Book Review of Steven Heine’s “Readings of Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”

Every Zen practitioner ought to read Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), but it’s not an easy read, and most readers will find it alternately inspiring and frustrating.  I’ve previously written about the difficulty of understanding Dōgen here and here. He is difficult to read for a multiplicity of reasons: 1) translating medieval Japanese into English is never a straightforward affair; 2) many of Dōgen’s implicit assumptions about time, space, mind, and nature are different from most 20th Century readers’ basic assumptions; 3) Dōgen quotes extensively from sō«tras, kōans, and poems that most modern Western readers will not be familiar with. He quotes without quotation marks or citations so that it is not readily apparent when he is quoting, and what’s worse, his quotes are often deliberate misquotes whose subtle but meaningful variances from the original sources are likely to pass right over the reader’s head; 4) Dōgen playfully pushes language beyond the bounds of what language can express, using complex puns and chiasmi, turning phrases on their head and inside out, and simultaneously and ironically asserting mutually exclusive propositions. I am pointing this out, not to discourage practitioners from reading Dōgen, but only to suggest that they may need some help along the way. While I find Kazuaki Tanahashi’s 2012 Shōbōgenzō translation to be the most readable, it often helps to read it alongside other translations. Shōhaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjōkōan and The Mountain and Waters Sutra are also two excellent reader-friendly resources for beginners to have nearby. Readers may also soon be able to obtain the forthcoming Soto Zen Translation Project’s Shōbōgenzō translation which will, I am told, include references to all the sō«tras, poems, and kōans Dogen quotes or ”misquotes” in his text.

Steven Heine’s Readings of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Columbia University Press, 2020) is a new and essential book any Dōgen reader will want to have at hand. Heine is the director of Florida International University’s Asian Studies program and editor of the Japan Studies Review. He has published five previous books on Dōgen, and is an eminent Zen and Dōgen scholar.  His new book is divided into two sections. The first section discusses matters relating to the Shōbōgenzō as text: how and why Dogen came to write it, the differing versions containing varying numbers of fascicles, how the various versions of the Shōbōgenzō have been treated throughout the history of Japanese Zen, how they are interpreted by modern Japanese and Western thinkers, why the Shōbōgenzō has become increasingly popular in the modern era, and the relative quality of the various English translations. He also begins the section with an extensive discussion of the rhetorical method behind Dōgen’s maddening locutions and how they are designed to open us up to the value of coordinating multiple perspectives and apprehend the open-ended nature of enlightenment. I found Heine’s discussion of Dōgen’s unique perspective on kōans to be especially Illuminating.

The second section deals with Dogen’s religious thought and his views on such matters as practice-enlightenment, being-time, thinking non-thinking, the inseparability of delusion and enlightenment, language’s role in revealing aspects of enlightenment, the role of zazen vis-Á -vis rituals and other monastic activities, and the increasing importance of karma and repentance in his later writings. Heine’s clarifications are immensely helpful, although they don’t always fully succeed in expressing what is, in some ways, beyond expression. For example, as much as I have read and re-read Dōgen’s fascicle Being-Time (Uji) and multiple commentaries on it, and comparisons of it with Heidegger’s views on temporality, etc., I still find I only partially understand how Dōgen understands time, and that Heine’s explanations didn’t really help make things that much clearer for me. This is not really Heine’s fault.  He tries as hard as any human possibly can to clarify and explain. And even just getting some of what Dōgen is pointing to is well worth the effort, and is mind-expanding in the very best sense of the word.

This is the single best book I have read about the Shōbōgenzō, summarizing a vast amount of Japanese and Western scholarship and decades of loving immersion in Dōgen’s text and teachings. It is a classic that will be read for many years and is unlikely to be surpassed in our lifetime. I highly recommend it to all Zen practitioners, whether they are new to Dōgen or ”Genzō-ka“ (long-term Shōbōgenzō aficionados).