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Zen Master Dogen Meets a Thirteenth-century Postmodernist
Hakuin's Daruma

by Terry C. Muck
Professor of Comparative Religion at Austin (TX) Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Journal of Ecumenical Studies 1998, Vol. 35, Iss. 1

Author's Abstract: © 1998 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Zen Master Dogen anticipates a great deal of the modern controversy between academic scholars and confessional theologians about how best to go about understanding truth. In a story he tells in his classic work, Shobogenzo, Dogen sketches out the problems of each of these approaches, even anticipating the rise of the postmodernist critique, and, through his storytelling and commentary, offers the seeds of fruitful ideas for a way forward: beyond rationalism, without rancor, toward a true ecumenism of the human spirit.

Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher,(1) tells a story in his monumental Shobogenzo(2) that anachronistically illustrates the differences between postmodern philosophers and theologians. The story is about a brilliant scholar, Tokuzan (779-865), and an old, unnamed woman selling rice cakes.
Tokuzan, the scholar, had a well-deserved reputation for being the unquestioned authority on the Diamond Sutra, one of the most important Mahayana Buddhist texts. He was known as the King of the Diamond Sutra. The Diamond Sutra is the locus classicus for the pivotal Buddhist teaching that the individual mind has no existence apart from the oneness of all Being. In the Buddhist texts this teaching is often summed up in the phrase, "the mind cannot be grasped."(3) The story in the Shobogenzo goes like this:(4)

Word came to the scholar Tokuzan that in the south of China an Enlightened Buddhist teacher had realized a new truth about the Diamond Sutra. True scholar that Tokuzan was, he packed up all his books and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra (over 300 pounds of them) and left immediately to take the long journey to hear first-hand this new teaching. On the way he paused at a wayside rest stop and fell into a conversation with an independent businesswoman selling rice cakes.
He asked her, "What is your business?"
"I sell rice cakes," she replied.
"Will you sell me a rice cake?"
"What do you want to buy a rice cake for?" [She was an independent businesswoman.]
"To refresh my mind," said Tokuzan.
The old woman took a look at Tokuzan's 300-pound load of books. "What is all that you are carrying?"
"Haven't you heard? I am the King of the Diamond Sutra. I have mastered the Diamond Sutra. There is no part of it that I do not understand. This load I am carrying is commentaries on the Diamond Sutra."
"Could I ask you a question?"
"Of course."
"I have heard it said in the Diamond Sutra that past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped. Which mind do you now intend to refresh with my rice cakes? If you can tell me, I will sell you a rice cake. If not, I will not sell you my rice cakes."
Tokuzan was dumbfounded and could not find an appropriate response.

The Three Characters

As Dogen tells the story, three personae emerge in this mini-drama: The first is the scholar Tokuzan. He has all the positive, admirable characteristics of a scholar, and it takes only a little imagination to compare him and his approach to life with the scholars of today. He is thorough, having read and mastered all there is to know about his special field, the Diamond Sutra. He is dedicated - the minute he hears about a new approach to his specialty he makes a long, difficult journey to its source, a scholar in another place a long way from Tokuzan's home. He is objective and rationalistic; he does not dismiss this new theory as some crackpot idea but is willing to take a good long look at it to see if it has merit when measured against the prevailing canons of Diamond Sutra study. Finally, he is honest; when the rice-cake woman asks him a question to which he does not know the answer - an embarrassing question, really - he does not try to bluster through with an answer but simply sits in humiliating silence.
The second persona is the rice-cake woman, who represents the common-sense voice of the masses. She brings a certain skepticism to bear on her famous customer, a skepticism that sees only the dark side of what we have just listed as Tokuzan's strengths. By calling attention to his 300 pounds of books, she makes his thoroughness seem compulsive. A certain weariness with which she approaches him transforms his dedication, as witnessed by his arduous journey, into a kind of touristy excessiveness. She turns out to understand the suprarationalism of the very Buddhist philosophy being taught by the Diamond Sutra, or at least the implications of that suprarationalism, better than Tokuzan, the expert. Tokuzan's dedication to scholarly objectivity and rationalism makes him blind to the existential implications of the Diamond Sutra's truth, and it takes an uneducated person to point that out. In short, the rice-cake woman punctures the carefully crafted public posture of the scholar, as one set apart to study the difficult truths of life, not realizing he is part of the very life he is studying. Is this not precisely what the postmodernists of our own day are trying to point out to us - Derrida's questioning of any independent meaning of texts,(5) Foucault's revelations of the social constructs behind all worldviews,(6) Rorty's radical questioning of any and all intellectual foundations?(7) In her approach to the "text" of Tokuzan's life, the rice-cake woman - and it takes only a little imagination to see her this way - is a thirteenth-century postmodernist.
The third persona is Dogen himself, the unseen narrator who tells the story but also evaluates the two characters after telling the tale. Largely because of this normative evaluation, we might imagine Dogen's modern equivalent to be the theologian.(8) His criticism of Tokuzan and the rice-cake woman is not total rejection of either one. Although he lets the rice-cake woman implicitly call into question all that the scholar stands for, the story still leaves one with a certain admiration for and sympathy with the scholarly task. It is obvious that Dogen is not dismissing all that Tokuzan does. In fact, as Dogen tells it later in the Shobogenzo, Tokuzan eventually discovers a certain level of truth, apparently as a result of this experience - he summed up his enlightenment in the saying, "A rice cake painted in a picture cannot kill hunger."(9) Similarly, Dogen does not needlessly exalt the rice-cake woman, even though he does let her represent the role reversal that the "low" of society all dream about when they come in contact with the "high." With an economy of words and effort she delivers the perfect riposte that, for the moment at least, shows the scholar's feet of clay. No, Dogen does not dismiss either of his characters but tells the story to show that neither of them goes far enough in his or her approach to life. Neither of them, alone, at least, can accurately portray reality. This is precisely the theologian's role: to show that ultimate meanings are ultimate exactly because they judge all else and that we all, Dogen included, can only point the way to ultimate truth, showing that we are all companion journeyers on the path.


