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Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning
By Heinrich Dumoulin
Shambhala, 2007, 175 pp with Index, Endnotes, Bibliography and Chinese-Japanese Equivalents of names
Reviewed by Vladimir K.

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.

Dumoulin [1] entered the Jesuit priesthood at the age of nineteen. He received a doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained in 1933. In 1935 he set off for Japan and spent the rest of his life there, studying, teaching and writing. He studied at various Japanese institutions and began teaching Western philosophy at Sofia University in 1942 and remained at the university until his retirement in 1976. Dumoulin wrote not only on a history of Zen Buddhism but also on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. In 1974 he wrote Christianity Meets Buddhism and twenty years later he again tried to breach the gulf between Christians and Buddhists with a major work, Understanding Buddhism.

The current volume under review, Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning,  was first published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in 1976 under the title, Der Erleuchtungsweg des Zen in Buddhismus. Weatherhill published an English version, translated from the German by Dr. John C. Maraldo,  in 1979. This Shambhala edition came out in 2007.
This book can be viewed as a much shortened and simplified version of Dumoulin’s opus, Zen Buddhism: A History. It is based upon a series of lectures given by Dumoulin at the School of Philosophy, University of Munich. As the Introduction notes, the purpose of the book is “to give those who have little or no knowledge of Zen an accurate, clear, and reliable account of its origins and meaning.” Furthermore, Dumoulin wishes to also address “those already engaged in Zen practice.” (p xi) The book is reasonably successful in the former but less so in the latter, especially for practitioners who have had some degree of both practice and study of the history of Zen. As an introduction to the topic, it serves its purpose quite well.

 Zen Enlightenment begins with a look at the Western viewpoint of Zen, following a five-phase outline beginning with D. T. Suzuki, moving through to a chapter on Beat Zen, Psychotherapy, Esoterism and concluding with Japanese Meditation and Pluralism. It then looks at the Indian roots of Zen, including Yoga and goes on to Zen’s beginnings in China and its relationship with Taoism. There are chapters on Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, and the use of koans in China. The next three chapters look at Zen Buddhism in Japan, Dōgen and Dōgen’s Metaphysics,  (the only section which may prove problematic  for non-Zen readers). The last two chapters, the Zen Experience in Contemporary Accounts and Satori: Zen Enlightenment, bring the story into the modern era.  There is a brief two-page Afterword, a discussion on the famous Ten Ox-herding Pictures, a “ story that contains the quintessence of Zen and, when seen and practiced, may well lead to the experience of enlightenment.” (p 155)

Dumoulin, noble in his intentions and erudite in his studies, has unfortunately been left somewhat behind by modern scholarship in Zen Buddhism. Modern studies of Zen have advanced quite rapidly in the latter twentieth century and much is being re-evaluated and revised about our understanding of Zen, its history, purposes, practices and personalities. Dumoulin was not above criticizing those that came before him. Although showing respect and admiration for D. T. Suzuki, Dumoulin also pointed out his perceived failings in Suzuki’s publications, noting an over simplification of facts and developments in Zen by Suzuki and flaws in Suzuki’s disassociation of Zen and Yoga, and the ahistoricity of Zen as well as other Suzuki analyses. (see McRae, Introduction, xxix, xxxvi) Likewise, while acknowledging and respecting Dumoulin’s contributions to Zen studies, McRae, in his Seeing Through Zen (2003, p103-107, p 120) criticizes Dumoulin book coverextensively for what he sees as limitations in Dumoulin’s work.  The process of respectful scholarly criticism enlightens us all.

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. 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.

1. The following  biographical details draws on McRae’s Introduction to Dumoulin’s  Zen Buddhism: A History Volume 1.


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    amazon

McRae, John R., (2003) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, University of California Press: Berkeley   amazon
_____________ (2005) Introduction to Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, by Heinrich Dumoulin, World Wisdom, Inc.: Bloomington

Welsh, D. and Tanahashi, K., (1988) Painting of a Rice-cake in Moon in a Dewdrop, ed. K. Tanahashi, Element Books: Longmead    amazon

Further Reading:

Victor Sōgen Hori, Introduction to Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2, by Heinrich Dumoulin
Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History in 2 Volumes, 2005, World Wisdom, Inc.: Bloomington


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