This summer at Tassajara Zen monastery I met Kazuaki Tanahashi, the translator of a number of books by Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. At that time he was organizing a big event to be held at the San Francisco Zen Center to celebrate the publication of his translation of Dogen’s masterwork, Shobogenzo, the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Since I wrote a book about Shobogenzo called Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye he thought I might be good for the forum. He suggested that I do a speech there titled “Dogen for Punks.” He might have been joking. I’m not sure. But I liked that title. It’s not a title I would have chosen myself. But it suggested something I’d like to talk about. So I did.
I first came across Dogen when I was a 19-year old punk rocker. I’d been vaguely interested in Eastern religions for a while, but I wasn’t very serious about it. I decided to take a class at my university called Zen Buddhism mostly as a diversion.
Dogen’s philosophy changed my life. I had never encountered anything like it. I’ve been studying him ever since.
The popular appreciation of Dogen is a 20th and now a 21st century phenomenon. Even though he wrote Shobogenzo almost 800 years ago, for most of those 800 years Dogen’s work was almost entirely unknown. Certain extremely nerdy Buddhist scholars and monks looked at his writings now and then. But they were not published for general audiences until the 1800s, and even then it took over another years before they became popular.
I once asked my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, who, like Tanahashi, translated Dogen’s Shobogenzo into English, why this was. He said he thought that the people of Dogen’s time couldn’t understand what he was writing about. But, he said, human civilization has advanced considerably since that time. We understand much more about human psychology. We’ve had philosophies like existentialism and pragmatism that come very close to expressing the Buddhist outlook. Our understanding of the physical world we inhabit has also become more sophisticated. Because of these advances, contemporary people can comprehend what people in Dogen’s time couldn’t understand. Even teenage punk rockers.
Here’s one simple example of this. If you want to understand Dogen’s philosophy you have to accept that there are many real things and phenomena in this universe that we human beings are simply not equipped to perceive, but that these things and phenomena are not parts of some mystical other realm. They’re part of our concrete reality. These days we grow up learning about infrared and ultraviolet light. So we know that there are forms of light that we can’t see. We know about the subconscious. So we know that there are realms of the mind we cannot consciously access. These are commonplace ideas. Just because we can’t normally perceive these things, we don’t think of them as supernatural the way people in Dogen’s times tended to conceive of things they could not perceive directly. So when we read Dogen we’re already prepared for much of what he wrote about in ways that his contemporaries were not.
I believe a lot of people in our society today are ready to hear what Dogen had to say all those centuries ago. They need to hear it. It’s our job to try to make Dogen’s philosophy accessible to as many people as we can.
I have no argument with scholars and scholarship. In fact I have tremendous respect for the scholars who did the initial work required to make Dogen available to us.
But it’s vital to take Dogen’s philosophies outside of the narrow confines of intellectual study and outside of the even narrower confines of Buddhist nerd-dom. You know what I mean, I hope. Buddhism has a really strong tendency to turn into a bit of a nerd subculture just like Star Trek fanatics or comic book fandom or punk rockers. I used to work for a company in Japan that made monster movies and superhero TV shows. So I’ve been to plenty of sci-fi fan gatherings and comic book conventions. And, I hate to tell you, but in a lot of important ways they’re not all that different from the forum I attended at San Francisco Zen Center. And I said so to the audience there at the time.
What happens with nerd subcultures may have some bearing on what we see happening with Dogen and with Buddhism in general these days. One of the major attractions of something like punk rock or Godzilla or Japanese animation or Dogen is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Certain types of people like these things because they’re something we can call our own, they’re things we can use to define ourselves.
Buddhists in the West are often precisely the same personality types you encounter at sci fi and anime conventions or in punk rock clubs. They just have a different kind of thing that turns them on. But they use it in exactly the same way, to help delineate their personality as something different from the mainstream.
But then all too often disaster strikes! The thing they liked suddenly goes mainstream and everybody is dressing like a punk rocker or doing the Vulcan hand salute or even quoting Dogen or talking about mindfulness. We’re already seeing this happen. I’m sure a lot of you know that Dogen was used as the name of a character on the TV series LOST, in which many of the characters were named after famous philosophers.
Nerds hate it when this happens! It was one of the reasons I gave up on punk rock for a very long time. I suggested at the forum that t a lot of the people there were going to be grumbling when Dogen slipped out of their grasp and became part of mass culture. Some of you reading this blog are already grumbling about how Buddhism has gone mainstream. I know I am!
Here’s what I said to the people at the Dogen forum regarding their own nerd fetish, Dogen. I think this goes for all forms of Buddhism and not just the Dogen-based ones. I said, “Maybe right now you don’t think you’ll complain when Dogen finally hits the popular culture. You’re sitting there thinking it’ll be a glorious day when Dogen is accepted by the masses. You imagine it the way we punks imagined the day we were certain could never come when punk rock went mainstream. We thought that if that happened it would mean that everyone finally understood what we were saying in the same way as we understood it. Well it happened and that isn’t what it was like. It was Ramones songs in beer commercials and $150 designer combat boots and a generation who looked like punks but didn’t have a clue what punk rock was about.
“Or maybe they did. Old punk rockers like me love to complain that today’s punks don’t get it. Well, OK, maybe they don’t understand how it was literally dangerous to walk around with a Mohawk haircut. But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand punk. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that some of the young punk rockers today understand the real philosophy of punk rock better than some of the people I hung around with in the early days of the movement.
“And so it will go with Dogen, I think. The next generation is already better equipped to understand Dogen than we ever were. It’s vital that we allow them to discover their own way of understanding and expressing what he said, even if we don’t understand it ourselves.
“It’s crucial that we don’t smother their understanding with our interpretations. It’s important that we let them go out and teach their understanding to others. It’s important that we be prepared to admit that maybe they understand Dogen better than we do. I hear a lot of people complaining about the ‘graying of Buddhism’ and yet these same people seem intent on not allowing anyone below a certain age to become a teacher. We need to stop that nonsense.
“Because Dogen really is for punks. And we’ve got to let the punks have their Dogen. Even if we really want to keep him all to ourselves.”