn’t wake the boys up even if, as in the story of Mazu and Baizhang you shouted loudly right in their eardrum, their times of slumber offered great opportunities to write with a good bit less distraction.
I’ve remembered the Sōtō Angel vision from time to time and every now and then it made for a good anecdote to tell a friend. Then one day, about thirty-five years after it first happened while riding a shuttle bus to O’Hare Airport after giving a lecture in Chicago and on the verge of publishing a new book examining the rhetoric of the Blue Cliff Record, but also caught up in some turbulent health and personal issues, this happened again. It came to me from a new apparition of the strange messengers that my phase of studying Song-dynasty Chan was part of a rather roundabout journey leading back to a focus on Dōgen. Sure enough, some exciting new opportunities for research and publishing started to open up soon after that moment. A number of things fell nicely into place, even as considerable challenges remain in the offing.
I fell to thinking that, over the decades, I’ve pursued several other valuable sidetracks that have in the long run greatly enhanced my appreciation and understanding of Dōgen, ranging from translating medieval Japanese poetry and investigating the origins and implications of kōan cases including the role of shapeshifting fox folklore narratives or exploring applications of Zen-style professional strategies for motivation and advancement to celebrating some of the middlebrow films on Asia from the late fifties and analyzing the lyrics of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan (for me, ultimately of equal status to Dōgen’s discourse), along with examining the role of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in modern Tokyo. Yet Jamie Hubbard once pointed out that the book Sacred High City, Sacred Low City published in 2012 was my only work that did not have the words “Dōgen,” “Zen,” or “kōan” in the title.
During a long journey all of the détours—to use the French word because the phonetic quality of the phrase “tours, détours, retours” does not quite work in the English phrase, “turns, detours, returns”—reflect the twists and turns of the ongoing process of finding, un-finding, and re-finding one’s scholarly pathway. Getting off the beaten path or taking the road less traveled by is meaningful because it eventually reinforces a more direct course. Traveling a scenic route at times has much to offer, even if any particular aspect of circuitous meandering may seem confounding or lead to diversions, delays, and dead ends that are not so beneficial. Sometimes the meandering path results in a payoff so far down the road that the connections are mostly obscured.
Whys & Wherefores
From time to time when people inquire how I’ve been able to produce so many books, given the fear of seeming boastful in responding I often mention that my good friend and former colleague at Penn State, Chuck Prebish, once reminded me of Muhammed Ali’s dictum, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true (alternatively, “if you can back it up)!” Recently I told a small group of associates that I’m striving to publish 36 books in all because that was the number on the back of the jersey of my childhood sports hero, Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame starting pitcher for the Phillies who led the fabulous Whiz Kids to the World Series the year I was born before losing badly to Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees. A while back, I used to refer to the desired milestone in terms of the 28 patriarchs and, after that, to the 32 marks of the Buddha. Now it hits me that Wilt the Stilt once scored 100 points in 1962 while still playing for the old Philadelphia Warriors, a game I remember listening to on the radio. Also, there lurks the prospect of 108 books, so I figure I’d better start looking for an in-between figure should Robbie’s number get surpassed. Or, since Dōgen liked to say that the four compassionate deeds of a bodhisattva actually total sixteen actions because each one contains all the others, perhaps 36 as the square of the 6 realms, including five divisions of the transmigration process for which there isn’t much chance of gaining enlightenment, will be good enough. So much for numerology.
More to the point, some colleagues whose scholarship I greatly admire for its thorough and thoughtful approach to Buddhist studies have occasionally asked whether there is some kind of technique or secret formula for publishing that I could explain. A friend suggested I should write a book on how to write books, which I considered for a while but to little avail since it would probably be too much of a detour. When deliberating on this theme, the best I could come up with were a few key ideas that have guided me, which are based on East Asian religious teachings, including but by no means those exclusively expressed by Dōgen, along with a couple of Bob Dylan lyrics and also a bit of Heidegger. The following discussion of assorted viewpoints is not intended as anything other than random musings.
Before discussing this list of, there are a couple of points I’d like to mention. First, I acknowledge that teaching and serving as founding director of Asian Studies at FIU since 1997 gave me valuable resources for my research, especially a steady flow of travel funds and some enthusiastic and talented student assistants. When I arrived, I had to jumpstart the program from scratch primarily by gaining a lot of external funding supplemented by university support, and eventually we have had a steady flow of over 100 undergraduate majors and a couple of hundred minors, plus nearly 10 MA graduates per year. From this group, every year I have been able to find a couple of great assistants who brainstormed concepts, helped translate passages, copyedited and indexed manuscripts, etc. Best of all, a longtime program coordinator, who was part of those projects also created many great maps and diagrams and polished photos I took so these were ready publication in various volumes.