It takes only one final act of imagination to see that in a real sense these three personae mirror the intellectual and religious playing field of today.(10) Rationalists, postmodernists, and theologians are engaged in a cultural confrontation that has the potential to send us into either an increasingly fragmented nihilism or one of the richest times of human religious history.
Nihilism will be the result if we insist that one of these three approaches to reality - rationalism, postmodernism, or theology - must dominate and win the war, largely by discrediting the other two. It is true that each of the three uses a different strategy to ensure that its point of view predominates. The rationalists see themselves defeating the postmoderns and the theologians by making a more objective, rational case for truth. The postmoderns see themselves leveling the "truth," if whatever reality is can even be called truth - that is, can show that all claims to truth are culturally and historically conditioned, incorrigibly so. The theologians see themselves as representatives for the suprarational dimension; in this dichotomizing of the world into sacred and profane, they see themselves carving out a place - call it Nirvana, heaven, or whatever - where we can all eventually stand together. Each of these three epistemological strategies has great strength; to separate them into mutually exclusive approaches to truth will lead us to nihilism.
Nihilism, however, does not have to be the result of our current cultural conflicts. The road away from nihilism and toward wisdom is paved with the macadam of a rich mix of all three. All three points of view must find their place in a unified approach to truth that recognizes the mutual contributions of rationalists, postmoderns, and theologians. I am an optimist. I run from nihilism. Thus, I am putting my money on this latter option. I think we are on the verge of a glorious new chapter in the religious development of humankind.
I think this optimism is warranted by the facts, because all three groups (or at least most persons in all three groups) agree on two very important principles. First, they agree that something is wrong with our current fragmentation and our approaches to it. Second, they agree that much of the fragmentation and conflict is exacerbated and in many cases created by an inability to talk productively about our differences. These two major agreements that create this common ground are far more valuable than we usually allow ourselves to dream. It is a place to start as we recognize that our real differences lie in the strategies (based, perhaps, on our analysis of how the fragmentation comes about in the first place) that we each propose in order to solve the problem.

