Western Buddhist Review

Advice from the Zen Master – Don’t be a Jerk

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Wed, 25 May, 2016 - 11:58
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dhivan thomas jones

In this post we present a delightful review by Vidyavajra of a new book that tries to put Dōgen’s master-work, the Shōbōgenzō, into vernacular English – with some success, it would seem.

Brad Warner, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, New World Library, 2016 (£13 pback).

review by Vidyavajra

On the cover is a comic book depiction of a godzilla-like monster with beams of fire coming from its eyes, crossing a Hokusai-like sea of waves, towards a medieval Japanese village. It is an eccentric yet evocative mash-up of classical and popular Japanese culture. Some may find this off-putting enough and take their interest no further. So who is this book written for? Is it trying to attract someone who would not normally be attracted to Buddhism, or the seasoned practitioner, or even other middle-aged punks like the author, Brad Warner?

In this book, Warner presents a a heavily edited and re-rendered version of Dōgen’s great work, the Shōbōgenzō. But the result is not light casual reading, for a first encounter with Buddhism. You would need to have an already established interest in, familiarity with or experience of Zen, Dōgen or Buddhism in general, to benefit from it. Nonetheless the artwork indicates its intent to make it appear popular and mainstream, however monstrously fearsome its reputation and external appearance might be. Don’t be a Jerk declares itself to be both ‘radical but reverent’ and offers you ‘other practical advice from Dōgen’. The Shōbōgenzō is all of those things in parts, but it is also philosophical, mischievous and esoteric to its very fingertips.

The cover gives us a sense of its author, his reputation and approach to Buddhism. Brad Warner’s personality and interests range widely: he’s a Zen monk, the Dharma heir to Nishijima Roshi; he plays in a punk band; he is a science fiction fan, actor and film maker. He mentions a few times in the book how Dōgen sat easy with, and loved creating, apparent contradictions and wholeheartedly embracing them. Warner would appear to be quite fond of doing this too. His writing brims with references to American popular culture and its language is vernacular, which gives it vitality and energy. The verbal landscape it occupies is American through and through, one familiar and lived in. But despite the experience of America filtered through TV and films to the UK, as a British reader I didn’t find the use of everyday American language and slang made the text speak any more deeply to me. Some may even have a problem with the vernacular, and end up hurling the book with disdain into a recycling bin.

I was expecting to find Warner’s approach more challenging than I actually found it to be. I thought I’d at least be provoked to a dismissive epithet or two. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that the apparent youthful populism is a very thin veneer, since behind it lies a book that draws heavily on the not insubstantial depths of Warner’s own experience, reflections and understanding of Dōgen, Japan and the Shōbōgenzō. Warner is in his fifties now, and his earlier ‘badass boy of Zen’ behaviour does sit  incongruously with the serious tone of the books content. Recognition of this might be encumbered by his reputation, and I have to say, his main selling point, namely those punk, or is it puckish, sensibilities.

His ‘paraphrasing’ of selected chapters from Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō is undoubtedly a bold experiment. It can’t have been easy to enable its often complex and esoteric expression of Zen Buddhism to be more easy to grasp. Its title, Don’t be a Jerk, is Warner’s way of rendering the imperative to not do wrong. Echoing Dōgen’s frequent reprimands to his own disciples to not be stupid, to break out of our essentially deluded nature. This exemplifies how Warner straddles the tricky terrain of being both radical but reverent. This was also Dōgen’s modus operandi, so he stands in good company. 

For an experiment to be an experiment it must be entering unexplored territory, allowing both successes and failures. In attempting to find new ways to communicate Dōgen’s Dharma, Warner’s approach doesn’t always work. Sometimes its style is far too self-consciously affected, or is in danger of overshadowing the content. He does honestly acknowledge that he threw in a few of his more flippant translations simply for the delight in doing so. But this is not so out of keeping with Dōgen’s way of being linguistically and imaginatively playful, making frequent use of puns and elaborate wordplay.

The medieval Japanese that Dōgen wrote in, is apparently quite difficult for even modern day Japanese to interpret what Dōgen is trying to express. It’s one reason why the Shōbōgenzō has been ignored for so long. It is also ninety five chapters of spiritually paradoxical yet richly expressive writing. Its chapters are quite beautifully written, even when they are at their most impenetrable. I’ve read it through from start to finish only once. The experience of reading it produced at times, a sort of mild existential panic. As though I was being suspended over a spiritual precipice, simultaneously both frightened and thrilled. It draws you close enough to catch the faintest whiff of what true liberation might feel like. Not easy stuff to stomach, nor is it easy to tease out what Dōgen’s actually trying to express or explain.

