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.