Expressing Zen and Expressions of Zen…
As I have often noted in the present work and elsewhere, the single most original and seminal aspect of Dogen’s Zen is his treatment of the role of language in Zen soteriology.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.59
If Dogen critics and scholars are in agreement on one thing it is that Dogen was an unusually gifted master of language. That the astonishingly profound mastery of language demonstrated by Dogen was the single greatest characteristic distinguishing his writings from other Buddhist works, was first adequately emphasized in 1975 by Hee-Jin Kim in his groundbreaking book, Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist (later revised and reissued under the title, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist). Acknowledged and reiterated by many scholars since, Hee-Jin Kim has remained at the forefront among those insisting on the penultimate significance of this element concerning Dogen’s position in Zen and Buddhist studies.
Undoubtedly, Dogen’s genius for creative expression is the chief reason for the intensity of attention given to his works by contemporary thinkers and students, not only from the realm of Buddhism, but from all spheres of genuine human culture. In our view, this far-reaching appeal is only a hint of the vast beneficial potential Dogen’s work has to offer human civilization. The reason his expressions evoke such intense interest and resonate so far beyond the realm of Buddhism has to do with the fact that his unusual language skills are not a characteristic of Dogen’s unique style of teaching Zen, but a characteristic of the unique style of Zen Dogen teaches. The uncommon mastery of expression demonstrated by the profound clarity and comprehensiveness of the vision presented by his writings is not a product of Dogen’s inherent talent for language, but an actualization of the potential inherent to the vision of Zen Dogen achieved.
This is not to say that Dogen was not innately endowed with a remarkable gift for language; there is no doubt about that. According to historical accounts, Dogen was reading Chinese poetry at the age of three, at the age of eight, following his mother’s death, Dogen read the voluminous Abhidharma (a corpus of Buddhist literature constituted of various technical accounts, philosophical clarifications, and detailed treatises), and by his early twenties had read the entire tripitaka (Buddhist cannon) twice – perhaps even had memorized it! If any of these accounts are even partially true Dogen was a rare bird indeed; and even if none are true, his actual writings, including many from his mid-to-late twenties, testify to a capacity that exceeds any standard warranting the term “gifted.” Thus, nobody would argue the merits of Dogen’s innate capacity for language. Our point here is that true greatness of the vision Dogen presents is not the quality with which he expresses Zen, but with the quality of expression which the Zen of Dogen presents.
The true quality of expression (or language) presented by Dogen’s Zen has, for a variety of reasons, been largely neglected, overlooked, and obscured. One of the major obstacles (perhaps the major obstacle) hindering an accurate appreciation for the quality of expression in Dogen’s works is its direct contradiction with the widespread notion of Zen’s aloof, disinterested, or even disparaging view of language. Where popular notions view Zen as grudgingly tolerant of verbal teachings for novices, but regarding “words and letters” as merely instrumental, not reality in themselves but only “pointing to” or “signifying” reality, Dogen’s Zen sees words and letters as sentient beings, persons as vital and alive as any other being. As Hee-Jin Kim writes:
Words and letters, however socially constructed, are never mere signs in the abstract, theoretical sense, but alive and active “in flesh and blood.” Contrary to the conventional view that language is no more than a means of communication, it is profoundly internal to an individual’s life as well as to the collective life. Language flows individually and collectively through the existential bloodstream, so much so that it is the breath, blood and soul of human existence. Herein lies the essence of Dogen’s radical phenomenalism. Thus knowledge becomes ascesis, instead of gnosis or logos — “seeing things as they are” now means “making things as they are.” In this light the indexical analogy of “the finger pointing to the moon” is highly misleading, if not altogether wrong, because it draws on a salvifically inefficacious conception of language.
Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking, p.64
Ah yes – here is the distinction between, “the letter that killeth and the letter that giveth life,” the former is already-dead – the latter is ever-already.
The horror, the horror…