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Thread: Soto Zen and Dogen

  1. #1

    Soto Zen and Dogen

    Hello everyone!
    I have an odd question and I would like to hear all of your perspectives on it if thatís alright! I hope my observation/question doesnít offend anyone! The intent behind this is not negative at all!

    More often than not, I feel like Soto practitioners place more emphasis on what Zen Master Dogen said then other Zen masters, even the Buddha.
    I understand that Dogen is commenting on his understanding of what the Buddha said (and then some),giving his own take and spin on the Dharma, however it seems (to me) to be of more importance to get to what the Buddha said through Dogenís understanding (reading the shobogenzo) then to actually go straight to the source, (The Pali canon being the most reliable ďoriginalĒ source) or even looking at teachings of other zen masters. In other words, Dogen is studied and quoted far more than anyone one else in Soto zen, even more than the Buddha himself. It seems like it could almost be thought of as the practice of Dogen.

    In other traditions of Zen/Chan/Seon You donít find so much emphasis on one particular teacher. All masters are revered and learned from equally, and study of the canon, at least the popular teachings of the Buddha is considered the very foundation of practice and study.

    Do you agree/disagree?
    Thoughts, comments, pros/cons?
    Every opinion is welcome!

    Sorry if my question wasnít easily understandable! It was harder to express then I thought it would be! I look forward to hearing everyoneís opinion!

    Gassho,
    Sat today
    Sam

  2. #2
    I find the emphasis on Dogen interesting too. From what I've read, this is a somewhat recent innovation - Dogan's writings were rarely studied until a century or two ago. Before that, the emphasis was on Chinese sutras and classic Zen masters. Here is a source that goes into more detail than most would want to know. http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/...ing_Dogen.html

    I personally think it's good to study a mix of things. I read Dogen's writings, Mahayana sutras, and a lot of Pali suttas. (I live in Thailand and have a background in Theravada Buddhism.)

    Looking forward to reading others thoughts.

    Nanrin

    Sat

  3. #3
    Hi Sam and Narin,

    This is a very good question.

    I would say that Soto Zen is centered on Dogen, but never neglects most of the other Zen Masters of the past or the Buddha. The meaning of that statement, however, needs a bit of qualifying.

    Dogen brought the Soto tradition from China to Japan. He put his own twist and interpretation on various aspects such as Zazen. However, his works such as Shobogenzo are wall to wall traditional Koan stories, quotes from the Sutras (including some of the Suttas which he knew from their Chinese translations), famous Zen legends, sayings of other Zen Masters, quotes and stories of the Buddha and the like. In some ways, some of his teachings on Zazen (Shikantaza) may actually be closer to what was taught in China as "Silent Illumination" Zazen than what is commonly taught today as "Silent Illumination" (that is a topic beyond your question, but is my reading of what some historians have implied on the topic).

    We study all the famous and major Zen Masters of the past ... Rinzai, Hui-Neng, Mazu, you name it (and read their words directly, not just via Dogen) ... with the exception that Soto Zen does not have the emphasis on Koan Introspection Zazen (sitting while pouring oneself into a word or phrase from a Koan, often in hopes of some Kensho experience), so we do not often read some of the Koan Introspection advocates such as Masters Tahui and Hakuin.

    Dogen's Shobogenzo was forgotten in Japanese Soto during part of the medieval period when priests primarily concentrated on doing rituals for lay folks, funerals and running local temples. That period was about the mid-15th to late 18th century. However, he was revived by Menzan and others in Soto starting in the late 1700s, then through the 19th and 20th century, when Soto priests had a bit more intellectual capacity to appreciate him (frankly, it is doubtful that the average Zen priest knew much about other Zen masters, Mahayana doctrines or Indian-Chinese traditions either! People were not educated in very much besides their local rituals in those days, and people were barely educated in their own traditions, let alone others! That is still the case in much of Asian Buddhism where, for example, many Thai Buddhists know little if anything about Mahayana Buddhism and Zen.) There was some politics involved, as the article linked by Narin discusses, as part of a traditional rivalry between Dogen's Eiheiji and Keizan's Sojiji (wherein Sojiji was more powerful in number of affiliated temples precisely because of their emphasis on catering to rituals for lay folks and funerals).

