Western Buddhist Review

Letting the Self Go Dark

On Wed, 2 October, 2019 - 19:52
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Here we present another review – this one by Vidyapala, of a new book from Windhorse Publications by David Brazier, on the teaching of Dōgen, founder of Sōtō Zen:

David Brazier, Dark Side of the Mirror: forgetting the self in Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2019, 326 pp, £16 pb.

review by Vidyapāla

In this excellent and illuminating book by David Brazier, the author presents us with a new translation and commentary of Dōgen’s famously beautiful but elusive text, the Genjō Kōan, from his masterwork, the Shōbōgenzō. This is the first book that I have read by Brazier and am unfamiliar with his general outlook, but he is evidently a man well placed to interpret Dōgen’s words, having had a long and eclectic training in the Buddhist tradition. He is best known, however, for founding the Amida Trust in 1996, under the patronage of Pure Land Sensei, Gisho Saiko, and other Japanese teachers. Brazier is also a psychotherapist.

The book is divided into four sections. In the first, Brazier provides some context, giving details of Eihei Dōgen’s (1200–53) life and the social, cultural and political context in which he found himself. Brazier also illustrates the problems he encountered in translating a text so notoriously slippery as the Genjō Kōan and gives his view on the meaning of the title. The second section consists of Brazier’s translation of the text. The third section is a commentary on the text itself. Section four contains some postscripts and afterthoughts.  

From the opening context of the book, Brazier sets out some key principles that provide the basis upon which he makes his analysis of Dōgen’s various strains of thought. Firstly, Brazier places Dōgen squarely within the social, cultural and religious time in which he lived. Although Dōgen was a highly original thinker, Brazier is keen to emphasise that Dōgen was first and foremost a 13th century Buddhist monk, deeply steeped in the Mahāyāna Buddhism of his time, particularly the Lotus Sūtra, and interested in liberation not ontology. Dōgen had received his early Buddhist training in the Tendai school, where the idea that all beings were “inherently enlightened” was popular. He was vexed by the place of Buddhist practice if this was true. The Genjō Kōan was partly a response to this question. Dōgen was also a man influenced by popular Chinese styles of thought of the time, particularly those found in Confucianism and Daoism.

There has been some debate in recent years whether Buddhism can rightly be considered a religion, in the traditional sense. It is clear that Brazier answers this question in the affirmative, and sees Dōgen as an exemplar of religious Buddhism, as opposed to “secular Buddhism” or “Buddhism without beliefs”, to use Stephen Batchelor’s phrases. The idea that Dōgen was a religious Buddhist is a second key principle that underlies Brazier’s approach to the Genjō Kōan. In doing this, Brazier brings Dōgen into dialogue with his more obviously religious Buddhist contemporaries, like the Pure Land teachers Hōnen and Shinran

Before coming to this book, I had a tendency to characterise Dōgen as a sort of quintessential Zen Master: stern, aloof, with a crystalline, exacting and elitist vision for how a Buddhist life should be lived. This is not completely irrational on my part, and there is, indeed, evidence that could be brought to bear that would support that contention. It was partly because of this projection that I often lost Dōgen – the man – behind this archetype. It is often also the case that biographies of great religious figures transform, probably over millennia, into hagiographies, with all the rough edges of their original subject smoothed out, leaving us with a mere simulacra of the person. It was to my delight, therefore, that the Dōgen that emerged from the biographical pages of this book was multifaceted and humane.  And it is in revealing Dōgen’s humanity that Brazier shines most brightly. It felt in reading Brazier’s portrait of Dōgen, that the person behind his beautiful, strange and gnomic words was suddenly revealed to me: Dōgen as a living, breathing, vulnerable human being like the rest of us. A man scarred by seeing “the incense smoke rise over his mother’s coffin” (p.13); a man “broken hearted from an ill fated love affair” (p.14); a man who faced humiliation when he travelled to China to bring back Buddhist teachings and was told that he was not a monk because he’d not taken the right precepts in Japan; and a man with a tendency to be too stern with himself – prone to an asceticism that bordered on self-torture. But, what also emerged was Dōgen as a man who was able to transform his pain into the beautiful words of the Genjō Kōan: Dōgen as wounded poet! Utilising his experience as a psychotherapist, Brazier suggests that Dōgen underwent a process of sublimation, “whereby emotional energy that is tormenting the body and mind becomes re-channelled toward some constructive, loving or sublime end” (p.15).  In reading these words I was reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase that “we acquire the strength we have overcome.” Brazier suggests that, in a way analogous to Siddhartha Gotama’s asceticism before he found the way to enlightenment, Dōgen’s struggles were the necessary basis on which his enlightenment experience was able to flower.  Dōgen was primed, so that when he heard his Chinese teacher Rujing’s instruction to “cast off body and mind”, he experienced a turning in the deepest seat of his consciousness.