In fact, one time when I was interviewed at a prestigious northern school, my close friend and former co-editor Dale Wright encouraged me to take that job even after explaining that I would likely have less financial and human resources available to me there than was the case at FIU. Dale insisted that the new position would represent a breakthrough for my scholarly efforts and I could see how it sounded that way, but I took the liberty of pointing out that research was already going just fine, including the way much of the behind-the-scenes work was being carried out by my grad assistants while we were producing our co-edited volumes.
Furthermore, I give credit to one of my sons, who when he was growing up would watch me feverishly pounding on the keyboard day and night and sometimes carried a drink of water or tea into my version of a man cave that contained lots of obscure books and, in those days, piles and piles of photocopies from various East Asian libraries and archives in addition to noisy printers, until I got my first personal-sized laser. My son used to tell me that he thought I worked so hard at writing mainly because, in the final analysis, I simply wanted to better understand a specific topic. From this deceptively unassuming comment it became clear that the goal of fathoming a text or a theme could be achieved by forcing oneself to gather as many resources as possible, complete the research part of project by trying to clarify the main concepts and their corollaries intellectually, and then conveying the meaning of these findings persuasively so that at least some people might benefit from reading the published materials.
This is certainly not news to those who are viewing these posts. But many years later my son’s comments resonated deeply with the verse remark I was examining by master Xuedou on case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record, which was originally part of a sermon given to his assembly in the Dharma Hall and is sometimes recited by Zen novices today:
For more than twenty years I’ve suffered bitterly,
Plunging down time and again to the Blue Dragon’s cave for your sake.
The anguish is too great to recount—
If you want to be a skillful practitioner, you’d better not take this lightly.
二十年來曾苦辛 / 為君幾下蒼龍窟 / 屈 堪述 / 明眼衲僧莫輕忽.
This poem captures some of the agony and angst along with the playfully suppressed sense of joy and triumph many researchers must feel in looking for answers not to be found so easily as part of a process that often leaves one even more perplexed and willing to begin the search all over again. As Heidegger has said, “The question becomes more questionable.” The area of inquiry varies for each scholar, but for him was nothing less than the question of Being, or the question of questions to which there are many responses but no final answers.” That is because the more you probe and think you comprehend the query’s foundations, the more problematic it seems. As Yuanwu said commentingon Xuedou’s verse in the Blue Cliff Record, “How many people can make their living in the lagoon of that Blue Dragon?” 多少人向蒼龍窟裏.作活計.
Based on my son’s observation, perhaps another rather obvious principle is the need to research an area that you care deeply for and are dedicated to with supreme determination, and about which you no doubt feel that you are one of the few who by circumstance is positioned or even destined at the appropriate time to provide a discussion that is compelling and persuasive. As Dylan sings in an outtake from Blood On The Tracks, “No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me.” What leads each of us to those kinds of motivating topics is utterly individual and specific, but we must realize the whole world is a stage that offers so many possibilities for investigations and explications. Dylan expresses this in a lyric on the album, Tempest, “If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime, / All things are beautiful, in their time, / The black and the white, the yellow and the brown, / It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town.” I remember Tom Kasulis saying to me long ago, “There are countless truths out there, so find the one that most interests you and write about it.”
For me, the “Scarlet Town” lyric is yet another way of articulating the notion of genjōkoan, the kōan that is right in front of your very eyes or enlightenment that is manifested each moment of everyday life if you perceive existence in a suitable way. Genjōkōan was a notion that initially had negative meanings because it implied that the kōan case was all too apparent and therefore lacked profundity, but it was first interpreted in a very positive way in the Blue Cliff Record and further refined as the central view of reality in the famous first fascicle (in most editions) of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. The term was also used by other Zen figures of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, such as the Chinese Linji school master Zhongfeng Mingben and the Japanese Rinzai school master Musō Sōseki.
A kanbun verse by Musō sums up many of my feelings about the responsibilities and burdens as well as opportunities and delights offered by the capacity all have but too rarely utilize for actualizing authentic perceptivity that takes into account diverse viewpoints while adhering to a selected one:
Autumn-colored word-branches dropping many leaves,
Frosty clouds carrying rain passing this nook in the mountains.
