Saturday, March 26, 2011

Zen Master Dogen (Soto & Rinzai Schools)

As I continue with Zen, I'm coming to some decisions about what is the best way to go about it. One of the struggles is how to communicate, which I am coming to truly understand is not really possible. I think it's part of why I don't talk about it much with people. What's the point really? Of course, then I read texts like these pieces by Zen Master Dogen Zenji and realize it is possible to communicate verbally or in writing. You just have to really knows what you're talking about (i.e., be an enlightened Zen Master).

One of the other issues I've wrestled with has been the role of koans.  Turns out this question has been an issue for about a thousand years (no exaggeration). From what I've been able to gather there was a time when Zen split into five houses or schools of Zen thought. Eventually these houses coalesced into Rinzai and Soto. In very, very broad strokes (my Zen history is sketchy at best), Rinzai relies heavily on koans while Soto stresses sitting in zazen. So my struggle here is not at all uncommon.

My experience with koans has been positive and I find them to be a powerful tool. However, I feel zazen is truly fundamental to Zen. I believe someone can become enlightened without koans, but I do not believe the vast majority of people can be enlightened (and profit from it) without zazen. So I guess I'm leaning towards the Soto school. Of course, as soon as I realized this, I pushed the whole question out of my head! I don't want to get bogged down in details of this kind. While it does provide some insight in a guidepost kind of way to know where I stand on a key question like this, I don't ever want to catch myself thinking: "I don't care what Zen Master ABC says because he's Rinzai" or - and I'm not sure whether this is worse or not - "Zen Master XYZ says such-and-such and he's Soto so I better pay attention"). Blech!

Anyway, figuring out I am reliant on zazen and knowing the Soto school believe the same thing, led me to want to read something by Zen Master Dogen Zenji, who practiced Zen in Japan during the 13th Century. From what I understand, he really established the Soto school in Japan and there is a lot of his texts that have survived to the present. This book - Beyond Thinking - collects some of his texts that speak to zazen into one short volume. Who better to be guided by than one of the great fountainheads of the school, right?

Dogen is not an easy read, but if I take my time I can fully decode his rather imagistic/symbolic text. The great thing about this book is the glossary in the back that helps you figure out what colorful images are just that and which are actually metaphors for something very specific. Despite the challenge of the text, I'm finding that Dogen is able to put a lot of things I've sensed into words or at least it's about as close to communicating it in words as I'm ever likely to read.  So far, the texts are providing guidelines for practicing zazen and how to discipline your mind. I'm not far into the book yet, but the ideas here are definitely helping me and providing some (probably) much needed guidance.

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