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Review the Book ‘Dogen's Manuels of Zen Meditation’ by Carl Bielefeldt
Ryuichi Abe

 Among students of Japanese Zen in the West, Dogen Kigen (1200-1253) occupies a lofty position. His renown is due in part to the Soto school, the largest Zen sectarian institution in modern-day Japan, and to his position as the school's founding father, a keystone of its proselytizing activity. A far more important reason for Dogen's popularity, however, is the continuing appearance of translations of his writings. Dogen's incisive expositions have provided invaluable clues to diverse philosophical issues confronted by contemporary thinkers. Watsuji Tetsuro, Miki Kiyoshi, Nishitani Keiji, and other modern Japanese philosophers have lauded Dogen's magnum opus Shobo genzo (Treasureof the Eye of the True Dharma) as a uniquely Japanese metaphysical sublation of Chinese Zen thinking. It was the works of these scholars which first caught the attention of Western audiences. On one level, their promotion of Dogen as a distinctly Japanese philosopher has been welcomed by the Soto school, which identifies Dogen's teaching as the gist of Japanese Buddhism. However, it comes into direct conflict with Soto Zen's more fundamental stand, that is, Dogen's Zen as the direct transmission of the Dharma of his Chinese master T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching (1163-1228) which, the school claims, had preserved through the lineage of Zen patriarchs the genuine enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha.

In the postwar period, rigorous historical, historiographical, and philological research on Chinese and Japanese Zen began to question and ultimately erode the validity of the Soto school's authority and its claims for Dogen's Zen, claims built not merely on historical facts but upon mystical and mythical experience as preserved by the Soto religious tradition. Yet, if we attempt properly to understand Dogen's religious experience as preserved by that tradition, we cannot limit our scope to the factuality of historical events as studied by historians. We must probe the depths of Dogen's mind and understand its workings, for its essence, being universal, transcendental, and transhistorical, can best be recovered in the poetic, mythical, and mystical language of the tradition itself. The contemporary study of Dogen is, in short, caught in the middle of a methodological tension between philosophical decontextualism and historiographical reductionism, both of which are equally ineffective in understanding Dogen's religiosity.

It is against this background that we can best appreciate Carl Bielefeldt's valuable contribution in his study on Dogen's meditation manuals. Bielefeldt's study primarily concerns Fukan zazen gi (whichhe aptly translates as"Universal Promotion of the Principles of Meditation").

Dogen's short treatise on Zen meditation is one of the Soto school's essential texts, and among those most widely studied by the followers of Dogen's Buddhism. Although leaning heavily on historical and philological scholarship, Bielefeldt's work introduces a new perspective through which it delivers a surprisingly effective criticism of the conventional approaches to studying Dogen.

Bielefeldt's approach distinguishes itself through its sincere attempt to identify the interpretive strategies inherent in Dogen's Zen, which has been preserved for generations as the "essence" of Soto tradition. His study represents asearch for a paradigm through which we, as contemporary readers, become able to understand Dogen's text in relation to the living tradition of Dogen's Zen Buddhism. As indicators of this living quality of Dogen's Zen, Bielefeldt singles out " ‘sudden practice" (tonshu) of the supreme vehicle (saijojo), "and its two historical corollaries, the transmission from mind to mind (ishin denshin) and the revelation realized at once (tongo), which he paraphrases as "three hermeneutical principles": "Something akin to these three hermeneutical principles of the higher unity of practice and theory, of the historical continuity of esoteric tradition, and of the inner integrity of spiritual experience still guides the presentation of what is often called `Doyen Zen'..." (p.5). In this sense, Bielefeldt's inquiry can be characterized as "hermeneutical "in a dual sense: first, it searches for a meaningful way through which we can interpret Dogen's meditation text; second, based on the interpretive strategy expressed by the text, it investigates further the possibility of understanding the meaning of meditative experience as prescribed by the text. Following the consideration of these theoretical issues in the Introduction, Bielefeldt turns to the discussion of the text itself. In the first two chapters, he describes the historical conditions of Dogen's life in which the two versions of the Zazen gi were composed. The first version, the so-called Tenpuku text, composed immediately after Dogen's return from China in 1227, prescribes the actual Zen meditative procedure in detail. The second version, the Koroku, or "vulgate" text, is characterized by a deeper religious insight, emphasizing not only the practice of zazen, meditative sitting, but the proper understanding of its meaning.

In the next two chapters, Bielefeldt traces the origin of Dogen's ideas in the Zazen gi in the history of Chinese Zen. The third chapter is devoted to an analysis of Tso-ch'an i, a meditation manual composed by the early Sung master Ch'ang-lu Tsung-tse. Although Dogen largely bases his Zazen gi on Tsung-tse's text, he criticizes central aspects of its meditative principles. Following a brief survey of early Chinese Buddhist meditation literature, Bielefeldt illustrates two distinct characteristics of Tsung-tse's work: its freedom from Zen jargon and its resulting accessibility to lay practitioners. Bielefeldt argues that Tsung-tse's intention in composing his meditation manual was to bridge a widening gap between clergy and laity in the early Sung Zen community. The following chapter elucidates the importance of Tso-ch'an fin the context of the doctrinal debates between two schools of thought in Chinese Zen. One focuses on the instantaneous attainment of enlightenment through the working of transcendental wisdom; the other emphasizes the gradual awakening of mind through continuous meditative practice. Tsung-tse's text is described as a remedy for the excessive elitism of early Sung Zen, particularly its exclusion of the laity, a result of the dominance of the Southern school's "sudden" approach over the Northern school's "gradualism." However, Bielefeldt argues that, by the time of Dogen's visit to Sung China in the early thirteenth century, Tso-ch'an i had already become obsolete. The advocacy of k'an-hwa ("observing sayings") by Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) and his disciples popularized the use of koan and made the sudden approach accessible to literate lay students. This led to criticism of the simple practice of quiet sitting, mo-chao ("quiet illumination"), as a resurgence of "pessimism" inherent in the gradual approach. Bielefeldt considers this ironic, maintaining that, in Chinese Zen, it became almost impossible to discuss the actual procedure or sequence of zazen, which was regarded as necessarily "gradual."