Warner, has read the Shōbōgenzō a number of times and studied with Nishijima Roshi during the time the latter was making his translation of the Shōbōgenzō with Chodo Cross. Warner is, therefore, well versed in understanding and unpicking its complexities, using a range of existing translations, to compare and reveal what the underlying intention of a knotty phrase might be. Quite often he is attempting to explain the inexplicable, with varying degrees of falling short. I’ve tended personally towards treating Dōgen’s writing in much of the Shōbōgenzō as more akin to evocative prose poems, or koans of the imagination. They would be robbed of their essential magic were you to make everything in it crystal clear and comprehensible. This also means that Warner’s intention to present the Shōbōgenzō in ordinary plain English, does have to substantially abandon the beauty of its expression, its poeticism, and hence some of its captivating magic does vanish. 

It is every translator’s perpetual worry, where to position your version along a spectrum between the literal meaning and the essential spirit of the text. Warner’s ‘paraphrasing’, might more traditionally be called a ‘free rendering’, in his case, a vernacular free rendering. The danger for any free rendering is in straying too far from the original text or misrepresenting its meaning or purpose. Though he has lost some of its imaginative magic, his free rendering does allow him to give greater emphasis to comprehension. He’s not forgotten the spiritual intent or instruction of the original entirely; he knows this material inside out, and he explains some of the linguistic, cultural and religious references that pepper Dōgen’s writing that have flown over the head of even a reasonably informed reader, such as myself. In fact, it’s in his explanations of Dōgen’s allusions that Warner’s book is at its most interesting and illuminating. 

Dōgen’s philosophical innovations and approach to Buddhism have their foundations in his study of Nāgārjuna, often adopting the latter’s tactic of skeptical exploration, of confounding and skewering shallow assumptions, concepts and meaning. Dōgen lays out and explores different approaches to an issue, whilst never definitively settling on any one of them. He often hands questions back to his disciples, saying ‘Well, what do you think?’ Where he differs from Nāgārjuna is that alongside sharpness of intellect and perceptiveness, he extensively deploys the insightful possibilities of language, using allegory, metaphor, images and paradox. Language, for him, though limited in its ability to communicate the true nature of Enlightenment, is limitless in the ways it can imaginatively evoke an alive connection with it.

Warner does make interesting connections with the contemporary sensibilities and concerns, of modern day Buddhists. So there are chapters in entitled ‘Was Dōgen the first Buddhist Feminist?’;  ‘Did Dōgen teach reincarnation, and does it even matter if he did?’ or ‘You’re already Enlightened, except you’re not?’ Whilst the titles might appear a bit glib or throwaway, the general thrust of his arguments to support his views are expressed clearly, with an unshowy perceptiveness and authority.

I do take issue with a couple of opinions he expresses. In the chapter ‘Did Dōgen teach reincarnation, and does it even matter if he did?’ he makes the not unreasonable assertion that we tend to interpret reincarnation and misinterpret rebirth in eternalistic terms. Conceiving of ourselves as unique individuals who will continue to be the same unique individuals even after death, even in another life. Warner treats these terms, reincarnation and rebirth, as inseparable, conflating the two to have the same essential meaning, which they do not.  Reincarnation means there’s an identifiable continuity of a self which after death carries its volitions and karma with it into a new life. Rebirth is a far more diffuse concept, less definite about connections between who or even what is reborn, and how one life’s volitions and karma will be carried forward and perpetuated into the future. The former lays out a path, the latter lays out a principle.

His clearest exposition of his view is in the ‘Firewood & Ashes’ paragraph from the Genjo Koan. The following extracts are from the Nishijima & Cross translation:

Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood its past… the past and the future are cut off.

Firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood. Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.

Life is an instantaneous situation, and death is also an instantaneous situation. It is the same, for example, with winter and spring. We do not think that winter becomes spring, and we do not say that spring becomes summer.

This certainly leaves an impression that Dōgen doesn’t give reincarnation or rebirth much credence. But he doesn’t, to my mind, do so in order to say nothing happens after death. He is challenging our limited self interested concept of what might be. He chooses to express this in imaginative terms, based on the workings of impermanence and conditioned co-production.

