I received a question by e-mail the other day from a guy who says he has been noticing very strong parallels between the teachings of Taisen Deshimaru, founder of the AZI Buddhist organization in Europe and those of Gudo Nishijima. Both men studied under Kodo Sawaki and they knew each other. So the questioner wanted to know if their fundamental philosophy was, “(a) a perspective that emerged through Nishijima’s and Deshimaru’s discussions as a mutual influence of each other’s thought, (b) was developed independently by Nishijima from his studies of Dogen, and Deshimaru was influenced by that through their frequentation, or (c) was already emphasized by their common teacher Kodo Sawaki and both Deshimaru’s and Nishijima’s teachings showed a characteristic trace of this ‘imprinting’ in their original styles.”
Here’s how I answered, for whatever it’s worth:
I don’t think it’s a matter of them being influenced by each other at all. The reason that what they say sounds similar is simply because it happens to be true. If a scientist in Brazil and a scientist in Switzerland both measure the boiling point of water at 100 degrees Celsius, you don’t assume that they must be influencing each other.
One of the problems with Buddhist philosophy is that it often seems to be just like any other philosophy, meaning it seems to be a set of ideas arrived at by thinking about them. But it isn’t. It’s an understanding arrived at by not thinking about anything. This sounds impossible to most people because we assume that the only way we can understand things is to think about them. But Buddha discovered a completely different kind of understanding.
In order to express that understanding we use the only tools at our disposal, words. But words are not really adequate. This is why face-to-face teaching is a vital part of Buddhist study. There are levels of communication which are simply not available in written form. Trying to learn Buddhism by reading books would be about the same as trying to learn to play soccer by reading a book.
Both Nishijima & Deshimaru studied with Kodo Sawaki. So, obviously he had an influence on their thinking. They also knew and spoke to each other. But it would be a mistake to think that their fundamental philosophical outlook was a matter of listening to and absorbing each others’ ideas.
I’m well aware that this all sounds like a load of mystical baloney to anyone who hasn’t spent at least 20 years sitting on a cushion staring at a wall every single day. Unfortunately, there are no words available to make it seem like an ironclad logical proposition. But, here again, I would make the parallel with the two scientists. To a person who has no understanding of what a thermometer is or how it works, it would seem like pure mysticism that our 2 scientists both described the boiling point of water as being 100 degrees Celsius. To such a person these words would seem utterly meaningless and he might only be amazed that the 2 scientists had somehow chosen the same exact words. To him it would appear that they must be engaged in some kind of psychic communication.
But such elaborate explanations are not really necessary. The facts are as they are and they are available to anyone who cares to look. But looking at these facts is not easy. Our society — meaning all of human society — is based largely upon studiously avoiding the truth that stares us in the face every moment of every day. Stop avoiding looking at the truth and you cannot possibly miss it.