Approaching Zen

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  • Yugen
    • May 2024

    Approaching Zen

    As I move about my training as a priest I've begun to think a lot about the direction and shape my practice manifests in daily life - the connection between the long lineage of practitioners over the years from another time and culture manifesting in twenty first century American and Western life.

    It occurs to me that as one approaches zen practice the hallowed legacy of Dogen in Soto Zen looms large - sometimes it seems to me that the job of priests to preserve, and perpetuate the direct relevance of his teachings to contemporary Soto Zen practice. When does conformity to the perceived meaning of Dogen become constraining? When does the insistence on tradition prevent us from shaping our practice and giving it life? I hope to explore some of these questions and share my thoughts with you in the next few months.

    It is clear to me that Dogen could benefit from some literary, historical, and cultural critique or analysis as an intermediate filter between his life as an author (thirteenth century Japan) and our contemporary practice.

    Don't confuse my enquiry: Dogen's work is still not only relevant but revolutionary in many contexts in modern thought. His fascicle on Being Time (Uji) approaches a topic that contemporary science is only beginning to comprehend. Genjokoan is not only a foundational piece in Soto Zen but in my mind one of the great literary works - a human cultural legacy.

    But I think it fair to examine the passage of time and ask the questions that the years and cultures have interposed between the time of his writing and our lives today.

    Often Dogen can seem not only cryptic and contradictory but overwhelming as well. How do you read the Shobogenzo or his other writings? How do we find the time? Do we read the fascicles in order, pick and choose, or what?

    For now I will leave you with Nathaniel Philbrick's commentary on reading Moby Dick; which I find revealing and liberating from the onerous burden of feeling obligated to read centuries old scripture in a certain or prescribed way:

    "I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs. .... Moby Dick is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do. The important thing is to spend time with the book, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flow through the author during the book's compilation like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say. "

    Like Jishin has wisely written elsewhere in the forum today, Dogen can't sit zazen for you. You have to find it yourself. Sit with Dogen a bit, savor his phrases and find their meaning that is relevant to you. Even if you read a sentence or phrase, savor it's flow, play with the words, read it to yourself and see what it reveals to you. A teacher or Dogen scholar is a guide who may point in a certain direction, like a trail cairn or map. But Dogen's relevance and meaning is to be found in your own practice and life. It can be found nowhere else.

    Deep bows

    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    Last edited by Guest; 04-29-2015, 04:25 PM.
  • Nameless
    • Apr 2013
    • 461

    Thank you Yugen. Much of the Dogen I've encountered came from those inspired by Dogen like S. Suzuki. Reading Dogen directly can be a daunting affair for an analytic mind. Good practice in "just reading" though haha. Ever checked out Hongzhi? He was an inspirational figure in Ch'an which inspired Dogen to start up Soto. Currently going through "Cultivation the Empty Field" and "The Method of No-Method" texts.

    Gassho, John
    Sat Today, drinking coffee now


    • Anshu Bryson
      • Aug 2014
      • 566

      My first attempt at Dogen was to start Shobogenzo at the beginning and try to get through it in the order in which it is presented. That attempt was, in no uncertain terms, unsuccessful...

      A wise teacher once told me not to use books to guide my practice, but to let my practice guide my reading...

      So, I read Fukanzazengi when practice told me that my posture might need work. Practice has also led me to Genjokoan, Bendowa, Uji, etc. in a similar fashion...

      I am going through Genjokoan again as we speak, after practice indicated the need perhaps for some work on studying the self and the dropping away of the self, on life and death, etc...

      I don't know if I will ever get through enough of Dogen's work to provide the depth of critique or analysis you are after, Yugen, but am constantly amazed by the depth of his writing, particularly at such a young age (he wrote Fukanzazengi at age 27, Bendowa at 30, and Genjokoan at 33. He died at 53; younger than I am now...)

      I hope my practice continues to guide my reading...


      -sat today-


      • Yugen

        Approaching Zen

        Cleat there is a difference between scholarly critique / analysis and the manifestation of our practice and experience. The latter is what it is all about.

        The manifestation of our practice in our lives, heartbeat by heartbeat. Everything is complete in the pulse of a heartbeat.

        All we can do is look deeply into our - 'selves' and see what we find - with our practice as our guide, as you have so aptly written.

        Deep bows

        Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
        Last edited by Guest; 04-29-2015, 05:29 PM.


        • Kyonin
          Treeleaf Priest / Engineer
          • Oct 2010
          • 6739

          Hi Yugen,

          For me reading the Shobogenzo is a complete adventure and it might take me longer to read and understand than your regular priest.

          First of all, my first thing to consider is language. There are a couple of versions of Shobogenzo in Spanish, but I want to read the one we all read here in Treeleaf. That means reading English written from ancient Japanese, plus the academic annotations. Then I have to process all that and understand in Spanish.

          After that I need to sit with it all and let the words sink in. Only a few lines or paragraphs at a time.

          Thank you for this.


          Hondō Kyōnin
          奔道 協忍