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Master Dogen's Shinji Shobogenzo: 301 Koan Stories
translated by Gudo Nishijima; edited by Michael Luetchford and Jeremy Pearson;
Windbell Publications, 2003, 385 pp.
book review by Vladimir K., September, 2003

Dogen Zenji’s Shinji Shobogenzo (also known as Shobogenzo Sanbyakusoku or the Mana Shobegenzo) is a collection of 301 koans compiled by Dogen, begun probably before he made his famous trip to China in 1223. Steven Heine, in Dogen and the Koan Tradition: A Tale of Two Shobogenzo Texts, states that the Shinji Shobogenzo text was "complied" in 1235. (Heine, 1994: 105) Legend has it that Dogen copied the entire 100 koans of the Hekiganroku (The book coverBlue Cliff Record) in one evening just before he left China to return to Japan (Heine, 1994: 3)

For many years the authenticity of Shenji Shobogenzo was in doubt, but with the discovery in Kanagawa in 1934 of one volume of this collection, which has been dated at 1288, just 35 years after Dogen’s death in 1253, most scholars now accept the Shenji Shobogenzo as an authentic Dogen work.

When Dogen compiled the Shinji Shobogenzo, he did not include any of the commentaries, introductions, or remarks by Hsueh Tou (J. Setcho ) or Yuan Wu k’e Ch’in (J. Engo ) that are usually included in Mumonkan (The Blue Cliff Record) nor the comments by Wang Sung or the poetry of T'ien-tung found in the Shoyoroku (The Book of Serenity). Nor did Dogen add any comments on these koans in the Shinji Shobogenzo, so there are no comments other than brief ones by Nishijima, most of which are a simplified retelling of the story and some remarks on the story. These comments are not meant to be teishos and they do not go into the koan in any depth. He does, however, give an explanation of some of the literary allusions and metaphorical language. For example, on the koan "A Dialogue of Manjusri and Wu Chu", Blue Cliff Record #35, the final line by Manjusri "… three in front and three-and-three behind" was, according to Nishijima "a very common expression in Buddhism in China, used to illustrate a concrete and particular situation. Here it also suggest "few" in relation to the three or five hundred expressed by Master Mujaku." (p. 176) Some students may find these explanations useful in their studies, although care should be taken in relying on others for an explanation of the metaphorical language found in Zen.

Gudo Nishijima was born in Yokohama in 1919 and began studying Buddhism under Master Kodo Sawaki in 1940. He studied law at Tokyo University and spent most of his life working in finance companies, retiring in the late 1970’s. He became a Buddhist priest in 1973 and received Dharma transmission from Master Rempo Niwa in 1977. He has been studying Dogen’s work for over 60 years1  and has translated the entire Kana (or Kaji) Shobogenzo (Treasury of Eyes of the True Teaching (Cleary, 1993: 1)) or, as Nishijima translates it: The Right-Dharma-Eye Treasury (Nishijima, 1994: xiv)) into English in 4 volumes (available from Windbell Publications). This is, as far as I am aware, the only readily available translation of the whole of the Kana Shobogenzo. His Kana Shobogenzo translation has explanatory footnotes which give literal translations of some of the Japanese phrases, inform the reader about the main characters that appear in the work and give some interpretations, based on Nishijima’s understanding, of some of the difficult metaphorical language and allusions. Nishijima’s Shinji Shobogenzo, on the other hand, restricts commentaries to interpretations and retelling, there being no Japanese literal translations or discussion about the characters.

Nishijima’s comments are influenced by his studies of Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Indeed, he states: "I found that the ideas set forth in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā were exactly the same as those in the Shobogenzo." (Nishijima, 1997: 4) From his studies of both the Shobogenzo and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nishijima has developed an interpretation that he calls "the principle of Three Philosophies and One Reality". (Nishijima,1992: 26) This structure he calls SOAR — Subjective, Objective, Action and Reality.

In his paper, Understanding the Shobogenzo, Nishijima breaks the 95-chapter Kana Shobogenzo into these four categories. Furthermore, he sees these categories within Dogen’s essays and goes on to show how to break down the paragraphs, sentences and even compound and character-words into the SOAR structure. (Nishijima, 1991; 26-28) Understanding this aids in appreciating Nishijima’s comments on the Shinji Shobogenzo, although certainly it is not essential.