Just as we cannot find a definite point where winter becomes spring, or firewood becomes ash, the definite point where life becomes death can sometimes prove elusive. We tend to take the death of the body as the point of death, but even with modern technology deciding when that point is reached can be difficult. The body can be lifeless, but the mind still alive, the body can be alive, but the mind barely functioning beyond maintaining the body. The seasons and life are in a progressive process of constant change, they are in a sense both living and dying all the time. The physical body dies, yet what our consciousness is, or where it goes, if anywhere, we do not know.  After death confirmation of such things is cut off from conscious perception.

So despite confidently asserted opinions of what the truth is, both rational or irrational, that there is or isn’t life after death, from an experiential point of view no one knows what they are talking about. No one knows if death is an end or the beginning of something else, because past and future are cut off from one another. Dōgen is not implying that rebirth is entirely a right or wrong view, he’s just holding any concept we hold up to the light and showing how flimsy and transparent they are.

In a Shōbōgenzō chapter called Uji, sometimes translated as Being-Time, Dōgen philosophizes at great length about the relationship between a sense of our being and a sense for the time of our being. Whilst we do pin an artificial sense of continuity onto that sense of our being, it is really only an experience of being alive to one ‘instantaneous situation’. From all that has passed previously and from all that is to follow, experience is cut off. The whole point of history is a remembering, like piecing broken shards of pottery back together into the resemblance of a whole vase.

In an earlier chapter on The Heart Sutra, Warner talks of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, about whom a scandal emerged because of allegations that he groped a number of female students over previous decades. Whilst not excusing his behaviour, he does imply he thought he had slipped back from his Enlightenment:

You do not become a Buddha by having some magical, mysterious experience that confers Buddhahood on you, after which you can just slack off for the rest of your life. Buddhahood is something fragile and precious that must be cared for and maintained… You don’t just become a Buddha at the moment of your first enlightenment experience and then stay a Buddha forever.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding here, not just about the irreversible nature of the True Enlightenment experience, but in talking about insight experiences as if they are Fully Enlightened ones, and also of Dōgen’s view on the relationship between practice and Buddhahood. 

Dōgen, like Sangharakshita in modern times, had substantial doubts about the concept of Buddha Nature, and how it could undermine the evident need for practice. He chose to resolve this by adjusting his conception of how Buddha Nature operated and the purpose of practice, by bringing them into closer alignment. Buddha Nature became more like a cosmic urge towards Enlightenment trying to manifest itself through everything. Practice, even simply sitting upright on a zafu, became both an individual practitioner’s urge for Enlightenment, and the urge of Enlightenment for a manifest expression through an individual practitioner. Self and Other Power converge on every moment of practice. The Buddha continued to meditate after his Enlightenment, not because it was conditional and he would fall away from his Enlightened state if he didn’t practice. Dōgen states repeatedly, that for the Buddha meditation practice was the natural expression and outpouring of his state of Enlightenment. If you’re not Enlightened, practice just will not be experienced like that.

Maybe this points to where these misconceptions may have emerged from. The conditional nature of practice when we are not fully Enlightened, has been extended to make even those who are fully Enlightened live in a conditional relationship with their state of Enlightenment.  Enlightenment has become a relative, rather than a definitive state. Even by Dōgen’s own conception of it, the purpose of meditation remains poised between a developmental and an imminent process, of coming into greater intimacy with Buddha Nature, the state of Enlightened beings.  Like the change from winter to spring, or firewood to ash, the point where reversible spiritual attainments become irreversible, is not easy to ascertain on an experiential level, and self-diagnosing them is potentially delusive.

Though I have a few reservations about the specific views explored above, it would be unfair to generalise these into being representative of the role of practice in modern American Zen circles. Nor to dismiss the rest of the book because of them. I remain respectful of what insights the Zen tradition can bring, and value the richness and inspiration that Dōgen has brought to my own practice. Don’t be a Jerk is a fine attempt to open up the hidden treasures of the True Dharma Eye, for broader appreciation, for which it should be lauded. I suspect, however, that The Shōbōgenzō’s length, the intricacy of its language, its spiritual depth and density, may mean however unique and special a text, it will be so only for a small group of enthusiasts. Though I hope Brad Warner continues to clarify and simplify it with such verve and obvious love.

Vidyavajra lives in Cambridge and is an artist craftsman, decorator and maintenance man, on a mission to reveal the innate beauty in everything.

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