The fifth chapter returns to the Tenpuku text of the Zazen gi, contrasting its description with that of Tsung-tse's Tso-ch'an i. Though Dogen's text borrows directly fromTsung-tse's in its descriptions of meditative sequence, Bielefeldt finds two interpretive strategies distinctive to Dogen. One is Dogen's understanding of meditative sitting itself as the actualization of prajna, transcendental wisdom. The other is his emphasis on the lineage of Zen patriarchs who transmitted that authentic understanding of meditation. Through the activation of one's own prajna, one's practice of meditation becomes none other than the positive participation in the living tradition of the Zen patriarchs.

Dogen's second version of the Zazen gi expresses this scheme far more clearly. Bielefeldt's sixth chapter studies the vulgate text of the Zazen gi, noting Dogen's unmistakable departure from Tsung-tse's meditative framework centered on the mental exercise of "forgetting objects" of thought. In contrast to "forgetting objects, " Bielefeldt points to "nonthinking" (hishiryo) as the key to Dogen's understanding of true meditation. There, the practitioner, instead of attempting to forget objects, becomes the state of nonthinking itself. Bielefeldt describes this true meditation as "enlightened practice," which sees no distinction between religious training and its proof (shushoitto). Thus, unlike many Chinese Zen masters advocating the sudden approach who seem to reduce practice to the mere recognition of one's original mind, "Doyen prefers to stress what might almost be called the intentionality of enlightenment and to interpret Buddhahood as the ongoing commitment to make a Buddha" (p. 145). Artfully integrating discussions in Dogen's Zazen shin ("Lancet of Seated Meditation"), Bielefeldt asserts that, for Dogen, this true meditation is the "koans realized " (genjo koan), the teachings of masters of the past who transmitted the "treasury of the true Dharma "(shobo genzo) actualized in one's practice.

Bielefeldt's work thus elucidates the inherent hermeneutical principles behind the two texts of Fukan zazen gi, principles that lie at the juncture of ogen's two interpretive strategies. One is Dogen's intention to interpret and reinterpret Tsung-tse' s meditation manual to reveal the true principles of zazen which even Tsung-tse failed to express. The other is Dogen's particular interpretation of Zen tradition as sustained by the patriarchal masters. For Dogen, Bielefeldt seems to suggest, all the koans, meditative manuals, and instructional and scriptural texts transmitted from the past constitute an interpretive path for recapturing the enlightenment experience of past masters. The practice of zazen is the act of traversing this path by directly participating in the tradition of patriarchal lineage. Bielefeldt refers to this particular reading or figuring of Zen history by Dogen as "sacred history": "The selection of zazen as the one true practice is an act of faith in a particular vision of sacred history.... To devote ourselves to the exclusive practice of zazen is itself to realize the shobo genzo and accede to the lineage of the Buddhas and Patriarchs" (p.169).

Readers familiar with contemporary Western hermeneutics will immediately grasp the important implications of Bielefeldt's conclusion. As in Gadamer’s hermeneutics, for Dogen, a genuine act of understanding is intertwined with one's sense of history or historical consciousness. It seems not too farfetched to talk about Dogen's active participation in the living tradition of Zen in relation to "effective historical consciousness," a key term in Gadamer's theory describing one's dialogical relationship with the historical past. Dogen's genjo koan, through which one not only understands but relives the enlightenment experience of the masters of the past, certainly demonstrates a parallel with the "fusion of horizon, " through which one genuinely understands transmitted texts.

One obvious problem with Bielefeldt's work is that after all the fascinating issues raised in his conclusion, many of the discussions in the earlier chapters seem unnecessary detours. Thus, in the fourth chapter, instead of reviewing the major schools of Chinese Zen in the conventional manner of the intellectual historian, he could have studied the debates between sudden and gradual or between k'an-hwa and mo-chao as differences in hermeneutical strategies for preserving and rejuvenating the Zen tradition, the strategies producing new visions of "sacred history." However, it seems unfair to criticize Bielefeldt's work as a victim of its own success. As he states in the beginning of the volume, one of the aims of his study is to play "Mare's advocate," that is, to remain largely within the confines of philological and historical scholarship and so demonstrate its limitations. The volume is "less concerned with completing a new model of Dogen's Zen than with calling attention to the fact that our present model may be rather less complete than is often assumed" (p.7). That Bielefeldt has accomplished admirably.

Appended to the volume is a comparative translation of the two versions of Zazen gi, including not only Tsung-tse's Tso-ch'an i but also four other works on meditative sitting by Dogen. The translation's rigorous gclarity and accuracy will be appreciated by every student of Dogen's Zen.


Updated: 1-12-2000

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