The main part of the book is taken up with Brazier’s commentary on the Genjō Kōan itself. The style of Brazier’s commentary is conversational and he goes through the text line by line, circling back to several key themes throughout. Brazier suggests that Dōgen was doing the same in the Genjō Kōan, using a variety of different images and metaphors to illustrate a few central themes. Indeed, the Genjō Kōan is full of beautiful images and Brazier is careful not to provide any final definitive meaning of them. Rather, he brings out the multifaceted and multivalent ways they work as metaphors. Despite the conversational tone of the book, Brazier occasionally slips into a more rhetorical mode, mostly in ways that I enjoyed, although, on a few occasions, losing the nuance and subtlety of thought so prevalent throughout this book.

Brazier clearly wants to set right some misconceptions about Buddhist practice in general, and Dōgen’s Buddhist practice in particular. Indeed, he wants to set right the misconception that practicing the Dharma is about gaining anything for oneself; of becoming some kind of special person. Brazier thinks that for Dōgen, living the Dharma life is simply about doing what needs to be done, without self interest or pretention. It is about realising that we are not the centre of the universe; that we cannot make the world bend to our will. Or, as Brazier memorably puts it later in the book: “Buddhism is the abandonment of narcissism” (p.88).  For example, Brazier suggests that for Dōgen, zazen, or sitting meditation, was not a method of personal growth, of self-enhancement, of self-power. Many modern translators and commentators of Dōgen, he feels, have tended to represent him through a popular rendering of Zen in the West that is “technical, secular and reductionist” (p.42). That the aim of meditation is to obtain something for oneself: enlightenment as possession or enhancement – something to satisfy one’s body and mind. Rather, Dōgen thought zazen an act of faith – a word perhaps unpopular in modern times. If there was any stilling of the mind, it was only as a means to open up to the Dharma all around one – it was a receptive practice. In this way, he could be compared to Pure Land teachers like Shinran and Hōnen, who thought that one could not reach enlightenment through self-power, but had to rely on the grace and power of Amitabha: other-power. 

One of the more unusual, and perhaps controversial, aspects of Brazier’s translation, is his rendering the Chinese 佛 道 (fó dào) as ‘Buddha Dao’, rather than ‘Buddha Way’, as it is traditionally translated. Brazier sees the traditional translation as a mistake, and thinks by using these Chinese characters Dōgen was intending to bring together Buddhism with Daoist and Confucian thought in the Genjō Kōan. By bringing in the idea of the Dao, and its association with notions of yin and yang, Dōgen was able to draw upon the importance of all things being in their correct place, or in balance: 

When the enduring (unborn) truth appears in the midst of the ephemeral world and both play their parts, this is when Genjō happens. The right performance of yin-yang roles is the meaning of ‘Kōan’ in Dōgen’s usage. The text explains in detail what he means and how it works. So, in Genjō Kōan we have the appearance of the Buddha Dao by means of the correct relationship between its yin and yang. (p.65)

Brazier suggests that Dōgen’s position was that the “correct relationship” occurred when a person predominantly adopted a yin position: the yin being the “female, receptive principle” (p.92) that is at play, “When we are not trying to “save our skin” or satisfy our own mind particularly” (p.65). 

