On Reading Dōgen in Translation

I’ve been reading Dōgen’s Genjōkōan with Shohaku Okumura [1] as my guide.  Dōgen is my perennial favorite Buddhist writer.  In fact, my Buddhist BFF.  I return to him again and again year after year.  I only wish I understood a word that he wrote.

“Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen”Dōgen

Dōgen is, of course, the master of using language to subvert language and I’m reading him in English when he wrote in archaic Japanese.  His writings are an ongoing conversation with a stream of Sino-Japanese ancestors and contemporaries.  I’ve only barely dipped my toes in that stream.  (Most of my Buddhist study has been in the Pali tradition with excursions into later Indian writers like Nagarjuna and Shantideva.)

So I’ve employed Shohaku Okumura as my somewhat trusty guide.  Okumura is a Sōtō Zen priest and Dharma successor to the late Kōshō Uchiyama Roshi.  Okumura has spent a lifetime struggling with Dōgen.  He’s translated many of Dōgen’s essential works into English as well as contributed to the scholarly Dōgen literature.  Okumura was born in Osaka and grew up, studied, and enrobed in Japan, but he has also lived in Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.  He currently resides in Bloomington, Indiana where he is the founding teacher at the Sanshin Zen Community.

I like Okumura as my guide, in part because he shares my prejudices.  For example, when it comes to the issue of rebirth, Okumura writes:

“Personally I don’t believe in literal rebirth, yet I don’t deny its existence either.  I have no basis for believing in or denying literal rebirth; the only thing I can say with surety is ‘I don’t know.’”

A man after my own heart!  But then, Okumura may go too far when he attributes the same view to Dōgen:

“People often ask me, ‘What is the Sōtō Zen view of rebirth?’ This is a difficult question because Dōgen Zenji, I believe, advocates ‘not knowing’ in this case.”

Did Dōgen really recommend not-knowing in this case?  Or is Okumura perplexed because Dōgen held contradictory views that are impossible to reconcile?  (For example, the thorny, unresolvable issue of “if there is nothing but the five skandhas, what gets reborn?”)  Don’t ask me.  I don’t know.

But here’s the interesting point:  I’m a twenty-first century American reading an English translation of an untranslatable thirteenth-century Japanese text by a twenty-first century translator born in a Japan altered by an American occupation, and teaching in a United States altered by contact with Japanese culture.  It’s like trying to read Dōgen in a funhouse mirror.  Dōgen’s texts, like all compound phenonema, are empty of fixed self. They are living documents endlessly open to interpretation and reinterpretation even as we attempt to fathom their original meaning.

A project like this is fraught with difficulty!  Who can say with any certainty what Dōgen meant when he wrote what he wrote?  We view Dōgen through complex prisms of time and culture, condemned to reading them through the perspective of our unique personal experience and with our necessarily limited knowledge of the vast, boundless 2,500 year-long Buddhist dialogue.  We bring our own intentions to Dōgen’s texts; we read him for our own reasons.  We can only do our best. It’s a miracle he can still speak to us at all!  But speak he does.

Okumura uses his own life experience and zazen practice to help unlock the meaning of Dōgen’s texts.  It’s another reason why I like him as my guide.  Because Dōgen is all about living and doing rather than talking and thinking. Right?

In fact, think not-thinking.

“There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped.  We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.”  Dōgen


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  1. [1] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjōkōan: The Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, Wisdom: Somerville, MA.

8 thoughts on “On Reading Dōgen in Translation

  1. Have you tried the Pali hard-core texts? After growing a bit tired of popularized western dharma books, I was thinking of getting http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Abhidhamma-Vipassana-Meditation-Teachings/dp/1928706029/ , kind of recommended by the last chapter of http://www.amazon.com/Unlimiting-Mind-Radically-Experiential-Psychology/dp/0861716205/

    Unrelatedly, http://www.amazon.com/Experience-Samadhi–depth-Exploration-Meditation/dp/1590305213/ is good in that it interviews many contemporary teachers, revealing the diversity of views and interpretations.

    I wouldn’t take rebirth too seriously. I don’t believe it either, but does it matter as long as the belief on rebirth is not interfering with more concrete stuff?

    Finally, can you somehow convince me to look at the zen literature? 🙂 Is there something that is missing from Theravada? (Not that I have read that much of Theravada literature either, but for some reason I’ve been almost exclusively influenced by that tradition.)

  2. Anything Andy Olendzki recommends is probably good, but the Abhidhamma is pretty dry reading! I would recommend the Wisdom Publication’s series of translations of the Digha, Majjhima, and Samyutta Nikayas (translated variously by Maurice Walsh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Bikkhu Nanamoli), as well as Nyanaponika Thera and Bikkhu Bodhi’s anthology from the Anguttara Nikaya (published by Altamira). But you have to have a lot of stomach for repetition.