Nishijima’s translation of this work has some differences from the perhaps more familiar Cleary translations. Thomas Cleary, in Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei, translates the famous koan ‘Wild Ducks’ as:

As the great master Baso was walking along with Hyakujo, they saw wild ducks fly past. The great master said, "What is that?"
Hyakujo said, "Wild ducks."
The great master said, "Where have they gone?"
Hyakujo said, "Flown away."
The great master then grabbed Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it. Hyakujo cried out in pain. The great master said, "When was this ‘flown away’?"

Nishijima has translated this as:

One day Master Hyakujo went with Master Baso Do-itsu for a walk. As they walked along they saw a group of wild ducks flying in the sky.
Master Baso said: What are they?
Master Hyakujo said: Wild ducks.
Master Baso said: Where are they going?
Master Hyakujo said: They have flown away.
Master Baso grasped Master Hyakujo’s nose and twisted it. Master Hyakujo could not tolerate the pain and cried out: Aagh! Aagh!
Master Baso said: Although you said they have flown away, you are always at this place.
Master Hyakujo immediately broke out in a sweat, and just then he experienced a reflection of the truth.

Nishijima goes on with this particular koan but the point is that Master Baso’s questions and response to Hyakujo’s pain are different. It is impossible to say whether this particular koan was recorded by Dogen differently but Victor Sogen Hori (2003: 34 N.2) states that Dogen's copied version of the Hekiganroku contains "significant differences" from the Chang Ming-yuan text upon which all modern versions of the collection are based. However, Katsuki Sekida, in Two Zen Classics, gives quite a different translation:

When Ba Daishi (Baso) was out walking with Hyakujo, he saw a wild duck fly past. Daishi said, "What is it?" Hyakujo said, "It is a wild duck." Daishi said, "Where is it?" Hyakujo said, "It has flown away." Daishi at last a gave Hyakujo’s nose a sharp pinch. Hyakujo cried out in pain. Daishi said, "There, how can it fly away?"

All three versions have a different tense in Baso’s question:
Where have they gone; Where are they going; and Where is it.

Baso’s response to Hyakujo’s pain is also different in all three versions: When was this ‘flown away’; Although you said they have flown away, you are always at this place; how can it fly away.

Although there are these differences in translations, the words themselves are never the point of a koan, especially in Rinzai practice. As Cleary has said about koans, "they reveal themselves as guides to specific exercises in Zen perspective and perception." (Cleary, 1993a: xiv) That is, they point to specific aspects of Buddhist understanding of universal principles or stages of Zen experience. (Yamada, 1981: xxx) Another understanding of the use of koans as practice is that "before enlightenment one should look into the intent; after enlightenment, one may then look into the expression as a communicative tool." (Cleary, 1990: xxxix) (see Victor Sogen Hori's Zen Sand for a fuller discussion on koans, their origins and use in Rinzai)

Although the Shinji Shobogenzo does not contain any comments by Dogen, this does not mean that Dogen did not use koans in his teachings. Quite the opposite. Nishijima lists 74 cases from the Shinji Shobogenzo which appear in the Dogen’s Kana Shobogenzo. Hiene (1994: 259-274) lists 178 of the Shinji Shobogenzo koans as showing up in various writings of Dogen. Hopefully, this will lay to rest the simplistic misunderstanding that Soto Zen does not use koans while Rinzai does.

It’s ironic that legend has it that Ta-hui (1089-1163), who was extremely important in the development of Rinzai Zen in China, Korea and Japan, burned the Hekiganroku around 1140, while Dogen supposedly copied it while in China to take back to Japan. Both sects use koans. The difference lays in how they are used and how they are viewed. Tai-hui saw koans as a barrier, something to break through, a "nonconceptual, nondifferentiable and ineffable truth." (Heine, 1994: 31) The koan Mu is a perfect example of this approach, a word beyond intellectualization or conceptualization. Dogen, on the other hand, saw koans as an expression of reality, not something to be condensed but expanded and elaborated upon as expressions of realization. Indeed, Dogen never used the term ‘koan’, which basically means "public record". (Miura & Sasaki, 1965: 4) 2 Dogen’s labels for these stories were either kosoku (ancestral criteria) or innen (cause or result, and circumstances, a story). For Dogen, the term ‘koan’ meant Dharma or the living Universe. (Nishijima, 2003: ii) Hence, genjo-koan means the "realized law of the universe, that is Dharma, or the real Universe itself". (Nishijima & Cross, 1994: 33)

While Rinzai may use koans as "a theme of zazen to be made clear" (Aitken, 1990: 330), Soto has always placed zazen first and foremost, in the form of shikantaza, "just sitting", and used koan study "outside their practice of zazen" (Miura & Sasaki, 1965: xi) as a topic to be lectured on and studied. Heine (1994: 11) theorises that the Shinji Shobogenzo may have been given to beginners at Eiheiji for study until they were ready to tackle to Dogen’s masterwork, the Kana Shobogenzo.