Adopting the yin position also means that we are able to open up to the influence of “All Buddhas” (p128). This theme is taken up much more fully later when Brazier comments on Dōgen’s famous image of the “moon in the water, which is only realized on one side when the other is dark” (p.131). Brazier comments:

I take this to be the pivotal image in the essay. It is by turning one side of ourselves – the self ­– dark (yin) that the other side becomes a mirror and thus we come to reflect the moon, which is the myriad Dharmas. (p.133)

Or, as he later puts it in more simple language, “the self becomes dark when we unselfconsciously do what is required” (p.142).

Brazier suggests a tendency in modern Buddhist teaching to think that “everything is interrelated, interdependent, even that it “interexists”” (p.88). When looked at in this way, the separation between things is minimised. Brazier thinks that this is a mistake, that there is value in seeing that the vast majority of the world is “other than self”, and that this is a sign of maturity. He then illustrates this important point by talking about the time when we realise that our parents are people in their own right:

One’s mother may have lived the most important years of her life before one was ever conceived, yet one may tend to think of her not as an independent person with special qualities of her own, but rather to always see and judge her in relation to one’s own needs and wants. To realise that the “other” truly is “other” and allow them to be so is a basis for real respect and an essential step in growing up. (p.89)

To adopt the yin position is to see our fundamental lack of mastery over things. We want certain types of experiences but not others; we want people to behave in a particular way and they behave otherwise; we believe ourselves to be deficient in wisdom and want the wisdom of the Buddha. Brazier suggests that it is natural for our spiritual quest to begin with this ambition, but in “this form of practice, based on wanting more or wanting less, there are many delusions. Dissimulation continues” (p.105). Enlightenment is not a state where we manage to evade the “affliction inherent in sentient life” (p.106). These afflictions are natural and cannot be evaded. There is, however, an artificial part of peoples’ suffering:

The artificial part is generated by their own sense of lacking what they believe the Buddha has got. (p.106)

The aim of Buddhist practice, therefore, is put ourselves in accord with the way things are, or to play one’s part in the Buddha Dao. This involves both an internal change, but also a change in how we act:

The “appearing” of the Buddha Dao is what Dōgen means by Genjō. However, that it should appear is not enough. One has to experience and act. There is a rite that celebrates the Buddha Dao and that rite is the correct ordering of daily life – right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right mindfulness, not just right satori. This right action involves self-effacement, playing one’s part, and it is called, in Dōgen’s way of writing the term, Kōan. When a person’s life accords with Kōan, Genjō occurs naturally and vice versa. (p.106)

Adopting the yin position, or “playing one’s part in the Buddha Dao”, therefore becomes a form of radical humility; of realising how deeply contingent our life has been from the moment we are born and of being grateful that we have the life we do:

When we think in a sober way about our life, we are liable to see that we receive far more than we could ever repay. (p.118) 

Brazier is clear here that he sees that the attitude one should take to one’s Dharma life is one of a “good servant”(p.120). Serving one’s teachers, as the great yogi Milarepa did, and serving the Dharma more generally is part of what it means to play one’s part in the Buddha Dao. And if one’s Dharma life is founded on humility and gratitude then we will practice the Dharma not for the sake of personal gain but in order for the 

Dharma to flourish in the world for the benefit of all beings. If she, herself, as one of those beings also benefits, this is merely incidental; too much thought about it will only get in the way. (p.120)

Brazier clearly feels that some Buddhist practitioners are just in the spiritual life for personal gain:

Many people are so deeply steeped in worldly thinking that they find it difficult to really imagine anything other than personal profit. Even people on a spiritual quest, like Dōgen on his way to China, are generally afflicted with the same disease in one way or another. Nor is Buddhism a means to advance social or economic ends, however “politically correct”. (p.120)

And later

…It is thus quite normal for modern people to think that “personal profit” is a primary reason for doing anything, especially now that most things carry a monetary value. (p.120)