    However, the reason that Dogen became so popular again in Soto is not simply politics: Dogen is incredible, and his expression of Zen and Buddhist Practice is truly powerful, creative and liberating. (At least I think so, but I am totally biased Nonetheless, I believe it is the case.). I would very much disagree with you that Soto is unique in emphasizing a particular teacher, because many schools do (the Koan Introspection folks, for example, tend to emphasize the aforesaid Tahui, Hakuin, Mazu and the like, and almost never mention Dogen. The Koreans tend to emphasize Taego. Nichiren Buddhists emphasize Nichiren. Japanese Pure Land Buddhist have their teachers. ).

    One thing I would say about Indian and South Asian Buddhism: What is taught today as Theravada is --NOT-- "what the Buddha taught," nor is it particularly much older that the Mahayana and Northern Asian traditions. It is not simply a matter that the old Suttas were not written down for hundreds of years after the Buddha, because we can still extrapolate some of the most likely original teachings from the oldest sources. Instead, it is that the Theravada and other traditions no longer follow just those older sources, but rather, have added their own interpretations, traditions, Abhidhamma and other commentaries and later written Suttas into the mix (plus the changes of 19th century reformers like Ledi Sayadaw). There are a variety of local traditions mixed in, Suttas written even later than the earliest Mahayana Sutras and (most especially) Hindu and other influences that make the Theravada miles away from "what the Buddha likely taught." So, do not make the mistake of thinking that, by reading a Sutta or, especially, a Theravadan interpretation of a Sutta, that one is getting closer to Buddha's actual teachings. That is something that Theravadans like to say about their tradition, but it has no basis. They are neither "original" nor "reliable" (or, better said, no more or less reliable that any Buddhist teachings that help sentient beings find liberation). In fact, some of the oldest layer of Buddhist teachings may have a "Zenny" flavor in some ways (just by chance or common wisdom):

    https://tomdas.com/2015/06/01/early-buddhist-writings/

    Much of the Mahayana was created centuries after the lifetime of the historical Buddha too, and the content of works like the Lotus Sutra are pretty fanciful. However, I like to say that it is also "what the Buddha taught" if the author was inspired and wise, and it conveys some Truths. So, maybe we can say that the Mahayana and the South Asian traditions all are "what the Buddha taught in that way."

    In any case, let me know if you have a question about what I wrote, and want to flesh it out a bit.

    Here is an article by a scholar on the Suttas as "original."

    https://tricycle.org/magazine/whose-buddhism-truest/

    Gassho, Jundo

    STLAH
    Last edited by Jundo; 06-28-2019 at 12:59 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  4. #4
    Soto zen is just a flavor of Buddhism, just like the many other (57?) varieties? Each one of these has a focus on something that postdates the Buddha; look at Tibetan Buddhism, as perhaps the most extreme example of larger sects. Their animist practice is very different from "what the Buddha taught."

    Just as Chan is a variant of Buddhism, so Zen is a variant of Chan. Each step along the way takes into account local customs and beliefs, and no one variety is necessarily better than another. There is a primacy of "what the Buddha taught" or what we think he/she taught, as a background, but with variations taking into account the time and place of the transmission, and focusing on specific practices. Just as American/Western Buddhism is not exactly the same as "what the Buddha taught."

    But it seems to me that those core teachings come through in all traditions, and are embellished and refined over time. Unlike a "religion of the book," where the holy word is sacred, there is no single book of Buddhism, making it a living tradition.

    Just my two bits.

    Gassho,

    Kirk
    -----
    I know nothing.