    As far as rebirth goes, there is an argument to be made for why it is important. If one understands that the karmic effects of this life can effect future lives, it might give one more motivation to practice with intensity. At least, that’s how the argument goes. But I can’t really make myself believe in something until I see some credible evidence, so I have to take a pass on that bolus of extra motivation for now. Right now the motivation to get this life right is enough for me.

    As far as convincing you to try the Zen literature… check out some Dogen, or some Huang Po on the internet. Try it, you might like it. I like Zen because there is less focus on complicated maps (like the Pali Vissudimagga or the Tibetan Lam Rim) and more focus on immediate experience. I’m an immediate experience kind of guy. You know, they say there are 84,000 Dharma doors. We each have to find our own. I’m drawn to non-doctrinaire figures like Toni Packer and Krishnamurti who keep things simple. The simpler the better. Zen is a lot like that too.

    • Actually Olendzki did not recommend Abhidhamma for reading, but gave an Abhidhamma perspective to meditation, indicating that there are more structure to the practice in classical texts than “choiceless awareness” or some such, including the ethical part, and that the ancient buddhist psychology is presented in Abhidhamma in a concise, formal way. (But I know that it is incomprehensible in its own way.) And I’m after a bit more structure and advice to practice. The advice just varies, depending on where I look, and somehow I have not been able to distill the important parts convincingly enough (for myself).

      Thanissaro Bikkhu is one of my favorities currently. I especially like his “look where there is stress and strain” approach.

      My prejudice against Zen is that it simplifies too much, all the way to obscurity. Thanks for the suggestions, I have glanced through parts of Shōbōgenzō and also some some Huang Po. They are interesting, and sound surprisingly modern given their age.

      • Each school of Buddhism will suggest different techniques, offer a different structure of the path, and stress different suttas and sutras. There’s no way out of this confusion. You can’t know in advance which one is “right,” or even right for you. Shop around, pick the one that offers you what you need right now, and stick with it for a few years. Thanissaro Bikkhu is a fine place to start.

        When I started out I needed teachers that were more secular in their approach and whom I could trust as spiritual friends rather than being charasmatic leaders or heirarchical figures. So I shopped around until I found Larry Rosenberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Toni Packer. Nowadays I see wonderful teachers everywhere! Just yesterday I heard Roshi Enkyo O’Hara and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in a panel discussion on American Buddhism. Both were wonderful teachers, and I suspect would make great spiritual friends. I could imagine a student in either Ponlop’s Nalandabodhi sangha or O’Hara’s Village Zendo both faring well on their dharma journeys. So many choices!

        There is the old tale of the farmer trying to find a site to dig a well. He digs a few feet here and a few feet there, trying this place and that place, and never finds water. The only way to find water is to stay in one place and dig deep. It’s the same with practice. Once you find a place that reasonably meets your needs, stick with it for a few years and don’t worry about all the other choices out there.

  3. Could you make a short list of your favorite translations of Dogen.
    Are there any Translations with Parallel Japanese. (I read Japanese, but I don’t read the archaic stuff, of course)
    Is there any Dogen Parallel with Ancient Japanese on one side and modern on the other?

    Wow, sorry , those were a lot of questions.
    Thank you (if you have time)

    • Sabio,

      I am only familiar with a few translations: 1) Nishyama/Stevens, 2) Nishijima/Cross, 3) Okumura/Leighton, 4) Thomas Cleary, and 5) Kazuaki Tanahashi. I don’t know Japanese, and have no way of judging which translation is better. I suspect they all have their unique strengths and weaknesses. When I edited “Encountering Buddhism,” Bob Rosenbaum wrote a lovely chapter comparing the psychoanalytic concept of mirroring with Dogen’s fasicle “The Eternal Mirror” (or “The Ancient Mirror”). Bob found that he needed to combine elements of two different translations to get the translation just the way he wanted it for his chapter.

      The translations I’ve read have been in English only, so I am unaware of any parallel translations. Maybe one of my readers can offer a suggestion here?

  4. The thing with Dogen is that when we sit in meditation, I mean when we REALLY sit correctly, we understand every word he said, and even every word he did not say. Perhaps we understand more about what he did not say than what he said because just as non teaching is the highest form of teaching, non saying is the highest form of communication.

    Zen’s like that. Totally experiential. As has been said, it is a teaching beyond the scriptures (words). It’s a funny sort of practice in that it almost always attracts intellectuals, at least here in America, and yet the practice is not at all an intellectual discipline. In fact, that will greatly hinder one’s progress.

    So just like those Zen teachers that seemingly drove us nuttier than we already were w/ their refusal to answer questions and just told us to go sit, I think that is the proper way to understand Dogen. Just go sit and all will become clear.

    • Thanks for your comment, Steve. Do we ever really sit correctly? Does anything ever become all clear? As Dogen says, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. We never understand everything anyone says. Zen is experiential and beyond words, but we remain beings who tell stories and struggle to make sense of things in words. That is part of our nature. The mind/heart, including the intellect, is part of this wondrous movement of nature/body/being as it manifests in this moment right now. For all of Dogen’s “just sit” injunctions, he sure wrote an awful lot.

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