Western Buddhist Review

More Advice From the Zen Master – Read Dōgen!

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Tue, 5 December, 2017 - 18:27
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dhivan thomas jones

We present another review by Vidyavajra, this one of Brad Warner’s second book re-interpreting the great Zen Master Dōgen for the present day:

Brad Warner, It Came From Beyond Zen! More Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, New World Library, 2017 (£15 pback)

review by Vidyavajra

As I start a review of another book by Brad Warner, I am conscious that, should I be so inclined, I could just rehash my previous review of Don’t Be A Jerk. Comment on the pulp sci-fi book cover, tick, remark on the ‘dude persona’ ill suited to the material, tick, wonder if at fifty-three it’s time the guy grew up, tick, and so it would go on, tick, tick, tickety, tick. But that would be an untrue representation of this book, and would not be taking Brad Warner’s work seriously, which it does deserve. So, I will try not to repeat myself, too much, tick.

I’ve met folk who hold quite scathing views of Warner and his books. They’ll happily rail against his populism, accuse him of dumbing down the dharma, take one look at his book covers and judge him wanting. Holding dismissive views on anyone, especially if you haven’t read a word they’ve written is not entirely fair, and does whiff a bit of ‘dharma snobbery’. I know, I hold up my hands, I confess, I used to be one of them. Very definitely ‘used to be’.

Having now read two of his books on the Shōbōgenzō, I’ve really warmed to the man and the uniqueness of his style. He doesn’t try to big himself up; if anything he’s self deprecating to a fault, playing down his evident intelligence. He’s smart and clear-headed, and knows why he writes his books in the way he does, attempting to communicate Dōgen’s version of the Dharma to ‘a different audience’. He knows his readers may not be that academic, intellectually erudite or perhaps even Buddhist, but nonetheless he has this wonderful stuff he wants to show them. He is an enthusiast who has actually become rather good at what he does, bringing Dōgen up to date with a great deal of skill and sensitivity in order to make it intelligible to ordinary people. When his approach works his explanations and clarifications are quite insightful and thought-provoking. They’d give anyone an improved chance of understanding where the hell Dōgen is coming from.

These recent commentarial books on Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō by Warner are by anyone’s standards a heroic undertaking. The texts are often densely esoteric in meaning and the use of language is eccentric. Nevertheless, Warner attempts to understand and to paraphrase paragraphs that even learned translators have thrown up their hands at, and declared they haven’t the foggiest. He’ll have a stab at coming up with a way of looking at it. He executes it all in a straightforward matter-of-fact way, but with the reverence, insight and articulacy you’d expect from someone whose love for his subject matter borders on the deeply devoted.

He’s composing a paraphrase of Dōgen, not a translation. He makes copious references to other translators to help tease out the subtext in a tricky sentence, or goes back to the original Japanese to check if those translators, or himself, are correct in their interpretation. He generally steers clear of specialist language or terms that may unnecessarily exclude, mystify or alienate. He attempts to explain inexplicable things using everyday language, speech patterns, modern cultural references and idioms. He does all this without dumbing down Dōgen’s meaning or simplifying profundity until it becomes something shallow. I believe this type of effort is worthy of great praise, something that may in Warner’s case be a little overdue.

He does, however, like his little bits of fun, and I imagine not everyone will appreciate this feature of his writing. In his previous book, Don’t Be A Jerk, some of the updated cultural references seemed a bit heavy handed, his jokes over-indulged. However, in It Came From Beyond Zen he rarely puts a foot wrong, his updating just feels more considered and appropriate. He can provide plausible explanations to back up the most outrageous choice of a replacement term. You have to admire his sheer gall sometimes.

He’s been writing books in this style for several years, so he inhabits it and is fluent within it. Yes, Warner does put in those jokes and playful silliness, but one shouldn’t assume that this means he’s not serious about what he’s doing.  I found I indulged his ‘humourous whims’ more readily this second time around. For it is a truth, perhaps not widely known, that wit, wordplay and a mischievous wink are a major part of Dōgen’s style. He was a bit of a ‘pun master’ not adverse to gleefully leading you up the garden path just for a laugh. Well, perhaps not just for a laugh, as he usually had a point to make at the same time, though sometimes you’d have to be Japanese to appreciate the joke.

