Saturday, May 2, 2009

Genzo-e retreat - Day 3 - Crap, everything I know is wrong.

I realized during today's lectures that almost everything I thought I knew about Dogen is wrong. The English translations are all wrong, and most of the commentary is wrong, even those originally written in Japanese.


Well, it's a good thing because for the first time Dogen is making sense to me, and it fits with my experience in practice, which is a very, very good thing, but I have a lot to un-learn now, and in some ways I am embarrassed because I should have known. My leaning mind misled me.

Shohaku Okumura, the teacher I am visiting now, has shown me this. He continually apologizes for explaining almost every word in the text, but he's right. Dogen did not write casually, and almost every choice of word and phrasing has meaning in the context of other works of zen literature, and that connection is vital to seeing what he is getting at.

It like when one Star Wars geek says to another, otherwise out of the blue, "these are not the droids you are looking for." That utterance has nothing to do with droids, or with looking for something, it is a reference to the power of suggestion, particularly when practiced by a skillful and wise person of metaphysical influence.

Litterally every line of this text we are studying contains such a reference, equally as opaque to the novice student. Okumura has been peeling off the layers for me, and literally every line causes me to figuratively throw up my hands in exasperation at how far I have been off in my study all these long years. When I get home, I am going to throw out every Dogen text I own. They are worse than useless, they have been misleading me.

Dogen is a cool guy. What I've felt about him intuitively all these years is correct. Basically, Dogen and I agree on a fundamental aspect of the dharma that all Buddhists *should* accept but so many of them don't--there is no persistent, individual, separately-identifiable self, or any other such phenomena. This is entirely a creation of the human mind.

Many, actually most Buddhists get around this by discussing something they call "Buddha-nature." That's just another word for the soul. Each branch of Buddhism (including Zen) has some version of this, this is what reincarnates, and the concept of reincarnation turns a lot of people away from the Dharma, because when you read that into it, it just becomes another doctrine to believe, another framework in which to have faith, just another way to deny the facts of life. Buddhism is just another flavor of bullshit if you insist upon permanence in anything.

Dogen, as I do, insists upon an epistemology that rejects conjecture and belief.

Some of his writings, hell, all of his writings that I've known until last Thursday are construed to assert that Dogen, at best, simply leaves the question of persistence alone, and the assumption is that he just never worked it out and allowed it to be unsolved. That never sat right with me, and since I can't read his writings in their original form I just assumed that these people knew what they were talking about, and just as The Bible really never explains how a omnipotent omniscient God who loves justice can permit injustice, I just assumed that this question just has an answer too impenetrable to comprehend.

See? I'm buying the bullshit.

No, Rev Okumura reads Dogen in the original text, and he is intimately familiar with all other relevant zen literature, and he reads Chinese, and he teaches in English. Dogen writes in a dense and academic style in Japanese, he mixes in Chinese kanji when he doesn't have a word in Japanese that works, and he is relatively unconcerned with how easy it is for a student to understand, he is concerned with getting it right.

Imagine reading a text in 13th century English, with Greek and Latin words thrown in when a suitable English word wasn't available, by a scholar who didn't mind if people who weren't as well-read as he, who did not work as hard as he at this kind of scholarship, didn't understand. Imagine that same scholar dropping references to other contemporary and ancient works of literature like so many crossword puzzle clues in order to illuminate the connections between his works and other works. Further, imagine that person coming from a fundamentally contrarian standpoint with a personality very resonant with the TV character on "House."

Now, imagine you have been studying the works of this individual as rendered by the editorial staff at People magazine for years, and you suddenly began to study with someone who gets it.

You see? Everything I know is wrong.

I had a good day.