Everyone is born with the same sort of eyes—
Why can’t we all see the kōan case that is right in front of us (genjōkōan)?
秋色辭柯落葉多 / 寒雲載雨過山阿 / 人人自有娘生眼 /爭奈現成公案何.
The next two ideas about developing substantial motivation for the activity of research and the completion of writing by trying to wrap up a project and move on to the next assignment or effort are inspired by Confucian sayings. One aphorism seeks to advocate trying to stay within one’s capacity by recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses so as to avoid stretching too far beyond reasonable limits by being overly ambitious or, contrariwise, failing to impress by demanding too little of your concerted attention. According to the Analects 2-17 the Master said: “How shall I teach you about knowledge? What you know is what you know, and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. This is knowledge.” 子曰.由誨女知之乎.知之爲知之,不知爲不知,是知也. Traditional commentators have often said that the awareness of “knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know as the key to knowledge” is not at all easy to attain because blind spots and hidden intentions continually conceal or subvert this level of self-understanding.
While the above saying speaks of the need for constant deliberation and, if needed, thoughtful hesitation in approaching any topic, a striking contrast is offered in the maxim in Analects 7-8, in which the Master said: “If a student is not eager, I won’t teach him; and if he is not struggling with the truth, I won’t reveal it to him. But if I point out one corner of the room and he can’t come back with the other three corners I won’t show it again.” 子曰.不憤不啓.不 悱不發.擧一隅不以三隅反,則不復也. An aphorism also mentioned in the Blue Cliff Record, these are words to live by, especially during any teaching, training, or mentoring situations where the learner must become a self-starter with a sufficient degree of discipline and control plus the burning desire to strive to surpass expectations.
When hiring a new student assistant to help staff the Asian Studies department office I run or to work with me on a research project or an instructional initiative, I generally ask a prospective employee to give me a good explanation of the meaning of Confucius’s saying about learning of one corner from the teacher and then finding the other three corners for yourself. This self-motivational attitude is echoed in the phrase from another kōan collection about the skills of a proverbial Zen adept: “He sizes up a pivotal circumstance and swings into action; when facing a danger he is someone who moves right ahead” 見機而作.臨險推人. Yet a capping phrase to case 66 of the Blue Cliff Record cautions about the need for restraining oneself to stay within reasonable limits by saying, “To take advantage is to lose the advantage” 得便宜是落便宜 and the passage adds the remark, “That wraps up the case” 據款結案, which could be rendered, “The results are all tied together,” but it could also imply “the unraveling of a puzzle.”
Moreover, even though Dōgen’s view of the oneness of practice-realization urges holding to an ongoing sense of calmness in every instance, there is something very stimulating in the Zen view he tends to refute that stresses the opposite standpoint arguing we should never underestimate the power of doubt to conquer and overturn all obstacles. That outlook highlights the need to feel urgency and desperation, like a rat trapped in a maze or a person being painted into a corner, obstacles from which there seems to be no way out, yet an exit must be found. A prominent example of this double-bind is when Dahui finally has a breakthrough to enlightenment after repeated failures as he tells his mentor Yuanwu, “Teacher, it is the same in principle as a dog starting at a pot of hot oil: he knows he can’t lick it, but he can’t leave it alone either.” 和尚.這箇道理.恰如狗看著熱油鐺相似.要舐又舐.不得.要捨又捨不得. The famous kōan about hanging from a tree by one’s teeth while being asked an unanswerable question by someone standing below is another expression of this state.
Yet Dōgen also offers the wise suggestion that, instead of emphasizing primarily how motivated we are we should simply cultivate the ability to be discerning and insightful by focusing on the matter at hand, the genjōkōan, or seeing things just as they are: “To study the self is to forget the self and be illuminated by myriad things” 自己をならふといふは,自己をわするるなり.自己をわするるといふは,萬法に證せらるるなり. Dōgen also points out that the sixth patriarch tells a monk who thinks he’s mastered the Lotus Sūtra but does not really know its essence that the basic point of the text is to drive the interpreter to read between the lines so that, “when the mind is deluded it is turned or transformed by the Lotus Sūtra, and when the mind is awakened it turns or transforms the Lotus Sūtra. In any case, this truly is the Lotus turning the Lotus” 心迷法華轉なり.心悟轉法華なる.實にこれ法華轉法華なり. In other words, in a way that is similar to the spirit of the modern phenomenological adage, “To the things themselves!”, we must let whatever topic is being studied speak for itself by developing an approach that finds a delicate balance between projecting ideas about and standing back to appreciate its effects.
