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Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning
Heinrich Dumoulin, Jesuit priest, philosopher, prolific author, eminent scholar on Zen Buddhism, first director of the Nanzen Institute, and a committed Christian, died in 1995 at the age of 90, leaving behind a respected body of work. His major work translated into English is his Zen Buddhism: A History in two volumes: Zen Buddhism, Volume 1: A History, India and China, originally published in 1959 under the title Zen — Geschichte und Gestalt, and now available in a revised and considerably expanded 2005 English edition, published by World Wisdom, Inc. A second volume, Zen Buddhism: a History, Japan, is also available from World Wisdom. A follow-up volume, Zen Buddhism in the 20th Century, translated in to English by Joseph O’Leary, appeared in 1992.
Although Dumoulin’s Zen Enlightenment is an eminently readable thumbnail sketch of Zen history, from India to the modern era, there are some flaws which, while not detracting from the book’s usefulness, highlight how Zen scholarship has advanced since Dumoulin’s time. For example, Dumoulin sees Pai-chang (Pinyin: Baizhang) (749-814) as the founder of uniquely Chinese rules of monastic behaviour. (p 59) This fits in with the legendary history of Chinese Ch’an but modern scholars doubt the historicity of the originality of Pai-chang’s rules. T. Griffith Foulk notes that the “basic claims of the Chanmen guishi [Pai-chang’s rules]were demonstrably false” and that “all the features of Chan monastery organization attributed to Baishang ...were neither invented by him nor unique to the Chan school”. (Foulk, 1994, p 296)
More problematic is Dumoulin’s discussion in Chapter 10, Dōgen’s Religious Metaphysics: The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature. I found sentences such as “Because all words and signs are inadequate, one can employ any arbitrary phrase, even — and preferably — any paradoxical, nonsensical phrase. True reality is above all words and signs”, (p 114) to be, if not nonsensical, at least misleading. The ancient masters, and especially Dōgen, did not employ “paradoxical, nonsensical” language. Every word conveyed meaning and purpose and if the listener (or reader) cannot understand, that is a not the problem of the master but the student. Even worse, in this same section, Dumoulin draws on Dōgen’s “painting of a rice cake” to illustrate that “all such portrayals [of Buddha-nature] have as little value and reality as “a picture of a rice cake.” Buddha-nature cannot be pictured.” (ibid) Dōgen’s intention in his essay Gabyō, Painting of a Rice-cake, was the opposite of Dumoulin states. The essay is based on an ancient saying, “A painting of a rice-cake does not satisfy hunger.” Dōgen, in his typical manner, turns this upside down. As he points out, traditionally it has been thought a painted rice-cake refers to “ studying the sutras and commentaries does not nourish true wisdom.” (Welch & Tanahashi, 1985, p135) Dōgen admonishes those who think this way: “Know that a painted rice-cake is your face after your parents were born, your face before your parents were born. ...it is the moment of realization of the way.” (ibid) Dōgen sees expression of ‘true reality’ in every moment, every phenomena: “If you say a painting is not real, then the myriad things are not real. If the myriad things are not real, then Buddha-dharma is not real. As Buddha-dharma is real, a painted rice-cake is real.” (op cit, p 137) Dumoulin seems to have missed this point.
On a lighter note, in Dumoulin’s discussion of Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi (The Universal Promotion of the Principles of Zazen), he writes that Dōgen’s instructions are that “One should sit on two cushions, placed one on top of the other”. (p 91) None of the translations I have of this essay mention two cushions. Had I known that Dōgen recommended two cushions perhaps I could have sought refuge in Dōgen when I was severely admonished by the master in a Japanese Zen temple when I placed two cushions on my zabuton in preparation for a sesshin. During the master’s inspection of the zendo prior the commencement of the sesshin he spotted the two cushions and angrily replaced them with a large zafu I am sure was filled with concrete it was so hard. In dokusan he berated me, accusing me of having a massive ego (true enough!) and being greedy (also true!). I wish I could have said, “But roshi, I’m just following Master Dōgen’s instructions!” But I cannot find any such instructions in any of the translations I have. A pity, really.
I cannot say that this book by Dumoulin is the best available on this topic although for beginners it does give a reasonable sketch of the history of Zen Buddhism and therefore may be useful. However, for a deeper understanding of Zen practice and philosophy, it is of limited value.
Foulk, T. Griffith, (1994), Chanyuan qinggui and Other “Rules of Purity” in Chinese Buddhism, p 296 in The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts, eds. S. Heine & D. S. Wright, Oxford University Press: New York
McRae, John R., (2003) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, University of California Press: Berkeley
Welsh, D. and Tanahashi, K., (1988) Painting of a Rice-cake in Moon in a Dewdrop, ed. K. Tanahashi, Element Books: Longmead
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