This book is a translation and explication of selected essays by Dogen, the 13th-century Zen master who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan and is regarded as one the world's great religious teachers. Francis Dojun Cook is a retired professor of Buddhism and a serious Zen practitioner (he was a student of Maezumi Roshi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles), and his primary aim in this book is "to help the reader gain a better understanding of what it means to practice Zen, particularly in the Soto form established by Dogen Zenji."
The first half of the book is Cook's introduction to the Dogen texts, highlighting and clarifying some important themes. The second half is Cook's translations of the "Fukan zazengi" ("General Recommendations for Doing Zazen") and nine chapters from the "Shobogenzo"--texts chosen because they focus on various aspects of practice. At the end of the book is a lineage chart including many of the Zen masters mentioned in the Dogen essays.
Ch. 1 is mainly about how Dogen understands practice. Ch. 2 is about faith as the basis of Dogen's Zen. (Cook defines Buddhist faith as "a very deep certitude in the veracity of a certain doctrine, accepted and used as a touchstone for conduct in the faith that practice will verify its truth.") Ch. 3 is about arousing the thought of enlightenment (bodhichitta)--that is, arousing the determination to work ceaselessly to liberate all other beings from suffering and delusion, even while not being completely liberated oneself. Ch. 4 is about Zen as a means of dealing with karma and its consequences, not by "transcending" conditioned existence but by radically affirming and fully experiencing it. Ch. 5 is about the role of the scriptures in Dogen's Zen. (I liked Cook's observation that the verse attributed to Bodhidharma cautions only against "dependence" on words and letters, not against making use of them.) And Ch. 6 is about the continuous practice needed to live each moment fully, with wisdom and compassion.
My own practice can actually get derailed by questions like "Where do I get the motivation to practice, if not from the just the sort of self-centered attachments and aversions that I'm hoping to let go of through Zen practice?" and "How do I practice without making it an exercise in trying to get something I lack, thus denying the inherent buddha-nature I'm hoping to realize?" This book deals with such issues in a way that I found very helpful. (As usual, I found Dogen's interpreter more helpful than Dogen himself. Maybe someday I'll be able to get more inspiration from Dogen directly?) I also appreciated Cook's argument that Dogen's faith-based Zen is much more akin to a religion of "other-power" (tariki) like Pure Land Buddhism than to a religion of "self-power" (jiriki), which is how Zen sometimes gets characterized.
One tiny complaint: Cook slips into some of the caricatures of Christianity that I find tiresome in Zen literature. I wish Zennies would just stick with talking about Zen and not try to talk about how Zen compares with traditions they don't know nearly as much about.
Another Dogen commentary I highly recommend: "Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen's Genjokoan" by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi.
Professor Dojun Cook is one rare bird. Not only is he a translator of great learning, he is also a dyed-in-the-wool Zen practitioner.
His years of study and practice with Taizan Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles enable him to bring these texts to beautiful clarity.
Reading Dogen Zenji can be a challenging exercise. Translating him is infinitely more so. Dr. Cook has shown himself equal to the task. This book is a great boon to thoughtful Buddhists everywhere.