Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dogen and the Lotus

I have a love/hate relationship with Dogen. I've read the first volume of his mammoth Shobogenzo and understood--or at least think I understood--most of it. Some of his writing, though, reads like stereo instructions for me. I know that he is considered a giant in Zen, but there is just something about his style that really challenges me.

For instance, he writes, "''Nevertheless deluded'"--a phrase from a koan--"is not the same as mistaking a thief for one's son or one's son for a thief. Great enlightenment is recognizing a thief as a thief; to be 'nevertheless deluded' is to recognize a son as a son."

Here he's talking about the relationship between delusion and enlightenment, but very cryptically--or for some readers, poetically might be a better word--by using phrases ("nevertheless deluded") as the subject of a metaphor. It leaves my head spinning.

Which is why I need a literally skeleton key to decipher his more challenging work.

I just finished Vision of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra, in which Taigen Dan Leighton explores the influence that Chapters 15 and 16 of the Lotus Sutra had on Dogen. The Lotus Sutra, although celebrated in East Asia as one of the most important Mahayana scriptures, is not very popular in the West. Dogen, a master of both the koan and sutra traditions, cited the Lotus Sutra in his sermons and writings more than any other scripture, so it was obviously important to him.

As always, in characteristically Dogen fashion, he integrated the sutra's vision of infinite space and time into his own worldview, and wove it into his poetic tapestry of the Buddhadharma. For instance, Leighton writes: "For Dogen the pure suchness of earth, space, and time serve as a matrix for practice"--a constant theme for Dogen--"and for further expressions of awakening." Because Dogen saw time, space, earth, and nature, as dynamic, interconnected aspects of the Absolute, so that even a tree or rock can preach the Dharma and be a vehicle for Awakening.

One criticism I have is that there is more Dogen in the book than the Lotus Sutra. I was expecting to understand the sutra through Dogen's writing, rather than the other way around. That must have been a mistaken assumption on my part as a reader. But for those of you interested in Dogen more than the Lotus Sutra, this works out all the better!

All in all, Leighton does a very nice job at demonstrating how the sutra influenced Dogen as a teacher, writer, philosopher, and Buddhist. I am even excited now to read Dogen's Extensive Record , a 800+ page tome, to read firsthand the passages that Leighton cited. Now if that's not an accomplishment on Leighton's part, especially considering my ambivalence to Dogen, I don't know what is.

Thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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