A Primer of Soto Zen: A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki
Translated by Reiho Masunaga
This book was not actually written by Dogen, but consists of brief talks given by him to his disciples and collected after his death.
Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) is regarded today as the founder of Japanese Soto Zen and his writings are assuming a reputation for great depth and insight in the West. In recent years many English tranlations of his works have been published, and the western Zen student is in a quandary when considering where to begin to read this highly influencial master.
"Shobogenzo Zuimonki" loosely translated means "Dharma for Dummies" and that may give the prospective reader an idea of what reading this book is like. The English title "A Primer of Soto Zen" is somewhat misleading, as the book actually gives no instructions for the practice of zazen (Zen meditation), the primary focus of Soto Zen.
The book is a patchwork of brief statements by Dogen. Sometimes he is answering a question, more often, the statement is prefaced with simply "One day Dogen instructed:" or the like. The tone of most of the book is didactic and hortatory. From the content of Shobogenzo Zuimonki it seems that Japanese monks in Dogen's time had grown rather lax, and he felt a great need to impress on them the proper way to behave. Often Dogen is urging his disciples to give up worldly attachments, or practice poverty, or holding up examples of virtuous Buddhist behavior before them.
I came to this book familiar with Dogen from numerous anecdotes and quotations found in other Zen books, and was disappointed that it did not inspire me or deepen my own questions as have many of the snippets of his writings I have read elsewhere. For the lay student of Zen in the West, this book is probably not the best place to begin with Dogen's writings.
However, the translation is uniformly clear and readable, and the text itself weighs in at just over 100 pages, so if you're interested in what Dogen actually said to his disciples, A Primer of Soto Zen provides a record of Dogen's direct responses to the problems and questions of the monks under his care.
A PRIMER OF SOTO ZEN - A translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki by Reiho Masunaga. 119 pp. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1971 and reprinted.
Eihei Dogen (+ 1200-1253), who was an exceptionally gifted child, was born into an aristocratic household in Kyoto. The death of his mother when he was eight years old so impressed upon him the central Buddhist truth of impermanency, that he forsook his aristocratic privileges when he was thirteen and went to Mt. Hiei to study to become a Buddhist monk.
But after intensive study, and since no-one in Japan could satisfactorily answer his questions - not surprising when you consider that he was the greatest genius Japan has ever produced - he sailed to China in 1223 in search of someone who could. There he studied under the Soto Ch'an (Zen) Master Ju-ching (+ 1163-1228), attained enlightenment, and returned to Japan to become the founder of Japanese Soto Zen.
Zen first became known to the West largely through the writings of D. T. Suzuki, who was a follower of the 'Sudden' or direct koan-using Rinzai Zen. Soto Zen, in contrast, is a gentler method which places greater reliance on Zazen or deep meditation, and is the method that has gained the largest number of adherents in Japan.
The present small book of just 119 pages is exactly what it says - a 'Primer of Soto Zen' - and as such, as Masunaga explains, it "does not concern itself with any great philosophical subtleties." Instead what we find is a collection, recorded by his disciple Ejo, of brief talks, remarks, comments, and exhortations, addressed by Dogen largely to Zen beginners and lay followers, which offers "an insight into the type of Buddhism Dogen sought to propagate" (page 2) - in other words, an ideal book for ordinary folks like most of us.
Here, to give you a taste, are a few lines selected at random:
"Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up immediately" (page 8).
"Every man possesses the Buddha-nature. Do not demean yourselves" (page 19).
"To enter the Buddha Way is to stop discriminating between good and evil and to cast aside the mind that says this is good and that is bad" (page 29).
"To escape from the world means that one's mind is not concerned with the opinions of the world" (37).
"One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world" (page 38).
"When the Buddhas ... state that the mind is plants and trees, revise your preconceptions and understand plants and trees as mind" (page 66).
My own copy of this book was purchased many years ago, and is now pretty dog-eared. It's one of those old friends I like to return to. Since it's mainly addressed to beginners it doesn't, as I've indicated, give the full scope of Dogen's thought. With the 'Zuimonki' - which means 'easy for the ears to understand' - we are rambling the plains and foothills of Dogen's thought. But any sensitive reader will find much to interest them here, and the book is an excellent introduction to Dogen the man and to his more advanced thought.
To discover just how profound Dogen can be, you will have to turn to the 'Shobogenzo' proper. This has been translated, in whole or in part, a number of times, but an edition I can strongly recommend is Kazuaki Tanahashi's 'Moon in a Dewdrop - Writings of Zen Master Dogen.'
Besides twenty texts from the 'Shobogenzo,' this book includes four additional texts and a selection of Dogen's poems. It also contains a fine Introduction on Dogen's Life and Teachings, four Appendices, full Notes, a Selected Bibliography, an incredibly full and detailed bilingual Glossary of a kind one won't find elsewhere, and some interesting illustrations.
Dogen's Japanese is an excruciatingly difficult Japanese, so much so that some think it should be called 'Dogen-ese' and not Japanese. Think 'Finnegans Wake' and you'll get an inkling of the problems involved in translating him. The language and thought of the 'Shobogenzo' comes to us from such a height that there can be no such thing as a definitive interpretation, and hence no such thing as a definitive translation.
'Moon in a Dewdrop' is the result of a collaborative effort by a team of highly competent American Zenists, some of them very well known. It has always seemed, in my humble opinion, that, considering the difficulties, they did a very fine job. If you enjoy the 'Zuimonki,' I'm sure you'll be bowled over by 'Moon in a Dewdrop.' Dogen leaves most other thinkers behind in the dust.