Finally, some criticisms of Nishijima’s translation. There is no table of contents other than a listing of the three books that make up the Shinji Shobogenzo nor is there an index. This makes it very difficult to find any particular koan. I also had doubts about some of Nishijima’s comments and translations. It is difficult to criticise the translations as Dogen’s record varied from some of the more familiar existing English translations. For example, after Nansen killed the cat, he asked Joshu’s opinion. Joshu put his sandals on his head and left. Nansen said, "If you had been here, you could have saved the cat." (Cleary, 2000: 218) Nishijima’s version leaves out Nansen's comment. Is this because Dogen didn’t record this line? It’s impossible to say without seeing the original Japanese. Nishijima sees Joshu's action as an expression of contradiction—Buddhist teaching forbids killing, yet Nansen did kill the cat in order to teach Buddhism. Somehow, I find this explanation unsatisfactory. Tenkei’s comment rings truer, or at least more interesting: "A lot of people try to figure out the part where Joshu puts his sandals on his head, but would you not doubt if Joshu had put on a bandanna and left? Or would you still doubt?" (Cleary, 2000: 218) One explanation I have heard is that putting sandals on one’s head is a classical Chinese expression of humility. 3 I have not been able to verify this, but it certainly shows how interpretations can differ. Although this collection of Dogen's koans is interesting, it is hardly an essential for a Zen library unless one is particularly interested in koan collections. Many, if not most, of these koans are available elsewhere in better anthologies, such as Cleary's translations of the Shoyoroku (The Book of Serenity) and the Hekiganroku (The Blue Cliff Record). These books are more complete, inasmuch they include introductions, verses and commentaries in some depth. Whether Nishijima’s comments are useful, that needs to be left to the student to decide. A competent teacher should be able to guide here.

1 In one article, written in 1992, Understanding the Shobogenzo, he claims to have studied it for 50 years while in another article, written just 5 years later (Japanese Buddhism and the Meiji Restoration) he claims "more than 60 years". I’ve taken the latter dating. 
2 Robert Aitken (1990: 330) defines koan as "a presentation of the harmony of the universal and the particular; a theme of zazen to be made clear" 
3 Thanks to Paul Boston for pointing this out to me. Robert Aitken (1990: 98) theorises this as an ancient Chinese sign of mourning. Cleary (1993a: 68) sees it as a "farcical act [that] silently remarks that to be enslaved by something that originally was supposed to foster liberation is like being worn by a pair of shoes instead of wearing them."


Aitken, Robert (1990)
The Gateless Barrier, The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumokan), North Point Press, San Francisco
Cleary, Thomas (2000)
Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record; Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei, Shambhala, Boston & London
 _________(1993) Rational Zen; The Mind of Dogen Zenji, Shambhala, Boston & London
_________(1993a) No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan, Aquarian/Thorsons, London
_________(1990) Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues, Lindisfarne Press, Hudson
Heine, Steven (1994) Dogen and the Koan Tradition; A Tale of Two Shobogenzo Texts, SUNY, Albany
Hori, Victor Sogen (2003) Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice, University of  Hawai'i Press  Honolulu (see review here)
Miura, Isshu & Sasaki, Ruth Fuller (1965) The Zen Koan; It’s History and Use in Rinzai Zen, Harcourt Brace & Co., San Diego
Nishijima, Gudo (2003) Master Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo; 301 Koan Stories, Michael Luetchford & Jeremy Pearson (eds), Windbell Publications, Woking (Nishijimas short introduction  to each chapter is available for download here for free.
___________ (1997) Japanese Buddhism and the Meiji Restoration, The American Academy of Religion, Society of Biblical Literature, Annual Meeting, November 22-25, San Francisco, available at: accessed: 16.09.03
___________ (1992) Understanding the Shobogenzo, available at: accessed: 16.09.03
Nishijima, Gudo & Cross, Chodo (1994) Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 1, Windbell Publications, Woking
Yamada, Koun (1981) Gateless Gate, Center Publications, Zen Center of Los Angeles

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