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Thread: Understanding the Shobogenzo Essay

  1. #1
    Senior Member Genshin's Avatar
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    Understanding the Shobogenzo Essay

    Hi,

    I recently read an essay written by Nishijima Roshi back in 1992, entitled "Understanding The Shobogenzo".

    http://www.thezensite.com/zenwriting...Shobogenzo.pdf

    It's a relatively short essay, some 30 pages, but he talks quite eloquently about why the Shobogenzo can be difficult to understand when approached with typical logical thought, contradictions etc.

    Nishijima Roshi then outlines a system of dividing the chapters based on subjective viewpoint, objective viewpoint, actual (realistic) and reality, which he refers to as his SOAR structure.

    I'm just curious if anybody else has read this essay? What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for reading.

    Gassho,
    Matt

  2. #2
    Friend of Treeleaf Taikyo's Avatar
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    Hi Matt,

    I've read and found it interesting and persuasive but I'm not familiar enough with the Shobogenzo to make a comment on the scholarship.

    Gassho

    David

  3. #3
    I liked the essay a lot although it did rather feel like going back to school! I am starting to see that a number of Zen teaching poems follow a similar structure but think it is probably beneficial to read the Shobogenzo with a beginner's mind as well as with this kind of academic structure. Definitely a useful insight into Dogen's thought, though, and am hopeful it will provide a gateway into the great work itself.

    Thank you for pointing me back to it, Matt,

    Gassho
    Andy

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by MattW View Post
    Hi,

    I recently read an essay written by Nishijima Roshi back in 1992, entitled "Understanding The Shobogenzo".

    http://www.thezensite.com/zenwriting...Shobogenzo.pdf

    It's a relatively short essay, some 30 pages, but he talks quite eloquently about why the Shobogenzo can be difficult to understand when approached with typical logical thought, contradictions etc.

    Nishijima Roshi then outlines a system of dividing the chapters based on subjective viewpoint, objective viewpoint, actual (realistic) and reality, which he refers to as his SOAR structure.

    I'm just curious if anybody else has read this essay? What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for reading.

    Gassho,
    Matt
    Hi Matt,

    I have written the following in the past, so this is a good time to repost it since Nishijima Roshi is my Teacher. I speak honestly of my view.

    Nishijima Roshi was and is a dedicated Shikantaza teacher and translator of Shobogenzo and some other Buddhist writings. He encountered something very powerful and freeing in Zazen and the words of Master Dogen, and tried to express this in "updated" words approachable to the modern and specifically "western" world (D.T.Suzuki and others of that same Zen generation felt a similar need). Many years ago, he came up with a couple of very useful and interesting ways to describe what Dogen was teaching, the topic of the "To Meet The Real Dragon" book and some other writings. One is an idea called "Three Philosophies and One Reality", and the other is that Zazen has a neurological and physiological aspect in the body, which he terms "balance of the autonomic nervous system."

    Both are interesting ways for Nishijima to describe what he was encountering on the Zazen cushion, and felt that he saw in Dogen's writings and other Buddhist texts. In fact, the proposals of the "Three Philosophies and One Reality" are very much just the ancient Buddhist teachings of our Way as not simply materialism, nihilism, eternalism, dreamy idealism, subject vs. object, nor merely a theory to ponder. Our way is something transcending yet holding all that, and to be brought to life.

    The problem is (I believe) that Nishijima ran a bit "hog wild" (pardon the Americanism slang) with the ideas at that point, trying to squeeze each sentence of Shobogenzo, in a nearly one to one correspondence, into each of the four categories of view that Nishijima Roshi suggests, then going on and doing the same with the Four Noble Truths, and recently in a very forced translation of Nagarjuna's MMK. Nishijima took a pair of interesting ideas that are very helpful to Buddhist Practice, and made them forcibly fit everything and the kitchen sink ... a mistake I feel.

    My very gently telling him so a few years ago was not welcomed by him (especially as he became older), and caused some rift between myself and some of his students who didn't want any of Nishijima's ideas questioned. It is one of the few points where I really really really disagree with my teacher. I sometimes say that, once he came up with his ideas, Nishijima Roshi took to explaining the whole world with his idealism/materialism/realism paradigm and "balanced ANS" idea ... and sometimes each works, sometimes not. (Although I always tried to convince him that there are many many physiological aspects in addition to and including the ANS, and not only primarily ANS as he felt, the fact is Nishijima was still something of a pioneer in the Buddhist world 50 years ago to say that much of what we do is a physical effect of the brain and nervous system)

    Now, someone might ask if a student should always be in total accord and agreement with his or her teacher. Well, it is not now ... and has rarely if ever been so ... with any pair of teachers-students I know in Buddhism, since the Buddha's time. Otherwise, Buddhism would have stood frozen solid. There would be only one vanilla flavor of Buddhism, not the so many expressions we find, and no need for talks and books and teacher after teacher to try to re-express the ultimately alive and organic and inexpressable. Rather, it is something like how an art apprentice can study art with his master, or a piano student can study music theory and practice with her master. The student need not paint or play Beethoven in precisely the same way ... even though they both hear or see the same harmonies. know the same colors and keys.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-13-2013 at 04:05 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  5. #5
    I once wrote this too. I do disagree with how far Nishijima Roshi ran with his idea sometimes, for example, trying to find a one-to-one correspondence between his "Three Philosophies and One Reality" with each of the "Four Noble Truths" or each sentence of Shobogenzo or Nagarjuna's MMK. It is one of the few points where I really really really disagree with my teacher. I sometimes say that, once he came up with his idea, Nishijima Roshi took to explaining the whole world with his idealism/materialism/realism paradigm ... sometimes it works, sometimes not.