I felt here that Brazier has generalised too widely. I hear this view quite frequently in my own Buddhist Order and think it makes too many assumptions about the motives of others. How can Brazier, or anyone else for that matter, really know what motivates another person to embark on a spiritual quest? I think it is probably more accurate to say that most unenlightened Buddhist practitioners have mixed motives for practicing the Dharma. There is likely to be some self interest, as well as some genuinely altruistic interest, and this will be the case all the way until a person’s mind is completely free of greed, hatred and delusion. I have the same reservations about Brazier’s worry that people are using Buddhism to advance social and economic ends. Could it not be that Buddhist practitioners are trying to practice the precepts in a fuller way that recognises the global effect of individual actions? 

Of course, as deluded beings in a complex world, we will often act in ways that are counterproductive to what we most deeply value – even identifying our deepest values is fraught with problems – but assigning motives to large groups of people simplifies things too much. If there is a growth in individualism in the modern world, even in Buddhist circles, then it is unlikely to be helped by the sectioning off of spiritual matters from those deemed economic or social. If anything, we will see a growth in individualism, not lessening, as Buddhist practice becomes a way of coping with the pressures of the world, rather than a radical re-imagining of how we might treat one another. My thoughts in this area, however, very much reflect a personal worry I have about the polarisation that can occur between those who think the secularisation of modern life a good thing and those that don’t – they are  not a criticism of Brazier’s book per se. 

The themes of adopting the yin position; playing one’s part in the Buddha Dao; and making oneself dark are all aspects of what Dōgen means in lines 13 and 14 of the Genjō Kōan when he says:

[13.] To comprehend what we call the Buddha Dao means to comprehend the self.

[14.] To comprehend the self is to forget the self. (p.70)

It is in discussing these famous lines from the Genjō Kōan that Brazier brings together various strains of his commentary. He suggests that:

When we see the self as it actually is, it loses its fascination. When it loses its fascination we forget it. It stops. (p.150)

And when it stops, our preoccupation with ourselves stops as well, and it is this that is the evidence of enlightenment, and it is this that sends “us forth in the service of the salvation of all sentient beings” (p.150).

When we forget the self, we can be fully penetrated by the Dharma – the truth – that is always around us. And this can be realised not simply as a conceptual idea but as a living experience that guides how we should live. And for Dōgen, this process of forgetting oneself would not come as the result of self development or trying to perfect the self; rather it is a process of realising that the self is not all that interesting or special: 

In practice, to comprehend the self it to realize how limited one is. It is to see one’s foolish nature, to see how one is easily lifted up or cast down, how one is vulnerable, fragile, prone to error, apt to overreact and so on, to reach a familiarity with oneself as an ordinary being. (p153)

In a world that many feel is being increasingly narcissistic, individualistic and consumerist, Dōgen’s message of humility, selflessness and gratitude feels a welcome one. In modern life we are endlessly bombarded with ways in which we can control and perfect ourselves and our lives. Brazier is right to be concerned about this, recognising how attempts to perfect and control our lives can often deepen our delusion and suffering. He is also right to point out how easy it is for Buddhist practitioners to take on these attitudes, although he perhaps, makes generalisations that are in my opinion too wide. Brazier has, however, done a rare thing with this book. He he has produced a translation and commentary that both gets to the heart of the spiritual questions that Dōgen – a 13th century Buddhist monk – was trying to address with the Genjō Kōan, and he has also produced a book that feels highly original. By   taking some risks with his translation, he is able to throw fresh light on a text that is both notoriously difficult and has been studied many times before. In doing so, he is able to bring out themes and teachings that are both highly relevant to Buddhist practitioners, but also to anyone trying to practice any spiritual tradition in the modern western world. 

Vidyapala is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and lives in Manchester. He works and teaches at the Manchester Buddhist Centre.

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kamalashila's picture

Nice stimulating informative and detailed review, thanks!  

(it’s ‘simulacrum’ in the singular mind you)