Nearly half of my books have been edited or co-edited volumes, including four works I edited and partially translated by Masao Abe, who for many years was the leading Japanese exponent of Zen Buddhist thought teaching and publishing in the West, with the rest on Dōgen, East Asian Zen more broadly, or Japanese religion and society. A couple of additional volumes are in the pipeline. I appreciate greatly having opportunities to work with co-editors Dale Wright, in addition to my late mentor Charles Wei-hsun Fu, Chuck Prebish, and Pamela Winfield. A key for producing these books has been to care very deeply about disseminating insightful materials on various topics while helping to promote the wonderful scholarship of many colleagues on both sides of the Pacific (plus having great assistants to help complete some of the so-called grunt work aspects of the publishing process).
In the Beginning, Not Long Ago
Another question I am often asked, less by colleagues than students or non-academic friends and family, is when did my fascination with Dōgen begin, for which there are two responses: one functions on the revealed level, and the other on the concealed level. The revealed level of response is that this began around 1975 when I was in my first or second year of graduate school and, lo and behold, there was the book just published by Hee-Jin Kim, Dōgen Kigen—Mystical Realist (later reprinted as Eihei Dōgen). Kim’s eloquent explications of so many crucial aspects of Dōgen’s biography, philology, philosophy, and meditative practice remains a resource that I frequently consult, even though his work came out before many current developments in Dōgen studies by Japanese and Western scholars that leaves it somewhat out of date. For example, it lacks a discussion of the significance of the vast Extensive Record collection of Dōgen’s formal sermons delivered in kanbun, the role of the Critical Buddhist movement that began in the late 1980s in challenging numerous assumptions about the ethical functions of Zen, or the reasons for Dōgen’s controversial visit to Kamakura in the late 1240s, among other topics.
Nevertheless, at the time, reading this incredible volume while trying to keep myself from underlining just about every passage (I still have the original copy, just as I’ve kept my heavily battered edition of Nelson’s Kanji Dictionary that was needed before the digital era) did the trick of linking my three main areas of interest. It demonstrated clearly that Dōgen represented a fulcrum for the relationship between medieval Japanese literature, classical Chinese writings, and early Indian philosophy that influences quite a few of his concepts and ritual methods. Once I studied Kim’s book carefully, there was no turning back. When I spoke recently with my esteemed colleague and friend in the field of Kamakura Buddhism, Jackie Stone, we could not help but lament that the direction of the field toward an emphasis on using social historical methods to examine the era, as admirable as the results of this trend have been and that I’ve tried my hand at, had begun to cramp the style of conducting old-fashioned textual studies of the early medieval giant figures, like Dōgen, Nichiren, Hōnen, and Shinran, and we hope that this torch will be passed to a new generation of scholars.
As for the concealed response to the question of when I began to be enthralled with and committed to Dōgen studies, this refers to a powerful experience that occurred about six years before reading Kim, but that I could not have realized at the time was the exact existential moment that would shape my academic destiny. As an undergraduate, I was particularly intrigued with taking courses on traditional and modern Japanese literature, and it was a thrill when novelist Kawabata Yasunari became in 1968 the first Japanese author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. About a year later I found in the University of Pennsylvania bookstore a slim bilingual edition of his acceptance speech delivered in Stockholm, Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself (Utsukushii Nihon no watakushi), translated by E.G Seidensticker (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1969).
Kawabata opened his lecture, quite surprisingly, by citing a 31-syllable waka verse composed by Dōgen. Although Dōgen was not known as a poet, and in fact was more renowned for a passage in the Shōbōgenzō zuimonki in which he rejects the role of literature, one of many apparent contradictions in his corpus, Kawabata commented on the profound influence of Zen aesthetics on his own writing by starting with Dōgen’s verse on the topic, “Original Face” (“Honrai no memmoku” 本來面目). As highlighted by a recent film biography of Dōgen titled Zen, this verse was one of the pedagogical tools Dōgen probably used during his six-month visit to Kamakura in 1247-1248 to preach to the shogun, Hōjō Tokiyori, who was trying to reconcile his violent life as a warrior with Buddhist vows of nonviolence.
