Dogen and writing

It’s easy for me to focus on Dogen’s philosophy, dharma and teaching, because it’s so compelling, fascinating and challenging.  So much so that it’s also easy to forget sometimes what drew me in so strongly in the first place…the guy’s an amazing writer.

Breaking Genjokoan down as we’re doing in studying , spending time with each section, allows me to see the depths that are there, but also lets me see the beauty and poetry in each each section.  And every so often I have to go back to read the whole thing again, to see the power of it in its entirety.  But here’s the section I’ve been studying this week:

When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. At the moment when dharma is correctly transmitted, you are immediately your original self.

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.

Dosho says, “There’s not too much to this one.”  And he’s right.  There’s not that much here.  Certainly not compared to some of the other denser passages.  I imagine few of us these days are unfamiliar with this idea , accustomed as we are to traveling in boats, in cars, in planes, to that disorienting feeling we’d have as a kid looking out the window of the car, wondering what’s moving and what is still.  Still it’s a not always easy for us to remember, and I think this is what he’s saying though he never makes it explicit: that in the same way that when we don’t concentrate on the boat, if we don’t concentrate on this body and mind, we believe all is change “out there” in the world, and forget body and mind too is impermanent.  We too are moving in the stream of time.

Sometimes metaphors are all we have to express what is beyond words.

All of which brings me back to what I began to say in my roundabout way: that what drew me in and still blows me away is the fact that Dogen writes amazingly.  Sitting with this section for a few weeks, and even setting aside this might be a more novel idea to readers of his time, I agree this is a bit of a “slow” section.  And when I thought of it that way, I saw it was like the slow movement in a Beethoven sonata or quartet.  A true artist knows that the work can’t be relentless.  There needs to be pacing, rhythm, we need time to catch our breath, to absorb what has been said or expressed.  And pause can help to prepare us for the final movement that ties it all together, that often is the thunder and lighting of the piece, as much as it is for Beethoven as it is with Dogen.

His skills as an essayist are as good as an writer I can think of, I see when reading the whole piece.  He circles around a subject, bringing in all sorts of seemingly extraneous thoughts or stories.  Then just when you think he’s lost control, tying it all together in a masterful move and boring back in to what he hinted at in the beginning.  Or when he can’t find a word to express what he wants to say, he’ll invent a new one.  Or use an old one in a new way.  Like the best poets.  Catullus would do that, stretching the limits of words.

He also tests the limits of syntax and grammar, like E. E. Cummings did.  The language is in the service of the teaching, never the opposite.  That’s why it is true dharma words and teaching.  But also why it’s damn good reading!  Fresh and exhilarating.  Never willing to settle, he will reveal new teachings in old words or stories.  He can also teach the deepest truths of Zen and Buddhism without ever having to rely on the words “Zen” or “Buddhism.”

And that’s why he remains an example for any practitioner to follow.  As well as for any who writes to shoot for.


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