Shobogenzo-Zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejo. Translated by Shohaku Okumura. Kyoto Soto Zen Center 1987. 232 pages.
To what indeed shall I liken the world and human life?
Ah! The shadow of the moon as it touches in a dewdrop
The beak of the water fowl.
Dogen was the ultimate Zen philosopher. He was also one hardcore, butt-kicking meditation master. If you feel like slacking off in your practice, if you just want to sit back, watch a game and drink a Bud Lite, Dogen is the man you should turn to:
The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely (113).
Across so many centuries this man speaks very clearly to us. His philosophy is one of direct Realization, not of study. Though he himself was brilliant and wrote extensively, he did not see the point of such things unless one had already attained the Way:
I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism. After he abandoned his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school. He replied, “I have forgotten everything. I don’t remember a single word.” Thus, he did not answer the priest’s question. This should be the ideal bodhi-mind. He must have remembered something, but did not talk about things he thought were useless… Students today should also cultivate this attitude. Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely. Needless to say, you should not begin studying now (88).
Perhaps this seems contradictory to some things you think you know. Sometimes Dogen seems to contradict himself, but then he was talking to different people at different times and in different circumstances. So it is all works out. What is important is to read this book as something you can and should put into practice. It is easily one of the hardest hitting, most visceral and memorable books on spiritual practice I have ever come across.
Let me step back, as I am now meandering a little. I went to Japan in 1989 to practice Zen. At the time I prepared by writing various temples for advice and suggestions. One temple sent me this book. I have treasured it ever since, and though I have bought and given away multiple copies, I have always tried to have one on hand. There are just not enough good things I can say about it.
Here you will read stories direct from the life of Japan’s greatest ever Zen monk. You will hear about the challenges and tribulations of those who practiced under him, of laity he knew, and of his evaluations of his Ch’an ancestors (“the Patriarchs”). Forget the sound of one hand clapping and the romance of pretty Zen gardens–Dogen talks about life-and-death and clarifying the mind in the immediate present, of how our actions, thoughts and attitudes facilitate or frustrate our accomplishment of the Way.
He has advice on just about everything. Are you concerned about what you should pursue for a career, which company you should work for or job you should take? Dogen has advice for you:
Students of the Way, it goes without saying that you must consider the inevitability of death. Even if you don’t consider this right now, you should be resolved not to waste time and refrain from doing meaningless things. You should spend your time carrying out what is worth doing. Among the things you should do, what is the most important? You must understand that all deeds other than those of the buddhas and patriarchs are useless (97).
Or consider the inevitability of arguments and disputes–the Universe knows I have (wrongly) engaged in too many of those. Here is Dogen on such things:
There is an old saying which goes, “Although the power of a wise man exceeds that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.” Now, students, even if you think that your wisdom and knowledge is superior to others, you should not be fond of arguing with them. Moreover, you should not abuse others with violent words, or glare at others angrily…
Once, Zen Master Shinjo Kokubun told his students, “In former times, I practiced together with Seppo . Once Seppo was discussing the dharma loudly with another student in the monk’s dormitory. Eventually, they began to argue using harsh words, and in the end, wound up quarreling with each other. After the argument was over, Seppo said to me, ‘You and I are close friends practicing together with one mind. Our friendship is not shallow. Why didn’t you help me when I was arguing with that man?’ At the time, I could do nothing but feel small folding my hands and bowing my head.
Later, Seppo became an eminent master, and I too, am now an abbot. What I thought at the time was that Seppo’s discussion of the dharma was ultimately meaningless. Needless to say, quarreling was wrong. Since I thought it was useless to fight, I kept silent.”
Students of the Way, you also should consider this thoroughly. As long as you aspire to make diligent effort in learning the Way, you must be begrudging with your time. When do you have time to argue with others? Ultimately, it brings about no benefit to you or to others. This is so even in the case of arguing about the dharma, much more about worldly affairs. Even though the power of a wise man is stronger than that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox. Even if you think that you understand the dharma more deeply than others, do not argue, criticize, or try to defeat them (176-8).
In short, this little book is a primer of life. It will tear you down and build you back up. It will pluck out your eyes and stick them back in your head and set your feet off down a different path. At times in my life I have obsessed over it, reading it repeatedly and earmarking and outlining it. It is a lovely and poetic book and hard as diamond. Buy it. Read it. Practice it.
My Amazon rating: 5 stars