In Seidensticker’s translation the waka reads: “In the spring, cherry blossoms, / In the summer the cuckoo, / In autumn the moon, / And in winter the snow, clear, cold” 過來つる / 四十あまりは / 大空の / うさきからすの / 道にそ有ける.This poem is notable, according to Kawabata, because “by a spontaneous though deliberate stringing together of conventional images and words, it transmits the very essence of Japan.” Kawabata refers to “conventional images and words” in Dōgen’s verse in that a simple connecting of seasonal imagery typical of medieval poetry evokes the ephemeral yet renewable quality of nature. Thus, the true essence of the person, or original face, is one with the surroundings by using a rhetorical device whereby the title of the poem has no direct link to its content.
However, when studying Dōgen’s waka collection in Japan a decade later I realized first, that Seidensticker’s rendering in just four lines simply does not do justice to the poetic quality of the verse, and second, that the reason for his truncated version is that he overlooks that the last line is based primarily on the multiple nuances of the adjective suzushi. This word can be taken to mean, as Seidensticker’s version indicates, the physical characteristic or bodily sensation of the brightness and coldness of the snow. Yet that rendering, which suggests that suzushi merely amplifies kiede (frozen) in modifying snow, represents but one level of meaning. In Japanese court poetry suzushi often implies the serene and cool outlook—encompassing both objective appearance and subjective response—generated by phenomena that are not literally cold. The term is used by the poet Tamekane, for instance, to describe the purity and coolness of the voice of the cuckoo (hototogisu), a synesthesia that illustrates the underlying and complex interrelatedness of personal reaction and external stimulus, body and mind, and sensation and awareness.
Nearly forty years after my initial studies of Dōgen’s waka collection, I was helping advise a doctoral candidate working on the reception of The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by looking at various translations of the hundreds of waka that are included in the text, especially by Waley, Tyler, and Seidensticker, among others. At that time, it became abundantly clear from a careful reading of the versions of various verses from Genji that Seidensticker’s translations of waka were rather weak in almost every instance compared to other renderings available, despite the considerable strengths of his prose translations, because he must not have tried to immerse himself in that genre when he took on the immense task of translating the epic tale. Then I understood that the way his effort seems to have fallen short in dealing with Dōgen’s poem was not out of character. It was quite interesting how I happened to stumble on that realization so many years later.
Based on an analysis of the rhetoric of the verse in light of court poetry in addition to Dōgen’s literary and philosophical intentions, I came up with an alternative translation of “Original Face”:
Haru wa hana In spring, the cherry blossoms,
Natsu hototogisu In summer, the cuckoo’s song,
Aki wa tsuki In autumn, the moon, shining,
Fuyu yuki kiede In winter, the frozen snow.
Suzushi kari keri How pure and clear are the seasons!
In the revised rendition, the aesthetic configuration of the waka, which reinforces its religious message, shows that the “one word” suzushi, as Professor Kawamura emphasized when we were reading together four decades ago, refers neither to just the snow nor to the observer, neither to the physical nor to the mental. Rather, it suggests a lyricism that is rooted and yet unlimited by the forms previously portrayed in the poem. In this context, Dōgen uses the word suzushi in a religio-aesthetic way to comment on human involvement in the rotation of the seasons, or the immediate and renewable response to the perpetual cyclicality of four distinct yet overlapping phenomena. Thus suzushi reflects the lyricism of the entire poem by expressing the primordial unity encompassing infinite diversity and the possibility for momentary change by modifying each of the seasonal images: the vivid colors and graceful scattering of spring flowers, the sharp cry of the cuckoo at dawn or dusk, the clarity and tranquility of autumn moonlight, and the purity of freshly fallen snow.
Furthermore, in 2018 when I was in Japan working with the graduate student mentioned, I also had the chance to give a lecture on medieval Japanese culture, including the interface of Buddhism and literature, to a class of undergraduates that included some foreign but mostly Japanese students. We have to understand that Japanese students today may not know much or be very interested in obscure aspects of premodern society, including Zen, or see how this can be linked to postmodern worldviews. One time, when I was visiting a different university in Japan a few years before, a professor who was my age struck up a conversation about my studies of Dōgen. A couple of undergrads happened to walk by and stopped to listen. He asked them if they knew who Dōgen was, but all they could come up with was, “Something to do with religion.” And, following up with this in another class I taught in Japan recently, when I asked if anyone had heard of Dōgen, only one student raised her hand enthusiastically, but it turned out that she only had a single impression of Dōgen as a strict disciplinarian. Let me qualify the above comments by saying I know it is very likely she knew much more, as did numerous other students who were rather shy to talk about it.