Dogen's Criticisms

With that in mind (which amounts to adding one final persona, myself, to the mix), I would like to suggest that we can learn some important lessons about how to engage the current cultural debates by observing especially three of the criticisms Dogen brings to bear in his commentary on his pithy story in the Shobogenzo.
First is his implicit criticism of Tokuzan. As important as the rational is, truth goes beyond it. Truth that does not recognize the action part, performative truth, is not truth at all, no matter how logically consistent, useful, faithful to reality, or internally coherent. In the first place, Tokuzan fails by not realizing this important truth about "truth." His reaction to the rice-cake woman shows that he has studied the Diamond Sutra all his life without seeing its challenge, claim, and wisdom for him, the King of the Diamond Sutra. However, Dogen sees Tokuzan's failure going much deeper. He criticizes Tokuzan for not coming back at the rice-cake woman: "If Tokuzan were a stout fellow, he might have the power to examine and defeat the old woman."(11) Dogen then creates dialogue for the way their confrontation might have gone had Tokuzan been a stout man, that is, someone truly willing to step outside the rational bounds he had set for his life and see that, as important as rationality is, it must be augmented, completed, gone beyond. Without this the life of mind is a caricature. Dogen tells other stories of Tokuzan in the Shobogenzo, and it is clear that, although he makes progress under a later teacher, he is still something of a caricature used as a teaching model by Dogen.
Second is Dogen's explicit criticism of the rice-cake woman. He expresses doubts that she was the genuine article. He is not particularly impressed that she challenged Tokuzan on his prideful misunderstandings, for two reasons. First, she did it in such a way that dumbfounded Tokuzan and silenced him. A real teacher, Dogen says, would raise questions in such a way that would encourage response, even from one "with horns on his head" (one who has a high opinion of oneself).(12) Second, and much more importantly, the rice-cake woman did not offer a positive view herself. She "swung her sleeves" (showing contempt)(13) and flounced away. As Dogen sums it up, "She had questions, but she is without assertions."(14) Again, Dogen creates a might-have-been dialogue between the two, had Tokuzan been a stout fellow and the rice-cake woman a genuine article. Neither was.
In essence, what is Dogen's criticism of her? She was not an advocate. She was purely a problematizer, calling everything and all meaning into question, with nothing to offer in the way of guidance. This is counter to the Bodhisattva ideal, which Dogen represents and which fills the pages, lines, and between the lines of the Shobogenzo. The Shobogenzo is filled with advocacy, passionate concern that others see that there is a path to Enlightenment. In his chapter called "Bendowa" in the Shobogenzo, Dogen says, "At last I visited Zen Master Nyojo of Dai-byaku-ho mountain, and there I was able to complete the great task of a lifetime of practice. After that, at the beginning of the great Sung era of Shojo, I came home determined to spread the Dharma and to save living beings - it was as if a heavy burden had been placed on my shoulders. . . . I will leave this record to people who learn in practice and are easy in the truth, so that they can know the right Dharma of the Buddha's lineage. This may be a true mission."(15) Dogen saw himself, along with all the Buddhist patriarchs and bodhisattvas, as beings on a mission - to teach all sentient beings dharma. The rice-cake lady failed in this important test.
Third is Dogen's self-critical stance. Although he does not apologize for his passionate commitment to dharma, he is the most chaste of men about his ability to articulate that dharma clearly in words. This can perhaps be seen most clearly in his methodology in writing the chapters of the Shobogenzo. As Dogen scholar and translator Gudo Nishijima so succinctly shows us, Dogen adopted a dialectical method to teach the unteachable.(16) He shows us in his teaching a "not-this, not-that" method, to move us closer to the truth residing somewhere in the middle. The true middle, the truth, of course cannot be put in words - it can only be pointed to by the teacher. The teacher must practice truth and be committed to truth but must never claim infallibility for his or her teachings or descriptions of the truth. The story of Tokuzan and the rice-cake woman is a fine example of this dialectical method; the truth lies neither with the rational explanations of it nor with the silence (or contempt) that expresses the emptiness of it. Truth resides only in the action of the whole web of being at this time and at this moment. We may realize truth only by taking active part in it from moment to moment. Dogen saw himself as a teacher, a very good one, pointing the way to truth, but even his attempts fell short.
Dogen shows us that these three characters demonstrate both the wrong way and the right way to proceed. The wrong way is to isolate a method that does not have the wherewithal to go the whole way: the rationality of the scholar, the skepticism of the postmodern thinker, the otherworldliness of the theologian. The right way, perhaps, is to recognize that all three of these methodologies are essential in the arduous task of getting sentient beings moving toward enlightenment.

Is Synthesis Possible?

Looking forward seven centuries from Dogen's time, we must wonder, then, what will bring these three together. If Dogen's great insight has positive application to our time, how can we begin to integrate these three methodologies to then, ironically, go beyond all three of them? I think it will take some kind of "methodology" devised solely as a mediating "language," similar, perhaps, to a computer program designed to translate among various word-processing programs. Perhaps it will be an already existing "program." Some have regularly trotted out the poets and artists among us as being the best candidates for this task. A particularly fine and inspiring analysis of this was written by Miguel Leon-Portilla in his intellectual history of ancient Aztec culture in Mexico. Leon-Portilla's hypothesis is that the real powers of that flourishing culture were the poets, those experts in "songs and flowers," the only way truly to capture the two-sided ambiguities of life.(17)
Others have championed a renewed appreciation of metanarratives that take us beyond simple story and dogma and point us to the ineffable, ongoing story of the beyond. By rediscovering and perhaps creating meaningful myths for our day and age, we can relate all types of knowledge and wisdom - seemingly incommensurable knowledge and wisdom - to a higher, ineffable truth. Still others point to those people in all fields of endeavor who discover this reality by rising to the pinnacle of wisdom in their areas of expertise and then see that there is something still beyond. These are not just the famous, the great men and women of history, but unknowns who discover this truth in the course of living and learning.
All of these are good possibilities. Perhaps it is the language/experience of contemplation and meditation that will allow them all to "speak" to one another about the "truths" of life that turn out to be truth precisely because that of which they speak is uncapturable in everyday words and language.
Looking six centuries backward, we can only be thankful for Dogen's contribution to this process. He was one of those giants who went beyond to discover and then teach what he found with a tenacious passion. In his advocacy of dharma he used the methodologies of the scholars, the skeptics, and the theologians, but then he went beyond. To use his own classic phrase, he went "beyond study, without intention," to point to truth. He went beyond the study of the scholars and the rationalists, beyond the usually well-meaning intentionality of the theologians, to tie it all together in truth. May we follow his path.