  5. #5
    Thank you Sam for asking this wonderful question and Jundo for his insightful reply. I also had similar curiosity but not sure why I never ask. I read the Tricycle article from Jundo and I really like the analogy in the last 2 paragraphs. Indeed, different Buddhist sects are like a big family with all the children have slightly different characteristics but they all belong to the same family. Why do we need to insist they must be the same?

    Gassho _/\_
    Sat+Lah

    Sent from my LYA-L09 using Tapatalk
    Last edited by vanbui; 06-27-2019 at 10:06 AM.

  6. #6
    I was thinking about this today, and I realized that it doesn't matter exactly what the Buddha taught. Whatever the oldest documents we have are as close as possible to his/her teachings as we can get. But if the teachings truly are timeless, that shouldn't matter; the true teachings should come through even in texts hundreds of years after the Buddha's death.

    This said, it would be quite something if older documents were found that had radically different ideas than some of what has been handed down. But everything that has been handed down is based on what was known before, and this is a system that has developed over more than 2,000 years, and one that has been proven to be effective and rational.

    Just saying...

    Gassho,

    Kirk
    -----
    I know nothing.

  7. #7
    Sam, thank you this great question and to the responses. Great food for thought!

    Sat today
    Steve


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

  8. #8
    Jundo, thank you for the historical background on people studying Dogen. It is unsurprising that Japan has had periods of time where few if any monks knew much about Zen teachings and instead focused on local rituals. Same thing has happened in every Buddhist country at various points in history. From what you've said elsewhere, most Japanese Zen temples are geared towards performing funerals and most monks don't practice zazen every day. Not that different from Thailand or any other Buddhist country. I'm glad that Dogen is back in the spotlight - his writings are a treasure.

    Later Mahayana texts may be more helpful for practice than even the oldest suttas. I don't think the Buddha had a monopoly on explaining Dharma or devising ways to help others see the Dharma. Dogen can be just as helpful as the sammayutta nikaya. All Buddhist lineages are of equal age - they all trace back to the Buddha. Zen is not older or younger than any other school, just different.

    In school, we don't learn geometry by reading Greek texts. When learning Calculus, we don't learn Calculus from reading Newton and Liebnitz's original texts. We learn them from a modern textbook, usually with a teacher. The truths haven't changed, just the way we teach people to understand those truths.

    Gassho,

    Nanrin (Southern Forest)

    Sat


    P.S.

    I agree with Jundo's sentiments that modern Theravada doctrine is not original Buddhism. Orthodox Theravada holds Abhidhamma in high esteem. Abhidhamma can be translated as higher teaching, or as meta-teaching. The orthodox view is that abhidhamma is the pinnacle of the Buddha's teaching and the expression of absolute reality. The Theravada abhidhamma is only one of many different Abhidhamma systems in Indian Buddhism. Not only were there conflicting abhidhamma systems, some schools did not have abhidhamma texts and regarded them as later additions.

    Orthodox Theravada also holds the commentaries and the Visuddhimagga (both of these were written about a thousand years after the Buddha's time) in very high regard. Both The Abhidhamma and commentaries heavily influence most Theravadin interpretations of suttas, including the implicit interpretation of translation. Meanwhile, the suttas are rarely studied. For instance, official Pali study here in Thailand consists of learning grammar and how to translate selected texts, such as the commentary to the Dhammapada and Vinaya commentaries (and sub-commentary). At the highest levels of study it also includes portions of the Abhidhamma. Again, suttas are ignored entirely.