It Came From Beyond Zen contains chapters from the Shōbōgenzō that I’m personally quite fond of, in all their bonkers brilliance. He begins the book with ‘Inmo’ which could be translated as ‘this’, ‘thus’,  ‘such’, ‘what’ and ‘it’, all of which are used by translators to refer to things unnameable, beyond being understood, essentially ineffable. The use of ‘it’ as the title of a chapter and in the title of the book, It Came From Beyond Zen, makes apparent one of Warner’s little puns. The text of ‘Inmo’ and of Mu-chu Setsu-mu (‘Explaining a Dream within a Dream’) are not light reading, no matter how simplified the paraphrase is. Here is an extract from Warner’s paraphrase of ‘Inmo’, so you get a feeling for Dōgen’s writing style:

You might ask, How do I know I’m a person who is It? You know you’re a person who is It because you want to understand what It is and align yourself with It. You have the face and the eyes of an It person, so you don’t have to worry about the ever-present It. Heck, even worry itself is part of the great, unknowable It that is the universe and is you. So, It is beyond worry!

Dōgen quickly shifts ground from the profound to the playful, as if he’s taking a line of imaginative enquiry for a walk, though even he knows not where. Meanings can be flipped within a sentence, state contradictory viewpoints, turn the commonplace into a paradox and just generally confound expectations. These eccentricities can take some time to tune in to, but it can be worth the wait. They make for an imaginative and insightful journey.

Warner diverts his focus from the Shōbōgenzō on only two occasions: first, when he examines ‘The Instructions to the Tenzo’; second, in a chapter headed ‘Compassion and Zen Buddhist Ethics’, where he aims to correct the widely held misconception that Zen practice has no ethical content. Taken together with the chapter on Shishobo (‘Four Good Ways to Treat People Right’) included in this book, in which Dōgen uses the four saṃgrahavastus to lay out an ethical practice applicable to both a monk or lay practitioner, I think he does conclusively knock that misconception on the head.

He also bravely tackles the vexed concern about World War Two, and the alleged collaboration of Zen leaders with the Japanese regime. In his opinion, it’s been exaggerated, and was not as widespread as has been portrayed. Also, the aforementioned collaborators are unable to defend themselves, so we cannot bear witness to the broader perspective. Warner’s viewpoint is that sixty years later it’s easy to stand looking down from the top of our high ethical principles and find these men wanting. We were not there, and don’t know what the pressures of that time were like. If we found our country developed ambitions to create an empire, and turned itself into a military cult, how would we respond? It’s hard not to theorise from a position of principle, rather than actuality, which undoubtedly would be a whole lot more ethically messy. However, though Warner has a point and makes it well, I remain reluctant to put all the guns of opprobrium away completely.

It obvious to me that the Shōbōgenzō is a difficult text for the casual enquirer unfamiliar with the Dharma, or for entry-level Buddhists to read and truly benefit from. It would, even with Warner’s generally excellent paraphrase, be easy for someone inexperienced in decoding Dōgen to misinterpret. This could include taking literally what was intended as a metaphor, or was a parody of a deluded viewpoint, or taking as a true representation one of Dōgen’s flights of fancy.  I don’t think its unreasonable to ask who exactly is the ‘different audience’ that Warner is trying to get hooked on Dōgen?

Warner as a writer must be the eternal optimist, because of his aim to make the Shōbōgenzō accessible to a wider readership. He has chosen to cut out what he sees as unnecessary poeticisms or references that would only be relevant if you were Japanese and living in the 13th century. These are the sort of sacrifices you may have to make if you are going to streamline Dōgen. But what he’s produced is as honest an updated version of Dōgen as can be; it is very definitely not a travesty. When Warner says in the book’s conclusion:

I think my take on Dōgen is actually fairly orthodox in spite of the jokes and the Godzilla references. That stuff is just window dressing.

– he’s not bullshitting; that is precisely what he is doing, and by doing so he reveals the lengths he’s prepared to go to connect a new readership with Dōgen and the Shōbōgenzō.

Vidyavajra lives in Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk and daily explores the contrasts and conflicts between being both an artist/craftsman and a cleaner.

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