But in the 2018 class, once we started analyzing Dōgen’s “Original Face” waka, it was very gratifying to hear many fine interpretations offered that day, including some interesting comments on the key word suzushi in terms of the students’ historical knowledge of literature as well as their understanding of contemporary usages. I found that my copy of the handout I distributed was filled with notes taken by the end of the session, and an inner sense of continuity with my bookstore discovery of the Kawabata lecture fifty years before was palpable.
And in the End
I have also brought up in recent lectures on both sides of the Pacific other aspects of Dōgen’s poetry, especially a waka and couple of kanbun verses that I find endlessly intriguing because of how they capture and convey the fundamental creative ambivalence felt by many kinds of writers. The poems seem to prefer the realm of contemplation and are suspicious of ideas being put into words that may distort or detract from the spiritual experience, yet they also suggest that Dōgen is overwhelmingly compelled to press ahead with the task of expression based on a combined sense of accountability and exhilaration. One poem in this vein is the following waka, which suggests that writings will all too easily either be misunderstood and misappropriated or will fall on deaf ears:
Haru kaze ni Will their gaze fall upon
Waga koto no ha no The petals of words I utter,
Chirikeru wo Shaken loose-blown free by the spring breeze,
Hana no uta to ya As if only the notes
Hito no nagamen. Of a flower’s song?
春風に / 我ことの葉の / ちりけるを / 花の歌とや / 人の見るらん.
Another kanbun verse titled “Snowy Evening in Spring” 春雪夜 was written near the end of Dōgen’s life when, like Chinese Chan masters he modeled himself on, he would depart from the grounds of Eiheiji for a while in order to practice meditation in a retreat in the forest where he could admire and commune with the pristine and spectacularly beautiful natural environment:
Peach and plum blossoms in the snow and frost do not feel emotion.
Green pines and emerald bamboos are shrouded in cloudy mist.
I am not yet dried up and over the hill,
It’s been several decades since I renounced seeking fame and fortune.
桃李雪霜非愛処 / 青松翠竹幾雲煙 / 雞皮鶴髮縦無染 / 名利拋来数十年.
The third line literally means something like “I’m not stained like a chicken with a tough hide or a crane growing hair,” but I improvise here in light of my current mood. Also, the last line suggests the past but could imply “for future decades to come.”
The last kanbun verse I will mention is untitled and was written by Dōgen about four years after he returned from China and a couple of years prior to opening his own temple when he was holed up at a small hermitage on the outskirts of Kyoto:
How sorrowful is life and death’s constant ceasing and arising!
I lose my way yet find my path as if walking in a dream.
Even though there are still things that are hard to forget,
The deep grass of Fukakusa settles in the sound of the evening rain.
生死可憐休又起 / 迷途覺路夢中行 / 雖然尚有難忘事 / 深草閑居夜雨声.
Meanwhile I wonder if there will be enough time and energy left in me to continue moving ahead by taking on and bringing to fruition significant new scholarly challenges? I was actually thinking of using as a subtitle for this essay the phrase, “A Buddhologist Elegy,” as a takeoff from a famous recent book on so-called hillbillies living in the heartland but figured that sentiment might send a mixed message of resignation or despair which is not at all the case. So, I will mention a Dylan lyric that many old-timer Buddhologists can probably relate to that is part of the song, “Spirit in the Water”: “You think I'm over the hill / You think I'm past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin' good time.”
But I will let Dōgen have the final word of Zen by citing another waka that features the same title as his main text, “Treasury of the True Dharma-Eye” (“Shōbōgenzō” 正法眼藏):
Nami mo hiki In the heart of the night
Kaze mo tsunaganu The moonlight framing
Sute obune A small boat drifting,
Tsuki koso yawa no Tossed not by the waves
Sakari nari kere. Nor swayed by the breeze.
波も引 / 風もつなかぬ / 棄てをふね / 月こそ夜半の / さかりなりけれ.
This verse reflects Dōgen’s feelings of vulnerability mixed with courage while returning to Eiheiji from a teaching visit with Hōjō Tokiyori after rejecting an offer to lead a new temple being built in the temporary capital, which eventually become Kenchōji temple led by the émigré monk, Rankei Dōryū (Ch. Lanqi Daolong). These words epitomize Dōgen’s appropriation and application of the repository of Dharmic insight.
And I’ll conclude with a shout-out to the ever kindly but sadly departed (as of 2014) Yoshizu Sensei, whose animated way of explaining the multiple meanings of that “little boat” moving along in the water during our reading sessions with Kawamura Kōdō forty years ago was priceless. May he rest.