Salvation through baffling wisdom


PURIFYING ZEN: Watsuji Tetsuro’s Shamon Dogen. Translated by Steve Bein. University of Hawai’i Press, 2011, 174 pp., $24 (paper)

Zen is baffling: You find yourself wrestling with thoughts such as “It is easy to grasp body-mind. The world is like rice or flax or bamboo or bulrushes.”

Zen in translation is doubly baffling. Do words like body-mind, Buddha, the Way, love, compassion, truth, impermanence — even rice and flax — mean to us in English what they mean to the Japanese in their language, or the Chinese in theirs, or the Indians, who started it all, in theirs?

The monk Dogen (1200-1253) is known as the founder of the Soto sect of Zen, which in contrast to Rinzai Zen stresses meditation above all other practices, dismissing as irrelevant such Rinzai teaching devices as the “koan,” the logic-defeating puzzles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) that fret and frustrate the mind until finally it ceases its self-defeating quest for comprehensible truth and accepts that truth is incomprehensible and all the more marvelous for that.

Watsuji Tetsuro (1889-1960), historian and philosopher, is considered one of modern Japan’s deepest thinkers — benighted by liberals because he revered the Emperor, damned by conservatives for being, all the same, a democrat. He wrote the biography “Shamon Dogen” (“Dogen the Monk”) in 1926 because, he explains, “The essence of our own culture cannot be properly understood without taking such religious figures into consideration.”

“Shamon Dogen” caused a great stir in its day. Though classed among Buddhist Japan’s great religious innovators, Dogen had for centuries been lost from view, his vast body of writing kept hidden by his own Soto sect, apparently because of Dogen’s uncompromising views on rank priestly corruption.

“Were it not for Watsuji,” observes translator Steve Bein in his introduction, “it is entirely possible that neither you nor I would ever have heard of Dogen.”

Watsuji wrote from motives similar to those of Dogen — in hopes of purifying a religious establishment he, like Dogen 600 years earlier, saw as having gone to seed. Hence the “Purifying Zen” of Bein’s title.

Watsuji begins by confessing his own limitations. He is a scholar, not a religious adept; such religious insights as he can claim “have not caused the truth to sprout up within me.” So much the better, perhaps. He and his readers are together on the outside looking in, and understand each other at least, however elusive Dogen’s deeper thoughts remain.

Dogen was born in 1200 into an aristocratic Kyoto family and took to monastic life in obedience to his mother’s deathbed wish. The worldliness of the monks revolted him. If wealth, power and sex were all to them, why had they become monks? The apparent answer is that monkhood had become a path to, rather than away from, those very goals. “We should feel sorry for this remote little country,” he said, and at age 24 left for China, where real religion was practiced and taught.

Studying under a great Chinese Zen master, Dogen learned the value of meditation. It went on from dawn to midnight. Monks who dozed were beaten and told, “No one passes through this world in comfort.” Exhaustion, hemorrhoids, hypothermia (the meditation halls were unheated) were no excuse for relaxing austerities. The Way was the Way and life was nothing. Comfort and health were less than nothing.

Such was the uncompromising practice Dogen brought back to Japan. Disgusted by the monastery monks who clung to the kingdom of this world, he moved into an abandoned temple to pursue, in solitude or with a handful of like minds, the kingdom of truth. It was a time of famine, starvation, despair. A monk named Shinran stirred shattered hearts with his message of faith in the infinite compassion and saving power of Amida, the Buddha of Boundless Light. Human effort was unavailing, Shinran taught.

Amida’s “Original Vow” promised salvation to all who called upon him with sincere faith, the expression of which was a murmured repetition of the nembutsuNamu Amida Butsu” (Homage to Amida Buddha).

To Dogen this was a “terrible delusion.” To salvation by faith he opposed salvation through rigorous, unstinting effort to “cast off body-mind” — cast off selfishness, in other words, or, more accurately, self itself. Ceaseless meditation and absolute submission to the will of a carefully chosen religious master steeped in the practices of the Buddhist patriarchs — such is Dogen’s Way to Truth, and if its harshness repels you, you’re probably not meant for it. For him, “attachment to the body and to life is the most forbidden of all things.”

What does this mean to us today?

As Bein points out, it is hardly in tune with “the rugged individualism of liberal democracy.” Or perhaps it is, and perhaps Dogen’s point is that only a rugged individualist who swims against the current has a chance of severing the fatal attachments. It’s a baffling message this book delivers. Whatever it is, the reader is the richer for it.