Fourteen years ago I went to a reading and booksigning at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California, celebrating the publication of Moon in a Dewdrop, the first substantial and accessible English translation of Zen Master Dogen. Dogen is the fountainhead in both Japan and the U.S. of Soto Zen practice, the school of “just sitting.” My copy of that book is always close at hand, inscribed by its editor Kaz Tanahashi and Mel Weitsman, one of the crew of co-translators, my teacher then and now.
Flash forward to 1999. Now we can celebrate a long-awaited companion volume of Dogen’s teachings, Enlightenment Unfolds, again edited and translated by Kaz Tanahashi with the collaboration of good Zen friends Norman Fischer, Blanche Hartman, Ed Brown, Mel Weitsman, Jane Hirshfield, Reb Anderson and others. I was one of those translators as well, working intimately in Kaz Tanahashi’s garage office for many weeks, going word by word through various texts. While this may disqualify me as an unbiased reviewer, I can share here an “insider’s” perspective into the universal character and deep inquiry of Dogen’s thought as presented in this new book.
Enlightenment Unfolds offers a broader sampling of Dogen’s writing than Moon in a Dewdrop—essays, poems, monastic rules, journals, formal and informal talks—letting Dogen’s words in different settings paint a fuller picture of teacher and teachings. These pieces are organized in chronological order, beginning in 1226 (“Journal of My Study in China”), when Dogen was practicing under his teacher Rujing at Mt. Tiantong in China. They end with his death poem from 1253, written after traveling from his remote Eihei Monastery to Kyoto for medical treatment:
Fifty-four years lighting up the sky. A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds. Hah! Entire body looks for nothing. Living, I plunge into the yellow springs.
In the twenty-seven years between 1226 and 1253, Dogen brings forth a unique wealth of dharma teaching and expression, practical philosophy, and challenging words. Sometimes their meaning is grandmotherly and warm, full of love for the dharma. Seeing monks in China chant and unfold their formal robes (kashaya), Dogen later writes:
This was the first time I had seen the putting on of the kashaya in this way and I rejoiced, tears wetting the lapel of my robe. Although I had read this verse of veneration for the kashaya in the Agama Sutra, I had not known the procedure. Now I saw it with my own eyes. In my joy I also felt sorry that there had been no master to teach this to me and no good friend to recommend it in Japan. . . . My sadness and joy brought endless tears.
Sometimes using words to go beyond words, Dogen looks into the inexpressible heart of things.
Speaking dharma is neither sentient nor insentient. It is neither creating nor not creating. It is not caused by creating or not creating. It doesn’t depend on conditions. Therefore, just as birds fly in the air, speaking dharma leaves no trace. It is just given to Buddhist practitioners.
At other times he simply retells Zen stories already old in his day. Translating with Tanahashi, I came to see Dogen’s method. He begins with a premise or basic teaching, then surrounds that teaching with ancient stories, koans or cases that illuminate the teaching from many vantage points. Several fascicles (“Miracles” and “Continuous Practice”) situated at the heart of this volume offer story after story, encouraging our own faith in practice. Dogen and our buddha ancestors aspire to a high standard, but they assure us that this standard—realization—is available to everyone at will, if only we dedicate ourselves to its cultivation. Dogen writes, “The miracles I am speaking of are the daily activities of buddhas, which they do not neglect to practice.”
This book is very close to my heart, so I have few criticisms to offer. If the words and ideas seem difficult or opaque at first reading, find a friend or a teacher to study with and dig in, fitting Dogen’s language to your actual experience. Then words and understanding can unfold together. And together you and Dogen can be of use to all sentient beings.