    However, the basic viewpoint he came up with is truly a modern and brilliant way to re-express Mahayana Buddhism 101 and Soto Zen. Nishijima described Zazen as a practice of "Action" or "Pure Doing/Being", and Buddhism as a "realistic" philosophy beyond idealistic religions or materialistic philosophies. Here is a description in a nutshell, although it is a bit more than this:

    Some people (almost all people in some way) dream of a world (or "heaven" or "enlightenment" or a "purified society after the revolution comes" ... whatever) that is always good by our little human standards ... candycane trees and ice cream mountains. Or, they feel lack between how the world "is" and how they wish it "should be". At least, they dream of some state much better than the present state. In contrast, this world of ours is less than ideal. That is an "idealistic" view.

    Some people think of the world as just blind processes, going no place in particular. (I really abbreviate the description ... but this is generally a materialistic view of the world). Although seemingly dispassionate and "coldly objective" about the world, this view will often cross the line into asserting that the world is "meaningless" or "pointless" or "survival-of-the-fittest cruel" or just "we are born, we work, we die" ... some such bleak thing.

    Both those views tend to judge that there is something lacking in the present state.

    However, Buddhism is an existentialist way of being in the world-just-as-it-is, meaning the world before we impose our judgments and dreams upon it. We neither judge the world lacking in comparison to another ideal world, nor do we judge it cold and pointless and hopeless. We just let the world be as it is, and we go with the flow ... to such a degree that we can no longer see perhaps the divisions between ourselves and the world in the flowing. In that way, as Nishijima describes it, it swallows whole both materialism and idealism by finding this world, just going where it goes, to be ideally just what it is. And that way of seeing beyond "beautiful" or "ugly", "peace" and "war" is .... pretty darn Beautiful and Peaceful! This is Nishijima's view of Buddhist "realism", his third philosophy.

    However, theory alone is not enough. More than words describing this "realistic" perspective, we must actually taste it in the practice-experience of Zazen.

    Something like that. My description is not very artful today.

    By the way, accepting the world "just-as-it-is" does not mean we cannot also seek to improve things that need improving. Having "no judgments" and having "judgments" about making things better can be like two sides of a single coin. It is not an either/or proposition. I think.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-13-2013 at 06:21 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  6. #6
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    I can't agree more with Jundo. Nishijima's interpretation of Shobogenzo is very personal and questionable. It is something I have witnessed in other teachers too, once they put their paws on something that seems to fit the bill, to match, they will try to apply it to every portion of the text. The essence of Shobogezo arises in your reality as you read it, it is relative, changing as you change, moving along as you move along, at the same time,you ll have as many Shobogenzos as you have readers, as many Shobogenzos as the times you pick it up. The"in a nutshell" kind of approach, or the "it boils down to this" are dangerous and restrictive. The field of Shobogenzo is a moving texture of possibilities that you are invited to explore.

    Eventually, you are the very Shobogenzo. What you are invited to see and experience is the Shobogenzo as you.
    Or let's use another metaphor, you are the bell and the Shobogenzo is what strikes you. The sound is called life. The sound is shobogenzo-you-sound- space. The bell cannot be hit twice in the same way. The sound won't be identical to any other sounds.


    Gassho

    taigu
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  7. #7
    I much like Nishijima's approach to Shobogenzo (and Dogens writing in general), and i cant thank him enough. However, I think its "an approach", a way to get closer to it when you not touched it before, or even when you are new ito it (maybe just soaking it up for a few years), but I slowly feel like at some point, when you are soaked up by shobogenzo its something you slowly might leave behind. Maybe, I cannot say because I'm not objective, I just replace it with my own map, maybe the map dissolves. Anyway, deep bow to Nishijima, what he did for all of us cannot be valued to high, in my opinion.
    Gassho
    Myoku

  8. #8
    Senior Member Genshin's Avatar
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    Thanks everyone. Thank you Jundo, Taigu for the openness and honesty of your response. Much appreciated.

    I will put this essay to one side, and look forward to when my copy of Shobogenzo arrives in the post.

    Gassho,
    Matt

  9. #9
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    I too thank you Jundo And Taigu for the reminder that the Shobogenzo is a living thing and not merely (perhaps not even) a work of philosophy.

    Gassho

    David

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Taigu View Post
    ... you are the bell and the Shobogenzo is what strikes you. The sound is called life. The sound is shobogenzo-you-sound- space. The bell cannot be hit twice in the same way. The sound won't be identical to any other sounds...
    Thank you Jundo and Taigu.

    Gassho
    Shingen
    倫道 真現

    As a trainee priest, please take any commentary by me on matters of the Dharma with a pinch of salt.

  11. #11
    Treeleaf Unsui Yugen's Avatar
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    Taigu wrote:

    The field of Shobogenzo is a moving texture of possibilities that you are invited to explore.

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Gassho
    Yugen
    Treeleaf Sangha Shuso Ango Head October 2014
    -----------------------------------------------------------
    Please take all my comments with a grain of salt - I am a novice priest and anything I say is to be taken with a good dose of skepticism - Shodo Yugen

  12. #12
    Senior Member Heisoku's Avatar
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    Anyone had a read of Kaz Tanahashi's new book on Shobogenzo using a 'thematic' approach?

    Sent from my BlackBerry 9790 using Tapatalk
    Heisoku
    平 息

  13. #13
    Whoa, I really enjoyed this thread.

    gassho
    Shōmon

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    Senior Member Clark's Avatar
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