    The Pali suttas aren't of uniform age. Some are quite early; such as the wonderful parts of the suttanipata quoted in that article, one of the oldest texts - others are later compositions with more of a Hindu/Brahmin influence. I do think that the Pali Canon (along with some of the surviving Gandharan, Sanskrit, and Chinese agama texts) has preserved early Buddhist teachings, and some words do go back to the Historical Buddha. However, most of the Pali canon does not go back that far. If you want to read earliest Buddhist teachings, you must rely on scholarly conjecture (and your own personal idea of what original Buddhism was) to pick out pieces from the Pali canon and other extant texts.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Nanrin View Post
    ... All Buddhist lineages are of equal age - they all trace back to the Buddha. Zen is not older or younger than any other school, just different. ...
    Hi Nanrin,

    Actually, Zen Buddhism is a later development, arising over time in China as lndian Buddhism encountered Taoism, Confucianism and other Chinese sensibilities. lt is very different in flavor from lndian and South Asian Buddhism for that reason, and l do not see anything wrong about saying so openly. lt is as much Chinese as lndian. Then, of course, it came to Japan, and Japanese sensibilities were added to the mix. Mahayana as a whole is a later innovation that arose in lndia hundreds of years after the time of the Buddha, with its own style and flavor. Now, all of it has come to America and Europe, and is changing again.

    All good.

    Certain key teachings remain part of Buddhism and Zen throughout, and that is what is most vital:

    - lmpermanence
    - Non-self
    - Dukkha and Liberation

    ... and that is what is most important.

    Meanwhile, the suttas are rarely studied. ....Again, suttas are ignored entirely.
    That surprised me to hear.

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Hi Nanrin,

    Actually, Zen Buddhism is a later development, arising over time in China as lndian Buddhism encountered Taoism, Confucianism and other Chinese sensibilities. lt is very different in flavor from lndian and South Asian Buddhism for that reason, and l do not see anything wrong about saying so openly. lt is as much Chinese as lndian. Then, of course, it came to Japan, and Japanese sensibilities were added to the mix. Mahayana as a whole is a later innovation that arose in lndia hundreds of years after the time of the Buddha, with its own style and flavor. Now, all of it has come to America and Europe, and is changing again.

    All good.

    Certain key teachings remain part of Buddhism and Zen throughout, and that is what is most vital:

    - lmpermanence
    - Non-self
    - Dukkha and Liberation

    ... and that is what is most important.



    That surprised me to hear.

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    Hello Jundo,

    I agree. Zen as a district flavor emerged later than some other flavors. However, all Buddhist lineages all go back to the Buddha, in that sense they are all equally old. They just have a different passage though time and space.

    To be fair, all Thai monks will know some suttas from chanting. However, suttas are left out of the formal Pali studies, and only a few places give any encouragement to study the canon. I've been told countless times that the tipitika is too hard. Most get by on oral teachings and tradition.

    People who study are the ones who write books, it's quite biased that way. I suspect that most writtings about any given Buddhist tradition will be quite unlike the typical temple. The English language material is particularly skewed as westerners have different interests. Perhaps not that different from Zen in Japan vs Western Zen.

    Still, with or without texts, many monks here are full of wisdom.

    Gassho

    Nanrin

    Sat, lah

  11. #11
    Member Onka's Avatar
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    I'm a new practitioner but in all honesty it was what I had read about Dogen and Nishijima that helped me decide that Soto Zen Buddhism was going to be my Buddhist home. Later, having come across Treeleaf and watched a few of Jundo's videos I knew I'd found my home Sangha.
    Gassho
    Anna

    Sat today
    On Ka
    穏 火
    aka Anna Kissed.
    No Gods No Masters.
    Life is too serious to be taken seriously.

  12. #12
    This is indeed a fascinating inquiry.
    If I pull a Zen book from my shelf right now, chances are very high that looking through it I will find more quotes being pulled from Dogen's Shobogenzo, than from the Buddhist scriptures.
    At that same time, I feel that at some level it doesn't matter who said what, or what was said, or if said person even said what we think was said, or if the said is what the translator thought was said to re say it in a different language....ad infinitum

    but the real crux for me has become "is my butt on the cushion?" "am I engaged with the many 'saids?"

    if the Buddha said it Bow
    If Dogen said it Bow
    if the homeless guy on the street said Bow

    the important point becomes...what are you going to do with it?

    Gassho

    Sat Today
    Humbly,
    清竜 Seiryu

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