#145. THE KING IN THE BURNING HOUSE. In the twelfth century in Japan, a civil war took place between the two most powerful ruling clans, the Taira and the Minamoto; the Minamoto clan won. Its reverberations weakened the political connections of the more powerful Buddhist sects, and other schools began to splinter off and consolidate: the Tendai, the Pure Land sects, Zen. An illegitimate scion of the Minamoto clan with the monastic name of Dogen Eihei began his studies at Mount Hiei, a Tendai monastery, the Tendai being a scholastically-inclined sect interested in systematizing the Buddhist scriptural teachings, but which included Pure Land devotional practice, Zen meditation, esoteric practices and study of the Buddhist precepts. Dogen left the monastery, dissatisfied with its teachings, and underwent the perilous passage from Japan to China, China being seen as the intellectual homeland through which Buddhism passed from India to Japan. Dissatisfied as well with koan practice, he met the teacher Rujing, of the Caodong sect, and here found the teacher that, he felt, settled his “quest for the great matter.” Returning some five years or so later to Japan, Dogen settled into an abandoned monastery near Uji, and from there into Eihei-ji, north of Kyoto, and became not only the most respected master of Soto Zen (the Japanese name for the Caodong sect) but one of the most revered of all Buddhist teachers. He was a voluminous writer and has been called Japan’s greatest philosopher—although that term, as so often with Western terms applied to Eastern practice, is a few degrees off trim.
Dogen’s masterwork is a collection of talks, the Shobo Genzo or “Dharma Treasury of the True Eye.” Reading the ten or dozen pages of the Shobo Genzo’s chapters is an extraordinary act of suspense: the opening metaphors are introduced, and we are tugged helplessly along, like Alice behind the White Queen. This is not in pursuit of a systematic philosophy or set of ideas: phrases and images appear, are repeated, varied, rung changes on, smashed, recombined and reillumined; logic is reversed, reversed again, negated, spun and reconstructed, in a method very like that of the Lankavatara Sutra, a late Yogacara scripture. The chapters are dense, challenging reading--Robert Aitken said, "Dogen wrote at the outermost edge of human communication"--best tackled one at a time. Reading them reminded me of what D.J. Enright wrote of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas: “The chapters are so weighty, their specific gravity is so high, that the reader is positively appreciative of their brevity. It is not that he fails to read on, but he does experience a relief analogous to putting down one solid object before picking up the next.” The other side of the suspense in reading Dogen is our wonderment at his invention and vision, our fear that he will not be able to sustain it. The fear proves illusory: no Zen teacher, and few religious teachers I know of, are so inexhaustibly fecund, so supplied to overflowing with things to tell us.
He wrote in Japanese, the vernacular to the time’s classical Chinese. His images, though he speaks with reverence and affection of his teaching ancestors, are of brilliance as well as calm: the circle of the full moon. Early in his Tendai training, Dogen became absorbed in the question of the nature of the enlightened being: “As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all the ages—undoubtedly in the possession of enlightenment—find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice?” From this preoccupation everything in Dogen’s practice—from the metaphysics of the Shobo Genzo to the particular notions of time/being to the practice of the shikantaza form of meditation—comes forth and hangs together. He spoke of the oneness of practice/enlightenment; Gary Snyder compared it to the water-wheel, which lifts with one basket while it pours off from another. It informs to the smallest nuance the language Dogen uses and the substance of his talks. Every detail of Zen practice, from cleansing the body and caring for the monastic robe—one of his most famous talks is “Instructions on Kitchen Work”—to the most abstruse and challenging notions, is included and is all of a piece, its goal the sacralization of every part of life: “the blossoming of the entire world.” Hence Dogen’s terse, frequent exhortations: “Endeavour thoroughly.” “This could be the last day of your life.” “Investigate these words.”
But from the Prajnaparamita texts onward, Buddhism harbored the idea/experience that the division between the loftiest wisdom, nirvana, and the sorrows and difficulties of life as we live it, samsara, is itself illusory. Dogen insists, time and again, that there is nothing to be acquired or achieved. The paradoxical tone of this perception is the great matter of Dogen’s language, imbedded and embodied in every sentence of his talks. He speaks, more convincingly than perhaps any other Buddhist teacher, from the far side of wisdom, but insists that that wisdom is our own. Perhaps the closest we have come in modern times is Shunryu Suzuki, the modest pilgrim monk who helped Soto Zen find a lodging in postwar American culture; he was Dogen’s spiritual descendant and, like Dogen, he emphasized the unity of practice and everyday living. It will always be, for most of us, the most difficult lesson to learn. “Who is aware the King of Dharma abides in the burning house?”
There are many selections and editions of Dogen’s work: for a beginning selection, Moon in a Dewdrop, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi (North Point Press, 1995) is excellent. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, again edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi (Shambhala, 2010) is a complete version and quite beyond praise: excellent translations by a team of thirty-three translators, beautifully edited to blend into a single voice, handsomely printed and bound—a reminder that we are living in a great, perhaps unparalleled period of literary translation. His other major collection of short dharma talks and poems is available as Dogen's Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku, by Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications, 1995); the translation here is excellent as well, and the annotations are particularly helpful, identifying references that would otherwise seem merely mysterious to modern readers but are taken from the familiar lore of Zen. From there there is a library of commentary and explication in English—Dogen has not been neglected. Investigate his words thoroughly.