1 Thomas Cleary, in his Rational Zen: The Mind of Dogen Zenji (Boston: Shambala, 1993), a translation of a few selections from the Shobogenzo and Dogen's other great work, the Eihei Koroku, called Dogen "the greatest Japanese thinker in history" and called the Shobogenzo "the first and only major Buddhist philosophical text ever composed in the Japanese language . . . unmatched in its rational elucidation of Zen learning" (p. 36).
2 I am using Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross's translation, Master Dogen's Shobogenzo (Surrey: Windbell Publications, 1994). The translators give an excellent history of the Japanese text in the "Notes on the Translation" (pp. xi-xiv) and an appendix, "Bibliographies" (pp. 351-358). Other translations of various portions of the Shobogenzo have appeared, including Francis Cook, How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo (Los Angeles: Center Publications, 1979); and Kazuaki Tanahusi, ed., Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1985). See also translations of various chapters by Norman Wadell and Masao Abe in various issues of the Eastern Buddhist from 1971 to 1976.
3 The name of the chapter in the Shobogenzo from which this story is taken is "Mind Cannot Be Grasped" (Shin-Fukatoku). It has been a bedrock of Western rationality since Descartes that we can identify and objectify our own minds, thus implying that our minds exist substantially. Buddhists do not have confidence, however, that the mind exists and cannot support that teaching. Actually, there are two chapters in the Shobogenzo called "Mind Cannot Be Grasped," both of which include this story. The first is shorter and appears to be a transcription of Dogen's notes for a lecture, the second being a perhaps longer transcription of the lecture itself (see Nishijima and Cross. Shobogenzo, pp. 221-238).
4 I have edited the story somewhat.
5 There is no easy Derrida work to recommend as an introduction. The best collection of his writings that appears to have religious implications is Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
6 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).
7 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
8 I will use the Western, Christian term "theologian" to denote the scholarly insider in any religious tradition.
9 Nishijima and Cross, Shobogenzo, p. 223.
10 I am aware of all the cultural transitions and permutations that must be accommodated in order for the following series of analogies to work. I am convinced that the general point holds, at least for heuristic purposes, in spite of the cultural bridging that must be done.
11 Nishijima and Cross, Shobogenzo, p. 224.
12 Ibid., n. 14.
13 Ibid., p. 223, n. 10.
14 Ibid., p. 224.
15 Ibid., pp. 2-3. Dogen, better than anyone else, captured the paradoxical teaching of Mahayana Buddhism (and especially the Wisdom Sutras) that bodhisattvas are dedicated to leading all sentient beings to dharma even as they realize that no one can be so "led."
16 Ibid., pp. ix-x.
17 Miguel Leon-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, tr. Jack Emory Davis (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990 [orig., 1963]).
Terry C. Muck (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]) is professor of comparative religion at Austin (TX) Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1990, following his editorship of Christianity Today magazine (1980-90) and earlier teaching positions at Northwestern University and Bethel College. He holds a B.A. from Bethel College, St. Paul, MN; an M.Div. from Bethel Theological Seminary; and a Ph.D. in the history of religion (1977) from Northwestern University, with study of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka on a 1976-77 Fulbright-Hayes Research Grant. Ordained in 1974 by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he is a member of Tres Rios Presbytery, whose theological commission he chairs. He is active in the National Conference [of Christians and Jews], is an editor of Buddhist-Christian Studies, and represents the Presbyterians on the Commission on Interfaith Relations of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. He frequently lectures and preaches for schools, civic groups, and churches. His eight books include Evangelism and Interreligious Dialogue (Baker, 1996), Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective (Eerdmans, 1996), The Mysterious Beyond: A Guide to Studying Religion (Baker, 1992), and Those Other Religions in Your Neighborhood (Zondervan, 1992). Over 150 of his articles have appeared in professional and popular journals, and he is editor of the Leadership Library and the NIV Application Commentary.